“The Exhausted Ruler”

For those of us not lucky enough to have experienced the 2004 mammoth 21-DVD United Kingdom box set, containing superb transfers of ALL the existing Laurel and Hardy Hal Roach-owned comedies, MVDvisual and Kit Parker Films (in cahoots with Jeff Joseph of SaBuCat/UCLA Film and Television Archive/The Film Foundation, The Library of Congress plus labor-of-love assist from Randy Skretvedt and Richard Bann) have come up with the perfect compromise, LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS.

This glorious 4-disc set, presenting the greatest comedy team ever for the first time in 1080p Blu-Ray quality (all titles remastered in 2K and 4K, from 35MM), only makes hope that this quartet is merely the first of a continuing series.  In the meantime, we will relish these magnificent shorts and features in optimum picture and sound quality making the holiday season (or any season) just so much brighter.

Cherry-picked and comprising 17 Roach shorts and two features (plus the best looking versions of nebulous items like That’s That, a Roach-culled compilation made as a 1937 birthday present to Stan and the 1943 color Tree in a Test Tube, featuring Pete Smith narration, produced for the war effort), this set is (mostly) the best of the best.  The two feature-length movies are 1933’s Sons of the Desert (my bid for one of the funniest comedies of all-time) and 1937’s Way Out West (another gem, superbly spoofing the Western genre).  I would have perhaps opted for 1938’s Blockheads, but, hey, that’s what subsequent volumes are there for.

The shorts (spanning 1927-1933) are terrific choices, too, and include Brats, Hog Wild, Come Clean, Me and My Pal, One Good Turn, Helpmates, The Music Box, The Chimp, County Hospital, Scram!, Their First Mistake, The Midnight Patrol, Busy Bodies, Towed in a Hole and Twice Two.  The crème de la crème of the collection aces out the aforementioned UK box via the spectacular virtually complete Blu-Ray debut of the once-thought lost classic, 1927’s Battle of the Century (only one brief segment is missing, and is covered by stills and intertitles).  This anarchic short is not only everything we’ve wanted it to be, but it looks friggin’ gorgeous in this new transfer (an excellent score by Donald Sosin accompanies the visuals).

What made Stan and Ollie great has been chronicled in a gazillion books, but basically is their chemistry; you just KNEW these guys loved each other, even when they were fighting.  They also represented the comedic force that begat chain reaction results from (supposedly) superior human specimens (pie fights, de-pant-ing, vehicular destruction…).  They were kings of the late silent era (amazingly, the duo was simply thrown together by Roach for a couple of shorts, but clicked so well and fast that the inspired writing was on the wall).  Their seamless drift into talkies further revealed that their Swiss watch timing wasn’t relegated to mere slapstick; the boys’ handling of dialog was just as good (and, treat above treat, occasionally graced us with Ollie’s fine singing voice).

Laurel and Hardy weren’t just a fantastic comedy team, they were comedy geniuses. Stan, often called the “brains of the pair” never failed to give his partner equal credit (“he could always make me laugh”).  Indeed, in 1913, Stan toured with the Fred Karno troupe (that also included Chaplin), and, like, contemporary Buster Keaton, eventually “lived, breathed, ate and drank film.”  But Hardy was no slouch either.  He began a successful career behind the camera, functioning as Howard Hawks’ first a.d.  Hawks often said that Hardy was the best assistant director he ever had, and often wished that the comedian had remained off-cam, as he would have evolved into a sensational director.  Proof of that is via Ollie’s lasting contribution to cinema:  the breaking of the fourth wall – that never-fails-to-crack-audiences-up reaction of staring into the camera.  This brilliant device is so much a part of the cinematic landscape now, but he came up with it.

Naturally, no mention of Laurel & Hardy is complete without citing the regal Roach stock company, those wonderful faces and performers that really helped put those pics across, so it’s also grand to see Charlie Hall, Mae Busch, Billy Gilbert, Anita Garvin, Tiny Sanford, Vivien Oakland and last (but definitely not least), the outstanding James Finlayson.  Have to likewise note that Leo McCarey wrote and directed many of these shorts – a hefty amount photographed by George Stevens.  And we can’t leave out those unforgettable jazzy scores by that pair of gifted maestros, Marvin Hatley and LeRoy Shield.

While all of this is enough to warrant a purchase not only for yourself, but as gifts to comedy collectors, there are additional reasons to immediately grab a copy of this Blu-Ray: almost nine hours of extras, including audio commentaries (incorporating vintage recollections by L&H crew members), trailers, posters and photo galleries.  Most interesting are the alternate versions of 1929’s Berth Marks and 1930’s Brats.  While visually, the pics are identical, the audio is slightly different.  In 1936, Roach and MGM remixed the soundtracks to feature more music (the versions that we grew up on).  The original release prints, although inventive examples of early sound, had less music and audio effects.  It’s fascinating to side-by-side them.  My favorite supplement, however, could be a Super 8 sound filmed interview with Anita Garvin, ca. 1981!

Easily one of the top Blu-Ray discs of the year, LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS truly lives up to its title.  So, what are you waiting for!?

LAUREL & HARDY: THE DEFINITIVE RESTORATIONS. Black and white. Full frame 1.32, 1.33, 1.37: 1 [1080p High Definition]; 2.0 LPCM. MVDvisual/Kit Parker Films/SaBu Cat/UCLA Film and Television Archive/The Film Foundation/The Library of Congress. CAT # MVD3582BR.  SRP: $59.99.

The Rolling (in the) Isles of England

So many times in past columns, I have invoked the name “Ealing” to the point that I practically have to pay them a royalty fee.  I use the moniker to underline a high water mark in cinema – specifically in the comedy genre.  Usually, this kudo has been doled out to praise such fantastic contemporary Brit laff-fests as Detectorists, or, in a retro American comparison, 1966’s The Russians are Coming.  To better understand what I’m getting at, one need search no further than two wonderful vintage Ealings:  1949’s PASSPORT TO PIMLICO and 1953’s THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT, now available in restored Blu-Rays from the smashing folk at Film Movement (working in concert with the endless array of cinema heroes at Studio Canal).

First off, leave us press home the fact that suburban living was never as delightful than in an Ealing environ.  Rural towns, villages and small cities of England were often primary targets for the studio (that nevertheless also worked its magic in other aspects of comedy, for instance, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and other top-tier triumphs).

While Ealing had been in operation since 1902 (converting to sound in 1931), it was the post-war optimism that fueled their wise decision to hone their comedy skills. To this end, they hired directors, writers and casts often as eccentric as the whimsical characters who populated their scenarios.  Indeed, the studio “made” many careers in all those vocations; ditto, cinematography, editing, music and art and set design.

Ealing comedies provided an outlet rarely met in cinema, certainly never rivalled (although many tried).  The pictures were so twee, wry and brilliantly sparkling that they often debuted (in the States) at arthouse theatres.  Usually, a box-office non-starter, the Ealings transcended that tag, and sent receipts through the roof, eventually “opening wide” and proving themselves to (as they say) “have legs” across the country.  It seemed that everyone on planet Earth connected with these exquisite offerings – meticulously and strategically multilevel constructed narratives that were simultaneously snarkily witty and politically/culturally allegorical, all the while being outlandishly friggin’ hilarious.  Below are two magnificent reasons why.

1949’s PASSPORT TO PIMLICO is a comedy gem about red tape bureaucracy (and it’s gaggle of stiff-upper-lips) vs. the integrity of a defiant group of villagers who are determined to win at a game of geopolitics.

A (then) contemporary pic, taking place in the title town, the very real (and not funny at all) danger of an UXB (unexploded bomb) provides the pin pulled out of an actual AND metaphorical explosive device.  Kids playing in rubble find the little German gift, and quickly alert authorities.  But the UXB isn’t “U” for long, and explodes – revealing a treasure trove of artifacts and documents long buried under the soil.  The local historical committees are notified, and uncover an amazing parchment:  Pimlico is, in essence, an appendage of France’s Burgundy, thus divorced from the British crown.  This sets heads a-spinning, from the pub owners (no more duty on French booze), to the scores of “we don’t have to pay British taxes,” and so on and so on.  It all boils down to the revelation made by a (now) former citizen of the UK, “Blimey, I’m a foreigner.”

Of course, there’s a downside to this freedom as well, especially when the British Government cuts off all services, generally taken for granted by the populace.

The fact that it all makes sense (in a Bizarro World way) and manages to be concurrently hilarious is what made Ealing so great.  Credit the brilliant writer T.E.B. Clarke for the thoroughly original script, Henry Cornelius for the inspired direction (Cornelius directed one of my favorite comedies of all-time, Genevieve – an Ealing “knock-off”), and, the sensational cast, headed by Stanley Holloway, Betty Warren, Margaret Rutherford, John Slater, Jane Hylton, Raymond Huntley, Philip Stanton, Sydney Taffer, Hermione Badderley, Charles Hawtrey, James Hayter, Sam Kydd, Harry Locke, Michael Hordern, and Naughton Wayne and Basil Radford.

Cleverly concealing a very timely message to all those misinformed tribalism blockheads who yearn to secede from their “too much government” rulers, PASSPORT TO PIMLICO, in its sparse 84 minutes, beautifully displays the pros and cons of the animal politic; the movie even finds time for romance when the current titled Duke of Burgundy (Paul Dupuis) relocates to the formerly English vicinity, and collides with the daughter (Barbara Murray) of the pic’s head protagonist.  Of course, there’s much to be said about being anti-establishment if approached sanely (Ealing comedy revivals were particularly popular during the late 1960s-early 1970s), and nothing is more fun than watching the “old Brits” cheer on the “new French Brits” barricaded at the borders by conservative officials and reluctant bobbies.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of PASSPORT TO PIMLICO is a marked improvement over all the previous home video incarnations.  Showing off Lionel Banes’ crisp black and white photography via a new 1080p restoration elevates this already terrific jewel to new heights; only some slight side flashing (likely due to nitrate deterioration) mars the otherwise flawless effect.  Georges Auric’s score is appropriately sprightly and adds immensely to the joyous experience of this cinema howl.  A number of fine extras make the purchase even more appealing:  an illustrated booklet by Ronald Bergan, a locations featurette, a restoration comparison, a stills archive and an interview with BFI curator Mark Duguid.

Bureaucratic fools get another kick in the bum, courtesy of the riotous 1953 delight THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT.  The movie warns how apathetic efficiency marketing twits can degrade living, breathing people into mere numbers to be merrily crunched.

Titfield is a picturesque, thriving suburban community with the oldest existing rail branch in service – the Titlfield to Mallingford run, a necessary commute that connects residents to the regular train line major hubs (mostly for work, but also for shopping, visiting and seasonal vacationers).  All this goes out the window when British Rail decides to cancel the transport in the name of modernization and economy.

Of course, this puts the townsfolks in the shit, so to speak, and they have no recourse but to attack.  When formal pleas prove useless, the aggressive Titfieldians decide to create their own railroad and give it to BR up the arse.  This gives the train organization monopoly one massive headache after another, involving unions, usage of a stretch of track needed to bypass the now redundant towns, etc., etc., etc. – and good for them!

THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT not only rips thoughtless corporations a new one, but provides a love letter to the Brits’ fascination with trains (embracing vintage locomotives as Genevieve would do the following year with embryonic automobiles).  The script by (again, by T.E.B. Clarke) is laugh-out-loud funny, ditto Charles Crichton’s direction.  As with all Ealing outings, it’s the cast of pixilated lunatics that makes the show, and includes an array of wonderful thesps, comprising John Gregson, Naughton Wayne, Hugh Griffith, Gabrielle Brune, Sid James, Reginald Beckwith, Jack MacGowran, Edie Martin and Sam Kydd.  Of special note is the town’s ancient vicar (George Relph), whose obsession with ancient trains makes him the ideal engineer (ultimately, the populace heists a locomotive from the local museum); also must give a nod to the ambitious company’s benefactor – the town’s richest member, a notorious tipler (top-billed Stanley Holloway), who happily supplies the needed start-up funds, once he’s assured they’ll be a special bar car in his honor.

A jaunty score by Georges Auric appends the hilarity with the pic’s two non-human stars being the titular Titfield title engine (a spectacular 1838 locomotive, dubbed the Lion, formerly of the Liverpool-Manchester line) and the sumptuous photography of Douglas Slocombe – extremely relevant as this was Ealing’s first color movie – and the Technicolor location work (Bath, Cam Brook valley, Freshford and Carlingcott) is outstanding.

The Film Movement Blu-Ray of THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT is a honey, and like PASSPORT TO PIMLICO comes with a cache of extras, comprising a “Making of” featurette, an illustrated booklet by Ronald Bergan, and locations mini-doc, an interview with Douglas Slocombe (including Slocombe’s home movies), and a separate tribute to the Lion.

Absolutely a must for comedy collections, these classics are available individually, or as part of a new box set, which additionally includes Whiskey Galore and The Maggie (both to be reviewed soon).

PASSPORT TO PIMLICO. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

THE TITFIELD THUNDERBOLT. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA.

Film Movement/Studio Canal. SRP: $29.95@

SPECIAL BOX SET: SRP: $69.95.

The Joy of Tex

As far as I’m concerned, all the animation and anime platters released on Blu-Ray this year can take a back seat to the Warner Archive release of TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS, VOLUME 1.  It’s what I’ve been waiting for, and allows me to at last be able to give those laserdiscs a rest.

Tex, as you may or may not know, was one of the primo geniuses at the Warner Bros. Termite Terrace cartoon studio – right alongside Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, etc.  In 1941, yearning to see if he could stretch his creative wings, he took an offer from the upscale highbrow MGM (after a squabble with Looney Tunes boss Leon Schlesinger), a dubious decision – as they (as a studio) were never as anarchic or kwazy as the folks as Warners.  Surprise, he wasn’t hobbled; in fact, he was pretty much left alone, creating some of the greatest and funniest cartoons in the history of animation.  Here, in a single Blu-Ray disc, are 19 Technicolor gems, spanning 1943-1951, comprising many of his best works.

Tex, like Clampett and Tashlin, wasn’t making Disney pics for kids; his work was definitely adult-oriented – going places live action movies wouldn’t dare think of, even before the 1934 Production Code. Rampant sexuality, crazed violence, anatomical disasters, culture kicks in the butt, and more were packaged in exquisite groundbreaking animation style.  Tex delighted in smashing down that fourth wall with a sledgehammer – kidding knowing movie audiences with all the foibles of the technology – bad prints, splices, hairs caught in a film gate, torn sprockets, wonky color, lousy projection, etc.  Nothing like this had ever been seen or experienced in cinema – and savvy fans ate it up.  The fact that this was all done at Metro – the stodgy “family values” studio was even more amazing.  It certainly seemed like a dream gig at the Dream Factory.  Alas, it wasn’t always so.

While enjoying unabashed freedom from suits who didn’t understand why so much of what Avery was doing was funny (although they did know that his cartoons were the most popular in their stable (so they begrudgingly gave him space), they also knew that often a Tex toon, like a Laurel & Hardy short, brought comedy buffs in to see a main attraction that they might have just sloughed off; indeed, Tex’s stuff was infinitely funnier than the lion’s share of live-action MGM comedies they supported.  And, like Tashlin, Tex harbored a “jones” to enter the world of live-action slapstick.  At Metro, that meant Red Skelton – the studio’s then-top comedian, and a perfect human outlet for Tex’s antics. Decades ago, Clampett told me that Avery spent much of his free time devising sight gags and even full-length feature scripts for Skelton.  They were sent to his office at MGM, and never heard from again.  Flash forward several years later.  At a major Tinsel Town event, Skelton approached Avery like a ga-ga bobbysoxer drooling over Frank Sinatra.  “I can’t believe I got finally a chance to meet you.  You’re one of my heroes.  I love your work, it’s so much better than a lot of my pictures.”  And on and on the funnyman gushed.  Avery, totally confused, when able to get a word in edgewise, countered with, “Then why did you never acknowledge me with all the stuff I sent to your office?”  And Tex related his past failed attempts to engage a Red alert. Skelton was shocked, and honestly replied that he had never seen a page of it, and, that had he known, Avery would have been given carte blanche in his unit.  This proved problematic until a little detective work uncovered the skeevy answer.  All of Avery’s scripts and gags were intercepted by MGM cartoon division head Fred Quimby, who unceremoniously tossed them in the trash (Quimby realized that Tex and Hanna-Barbera were his meal tickets).  Quimby, unlike Warner’s Schlesinger, was an unfunny company man who disliked cartoons intensely (Leon, at least had a sense of humor).  Photos of him live up to his name:  a total Quimby – a bespectacled, dumpier sad sack Rod Rosenstein-looking mofo!

Even more sorrowful was Tex’s post-Metro fate.  With theatrical cartoon departments closing down in the late 1950s-early 1960s, Avery moved into television; unable to crack the thriving Saturday morning toon market, he ended up doing animation for Raid commercials, and, not surprisingly, suffered from bouts of depression.  An undeserved fate for a, to paraphrase Wile E. Coyote, “super genius,” except in Tex’s case, the tag was accurate.

Not to put a damper on this terrific collection, just thought I’d supply some basic background info.  That said, this set has everything you need to know about the cinematic Avery.  Included are his bona fide masterpieces, 1943’s Red Hot Riding Hood, one of the most unbridled depictions of volcanic sexuality and erotica ever, Who Killed Who? (also 1943), a hilarious parody of whodunits, with a bulldog police sleuth drawn to resemble character actor Fred Kelsey, who made a living playing those parts for over a quarter of a century, plus What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943), Batty Baseball (1944, featuring a team called The Draft Dodgers), The Hick Chick (1946), Bad Luck Blackie (1949), Garden Gopher (1950), The Peachy Cobbler (1950),and Symphony in Slang (1951).

Three separate sections are devoted to Avery MGM characters:  Screwy Squirrel (Screwball Squirrel, 1944; The Screwy Truant, 1945; Big Heel-watha, 1944; Lonesome Lenny, 1946 (set in a pet shop, under the heading “You Smell It, We Sell It”); George and Junior (based on Of Mice and Men’s George and Lenny): Hound Hunters, 1947; Red Hot Rangers, 1947), and Droopy (Dumb Hounded, 1943; Wags to Riches, 1949; The Chump Champ, 1950).  Screwy Squirrel is a bit of a hard sell for me, despite Avery’s oft-inspired participation.  Screwy was MGM’s attempt to have their own Bugs Bunny, a character Tex helped develop at Warners.  The gags are frequently similar (even identical to some WB situations), but, unlike Bugs – Screwy Squirrel isn’t likeable, and too many times the brilliantly executed visuals come off more mean spirited than outrageously riotous.  George and Junior had already made doppelganger incarnations at Warners (“Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?”), so hardly groundbreaking.  Droopy fares better (again occasionally borrowing some Looney Tune scenarios to get his point across).  The scripts (with uncredited assist from Tex) are nicely constructed by Rich Hogan, Heck Allen and Jack Cosgriff, and Scott Bradley’s music scores ape the use of studio musical numbers for background ID, but can’t compete with Warners’ great Carl Stalling, who did likewise…and did it first).  Tex, too, participated in many of the voice characterizations, alongside Daws Butler, Don Messick, Dick Nelson, Bill Thompson, Wally Maher and even (in The Hick Chick), Stan Freberg. Call me bias, but WB’s Mel Blanc remains incomparable.

The 19 Technicolor cartoons in TASC, VOLUME 1, remastered in 1080p, look sensational.  The audio, too, is top-notch; of particular note are the latter toons, ca. 1950-1951, heralded as being in Perspecta Sound, an early stereophonic precursor to Dolby.  How cool would it have been to be able to have those original tracks.  But don’t let that be a deal-breaker.  This disc is a must!   LSS, I can’t wait for Volume 2!

TEX AVERY SCREWBALL CLASSICS, VOLUME 1. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment/Warner Bros. Entertainment. SRP: $21.99.

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

Pre-Code Poster Child

My late, great friend – writer/director Ric Menello – once dubbed the 1958 William Wyler western The Big Country as “un film de Jerome Moross.” The reason for this is because, while entertaining enough, the rambling epic is noteworthy throughout the globe for one reason:  an amazing soundtrack by the famed composer.  This, in and of itself, has nothing to do with my review, except for the reason that The Film Detective’s new Limited Edition Blu-Ray restoration of 1933’s THE SIN OF NORA MORAN, directed by Phil Goldstone, is, to apply the Menello Axiom, “un film de Alberto Vargas.”

The movie, a rare Poverty Row attempt (Tiffany) to go “legit,” checks off all the lurid pre-Code boxes:  adultery, blackmail, murder, political scandal and even “hot woman on death row.”  They even hyped a new, exciting process in which to tell their tale.  To achieve these lofty ends, producer-director Goldstone secured popular established and rising stars (not common for low budget histrionics), and got himself a decent cameraman (Ira Morgan), a racy, sizzling sourcework (Willis Maxwell Goodhue’s story Burnt Offering), and a talented composer (Heinz Roemheld).  Goldstone’s greatest score, however, was hiring the celebrated illustrator/painter Alberto Vargas to create the movie’s one-sheet.  It has become perhaps the most iconic Hollywood poster of the pre-Code era (certainly one of the most coveted and beloved and cherished pieces of promotional art in the annals of the entire industry).  When I first saw a repro of the ad, I gasped, “This is from a 1933 pic!!!???”  How could that be?  At first I thought (circa, 1970 or so, when I first spied the reprint ad) it was the greatest softcore poster I’d ever seen.  I figured the “1933” tag must have been a misprint.  But it wasn’t.  And, nor was NORA softcora.

I spent years trying to find this movie, especially when I discovered that the title character was enacted by Zita Johann, an early crush.  Rifling through pre-Code releases from the majors turned up nothing – and for good reason.  As indicated, the movie was a low-budget item from Tiffany.  True, if any Poverty Row outfit aspired to something greater, it WOULD be Tiffany.  They had, after all, made James Whale’s first success, 1930’s Journey’s End, and then, practically went bankrupt filming the first all-Technicolor sordid drama, the amazing and outstanding, Mamba (also 1930).

So what is THE SIN OF NORA MORAN?  Well, I’m not going to give away everything, but will provide readers an appetizing taste.

District Attorney John Grant (the great Alan Dinehart, already praised this year for his participation in Supernatural) is a political winner in virtually every sense of the word, except in perhaps choosing his relatives.  His slick, savvy brother-in-law Dick Crawford, a revered top-line attorney about to ascend to the city’s position of Governor, is also a cheating horndog.  Doom is, thus, practically spray-painted on Nora Moran’s torso when he first eyes the struggling buxom, sophisticated beauty, then seduces her (after removing his wedding ring).  He buys Nora an apartment, convinces her to give up any notions of a career – and vows that they shall eternally live for their love (the heaving interplay and lip-biting smiles on their faces reveal that they do have great sex, in a way that only pre-Code can deliver).  But the ugly truth about his being married to the sister of a powerful player eventually comes out. Nora may have had to give up her dreams, but not the aptly named Dick.  He ditches her without a second thought; nevertheless, the memories of their illicit carnality keeps bringing him back.  Until there’s a murder, placing Nora in the pokey.

Edith, Crawford’s jealous wife (who, as we noted, is Grant’s sister) finds out, and pressures Mr. D.A. sib to practically let her pull the switch on the electric chair.  But Grant has one last card up his sleeve. And that’s a secret he’s about to spill.

While NORA has all these delicious elements to make the movie a pre-Code classic, it lacks two major necessities (and one major-minor one):  a really good director and a really good script.  Had NORA been made at fast-paced Warners (the perfect studio for this kind of narrative), I imagine the project would have been handed over to the likes of Curtiz, LeRoy, Wellman, Alfred E. Green, Roy Del Ruth, Archie Mayo, etc.  I also surmise that the writing would have been top-notch, and overseen by no less than Darryl Zanuck.  Alas, this was not to be the case.  While certainly intriguing (and good looking – it truly doesn’t resemble a Poverty Row production), it misses the pantheon rung to have it spread-eagled alongside Baby Face, Red-Headed Woman, The Sin of Temple Drake, Blessed Event, and other key studio releases from that era (the lack of a major company’s involvement is the major-minor aspect I alluded to above).

The new process/processes THE SIN OF NORA MORAN ballyhooed, too, while unusual for a Poverty Row entry, was/were not all-that-new.  These comprised elaborate flashbacks, but mostly consisted of the use of stream of consciousness, a la Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude.  Truth be told, that device, used so effectively in the stage presentation of O’Neill’s play, WAS utilized in the MGM depiction, released a year before NORA.

This leaves us with the cast – and they’re dandy.  The aforementioned Dinehart never disappoints, ditto, bookend cads Paul Cavanaugh (as the adulterous lover) and John Miljan, an early employer who rapes and blackmails Nora (this brings to light an unintentional but psychologically fascinating aspect of the movie that should have been underlined, but wasn’t: that Miljan and Cavanaugh physically resemble each other, the latter being a highbrow version of the former, thereby suggesting that Nora is sexually drawn to a certain type of scumbag. Talk about missed opportunity!  Claire Du Bray also registers as the vengeful, scorned wife, but it is the underrated, super-gorgeous Zita Johann who seals the deal.  A ravishing beauty and excellent actress, Johann was the first wife of producer-writer-actor John Houseman (1929-1932); in fact, it was her accompanying Houseman to visit Howard Hawks for conferences regarding a script collaboration on Tiger Shark, that got Johann the female lead.  That same year (1932), she achieved horror immortality, costarring with Boris Karloff in her most famous work, The Mummy.  The casting coup of Johann for NORA upped the ante so much that Goldstone, generally a producer-only, decided to take over the directorial reins as well (it was soon all-too-obvious to those present that he had become obsessed with the actress during the filming – a scenario that would have made quite a movie by itself).

The Blu-Ray of THE SIN OF NORA MORAN is, for the most part, meritorious.  Who knew that 35MM even existed?  The restoration work, involving the Film Detective, Independent-International Pictures, and the UCLA Film and Restoration Archive deserves kudos.  Only intermittent cross-talk “webbing” (especially apparent during opticals) mars the pristine experience.

Some terrific extras append the release, comprising an illustrated booklet and an original documentary, The Mysterious Life of Zita Johann.  Bizarrely enough, much of the credit for NORA surviving belongs to infamous schlockmeister Sam Sherman.  He first saw the pic at a film collector’s house in the 1960s, and, became its number one fan.  Sherman even later connected with Johann, retired and living in New York (where the producer operated as well), and wore her down to the point where she appeared in his 1986 opus Raiders of the Living Dead!  All of this is covered in the aforementioned gobsmacking Mysterious Life supplement.

Of course, in true exploitation fashion, that Vargas poster had to be used as the Blu-Ray jacket.  For that alone, it deserves a spot in every pre-Code/classic movie collection.  But, remember, the Blu-Ray is a Limited Edition, with only 1500 copies available, so don’t leave the lady waiting!

THE SIN OF NORA MORAN.  Black and white; full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Film Detective/Independent International/UCLA Film and Restoration Archive. CAT # FB1007.  SRP:  $24.99.

Limited Edition of 1500.

Gold as the Grave: Horror Honor Roll Classics

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2020

The continuing technological improvements that home video undergoes has come eons since the now-ancient, but one-time state-of-the-art, laser discs.  Even DVDs are now frequently referred to as a relic from the past (they really aren’t).  Blu-Rays and 4Ks are where the various companies are pointed – a move never more appreciated than when they turn to their classic movie libraries.  Thus, it is with great joy that I can announce the recent Blu-Ray re-masters of a pair of groundbreaking post-war British fright masterpieces, 1945’s DEAD OF NIGHT and 1949’s QUEEN OF HEARTS, now available from the gang at Kino-Lorber (in cahoots with Studio Canal).

Interestingly enough, both pics have often been paired together as a horror double-feature – although, while to many U.S. fans, the former is instantly recognizable, the latter still maintains an aura of obscurity.  This is understandable, since DEAD OF NIGHT had a major studio release (Universal-International), albeit in a shamefully abbreviated form (suffice to say, the Kino edition is complete and uncut).  Expertly mixing psychological elements (a big deal after WWII) and supernatural nightmares, each pic is a triumph of a literate narrative intertwined with atmosphere, art, chills and suspense.  Unlike many horror movies, both flicks achieved high critical kudos to match the audience appreciation.  Since their 1940s releases, DEAD OF NIGHT and QUEEN OF SPADES have influenced a plethora of motion picture and television writers, directors and cameramen including Rod Serling, Stephen King, Alfred Hitchcock, Jimmy Sangster, Terence Fisher, Freddie Francis, Quentin Tarantino, Masaki Kobayashi and continue to do so to this day.  How great to be able to add 1080p 35MM transfers to our library shelves!

DEAD OF NIGHT is, in a myriad of ways, one of the most misunderstood horror movies ever made.  Not in anything negative – I mean, it’s a great flick all-round.  Mostly, the confusion comes from inaccurate press and distribution faux pas.  For one thing, it’s heralded as the first omnibus horror pic.  Ain’t so.  As far back as 1924, the Germans did an Expressionistic pip with WAXWORKS, featuring a framing story of nefarious figures in history (including Jack the Ripper) whose tales are told via flashback one night in a Madame Tussaud’s-esque museum.  More bizarrely, Universal-International, who took on the American distribution for DEAD OF NIGHT didn’t argue that point even though they themselves released a trilogy of terror just several years earlier (1943’s Flesh and Fantasy)!  Yank critics were also perplexed by the references that seemingly made no sense to a pair of haunted golf buddies.  That’s because Universal, thinking the segment unnecessary, simply chopped it out of the U.S. prints (even more astoundingly, as the author of the piece was the most well-known to American audiences, no less than H.G. Wells!).  Notably, the movie spurred the later efforts of Amicus to create their series of omnibus horror movies in the 1960s and 1970s, beginning with Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors.  Oft imitated (and entertainingly so) but never bested.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Suffice to say that the new Kino-Lorber Studio Classics release is (as mentioned) the complete, uncut version.  The movie, the only Ealing horror venture, began shooting as the war wound down.  Its release in 1945/1947 (Europe and the U.S.) was of the blockbuster kind (horror really intrigued the postwar audiences; in the U.S., RKO’s modestly budgeted Body Snatcher was one of their biggest hits of 1945-46).

DEAD OF NIGHT was carefully constructed to cover all grounds.  Every type of nightmare was to be chronicled, in as many emotional colors as possible:  foreboding evil (a race car driver’s escape from death), creepy (ghostly participation invading children’s hide-and-seek playdate), suspenseful (a haunted mirror wields its influence upon a pair of honeymooners), comic (the aforementioned golf sequence) and terrifying (a ventriloquist’s dummy has a life of its own).  All of this is beautifully framed by a weekend outing at a country estate.  Architect Walter Craig arrives at the manor and disturbingly relates how he knows everyone there from a recurring nightmare he can’t shake.

To capture these frightening elements, Ealing relied upon four of the finest directors then working in the British motion picture industry (Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer, Alberto Cavalcanti).  Their endeavors were appended by a top-notch script (individually written by T.E.B Clarke, John Baines, E.F. Benson, Angus MacPhail and the aforementioned H.G. Wells) and spectacular atmospheric photography by Douglas Slocombe and Stanley Pavey.  A perfect accompanying tense score was composed for the fest by Georges Auric, and adds just the right macabre crescendos needed.

The cast, too, is a 1940’s Who’s Who of British cinema stars:  Mervyn Johns (as the tormented Craig), Roland Culver, Googie Withers, Frederick Valk, Anthony Baird, Sally Ann Howes, Judy Kelly, Miles Malleson, Barbara Leake, Ralph Michael, Esme Percy, Peggy Bryan, Hartley Power, Garry Marsh and Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne as Parratt and Potter (the two elusive golfers, who had become an unofficial UK comedic team since their standout appearance in Hitchcock’s 1938 The Lady Vanishes).  Most prominently is the tortured and truly scarifyin’ performance by Michael Redgrave (as the ventriloquist).  Speaking of that episode, Universal-International again made a decision that changed the narrative of this segment (the most famous in the movie).  Elisabeth Welch, the wonderful African-American actress/songstress, and a recent ex-pat to the UK, plays the owner-operator of the nightclub where much of the action unfolds.  In the original American version, her non-singing scenes were shortened to imply that the woman was merely an entertainer at the club – and not the owner.  No doubt this was done to appease the Southern theater circuit (again, this is the unabridged 103 minute edition).

DEAD OF NIGHT, in the 75 years since its release, has lost none of its power to ghoulishly invade our post-screening dreams (even the original poster is goosebump-raiser – see the Blu-Ray cover below).

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal High Definition platter of DEAD OF NIGHT is the best incarnation yet of this chilling classic.  Crystal-clear with terrific contrast, the generally excellent 35mm  transfer (from a new 4K restoration) gets a big bow. Only an intermittent emulsion scratch that lasts for a bit midway through the proceedings prevents the results from being pristine.  Extras include audio commentary by Tim Lucas, and a documentary Remembering Dead of Night.

LSS, DEAD OF NIGHT is one of the greatest horror movies ever made, and deserves to be included in any classic Blu-Ray/DVD collection.  It’s the stuff screams are made of.

THE QUEEN OF SPADES, a blood-freezing tale told in epic proportions, is a 1949 classic that almost plays like a feature-length spinoff told by one of the guests in DEAD OF NIGHT (possibly why they’re often paired together in revival screenings).

The frigid, icy background of 1806 Russia perfectly complements the narrative.  Herman is an impoverished officer in a military where gambling has become the rich man’s pastime of choice (in fact, it has swept the nation).  He is also a sociopathic specimen with a large superiority complex that more than makes up for his miniscule bank account.  The captain is, thus, the subject of ridicule.  When he does achieve modest success at cards, it only fuels his gambling addiction.  Soon, he learns of a tale regarding the Countess, a noblewoman, who, as a young beauty, caved to adultery – and lived to regret it ever since.  It’s the kind of living Herman would kill for.  While robbed of a portion of her riches, she replaced it by recouping it in a high stakes game of chance where she holds the winning cards – the result of a Faustian bargain.

Now decrepit, lonely, miserable (but filthy rich), the aged royal lives to taunt Lizaveta, a young woman she has adopted as her ward.  Herman, stunned to discover that this story is true, vies to seduce Lizaveta, gain access to the Countess, learn the secret of the cards and accrue untold wealth.  But fate is likewise playing, and the events fail to go to plan – taking a dark, hellish detour.  It’s a thoroughly Lewtonesque offering from the UK, with period trappings that precede the type of stuff that made Hammer so fiendishly delicious.

One of the finest ghost stories ever written, poet Alexander Pushkin’s iconic nail-biter is also one of the most filmed literary adaptations (possibly as many as 100 movie versions worldwide, since an early 1910 rendition to the latest evocation –  a 2011 television film).  This, however, is the best of them all, due largely to the excellent direction of Thorold Dickinson, the superb black-and-white photography of the brilliant Otto Heller, a fine script by Rodney Ackland and Arthur Boys and the magnificent performance of lead Anton Walbrook (best known as the tyrannical ballet head in The Red Shoes).  The supporting is equally impressive, and includes Edith Evans (as the Countess), Yvonne Mitchell (as Lizaveta), Ronald Howard, Anthony Dawson, Mary Jerrold, Miles Malleson, Michael Medwin, Valentine Dyall, George Woodbridge, Athene Seyler, and Pauline Tennant (as the young Countess).  A tense music score (once again, by DEAD OF NIGHT’s Georges Auric) perfectly appends the visuals – a matchless production supervised by Anatole de Grunwald (with Jack Clayton serving as associate producer).

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classics Blu-Ray is in beautiful shape with razor-sharp images and a strong mono soundtrack.  Excellent supplements include audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton, an analysis by Philip Horne, a 1951 interview with director Dickinson, as well as Dickinson’s 1968 introduction at a special screening, plus a current introduction by Martin Scorsese.

A must for horror fans, THE QUEEN OF SPADES is the ideal Halloween Eve (or any eve) choice for an engrossing, devilish good time.

DEAD OF NIGHT. CAT # K23632.

THE QUEEN OF SPADES. CAT # K24012.

BOTH TITLES: Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal.  SRP: $29.95 @.

Roman with Sharon Through Transylvania

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2020

Another Holy Grail title checked off my Blu-Ray movie “Want List,” 1967’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS comes to the High Def format, thanks to them groovy devils at the Warner Archive Collection.

Cowritten, costarring and directed by Roman Polanski, TFVK was the art house director’s increasing attempt to move toward mainstream – and prove he could tackle Hollywood (Repulsion was released two years earlier, Rosemary’s Baby would be his next year’s reward).  Nevertheless, MGM made it as difficult as possible – assigning the pic to troublesome producer Martin Ransohoff (who, as we had earlier this year discussed, mangled the great Moonshine War).  While having a nose for a good project, and occasionally (at Metro) bringing in a pic that can only be deemed Ransohoff Proof (The Cincinatti Kid), the producer and the upstart director mixed like oil and water.

Still, what remains is vastly entertaining, beautiful to look at, hilariously funny and often brilliant.

Polanski’s story and script (the former, coauthored with Gerard Brach) is a loving poke at/homage to Hammer Film goths – obviously a genre (and studio) he admired.  Devout movie fan that he was/is, Polanski also uses this pic to pay tribute to Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Frank Tashlin, Hal Roach and even the “Carry On” series (“Stick it where?,” asks a character, armed with a stake).  And marvelously so.

Boasting lavish production values, lush gorgeous scope photography (the great Douglas Slocombe), an addictive score by the director’s fellow Pole and future Rosemary‘s composer Christopher Komeda, TFVK tells the haphazard tale of Professor Abronsius, a bumbling near-senile Van Helsing figure (and writer of the definitive undead tome, The Bat – It’s Mysteries).  Along with his willing (and equally inept underling), Alfred (played to perfection by Polanski), they descend upon a wintry Eastern European hamlet, rife with toothy blood-suckers, their hunchbacked disciples, horny innkeepers and bodacious women.  The loony thrilling climax is bittersweet as the do-gooders/rescuers, in their negligent misuse of what we now call “social distancing,” inadvertently bring the plague they vowed to destroy to the centers of Europe.

The cast is terrific, knowing instinctively how much of the proceedings to take seriously and when to (literally) drop their pants.  As Abronsius, the wonderful Jack MacGowran nearly steals the show.  A sci-fi/horror fave since The Giant Behemoth, he would continue delight fans up to his final portrayal in 1973’s The Exorcist.  As the evil protagonist, the sinister Count von Krolock, Ferdy Mayne delivers the goods in spades, a perfect foil for MacGowran.  As the Yiddish innkeeping couple, The Shagals, Alfie Bass and Jessie Robins are outstanding, with coital-minded Bass bringing in the best line of the pic.  “Turned” during his adulterous prowling, vampiric Shagal is confronted by his adversaries brandishing a cross.  “Oy, do you have the wrong vampire!” is his riotous response, one that never fails to bring down the house.

Mention, too, must be made of the crazed hunchback Koukol (Terry Downes), and von Krolock’s gay son Herbert (Iain Quarrier), who becomes obsessed with Alfred.

Of course, (as alluded to above) no Hammer parody can survive without the drop dead gorgeous females, and FVK‘s are legendary, if not infamous.  Fiona Lewis is truly funny and ridiculously sexy as the inn’s outrageously endowed maid Magda – whose behavior is in stark contrast with the Shagal’s innocent daughter, Sarah, who nevertheless matches the servant in the looks department.  The latter is Sharon Tate, who met the director during the pic (up till that time, I had actually thought Tate to be British, having only seen her in another MGM horror pic that Ransohoff mismanaged, Eye of the Devil).  The rest is nightmarish history; suffice to say, she’s absolutely lovely in the movie.

What Ransohoff did to the picture is notorious – the ultimate betrayal by a producer to an artist.  The pic was originally titled Dance of the Vampires (a perfect moniker once you see it).  Not only did Ransohoff change it (to also include the subtitle, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck), but chopped out several sections.  Some folks I’ve spoken to who had seen it in the brief 1967 release, recall it running under 90 minutes.  This Warner Archive Blu-Ray clocks in at 107 minutes.  I’m assuming some of the inn material is still missing, but who knows?  The distribution was so lackluster that I don’t even recall a theatrical run (an incident I would have thought impossible for me and this kind of picture in 1967).  I first became aware of it when I saw it listed in a 1968-69 Film’s Incorporated 16MM Rental Catalog.

The new Blu-Ray of THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS is a honey, with restored faded MetroColor bursting with ebullient colors.  The mono audio compliments the visuals and boasts theater quality sound.  A featurette, The Fearless Vampire Killers: Vampires 101, is included, as is the trailer.

For those who like to pepper their Halloween program with laffs (but still maintain a modicum of spooky stuff), ya can’t do much better than THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS.  As the late Forry Ackerman might say, “It’s fangtastic!”

THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Turner Entertainment/Warner Home Entertainment. CAT # 1000748760. SRP: $21.99.

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

Foreign Bodies

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2020

It’s always fascinating to look at what non-Anglo countries do with classic genres – the results being frequently revolutionary, often even brilliant.  These are all praises that can be dealt out to a cinematic pair of fantastic phantasmagoria, France’s BABY BLOOD (1990) and South Korea’s THIRST (2009), both now available in outstanding Blu-Ray editions from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, in consort with Studio Canal and Focus Features/Universal Studios, respectively.

Typical international movie ballyhoo is the old chestnut, “You’ve never seen anything like it!”  In the case of Alain Robak’s 1990 offering, BABY BLOOD, that hyperbole is totally justified, if not understated!

Director/cowriter Robak was obviously determined to crack the U.S. splatter market, but needed a unique hook.  Boy, did he come up with one!

Evil, it turns out in the pic’s prologue, is an actual entity – surviving on Earth for billions of years, and keeping alive by occupying female hosts.  It seduces them with supportive language (or sounds, as jellyfish, tigers, birds, etc., too, are fair game – as long as they’re female) and nurturing care, impregnating them with a growing embryo – that must have a constant supply of blood to evolve.  Once the monstrous creation bursts out, the force searches for a new body.  And so it goes through time eternal, from the deepest oceans in the far east to Africa to Europe, and so on.  The newest body is Parisian Yanka.  Her invasion is chronicled in minute detail, as are her stalking nocturnal prowls, looking for the title elixir to keep her going…and growing.  The undeniable wow factor is the demon talking to her, often culminating in conversations between the perp and the vic.  It’s important to mention that Emmanuelle Escourrou, the remarkable actress portraying Yanka, is outstanding.  She truly interacts with the disembodied voice commanding her body.  Frighteningly conflicted, Yanka tries to fight the evil, but frequently succumbs to the pleasures of the kill.  An amazing moment is her having to smoke a cigarette to salve the tensions – to which Evil chides her to not give in to a filthy and unhealthy habit.  We have to think of the baby, don’t we?  The voice, too, is likewise charming and alarming, promising Yanka not to harm her after the birth, telling her that she’s his all-time favorite (all lies, ‘cause that’s what Evil does).

Horror movies don’t get much weirder or creepier than BABY BLOOD.  And it’s a genuine “pull out all the stops” production.  Aside from Escourrou, the excellent cast includes Jean-Francois Gallotte, Christian Sinniger, Roselyne Geslot, Alain Chabot, and Thierry Le Portier (with director Robak himself voicing the entity of Evil).  The atmospheric (mostly nighttime) widescreen photography is by Bernard Dechet and a foreboding score by Carlos Acciari completes the macabre package.

It should be mentioned that BABY BLOOD has been somewhat of a Holy Grail for fans to track down in its uncut form (this version is complete and unabridged).  The new High Def master is aces, and includes both the original French soundtrack (with English subtitles), and the English-dubbed grindhouse-friendly audio for Anglo audiences who saw the pic as The Evil Within.

Extras include commentary by film historians/critics Lee Gambin and Jarret Gahan, plus the theatrical trailer.

What could logically be subtitled Womb Raider, BABY BLOOD makes Rosemary’s sprout look like Pollyanna (and I don’t mean McIntosh!).

One of the most extraordinary horror movies in recent years (or any year!), 2009’s THIRST, an epic 135-minute Grand Guignol odyssey, is an experience that I suspect will resonate with non-genre fans, as well as the core buffs (who deservedly have already deemed it a modern masterpiece).

Cowritten (with Chung Seo-kyung) and coproduced by maverick director Park Chan-Wook, auteur of the 2003 international smash Old Boy, THIRST follows the story of a Sang-hyun, a beloved priest, who is, by his own choice, exposed to a lethal disease.  Volunteering to test a new vaccine for a deadly virus, the man of the cloth discovers that the drug has had an amazing and devastating effect.  He is simultaneously miraculously emboldened with apparent super strength while developing an insatiable taste for blood.  Chipping away a dormant portion of the human condition that keeps evil in check, Sang-hyun goes full-blown vampire.

His new life comes with all the perks and perils of the affliction:  balancing the aforementioned feeling of invincibility is a deserved fear of sunlight.  Sang-hyun’s shyness among women is also bolstered as he carnally and fatally pleasures and drains them.

Boarding with the nouveux riche (translated as obnoxious rich trash) Ra family, the priest becomes attracted to their son’s young daughter-in-law (once their adopted ward) – who essentially functions as the house slave, comely, timid, and abused Tae-ju.  As he moves closer to her, she does the same – discovering his “secret,” and opening the door to her desired freedom (“Can you turn me?”).  As they literally soar through the skies at night, claiming victims, Tae-ju degenerates into something totally fiendish – relishing horrendous vengeance on the family who treated her like a dog.  The ending is tragically frightening…and romantic.

For those readers with a literary bent, the narrative may sound a bit familiar.  I’ll cut to the chase; it is indeed an intentional vampiric version of Zola’s Therese RaquinTHIRST, spectacularly directed by Chan-Wook and hauntingly photographed by Chung Chung-hoon, is the serious horror pic macabre aficionados have been waiting for.

The acting is as praiseworthy as the direction and visuals, so rousing applause to costars Song Kang-ho (as the priest), and especially the magnificent Kim Ok-bin (as Tae-ju, the wife/servant whose new thirst for blood is both literal and figurative; in case you recognize the name, she, too, is familiar, Ok-bin is the star of the cross-over 2017 action hit The Villainess).

The Kino-Lorber Studio Classic of THIRST is top-drawer, looking sleek and slick in 1080p scope.  It is presented in the original Korean w/English subtitles, that can be removed if one is fluent in the language (a fine stereo track features the music of Jo Yeong-wook).  Extras comprise running audio commentary by journalist Bryan Reesman, and the theatrical trailer.

Riveting, stylish entertainment, THIRST takes vampire cinema to a new level, and, as such, highly recommended.

BABY BLOOD. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA [English dubbed or French w/English subtitles]; Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Studio Canal CAT # K24002. SRP: $29.95.

THIRST. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 or 2.0 DTS-HD MA [Korean w/English subtitles]. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Focus Pictures International & Moho Film/Universal Studios. CAT # K23822. SRP: $29.95.

Spell-Wishers

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2020

A treat o’tricks, 1990’s THE WITCHES, a spooky (but kid-friendly) adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved classic, comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the coven at the Warner Archive Collection.

This deliriously crazed modern fable follows the adventures of Luke Eveshim, who lives with his gran, Helga, in England.  Helga is a loving, adoring surrogate parent to the boy, and, in addition to giving the child the usual warnings (looking both ways before crossing the streets, not putting strange objects in your mouth, never talking to strangers), she adamantly places one non-negotiable rule above the others:  beware of witches.  And she ain’t kidding.  Helga regales young Luke of her childhood in Scandinavia, how it strengthened her for the great fight against the supernatural.  It has boiled down to one bucket list task:  to find and destroy Miss Ernst, the Grand High Witch.  And guess what?  Ernst is holding an international convention in the very hotel Helga and Luke are currently vacationing at.

Armed with a plethora of Sorceress-Hunting Romper Room Do-Bees and Don’t-Bees, Luke must remain always mindful that witches hate children, and love turning them into rodents – and then snuffing them out.

Discovering Ernst and her hellish cult emboldens Luke; however, his attempt to escape their ballroom meeting ends in tragedy when he and another boy guest, Bruno, are caught and “turned.” Another caveat: the recent sightings of “mice” overrunning the upscale hotel sends shivers through the spine of spineless up tight manager Mr. Stringer, one of the pic’s many hilarious sidebars.

It’s a race against time as Luke and Bruno elude the witches, the hotel staff and other dangers of humankind in their efforts to reach Helga, who has been waiting for this confrontation for most of her life.

THE WITCHES is a textbook movie game plan of how to make kid’s horror flick that equally appeals to the grownups.  It’s fun, creepy, and hilarious – sometimes all at once.

The cast is marvelous – with two great actresses leading the histrionics:  the wonderful Mai Zetterling, Swedish thesp extraordinaire (and sometime director), vs. the magnificent Angelica Huston, a svelte female embodiment of chic, snarky witchery (until she removes her real-skin face mask, revealing Ernst’s true horrific evil self). It should further be mentioned that Huston’s portrayal won her new legions of fans (as well as a Saturn Award nomination for Best Actress at the 1991 Academy of Science-Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA).

Mr. Stringer, the James Finlayson-esque hotel manager, too, is expertly played by no less that Rowan Atkinson, and he’s a hoot!

The kids likewise are pretty terrific, in casting that could have cute-ruined the whole show; a bow to Jasen Fisher and Charlie Potter.  Other cool familiar faces in the show comprise Bill Paterson, Brenda Blethyn, Jane Horrocks, Jenny Runacre, Jim Carter, and Anne Lambton.  All are aces.

Alan Scott, screenwriter of the underrated Joseph Andrews, penned the script, which retains much of the flavor of the Dahl work, and the whole thing looks sumptuously gorgeous in the lush widescreen cinematography of Harvey Harrison (appended by the Halloween-y Stanley Myers music).  Of major note, natch, is the direction by (of all people) former d.p. Nicolas Roeg.  Truth be told, I’ve never been a big Roeg fan, finding much of his directorial work to be pretentious and often ill-paced.  That’s not the case with his previous vocation as a cameraman, where his photography was frequently brilliant; bizarrely enough, so much of Roeg’s directed movies don’t really look that great; as indicated, not here – THE WITCHES displays a tapestry of marvelous visuals.  Talons down, this is (in my opinion) his finest pic as a director.  It also must be mentioned that the Executive Producer of THE WITCHES is Jim Henson, so, no surprise, the special effects are truly special.

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of THE WITCHES is everything its constantly increasing fan base could ask for – a perfect no-frills beautifully mastered 1080p release.  Interestingly, the movie arrived on home video prior to the unveiling of a Robert Zemeckis remake, costarring Anne Hathaway and Octavia Spencer, now showing on HBO/Max.  To quote Malcolm Nance, there are no coincidences, and the newbie’s gonna have to go far and wide to top the original.

THE WITCHES. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA stereo-surround; Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment. CAT # 1000747003.  SRP: $21.99.

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

Possession is Good for the Soul

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2020

A bona fide buried treasure obscurity from Hollywood’s pre-Code horror cycle, 1933’s SUPERNATURAL, directed by Victor Halpern, materializes on Blu-Ray from the folks at Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios.

The mystery, as depicted in the movie, defies any explanation – ergo the title.  The real conundrum is why this movie isn’t better known, considering the cast and director.

I first came across SUPERNATURAL in the early 1980s, and I was immediately hooked.  The movie, after all, was helmed by Victor Halpern, who the previous year had scored a major coup with his indy low budget White ZombieZombie‘s greatest claim was its star (Bela Lugosi) and the oodles of atmosphere.  The result was entirely poetic, with a hefty side of sexual creepy (did we say it was pre-Code?).  SUPERNATURAL continues that vibe (particularly in the latter), with the added coup of a major studio behind it (Paramount), a bigger budget, and rising topline stars.

While Zombie took place in the Caribbean, SUPERNATURAL plays out in New York, diversely balancing the scenario between affluent Long Island and the Lower East Side tenements.

Ruth Rogen is a stunning, but dangerously psychopathic murderess arrested and thrown under the bus by her unscrupulous charlatan lover, Paul Bavian (a devilishly evil Alan Dinehart).  On the eve of her execution, she vows vengeance from the grave – a claim that fake clairvoyant Bavian sloughs off.  He shouldn’t have.  Doctor/therapist and paranormal aficionado Carl Houston has requested Rogen’s corpse to conduct experiments regarding the possible journey of the soul after death.

One of the doctor’s patients is wealthy, gorgeous socialite Roma Courtney – whose family have been longtime friends with Houston.  He is treating the traumatized young woman, who suffers from severe depression and morbidity, due to the recent sudden death of her beloved twin brother, John.

Her untimely visit to Houston’s lab coincides with Rogen’s demented soul searching for a conduit host, and Roma is beyond her wildest dreams – and everyone else’s nightmares.

Roma’s new aggressive persona takes control, as she hunts down Bavian to extract revenge – not difficult, as the creep’s a horndog predator and, as indicated, Courtney is gorgeous…in fact, drop dead gorgeous.

SUPERNATURAL is a no-holds-barred example of the horror genre unleashed in the early talkie era, and, (as indicated) being a pre-Code item, lets – if not demands – female sexuality to run rampant.  While the male stars are quite good (with the aforementioned Dinehart more so), the women are extraordinary.  Vivienne Osborne, an underrated and familiar face throughout the pre-Code years, is terrific as the maniacal Rogen.  Beryl Mercer, the renowned character actress, too, makes the most of her screen time as Bavian’s skeevy landlady (she meets a rather grisly end, as her notorious tenant finds a new use for the El that runs parallel to his apartment window).  Best of all is star Carole Lombard, in her only horror role, not quite yet the superstar she would become, but certainly an actress on the ascent.  Her changing from a morbid, but sweet innocent to a raving succubus demon is quite something to behold.  The key males in support are the accomplished H.B. Warner as Dr. Houston and Randolph Scott as Grant, the object of “nice” Roma’s affection (surprisingly, this would not be Scott’s only horror flick, he had appeared earlier that year in another Paramount pip, Murders in the Zoo).

Halpern is truly in his element, and the direction amongst the Deco architecture of Courtney’s home and Houston’s modern lab is wonderful – the eroticism shooting out sparks as fast and furious as one of the doctor’s electrical apparatuses.

The script by Harvey Thew and Brian Marlow (story and adaptation by Garnett Weston) goes for the jugular, and, fully living up the title, leaves no tombstone unturned.  The shimmering black and white photography by Arthur Martinelli adds to the effect, appended by the Paramount production values (an included fantastic trailer, one of the best pre-Code coming attractions I’ve ever seen, hits all the right buttons, down to comparisons to the Universal output and their own Oscar-winning smash Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).  While the studio may not have been known for horror, they did turn it out quite well during the years 1931-35 (here’s hoping for Blu-Rays of Murder by the Clock, Murders in the Zoo, Peter Ibbetson and The Witching Hour).

The Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray of SUPERNATURAL is…well, super.  It’s so great to see these flicks in 35MM and 1080p High Def.  In addition to the trailer, there’s also some nifty audio commentary by Tim Lucas.  And, jeez, that original poster art (serving as the B-D jacket) ain’t chopped liver either!

A swirling, carnal midnight ride into the unknown, SUPERNATURAL deserves a higher spot in the 1930s horror pantheon.  Let’s make that happen!

SUPERNATURAL. Black and white. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Universal Studios. CAT # K24488.  SRP: $24.95.

Blood Will Tell

HALLOWEEN BLITZ 2020

A terror treat from the Seventies, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, a star-filled 1974 British omnibus ride of nightmarish proportions, rises from the vault in a spanking new 1080p Blu-Ray transfer, thanks to the frightfully delightful folks at the Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment.

The final of a slew of multi-storied horror flicks from Hammer rival, Amicus, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE also may be the best.  While certainly, the others – all entertaining offshoots, inspired by the brilliant 1947 classic Dead of Night – have their moments, this entry doesn’t sag or falter from frame one (sadly, it doesn’t have the rep of the company’s more high profile forays, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and Tales from the Crypt; then again, who ever said unholy afterlife was fair).  It’s as if all the others were practice for the finale.  I can probably go one better and venture why:  FBtG succeeds because coproducer Milton Subotsky had no hand in the scripting (his abilities as a scribe were, shall we say, limited?).  Here we have a tight, diverse narrative that reasonably connects the quartet of horror to perhaps the finest framing story in the entire Amicus franchise.  Thank you, Robin Clarke and Raymond Christodoulou for your excellent screenplay (based upon stories by R. Chetwynd-Hayes).

Usually, for this fare, the framing story, while necessary for the “hook,” is fairly uninspired – actually removing any chills accrued throughout proceedings.  In FBtG, the connecting material is as fetching as the scenarios they unleash.  The lion’s share for this feat must go to master thesp Peter Cushing, who refuses to merely be a “cryptkeeper,” but actually turns in a wily, thoughtful performance as the wise, supposedly gullible elderly demonic proprietor of Temptations, Ltd., a curiosity shop in a London nabe.  Cushing’s character, The Proprietor, is almost a run-through for Leland Gaunt in Stephen King’s Needful Things.

Like Gaunt, The Proprietor knows what we all do:  that humans are essentially their own worst enemies.  In alignment with this bit of knowledge, he doles out the appropriate evil, depending on his customers’ personal levels of deceit, treachery and outright thievery (switching price-tags, low bidding on valuable items, etc.); only the one totally honest buyer comes out virtually unharmed, but shaken nevertheless.

The four stories (The Gate Crasher, An Act of Kindness, The Elemental, The Door) involve the purchases of a mirror, a war medal, a snuff box, and an antique portal, and run the gamut from absolutely scarifying to Beetlejuice funny (a sequence with the great Margaret Leighton as a dotty medium is wonderful, a magnificent comic performance without any ham).  The dialog, too, is often snarky.  Cushing’s marvelous delivery to the wealthy creep who just cheated him out of the aforementioned stimulant container is hilarious (“I hope you enjoy snuffing it,” he tells the rake.  The actor in question is Ian Carmichael and he and his wife Nyree Dawn Porter live (well…) to regret his shameful deed.  So do the rest of the cast – and what a cast:  Ian Bannen, Diana Dors, Donald Pleasence, his striking daughter Angela, David Warner, Ian Oglivy, Lesley-Anne Down, and Jack Watson.

That FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE admirably checks off all the horror detours is not only a tribute to the writing and acting, but to the no-nonsense directing by Kevin Connor.  He is assisted by excellent cinematography (Alan Hume)  and a suitably tingly score (Douglas Gamley).

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE looks and sounds swell.  It’s a title I was hoping would eventually arrive in a 1080p High Def rendition, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.  It definitely will be a platter that will be unearthed every October, and likely several times throughout the rest of the year.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. Color. Widescreen [1.85:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Home Entertainment.  SRP: $21.99.

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