View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Adrienne Barrett (left) in Dementia (Photo: Cohen)
(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.)
DEMENTIA (1953). Had David Lynch not been all of seven years old in 1953, I would suspect he had a hand in what’s one of the strangest (the strangest?) movies of the 1950s. From its politics of paranoia to its roster of freaks and geeks, from its unsettling surrealism to its sexual psychoanalysis, it’s easy to see this oddity’s DNA in Lynchian romps such as Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Twin Peaks. The writer-director is John Parker, who would never make another movie — the story goes that his secretary, Adrienne Barrett, recounted a dream and he immediately thought it would make a good film. He went so far as to cast Barrett in the leading role of The Gamin, a young woman who may or may not be dreaming as she wanders the dark city streets and meets some rather unpleasant men. There’s a bed in a cemetery and a severed hand in a flower girl’s basket — no doubt it was these sorts of scenes that led the New York Censor Board to initially ban the film while criticizing its “horror, hopelessness, sadism, violent acts of terror and outbursts of panic.” Dementia is entirely without dialogue and only runs an hour, but it makes the most of its short length and the silent treatment with its assortment of eye-catching imagery. The musical director was Ernest Gold, later the Oscar-winning composer of Exodus, and providing the unsettling wailing heard throughout the picture was his wife Marni Nixon, perhaps best known for providing the singing voices of Natalie Wood in West Side Story and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. Dementia was later nabbed by another producer, who added narration by, of all people, Ed McMahon and rereleased it under the title Daughter of Horror.
Cohen’s Blu-ray edition contains both Dementia and Daughter of Horror, with a trailer as a bonus.
GRAND SLAM (1967). There’s been a sizable number of exemplary heist flicks, but Grand Slam ain’t one of them; indeed, it’s best to stick with Rififi or Topkapi or The Killing rather than waste time on this handsome yet disposable addition to the genre. Edward G. Robinson (billed as “Special Guest Star”) appears at the beginning and the end as Professor Anders, a retired schoolteacher who decides to mastermind the theft of some diamonds from a Rio de Janeiro stronghold. Thanks to the assistance of Anders’ longtime friend (Adolfo Celi, Largo in the 007 entry Thunderball), now a criminal kingpin with a formidable filing system, Europe’s finest thieves are brought together to pull off the job — there’s the German military man (Klaus Kinski), the French playboy (Robert Hoffmann), the British safecracker (George Rigaud), and the Italian electronics expert (Riccardo Cucciolla). For the plan to succeed, the playboy must seduce a disinterested secretary (top-billed Janet Leigh) in order to stealthily swipe an important key. This is the sort of movie where the climactic plot twist is not only rather obvious but also idiotic and illogical, and it would have been best had the writer dropped it after the first draft. That’s hardly the extent of the script’s faux pas, though, as every few minutes another inanity is dragged into view (for instance, why would the world’s best safecracker be working as a butler in a stuffy English estate?). Even the heist — always a highlight of these pictures — is a letdown, more silly than suspenseful. Aside from the reliable Robinson and the perpetually rabid Kinski, the performances are on the sleepy side, which translates into a movie peopled by dullards.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for other Kino offerings.
HEAVY METAL (1981) / HEAVY METAL 2000 (2000). The illustrated fantasy magazine of the same name served as inspiration for the 1981 cult flick, less so for its straight-to-video sequel.
Aimed almost exclusively at a male teenage audience (despite the R rating), the Canadian-American coproduction Heavy Metal is basically a handful of stories rendered in various artistic styles, with SCTV regulars among those providing the vocals. The connective tissue concerns a green orb of evil, relating the tales to a frightened young girl. Two of the better stories come early in the film: the futuristic “Harry Canyon,” about a cab driver (Richard Romanus) getting mixed up with mobsters and a potential femme fatale (Susan Roman), and “Den,” focusing on a nerdy kid (John Candy) who’s transformed into an intergalactic warrior. Bringing up the rear are “Captain Sternn,” about a corrupt officer (Eugene Levy) on trial and a geeky witness (Rodger Bumpass as Hanover Fiste) who reacts in an unexpected manner, and “So Beautiful & So Dangerous,” in which a kidnapped Earthwoman (Alice Playten) has nonstop sex with a diminutive robot (Candy) while two alien stoners (Levy and Harold Ramis) get high. It’s a mixed bag of a movie, dragged down by humdrum storylines but buoyed by interesting animation styles and a star-studded soundtrack that includes Sammy Hagar (performing the title tune), Devo, Stevie Nicks, Cheap Trick, Black Sabbath, and more.
Say this about Heavy Metal 2000: The songs on the soundtrack are far more heavy metal than the ones used in the first film (unless your idea of heavy metal is, say, Journey). Otherwise, this is a threadbare follow-up with practically no connection to the magazine save the fact that it’s based on a graphic novel co-written by former Heavy Metal publisher-editor Kevin Eastman. Eastman’s wife Julie Strain (who passed away from dementia just last year, at the age of 58) voices the character of Julie, who attempts to stop a psychopath (Michael Ironside) seeking the key to immortality. The level of wit in this film is using abbreviations like A.N.U.S. and U.R.F.U.K.D., so proceed accordingly.
The three-disc Steelbook limited edition from Sony offers Heavy Metal in 4K and on Blu-ray and Heavy Metal 2000 on Blu-ray. Extras on Heavy Metal consist of a rough cut of the film; a pair of retrospective making-of pieces; a deleted scene (actually an entire story, “Neverwhere Land,” that looks pretty cool based on what’s shown here); and an alternate framing story. Extras on Heavy Metal 2000 consist of a piece on Strain’s career; a look at the film’s voice talent (including Billy Idol); and animations tests and comparisons.
Heavy Metal: ★★½
Heavy Metal 2000: ★½
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967). It’s easy to forget that In the Heat of the Night was part of a trilogy, as it’s an award-winning classic while its two sequels have largely been forgotten over time. But star Sidney Poitier did indeed return to his iconic role as Virgil Tibbs, albeit to diminishing returns. All three films are now together in a new 4K + Blu-ray edition.
That 1967 marked a turning point in motion picture history can be evidenced by merely glancing at the five films nominated that year for the Best Picture Oscar. On one hand, there was The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, two electrifying motion pictures that signaled a bold new direction in American cinema; on the other, there was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Doctor Dolittle, two dated efforts that tried to retain Old Hollywood charm in a changing world (Dinner at least has some modest charm; Dolittle, however, is utterly charmless). In hindsight, it’s not surprising that the winner turned out to be In the Heat of the Night, which expertly straddled the line by relating an old-fashioned murder-mystery in a jazzy and progressive style. The satisfying plot finds Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs reluctantly agreeing to help redneck sheriff Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) solve a crime in the racist town of Sparta, Mississippi. Despite constant threats to his well-being, Tibbs rarely loses his cool, navigating his way through a complicated case while suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous good ole boys. For his part, Gillespie begins to respect the Northern big-city cop, although director Norman Jewison and scripter Stirling Silliphant never betray any of the characters’ ingrained prejudices by having unseemly traits vanish into thin air. Warren Oates (as a deputy) and Lee Grant (as the victim’s wife) are among those contributing indelible portrayals, while Quincy Jones provides a flavorful score that perfectly complements the atmosphere. Along with Best Picture, this won Academy Awards for Best Actor (Steiger), Adapted Screenplay, Film Editing (Hal Ashby, later the acclaimed director of Harold and Maude and Shampoo), and Sound.
They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970) finds Tibbs now married with two children and living in San Francisco rather than Philadelphia. He’s investigating the murder of a prostitute, and the prime suspect is his friend, Reverend Logan Sharpe (Martin Landau). The Organization (1971) concludes the Virgil Tibbs trilogy, with our hero joining forces with a group of radicals (including one played by Raul Julia) to take down a drug cartel. Both movies are dreary endeavors, with Tibbs stripped of most of his personality and turned into — yawn — yet another workaholic cop with a troubled personal life (he slaps his insufferable son a few times, a crude action that registers as unlikely and unbelievable). They Call Me Mister Tibbs! has a strong supporting cast (Ed Asner, Anthony Zerbe, Jeff Corey) while The Organization has a few good action scenes.
The new Kino edition contains In the Heat of the Night on a 4K disc and its sequels on an accompanying Blu-ray disc. Extras on the Oscar winner include audio commentary (from 2008) by Jewison, Steiger, Grant, and cinematographer Haskell Wexler; a retrospective making-of featurette; a piece on Jones; and an examination of the scene that features my favorite slap in movie history.
In the Heat of the Night: ★★★½
They Call Me Mister Tibbs!: ★★
The Organization: ★★
NIGHT CREATURES (1962). Doctor Syn, the protagonist of a series of books by Russell Thorndike, found himself the star of 1963’s The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, a three-part episode of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (aka The Wonderful World of Disney). Those who wanted to see a version of the story that wasn’t quite so squarely geared toward family audiences would have had the opportunity to do so with Captain Clegg, a Hammer flick that hit our shores under the title Night Creatures. The coastal English village of Dymchurch is where the body of the notorious pirate Captain Clegg was buried after he was captured and executed by the British Navy. Dymchurch is also the HQ for a band of smugglers sought by naval officer Captain Collier (Patrick Allen), and it’s further surrounded by a marsh that’s haunted by skeletal figures on horseback. All of these disparate elements come together in a satisfying manner in this Hammer production that’s less a horror film and more a period adventure yarn. Peter Cushing stars as Dr. Blyss, the town’s parson and a man concealing a secret or two, while Yvonne Romain and Oliver Reed, who played mother and son in Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf, are here cast as a pair of young lovers. The secret identities of a couple of key characters wouldn’t even fool a newborn kitten, but striking visuals (particularly those marsh phantoms), an appropriately knotty plot, and Cushing’s mere presence make this an above-average Hammer outing.
Blu-ray extras include film historian audio commentary and interviews; a making-of featurette; an interview with special effects crew member Brian Johnson; and a still gallery.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952). It’s tough to fight the longstanding consensus that this is the greatest movie musical of all time (although, to be honest, I would place it second, just a hair below the 1935 Astaire-Rogers marvel Top Hat), but what’s often lost in the praise is that this also qualifies as a great comedy — and a pretty good love story, to boot. The plot is a strong one, as it looks at the troubles the film capital faced with the introduction of sound in the late 1920s. But the musical sequences are, of course, what take center stage. There’s Gene Kelly’s exhilarating splash dance during the title number, Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds bidding “Good Morning,” and, best of all, O’Connor pulling out all the stops for “Make ‘Em Laugh” — perhaps the greatest example of physical prowess ever applied in the service of a musical. Shamefully, this only earned a mere two Academy Award nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Jean Hagen is a riot as a screechy-voiced starlet without even a drop of talent) and Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
It’s a glorious feeling for movie lovers, as Warner Bros. has released Singin’ in the Rain in a smashing 4K edition that’s automatically worth a purchase. However, those who bought 2012’s Ultimate Collector’s Edition Blu-ray set — that’s the one that came with an umbrella — will want to hold onto that one as well, since most of the many extras were exclusive to that set (including my favorite, an irresistible collection of clips from earlier movies that featured the catalog songs used in this film). Extras here consist of audio commentary by Donen, Reynolds, O’Connor, co-star Cyd Charisse, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and others; a discussion of the film by various musical performers and directors; a jump-to-song feature; and the theatrical trailer.
YOU’RE TELLING ME! (1934) / MAN ON THE FLYING TRAPEZE (1935). Just as Kino offered Blu-ray releases last fall of what are arguably W.C. Fields’ two best films — 1934’s It’s a Gift and 1940’s The Bank Dick — the outfit now unleashes two titles (sold separately) that arguably fill the choice slots right below the two masterpieces.
A remake of Fields’ 1926 silent film So’s Your Old Man, You’re Telling Me! stars the comic legend as Sam Bisbee, an inventor who hails from the wrong side of the tracks. A laughingstock in his own town, he receives some unexpected aid from a foreign princess (Adrienne Ames) who attempts to endear him to the town’s bluebloods. Fields was never better than when playing browbeaten characters — it was the type of role that best allowed him to demonstrate his underrated acting abilities — and he’s particularly sympathetic in this picture, as Sam even contemplates suicide at one point. The film concludes with his uproarious antics on a golf course — it was a routine he employed many times, even dating back to his vaudeville days. That’s Olympic swimmer Buster Crabbe as the suitor of Sam’s daughter (Joan Marsh); two years later, he would become widely known for starring in the Flash Gordon serial (and later the Buck Rogers serial).
Man On the Flying Trapeze is even better, and it again finds Fields portraying an immensely likable fellow who just deserves a break. Although his grown daughter (Mary Brian) treats him with love and respect, Ambrose Wolfinger (Fields) is constantly insulted at home by his wife (Kathleen Howard), his mother-in-law (Vera Lewis), and his useless brother-in-law (the always amusing Grady Sutton). Never missing a day of work after 25 years, Ambrose tells a fib — his mother-in-law has died and he must go to her funeral — so he can attend a wrestling match. Needless to say, comic mayhem ensues. The classic scene involves Ambrose receiving four(!) parking tickets in a row while parked in the same spot, but other comic set-pieces are just as effective. Future three-time Oscar winner Walter Brennan and frequent Fields foil Tammany Young (seven pictures together) are amusing as a pair of burglars who discover Ambrose’s vats of applejack in his cellar.
Blu-ray extras on each movie consist of the 1964 episode of Wayne and Shuster Take an Affectionate Look at… that focuses on Fields, and trailers for various Fields films on the Kino label.
You’re Telling Me!: ★★★½
Man on the Flying Trapeze: ★★★½