View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Grant Williams in The Incredible Shrinking Man (Photo: Criterion)
(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.)
AN ANGEL FOR SATAN (1966). Beginning with the 1960 Mario Bava marvel Black Sunday, British actress Barbara Steele made a name for herself by starring in a series of what have become known as Italian Gothics. An Angel for Satan was the final film in this cinematic sprint, and it finds the actress in top form. She plays Belinda, a young heiress who returns to her childhood hometown just as a centuries-old statue of her ancestor Harriet has been rescued from a lake and is being restored by visiting conservator Roberto Merigi (Spaghetti Western star Anthony Steffen). It’s believed by the villagers that a curse surrounds the statue, and the mere presence of Belinda (who looks just like Harriet) unnerves them. Belinda eventually sets about seducing the men in the village — often with gruesome results (a feeble-minded gardener is inspired to rape and murder comely villagers; a brutish laborer traps his wife and children inside a burning house) — but is she a schizophrenic or is she possessed by an evil spirit? The weak finale doesn’t provide the answer viewers might expect (or desire), but the majority of the film delivers the atmospheric goods.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Steele; the 1967 short film Barbara & Her Furs, starring Steele; and trailers.
DEEP RED (1975). One of Dario Argento’s best films finds David Hemmings, the star of the influential art-house hit Blow-Up, again playing a character who must learn to trust his own eyes as well as his own memory. Here, he plays a pianist who witnesses the brutal murder of a psychic and decides to investigate the matter on his own. Argento’s typical technical prowess is in full bloom here, and he’s also audacious enough to allow the viewer to catch a fleeting glimpse of the murderer (long before the final reveal) alongside Hemmings’ harried hero. But Deep Red isn’t a mere slasher film (though the deaths are both plentiful and gory) — instead, this exemplary giallo is clever enough to use its utterly compelling mystery to examine issues of gender identity and fluidity.
Arrow Video’s excellent 4K Limited Edition contains both the original 127-minute Italian version and the 105-minute export version, and it further houses a booklet, a fold-out poster, and lobby card reproductions. Extras include film critic audio commentaries; new and archival interviews with various cast and crew members, including Argento, co-star Daria Nicolodi, and composer Claudio Simonetti (of Goblin); and a visual essay on the film.
DINNER AT EIGHT (1933). A sparkling script and game efforts from an all-star cast easily overcome any signs of creakiness in Dinner at Eight, an art deco dreamscape directed by George Cukor and based on the popular George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber stage triumph. Handled by the same studio (MGM) behind the previous year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Grand Hotel (complete with overlapping cast and crew members), this traces the steps of various members of high society as they prepare for an elaborate dinner party. Real-life siblings John Barrymore and Lionel Barrymore provide the tragic dimensions as, respectively, a drunken has-been actor and a businessman in declining health, although it’s the ladies — Marie Dressler as an outsized actress of yore, Billie Burke as the twittering dinner host, and especially Jean Harlow as the petulant trophy wife of a bullying businessman (Wallace Beery) — who carry the show. The closing sequence (pictured above) is a classic in its own right.
Blu-ray extras consist of the 1993 Turner Classic Movies special Harlow: The Blonde Bombshell (hosted by Sharon Stone); the 1934 parody short Come to Dinner; and the theatrical trailer.
FRANCO NOIR (1962-1963). Writer-director Jesús Franco (aka Jess Franco) was best known for his wide range of horror films (and, in some circles, for his ample porn flicks), but, with approximately 200 credits to his name, it’s a given that he occasionally dabbled in other genres as well. Here are two comparatively early titles in his career, Spanish-language crime dramas that are making their American debuts in a double feature Blu-ray from Severin.
Death Whistles the Blues (1962) is a moderately interesting yarn in which a criminal kingpin (Georges Rollin) who long ago betrayed his cohorts — one was killed, one was imprisoned — now suspects that the past might be catching up with him. After all, his wife (Perla Cristal) was once married to the deceased crook, and just who exactly is this stranger (Conrado San Martin) who has suddenly appeared on the scene?
Like Death Whistles the Blues, Rififi in the City (1963) similarly employs such noir staples as looming shadows, smoky cafés, and jazzy tunes to create a foreboding mood. Despite the title and the Venn diagram presence of French acting legend Jean Servais, this is not a sequel to the classic 1955 heist flick Rififi; instead, it concerns itself with the steely-eyed grudge match between a crooked politician (Servais) beloved by the people and a detective (Fernando Fernán Gómez) seeking revenge for the murder of his young informant. Matters become even knottier when someone starts bumping off the politico’s sycophants. Even those who might guess the identity of the killer will be pleased with the manner of the great reveal.
The only Blu-ray extra is an interview with author Stephen Thrower (Murderous Passions: The Delirious Cinema of Jesús Franco).
Death Whistles the Blues: ★★½
Rififi in the City: ★★★
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (1957). Resting on the same elevated plateau as The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (reviewed here) as among the best of the science fiction films of the 1950s, this adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel (with the renowned writer also penning the script) expertly combines matinee thrills with more heady ruminations. Six months after being momentarily enveloped by a mysterious fog, Scott Carey (Grant Williams) thereafter finds himself growing smaller by the day. Discussions with doctors, a sympathetic little person (April Kent), and his loyal wife (Randy Stuart) soon give way to terrifying battles with the household cat and a spider lurking in the basement. Excellent special effects, a philosophical screenplay, and an uncompromising conclusion are integral ingredients in this one-of-a-kind masterpiece expertly directed by Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula!, the latter reviewed here).
Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary; a 1983 interview with Arnold; a piece on the special effects; 8mm home versions of the film from 1969; the lengthier director’s cut of the 2013 documentary short Auteur on the Campus: Jack Arnold at Universal; and a teaser trailer narrated by Orson Welles.
NIGHT SHIFT (1982). Ron Howard has been responsible for worthy Oscar-bait films like Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, and Frost/Nixon (the latter reviewed here), but for my money, his best picture will always remain this wonderful comedy that he helmed early in his directing career. Howard’s Happy Days co-star Henry Winkler stars as Chuck Lumley, a burnt-out stockbroker who takes a job at the city morgue in the hopes of obtaining some peace and quiet. That plan goes out the window once the mild-mannered Chuck meets his co-worker: Bill Blazejowski (Michael Keaton), a self-styled idea man who can’t sit still for even a nanosecond. When Chuck discovers that his neighbor, a sweet prostitute named Belinda (Shelley Long), is going through tough times, Bill decides that he and Chuck should serve as benevolent pimps (or “love brokers”), treating the ladies with respect and making lots of money for everyone. Winkler and Long are superb, but it’s Keaton who delivers one of the all-time great comedic performances. The script by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel (Parenthood, A League of Their Own) contains numerous lines that are instantly and infinitely quotable, with Keaton’s Billy Blaze gifted the vast majority of them (but not all: “That Barney Rubble; what an actor!” never fails to crack me up).
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
ONIBABA (1964). Not a horror film per se, Onibaba does show humanity at its most monstrous. In medieval Japan, the wars never seem to end, a fact that has forced a middle-aged woman (Nobuko Otowa) and her widowed daughter-in-law (Jitsuko Yoshimura) to do whatever it takes to survive. For them, it means murdering lost samurai soldiers and exchanging their armor for food. The two women rely on each other, but when their neighbor Hachi (Kei Sato) returns from battle, the dynamics change dramatically. As Hachi cavorts with the young widow, the older woman worries she’ll be abandoned altogether, and anger, fear and jealousy all gain the upper hand. A gaping, Freudian hole in the ground, a field of reeds whose movements are in sync with the women’s moods, and a demon mask fashioned in the Noh theater style also play important roles in this harsh and savage tale where a ravenous hunger defines every action, from lovemaking to murder.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary (from 2001) by director Kaneto Shindo, Sato and Yoshimura; a 2003 interview with Shindo; on-location footage shot by Sato; and the theatrical trailer.
SCREAM (1996). While Scream is far from Wes Craven’s worst movie (there are far too many contenders for that title), it’s certainly his most overrated. A box office hit that launched a franchise, it’s the type of film made by and for people who aren’t as clever as they think. Written by Kevin Williamson, it apes the genre deconstruction style of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, which had delusions of art-house grandeur but was really the same-old same-old. The gimmick that is supposed to separate Scream from the typical slasher fare is that its characters are aware of the rules of the genre and comment upon it repeatedly. It’s meant to be witty, but all it does is lead to lame exchanges like this one: “But this is life. This isn’t a movie.” “Sure it is, Sid. It’s all a movie. It’s all one great big movie.” As the potential victims of the masked Ghostface, the women fare better than the men, with Neve Campbell, Courteney Cox, Drew Barrymore, and especially Rose McGowan delivering fine performances. But a little of Matthew Lillard goes a long way, and there’s a lot of Matthew Lillard here; as for Skeet Ulrich, he does his best impression of a sleepwalker.
Extras in the 4K Ultra HD + Digital set include audio commentary by Craven and Williamson; a new retrospective piece; behind-the-scenes featurettes; and a Q&A with cast and crew.
THE SHEIK (1921). Rudolph Valentino emerged a superstar after headlining The Sheik, one of the most famous of all silent films as well as the movie that most defined the actor’s status as a sex symbol for millions of women. The Latin Lover plays Ahmed Ben Hassan, a Paris-educated Arabian sheik who falls for Lady Diana Mayo (Agnes Ayres), an independent British woman. Aroused by her beauty and her fiery nature, the Sheik kidnaps her and brings her to his camp, where he plans to keep her as his concubine. She revolts at every turn, and it’s only after he softens his stance (and chauvinistic tendencies) toward her that she begins to see him as more than just a savage. Even putting aside the outdated sexual politics, The Sheik is more of interest as a historical document than as a swell time at the movies, with a thin story and a performance by Valentino that revealed he was better as a movie star than as an actor. Valentino died of appendicitis a mere five years after this picture, at the age of 31; it’s become an enduring piece of trivia that 100,000 fans turned out for his funeral, leading to mass hysteria and property-damaging riots.
The only extra on the Blu-ray (the latest in the Paramount Presents line) is a discussion of the movie.