New Blu-Rays from OEG, Eureka, Arrow, BFI & Mr Bongo

SECONDS, John Frankenheimer, director/Eureka Entertainment Blu-Ray With no major release in the UK, John Frankenheimer’s intelligent science fiction film sneaked unhallowed into a few cinemas (I was lucky enough to see it in the North of England), and it was immediately clear that this was something special. The critically acclaimed, ambitious drama is now available for the first time in the UK in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition. To the enigmatic question “Who are SECONDS?”, the film’s original poster responded: “The answer is almost too terrifying for words…. The story of a man who buys for himself a totally new life. A man who lives the age-old dream — If only I could live my life all over again.” John Frankenheimer directs Rock Hudson as a “second”: that is, the newly plastic-surgery altered “reboot” of, in this instance, a listless banker named Arthur Hamilton. Such procedures are carried out by a secret organization known only as “The Company,” with the promise of giving an individual a chance at making a fresh start at life… but at what cost? Master lighting cameraman James Wong Howe supplies exemplary cinematography.517wlG9tsgL._AC_UL320_SR224,320_

BECK Various directors/Arrow Blu-Ray Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s Martin Beck is one of Nordic Noir’s most iconic detectives enshrining the good-cop/bad-cop dichotomy with his unvarnished partner, Gunvald Larsson. Based on the characters more than the novels of the groundbreaking Beck detective series of novels by the Swedish Marxist duo, Beck sees the saturnine sleuth transferred to the TV screen with (generally speaking) some success. Beck is in fact the market leader for the Noir genre. This box of five feature-length films (four from the latest season and one from the previous, the latter receiving a theatrical release in Sweden) finds Beck looking into death of a young woman found strangled in a hotel room, a gangster kingpin executed by a sniper in front of his family, a terrorist attack and a suspicious hospital death which sourly turns out to be premeditated murder. Starring Peter Haber (notable in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) as Beck and Mikael Persbrandt as Larsson, the drama’s combination of complex woven details of police detection and strongly realised characters combined with convoluted storylines has ensured that the award-winning series won viewers. Originally written for the screen by Rolf Börjlind (now known as a novelist in the UK), the series was created by Jörgen Bergmark and began in 1997. While all 10 novels have been adapted for film over the years, this later series of feature-length films transposes the main characters to new stories set in modern-day Sweden. The series has stretched to 30 episodes so far.

HORROR HOSPITAL, TOWER OF EVIL, DRACULA, Various Directors/OEG Blu-Ray Three gruesome offerings from OEG. Firstly, a heads-up for the excellent-looking Blu-ray of Antony Balch’s often tongue-in-cheek horrorfest played at full throttle by a scenery-chewing Michael Gough and helmed by the eccentric, talented director and producer Balch. It’s enjoyably grisly fun, as is the genuinely atmospheric Tower of Evil which looks better than ever in this exemplary transfer. The final revelations of the murderous monster somewhat dissipate the threat of the earlier scenes, but this is an appreciable effort. And OEG will be soon issuing more vintage British horror with the first important Amicus portmanteau film, Dr Terror’s House of Horrors, while the company has also made available the Dan Curtis version of Dracula with Jack Palance as the vampire Count, eschewing the sex appeal of Christopher Lee and going instead for the kind of overt menace that the actor traded in for so many years.

EDGAR ALLAN POE’S BLACK CATS: TWO ADAPTATIONS BY SERGIO MARTINO & LUCIO FULCI/Arrow Blu-Ray Two Black Cats? Well, neither of them has a great deal to do with Edgar Allen Poe, but by far the more interesting of the two, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, is helmed by Sergio Martino. Martino is best known as a director of grisly gialli, but there are no genres that hold terrors for him, with Westerns, tough thrillers and even ribald comedies on his curriculum vitae. In one area Martino is very much like his compatriots Mario Bava and Dario Argento: while never being as consistently inspired in his work as them, he is capable of truly vivid and engaged film-making, alongside some almost unwatchable, by-the-numbers work. Gialli are, of course, as famous for their unwieldy, slightly ungrammatical titles (both in Italian and when translated into English), and Martino came up with one of the most memorable in I Corpi Presentano Tracce di Violenza Carnale (The Bodies Present Traces of Carnal Violence, 1974). This, however, was shortened to Torso and is his best known film in this field and certainly one of the most assured and atmospheric entries in the genre (and, in fact, less graphic than its title might suggest, although recently more complete prints have become available). The loose Poe adaptation here, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is another of his more interesting films – flawed, but visually impressive. Fulci’s The Black Cat is often incoherent and repetitive (far too many feline POV shots, and Patrick Magee utterly unrestrained by the director), but usually watchable. This new set includes a host of extras, including exclusive new interviews with Sergio Martino and actress Dagmar Lassander. There is also an 80-page booklet containing new articles on the films, Lucio Fulci’s last ever interview and a reprint of Poe’s original story.

THE OTTO PREMINGER FILM NOIR COLLECTION, Otto Preminger, director/BFI Limited Edition Blu-ray box set: Fallen Angel, Whirlpool, Where the Sidewalk Ends This is a very welcome collection of classic film noir titles from one of the world’s most acclaimed directors, Otto Preminger. This cherishable BFI set delivers that invigorating noir meld of dark psychology and vivid black and white imagery. The films are Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger, 1945), with Dana Andrews as an up-against-it press agent in thrall to the seductive, soon-to-be-dead Stella (Linda Darnell). Preminger also directed Whirlpool (1949) with Gene Tierney married to upscale psychoanalyst (Richard Conte) and involved with a malevolent hypnotist (José Ferrer) and the moody Where the Sidewalk Ends. This Limited Edition box set brings together three of Preminger’s greatest films for the first time on Blu-ray. Presented with essential extras, including audio commentaries, these classic films deliver a unique combination of intrigue, moral ambiguity and stylish photography which truly define the influential film noir genre. All three films are presented in High Definition, with audio commentaries for Fallen Angel, Whirlpool and Where the Sidewalk Ends by film scholar and critic Adrian Martin, along with The Guardian Lecture: Otto Preminger interviewed by Joan Bakewell (1972, 80 mins, audio with stills): the director talks about his career in film in this discussion with the English journalist

THIEVES’ HIGHWAY Jules Dassin, director/Arrow Blu-Ray Arrow Films’ commitment to Jules Dassin’s films noir (following Rififi, Brute Force and The Naked City)) continues apace with his tough 1949 classic Thieves’ Highway, released on dual-format Blu-ray and DVD and sporting both a slew of extras and a brand-new 4K restoration. Genre specialist Frank Krutnik (author of In a Lonely Street) supplies commentaries and a thorough examination of the genesis, production, reception and politics of Thieves’ Highway, while the documentary portrait The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides offers up rare interview material with the late author and screenwriter as well as insights from Dassin and crime writers Barry Gifford, George P. Pelecanos and Mickey Spillane. Coming back from the war to find his father has been crippled in a clash with a thuggish mob-connected kingpin, Nick Garcos finds himself best on revenge. He purchases an old army surplus truck and hits the road – a 36-hour non-stop to San Francisco and justice. With Richard Conte as Garcos and Lee J. Cobb as his nemesis, the film is cast from strength.

NIGHT AND THE CITY, Jules Dassin, director/Arrow Blu-Ray More Dassin. The director’ss classic Night and the City (1950) is the definitive film of Gerald Kersh’s celebrated London underworld novel, with Richard Widmark as a low-rent tout at the edges of the wrestling rackets of post-war London. Night and the City is a British film noir classic which presents a fevered and paranoid vision of London by night – a city still shattered and skeletal from wartime bombing. Released on Blu-ray by the BFI for the first time in the UK, the film is presented in two versions – the US and British cuts – and accompanied by a comprehensive selection of special features. Richard Widmark stars as Harry Fabian, a small-time spiv with big dreams who worms his way into the dangerous world of wrestling rackets, and who comes into conflict with a vengeful club owner (Francis Sullivan) and a tough gangster (Herbert Lom). Harry’s long-suffering girlfriend (Gene Tierney) tries to save him – but can Harry outrun his fate? Compellingly directed by Academy Award nominee Jules Dassin (at the time under suspicion in Hollywood for his political beliefs), Night and the City has been celebrated for its uncompromising, bleak portrayal of urban life, its array of unsympathetic characters and its expressionist visual style.

VIVRE SA VIE Jean-Luc Godard, director/BFI Blu-Ray   The Godard film for those who need persuading of the French director’s controversial skill. Stylistically innovative and boasting several of the director and star’s most memorable moments, Vivre sa vie is an undiminished classic of the French New Wave. On 24 August 2015 it will be released on Blu-ray and DVD by the BFI. Numerous extra features on both formats include a rare ‘In conversation’ with Anna Karina and Alistair Whyte from 1973 and three short films by Jean-Luc Godard. By turns both playful and sad, Vivre sa vie borrows the aesthetics of cinéma vérité to present a captivating vision of 1960s Parisian street life and pop culture. Described as ‘a perfect film’ by Susan Sontag, Jean-Luc Godard’s compelling fourth feature presents 12 episodes in the life of Nana (wonderfully played by Godard’s muse, Anna Karina), a young Parisian who turns to prostitution after becoming disillusioned by poverty and her failing marriage. Special features Newly remastered (High Definition presentation on Blu-ray format)

THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT, Wojciech Has, director/Mr Bongo Films Blu-Ray Luis Bunuel said: ‘I love the Saragossa Manuscript… exceptional’, Another admirer was David Lynch, and rock star Jerry Garcia calls it his favourite film. Legendary Polish director Wojciech Has’ psychedelic epic The Saragossa Manuscript is a mysteriously magical and sometimes disturbing 1960s cult classic like no other. Adapted from the highly esteemed explorer Jan Potocki’s magnum opus, The Saragossa Manuscript encompasses a whole new supernatural world. During Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, two soldiers of opposing sides discover a strange manuscript at an Inn. Spanning centuries and nations the magical text chronicles the adventures of Alfonso van Worden (Zbigniew Cybulski – Ashes and Diamonds) and follows a rich slew of journeys from the humorous to the horrifying, to the chilling final revelations.
Alternatively frightening and comical in its mind-bending exploration of human nature The Saragossa Manuscript beautifully presents Has’ intricate approach to storytelling. Mr Bogo have also issued a companion film by the director, The Hourglass Sanatorium.

THE GREEN MAN: The Complete mini-series/Simply Media Albert Finney stars as a compromised and licentious hotel owner in The Green Man, the BBC Two miniseries from 1990, which comes to DVD courtesy of Simply Media. Maurice Allington (Finney) is the promiscuous and alcoholic owner of a quaint British bed-and-breakfast hotel, the Green Man Inn. In the hope of attracting customers, when he’s not trying to seduce them, Allington keeps his guests entertained with tales of ghosts and spirits haunting his hotel, spreading rumours that the ghost of a notorious 17th century occult scientist haunts it. But he and his guests are in for a shock when they realise that the hotel is possessed by some very real and malevolent other-worldly spirits. At times a sexual farce, at others a ghostly thriller, this BAFTA winning extraordinary three-part series is based on the Kingsley Amis 1969 satirical novel of the same name.

THE NAKED PREY, Cornel Wilde director/Eureka Blu-Ray A genuinely primitive director, Cornel Wilde was far more interesting in this role than as a conventional leading man, as is proved by The Naked Prey, a grim manhunt is released in the UK on Blu-ray in a special Dual Format Edition as part of the Eureaka Masters of Cinema Series. Known mostly as an actor of the studio era, Cornel Wilde took on a parallel career as an independent producer, writer, and director to create a series of films that explored man in the midst of extreme dramatic situations — and The Naked Prey is perhaps his most personal and violent rumination. Set in nineteenth-century Africa’s colonial periods, Wilde portrays an unnamed safari guide whose group encounters and subsequently insults a local tribe. Following the execution of the other party members, Wilde alone is the last to be spared and is given a head start to elude his pursuers as game to be hunted for retributive satisfaction, unless and until he can attain safety… The Naked Prey remains a special entry in the cinema of actors-turned-auteurs, which also includes such luminaries as Robert Montgomery, Charles Laughton, and Ida Lupino. The Masters of Cinema Series presents Wilde’s most ruthless picture for the first time in the UK in a special Dual Format special edition.

EYEWITNESS, Jarl Emsell Larsen, director/ Simply Media More Nordic Noir: Eyewitness (Øyevitne), is a multi-layered crime drama from Norway, initially seen through the eyes of two 15-year-old boys. Two school friends, one of whom is fighting the fact that he is gay, are caught up in a grim scenario after witnessing a crime involving multiple murder. Produced by NRK drama, the six-part series is written and directed by Jarl Emsell Larsen (Dirty Money, White Lies). Helen (Anneke von der Lippe), the Fargo-style local sheriff investigating the murders, steals the show

THE SKULL, Freddie Francis, director/Eureka Entertainment Blu-Ray Hammer Films’ plucky rival Amicus Films often cheekily used the larger studios stars and directors, as in this atmospheric piece after Robert Bloch’s ‘The Skull of the Marquis de Sade’. Hammer’s two principal heavyweights, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, reunite her to solid effect. The film comes in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition. After making a number of successful Hammer films in the early sixties, director and cinematographer Freddie Francis (Paranoiac, Tales From the Crypt, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors) moved to the fledgling Amicus Productions and produced an incredible run of horror titles that would make them the only studio able to rival the ascendant Hammer Pictures during the peak years of British horror filmmaking. The Skull stars Peter Cushing as Dr. Christopher Maitland, a writer and collector of occult items (with a preference for those with a somewhat macabre history), who is offered the chance to purchase a highly expensive and unusual item – the skull of the Marquis de Sade. Warned against obtaining the item by fellow collector (Christopher Lee in a rare non-villainous role), the skull’s influence draws Maitland in, madness and death soon follow… Adapted from a short story by Robert Bloch (Psycho) and featuring a score by avant-garde composer Elisabeth Lutyens, The Skull is one of the most expertly crafted British horror movies of its era.

NIGHTMARE CITY, Umberto Lenzi, director/Arrow Blu-Ray Let’s be frank – this is no undiscovered classic, but it is nevertheless an intriguing curio. Long before zombies took up jogging in 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, they were brandishing axes and other sharp implements in Lenzi’s bizarre radiation-sickness opus Nightmare City. In true Zombie Flesh Eaters form, our story begins with the arrival of an ominous, seemingly unmanned craft – in this instance, a military plane making an unscheduled landing at a European airport. Upon forcing the aircraft doors open, the waiting soldiers get a nasty shock when out bursts a horde of flesh-hungry, pizza-faced radioactive ghouls. Counting amongst its fans the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth, Nightmare City (aka City of the Walking Dead) is a demented serving of Italian zombie carnage from the man who shocked the world with the notorious Cannibal Ferox.

DARK MATTER Various Directors/Acorn From the makers of Stargate, a new SF series, Dark Matter, which achieved strong viewing figures on its TV showing. Following the news that it has been renewed for a second series, this 13-part drama, which was Syfy’s number one rated show since it began, now comes to DVD. When the six-person crew of a derelict spaceship awaken from stasis in the farthest reaches of space, their memories have been wiped clean and they have no recollection of who they are or how they got there. The mysteries of their respective pasts take them on a journey to the deepest depths of space. Hounded by the galactic authorities, their former employers, ruthless corporations, rivals, bounty hunters, and former enemies – they only have each other to rely upon. All the while, the clock is ticking as there is a traitor in their midst, a mole who orchestrated their communal mind-wipe. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Joseph Mallozzi and Paul Mullie, Dark Matter is standard stuff, cut from a familiar cloth, but efficiently made.

CASANOVA, Federico Fellini, director/Mr Bongo Films Blu-Ray It amy have had a mxed reception, but Federico Fellini’s most sumptuous and dark production, the daringly visual and imaginatively designed Casanova is renowned as one of the directors most unusual films. Celebrated for its production values, costume design and Nino Rota’s haunting score, Casanova charts the nobleman’s search for happiness that leads his road to tragedy. Breaking through the myth of Giacomo Casanova, Donald Sutherland (MASH, The Hunger Games) portrays the notorious womaniser in his waning days, engaging in various amorous and political adventures. Casanova craves respect as a scholar and yearns to pursue his interest in alchemy. A sex scandal lands him in prison, but an escape to Paris provides him a new lease of life. Yet every court in Europe and its attendant patrons and hostesses will only entertain him if he lives up to his reputation in the ritual displays of sex and courtship which form part of the daily life of 18th Century Europe.
BRIDES OF DRACULA, Terence Fisher, director /Final Cut Blu-Ray With the matchless Peter Cushing supported by Freda Jackson, Martita Hunt and Yvonne Monlaur, Terence Fisher’s remarkable film has now achieved the due it deserves. A young teacher on her way to a position in Transylvania helps a young man escape the shackles his mother has put on him. In doing so she innocently unleashes the horrors of the undead once again on the populace, including those at her school for ladies. But Van Helsing (Cushing) is already on his way. Given the unenthusiastic welcome it initially received, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that Terence Fisher’s The Brides of Dracula is now regarded by many as one of (if not the) definitive Hammer film. But the final testament to the strength of Brides of Dracula that it is a film which stays with the viewer considerably longer than many other films from this period. This Blu-Ray incarnation looks eye-poppingly splendid – it’s unlikely to ever look more impressive than this.

 

 

Tempting New Film Books from McFarland

Those with a serious interest in genre cinema – and writers on the subject – should have on their shelves (if they don’t already) some of the fascinating and idiosyncratic titles from the American company McFarland. For years, this niche publisher has been creatively exploring the byways of genre cinema from noir and crime to science-fiction and horror, and from Westerns to the star system. Not everything has been top drawer in terms of the writing, but McFarland has never produced a less-than-interesting title, and the insights contained in most of their books are both valuable and entertaining. Recent issues include five lively and fascinating titles which — if you are a lover of cinema in a variety of genres (like this writer) — you will find something that both imparts new information and challenges any existing preconceptions you might have.

Gene Blottner’s COLUMBIA NOIR (subtitled A Complete Filmography 1940 – 1962) is in that category and it becomes (at a stroke) an essential purchase for anyone interested in the superbly atmospheric crime movies from the studio. But this study is comprehensive enough to take in not just crime but other subgenres such as the Western and the science-fiction film and even includes coverage of British films. Such classics as In a Lonely Place and Gilda are given due attention, and the analysis by Blottner is always perspicacious. If there is a caveat, it is the fact that the synopses of the film plots are often more comprehensive than the critical analysis – the book would undoubtedly have been more useful had it been the other way round (how necessary are detailed plot synopses?). But it is nevertheless a valuable volume.

As is THE NOIR WESTERN: DARKNESS ON THE RANGE 1943 – 1962 by David Meuel, which is an investigation of the fascinating infiltration of noir tropes into another genre. The darker psychological impulses of the crime film poured into such classics of the American West as Pursued and Blood on the Moon are examined. It would have been an egregious omission if the director of the darkest and most psychologically interesting westerns, Anthony Mann, had not been considered, but Mann is given pride of place with a consideration of such classics as The Naked Spur and Man of the West. Meuel manages to find new insights and areas not previously explored by other writers.

A subject that this writer has made something of a speciality of is Italian genre cinema, so a particular favourite for me in this current batch of McFarland titles is Roberto Curti’s ITALIAN GOTHIC HORROR FILMS, 1957 – 1969. When I began to write about this field, considerations of the work of Italian directors were relatively sparse (although the brilliant Mario Bava was already enjoying a great deal of attention); but the net (in terms of appreciation) is thankfully being spread wider these days, and Curti’s book is a utilitarian addition to the field, including considerations of such interesting directors as Riccardo Freda and Antonio Margheriti.

But McFarland is nothing if not eclectic in its approach to the cinema, and Matthew Coniam’s THE ANNOTATED MARX BROS is an invaluable guide to some of the most surrealistic comedies ever produced in Hollywood – and the book is particularly useful in explaining many of the then-contemporary (now mystifying) references which would be lost on a modern audience.

Finally, THE 21ST-CENTURY SUPERHERO (edited by Richard J GrayII and Betty Kaklamanidou) is more overtly aimed at the academic audience, but demonstrates that the caped crimefighter is quite as ripe a subject for analysis as the most provocative themes as any other genre. Tackling such subjects as patriarchy in the X-Men films and notions of good and evil in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. This is a stimulating companion to the genre which now rules the cinema.

 

The above titles are all published in paperback by McFarland