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.
Häxan (Photo: Criterion)
(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.)
CRAWL (2019). Given all the cinematic bloat as of late, a pared-down thriller would seem to be a blessing, offering nothing more and nothing less than appreciated, adrenaline-pumping chills. It worked three years ago when Blake Lively stood firm against a menacing shark in The Shallows, but the idea goes belly-up with Crawl. In this one, alligators are the apex predators making life miserable for the humans, as college swimmer Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) and her injured father Dave (Barry Pepper) are trapped in the flooded crawlspace of Dave’s Florida home while a category 5 hurricane rages all around them. Initially, there’s some tension as Haley and Dave are hopelessly pinned down by these critters, but because the script by brothers Michael and Shawn Rasmussen never offers much variation, and because director Alexandre Aja never provides a proper sense of the layout of the joint, all excitement soon dissipates. A few hapless humans wander into the frame to provide snacks for the gators, but stripped of personalities and, for the most part, even names, their ultimate fates mean little. Crawl is presumably meant to refer to the movements of both the alligators and the human protagonists, but it might as well refer to the forward momentum of the movie itself. Its solemnity results in tedium, and one wishes that its makers had taken the same approach adopted by director Lewis Teague and screenwriter John Sayles with 1980’s Alligator (starring Robert Forster, RIP). Embracing the more ludicrous aspects of the premise and ensuring the humans were quirky enough to hold attention whenever the gators were MIA, that picture was energetic and entertaining. Crawl, on the other hand, is mostly torpid and toothless.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a motion comic of an alternate opening; and deleted and extended scenes.
HÄXAN (1922). Those looking for something different to watch this Halloween won’t do much better than Häxan, a delirious Swedish documentary from the silent era. A nonfiction feature ahead of its time in the manner in which it employs dramatic recreations, this finds director Benjamin Christensen also turning to all manner of surrealistic imagery to relate his thesis. It takes a look at witchcraft during the Middle Ages, ultimately concluding that those burned at the stake or drowned in rivers were no different than modern folks suffering from hysteria. The psychological musings don’t arrive until late, as the majority of the picture offers background info on how superstitious people once viewed witches before plunging into eye-popping sequences in which scores of witches take to the sky on brooms and sorceresses cavort with actual demons while spitting on crucifixes and feasting on unbaptized babies. The visual effects are excellent if dated, but the makeup and costume designs are as impressive as anything seen in modern cinema (incidentally, that’s Christensen himself playing Satan). If there’s an overriding message to take from this movie, it isn’t the connection between the witches of yesteryear and the hysterics of today — instead, it’s the eternal evil of the patriarchy and the perennial hypocrisy of the church, as leering men of the cloth are repeatedly shown torturing innocent women both young and old.
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of Häxan also contains 1968’s Witchcraft Through the Ages, a shortened version of the film with added narration by William S. Burroughs. Other extras include audio commentary (from 2001) by film scholar Casper Tybjerg; Christensen’s introduction to the film for its 1941 rerelease; historical background on many of the photographs used throughout the movie; and outtakes.
HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (1961). A standard sword-and-sandal flick receives a shot in the arm from director Mario Bava, just a year after he made his mark with his Gothic horror classic Black Sunday. Bava, who had already worked as a cinematographer on a pair of other Italian-made Hercules pictures, here also assumes the jobs of co-scripter and director, and he provides the film with a certain measure of visual flair. British bodybuilder Reg Park, a three-time Mr. Universe, plays the titular muscleman, whose attempt to save his beloved Princess Deianira (Leonora Ruffo) from a mysterious illness requires him to journey to Hell alongside his companions, the happy-go-lucky Theseus (George Ardisson) and the bumbling Telemachus (Franco Giacobini). Hercules thinks he can trust the royal advisor Lico (Christopher Lee), learning almost too late that he’s the one behind Deianira’s condition. The acting (aside from Lee) is wooden and the script extremely choppy, but the film is elevated by Bava’s renowned eye for atmospherics. The helmer does a fine job of making the most of a low budget, and his use of lighting and color is typically inspired. Fans of Lee’s booming voice (and who isn’t?) will be disappointed to learn that another actor dubbed him for the English-language versions.
In addition to the U.S. release version, Kino’s Blu-ray edition of Hercules in the Haunted World also contains the U.K. version (Hercules in the Center of the Earth) and the European version (The Vampires vs. Hercules). Other extras consist of audio commentary by author Tim Lucas (Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark); an interview with Ardisson; and theatrical trailers.
THE OMEN COLLECTION (1976-2006). While 20th Century Fox released an Omen box set on Blu-ray back in 2008 — one which contained the original trilogy and the 2006 remake of the first film — it failed to include the series’ made-for-TV offering. This definitive box set from Shout! Factory not only houses all five films but also adds a few new extras to the generous bonus features brought over from the previous set.
One of the finest horror films of the 1970s, The Omen (1976) proved to be a monster hit, placing only under Rocky, A Star Is Born and All the President’s Men as one of its year’s top grossers. Working from an intelligent script by David Seltzer, Richard Donner directed this for maximum impact, as U.S. Ambassador to Britain Robert Thorn (Gregory Peck) and his wife Kate (Lee Remick) slowly come to realize that their adopted child Damien (Harvey Stephens) is actually the Antichrist. Several of the shocking set-pieces have become legendary in their own right, although they never overshadow the contributions of an excellent cast (particularly David Warner as a wary photographer and Billie Whitelaw as a demonic nanny). The great Jerry Goldsmith deservedly won the Best Original Score Oscar, with the composer picking up an additional nomination for Best Original Song (“Ave Satani”).
Damien: Omen II (1978) largely received dismissive reviews and didn’t even earn half of its predecessor’s take, but it’s actually the most underrated film in the franchise. As with the first film, a terrific cast (William Holden, Lee Grant, Lew Ayres and Lance Henriksen, among others) and some imaginatively staged demises goose this middle chapter in which a now-12-year-old Damien (well played by Jonathan Scott-Taylor) learns about his true nature from the satanic emissaries sent to protect him.
To its detriment, The Final Conflict (1981) looks and feels nothing like the first two pictures in the series; instead, it’s a shoddy effort noticeably lacking in necessary tension, superlative acting, and top-of-the-line production values. Sam Neill stars as the adult Damien, ready to take over the world but first requiring his minions to halt “the Nazarene” from returning by killing every baby in England who was born at a precise time. A drowsy pace and an erratic script further doom this lamentable conclusion to a fine trilogy.
Ten years after The Final Conflict, producer Harvey Bernhard (who produced all three previous pictures and co-wrote Damien: Omen II) tried to revive the franchise in the chintziest way possible, with a film made for network television (a Fox movie of the week, to be exact). Bernhard produced and co-wrote Omen IV: The Awakening (1991), in which the Antichrist returns in the form of a bratty girl (Asia Vieira). This one’s strictly routine, although Michael Lerner briefly juices up the proceedings as a low-rent detective.
Someone eventually had the idea to remake The Omen, but given the mediocre results, the only reason seems to have been so that The Omen (2006) could be released on 6/6/06. Granted, director John Moore remaking The Omen isn’t as sacrilegious as Gus Van Sant remaking Psycho, but this beat-for-beat retelling takes the chilling atmosphere of the ’76 model and replaces it with tiresome visual effects and laughable dream sequences. The devil taking over the world is a terrifying concept, yet there’s so little urgency to the proceedings that you’d think his master plan extended only to prank phone calls to the Vatican and TPing ministers’ houses. Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles are no match for Peck and Remick, although the Brits in the supporting cast (David Thewlis, Pete Postlethwaite and Michael Gambon) acquit themselves nicely.
Blu-ray extras collected in this Deluxe Edition include audio commentaries on four of the five films (including Donner on two separate ones for the original picture); a feature-length documentary on the original series; interviews with various cast and crew members; and theatrical trailers.
The Omen (1976): ***1/2
Damien: Omen II: ***
The Final Conflict: *1/2
Omen IV: The Awakening: **
The Omen (2006): **
QUARTET (1981). Here’s a lesser effort from the team of director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant, best known for the Oscar-winning likes of Howards End and A Room with a View. Adapted from Jean Rhys’ novel by frequent Merchant-Ivory scripter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Quartet is set in 1920s Paris and centers on the misfortunes of a young woman named Marya Zelli (Isabelle Adjani). Married to the Polish art dealer Stefan Zelli (Anthony Higgins), she’s shocked when he’s suddenly arrested for theft. With Stefan sentenced to serve one year in prison, Marya finds herself facing life on the street; fortunately(?), she’s instead taken in by English couple H.J. Heidler (Alan Bates) and his wife Lois (Maggie Smith). H.J. immediately puts the moves on Marya, and it’s soon revealed that Lois allows him to run through a succession of young woman as long as he will remain with her. But matters become more complicated for both Lois and Stefan once Marya unexpectedly falls in love with H.J. Ivory’s directorial aloofness damages what should be a torrid melodrama, as the affair between Marya and H.J. isn’t believable for even one moment and the vibrant backdrop of 1920s Paris frequently feels removed from the action. Adjani somehow won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for her deer-in-headlights performance, although it’s Smith who best conveys the desperation of her character. For better Merchant-Ivory titles available (like Quartet) on the Cohen Media label, check out 1984’s The Bostonians (reviewed here) and 1987’s Maurice (reviewed here).
Blu-ray extras include a pair of interviews with Ivory; a conversation with Ivory and director of photography Pierre Lhomme; and theatrical trailers.