Please note: titles released solely as DVDs are listed in italics, while DVD/Blu-ray and Blu-ray only releases are listed in italics and bold font.
Nothing happening this week. Well, not exactly, but nothing you need to concern yourself with.
The Hunter (Magnolia Home Entertainment) is a modest thriller that benefits greatly from the presence of Willem Dafoe as a flinty hunter dispatched to the Australian outback to track down the Tasmanian tiger, a wild animal reportedly extinct since 1936. Dafoe’s pursuit brings him in contact with Sam Neill and Frances O’Connor as residents of a remote town who react to his presence in decidedly different ways. The Southern Australian locations are the picture’s other great virtue, presenting a landscape that remains at once forbidding and familiar; whenever Dafoe is in the thick of it, The Hunter is a taut outdoors thriller; once out and amongst the people, it runs out of gas.
Location is also crucial to Chinese director Gao Qunshu’s Wind Blast (Well Go), a 2010 genre hybrid that mixes Hong Kong action with the sweep of Italian westerns. The plot, which concerns a boxer turned hitman who heads into the Gobi desert with his girlfriend in tow and four detectives on his trail, is essentially a template for Gao to let loose a barrage of well-orchestrated, high-voltage action set pieces. The visual onslaught, combined with a lack of character definition and a tendency towards slow-motion overuse, does render Wind Blast as essentially a video game on film, but the pace is so relentless that there simply isn’t time to quibble about such matters.
Also on deck: The Great Killing (Animego), a fine historical drama with plenty of swordplay from unsung director Eiichi Kudo, whose 13 Assassins was recently remade by Takashi Miike, while the original enjoyed its first Stateside DVD release a few weeks back. It hews closely to the 13 Assassins storyline, with a group of samurai fighting against the prevailing and corrupt law of the land, and like its predecessor, benefits greatly from Kudo’s attention to fine character detail. And Sony’s MOD program, Columbia Classics, has Tony Richardson’s film version of a 1969 production of Hamlet at London’s Roundhouse Theatre that made a star of its lead, the late Nicol Williamson. Anthony Hopkins plays Claudius, while Marianne Faithfull adds an icy cool as the doomed Ophelia.
Scads of verbiage have been issued about Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (Paramount), both for and against, since it debuted in 1968, and the most I can add about this delirious science fiction fantasy, based on the French comic strip by Jean-Claude Forrest, is that it retains much of its Pop/camp cool – where else can you find Anita Pallenberg, Marcel Marceau, John Philip Law, fashions by Jacques Fonterey and Paco Rabanne, music by the Bob Crewe Generation and the origin of Duran Duran’s moniker? Serious students of ’60s Pop cinema should find room in their collection for the new Blu-ray, which offers a cleaner image and sound than the previous DVD release, right next to Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Candy, Modesty Blaise and Casino Royale (which I assume you already own).
And while you’re at it, find a spot for Django, Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (Blue Underground), arguably the most unusual Italian Western ever made. Genre vet Tomas Milian is a nameless bandit (with no connection to the Sergio Corbucci Django, or any other Django, for that matter) resurrected from the dead by a pair of Native Americans, who provide him with a fistful of golden bullets to take on his former gang that shot him down after a robbery. Standard issue spaghetti Western plot, but director Giulio Questi sets the action in a Bizarro World scenario – the “Field of Anguish” (or “Unhappy Place,” depending on whether you’re watching the Italian or English language version), populated by utter lunatics and presided over by the equally unhinged Mr. Sorrow and his gang of gay cowboys – which eventually breaks down into a barrage of highly surreal imagery, not the least of which is Milian’s crucifixion, an implied gang rape of a mentally unbalanced young man, and a jaw-dropping moment in which townspeople literally rip apart a man shot by Milian to retrieve the gold bullets. Add to that a menacing fruit bat/armadillo combo, wandering lunatic ladies, a man covered in melted gold and set your brain pan on fry. In other words, highly recommended for Euro fans seeking the highest grade kicks. The Blu-ray features interviews with Milian and Questi, both of whom do their best to explain the goings-on.
Weird-oh violence is also at the heart of Warner Archives’ Crime Does Not Pay: The Complete Shorts Collection, which compiles all 50 (count ’em) short films in a popular series produced by MGM between 1935 and 1947. While the series purports to underscore America’s ability to protect its citizens from the criminal element, the shorts depict a bleak and dangerous world in which violent thugs lay in wait for Average Joes Just Like You at every corner. All manner of mayhem is unleashed upon the protagonists, which include such up-and-coming players as Hugh Beaumont (Leave It To Beaver), Van Johnson, Cameron Mitchell and yeah, that’s Dwight Frye of Dracula (1932) fame as a crazed arsonist in “Think It Over.” Children, old folks, pregnant ladies – no one is safe from the clutches of crime, and only the police and federal agents stand between them and certain, terrible death. An utterly fascinating example of pre-1950s propaganda, the Crime Does Not Pay series later begat a popular radio series, as well as an exceptionally popular and lurid comic book line that led in part to Senate investigations into violence in comics during the ’50s and the wholesale sanitization or outright cancellation of many imprints, including E.C. Comics. A swell second bill can be found in The Devil’s Needle and Other Tales of Vice and Redemption (Kino), a Blu-ray comp of three silent shorts focusing on drug addiction, white slavery and a gruesome melodrama based on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.
Otherwise, there’s The Naked Truth (VCI), a 1957 British comedy with Dennis Price as a scandal mag publisher who threatens to publish damaging personal details about a quartet of famous figures, including TV host Peter Sellers, Parliamentarian Terry-Thomas and model Shirley (Goldfinger) Eaton. The foursome fight their blackmail through an elaborate scheme that leads to the picture’s chief selling point: Sellers in a variety of guises, which display his knack for accents and offbeat characters. And Columbia Classics has Out of the Fog, a 1945 noir directed by Western specialist Budd Boetticher, with Nina Foch as a nurse recovering from a nervous breakdown at a sanitarium who discovers that the man murdered in her recurring dream is actually the head of the hospital’s psych department! It’s slick, well-produced crime fare that does not skimp on the fog.
Your choices this week range from the utterly nuts – The Entity (Anchor Bay), with Barbara Hershey as a housewife molested by a ghost, or The Pirate Movie (Anchor Bay), with Kristy MacNicol transported into The Pirates of Penzance (which was enjoying a popular Broadway run at the time) – to slightly more sedate fare like The Mad Magician (Columbia Classics), a wonderfully gonzo thriller with Vincent Price and a pair of elaborate eyebrows as a crazed stage magician who takes revenge on a rival using more violent versions of his most popular stage tricks. Eva Gabor is among the unlucky souls to meet an unpleasant end in this fun ’50s-era horror-suspense hybrid that was originally released in 3-D (the Columbia MOD disc is 2-D and widescreen).
However, your best bet for outre fare this week is Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray double bill of The Most Dangerous Game and Gow the Headhunter. The former is one of the most outrageous examples of Pre-Code filmmaking, with Joel McCrea as a big game hunter whose boat runs aground on a remote island owned by Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), a fellow hunting enthusiast whose favorite target is, of course, those unlucky enough to wash up on his shores. Produced by Meriam C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who utilized not only the jungle set from their other production that year – King Kong (1933) as well as that film’s co-stars, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong, Most Dangerous Game fairly ripples with suggestions of unholy violence and sexuality beneath its surface: Banks’ supremely arch performance (on par with Charles Laughton in Island of Lost Souls) as a black clad Super Freak whose appetite for bloodlust is only matched by his taste for unchecked pansexuality. And a tour through Zaroff’s trophy chamber, which displays his collection of heads, is undoubtedly one of the most disturbing sequences in 1930s horror (although according to Hollywood legend, the scene originally ran much longer and much darker). The Most Dangerous Game later inspired a whole subgenre of “hunting humans” features, including Battle Royale, The Running Man, and the recent Hunger Games, few of which approach its unsettling tone; Flicker Alley’s DVD is gorgeously restored and includes Gow The Headhunter, a ’20s-era silent documentary shot by Cooper and Schoedsack about tribal customs in the South Sea Islands. It was later tricked out in 1931 as an exploitation cheapie purporting to show “real” cannibals in action, which was, of course, total ballyhoo. The disc includes commentary by author and RKO Studios expert Rick Jewell, an audio interview with Cooper as well as an essay on Gow by historian Eric Schaefer.
Tube’s on the fritz this week. Stay tuned.