THE OLD DARK HOUSE, James Whale, director/ Eureka Entertainment Blu-Ray The Old Dark House was a film that the English director of Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, James Whale, was keen to make, persuading a reluctant Universal studios that they should purchase the rights to J.B. Priestley’s then-popular novel Benighted as a project for both himself and Boris Karloff (with whom he had earlier enjoyed such conspicuous success). As I wrote in British Gothic Cinema, the film’s theme – a diverse group of travellers (including a battle-weary World War I veteran) finding themselves in a secluded house, whose inhabitants are a truly bizarre group of misfits – drew from the director some of his quirkiest work, as the endangered visitors struggle to survive a night of horrific happenings. As always with Whale, darker undercurrents are present in the film (darker, that is, than the putative narrative menace) Despite the playful, blackly comic surface of The Old Dark House, Whale was able to infuse into even a piece of uncomplicated popular entertainment such as this a noting of Priestley’s observations about the grim consequences of World War I — and even issues of personal responsibility as embodied in the film’s soldier, Penderel (played by Melvyn Douglas). Inevitably, of course, Whale is fascinated by the film’s monsters, notably the demented, fire-raising Saul (played by Brember Wills), who is kept in a locked room. Whale’s audacious transformation of the lumbering psychopathic beast that the character was in the original novel into a twitchy reigned-in little man given to endless sinister quotations from the Bible renders Saul as actually the most sinister figure in a house not short of threatening presences. Particularly significant, of course, is the characterisation of the effete, precious English actor Ernest Thesiger (subsequently to be encouraged by Whale to shamelessly steal scene after scene in The Bride of Frankenstein), and the treatment of the character here is provocative, given the director’s own sexuality. The deeply effeminate, self-deluding character played by Thesiger invites both derision and fascination on the part of the viewer — inviting speculation on the way in which the director viewed himself. Karloff’s hulking butler, however, is a largely just a satisfying bogey man, but hardly stretches the actor in the fashion in which the Frankenstein monster had for the director. Exempary extras on this Eureka issue with genre stalwarts Kim Newmn and Stephen Jones.
THE SAMUEL FULLER AT COLUMBIA BOX SET/Powerhouse Indicator Blu-ray This collectable boxed set includes the following striking films by the maverick director Samuel Fuller: Underworld USA, It Happened in Hollywood, Adventure in Sahara, Shockproof, Scandal Sheet and The Crimson Kimono. As these titles hint, this is a box for the dedicated cineaste: I provided one of the Blu-ray extras (for the tough gangster thriller Underworld USA) and in that piece I try to nail just why this director is held in such high esteem, despite the in-your-face, unsophisticated nature of his work. In fact – as in this impactful crime movie – it’s the very lack of polish that is part of the direct appeal of Fuller’s films. which have the kinetic vitality of the best tabloid journalism (somewhat different from the debased version that now obtains in this country). A particular pleasure of this set with its splendid transfers is the opportunity to finally catch up with some genuinely neglected Fuller films, which will just be names to many aficionados. Other directors working in the same idiom such as Don Siegel may have found more nuance in these genres, but Fuller is absolutely a law unto himself.
DEATH SMILES ON A MURDERER, Aristide Massacessi, director/Arrow Blu-ray The Italian cinema’s fascination with both the macabre and the glossy murder thriller led to a series of intriguing hybrids in which both genres were spliced together to produce a variety of results from the excellent to the meretricious. Nothing more curious than Death Smiles on a Murderer, an atmospheric and slightly surreal piece which, while directed by one of the less respected talent in the genre (Joe d’Amato, under his real name of Aristide Massacessi), it is nevertheless made with some skill, and that is particularly evident in this new 2K restoration. Set in Austria the turn of the last century, the film has an actress whose star burned very briefly, the Swede Ewa Aulin (perhaps most famous in the title role of the misfiring Candy), here playing a young woman abused by her brother. Good turns on display from some of the most individual character actors in Italy.
NO WAY OUT, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, director/ Eureka Entertainment Blu-ray Provocative treatments of issues of race in the cinema are hardly a new phenomenon, as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s powerful drama reminds us. Given that more recent black directors such as Spike Lee tackle the subject in uncompromising fashion, one might have thought that earlier attempts by white directors might be dated and/or irrelevant. What, however, is remarkable about No Way Out this how contemporary the film still seems, with the racial divisions in US society still marked. What’s more, it showcases two commanding performances by Sidney Poitier and Richard Widmark that demonstrate both actors’ understated mastery of the film medium. If the dialogue does not aim for the sardonic wit which is Mankiewicz’s stock in trade, that was only one part of the writer/director’s talent. The film appears for the first time on Blu-ray as part of The Masters of Cinema Series in a Dual Format (Blu-ray & DVD) edition. The narrative deals with a doctor whose ethics are put to the test when he comes into conflict with a racist criminal. Dr. Luther Brooks (Poitier) is assigned to treat two prisoners, the Biddle brothers, who were shot during an attempted robbery. Ray Biddle (Widmark) refuses to be treated by the black doctor, and when his brother John dies under Luther’s care, Ray becomes consumed with vengeance. His anger and hatred ignite racial tensions within the community, and events quickly spiral out of control.
THE DEFIANT ONES, Stanley Kramer, director/ Eureka Entertainment Blu-ray Still dealing with racial issues, another valuable issue from Eureka Entertainment utilises the theme for what is essentially an accommodation of two genre themes: the ill-matched duo who move from resentment and dislike to mutual respect, and the danger-fraught road movie. Both elements are presented in forceful terms by a narrative in classic Stanley Kramer fashion, i.e. a ‘problem’ picture that dramatises (in unnuanced fashion) a serious issue. And there’s no denying that the technique works in cinematic terms. Nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture, Kramer’s The Defiant Ones dealt with racial tolerance through its thriller narrative in which. John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier – who else?) are two convicts on the run. Escaping from a Southern work gang, the two men are bound together by an unbreakable iron chain and separated by an unbridled hatred towards each other. Relentlessly pursued by a bloodthirsty posse, they must put aside their differences if they are going to survive. Poitier bagged a variety of awards for his role, including the Silver Bear for Best Actor. This is another Eureka Dual Format edition.
THE CHINA SYNDROME, James Bridges, director/Powerhouse Indicator Over the years, the reputation of this tense thriller has grown – and deservedly so. Looking at the film in this splendid Blu-ray transfer is a reminder just what a professional job director James Bridges did with his narrative in which a nuclear plant controller spots a dangerous fault that his bosses wish to keep clandestine. Of course, that success is consolidated by the cast that the director was given to work with: Jack Lemmon as the reluctant whistleblower, Michael Douglas, Scott Brady and (in a key role) Jane Fonda. Now the Lemmon is retrospectively seen as a fine dramatic actor, it’s instructive to view once again a film that reminded audiences there was more to him than his comedy chops.
IRON MONKEY, Yuen Woo-ping, director/Eureka Entertainment. Those who remember earlier incarnations of this lively, tongue-in-cheek martial arts extravaganza will be taken aback by the remarkable visual restoration it has enjoyed here. On Blu-ray, this splendid transfer allows the viewer to see interesting detail in the fine wire work and furious (if highly unlikely) gravity-defying action from Yuen Woo-ping.
THE BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY, Michio Yamamoto, director Arrow Blu-ray For aficionados of the more obscure vampire film, this extremely curious trilogy has been a collector’s item for some considerable time, and it’s fascinating to see the way in which the Oriental filmmakers took elements from the Hammer Dracula series (along with magpie borrowings from other genres) to create something that was frequently quite unlike its original models. Perhaps not to be taken too seriously, this trilogy nevertheless has its share of haunting surrealistic imagery.
RAWHEAD REX, George Pavlou, director/ Arrow Video Blu-ray Generally dismissed on its first appearance (not least by its original creator Clive Barker himself), this new transfer of Rawhead Rex grants viewers a second chance to make a judgement on this lively and gruesome (if misfiring) monster movie with its ancient murderous demon. Adapted for the screen by the horror writer Barker from his short story of the same name, Rawhead Rex sees a hulking, ancient demon tearing a bloody swathe across the Irish countryside. When an unsuspecting farmer pulls up a stone column embedded in a barren field, he accidentally unleashes hell by freeing Rawhead Rex – a hulking monster that has been trapped there for thousands of years. With the seemingly unstoppable demon rampaging through the local village, American historian Howard Hallenbeck is faced with the task of putting Rawhead back in the ground for good.
BLACK PETER (Černý Petr), Miloš Forman, director/Second Run If you only know the work of the director Miloš Forman from his American films such as Amadeus, you owe it to yourself to take a look at the work which first established his reputation in in his native Czechoslovakia. Second Run has done Forman admirers a great service by excavating a film (his debut) which many current film lovers will not have seen and, what’s more, in an exemplary new 4K transfer. It’s a comedy about a young man growing up in the eastern bloc during the early 60s. Forman achieved more success than his Czech contemporaries, and this study of Czech teenagers in youthful rebellion on the cusp of the Prague Spring is diverting and insightful. The Blu-ray/DVD edition also features a previously unseen interview with Miloš Forman, a new audio commentary by film historian Michael Brooke and a new interview with actress Pavla Martínková – plus 20-page booklet featuring a new essay by Jonathan Owen.
MANSFIELD 66/67, P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, directors/Peccadillo Enjoying much curiosity-fuelled attention on its cinema release, this provocative documentary (featuring John Waters, Kenneth Anger, and Tippi Hedren) is a fascinating curio, with some bizarre missteps (such as the use of non-professional actors for some scenes). Jayne Mansfield was the blonde bombshell to rival Monroe and who constantly courted publicity. From ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’ to her final cameo role in Gene Kelly’s ‘A Guide to the Married Men’ she was adored by the public. However, her personal life impacted on her career as she sought solace in drink, drugs and Anton LaVey, the charismatic leader of the Church of Satan. Her fatal car crash in 1967 led to many conspiracy theories. Made to coincide with the 50th anniversary of her death, the film is a Hollywood Babylon examination of the last two years of her life. It combines archive film footage and new drag routines specially created for the film. It’s a gloriously entertaining exploration of the lasting impact of myth, the rise of the Feminist movement of the 1960s and a celebration of ‘the first reality TV star’.
MODERN ROMANCE, Albert Brooks, director/Powerhouse Indicator When Albert Brooks made this film, his name was not notably familiar as a supporting actor – and certainly viewers were unaware what a talented triple threat he was. Modern Romance is written, directed by and stars Brooks in a quirky sardonic comedy about a neurotic film editor was fixated on an actress played by Kathryn Harrold. The film also stars the director James L Brooks, who is no relation – and he was later to profitably cast Albert Brooks in another impressive performance for 1987’s Broadcast News.
FORTHCOMING FROM FINAL CUT Some tempting items (several in the horror field) are en route from Final Cut Entertainment. These include the vintage chiller Night Monster from 1942 and a DVD release of the company’s Amicus Collection. Not yet scheduled but in the pipeline are The Guardian from 1990 and Michael Winner’s macabre The Sentinel from 1977.