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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 disappointment.

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 Bernhard Wicki).

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 dursina@att.net! Excelsior!


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