Saturday, December 29, 2018

My Top Five DVD/Blu-rays Of 2018










It's the end of the year, and it's time once again for my top five DVD/Blu-rays list. As usual, I spent way too much money on home video--especially movies that I had already owned on other formats. (Three of the films on this list I already had versions of.)

If you are a hardcore movie buff you'll know that the double-dipping problem is getting worse and worse. In the last few months I've re-bought four different Hammer Christopher Lee Dracula movies, mainly because they were making their American Blu-ray debuts. Being a fan of any aspect of Geek Culture is an expensive proposition. But, would I want to be a normal person, whatever that may actually be? No, not really.

As always, each of these picks are from my own personal collection, and no, I still don't have a region free Blu-ray player.


1. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (Blu-ray) from Criterion
The most influential American independent film ever made finally gets the ultimate home video edition it deserves. Criterion thankfully pulled out all the stops for this one. I wrote a full review of this in February.

2. NIGHT OF THE DEMON/CURSE OF THE DEMON (Blu-ray) from Indicator
This was my very first purchase of an Indicator product, and it's an amazing release. It comes with a 80-page booklet, a double-sided poster, multiple versions of the film, and reams of extras.

3. THE COMPLETE SARTANA (Blu-ray) from Arrow
Nobody presents Spaghetti Westerns better than Arrow Video. This set presents the five "official" Sartana films, with tons of extras on each disc. I reviewed each of the films individually during the summer.

4. DJANGO (Blu-ray) from Arrow
The day after Amazon sent me an email saying this had shipped, Arrow announced it had to cancel this release due to rights issues. But I got mine! One of the greatest (and most depressing) Spaghetti Westerns of all time is magnificently presented and fully analyzed, and this steelbook edition comes with a bonus disc featuring another Franco Nero Euro Western, TEXAS, ADIOS.

5. THELMA TODD & ZASU PITTS: THE HAL ROACH COLLECTION 1931-33
THE COMPLETE HAL ROACH THELMA TODD PATSY KELLY COMEDY COLLECTION
I was seriously thinking about putting the Criterion Blu-ray release of Universal's early talkie musical KING OF JAZZ on this list, but these two compilations get the last spot due to the fact that their release finally means all the Thelma Todd/Zasu Pitts/Patsy Kelly short subject comedies are available on official home video. It also means that my obsession with attractive blonde actresses such as Thelma Todd wins out again.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS On Blu-ray From Shout Factory









I got quite excited when I found out earlier this year that Shout Factory was planning on releasing a number of Hammer Films horror titles on Blu-ray. My enthusiasm was tempered a bit when it was announced that DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS was going to be the first in the series. Nothing against the movie, mind you....it's just that I've purchased this movie way too often on home video.

I've bought DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS as a VHS release (in widescreen) from Anchor Bay, then the Anchor Bay DVD, then as part of a 3-movie Hammer DVD set from Millennium, then a Blu-ray from Millennium, which I reviewed back in September of 2013. And that doesn't even count me taping it off of TV back in the 1980s, or the multiple times I saw it on Svengoolie during that decade.

Frankly, I've seen DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS way more times than most people ever have, and I've spent more money on it than most people have. Do we really need another home video release of it??

Thankfully Shout Factory has attached some enticing extras for this version. First of all there's a limited edition 18 x 24 poster, which replicates the stunning Mark Maddox artwork that graces the Blu-ray cover sleeve. (I honestly don't know whether the poster is still available at this time.)

Shout Factory has also included what are essentially two different versions of this movie on the disc. There is a U.S. version of the film and a U.K. version. The U.S. version features the 20th Century Fox logo at the beginning and slightly different opening credit titles. The content in both versions is basically the same, but the visual quality of each is very different.

The U.S. version (which according to Shout Factory is a new 4K scan of the original film elements) has a darker, grainier look to it. It kind of reminds me of how the movie looked when I saw it on TV back in the 1980s (sans the correct aspect ratio, of course). The U.K. version is much brighter looking, and one can see much more detail in the sets and the costumes. This U.K. version looks about like what the movie looked on the Millennium 2013 Blu-ray.

Some may say the U.K. version looks too bright, and isn't very atmospheric...but after so many years of seeing DPOD with a dark, murky aspect to it, I kind of like the brighter version. No matter how you feel about DPOD's visuals, at least with this Blu-ray you've got two versions to choose from.

Most of the extras from the older DPOD home video releases are carried over here, including an audio commentary featuring Christopher Lee, Francis Matthews, Barbara Shelley, and Suzan Farmer (sadly Shelley is the only one of the group still alive now), and behind-the-scenes footage taken during production by Francis Matthews' brother. Particularly welcome on this Shout Factory release is an extensive stills gallery, which features a number of images even I've never seen before!

Shout Factory has also included two brand new (and welcome) audio commentaries. One features Constantine Nasr and Steve Haberman, and the other Troy Howarth. All three men are huge Hammer fans and their appreciation for DPOD comes out most effectively. Among the aspects the commentaries cover include why Hammer took so long to make another Dracula film with Christopher Lee, why Lee has no dialogue in DPOD, and Hammer's status as a company during the making of the film. Howarth's talk is particularly lively.

I assume that if you are reading this blog you probably have DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS on home video already. I know a lot of movie buffs (like me) prefer not to buy the same movies over and over again, especially when one considers you could take that money and get something on home video you haven't owned before. Shout Factory has gone out of their way to give folks a reason to double-dip. I must admit that it was the Mark Maddox poster that swayed me in getting this Blu-ray. Even if you are not able to get the poster you still get two versions of the film and two new commentaries. Hopefully Shout Factory will continue to add new extras to their future Hammer releases (hint: more Mark Maddox artwork will be most welcome).




Sunday, December 23, 2018

THE MULE











Lately Clint Eastwood has been on a run of films detailing real-life American heroes such as SULLY and AMERICAN SNIPER. His new movie THE MULE is also based off of a real-life American story, but this time the narrative is much more complicated. THE MULE is reminiscent of MYSTIC RIVER and MILLION DOLLAR BABY.

In a welcome return to on-screen acting, Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a horticulturist from Illinois who is in his eighties. Despite a lifetime of hard work, Earl is broke, and he has almost no relationship with his immediate family. A chance encounter leads Earl to become a courier for some rather intimidating employers--he winds up being a very unlikely (and very successful) drug mule. For the first time in his life Earl is making some big-time money, and he believes he can use it to rectify the problems that he has, but he soon has to face the consequences of what he has involved himself in.

THE MULE is a perfect story for Eastwood's understated film making style. It's not a rip-roaring story about drug cartels, it's an adult drama featuring an imperfect working-class man who winds up in a situation where's he's way over his head. In his excellent performance as Earl Eastwood shows us that the man has been way over his head when it comes to life period. He's politically incorrect and plain-spoken, and despite his advanced age he still tries to act like a 30-year old player around the ladies. Earl can turn on the charm when he has to, and he has a regular-guy type of common sense which helps him out in certain times of trouble, but he can also be exasperating. Some may feel that Eastwood makes Earl too lovable, but I don't think so....he's portraying a type of American that still exists, no matter how many people today may look down on such folks. Eastwood mines a lot of humor from Earl's reactions to 21st Century life, but I know plenty of people who would react the same way.

THE MULE was written by Nick Schenk, who also wrote GRAN TORINO. The two movies share a few similarities, but the character that Eastwood played in GRAN TORINO would never become a drug mule. The very outlandishness of a 80-something very white guy being a drug courier is why it worked in real life, and it comes off very believably in this film. As usual Eastwood is surrounded by a top-flight cast: Bradley Cooper, Andy Garcia, Lawrence Fishburne, and Dianne Wiest (what notable movie actor wouldn't want to work with Clint Eastwood?).

It's nice to see a film that tells a story about ordinary people, and doesn't have CGI, over-the-top action scenes, or ear-splitting music and sound effects. In my opinion Eastwood's performance in THE MULE is one of the best of his career, and it would be nice if he got a Best Actor Oscar nomination (although in today's political climate, that's probably not going to happen). At the very least Eastwood should be commended for showing that an 88-year old man can produce, direct, and star in a film that stands up to anything being released in theaters lately.




Wednesday, December 19, 2018

HORROR OF DRACULA On Blu-ray From Warner Archive








The Region A Blu-ray debut of the most famous Hammer film of all time has already stirred up a fair amount of controversy--so much so that I've debated on whether I should even write this blog post at all.

Instead of going into the history and/or the importance of the film, I'll get right to the point and give my personal opinion on how this movie looks on this Blu-ray.

Warner Archive claims that "This presentation of HORROR OF DRACULA is based on the British Film Institute restoration of 2007 and additional elements subsequently discovered." This restoration was the basis of a British Blu-ray release a few years ago that was accused by some as having a bluish tint to it. I don't have a Region Free player, so I haven't seen that release, but I have seen screen grabs from it and I don't think I'd like to see HORROR OF DRACULA with a bluish tinge.

The Warner Archive version of HORROR OF DRACULA does not have a bluish tinge--but it is, in my opinion, very dark looking. How dark? As an example, I'll use the famed fur-collared coat that Dr, Van Helsing wears in the film. The color of the coat is dark blue--but in many scenes it looks a solid black. Other dark-colored costumes and furnishings appear black as well, and the backgrounds of most interior sets are lost in shadows.

In certain close-ups there is an increased sharpness of detail--but the overall color tone, for me, doesn't seem as vibrant as I'm used to seeing on this movie. Does it look terrible, as some reviewers have said? Well, for me, it looks different.

I have the old Warners DVD of HORROR OF DRACULA, and I've seen it several times on TV over the years. Turner Classic Movies showed it in HD last October, and I thought it looked magnificent--the colors were bright and vivid, and there was plenty of sharpness and detail. I wish that version of it had been released on Blu-ray--and I honestly prefer the color scheme of the Warners DVD to the Warner Archive Blu-ray.

I have to point out that how I feel about the look of HORROR OF DRACULA is just my personal opinion--I'm not going to presume to say how the movie should "officially" look. I wasn't around when it was originally released in theaters in 1958.

Some other things about this presentation....the 1958 version of the Universal-International logo is at the beginning and the end of the film, reminding us that in America HORROR OF DRACULA was released by Universal (a fact that seems almost forgotten by now). The actual title of the film is the British one, DRACULA, due to the use of the BFI restoration. The thing is, this is an American home video release, so...wouldn't the HORROR OF DRACULA on-screen title be more appropriate?

The aspect ratio on this Blu-ray is 1.66:1, which makes the shot compositions look better (the Warners DVD was 1.78:1). The sound quality is excellent--the audio is in DTS 2.0 Mono, and James Bernard's score practically booms on it.

The only extra is an original trailer in very poor condition. Setting aside one's personal preference on how this movie should look, the lack of extras is the biggest letdown. HORROR OF DRACULA is THE Hammer horror film, and this year marks its 60th anniversary. Any home video release of it should include tons of relevant extras. I was holding out hope that because of the 60th anniversary, a company like Criterion might consider putting out HORROR OF DRACULA, but no such luck.

So, all in all, should one get this Blu-ray? I assume if you are a Hammer fan, you've probably pre-ordered it already, especially if you don't have a Region Free Blu-ray player. I don't really want to say "don't buy it", because this may be the only Region A Blu-ray of this film that will be released for awhile.

I will say, though, that this release could have been much, much better.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Monster Kid Radio's Classic Five Core Deck Card Of The Month For December









There are two ways to answer this question: "Who is your favorite mad scientist character?" and "Who is your favorite mad scientist actor?"

When it comes to favorite mad scientist character, there's so, so many to choose from....just off the top of my head, there's Boris Karloff's Dr. Gustav Niemann in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, Lionel Atwill's Dr. Otto von Niemann in THE VAMPIRE BAT, George Zucco's Dr. Alfred Morris in THE MAD GHOUL, and Ernest Thesiger's Dr. Pretorius in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. And what about Bela Lugosi's Dr. Vollin in the 1935 version of THE RAVEN?

I could go on naming dozens of others, but my ultimate pick for favorite mad scientist character of all time came to me rather easily. It's C. A. Rotwang, as played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, in Fritz Lang's magnificent silent epic METROPOLIS.



Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang

I was totally mesmerized by METROPOLIS from the first time I saw it, and I remain so to this day. The character of Rotwang is so striking, so intriguing, so mysterious, so....expressionistic, you can't help but be overwhelmed by him. He dresses like a mad monk, he lives in what appears to be a medieval cottage smack dab in the middle of futuristic ultra-modern city, and he has abilities and talents far beyond that of the average member of the populace. Despite the ancient trappings of his abode, he has a laboratory filled with all sorts of complicated equipment, and he seems to have managed to create for himself a fully functional prosthetic right hand.

He has also managed to create one of the most iconic characters in movie history, a rather shapely robot who is given the appearance of the beautiful young Brigitte Helm. This "False Maria" almost brings the entire society of Metropolis down, which is what Rotwang had in mind in the first place--the woman he loved (and lost) married the Master of Metropolis.

Nearly every mad scientist trope you can come up with is represented by Rotwang. His looks, his actions, his creations, his righteous anger, his quest for revenge....all these elements would be used over and over and over again in hundreds of fantastic films, and they are still being used today. Out of all the movie mad scientists, Rotwang is the one that has fascinated me the most, the one that has had the most effect upon my imagination.

Now, for my favorite mad scientist actor--once again, there's plenty of worthy candidates....Karloff, Lugosi, Carradine, Zucco....you may have wondered why I haven't mentioned Peter Cushing yet. In all honesty, I've never thought that the scientists that Cushing played were mad--they were dedicated and dangerous, but I never believed they were totally off the rails.

There's one actor, though, who was the expert when it came to playing scientists who were totally off the rails--and that was Lionel Atwill. When Atwill was playing one of his many mad scientist characters, his eyes would light up with an insane glee, he'd usually have a wicked smirk on his face, and no one--men, women, children, or animals....was safe. It also appeared to me that Atwill enjoyed portraying loony medicos...he seemed to take it up a notch. If I had to pick just one actor in all of movie history to play a mad scientist, it would be Lionel Atwill.



Lionel Atwill 




Sunday, December 9, 2018

SALT IN THE WOUND








A week or so ago I wrote a post on an Italian WWII film called FIVE FOR HELL. In it I made reference to the fact that Klaus Kinski played a SS Colonel by asking the question, "What else would Kinski play in a WWII movie?" My friend Troy Howarth, who has written a book about the actor (REAL DEPRAVITIES: THE FILMS OF KLAUS KINSKI) informed me that Kinski actually played an American soldier in a 1969 production called SALT IN THE WOUND. This intrigued me enough to search the movie out on YouTube and view it. 

SALT IN THE WOUND begins (at least in the version I saw of it) with various shots of a barren landscape, while a stentorian-voiced narrator quotes scripture. Just when you think you've stumbled onto a Biblical epic by mistake, the scene abruptly switches to the Italian theater of World War II. Two GIs, played by Klaus Kinski and Ray Saunders, have been convicted of murder by a military court and are sentenced to be executed. (Kinski's character shot an elderly Italian woman while looting a house, and Saunders' character killed an officer.) A newly-arrived clean-cut by the book Lieutenant (played by George Hilton) is ordered to preside over the executions. The condemned men are taken out to the countryside to be shot, but German soldiers attack the group. The execution squad is wiped out, and Hilton, Kinski, and Saunders escape. The three men form an uneasy alliance to survive, and they stumble into a small village, where they are hailed as liberators. Their short idyll away from the war comes to and abrupt end when the Germans attack the town, and the trio must fight them off by themselves.

I expected SALT IN THE WOUND to have plenty of Spaghetti Western-style flourishes, but it actually is more of a drama than a action picture. The conflict comes from the strained partnership between the three main characters, who all have widely divergent backgrounds and mistrust of one another. Kinski's corporal is cynical and surly, with a "I only care about myself" attitude--but at the same time, the actor is still able to show the self-loathing the man feels for what he has become. At the beginning it's somewhat disconcerting to see Kinski as an American infantryman, but he's talented enough to make it work (this time the English dubbing is a help instead of a hindrance). Kinski even gets to have a poignant romance with a young Italian girl who sees him as a savior of her hometown.

Ray Saunders' character, who is African-American, gets to bond with a pre-teen Italian boy, and despite his newfound status as a liberator, the man still comes off as an outsider. George Hilton, who got one chance to play the "official" version of the Euro Western character Sartana, does very well as the uptight Lieutenant who begins to realize that rules and regulations mean very little in war.

SALT IN THE WOUND does have a few action sequences, the main one being the climatic battle. These sequences are handled capably, and they thankfully lack the more outlandish elements one usually sees in Italian genre films made during this period. The whole film, in fact, has a more down-to-earth tone than one expects from this type of product. The Italian locations give the story plenty of verisimilitude, and Riz Ortolani's militaristic score sets the mood properly. The movie was co-written and directed by Tonino Ricci (on the credits he's billed as Teodoro Ricci), and all in all he does a fine job in making a low-budget WWII story intriguing and interesting without being overly violent or exploitative.

According to my researches, SALT IN THE WOUND is known under several different titles, including WAR FEVER, THE LIBERATORS, and THE DIRTY TWO. The original Italian title is IL DITO NELLA PIAGA. The version I saw on YouTube was 87 minutes long, and in widescreen, and the print didn't look all that bad.





Sunday, December 2, 2018

A Tribute To Sylvester Stallone And Rocky Balboa










I watched CREED II yesterday, and I thought it was even better than the first CREED. It got me thinking about the entire Rocky film series--a series that has gone on for over forty years and includes eight movies so far. It's a series that has made a significant impact on pop culture, and with Sylvester Stallone recently announcing his presumed "retirement" from playing the Rocky Balboa character, I think it's high time to give the actor some respect for what he has accomplished. 

The original ROCKY itself wasn't just an underdog story--the behind-the-scenes efforts of the then unknown Stallone to bring his script to the screen with him starring as the lead character was even more of one. At first glance the original ROCKY may seem a very simple concept--it's the type of story that has been done over and over again and will continue to be--but the material was treated with such earnestness and respect that it made an emotional connection to audiences--a connection that lasts to this day. Are the Rocky movies predictable? Yes. Have you seen them so many times that you know exactly what is going to happen? Yes...but the important thing is that they still work. 

There's not one entry in the entire Rocky series that I would call truly bad. Even ROCKY V isn't as mediocre as many assume it to be. If you go back and watch all the Rocky films, including the Creed ones, the characters in them all go through believable progressions through the series. Watching all the Rocky characters over the years is like watching a family or a group of friends you know--heck, most folks would say they know these characters better than real people. Stallone has written, co-written, or directed every film in the Rocky series, and to be able to present this ongoing storyline over such a long period of time without going off the rails shouldn't be underestimated...consider that most movie franchises lose steam around the third entry. Stallone must be doing something right as a writer. 

We also have to give credit to Stallone as an actor. One of the reasons that Rocky Balboa is one of the most iconic film characters ever is due to Stallone's portrayal. Rocky truly is a good guy, and Stallone has always presented him as someone who audiences feel they know and like. Stallone has often used light humor to touch upon Rocky's lack of polish...but he's never looked down on the character. Rocky isn't sophisticated or an intellectual, but he's honest and well-meaning, and most importantly, audiences relate to what he's going through. If you can get the audience on your character's side, you have a major advantage.

Sylvester Stallone has gone through plenty of critical dubbing over the years--he has been in films such as RHINESTONE and OVER THE TOP, after all. But he's also been involved in three different major film franchises--Rocky, Rambo, and the Expendables--and he's written and directed scores of films that have made tons of money. Every major holiday some cable TV channel is running a Rocky marathon, and if you drop any sort of clever reference to any of the Rocky movies on the internet, you'll get some feedback. It's easy to make fun of Sylvester Stallone, but in all honesty, how many filmmakers have had as much influence on mass entertainment as he has?

In closing, the best way I can pay tribute to Sylvester Stallone and Rocky Balboa is to offer up a hearty and heartfelt "YO"!!!



Saturday, December 1, 2018

FIVE FOR HELL








FIVE FOR HELL (original Italian title 5 PER L'INFERNO) is a 1969 Italian WWII action adventure that tries to fit the mold of such films as THE DIRTY DOZEN and WHERE EAGLES DARE. This movie, however, is at a far lesser scale than those big-budget epics. 

The story is set during the Italian Campaign of World War II. Brash American Lt. Hoffman (played by the official Sartana, Gianni Garko) gathers together four other soldiers with special skills--an acrobat, an explosives expert, a safecracker, and a muscular fellow--to take on a secret mission. The five are to be transported behind enemy lines, where they will attempt to infiltrate the Italian headquarters of the German High Command, break into a safe, and steal the plans for an upcoming offensive against the Allies. As expected, the mission doesn't come off quite as planned, as the five have to deal with a sultry German army secretary who may or may not be a double agent (Margaret Lee) and a determined SS Colonel (Klaus Kinski). 

FIVE FOR HELL is basically a Spaghetti Western set during the Second World War. The problem is the more bizarre elements of that genre do not stand up too well when inserted into a story involving history's greatest conflict. This movie was directed and co-written by Gianfranco Parolini, under his "Frank Kramer" pseudonym. Parolini was the man who inaugurated both the Sartana and Sabata movie series, and many of the aspects of those films can be found in FIVE FOR HELL. There's a fair amount of goofy humor that doesn't work, and Parolini's penchant for circus-style stunts (which he used repeatedly in the Sabata films) is firmly in evidence here. The five heroes use such weapons as a trampoline and a softball, and the gags resulting from these instruments get more outlandish as the story goes along.

The Spaghetti Western influence extends to the cast as well. Besides Gianni Garko, three of the men who portray members of his group--Aldo Conti, Sal Borgese, and Luciano Rossi--were longtime Euro Western veterans. Samson Burke, who plays the muscle of the unit, was Hercules in THE THREE STOOGES MEET HERCULES (how many people can claim they worked with the Stooges and Klaus Kinski??).

Speaking of Kinski, his portrayal of SS Colonel Hans Mueller is predicated more on smugness than viciousness. He does make a viable threat (what else would Kinski play in a WWII movie?), and, as usual, he steals every scene he's in. Kinski spends most of his time leering at Margaret Lee, a Eurocult actress and Jess Franco favorite. Lee's double agent character winds up bedding Kinski's SS Colonel to distract him (I'm sure Klaus wasn't complaining about that scene).

As he does in his Spaghetti Westerns, Gianni Garko brings a lot of screen presence to the role of Lt. Hoffman. He's actually quite believable as a WWII American army officer, even though the actions of him and his team are not. FIVE FOR HELL has a lot of explosions and a rousing climax featuring a machine gun battle, but like a lot of Italian films made during this period that attempted to imitate more notable American-made productions, it bites off more than it can chew. The movie attempts to be a hard-edged war tale, but there's too much bizarre stuff going on to take it more seriously--such as a music score which seems cobbled together from a bunch of other movies which are not war films.

The version of FIVE FOR HELL that I viewed was English-dubbed, with English titles, and it was not in widescreen. A Italian language subtitled version in the correct aspect ratio might be much better...but my final verdict has to be that Gianfranco Parolini was much better at Westerns than at war.