In the late ’70s, the vampire genre had nearly run its course. Decades of fanged Draculas – from from the Bela Lugosi era through Hammer’s seemingly endless succession of Christopher Lee efforts – had turned the undead into a cliché that often bordered on self-parody. With George Hamilton’s box-office success “Love At First Bite” still in theaters, Universal, producer Walter Mirisch and director John Badham attempted to revitalize the classic Dracula mythos with their own adaptation of DRACULA (***½, 109 mins., 1979, R; Shout! Factory).
Utilizing the Hamilton Deane-John L. Balderston play (and, to a lesser degree, Stoker’s novel) as its principal guide, the 1979 “Dracula” was a classy production that tried to bring style and seriousness back to the genre – along with a heaping amount of romance.
Fresh off his acclaimed and successful run as the character on Broadway, Frank Langella starred as the Count, carrying with him an enormously charismatic, sexual aspect to the role that’s absent from most Dracula portrayals. Laurence Olivier co-stars as Van Helsing, in a performance that was marred by the actor’s declining health — he lacks the energy one might have anticipated Olivier bringing to the part, but other performances compensate, from Kate Nelligan’s heroine Lucy to Trevor Eve as Jonathan Harker.
W.D. Richter’s script departs from other “Dracula” adaptations in a number of areas, but for the most part works well, with John Badham’s film being graced by a peerless technical crew, many of whom were veterans of the James Bond series. Maurice Binder contributes an unmistakably Binder-esque love scene, Peter Murton’s production design and Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography memorably capture a classic Gothic horror look, while John Williams’ outstanding musical score enriches every moment of the film.
In fact, Williams’ sweeping score includes one of his most memorable main themes – a darkly romantic motif for Dracula that fits hand in hand with Langella’s equally superb performance – that makes it a unique and marvelous entry in the composer’s filmography.
Even with Langella’s performance and all its visceral assets, “Dracula” was a box-office disappointment at the time of its release – a result attributed to the over-saturation of the genre and the success of Hamilton’s spoof. Though the movie’s gore (what little there is of it) is tame by today’s standards, the picture was heavily criticized for being excessive at the time, despite Langella’s insistence on Dracula neither drinking blood nor appearing with cliched aspects of the role (glowing eyes, fangs, etc.).
Today, Badham’s “Dracula” holds up as one of the most memorable of Stoker adaptations. Having grown up watching the film (along with the classic Universal Monsters), I admit I’ve always had a personal preference for Langella’s interpretation, and together with Williams’ score, they accentuate the romantic, sexual aspects of the material, making for a refreshing change from the usual vampire fare.
Shout! Factory’s new Blu-Ray is nothing short of a revelation because it includes – for the first time since the film’s original, cropped VHS and laserdisc releases of the early ‘80s – the original theatrical color timing of the film. Badham had wanted to shoot the movie in B&W but technical and commercial considerations prevented him from doing so; his revenge was de-coloring “Dracula” for laserdisc in the early ’90s, giving the production a limp, desaturated appearance that became the only version of the Langella “Dracula” available to viewers for the decades that followed.
Shout’s Blu-Ray again offers the “Director Preferred Color” on Disc 1 (same transfer as the previous Blu-Ray) with the Original Theatrical Color on Disc 2. This is a new transfer from source materials that were likely the best-available from the Universal vaults — and those elements are mostly in fine shape with strikingly crisp detail, though they occasionally display assorted anomalies. Speckles, nicks, some blotches on the screen (especially in the last reel) are intermittently detectable, and at least one section – Langella’s introduction – seems notably softer than the rest of the transfer.
Yet, that being said, the restoration of the color itself is just wonderful to behold. The warmth of the hues and overall look to the film is striking, especially after years of being stuck with the anemic pseudo-“noir” version – in fact, this romantic “Dracula” now comes across as an even more unique viewing experience thanks to Taylor’s “Golden” color scheme, presented here with Badham’s blessing, in its original 2.35 widescreen proportions (the desaturated version seems somewhat cropped by comparison also, measuring out to more like 2.2:1). The romantic tone of the film seems much more aligned with the original cinematography, while the “off” looking, desaturated version’s “grittier, darker” look seems more suited to a different sort of treatment altogether. Either way, as the director notes in an introduction shared between the two discs, audiences can now choose, at last, the version they want to see, both of them also offering a rich 2.0 Dolby Stereo soundtrack.
Shout’s supplemental package for “Dracula” includes a new commentary from historian/filmmaker Constantine Nasr, who also produced the assorted new interviews on the disc. Incredibly, editor John Bloom was previously interviewed by Nasr in a magazine article where he stated he “hated” John Williams’ score. Bloom doesn’t quite use that language on-camera here but doubles down on his belief Williams’ score was too bombastic and needed to be eerier. Other interviews include fresh conversations with John Badham and W.D. Richter, plus numerous members of the technical crew.
While these interviews are mostly interesting (Badham’s most especially), none of them can quite supplant the 2002 documentary “The Revamping of ‘Dracula’,” produced by Laurent Bouzereau for Universal’s DVD release and retained here. Offering then-new interviews with Badham, Langella, Richter, Walter Mirisch, John Williams, and other members of the production team, this is an honest evaluation of the production and its eventual, disappointing box-office performance.
Langella’s comments are often the most revealing, with the actor discussing his work as the Count on Broadway, and how he battled Universal execs at the time, who wanted a more visceral, explicit horror movie. Also fun is a discussion over Maurice Binder’s “love scene,” which the filmmakers seem to be split right down the middle on. Williams’ score, meanwhile, is rightly singled out by both Langella and Mirisch, who heap deserved praise on the ravishing London Symphony Orchestra soundtrack.
In addition to a photo gallery, Badham’s older commentary has also been retained on Disc 1, with the director being impatient with what he feels is an overly-leisurely running time. It all makes for one of Scream Factory’s most important restorative efforts, and one of their most satisfying Blu-Ray packages to date.
PROPHECY Blu-Ray (**, 102 mins., 1979, PG; Shout! Factory): I sort-of recall watching “Prophecy” on network TV in the early ’80s, and getting quite upset that Talia Shire’s unborn baby could be a mutated, one-eyed monster — the kind of thing you might expect from a tired eight-year-old who probably shouldn’t have been staying up to watch this movie to begin with!
Now that I’m old enough to fully appreciate this John Frankenheimer genre fiasco, I can honestly say that a) giant mutated bear movies are cool, and b) even though “Prophecy” is far from a good movie, they really don’t make silly horror films the way they used to back in the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Written by “Omen” scribe David Seltzer, “Prophecy” attempts to seriously preach about the environment at the same time it serves up a monster-on-the-rampage epic a la “Jaws,” except with a giant, bloody mutated bear wreaking havoc in the Maine woods instead of Bruce the Mechanical Shark.
Robert Foxworth stars as a righteous EPA employee who ventures up north to attempt to settle a land dispute between the local Native Americans (lead, inappropriately enough, by Armand Assante, he of Irish-Italian descent) and the giant paper mill, run by Richard Dysart. They’re cutting down trees, while the Indians continue to stammer and fall down — not because of alcoholism, according to Assante, but because something in the water is contaminating the system.
Of course, that’s not all: salmon are growing to shark-like proportions, while Foxworth and pregnant wife Talia Shire (top-billed in a thankless role she took while taking a break from the “Rocky” series) find a mutated baby bear that they attempt to bring back home to prove that mercury run-off from the paper bill is responsible for ruining the environment.
Unfortunately, after arguing over the legalities of population growth and the housing shortage worldwide, the ‘lil mutant bites Shire in the neck as the group attempts to flee from the giant monster bear, which has already disposed of a family of campers (including a teenager who memorably attempts to escape in his sleeping bag).
“Prophecy” has all the makings of a good “bad” movie, and unsurprisingly, it delivers: Seltzer’s script enlightens about the plight of urban decay, over-population, and environmental contamination, while presenting decent arguments about the natives’ concerns over the destruction of their land and the paper mill owner’s arguments about how much paper Foxworth is going to take to write up his report (which is going to be quite a lot, judging from his continual ranting about the evils of having a child in today’s world).
But after all of the build-up, what we have here is a very, very silly monster movie, with the man-in-the-suit bear running through the woods, ripping the heads off its victims in a fashion that still managed to attain a PG rating, and a hilarious ending where the monster destroys a log cabin situated in the middle of a lake. Fortunately, Assante’s bow-and-arrow comes in quite handy, and there’s a doozy of a final shot that will leave you in stitches – all of it matched to an over-the-top score by none other than Leonard Rosenman.
While “Prophecy” has gained fame in everything from the “Golden Turkey Awards” to its distinction as being one of Frankenheimer’s worst films, it’s still compulsively watchable. The Panavision cinematography by Harry Stradling, Jr. is often breathtaking (at least the scenes that weren’t shot on a backlot stage), and you get an educational tour of a real-life paper mill at work, that kind that would almost make “Prophecy” a decent “Read More About It” book project for grade-school students.
While the movie is laugh-out-loud funny at certain spots, Frankenheimer still manages to make a scene where the characters hide in an underground tunnel from the giant bear creature quite unnerving and effective. Alas, scenes like that are few and far between, with the regulatory “Jaws”-inspired shocks comprising the rest of the action, and the director using herky-jerky camera work to draw attention away from the ridiculous-looking monster.
Shout’s Blu-Ray premiere of “Prophecy” burrows out of the forest this week, sporting a nifty 1080p (2.35) transfer with a nicely directional, early Dolby Stereo (2.0 DTS MA) soundtrack. Extras are copious but only David Seltzer’s interview is honest enough to hammer Frankenheimer’s lackluster direction (tellingly, it includes one of those disclaimers that “the thoughts and opinions” of the speaker aren’t necessarily representative of Shout or Paramount, etc.). Seltzer bemoans the director’s approach to the film and the fact his complaints over the poor special effects fell on deaf ears, making for a funny and candid talk. Lengthy but less frank conversations are also included with Talia Shire and Robert Foxworth, who praise the film’s ecological concerns, along wth FX artists Tom Burman, Allan Apone and Tom McLoughlin. The trailer is also included for a prime “Guilty Pleasure” pick for horror/monster fans.
John Carpenter’s BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA (***, 100 mins., 1986, PG-13; Shout! Factory) may not be a classic, but this cult favorite – a pastiche of kung-fu mysticism, sci-fi fantasy, Saturday-matinee serials, ’80s FX extravaganzas, and supernatural hokum that was clearly ahead of its time – is nevertheless one of the director’s most entertaining films, and receives the deluxe Blu-Ray treatment this December from Scream Factory.
Originally a western (!) that was re-written by W.D. Richter (“Dracula,” “Buckaroo Banzai”), “Big Trouble” stars Kurt Russell in one of his most engaging performances as trucker Jack Burton, who improbably stumbles into San Francisco’s Chinatown, where an ensuing war between rival gangs coincides with the kidnapping of his best friend’s bride. Undaunted by any of Richard Edlund’s fine special effects, Russell and pal Dennis Dun, along with reporter Kim Cattrall, venture into the lower depths of a mysterious world where monsters run amok, an old sorcerer wants to seize the promise of eternal life, and folks fly around in a way that we would not see again until the likes of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
Carpenter’s jokey, 1986 comic-book adventure was way ahead of the curve in pre-dating the ’90s revival of martial arts movies, but “Big Trouble” owes as much to Indiana Jones and the genre of big, FX-heavy blockbusters that were so prevalent in the mid ’80s as it does to Hong Kong cinema. Russell and Cattrall work up some believable chemistry, the pacing is quick and fun, Carpenter’s trademark use of the wide Panavision frame is on full display, and even one of the director’s better musical scores (composed, as was the norm for the era, with Alan Howarth) helps out.
“Big Trouble” has always been one of my favorite Carpenter films, and was previously released in a Fox Blu-Ray in 2009. This two-disc Collector’s Edition features the same technical package (1080p 2.35, 5.1 DTS MA) while mixing in both new and older extras. As with the earlier BD, Carpenter and Dean Cundey’s widescreen visuals adapt beautifully to high-definition, and once again viewers can pick between the rollicking 5.1 DTS Master Audio soundtrack as well as a 2-channel stereo mix (2.0 Dolby Digital) or an isolated score track.
Shout’s exclusive extras include two new commentaries – one with producer Larry J. Franco, another with FX artist Steve Johnson – plus ample new interview segments. These include W.D. Richter, co-scripter Gary Goldman, and actors Dennis Dun, James Hong, Donald Li, Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, and Al Leong. There are also new conversations with Nick Castle and Tommy Lee Wallace (Carpenter’s pals and “Coupe De Ville” musical members), martial arts choreographer James Lew, and the great movie poster artist Drew Struzan. The most notable of these interviews are the comments from Goldman – whose original script placed the action in the late 19th century – and Richter, who discusses “contemporizing” the long-in-development concept (which he initially didn’t like) and then not sticking around to watch the film being shot.
A bounty of other supplements are carried over from previous releases, including some interviews from Arrow’s UK release as well as the Fox Blu-Ray. Among the latter are an engaging old commentary with Russell and Carpenter, plus trailers and TV spots, a promotional featurette, an on-camera interview with Richard Edlund, deleted scenes, production notes, and plenty of stills and storyboards. You also get a hysterically bad music video of the movie’s theme song, featuring the “Coupe de Villes” including lead vocalist Carpenter himself!
“Big Trouble” is one of many movies that failed to find an audience in theaters (as a pre-teenager, I was one of the few viewers there when it opened), but clicked with viewers on video and TV in the years since its release. This is no-holds-barred escapist entertainment with great effects and an engagingly bonkers story that – enhanced by Carpenter’s trademark use of anamorphic cinematography – has proven to be a durable home video favorite.
ROAD GAMES Blu-Ray (**½, 101 mins., 1981, R): Remember when Richard Franklin was once all the rage? This 1981 Aussie thriller put the director from Down Under on the map, at least for a while. Stacy Keach essays a motorist who gets caught up in the “Duel”-like games of a serial killer who drives a van. Jamie Lee Curtis, meanwhile, plays a hitchhiker who comes along for the ride in what amounts to an extended cameo.
Though the ending stinger is weak, “Road Games” is an otherwise agreeable thriller from the heyday of the then-prolific Australian film industry. The movie’s original 2.35 widescreen dimensions have been preserved in this solid Scream Special Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray, which includes new interviews with Stacy Keach and a recent commentary with cinematographer Vincent Monton and cast/crew members. There’s also an exclusive demo of Brian May’s music plus a 1980 script read between Franklin, Keach and actress Marion Edward. Copious extras carried over from previous Anchor Bay/Umbrella releases include a Franklin commentary, a featurette with the director and Stacy Keach, plenty of interviews, archival pieces, audio-only interviews and more. The soundtrack offerings, meanwhile, are comprised of the original mono plus a 5.1 DTS MA stereo mix.
Also New From Shout! Factory
As if the sci-fi/horror treasures Shout! brings movie buffs this season isn’t enough, the label has also produced one of their most ambitious undertakings with a Blu-Ray box-set of ABBOTT & COSTELLO: THE COMPLETE UNIVERSAL PICTURES COLLECTION.
This is a 15-disc anthology that supplants Universal’s own 2008 DVD anthology of the same name by offering all of the duo’s productions for the studio, produced between 1940 and 1958, when A&C were ranked among the top box-office performers in Hollywood. AVC encoded HD transfers (mostly 1.33 B&W), Dolby Digital mono audio, a few new supplements, and a basic reprinting of the DVD’s fine color booklet (offering trivia and stills for each film) are all included in the package, which offers the following 28 Abbott & Costello comedies:
“One Night in the Tropics” (1940), the duo’s massive hit “Buck Privates” (1941), “In the Navy” (1941), “Hold That Ghost” (1941), “Keep ‘Em Flying” (1941), “Ride ‘Em Cowboy” (1942), “Pardon My Sarong” (1942), “Who Done It?” (1942), “It Ain’t Hay” (1943), “Hit the Ice” (1943), “In Society” (1944), “Here Come the Co-Eds” (1945), “The Naughty Nineties” (1945), “Little Giant” (1946), “The Time of Their Lives” (1946), “Buck Privates Come Home” (1947), “The Wistful Widow of Wagon Gap” (1947), the classic “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948), “Mexican Heyride” (1948), “Abbott & Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” (1949), “Abbott & Costello in the Foreign Legion” (1950), “Abbott & Costello Meet the Invisible Man” (1951), “Comin’ Round the Mountain” (1951), “Lost in Alaska” (1952), “Abbott & Costello Go To Mars” (1953), “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” (1953), “Abbott & Costello Meet the Keystone Kops” (1955), and “Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy” (1955).
A few of these have been available in the BD format previously but the large majority have never been, making it a must for A&C fans. One of the most notable inclusions is the rarely-screened “It Ain’t Hay.” Based on a Damon Runyon story, this A&C outing finds Lou accidentally killing an elderly horse and replacing it with famous racer “Tea Biscuit.” It’s all standard fare with sporadic laughs, but it’s noteworthy since Runyon’s estate held the film up from release on home video for decades, with Universal’s DVD set – and now Shout’s superior Blu-Ray package – marking its first official release.
Shout’s Blu-Ray box is laid out like Universal’s DVD package (most definitely a good thing), sporting brand-new interviews with Chris Costello and historians Ron Palumbo and James L. Neibaur, plus the 3D Film Archive’s new restoration of old Castle Film reels featuring A&C. Previously-released, ported-over extras include outtakes, trailers, Sidney Miller’s 1965 documentary “The World of Abbott & Costello,” the TV special “Abbott & Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld,” and the featurette “Abbott & Costello Meet the Monsters.” Numerous audio commentaries, nine of them newly produced for this set, are also on-hand, including Ron Palumbo and Bob Furmanek’s “Buck Privates” chat; Jeff Miller discussing “Hold That Ghost”; Frank Coniff on “Who Done It?”; Frank Thompson on “The Time of Their Lives”; Gregory Mank on “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein”; and Tom Weaver and Richard Scrivani on “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde.” Production notes and trailers round out the extras for nearly every film.
The set is capped by a reprint of the DVD set’s outstanding booklet offering a film-by-film synopsis, along with historical notes from Ron Palumbo and introductions from Vickie Abbott Wheeler, Chris Costello and Paddy Costello Humphreys.
If you’re an Abbott & Costello fan, Shout’s essential Blu-Ray is a must-have, and one of their finest “Golden Age” catalog releases. Highly recommended.
THE ANNE BANCROFT COLLECTION (Shout! Factory): Likely to fly under the radar but extremely worthwhile for its inclusion of both classic and several new-to-Blu titles, Shout! Factory’s terrific, eight-film anthology of Anne Bancroft favorites comes highly recommended.
While Shout previously released Bancroft’s family comedy FATSO (93 mins., 1980, PG) with Dom DeLuise earlier this year (reviewed in my column here), Shout has augmented this collection by licensing Criterion’s THE GRADUATE (104 mins., 1967, PG) plus husband Mel Brooks’ genial 1983 remake of TO BE OR NOT TO BE (107 mins., 1983, PG) from Fox, with Bancroft and Brooks appearing opposite one another. Also included here are the Fox thriller DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK (76 mins., 1952), which Twilight Time previously released a year ago, with Bancroft as the straight-arrow girlfriend to a pilot (Richard Widmark) who gets mixed up with a floozy (Marilyn Monroe); and, of course, the multiple Oscar-winner THE MIRACLE WORKER (106 mins., 1962), the story of Hellen Keller (Patty Duke), with Bancroft in one of her signature roles (this is a straight reprise of the Olive Blu-Ray).
A trio of Sony-licensed Blu-Ray premieres are also housed in the set. These include the format debut of Jack Clayton’s 1964 film THE PUMPKIN EATER (110 mins., 1964), a searing domestic drama adapted by Harold Pinter from Penelope Mortimer’s book, scored by Georges Delerue and shot by Oswald Morris; Norman Jewison’s 1985 filming of AGNES OF GOD (98 mins., 1985, PG-13), the John Pielmeier play with Bancroft’s Mother Superior playing opposite Jane Fonda and Meg Tilly, the somewhat static drama vividly shot by Sven Nykvist and again scored by Delerue; and the charming, Brooks-produced 84 CHARING CROSS ROAD (99 mins., 1987, PG), with Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins.
Each disc has been given its own Blu-Ray platter in Shout’s “Select” box-set with a 20-page booklet featuring notes from TCM host Alicia Malone. The low price tag and high-quality content makes it hugely appealing and one of the year’s most worthwhile “classic” format retrospectives.
CANDY Blu-Ray (***, 2006, 108 mins., R; Shout! Factory): Excellent performances from Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish carry this Australian import. Ledger plays a poet who falls for art student Cornish, but their attraction is at least partially fueled by their growing addiction to heroin. Director Neil Armfield (who co-wrote with Luke Davies, adapting his novel) has produced a realistic, well-performed character study that’s worth tracking down on Blu-Ray. Shout’s format premiere includes a 1080p (1.85) transfer, 5.1 DTS MA sound and extras from the DVD release including commentary and two featurettes.
Also New From Shout! Factory: Two new upcoming Blu-Ray combo packs come recommended for animation buffs. FUNAN (87 mins., 2018) is a stunningly animated story of a young Cambodian woman whose life is forever altered when the Khmer Rouge regime takes over in spring of 1975. Her family struggles and day to day existence are powerfully conveyed in this acclaimed 2018 production here brought to Blu-Ray December 3rd from Shout and GKids, featuring an interview with director Dennis Do, an art gallery, storyboards, trailer, a 1080p (2.39) transfer and 5.1 DTS MA sound. Due out December 10th is Satoshi Kon’s well-reviewed follow-up to “Perfect Blue,” MILLENNIUM ACTRESS (87 mins., 2001, PG), a fascinating look at the life and times of actress Chiyoko Fujiwara, as seen through the lens of documentary filmmakers literally thrust into her past – experiencing her lifetime memories and experiences in an emotionally rich and varied journey through her life. Shout’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo includes interviews with the producers and voice talent, a newly restored 1080p (1.85) transfer and 5.1 English and Japanese sound.
4K UHD owners looking for a solid new nature documentary needn’t look further than TURTLE ODYSSEY: BUNJI’S BIG ADVENTURE (60 mins., 2019), a colorful and gorgeously produced study of an Australian sea turtle named Bunji and her assorted aquatic adventures from her hatchling phase through adulthood. Russell Crowe’s narration in-tones this IMAX Enhanced UHD, which sports an HVEC encoded (1.78) transfer, DTS X audio, an interview with conservation officer Dr. Ian Bell, and an included Blu-Ray with 1080p video and similar DTS X sound. The image is terrifically conveyed with great detail and wonderful cinematography…Finally, SESAME STREET 50TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION! (122 mins.) is the terrific retrospective on the enduring children’s series. Host Joseph Gordon-Levitt hosts with appearances from celebrity guests and the current cast, paying tribute to the historical run of the PBS (and now HBO) chestnut with Shout’s DVD (1.85, 2.0 stereo) also offering the “Elmo’s World: Celebration” and “50 Years in 50 Seconds” bonus shows.