View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes (Photo: Kino)
(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 ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971) / DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN! (1972). Here’s a delectable double feature for Vincent Price fans (and we are legion), as Kino has released both Dr. Phibes titles in one Blu-ray edition.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes finds Price having a field day as the title madman, using the idea of the 10 Egyptian Plagues (locusts, frogs, etc.) to kill the doctors he holds responsible for not being able to save his wife on the operating table. Joseph Cotten and Terry-Thomas play two of the endangered surgeons, while Starcrash star Caroline Munro appears unbilled as Phibes’ late wife. There’s camp to spare — check out the doc’s house band — but there’s also plenty of innovation on display, to say nothing of ample amounts of effective humor.
The sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again! has the disfigured lunatic seeking to resurrect his dearly departed wife by traveling to Egypt and its River of Life. Robert Quarry portrays his nemesis, while Peter Cushing has what amounts to a cameo as a ship captain. This contains a few memorable set-pieces, but it largely lacks the freshness and inventiveness of its predecessor.
Extras on The Abominable Dr. Phibes include audio commentary by director Robert Fuest (who helmed both films); audio commentary by author Justin Humphreys (The Dr. Phibes Companion); and the theatrical trailer. Extras on Dr. Phibes Rises Again! include audio commentary by Humphreys; audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas; and the theatrical trailer.
The Abominable Dr. Phibes: ★★★
Dr. Phibes Rises Again: ★★½
CYRANO (2021). Long of nose has been replaced by short of height in this disappointing reworking of the Edmond Rostand play Cyrano De Bergerac. It’s based on the 2018 stage musical starring Peter Dinklage and created by his wife Erica Schmidt, and both are involved with this screen interpretation, he as star and she as scripter and executive producer. Directing duties have been handed to Joe Wright, who has had past success with tony period projects (Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Darkest Hour) but fails to gain any traction here. Dinklage is one of the few bright spots, zestfully playing the witty wordsmith who loves the beautiful Roxanne (Haley Bennett) but realizes she is smitten with the dashing Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). Borrowing from Sesame Street, the Word of the Day is “flat” when it comes to this movie, whether discussing the staging, the songs, the supporting turns by Bennett and Harrison, or the attempts at conjuring any semblance of deep-seated passion. Even the visuals seem muted, although this did snag an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.
The only Blu-ray extra is a making-of featurette.
FLEE (2021). It was impressive when 2020’s Romanian import Collective earned Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature and Best International Feature Film; it was even more impressive when last year’s Danish import Flee earned Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature, Best International Feature Film, and Best Animated Feature Film (albeit losing all three). This foreign-language (Danish, Dari, and Russian) endeavor employs not just animation but also snatches of newsreel footage to relate the story of Amin Nawabi, an Afghan who, as a boy, was forced to flee from his homeland to Russia alongside his family. With the conditions in Russia so atrocious, there were efforts to bring Amin, his mother, and his siblings to Denmark as a refugee. Flee is told by Amin as an adult, focusing not only on his harrowing ordeals as an Afghan and a refugee but also taking note of his status as a homosexual who knew from an early age — mainly after watching Jean-Claude Van Damme films — that he was gay. The movie is important as a historical record, even if the jagged animation style often causes a distancing effect.
The only Blu-ray extra is a Q&A session at the New York Film Festival with director Jonas Poher Rasmussen.
GIRL ON A CHAIN GANG (1966). In this exploitation / hicksploitation endeavor, three Northerners — a white man (Ron Segal), a white woman (Julie Ange), and a black man (oddly not credited despite a rather sizable role) — traveling through the South to help with civil rights issues are arrested on false charges by a corrupt sheriff (William Watson) and his imbecilic deputies (Ron Charles and Peter Nevard). The men are beaten and eventually murdered while the woman is repeatedly raped by the sheriff and eventually placed on a chain gang. It’s impossible to watch the film’s first act and not immediately think of the three upstanding men who were murdered by Mississippi yahoos in 1964 for similar reasons. This provides the picture with an initial urgency that moves it from exploitation flick to social commentary, but cheap production values, the focus on the luridness, and a sloppy finale knock it back down again. Among the amateur cast, only Watson ended up having a career, playing rubes in films like In the Heat of the Night, Lawman, and Chato’s Land.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary and a piece on exploitation filmmaker Jerry Gross.
JIGSAW (1962). Val Guest, the writer-director of such intense entertainment as The Day the Earth Caught Fire and the first two Quatermass films, takes a more methodical approach with this murder-mystery, but the results are no less engrossing. Based on Hillary Waugh’s novel Sleep Long, My Love but also inspired by a real-life incident, this begins with the murder of a woman (Yolande Donlan, Guest’s wife and co-star of his film Expresso Bongo) in a quiet Brighton neighborhood. But the police don’t even discover the body until the film is well underway, a testament to Guest’s attention to solid exposition and establishing details. The copper in charge of the case is Detective Inspector Fred Fellows (Jack Warner), with his nephew, Detective Sergeant Jim Wilks (Ronald Lewis), offering invaluable assistance. The mystery (and the reveal of the killer) is a grabber, but what’s most delightful about this film is the marvelous character of DI Fellows, brought to life with unrestrained wit and wisdom by Warner. The true mystery of Jigsaw is why this exemplary movie isn’t more well-known.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
THE KING’S DAUGHTER (2022). Considering all the truly dreadful movies that hit the multiplex seemingly nanoseconds after filming has completed, it’s eye-catching that The King’s Daughter was set for release in 2015 but only premiered in 2022. As such, it marks the final film appearance of the late William Hurt even though he acted in approximately a dozen movies and TV shows after shooting this one. Truthfully, it’s not nearly as rancid as its seven-year delay would indicate. Adapted from Vonda N. McIntyre’s The Moon and the Sun, it stars Pierce Brosnan as King Louis XIV, who’s convinced that he can achieve immortality by gutting a mermaid and absorbing its mystical energy. A mermaid (Fan Bingbing) does get captured, one who ends up being befriended by the titular character (Kaya Scodelario). A whimsical approach and a romantic spirit help carry the story over many rough spots, and there are likable performances by Scodelario (no stranger to this sort of fare thanks to her role in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and Hurt (cast as Louis’ spiritual advisor).
Blu-ray extras consist of a making-of piece and a deleted scene.
MASS (2021). With a cast comprised of four primary characters and three ancillary and a set design of basically one unadorned room, it’s easy to believe Mass was adapted from some off-Broadway play. Instead, it’s an original movie in both senses of the term. Actor Fran Kranz makes his writing and directing debuts with this powerful drama about two sets of grieving parents meeting several years after an awful tragedy. Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney) are the parents of a school shooter, while Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton) are the parents of one of the victims. Meeting in a backroom of a church (thus giving the title a double meaning), the couples are hoping to find some sense of closure and some measure of understanding — it’s an emotional journey that requires angry confrontations, personal reflections, and an act of forgiveness that might not even be possible. It’s impressive how Kranz is able to provide each character with one major monologue without the structure ever feeling facile or forced, and the four central performances are formidable.
The only Blu-ray extra is the theatrical trailer.
ROGUE COPS AND RACKETEERS: TWO CRIME THRILLERS BY ENZO G. CASTELLARI (1976-1977). While many Italian directors were making names for themselves by working in the giallo genre, Enzo G. Castellari preferred to largely focus on other types of films. His most famous effort is arguably the Tarantino-inspiring WWII yarn The Inglorious Bastards, but he primarily concentrated on poliziotteschi (action-packed crime films). Arrow Video has placed two of his most celebrated movies in this vein in one Blu-ray box set.
Stylistically, Castellari is firing on all cylinders in The Big Racket (1976), even if the screenplay he co-wrote with two others leaves a bit to be desired. Fabio Testi stars as Nico Palmieri, a cop who’s determined to stop an outfit whose members are forcing store owners to pay for “protection.” Once it becomes clear that the law is more interested in the rights of the criminals rather than the rights of the victims, Nico turns vigilante, rounding up a sad-sack assemblage of abused citizens to take out the mob. The Big Racket is frequently exciting, and there’s a car-rolling-down-the-hill scene that’s nothing short of spectacular. But the rampant stupidity of various characters reveals a breakdown in screenwriting prowess, with Nico actually proving to be a rather inept hero. Also be warned that there are two brutal and stomach-churning rape scenes. Italian-American actor Vincent Gardenia (Moonstruck, Heaven Can Wait) adds some levity as the jovial small-time crook Pepe.
The Heroin Busters (1977) is just as gritty as The Big Racket and perhaps even more thrilling. Fabio Testi again stars, this time playing an undercover cop named Fabio (easy for the actor to remember, right?). Working in tandem with Interpol agent Mike Hamilton (an animated David Hemmings), he sets out to take down an international drug ring. Drug addiction is shown to be particularly pathetic in this picture, as illustrated in a scene that could easily have been used in a lighter manner in Trainspotting (it involves an addict, spilled heroin, and a public toilet seat). Testi is better here than in The Big Racket, and he and Hemmings make for an entertaining tag team of enforcers. The final third of the film — approximately 30 minutes — is basically one long (and excellent) chase scene, as the pursuers and the pursued divide their time between running, driving, and flying.
The two-disc limited edition Blu-ray includes the usual Arrow goodies; namely, a booklet and lobby card reproductions. Extras on both movies include film critic audio commentary; interviews with Castellari, Testi, and co-star Massimo Vanni (who plays a villain in both); and career retrospectives for the score composers (Guido and Maurizio De Angelis on The Big Racket, Goblin on The Heroin Busters).
The Big Racket: ★★½
The Heroin Busters: ★★★
SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT (1979). The opening credits and the final shots of this horror flick are so effective and the rest of the movie so poor, it’s reasonable to assume that some lab technician back in ’79 mixed up the raw footage from two separate features, one accomplished and the other amateurish. Predating The Evil Dead by two years, this one also finds a group of college kids encountering a sinister force at a cabin in the woods, but the comparisons stop there. The 10 friends here ignore the local superstition that a spirit haunts the woods and proceed to tell each other the feeblest set of scary stories imaginable. Any evidence of a director on set is lacking, and the performances range from average to atrocious.
Screams of a Winter Night ran 90 minutes upon its original bow, but Code Red’s new Blu-ray edition reinstates an entire story that was removed right before release, bringing the total to 125 minutes. Unfortunately, the extra tale only extends the badness on view. Both cuts are included here, while extras consist of an interview with co-star Gil Glasgow and the theatrical trailer.
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
Heaven Can Wait (1978)
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales