Thursday 21 January 2021

Southland Tales (2006)



Arrow are releasing writer-director Richard Kelly's follow up to his cult hit DONNIE DARKO in a limited edition two disc Blu-ray set. 

We are in a Los Angeles (the Southland of the title) of 'the future' - an as-yet unimagined 2008 where a twin nuclear strike in Texas two years previously has caused political ramifications, including the reintroduction of the draft. A Neo-Marxist organisation (played by Saturday Night Live regulars of the period including Amy Poehler) is attempting to undermine the government and prevent the re-election of a right-wing senator.

Into this are mixed several other plots, including action film star Boxer Santeros (Dwayne Johnson) suffering from amnesia and convinced he has the plot for the best film ever, adult film star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar) who has her own reality TV show on the beach, Roland and Ronald Taverner (Sean William Scott) who are on opposing political sides and Justin Timberlake who narrates and mimes a song.

There are also some fascinating touches - power is now supplied in inexhaustible amounts thanks to the efforts of the eccentric Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) and his family who has designed a machine that draws energy from the movement of the ocean. Plus there's time travel but you have to wait a bit to understand the significance of that.

If this all sounds a bit of a mess then that's because it is, in a film that runs for nearly two and a half hours in its theatrical version and longer (158 minutes) in its director's cut. Both versions are supplied in Arrow's set. Up to about 90 minutes in SOUTHLAND TALES is intriguing but after that it starts to collapse under the weight of its own ambitions and (it has to be said) self-indulgence, leaving it a curio - a bit like if Terry Gilliam had directed a Philip K Dick novel (there are references to the author's work in the film) but had left halfway through leaving someone of considerably lesser talent to cobble together an ending.

Arrow gives us both versions of the film in 2K restorations with a Kelly commentary on the theatrical cut. There's also a making of documentary, an archival featurette and a short film set in the same universe, as well as the usual trailer, image gallery and reversible sleeve.

Richard Kelly's SOUTHLAND TALES is out from Arrow in a two disc Blu-ray set on Monday 25th January 2021

Monday 18 January 2021

The Don Is Dead (1973)


Richard Fleischer's 1973 gangster saga is getting a Blu-ray release courtesy of Eureka.

When Las Vegas crime boss Don Regalbuto dies, his son Frank (Robert Forster sporting more hair here than he would in Lewis Teague's ALLIGATOR in a couple of years' time) attends a meeting of the city's three rival gangster families to learn the other two are going to split the Don's territory with Don Angelo DiMorra (Anthony Quinn) adopting Frank as his son who will inherit in due course.

But Luigi Orlando (Charles Cioffi) and his partner Marie (Jo Anne Meredith) want the entire territory for themselves, and they put into motion a plan that results in repeated and bloody confrontation.

Richard Fleischer, veteran director of movies like THE VIKINGS, FANTASTIC VOYAGE and CONAN THE DESTROYER had just finished SOYLENT GREEN when he moved onto THE DON IS DEAD, a film  that was very much Universal's answer to Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER. Like that movie it's a high-end gangster picture with a high profile cast that also includes Frederic Forrest, Vic Tayback and Sid Haig in a tiny role at the beginning. This, combined with a decent budget and Fleischer's skill means THE DON IS DEAD is essential viewing for fans of the genre, even though it's not as well known as some. 

Eureka's Blu-ray comes with a commentary track from Scott Harrison and a trailer, plus you also get a booklet featuring a lengthy essay on the crime films of Richard Fleischer by Barry Forshaw.

Richard Fleischer's THE DON IS DEAD is out on Blu-ray from Eureka on Monday 18th January 2021

Wednesday 13 January 2021

Inner Sanctum Mysteries (1943-1945)

Inner Sanctum - first a series of highly popular novels, then a highly popular radio show, and finally a short-lived film series dismissed by many older film guides (I'm looking at you - again - Leslie Halliwell) as not worth the effort of watching. Before Harry Alan Towers bought the rights to the Fu Manchu name but not the books or plots, Universal was way ahead of him doing something similar with this very successful franchise. Presumably they thought the title and the presence of star Lon Chaney, Jr in each one would be enough to sell them. And now there's the chance to discover the six films in the series for yourselves as Eureka releases them on Blu-ray in a two disc set. 

Each of the first five films is introduced by a floaty head in a goldfish bowl (oh all right a crystal ball), its distorted image resembling the effect one might obtain from looking into the convex surface of a highly polished spoon. This was intended to replace the creaking door and announcer of the radio show, neither of which Universal held the copyright to. The films themselves are a decidedly mixed bag although as Kim Newman says in one of the extras, no-one can agree on which are the best. Which of course means you'll just have to find out for yourself. Here's what I thought of each one:

Disc One

Calling Dr Death (1943)

Dr Mark Steele (Lon Chaney, Jr) is a successful neurologist who has done so well he only has to work four hours a day (check out the hours on his office door).  His wife Maria (Ramsay Ames from previous Universal-LeBorg effort THE MUMMY'S GHOST) is playing around behind his back but isn't willing to give up her title of 'Doctor's wife' (was that ever a thing?). But then Dr Steele wakes up with no memory of the last 24 hours while Maria's acid-scarred body has been found at an isolated mountain cabin. Did he do it? If not who did? And could his revolutionary hypnotherapy technique help?

Budget-wise and plot-wise CALLING DR DEATH is a pretty bare bones affair. The main reasons for watching it are a cast of familiar Universal faces (as well as the above, J Carrol Naish is the police inspector and David Bruce is the man accused of the murder) and director Reginald LeBorg's creative attempt at a dream sequence near the end on no money at all by using what looks like a couple of flats pushed at an angle. Eureka's transfer looks just fine and there's a commentary track from C Courtney Joyner and LeBorg's daughter Regina. 

Weird Woman (1944)

Rather better all round than CALLING DR DEATH is WEIRD WOMAN, the first film adaptation of Fritz Leiber's novel Conjure Wife. Sidney Hayers' 1961 NIGHT OF THE EAGLE is still the best but this isn't half bad, with HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN's Anne Gwynne as the 'exotic' new wife of a college professor (Chaney again) who may or may not be influencing her husband's academic success. Universal horror heroine Evelyn Ankers plays nicely against type and overall WEIRD WOMAN is an entertaining way to spend just over an hour. The commentary track on this one is from Justin Humphrey and Del Howison.

Dead Man's Eyes (1944)

The final Reginald LeBorg-directed entry in the series has Lon Chaney as an artist who every night washes his tired eyes with a Boric Acid solution. The bottle is right next to something far more corrosive. Bottles get mixed up (not by him) and disaster ensues, as does murder. The least of the series so far, DEAD MAN'S EYES is saddled with some bad acting (sorry Acquanetta but you took me right out of the action) and a daft way in which the killer is finally identified. 

Extras on disc one include a 30 minute Kim Newman talking head piece and another half an hour long documentary on the film series. Both should really be on disc two because both spoil films the unsuspecting viewer will not have watched yet if they are going through everything in order. You have been warned.

Disc Two

The Frozen Ghost (1945)

There's no ghost and nobody gets frozen (sorry) in this, another upswing in quality as Harold Young (THE MUMMY'S TOMB) takes over from Reginald LeBorg, cramming plenty of fun stuff into the rather slight and silly plot. The opening stage hypnotism act filmed from weird angles, plenty of action in a wax museum and best of all Martin Kosleck as a disgraced plastic surgeon who now makes the wax dummies all help make the rather fumbled climax easier to bear. There are plenty of familiar faces, too, including Evelyn Ankers, Elena Verdugo (the gypsy girl from HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN), Milburn Stone (CAPTIVE WILD WOMAN), and an uncredited Dennis Moore from THE MUMMY'S CURSE turns up as the radio announcer.

Strange Confession (1945)

Aside from our floaty-headed friend at the beginning and the presence of a bunch of Universal regulars (including J Carrol Naish, Brenda Joyce and of course Lon Chaney), STRANGE CONFESSION is the Inner Sanctum entry that feels the least like a quickie programmer and the most like an actual proper film. Chaney is a chemist developing a flu treatment that needs more work. Naish is his unscrupulous boss who wants the drug in the shelves now to capitalise on an approaching flu epidemic. To keep Chaney quiet he sends him off to South America to do 'research'. Meanwhile back at home disaster ensues. 

        Eschewing many of the elements of the other films - the voiceovers, the string of suspects, Chaney's character convinced he may have killed someone, STRANGE CONFESSION is the least pulpy Inner Sanctum film. It's actually an uncredited modern-day remake of Universal's 1934 THE MAN WHO RECLAIMED HIS HEAD (which starred Claude Raines) and is arguably the highlight of the series. C Courtney Joyner and Peter Atkins (on what sounds like the telephone) provide a commentary track.

The Pillow of Death (1945)

What kind of title is that for a film? It obviously wasn't a success or Universal would presumably have pushed forward a whole series of movies featuring cushions, comforters, divans etc. PILLOW OF DEATH has all the signs of a franchise that's run out of steam. Lon Chaney's attorney is accused of killing his wife. Brenda Joyce is the secretary everyone thinks he has designs on and she lives in an old dark house wherein much prowling around occurs. There are some half-hearted attempts at atmosphere and neither Joyce nor Chaney can do much to save this one which, along with DEAD MAN'S EYES, is a low point for the series.

Extras on disc two include an archival 11 minutes interview with Martin Kosleck, another featurette about the Inner Sanctum phenomenon, plus three half hour episodes of the Inner Sanctum radio series.

A curate's egg of a series, with highs of WEIRD WOMAN and STRANGE CONFESSION and lows of THE PILLOW OF DEATH and (especially) DEAD MAN'S EYES (so don't let that one put you off), this is still going to be an an essential addition to the library of anyone with an interest in films of this period, and especially to fans of Universal's output of the time.

Universal's Inner Sanctum Mysteries is out on Blu-ray in a two-disc set from Eureka on Monday 18th January 2021

Saturday 2 January 2021

[Rec] 2007


 "Brutally Effective Modern Horror Classic"

One of the best zombie movies ever made gets a much deserved whistles and bells Blu-ray release courtesy of Arrow Films. I reviewed the DVD release of [REC] on here eight years ago, but to save you looking back through the archives here's what I said back then, with a few minor edits before we move onto the extras on Arrow's new release:

Out of the plethora of zombie movies made over the last 20 years, Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's [REC] remains one of the best. It's the best paced, the scariest, the most kinetic and the one with the power to still leave you shaking by the end. 

Taking the format of footage filmed for a documentary about a night in the life of the local fire service, [REC]'s narrative is told entirely from the point of view of Pablo, the cameraman whom we see only very intermittently, and who somehow manages to keep filming under the direst of circumstances. In this respect [REC] is a little bit like Ruggero Deodato's CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST but without the breaks from the filmed footage, and mercifully free of the mean-spiritedness. 

Manuela Velasco is the presenter (apparently her real job on Spanish TV) who does her best to provide a running commentary of events when the team gets called to a residential block where an old lady is apparently trapped in her flat. Once the team are inside the building and have discovered the woman covered in blood and keen to chew on anyone who comes within biting distance, the building is sealed by the authorities. 

Initially there is no explanation as to what is going on and the film becomes extraordinarily tense as more and more people succumb to the zombie plague that has been unleashed. The brief running time of less than eighty minutes means that once the action begins the only time the film truly pauses for breath is close to the end, and even that is just so something even more terrifyingly horrible than what we've already seen can appear. In fact the climax almost tops everything that has gone before as the film veers off into deliciously ambiguous territory regarding the cause of the disaster, and the ending is anything but comforting.

Arrow's new Blu-ray gives you then option of viewing [REC] at either 24fps (the 'theatrical' release) or at 25fps (the 'production version). You may think 1 frame per second difference wouldn't matter that much but it actually does, with the 25fps offering a smoother image and the 24fps being grainier. 

Extras include everything previously available on the two-disc UK DVD release, including a very informative 40 minute making of, archive commentary by the directors (who admit their individual styles are very different), panel discussion with JA Bayona (THE ORPHANAGE and JURASSIC WORLD 2), Gonzalo Lopez Callego and Plaza and Balaguero, interviews with DP Pablo Rosso, sound supervisor Xavi Mas and sound designer Oriol Tarrago plus a whole host of deleted & extended scenes, casting spots and Manuela Velasco's video diary. You also get a new commentary from Alexandra Heller-Nicholas as well as the usual trailers, TV spots and reversible sleeve. 

Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza's REC is out on Blu-ray on Monday 4th January 2021 and available to stream on ARROW:
What a great New Year present from Arrow