View From the Couch: The Company of Wolves, Malcolm X, Mystery Men, etc.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray, 4K and DVD.
Denzel Washington in Malcolm X (Photo: Criterion)
By Matt Brunson
(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 BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968). The Blood Beast Terror (the film’s title in the U.K.) is too vague and The Vampire Beast Craves Blood (the film’s title in the U.S.) is too misleading — I suppose Mothra would have worked had Toho not already called dibs on that moniker earlier in the decade. After all, the monstrosity in this film is a death’s-head moth, and while that might suggest this was a cheapie from the Roger Corman factory, something along the lines of The Wasp Woman or Attack of the Giant Leeches, it was actually a cheapie from Great Britain’s Tigon, a Hammer wanna-be that found occasional success with the likes of the excellent Vincent Price chiller Witchfinder General and the interesting Boris Karloff-Christopher Lee team-up The Crimson Cult. Another horror superstar, Peter Cushing, headlines this one — he’s Inspector Quennell, a Scotland Yard detective baffled by a series of slayings in which the victims are all young men whose bodies have been drained of blood. An unusual clue leads him to seek advice from entomologist Dr. Mallinger (Robert Flemyng), little realizing that the doctor’s daughter Clare (Wanda Ventham) is responsible for committing the murders while in the form of a moth-monster. The most interesting aspect of this movie has nothing to do with plot or production but with lineage, as Ventham is the mother of Benedict Cumberbatch. This trivial pursuit aside, there’s little of distinction with this tacky terror tale, as it’s weakened by an underdeveloped screenplay, lapses in character logic, and shoddy special effects.
Blu-ray extras consist of film critic audio commentary; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for six other horror movies on the Kino label (including the aforementioned The Crimson Cult and a superior Cushing vehicle, Hammer’s The Hound of the Baskervilles).
THE COMPANY OF WOLVES (1984). Feminism meets Freud meets fractured fairy tales in The Company of Wolves, one of the finest of all werewolf flicks. Adapted by director Neil Jordan and author Angela Carter from her own short story, this employs both lycanthropic lore and “Little Red Riding Hood” (with a splash of Alice’s adventures added for good measure) to tackle the theme of burgeoning female sexuality in a male-dominated world., After her sister is killed by wolves, young Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson) is warned by her grandmother (Angela Lansbury) to “never stray from the path, never eat a windfall apple, and never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle.” Granny then proceeds to spin some cautionary tales, but Rosaleen is too independent to fully absorb any restrictive life lessons. Infused with symbolic flourishes and unfolding in a surreal dreamscape, this is a bold and radical reworking and reinterpretation of the venerable fairy tale, as much a coming-of-age story as a horror picture. The set design is superb and comes courtesy of Anton Furst — between this film, Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Full Metal Jacket, and Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman (for which he received the Best Art Direction-Set Decoration Academy Award), he had established himself as an exceptional set designer before committing suicide in 1991. Over the past 16 months, Shout! Factory has released three exemplary imports starring lycanthropes, with this British production following the potent pair of England’s Dog Soldiers and France’s Brotherhood of the Wolf. Triple feature time!
Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition from Shout! Factory include audio commentary by Jordan; an interview with composer George Fenton; and a still gallery.
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973). Apparently having taken plenty of notes while making movies for directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood made his own directorial debut with 1971’s Play Misty for Me and followed that by helming his first Western behind the camera. Yet while highly praised in some circles, High Plains Drifter is a shaky sophomore effort, with Eastwood’s strong compositions weakened by a screenplay (by Ernest Tidyman) that comes up short on a couple of fronts. Eastwood plays The Stranger, who wanders into the dusty town of Lago and immediately is forced into a shootout with three thugs. Intimidated by this mysterious man but impressed with the way he gunned down his aggressors, the locals decide to hire him to protect them against three desperadoes who were arrested in Lago and have sworn to come back for revenge. The Stranger has nightmares in which these same three are whipping the former Lago sheriff to death while the townspeople idly stand by and watch — is there a connection between the marshal and this man with no name? Tidyman’s script all too often plays like an extended — and inferior — episode of The Twilight Zone, and the frequent attempts at dark humor are only sometimes successful. There are some nice narrative thrusts — the bit involving literally painting the town red — but Eastwood, with editor Ferris Webster and director of photography Bruce Surtees still in tow, would direct a far superior Western, The Outlaw Josey Wales, three years later.
Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition include audio commentary by filmmaker Alex Cox (Straight to Hell); interviews with co-stars Marianna Hill, Mitchell Ryan, and William O’Connell; a vintage promo piece; a pair of Trailers from Hell segments; and theatrical trailers for five other Eastwood Westerns available on the Kino label.
MALCOLM X (1992). It’s practically impossible to turn around without hearing some critic gush about how so-and-so is out there delivering “the best performance of the year.” Well, allow me the opportunity to gush a step further by flatly stating that, in the leading man category, Denzel Washington in Malcolm X delivered the best lead male performance of the 1990s. Washington’s work is so monumental, it seems like an especially cruel twist of fate that the Academy chose that year to finally reward perennial nominee Al Pacino … for the execrable Scent of a Woman. (In other words, the greatest Best Actor performance of the decade lost to the worst Best Actor selection of all time. Go figure.) At any rate, Malcolm X is more than a one-man show: Writer-director Spike Lee is in complete control of this 200-minute epic, and he and Washington receive invaluable aid from a top-flight supporting cast and a crack team of behind-the-camera personnel (though the film deserved at least a half-dozen Oscar nominations, its only citations were for Washington’s performance and Ruth Carter’s costume designs). Working from Malcolm’s autobiography, Lee is careful to preserve the complete arc of the man’s life, showing how he survived a troubled childhood and a prison stint to emerge as the powerful and feared spokesman for the Nation of Islam before his assassination. Washington’s work here is amazing: He effortlessly adapts to the various canvases painted by Lee, swinging from deliriously reckless in the early scenes to passionate and incendiary in the middle ones and finally to pensive and worldly in the latter sequences.
Extras in Criterion’s 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition include the Oscar-nominated 1972 documentary Malcolm X; audio commentary by Lee, Carter, director of photography Ernest Dickerson, and editor Barry Alexander Brown; deleted scenes; and a making-of piece.
MYSTERY MEN (1999). A promising idea is allowed to flail about uncontrollably in Mystery Men, a big-budget comedy that also qualifies as a blown opportunity. Based on the comic book series by Bob Burden, the film takes the amusing angle that it’s up to a bunch of not-so-super superheroes to save a sprawling metropolis from the nefarious machinations of a master villain. It’s an irresistible hook, but the result is a surprisingly tame mediocrity that wastes a lot of good actors. After Champion City’s one bona fide superhero, the narcissistic Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear), is captured by the crazed Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush), three would-be crimefighters — Mr. Furious (Ben Stiller), self-identifying as a “ticking time bomb of fury”’; the Shoveller (William H. Macy), whose weapon is a you-know-what; and The Blue Raja (Hank Azaria), who hurls spoons and forks at his enemies — recruit other ersatz heroes to rescue the resident superman. This lot consists of The Bowler (Janeane Garofalo), whose bowling ball houses the skull of her murdered father; Invisible Boy (Kel Mitchell of Good Burger fame), who can only disappear when nobody’s looking at him; and The Spleen (Paul Reubens), who can knock opponents out with his fearsome flatulence. You know you’re in trouble when the one truly funny character turns out to be the one true superhero: Kinnear is a hoot as Captain Amazing, an egotist as interested in corporate sponsorships as in vanquishing evildoers, and his few scenes are more amusing than anything else in this colorful but flavorless dud.
Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition include audio commentary by director Kinka Usher; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and pieces on the costumes and visual effects.
NIGHT GALLERY: SEASON THREE (1972-1973). While the first two seasons of Night Gallery featured hour-long episodes, NBC elected to saw the show in half for its third and final season, with each episode filling only a half-hour slot. On balance, this is probably the weakest of the three seasons, although, as with most things Rod Serling, it’s still a worthy investment. The season gets off to a rousing start with “The Return of the Sorcerer,” in which a necromancer (Vincent Price) hires a translator (Bill Bixby) to assist him in deciphering an ancient text. Another strong entry is “The Other Way Out,” with Ross Martin as a panicky businessman who get trapped in the house of an ornery coot (Burl Ives) seeking revenge. Among the weaker vignettes is “She’ll Be Company for You,” in which a man (Leonard Nimoy) who has just lost his wife obtains an unwanted companion in a vigilant cat. Speaking of Nimoy, the future helmer of such hits as Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home and Three Men and a Baby made his directorial debut with another episode: “Death on a Barge,” a vampire yarn starring Lesley Ann Warren. All told, there are 15 episodes in this season, and other guest stars include Sandra Dee, future Oscar winner Geraldine Page (The Trip to Bountiful), Roger E. Mosley (TC on Magnum, P.I.), and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
Blu-ray extras include 25 audio commentaries (participants include filmmaker and fan Guillermo del Toro and Night Gallery performers Sally Field, Mickey Rooney, Raymond Massey, and Burgess Meredith) and a look at the show’s syndication woes (continuing a piece from the Season One and Season Two releases). A four-page episode guide is also included.
PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES (1987). It’s probably nostalgia that keeps 1985’s The Breakfast Club enshrined as my favorite John Hughes film, but it’s likely that Planes, Trains and Automobiles really represents the apex of his achievements. Switching his attention from teenagers to adults paid off handsomely in this instance, as an expert blend of (mostly) comedy and (some) drama results in the most emotionally engaging of all his feature films. For Steve Martin, this is just another exemplary turn in a career full of them; for John Candy, it was the finest role he ever received and the best performance he ever gave. All that buttoned-up businessman Neal Page (Martin) wants to do is fly from New York City to Chicago in time to spend Thanksgiving with his family. But even before he leaves The Big Apple, he inadvertently encounters cheerful salesman Del Griffith (Candy) and, from that point forward, simply cannot get away from his fellow traveler. After a snowstorm results in their plane landing in Wichita rather than Chicago, the two men use various means to try to get home — the perpetually chipper Del manages to adapt to every situation, but the humorless Neal grows increasingly agitated not only by his bad luck but also by the garrulous individual at his side. Planes, Trains and Automobiles features plenty of cleverly conceived sequences and uproarious lines (the Larry Bird crack is a favorite), but it’s the poignant story surrounding lonely Del that ultimately elevates the entire project.
Extras in Paramount’s 4K UHD + Digital Code edition include never-before-seen deleted and extended sequences; a making-of featurette; a two-part piece on Hughes; and a tribute to Candy, who died in 1994 at the young age of 43.
THE VALACHI PAPERS (1972). Reportedly, the lazier critics in 1972 described The Valachi Papers as a cash-in-quick rip-off of The Godfather, which was released that same year. It was a ludicrous claim on two fronts. First, The Valachi Papers had hit theaters first — not stateside, where Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece indeed beat it into theaters by approximately seven months, but internationally, where Valachi had opened three months earlier. Second and more importantly, The Valachi Papers wasn’t based on some cut-rate script someone found buried on Roger Corman’s desk but instead was an adaptation of a monumental bestselling novel by Peter Maas — one that, it should be noted, hit the streets a full year (1968) before Mario Puzo penned his gargantuan tome. And even with The Godfather breaking box office records, The Valachi Papers hardly disappeared without a trace; instead, it turned out to be a sturdy box office performer at year’s end (adjusted for inflation, its gross in 2022 figures would be just over $120 million). All this isn’t to say that this Mob movie from director Terence Young (Dr. No, The Klansman) compares in any way to Coppola’s achievement, but on its own terms, it’s a satisfying slice of Mafia mayhem, based on the true-life tale of a Cosa Nostra flunkie who eventually becomes an informant. Charles Bronson stars as Joe Valachi, who served in various capacities (driver, bodyguard, hit man, etc.) for various Mob bigwigs over the years. Eventually becoming unsure of his own place in the “family” and dealing with treacherous colleagues and suspicious kingpins, he elects to become a government informer in an effort to save his own skin. Bronson delivers an excellent performance in this brutal yet gripping crime flick.
Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; theatrical trailers; and TV and radio spots.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1970). Over the years, there have been approximately 30 adaptations of Emily Brontë’s classic novel, with Merle Oberon, Claire Bloom, Juliette Binoche, and Erika Christensen (in an MTV-produced version) among those tackling the role of Catherine Earnshaw Linton and Laurence Olivier, Charlton Heston, Richard Burton, Ralph Fiennes, and Tom Hardy among those essaying the part of Heathcliff. This 1970 take on the tale is the one starring Anna Calder-Marshall as the doomed Cathy and Bond, James Bond, as her smoldering lover. No, not Connery or Moore, but rather Timothy Dalton long before he became the most underrated of all 007 actors. A mere 24 when he made Wuthering Heights, he’s a particularly earthy and immature Heathcliff, the perfect mate for the haughty and selfish Catherine. Indeed, what’s noteworthy about this version is that, unlike most other adaptations (including the 1939 classic with Olivier and Oberon), it does little to tone down the often savage creatures found in Brontë’s original text, although there are certainly multiple deviations from the source (like the ’39 edition, this one also ends well before the book, lopping off chapters 18 through 34). This was a rare literary excursion for American International Pictures, which, despite a few classy productions to its name, was better known for the likes of High School Hellcats, The Amazing Transparent Man, and The Thing with Two Heads.
There are no Blu-ray extras.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
UKRAINIANS IN EXILE (2022). Perhaps it’s fitting that Janusz Kaminski, a two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer (Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), serves as an executive producer on this stirring 6½-minute short, as it’s the imagery that surprises and startles. Not that there isn’t import and urgency in the voice-over narration, as a Ukrainian woman billed as “Anya” talks about the Russian invasion of her homeland that began this past February and has claimed tens of thousands of lives. She doesn’t tell us much that a reasonably well-informed viewer didn’t already know, and her voice remains steady for the most part, only cracking when she talks about Russian troops killing children and bombing maternity hospitals and orphanages (“It’s not a war anymore, it’s a crime”). But rather than show us the expected shots of death and destruction, chaos and corpses, madness and mayhem, director-producer Janek Ambros (Money, Fascism, and Some Sort of Acid, Mondo Hollywoodland) goes in the opposite direction, instead showing scenes of ordinary people doing ordinary things like obtaining food or boarding the train — there are even tranquil shots of buildings and sunsets. It’s an effective way to link us and them, and it nicely sets up Anya’s final request for help from the global community. (Ukrainians in Exile premiered last month and is currently playing on the film festival circuit.)
Review links for movies referenced in this column:
The Amazing Transparent Man
The Breakfast Club
Brotherhood of the Wolf
The Hound of the Baskervllles (1959)
Money, Fascism, and Some Sort of Acid
Night Gallery: Season One
Night Gallery: Season Two
Play Misty for Me
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
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