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Aisle Seat End of Summer DVD Marathon

From THE OMEN to NORTH BY NORTHWEST, new releases from Fox, Warner and MGM Pump Up the Entertainment Value on DVD

By Andy Dursin

As I mentioned in my last column, DVD releases are flooding store shelves at an alarming rate for movie buffs, who are having a tough time keeping up while watching their wallets! Fortunately we've gotten our hands on a whole slew of these goodies to give you an informed analysis about whether they're worth your hard-earned dollars or not. So, going studio-by-studio, here's the first part in our end-of-summer DVDFest 2000...

FOX: It's not Halloween yet, but genre fans should mark down this Tuesday as a red-letter day for DVD releases. This week alone marks the release of a Special Edition of THE OMEN ($29.98) to complement a limited-edition box-set ($99.98) of the series, along with their first batch of "Double Feature" discs, including VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA/FANTASTIC VOYAGE, the original THE FLY/RETURN OF THE FLY, and the remake-sequel combo of THE FLY/THE FLY 2 ($29.98 each).

THE OMEN (*** movie, *** 1/2 supplements) should be of the most interest for buffs, since it contains a good deal of interesting supplements including an interview with Jerry Goldsmith, who copped his first Oscar for this slickly-made 1976 supernatural thriller.

The movie that introduced us to Damien, the Anti-Christ, it's still hard to believe Gregory Peck and Lee Remick attached themselves to such a piece of pulp-horror nonsense, but the picture is so well-made (directed by Richard Donner, atmospherically shot by Gilbert Taylor) that it remains something of a genre favorite, even if it's not quite a classic film. The widescreen images and use of music are quite unsettling, even if the film's satanic-oriented plot has been copied so often by now that the picture has lost some of its original punch.

Goldsmith's score, which certainly established itself as a bona-fide masterpiece of horror film music, does wonders for the film, which moves at a steady pace, accentuating psychological horror almost as much as it does the outright apocalyptic elements in David Seltzer's screenplay.

The line between the psychological and the explicit form the most interesting part of the supplemental extras contained on the DVD release, which include a rough-looking trailer, a 46-minute documentary on the making of the film and an extended conversation with Goldsmith where he talks about his themes and working on the picture.

Appearing just a tad uncomfortable on-camera, Jerry talks about how Donner wanted the sequence where Damien panics outside the church to echo the throbbing, primal sound of John Williams's "Jaws" theme, about winning his Oscar (calling himself "familiar with losing"), how his wife Carol came to sang "The Piper Dreams," and about working within the confines of the film's stringent budget. In fact, the producers coughed up an additional $25,000 to hire Goldsmith at the time, since he was initially outside the realm of THE OMEN's then-miniscule studio budget! (The film cost $2-million without the composer's services).

A commentary track with Donner and editor Stuart Baird is included, and while the documentary is interesting (even if it's limited to interviews with behind-the-scenes personnel like Donner, Seltzer, Goldsmith, and the producers), it's the engaging discussion between director and editor that's of the most interest here.

Donner stripped a good deal of the overtly horrific elements out of the picture (he and Baird talk about how they cut out Billie Whitelaw's extended fight with Gregory Peck from the final cut because it was too excessive), and one of the biggest revelations comes when they talk about the movie's original ending -- where Peck, Remick, AND Damien are dead, ending the film on an ambiguous note and asking the audience to question if Peck wasn't simply insane.

Alan Ladd, Jr. (who seemed to put a good deal of his own input into now-classic '70s films like this and a little movie that followed called "Star Wars"), then-bigwig at Fox, asked Donner if Damien couldn't be alive at the end of the movie, and the filmmakers agreed to shoot the now-famous final sequence, where the demonic little tyke smiles at the camera while holding the President's hand at his adopted parents' funeral.

Somehow the disparity between Donner wanting the film to be a psychological thriller and the original intent of creating a supernatural horror movie comes through quite clearly here, both in the finished product and the extras contained on the DVD release.

The 2.35 transfer is exceptionally good -- clearer and superior to all preceding laser releases -- and you have your choice of the original mono soundtrack or a modest, 2.0 stereo remix that adds a bit of ambiance and some dimensionality to the music score.

It's a great package that's missing only the isolated stereo score from the 20th Anniversary laserdisc release -- something that, given Goldsmith's reported aversion to isolated score tracks, may have well been done at the composer's request. For trick-or-treating viewing, keep this OMEN in mind.

The Fox Double-Feature DVDs, meanwhile, are a welcome new addition to the growing library of the studio's titles. By releasing two features for the price of one, Fox is enabling the movie buff to soak in more cinematic entertainment for their money and conserve on the amount of titles being released at the same time.

VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (***), Irwin Allen's 1961 hit that spawned the long-running TV series of the same name, features Walter Pidgeon, Robert Sterling, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Eden, Peter Lorre and Frankie Avalon in a fun deep-sea adventure with a sterling 2.35 transfer and two intriguing soundtracks: one, a 4.0 Dolby Digital track, offers heavy directional effects (especially when characters are speaking on various sides of the screen), while the 2.0 Dolby Surround track is basically in mono except for the music score. It's kid-stuff sci-fi that will entertain kids and those looking for a healthy dose of nostalgia.

FANTASTIC VOYAGE (***) makes for an intriguing companion piece, as this far more serious 1966 sci- fi fantasy ventures into the deep of the human body as Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch and Donald Pleasence attempt to save the life of a wounded scientist who was shot by foreign spies. The 2.35 transfer is generally quite excellent, while Fox offers both the original mono sound and a new 2.0 stereo mix that -- like THE OMEN above -- adds some dimensionality to Leonard Rosenman's dissonant score (available exclusively on CD from FSM) and the various sound effects but isn't all that far removed from the original mono recording.

The coupling of features is far more obvious on the separate double-bills of THE FLY/RETURN OF THE FLY and the latter-day THE FLY/THE FLY 2, though there are some somewhat surprising similarities in the concepts of the two sets of pictures: both of the originals stress a tragic love story in addition to boasting more elaborate effects work than their follow-ups, which in turn offer cheaper thrills but happier endings.

The original 1958 THE FLY (***) was a full-blown major studio effort from Fox, offering a colorful Cinemascope production with stereophonic sound and all the trimmings of an A-list effort. Written by bestselling novelist James Clavell from a story by George Langelaan, THE FLY is a quintessential piece of '50s sci-fi, with David "Al" Hedison as the poor scientist who ends up with a fly's head while his own noggin ultimately ends up grafted on the body of an insect trapped in a spider-web, yelling "help meeeeeeeee!" in the film's classic final scene. The 2.35 transfer is good but the colors don't jump off the screen the way they do in other Cinemascope films from the period, while the 4.0 genuine stereo track stresses Paul Sawtell's enjoyably bombastic score.

While the production for the 1959 sequel RETURN OF THE FLY (***) was dropped down to the B-level, this highly enjoyable sequel in some ways improves upon its predecessor: stark black-and-white cinematography and a pulpier, somewhat more cheerfully ridiculous script make this outing a treat, with Vincent Price reprising his role from the original. This time out Hedison's son makes the same mistakes as his old man, but the resolution is thankfully easier to take and a bit more upbeat. The 2.35 transfer is exceptionally clear and both the film's original mono track and a 2.0 stereo-enhanced remix are included on the audio end of things.

The final Fox Double Feature couples David Cronenberg's creatively disgusting 1986 remake of THE FLY (**1/2) with its hideous 1989 sequel THE FLY II (*), a pair of Brooksfilms productions making their debut on DVD.

The 1986 original finds Jeff Goldblum in the tragic scientist part as he teleports through space with a li'l bugger and ultimately turns into a grotesque, full-fledged housefly. What distinguishes this redo is not the effective (though eventually tiresome) make-up work but rather the engaging relationship between Goldblum and female lead Geena Davis, who made a name for herself with her performance here. Alas, as Goldblum's metamorphosis progresses, the movie loses its dramatic punch and turns into a freakshow best left for fans of the director.

Freakshow is pretty much the only way to sum up THE FLY II, which serves up a warmed-over rehash of the original's plot, here plugging Eric Stoltz in as Goldblum's age-accelerated son, who ultimately turns into a critter too big for any flyswatter to handle. The big surprise with the sequel is that Chris Walas (make-up expert) directed it, and Mick Garris and Frank Darabont ("Shawshank Redemption," "Green Mile") co- scripted -- obviously on an off-day for most everyone involved. Both transfers are crisp and efficient, matted at 1.85:1, while both feature fairly potent 5.1 Dolby Digital audio tracks when the action heats up.

Trailers for all Double-Feature films are included on each disc, along with extensive chapter stops. OUR MAN FLINT/IN LIKE FLINT is next in line for the Double-Feature treatment from Fox -- groovy!

WARNER HOME VIDEO: After having absorbed the pre-1986 MGM catalogue in its acquisition of Turner Entertainment, Warner Bros. has given full restorations to several classic Lion films, including "The Wizard Of Oz" and now NORTH BY NORTHWEST (****, $24.98) in a gorgeous-looking print and sensational 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed soundtrack.

One of Alfred Hitchcock's best U.S. films, this fast-moving and fun 1959 thriller needs no introduction to most movie-goers. Cary Grant's easy-going charm was rarely implemented better in a suspense picture, while Hitchcock's penchant for mixing action set-pieces, romance and humor clicks splendidly from start to finish.

Movie buffs and film score aficionados will find plenty to appreciate about this new Warner package, which features a fully restored, 1.85 transfer fresh from the VistaVision print, a dynamic 5.1 Dolby Digital remix that sounds incredibly vibrant during even the loudest passages of Bernard Herrmann's highly- regarded score, and a separate music-only track (2.0 stereo) for those film music fans hungering for every last scrap of unreleased score material.

The supplemental content doesn't end there. A terrific 45-minute documentary, "Destination Hitchcock: The Making of NORTH BY NORTHWEST," finds host Eva Marie Saint recalling her work on the picture and interviewing surviving cast and crew members, from co-star Martin Landau to screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who also participates in a sporadic commentary track running throughout the film.

Theatrical trailers, a production still gallery, and a French language track help to produce a great-looking presentation for a movie rightfully regarded as one of Hitch's best works from the period, and still one of his most engaging thrillers all told.

Also out from Warner is the highly entertaining Oliver Stone football drama ANY GIVEN SUNDAY (***1/2, $24.98), released just in time for the first full week of football season.

A pumped-up blast of entertainment, this eclectic look at the lives of pro-football personnel both on and off the field boasts some of Stone's most effective filmmaking in some time, along with a handful of super performances by Al Pacino, Dennis Quaid, and particularly Jamie Foxx as a brash young quarterback thrust into his team's starting job.

There has been something just too pretentious and off-putting about most of Stone's recent pictures, but ANY GIVEN SUNDAY concentrates on entertainment without hitting us with an abundance of subtext, and while it isn't going to enlighten sports fans all too aware of the problems that can plague pro athletes, the movie is good-looking, fast-moving (even at 157 minutes), and includes some of the most energetic, frenetic game sequences ever placed on film.

Warner's DVD is right up there with their usual, exemplary audio and video standards: the 2.35 transfer is razor-sharp and the movie's dynamic soundtrack has been superbly rendered in the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. An HBO Making Of special and LL Cool J's music video have been included as extras.

MGM: There's always something about a missed opportunity that I can't resist. Being able to second-guess the studio and director can often be more entertaining than sitting through a mediocre, but less intriguing, cinematic offering.

Case in point is the MGM sci-fi dud SUPERNOVA (*1/2, $24.98), which marked a costly flop for its studio despite countless reshoots, some elaborate effects, and the work of no less than four different filmmakers at various stages of filming (Walter Hill directed the physical shooting but took his name off the finished product, which had been re-edited by Jack Sholder and Francis Ford Coppola, respectively. Geoffrey Wright left during pre-production).

James Spader and Angela Bassett star in this derivative but at least slick-looking outer-space adventure, as David Campbell Wilson's plot finds a medical ship stumbling upon a survivor (Peter Facinelli) in a capsule that also contains an alien artifact that creates strange effects on those who come into contact with it. Robert Forster, Lou Diamond Phillips, and the good-looking Robin Tunney (who has several extra seconds of nudity in this version) co-star in this retread of EVENT HORIZON, SPHERE, ALIEN, and every other genre film you can name, but at least it looks good and is no worse than at least the first film of the three I just mentioned.

This is also the perfect kind of movie to enjoy on DVD, as MGM has included a strong 2.35 transfer and a potent Dolby Digital 5.1 track to compliment the action. The movie itself is a "Never Before Seen R-rated Version," but it seems the extra footage is primarily relegated to additional nudity (the film runs only an extra minute longer than the PG-13 rated version that reached theaters last January).

More intriguing are 20 minutes worth of deleted scenes included as a supplement, though from what stage of production (Hill's version? Sholder's re-shoots or Coppola's re-cut?) they originate from is anybody's guess. An alternate opening and ending are included, along with some gross-out effects work that includes Spader's discovery of a man who has been turned into a fetus! These shots, while apparently originating from Hill's more-grizzly original version (Hill reportedly wanted the film to be more graphic and disturbing), seem to be taken off a VHS dub of the workprint, and may contain more of Burkhard Dallwitz's mostly-replaced original score (Dallwitz is credited with "additional music," with David Williams receiving sole music billing on the credits for his surprisingly polished, if not completely rehashed, orchestral soundtrack).

Throw in the movie's dizzying, hilarious theatrical trailer (which used jarringly inappropriate rock songs!), and you have a DVD ideal for genre fans and anyone else who enjoys watching what happens when studio honchos and filmmakers want the same film to go in completely divergent directions.

Also newly out from the Lion are a handful of genre flicks from the AIP vaults, including THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (**1/2, $24.98). This haunted-house pic makes for enjoyable junk-food moviemaking (more so when we get closer to Halloween), a 1979 American International box-office hit based on Jay Anson's scarier (though apparently fabricated) book of the same name. James Brolin and Margot Kidder are the young couple who run afoul of mysterious goings-on in their posh New York home; Rod Steiger chews up the scenary as a local priest. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of Lalo Schifrin's much-imitated score, which ended up in countless horror trailers throughout the '80s.

MGM's DVD looks good in both 1.85 and full-frame formats, though once again it seems as if the studio doesn't have access (or interest) in releasing a stereo track for an AIP film. Like METEOR, the DVD only includes monophonic sound, even though the movie originally boasted a stereophonic audio track.

MGM has also released two antiquated but intriguing films from very, very different eras in movie-making. Ralph Bakshi's interesting-but-dated 1973 animated/live-action hybrid HEAVY TRAFFIC (***, $24.98) followed Bakshi's controversial "Fritz the Cat," and remains a striking, semi-autobiographical work that is best taken in by adventurous viewers. The full-frame transfer is in surprisingly good shape, and the mono sound comes through adequately; a theatrical trailer is also included.

You couldn't go in a more divergent direction than BIKINI BEACH (**1/2, $24.98), the third (?) "Beach Party" movie with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello frolicking on the sand with guest stars Don Rickles, Kennan Wynn, and series stalwart Harvey Lembeck. This one features musical appearances by "Little" Stevie Wonder, The Pyramids, and the Exciters Band. The 2.35 Panavision transfer is the only way to go here, while a worthless pan-and-scan transfer (and theatrical trailer) are also thrown into the mix.

NEXT TIME... A look at the newest batch of Universal Classic Monster DVDs, plus the latest from Columbia TriStar, Buena Vista, and Anchor Bay. Until then, email me at and I'll see you then. Excelsior!

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