Monday, December 31, 2007
First and foremost, 2007 was the year Donna and I finally delivered MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Even though this was the year I added the last paragraphs to this 32-year project, the year I finally held the finished book in my hands, and the year of our "Ultimate Bava Book" auction on eBay, it's the saga of the book's shipping that stands out most prominently in my mind. Having our home invaded by hundreds of 37-pound boxes, seeing my little 5' 1" wife bossing around two immense delivery trucks and commandeering our friends and relatives through the militaristic details of packing and shipping... it was a nightmare, but in retrospect, one of my life's most amazing adventures.
Likewise, the response to the book has been truly gratifying, from the feature article in the current issue of RUE MORGUE to the rave reviews in SIGHT & SOUND and FANGORIA, and of course the many wonderful letters and photos and postcards sent to us by happy readers. I'm a bit unhappy that the same factors that made the Bava book such a monumental event in publishing (not just in fan publishing) are working against its availability to greater numbers of readers, and its recognition on many year-end Best lists. I'm seeing that it may be necessary to create a kind of "Shorter FINNEGANS WAKE" version of the Bava book for the benefit of general and introductory-level readers. Nevertheless, sales of what RUE MORGUE calls "The Black Bible of Mario Bava" continue to be strong and my new agent -- Howard Morhaim of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, Inc. -- is presently pursuing "popular edition" and foreign language opportunities for the book. One Italian company, I'm told, has already expressed interest in publishing the book in Italian translation, so here's hoping.
This year I also wrote two other, shorter, non-fiction books. The first was a monograph on Jefferson Airplane's 1968 album CROWN OF CREATION, which I analyzed in terms of being, in part, a science-fiction concept album inspired in part by the writings of British author John Wyndham -- the flower children of 1967 mutating into the Midwich Cuckoos, so to speak. I wrote this book in hope of contributing to Continuum Press's "33 & 1/3" line of books on classic albums. Though editor David Barker didn't accept the book on the basis of my selection, he later read and approved my completed manuscript... but he has no place for it on his roster unless one of his other contracted writers has trouble making a delivery date. This hasn't happened yet, and the book is starting to burn a proverbial hole in my pocket; I'd like to find a home for it.
The other book is VIDEODROME, my inaugural contribution to Millipede Press's forthcoming "Studies in the Horror Film" series, which is an updating of my 25-year-old unpublished book-length manuscript on the making of David Cronenberg's film, originally intended as a double-issue of CINEFANTASTIQUE. Portions of this book have previously appeared in Piers Handling's 1983 book THE SHAPE OF RAGE: THE FILMS OF DAVID CRONENBERG and as a text feature included on Criterion's VIDEODROME DVD. Originally announced for November of this year, the book is running behind schedule and I'm presently proofreading the text and helping to select images for the final layout.
Eric Yarber and I also collaborated this year on an original horror screenplay called SCARS & STRIPES. Represented by Judy Coppage of The Coppage Company, it's a potent horror script with an anti-war message, strong dramatic roles for a young cast, and, I believe, franchise potential. If I've intrigued any lurking producers out there, drop me a line and I'll direct you to Judy's office. So many new horror DVDs are released every week, made by people I've never heard of; I'd like to think that an original horror film written by a known genre authority and novelist would have some promotional advantages that others might not.
Joe Dante and his partner Elizabeth Stanley are continuing to seek funding for THE MAN WITH KALEIDOSCOPE EYES, the comedy script about the making of Roger Corman's THE TRIP that I wrote with Charlie Largent. I've been asked not to share specific details, but some recent developments are encouraging. I feel sure it's going to happen.
More visibly, I also edited and co-published eight new issues of VIDEO WATCHDOG this year, to which I also contributed numerous reviews and one notable feature article: VW #133's study of Joseph Losey's THESE ARE THE DAMNED. Additionally, I wrote a dozen "No Zone" columns for SIGHT & SOUND, as well as a separate feature article choosing 10 outstanding "grindhouse" movies.
Though it won't be surfacing until sometime next year, I also contributed to Scott Bradley's project THE HORROR BOOK OF LISTS, a list of "10 Great Horror Films That Aren't Horror Films" that I'm told had an even longer word-count than the list submitted by Richard Stanley.
Today, friendly correspondent Bill McAlpine wrote to share with me the happy news that I tied with Alejandro Jodorowsky in DVD Beaver's DVD of the Year 2007 poll for Best Audio Commentary. This serves to remind me (I actually forgot this last night, when making up a preliminary mental list!) that, in addition to everything else I did this year, I released eight new audio commentaries for Anchor Bay Entertainment's MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUMES 1 and 2 as well as two stand-alone Bava releases: ERIK THE CONQUEROR, THE GIRL WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, BLACK SABBATH, KILL BABY... KILL! (withdrawn), BARON BLOOD, BAY OF BLOOD, LISA AND THE DEVIL and RABID DOGS -- and my 2000 commentary for BLACK SUNDAY was reissued as part of VOLUME 1 and as a stand-alone release (as was BLACK SABBATH). The majority of DVD Beaver's respondents (28%) say they don't listen to commentaries, which is a shame; nevertheless, 25% voted for Jodo in the "Director" category and another 25% voted for me in the "Scholar" category. This comes as a great surprise and a very nice honor with which to close out the year. I found all the catagories in the DVD Beaver survey very interesting indeed and I recommend you give them a look.
I was also extremely fortunate to be the recipient of three Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards at last May's Wonderfest in Louisville, Kentucky -- for Best Magazine, Best Website (Video WatchBlog) and Best Writer. And this past December 23, Donna and I celebrated our 33rd wedding anniversary, an honor beside which the rest of these accomplishments pale.
What else did I write this year? Oh, yes -- this blog.
I've been giving some serious consideration of late to retiring this blog, because it imposes a lot of extra work on me; frankly, since the completion of the Bava book, I've been having difficulty finding my way back into purely creative writing and the blog isn't helping. But after compiling this list of everything I was able to achieve this year, above and beyond Video WatchBlog, I'll try to carry on awhile longer. I have a couple of projects already in mind for 2008, and this past year I managed to carry out a little more than a couple, so everything should be doable as long as I keep my health.
Of course, all of this writing I do would be meaningless without its audience, and I thank you all for being there for me and my eagerly-shared opinions and insights, for paying attention, and for keeping me honest by correcting my occasional mistakes. Donna joins me in wishing you all a very happy, healthy -- and, above all, productive -- 2008.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
Saturday, December 29, 2007
ANTENA CRIMINAL is a new documentary that chronicles the making of Franco's 2000 crime thriller BLIND TARGET, filmed by Horrorwitz, who was cast to play a supporting role in the film. Brian showed me a rough cut of the picture a couple of years ago and I found it very interesting even in that state -- more interesting than BLIND TARGET, frankly -- including some candid scenes that have stuck with me ever since. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the final cut.
The two-disc DVD-R set includes: ANTENA CRIMINAL (84 minutes), an exclusive interview with Jess Franco (25 minutes), outtakes and deleted footage (from ANTENA CRIMINAL, not BLIND TARGET - 50 minutes)a Photo Gallery with complete score (21 minutes), documentation of ANTENA CRIMINAL's World Premiere (8 minutes), a trailer (3 minutes), and liner notes by Pete Tombs of Mondo Macabro. Each copy of ANTENA CRIMINAL comes with a free DVD of Sub Rosa's release of BLIND TARGET. The low, low price for the whole package is $11.98 plus shipping.
Horrorwitz writes about the sale: "Here's how it works: The DVD will go on sale December 30th at the stroke of midnight (that's this Sunday night / Monday morning). [Editor's note: That would make it technically December 31, but you know what he means.] The first 7 orders that come through the Trash Palace website's order page each get a free autographed photo as follows:
"Customers # 1 to 3 each get a beautiful color glossy 8 x 10 still of Jess Franco and Lina Romay from the 1970s with Lina licking Jess' face! It is signed in gold ink by Jess and black ink by Lina!
"Customers # 4 and 5 each get a color glossy 8 x 10 still of Jess from DR. WONG'S VIRTUAL HELL, his name and a "secret Asian message" signed in gold by Jess Franco!
"Customers #6 and 7 get a color glossy 8 x 10 still of Lina from "Dr. Wong's Virtual Hell" signed in black ink by Lina Romay!
"In order to qualify you must be one of the first 7 customer at or after 12 o'clock midnight this Sunday night / Monday morning via our website. Any orders coming in before midnight will count as pre-orders but will NOT qualify for the photo giveaway."
For more information on ANTENA CRIMINAL (check out the trailer!), click here. To go directly to the secure order form, use this link.
Regrettably, not all of the episodes are quite complete -- it seems that the original cuts of some episodes got misplaced along the way when they were re-cut for shuffling back into the original run as retrospective episodes, at which time the first couple of minutes were lopped off to make room at the end for a newly-inserted Ricky Nelson performance -- but an impressive percentage of them are intact, even to the point of including their original commercials for such products as Coca-Cola, Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix, and Kodak camera.
THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET has an undeserved reputation of being bland family comedy. With many of its best episodes co-authored by future GREEN ACRES scribe Jay Sommers, it's often delirious in its comic convolutions of ordinary life and sometimes downright surreal, as in the classic episode "Ozzie's Triple Banana Surprise" (also included here). The shows benefit all the more from being seen in their original broadcast context, as the Nelson family would also often appear in the commercials adorning their program -- and so would some other surprising, familiar faces.
Case in point: Here is a frame from one of the show's Kodak commercials, which finds Ricky Nelson aiming his Kodak camera at actress Joyce Taylor. You may remember Joyce as Beatrice Rappaccini in the best segment of the Nathaniel Hawthorne anthology film TWICE TOLD TALES or as the female lead in Edward L. Cahn's BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, but this is her closer to the beginning of her career.
Around this same time, Joyce was the female interest in an episode of OZZIE AND HARRIET called "Ricky the Bullfighter" -- shots from which, featuring her, later turned up in Ozzie's 1961 promotional film (the prototypical "rock video") for Rick's hit single "Travelin' Man."
The OZZIE & HARRIET episode which this commercial accompanies, "David the Law Clerk", rates special attention for a still-astonishing dream sequence in which David Nelson (who finds his application for a job in a law firm troubled by a true but unbelievable number of coincidences) rehearses pleading his case to prospective employer Mr. Ralph Dobson (Francis DeSales) in a court of law. The tour de force sequence, directed by Ozzie Nelson himself, finds David Nelson playing all of the principals except the members of the jury.
"David the Law Clerk" was one of the episodes included in this year's somewhat disappointing Shout Factory release THE NELSON FAMILY PRESENTS THE BEST OF THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE AND HARRIET, the only family-authorized release of these public-domain episodes to date. (The authorized version is the one that doesn't include the original commercials, sad to say.) David Nelson contributed audio commentaries to some of the episodes in the Shout Factory set, but unfortunately not for this episode, which I imagine would have made for very interesting listening.
Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Friday, December 21, 2007
All in all, an ideal disc of one of the great transgressive horror films of the 1970s, which Blue Underground is releasing on the same day as another Franco title, CECILIA, a picturesque piece of '80s erotica also known as Aberraciones sexuales de una mujer casada.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
I was just out of bed and getting online, before coffee (as is my unfortunate habit), when I discovered on the Mobius Film Discussion Boards a posting from Amy announcing her discovery of two forgotten EPs recorded by the late Spanish actress Soledad Miranda in 1964 and 1965. I had written a seminal appreciative essay about Soledad -- unforgettable as the Dark Lady of such Jess Franco sonnets as VAMPYROS LESBOS and SHE KILLS IN ECSTASY, tragically killed in an automobile accident in 1970 -- so I had very specific feelings about her and who she was. Therefore, it came as a great shock when I set eyes for the first time on the picture sleeve of her first Belter Records EP (pictured above), which showed this apparition of silken severity sporting a most unlikely goofy grin and a tousled blonde hairstyle that made her look like the Peggy Lee pooch in Disney's LADY AND THE TRAMP. Without her name there, I would never have recognized her in the photo. I gawked at it and gawked at it and thought I had finally lost my mind.
Since Amy's discovery of these rare records, their exposure has been limited to sound bytes on her valuable website soledadmiranda.com, but now the site is making all eight tracks from the two Belter EPs, with other rare and pertinent tracks, available on CD-R as SOLEDAD SINGS! Also included on the disc are previously unreleased musical performances taken from the soundtracks of the films CANCION DE CUNA (1961), EVA 63 (1963) and CURRITO DE LA CRUZ (1965); sound bytes from the movies SOLTERA Y MADRE EN LA VIDA and 100 RIFLES; and three tribute songs performed by American Boyfriends and Papillon.
It is actually in the songs recorded for the three aforementioned films that Soledad's singing sounds most natural and heartfelt. The three songs from CANCION DE CUNA, a movie set in the late 19th century, have an operatic quality to which her voice seems ideally suited. In EVA 63, set in 1963, Soledad actually played a young woman named Soledad who aspires to a singing career, and in these songs she ventures into gypsy and flamenco music, mostly a cappella, that again feels bright and genuine. The two songs from CURRITO DE LA CRUZ, a bullfighting melodrama, are bolero-like dirges sung at the funeral services for two matadors -- almost identical in character, but nevertheless moving.
Monday, December 17, 2007
(BC, JC, SMD, SI, TL, RSU)
THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION (SRB, JC, SI, TL)
TWIN PEAKS DEFINITIVE GOLD COLLECTION (SMD, SI, TL, RSU)
ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (JC, TL, RSU)
THE SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY (SRB, JC, SI)
CLASSIC FLY COLLECTION (TL, RHS)
DOCTOR WHO COMPLETE THIRD SEASON (SI, DK)
THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY (SRB, RSU)FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD aka FRANKENSTEIN VS. BARUGON (SI, DK)
GHIDRAH THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER (SRB, DK)
HEROES - SEASON ONE (DK, TL)
IF... (TL, RSU)
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (SRB, DK)
O LUCKY MAN! (TL, RSU)
PAN'S LABYRINTH (JC, TL)
PERFORMANCE (SRB, RSU)
STANLEY KUBRICK - WARNER HOME VIDEO DIRECTORS SERIES (TL, RSU)
WHO CAN KILL A CHILD (BC, RHS)
SRB - Stephen R. Bissette
BC - Bill Cooke
JC - John Charles
SMD - Shane M. Dallmann
DK - David Kalat
SI - Sheldon Inkol
TL - Tim Lucas
RHS - Richard Harland Smith
RSU - Rebecca and Sam Umland
Note: Though Shane Dallmann didn't specifically include WITCHFINDER GENERAL on his list as a stand-alone title, he did make a special point of highlighting it in his notes for VINCENT PRICE: THE SCREAM GREATS COLLECTION, which he did select -- so I am counting this as a vote in the movie's favor.
As with anyone else, my selections have been guided as much by mood and impulse as personal taste -- that is to say, I had to choose from those titles I initially chose to watch. I didn't always go with the easy titles, but some formidable ones did get overlooked, but I do still hope to watch and review some of them, sometime or another. So my apologies, in advance, to everything from FORD AT FOX to THE SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY to THE FILMS OF ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY to THE THREEPENNY OPERA to LA JETÉE/SANS SOLEIL to the remastered GANJA & HESS to EARLY BERGMAN to THE MONSTER SQUAD (I was perhaps most surprised that this one didn't rank on any of our past week's lists)... discs that, for whatever reason, didn't enter the running, through no fault of their own.
To make this game a little more bearable for me and fun for you, I've divided my list into two: one for single movie releases, and another for box sets. I've also thrown in an additional list of notable DVD restorations of 2007 and a couple of "back to the drawing board" titles. Everything is listed in order of preference.
SINGLE FILM RELEASES
1. IF…. (Criterion, pictured)
Of all the DVDs I viewed in 2007, this is the one that lifted my heart highest. Lindsay Anderson’s savage and surrealistic parable about how the British school system prepares its young men to inherit the world is one of the great examples of British postwar filmmaking, a key work film of the 1960s, and now one of the great Criterion releases. Malcolm McDowell’s candid audio commentary gives an already exhilarating experience the personal element that makes this two-disc set an instant classic.
2. CALIGULA – THREE-DISC IMPERIAL EDITION (Image Entertainment)
I return to this film maudit periodically, always expecting more from it than it can actually deliver; it perpetually frustrates in that it’s never quite so good or so bad as you want it to be. But this handsome set, the unlikely crown atop Image Entertainment’s annual roster, is an important release, not least of all for presenting a reconstructed pre-release version that comes much closer to the target than either of the previous releases issued by Image nearly a decade ago. This explicit-but-not-hardcore 203-minute edition (in which the climactic barge orgy still goes on far too long to no apparent point) is made additionally attractive by two wonderfully dishy commentaries by Malcolm McDowell (moderated by the articulate Nick Redman) and Helen Mirren (moderated by Alan Jones, who exclaims at the sight of Paolo Heusch’s name in the end credits – good man! – and James Chaffin, the author of a forthcoming book on CALIGULA, whose fannish intensity emboldens him to interrupt Dame Helen a few times too often), as well as another featuring a telephone interview with one of the film’s on-set writers, Ernest Volkman (I’ll get around to this one someday, I promise). The set also includes executive producer Bob Guccione’s 156-minute hardcore theatrical version (not the R-rated version that merely snipped out the hardcore material); a wealth of deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes clips, alternate camera angle supplements (including a good deal of additional coverage of the “wedding rape”), and making-of featurettes; new interviews with director Tinto Brass and actors John Steiner and Lori Wagner; a color booklet with molto Watchdoggian liner notes by Thomas A. Ryerson and R. J. Buffalo; two DVD-ROM drafts of Gore Vidal’s original script and miscellaneous press materials; and a good deal more. The reminiscences of the participants seldom coincide but do add up to an enthralling “Rashomon” of an important end-of-an-era production; it is only when Brass speaks about the film that we find someone completely informed about its origins, its mishaps, its misfortunes, its mutinies and lawsuits. His comments about what the movie might have been (he compares his film to the extant one by comparing the original Coliseum to today's ruin) convince us that he is the auteur of this film… or, rather, he would have been, had he not been barred from the shot selection, editing, scoring and so forth by Guccione and others who had no practical experience of assembling a motion picture, much less such a complex and ornate one. Brass insists that he has no interest in going back to this project, so it remains for us to assemble what might have been in our own heads – and this outstanding set makes that goal much closer to possible.
3. KILL, BABY… KILL! (Dark Sky Films)
Actually, this one was withdrawn just prior to its release, so I'm splitting hairs a bit by including it, but this was, is, and remains a dream disc for me. This definitive (yet unauthorized) issue of Mario Bava’s most unique film – despite its title, a haunting turn-of-the-20th-century ghost story that has inspired countless filmmakers – exists only in a limited number of copies leaked to the press before the judge’s gavel fell. It’s sourced from a more beautiful and integral element than the authorized Anchor Bay release (included in THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 1) and, better yet, it features a remarkable documentary in which David Gregory takes Lamberto Bava back to the original shooting locations for some reminiscing – a must-see for all Bava fans. It also features a fairly good audio commentary by Yours Truly (my second attempt), recorded in 2000 before a couple of facts were in place, so it needs redoing.
4. THAT THING YOU DO! – THE DIRECTOR’S CUT (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Tom Hanks co-wrote and directed this tuneful, comedic story of the meteoric rise and fall of The Wonders, an imaginary one-hit wonder pop group from the Sixties – and it’s one of the most refreshing and confident directorial debuts ever. Magically attentive to detail, meticulously well-cast, clearly in love with actors and its subject matter, it may well be not only the best movie yet made about this period of American music, but about this period of American history. The director’s cut – which adds more than 40 minutes to the original running time – achieves the unthinkable, actually improving upon a feature that I consider technically perfect and brimming with heart.
5. PAN’S LABYRINTH (New Line Platinum Series)
Guillermo del Toro’s latest is a magnificent addition to our archive of fantasy cinema – proof that it’s possible to deal with children and fairies and still produce a film of substance. His audio commentary is the year’s best: he’s the rare filmmaker who can discuss his own work as its creator, as a critic, as a psychoanalyst, and as a fan. The other supplements offer us more than even the most voracious admirer has time to consume.
6. O LUCKY MAN! (Warner Home Video)
A long-awaited arrival on DVD, Lindsay Anderson’s second film in the “Mick Travers” triptych (preceded by IF…. and followed years later by BRITANNIA HOSPITAL) is another masterpiece, this time about life after graduation and on the theme of ambition. More approachable for American viewers, its three-hour-plus running time goes by remarkably fast thanks to Alan Price’s sagely winning songs and a consistently surprising script. After hearing the commentary for IF…., I was expecting a bit more vitality from this one (a joint effort by McDowell, writer David Sherwin, and Price) and it’s unfortunate that Warner decided to insert a disruptive disc break. The bonus documentary, Jan Harlan’s O LUCKY MALCOLM!, a feature-length profile of McDowell, is splendid. [Note: My full-length review of O LUCKY MAN! appears in the current January 08 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, also on their website here.]
7. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (MGM/Fox)
Literally for decades, I’ve been campaigning for a proper restoration of this film – the most abused of all horror-related movies, the rescored “continental” version of which has seriously and rampantly damaged the reputation of its late director, Michael Reeves (who died in 1969 at age 25), since it succeeded the director’s cut on video in the 1980s. Oddly, now that MGM has finally restored the picture – indeed, presented it uncut in America for the first time – I feel as though I’ve moved beyond it. Strange to think that IF…., made the same year by a man in his late 40s, now seems to me infinitely more angry and revolutionary and romantic than this parallel warning about the perils of politics and regimentation. MGM's restoration is not all of what makes this an important DVD release; its value also resides in the clarity of thought expressed by co-star Ian Ogilvy in his commentary, when he insists that, yes, it’s a wonderful picture… but not really a classic, rather a film whose tremendous promise some people simply cannot bring themselves to accept would remain unfulfilled. That, and the fact that Michael Reeves can finally rest in peace, now that his own best work is able to speak on his behalf.
8. ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS (Criterion)
A splendid two-disc set that resurrects and updates one of Criterion’s most outstanding and outré laserdisc releases: a new anamorphic transfer of the 1964 film, a remarkably humanistic and science-rooted picture; the laserdisc commentary by its two stars, remarkably candid about the ways in which this film did and did not change their lives; and an entire second disc of valuable extras, including Michael Lennick’s canny dissection of the science fact underpinning this Ib Melchior-penned science fiction classic.
9. ERIK THE CONQUEROR (Anchor Bay)
Mario Bava’s Viking tragedy is the richest of his costume pictures, a staggering triumph of vision over budget, a terrific action picture yet every bit as contemplative and introspective as the later KNIVES OF THE AVENGER, which was more obvious about it. The wedding scene, with its pagan pageantry, numerous extras, and its shower of golden glitter, may be the single most confectionary image I saw on my widescreen monitor all year – because this disc didn’t exist at the time, I wasn’t able to pay it proper respect in MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. Pure matinee movie magic. I provided the audio commentary for this disc, as well as the Cameron Mitchell interview, but hubris has nothing to do with my selection; the editing skills of producer Perry Martin made both of these supplements better than they were in their raw states.
10 (tie). HELP! (Capitol)
If any proof was needed that the DVD market is oversaturated, it’s that this long-desired release came out last month, finally, to almost no fanfare; it’s got to be the most invisible major release of the year – and it doesn’t help that the deluxe edition, the one fans want most, is so overpriced. That said, I believe in all seriousness that time will ultimately be kinder to HELP! than to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT; its sense of humor is every bit as innovative and cutting (the main titles joke of Beatles performance footage being used as a dartboard – and as an intrusion of color into their black-and-white cinematic image – is bravely self-mocking), the songs are better, their presentation is far more inventive, and David Watkin’s color photography is some of the most delicious of the decade. My only complaint: if the Beatles don’t rate the HD DVD or Blu-ray treatment, who should?
10 (tie). WALT DISNEY TREASURES: THE HARDY BOYS – THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB 1956-1957 (Walt Disney Video)
This wonderful two-disc release isn’t likely to make many year’s end lists, but that’s not because it’s undeserving. It had the misfortune to hit the market last mid-December – just in time for last-minute holiday shoppers, but too late to make the 2006 lists and, by now, long enough ago to be forgotten. It collects the entire “Mystery of the Applegate Treasure” serial starring Tim Considine and Tommy Kirk (who, it needs to be said, gives a nearly James Dean level performance as Joe Hardy), the entire episode of THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB that introduced the serial, new camera interviews with the stars, a fascinating featurette about the literary history of the Hardy Boys and author “Franklin W. Dixon” (the house name used by various different authors), and much else of interest. The original broadcast of the serial and its repeat in the late 1960s were seismic events for their respective generations, and it remains the definitive adaptation of the Dixon stories, of its time but still retaining its teasing mystery, good humor, and inviting spookiness.
1. BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (Criterion, pictured)
To know that Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s epic adaptation of Alfred Doblin’s comparatively compact novel runs fifteen hours does not fully prepare us for the tempestuous, tumultuous and often tender experience of it; this is not something merely to be seen, but to be lived through – a story of one man’s survival in a frighteningly mercurial and dangerous world, filled with some of the most memorable and heartbreaking characters you will ever meet. Made for German television, it is best absorbed on video and it satisfies differently depending on if you choose to absorb it all in one or two sittings, or in more occasional doses. Barbara Sukowa is astonishing from the moment she enters the picture. The final segment, unapologetically free-form and dreamlike, points the way to what David Lynch would create in the strangest passages of TWIN PEAKS. The set also includes all the documentary support one might wish, and a crucial point of reference: a fascinating 1931 film version, a mere 90 minutes long, scripted by Doblin himself.
2. STANLEY KUBRICK - WARNER HOME VIDEO DIRECTORS SERIES (Warner Home Video)
We’ve bought these films twice already on DVD, but the triple dip is truly the pièce de resistance: not only are the audio commentaries and documentary supplements essential, but Kubrick’s MGM-Warner Bros. period is now available in HD DVD and Blu-ray, where the perfect aura of his product is most palpable. The only problem with the set is that it makes one ache for the missing-in-action BARRY LYNDON, which one suspects will benefit most of all (after 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) from high definition.
3. MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 1 & 2 (Anchor Bay Entertainment)
Fox’s FORD AT FOX box set (which, needless to say, wasn’t sent to us for review) is receiving a lot of attention for packaging 25 John Ford films (1/5th of them previously released) for just under $300… but shop at the right places and you can acquire the 14 different Mario Bava films collected in these two sets for about $60, in fully restored and supplemented presentations with numerous audio commentaries (most, but not all, by me). FORD AT FOX includes a modest hardcover book; for roughly the same total amount of money (a $10 difference) you can acquire these two sets and a copy of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK besides. You don’t need me to tell you which is the better value.
4. THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. – THE COMPLETE SERIES (Time/Life)
This one arrived on my doorstep in time to slip in right under the wire. The packaging is a retro-delight: 41 discs in a compact silver attaché case bearing the logo of the classic NBC-TV spy series (1964-1968) in orange, white and black. Alas, the attaché case doesn’t snap covert photographs or fire daggers, but this is nevertheless one U.N.C.L.E. that ups the auntie, so to speak: it contains every episode from all four seasons, uncut and digitally remastered, as well as the original “SOLO” pilot in color, the feature ONE SPY TOO MANY, and numerous other supplements and featurettes, elegantly assembled in plastic booklets with transparent slipcases. The set is all that it claims to be – the complete series – but completists will note the absence of the other U.N.C.L.E. movies (which do contain unique footage and were released some years back as a multi-disc set in the UK) and the 1983 CBS reunion TV-movie RETURN OF THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. But there is pa-lenty here to keep us busy until the rest becomes available. This set is available exclusively from Time/Life, and it’s my understanding that the sets are going to be released to stores next year, one season at a time. If true, this is your only shot at acquiring the attaché case and the two bonus discs.
5. POPEYE THE SAILOR VOLUME 1 1933-1938 (Warner Home Video)
Long subjected to horrid colorization and even censorship on TBS, The Cartoon Network, Boomerang and other channels, the original B&W POPEYE cartoons produced by the Fleischer studio comprise what many animation buffs consider to be the finest collection of animation shorts ever produced. This set delivers the goods that explain why. Wonderful characters, surreal funhouse glimpses of an equally unique world, infectious songs, and daredevil animation techniques that encompass three-dimensional backdrops and a mind-bending mastery of matters of depth and perspective. And the work is supported by all the scholarship you could want. With four discs, 58 shorts, and two two-reelers in full color (and still a second set to come!), not to mention numerous scholarly commentaries and historical featurettes, this is the most important work of film restoration issued on disc this year. Had it given us “THE COMPLETE POPEYE” all in one place, such generosity might have vaulted it nearer the top of my list.
6. HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA (Gaumont Video, French import)
Jean-Luc Godard’s “Story of Cinema” is neither your story of cinema or mine; it’s “his toi,” as the punning logos sometime confess. What is contained in these five discs is an epic poem on the theme of motion pictures, their personalities, their images, their potential – a visual mash-up of images ranging from silent-era pornography to Hitchcock, from Hawks to the Nouvelle Vague, and beyond. Starting to watch this project is a bit like starting to read Nabokov’s ADA: it took me about ten minutes to find the rhythm of the piece, and then I got into it; it was almost like accepting a transfusion of someone else’s blood. Admittedly, it can be disconcerting to see documentary footage from concentration camps ebbing and flowing over and under images of 1920s copulation, but you do come out the other end of this experience with new ways of seeing, and the shorthand achieves greater coherence over time so that you’re tempted to start over from the beginning. With original cameo appearances by Alain Cuny and a very young Julie Delpy. Available stateside from Xploited Cinema.
7. THE PRISONER – 40th ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Network Video, British import)
A&E Home Video has glutted the US market with packagings and repackagings of their same old same-old masters of this classic Patrick McGoohan series, but it took Network Video in the UK to do it right: all 17 episodes have been newly transferred from their original negatives and digitally restored, giving the still-progressive show a look of immediacy it never had even on television – the episodes somehow look more vibrant and lifelike than the TWIN PEAKS episodes in my #8 position, which were made twenty-odd years later. They have also been supplemented by seven informative audio commentaries from directors and other production crew, PDF files of the original shooting scripts (including some never produced!), and a new feature-length documentary. No McGoohan input, of course, but you want the show to retain some mystery… Available stateside from Xploited Cinema.
8. TWIN PEAKS DEFINITIVE GOLDEN COLLECTION (Paramount)
It’s natural to feel conflicted about this important release, which too closely followed a separate release of the second season (which includes audio commentaries not ported over here), but it does present the long-desired, never-before-domestically-released “first episode” cut of the pilot, the complete run of the series in one compact package, all the Log Lady intros filmed for Bravo, fresh input from David Lynch, a candidly forthcoming making-of documentary, a look at TWIN PEAKS fan getaways, and much else of interest. Aspects of the show have dated, but this set still contains some of the most progressive and harrowing material ever shot for series television – and some of the stand-out scenes in Lynch’s filmography.
9. HEROES – SEASON 1 (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
Only time will tell if this release deserved higher placement on my list, but for now, the classics must take precedence. Nevertheless, here we have one of the most impressive and sustained feats of imaginative storytelling I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing unfold on television in one tidy, generously supplemented package – undeniably, already, a great thing. Going back to the first episode after watching the last is to be astonished by how far a single season of TV can take us and its vividly sketched cast of characters, many of whom are traded between the teams of Good and Evil more times than we can count – and checking out Tim Kring’s original cut of the pilot makes its overall evolution still more remarkable. Yes, it’s like a prequel to X-MEN… but without the gaydar and without the overbearance that comes aboard with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. And it’s a pleasure to have so many episodes accompanied by helpful, spirited commentary. Take that, SOPRANOS. (Is this Malcolm McDowell’s year or what?)
10. CLASSIC FLY COLLECTION (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment)
Kurt Neumann’s THE FLY (1958), filmed in color and scope, and its B&W scope sequel RETURN OF THE FLY (1959) have been issued on disc before. While they are very much two peas in a telepod, both featuring Vincent Price, their previous issues have always missed the companionship of their distant cousin sequel, Don Sharp’s sorely underrated and somewhat (dare I say it?) pre-Cronenbergian CURSE OF THE FLY, made in 1964 in familiar scope and B&W. This set corrects that omission and includes a featurette history of the series that ranks among the very best of its kind. Everything good I can say about this set can also likely be said of the same company’s FOX HORROR CLASSICS set, which collects three important works by director John Brahm (THE LODGER, HANGOVER SQUARE, THE UNDYING MONSTER), which unfortunately I have yet to see.
12 NOTABLE RESTORATIONS
1. POPEYE THE SAILOR 1933-1938 (Warner Home Video)
The greatest cartoon series of them all, magnificently restored to something that looks even better than brand new.
2. WITCHFINDER GENERAL (MGM)
For the first time in a half-century, this film can be seen by American viewers as Michael Reeves actually made it. The cheesy nudity of the continental version is gone, but its soul and sinew are finally back.
3. CALIGULA – THREE-DISC IMPERIAL EDITION (Image Entertainment)
Contains a 203-minute pre-release cut that puts forth this film maudit’s best bid to date for cinematic importance. Seeing this version, I came to the conclusion that its opulent Danilo Donati sets, so grandiose as to make no allowances for camera placement and composition, were ultimately the film’s aesthetic downfall; it had to be shot with four cameras simultaneously, none (or at least few) of the compositions ideal. But finally, there is now a version of the film that warrants more than a single viewing.
4. DUCK, YOU SUCKER (MGM)
I still haven't found time to explore the wonders of MGM's SERGIO LEONE ANTHOLOGY set, hence its omission from my multiple title/box set list, but all the accounts I've read seem to agree that Leone's epic revolutionary Western -- always a problem title on tape, laserdisc and DVD -- is now finally as complete as it's ever likely to be, with its long-missing ending finally restored. That's good enough for me.
5. THE FILMS OF KENNETH ANGER, VOLUME 1 and 2 (Fantoma)
These two lavishly packaged sets preserve the UCLA Film Archive restorations of Anger’s experimental shorts, produced between 1947 and 1981. Watching them is like seeing the juice put back into a blood orange, or a brace of staid museum curios recharged with their innate unholiness.
6. BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA (Sony Pictures)
Though met with ill-informed controversy online, producer Kim Aubry’s work restores Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation as it originally appeared onscreen – undoing much of the chromatic reinvention applied to the picture to make it more “readable” in earlier, cruder home video transfers.
7. IF…. (Criterion)
The Criterion disc restores a small amount of footage trimmed from the film’s American release, a frontal view of headmistress Mary McLeod’s nude walk through the empty corridors of the school.
8. HORROR RISES FROM THE TOMB (Deimos/BCI Eclipse)
After decades of acquiring its cult audience via cut and cropped videotape presentations, the film that many fans consider Paul Naschy’s best arrives on disc as it was meant to be seen. Spanish horror at its most diabolic and merciless.
9. COUNT DRACULA (BBC Warner)
This marvelous BBC television production, usually relieved of a brief passage implying the devouring of an infant by Dracula’s wives, arrives on disc intact.
10. QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE (Warner Home Video)
Granted, it’s not much to write home about, but this sexist sf-trash favorite does regain something by being available again in its original scope framing – for the first time in almost half a century. Fifty years, people. Fifty years.
11 & 12. TWISTED TERROR COLLECTION (Warner Home Video)
This Eighties-Nineties horror collection includes, without any flagging whatsoever, the never-before-released uncut versions of EYES OF A STRANGER and Wes Craven’s DEADLY FRIEND. Yesterday’s X-rating is today’s all-ages-friendly “Unrated.”
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
PERFORMANCE (Warner Home Video)
So close, but the missing "Here's to Old England!" grates on me. Sorry.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT/VAULT OF HORROR (20th Century Fox "Midnite Movies")
These long-awaited Amicus adaptations of EC's classic horror comics arrived on DVD half-baked. TALES appears to be alright, but VAULT is still missing the shot trimmed from US prints during the most scissor-happy days of the MPAA, a comic shot of blood being dispensed from a keg in a man's neck in a restaurant for vampires. The shot is included in a Region 2 DVD release that can be obtained from XploitedCinema.com, but the domestic transfer is more attractive.
Later today, I will be posting the announcement of VIDEO WATCHDOG's DVD of the Year, as chosen by our contributors. No fair doing the math yourself. Be surprised.