Revisiting The Terror (1963) on Blu-ray

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TCM’s spotlight on American International Pictures is over but I recently got my paws on a copy of The Film Detective’s new Blue-ray of The Terror, a film that was originally released by AIP in 1963. I was so bowled over by the quality of the disc that it made me reconsider my long held view of this low-budget Gothic horror film initiated by Roger Corman.

Like any horror film fan worth their salt and of a certain age, I’d seen badly beat-up and butchered prints of The Terror on TV and video a number of times. The film suffered the unfortunate fate of falling into public domain decades ago so it became a staple of late night television and was repeatedly released as part of cheap video and DVD compilations typically sold in bargain bins. What I hadn’t realized is how much the poor presentation of the film had colored my opinion of it.

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Blood Money: Too Late for Tears (1949)

ct-too-late-for-tears-20140828 After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s origin, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley, complete with Alan K. Rode audio commentary and a highly informative essay by Brian Light. [...MORE]

A Toast to Dolemite (1975)

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“These rhymes and raps that I have were told 50 years ago by the beer joint and liquor store wise men who used to sit out in front of the store, drinking beer, lying, and talking shit. What I did, I picked them up. I even gave older winos money to tell me those tales. And then I’d take them and freshen them up.” – Rudy Ray Moore

Rudy Ray Moore was an X-rated griot, a traveling storyteller who popularized beer-joint folklore in black communities throughout the 1970s. His routine, in which he told outrageously filthy tales in singsong rhyme, was known as “toasting”, a pivotal influence on hip hop. Like the rappers he influenced (“He’s the greatest rapper of all time” – Snoop Dogg), Moore was intent on channeling the personalities of the neighborhoods he grew up in  (he was born and raised in Fort Smith, Arkansas and bounced to Milwaukee and Cleveland as a teen). Wanting to expand his reach after his “toast” albums became underground bestsellers, he started writing a screenplay based on one of his characters – the exaggeratedly macho gangster/pimp/loverman Dolemite. With no one to fund him, he saved money from his non-stop touring and made the feature for around $100,000 of his own money. It is an outrageous, hilarious comedy that never tries to cater to white audiences. Dolemite became famous for the ineptitude of its technical shortcomings – boom mics dipping into frame and the clumsy martial arts choreography – but for black audiences it was a rare depiction of a familiar character, like spending 90 minutes with one of their wisecracking drunk uncles. As writer and performance artist Darius James put it, “Unlike most of the commercial cinema’s Black-market movies, which rely on the story formulas of their honkoid counterparts, the movies of Rudy Ray Moore are rooted in the structure, imagery, and motifs of Black oral narrative.” After decades of circulating in faded dupes, the enterprising exploitation experts at Vinegar Syndrome unearthed a 35mm negative, and scanned and restored Dolemite in 2K. The resulting Blu-ray, out today, is so bright and clean it’s like seeing it for the first time.

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Sunshine Noir: Cutter’s Way (1981)

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“I have seen people after the war that came from concentration camps, they were violated in their bodies and their minds, and they were contaminated by the violence. They became violent themselves. This is what I wanted to show in Cutter’s Way.” – Ivan Passer

Cutter’s Way is a sickly film, its characters hungover or half in the bag. They have never recovered from the Vietnam War, either from the physical scars from fighting or the guilt from avoiding it. Cutter (John Heard) is the wounded veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress, a ranting paranoiac lost in his own head. His wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn) nurses the loss of her pre-war husband with drink. Cutter’s best friend is Bone (Jeff Bridges), a lithe golden god who makes a living as a gigolo and occasional boat salesman.  The trio’s blurred vision focuses upon the corpse of a young girl, who they suspect was murdered by local tycoon J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott). Cord begins to exert an outsized role in their personal mythology, a symbol of the system, the American way of life, that has left them on the periphery.

Their amateur investigation is a half-cocked mess, and twists around into a blackmail scheme. Their dream of justice is obscured by the thick haze of the Santa Barbara summer, but whether or not they have found the true killer, they have recovered a modicum belief, belief which ends in a defining act of violence. United Artists didn’t know what to do with this downbeat drama, and released it with little fanfare in 1981. It has had vocal supporters through the years, foremost among them J. Hoberman, and Twilight Time has released a handsome-looking Blu-ray that should expand its cult.

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Group Therapy: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

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Only Angels Have Wings keeps growing stranger with age. This studio-era classic is about a group of nihilist flyboys who enact their dreams of self-destruction out of an imaginary South American cabana. Howard Hawks insisted on the film’s realism, as he based it on the stories of some ragged pilots he met in Mexico, but the movie is as realistic as the Star Wars cantina. The invented port town of Barranca is pure Hawks country, an extension of the death-driven pilots he depicted in The Dawn PatrolCeiling Zero, and The Road to Glory. Revisiting Only Angels Have Wings in the new DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection (out today), one is struck by the sheer lunacy of the fliers, ready to sacrifice their lives for the chance to deliver the mail. Only Angels Have Wings pushes Hawks’ love of professionalism to the extreme – death is a natural part of the job, and beyond just accepting it, they seem to embrace it. In Only Angels Have Wings, to work is to die, and these jokey nihilists, including the the female interlopers who are integrated into this group – cheerily embrace the void.

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Death Walks Twice: A Giallo Double Feature

dw10The fine folks at Arrow deserve applause for their diligent efforts to release a number of exceptional giallo films on Blu-ray in recent years. Some of the giallo titles you can currently purchase from them include the suggestively titled Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) and What Have You Done to Solange? (1972) as well as cornerstones of the genre such as Mario Bava’s Blood and Black Lace (1964), The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969) and Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970) along with Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), The Bay of Blood (1971) and Deep Red (1975). Arrow discs typically boast beautiful packaging that rivals Criterion and they come loaded with extras including accompanying booklets, audio commentaries and video interviews with the film’s creators along with other industry professionals.

Their latest offering is a limited edition double disc Blu-ray box set titled Death Walks Twice that contains two outstanding examples of the genre, Death Walks in High Heels (1971) and Death Walks at Midnight (1972). Both films were directed by Luciano Ercoli and feature Ercoli’s wife, actress Susan Scott (a.k.a. Nieves Navarro). Like many of the best Italian thrillers, these two budget conscious productions look more luxurious than their American counterparts thanks to the creative direction, exotic European settings (Milan, Paris, London and Catalonia) and their innovative use of period specific aesthetics and attitudes including the music, architecture, fashions, and shifting sexual mores of the times. Comprised of labyrinth-like plots inspired by classic Alfred Hitchcock movies and the best Film Noir, Arrow’s new Death Walks Twice box set should appeal to genre novices as well as seasoned giallo fans.

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New on Blu-ray: Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967)

trip1 In 1966, Roger Corman was enjoying the surprising success of The Wild Angels (1966), a trailblazing biker film that he directed and produced for American International Pictures. The studio had made the film for a mere $360,000 and it netted more than $10 million at the box office thanks to a burgeoning counterculture eager to see the world they knew depicted on screen.

The Wild Angels starred Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra, children of Hollywood’s old guard, along with a cast that included genuine Hell’s Angels. The plot is based on actual stories the rowdy bikers relayed to Corman on set and the nihilistic nature of the film, as well as the extreme violence and sexual deviance depicted on screen, sparked global outrage among American diplomats as well as sanctimonious film critics.

Naturally, American International Pictures wanted to further their headline grabbing success and asked Corman to helm a second biker movie but the independent minded director had other ideas. His follow-up film was The Trip (1967), another groundbreaking depiction of bohemian youth culture but this time he explored the effects of experimenting with hallucinogenic drugs. Like The Wild Angeles, The Trip caused a minor uproar when it was released. Executives at American International Pictures were so concerned that the film might encourage LSD use that they decided to make some edits, including the addition of a message in the opening minutes that warned of the potential dangers of taking drugs. Nearly 50-years later the movie was finally restored and thanks to Olive Films, Roger Corman’s original psychedelic vision is now available on Blu-ray.
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Taipei Story: A Brighter Summer Day (1991)

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“This film is dedicated to my father and his generation, who suffered so much for my generation to suffer less. I hope they, the forgotten, can be made unforgettable.” – Edward Yang, director’s note for A Brighter Summer Day

 

A Brighter Summer Day is an empathic epic of Taipei in the early 1960s. Four hours long, it is a finely detailed portrait of the families who fled China for Taiwan after the Communist Revolution, unsure if they would ever see their homeland again. It is how Edward Yang grew up, and he felt a responsibility to honor the memory of his friends and family who lived and endured this dislocated life, all under the martial law of the Kuomintang government, who stifled dissent in what became known as the “White Terror”. Freedoms were circumscribed and national loyalties scrambled, so in order to establish an identity many children joined street gangs and imbibed Western pop culture, especially Elvis Presley and rock n’ roll. The film is a succession of atmospheric reveries (Proustian sense memories of school uniform fabrics, clunky radio units and stucco dance halls) punctuated by spasmodic violence, boredom and confusion breeding obscure hatreds. The cast of characters is enormous, and Yang is able to build a real sense of a community, conveying the ragged dignity of alcoholic shop owners, philosophical gang leaders, and the apathetic teen who throws his life away with a few thrusts of the knife. It is a towering achievement, though it has been nearly impossible to see in the United States outside of rep screenings and muddy-looking VCDs. But today the Criterion Collection has issued  A Brighter Summer Day in a beautiful DVD and Blu-ray  from the  4K restoration performed by Criterion in partnership with The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project. It is one of the essential releases of 2016.

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Blu-ray Blues

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Blu-ray is dead. Long live Blu-ray. Last month a new home video format was released to replace it: Ultra HD Blu-ray, which offers quadruple the resolution of regular old BD. Compatible only with 4K televisions and UHD players, the new format is likely fated to become the niche of a niche. The original Blu-ray was never ensconced in most Americans’ living rooms, instead becoming the choice of collectors, cinephiles, and home theater geeks. DVDs were still too new and cheap, and the rapidly expanding accessibility of streaming video made the relatively expensive Blu-ray an afterthought.  Today Blu-ray and DVD are considered as interchangeable formats, lumped together in narratives of physical media’s decline (according to DEG combined sales dropped by 12% in 2015 – though it is still a six billion dollar business). Anecdotally, it is remarkable how few of my film friends own a BD player, even though their prices have dropped to DVD levels these last few years. As audiences seemed to shrug at BD, Hollywood studios became wary of investing too much in the format. They were nearly twice as expensive to author, so new releases made it to Blu-ray, but library titles would have to wait. It has taken a few years, but the Blu-ray dam is leaking a bit, if not yet broken. Take for instance, the recent releases of Otto Preminger’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (via the Twilight Time label, only available for purchase through Screen Archives), and Alfred Hitchcock’s I Confess, released courtesy of the Warner Archive.

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Accused: The Wrong Man (1957)

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The Wrong Man was promoted as Alfred Hitchcock’s first film based on a true story, and the director went to great lengths to secure its authenticity. To shoot the story of Manny Balestrero, who was falsely accused of robbing a life insurance company, Hitchcock shot the film on location in NYC, and cast supporting parts with many of the actual participants in the case. The movie strives for “reality”, and much of it plays as a heightened kind of docudrama, focused through Balestrero’s POV as he is arrested, processed, and put to trial. Manny’s world of Manhattan night clubs and his Jackson Heights home shrinks to the space between his shoes on the ground of his jail cell, seen with impressive clarity on the new Warner Archive Blu-ray. Manny’s resemblance to a hold-up artist has undone the life he had built over forty-three years, as his wife suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress. For no reason at all, a void has opened up and swallowed him whole.

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