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.
Rex Reason and Faith Domergue in This Island Earth (Photo: Shout! Factory & Universal)
(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.)
AMERICAN HORROR PROJECT VOLUME TWO (1970-1977). Co-curated by author Stephen Thrower (Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents), American Horror Project Volume One was released by Arrow Video in early 2016 and included three obscure terror tales from the early to mid-1970s (1973’s Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, featuring Herve Villechaize, 1976’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea, starring Millie Perkins, and 1976’s The Premonition, with Richard Lynch). Arrow has now released its follow-up, offering three more unearthed obscurities.
Academy Award winner Edmond O’Brien (The Barefoot Contessa) incongruously appears in Dream No Evil (1970), a moody yarn in which a repressed woman (Brooke Mills) who’s been searching for her father her entire life finally finds him in the form of a burly farmer (O’Brien) who spends most of his time yelling. But is he really there, or is he merely a figment of her fragile imagination? And which of them is responsible for the deaths of a couple of the locals? The needless narration removes all mystery from the movie by spelling everything out, but student-film-level theatrics also hamper the production.
Another Oscar winner — in this case, Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) — appears in Dark August (1976), which emerges (by default) as the best movie in the set. After an artist (J.J. Barry) accidentally runs over a little girl with his vehicle, her grandfather (William Robertson) places a curse on his head, leading to the harried man seeking help from a spiritual advisor (Hunter). Besides its atmospherics, what makes Dark August interesting is that the death wasn’t caused by drunk or reckless driving but by sheer bad luck, meaning that our sympathies rest with the driver rather than with the crazed old man. But all momentum is eventually killed due to an endless séance sequence, the undetermined status of a couple of late-inning victims (dead or alive?), and especially an infuriating finale.
There’s no Academy Award winner on view in The Child (1977) — a shame, since awful performances dominate this amateurish slop. The Bad Seed with zombies might be the best way to describe this one, although the actual film delivers little of the fun that such a mashup might suggest. Instead, the inventive makeup design for the ghouls is the only element worth noting in this dreary yarn in which a chipper nanny (Laurel Barnett) is hired to look after a nasty brat (Rosalie Cole) who communicates with the dead.
Regardless of one’s opinions of the movies, the extra features assembled for Arrow’s limited edition Blu-ray set are excellent. They include filmed appreciations on all three movies by Thrower; audio commentaries on all three features; an in-depth piece on the early films of Dream No Evil director John Hayes (some starring a young Rue McClanahan); an interesting featurette on movies with a Vermont connection (like Dark August); and interviews with Dark August director Martin Goldman and producer Marianne Kanter and The Child director Robert Voskanian and producer Robert Dadashian.
Dream No Evil: **
Dark August: **1/2
The Child: *1/2
CORVETTE SUMMER (1978). While Harrison Ford was test-driving his post-Star Wars clout in Force 10 from Navarone and Carrie Fisher was co-starring in a trio of made-for-TV movies, Mark Hamill spent his 1978 headlining Corvette Summer, a modest seriocomedy that wasn’t exactly a force (or the Force, as the case may be) at the box office. Hamill plays Kenny, a high school kid whose passion is cars. Coming across the remains of a Corvette Stingway in a junkyard, he convinces his shop teacher (Eugene Roche) that the class should rebuild it. That they do, but after the shimmering, cherry-red vehicle gets stolen, Kenny determines that he’ll stop at nothing to get it back. His odyssey leads him from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, where he not only gets involved with Vanessa (Annie Potts), a self-described “hooker-in-training,” but also runs afoul of a stolen-car ring led by the slimy Wayne Lowry (Kim Milford, better known for his starring role in the same year’s MST3K favorite, Laserblast). The characters played by Hamill and Potts are too often abrasive instead of affable, and writer-director Matthew Robbins and writer-producer Hal Barwood ultimately pay more loving attention to the film’s hardware than its humans. Character actor extraordinaire Dick Miller has one good scene as a gambler who just can’t lose; also look for Brion James, T.K. Carter and Wendy Jo Sperber in small roles. Hamill has jokingly suggested that perhaps the movie would have done better had it been named Car Wars; he’s probably not wrong.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
A FILM TRILOGY BY INGMAR BERGMAN (1961-1963). Previously only available on Blu-ray as part of Criterion’s mammoth, 39-film collection Ingmar Bergman’s Cinema, the movies in the Swedish director’s trilogy on faith and religion are now being offered by the label in their own boxed set.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (and also nominated for Bergman’s original script), Through a Glass Darkly (1961) is a four-character study in which a schizophrenic woman (a remarkable Harriet Andersson), vacationing on an island with her husband (Max von Sydow), her father (Gunnar Björnstrand) and her brother (Lars Passgård), claims to have seen God in the shape of an imposing spider. Winter Light (1963), which was clearly an influence on Paul Schrader’s “10 Best of 2018” effort First Reformed (see the complete Best & Worst of 2018 here), centers on a priest (Björnstrand) grappling with his faith even as he tries to offer guidance to a suicidal townsperson (von Sydow). And The Silence (1963), a sexually frank film featuring exquisite cinematography by the great Sven Nykvist, centers on two dissimilar sisters (Ingrid Thulin and Gunnel Lindblom) who check into a hotel in an unfamiliar European country. The love of God, the questioning of God, and the absence of God are the themes being respectively addressed in these three features, which all pack a punch whether viewed individually or in tandem.
Blu-ray extras include introductions to all three films by Bergman (from 2003); discussions of all three movies by film scholar Peter Cowie (also from 2003); the 1963 documentary Ingmar Bergman Makes a Movie (about the filming of Winter Light); and an audio interview (from 1981) with Nykvist.
Through a Glass Darkly: ***1/2
Winter Light: ***1/2
The Silence: ***1/2
FORREST GUMP (1994). Obviously, this beloved blockbuster needs no introduction, although it’s still interesting to reflect on how it suffered one of the most peculiar forms of backlash I’ve ever witnessed. When it was released during a summer season that also found room for The Lion King to similarly top the box office charts (FG grossed $329 million while LK earned $312 million; nothing else that year made more than $150 million), it was embraced by critics as well as audiences. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscars, as reviewers who initially championed the film soon backed away from it, first for reducing critical darling Pulp Fiction to also-ran status and then because Republican politicians were absurdly claiming the movie as their own (these GOP nitwits somehow confused their own faux-patriotism with the movie’s liberal humanism). Yes, there were better motion pictures that year — not just Pulp Fiction but also Quiz Show and Hoop Dreams (among others) — but that’s not meant to take away from this piece’s appeal. This film about a mentally sluggish man who somehow manages to become part of several of the most significant American events of the past few decades works primarily because of Tom Hanks’ intuitive performance in the lead role and director Robert Zemeckis’ wizardry behind the camera. Nominated for 13 Academy Awards, Forrest Gump won six: Best Picture, Actor, Director, Adapted Screenplay (Eric Roth), Film Editing, and Visual Effects.
Blu-ray extras on Paramount’s digitally remastered 25th Anniversary edition include audio commentary by Zemeckis, producer Steve Starkey, and production designer Rick Carter; separate audio commentary by producer Wendy Finerman; behind-the-scenes featurettes on the visual effects; and screen tests.
GASLIGHT (1944). Thanks to the abhorrent Liar-in-Chief currently polluting the White House, the term “gaslighting” has come roaring back into vogue, yet those who wonder where the word originated need look no further than this exemplary motion picture. Based on Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gaslight (aka Angel Street) and already turned into a movie by the British in 1940, this Hollywood remake stars Ingrid Bergman as Paula Alquist, whose aunt was murdered while Paula was still a child. Years later, Paula marries the debonair Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), little realizing that he’s slowly trying to convince her that she’s insane. Basically kept a prisoner in her own house, the only people she ever sees are her husband, a sympathetic cook (Barbara Everest), and a mean-spirited maid (Angela Lansbury in her film debut, 17 when shooting began and 18 when it ended). Fortunately for Paula, a Scotland Yard Inspector (Joseph Cotten) grows suspicious of the arrangement and begins an investigation. The American-born-and-bred Cotten is about as British as the New York Yankees and doesn’t even attempt an accent, but never mind: Like everyone else in Gaslight, he delivers a fine performance, although the standouts are Lansbury and especially Bergman. Director George Cukor successfully implements the proper atmosphere of claustrophobia and dread, aided by Joseph Ruttenberg’s camerawork and the set design. Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Actor for Boyer, Supporting Actress for Lansbury, Screenplay, and Black-and-White Cinematography), this won for Best Actress and Best Black-and-White Art Direction-Interior Decoration.
The new Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Gaslight also houses the original 1940 British film. Extras include a retrospective making-of featurette; newsreel footage from the Academy Awards ceremony; and the theatrical trailer.
LITTLE (2019). Clearly inspired by Big, Little is a bland comedy whose moniker reflects its overarching puniness. Regina Hall plays Jordan Sanders, who was bullied as a child and has grown up to become bully to everyone else. Jordan is a fire-breathing tyrant, a CEO with OCD who enjoys barking at those around her, particularly her meek assistant April (Issa Rae). But an encounter with a little girl with a toy wand results in a curse that finds Jordan waking up the next day back in the body of her school-age self (Marsai Martin). With the reluctant aid of April, Jordan must find a way to reverse the curse — first, though, she must to return to the classroom and again risk being bullied. For those expecting to see a movie starring top-billed Hall, the problem is that, by the very nature of the story, she’s only around at the beginning and at the end. To compensate, writer-director Tina Gordon Chism and co-scripter Tracy Oliver beef up the size of Rae’s role to the extent that April actually becomes the primary player. But who cares about her comparatively drab character when all the potentially interesting material involves Jordan in all her incarnations? The lack of a center affects all areas of the film, with half-baked romantic travails for both Jordan and April and lapses in logic when it comes to believable character transformations. If Little at least delivered on its comedic material or provided some sort of emotional resonance, much could be forgiven. But the laughs are largely lame and the pathos utterly nonexistent. Even the anti-bullying angle fails to gain any traction — then again, that could simply be because viewers themselves will feel battered and beaten after sitting through the forceful blows delivered by this rampaging mediocrity.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Gordon; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and a gag reel.
PET SEMATARY (2019). The 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (reviewed here) can boast of countless fans, but there are just as many who find it a crudely made concoction hampered by clumsy pacing and, aside from the magnificent Fred Gwynne, undercooked performances. This version seeks to correct those deficiencies with slicker production values, better emoting, and a twist not found in either the novel or previous film. As before, the Creeds — dad (Jason Clarke), mom (Amy Seimetz), and kids — move to a small Maine town, where their new abode rests on the edge of a busy highway. The family meets neighbor Jud Crandall (John Lithgow, effective in a turn that’s less folksy and more gravelly than the one provided by Gwynne), who informs them of a pet cemetery that rests deep in the woods of their property. It’s only later that Jud mentions that anything dead and subsequently buried beyond the cemetery will come back in an altered state. The first stretch of this P.S. is more reputable than that of the junkier ’89 model, but it isn’t much fun, hurriedly paying somber lip service to the conventions of the story rather than engaging viewers in its darker implications. But then the massive deviation from the original text occurs, and it promises to spin the tale off into a different and possibly more thought-provoking direction. But while the initial scenes following this “gotcha!” pirouette manage to resonate, the juicier aspects soon fade into the background as the picture devolves into a tiresome slasher flick. It all culminates with a brand new ending so useless and anticlimactic that it almost qualifies as a shaggy dog story — a mangy mutt that should be buried as quickly as humanly possible.
Blu-ray extras include a four-part making-of featurette; deleted and extended scenes; and an alternate ending.
SILENT HILL (2006). It only took 26 years — since the release of 1993’s Super Mario Bros. — but there has finally been a video-game film adaptation that has been praised by critics. That would be this summer’s Pokémon Detective Pikachu, which is the first out of 41 such films to earn a positive rating (67% Fresh) on Rotten Tomatoes (and even that comes with the caveat that the site’s Top Critics, i.e. mostly old-school print reviewers rather than primarily online fanboy critics, only have it rated 44% Rotten). So where does Silent Hill place on this list? It merits a lowly 31% Rotten, and yet that’s still good enough to land all the way up at #11. Certainly, it’s a far better bet than such unwatchable vid-game efforts as Assassin’s Creed, Max Payne and the worst-of-the-worst Alone in the Dark (at #41 with a generous 1% Rotten), even if it doesn’t offer much more than superb visuals wrapped around an underwhelming narrative. Director Christophe Gans, best known for the trippy French import Brotherhood of the Wolf, has made a spectacular-looking film full of startling sets, creepy creatures, and swirling visual effects, but he has filled it with a plodding and repetitive story about a mom (Radha Mitchell) who escorts her daughter (Jodelle Ferland) to the ghost town of Silent Hill in an attempt to expunge her child’s nightmares involving the place. Instead, the pair find themselves inside an alternate world populated by the murderous Pyramid Head (Roberto Campanella), swarming insects, bloodthirsty nurses, and, worst of all, religious fanatics. Laurie Holden makes a modest impression as a persistent motorcycle cop who similarly finds herself stranded in this cursed town, but everyone else gets stranded between the eye-popping visuals and the forehead-smacking narrative.
Blu-ray extras include a six-part making-of featurette; interviews with Gans, Ferland, and Campanella; and photo galleries.
THIS ISLAND EARTH (1955). Even as a gargantuan Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan, I was always irked by the fact that, for their sole theatrical venture, the gang chose to mock a genuinely good movie, further playing foul ball by rendering This Island Earth incomprehensible via heavy editing and also muddying the gorgeous Technicolor palate. It’s gratifying, therefore, to hear several learned filmmakers and film scholars (including The Howling director Joe Dante) reclaim the film for posterity in the extra features included on Shout! Factory’s superb new Blu-ray edition. Dante describes the ambitious movie as “the Star Wars of 1955” — at least for young kids — but that’s not entirely accurate. For one thing, This Island Earth wasn’t a box office hit, but more to the point, it leans more in the direction of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind with its moody, measured and mostly muted approach to science fiction. Rex Reason and Faith Domergue play two of the scientists who have been recruited by the extra-terrestrial Exeter (Jeff Morrow) to aid the Metalunans in their interplanetary battle against the invading Zagons. The first two-thirds, set on Earth (look for Russell Johnson, later the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, as a fellow scientist), unfolds like a good novel, with most of the excitement packed into the final half hour on Metaluna. Alas, this section is rather rushed, but the special effects and the art direction are astounding.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by two-time Oscar-winning visual effects artist Robert Skotak (Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day); a retrospective making-of documentary; War of the Planets, the edited versions of the film (a silent one totaling approximately 3 minutes and a sound one running approximately 7 minutes) made for the home market; and the theatrical trailer.