DVD Mania '99
From War to the Wolfman, A Round-Up of 10 New Releases
An Aisle Seat Entry
By Andy Dursin
Studying for the darned GRE and a nasty head cold kept me from venturing
out to THE MESSENGER this weekend -- though from all accounts I apparently
saved myself $8.25 and having to sit through a pre- Thanksgiving turkey
(if anyone out there DID see it, by all means write in!).
However, with SLEEPY HOLLOW and Bond out on Friday, there soon will
be much to choose from at your local cinema. On the DVD side, there already
is much to choose from, so here's a rundown of 10 quality new releases
for your viewing pleasure, some with music-oriented content FSM readers
ought to be aware of.
One tidbit that I just learned from reading DVD guru Robert "Obi"
George's review over at www.digitaleyes.net is that the "Director's
Cut" of LAST OF THE MOHICANS ($34.98) due this week from Fox on DVD
not only contains four additional minutes of footage, but also the restoration
of original score at one key moment. Apparently Clannad's song has been
deleted from the climax of the film, and previously excised score has been
restored instead. Michael Mann apparently felt that the song was out-of-
place (no big surprise since he mixed-and-matched passages of Trevor Jones
and Randy Edelman's score throughout a turbulent post-production) and decided
to nix the song. Anyway, I haven't seen the DVD, I'm just going on the
usually reliable "Obi"'s word, but it sounds like it'll be worth
a look (the movie is fabulous anyway).
Pioneer Special Editions has joined the ranks of DVD releases with their
frightfully festive release of BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR (** movie, ***1/2
presentation, $29.98, Letterboxed), put together by Michael Matessino and
Sharpline Arts, which did a spectacular job on Universal's THE THING Collector's
Edition and this year's superb ALIEN LEGACY documentary.
This independently produced 1989 sequel was a follow-up to the hugely
popular (and highly regarded) 1985 Empire Pictures release, inspired by
H.P.Lovecraft's story "Herbert West, Re-Animator" about a mad
scientist driven to bring the dead back to life. Filled with black humor
and gory effects, RE-ANIMATOR was one of those rare horror movies that
was embraced by both genre fans and many film critics, making the movie
into a bona-fide cult classic over the years since its initial theatrical
and video premieres.
BRIDE OF RE-ANIMATOR finds several cast members back (including Jeffrey
Combs, Bruce Abbott, and however improbably, David Gale) and reprises the
gory make-up FX of its predecessor, but basically the movie lacks the panache
of the original and feels as if it was put together quickly (which it was)
under tight budgetary constraints. More over, Stuart Gordon did an excellent
job directing and co-writing the original picture, and his absence particularly
in the screenplay department robs the film of the more effective laughs
and chills that its predecessor contained. It's a gorier rehash that still,
however, will be of interest to the many RE-ANIMATOR fans out there, while
students of make-up FX will want to take a look at the movie's effectively
gross-out blood and guts gore, which the film provides in spades. Richard
Band's quirky electronic score, meanwhile, contains more than a few strains
of PSYCHO and countless other classic soundtracks in its musical brew.
The movie may have been a tad disappointing but Sharpline's Special
Edition DVD is one of the better presented supplemental discs I've seen
this year. One side of the disc gives you the original R-rated cut, along
with a fun and insightful audio commentary (featuring Combs, director Brian
Yuzna, and many of the make-up artists), a deleted scene culled from behind-the-scenes
videotape, outtakes, bloopers, and, of course, plenty on the movie's make-up
artists, who worked under what appears to have been tough conditions to
deliver the appropriately bloody goods. Side two gives you the Unrated
cut (containing a minute of additional gore), while liner notes are provided
by Brian Yuzna and Jeffrey Combs to round out the package.
Sharpline has also done something that I cannot recall having seen before:
both discs are presented as they were shot in a full-frame, 1:33 TV aspect
ratio, but if you want to re-create the original theatrical matte (as the
filmmakers intended the picture to be seen), all one needs to do is toggle
the "Caption" screen to the "on" position and black
borders instantly appear on the image, recreating the 1.85:1 aspect ratio
of its theatrical exhibition! It's a convenient feature for viewers, and
I'm curious as to why so many other movies that are only matted for theatrical
exhibition haven't been given the same kind of treatment on DVD (instead
of putting two different versions, full-frame and matted, onto a DVD seperately).
Continuing on the horror theme, I need to clarify some comments I made
two weeks ago regarding Universal's "Classic Monster Collection"
DVD release of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (**** movie, ** presentation,
$34.98). I did not receive a review copy of this title (thus I was obligated
to review those titles which I was sent screeners of), but I did want everyone
to know that -- if you are a fan of this film and have owned it on tape
or laserdisc in the past -- this DVD comes as nothing short of a big-time
While the supplementary sections and still-frame archive are fascinating
(the photo gallery is underscored by some 13 minutes of Franz Waxman's
original music without dialogue!), the transfer on the DVD leaves much
to be desired. Grainy, dark, dirty, and with a soundtrack filled with snaps,
crackles, and pops, the transfer is inferior to any BRIDE I've ever seen
before, and that includes the mid-80s VHS and laserdisc releases, which
are both brighter and glossier than the print utilized here. More over,
die-hard BRIDE fans noted that the transfer is incorrectly framed, losing
some head room at the top of the picture! Restored 35mm prints have been
circulating around for over a year now (a friend of mine in NYC saw it
last year and said the movie never looked better), but for whatever reason,
Universal used a banged-up print for their new transfer, and botched the
framing at that. So, caveat emptor, as they say!
Universal has fared better, however, with their latest "Classic
Monster Collection" presentation of 1943's THE WOLFMAN (***1/2
movie, *** presentation, $29.98), which boasts a somewhat scratchy but
generally improved transfer than BRIDE, with the requisite supplemental
extras included for good measure.
Scripted by Curt Siodmak, WOLFMAN stars Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot,
who becomes cursed with the fate of a werewolf after wandering in the forests
of Wales and being bitten by one of the creatures. Claude Rains plays Talbot's
father, and the supporting cast includes Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi
as the Gypsies who predict Talbot's fate, along with Evelyn Ankers as the
love interest and additional supporting turns from Ralph Bellamy and Patric
Knowles. The settings, atmosphere, and direction (by George Waggner) are
all top-notch and the movie compares favorably with the Universal chiller
classics of the period.
David J.Skal was again responsible for producing Universal's supplemental
section here, and his 33 minute "Monster by Moonlight," hosted
by John Landis, is an engaging look into the Wolfman's creation and phenomenon
as the last great character to originate from Universal's "Golden
Age" horror cycle. Eschewing the testimony of countless historians
(as were utilized in Skal's past documentaries on FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDE,
and THE MUMMY) in favor of interviews with make-up artist Rick Baker (who
discusses Jack Pierce's lasting legacy as the genius who created the make-up
for the Universal monsters) and screenwriter Siodmak, the program is entertaining
and enlightening, even though it uses a generous selection of film clips
from the Wolfman's subsequent cinematic appearances to round out the program.
Of special interest to film music fans will be the discussion of THE
WOLFMAN's musical score by Frank Skinner, Hans Salter, and Charles Previn,
which is given a few minutes of analysis in the documentary by John Morgan
and conductor William Stromberg, who recently re-recorded the score and
were wisely interviewed for this DVD. Morgan notes how most film scores
today consist of musical wallpaper while both point out specific motifs
in the score, and Stromberg discusses one particular cue that had been
cut down in editing, where Talbot watches a Gypsy burial. The "archive"
section also contains an abundance of still-frame photographs and publicity
shots, underscored by the original music without dialogue.
It's a nice complement to a good package all around; the transfer may
not be immaculate but it's certainly passable and the extras should provide
enough incentive for any Universal horror fan to pick it up.
From a genuine classic to a movie that was prematurely branded a genre
masterpiece last summer, Artisan's THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (***
movie, *** presentation, $24.98) has quickly fled to DVD after a blockbuster
showing at U.S. theaters everywhere last summer.
You've heard enough about the movie by now so we don't need to comment
any further on it, except to say that the picture is neither the classic
some proclaimed it to be, nor the piece of junk that others thought it
was in the inevitable backlash that followed the movie's amazing box-office
receipts. Like it or not, the movie did effectively tap into the kind of
unseen fears that required viewers to use their imaginations instead of
watching explicit gore and violence -- a definite change of pace in this
day and age of cinematic terror. Say whatever you'd like about the filmmaking
(it's not artistic by any stretch of the imagination), but certainly there
are moments of spookiness on-hand here, even if the three main characters
are unappealing and the incessant profanity a constant turn-off.
One question, however, that a friend of mine mentioned the other night
that I hadn't heard or read before: why didn't they simply re-wind their
videotape to look at the map?
Artisan's DVD is packed with extras, most notably THE CURSE OF THE BLAIR
WITCH, a 43-minute faux-documentary which first aired on the Sci-Fi Channel
last summer and was the primary reason why so many unsuspecting viewers
thought the BLAIR WITCH was an actual, true story, not the work of a group
of filmmakers who wisely utilized the internet and other forms of media
to propagate their work. Filled with UNSOLVED MYSTERIES-like interviews
and an eerie soundtrack, this is often just as effective as the film is
in creating a sustained "reality," and Artisan's DVD compliments
the DVD with trailers, commentary with the filmmakers, production notes,
and one 5-minute deleted scene which tries to explain the rationale for
the Blair Witch herself (itself?).
In all, this is a superb DVD package, and the recent announcement that
filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez will be producing (and possibly
directing) a sequel AND a prequel film will make this the sure-fire candidate
for repeat viewing that'll likely be required by the time that their follow-ups
reach the big screen.
With horror movies receiving some of most extensive DVD treatment lately,
it'd be easy to overlook some of the other releases that have appeared
in the last few weeks.
Fox Home Video launched three titles last week in time for Veterans
Day, those being Terrence Malick's beautifully shot THE THIN RED LINE
(***1/2 movie, ***1/2 presentation, $34.98), the classic THE LONGEST
DAY (***1/2 movie, *** presentation, $29.98), and the 1970 WWII Pearl
Harbor epic TORA! TORA! TORA! (**1/2 movie, *** presentation, $29.98),
each title presented in excellent new transfers with Dolby Digital 5.1
soundtracks punching things up on the audio end.
THE THIN RED LINE received mixed critical reaction in the wake of SAVING
PRIVATE RYAN, but on a number of levels, Malick's film is a richer, more
rewarding cinematic experience, thanks to John Toll's evocative Panavision
cinematography and a number of fine performances (most notably by Sean
Penn, Adrian Brody, and Nick Nolte) that arise out of the multi-character
narration and poetry found in Malick's eclectic script. At first view,
the movie can come across as a slow, interminable meditation on the nature
of warfare (and nature itself), but there's enough lurking beneath the
surface to make this a better movie than some critics thought a year ago.
The look of the movie, along with Hans Zimmer's understated soundtrack,
make this one of the best visual and audio presentations on DVD this year,
with the Dolby Digital mix containing a marvelous blend of music, sound
effects, and atmosphere. The DVD is bereft of any special features aside
from a chapter containing a sampling of the ethnic tribal songs found in
the movie, but the transfer and soundtrack are enough to warrant a strong
recommendation for interested viewers, particularly those who missed the
movie the first time around (the relatively hefty price-tag notwithstanding).
THE LONGEST DAY, naturally, is an account of the Normandy invasion in
June 1944, and with this being a 1962 all-star chronicle of that event,
the movie is obviously a far more straightforward war movie than THE THIN
RED LINE or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, with a lot of Hollywood studio pizzaz
packed into the production (directed by Andrew Marton, Ken Annakin and
The black-and-white Cinemascope cinematography has been given a new,
THX remastered transfer from Fox, and both the picture and the Dolby Digital
soundtrack make this the best looking and sounding presentation of THE
LONGEST DAY ever seen (a notable improvement on CBS/Fox's old laserdisc,
in fact). Part of the movie's appeal is spotting all the stars in the cast,
which include John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, Roddy
McDowall, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Gert Frobe, Christopher Lee, Robert
Ryan, Rod Steiger and many, many others, adding immeasurably to the picture's
lasting entertainment value.
TORA! TORA! TORA!, meanwhile, was released in 1970 and was a co-production
between Fox and Japan's Toho Studios (the GODZILLA folks), chronicling
the Pearl Harbor attack and the events that led up to that fateful day
from both American and Japanese perspectives. Many historians have felt
that the movie's attempt to paint a balanced portrait of both sides' motivations
and actions ended up creating an unemotional, by-the-numbers view of the
incident (it tries hard not to offend anyone, which only ends up making
the drama totally sterile in comparison to most other WWII films), but
the special effects are terrific and if you can get past the first, listless
hour, the climactic event is nicely executed by director Richard Fleischer
and scored by Jerry Goldsmith.
Another widescreen movie that demands to be viewed in its full anamorphic
aspect ratio, Fox's DVD again contains a spotless THX transfer and a vibrant
Dolby Digital soundtrack, which go a long way to restoring the cinematic
grandeur that a film like this has to be seen in to be effective.
Anchor Bay's November slate of DVDs ranges from the obscure to the forgotten,
with a couple of genuine classics thrown in for good measure.
On the classic side, AB's DVD of THE IPCRESS FILE (***1/2 movie,
*** presentation, $24.98) restores the first Harry Palmer spy thriller
to its full widescreen aspect ratio and includes commentary from director
Sidney J.Furie and editor Peter Hunt (a 007 vet), plus a trailer as well.
The transfer is a bit uneven but suffice to say that you aren't likely
to see a better looking presentation of this cool '60s classic, which boasts
a confident performance by Michael Caine and a sleek, seductive score by
John Barry that helped to further establish both individuals as major players
in the cinema of the time. No word on if AB is going to release the sequels
(FUNERAL IN BURLIN or the Ken Russell-directed BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN), but
aficionados should dig this DVD for quite some time.
A pair of ABC Pictures releases have also joined the ranks of the AB
catalog: John Boorman's interesting HELL IN THE PACIFIC (*** movie,
*** presentation, $24.98), with Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune as two men
representing the American and Japanese forces of WWII stranded together
on a remote Pacific isle, and Sidney Pollack's downbeat but acclaimed THEY
SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? (*** movie, ** presentation, $24.98), with
Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin as a pair of contestants in a 1920s dance
marathon that turns tragic. Gig Young is outstandingly sleazy in this uneven
but compelling film, which used a handful of then-innovative narrative
techniques (flash-forwards, etc.) to tell its atmospheric tale.
HELL IN THE PACIFIC looks quite sharp and colorful, and does include
Boorman's alternate ending as a supplement (just as the old CBS/Fox disc
did). THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? was actually released as an expensive
limited-edition laserdisc set (only 2,500 copies were pressed), with commentary
and tons of extras, so while this DVD costs far less, it only includes
a trailer and a featurette for special features. What's worse is that the
laserdisc contained a restored transfer from pristine 35mm sources, while
AB's DVD often looks out of focus, washed out, and even shows occasional
signs of compression artifacts (the trailer, incidentally, is much clearer
and more colorful than the film!) If you have that laserdisc, hang onto
it as it's visually and aurally far superior to the DVD -- the first botched
release to come from Anchor Bay in quite some time, in fact.
AB has also dusted off the infamously titled KRAKATOA, EAST OF JAVA
(** movie, *** presentation, $24.98), the Cinerama-produced 1967 flop that
tried to capitalize on the Jules Verne/all-star cast fantasies of the period.
A handful of treasure-seeking fortune hunters arrive on the isolated isle,
only to find that a long-dormant volcano is about to erupt, ruining the
fun for one and all. You get Rosanno Brazzi, Brian Keith, and other assorted
character actors fumbling around for the better part of some two-plus hours,
but also some great special effects miniatures (courtesy of GORGO's Eugene
Lourie) at the end and songs by Mack David (with score by DeVol) that make
it almost worthwhile. Buffs will note that Anchor Bay's DVD release (the
first-ever video release for the film, in fact) includes the full-length
version, not the re-cut job that was apparently sent out to theaters after
the movie's premiere, and both letterboxed (essential) and pan-and-scan
formats as well. And of course: Krakatoa is WEST of Java!
NEXT WEEK: We return with SLEEPY HOLLOW and THE WORLD IS NOT
ENOUGH, plus TEX and LOLITA on DVD. See you then and remember to send all
comments here at firstname.lastname@example.org!