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DVD Review: The Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set

3.0

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The Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set

The space of a giallo film is a mixture of garish colors, mod furniture, sharp objects, psychedelic lounge music, and kooky oddballs—to what end this clutter of sights, sound, and people is used is what distinguishes a Dario Argento from a Luciano Ercoli. In Deep Red, Argento involves his audience in its philosophical mystery, blowing our minds with heady aesthetic and psychological correlations before blowing up the very fabric of the film. Scarcely profondo, the two films available on No Shame Films’s Luciano Ercoli Death Box Set are pristine examples of Italian kitsch—nothing more, nothing less. In 1971’s Death Walks on High Heels, Susan Scott stars as a Parisian stripper who runs to the English countryside thinking her boyfriend is after her for her dead father’s diamonds. If the eyes are the windows into the soul, they’re also the doors into a good deal of these giallo pictures. Ercoli is obsessed with the eyes—“death” wears blue contacts Nicole (Scott) discovers among her boyfriend’s belongings; later, a blind man whose left cornea is removed in a very detailed operation comes under suspicion by the officers investigating the story’s murders—but this hang-up isn’t intuitive; like the countless endings, red herrings, and wigs, it’s just another conceit to strangulate a story that scarcely breathes to begin with. Still, there are flashes of humor here, intentional or not—like Scott’s prolonged chicken-eating scene, the non-stop slapping of people’s faces, and the police aide whose name, Miss Pennypacker, is needlessly invoked at least a dozen times. The former example illustrates how Ercoli’s kitsch-chamber pictures can be savored as walk-in erogenous zones. A little more knowing than Death Walks on High Heels is Death Walks at Midnight, released one year later and with much of the same cast. In this one, Scott stars as a model who takes a hallucinogenic drug during a fashion shoot and thinks she witnesses a six-month-old murder. The considerably less convoluted story takes aims to involve its audience, and unlike its predecessor, it doesn’t suggest the spectacle of a Rubix Cube turning itself. Visually, too, the film is more insightful: Ercoli’s grotesque use of space affects the lead character’s confusion, and to a certain extent our own.

Image/Sound

Impeccably clean sound and image transfers-a triumph, surely, for a company as small as No Shame Films, keepers of underground Italian flames who recently brought to light Michelangelo Antonioni’s Story of a Love Affair.

Extras

This box set isn’t heavy on the extras (a poster and stills gallery for both films; theatrical trailers for Death Walks on High Heels; and a TV version of Death Walks at Midnight), but I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise its impeccable design. An elegant, two-disc plastic rack safely guards the DVDs, and in addition to two postcards (collages of lobbycards from Death Walks at Might), a swell booklet contains liner notes and bios written out by Chris D., programmer at Hollywood’s The American Cinemateque. Also included here is a Stelvio Cirpiani CD titled The Sound of Love and Death, which collects music from about a half-dozen of the composer’s soundtracks.

Overall

Luciano Ercoli walks in high heels. Buy this DVD if that’s your sort of thing.

Cast: Susan Scott, Simón, andreu, Carlo Gentili, Luciano Rossi, Frank Wolff, Claudie Lange, Fabrizio Moreco, Peter Martell, Georges Rigaud, Luciano Rossi, Ivano Staccioli Director: Luciano Ercoli Screenwriter: Ernesto Gastaldi, May Velasco Distributor: No Shame Films Running Time: 210 min Rating: NR Year: 1971 -1972 Release Date: February 28, 2006 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan on the Criterion Collection

Criterion updates their old package with further context around the film’s heady investigation of ancient witchcraft.

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Häxan

Benjamin Christensen’s shape-shifting Häxan, which features such Boschian visions as a swarm of witches soaring briskly over a rear-projected, blue-tinted cityscape, begins with something like a primitive PowerPoint presentation. Announcing himself as both the filmmaker and first-person author of the intertitles, Christensen walks us through the history of witchcraft and witch persecution, lingering at length on the garish abuses of medieval times. While this account unveils itself, the screen is occupied by a series of optically printed slides of archival artwork depicting demonic activity—striking images that are intruded on periodically by a blackboard pointer in the foreground.

This plainly pedagogical opening is something of a misdirection, adopting an authoritative tone that this 1922 silent will then complicate when it segues into a collage of dramatic reconstructions immediately thereafter. An early ancestor to the essay film, Häxan freely mixes historical fact and collective imagination as it dredges up grotesque, crepuscular visions from ancient record, utilizing a style that draws no clear aesthetic distinctions between reality and fantasy. Veering away from the didacticism of the prologue, Christensen stages a pair of stories: In the darkly comic first episode, a community of witches in the late 15th century concoct a love potion out of pigeon heart and cat feces so as to hoodwink an unsuspecting monk, while the extensive follow-up assumes the dimensions of tragedy as a well-to-do family accuses a poor old beggar (Emmy Schønfeld) of bewitching their patriarch.

Both sections indulge occasional documentary-like detours, with the second in particular spinning off into a string of thorough diatribes against the clergy and the court, both ruled over by cruel and paranoid witchfinders. That Christensen himself appears in these reenactments as the Devil should leave no doubt as to both his impish sense of humor and his ultimate allegiance to the tortured women in these tales, forced as they are by a repressive society to embrace the carnal and the fantastical as a retreat from society’s relentless intimidation. The film radiates gleeful abandon in giving form to these communal nightmares, which account for its most radical imagery: a nocturnal woodland bacchanalia of feverish witches and cauldron-stirring demons captured with a low-budget studio ingenuity that clearly influenced Guy Maddin, and later, the truly gobsmacking shot of one witch-hunting victim, immersed in her fantasy world, birthing a seemingly never-ending chain of creatures with defects so monstrous that those of the Eraserhead baby seem minor by comparison.

Häxan concludes by tying, in great detail, these absurd and harrowing histories to contemporary life. Leaving no stone unturned, Christensen ventures to suggest all manner of modern practices as having roots in these ancient forms of misogyny, from hospitals diagnosing hysteria, police cracking down on kleptomania, nursing homes mistreating the old and poor, and even filmmakers manipulating their actresses. The last example, reinforced by a close-up of Schønfeld looking embattled and miserable, anticipates the essay film’s tendency toward self-interrogation long before Jean-Luc Godard or Chris Marker even picked up a camera, making Häxan as pioneering from an artistic standpoint as from a humanist one.

Image/Sound

The digital transfer here lives up to Criterion’s tradition of quality. Nowhere is there a sense that you’re enduring a dusty artifact with insurmountable blemishes, but rather a work of art brought to a 21st-century standard of clarity and visual richness. Contrast is lush, artifacts have been minimized, and grain is rich and consistent. The score, re-arranged from the original Danish premiere by Gillian B. Anderson and performed by the Czech Film Orchestra in 2001, has been recorded with an equivalent degree of dynamics and sonic fidelity.

Extras

Witchcraft Through the Ages, the version of the film re-released in 1968 with narration by William S. Burroughs and a clanging avant-garde jazz score by Daniel Humair, accounts for much of the real estate on the extra’s front. In addition to these obvious aesthetic distinctions, which offer a neat case study in the differing tastes of the two eras, this version also appears without the blue and red tinting of the original. Elsewhere, there’s a filmed introduction by Christensen, who discusses the profound havoc wreaked by the historical witch hunts, as well as a comprehensive bibliography of the sources used in Häxan’s opening passage. Assembled by scholar Casper Tybjerg, this supplement, linking woodcut illustrations, oil paintings, broadsheet prints, and more to their origins across the world and from as early as the 12th century, provides thorough footnotes to his already scrupulously researched commentary track. Rounding out the package is an unspectacular reel of outtakes and two fine booklet essays by Chris Fujiwara and Chloé Germaine Buckley—the former conducting a technical and formal analysis and the latter digging into the larger social history of witchcraft.

Overall

Häxan offers a radical early example of the essay film, and Criterion updates their old package with further context around the film’s heady investigation of ancient witchcraft and its modern equivalents.

Cast: Benjamin Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen, Wilhelmine Henriksen, Kate Fabian, Oscar Stribolt, Clara Pontoppidan, Alice O’Fredericks, Johannes Andersen, Elith Pio, Aage Hertel, Ib Schønberg, Poul Reumert, Albrecht Schmidt Director: Benjamin Christensen Screenwriter: Benjamin Christensen Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 1922 Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Fritz Lang’s Indian Epic from Film Movement Classics

Lang’s gorgeous, action-packed films pour new thematic wine into charmingly old-fashioned narrative bottles.

4.5

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Fritz Lang's Indian Epic

“Always finish what you start,” says Fritz Lang, appearing more or less as himself, at one point in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. That advice aptly summarizes Lang’s feelings toward his Indian Epic, the two-part remake of a 1921 film he co-scripted with then-wife Thea von Harbou but had been denied the opportunity to direct when its producer took over the reins. In many ways, these films constitute the closing of a circle, marking Lang’s return to the German film industry after nearly 30 years in exile, as well as his revival of a sprawling, multi-part style of fantasy-adventure storytelling akin to that of The Spiders and Die Nibelungen.

Superficially, at least, the Indian Epic may seem like an ill-conceived throwback to the outdated narrative devices—not to mention occasionally slapdash special effects—found in those silent-era films. The films, The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, are inarguably best appreciated for their surface pleasures, foremost among them Richard Angst’s gorgeous color cinematography, lavished alike on the stunning and heretofore forbidden locations in Udaipur, India, and the massive, intricately detailed sets designed by Helmut Nentwig and Willy Schatz. But Lang still manages to imbue the films with his own longstanding stylistic and thematic preoccupations. If ever there were an ideal test case for the auteur theory, it would have to be these two works.

Lang, the onetime student of architecture, makes his hero, Harald Berger (Paul Hubschmid), an architect who has come to the kingdom of Eschnapur to design schools and hospitals for Maharaja Chandra (Walter Reyer). The films often make reference to Berger’s scale models and detailed plans of the Maharaja’s palace. Indeed, this floating fortress practically becomes a character in its own right. As in Moonfleet, there’s a striking contrast between luxurious aboveground spaces and the dank vaults and crypts of the subterranean realm. Water plays a key role here, as it does in many Lang films. Both the Indian Epic and Metropolis, for instance, end with climactic floods that serve to quell a rebellion.

Lang’s films often explore destiny in its manifold manifestations. (Even one of his earliest efforts is titled Destiny.) The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb work out this theme by frequently utilizing high-angle shots to indicate a sense of mastery, that characters feel themselves in command (rightly or wrongly) of all they survey. This exercise of power ties into the films’ invocation of divine authority. Not exactly dismissive of Eastern (read: non-Christian) deities, the Indian Epic unambiguously demonstrates their intervention in human affairs, albeit in ways that seem dispassionately tied to ritual practices. Thus, when temple dancer Seetha (Debra Paget) supplicates Shiva to aid her and Berger, the god shields their hiding place with a miraculously spun spiderweb. Just as surely, when Berger selfishly takes some of the offering to satisfy his own hunger, the god immediately rescinds his assistance.

The Indian Epic at times works to undermine the very Orientalist fantasies it seems to traffic in. For one thing, the Eastern ruler comes across as more cool-headed and deliberative than the rather impulsive Westerner, who rashly intrudes upon a proscribed temple ritual, breaking a hallowed taboo and transgressing the rules of hospitality into the bargain. When it comes to the final conflict between the two viewpoints, Berger proves himself prone to brutal outbursts of violence, yet ironically ends the second film, The Indian Tomb, prostrate on a litter, attended by the obliging Seetha. The Maharaja, for his part, is the one who decides to forego the dubious pleasures of retribution, opting instead for the decidedly Buddhistic path of renunciation. As Lang himself puts it in Contempt: “Death is no resolution.”

Image/Sound

The 4K restorations of the films, each housed on its own Blu-ray disc, look spectacular. Colors are slightly paler, compared to the 2003 Fantoma DVD set, but the overall image is brighter, and there’s more information visible on the sides of the frame. Clarity of details and image depth are increased. Where the Fantoma discs featured both German and English options, Film Movement offers only the German track in a two-channel LPCM mono mix that nicely brings out some of the ambient sound effects (rifle discharges, clanging swords, tiger roars), as well as a pair of rousing scores by Michel Michelet and Gerhard Becker, respectively.

Extras

Film historian David Kalat provides commentary tracks for both films. Given the considerable combined run time, Kalat has plenty of opportunity to display his encyclopedic knowledge of Fritz Lang’s life and films. He meticulously traces Lang’s obsession with the Indian Epic from its origins as a novel written by Lang’s one-time wife and screenwriting partner, Thea von Harbou, the rancor Lang felt when the subsequent silent film adaptation he was supposed to helm was taken away from him by producer Joe May, and his desire to “close the circle” by finally filming his own version when offered the opportunity by producer Artur Brauner. Kalat also does an excellent job of pointing out formal and thematic connections between the Indian Epic and Lang’s earlier films, from Metropolis to Moonfleet. (One of Kalat’s more intriguing digressions concerns Lang’s indirect yet significant debt to the writings of Karl May.)

From 2005, the making-of documentary “The Indian Epic” has talking-head commentary from producer Brauner, assistant director Eva Ebner, and co-star Sabine Bethmann, along with some delightful behind-the-scenes footage the actress shot on 8mm while on-location in India. Mark Rappaport’s visual essay “Debra Paget, For Example” explores the actress’s career from her first role in Robert Siodmak’s Cry of the City to her involvement in the Indian Epic, with a fascinating excursus about her marriage to a wealthy and reclusive Texas oilman, who just so happened to be a direct descendent of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. Rappaport emphasizes Hollywood’s oddly contradictory typecasting of Paget as either the wholesome girl next door type or else the exotic beauty with a penchant for performing seductive dance numbers. There’s also an illustrated booklet with an essay from film historian Tom Gunning that explores Lang’s investment in the themes of destiny and fatalism.

Overall

Fritz Lang’s gorgeous, action-packed Indian Epic pours new thematic wine into charmingly old-fashioned narrative bottles.

Cast: Debra Paget, Paul Hubschmid, Walther Reyer, Claus Holm, Sabine Bethmann, Luciana Paluzzi, René Deltgen, Valery Inkijinoff, Jochen Brockmann, Jochen Blume, Richard Lauffen, Giulio Celano Director: Fritz Lang Screenwriter: Werner Jörg Lüddecke, Thea von Harbou, Fritz Lang Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 203 min Rating: NR Year: 1959 Release Date: December 10, 2019

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Review: Jacques Rivette’s Joan the Maid on Cohen Media Group Blu-ray

This release of Rivette’s singular take on the story of Joan of Arc boasts an impeccable transfer of the new 4K restoration.

3.5

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Joan the Maid

Joan of Arc has endured as an evergreen inspiration to filmmakers since the medium’s infancy. Even more so than the Passion of Jesus, the story of the life and death of the Maid of Orléans has tested the screen’s capacity to capture religious ardor at its most fervent pitch of expression. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, in no small part due to Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s indelible performance in the title role, is regarded as the screen’s definitive translation of this tale of sainthood, but such varied directors as Robert Bresson, Roberto Rossellini, Otto Preminger, and Victor Fleming have also made their mark on the subject. And yet, for all the richness of their renditions, coursing throughout the lot of them is an unwavering emphasis on Joan’s sainthood, and on the trial by which she was branded a heretic and martyred at the stake.

Enter Jacques Rivette’s two-part, six-hour telling of Joan’s story, from which the narrative strictures of hagiography are notably absent. From Joan’s (Sandrine Bonnaire) journey to meet the deposed Dauphin of France (André Marcon), to her repelling of the Siege of Orléans, and onward to her capture by the British, Rivette charts the events of the warrior-saint’s life in steady, unhurried sequence, without the usual alternations of climax and catharsis. One lengthy, incantatory scene follows another, usually comprised of Joan and her ever-expanding entourage in the throes of discourse—ironing out a military tactic, debating a theological point, or merely attending to the practical needs of the day’s encampment. Rivette’s glacially modulated camera pans and tracking shots set a languorous pace; gone is the rush and the flurry of Joan’s deathward march which seems to consume so many other treatments of her life, the sense that all is hurtling ineluctably toward martyrdom. Rather, the film emphasizes Joan’s corporeal personhood at every turn. Fascinated by Joan as she might have actually existed in the present tense of her reality, Rivette is in no hurry to give her up to the saints.

Paramount to the film’s hypnotic power is the casting of Bonnaire in the central role. The actress demystifies the figure of Joan of Arc through a performance that’s at once seized with inflexible purpose and also given at the most remarkable junctures to expressions of warmth and compassion, laughter and tears. If the long-take precision of Rivette’s filmmaking—and the meticulous blocking and choreography that accompanies nearly every shot—at first suggests stolid perfectionism, it gradually becomes evident that he and cinematographer William Lubtchansky are following Bonnaire’s lead, and that the film’s meticulous control is wholly in service of the many-hued vitality of her acting.

Rivette is known for his intense collaborations with actors. If Joan the Maid seems a departure for a filmmaker perennially fixated on the existential entropy of the Parisian zeitgeist (Paris Belongs to Us, Out 1, and Le Pont du Nord among them), whose previous period film was 1966’s The Nun, it’s his total alignment with Bonnaire’s performance which most clearly situates the film within his larger body of work. But there’s also a fascination with sequential process for its own sake that follows directly from 1991’s La Belle Noiseuse, which tracked the minute gradations by which a work of art is created. In Joan the Maid, Rivette’s interest is in the real-time construction of history itself, for which he utilizes multiple camera-facing narrators to enrich his legend-in-the-making with added context and expository addenda.

Perhaps the film’s most immediately striking claim to greatness is the joint beauty and austerity of its images, which prioritize an unadorned, open-air clarity. Together, Rivette and Lubtchansky achieve an effect not unlike that of Barry Lyndon, in which the natural pallor of a landscape calmly surveyed instantly stimulates our historical imagination. Interior scenes are no less impressive; the crowning of the Dauphin might be the film’s signature sequence, a sustained passage of pure ceremony, immaculately rendered. That a relatively minor film in Rivette’s oeuvre should prove to be a major feat of period filmmaking is a testament to the artistry of a filmmaker who never settled for less than the medium’s fullest potential.

Image/Sound

The film’s new 4K restoration has been justly lauded since the film’s recent theatrical exhibition, and Cohen Media has done a stellar job of transferring it to disc. Suiting a film rich in the physical textures that come alive to natural light, the picture is invariably crisp and finely detailed, with no apparent loss in visual information. The DTS-HD audio is likewise seamless, with Jordi Savall’s medievalist score expertly balanced against the spoken dialogue which constitutes the lion’s share of the soundtrack.

Extras

Aside from a smattering of trailers, the disc boasts no extras—a shame, not only in light of the surfeit of context which might have been provided regarding Rivette’s singular approach to the story of the life and death of the Maid of Orléans, but also given how little information is readily available regarding the film’s production.

Overall

This release of Jacques Rivette’s singular take on the story of Joan of Arc boasts an impeccable transfer of the new 4K restoration.

Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, André Marcon, Jean-Louis Richard, Nathalie Richard, Edith Scob, Hélène de Fougerolles Director: Jacques Rivette Screenwriter: Pascal Bonitzer, Christine Laurent, Jacques Rivette Distributor: Cohen Media Group Running Time: 336 min Rating: NR Year: 1994 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Richard Franklin’s Road Games Joins the Shout! Factory

An exhaustive array of special features helps make up for a merely adequate audio-visual presentation of this Hitchcockian Ozploitation gem.

4

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Road Games

Richard Franklin’s Road Games is a hard-charging highway thriller that tears its way through the resplendent emptiness of the Australian Outback. Franklin, an ardent Hitchcock-ophile, craftily inverts some of the master’s most famous thrills, beginning with the film’s first major jolt: a reversal of the famous Psycho shower scene in which a shadowy figure exits a steamy motel bathroom and kills the naked woman waiting for him on his bed. From there, Road Games develops into what is essentially a riff on Rear Window, transplanting that film’s narrative about a voyeuristic amateur detective from a Greenwich Village apartment building to an isolated freeway in southern Australia’s arid Nullarbor Plain.

Pat Quid (Stacy Keach), an eccentric American long-haul trucker with a penchant for quoting Chaucer, keeps himself entertained on long, sleepless drives by picking up hitchhikers and rambling at his pet dingo, Boswell. After observing some suspicious activity involving the driver of a green camper van, Quid begins to suspect the man may be behind a recent spate of murders of young women. While hauling a trailer full of meat cross-country, Quid picks up a saucy young “walkaway,” dubbing her Hitch (Jamie Lee Curtis)—a rather unsubtle nod to Franklin’s filmmaking idol—who starts playing Watson to Quid’s Sherlock Holmes. The duo tracks the green van to a truck stop where Quid corners a man he thinks is the murderer in a bathroom stall. But after finding he’s confronted the wrong guy, Quid walks out of the restroom to find the van has made off with Hitch inside.

The tension ramps up as Quid sets out to find Hitch, bring the mystery murderer to justice, and prove to incompetent local authorities that he isn’t the killer. Franklin handles the suspense with a canny meticulousness, relying on a gradual escalation of narrative stakes rather than cheap shocks or gratuitous violence (though the opening murder scene, composed of jagged, giallo-esque close-ups of gloved hands strangling a woman with a guitar string, certainly leaves a savage impact). For much of its runtime, this is a one-man—and one-dog—show, with Quid cracking wise purely for his own amusement. Quid’s monologues are slightly over-written, with a reliance on overly cutesy patter about his fellow travelers; for example, he dubs a sniffling motorcyclist Sneezy Rider (Robert Thompson). But Keach delivers even the corniest jokes with a hearty swagger that makes Quid hard not to like, and his congenial charm is leavened with just a touch of vulnerability, evident in the defensive tone his voice adopts when he protests, “Just because I drive a truck doesn’t make me a truck driver.”

Franklin’s action set pieces are carefully crafted and deceptively elaborate, executing complicated choreography involving multiple high-powered vehicles with a clear eye and steady hand (shades of Steven Spielberg’s Duel). The film’s pièce de résistance is a climactic confrontation in which Quid’s massive tractor trailer becomes lodged in a narrow alleyway, stuck between the green van in front and a cop car behind. The sequence cleverly confounds our expectations of a blowout car chase, instead restricting the vehicular action to as confined a space as possible. The result is a hugely satisfying and uniquely claustrophobic finish to a film that largely trades on the vast open expanses of its Outback setting.

There is, however, a certain mechanical, calculated quality to the film. Road Games offers occasional hints at political and psychological subtexts: a militant butchers’ strike; a misogynistic slasher; and a roadside bar featuring murals of colonial violence on the walls (surveyed in an almost Godardian 360-degree panning shot). But Franklin never does anything with any of these tantalizing threads. He’s content to simply tell a ripping good yarn. The “wrong man” angle of the film is little more than a plot mechanism, totally lacking the palpable terror of false imprisonment that Hitchcock imbues into even his lighter entertainments like North by Northwest. And the romance between Quid and Hitch, while enlivened by Curtis’s brassy playfulness, feels sexless, is almost perfunctory.

While its taut suspense certainly earns it the comparisons to Hitchcock that it so clearly craves, ultimately, Road Games ends up highlighting what makes his work so much more powerful. Franklin evinces none of Hitchcock’s genius for infusing his work with his singular neuroses, compulsions, and fears. Franklin has clearly studied the master of suspense’s impeccable technique, but his film contains little of Hitch’s soul.

Image/Sound

The film’s vibrant colors and sweeping vistas of the flat, treeless Nullarbor Plains really pop on Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release. The scan used preserves a pleasantly grainy film texture, which is true to Road Games’s relatively low-budget origins. However, little effort has been made to clean up the print, as specks of dust and debris are visible throughout the film, as is a slight discoloration around the edges of the frame in several scenes. The lossless monaural soundtrack is crisp and full, though this doesn’t always serve the film well, as its sound design can at times be crowded and shrill. The sonic elements are mostly well-balanced, though Brian May’s odd score, which combines martial drumming and harmonica melodies, seems slightly too loud at times. Overall, though, this is a more-than-serviceable presentation of a film that has been woefully unavailable on home video in the U.S. for over 15 years.

Extras

Shout! has packed this release to the gills with extras, including two commentary tracks, one with director Richard Franklin and another with cinematographer Vincent Morgan, production coordinator Helen Watts, costume designer Aphrodite Kondos, and moderated by director Mark Hartley. Both offer juicy reminiscences about the film’s arduous and financially troubled production. The disc also features interviews with Franklin, Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, and several others, including a number of extended interviews filmed for Hartley’s Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood. Shout! has also included a making-of doc, “Kangaroo Hitchcock,” audio of a full script read from 1980, a lecture on the making of the film from the same year featuring Franklin, May, co-producer Barbi Taylor, and critic Tom Ryan, and a stills and poster gallery accompanied by demos of May’s score. All in all, it’s hard to conceive of a more thorough selection of extras to accompany this film than the one Shout! has assembled.

Overall

An exhaustive array of special features helps make up for a merely adequate audio-visual presentation of this Hitchcockian Ozploitation gem.

Cast: Stacy Keach, Jamie Lee Curtis, Marion Edward, Grant Page, Thaddeus Smith, Steve Millichamp, Alan Hopgood, John Murphy, Bill Stacey, Robert Thompson Director: Richard Franklin Screenwriter: Everett De Roche Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 101 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: The Story of Temple Drake on the Criterion Collection

Criterion’s long-awaited foray into pre-code dramas shines a spotlight on a strange and emotionally rich gem.

3.5

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The Story of Temple Drake

The first glimpse we get of the protagonist of Stephen Roberts’s The Story of Temple Drake is of her left arm grasping the inside of her home’s front door. She’s standing outside, mostly out of sight to the camera, exhibiting equal measures of coquettishness and caution as she playfully fends off a companion who’s getting too frisky with her. It’s a striking image that positions Temple Drake (Miriam Hopkins) as a woman divided, perpetually torn between desire and shame. Temple later tells the most serious of her suitors, Steve (William Gargan), a local lawyer who sees only the good in her, that it’s like she has “two me’s”: one that would marry him on the spot and the other too indecent to put into words.

Temple’s wealthy, powerful family has granted her the privilege of walking the thin line between flirt and floozy without consequence, aside from nearly everyone in town, including Steve’s gossipy Aunt Jennie (Elizabeth Patterson), talking about her perceived bad streak. When a drunken joy ride with the reckless Toddy (William Collier Jr.) ends in an accident that leaves Temple stranded at an eerie, ramshackle plantation house turned speakeasy, the film appears to be setting up a simplistic cautionary tale wherein the rich, carefree teenager gets her comeuppance from the lecherous, drunken men she suddenly finds herself surrounded by.

But unlike William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, from which Roberts’s film was adapted, The Story of Temple Drake takes a sympathetic view of its heroine, remaining morally ambiguous about her behavior and fixating more on her attempts to avoid and later cope with traumatic events than on the depraved horde of men who victimize her. Roberts retains Faulkner’s uniquely Southern Gothic sensibility, but gone are the misogynistic overtones, suggesting that she was both “asking” for her eventual rape and came around to liking her rapist’s company.

Roberts, with the help of cinematographer Karl Struss, infuses the derelict mansion with an alarming sense of terror, employing angular compositions and expressionistic lighting that would later define the look of film noir and suspenseful music that would have felt equally at home in a Universal monster movie. Where the people in both her civilized town and in this sleazy booze den see Temple as either an object of desire or scorn, Roberts more compassionately presents her as a victim of her own carelessness and, even more so, of the ruthless objectification of men. If Temple becomes something akin to a “final girl” from a horror film, the slick yet terrifying gangster, Trigger (Jack La Rue), who tracks her like prey from one room to the next, is its lurching, irrepressible monster.

Even after Trigger rapes Temple, she remains his prisoner, left in a near-catatonic state as he drives her to a Memphis brothel where he attempts to persuade her into cherishing him. In a stunning and deeply unsettling series of shot-reverse-shot zooms, Temple pleads with him to leave her alone, and as his face fills the screen, he replies, smirking, “I ain’t hurt you none.” It’s this type of cyclical abuse, with violence followed by gaslighting that often leads victims of rape to remain silent, fearing both the judgment of society and facing their own shame.

When the film shifts tones again in the final act, from horror-tinged noir to courtroom drama, Temple is again divided, this time between her senses of justice and shame, finding herself as the only person who can exonerate an innocent man charged of a murder she saw Trigger commit. And it’s through her final act, when she speaks publicly of her rape and abuse, that she transforms from victim into hero—not merely because of the selflessness of her act, but through her willingness to openly discuss her abuse. It’s a courageous decision that suggests a conquering of the fear and shame that’s long haunted her, reinforced by Steve’s comment to her father to be proud of her. The scene exudes an extraordinary empathy, yet as Steve carries the seemingly lifeless Temple out of the courtroom after she faints, one is left with the lingering doubts of whether anyone else in attendance will grant her the same courtesy.

Image/Sound

If the Criterion Channel’s recent pre-code Barbara Stanwyck collection is any indication, the Criterion Collection is finally paying closer attention to an oft-neglected period of Hollywood filmmaking. With The Story of Temple Drake, the distributor has finally dipped their toes into the physical release of a pre-code drama and the results are spectacular. Both the tinniness of dialogue and the crackles and pops heard throughout silent stretches of many an early sound film are all but completely absent here. In comparison to the clean, precise audio track, Karl Hajos and Bernhard Kaun’s score sounds a tad meek, though frequent appearances of wind and thunder in the film’s middle section are effectively forceful in filling out the soundtrack. While Criterion’s source is only an HD, rather than 2K or 4K, restoration, the image boasts an impressive sharpness and the ample, even distribution of grain lends The Story of Temple Drake a pleasing softness that complements its woozy, off-kilter tone. The contrast is also quite strong throughout, with whites arising from the frequent backlighting of actors and objects exhibiting an eerie glow and inky blacks impressive throughout, particularly in the noir-esque nighttime sequences at the speakeasy.

Extras

None of the three new extras that Criterion includes on this disc clock in at over 20 minutes, but each provides a unique perspective on Stephen Roberts’s offbeat film and Hollywood’s brief but remarkable pre-code era. Film critic Imogen Sara Smith nimbly traverses The Story of Temple Drake’s murky morality, as well as the enigmatic qualities that make Temple at once vexing and profoundly human. In discussing the pre-code era’s general ambivalence toward modern females and their increasing sexual freedoms, Smith also touches on the slyly subversive content that rose to the fore in Hollywood films of the early 1930s. Critic Mick LaSalle also approaches the revolutionary content of pre-code films, situating them as a reflection of a generation disillusioned with institutions of power. The final feature, a conversation between Matt Severson and cinematographer John Bailey, finds the two men perusing Jean Negulesco’s highly stylized, almost surreal, storyboards (mostly of the film’s horrific rape scene), which convey a distinct sense of the film’s tone as well as merely laying out shot compositions. The package is rounded out with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien, who teases out the similarities and differences between the film and Faulkner’s controversial novel.

Overall

Criterion’s long-awaited foray into pre-code dramas shines a spotlight on a strange and emotionally rich gem too often reduced to a titillating oddity that provoked the stricter enforcement of the Hays Code.

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, William Gargan, Jack La Rue, Florence Eldridge, Guy Standing, Irving Pichel, Jobyna Howland, William Collier Jr., Elizabeth Patterson, Louise Beavers, James Eagles Director: Stephen Roberts Screenwriter: Oliver H.P. Garrett Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 71 min Rating: NR Year: 1933 Release Date: December 3, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop Gets an Arrow Video Blu-ray Steelbook

This gnarly, amazing, quasi-hypocritical action thriller has been outfitted with an improved transfer and a superb bounty of extras.

5

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RoboCop

It’s never quite clear who the joke is on in Paul Verhoeven’s films, as the filmmaker thrives on mixed messages, fashioning an aesthetic that blends trashiness with designer style. Verhoeven has the chutzpah and the talent to do whatever he pleases, reveling in a freedom of kinetics. Take 1987’s RoboCop, which drops left-wing talking points in the middle of a vigilante thriller so sadistic it’d make Death Wish blush. This tension—between social protest and reactionary ultraviolence—yields a visceral kind of meaninglessness. Anyone of any ideology can bring to the film whatever sentiments they wish, and this malleability is Verhoeven’s most caustic punchline. RoboCop embodies the nihilism of self-interested, self-canceling political cacophony.

The most irritating facet of the prototypical American vigilante thriller, especially of the ‘70s and ‘80s, is its aura of macho self-pity. When middle-class white men kill in these films, it’s because they have no other choice in the face of crime that’s unpunished by liberal politicians. (Such a theme can’t be laughed off as a trope, as it continues to be a selling point for carny politicians even as the nation’s crime rate drops.) In RoboCop, Verhoeven and screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner turn this cliché on its head, as the crime-ridden hellscape of future Detroit is controlled by capitalist fascists who run amok under the implicit protection of Reaganomics. Detroit’s government has been subsumed by OCP (which stands, hilariously generically, for Omni Consumer Products), a company with ties to the military that has recently taken control of the police department and is systematically crushing police unions while rendering human cops beside the point with new weaponry.

OCP is also in bed with street criminals, particularly the vicious Clarence (Kurtwood Smith), whom they play against the cops in a bid to wipe everyone out so as to realize a new gentrification project. This notion, of the government funding killers to suit its own means, suggests too many Reagan-era controversies to count. (The president’s proposed space defense program, Star Wars, is also referenced, and is revealed to have a habit of accidentally killing people.) Much of this world-building is introduced via TV soundbites that relate atrocity with a glibness that represents virtually no satirical exaggeration of news programs. The soundbites are punctuated with advertisements that also barely exaggerate the sorts of promotions of the time. Only one coherent message arises out of all this stimulation: Buy things, and, when you can’t, commit aggression. Buy a woman for a dollar, as a TV personality says, or pretend to nuke your brother from the comfort of your bedroom. (Lest we miss the point, Clarence, a budding entrepreneur, even directly says that there’s no theft like free enterprise.)

Yet there’s a key difference between RoboCop and most left-leaning message movies: Verhoeven gets off on the heartlessness of his villains, pruning his political platitudes of the earnestness that can often make message movies feel so naïve and insipid. This film, with its cold, hard, silver sheen, studied callousness, and whip-snap editing, understands the pull of capitalism, of the giddiness of exercised force, which is the hunger—for movement, for every desire to be gratified regardless of larger implications—that the action genre satiates to begin with. The film’s satire of America as a corporate wasteland is wallpaper laid upon bitter walls. Corporate overreach might be destroying us in RoboCop, but it’s also our savior.

A more earnest sci-fi auteur might’ve wrestled with the existential crisis of a man who’s turned into a machine, a development that suggests the ultimate commodified invasion of an invasive age. Verhoeven pays occasionally poignant lip service to this idea, and Peter Weller’s gravity in the central role serves as resonant emotional shorthand, but the filmmaker can’t wait to get his metal warrior—billed by the film’s poster as “part man, part machine, all cop”—out into Detroit’s ravaged streets to do battle with Clarence and his goons, who blew RoboCop’s human basis to pieces in a scene of ejaculatory violence that’s still shocking. (Verhoeven has as much fun in this scene as Clarence, and this killing mirrors an earlier murder committed by the ED-209, a law-enforcement robot with Gatling-gun arms that’s unable to arrest without excessive force. Such an echo further rhymes Clarence with the OCP.)

Once RoboCop hits the streets, the film becomes one of the most disturbingly exhilarating of all action thrillers. Like future Verhoeven mixtures of kitsch and art object, RoboCop is broken up into hard, tactile shards of action, from the stabbing of a thug’s throat to the splatter of another melting thug against a windshield. The very weighty metallic sound of RoboCop’s stride is intoxicating—a promise of violence to be unleashed that’s pronouncedly fulfilled. When he fires his gun, which suggests a steroidal .45, it resounds with the aural dimensions of a canon. RoboCop’s very invincibility serves to shed the vigilante film of its fake pathos, providing us with a wave of force, in which objects of left- and right-wing scorn are destroyed with equal prejudice. The film’s appeal resides in a willingness to allow everyone to have their cake and eat it too, as the right of the corporation’s power to inherit the world is ultimately vindicated in a finale of stunning violence that’s arguably sarcastic, though by this point such a distinction hardly matters. RoboCop is a celebration of the politics of unbridled formalism.

Image/Sound

RoboCop has always looked a little vague and blurry to these eyes over the years, and Arrow Video’s new 4K transfer addresses many of these issues. The glare of several transfers (particularly in rendering RoboCop’s suit) has been reduced; the silvers and whites are quite attractive here. Facial and clothing details are nuanced, and other colors are livelier than they’ve been before. If there’s still a certain pervading softness to the image, this seems to be inherent to the film’s memorably grimy aesthetic, especially in the deliberately cheap-looking videos that embody the film’s cynical view of the media. Which is to say that RoboCop has been subtly buffed up without compromising its aura of underground sleaziness. The multiple audio tracks are conventionally superb, and this is a film that allows for a real show-pony presentation, abounding in bass-y, cacophonic aural fireworks, which are tied together by Basil Poledouris’s quasi-ironically patriotic score. The 5.1 track offers an especially immersive soundstage, potentially inspiring you to dodge bullets, if that’s your thing.

Extras

This collection of extras is gargantuan even by Arrow’s obsessive standards. Three versions of the film are included: the director’s cut, the theatrical cut, and an edited TV cut. As a variety of featurettes contrasting the various versions remind us, Verhoeven’s cut was rated X by the MPAA and so trims were made, most famously to the scene where the ED-209 mows down an executive during a conference. (For what it’s worth, Verhoeven is right: The longer, gorier version is funnier, reveling in the sheer pointlessness of this machine’s depravity.)

There are also interviews and tributes, new and archival, centered on many a significant person involved in RoboCop’s production, including Verhoeven, screenwriters Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner, the film’s stars (and even supporting bad guys), and the FX specialists who created the RoboCop suit and the ED-209. One of the most revealing of these programs is the interview with second-unit director and frequent Verhoeven collaborator Mark Goldblatt, who offers a succinct and informative description of the precise function of second-unit work, while discussing his specific role in Verhoeven’s productions. There’s also an archival commentary with Verhoeven, executive producer Jon Davison, and Neumeier, as well as two new commentaries by film historian Paul M. Sammon and fans Christopher Griffiths, Gary Smart, and Eastwood Allen, respectively. These commentaries, taken together with photo galleries, storyboards and alternate scenes, offer a comprehensive history of RoboCop.

And, yes, the filmmakers are very aware of the film’s mixed political messaging, and discuss it frankly, particularly in “RoboTalk,” a new conversation between Neumeier and filmmakers David Burke and Nicholas McCarthy, and in a 2012 panel discussion with most of the pivotal players who worked on the film. The best description of RoboCop is attributed to Davison, who’s said to have called it “fascism for liberals.”

Overall

This gnarly, amazing, quasi-hypocritical action thriller has been outfitted with an improved transfer and a superb bounty of extras. I’d buy that for a dollar.

Cast: Peter Weller, Kurtwood Smith, Ronny Cox, Miguel Ferrer, Nancy Allen, Ray Wise, Paul McCrane, Calvin Jung, Felton Perry, Robert DoQui Director: Paul Verhoeven Screenwriter: Edward Neumeier, Michael Miner Distributor: Arrow Video Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 1987 Release Date: November 26, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Dario Argento’s Suspiria on Synapse Films 4K Ultra HD

Synapse takes what was already arguably the best single-title home-video release of 2018 and makes it exponentially more essential.

5

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Suspiria

In the giallo, as practiced by masters such as Mario Bava and Dario Argento, there’s an amoral yet almost joyful grasp of death as simply being a matter of aesthetic. The blood in these films is intentionally fake—gorgeous, garish paint that exists as another hue to complement the explosion of colors that define the giallo’s often extraordinary set designs. When a character splashes red wine all over a porcelain sink in Suspiria, Argento highlights the similarities between the drugged drink and the blood that splatters robustly throughout the film. It’s a joke on the nature of the giallo, linking violence to consumption, a sensual intertwinement that also leads inevitably to sex.

Suspiria is set in a dance academy in Germany, but Argento makes little effort to eroticize the dancers while they’re living, and they’re pointedly denied sex lives. The hallmarks of films concerned with perfecting dance—the scenes in which we see dancers dancing—are almost entirely elided. We see the American protagonist, Suzy (Jessica Harper), dancing once, and she becomes ill and is rushed out of class. Argento is more concerned with the architectural specifics of the academy, which is rich in labyrinthine hallways awash in explosions of red, blue, green, and black, dotted with malevolent mirrors and windows that suggest eyes as well as portals into other dimensions.

Suspiria is the ultimate horror film as baroque-rock concert. Retrospectively, it doesn’t feel negligible that it was released a few years after The Rocky Horror Picture Show and in the same year as Low, the first album in David Bowie’s Berlin trilogy. All three works bridge cinema and music while mining the hangover setting in from the debauchery of reactionary 1970s-era politics and counter-reactionary urban night life. There’s a sense in all three works of sex as having gone bad or having at least twisted itself beyond even the understanding of the inherently twisted—of revolutionaries being unable to grasp the power of primordial fascism. The German settings of Low and Suspiria aren’t incidental. As exuberant as Dr. Frank N. Furter can be in his transgressions, his actions nevertheless exude a whiff of desperate over-compensation. True to its title, Low is about the weirdly qualified beauty of bottoming out, while Suspiria similarly mines an eroticism of annihilation.

Regarding the prestigious Tanz Dance Academy’s luridly colored hallways, the audience may feel as if it’s looking at a building that’s set inside of a giant human heart that happens to house a gallery of classic and modern art. With all of Suspiria’s hallucinatory excess—including dizzying levels of prismatic imagery—one never quite knows where to look, which produces an anxiety in the audience that parallels Suzy’s mounting terror. These sets blend German expressionism with the neurotic Technicolor passion of films like The Wizard of Oz and The Red Shoes. Suspiria’s influence on other filmmakers is also difficult to overstate: A shot of curtains moving supernaturally behind Suzy has the velvety tactility of the curtain imagery in David Lynch’s productions, and the highly controlled mixture of found buildings and fastidious set design bring to mind the architectural formalism of Wes Anderson.

In death, however, the dancers are allowed to bloom. In one of the most beautiful and disturbing murder scenes committed to film, Pat (Eva Axén) is pulled through a bathroom window and stabbed repeatedly with a knife while atop the stained glass sunroof of an apartment complex. Characteristically of Argento, the building suggests an Art Deco theater of ultraviolence, and Pat’s murder virtually offers a pun on the phrase “danse macabre.” Before she’s lynched and thrown through the sunroof, her face is shown to be smeared in red lipstick that complements her blood-splattered body, and curled into an expression of terrifying, orgasmic ecstasy. In destruction, she finds freedom from the limitations of corporeality—becoming the sort of art object which dancers attempt to render themselves. The witches running this academy are true to their promises of allowing the dancers to perfect their craft.

Suspiria’s murder sequences also revel in the traditions of dance and rock music. Each killing is accompanied by Goblin’s equally elaborate synth score. The killings serve as choruses within the film, while the preceding stalking in hallways and deserted courtyards suggest musical bridges. Imagery and sound are intricately linked, as the murder sequences are chopped into hard fragments of incident, while the stalking is rendered in sensual tracking shots that gradually build to the catharsis. And the music is always with us, particularly the sounds of cooing and sighing that suggest that the very film itself is alive and breathing. (“Suspiria” is Latin for “sighs,” as this film was partially suggested by Thomas De Quincey’s 1845 essay “Suspiria de Profundis.”)

Suspiria is overwhelming in the breadth and intensity of its aesthetic, offering a radical departure from the sporadic surreality of Argento’s prior gialli. The aesthetic weds with the irrational and sketch-like narrative to fashion an abstract horror film that’s more closely aligned with A Page of Madness than with the American slasher genre that arose in the 1970s, partially in response to Argento’s early films. Argento plunges the audience into Suzy’s fragile consciousness, painting a rich and bottomless tapestry of fear.

Image/Sound

Not even 18 months ago, Synapse released their Blu-ray edition of Suspiria, boasting a brand-new 4K restoration of the Italian 35mm camera negative, personally supervised and approved by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli. And while the results were as much as any fan of the film could have hoped for, rightfully topping many year-end home-video lists, the urge to resist purchase until Synapse saw fit to unfurl the fruits of their labors in full 2160p was very real. Thankfully, the wait has proven brief, and favors those among us who chose to wait it out.

Every superlative one could lay on last year’s edition deserves to be amplified in exponential proportion. The sensuality of the film’s primary color palette now emerges as enchantingly tactile; the reds, for instance, have gone from loud to luxuriant. The rich depths of its visuals now flourish, as though your eyes have been given a chance to adjust to the darkness and can see with more nuance beneath the surface than you initially thought possible. The clarity and cleanliness of the print doesn’t just feel like the results of a top-notch Telecine bath, but as if the viewers have been sent back in time to 1977 and are donning a pair of white, cotton gloves to inspect the actual reels up close. The famous interlude in which one of the dance school’s ogre-like cooks flashes light into Suzy’s eyes with a knife, revealing a hallway filled with undulating clouds of dust, is as good as any single shot from a vintage film I’ve ever seen on home video, excepting any of the film’s other four or five dozen showstopper shots.

Synapse didn’t give just the images more breathing room. New to this edition is a Dolby Atmos soundtrack option, which whips an already scarily active sound mix into overwhelming overdrive. To my ears, it sounds like it takes some big liberties with balance and reverb, but it will be awfully hard for purists to carp over because Synapse also retained the prior Blu-ray’s DTS-HD Master Audio presentation of the original English-language track as purportedly used for Suspiria’s original 1977 release. (Also included is the original Italian track, for those who can’t handle the sometimes loose dubbing.) We’re still in the nascent stages of 4K releases for the classics, but Suspiria holds its own even when stacked against many new releases.

Extras

Synapse ports over the extras from their Blu-ray edition without adding anything new, which is to say that this is an essential package from top to bottom. One could still lament that they weren’t able to find a way to recycle a few of the better extras from other home-video editions. Specifically, the absence of the documentary “Suspiria: 25th Anniversary” from the 2001 Anchor Bay release wipes out firsthand testimonials from most of the film’s actual cast and crew, including Jessica Harper, Daria Nicolodi, Stefania Casini, and Dario Argento himself. (Only the 20-minute interview with an admittedly jovial and engaging Barbara Magnolfi, who plays the squawking, snakelike Mata Hari Olga, makes up the difference.) That aside, the set offers up scholarship and historical context in every flavor a cinephile could hope for.

The first disc features two separate commentary tracks. Each is informative in its own way, even if they occasionally repeat some of the same information between the two, as all participants are authors and historians on giallo and genre films, and Argento specifically. A flashier and more bite-sized distillation of what the commentary tracks have to offer comes in the half-hour featurette “A Sigh from the Depths,” which widens the pool of participants—again, almost entirely all authors. The featurette explores the film’s themes of witchcraft, central Europe’s “Magic Triangle” of evil, Daria Nicolodi’s role in altering the course of Argento’s career, the fact that he wanted to cast his horrific fairy tale with actual preteens, and the cinematographic innovations unlocked by Luciano Tovoli.

“Do You Know Anything About Witches?” finds filmmaker Michael Mackenzie walking viewers through an abridged cut of the film, while his narration dances in and out of subjectivity and criticism. It is, in effect, a third mini-commentary track. And finally there’s an exploration of the film’s German locations, including the public square where the blind pianist is gored by his guide dog and where, in the 1930s, Hitler staged book-burning Nazi rallies.

Overall

With their 4K release of Suspiria, with gorgeously sumptuous images and multiple enveloping sound mixes, Synapse Films takes what was already arguably the best single-title home-video release of 2018 and makes it exponentially more essential.

Cast: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, Miguel Bosé, Barbara Magnolfi, Udo Kier, Joan Bennett, Aida Vallli Director: Dario Argento Screenwriter: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi Distributor: Synapse Films Running Time: November 19, 2019 min Rating: NR Year: 1977 Release Date: November 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Joins the Shout! Factory

Allan Arkush’s anarchic ode to rock ‘n’ roll rebellion gets a major 4K upgrade as well as some choice new supplements.

4.5

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Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

The release of George Lucas’s American Graffiti in 1973 unleashed a groundswell of films and television shows that wistfully gazed back at the “good old days” of the late 1950s and early ‘60s, before the “loss of innocence” signaled by the JFK assassination and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Fueled by a double LP’s worth of period needle drops, Lucas’s film presents an anodyne, nostalgia-hazy view of the era intended as a kind of comfort food for the turbulent early ‘70s. Conversely, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School taps into the primal energy and anarchic brio of early rock music as the ideal analogue for the emergence of the punk movement in the face of late-‘70s social anomie and economic stagnation.

This parallelism between time periods carries through to the film’s visual technique, which evokes the sight gag-packed pages of Mad magazine and the cartoon-inflected films of Frank Tashlin, particularly his rock n’ roll music satire The Girl Can’t Help It, from which director Allan Arkush unabashedly purloins a scene. The punk-rock anthems of the Ramones also effectively bridge both eras, since their albums would typically include a cover song that highlighted their disparate musical influences—including the surfer-dude-friendly “California Sun” and the sock-hoppy “Do You Wanna Dance?”—both of which turn up on the soundtrack here. Not to mention the fact that, like most airplay-dependent early rock n’ roll music, their propulsive singles almost always clock in at a radio-friendly three minutes or less.

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School affectionately tweaks many of the conventions of high-school movies from the 1950s. Newly installed principal Evelyn Togar (Mary Woronov) displays all the sartorial severity and gleeful sadism of a women’s prison warden. The student body’s everyday needs are better served by the entrepreneurial Eagelbauer (Clint Howard), whose swanky office hides behind the homely façade of the men’s room stalls. (The character’s name, incidentally, is lifted from Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living.) If Miss Togar represents the “mindless authority” of the political system, as radio DJ-turned-Greek chorus Screamin’ Steve Stevens (Don Steele) helpfully glosses the situation at one point, then Eaglebauer stands in for the ostensibly helping hand of the free-market economy.

Perhaps the most innovative shift in narrative emphasis, however, has the love story between lonely quarterback Tom Roberts (Vincent Van Patten) and aspiring physicist Kate Rambeau (Dey Young) taking a decided backseat to the rebellious self-assertion of rock-and-roller Riff Randell (P. J. Soles). Riff isn’t looking for love, despite her avowed affection for Joey Ramone’s pizza-eating habits. Riff wants to become a songwriter—a career woman, in other words—and her one true goal is to deliver her tunes to the Ramones’s doorstep. The opposition that Riff faces from the puritanical Togar, whose disciplinarian mindset she describes as being “stuck in the 1950s,” ultimately prompts her to stage an insurrection at Vince Lombardi High School, where, after all, “winning is better than losing.” In a way that clearly presages Michael Lehmann’s Heathers, the standoff will end with the complete destruction of the school.

The specific details of Miss Togar’s objection to rock music (“lethal to mice”) are reductions to absurdity actually based, amusingly enough, on authentic “scientific” studies and newspaper accounts of the music’s deleterious effect on susceptible listeners. But somewhere just beyond the film’s keen-edged parody, there are intimations of truly, horribly repressive institutions. The lengths to which Miss Togar will go in order to destroy the source of this teenage rebellion recall nothing so much as the Nazi’s book-burning bonfires. Nor is this the only invocation of the Nazi era in the film. When the cafeteria staff are up against the wall, being pummeled by the Tuesday surprise, their pleas echo the defense frequently proffered by German soldiers at the Nuremberg trials: “We were only following orders.”

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School actively embraces teenage anarchy and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion in a real way. This is perfectly in keeping with the films produced by Roger Corman, which almost always offered some sly social criticism tucked away in the Trojan horse of exploitation filmmaking. It’s not entirely a joke, therefore, when, at the end of film, Screamin’ Steve offers to bring the explosive hijinks of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School to your school. And just in case you don’t happen to go in for the detonator, you can always embrace the radical inclusivity of punk rock. Like the Ramones, invoking Tod Browing’s oddity-embracing Freaks, used to sing: “Gabba gabba hey, we accept you, one of us.”

Image/Sound

Shout! Factory’s new 4K restoration of the film from the original camera negative constitutes a significant improvement over their 2010 Blu-ray, which was released under the now sadly defunct “Roger Corman’s Cult Classics” imprint. Details of the costumes and set design stand out in palpable depth—and, when it comes to a film this laden with sight gags planted as background details, that’s a good thing. Flesh tones are lifelike, primary hues really pop (witness those molten blues and reds in the concert scene), and grain levels are satisfyingly filmic. On the sonic front, a Master Audio mono mix replaces the older Dolby Digital. The lossless track lends some solid ambience to the crowded hallway and audience scenes, while the central concert performance still sounds a little on the rough-and-ragged side. This is an unavoidable consequence of the low-budget filmmaking: The Last Waltz, this isn’t. Suffice it to say, though, that Rock ‘n’ Roll High School likely will never sound any better than it does here.

Extras

Shout! Factory presents their “40th Anniversary Edition” of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School packaged in a shiny steelbook edition with the iconic William Stout poster art emblazoned on the front and a cheeky “Togar Sucks” graffiti tag scrawled across the back. The big new extra here is “Class of ’79: 40 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” a 70-minute deep dive into the film’s conception, production and legacy, tracing its evolution from the Animal House derivative Girl’s Gym to the Saturday Night Fever-inflected Disco High and on to its final incarnation. This one piece effectively synthesizes nearly all of the information presented in the various commentary tracks and other, earlier bonus materials. Talking-head contributors include writer-director Allan Arkush, co-writers Joe Dante, Richard Whitley and Russ Dvonch, cinematographer Dean Cundey, and critic Nathaniel Thompson. The other new supplement here is a brief introduction by Arkush, apparently filmed in his home office, to a Slasher Film Festival screening of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, complete with a goofily engaging reenactment of one of the Ramones’s songs using bobblehead dolls.

Shout! ports over all the other bonus materials from their 2010 Blu-ray. The archival featurette “Back to School” adds more personal reflections from actors P.J. Soles, Mary Woronov, Clint Howard, Dey Young, and Loren Lester, as well as Marky Ramone and producer Roger Corman. It’s an often amusing piece, and there’s very little overlap with the newer making-of material. “Staying After Class” reunites actors Vincent Van Patten, P.J. Soles, and Dey Young around a high-school lunch table to reminisce about their experiences on set. Soles brings along some cool mementos: a Ramones lunch box and a signed copy of the now-rare soundtrack album. There are a grand total of four commentary tracks that team up various configurations of the cast and crew, and they run the gamut from downright raucous to a bit more stately in their presentation. There are separate short interviews with Corman and Arkush, as well as a selection of radio and TV spots and trailers.

Overall

Allan Arkush’s anarchic ode to rock ‘n’ roll rebellion gets a major 4K upgrade as well as some choice new supplements.

Cast: P.J. Soles, Vincent Van Patten, Clint Howard, Dey Young, Mary Woronov, Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Don Steele, Lynn Farrell, Alix Elias, Loren Lester, Daniel Davies, Grady Sutton, The Ramones Director: Allan Arkush Screenwriter: Richard Whitley, Russ Dvonch, Joseph McBride, Allan Arkush, Joe Dante Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG Year: 1979 Release Date: November 19, 2019 Buy: Video

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Review: Don Siegel’s Charley Varrick on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Siegel’s ultracool heist film comes to Blu-ray with an exquisite transfer and several top-shelf extras.

4

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Charley Varrick

Flush from the success of Dirty Harry, Don Siegel at last found himself possessed with sufficient clout to imprint his next work, Charley Varrick, with the auteurist stamp “A Siegel Film,” a rubric that appears on screen before any other title cards. Siegel’s identification with the film’s doggedly professional protagonist extended even to its working title, Last of the Independents, a slogan we see emblazoned across the side of the eponymous character’s crop-dusting company van.

The film opens with a deceptively bucolic credits sequence, in which day dawns over the sleepy town of Tres Cruces, New Mexico. We witness the morning routines of various residents, sun-dappled sketches in domesticity that easily could have been rendered by Norman Rockwell. Then Lalo Schifrin’s heretofore laidback score turns ominous as, beneath a benevolently waving American flag, a bright yellow Lincoln Continental slides into the local bank’s parking lot, like the entrance of the serpent into the Garden of Eden.

Siegel stages the subsequent bank robbery with all the no-nonsense, clockwork precision that had become his stock in trade. There’s barely a word of dialogue, actions are brusque, brutal even, the violence sudden and uncompromising. Siegel carries the tension through the fraught aftermath, as complications with the local constabulary continue to mount, as well as the body count. Charley Varrick’s first act is one extended set piece of staggering efficiency and impact that culminates in the first portentous glimpse of disharmony between mastermind Charley Varrick (Walter Matthau) and his young sidekick, Harman (Andy Robinson).

The second act switches scenes to introduce bank president and mafia front Maynard Boyle (John Vernon) and the hitman he hires to recoup the mob’s money, Molly (Joe Don Baker). This section extends and deepens the theme of duality and duplicity that was introduced by having a rural bank double for a mafia money drop. The most amusing example is the Chinese restaurant run by Honest John (Benson Fong) that covers for a gambling den. (Keep an eye out in this scene for a cameo from Siegel himself as a ping-pong loser.)

Everything and everyone in the world of Charley Varrick has a second or hidden nature, except for Molly, the sadist, racist, and misogynist with the strangely feminine name. He also, notably, has only the one name. He is, to quote William S. Burroughs, the only complete man in the industry, and he’s a force of nature. His closest analogue, in terms of sheer ruthless efficiency, is Charlie Strom (Lee Marvin) from Siegel’s 1964 remake of The Killers.

Charley Varrick, for his part, is as fastidious as a watchmaker, a skill set he acquired as a onetime barnstormer and circus performer. Once he realizes that he’s going to fall out with Harman, not to mention that there’s a mob enforcer on his trail, Charley figures out a way to account for all further contingencies. Siegel punctuates the remainder of the film with snippets of Charley putting his plan into effect. But there’s so much else going on that, at least on first viewing, it can be difficult to put it all together until the film’s final moments.

There’s a remarkable scene between Maynard Boyle and bank manager Harold Young (Woodrow Parfrey) that begins with a swooping crane shot from a car pulling off the road to a field full of cows, then unfolds in one long four-minute take, until Siegel abruptly cuts to enhance the dramatic intensity of a reaction shot. The timing here is paramount, catching the failing light as afternoon turns to dusk. What’s more, John Vernon’s delivery of the line “They’re gonna strip you naked and go to work on you with a pair of pliers and a blowtorch” is bound to burrow its way beneath your skin. It’s a line, incidentally, that Quentin Tarantino appropriated for Ving Rhames’s Marcellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction.

What with all the cars, planes, and mobile homes scattered throughout Charley Varrick, it’s hardly surprising that the film’s finale takes place in a wrecking yard. There’s something archetypal about such a location, standing in for the almost post-apocalyptic ruins of the post-industrial American landscape, all its wreckage and spoliation. But here the wasteland also sets the stage for Charley Varrick’s miraculous rebirth, like the proverbial phoenix painted on his company van, his old existence and identity gone up in flames. In this way, the film ultimately presents itself as a sort of secular parable on ceaseless self-renewal.

Image/Sound

Kino Lorber’s 4K restoration of Charley Varrick is a revelation. Image depth and the fine details of dress and décor register strongly. The earthy browns and verdant greens of the New Mexico landscapes appear warm and deeply saturated. Grain looks well-resolved and suitably cinematic, without any distracting artifacts visible, while black levels are deep and uncrushed. The Master Audio mono mix puts the dialogue and few ambient effects front and center, as well as Lalo Schifrin’s relentlessly propulsive score.

Extras

Kino assembles a few excellent bonus features, with little in the way of overlap or redundancy. The commentary track from film historian Toby Roan delves informatively into all the usual suspects, like shooting locations and cast and crew filmographies. Roan provides some intriguingly specific details about the various types of vehicles on display throughout the film, from cars and planes to the brand of mobile home the that Varrick and his wife, Nadine, live in. He also does a succinct job of situating the film within the context of different genres (car films, neo-noir, gangster films) that had been freshly refurbished in the New Hollywood era.

Film historian Howard S. Berger’s visual essay “Refracted Personae: Iconography and Abstraction in Don Siegel’s American Purgatory” may possess an imposing title, but it` astutely and articulately analyzes Siegel’s formal techniques and thematic concerns in Charley Varrick, with a particular emphasis on those of a spiritual or religious bent. “Last of the Independents: The Making of Charley Varrick” is a feature-length documentary with contributions from Kristoffer Tabori (Don Siegel’s son), actors Andy Robinson and Jacqueline Scott, stunt driver and actor Craig R. Baxley, composer Lalo Schifrin, and Howard A. Rodman (son of screenwriter Howard Rodman). There are plenty of fascinating firsthand recollections: especially intriguing are revelations concerning Walter Matthau’s gambling addiction and how it ultimately affected his choice of acting roles. There’s an episode of “Trailers from Hell” for Charley Varrick with comments from screenwriters John Olson and Howard A. Rodman, and Kino also includes a booklet with a characteristically incisive essay from film critic Nick Pinkerton.

Overall

Don Siegel’s ultracool heist film comes to Blu-ray with an exquisite transfer and several top-shelf extras.

Cast: Walter Matthau, Andy Robinson, Joe Don Baker, John Vernon, Sheree North, Felicia Farr, Norman Fell, William Schallert, Jacqueline Scott, Woodrow Parfrey, Benson Fong, Tom Tully Director: Don Siegel Screenwriter: Dean Riesner, Howard A. Rodman Distributor: Kino Lorber Running Time: 111 min Rating: PG Year: 1973 Release Date: November 12, 2019 Buy: Video

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Blu-ray Review: Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager on the Criterion Collection

Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have Criterion’s dazzling new restoration of Now, Voyager.

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Now, Voyager

Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager remains a highly narcotic, swoon-inducing romance in the Bette Davis canon. It’s an unabashed soap opera about how true love gets hindered by social conventions, and manages to squeeze in a moralistic tale of female self-empowerment to boot. Toss in a third-act bit of passive-aggressive wish fulfillment, where our high society heroine projects the love of a man she cannot have onto his unsuspecting, needy daughter, and there’s enough here to make one’s head spin. But that cloudy feeling isn’t a drawback; it’s more like floating with a film whose indulgences are reminiscent of foolishly falling in love. You ignore the flaws.

Boston heiress Charlotte Vale (Davis) is a walking disaster of sheltered neurosis, a slave to the domineering whims of her elderly mother (Gladys Cooper). Enter kindly psychiatrist Dr. Jasquith (a soft-spoken Claude Rains), who adores the messy art of pipe smoking and draws Charlotte in with his bedside manner and winning curiosity. As if following the lead of Pygmalion’s Henry Higgins, the doctor completely transforms Charlotte’s life: It seems that all that the poor, sweet young woman ever needed was a new hairdo, to dress in the latest fashions, and to take off those dowdy spectacles. And to test this new, improved Charlotte, Dr. Jasquith encourages her to take a pleasure cruise to Rio and take advantage of her rediscovered womanhood.

Now, Voyager’s extended prologue belongs to Rains as the ne plus ultra of the ideal therapist for any woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But rest assured, this is a Davis film, and she rightly takes her place as the repressed female coming into her own through a charming dalliance with suave, debonair Jerry (Paul Henreid). And the pleasure cruise grows all the more pleasurable as Charlotte takes courageous risks in meeting Jerry, struggling through conversations and gradually realizing she’s an interesting person, and that an interesting guy is into her. Henreid, best known for his stiff idealist in Casablanca, handles this role with easy, continental grace, and, of course, more than just girls will wish they were Bette when he casually lights two cigarettes at once and offers one to her. And by moonlight, I might add.

This is all ladled on with velvety, manipulative broad strokes, yet Now, Voyager somehow manages to transcend its particularly corny allegiance to the template of the woman’s picture. Much of that has to do with Davis, who always threw herself headlong into these parts, to women gripped by hysteria or the allure of a glamorous life. She gets to do both here, and because Charlotte is fighting against being a spinster and has picked the right Mr. Right, we actually give a damn beyond the camp antics that Davis is sometimes notorious for.

Naturally, these lovers are blocked because Jerry the brilliant architect is trapped in an unhappy marriage and struggling with a daughter, Tina (Janis Wilson), who’s as crazed and unhappy as the old Charlotte. They enjoy their ephemeral moments of happiness before parting, with Charlotte surviving the experience and becoming popular with a social set of celebrities and big shots. Though she continues to struggle to deal with her sinister mother, a few elaborate plot contrivances at least find her saving herself by saving the tormented Tina. Yes, a lot of ground gets covered across Now, Voyager’s two hours, and while it all feels like three or four different features have been crammed together, it’s never dull.

In true Old Hollywood fashion, the final scene ties it all together rather neatly and elegantly. Jerry and Charlotte draw together and move apart as if they were floating in orbit, so, of course, their final sequence together has them on her balcony—once again under the night sky. You will never forget Charlotte’s rapturous moment of awareness: “Don’t ask for the moon. We have the stars.” Now, Voyager is the stuff of young lovers and hare-brained idealists, and if it can feel pretty foolish at times, it’s unforgettable for how sincere and affectionate it is toward one particularly time-honored cliché: that only fools falls in love.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s 4K restorations of classic, black-and-white Hollywood movies are, without a doubt, among the foremost pleasures of collecting physical media as the entire enterprise continues its long sunset. But in the case of Now, Voyager, the quantum leap forward in image quality from its last home-video release is appropriately as stunning as Charlotte’s transition from anxious frump to alluring sophisticate to earth mother. The luminous cinematography of Sol Polito (most famous, perhaps, for the still mind-bending Gold Diggers of 1933) comes off somehow both assertive and delicate, showcasing just how much the camera loved Bette Davis no matter how many times she claimed to be anything less than stunning. Flaws are almost nonexistent, limited solely to those inherent in the source material. The dynamic range of grays is rich, lending extra subtlety to the never-fully-melodramatic scenario. Speaking of dynamics, the Oscar-winning string section of Max Steiner’s score is given an uncompressed mono track that prevents it from crushing too harshly, or resembling too closely the hurricane of repressed rage residing in what used to be Mrs. Windle Vale’s chest cavity.

Extras

Now, Voyager comes to Criterion on the same day as they’re also releasing Davis’s uncontested masterpiece, All About Eve. But while their release of All About Eve ends up recycling nearly all of its bonus features from the many various editions that have come before it, Now, Voyager slate of extra content is almost entirely new. Well, not technically new in the sense that it includes a number of archival clips, but the assemblage is indeed fresh.

First and foremost is the entirety of Davis’s appearance on a 1971 episode of The Dick Cavett Show. Cavett’s knack for spending as little time as possible teeing up his interview subjects up to go off at length reaches some kind of record here, with Davis grabbing the reins of her time on set and darting from topic to topic with whiplash-inducing alacrity. Among her observations are that Yankees are better at imitating Southern accents than vice versa, that Hollywood in its golden era yielded the best female stars and Britain supplied most of the male ones, that oil companies buying up all the film studios was primarily responsible for the evaporation of “fun” on movie sets. And hundreds of other delicious asides.

Far less meaty but certainly welcome is a vintage 1980 news clip detailing the life and times of Paul Henreid, who at the time had just been awarded the Austrian Decoration for Science and Art. There isn’t a feature-length commentary track, and the selected-scene, 30-minute one that the disc does feature focuses exclusively on the musical leitmotifs Steiner develops throughout the film. That said, critic Ferran Smith Nehme proffers a half-hour overview of Davis’s career and Now, Voyager’s place therein that, when paired with film professor Patricia White’s booklet essay, more than make up the difference. Rounding things out are a look at Orry-Kelly’s costumes, which were tailor-made for an insistently braless Davis, along with two creaky Lux Radio Theater adaptations. Finally, the accompanying booklet includes a 1937 essay in which Davis spends about 8,000 words or so describing a day in the life of an actress.

Overall

Don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have Criterion’s dazzling new restoration of Now, Voyager.

Cast: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville, Ilka Chase, Janis Wilson Director: Irving Rapper Screenwriter: Casey Robinson Distributor: The Criterion Collection Running Time: 117 min Rating: NR Year: 1942 Buy: Video, Soundtrack

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