Christopher Lee in Horror of Dracula (Photo: Warner Bros.)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
DARK OF THE SUN (1968). Based on the best-selling novel by Wilbur Smith, Dark of the Sun appears to have been one of the first films to cash in on the landmark success of the previous year’s Bonnie and Clyde in allowing more violence to make it onto the screen. This is a startlingly brutal movie, with Rod Taylor and Jim Brown cast as two mercenaries who agree to rescue a group of civilians trapped deep in the Congo by rebel forces while also taking time to locate and retrieve a stash of diamonds. Taylor’s Bruce Curry is only in it for the money, while Brown’s Ruffo is fighting for his country; those under their command include Wreid (Kenneth More), a perpetually soused doctor, and Henlein (Peter Carsten), a former Nazi who’s not above murdering small children. Much of the action takes place aboard a train, although the two most jolting set pieces are set on terra firma: a chainsaw battle between Curry and Henlein, and the African rebels’ capture and slaughter of a group of civilians. Released in the UK as The Mercenaries and filmed in Jamaica rather than on the African continent, Dark of the Sun was directed by Jack Cardiff, who helmed a handful of films over a two-decade span but was better known as a cinematographer for over 70 years (including an Oscar win for Black Narcissus).
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by filmmakers Larry Karazewski (Ed Wood co-scripter) and Josh Olson (A History of Violence scripter) and film buffs Brian Saur and Elric D. Kane, and the theatrical trailer.
FORTY GUNS (1957). “May I feel it?” “Nuh uh.” “Just curious.” “Might go off in your face.” “I’ll take a chance.” As powerful rancher Jessica Drummond asks U.S. Marshal Griff Bonell if she may fondle his phallic pistol, it’s clear that the double entendres will continue to fly at a fast and furious pace in writer-director Samuel Fuller’s rowdy Western saga. The great Barbara Stanwyck stars as Jessica, whose status as an Arizona territory’s most prominent citizen is reinforced by the fact that she has 40 gunslingers constantly at her beck and call. Barry Sullivan, no match for Stanwyck but managing to hold his own, plays Griff, who rounds up criminals with the assistance of his brothers Wes (Gene Barry) and Chico (Robert Dix). His latest assignment requires him to arrest one of the 40 cowboys in Jessica’s employment, although even more dangerous than this desperado is her own hotheaded brother Brockie (John Ericson) as well as a sniveling sheriff (an excellent Dean Jagger) who’s as cowardly as he is corrupt. CinemaScope productions in the 1950s generally cried out for eye-popping color, but Fuller’s offbeat Western instead unfolds in black-and-white, lending the film a suitably nitty-gritty feel that adds extra depth to the unexpected bursts of brutality scattered throughout.
Blu-ray extras include a new interview with Fuller’s widow, Christa Lang Fuller, and daughter, Samantha Fuller; a 1969 audio interview with Fuller; and 2013’s A Fuller Life, a feature-length documentary (directed by Samantha Fuller) in which various filmmakers and actors (including William Friedkin and Mark Hamill) read passages from Samuel Fuller’s memoir.
THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS (2018). A clever concept — people and puppets living side-by-side — gets off to a roaring start before eventually losing its way in this adults-only effort directed by Brian Henson, son of the late Muppets creator Jim Henson and a Muppet veteran in his own right. The plot concerns the stars of the vintage television sitcom The Happytime Gang being systematically murdered by an unknown assailant. Phil Philips (Bill Barretta), a disgraced puppet cop now working as a private eye, becomes personally involved with the case, meaning that he must again join forces with his former partner, Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), to solve the mystery. Along the way, Phil visits a porn shop specializing in such titles as Little Kitties with Big Titties, gets reacquainted with an old (human) girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) who co-starred on The Happytime Gang, and receives invaluable assistance from his loyal receptionist Bubbles (Maya Rudolph). This begins as a meaningful message movie, as puppets are treated by many humans as second-class citizens and subject to frequent instances of police brutality. Unfortunately, any interest in social criticism gets chucked out the window as the movie continues, with all subtext completely abandoned as the filmmakers become increasingly interested in only offering vulgar gags. Some are quite funny while others are quite flaccid, though there’s no telling which gags will work for which viewers. For example, a restaging of the Sharon Stone no-panties scene from Basic Instinct allows audiences a peek at puppet pudenda — if that strikes you as the height of hilarity, then knock yourself out.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Henson and Barretta; deleted scenes; a gag reel; and trailers.
HORROR OF DRACULA (1958). Boxers or briefs? Beer or wine? The Beatles or Elvis? And Universal or Hammer? That last query is a particular tug-of-war among film aficionados who lean toward either the Universal monsters from the 1930s and 1940s or the Hammer horror from the 1950s and 1960s. Personally speaking, it’s Universal now and forever … with one major exception. Universal’s 1931 Dracula is a bona fide classic that benefits from Bela Lugosi’s iconic performance and a terrific opening act set in Transylvania, but the picture creaks badly once the action moves to London for the second half. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, on the other hand, is a mesmerizing achievement from start to finish, with director Terence Fisher, writer Jimmy Sangster, and stars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee managing to produce a picture even better than the previous year’s Hammer legacy jump-starter, The Curse of Frankenstein. Lee’s Dracula is arguably the most sexual bloodsucker ever seen on screen, a suave and debonair aristocrat who nevertheless exhibits pure animalistic lust in those moments when the blood hits his nostrils. Matching him beat for beat is Cushing, registering as the best Professor Van Helsing cinema has ever gifted us. This film further showcases the finest directing of Fisher’s career, particularly in the terrific climax. Known only as Dracula in its UK homeland (it was renamed Horror of Dracula in the US to avoid confusion with the Lugosi version), this was successful enough to spawn eight sequels, six of which are already available on Blu-ray (including 1972’s Dracula A.D. 1972 and 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula, recently reviewed here and here).
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
THE JERK (1979). Steve Martin was already known for his Grammy Award-winning comedy albums and his guest-hosting stints on Saturday Night Live when he elected to co-write and star in The Jerk, a sizable hit that became one of the top 10 grossing movies of 1979 (just above the James Bond adventure Moonraker and The Muppet Movie, the latter featuring Martin in a cameo appearance). In viewing stupidity as an endless source of comic invention, The Jerk seems to be the missing link between the Jerry Lewis comedies of the 1960s (some of which were hilarious, some of which were anything but) and the dumb-and-dumber comedies of the 1990s (nearly all of which were awful, including The Stupids, Jury Duty, and, yes, Dumb and Dumber). Basically a series of skits that are barely tethered to a plot, this works better than expected, thanks primarily to Martin’s infectious performance in the central role of Navin Johnson. Because he was raised since infancy by a black farm family, Navin is shocked when he’s finally told that he is in fact white. Electing to head out into the world for the first time, he decides to journey to St. Louis, whereupon he lands a job at a gas station run by the kindly Mr. Hartounian (Jackie Mason), becomes the boy toy of a tough biker woman (Catlin Adams), and falls in love with the sweet if simple Marie (Bernadette Peters). Middling stretches are easily bailed out by bits that remain comic gold, among them the phonebook scene, the cameo by director Carl Reiner (who would make three more pictures with Martin), the snail sequence, and Shithead the dog.
Blu-ray extras include a conversation with Martin and Reiner; a conversation with scripters Carl Gottlieb and Michel Elias; a ukulele lesson; and trailers.
PEPPERMINT (2018). Let’s take a moment to shed a tear for Jennifer Garner, a terrific actress who has received too few breaks from Hollywood. Sensational on TV’s Alias, her film career since then has been a spotty one, as the highlights (a delightful turn in 13 Going on 30, a strong performance in Juno that should have earned her a bushel of award nominations) are often forgotten in the wake of so many box office duds and/or standard “mom” roles. If nothing else, Peppermint at least allows her to flex her muscles — both the internal and external ones — in a leading role; it’s just too bad the film itself is nothing more than a formulaic Death Wish knockoff. Pierre Morel, whose helming of Taken resulted in a satisfying action flick packed with kinetic sequences, isn’t able to muster the same degree of excitement with this yarn in which happy wife and mother Riley North survives a shooting that leaves her husband and daughter dead. Learning that this wasn’t some random drive-by shooting, Riley removes herself from the map and spends five years honing her body and her mind — when she returns, she’s ready to exact bloody revenge on everyone involved with her family tragedy, from the corrupt judge to the oily lawyers to the drug lord (Juan Pablo Raba) who initially ordered the execution. Revenge flicks often offer some measure of catharsis, but the plotting here is so generic and the twist involving the identity of a duplicitous character so obvious that it’s hard to generate enthusiasm for anything aside from Garner’s committed performance.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Morel and a behind-the-scenes featurette.
THE PREDATOR (2018). The Predator is the latest (failed) attempt to again jump-start a franchise that has been on life support since the 1987 original. That nifty action flick found Arnold Schwarzenegger squaring off against an imposing extra-terrestrial hunter who, thanks to Oscar-nominated visual effects, was able to shimmer in and out of sight at will. Shane Black, who appeared in a supporting role in the original, here takes on scripting and helming duties, but the result is ultimately a disappointment. Black is known for his he-man casts and quip-heavy dialogue, and both are on full display in this film, which finds Army Ranger sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) squaring off against more than one predator with the help of his autistic son (Jacob Tremblay), a courageous scientist (Olivia Munn) who got the call to study these predators because (I’m sure I heard this right) she once wrote the US president when she was a little girl and told him she wanted to meet aliens(!!), and a group of ex-army inmates who seem to have escaped from a dinner theater production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. This motley crew of PTSD soldiers is meant to represent the heart of the picture, but their juvenile antics and moldy humor (lots of “your momma” jokes) grow tiresome. Far more engaging is Sterling K. Brown, who’s cast as the primary (human) villain and seems to relish playing such a transparently odious character. A talented cast and some exciting interludes during the first half compensate for the rampant idiocy, but enough is enough. Alas, the ending hints at a sequel, but unless they come up with a new angle, what’s the point? Alien vs. Predator didn’t quite do it in the past – might I suggest Smurf vs. Predator as an innovative way to goose the proceedings?
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes; a piece on Black; and a photo gallery.
A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018). Far from a cookie-cutter comedy that rolled straight off the Hollywood assembly line, A Simple Favor is basically Gone Girl if it had been played for laughs instead of thrills. Yet even that description doesn’t hint at the murky depths occasionally found in an invigorating effort that doesn’t quite maintain its high-wire act yet deftly avoids a fall and a splat. Anna Kendrick stars as Stephanie Smothers, a widowed single mom who operates a cooking vlog. Her online videos already maintain a solid following, but they become even more popular once she uses it to relate the sordid tale of how her newly acquired best friend, the confidant and no-nonsense Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), suddenly goes missing. Emily’s husband Sean (Henry Golding) claims not to know the whereabouts of his wife, a stance also taken by her boss, fashion designer Dennis Nylon (a funny Rupert Friend). Concerned about Emily, Stephanie opts to do a little sleuthing on her own – an unwise decision since it brings such unpleasantries as incest, adultery and murder floating to the surface. Directed by hitmaker Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, Spy) and written by Jessica Sharzer (working from Darcey Bell’s novel), A Simple Favor is outstanding for about an hour, thanks to its unexpectedly dark themes, its mordant humor, and a knockout performance by Lively. But if the first half is mostly about the characters, the second part is chiefly about the mystery, and the movie isn’t quite as compelling as it works through its convoluted plot (some of which relies on happenstance) and employs dramatic devices that were already growing hoary back in the 1940s. Still, as a robust way for home viewers to close out the year, A Simple Favor gets the job done.
Blu-ray extras include a trio of audio commentaries (one with Feig, Kendrick and Lively); deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE NEXT GENERATION (1994). Filmed in 1994, the third sequel to the excellent 1974 horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre scarcely saw release in 1995 under the title The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre before it was yanked. But in 1996, two of its heretofore unknown players became big stars: Renee Zellweger with Jerry Maguire and Matthew McConaughey with A Time to Kill. To capitalize on their success, plans were set for a major 1997 re-release under the moniker Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, but the studio cowardly pulled the plug once the stars (particularly McConaughey) began using their newfound clout to squash the film in its tracks. Barely seen in ’97, the film has since emerged as a minor cult item and has turned up in various editions along the way. Admittedly, this is a remarkable amount of backstory for a movie that, let’s face it, remains pretty lousy. Zellweger is the virginal lead who gets stranded with her destined-to-die prom night pals out in the middle of nowhere, while McConaughey plays the murderous redneck Vilmer Slaughter, whose family includes the cross-dressing Leatherface (Robert Jacks). The film manages to pin the Kennedy assassination on this clan, so obviously anything goes as far as the script is concerned. Zellweger acquits herself rather well, although McConaughey’s eye-rolling, over-the-top performance is a matter of personal taste.
Shout! Factory’s new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray offers both the R-rated theatrical cut and an unrated director’s cut that runs an additional seven minutes. Extras include audio commentary on the director’s cut by writer-director Kim Henkel; new interviews with co-star Tyler Cone, director of photography Levie Isaacks, and special effects creator J.M. Logan; and the theatrical trailer.
VENOM (2018). This week’s theatrical release of Aquaman serves as a reminder that, Wonder Woman aside, DC still has trouble producing quality pictures post-Nolan and continues to be beaten by Marvel on a regular basis. But this month’s home-video release of Venom serves as a reminder that not even Marvel is immune from the occasional dog. Despite its massive box office, Venom is one of the lamest superhero sagas to venture down the pike in quite some time, with Tom Hardy valiantly carrying on the good fight but getting walloped at every turn. Hardy pretty much apes ‘90s-era Jim Carrey as he stars as Eddie Brock, a self-styled investigative reporter whose career is destroyed after he goes after Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the slimy CEO of a bioengineering company. A down-and-out Brock later breaks into Drake’s HQ looking for evidence of his crimes against humanity; instead, his body gets co-opted by an alien entity who enjoys making wisecracks and biting off people’s heads. Venom attempts to break away from the more formal plotting that drives most Marvel movies, opting instead to offer a rollicking approach that hews closer to the likes of the Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy efforts. Unfortunately, director Ruben Fleischer and his trio of scripters have assembled a clumsy and chaotic work that’s stridently stupid and eternally annoying. Michelle Williams is wasted as Drake’s ex-girlfriend, and even the obligatory cameo by Stan Lee (RIP) packs little punch.
Blu-ray extras include “Venom Mode” (aka a trivia track); a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted and extended scenes; a piece on Venom and his comic-book and big-screen histories; a look at the stunt work; a short peek at the Easter Eggs hidden in the movie; and the music video to Eminem’s “Venom.”