Second Run’s next release – on both Blu-ray and DVD formats – will be Otakar Vávra’s WITCHHAMMER on October 30. A powerful and often shocking allegory of life under totalitarian rule, Witchhammer, co-written by Ester Krumbachová (Daisies, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders), chronicles a series of notorious 17th Century Czech witch trials, using genuine court transcripts from the forced confessions of those accused of sorcery and collusion with the Devil. With echoes of Bergman, Dreyer and František Vláčil, and with literary antecedents in Arthur’s Miller’s The Crucible and Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudon, it is a disturbing political fable; and like Ken Russell’s controversial, expressionistic adaptation of Huxley’s text, The Devils (1971) and other films of the period such as Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968) and Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil (1970), it serves as both grim genre film and compelling historical drama.
LIFE, Daniel Espinosa, director/Sony Blu-ray Does it matter whether or not a film displays on its sleeve its antecedents, with very little attempt to hide them? Life is an efficiently made big budget science-fiction production that owes a great deal to other films such as Alien (nasty extra-terrestrial monster cutting a swathe through a spaceship crew), and in fact, the level of expertise on offer here is such that one doesn’t really mind the borrowings, particularly as Alien itself borrowed heavily from earlier SF movies such as Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and Edward L. Cahn’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space. What’s more, the shape-shifting monster here is a particularly unpleasant specimen and has its own character, very different from its inspiration. A solid cast (including Jake Gyllenhall, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson) makes the various imperilled space travellers characterful, although there is no single protagonist here similar to Sigourney Weaver in the earlier film. SF admirers need not hesitate.
SLEEPLESS, Baran bo Odar, director/eOne Blu-ray. Those with a taste for kinetic and relentless thrillers need look no further than Sleepless with Jamie Foxx toplining (read no further. If you wish to avoid a spoiler) as an undercover cop who has a single night – the eponymous sleepless one – to bring to justice a ruthless drug lord and save his own kidnapped son. Well cast (with Michelle Monaghan as a fellow cop who does not trust the Fox character), there is no subtlety here, but a variety of well staged action sequences maintain interest – though Foxx takes a totally unfeasible amount of physical punishment. The film is not to be confused with Dario Argento’s thriller of the same name.
DICTE: CRIME REPORTER, Various directors/Acorn Media International The first series of this slice of Nordic Noir was generally well received (though it had nothing like the impact of such groundbreaking shows as The Killing); now Dicte Crime Reporter returns for its second series and following its run on More4, arrives on DVD courtesy of Acorn Media International alongside Dicte Crime Reporter Season One and Two Box Set. While (as mentioned above) the show has none of the innovative qualities of such shows as The Bridge, it is a solid and professional piece of work with a well-developed combative heroine. Divorced crime reporter Dicte Svendsen (Iben Hjejle) has returned with daughter Rose to her hometown of Aarhus where she is trying to escape the past and build a new future. In season two Dicte is contacted by her father who she has been estranged from for many years and a sudden tragic turn of events finds her investigating a prostitution ring, diamond smuggling and a hit-and-run that not only links them but will bring the unknown, the unpredictable and the deadly into the lives of Dicte and police investigator John Wagner. From football hooliganism and match fixing to sado-masochism and murder, missing children and a mother’s lost love, Dicte is a brash, quick-witted reporter, who is not afraid to take risks or put her own life in danger. Even if it means straying to the wrong side of the law or jeopardising every relationship in her life, Dicte will stop at nothing to uncover the truth. The series is drawn from the crime novels of bestselling Danish author Elsebeth Egholm.
UNLOCKED Michael Apted, director/Arrow Blu-ray It is always a good idea to hire the most capable of actors when your scenario is a touch on the thin side – which, surprisingly, is the case here, given that Michael Apted is not a man who neglects such thing as his screenplay. Which is not to say that the by-the-numbers action here is not engrossing, and given a certain energy by its very professional players. A lively spy thriller starring the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, starring Noomi Rapace, a cast-against-type Orlando Bloom and an imperious John Malkovich, the film has a ticking clock scenario with London under threat from a biological attack. Deskbound CIA Analyst Alice Racine (Rapace) is summoned back into the field to investigate a possible chemical threat to the capital. Her interrogations reveal a complex plot of internal double and triple crosses. Unsure who to trust Racine has to fight the threat on the streets and on her wits, but the countdown has begun. For all its lack of ambition, Unlocked is unquestionably diverting fare.
JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH, Henry Levin, director/Eureka Classics Fans of 1950s cinema will be amazed how in the 21st-century it comes up fresh as paint, even if the original decision to use real lizards rather than stop motion animation decisively stops the film being a classic as in the many films in which the dinosaurs are created by Ray Harris has. Nevertheless it is highly diverting, particularly for the contributions frorm the always reliable James Mason — and with everything finessed with a superb Bernard Herrmann orchestral score. Jules Verne’s classic novel follows a band of intrepid explorers descending to the hidden reaches of our world. Professor Lindenbrook discovers a long hidden message that reveals the existence of a passage into the centre of the Earth. Leading a team of unlikely adventurers (including Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl and — in a cringe-making attempt at comic relief — a duck), the group’s daring will see them come up against exploding volcanoes, rockslides and flesh-eating reptiles.
YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW, Vittorio de Sica, director/Cult Films While this not be may not be the best of the several films which co-starred Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, it is nevertheless professional and diverting. Its director Vittorio de Sica, admittedly some way past his best, still delivers a film which has a great deal of winning charm – but how can one expect less from his actors? In some ways, the film is a reminder of a lost era of cinema – it’s difficult to imagine something like this being made today, not least because there are so few actors and actresses with the particular combination of talents of the two Italian stars here.
SHOCK TREATMENT Jim Sharman, director/Arrow Blu-Ray If you’re looking for something as groundbreaking as The Rocky Horror Picture Show was, you may be disappointed, but there is no denying the skill of this sort-of-follow-up, with moments of excess that are pleasingly diverting but without the charge of the original. From the writer and director of The Rocky Horror Picture Show Richard O’Brien and Jim Sharman, the film is available on Blu-ray for the first time. Several years on from the events of the original Rocky Horror Picture Show, Brad and Janet Majors find their strained marriage put to the test on popular Denton TV show Marriage Maze. Brad is heavily sedated and institutionalised, whilst Janet is given a radical makeover and primed for stardom. But what are the real motivations behind the kooky DTV crew and their enigmatic head-honcho, Farley Flavors? This is a digital transfer from original film elements High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation 5.1 and Mono audio options.
THE GRADUATE, Mike Nichols, director/STUDIOCANAL Blu-ray Viewed today, it’s clear that The Graduate was one of the groundbreaking Hollywood movies in both its structure and sensibility – it’s a film whose influence can still be felt today, even though certain elements inevitably date (such as a certain broadness to some of the playing which undercuts the sharp satirical stiletto). Nevertheless, it remains a delight, not least for its principals, Dustin Hoffman (then unknown to us) and the matchless Anne Bancroft. The witty screenplay was written by Calder Willingham & Buck Henry from the novel by Charles Webb, and the use of the music of Simon & Garfunkel quickly became iconic. The film is 50 this year, and STUDIOCANAL have created a 4K restoration from the 35mm original camera negative by the Criterion Collection. The colour timing was done by referencing a previous colour grading that had been supervised by Grover Crisp at Sony Pictures and approved by director Mike Nichols. The 5.1 surround-sound remix, approved by the director, was created from the 35mm magnetic tracks and the original soundtrack recordings at Chace Audio.
VAMPIRA, Clive Donner, director/Fabulous Films One of the great virtues of DVDs and Blu-rays is the opportunity to see films whose critical mauling stopped viewers from seeing them at the cinema. And while Clive Donner’s Vampira is undoubtedly the misfire that everyone said at the time, it still has more than enough elements to make it worth an hour and a half of time in your living room, where viewers are more-prepared to draw a veil over the misconceived notion of this Dracula spoof and enjoy the things which it does have to offer (admittedly not a great many). This Dracula spoof has David Niven as an urbane Transylvanian Count visiting London. Vampira was renamed Old Dracula for its North American release in an attempt to cash in on the success of Mel Brooks’ box office hit Young Frankenstein. The two films were shown back-to-back as a double bill in many locations.
VALKYRIEN, Various directors/Acorn/RLJ Entertainment It’s becoming harder and harder to keep up with the flow of new Scandinavian crime series, and the hopes that most of us have for finding another cult series mostly frustrated. Nevertheless, there is much intriguing material out there, as this show — efficiently and professionally made – proves. Forbidden by hospital authorities to continue experimental research to save his terminally ill wife, a leading surgeon sets up an illegal hospital in an abandoned Oslo subway in this Norwegian drama. This eight-part series arrives on DVD as a two-disc set. Doctor Ravn (Sven Nordin) is desperate to find a cure for his dying wife Vilma (Pia Halvorsen). When the hospital stops her treatment, he continues to work in secret and is forced to compromise his ethics and join forces with corrupt civil defence worker and Doomsday prepper, Leif (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), who has widespread knowledge of the city’s underground shelters and secret passages, as well as significant connections with the Oslo underworld. Together they build an illegal clinic in an old bomb shelter deep underground Valkyrien Square, Oslo. As Ravn continues his research to save his wife, he must also care for criminals who need to avoid the authorities. Ravn believes he will find a miracle cure, while Leif is convinced that the end of the world is nigh; who will prevail?
KILL, BABY… KILL, Mario Bava, director/Arrow Blu-ray With this strikingly detailed 2K high-definition digital transfer, one of Italian director Mario Bava’s most atmospheric films looks better than it ever has before. While the film undoubtedly lacks the sheer impact of his amazing debut, Black Sunday, it’s still catnip for admirers of the director.
DR CYCLOPS, Ernest B Schoedsak, director/Fabulous Films For many years, this seminal science-fiction film (in spectacular early Technicolor) was hard to see in the UK, and viewers became more familiar with Jack Arnold’s more ambitious take on a similar theme, The Incredible Shrinking Man. But when we finally were able to catch up with this striking 1939 piece, it proved to be well worth the wait. Set in the Peruvian jungle, this 1940 landmark science-fiction adventure, directed by pioneering filmmaker Schoedsak, follows four explorers as they search for a legendary physicist. When they discover their missing colleague, they find his brilliant mind has been warped by radiation and decide to return him to civilization for psychiatric help. But the half-blind, half-mad scientist will have none of that, and uses an experimental body altering device to reduce his former friends to one-fifth their normal size. Now, harmless items and small creatures suddenly become giant-sized instruments of death, The impressive use of special effects, which garnered an Oscar nomination, helped make this Technicolor SF outing a winner.
TOWER OF LONDON, Rowland V. Lee, director/Fabulous Films One of the blots on the career of Vincent Price was the later version of Tower of London made with Roger Corman, which is a very shabby piece of work, hardly worthy of either man. Not so the original film, issued here by Fabulous Films, in which Price also stars in a smaller role with the sheer wattage of star power shoring things up in this Shakespeare-cum-horror spin. With typical panache Basil Rathbone and Boris Karloff, carry this 15th century melodrama based on the life of Richard III. Sixth in line to the throne, Richard (Rathbone) is an ambitious man who, with the aid of Mord (Karloff) his executioner friend, treacherously disposes of the five who stand between him and the crown. Mercilessly this cold-hearted pair torture and kill the heirs in the infamous “Tower of London”.
VAMPIR CUADECUC, Pere Portabella, director/ Second Run It is something of an achievement that this film was made at all, given the repressive Franco regime. Second Run’s release — on both Blu-ray and DVD formats — of Pere Portabella’s provocative film is welcome. Made clandestinely in Spain with the regime unaware, Portabella’s remarkable film on the surface appears to be a documentary on the filming of Jess Franco’s Count Dracula (1970) starring Christopher Lee and the striking Soledad Miranda. But Portabella ensures that his experimental ‘making of’ documentary and examination of vampire motifs imports powerful political points about the fascist regime. This release contains a new HD transfer of the film and sports a new and exclusive interview with director Pere Portabella, plus two short films and more.
VISITING HOURS, Jean Claude Lord , director/Final Cut Looking notably better on Blu-ray than it did on VHS (which is how most of us first saw it). Visiting Hours (in dual-format Blu-ray/DVD) stars Michael Ironside, William Shatner and Lee Grant and Linda Purl. The film is capability directed by Jean Claude Lord. Deborah Ballin is a controversial middle-aged TV journalist, who is campaigning on air on behalf of a battered woman who murdered her abusive husband, claiming justifiable defence against the so-called victim. But her outspoken views championing women’s rights incense one of the studio’s cleaning staff, the psychopathic Michael Ironside character.
THE KILLER B MOVIE COLLECTION, Various directors/Fabulous Films A new collection of some of the best-known SF movies of an earlier era, – highly collectable, even though the films range from the excellent (The Man From Planet X) to the execrable (Reptilicus). From Steve McQueen’s film debut in The Blob, to the monster movies The Deadly Mantis, The Creature Walks Among Us, The Beast with 1,000,000 Eyes and Reptilicus to the SF adventures of The Man From Planet X, The Time Travelers, The Angry Red Planet and Doctor Cyclops (the latter discussed separately above), this 9 DVD set will transport you back to a different time in film-making, where big ideas did not need big budgets. For instance: The Blob, directed by Irvin S Yeaworth, with its cheap but spectacular special effects helped assure the film’s cult status. The most iconic cult reputation, of course, is reserved for Edgar G Ulmer’s atmospheric The Man from Planet X, the gem in the collection – that and other winners (such as The Creature Walks Among Us) more than makes up for the wretched Reptilicus with its ludicrous puppet monster. A genuine bargain box.
Barry Forshaw writes: I’ve written about Mario Bava in Italian Cinema, and I’ve worked on Blu-rays for Arrow with producer Michael MacKenzie, but had no input into their latest Mario Bava special, the gorgeously colourful Erik the Conqueror. It’s Michael hmself who’s provided an enjoyable visual essay on the film’s indebtedness (homage or ripoff?) to Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings.
We’ll Always Have Casablanca by Noah Isenberg reviewed by Barry Forshaw William Goldman once said about Hollywood that ‘nobody knows anything’, and the enduring success of the Michael Curtiz classic Casablanca surely proves that notion: nobody involved with its making was quite able to explain why it became the most beloved film of Hollywood’s golden age. Actually, the answer is easy — the production line elements assembled for the film (stars – Bogart, Bergman, Lorre, Rains et al, director – Curtiz , writers – the Epsteins, score – Steiner, etc. ) were at the peaks of their creativity, though most regarded this as just another film. But here (particularly regarding the superb screenplay – ‘Round up the usual suspects!’- every element was perfectly judged. And Noah Isenberg’s insightful analysis of the success of the film fully justifies the book’s subtitle ‘The Life, Legend and Afterlife of Hollywood’s Most Beloved Movie’. The publisher Faber has a long and impressive record as a source of film books, and this fascinating study will add further lustre to their reputation. We’ll Always have Casablanca by Noah Isenberg is published by Faber
As someone who earns their crust writing about crime fiction and films, I have to confess that I particularly enjoy covering (whenever I can) another passion of mine: horror films. But in that area, I defer to my friend and colleague Kim Newman, who is the unchallenged doyen in this territory. His intelligent and often unsparing reviews have graced the pages of magazines from Empire to Sight and Sound to the late, lamented Video Watchdog. Although he and I have our disagreements about films (Kim doesn’t get The Exorcist), we concur on a great many things. But reading this weighty and fascinating collection of reviews written for his column in Empire magazine (heavily repurposed here – Newman is like Stanley Kubrick in that something by him is rarely finished), I realised – as if I needed reminding – that he is an omnivore of the horror field who brooks no rivals. In fact, I got to page 73 of the book before I encountered a film I’d seen (and I consider myself a connoisseur of the obscure). As a trawl through the (mostly modern) lesser-known byways of the genre, this collection will become a must-have addition for any collector’s library, particularly for those seeking something off the beaten track. You will search in vain for mainstream fare here; it is simply off the agenda. One of the real pleasures of the book (apart from the quality of the writing) is the fact that Newman is utterly even-handed in his discussion of the films under review, applying an unflinching cudgel to the dully meretricious, but finding merit in the films that try to do something unusual with the genre. It is an essential collection – but those with solely mainstream tastes will not be tempted.
Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon: The Collected Reviews is published by Titan
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me by Maura McHugh Maura McHugh is a writer with a pronounced taste for the bizarre and the off-kilter; her books include Twisted Myths and Twisted Fairytales, while her comics work (sometimes co-authored with Kim Newman) shows a similar predilection for the pleasingly unorthodox. All of which makes her the perfect author for a study of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, David Lynch’s cult film continuation of his groundbreaking television series. McHugh has the full measure of the director’s surrealistic vision, and in prose that is always cogent and expressive, she executes a double task: analysing material that resists analysis and obliging readers to pick up the DVD of Lynch’s film once again. And what more should a film book do?
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me by Maura McHugh is published by Midnight Movie Monographs/PS Publishing