Artwork for Sci-Fi From the Vault (Photo: Mill Creek)

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.)

For the full-length review of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was released last week by Dark Sky Films in 4K UHD, go here.

Jimmy Woodard and Robert Townsend in Hollywood Shuffle (Photo: Criterion)

HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE (1987). Even decades later, I still recall a great editorial cartoon from the early 1980s, in which a Hollywood producer tells a studio head, “I have an idea for a movie! It’s about a black actor who finds it impossible to land any film roles because of the color of his skin,” to which the mogul replies, “That’s great! Think we can get Robert Redford for the part?” That cartoon finds its cinematic soulmate in Hollywood Shuffle, a comedy that delivers consistent laughs even as it addresses a serious problem. This was an obvious labor of love for Robert Townsend, who not only directed, produced, co-wrote (with Keenen Ivory Wayans, three years away from creating In Living Color) and starred in the picture but also financed approximately half of its meager $100,000 budget via credit cards (it was a worthy risk, with the film grossing over $5 million). Townsend stars as Bobby Taylor, forced to work at the Winky Dinky Dog fast food joint while trying to make it as an actor. He’s presently auditioning for the title role in an exploitation flick called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge, eager to land the project and jump-start his cinematic career but also disturbed by the demeaning nature of the role. Reflecting on the reality that producers only want to cast blacks as butlers, slaves or pimps, his mind reels off some elaborate fantasies, including one about the Black Acting School (where erudite African-Americans are taught by white coaches how to walk and talk like stereotypical blacks) and another in which he imagines himself playing such heroic figures as Superman and “Rambro.” The weakest daydream is an overlong film noir spoof called Death of a Breakdancer (though Wayans amuses as a suspect called Jheri Curl); the best is a hilarious Siskel and Ebert parody called Sneakin’ in the Movies, in which homeboys Speed (Townsend) and Tyrone (Jimmy Woodard) review such films as Amadeus Meets Salierus (“Bullshit!” is their shared opinion) and Attack of the Street Pimps (which earns a hearty high five).

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Townsend and cast interviews.

Movie: ★★★

Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith in Rocky (Photos: Warner & MGM)

ROCKY: THE KNOCKOUT COLLECTION (1976-1985). Sylvester Stallone’s blockbuster boxing series hits 4K with a new collection that only includes the first four of the six films in the Rocky franchise. That’s definitely a disappointment for completists, although, while sixth entry Rocky Balboa has its fans, Rocky V is so bad it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting it on their shelves. Nevertheless, it’s almost certain that Warner will offer a complete 4K set in the future.

Rocky (1976) is the real deal, offering a raw, gritty feel that none of the slicker sequels even attempted to replicate. Sylvester Stallone wrote for himself a terrific character, a lovable lug who’s plucked from obscurity and given a shot at the championship. All the familiar faces are here: Talia Shire as Rocky’s mousy girlfriend Adrian; Burt Young as her slovenly brother Paulie; Burgess Meredith as the crusty trainer Mickey; Carl Weathers as the swaggering heavyweight champion Apollo Creed; and Tony Burton as “Apollo’s Trainer” (as he’s billed in the first two flicks) Duke (as he’s billed in the rest). Backed by a buoyant Bill Conti score (including his chart-topping single, “Gonna Fly Now”), this is rousing entertainment. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including acting bids for Stallone, Shire, Young, and Meredith, and a scripting nod for Stallone, this won three: Best Picture (beating the powerhouse quartet of All the President’s Men, Taxi Driver, Network, and Bound for Glory), Best Director (John G. Avildsen), and Best Film Editing.

Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers in Rocky II

Although Rocky II (1979) builds itself around a rematch between Rocky and Apollo, the movie is anything but a lazy sequel. Instead, it shows the effects (both good and bad) that greet Rocky after the first film’s championship bout made him famous, among them a pathetic attempt to star in a TV commercial and his acceptance of meager jobs in order to put food on the table. But Apollo’s taunting finally leads him back into the ring for a fight that’s as exciting as their original skirmish.

Sylvester Stallone and Talia Shire in Rocky III

Rocky III (1982) marks the point where the series starts to get silly, but the end result is so enjoyable that it’s hard to carp too much. After growing soft from facing too many lesser opponents, Rocky ends up losing the championship to a street brawler named Clubber Lang (Mr. T in his film debut). To reclaim the title, he accepts help from his former nemesis, Apollo Creed. Mr. T is often more comical than menacing, but he has screen presence to burn; you also get Hulk Hogan in his film debut as an excitable wrestler named Thunderlips as well as Survivor’s Oscar-nominated, number one hit “Eye of the Tiger.”

Burt Young in Rocky IV

As a motion picture, Rocky IV (1985) is a veritable cheese factory, but as a relic of the Reagan ’80s, it’s absolutely priceless. This finds Rocky entering the Cold War and doing his part for the U.S. of A. by taking on the seemingly invincible Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Weathers is particularly good — even poignant — in this outing as Apollo grows restless in retirement, and the boxing matches are, as always, pulse-pounding highlights. But there are simply too many ludicrous elements to ignore: Paulie’s robot; Brigitte Nielsen, even less expressive than the robot; about a thousand music-video-styled montages; Lundgren’s delivery of Drago’s deadly dialogue (“I must break you,” “I defeat all man,” etc.); and a jaw-dropping finale in which all the Russians — even the members of the Politburo! — cheer Rocky as he delivers a “Kumbaya” speech.

Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren in Rocky vs. Drago

Two years ago, Stallone took a page from the Coppola handbook by tinkering with Rocky IV — he removed about 40 minutes of footage from the 91-minute feature, replaced it with about 40 minutes of unused scenes and alternate shots, and released it as the 93-minute Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago — The Ultimate Director’s Cut. Among the changes are a complete elimination of Paulie’s robot (thank the stars), a smaller role for Nielsen (she and Stallone married in 1985 and divorced in 1987, so this might be his petty revenge), and more emotional scenes between Stallone and Shire. The more serious nature of this version is a plus, but the downside is that the film feels choppier — regardless, Stallone seemingly didn’t cut down on any of the endless montages and in fact expanded them. This version is a fraction better than the original, but not enough to move the needle in any discernible manner.

Extras in the set include audio commentaries featuring Stallone, Shire, Weathers, Young, and others; a making-of featurette for Rocky vs. Drago; a piece on Conti’s score; a look at the Steadicam, then brand new and only used on Bound for Glory and Marathon Man before it was employed on Rocky; and theatrical trailers.

Rocky: ★★★½

Rocky II: ★★★

Rocky III: ★★★

Rocky IV: ★★

Rocky vs. Drago: ★★

Creature With the Atom Brain (Photos: Mill Creek)

SCI-FI FROM THE VAULT (1955-1959). This set from Mill Creek Entertainment (with the blessing of Columbia Pictures) contains four science fiction films from the fifties, and it should surprise no one to learn that the two best productions are the ones involving Ray Harryhausen.

Although it was far from the first film to do so, Creature With the Atom Brain (1955) mixes it up by adding some elements of the gangster flick to the sci-fi genre. A mob boss (Michael Granger) uses an army of reanimated corpses created by a former Nazi scientist (Gregory Gay) to take his revenge against the gang members who had betrayed him. Convoluted would be a kind way to describe this plot, but genre fave Richard Denning (Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Black Scorpion) plays the police doctor who cracks the case, there’s a rather sweet relationship between the police doctor’s little girl (Linda Bennett) and the police captain, “Uncle Dave” (S. John Launer), and the climax involves scores of the walking dead tangling with scores of policemen.

It Came From Beneath the Sea

It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) refers to a monstrous octopus (courtesy of Harryhausen) that eventually heads to San Francisco and tackles the Golden Gate Bridge. Those tasked with figuring out how to defeat it include a submarine captain (Kenneth Tobey) and two marine biologists (Faith Domergue and Donald Curtis), and the love triangle that develops between them is handled in a far more mature and believable manner than was often the case. Harryhausen’s stop-motion work is superb, and while the low budget dictated that his octopus only be constructed with six rather than eight tentacles, only a major-league dweeb would spend time trying to count them instead of enjoying the top-notch entertainment. For a particularly lame movie about a rampaging octopus, check out 1977’s Tentacles, where John Huston and Shelley Winters play unlikely siblings and Henry Fonda sits around dreaming of that lovely paycheck.

20 Million Miles to Earth

The set’s other Harryhausen offering, 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), is of comparable quality to It Came From Beneath the Sea. If Sea has better pacing and slightly better characterizations, Earth offers an original — and more complicated — creature at its center. That would be the Ymir (so named by Harryhausen but never called that in the film), initially an unhatched egg brought back to Earth from the planet Venus. After the U.S. spaceship crashes off the Sicilian coast, the egg eventually opens and out pops a tiny critter — one that grows at such an alarming rate that it’s soon gigantic enough to terrorize the Italian citizenry. The Ymir is patterned after King Kong in that it’s also a hulking behemoth that soon generates sympathy since, like Greta Garbo, it merely wants to be left alone — that the alien is able to both exhibit and evoke strong feelings is a testament to Harryhausen’s wizardry.

Dorothy Provine and Lou Costello in The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock

Excluding the handful of silent films in which he appeared as an uncredited extra, Lou Costello never made a movie without Bud Abbott. At least that was the case until The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock (1959), which turned out to be his first and only picture without his former comedy partner — Lou never had a chance to make more, since he died of a heart attack at the age of 52, five months before this film’s release. As a lifelong fan of Abbott & Costello, it saddens me that The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock is such a painfully unfunny comedy, far beneath the talents of its leading man. As in the previous year’s Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (and this one was certainly made to cash in on that picture’s sleeper success), the plot involves a normal woman (Dorothy Provine) who grows to enormous proportions and then grows ever more complaining. In Attack, the giantess is upset that her husband is having an affair; in Bride, she’s upset because she can’t make her husband (Costello) a proper breakfast. There’s also an annoying robot who would have been right at home in the ghastly Heartbeeps, a time travel machine that would have embarrassed H.G. Wells, ordinary people flying high up into the heavens — it’s just a mess.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentaries by various film fans, and separate featurettes on the careers of producer Sam Katzman (here involved with Creature With the Atom Brain and It Came From Beneath the Sea) and 20 Million Miles to Earth director Nathan Juran.

Creature With the Atom Brain: ★★½

It Came From Beneath the Sea: ★★★

20 Million Miles to Earth: ★★★

The 30-Foot Bride of Candy Rock: ★½

Boris Karloff and Boris Karloff in The Black Room (Photos: Mill Creek)

THRILLERS FROM THE VAULT (1935-1951). Mill Creek (and Columbia) again, this time offering eight movies billed on the box copy as thrillers but more commonly designated as horror. The reason for the latter label would be that six of the eight star Boris Karloff and one of the other two stars Bela Lugosi. You also get Peter Lorre somewhere in there.

The Black Room (1935) chronologically gets the set off to a solid start, offering not one but two Karloffs. Boris stars as Gregor de Berghmann, a sadistic baron who’s responsible for the disappearances of many of the region’s lovely lasses. He also stars as Anton de Berghmann, Gregor’s gentle and good-natured twin brother. An ancient curse has decreed that each generation will witness a younger brother murdering an older one in the dungeon (aka black room) of the family castle; Gregor was born a few minutes before his sibling, but it’s impossible to imagine Anton killing anyone, let alone a brother he loves. Gregor, on the other hand… Karloff is excellent as the de Berghmann boys, masterfully switching between roles without ever leaving viewers wondering who is who. There’s also a memorable ending featuring an ironic twist of the sort that would later become de rigueur on The Twilight Zone and in such comics as, ha, Boris Karloff: Tales of Mystery.

Boris Karloff in The Man They Could Not Hang

Throughout his career, Karloff was known for repeatedly portraying mad scientists (although dotty and doddering would be better word choices in some of these instances). One three-year stretch (1939-1941) found him cast in such roles on no less than six occasions, once opposite Lugosi in Universal’s Black Friday and another for the Monogram cheapie The Ape. The other four films were produced by Columbia, and all four can be found here.

The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) is a nifty yarn in which Karloff’s well-meaning Dr. Savaard is deemed responsible for the accidental death of his assistant and subsequently executed; he’s miraculously revived through scientific means and, now understandably bitter, sets about plotting the murders of the presiding judge (Charles Trowbridge), the district attorney (Roger Pryor), and select jurists. The Man With Nine Lives (1940) is a trippy tale in which a progressive doctor (Pryor) and his nurse-fiancée (Jo Ann Sayers) manage to revive Karloff’s Dr. Kravaal, who’s been preserved in ice for the past 10 years; now awake, the obsessed scientist uses those around him as guinea pigs for further escapades (icecapades?). Before I Hang (1940) isn’t quite as successful, although it maintains interest as Karloff’s Dr. Garth is executed after performing a Kevorkian on a dying man; a serum containing the blood of a murderer manages to bring the good doctor back to life, only now he’s prone to bursts of homicidal rage. And The Devil Commands (1941), directed by future Oscar nominee (for 1947’s Crossfire) Edward Dmytryk, is a freaky flick in which Karloff’s Dr. Blair employs brainwaves in an attempt to communicate with his dead wife.

Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in The Boogie Man Will Get You

The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) also finds Karloff playing a mad scientist, although the comedic nature of the picture generally precludes it from being considered part of the cycle. With a character who looks like Karloff, a pair of eccentric seniors who might be killing visitors to their home, and dead bodies filling up the cellar, it’s clear that the writers had recently seen Karloff in his Broadway success Arsenic and Old Lace (a film adaptation later emerged, co-starring Lorre). Karloff headlines as Professor Billings, a nutty scientist who wants to help the Allied cause by creating supermen to fight in World War II. Jeff Donnell plays a young woman interested in buying the creaky house (Donnell is billed as “(Miss) Jeff Donnell” so as to avoid gender confusion in the credits), Larry Parks is the ex-husband trying to talk her out of it, and Lorre appears as the town sheriff who’s also the town realtor who’s also the town mayor and so on. Unlike the brilliant Arsenic, the material here is very hit-and-miss, but Lorre is hilarious as the jabbering jack-of-all-trades. Love the way he constantly tips his hat!

Bela Lugosi in The Return of the Vampire

Beginning in In World War I London, The Return of the Vampire (1943) finds a centuries-old vampire (Bela Lugosi) taken down by Lady Jane Ainsley (Frieda Inescort) and Professor Walter Saunders (Gilbert Emery) with a trusty stake through the heart. Twenty years later, in World War II London, a bombing raid results in the vampire’s resurrection; with Professor Saunders having died of old age in the interim, it’s up to Lady Jane to single-handedly stop the bloodsucker before he sups on Saunders’ now-grown granddaughter Nikki (Nina Foch). The vampire’s name is Armand Tesla, but make no mistake that Columbia would have named him Dracula had Universal not held the rights to that moniker for its series of classic monster movies. Lugosi’s fine tackling a variation of his signature role — even if he was already starting to look frail at this point in his career — and the wartime setting adds some interesting elements. The character of Andreas Obry, however, proves to be both a blessing and a curse. Providing Tesla with a werewolf assistant is cool in theory, but the decision to allow him to talk cripples the creature’s menacing aura, and Matt Willis’ performance never fully conveys the role’s tragic dimensions.

William Phipps and Susan Douglas in Five

Five (1951) is the odd film out, not only because it was made in a different era than the others but also because it’s squarely a sci-fi flick. Nevertheless, the fact that it’s a good movie should negate any ill will generated by genre sticklers over its inclusion. A post-apocalyptic drama, it centers on a quintet of people who have survived a nuclear disaster. An elderly man (Earl Lee) doesn’t stick around for long, so the focus is on the other individuals (might Four have been a better title?). They all end up at a desolate house surrounded by rocky terrain, where their personalities fully emerge and occasionally clash. There’s little conflict between the sensible Michael (William Phipps), the poetic Charles (Charles Lampkin), and the pregnant Roseanne (Susan Douglas) — the wild card is Eric (James Anderson), who’s revealed to be a bully, a narcissist, and, since Charles is black, a racist (Anderson would later play a more famous racist character, Bob Ewell, in To Kill a Mockingbird). The character dynamics are what drive this pensive and minimalist movie. The end credits reveal that the striking hillside house featured in the film was a Frank Lloyd Wright creation — at the time, it belonged to the picture’s writer-director, Arch Oboler, and it was destroyed by the wildfire that raged through the Los Angeles area in 2018.

Blu-ray extras consist of several audio commentaries and a piece on Columbia’s horror films from the ‘30s and ‘40s.

The Black Room: ★★★

The Man They Could Not Hang: ★★★

The Man With Nine Lives: ★★★

Before I Hang: ★★½

The Devil Commands: ★★★

The Boogie Man Will Get You: ★★½

The Return of the Vampire: ★★½

Five: ★★★


Review links for movies referenced in this column (all links open in new window):
Abbott & Costello Films
The Ape
Arsenic and Old Lace
Attack of the 50-Foot Woman
The Black Scorpion
Creed II
King Kong
Marathon Man
Rocky V
Rocky Balboa

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