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Another Aisle Seat Potpourri

by Andy Dursin

Since I still pay for my movie tickets, and have a handful of friends coming in for Thanksgiving next week (who will demand several trips to the multiplex), I thought this was a good weekend to forget about the cinema for a change. After all, a troika of theatrical features opened to the tune of godawful reviews--I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, a sequel to one of last year's most predictable and boring box-office hits; I'LL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS, a Jonathan Taylor Thomas Disney vehicle that seemed to arrive a month too early; and MEET JOE BLACK, which had been getting bad word-of-mouth ever since a test screening back in June.

While I do promise to give you my read on these films, right now I can't say for sure just how bad or surprisingly decent any of them are. But I can tell you this--Adam Sandler's THE WATERBOY was still the #1 movie over the weekend, so what more do you really need to know about the state of our current movie-going climate?

Next week brings the Jerry Bruckheimer/Tony Scott reunion ENEMY OF THE STATE with Will Smith and Gene Hackman, while George Miller's BABE: PIG IN THE CITY sequel is still underdoing extensive post-production work following a discouraging screening last Wednesday (according to Variety, the film still isn't done and what there is completed isn't very good), even though it's due for release on November 25th! Let's hope that something more interesting ends up on-screen than the disappointments already haunting multiplexes everywhere.

In the meantime, here are some DVD reviews, news, and a handful of Reader Comments to tide you over until then...

DVD News & Reviews

MGM's Special Edition DVD of TOMORROW NEVER DIES ($34.98) arrives in stores on Tuesday. I haven't screened the supplement-laden DVD yet, although it has been confirmed that the disc does include an isolated score track and interview with David Arnold, in addition to a 45-minute Bond retrospective (which aired on CBS last Christmas Eve), two commentary tracks, and other assorted extras. Sounds like a must for both Bond buffs and film score fans--pick it up before it disappears (this is supposedly a limited edition), and all you're left with is a bootleg of the score track that'll cost more than the DVD itself.


DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (Anchor Bay DVD, $24.98, ** for content, *** presentation): The lasting contribution of Hammer Films to the horror genre is wide-ranging. The studio broke boundaries with ample amounts of blood and sex found in many of their films, which--while tame by today's standards--set the table for the gratuitous gore found throughout the genre once when the horror market exploded into "R-rated" territory in the late '60s.

This 1965 entry in Hammer's popular Dracula series is not one of the more memorable films starring the Count, yet there's still plenty of stimulating atmosphere on-hand which made the Hammer name synonymous with genre craftsmanship, particularly in the '50s and '60s.

DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS marked Christopher Lee's first follow-up appearance as the Count, although it's actually the third film in the Hammer Dracula series. Its predecessors--1958's HORROR OF DRACULA and the terrific 1960 BRIDES OF DRACULA--both starred Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and are far superior to this sequel, which finds a pair of upper-crust British couples blundering into Dracula's old mansion while honeymooning in the Carpathian mountains. An interminable amount of waiting ensues while the Count's zombie butler finally kills one of the husbands, whose blood is used to resurrect Drac himself. Things, predictably, perk up once Lee turns up with fangs in check, though the Count doesn't say a word in this outing, preferring instead to cast his gaze on the most repressed of the Brits, worrying wife Barbara Shelley, who is turned into a voluptuous vamp before the surviving couple discusses an appropriate course of action with Father Sandor (Andrew Keir, who does a good job substituting for Cushing's Van Helsing). The resolution is interesting although the ever-changing ground rules of most vampire films probably wouldn't allow it these days.

The only Hammer Dracula to be shot in a widescreen process, DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS looks creepy and atmospheric, with Terence Fisher's leisurely direction building up to the requisite scenes of the Count pursuing his victims. The problem is that the picture is awfully static for most of its running time; it takes forever to get the action going, and is standard issue material once it does. James Bernard's terribly bombastic score wears on the ears, though the DVD itself isn't without its rewards--an audio commentary from Lee, Shelley, and co-stars Francis Matthews and Suzan Farmer is filled with nostalgic anecdotes, and there are archival home movies, a pair of trailers ("Boys, get your Dracula fangs at the theater!"), and a dull half-hour "World of Hammer" program with clips from various Dracula movies narrated by Oliver Reed.

For the money, this a must for Hammer fans due to its supplements and solid transfer, showing the movie in its full Hammerscope aspect ratio for the first time on DVD.


QUATERMASS & THE PIT (Anchor Bay DVD, $24.98, *** for content, ***1/2 presentation): One of Hammer studios' finest features, this intellectual sci-fi thriller is a fascinating, thought-provoking entry into the "Quatermass" series, which initially began as a BBC television serial before receiving life on the theatrical front in the late '50s.

British scientist Quatermass (Andrew Keir) is called in to analyze the remains of a spacecraft and a prehistoric human discovered by anthropologist James Donald during the excavation of a subway tunnel in London. The craft still seems to be emitting energy, which leads Quatermass to conclude that we humans received our intellect and latent physic powers from a planned invasion of the Earth by Martians, who still--in some form--plan to make good on their intentions!

Scripted by Nigel Kneale, this 1968 picture is a intelligent and highly entertaining picture, originally released to U.S. theaters as "Five Million Years to Earth." The performances are first-rate and despite the lack of elaborate effects, the movie still manages to grip the viewer from start to finish.

Anchor Bay's DVD contains a beautiful remastered print, letterboxed at 1.66:1, and a remixed Dolby Digital soundtrack, offering more effects and stereophonic atmosphere than the original mono sound. A commentary track with director Roy Baker and Kneale is included, and it's a bit dry, with neither speaking seeming too comfortable until the end of the picture. Nevertheless, it's a must for fans, and a pair of U.S./U.K. trailers and TV commercials, as well as a disposable half-hour "World of Hammer" episode showing clips from the Quatermass and Frankenstein films, are also included on the second side.

Overall, it's a fitting presentation for one of the best sci-fi films of the 1960s, a definite must-see for anyone who has only caught glimpses of the film on AMC over the last few years.


Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Robin Anderson (EnterAct@aol.com):

    Finally, a good review of BRIDE OF CHUCKY!

    I thought BoC was one of the best, funniest horror spoofs in the current "Scream"-inspired film cycle. Most of the critics just didn't get it; it was supposed to be cheesy and funny and purposefully un-PC. In other words, "junk culture".

    And while I honestly can't say that BoC was a piece of artistic cinema, I can honestly say I enjoyed the movie far, far more than I expected to. It was gorgeously photographed, which was better than the material deserved, and the doll FX were startlingly well-done at times (even if some of the long shots used midget stand-ins for Chucky and Tiffany). And really, who doesn't want to see Jack from "Three's Company" meet a horrible end?

    It's refreshing indeed to read a critic who views exploitation films in the spirit they're offered. Keep up the good work!

Thanks Robin. Ground rule #1 for critics: review each movie for what it's trying to accomplish and grade it only on that basis. BRIDE OF CHUCKY isn't aiming as high as an Oscar contender with lofty ideals, but you can't knock it down just because of that. In fact, you have to applaud the filmmakers for creating one demented spoof!

From Stephen Townsley (lancelot75@juno.com):

    Actually, I'm responding to Mr. Walmsley's questioning of Halloween and the apparent glorification of Evil. Yes, ok, so Halloween is a rather pagan ritual. "All Hallow's Eve", as the more formal title. Rather than a "celebration" of Evil, traditionally, it is more a ritual against evil. All Hallow's Eve is known in pagan mythology to be the time when the world is most susceptible to evil spirits, so revellers would don masks to frighten away the spirits. (As "spooky" is a sufficient antidote for "spooky"--like the gargoyles on Notre Dame.)

    This has little to do with film music--I apologize. Just thought I'd offer some help for the "holiday impaired." (Which I supposed most of us in the United States are, since we've abandoned a lot of the meaning in most of our holidays, in favor of an excuse to skip school, get off work, or buy flowers like crazy....)

I haven't received a follow-up from Simon Walmsley about this, but I do hope he's been enlightened somewhat by the "Holiday origins" discussion we've been having here. Not to worry about this having little to do with film music--most of my columns are film intensive anyhow, not score-intensive, but you knew that by now. A discussion on the origins of Halloween is really just the next step to making this the FSM equivalent of a Jerry Springer show, which has been my goal all along (hehehehe).

From Howard Liverance (HLiverance@tpa.HealthPlan.com)

    There were several moments of Pleasantville that had me enthralled in a manner uniquely reserved for the best moments of The Twilight Zone. By the end of the movie, however, my attitude had pretty much soured. You mentioned how the sitcom parents "knew nothing of the pleasures of the real world". Yet, they were happy in their own way, were they not? Mr. Ross would have had something far more believable if there were simmering problems beneath the surface, a la what goes on in-between each episode, something unknown to the viewing audience but ultimately discovered by young David/Bud. The shame was that Bud and his sister were catalysts for the behavioral changes, and that is one of the major conceits of this film.

    The Toby Maguire character did not ring true. When he consoles his real life mother at the end ("Nobody said life is meant to be anything", or words to that effect), the whole scene smacks of modern-day sitcom at its worst--a terrible contradiction to director Ross' patronizing premise. In reality, the average kid in David's shoes (loner, unstable single parent household, for starters) would not be as nearly well-adjusted as David was. Face facts, the culture of divorce with its myth that all parties fare better after the breakup has proven an abysmal failure. You never really got any sense that David yearned for, much less ever believed in the sanitized idyllic life portrayed in the sitcom he supposedly was obsessed with.

    Ross and I are the same age (42) and I could not believe how he treated the era. I also grew up in the early 60s with Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, and The Donna Reed Show. Sure, things weren't always that wonderful. But the fact is that I did not know of anyone's mom who worked outside of the home, kids pretty much talked the way they did in Beaver, divorce was virtually unknown (parents were actually ENCOURAGED to work out their problems together), and the worst problems in school were chewing gum, talking without raising your hand and not hitting the shot in waste-basketball. This is not an exaggeration. It WAS the real world, a world that slowly began to unravel after JFK was shot. For Ross to act as though these elements were some sort of a sitcom fantasy is dishonest. Maybe he could have taken a few lessons from The Wonder Years or something. I don't know.

    It wasn't perfect, but then again, nobody believed the perfection of 50s sitcoms anyway. Judging by my 10th year HS reunion (which seemed like a 25th--too many broken marriages and child custody disputes), it seemed to me we all would have settled for the reality we all lived in while growing up, a time when there was such as thing as job security and fathers coming home at a decent hour.

Thanks Howard. PLEASANTVILLE was, for me, a film where the screenwriter had so many ideas that he should have concentrated on a single one, but instead of doing that, he threw all of them together in a "kitchen sink" sort of approach that really didn't work. Your comments about the real-life '50s ought to be enlightening for those people (presumably Ross's target audience) who think its family surroundings are far inferior to today's culture where all of the dysfunctional attributes you mentioned, sometimes life-scarring to children, are not so much criticized but celebrated.

NEXT WEEK...Movie reviews (I promise!). Until then, direct all emails to dursina@worldnet.att.net. Excelsior!


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