View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in In the Heights (Photo: Warner)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN (1971). Satanic panic was all the rage during the early-to-middle 1970s, as an unholy number of movies (most of them doubtless inspired by the box office riches of 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby) were produced that centered on devil worship. Among the approximately two dozen releases were the underrated The Mephisto Waltz (reviewed here), the singularly wacky The Devil’s Rain (reviewed here), and this low-budget effort starring two of the era’s most tireless character actors. L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin respectively play the sheriff and doctor of a tiny Southwestern town where the local children are disappearing at a rapid clip, a tragedy amplified by the unexplained deaths of many of their parents. A vacationing trio — Ben (Charles Bateman), his girlfriend (Ahna Capri), and his young daughter (Geri Reischl) — are forced into town after a vehicular mishap and discover that supernatural forces are preventing them (along with the rest of the locals) from leaving the area. Ben teams up with the sheriff, his deputy (Alvy Moore), the doctor, and a priest (Charles Robinson) to solve the mystery, but it turns out that one of the presumed good guys is actually the leader of the local outfit of elderly devil worshippers. A lot of the plot doesn’t make sense — specifically, there’s no consistency in when, how or why the coven leader uses his seemingly random powers to wreak havoc — but director Bernard McEveety does a sound job of juxtaposing the colorful satanic shenanigans with a drab and dusty desert backdrop. It’s also interesting to note how the movie anticipates Get Out in one significant way.
Blu-ray extras include film critic audio commentary; a piece on the movie’s place in ‘70s satanic cinema; new interviews with Jonathan Erickson Eisley and Alyson Moore, who played two of the children in the film; and the theatrical trailer.
BUGSY MALONE (1976). The late Alan Parker (he passed away last year) helmed a handful of exemplary musicals over the course of his career, but this isn’t one of them. Still, let’s cut him some slack, as Bugsy Malone marked his directorial debut, his next picture was 1978’s powerful Midnight Express, and he later gave us the sensational musical The Commitments. Set in Prohibition-era NYC, this centers on two warring crime lords and the nice guy who gets caught in the middle. Yes, it’s a standard gangster flick, but with one big twist: All the roles are played by children. It’s an amusing idea, but that’s all it is, and it’s not one that can sustain a feature-length endeavor. Scott Baio stars as Bugsy, a boxing promoter who eventually gets involved in the skirmish between mobsters Fat Sam (John Cassisi) and Dandy Dan (Martin Lev). He also falls for an aspiring singer named Blousey Brown (Florrie Dugger) but is still friends with his ex-girlfriend (and Fat Sam’s new mistress) Tallulah (Jodie Foster). The novelty is in seeing all these kids (most around the age of 12 or 13) decked out in dapper suits and flapper dresses; additionally, the cars use bicycle pedals rather than gas and engines, and, instead of killing each other with bullets, the gangsters use “splurge guns” that shoot fatal whipped cream. It’s cute for about 20 minutes, after which it simply becomes silly and tiresome. Baio and Dugger make for bland leads, but Cassisi is amusing as the blustery Fat Sam. As for Foster, it’s clear she’s the pro in the cast, having already racked up seven movie credits (including Taxi Driver earlier that year) and over two dozen TV appearances. Paul Williams’ Oscar-nominated song score contains a few pleasant numbers as well as several forgettable ones.
Blu-ray extras consist of new interviews with Williams and executive producer David Puttnam, and theatrical trailers.
THE CAT O’ NINE TAILS (1971). Following the global success of his directorial debut, 1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (reviewed here), Italian auteur Dario Argento imported more American stars and offered more grisly thrills with The Cat o’ Nine Tails. Argento reportedly doesn’t care much for this picture, but that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from enjoying its twisty tale centered around a medical institution whose staffers harbor terrible secrets. One of the doctors gets murdered, prompting a newspaper reporter (James Franciscus) to team up with a blind man (Karl Malden) — a crossword-puzzle enthusiast, no less — to solve the mystery. As with Plumage, style counts more than substance, although the mystery is compelling enough to prevent getting buried by Argento’s bravura technical flourishes. Two more similarities to the previous picture: a score by Ennio Morricone, and Argento’s tendency to populate his film with minor characters almost as unique as those found around the edges of any given Fellini romp (check out Ugo Fangareggi as Gigi the Loser, a small-time crook who laments that “I can’t even knock over a chair without getting caught.”). Malden and Franciscus make a great sleuthing team, and a TV crime series starring their characters would not have been unwelcome — of course, Malden was only a year away from co-starring opposite Michael Douglas in the hit series The Streets of San Francisco while, amusingly, Franciscus himself was already starring as a blind man (an insurance investigator) on the short-lived 1971 drama Longstreet.
Arrow Video has released the film in a 4K Limited Edition containing a booklet, a fold-out poster, and six lobby card reproductions. Extras include film critic audio commentary; interviews with Argento and co-writer Dardano Sacchetti; translated script pages for the lost original ending; and theatrical trailers.
CORALINE (2009) / THE BOXTROLLS (2014). Forget Pixar for a moment: When it comes to towering toon productions, there’s another success story to be found with Laika, the stop-motion animation studio whose five films to date were not only critical hits but also all nabbed Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature. In collaboration with Shout! Factory, Laika is re-releasing its first four titles on Blu-ray (the missing flick is 2019’s Missing Link, which was the outfit’s first commercial bomb). Coraline and The Boxtrolls (sold separately) are out now, with 2012’s ParaNorman and 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings arriving September 14.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas was actually Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, given that it was the latter who directed the film. With Coraline, Selick displays his mastery again, overseeing an eye-popping animated extravaganza he adapted from Neil Gaiman’s best-selling book. Dakota Fanning provides the voice of Coraline, a lonely little girl who discovers an alternate world hidden behind a small door in her family’s new house. Initially, life does seem more pleasant on the other side — her new parents are hipper, the food is tastier, the entertainment is more dazzling — but it’s not long before things take a dark turn, and, with the help of a sage black cat, Coraline soon finds herself fighting for her very soul. The visual scheme is remarkable and provides a dazzling — and occasionally disturbing — break from the soothing styles found in most other animated tales of recent vintage.
Adapted from Alan Snow’s novel Here Be Monsters!, The Boxtrolls starts off employing a familiar and oft-used formula — i.e. the story of a young boy in the midst of various critters (everything from The Jungle Book to Where the Wild Things Are) — before eventually hitting its own unique stride. The title creatures are harmless trolls who are nevertheless feared by the citizens of the town of Cheesebridge. Wanting to be accepted by the ruling elite, the scurvy Archibald Snatcher (voiced by Ben Kingsley) promises to exterminate the meek monsters, a task that meets resistance in “Eggs” (Isaac Hempstead Wright), a boy who was raised by the Boxtrolls. Elle Fanning, sister of Coraline star Dakota Fanning, voices a girl who aids Eggs in his task, while Nick Frost, Richard Ayoade, and Tracy Morgan pipe up as Snatcher’s underlings. The final bit that seeps into the end credits — a philosophical discussion between Frost’s Mr. Trout and Ayoade’s Mr. Pickles — is a marvelously meta moment.
Blu-ray extras on Coraline and The Boxtrolls are similar in nature, as each includes audio commentary (by Selick and composer Bruno Coulais on Coraline, and co-directors Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi on The Boxtrolls); a making-of featurette; a look at the characters, with never-before-seen test footage; and photo galleries. Coraline also includes deleted scenes.
The Boxtrolls: ★★★
DUNE (1984). David Lynch’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel emerged as one of the major cinematic bombs of the mid-1980s, with scathing reviews, weak box office, and a distancing from the final project by Lynch himself. As with many things lousy, this acquired a cult following over the years (see also Rad and The Transformers: The Movie, recently reviewed here and here), but it’s hardly worthy. Set in 10,191, this epic yarn involves a battle between two dynasties for control of a spice world known as Arrakis, aka Dune. On one side, there’s House Atreides, headed by the regal Duke Leto (Jürgen Prochnow); on the other, there’s House Harkonnen, fronted by the pustule-covered Baron Vladimir (Kenneth McMillan). There’s a prophecy that a great leader will emerge to take control, and that turns out to be the Duke’s son Paul (Kyle MacLachlan in his film debut). The exposition is so cement-thick that many viewers will be lost even before the prologue has ended, and too many characters flit in and out with the speed (if not the grace) of hummingbirds. Lynch’s usual fascinations occasionally peek through — the industrial sounds (indeed, the film’s sole Oscar nomination was for Best Sound), the agonies of the flesh — but he quickly loses control of this visual eyesore, stranding performers who run the gamut from acceptable (Prochnow, Francesca Annis, Max von Sydow) to awful (McMillan, Freddie Jones, Sting). (Go here for the complete Best & Worst Films of 1984.)
Even those who don’t care for Dune might want to pick up Arrow Video’s mesmerizing 4K UHD + Blu-ray Limited Edition, given the amount of wealth included in the package. It houses an essay booklet, a foldout poster, and lobby card reproductions. Extras include film historian audio commentary; a 2003 making-of piece; featurettes on the visual effects and costume designs; deleted scenes; and a look at the tie-in merchandise for the film.
IN THE HEIGHTS (2021). The fact that the Hamilton that finally ended up on Disney+ was a filmed play didn’t stop it from emerging as one of last year’s finest movies (go here for the complete Best & Worst Films of 2020), but its very staginess prevented it from completely representing the cinematic experience. In the Heights, adapted from the Broadway smash that Lin-Manuel Miranda co-created (with Quiara Alegria Hudes) before Hamilton, need not be concerned with such matters, as it’s a bona fide motion picture in every regard. With Miranda now too old to reprise his starring stage role — instead, he appears in the small part of the piragüero (the shaved-ice pushcart vendor) — Anthony Ramos headlines as Usnavi de la Vega, one of the residents of the Washington Heights neighborhood in Manhattan. Usnavi dreams of moving to the Dominican Republic to reopen his late father’s shop, but he’s sad that he will have to leave so many friends behind: his best friends Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina (Leslie Grace), who were dating until Nina left for college; his teenage cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), who he hopes will join him in the Dominican Republic; and Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), the aspiring fashion designer who has long caught his eye. “There’s no place like home” may have been Dorothy’s mantra, but it applies here as well, with Miranda and Hudes crafting a tale that examines heritage, community, and tapping into one’s own roots. Expanding on the stage show, it’s also a call to action to awaken the American Dream, left in tatters during these Trump-tainted times — there’s a reason a whole subplot involving the DACA and undocumented immigrants has been added. Aside from the sociopolitical content, this is simply a grandly entertaining picture, with likable performers, exquisite choreography (that pool scene!), and catchy tunes.
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of feature; two sing-alongs; and the option to access any or all of the musical numbers.
THE SERGIO MARTINO COLLECTION (1971-1975). His name may not be as familiar to adventurous moviegoers as Dario Argento and Mario Bava, but Sergio Martino is another Italian director with a number of influential pictures in the giallo genre. The three titles covered here were released separately a few years ago by Arrow Video and have now been bundled together in one box set.
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail (1971) is the best of the trio, a murder-mystery packed with all manner of bait and switch. After a philandering husband dies in a plane crash, his equally unfaithful widow (Evelyn Stewart) learns that she’s the beneficiary of his million-dollar insurance policy. But various characters pop up to deprive her of that money, including an ex-boyfriend, her husband’s mistress, and a mustachioed man sporting dark sunglasses. An insurance investigator (George Hilton) comes to her aid, and, once the bodies start piling up, he’s eventually joined in his sleuthing by a reporter (Anita Strindberg) and a pair of lawmen (Alberto de Mendoza and Luigi Pistilli). The bursts of gory violence recall other gialli practitioners, but the story by Ernesto Gastaldi and its framing by Martino suggest a fondness for Hitchcock. Bruno Nicolai contributes a memorable score, although, considering he worked with Ennio Morricone on several occasions, it’s no surprise to hear hints of the Maestro’s music.
The opening credits of Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972) reveal that it’s a loose adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Black Cat,” giving some indication as to how it will end. Much of what occurs before that, however, is completely MIA from the Poe tale. Scorpion’s Tail players Strindberg and Pistilli also co-star in this one — they play Oliviero and Irina Rouvigny, an alcoholic writer and the wife he constantly abuses. After Oliviero’s younger girlfriend, the Rouvigny family maid, and a local prostitute are all brutally murdered, it appears that Oliviero might be the killer, which further terrifies Irina. Complicating matters is the sudden arrival of Oliviero’s niece Floriana (Edwige Fenech), an enigmatic beauty who’s coveted by her incestuous uncle as well as by Irina. And, yes, there’s a black cat: Satan, who once belonged to Oliviero’s mother and now terrorizes Irina almost as much as her husband. Also known as Gently Before She Dies, this florid and frantic picture, co-written by Sergio’s brother Luciano Martino, is reminiscent of other movies (Les Diaboliques and The Beguiled both entered my mind) even as it carves out its own sloppy identity. It’s overdone but enjoyable.
The Suspicious Death of a Minor (1975) finds Scorpion’s Tail writer Gastaldi again handling scripting duties, this time dishing out a story involving the murder of an underage prostitute (Patrizia Castaldi). Despite departmental warnings, detective Paolo Germi (Claudio Cassinelli) takes it upon himself to track down her assailant, a quest that reveals a labyrinthine operation and that eventually brings him full circle back to the victim’s own family. While it’s not unusual for films to mix comedy and drama, this one stands out because the drama is so deadly serious and the comedy so resoundingly slapsticky that this often feels like two different movies. The action scenes are highlights, including one that takes place on a roller coaster and another unfolding atop a movie theater. As played by Cassinelli, Germi is an interesting protagonist — initially off-putting, he becomes more admirable as the film progresses.
Blu-ray extras on The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail include audio commentary by Gastaldi; interviews with Martino and Hilton; and an analysis of Martino’s films. Blu-ray extras on Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key include a making-of retrospective piece; an interview with Martino; and a visual essay on Martino and his giallo films. Blu-ray extras on The Suspicious Death of a Minor include audio commentary by author Troy Howarth (So Deadly, So Perverse: 50 Years of Italian Giallo Films) and an interview with Martino.
The Case of the Scorpion’s Tail: ★★★
Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key: ★★½
The Suspicious Death of a Minor: ★★½