Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Children's Hour (1961)

William Wyler's second film version (the first was THESE THREE in 1936) of Lillian Helman's controversial 1934 Broadway play gets a dual format UK disc release from the BFI.

Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) run an exclusive private school for young girls in a small American town. One of their pupils, the bored, spoilt, badly behaved Mary (Karen Balkin) tells her grandmother, the rich and influential Amelia (Fay Bainter) that she has overheard a conversation that strongly suggests the two teachers are lesbians.

Soon parents are taking their children away and the school is empty. Karen is due to marry a local doctor (James Garner) and their relationship comes under threat. The two women lose a libel case when the one person who could defend them, Martha's aunt Lily (played by Miriam Hopkins who was also in the 1936 version) doesn't turn up to the hearing. But the greatest tragedy is yet to come.

Wyler's earlier version of THE CHILDREN'S HOUR had to cut out all references that didn't adhere to the Hays Code, which makes you wonder why they bothered. It does mean that he directs this with real gusto, however, and while it is by its nature very dialogue heavy, Wyler opens the story up so its presentation never feels stagey.

The two leads are excellent and well cast. Up to this point both Hepburn and MacLaine were better known for playing comedy, and having them star in this ensured the audience would be on their side. Karen Balkin who plays the vindictive Mary may go a bit over the top with her facial expressions but she's still very much the forerunner of evil pre-teens that would become popular in 1970s horror films.

The BFI's Blu-ray is from an original 35mm fine grain element and looks crisp and clear. Extras include a commentary track from Neil Sinyard and a booklet with useful essays by Sarah Wood, So Mayer and Neil Sinyard.

William Wyler's THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is out on dual format from the BFI on Monday 18th June 2018

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Defiant Ones (1958)

"More Kramer Excellence From Eureka" 

Eureka brings out another Stanley Kramer classic on UK dual format with this release of his 1958 classic prison break movie.

When a truck transporting convicts crashes in the American South, John Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) find themselves on the run. The only problem is they're chained together  - 'because the warden had a sense of humour' says a character at one point. 

Unable to break the chain and harbouring hatred and prejudices for each other, the only choice the two men have if they are to survive is to work together. Aiming to get to a railway line they have to evade a bloodthirsty posse equipped with guns and tracker dogs, survive both hunger and the elements, and they're only going to be able to do it if they put aside their differences.

Like with INHERIT THE WIND, Stanley Kramer doesn't pull any punches here. This one is a plea for racial tolerance and during the 96 minute running time we get to know both men, understand them, and sympathise with both.

Both leads are excellent. Curtis is all rage while Poitier is more the thinking man. Again as with INHERIT THE WIND we get some interesting casting in the smaller roles, including Theodore Bikel in a thoughtful performance as the sheriff pursuing them, and Claude Akins and Lon Chaney as workers in a turpentine plant.

There are plenty of long takes which make what's happening on screen all. the more engrossing, whether its Curtis and Poitier talking near a fire, or the scene where they are threatened with being lynched. 

Eureka's transfer is 1080p and as an extra you get a new video interview with Kim Newman. Classic stuff. I don't need to sell this one to you, do I?

Stanley Kramer's THE DEFIANT ONES is out on dual format from Eureka on Monday 11th June 2018

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Inherit the Wind (1960)

"Still Relevant Today (Sadly)"

Stanley Kramer's no punches pulled, in your face, based on true events courtroom drama gets a dual format release courtesy of Eureka.

In the Tennessee town of Hillsboro, teacher Bertram Cates (Dick York) teaches his kids the theory of evolution. That is, until he is arrested and locked up for going against the law that only creationism is to be taught in state-funded schools.

The story goes nationwide and Hillsboro town officials are concerned their town is becoming a laughing stock. They believe salvation (of all kinds) has arrived when famous fundamentalist attorney Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) comes to town to take the case.

Not to be outdone, Baltimore reporter E K Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) convinces his paper to employ equally famous non-fundamentalist attorney Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) to argue for Bertram's side.

And argue these two titans of cinema do, turning the rest of the running time into the courtroom version of KING KONG VS GODZILLA. In fact you can almost see actors like Brian Blessed and Oliver Reed watching this and nodding sagely at the thought that sometimes you can never go too far over the top. 

Director Stanley Kramer certainly doesn't seem to think so either. He portrays much of the Hillsboro townsfolk as aggressively violent religious obsessives, egged on by their preacher (Claude Akins perhaps going even more over the top than anyone else). This, combined with what is at the bottom line a plea for tolerance, means INHERIT THE WIND is probably the only film that could be comfortably double-billed with both WITCHFINDER GENERAL and FOOTLOOSE. 

Based on a real case from the 1920s, this 1960 film version was also intended as a blistering satire on McCarthyism. Sadly the story is still horribly relevant today. INHERIT THE WIND may be Kramer's best film. It certainly may be the most timeless one. 

Eureka's disc comes with a 25 minute interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard who contextualises both the film and the historical case it was based on. You also get a trailer and, of course, the usual excellent transfer (1080p in this case). 

Stanley Kramer's INHERIT THE WIND is out on dual format from Eureka now

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Insidious: The Last Key (2018)

"Pretty Decent for a Part 4"

Because that's what this is. Despite the absence of a numeral this time around (subtitles - often lengthy unwieldy ones - are very much the in thing at the moment) this is the fourth film in a franchise that kicked off eight years ago in 2011. You can read my review of the original INSIDIOUS by clicking on that title. 

Just to get everyone up to speed, Part 2 was a direct sequel and was so awful I couldn't bring myself to write about it. Part 3 was a prequel that gave us more time with psychic investigator Elise (Lin Shaye) and her two sidekicks Specs (series screenwriter Leigh Whannell of SAW fame) and Tucker (Angus Sampson).

We're still in prequel land here. The story kicks off with Elise as a child and the abuse she received at the hands of her father because of her apparent psychic abilities. We then move forward to 2010, (which raised the question in the HMC screening room of "Was that before or after the first one, then?" so now you know).

Weird things are happening back in Elise's childhood home, but when the team get there ts quickly becomes apparent that it's not a simple ghost and may even by a demon that Elise unleashed herself when she was a little girl. After a number of satisfying twists and turns we get to the root of the mystery.

Made for pennies compared with the mega budget blockbusters currently in our cinemas, unlike some who have written about this, I cannot be hard on INSIDIOUS THE LAST KEY. It does a decent job of providing us with a story that keeps you guessing, and thankfully director Adam Robitel knows what he's doing. The original was a masterclass in scary set-ups and Robitel demonstrates a skilful sleight of hand with some of his, such that if you like jump scares this should keep you happy. 

Extras include an 'alternate ending' which isn't, really. Instead it's an alternate edit from close to the end of the film but still worth a look if you liked the movie & want to see a bit more. You also get eight deleted scenes and three featurettes. The featurettes are so short they could easily have all been put together but then I suppose they wouldn't have been able to say 'and three featurettes' on the box.

INSIDIOUS: THE LAST KEY is out from Sony on digital download from Monday 7th May 2018 and on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday 21st May 2018


Saturday, 12 May 2018

Breakheart Pass (1975)

"Throw Bronson From the Train"

Eureka are bringing out this Charles Bronson-starring 1975 western adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel.

We're in the frontier era. A train loaded with supplies sets off for isolated Fort Humbolt in Nevada, where apparently there has been an outbreak of Diphtheria. On the train are a couple of carriages full of soldiers; a moustache-twirling, could-he-possibly-be-up-to-no-good Governor (Richard Crenna); his rather unemotive ladyfriend (Jill Ireland); a liberal sprinkling of character actors (Ed Lauter, Charles Durning, Ben Johnson, David Huddleston); and prisoner-but-actually-the-good-guy-unsurprisingly Charles Bronson.

Off they go! Choo choo! But pretty soon it's choke choke, bang bang and various other methods of despatch as passengers start to get bumped off by an unseen killer. Is the train actually loaded with medical supplies? Is the no-good Governor there for reasons other than altruism? Does Charles Bronson have a fantastic fight on top of a moving train just like in the poster?

The biggest problem with BREAKHEART PASS is that, while the action sequences are terrific (and likely all directed by prominently credited second unit legend Yakima Canutt) the stuff in between, and especially during the first act, is all rather uninvolving. 

In fact, these bits are a good example of the difference a good director can make to a script (written by MacLean himself). We don't see the murders (that plus perhaps some black-gloved hands would have been good) and Bronson is given nothing to do for the first half an hour, with the film floundering with no POV character. During all of this I have to say I did find myself wondering what someone like Sergio Martino or even Michael Winner (yes Michael Winner) might have done with this material instead of actual director Tom Gries, and I suspect we would have ended up with something a bit livelier, more interesting and better paced.

Once it gets going BREAKHEART PASS isn't bad, but everyone here either had done or would do better. Surprisingly bloodless for a 1970s Western (it gets a PG certificate here) and without the inherent nihilism and bleakness of most of the decade's best pictures in the genre, it's still a decent timewaster if you fancy a bit of adventure and trains crashing.

The only extra is a talking head piece from Kim Newman, which lasts nearly half an hour, and in which he talks at length about the MacLean properties that were adapted for the screen in the 1960s and 1970s (I had forgotten there were quite so many). He even shows us some of his MacLean paperbacks, but not the tie-in edition of BREAKHEART PASS which I remember seeing everywhere at the time and which must have been prominently positioned in every WHSmith's and Woolworths throughout the land.

Alistair MacLean's BREAKHEART PASS is out from Eureka on dual format Blu-ray and DVD on Monday 14th May 2018

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The Old Dark House (1932)

"Have a 4K Potato!"

James Whale's mischievous adaptation of J B Priestley's novel gets a 4k Blu-ray and DVD dual format release courtesy of Eureka.

Lost in Wales in the midst of a terrible storm / normal Welsh weather, two groups of travellers find themselves overly challenged by the mud-choked road (most likely the A470) and end up taking refuge at the titular mansion where they encounter the bizarre collection of characters who live there, ranging from mute butler Morgan (Boris Karloff) to gin-loving potato enthusiast Horace Femm (Ernest Thesiger).

The rest of the Femm family are, if anything, even more strange than Horace. The head of the household is an old lady with a beard (Elspeth Dudgeon, but billed as John) while mad Saul (Brember Wills) is a pyromaniac. Will Gloria Stuart survive so her heart can go on (with the rest of her) & survive a trip on James Cameron's TITANIC? Will Melvyn Douglas escape to eventually end up in John Irvin's GHOST STORY? And how many potatoes will actually be consumed at dinner?

An inspiration behind pretty much every movie , TV show and newspaper cartoon of its kind that followed (THE ADDAMS FAMILY owes this a huge debt), THE OLD DARK HOUSE crackles along as a superb mixture of horror and eccentric humour. The opening half hour is probably the best, and the movie definitely loses something when Ernest Thesiger and his amazing nose aren't on screen. Also in the cast are Charles Laughton as a self-made man quoting lines taken directly from Priestley's novel and Eva Moore as Rebeca Femm - a more sinister, more restrained and far more effective version of the mad old lady character that would be essayed by Una O'Connor in 1935's THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

It's all top quality stuff and every horror fan (in fact every film fan) should watch it at least once. Eureka's 4k transfer (actually the same that's on the US Region A Cohen Media Group disc) is as sparkling as Universal have made their 1931 DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN look on Blu-ray.

Eureka have gone the extra mile with the special features,  making this the disc to own over the Region A. They've ported over the entertaining Stephen Jones and Kim Newman commentary track from the old Network DVD, and you also get two audio commentaries ported over from the old US Kino DVD - a Gloria Stuart commentary track and another by James Whale biographer James Curtis.

A brand new extra, and a highlight of the disc, is Meet the Femms -  a fantastically informative and entertaining video essay by critic and film-maker David Cairns which lasts about 40 minutes and is well worth a watch. Cairns even manages to include a plug for giant frog 3D horror picture THE MAZE (1953) so he's all right by me. 

There's also a conversation with Sara Karloff entitled Daughter of Frankenstein and an archival interview with director Curtis Harrington detailing his quite amazing efforts to preserve the film from not just obscurity but from being a 'lost' film. Both of those can also be found on the Region A Blu-ray but what isn't is the 2018 UK re-release trailer. 

Finally you get a booklet with an essay by Philip Kemp that told me things I didn't know (especially about J B Priestley) and some lovely Graham Humphreys artwork. 

James Whale's THE OLD DARK HOUSE is out from Eureka in a splendid dual format package from Eureka on 21st May 2018. 

The new transfer is also currently doing the rounds at selected UK cinemas. 

Saturday, 5 May 2018

The Bloodthirsty Trilogy (1970 - 1974)

Arrow are releasing this interesting set of early 1970s Japanese vampire movies made by Toho. For obsessives of that particular genre and / or era of film-making they're going to be a must-see. For everyone else, here's what you get:

The Vampire Doll (1970)

A curious mixture of contemporary Western horror movie genre-plundering filtered through a contemporary (for the period) cultural Japanese sensibility, Michio Yamamoto's THE VAMPIRE DOLL gives us a modern-day setting, an isolated mansion, a ghostly girl, blood-drained corpses and a disappearing relative to power the plot along. 
However, nothing is quite what it seems in Yamamoto's picture, and by the time we get to the end, with its convoluted explanation for what has been happening, the film feels more reminiscent of Italian giallo cinema than European gothic. Adding to this sense is a distinct lack of gothic atmosphere to much of it, with brightly lit sets, indifferent acting, and a perfunctory approach to a genre that, if anything, was at its most full-blooded during this period. 

Lake of Dracula (1971)

In which we have a lake that things happen near but not actually in, and a tenuous at best connection to Count Dracula. It does all feel a bit COUNT YORGA, though, with a truck delivering a crate to a lakeside town. In the crate is 'The Vampire' (Shin Kishida) who causes a bit of trouble before he meets his end (literally) in one of those 'oh my how fortunate that long sharp piece of wood was propped just so' endings. A bit more atmosphere than THE VAMPIRE DOLL but this is still one for completists. 

Evil of Dracula (1974)

Things start to perk up a bit with this one. A teacher arrives at a remote village to take up a new post at an exclusive girls' school (aha!). The headmaster is played by Shin Kishida, the vampire from the previous film (aha again!). Cries in the night lead the protagonist to a Jean Rollin-style almost naked Japanese vampire lady (am I selling this one to you yet?). 

        The vampire headmaster is keeping his vampire wife in a coffin in the cellar (oh yes!) and with her husband she helps wreak havoc including cutting the face off of a naked student she has vampirised so she can assume their identity (if you're not sold on this now you never will be). There's a bit more atmosphere, a lot more action, and I have to say I really enjoyed this one.

        The only significant extra is a talking head piece by Kim Newman where he contextualises the films into 1970s vampire cinema while admitting he has difficulty remembering which scene happened in which film. And I have to admit that having just picked out the stills above from the press pack now I can't either. The transfers look lovely, though. The first pressing also comes with a booklet by Jasper Sharp. 

THE BLOODTHIRSTY TRILOGY is out from Arrow on Blu-ray only from Monday 14th May 2018