Spirits on Spirits

It was such a pleasant surprise to learn that VCI, in association with Blair and Associates, Ltd., had acquired the Blu-Ray rights to the Hal Roach feature collection.  And while, true, the library does NOT contain any Laurel & Hardy or Our Gang or Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts or any of the master comedy producer’s many other terrific iconic funsters, there’s still a veritable gold mine of yuks to be savored and treasured in this stash.

To prove my point, let us examine their first release, 1937’s blockbuster TOPPER (insert sigh of relief that concurrently underlines collector’s gasps of “Finally!” along with, “Oh, yeah, there is a lot of good stuff sans Stan-and-Ollie”).

TOPPER was a topper in 1937, when Roach was winding down his partnership with MGM, and gearing up to move over to UA.  The book was a natural for the sight-gag-dedicated director as it told the humorous tale of a couple of swinging swells who turn a staid banker’s life around after they enter the hereafter, due to an automobile accident.  The possibilities of ghosts having fun at humans’ expense was just too good a prospect to pass up.   Furthermore, George and Marion Kerby, the hot-looking ectoplasmic corpses, could additionally take Roach where he wanted his studio to go:  to more mainstream, sophisticated, romantic fare – while remaining in the wacky, visual groove.

As the outwardly humorless “big shot banker from Wall Street” Cosmo Topper, Roach scored a coup by securing the services of Roland Young, who actually made the character sympathetic (and received an Oscar nomination for his efforts).  For his flighty, upwardly mobile spouse, Clara, the producer insisted upon Billie Burke.  The homerun casting, however, was lassoing a major A-list star for the role of Marion – the screwball, flirtatious eternally partying dead girl – the glamorous Constance Bennett, who although slipping a bit at the box office, was still popular enough to be top-billed.  What ultimately gave TOPPER its revival/TV rerun legs for over seventy years was pairing Bennett with Cary Grant, giving the five-year movie veteran at last a chance to do full-blown comedy.  For Grant, 1937 would be his breakout year; even TOPPER‘s bravura performance around the free-world globe would pale next to his other ’37 release, Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth.  It instantly propelled Mae West’s former toyboy to major superstar.  From here on in, there was no looking back.

MGM proudly highlighted TOPPER in its 1937 Exhibitor’s Promotion Reel, and gave Grant, on loan from Paramount, a special boost (it was part of his two-picture Metro deal, the other being 1936’s Suzy, opposite Jean Harlow and Franchot Tone).  In TOPPER, for the first time, Grant is able to be physically funny (steering the fatal convertible with his feet), as well as verbally proficient in tossing off one-liners.

To be sure, the Kerbys’ deaths comprise the plethora of the movie’s barrage of priceless antics, starting with the pic’s key conundrum; upon realizing that they’re deceased, the couple is doomed to remain eternally Earthbound unless they perform a good deed for once in their essentially up-till-then one-per-center (aka, idle rich) useless lives.  In their own way of thinking, that can only mean one thing:  to turn their source of amusement, the stodgy Cosmo T, into a party animal.  But even being confined to planet Earth isn’t that bad a deal, since their territory is New York City, to say nothing of the fact that torturing mortals is genuinely fun.  And you can still drink (both are practically alcoholics, but, not in that spoilsport Ray Milland sense).

Even being horribly killed never fully deters the marrieds from their extravagant lifestyle (Marion’s initial shock response is “I got a run in my stocking!”).  Suffice to say, the subsequent transformation of Cosmo from stuffed shirt to whoopee cushion is, as one might suspect, a slow-burn-to-dynamite-stick exercise in hilarity.

There are so many geniuses responsible for the above metamorphosis (aside from those already mentioned) that one barely knows where to begin.  I guess a good start would be with the director, comedy ace Norman Z. McLeod (who guided the Marx Bros. through Horse Feathers), followed by the script (cowritten by Eric Hatch and Eddie Moran, in collaboration with Roach gagman Jack Jevne, who had just completed work on Way Out West)The Thorne Smith novel sale proved to be a gift-that-kept-on-giving bonanza for Roach, who wisely optioned the author’s other works, resulting in two more Topper movies, as well as the extraordinary 1941 Turnabout, where John Hubbard and Carole Landis exchange bodies and sexuality (how Roach missed out on I Married a Witch is an honest-to-goodness head-scratcher).  The groundbreaking Oscar-worthy (but non-nom) special effects (causing mucho hilarity in cars, elevators, hotel lobbies and ballroom dance floors) were orchestrated by Roy Seawright, and superbly photographed by Norbert Brodine.  And the music, featuring many legendary Roach riffs and melodies, is by the great Marvin Hatley (as much responsible for the Roach post-silent style as any prime player on the lot).  Elmer Raguse’s nifty sound and sound FX (encompassing disembodied objects seemingly taking on a life of their own), like Young, received the second of the picture’s two Oscar noms.

TOPPER’s amazing large-scale cast, handpicked by the producer, is what caps this supernatural misadventure, accurately advertised as “96 Roaring Minutes of Laughter.”  Featuring Roach stock company thesps (Dorothy Christy, Anita Garvin), brilliant character actors (Arthur Lake, Eugene Pallette, J. Farrell MacDonald, Si Jenks, Irving Bacon, Doodles Weaver, Clem Bevans, Lionel Belmore, Eddy Chandler, Theodore van Eltz, Syd Saylor, Ward Bond), former silent-screen stars (Claire Windsor, Kenneth Harlan, Jack Mulhall, Betty Blythe) and up-and-coming newbies (Lana Turner), the roster also includes Six Hits and a Miss, Hoagy Carmichael (introducing “Old Man Moon”), and, best of all, as the Topper’s flustered, but steadfast loyal butler,  Alan Mowbray (his response to employer Burke’s chide of “After all these years, are you trying to be funny?” is, alone, worth the purchase).

The 35MM transfer of TOPPER is an excellent one.  The silky monochrome camerawork looks just groovy, whether gliding across the mammoth MGM sets, or dodging in and around Marion’s runaway panties.  The original theatrical trailer is also included in the package.

Can hardly wait to see what’s further down the pike.

TOPPER.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  VCI/Blair and Associates, Ltd./MVD Visual.  CAT # VCI9031.  SRP:  $29.95.

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The Donna Pass

As the holidays encroach upon us, we 3-D fans have an extra reason to rejoice, via the recent stereoscopic release of Raoul Walsh’s 1953 western classic GUN FURY, now available in a limited-edition Blu-Ray from the galoots at Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries.

What makes GUN FURY a key 3-D item is not only the high-octane cast (of then one-rung-short-of-major-stardom players Rock Hudson and Donna Reed), but the behind-the-scenes frame-composing and depth-defying talents of auteur director Raoul Walsh (in his only 3-D outing).

GUN FURY flat is a serviceable, action-packed oater with some stinging dialog and typical Walsh double-entendre lust (both versions are included).  In 3-D, it’s a prime late work – all the more remarkable, as the director (like fellow 3-D master Andre DeToth) had only one eye (losing a peeper during the In Old Arizona shoot in 1928), and could never see the amazing in-your-face effects of his labors.  Yet, he gets it right (and left), doing things with objects, foreground and background, that had (at the time) never before been attempted.  And boy, does it work!  The framing shots of the spooky, arid Arizona landscapes are a given (but even more so with cactus and tumbleweeds doing double duty, creating a visual three-dimensional sandwich tableau); however, Walsh peaks the process with tracking camera shots of stagecoach drivers cracking their whip at the camera – which he then TOPS by doing a reverse angle of the coach team of horses galloping into the lenses (and, seemingly, toward viewers).  Later POV shots of a steep incline trail are sure to give you that This is Cinerama rollercoaster feeling.  And, for good measure, Walsh tosses furniture, arrows, and rocks (but not Rock) at you as well.

The plot of GUN FURY, as intimated above, is pure Walsh.  Scripted by Roy Huggins (later TV icon of Maverick, The Fugitive, Baretta, and The Rockford Files fame) and (of all people) Irving Wallace, (author of The Chapman Report, The Prize, The Word, The Man and scores of other 1960s bestsellers), the narrative is based upon a gritty novel by the Grangers (Kathleen, George and Robert) with the amazing title Ten Against Caesar (in this movie, it’s three, then four, like the dimensions plus one, so I imagine the book was envisioned on a grander scale).  Here goes:  the Arizona territory is being ravaged by post-Civil War renegades (translation: psychopaths) led by the notorious Confederate officer Frank Slayton (a dashing and dangerously charming Phil Carey).  His band of ex-Rebs strongly adhere to a take-no-prisoners policy a la Quantrill, but there’s an additional kink to Slayton’s raids.  Frank, you see, is a sexual predator, who can’t complete an offense without raping (and often killing) some poor unfortunate female.  On the plus side, he’s an equal opportunity scumbag, and his victims comprise a veritable rainbow coalition of abused women.  This is most alarming to his capo, Jess Burgess (Leo Gordon), who increasing tries to curb his leader’s dementia prey-cocks – and eventually is staked in the blistering Sedona heat to die for his trouble.

When (uh-oh) gorgeous Caucasian Jennifer Ballard (Reed) happens upon their stage en route to meet her peacenik rancher fiancé Ben Warren (Hudson), Carey’s chest starts to heave before she even gets a chance to cross her legs.  Regardless of the plans for their next and biggest heist, Slayton has already decided to kill Warren and ravage Jennifer.

This seems to work in his favor, except that Ben isn’t killed, and stumbles across a barely-breathing Jess, whom he nurses back to health.  They are later joined by Johash (Pat Hogan), a disgruntled Native American, out to likewise terminate Slayton, due to the rapist having defiled and murdered the brave’s sister.

Meanwhile, Frank enters his secret safe haven, where he is greeted by his love slave Estella (the hot and feisty Roberta Haynes); Slayton had previously taken the senorita (in every sense of the word) and was pleasantly shocked to discover that she liked it.  Soon, Haynes realizes that she’s now been relegated to pre-Reed warm-up girl appetizer and rebels against the rebel.  His solution:  exterminate her.  In one of the movie’s Walsh-iest scenes, Carey instructs henchman Lee Marvin (with the WTF moniker of “Blinky,” the name usually reserved for characters played by Phil Silvers) to open fire upon the vengeful, sweaty Haynes, who is following the gang on an equally frothing mount.  “You want me to shoot her or the horse, or what?” inquires a perplexed Blinky.  “Suit yourself,” sneers slimeball Slayton.

Eventually, the outlaws end up at Mel Welles Mexican whorehouse, where the “girls” are instructed to wash down a dust-covered Reed for her initiation, aka the Carey treatment.

Hudson, Gordon and Hogan do track them down, but not before a libidinous Carey has had his way with Rock’s betrothed.  The climax is chock full of guts, flying fists, thundering hooves and six-shooter justice.  Which is apt, because, like we said, it’s 3-D to die for.

GUN FURY has long been on 3-D collectors’ want lists, and it was well worth the wait.  It’s every bit as great as we three dimension fans suspected it was.

The gorgeous new transfer (in the then new widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1) is stunning (popping out Lester White’s Technicolor visuals, in both its clarity and hue-and-tone resolution.  The 3-D is pert’ near 100% perfect, with only slight registration problems minutely evident in some background mesas and some portraits hanging in a boarding house way station.  In fact, it’s possibly the best-looking vintage 3-D title Twilight Time has ever put out.  The extras are sparse, but worth a mention.  The usual TT IST is an option, but why one would want to have that Mischa Bakaleinikoff/Arthur Morton Columbia stock music as a separate keepsake is a riddle for the sands (that said, one strain of a guitar theme for the lovers is quite nice, and, I suspect might be the uncredited efforts of George Duning, who was coming into his own as a composer for the Harry Cohn company).

What’s really cool is the original theatrical trailer, also in 3-D, with the hysterical hyperbole narration concerning rising star Reed (“surpassing her role in From Here to Eternity!”).  The performances in general are raw and natural.  Hudson’s perennially pained expressions are perfect for his character, and, sadly, had little to do with acting.  He felt ill during most of the shoot, finally collapsing on the last day of production with acute appendicitis.  Carey and Gordon are just swell, as are thug cohorts Marvin (in one of his THREE 3-D appearances) and Neville Brand.  Hudson, by the way, had been a Walsh discovery; the director caught sight of the good-looking extra in his 1948 military drama Fighter Squadron.  He put the eager 23-year-old under personal contract, an amiable working partnership that lasted into the early 1960s.  After GUN FURY (and a stay in the hospital) Hudson returned to his home studio, Universal-International, to begin work on his second and final 3-D movie, the vastly underrated Taza, Son of Cochise, directed by (wait for it) Douglas Sirk!

GUN FURY is one of my favorite Blu-Rays of the year, a claim that, no doubt, will be heartily “HEAR, HEAR!”-ed (or “SEE, SEE”) by any 3-D buffs within your local vicinity (Can DeToth’s Randolph Scott 3-D Columbia hit The Stranger Wore a Gun be in the works?  Me hopes so).

GUN FURY.  Color.  Widescreen [1.85:1; 3-D and regular 2-D versions; 1080p High Definition]; 1.0 DTS-HD MA.  Twilight Time/Columbia Pictures Industries; CAT# TWILIGHT295-BR. SRP: $29.95.

Limited Edition of 3000.  Available through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com] and Twilight Time [www.twilighttimemovies.com].

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Giving Up the Ghost…of the “Ghost”

If you’re on a Blu-Ray budget (and these days, who isn’t?), take my advice and zoom Warner Archive’s new release of the 1941 Michael Curtiz classic THE SEA WOLF to the top of your list.  And for a good reason.  Well, actually for MANY good reasons.

First of all, it’s a friggin’ terrific movie, one of Curtiz’s best (and that’s sayin’ plenty!).  Then, the cast Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, Alexander Knox, Barry Fitzgerald (in his scumbag pre-McCarey days – the way I like him), Gene Lockhart, etc., etc.

But, best of all, because this is the Holy Grail version we thought (or, at least I thought) would never surface from the briny deep of lost movies.

Let me explain before getting to the meat of this superb pic.  Back in the late 1940s, that human double-edged sword known as Jack Warner decided to re-release two of his greatest “Sea” successes on a double-bill, The Sea Hawk (also Curtiz) and THE SEA WOLF.  Problem was that each tipped the running time scale at over 100 minutes.  Warner thought he’d appease the exhibitors, who always wanted to cram in the most shows daily, by cleverly whacking major chunks out of each title.  What to do with the excised footage?  Toss ‘em in the garbage bin.  Before you gasp, remember that this mo-ghoul was also the genius who, in 1957, sold all the pre-’48 Warner product (including cartoons and shorts) to UA for a whopping 2 million smackers (in the early 1980s, a contact I had at Warners told me UA made more than that back annually just on Casablanca retro screenings and home video).  Fortunately, Warners has all their pictures back now (something collectors are eternally grateful for), and we constantly look forward to their restorations in the ever-increasing Warner Archive library.

Oh, but wait – back to The Sea Hawk and THE SEA WOLF.  In the 1980s, a complete Sea Hawk was finally unearthed in the UK (including the original release tints and tones).  So that was forever safe.  Not so with THE SEA WOLF.  What made it worse (for me) was that in the 1990s, while employed at a photo archive, I would randomly check files of my favorite movies, and in THE SEA HAWK folder came across amazing images from scenes I had never seen. Sigh.

Well, hold on to your hats, folks.  The uncut SEA WOLF is here at last, and its resurrection story is almost as exciting (but in a nicer way) a voyage as the characters’ odyssey on the Ghost (death ship of Jack London’s famous novel, which screenwriter Robert Rossen brilliantly adapted).

In a nutshell, here goes:  recently, it was learned that an unabbreviated print of the movie resided in John Garfield’s estate’s personal collection.  The problem was that Garfield’s library was 16MM, and Warners was reluctant to cobble a complete SEA WOLF between 35MM and the extremely jarring smaller gauge (just think of the restored RKO Howard Hawks renditions of The Thing and The Big Sky, and you’ll understand); this was a key and reasonable artistic decision, as THE SEA WOLF is such a spectacular-looking motion picture, Golden Age black-and-white Hollywood at its atmospheric best.  On an offshoot, someone contacted the Museum of Modern Art, and discovered that there were two 35MM prints in their extensive collection, one placed before the Warner re-issue.

The splendid Warner Archive crew then re-mastered the print in a new 4K High Definition transfer, and the gorgeous results are now forever preserved and available for the many lovers of this movie (or any fan of classic cinema).

Not surprisingly, the unabridged SEA WOLF is better-paced and far more layered in the development of its protagonists (thus elevating it from the previous 80-minute “B-plus”-movie streamline).

The movie, as you know, is one of finest cinematic evocations of a Jack London work (the story itself is largely based upon the author’s own experiences at sea).  The Rossen script (it was rumored that John Huston also had an uncredited hand in the writing) is pitch perfect, creating an eerie nightmarish early Twentieth-century-world, forever fog-bound and swirling with intrigue, deception and pure evil.

Wolf Larsen, the psychopathic skipper of the Ghost (Robinson, in possibly, his greatest performance – and, again, think of that!), shanghais  men to fill out a serviceable crew to labor alongside his band of aberrant criminals, drunks, and human wreckage.  Among those are Leach (Garfield), who willingly joins to escape the law, Ruth (Lupino), another felon, accidentally scooped up after a ferry she’s on is demolished in a misty collision with a cargo vessel, and Van Weyden (Knox), a noted author, also a ferry survivor.

Van Weyden is Larsen’s most valued new Ghost member, due to his cultured and well-read mind.  You see, aside from being a full-blown maniac, Larsen is a closet intellectual, who can recite and converse on philosophy, poetry, literature, psychology and art.  His chiding Van Weyden that the Ghost will make him a better scribe (“You haven’t seen enough to be a good writer”) is a SEA WOLF highlight.  Wolf Larsen is one of my cherished types of literary/movie citizenry:  the brute erudite scholar.  His favorite quote (from Milton’s Paradise Lost): “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”; his personal mantra: “[It’s such a] good feeling to be able to kick a man!”

Van Weyden, who takes Larsen’s advice, concurrently chronicles his personal frightening adventures aboard the Ghost (which Larsen eventually steals and intelligently critiques).  The flavor of 1941 wartime naturally sifts into the scenario as Van Weyden accurately compares the violent fascist Larsen to a would-be false “superman.”

How all these richly-mined personalities converge along to a suspenseful conclusion (involving the twisted reason behind the Ghost‘s strange voyage) makes for one of the most entertaining movies Warners ever turned out.

All the aforementioned actors (Garfield and Lupino would be reunited a month later for another sea-set drama, Out of the Fog) are superb, as are the other supporting players, including Howard da Silva, Francis MacDonald, Stanley Ridges, Ralf Harolde, Richard Cramer, Ernie Adams and David Bruce; oy, what punims!  Furthermore, the tech credits couldn’t be better:  the magnificent cinematography is by Sol Polito, the editing by George Amy, the art direction by Anton Grot, and the fantastic score by the great Erich Wolfgang Korngold.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is about as good as wonderful gets, and, with the Australian discovery of the 1930 Technicolor Mamba, 2017 is turning out to be a banner year for celluloid lost causes.

Warners has added some enticing extras (as if the full-length SEA WOLF wasn’t enough) to guarantee an instant purchase.  Aside from the theatrical trailer, there’s a 1950 Screen Director’s Playhouse radio broadcast, with Robinson repeating his role as Larsen, and with Curtiz, once again, directing.  Make no mistake about it, though, this long-awaited return of THE SEA WOLF, intact for the first time in nearly 80 years, is a must-have item for any collector.  Book passage today!

THE SEA WOLF.  Black and white.  Full frame [1.37:1]; 1080p High Definition.  2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Video.  CAT # 1000691540.   SRP:  S21.99.

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Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

 

The Chosen Frozen People

Never thought I’d live to see it, but Nicholas Ray’s masterful 1959 Arctic classic THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS has at last made it to American Blu-Ray, and, thanks to the wonderful tribe at Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment, in the best rendition possible!

Based on a book by Hans Ruesch (whose background knowledge admittedly was limited to being awed by W.S. Van Dyke’s 1933 MGM semi-documentary Eskimo), Top of the World was adapted for the screen by the author, Franco Solinas, Baccio Bandini and Ray (who gets solo credit in the American prints).  Nick was always enthralled by people surviving in oft treacherous environs (On Dangerous Ground, Bitter Victory, Wind Across the Everglades); this was appended by his fascination with various cultures, having begun his professional career recording folk songs in Appalachia for the WPA.  The Eskimos, residing in their primitive, often frightening, regions of the frigid North, were a logical expansion of both of these interests, and thereby, the ideal Nicholas Ray vehicle.  The greenlight for this Italian-French-British coproduction seemed to captivate a plethora of outstanding artists, resulting in a number amazing folks in front of and behind the cameras.  Key among the crew is cinematographer Aldo Tonti, composer Angelo Lavagnino, and handfuls of technicians whose names have graced some of the greatest motion pictures of all time.

The story of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is in its name.  I mean, for once, the title of the movie promises what it delivers, in spades.  The characters of the Eskimo clans are like schizo grown-up children – playful and loving one minute and violently brutal (usually due to their being insulted) the next.  “Eskimo,” we are told by the stolid narrator is roughly translated as “eater of flesh.”  They are, he continues, an ancient race living in the era of “the atomic bomb.”

But the “savage innocent” is more than descriptive; it’s a warning.  If you’re faint of heart, you probably might want to reconsider watching this paradoxical, gorgeously photographed epic, as it contains scenes of graphic animal slaughter (not for gain, but for food and survival); Ray shot footage of Eskimo hunts that are incorporated into the narrative, so seal, polar bear, sea lion and walrus aficionados beware.  It ain’t a pretty sight.

The star of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is Anthony Quinn, perhaps his most perfectly cast role alongside Zorba.  As Inuk, he is a happy-go-lucky, wide-eyed, passionate person, out to snare a woman of his own when not killing to live.

The roles of women in this society are sickeningly similar to many more “civilized” nations.  Females are desirable sex objects, highly regarded as trade items, and to be freely shared.  The difference is that they also become total partners to their males, and willingly will cheer up lonely singles by what the movie refers to as “laughing” with them.

Truly, Nick was proud of that, and he told me that he had hoped that he would kick the censors in the ass by having the word “laughing” banned in several countries, as it was so obvious that it meant “fucking.”  But the movie was not a huge success in major markets outside of Italy, and, then severely cut (an all-female mating dance is quite daring, as are shots of a nude Eskimo woman snuggling up against her lover – of course, all removed in the U.S. version).

The plight of the Eskimos in the Atomic/Space Age becomes less anachronistic as Quinn/Inuk discovers the joys of firearms.  He travels with his new wife, Asiak (Yoko Tani), and mother-in-law (Marie Yang) to the white settlement and barters for modern weaponry – for the first time agreeing to kill for material gain.  Of course, Inuk is rooked, as the many wolf skins required for the cherished rifle don’t cover the cost of ammunition.  This dangerous theme successfully intertwines Ray’s philosophy regarding corruption of the pure with Sirkian cinematic economics at its most volatile.

The only thing possibly worse than Inuk’s capitalistic downward spiral would be the introduction of western religion. Oops.  Before you can utter one “Hail, Mary,” a fanatical priest (Marco Guglielmi), repulsed by Inuk’s offer to cheer him up by laughing with Asiak, goes ballistic (“A wife is the most beautiful possession a man can have!,” the missionary shrieks to the unnerved couple) causing a terrified Inuk and Asiak to respond the only way they know how:  by bashing the crazed cleric’s head into pulp against an igloo wall.

Now wanted for murder, Inuk and Asiak retreat to their wilderness sanctuary, protected by the elements from the police officials sent on a perilous and likely futile manhunt.

Concurrent is the birth of Inuk’s and Asiak’s son, another savage scene that nearly ends in tragedy.  Noticing the newborn is toothless, the parents ponder the fact that it might be punishment for their deeds.  They almost leave the infant out on an ice drift to die, but other events crisscross and change the couple’s plans (they previously did the same to Asiak’s ailing mother, who agreed to be abandoned to certain death rather than be a burden).

Aside from Quinn, the star of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is the hauntingly beautiful terrain.  In spectacular Technicolor and Technirama, the landscapes are like something out of an alien world, except this isn’t fabricated Hollywood set design – it’s the real deal (the bulk of the movie was filmed in Greenland, Hudson’s Bay, Baffin Island).  It’s simultaneously jaw-dropping and, in its vastness, terrifying.

The human costars, comprising, as indicated, an international array of thespians (from the UK, Italy, France, China and Japan), notably include one of my first crushes, Tani, an unscrupulous Francis De Wolff (dubbed with a spaghetti western yank voice, and with his trademark beard dyed red), Anthony Chin, Michael Chow, Anna May Wong (no, not that one) and Peter O’Toole (yes, that one) as one of Inuk’s trackers.

The O’Toole situation with THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS is worth discussing at length, as it fully illustrates the movie’s “curse,” which appears to have plagued the title up until the Olive release.

O’Toole, then just coming into his own (he was suggested to Ray by the director’s wife, Betty Utey), was offered the juicy role as the relentless hunter who eventually comes to understand the age-old ideology that rule Inuk and Asiak (in Eskimo terms, stressed out law-enslaved white people are “stupid”).

O’Toole, not surprisingly, is excellent in the part, and happily returned to the UK after the grueling location shooting to begin work on a play in the West End.  Ray related to me that several months later, the producers contacted to give him the dates set for dubbing (as you may or may not know, in Italy, all movies, even though shot in synch sound, are post-dubbed).  O’Toole noted the time on his calendar.  When he failed to show up, the irate suits telephoned him to ask where the hell he was.  O’Toole honestly replied that he never received his plane fare to Italy.  This set the producers into a greater rage, screaming over the wire that he had been paid up front, and his actor’s salary covered everything.  O’Toole told them to politely fuck off, causing the moguls to sneer that they didn’t need him, and that they’ll get some American voice actor to do it.  O’Toole countered with, “If you do, you’d better take my name off your damn picture.”  The producers readily agreed, adding that “no gives a shit about you anyway!”  Famous last words.  O’Toole’s name was nowhere in the credits or ads.

Flash forward a year later.  O’Toole is now starring in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, arguably the biggest movie in production throughout the world.  To quote the actor, it “made me.”  He is now an instant international superstar.  The skeevy producers sneakily pull a coup:  they re-release THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS in Italy with a poster featuring Quinn and O’Toole face to face, under the tagline:  “The Stars of Lawrence of Arabia Together Again for the BIGGEST Adventure of Them All!”  O’Toole either shrugged it off at this point, or, perhaps was totally unaware of this insidious maneuver.  In any event, it just was one of the dark, crazy-ass fates of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS.

For Quinn, Inuk, as far as I’m concerned, is the role he was born to play.  The influence of this movie among Boomers and subsequent industry players is infinite.  You’ll see bits from THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS surface in almost every movie genre/franchise since its release, from James Bond to Dirty Harry to Star Wars.  Perhaps the ultimate homage was by Bob Dylan, who lionized this movie with his immortal tribute The Mighty Quinn.  It was the one post-SAVAGE INNOCENTS perk that Ray was extremely proud of.

Here in the states, Paramount cut the movie by over twenty minutes, and dumped it directly into the nabes as an action picture.  Nick told me in the mid-1970s that the movie, in Europe, was shown in 70MM.  I doubted it at the time (not realizing the versions I’d seen were heavily edited), but ultimately discovered he was correct, and, since Technirama is basically anamorphic VistaVision, Super Technirama 70 blowups allowed for that kind of 35 x 2 wiggle room upgrade without much loss (if any) of quality.  In 70MM, THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS truly must have been an outstanding experience; the proof’s in the pudding, or rather the Blu-Ray, as this breathtaking Olive Films platter will knock your socks off.

Since 1960, the various editions of THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS veered from the aforementioned American cut to hybrid versions of 100-103 minutes.  In the early 2000s, the UK Masters of Cinema Series, released an anamorphic DVD that clocked in at 109 minutes, the most complete length ever.  It quickly went out of print, as a new scumbag producer claimed he owned the video rights.  Insult to injury, he released the U.S. butchered SAVAGE INNOCENTS – in PAN AND SCAN!  If ever there was a .99 bin crap special, this was it.

Long story short, cineastes owe Olive a big one, as this stunning Blu-Ray is the absolute uncut 110-minute version, in near-flawless 1080p High Definition 2.35:1 widescreen.  When you’re through jumping for joy, migrate to your Blu-Ray dealer and grab a copy (hopefully accepting cash/plastic in lieu of pelts).  As indicated earlier, THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS may not be for everyone, but (and I can’t help repeating myself) it is a magnificent cultural odyssey, and, for fans of the director, one of Nicholas Ray’s seminal works.

THE SAVAGE INNOCENTS. Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HA MA.  Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # OF1349.  SRP:  29.95.

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Smutty, but Nice

There’s a niche for almost every kind of movie, and, although it’s often difficult to find anything of worth upon a certain artiste’s strands of celluloid (Jess Franco, Baz Luhrmann, etc.), that’s not the case with softcore guru Joe Sarno.  Active in The Biz for nearly a half century, Sarno’s output was prolific (123 directed titles), if not always inspired.  But at his peak (the mid-1960s), there WAS something there.  A tandem of the flesh-peddler’s vintage pics, ALL THE SINS OF SODOM and VIBRATIONS are now available in stunning Blu-Ray 2K restorations as part of the Joseph W. Sarno Retrospective Series from the eclectic folks at Film Movement Classics (in conjunction with Film Media and Something Weird).

Concisely put, Brooklyn’s own Joe Sarno (1921-2010) is probably not the first name that comes up when trying to justify the existence of softcore as art.  Usually, two icons of the genres lead the throngs (or thongs):  Radley Metzger (cross-over drama) and Russ Meyer (the funny stuff).  Adding Joe Sarno to the list is not a stretch, as he’s a shocking third rail.

Sarno, whose filmography, to put it bluntly, veers sharply from the near-poetic (in a gritty diamond-in-the-rough Charles Bukowski sort of way) to utter crap, no doubt sold out his rep when he likely had to.  Admittedly, I don’t know too much about him, but anyone who began with the inventive attempts displayed here and ended up in the late Eighties with entries such as Hung Jury, Coming on America, and Screw the Right Thing (where, unquestionably, the title was the best part of the “experience”) probably was the victim of desperation, burnout or both.

That said, his reputation has grown every year since before and after his death at age 89 (with books, tributes from the Anthology Film Archives, praise by Andrew Saris, etc.).

Classic Sarno embraces and crisscrosses that infectious genre known as the “New York City movie” with love and homage every bit as culturally valid as the canons of Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, plus On the Town, King Kong…well, the list goes on.

When it comes to the key works, filmed in stark black-and-white in midtown Manhattan (with occasional forays to Long Island), nostalgic Boomers, such as myself, can’t get enough of Maestro Sarno’s buxom ladies hurriedly sprinting across Central Park, up Fifth and Madison, passing through Times Square and Broadway – the New York of Mad Men and Henry Orient, the long gone Big Apple.  I often wonder what the passersby, oblivious to the hidden cameras, would think if he/she knew the women they nodded to were off to Sarno’s apartment/studio to shed their mod togs for some simulated shagging.  I also can’t help but be amused by the stars of the Sarno stock company striding by movie marquees playing Dr. Dolittle, an in-joke contrast if ever there was one.

True, the technical prowess of a Sarno movie isn’t always or EVER in John Alton territory; by that, I mean there are always a number of out-of-focus shots, and the editing is embarrassingly non-existent.  Images are held long after the scene has been played (I wonder if they had a running time feature prerequisite quota to fill).  The compositions, however, are a different matter entirely.  It’s my guess that it’s no accident that these two flicks came out shortly after Godard’s Masculin/Feminin (gotta say, I do enjoy the Sarno takes more).  The scripts by auteur Joe may not be of the Lubitsch caliber, but they do address motives behind the voracious coital pummeling.  In fact, there are few American pics from that era that are as honest in expressing the feelings and emotions of female characters.  And that’s what makes these movies worth checking out.

I’ll go one step further.  I’m convinced that had a prime chunk out of either of these titles been shipped to then-contemporary critics in French, Italian, or Swedish with English subtitles, Giuseppe Sarno’s oeuvre would have attained international masterpieces of erotic cinema status.

 

1968’s ALL THE SINS OF SODOM is considered to be one of Sarno’s greatest works.  The title, while on the surface sounding a tad pretentious, actually relates to the narrative.  Sarno’s script has got to be the most deep-dish resident in the softcore pantheon.

Henning (Dan Machuen), an award-winning photographer, whose specialty is the female form (who’d of seen THAT coming?), is a frustrated artist in turmoil.  While he has no shortage of gigs or beauteous women who desire him, he can’t seem to get out of the shutterbug rut he’s in (shades of Blow-Up influenza).  You see, Henning (undoubtedly the on-screen Sarno character) wants to do something great:  to celebrate women, not merely as objects of male lust, but as beings often forced to surrender to carnal temptation to survive.

Wow.

To this end, his wise-cracking agent (Peggy Steffans, Sarno’s real-life wife) scours the agencies, bars, clubs and theater auditions to find the right type.  And one day she does.

Enter Joyce (Sue Akers), well not literally.  At least not yet.  Sensual, educated and homeless the young aspiring fill-in-the-blank is assured enough to know she can get whatever she wants, and make men suffer for it.  Ditto, women.  The results pay off, as Henning gets his filmic mojo back, shooting endless pans with Tri-X pan.  And, natch, Tri-XXX.

Joyce seduces Henning, other nameless men, and then the photog’s top models.  The exquisite torture she puts her photo shoot costars through is enough to make Henning think he has a coffee table book bestseller.

The Agent (she’s never given a name), however, has second thoughts, and warns her client/friend about the strange, but ever-alluring femme fatale.  Can Joyce actually be Lilith incarnate?

This is certainly weird, even for psychotronic fare.  What prevents this movie from becoming a crossover classic is the fact, that aside from Maria Lease (understandably the one Sarno player to have a lasting career outside of softcore), the acting is atrocious.  Unfortunately, this is particularly evident with male lead Machuen, who is awful in a way that elevates El Brendel to John Gielgud prominence.  He’s also one of the hairiest muthafuckas ever unveiled on-camera.  I swear during a sex scene between him and Lease, I was convinced the conflicted look on her face was the character deciding whether or not she should braid the tufts of Brillo follicles on his back.

The highpoint of ALL THE SINS OF SODOM comes not only when Henning instantly sexes up a former model (Marianne Prevost) just back from her honeymoon (!), but when Joyce corrupts blonde supermodel (Cherie Winters) into a girl-girl adventure.  The latter incident ends up sending the bewildered woman into therapy, screaming about how straight she is.  Straight to the loony bin anyway.

The climax (no pun) comes (again, no pun) when Henning, about to celebrate the final session for his book, becomes Joyce’s final victim – recipient of the worst case scenario that could ever happen to him (we won’t go into details, save it’s probably not what you’re thinking).

There’s tons of skin in ALL THE SINS OF SODOM, culminating in quite a bit of titillation – mostly due to the fact that, again, these actresses aren’t the greatest so their arousal is plausibly genuine.  Sarno’s allegorical not-so-subtle touch no doubt had his core fan-base scratching their heads with one hand while the other was still firmly entrenched under the trenchcoat.

The women, even with all their thespian shortcomings are pretty amazing, making up for the lousy male participants; this includes Sarno’s still photographer, Morris Kaplan, who appears as a drooling elevator operator – apparently paving the way for Drew Friedman’s landmark study of odious Otis ogres.

 

VIBRATIONS (also 1968), as one might surmise, celebrates the perks of those electronic devices that every woman on The Lifetime Movie Channel has in her night table drawer, conveniently right next to the .357 Magnum.

While doing research on Sarno, prior to watching these flicks, I was rather stunned to discover that VIBRATIONS is thought to be a minor effort.  I actually think it’s fairly major, progressive and intimate in a way few movies in this genre could ever aspire to be.  Or certainly any mainstream Hollywood pic from that era.

Like SODOM, VIBRATIONS mostly plays out in a small Manhattan midtown apartment.   Barbara (Prevost), the main character, is one of my favorite Sarno protagonists, mostly because she’s a struggling writer.  Barbara barely ekes out a living by doing freelance editing (.35 per page) for students and would-be authors – all the while trying to get someone interested in her manuscripts and book concepts.

But, of course, this is a Joe Sarno movie, so there’s a lot more baggage to Barbara than one suspects, or dares want to know.

Barbara is a victim of sexual abuse; worse, it’s from her slightly older sister Julie (Lease).  Julie is the extrovert alpha, Barbara the introvert beta.  Julie relishes their adventures together while Barbara is haunted by them; for the former, it’s an invigorating biological/spiritual happening, for the latter, Lez Miserables.  All that aside, few (if any) American 1960s movies have ever approached the female guilt/angst emotions to the level that VIBRATIONS astoundingly mines.

This all is appended by the introduction of fellow tenant, Georgia (Rita Bennett).  Georgia, we are told, by the landlady (once again, the real Mrs. Sarno), is a quiet, demure young woman whose grew up in that apartment until her parents’ deaths, and, as a semi-present occupant, wants to keep renting it for nostalgic purposes.

What’s really going on is that innocent Georgia is a dominatrix, using the crib as a pleasure dome for women, men and couples.  Her pride and joy is her “vibration”-while-in-bondage specialty ride (on her own, the S&M maven uses the machine to satisfy herself).  Professionally or personally for Georgia (and for us) this is a rather frightening moment in softcore cinema, as the ancient vintage apparatus resembles either a multi-spigot twisting lawn sprayer or a portable combi-weed whacker/megaphone out of a Bob Clampett cartoon.

Since the walls are paper thin, Barbara can’t help but hear the orgasmic moans and groans from next door, a problem that’s intensified when her aforementioned predatory sib turns up looking for temporary digs.  Julie is not shy about tuning into the wall of noise each night, and eventually sneaks into the neighbor’s apartment to play with her toys.  Soon a private cult of exclusive customers forms, and Julie, now a regular and a corker, once again, seduces and forces her sister into the cult.

While VIBRATIONS certainly delivers “da goods,” it is also remarkable by its honest portrayal of the vulnerable Barbara, whose coming to terms with her conflicting heaven/hell torment gets quite a bit of screen time; have to also admit that Julie’s consensual tenure on the vibrating rack is a pip (like in SODOM, the actress looks to be totally turned on by the activities).

The movie’s males are familiar Sarno stock regs, the lycanthropic Machuen and goofy Kaplan, the latter more reserved as a writer/client of Barbara’s whose interest extends from pen to penetration.

VIBRATIONS disturbed several of my male and female viewers, who emerged post-screening with an anguished look on their faces.  Why?  Because, to quote one, “That really wasn’t that…bad.”  Like Barbara, she felt guilty for not hating the 75-minute celluloid trip.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of the ALL THE SINS OF SODOM/VIBRATIONS is outstanding.  Crystal-clear 1080p imagery from a new 2K digital master ratchets up the black-and-white visuals to a level never before seen.  The audio, too, has undergone a massive upgrade, with Michael Coliccchio’s jazzy scores, remixed in stereo.

Some enticing extras cap the package, including an archival interview with Sarno, audio commentary by Tim Lucas and Peggy Steffans-Sarno, and a Lucas-penned illustrated booklet.

If psychotronic Sixties fare is your thing (even if softcore isn’t), you may want to consider adding this platter to your library.  It’s really NOT that…bad.

ALL THE SINS OF SODOM/VIBRATIONS.  Black and white.  Widescreen [1.78: 1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA (remixed stereo).  Film Movement Classics/Film Media/Something Weird.  CAT # N/A.  SRP: $39.95.

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The Glen-Jones Law

Apparently there’s an unwritten rule on the BBC and other British television networks that no production can ever again go into production unless Iain Glen or Toby Jones are involved.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think that this is a bad thing.  Au contraire, I believe this is a damn good mandate, since I personally cannot get enough of these fine actors.  Case in point is the release of two new DVDs, DELICIOUS, SERIES 1 and CAPITAL, now available via the fine folks at Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment.

 

The third recent British series (by my counting) to take place among the splendid scenery of Cornwall (the others being Doc Martin and Poldark), 2016’s DELICIOUS seamlessly intertwines the two greatest pleasures of the human condition:  sex and food.

Leo Vincent (Glen) is a mega-successful gourmet chef with a fantastic five-star restaurant/inn; Sam, a trophy wife of twenty years (Emilia Fox); Michael a grown son (Ruairi O’Connor); and more secrets than MI6.

For one thing, his revered recipes were “borrowed” from his ex, Gina, a brilliant chef (the beyond-great Dawn French), and, for another, his thriving business ain’t all that thriving.  Oh, yeah, and he’s cheating on his wife with the aforementioned first Mrs. Vincent, whom he cheated on with the current Mrs. V.  to begin with.

Still, Leo has it all, and lives life to the fullest.  Until he drops dead.  But that doesn’t stop him.  From his netherworld vantage point, Leo becomes a caustic commentator on the land of the living, populated by those he loves a la the narrator in Our Town, albeit, as indicated, a snarky, and occasionally rude one.

To call DELICIOUS original is an understatement; it’s quite likely my favorite Acorn release of the year – and that says plenty.  I should mention that ever since first seeing Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait, I’ve been a sucker for dead-people comedies.

But there’s a lot more to DELICIOUS than that scrumptious set-up.

Teresa (Tanya Reynolds), Leo’s daughter with Gina, the most fascinating character in the series, is a beautiful, witty, free spirit who just happens to suffer from a horrible, rare disease.  The unfortunate female is allergic to…water.  Not an ideal ailment for one living on an island, and one often plagued by rain showers.  Seriously, aquagenic urticaria is a real thing.  What about her hygiene, you ask (well, if you didn’t, I’m asking for you)?  It can all be kept in check as long as she takes potent medication.

But it doesn’t end here.  Teresa finds herself falling for her half-brother – and the feeling is mutual.  In fact, it seems that one half of the entire island is screwing the other half, when they’re not gorging themselves on the tasty dishes served up by Gina, who has been left the business via Leo’s will.  This, of course, causes friction between the two wives, who obviously never were besties to begin with.  As the financial truth of the enterprises rears its ugly head, plus an upcoming lesbian wedding in jeopardy, the arrival of old lovers, and, oh, yeah, that incest thing, life becomes a 24/7 tsunami of sex and food…and sex…and food.  Even Teresa’s way-out suicide attempt is droll.  Met by Leo in the death waiting room, the young woman’s father sternly demands WTF she’s doing here.  He admonishes her (in a loving way) and sends the lass back to the living.  This isn’t for her; as for himself, death is giving him the time of his life.

Then there’s granny Mimi (Sheila Hancock), who has a few tricks up her wily sleeve, and isn’t afraid to use them (as Leo tells us, “Mama was in the Bletchley Circle…Hitler never stood a chance”), and a reconciliation (of sorts) that may bring the two exes together in both business and friendship.

DELICIOUS is the kind of show you fantasize about existing, but rarely ever makes it past the sponsor’s head-scratching queries.  Except this one snuck through.

As one might expect, the performances are top-notch.  It’s a no-brainer that Glen and French can do no wrong, but thespian-wise, there isn’t a false note in the piece, with Reynolds stealing the honors for first place.  The writing by the show’s creator Dan Sefton is deft, hilarious, wicked and, for all the unbelievable events, astonishingly real.  The photography (Jamie Cairney) is magnificent (can one EVER shoot a lousy-looking show on Cornwall?), and a lovely score by Rob Lane accentuates the proceedings, nicely recorded in 5.1 surround. Naturally, all this would be bupkes without decent direction, and, in this area, the work of Clare Kilner and John Hardwick is aces.  It’s all been handsomely packaged by Acorn in a single widescreen platter DVD that includes all four SERIES 1 episodes, in addition to a featurette and photo gallery.

I can’t recommend DELICIOUS highly enough.  I’ve already watched this disc several times (and will continue to do so), as I anxiously await the arrival of Series 2.

 

2015’s CAPITAL, based on the acclaimed novel by John Lanchester, is less of a hoot than a riveting contemporary drama.  Exactly what one would expect from the makers of Broadchurch.

Pepys Road is an upscale London community, populated by old school residents and new money dotcom bourgeoise.  All become unnerved by the simultaneous arrival of postcards with the cryptic message, “We want what you have.”  The “what you have” is property, skyrocketing seemingly by the minute.

The effected nabe’s paranoia is personified by four families/individuals.  The post-Millenium rich Roger and Arabella Yount (Jones and Rachael Stirling) live large…on the surface.  Behind closed doors, they are a bickering couple, devoted to and obsessed with the materialistic world.  Thanks to the clever writing of Peter Bowker, who adapted Lanchester’s work, the sympathy vote consistently volleys between husband  and wife.  The artistry of the two performers in these roles is astounding.  The sweet 2014 series Detectorists had a Jones and Stirling so far removed from these schmucks that it’s hard to grasp that these are the same actors.  The fact that the initially risible Roger ultimately becomes a mensch is truly a remarkable transformation.

The Kamals (Adeel Aktar, Danny Ashok, Mona Goodwin, Kaiya Bakrania, Hamza Jeetooa) are an enterprising Muslim family, whose success is constantly at odds with the growing xenophobic environment.  The threat of terrorism being a Damoclean sword doesn’t help the situation any, even with the arrival of the head of the household’s wise, no-bullshit mater (Shabana Amzi).

Quentina (Wunmi Musako) is an African refugee, now excelling in her role as a police traffic warden.  The deluge of the hate mail (now escalated to individual personal packets, with attached invasive photographs) is surpassed by her being detained as an “illegal,” destined to be shipped back to her violent homeland, where her death (or any educated woman’s death) is a given.

Petunia is an aging survivor from the late 1950s, widowed and living in a massive flat, bought when the real estate was dirt cheap.  As essayed by the marvelous Gemma Jones, Petunia lives only for Smitty, her grown artist grandson (Robert Emms), the offspring of a hateful, mercenary daughter (Lesley Sharp), determined to get mum out and sell the dwelling for personal gain.

As the terrorism deepens, now with videos, a harried detective (Bryan Dick) must contend with the scared and angry citizens, who are out for blood – if necessary, his.

Complicating the stressful environ is Bogdan, a womanizing Polish contractor (Rad Kaim), who has pegged Matya (Zrinka Cvitesic) the gorgeous fellow eastern European babysitter, as his next belt notch.  It becomes a fortuitous connection, although a saddened Roger (who, in addition to the home life turmoil, is now the target of a vicious underling employee, who is stealing secrets from his firm), enamored with the woman himself, tries to put the kibosh on their dating.

The shocking revelation of who is responsible for these crimes is indeed a climax with a twist on a twist that no one can see coming.  The resulting loose-end tie-ups aren’t all euphoric either.  Each victim undergoes a journey, some literally geographical, others figuratively, and still others, fatally.

The upshot is that CAPITAL is an engrossing four-episode suspense-drama that will not disappoint.  Aside from the fine acting and writing, the series is superbly directed by Euros Lyn and photographed by Zac Nicholson (Dru Master’s music likewise rates a mention).

As one might correctly surmise, the Acorn DVD is a terrific widescreen transfer (with excellent 5.1 surround audio).  A final note of warning:  it’s quite possible after screening CAPITAL for your viewers they may counter with a “we want what you have” response.  Hide your copy well!

DELICIOUS, SERIES 1.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 surround audio.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Sky1.  CAT # AMP-2596.  SRP:  $34.99.

CAPITAL.  Color.  Widescreen [1.78:1; 16 x 9 anamorphic]; 5.1 surround audio.  Acorn Media/RLJ Entertainment/Fremantle Media International.  CAT # AMP-2528.  SRP:  $34.99.

 

Halloween Blitz ’17: Price-Told Tales

There’s no doubt that in America, during the early-mid 1960s, there was only one ruling King of Horror, and that was the great Vincent Price.  Having often excelled in sinister roles, he graduated to the monstrous genre in 1953, with the classic House of Wax.  Then, after a memorable William Castle detour (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler), came a fortuitous association with AIP and Roger Corman (the company and the director/producer taking a gamble by expanding their shoestring budgets to color and CinemaScope – a viable alternative to the super-successful Hammer imports); the result were the goth Edgar Allan Poe box-office smashes, that not only paid many bills for all concerned, but even garnered critical kudos from both sides of the pond.

The Poe series is remarkable in its own right, the famed author being chosen not for his brilliant, eerie and incredibly cinematic prose, but because he was (like the Bible), public domain.

It was a given that the majors would eventually take notice of this phenomenon (aka “it’s Hammer Time”), but quicksilver-acting AIP cut to the chase and beat them to the American goth punch.

In 1962, Corman and Price released their latest effort, the wonderful trilogy TALES OF TERROR.  That did it.  Not to be outdone, UA decided to corral the star, and release their own gothic omnibus.  Although Poe was p.d., and, thus, up for grabs, the cooler heads at United Artists prevailed, and they craftily chose a viable alternate scribe, none other than The Scarlet Letter’s Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Why?  Well, Hawthorne, like Poe, was American-born, wrote around the same period, had a penchant for atmospheric, foreboding terror…and, oh, yeah, was public domain.  The Hawthorne triad, entitled TWICE TOLD TALES, was released in 1963, and happily filled the UA coffers in the AIP tradition.

Now, thanks to the groovy folks at Kino Studio Classics (in collaboration with 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment and MGM Studios), both pics have been released in stunning Blu-Ray evocations.  My joy at seeing these exquisitely re-mastered flicks in crystal-clear 1080p goes beyond the ga-ga factor.  It’s truly like seeing them for the first time.

 

“It is with death and dying that we’re concerning ourselves,” are Vincent’s opening words that commence the happy tidings of 1962’s TALES OF TERROR, a triple-threat of Edgar Allan Poe stories, each starring Price and two featuring major genre costars.  In Morella, the daughter (Maggie Pierce) of widower Locke (VP) arrives at her father’s grim abode to announce that she is at death’s door, and seeks reconciliation from the pater who banished her as a child (blaming the girl for her mother’s childbirth death).  But, as Gershwin so eloquently stated, “It ain’t necessarily so,” and the evil that pervades every brick of the cursed home is about to go to town.

The most famous of the three tales is the comically fueled The Black Cat, with laughs courtesy of acerbic Peter Lorre.  Lorre, the epitome of Poe white trash, plays Montresor, an abusive, drunken lout of a husband who cheats on his lovely wife Annabel (Joyce Jameson) with a full-bodied cask of anything holding spirits.  When he stumbles upon a wine-tasting demonstration, guested by renowned grape connoisseur Fortunato Luchresi (Price), he challenges the expert to a drinking contest.  It is one of the delights of horror cinema to see these two go at it in a hilarious display of imbibing with a ham chaser.  Soon Luchresi becomes a regular in Montresor’s household, eventually succumbing to the neglected charms of Mrs. M.  The feeling is mutual, and the pair become lovers; but even a perennial swacked sot like Montresor can’t be cuckolded forever, and he plots the perfect revenge.

The Case of M. Valdemar, the final episode, is also the most disturbing.  Carmichael (Basil Rathbone), a famed mesmerist is called to the house of wealthy dying Valdemar.  The naïve aristocrat wants to know if he can let go of his troubles after death before entering the afterlife.  The troubles comprise making sure his ravishing soon-to-be widow, Helene (Debra Paget), is well-taken care of.  Carmichael has ulterior plans in that department, having become rapaciously obsessed with the woman, and sends the weakening Valdemar into a lethal trance.  Proving Christopher Bullock wrong about that death and taxes crack, M. Valdemar returns in oozing, mummified zombie form to pay back the predatory perv for his treachery.

TALES OF TERROR is not only one of the best of the Corman/Price/Poe flicks, it’s the most fun (no cheesy Jack Nicholson to go amateur-night stupid).  The script by Richard Matheson is first-rate fright stuff with a satanic tongue firmly embedded in cheek.

The female leads are beautiful beyond words, although Paget is essentially window dressing, while Jameson is wonderfully deft and often riotous.  This behavior was rumored to have extended beyond the camera; Price and Jameson supposedly spent down-time playing catch with Peter Lorre’s prop head while the unamused German thespian watched from the sidelines, shaking his own head and deadpan muttering, “Very funny.”

The one time I saw TALES OF TERROR in its proper Panavision aspect ratio, it was beet red, the result of awful PatheColor.  The visuals here are magnificent Blu-Ray picture quality with amazing restored color, doing the marvelous d.p. Floyd Crosby proud.

That would be enough for me, but Kino has loaded the platter up with fantastic extras, including an on-camera interview with Corman, audio commentary by Tim Lucas, vintage archival commentary with Price, David Del Valle and costar David Frankham, a Corman-hosted Trailers from Hell segment, and more.  What’s left to be said; it’s one helluva show!

 

Vincent, once again, serves as narrator for each story forward of the trilogy that comprises 1963’s TWICE TOLD TALES.  As indicated, this was UA’s answer to AIP’s Poe pix, relying upon the works of The Scarlet Letter‘s Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Now, one may not consider Hawthorne a rival of the Divine Edgar when comes to a sup o’horror; that’s because he really wasn’t (although admittedly he did occasionally toy with supernatural elements).  To say that the producer (well, producer/scripter) Robert E. Kent took liberties is putting it mildly.  Suffice to say that had Kent chosen to adapt the aforementioned Scarlet Letter, Hester Pryne would have been a demon spawned from hell.  Kent, known more for his writing than producing, is the force behind such classics as The Gas House Kids Go West, Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome, Serpent of the Nile, Don’t Knock the Twist, Guns, Girls and Gangsters, Hootenanny Hoot, The Fastest Guitar Alive and The Christine Jorgensen Story.

That isn’t to say that TWICE TOLD TALES ain’t fun or entertaining or even handsome to look at.  It’s all those things.  Under the sure direction of Sidney “Give ’em what they want” Salkow (auteur of Girl Overboard, Las Vegas Shakedown, and the extremely interesting adaptation of Matheson’s I am Legend, released under the title The Last Man on Earth), TTT delivers the goods, literally in buckets.  For a 1963 American fright movie, it’s incredibly gory, with its catalog of decaying corpses and walls, ceilings and paintings that split open gushing blood…them kind of gags.

Price, it should be mentioned, plays a variety of scoundrels, scallywags and scumbags (perhaps in a nod to the author’s most noted work, the trilogy intertwines forbidden fruit with horror), and is surrounded by a game cast, including Sebastian Cabot, Mari Blanchard, Beverly Garland, Richard Denning, Brett Halsey, and the drop-dead gorgeous Joyce Taylor.

The tampered tales include Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, wherein aged besties Cabot and Price, celebrating the former’s inching toward his eightieth year, accidentally stumble upon a regenerative serum derived from rainwater dripping through the crevices in the late Mrs. Cabot’s crypt.  First, the startled pair restore faded flowers, then themselves, and then…you get it.  It’s my favorite of the three episodes, and I must confess, the horror of beautiful reanimated Mari Blanchard dissolving into loathsome decrepitude is quite a gasper.

In Rappaccini’s Daughter, obsessed professor Price has a too-close-for-comfort relationship with his grown daughter (Taylor).  To this end, he has poisoned her with an excreted floral elixir of deadly radiated components that bring instant demise to whomever she touches (and vice versa).  Sheltering the young woman takes a disastrous turn when budding student scientist (Halsey) takes a room across the courtyard.  Price’s solution is horrific, guaranteeing that all doesn’t end well.

The final story is an adaptation of the author’s famed mystery, The House of the Seven Gables, by way of the Hostel franchise and the Karo Syrup Co., Ltd.  In this version, raffish cad Gerald Pyncheon (with his new bride, or cad-ette) comes home to his creepy manse in an attempt to excavate a rumored buried treasure.  The murderous fiend doesn’t figure on the participation of the secret’s guardians, demonic ghosts and ghouls who have anxiously awaited the blackguard’s return.

TWICE TOLD TALES’ production values have a slight advantage over those in the Corman/Poe pics.  More so is the photography by television great Ellis W. Carter.  Rather than relying upon AIP’s lowly PatheColor, UA opted for Technicolor.  Even though the restoration of the AIPs look fantastic, there’s something about Technicolor that can never be matched.  The velvety reds, greens and blues are stunningly luxurious; ditto, the rich, creamy flesh tones.

Extras in this excellent Blu-Ray include audio commentary by film historians Richard Harland Smith and Perry Martin, plus a Mick Garris-hosted Trailers from Hell supplement.  Played together as a double-feature of six goth tales.  TALES OF TERROR and TWICE TOLD TALES are nothing less than a Vincent Price orgy for his multitude of fans and admirers (of which I am definitely and proudly one).

TALES OF TERROR.  Color.  Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K1596.  SRP: $29.95.

TWICE TOLD TALES.  Color. Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.  Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment/MGM Studios.  CAT # K1780.  SRP: $29.95.