View from the Couch: The Greatest Show on Earth, Nosferatu in Venice, etc.
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.
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.
Klaus Kinski in Nosferatu in Venice (Photo: Severin)
(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 BERMUDA DEPTHS (1978). While best known for such animated TV specials as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, the Rankin-Bass outfit occasionally dabbled in live action. One such effort was The Bermuda Depths, a TV movie that, like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and Trilogy of Terror (among others), was one of those ’70s fantasy flicks that has been fondly remembered by everyone who saw it back in the day on the family’s lone television box. Correction: almost everyone. I first caught The Bermuda Depths not upon its premiere but upon one of its initial repeats, and even then, around the age of 13 or 14, I thought it was pretty rancid. Revisiting it now, decades later, I can more appreciate the fact that it tried to be different from most TV fare of the period by being more atmospheric, more enigmatic, and more fatalistic. But it’s still a subpar effort, and it can probably only be appreciated through nostalgia-spritzed lens. Leigh McCloskey is downright awful as the imaginatively named Magnus Dens, a troubled young man who’s drawn to the ethereal oceanside beauty (a wooden Connie Selleca) who likes to cavort with a giant turtle which seemingly wandered in from a Godzilla sequel. Oscar winner and Luzianne Tea spokesman Burl Ives appears as a scientist prone to falling asleep at the dinner table, while Carl Weathers, Apollo Creed himself, begins the film playing Matt Hooper and ends it playing Quint.
The Warner Archive Collection’s Blu-ray release of The Bermuda Depths offers both the broadcast television version and the widescreen international theatrical version. The only extra is film historian audio commentary.
THE DAY OF THE BEAST (1995) / PERDITA DURANGO (1997). Two of Spanish writer-director Álex de la Iglesia’s earliest (and most popular) movies have been released on the Severin label in splendid 4K editions.
The Day of the Beast (El dia de la bestia) is a roller coaster ride of a film, with de la Iglesia expertly creating a horror-comedy about the search for the Antichrist. Father Angel (Álex Angulo) is the man on a mission, convinced that the Antichrist will be born on the upcoming Christmas Eve. The holy man decides that the only way he will be granted audience with Satan and thus get close enough to kill the evil infant is by committing a string of sinful actions; as he embarks on his task, he finds unlikely allies in a record-store employee (Santiago Segura) who loves heavy metal and a TV personality (Armando De Razza) who hosts a series on the occult. The Day of the Beast is often brutal but necessarily so — the subplot involving a group of smug louts who murder homeless people eventually informs the main narrative — but it’s de la Iglesia’s wicked sense of humor that proves to be the picture’s greatest strength. Whether it’s a visual nyuk (the dotty grandfather, starkers 24/7!) or a verbal one (when the priest warns of the apocalypse about to happen now, the metalhead asks, “You mean the movie?”), the film never lacks for wit.
The big news surrounding Perdita Durango is that this release marks the U.S. debut of de la Iglesia’s original cut of the film, as the version that initially played stateside under the title Dance with the Devil was chopped down by approximately 10 minutes. Based on a novel by Barry Gifford (with the author himself serving as a scripter alongside de la Iglesias and two others), the movie centers around a character from another Gifford book that was made into a film: Perdita Durango, who was a minor character played by Isabella Rossellini in David Lynch’s 1990 Wild at Heart. Here, she’s portrayed by Rosie Perez, and this hard-edged Mexican woman shucks her loner status to hook up with a mercurial criminal named Romeo Dolorosa (Javier Bardem). Together, the pair decide to kidnap clean-cut American kids Dwayne (Harley Cross) and Estelle (Aimee Graham); meanwhile, they’re being pursued by determined DEA agent Woody Dumas (James Gandolfini). The dime-store nihilism brings to mind such titles as Natural Born Killers and The Counselor (also with Bardem), but this intermittently interesting film does provide yet another opportunity to marvel at Bardem’s incredible range.
Extras on the 4K UltraHD + Blu-ray edition of The Day of the Beast include a feature-length making-of documentary; interviews with de la Iglesia and De Razza; and de la Iglesia’s 1990 short film Mirindas Asesinas. Extras on the 4K UltraHD + Blu-ray edition of Perdita Durango include interviews with de la Iglesia and Gifford; an appraisal of the film by film scholar Dr. Rebekah McKendry; and the theatrical trailer.
The Day of the Beast: ★★★
Perdita Durango: ★★½
THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952). Over the course of the last two or three decades, The Greatest Show on Earth has become shorthand for “worst Best Picture Oscar winner.” Did it deserve to win Best Picture? Absolutely not, particularly against the acknowledged masterpieces The Quiet Man (which at least was nominated for the Academy’s top honor) and Singin’ in the Rain (which was not). Does it deserve the designation of worst Best Picture Oscar winner? Absolutely not, as there have been several less worthy winners (Around the World in 80 Days, Cimarron, and The Great Ziegfeld, to name but three). On its own terms, away from the awards chatter, this ode to the circus qualifies as above-average entertainment, even if much of it does play like a documentary on the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. The fictional material revolves around Brad Braden (Charlton Heston, in the role that propelled him to stardom), the circus manager who subscribes to the adage, “The show must go on.” His workaholic stance interferes with his relationship with his girlfriend Holly (Betty Hutton), a high-wire performer who ends up being pursued by a fellow trapeze artist known as The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde). The melodrama often boils over, but James Stewart is appealing as a clown harboring a dark secret, the tightrope sequences are exciting, and the climactic train crash is spectacularly staged. All told, The Greatest Show on Earth nabbed five Oscar nominations (including Cecil B. DeMille’s only Best Director bid), and, in addition to Best Picture, it won for Best Motion Picture Story.
The Greatest Show on Earth has been reissued on Blu-ray as the 16th title in the Paramount Presents series. The only extra is a new discussion about the film with critic Leonard Maltin.
ISLE OF THE DEAD (1945). One of the nine chillers producer Val Lewton made for RKO (others include The Body Snatcher, reviewed here, I Walked with a Zombie, and the immortal Cat People), Isle of the Dead casts Boris Karloff as General Pherides, an uncompromising military man commanding weary troops during the Balkan Wars. Traveling to a small Greek island to visit the grave of his late wife, he and his companion, an American reporter (Marc Cramer), accept an invitation to spend the night at the home of an archaeologist (Jason Robards Sr.). The general ignores the warnings of the housekeeper (Helen Thimig) that one of the other guests, a beautiful young woman named Thea (Ellen Drew), is actually a Vorvolaka, a vampirish demon which kills humans by draining them of their lifeforce. But once a plague falls upon the island and death starts claiming many of the house’s inhabitants, Pherides allows his own superstitions to rise to the surface. The story’s on the slender side, but haunting imagery, a few chilling moments (as when a woman awakens from a coma to discover she’s been buried alive), and a typically strong performance from Karloff (sporting blond curls that would almost do Harpo Marx proud) compensate. Karloff, Lewton and director Mark Robson would reunite the following year for the equally effective Bedlam (and here’s hoping that the Warner Archive Collection will likewise be releasing that Blu-ray sometime soon).
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian commentary and the theatrical trailer.
NOSFERATU IN VENICE (1988). The 1922 silent gem Nosferatu was followed 57 years later by Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, a handsome remake that cast Klaus Kinski as the hideous bloodsucker. Aside from the presence of Kinski, Nosferatu in Venice is an in-name-only sequel, and that’s when it is being called Nosferatu in Venice — the film has also made the rounds under the monikers Vampire in Venice, Vampires in Venice (the on-screen title seen on the copy used for this Blu-ray release), Prince of the Night, and The Sperm of the Vampire. Between Kinski being an absolute terror on the set, the production shuffling through four directors (three of them uncredited), and chunks of the screenplay never even making it to the shooting stage, it’s hardly a shock that Nosferatu in Venice is an unholy mess. It’s also oddly watchable, if only to see fine actors trapped in impossible situations. Kinski refused to model the bald head and copious makeup seen in the Herzog flick, so this Nosferatu boasts long hair and a ruddier complexion; he also has a tendency to rip off women’s clothes and fondle their naked bodies, which is more Kinski than vampire. Christopher Plummer plays the Van Helsing surrogate, and his classiness is as out of place here as it was in the Star Wars rip-off Starcrash. And Donald Pleasence barely registers as a frightened clergyman. Still, the picture maintains an appropriate mood of foreboding; besides, it’s impossible to hate a horror yarn in which such phrases as “depravity personified,” “high priest of putridity,” and “incarnation of inequity” are used by characters to describe Nosferatu (or was it the other actors describing Kinski?).
Blu-ray extras include a feature-length documentary on Kinski’s final years; outtakes; and the theatrical trailer.
SECRETS & LIES (1996). Mike Leigh has been making movies in his native England since 1971, yet his international breakthrough only came courtesy of this formidable motion picture, which took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, captured five Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and earned the gratitude of art-house dwellers everywhere. Leigh deftly avoids any semblance of soap opera artificiality as he centers his story on the members of a London family, most notably Maurice (Timothy Spall), a successful photographer enduring a rocky marriage, and his sister Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn), an open-hearted but lonely factory worker whose miserable lot in life extends to the fact that her daughter (Claire Rushbrook) clearly cannot stand her. But into these messy family ties steps a bona fide catalyst: Hortense (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), a young black woman who turns out to be the daughter that Cynthia gave up for adoption long ago. Secrets & Lies is a mesmerizing film, with the emotional stakes raised so high that each confrontation or revelation generates as much (or more) genuine suspense as anything found in Hollywood’s latest thriller-of-the-week. Blethyn won her share of awards for her raw performance as the long-suffering Cynthia, but Spall is equally effective in his own understated manner; in fact, the scene where his frustrated character finally explodes should bowl over anyone who has ever tried to smooth out their own strained family relations.
Blu-ray extras include new conversations with Leigh and Jean-Baptiste; a 1996 audio interview with Leigh; and the theatrical trailer.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956). Moses may have railed against the worshiping of the Golden Calf, but Paramount executives couldn’t help worshiping this cash cow, which upon its initial release became the second highest grossing picture in film history (topped only by Gone With the Wind). Cecil B. DeMille’s cinematic swan song is staggering as spectacle and inspirational as a Biblical tale, but it has to labor mighty hard to overcome the lamentable dialogue and the surprisingly poor acting by virtually all of its leading players. Running three hours and 40 minutes (roughly the same length as the similar — and far superior — Ben-Hur), this relates the story of Moses (Charlton Heston) from his birth through such significant incidents as the burning bush and the acquisition of the tablets; to stretch the running time, there are also ample amounts of footage spent on his rival Rameses (Yul Brynner) as well as Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), the princess caught between them. Few could touch DeMille in his ability to orchestrate gargantuan crowd scenes, and sequences like the parting of the Red Sea still have the power to move audiences. But lines like “Oh, Moses, Moses, you stubborn, splendid, adorable fool!” have endeared this film to connoisseurs of camp cinema, and, with the exception of Sir Cedric Hardwicke (as Ramses’ father Sethi), the key performances are tough to digest: Heston is stiff, Brynner is hammy, and Edward G. Robinson and especially Baxter are woefully miscast. Nominated for seven Academy Awards (including Best Picture), it won for Best Visual Effects.
Extras on the 4K UltraHD + Blu-ray + Digital edition of The Ten Commandments consist of audio commentary by author Katherine Orrison; newsreel footage of the 1956 premiere; and theatrical trailers.
WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020). Given the standing of 2017’s Wonder Woman as one of the best superhero movies ever made (Top 15, for sure), there’s no getting around the fact that the highly anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 registers as a massive disappointment. In this outing, Diana Prince / Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is forced to square off against a pair of villains in the avaricious Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) and the bold Cheetah (Kristen Wiig) while also coping with the mysterious return of the presumably deceased Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). Steve now finds himself in another man’s body, and the fact that both he and Diana are OK with this usurping of another person’s life is just one of the nagging details hanging around throughout the film. There’s also far too much Maxwell Lord — he’s an underdeveloped villain with a rather ludicrous endgame — and turning Wiig’s human character into a CGI creature is also a mistake, considering the potency of Wiig’s performance and the shakiness of the visual effects. Still, there are some saving graces, enough to rescue the film from complete irrelevance. The lengthy opening sequence, a flashback set on Diana’s home turf of Themyscira, is a blast, and Steve’s clothing montage is amusing and about the only time the film takes advantage of its 1980s setting. Mostly, there’s Gadot, who again perfectly embodies all of the wholesome qualities we would like in our superheroes. As with Christopher Reeve as Superman and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, she was seemingly born to play this role, and her presence provides a strong through line even when the movie surrounding her weakens.
Extras on the 4K UltraHD + Blu-ray + Digital edition of Wonder Woman 1984 include a making-of featurette; breakdowns of two scenes; a gag reel; and a Wonder Woman 1984 retro remix.
Short And Sweet:
A SCREAM IN THE STREETS (1973). Exploitation entrepreneur Harry Novak (The Pig Keeper’s Daughter, Please Don’t Eat My Mother!) is behind this dreadful drama in which two cops (John Kirkpatric and Frank Bannon) try to stop a serial killer (Con Covert) who dresses in drag as he goes about killing shapely young women. Beware of the tedious softcore scenes, such as the one in which a balding nebbish boffs a masseuse before beating her with a belt, or the one in which two lesbians unwittingly put on a show for a peeping tom. This is the sort of cinematic rotgut that can potentially lead to elevated critical reevaluations of the Ed Wood oeuvre.
Blu-ray extras consist of two shorts produced from A Scream in the Streets outtakes and trailers.
WHO’LL STOP THE RAIN (1978). Like the same year’s more celebrated Vietnam War endeavors The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, this assured adaptation of Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers similarly examines the effects of the war on not only those who served but also those who remained stateside. Nick Nolte is excellent as Ray Hicks, a returning vet who agrees to help his buddy John (the perpetually interesting Michael Moriarty) smuggle heroin from Saigon to San Francisco. It’s supposed to be a smooth hand-off from Ray to John’s wife Marge (Tuesday Weld); instead, Ray and Marge find themselves being pursued by a crooked DEA officer (Anthony Zerbe) and his two twitchy stooges (Richard Masur and Ray Sharkey).
Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary and an interview with co-screenwriter Judith Rascoe.
Cripes, Matt! — You’re on fire this week:
“nostalgia-spritzed!” “dime-store nihilism!” (that’s the Barry Gifford I know and loathe) “more Kinski than vampire!” “Balding nebbish boffs a masseuse before beating her with a belt!” (details at 11!)
… and I suppose that scumbag Ray Sharkey was *perfectly* cast as a “twitchy stooge”. “The Johnny Appleseed of AIDS”, I’ve heard him called.
On a more positive note, you’ve given me a hankering to revisit Isle of the Dead, an old favourite. I wonder if Karloff’s undead Gorca the Wurdalak was a an allusion to Isle’s Vorvolaka…
Thanks, Richard! Yeah, it’s impossible for me to hear “Vorvolaka” without automatically also thinking of “Wurdalak.” I’m sure there’s a joke in there somewhere. “A Vorvolaka, a Wurdalak, and a Nosferatu all walked into a bar…”