Friday, July 14, 2017

HELL IN THE PACIFIC On Kino Blu-ray









One of the most unusual war films ever made comes to Region A Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber. HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1968) is about as stripped down a film as you can get--if features Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as two soldiers stranded on a small island in the South Pacific during World War II, and the duo make up the entire cast.

The movie was directed by John Boorman, a man who has one of the most diverse and intriguing resumes of any living filmmaker. Filmed on location in the Palau Islands, HELL IN THE PACIFIC makes no allowances to its audience whatsoever. We are given absolutely no backstory on the two men fighting for survival--we don't even learn their names. The duo start out trying to outwit and outfox the other, but eventually come to a grudging unspoken agreement to work together in getting off the island. Even toward the end there's no "special moment" in which the men connect--they always remain alien to one another, and they barely communicate. The story has very little dialogue, but when Toshiro Mifune does speak his words are not subtitled--Boorman did this to make viewers appreciate the characters' plight.

Suffice to say, the artistic highlights of a film like this are probably lost on those used to 21st Century entertainment. I suspect that many who saw this picture when it first came out were puzzled by it as well. Boorman doesn't go the easy route and make either Marvin or Mifune an obvious "good" or "bad" guy--they are just two men trying to deal with circumstances and with each other. The duo are not super warriors or emotionless iron men, but they are not men to be trifled with, either. The best thing about this film is the casting of Marvin and Mifune. Both actors didn't have to act tough--they were real tough guys, the type of men who could say more with a steely glance than by spouting a couple pages of dialogue. (Both men were also actual veterans of the Second World War.) Marvin and Mifune were perfect for this story.

The other highlight of HELL IN THE PACIFIC is the majestic cinematography from the legendary Conrad Hall, who makes grand use of the beautiful desolation of the South Pacific. (By the way, the camera operator on this film was none other than Jordan Croenweth, who would become a renowned DOP in his own right on such films as BLADE RUNNER.) The outstanding visuals are much needed on a story that does not have many action scenes. If you are expecting Marvin and Mifune to engage in an out-and-out lengthy slugfest, you will be disappointed. HELL IN THE PACIFIC runs 103 minutes, and after a while one gets the feeling that Boorman was working hard in coming up with things for the characters to do without killing each other and bringing the tale to an end. This Blu-ray features two different endings, and both of them are very anti-climatic. In my opinion, HELL IN THE PACIFIC is an admirable effort, but it is not a movie for all tastes, and it definitely is not a mainstream war picture.

Kino does its usual excellent job on this Blu-ray, with superior visuals and sound. A brand new interview with John Boorman is provided, and the director delves into the many difficulties involved in making this offbeat production. Boorman reveals that his biggest challenge was Toshiro Mifune--the Japanese cinema legend went out of his way to cause all sorts of problems. (Lee Marvin and Mifune, however, got along great--the two spent most of their off-camera time together getting drunk.) There is also an interview with art director Anthony Pratt, who shares his experiences working on the film.

An audio commentary is provided on this Blu-ray featuring Travis Crawford and Bill Ackerman. Both men give out numerous details about the film, including the many connections between much of the behind-the-camera talent and Toho Studios....but the duo also spend a lot of time talking about John Boorman's other directorial efforts, and they sound much more enthusiastic while doing so. The Blu-ray case sleeve is reversible, and the alternate cover image makes the film look like a typical 1940s Hollywood WWII flick.


Saturday, July 8, 2017

Book Review: TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES








In the early 2010s, IDW in association with Fantastic Press released a series of books on what might be considered the best films from three distinct genres. The books were TOP 100 HORROR MOVIES, TOP 100 SCI-FI MOVIES, and TOP 100 FANTASY MOVIES. All the volumes were written, edited, and designed by Gary Gerani (who is the main force behind the many STAR WARS Topps trading card books). The latest book in the series is TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES.

I have all the books in the TOP 100 series. They have a colorful, clean design, with several stills from the movies discussed. Gerani gives a concise overview of each film, and includes basic cast & crew information and a very brief (thankfully) plot summary. He then goes into why he has included the film into the book's top 100. The books are for more of a mainstream audience than hard core film buffs, but I appreciate that tack--by doing this the author avoids being pretentious and he also brings up films that are not one of the "usual suspects" when it comes to lists like this.

TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES continues in the same vein as the other volumes in the series. The one drawback of this book is that the way these comic book adaptations are being churned out, Gerani may have to rewrite the whole thing about three years from now. That being said, the author does not strictly deal with only major comic character films made in the past couple decades. Movies that have been adapted from newspaper comic strips qualify for this list, so we get films such as the FLASH GORDON serials, the 1982 ANNIE, and a 1931 tale called SKIPPY starring a very young Jackie Cooper (who of course went on to play Perry White in the Christopher Reeve SUPERMAN movies).

I have to say that out of all the TOP 100 books the comic book entry is the one on which I disagree with the author the most on the placement of certain films. I think he has both X-MEN and WATCHMEN too low, and he has the recent DC films way too high. I don't have any major problems with the book overall though. If you love the 21st Century big-budget spectaculars, you'll find many of them here--and the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well-represented. (Gerani's take on some of the various MCU entries is quite unique.) I'm not going to reveal what the author believes is the No. 1 comic book movie, but if you are a purveyor of Geek Culture, you can easily figure it out on your own.

At the end of the book Gerani gives a quick appreciation of several comic book movies that failed to make the list, and he names his Top 10 Comic Book Movie Makers. The book also has a very welcome index.

A few folks may not like to admit it, but the fact is that films based on comic book material are basically driving and sustaining the entertainment industry. I think that ignoring this, or treating comic book movies as unworthy of proper analysis and discussion, is a mistake. TOP 100 COMIC BOOK MOVIES is a fun, colorful, easy to read book that is a step in the direction of treating these films as a separate genre that deserves articulate and thoughtful critical interpretation.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

ISLAND OF TERROR On Blu-ray












The 1966 British science-fiction/horror film ISLAND OF TERROR has finally been given a Region A Blu-ray release courtesy of the good folks at Shout Factory. Directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing, the movie has gained some new fans in recent years due to it being shown by Svengoolie on his MeTV program.

Terence Fisher is best known for his mastery of English Gothic cinema, but he did helm more than a few science-fiction features. ISLAND OF TERROR is the best of that group. Eminent doctors Brian Stanley (Peter Cushing) and David West (Edward Judd) travel to a small island off the east coast of Ireland to investigate the discovery of a body without any bones. The two men learn that research at a mysterious laboratory on the island has caused the creation of creatures called "silicates"--creatures that were supposed to destroy cancer cells. The silicates are now running (well, actually, moving slowly) all over the island, attacking any beings in their path. The creatures are seemingly indestructible, and Stanley and West must find a way to stop them, despite the fact that they are stuck on an island with very little resources and very little time.

What makes ISLAND OF TERROR work is Fisher's concise, get-to-the-point directorial style. The story moves quickly, and suspense is built up due to the characters being trapped in a remote location. Peter Cushing gets to play a contemporary, "normal" person (if you consider a distinguished pathologist normal), and he's obviously enjoying himself here, bringing to the role a dry sense of humor. Cushing is helped out by the underrated Edward Judd. Judd always brought a slightly cynical, let's get on with it type of attitude to his fantastic film roles such as FIRST MEN IN THE MOON and THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE, and he and Cushing make a great monster fighting team. Their realistic approach as actors to an outlandish situation adds immeasurably to the film.

Every good monster movie has to have a Scream Queen, and Carole Gray capably fills that role here. The only reason she is in the movie is because she's young, attractive, and female--her character could have easily been written out of the script with no effect to the story whatsoever--but hey, I'm not complaining. Several of the locals on the island are played by veterans of other British fantastic films, such as Niall MacGinnis, Eddie Byrne, and Sam Kydd.

Probably the most memorable--some would say the most notorious--characters in ISLAND OF TERROR are the silicates themselves. I would describe them as a cross between a large mutated turtle shell and a disfigured rock. They can suck the bones out of humans or animals just by contact--but they're not exactly the fastest monsters in the world (they make Lon Chaney Jr.'s Kharis the Mummy seem like Rickey Henderson). But they do have the ability to climb trees! When the silicates divide, they leave a residue that looks like chicken noodle soup--another reason why ISLAND OF TERROR sticks in the memory of so many Monster Movie fans.

A Region A Blu-ray of ISLAND OF TERROR has been long overdue--as a matter of fact, the movie never even got an official Region 1 DVD release. I've seen ISLAND OF TERROR a number of times, and the color has always looked pale and yellowish. This Blu-ray is without doubt the best I have ever seen the movie look. The visual quality is sharper, brighter, and definitely more colorful--if you have bootleg copies of this title on disc, you don't need them anymore. The movie is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, and the audio, which is full and vibrant, is in DTS-HD Mono. I must point out that this Blu-ray features the uncut version of the film--which means you'll get to see in all of its glory the infamous sequence where Edward Judd uses extreme measures to save Peter Cushing from the silicates.

The Blu-ray has some nifty extras as well. A new audio commentary is provided by Dr. Robert J. Kiss. It's an excellent one, as Kiss offers up pertinent detail on all aspects of the production and still finds time to give some critical analysis. He also gets in some droll comments as well (thankfully he doesn't take the movie too seriously). About halfway through the film, Kiss takes a back seat and allows Rick Pruitt to provide his memories on what it was like to view ISLAND OF TERROR at an American drive-in during its original U.S. release. A five-minute still gallery is also included, and it has some stunning stills of Carole Gray. There's also a very worn-looking original trailer. The Blu-ray has a reversible disc cover, and in my opinion the best image is the one in the picture above.

An official American DVD or Blu-ray release of ISLAND OF TERROR has been long overdue. Why Universal never got around to doing it is a mystery, especially since the film's star is a legend like Peter Cushing. Thankfully, Shout Factory under its Scream Factory label has given the movie the home video treatment it deserves.




Monday, July 3, 2017

Book Review: A WEREWOLF REMEMBERS--THE TESTAMENT OF LAWRENCE STEWART TALBOT









I'm sure most of you are aware of the so-called "Dark Universe"--the attempt by Universal Studios to have their own Marvel-like multi-feature storyline featuring legendary classic monsters instead of comic book characters. I don't have too much confidence in this idea--but if Universal was smart, they'd hire author Frank J. Dello Stritto right away as a production consultant. His new book A WEREWOLF REMEMBERS--THE TESTAMENT OF LAWRENCE STEWART TALBOT is a unique and fascinating examination of the Universal Monsters legacy in the form of a "biography" of Lawrence Talbot, the character played by Lon Chaney Jr. in five films, and better known as The Wolf Man.

The author starts out with the supposition that Lawrence Talbot disappeared after the events of ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, and Talbot's steamer trunk was left behind in an apartment house. The landlord of the house was the author's Uncle, and after his passing Talbot's journals were found inside the trunk. Dello Stritto "reveals" the contents of the journals.

The result is a Old Monster Movie Fan's dream. This book is not written as a joke, or a gimmick. The author has obviously spent a lot of time thinking about the Universal Monster series, and he creatively fills in several of the "blanks" that exist in the Universal Monster timeline. One of the things that has always bothered me about the original THE WOLF MAN is the idea that Claude Rains and Lon Chaney Jr. were supposed to be father & son. Dello Stritto explains why the two could be so different yet so closely related by delving into the history of the Talbot family, and ingeniously using stills of Rains and Lon Jr. from other films to represent other members of the clan. The author also goes into what happened to the Wolf Man when he was supposedly "dead" in between his film appearances. We also find out why Talbot was back to his wolfish self in A & C MEET FRANKENSTEIN when he was apparently "cured" at the end of HOUSE OF DRACULA.

Dello Stritto doesn't just limit himself to Universal horror films. Many characters from other thrillers made in the 1930s-1950s pop up in the narrative...and quite a few fictional folks from non-horror films of the period as well. I don't want to reveal who some of these characters are, simply because I want the reader to be as pleasantly surprised by these cameos as I was. Most of these characters will be familiar to above-average film buffs, but even I had to check on IMDB to figure out who some of them were.

These classic film references are not just a film geek's crazy theories haphazardly thrown together. Dello Stritto weaves pop culture signposts in and out of the tale with the touch of an assured novelist. The overall story never seems contrived, or ridiculous....and I dare say it holds together far better than the scripts of the films that the author was inspired by.

I really enjoyed this book--in fact, it even exceeded my expectations. The creativity shown in it is astounding--I can't tell you how many times I stopped reading and said to myself, "I wish I had thought of that!" I've spent most of my life watching the Universal monster movies, and the various other films referenced in this book, and I know them like the back of my hand. Seeing them presented this way--as if they actually happened in history, and that their stories and characters overlap with one another--is pure catnip for movie geeks.

I do have to say that your enjoyment of this book will be directly related to how much of a film buff you are. It was published by Cult Movie Press, and it has a very attractive design. It runs over 500 pages, so you are certainly getting your money's worth. I believe it is one of the best movie books I have read in the last few years. I could go on and on about this book, and what's in it, but I don't want to, because it needs to be read, instead of blogged about. Here's hoping that Frank Dello Stritto winds up writing a series of these books--maybe next there will be a look at the life of Baron Victor Frankenstein, as played by Peter Cushing?