Octavia Spencer in Ma (Photo: 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.)

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John Carradine in Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (Photo: Kino & StudioCanal)

BILLY THE KID VS. DRACULA (1966). Over a 58-year span, John Carradine appeared in well over 200 motion pictures — from that sizable output, he frequently stated in interviews that the worst one by far was Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. There are certainly plenty of candidates — I personally would opt for 1969’s Blood of Dracula’s Castle — but Carradine’s point is well taken. The prolific William Beaudine (whose filmography is as long as Carradine’s) ended his career in 1966 by directing both Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, and while it’s a shame both memorably named movies aren’t debuting on Blu-ray at the same time, fans of the former can at least check out this camp outing with heretofore unimagined clarity. Dracula (Carradine, who previously essayed the role in a couple of Universal’s far more respectable horror films in the ‘40s) here turns up in the Wild West, where he becomes smitten with a young ranch woman named Betty (Melinda Plowman). Drac pretends to be her visiting uncle from the East in order to get close to her, but her boyfriend is immediately suspicious of this strange older man. The boyfriend? Why, none other than Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney), who has decided to reform his notorious ways and settle down to a quiet life of tending to horses and chickens. Beaudine’s nickname of “One Shot” was given because he rarely filmed any scene twice — that’s obviously the case in a movie packed with a sizable share of gaffes (my favorite is the crewman clearly spotted through the open windows of a stagecoach). Nevertheless, there’s a certain amiable charm that shines through all the cheesiness.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Lee Gambin and John Harrison, and trailers for other vintage Carradine horror flicks offered by Kino.

Movie: *1/2

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Robert Lansing in 4D Man (Photo: Kino)

4D MAN (1959) / DINOSAURUS! (1960). The massive success of 1958’s The Blob allowed producer Jack H. Harris and director Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr. to partner on a pair of subsequent fantasy flicks. While neither 4D Man nor Dinosaurus! duplicated the earlier picture’s grosses, both are offbeat efforts worthy of a viewing.

4D Man is the more serious of the pair, with scientist siblings Scott and Tony Nelson (Robert Lansing and James Congdon) working on an experiment that would allow a person to walk through solid objects. Both are in love with the same woman (Lee Meriwether), a rivalry that comes into greater focus once one of the brothers succeeds in cracking the physical plane but at the cost of his own sanity and scruples. The special effects are excellent; it’s just a shame none of the three protagonists are very likable or sympathetic.

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Dinosaurus! (Photo: Kino)

Dinosaurus! is a real curio, with some adult drama sprinkled into a movie that otherwise seems aimed squarely at children. American contractors on a Caribbean island discover a T-Rex, a Brontosaurus, and a Neanderthal, all frozen alive in the surrounding waters; once they thaw, the T-Rex chomps down on the locals, the Brontosaurus pals around with a little boy (Alan Roberts), and the Neanderthal (Gregg Martell) has some wacky adventures. Martell is a hoot as the bewildered caveman, anticipating Brendan Fraser’s later turn in Encino Man, and the effects are similarly enjoyable. Knowing that this is the sort of movie that includes a jovial and rotund sidekick named Dumpy as well as a perpetually drunk Irishman named O’Leary is all the preparation one requires for adopting the right frame of mind.

Blu-ray extras on 4D Man include audio commentary by Kris Yeaworth (son of Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.); interviews with Harris and Meriwether; and an animated image gallery. Blu-ray extras on Dinosaurus! include audio commentary by Yeaworth; interviews with Harris and co-star Paul Lukather; and the theatrical trailer.

4D Man: **1/2
Dinosaurus!: **1/2

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Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Front Page (Photo: Kino)

THE FRONT PAGE (1974). The classic 1928 play The Front Page, penned by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, has been brought to the screen on no less than four occasions, with the first version arriving in 1931 and starring Pat O’Brien as ace Chicago reporter Hildy Johnson and Adolphe Menjou as his conniving editor Walter Burns. Howard Hawks’ 1940 masterpiece His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant as Burns and (in a gender change) Rosalind Russell as Hildy, is the best adaptation, while 1988’s Switching Channels (with Burt Reynolds as Burns and Kathleen Turner as Hildy) is by far the weakest. Often lost in the shuffle is this third incarnation, which retains the male-male dynamic from the original and does it justice by casting frequent co-stars Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the roles. Lemmon is Hildy, ready to quit his job at the Chicago Examiner in order to get married (Susan Sarandon plays his bride-to-be). Matthau is Burns, deviously plotting to keep Hildy on the job and finding the solution when a meek Death Row inmate (Austin Pendleton) manages to escape and ends up hiding in the prison’s pressroom. Carol Burnett is terrible in the difficult role of the jailbird’s hysterical girlfriend — she’s arguably even worse than in the equally unfortunate role of Miss Hannigan in the 1982 screen version of Annie – but everyone else delivers the goods, from Pendleton as the sweet and slightly befuddled convict to Lemmon and Matthau playing to their usual strengths. The rat-tat-tat dialogue provided by writer-director Billy Wilder and co-scripter I.A.L. Diamond is also an asset.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Michael Schlesinger and Mark Evanier; interviews with Pendleton, first assistant director Howard G. Kazanjian and assistant to Billy Wilder Rex McGee; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ***

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Ali Cobrin and Lane Garrison in The Iron Orchard (Photo: Santa Rita Film Co.)

THE IRON ORCHARD (2019). Texas born and bred, The Iron Orchard is an adaptation of the 1966 novel by oilman Edmund Van Zandt Jr., who wrote the sprawling tome under the nom de plume Tom Pendleton. At nearly 400 pages, the book clearly got shorn to fit into a 112-minute running time, but writer-director Ty Roberts (scripting with Gerry De Leon) has nevertheless constructed a film that intermittently impresses with its oversized intentions. Indeed, it’s Roberts’ direction, coupled with Mathieu Plainfossé’s evocative cinematography, that belies the picture’s comparatively slender budget. Lane Garrison stars as Jim McNeely, a Fort Worth nobody who eventually becomes a millionaire after finding oil. Alas, as in all cautionary tales, Jim becomes (as they doubtless say in West Texas) too big for his britches, choosing to ignore his loving wife (Ali Cobrin) and faithful friend (Austin Nichols) in favor of shady business opportunities and copious amounts of alcohol. Even if Roberts’ script isn’t as polished as his direction, it’s adequate enough for the early portions to overcome the acting by all concerned. Each individual performance is a cross between authentic and amateurish, and it’s often fascinating to watch this Jekyll-Hyde dichotomy (Nichols comes off best). The final chapters feel rushed in comparison to the leisurely storytelling employed throughout much of the movie, and there’s disappointingly no audience catharsis as Jim basically get punished for his avaricious actions (some of which result in the deaths of others) with the equivalent of a 10-minute time-out in the corner. Still, Roberts deserves some credit for unearthing enough of interest in a familiar rags-to-riches saga — if he doesn’t exactly hit pay dirt, neither does he leave viewers completely empty-handed.

The only DVD extra is audio commentary by Roberts and Garrison.

Movie: **1/2

Film Title: Ma
Octavia Spencer, Diana Silvers and McKaley Miller in Ma (Photo: Universal)

MA (2019). Ma might be the latest horror show from the prolific Blumhouse Productions (Get Out, Happy Death Day, The Purge, and oh-so-many-more), but it also serves as a particularly effective anti-bullying PSA. Don’t be mean to your timid classmates, or they may come a-calling for revenge even decades down the road. Octavia Spencer, usually seen in sympathetic roles (The Help, The Shape of Water), is effectively cast against type as Sue Ann, a middle-aged woman who agrees to buy alcohol for a group of high school students. Turning on the friendliness, she also invites them to party in the basement of her house, the reason being that she would hate for them to be out late drinking and driving. At first, the five kids are appreciative, and they even affectionately call her “Ma.” Before long, though, it becomes clear that not all is right with their booze-enabling benefactor. Sue Ann becomes possessive of their time and jealous of their activities — reactions largely triggered by memories of the humiliation she endured as a high school student. When the teens attempt to break free from her grip, she becomes even more unpredictable and, ultimately, violent. There are minor lapses in logic and errors in plotting that might weaken other movies, but Ma is so confident in its ability to spin a rousing tale that such gripes largely fall by the wayside. Diana Silvers is appealing as the most prominent of the teens, while Allison Janney is amusing as a veterinarian who employs Sue Ann as her assistant. This grouchy vet does nothing but yell at Sue Ann all day long — needless to say, she ultimately learns that her bark can’t begin to compete with Sue Ann’s bite.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and an alternate ending.

Movie: ***

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Tim Curry in Stephen King’s It (Photo: Warner)

STEPHEN KING’S IT (1990). With It: Chapter Two hitting theaters this week, it’s not surprising that Warner Bros.’s home entertainment arm has elected to re-release the earlier take on Stephen King’s novel in yet another Blu-ray edition — this one a steelbook sold exclusively through Best Buy. Like Salem’s Lot, Stephen King’s It was produced for television — in this case, as a 187-minute miniseries co-written (with Lawrence D. Cohen) and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (Halloween III: Season of the Witch). Unlike Salem’s Lot, though, it fails to maintain its length, running out of steam in the home stretch. The story is set in a small Maine town where seven children come together to fight an evil entity which most often takes the form of the murderous clown Pennywise (Tim Curry); they seemingly defeat him, promising to take a stand if he ever terrorizes the town again. Cut to approximately three decades later, when the killings commence anew and the septet (Richard Thomas, John Ritter, Tim Reid, Annette O’Toole, Harry Anderson, Dennis Christopher and Richard Masur) individually mull over whether to once again square off against Pennywise. Curry is typically dazzling as the ever-so-creepy clown, and the program does a fine job of establishing the characters during both their childhood and adult years. But the entire project deflates just as it should be building to a crescendo, and the final battle proves to be a crushing disappointment.

The only Blu-ray extra is audio commentary by Christopher, Reid, Ritter, Thomas and Wallace.

Movie: **1/2

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