(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.)
THE HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS (2018). On the literary timeline, the source material for The House with a Clock in Its Walls existed long before Harry Potter received a letter offering him a chance to attend Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But on the cinematic timeline, this adaptation of John Bellairs’ 1973 children’s novel arrives long after the magic has largely dissipated from such enterprises. Everything in Clock moves at the pace of, well, a clock winding down, and it’s both too-little-too-late and been-there-done-that. Set in 1955, the movie centers on Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro), a young boy who joins his eccentric warlock uncle (Jack Black) and another sorcerer (Cate Blanchett) in battling a malevolent presence inside a strange house. For a movie about fantastic beasts and where to find them, The House with a Clock in Its Walls offers little in the way of wonder and imagination. The incessant CGI maintains a constant chokehold on most other aspects of the film, as if director Eli Roth felt that today’s kids can only respond to a nonstop barrage of sound and fury and busy effects. Clearly, Universal Pictures and Roth are trying to pay homage to the Amblin films made by Steven Spielberg and cohorts back in the 1980s — the studio’s press release even stated that the film is “in the tradition of Amblin classics.” But if this soulless slog is any indication of what to expect from future Amblin wannabes, then we’re all in trouble, as it isn’t Back to the Future as much as it’s bleak for the future.
Blu-ray extras include behind-the-scenes featurettes; an alternate opening and ending; and a gag reel.
HELL FEST (2018). Carnivals, circuses and theme parks have provided many a memorable backdrop for horror films over the decades, with such terror tales as Carnival of Souls, Vampire Circus and The Funhouse backing that claim. At its best, Hell Fest makes inspired use of its amusement-park setting, as director Gregory Plotkin employs cinematographer José David Montero to bathe the proceedings in ofttimes gorgeous color schemes and utilizes production designer Michael Perry to design a series of mazes and rides that would make any real theme-park owner proud. But it ultimately counts for naught when the plotting is this threadbare and the characters this insipid. Continuing the slasher genre’s most regrettable trope, the heroine is once again a virginal pill for whom “fun” would appear to be a fate worse than death. That would be Natalie (Amy Forsyth), who joins her BFF Brooke (Reign Edwards), her frenemy Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) and three male dullards for a Halloween night at the heavily hyped theme park Hell Fest. But also in attendance is a psychopath (Stephen Conroy) who’s able to easily murder park guests since everyone assumes it’s just part of the evening’s festivities. The killer is billed in the credits as The Other, an obvious attempt to turn this figure into a recurring boogeyman a la Halloween’s The Shape. But he’s uninteresting even by the standards of slasher-flick sickos, though a case can be made than he still manages to exhibit more personality than any of the teens he stalks.
Extras on the 4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray combo pack consist of a making-of featurette and the theatrical trailer.
MID90S (2018). At that early stage when Jonah Hill was playing, say, the creepy customer in The 40-Year-Old Virgin or one of the slacker roommates in Knocked Up or even the co-lead in Superbad, I doubt anyone would have predicted that, less than 10 years into his career, he would end up having as many Academy Award nominations under his belt as Cary Grant (two, for those counting). And while he’s put his name on a handful of screenplays, perhaps even fewer would have predicted that he would end up directing a feature film — and one that’s not filled with the expected vulgarity found in many of his starring vehicles. To be sure, Mid90s is a hard R, but it’s also an affecting and insightful drama that prefers realism to raunch. The movie stars Sunny Suljic (the young son in The Killing of a Sacred Deer) as Stevie, a 13-year-old boy living in Los Angeles with his single mom (Katherine Waterston) and abusive older brother (Lucas Hedges, providing an about-face from the sensitive characters he’s essayed in works like Boy Erased and Lady Bird). Crushed by his perennial loneliness, Stevie finally manages to make friends with the older kids who hang out at the local skateboard shop: the thoughtful Ray (Na-kel Smith), the mellow “Fuckshit” (Olan Prenatt), the slow-witted “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin) and the moody Ruben (Gio Galicia). Slender from a narrative standpoint, Mid90s largely succeeds thanks to the authentic characters — and even more authentic dialogue — offered by Hill.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Hill and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and deleted scenes.
NEMESIS (1992). The acting is often atrocious and the film shamelessly swipes huge chunks from The Terminator, RoboCop, Blade Runner, director Albert Pyun’s own Cyborg, and seemingly every other sci-fi flick this side of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. But the hyperactive pace, the imaginative (if not always polished) effects and especially the formidable action scenes certainly make this worth a peek, more so after midnight with pizza and beer in hand. Former French naval commando and kickboxing champion Olivier Gruner plays Alex, a half-human/half-machine LAPD cop who’s ordered to foil a plot being perpetrated by a group of cyborg rebels. Unfortunately for Alex, it’s not always easy to tell the good guys from the bad robots. Gruner makes fellow action stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme look like Christian Bale and Daniel Day-Lewis by comparison, but he does offer a certain clunky charisma; still, the primary reason to catch this overheated gumbo is its kinetic energy, never more apparent than in a few well-calibrated action scenes.
The Blu-ray/DVD combo pack contains the theatrical version (available in two different aspect ratios), the Director’s Cut and the Japanese Extended Cut. Extras include audio commentary by Pyun; a making-of piece; introductions by Pyun and Gruner; interviews with Pyun, Gruner and producer Eric Karson; short looks at the visual effects and the stunts; and a behind-the-scenes photo gallery.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE? (1969). Exploitation films come in many forms, from “sexploitation” and “blaxploitation” to “nunsploitation” and “Ozploitation” (no, not The Wizard of Oz knockoffs but rather genre flicks hailing from Australia). Add to that pack “hagsploitation,” a designation that refers to a number of thrillers featuring an aging Hollywood actress (or two) in the leading role(s). Birthed by the phenomenal success of 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the genre continued with such efforts as 1964’s Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte and 1965’s Die! Die! My Darling and stumbled into the next decade with titles like What’s the Matter with Helen? and Who Slew Auntie Roo? (both 1971). Robert Aldrich, who directed the best of the bunch (Baby Jane and Sweet Charlotte), only served as producer for What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, but he nevertheless deserves credit for going 3-for-3 in this vein. Based on Ursula Curtiss’ novel The Forbidden Garden, this stars Geraldine Page as Claire Marrable, a widow who, to make ends meet, resorts to hiring housekeepers with a hefty amount in the bank, murdering them, and then burying them in the backyard of her desolate Arizona property. The friendly Alice Dimmock (Ruth Gordon) seems earmarked to be her next victim, but the feisty housekeeper has a few tricks up her own sleeve. A brisk pace and bravura turns by the two leading ladies keep this one popping; there’s also a nifty twist right before the fade-out.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith and the theatrical trailer.