Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 19, 2013
The violence in Assault on Precinct 13 is a result of simple geometry. Director and writer John Carpenter sets up four narrative lines that collide at a soon-to-be-shut-down police station. Taking advantage of the wide Panavision frame, Carpenter emphasizes horizontals, from long shotgun barrels to threatening gang members strung out across a darkened road like holes in a belt. This nearly wordless group of thugs has the station surrounded, its cowering occupants an uninspiring group of rookie cops, wounded secretaries and wiseass convicts. Enclosed and in the dark, these panicked heroes learn how to turn the space to their advantage, choking off the gang’s freedom of horizontal movement and funneling them into a narrow chamber that evens the odds. Reducing the action film to its basic elements, Assault on Precinct 13 still packs the force of a blunt object to the cranium. The textured transfer on the new Blu-Ray, out today from Shout! Factory, is the ideal way to re-acquaint yourself with its concussive impact.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on August 20, 2013
Penny Serenade (1941) is the third and final film Cary Grant and Irene Dunne made together. The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940) are screwball comedies of re-marriage, and Penny Serenade is their tragic inverse, focusing on the work necessary to maintain a long-haul relationship. The first two are set in high society, produced by the improvisatory Leo McCarey, while Penny Serenade is working class and focused on the fear and trembling of young parents, made with stark realism by the more deliberate George Stevens. Grant worried about audience expectation, the “people who are laughing already, in anticipation of another mad marital mixup”. Both actors were protective of this heart-tugging melodrama, and later in life Irene Dunne declared it the favorite of her films. It was a success, although not to the same blockbuster degree as The Awful Truth, and for years has circulated in beat-up public domain editions. Olive Films is releasing a spiffy Blu-Ray of Penny Serenade next week, and it’s something of a revelation.
Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 9, 2013
With James Wan’s recent haunted houser THE CONJURING (2012) scaring up all kinds of big business at the boo-xoffice lately, I’ve had occasion to opine, mostly to the open air of my empty house and in my most lamentable ghostly wail, “Whyyyyyyyyy… whyyyyyyyyyy isn’t THE UNINVITED on DVD in this country? WHYYYYYYYYYYY???” And also, “Wheeeerrrrrrreeeee’s my gooooolllllllllllldddennnn arrrrrmmmmmm?” Well, silly me, it is available… or is about to be made available. (THE UNINVITED, I mean. Made available on DVD; golden arm still M.I.A.) Lewis Allen’s masterful 1944 ghost tale (not to be confused with the crap-ass 2009 American remake of the 2003 Korean ghost movie A TALE OF TWO SISTERS, which cadged the title THE UNINVITED rather gratuitously, rendering generic a brand that had been for almost half a century threaded with the very stuff of mystery and menace), based on the charming 1941 novel Uneasy Freehold by Irish writer Dorothy Macardle, is being released on DVD and Blu-ray by the estimable, the frighteningly comprehensive, and the exceedingly cool Criterion Collection. The announced street date is just over two months away. October 22nd. Just in time for Halloween!
I’ll tell you exactly where I was when I first saw THE UNINVITED, thank you for asking. It was New York City, it was the late 80s — 1988 or 1989 — and the thing just came on TV. I have no recollection of what channel was showing THE UNINVITED, if I had looked forward to seeing it or just found it already in progress, but my roommate and I found ourselves glued — glu-oo-ooed — to our cheap little black-and-white set as we sat side by side, two 20-something Bohemians with scratchy three days beards and black clothes, on the floor my futon, which doubled in those halcyon days as the couch in our Upper East Side railroad apartment. We both enjoyed the movie thoroughly throughout its crisp, fleet o’floot running time, but it was the ending… the ending, when the whooky-de-woo went all woooooo-oooooooo-ooooooooo and the protagonists were like yeow-ow-ow-ow that made us get all “GAHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” And then I spent the next, I don’t even know how many years — 20 at least — wondering “Did I really see what I thought I saw?”
Based as it is on a novel (two radio adaptatons followed within five years, and a stage version in 1979), THE UNINVITED turns not on a shopping list of tricks or feints or special effects but on words, on conversations, on secrets, on declarations, and in superstition and dread given voice. It’s a story that is fundamentally interested in people — the living, mind you — and one that does not suppose (as do so many contemporary ghost stories) that the dead have anything to tell us that we do not already know. This is not to say THE UNINVITED doesn’t believe in ghosts — far from it — but rather it understands that the restless dead derive the entirety of their power from the living, from the oral tradition, from the information we conceal from one another and ultimately from ourselves. Largely faithful to the Macardle novel (apart from changing various location and character names — the nickname of the main character from Roddy to Rick and his profession from theatre critic-cum-playwright to music critic-cum-composer), THE UNINVITED begins, leisurely but assuredly, as vacationing brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) espy an empty old house on the stormy Devonshire coast and decide that they must have it as a change of venue from dreary old London. Not daring to dream they could afford such a manor, Rick and Pam manage to buy Windward House for a song from retired military man Beech (Donald Crisp). Getting chummy with the commander’s granddaughter, Stella, (Gail Russell), a beautiful but demon-drawn young woman, the Fitzgeralds find out there is a tale to be told about their new digs, a proper ghost story, whose third act has yet to be written.
THE UNINVITED is such an engrossing little yarn that you don’t even care that it throws in your way not one love story subplot but two. Happily, these represent not padding but rather a fleshing out of the overriding theme of loneliness. If Rick seems a bit mature for the budding Stella (while representing for her, it’s worth noting, a happier ever after than she had to expect at Cornelia Otis Skinner’s sanitarium), you’ve got to love the sparks that fly between Hussey and Alan Napier, as the local sawbones (who is able to add a few pieces to the niggling puzzle that is Windward House). The dialogue by Frank Portos (THE STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR! THE SNAKE PIT!) and Dodie Smith (who wrote the source novel for Disney’s 101 DALMATIONS) is brisk and fulgent, light when it needs to be and then clamping down like a steel glove when things get heavy. The playing is expert, Lewis Allen’s direction (his first go at features after a career in theatre) is efficient yet evocative, and the icing on THE UNINVITED cake is the eerie process photography of Farciot Edouart (relatively fresh from Paramount’s comical but still creepy THE GHOST BREAKERS with Bob Hope and United Artists’ I MARRIED A WITCH with Veronica Lake). Edouart’s spectral contributions were not part of the original design and were only added, NIGHT OF THE DEMON-style, in postproduction, after Lewis Allen turned in his cut to Paramount. To say more about what happens specifically would be to do the uninitiated and THE UNINVITED a disservice. When this thing streets, see it. See it for yourself!
THE UNINVITED got its British DVD release just last year, with Exposure Cinema’s region 2/PAL issue of the film. The transfer is only adequate, a bit dark, a bit soft, and a bit thumb-rubbed… but still, what a treat (for those of us with multi-region capability) to finally have this one on disc. The Brit release came with both the 1944 and 1949 radio versions of the film as bonus features, along with the original trailer, and a stills and poster gallery. Exposure also included a keepsake booklet, nicely illustrated with original poster art from American and foreign markets, featuring a foreword by The Dark Side publisher Allan Bryce, an essay on the film by Claudette Pyne (which offers a lot of biographical information on the cast and director, though gives Farciot Edouart short shrift), an essay on the ghost movie subgenre by American critic Clydefro Jones, and a bio of Ray Milland by film critic and historian James Oliver. Criterion’s impending release of THE UNINVITED raises the stakes immeasurably with a digital restoration of the film — in and of itself entirely worth the sticker price. Additionally, Criterion is offering as supplements a print essay by film blogger Farran Smith Nehme (aka The Self-Styled Siren) and a visual essay by New York indie filmmaker Michael Almereyda. I love Almereyda and am about the only person in the world who dug his female vampire movie NADJA (1994), though I think I like his TWISTER (1989) just a little bit more. I wish there were more extras but I’ll be happy just to have the film itself, looking grand, on a region 1 disc and you should be, too!
To pre-order THE UNINVITED DVD for $13.99, click here.
To pre-order THE UNINVITED Blu-ray for $19.99, click here.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on June 18, 2013
The summer of 1985 was a chilly one for Hollywood executives, with box office grosses declining 160 million dollars from 1984′s take. In his Los Angeles Times moratorium, Jack Mathews blamed the lack of an all-ages “sequel to a blockbuster” for the downturn, with the adult arterial sprays of Rambo: First Blood Part II sitting atop the charts. Franchise hopefuls Explorers and Return to Oz tanked, while even the successes (The Goonies, Cocoon) didn’t crack $100 million. The family dollar was being kept in-pocket. It was inauspicious timing for exploitation operation Cannon Films to release one of their few big-budget items, the eroto-horror whatzit Lifeforce. They signed Tobe Hooper, fresh off of Poltergeist, to direct, Henry Mancini to write the score, and John Dykstra (Star Wars) to head the effects team. Instead of a Spielberg theme park ride, they delivered an obsessive head trip in 70mm, one which details the ways in which quivering men fail to satisfy a voracious (alien) woman’s sexual desire. Ravaged by critics, Janet Maslin memorably described it as “hysterical vampire porn”, and it made only $11.5 million on a $25 million budget. It comes out in a loaded Blu-Ray today from Scream Factory.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 14, 2013
Delmer Daves is having a moment. The Criterion Collection, the closest thing the U.S. has to a cultural gatekeeper, just released 3:10 To Yuma (1957) and Jubal (1956) on DVD and Blu-Ray, while the Anthology Film Archives in New York City is holding a mini-retrospective of rarely screened Daves titles, including Pride of the Marines (1945) and The Red House (1947). I had never delved into the director’s work because the ambivalent words of Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber were ringing in my head. Sarris thought his films had “stylistic conviction in an intellectual vacuum”, while Farber positioned Daves against the Spartan “Hawks-Wellman tradition” as “a Boys Life nature lover who intelligently half-prettifies adolescents and backwoods primitives.” While encapsulating their writing approaches, Sarris’ lucidity versus Farber’s contradictory collisions, they both convey images of shallow postcard beauty. Then I saw Daves’ extraordinary The Hanging Tree (1959, on DVD from the Warner Archive), which uses a cliffside cabin as a visual metaphor for Gary Cooper’s moral atrophy, and realized his use of landscape is far more complex than Boys Life kitsch. Eager for more, I watched five Daves films over the weekend, which revealed a sensitive director of actors drawn to tales of regeneration both spiritual and physical.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 12, 2013
27 years after its theatrical release, TerrorVision (1986) was released on DVD and Blu-Ray for the first time by Shout! Factory last month. An outrageously garish horror-satire of 1980s consumer culture in the guise of a low-budget creature feature, it was savaged by critics and disappeared from public view. The Monster Squad (1987) came out in a new Blu-Ray from Olive Films on the same day in February, and that nostlagic ode to the classic Universal monster movies had been difficult to see before a DVD release in 2007. Both are steeped in horror film history and iconography, but while TerrorVision adopts old styles to investigate its present, The Monster Squad is only concerned with burnishing the past.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 26, 2013
Following the gargantuan success of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), Blake Edwards acquired the freedom to develop his own projects. Typecast as a director of light comedies, he was eager to explore the stylistic opportunities offered by other genres. Experiment in Terror (1962) is the initial result, a thriller shot in stark B&W, in which Edwards tries out a dazzling variety of styles, from baroque expressionism to naturalistic location photography of San Francsico. The plot, about a bank teller forced to rob her employer, is a dry procedural that moves from clue to clue with Dragnet terseness. Its main job is to move the protagonists around the city, so Edwards can light them in flamboyant chiaroscuro interiors or at Candlestick Park. Experiment in Terror has the feel of a preternaturally talented kid playing with toys previously denied him. Twilight Time has released this bewitching oddity in a richly detailed Blu-Ray available through Screen Archives.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 22, 2013
Marion Morrison had to work hard to become John Wayne. His earth-straddling lope and taffy-stretched line readings were not invented by John Ford or Howard Hawks, only finely exploited by them. The flood of Republic Pictures movies released on Blu-Ray by Olive Films illustrates this fact, filling in the blanks of the evolution of one of the screen’s most indelible personalities. Following the box-office failure of the Raoul Walsh masterpiece The Big Trail (1930), Wayne would have to wait nearly a decade before his delayed acceptance as part of Hollywood’s firmament in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The period in between shows him sliding into obscurity, from Columbia and Warners down to the resourceful Poverty Row studios Mascot, Monogram and the slightly more reputable Republic. Olive has so far transferred sparkling editions of seven of the Republics, most of which finds him stepping in to play Stony Brooke, the leader of the long-running Western trio The Three Mesquiteers (he already played in a modern dress Three Musketeers for a 1933 Mascot serial – endless remakes are nothing new). Stony Brooke is lithe and quick where the classic John Wayne figures are slow-moving monuments, visible in Olive’s gorgeous 4K scan of The Quiet Man, out today on Blu-Ray, but his Mesquiteers voice exudes the chummy warmth and presence of Wayne-ness, not yet weighed down with history.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 8, 2013
Aleksandr Sokurov’s Soviet Elegy (1989) begins with a tour of tombstones, the camera floating down rows of Communist phantoms. In the next sequence, Boris Yeltsin is shown stalking down a hallway, another kind of ghost, one aware of his coming obsolescence. Sokurov’s work is a series of elegies, in which ghosts of history mourn for themselves. Cinema Guild has illustrated this development in their three-disc box set of Sokurov: Early Masterworks. It contains the three features Save and Protect (1990, DVD), Stone (1992, DVD) and Whispering Pages (1994, Blu-Ray), plus three of his shorts, including Soviet Elegy. Each displays his increasingly idiosyncratic visual sense, in which he uses distorting lenses to produce stretched figures akin to El Greco saints, yearning for a God who doesn’t respond. Sokurov is often compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, the previous Russian spiritual guide/director. But while Tarkovsky often offers the possibility of transcendence, there is no such hope in Sokurov, just figures circling a void.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 18, 2012
For as long as there are aging matinee idols looking for a quick paycheck, there will be commando movies there to pay them. While the painfully self-conscious Expendables movies brought this prestigious genre back into box office glory, it’s a format that has been cranking along for decades. Before Stallone, the most successful old man revitalizer was Andrew V. McLaglen (son of actor Victor), who cranked out fogey action flicks from the 60s through the 80s, after a long career in TV Westerns. Cult home video outfit Severin has just released The Wild Geese (1978) on Blu-Ray, which stars the leathery trio of Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore. McLaglen’s favorite among his films, it is a bloody imperialist fantasy in which a group of ex-Special Ops Brits parachute into Africa to rescue a deposed leader from a tyrannical despot. Fitfully released in the United States as its distributor was going through bankruptcy, it exudes more testosterone per film frame than Stallone’s pec-flexing opus.
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