John Gielgud, John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins in The Elephant Man (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.)

Michael Pate and Kathleen Crowley in Curse of the Undead (Photo: Kino)

CURSE OF THE UNDEAD (1959). The worst thing about Curse of the Undead is its title. It’s the sort of generic moniker that could be placed on about a thousand creature features, and it completely disguises the fact that this is actually a movie rarity: a horror-Western hybrid. While this wasn’t the first film to blend the two genres — offhand, I can think of The Beast of Hollow Mountain, and there were doubtless a few more — it probably was the first to mix cowboys and vampires, besting by several years the 1966 pair of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (reviewed here) and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. Written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Edward and Mildred Dein (with Edward also handling directing duties), this eerie oater involves a land war between the headstrong Dolores (Kathleen Crowley) and the thieving Buffer (Bruce Gordon), with both Preacher Dan (Eric Fleming) and the sheriff (Edward Binns) attempting to keep the peace. So far, so traditional, but what sparks — and spooks — the proceedings is the presence of a mysterious gunslinger named Drake Robey (Michael Pate), a stranger who dresses in black, steers clear of crucifixes, and survives every duel in which he participates, even those in which his opponent draws first and aims perfectly. If the picture’s greatest flaw is that there’s a bit too much Western plotting and not quite enough monster madness, its greatest strength is that any potential for anticipated camp is extinguished immediately. There are some interesting variations to established vampire lore, and the ending offers a nice symbolic touch.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver; an image gallery; and trailers for other horror flicks on the Kino label.

Movie: ★★½

Denise Richards in Drop Dead Gorgeous (Photo: Warner Archive)

DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (1999). Imagine Heathers or Election without their savvy satire or impeccable comic timing and you basically get Drop Dead Gorgeous. Mining the same territories as two far superior pictures, 1975’s Smile (an acidic look at beauty pageants) and the 1993 HBO film The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (a dark comedy about a nutty mother going to extremes for her daughter), this centers on a teen beauty pageant that occurs annually in a small Minnesota town. Wealthy Gladys Leeman (Kirstie Alley), a former pageant winner, will stoop to any level to ensure that her bratty daughter Becky (Denise Richards) wins this year’s contest. But Becky faces serious competition from Amber Atkins (Kirsten Dunst), a sweet girl who lives with her boozy mom (Ellen Barkin) in a trailer park. With repetitive jokes aimed at (among others) an anorexic pageant winner and a “retard” who likes to remove his pants in public, the humor is risqué enough to almost make There’s Something About Mary look as sensitive as To Kill a Mockingbird by comparison. But it’s mostly for naught since there’s precious little wit to most of the heavy-handed barbs or expected character eccentricities (I did chuckle at the contestant whose talent was delivering a monologue from Soylent Green, although even that pales next to The Towering Inferno sketch from Fame). Except for the grating Alley, who suicidally tries to mimic Frances McDormand in Fargo, the performances are all on target. Amy Adams (making her film debut) and Brittany Murphy are amusing as two of the pageant contestants, although it’s Allison Janney who takes top honors as a perpetually horny trailer-park denizen.

The only extra on the Blu-ray edition is the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★

John Hurt in The Elephant Man (Photo: Criterion)

THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980). Brooksfilms, the studio created by the legendary Mel Brooks, came into existence in 1980 and immediately scored on both the critical and commercial fronts with this enormously moving drama based on a true story. Although serving as a producer, Brooks wisely kept his name off the film, figuring audiences would wrongly assume this would be a comedy. It was a wise move, allowing all attention to shift to the picture’s visionary director. Following his startling debut with 1977’s Eraserhead, David Lynch retained that picture’s industrial imagery, unnerving sound design, and oddball atmosphere and layered them over the story of John Merrick (John Hurt), a late-19th-century Englishman whose physical abnormalities led to a life of misery until Dr. Frederick Treves (Anthony Hopkins) rescued him from a circus freak show and proceeded to treat him with kindness and understanding. The sequence in which Treves and his wife (Hannah Gordon) entertain Merrick in their own home never fails to break my heart, but the film is full of emotionally rich scenes such as this one. Be warned, though, that there are also many moments that illustrate humankind’s massive capacity for evil and cruelty. Although it went home empty-handed, The Elephant Man did land eight Academy Award nominations, including bids for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (Hurt); conspicuously missing from the line-up was Freddie Francis for his stunning black-and-white cinematography. Incidentally, this was the film that directly led to the creation of the Best Makeup Design Oscar the following year, after Christopher Tucker’s phenomenal work had to go unrecognized.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; interviews with Lynch, Hurt, producer Jonathan Sanger, and others; a 1981 audio recording of a Q&A with Lynch; and a piece on John Merrick.

Movie: ★★★½

Amir WIlson and Dixie Egerickx in The Secret Garden (Photo: Universal & STX)

THE SECRET GARDEN (2020). As far as screen versions of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden go, it would be hard to top Agnieszka Holland’s lovely 1993 take on the tale. That film arrived during a robust period for quality live-action adaptations aimed at families and children, and it stood proudly alongside the stellar likes of Little Women (1994), The Jungle Book (1994), Black Beauty (1994), A Little Princess (1995), and Matilda (1996). True, the current period has likewise given us a worthy Little Women, but it has also brought forth a tedious The Call of the Wild and a truly dreadful Dolittle, so it’s safe to say we’re not experiencing a comparable boom. Further proof is available through The Secret Garden, Version 2020, which is curiously lacking in anything worthy of emotional investment. Magic has been added to the story — literally — as orphaned Mary (Dixie Egerickx) winds up at the estate of a relative, Mr. Craven (Colin Firth), and only blossoms once she learns of a wondrous garden on the property. But rather than simply serving as a font of inspiration and a source for soulful rejuvenation (as in the novel and past adaptations), this garden takes matters into its own, uh, branches and supernaturally cures all ills. Worse, this foliage is rendered through obvious CGI that strips all the sap out of what should feel like the most enchanting place on Earth. There’s nothing wrong with the performances by the child actors (Egerickx, Edan Hayhurst as the sickly Colin, Amir Wilson as the nature-loving Dickon), but there’s also nothing particularly distinctive about them; like everything else about this Garden, their characterizations keep viewers at a chilly distance. By the way, did I mention that an action sequence has been added to serve as a climax? Because of course it has.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a piece on the characters; and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★★

Linda Fiorentino and Klaus Löwitsch in Gotcha! (Photo: Kino)

Short And Sweet:

GOTCHA! (1985). In Gotcha!, Gotcha! is the name of a game played by American college student Jonathan Moore (Anthony Edwards) and his chums, requiring participants to shoot each other with paintballs while avoiding getting nailed themselves. This set-up is so elaborate that, even though the bulk of the film takes place in Europe, it’s inevitable that we’ll be heading back to school before it’s all over. The virginal Jonathan is on vacation in Paris with his best friend Manolo (Nick Corri), but they separate once Jonathan falls for a Czech girl named Sasha (Linda Fiorentino) and agrees to accompany her to both Berlins (West and East). Soon, he’s being chased by Soviet assassins and begins to wonder if Sasha might be a spy. This PG-13 piffle maintains a modest level of interest as long as it stays on the other side of the Atlantic but ultimately wears out its welcome when it returns stateside for the protracted final act.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by director Jeff Kanew; separate audio commentary by entertainment journalist Bryan Reesman; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino titles.

Movie: ★★

Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina in Pierrot le Fou (Photo: Criterion)

PIERROT LE FOU (1965). Among the most playful of all French New Wave entries, Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou stars the perpetually cool Jean-Paul Belmondo and the perennially spirited Anna Karina as Ferdinand and Marianne, lovers on the lam. Ferdinand has abandoned his wife and children back in Paris to embark on a road trip with Marianne, herself on the run from gangsters. This is Godard in free-floating form, offering splashy colors that seemingly drip off the screen like wet paint, half-hearted swipes at the bourgeoisie, self-reflexive examinations rooted in cinematic tradition (look for a cameo appearance by American director Samuel Fuller, playing himself), and an ending that is literally explosive.

Blu-ray extras include a video essay on the film; a 2007 interview with Karina; and a 2007 documentary that looks at the marriage and working relationship between Godard and Karina.

Movie: ★★★

 

 

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