The Shiver of the Vampires (Photo: Powerhouse / Indicator)

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.)

Jodie Foster and Dennis Hopper in Backtrack (Photo: Kino & Lionsgate)

BACKTRACK (1990). Dennis Hopper’s film Catchfire was so mangled by the studio (Vestron) that the director-star had his name removed as helmer and replaced with the usual “Alan Smithee” (the pseudonym employed by filmmakers disowning their own works). A few years later, Hopper had the opportunity to rework the 98-minute picture to his liking, and it was released to cable TV as a 116-minute director’s cut called Backtrack. The new Blu-ray edition contains both versions — I opted to watch the preferred Backtrack, and it’s so terrible that I shudder to think how Catchfire could possibly be worse. Backtrack only escapes a one-star rating because of its astonishing cast — where else on God’s green earth could one find a lineup that includes Vincent Price, Bob Dylan, Charlie Sheen, the Five Easy Pieces hitchhiker, the Creature From the Black Lagoon heroine, and filmmaker Alex Cox as D.H. Lawrence? Jodie Foster stars as Anne Benton, an artist who witnesses a mob assassination orchestrated by kingpin Leo Carelli (Joe Pesci). When Leo’s flunkies (John Turturro and Tony Sirico) fail to locate the now-in-hiding Anne, a specialist known only as Milo (Hopper) is summoned to find and kill her — instead, he falls in love with her and, in the most unconvincing example of Stockholm syndrome ever committed to film, she in turn falls for him. Foster is actually quite good in a wretchedly written role (next stop: The Silence of the Lambs and a second Oscar), but the plot developments in the screenplay (credited to Rachel Kronstadt Mann and Ann Louise Bardach, although Cox and his wife, actress Tod Davies, did an uncredited rewrite) are absurd and the dialogue is idiotic.

Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Cox and Davies, and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: ★½

Aleksandr Baluev and Jon Favreau in Deep Impact (Photo: Paramount)

DEEP IMPACT (1998). In the same manner that other stretches of a few months saw competing Abraham Lincoln biopics, competing Wyatt Earp Westerns, and competing Christopher Columbus epics, a two-month window in 1998 saw the releases of competing movies about Earth being threatened by a gigantic space rock. Armageddon, with pitted Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck against an asteroid, grossed more than Deep Impact (although both were global hits), while Deep Impact earned the (slightly) better reviews. Deep Impact isn’t great by any means, but it at least doesn’t go out of its way to insult the intelligence like the moronic Michael Bay flick. Morgan Freeman is U.S. President Tom Beck, who informs the nation that a large comet is expected to crash into the planet and cause the demise of every living creature. In an effort to destroy the comet before it can make it that far, a team of astronauts is tasked with the mission of blowing it to pieces. Like the all-star disaster yarns of the 1970s, this centers on various personal dramas before getting to the so-called good stuff (in this case, the leveling of NYC) — the story strands involve the reporter (Téa Leoni) who breaks the story, the teenager (Elijah Wood) who first spots the comet, and the veteran astronaut (Robert Duvall) hoping to earn the respect of his younger colleagues. These episodic interludes aren’t as soggy as expected, and some elements do connect on an emotional level. But neither director Mimi Leder nor her actors inject the material with the dramatic urgency dictated by the situation — in fact, most people in this movie react to news of the end of the world as if they had just been informed their favorite sitcom was being cancelled.

Extras in the 4K + Blu-ray + Digital edition include audio commentary by Leder and visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar; a making-of featurette; and a look at the visual effects.

Movie: ★★½

Peter MacNicol and Burt Reynolds in Heat (Photo: Kino & Lionsgate)

HEAT (1986). I expect only Burt Reynolds’ biggest fans (and film critics of a certain age, of course) would be able to distinguish between the one-word duds the actor made back-to-back-to-back in the mid-1980s, after his career had been crippled by the ghastly likes of 1983’s Stroker Ace and 1984’s Cannonball Run II. Sandwiched between 1985’s Stick and 1987’s Malone, Heat is the one written by William Goldman (based on his own novel), the two-time Oscar-winning scribe of All the President’s Men and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s also the one that cycled through several directors, with the person who finally received the screen credit, Dick Richards, also being the one who collected a half-million bucks from Burt after the former superstar punched him in the face. A troubled production such as this often results in a dismal viewing experience, but given the general competence on view in Heat, the feeling is that it’s Goldman’s own screenplay that’s at fault rather than any on-set shenanigans. It’s mostly routine stuff, with Reynolds cast as Nick Escalante, a bodyguard-for-hire in Las Vegas. When he’s not babysitting meek gambler Cyrus Kinnick (Dragonslayer’s Peter MacNicol), he’s going after Danny DeMarco (Neill Barry), the well-connected hoodlum who raped and beat his friend Holly (Karen Young). The scenes between Reynolds and MacNicol (quite good here) are the movie’s best; the endless (and obvious) opening sketch and the climactic shootout are the film’s weakest, and the fate of the sadistic DeMarco isn’t believable for a nanosecond.

Blu-ray extras consist of film historian audio commentary; a ridiculous alternate ending; the theatrical trailer; and trailers for several other Reynolds vehicles available via Kino (including the aforementioned Stick and Malone).

Movie: ★★

Moonlighting Wives (Photo: Film Movement)

MOONLIGHTING WIVES (1966) / THE NAKED FOG (1966). Like Jean Rollin (see directly below), director Joe Sarno spent much of his career behind the camera on porn features, churning out titles like Panting at the Opera, Screw the Right Thing, and The Erotic Adventures of Bedman and Throbbin. Unlike Rollin, he never strayed far from XXX, moving from hardcore to … softcore. Two of his earliest sexploitation romps are paired on this double feature Blu-ray from Film Movement.

Filmed in color, Moonlighting Wives finds the head (Tammy Latour) of a stenography service turning her business into a prostitution ring. Filmed in black-and-white, The Naked Fog follows a writer (Latour) as she unearths erotica in suburbia. Despite being filmed on the cheap, and despite being filled with amateurish performances and stilted dialogue, both movies are nevertheless often intriguing, not only for their time-capsule worth but also for somehow meshing sleazy and psychological elements. There’s nudity, of course, but there’s also a sincere attempt to examine the characters (or at least the heroines) as they confront hedonism head on. The sex is presented in a matter-of-fact way, and the sort of finger-wagging that’s often prevalent in exploitation flicks (think Reefer Madness or the MST3K fave I Accuse My Parents) is kept to a bare (pun not intended) minimum.

Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Tim Lucas; a 2006 interview with Sarno; and a 2007 interview with cinematographer Jerry Kalogeratos.

Moonlighting Wives: ★★½

The Naked Fog: ★★½

Dominique in The Shiver of the Vampires (Photos: Powerhouse / Indicator)

THE SHIVER OF THE VAMPIRES (1971) / TWO ORPHAN VAMPIRES (1997). To make ends meet, French filmmaker Jean Rollin had to spend a sizable portion of his career helming hardcore porn flicks with such titles as Sex Disco, Girls in Heat, and the marquee-hogging Come In Quickly … Quickly, I’m Wet! His claim to fame, however, is as a maestro in the field of the fantastique, serving as writer-director on a number of offbeat features known primarily for their dreamlike landscapes, bouts of surrealism, and strong female representation. His favorite topic was vampirism: He made seven pictures in this (heh) vein, and two of them have been newly released in separate 4K and Blu-ray editions.

The Shiver of the Vampires (Le frisson des vampires), aka Strange Things Happen at Night, and Two Orphan Vampires (Les deux orphelines vampires) serve as decent litmus tests when it comes to the Rollin canon. One’s enjoyment of his pictures largely depends on how much one can appreciate the hypnotic visuals and narrative non sequitors and ignore the rambling and portentous (some would say pretentious) dialogue and stutter-step direction. In my case, that would be right in the middle: These two films are never boring and the atmospherics never cease to impress, but sometimes I wish everyone would just shut up and get on with it.

The Shiver of the Vampires follows two newlyweds, Isla (Sandra Julien) and Antoine (Jean-Marie Durand), as they visit her cousins (Michel Delahaye and Jacques Robiolles) in their provincial castle. Former vampire hunters, they have been turned into bloodsuckers by the ethereal Isolde (Dominique), who now sets her sights on Isla. Expect plenty of female nudity and lesbian couplings in this one, along with plenty of shtick from the cousins and passive performances from all concerned.

Isabelle Teboul and Alexandra Pic in Two Orphan Vampires

The Shiver of the Vampires has the better atmospherics but Two Orphan Vampires has the better storyline and the better acting, with Alexandra Pic and Isabelle Teboul (both making their film debuts) essaying the roles of the title fiends. Louise (Pic) and Henriette (Teboul) live in a girls’ home run by nuns — blind naifs during the daytime, they turn into vampires at night and are then able to see perfectly (although everything is bathed in blue). After being adopted by a kindly doctor (Bernard Charnacé), they find themselves in Paris, after which they encounter a batwoman, a werewoman, and a lady ghoul.

The Powerhouse / Indicator label has released each film in limited and numbered 4K UHD (6,000 copies apiece) and Blu-ray (4,000 apiece) editions that are, well, to die for. Both films are offered with the original French as well as English soundtracks. Extras on The Shiver of the Vampires include audio commentary (from 2006) by Rollin; a 1998 introduction by Rollin; a new making-of featurette; a 2004 discussion with Rollin; and seven explicit sequences filmed for foreign markets. Extras on Two Orphan Vampires include audio commentary by authors David Flint (Babylon Blue: An Illustrated History of Adult Cinema) and Adrian J. Smith (writer of women loving women fiction); a making-of featurette; and archival interviews with Rollin, Pic, and Teboul. Each edition also comes with an 80-page book with essays, interviews, and more.

The Shiver of the Vampires: ★★½

Two Orphan Vampires: ★★½

Henry Fonda in 12 Angry Men (Photo: Kino & MGM)

12 ANGRY MEN (1957). Francis Coppola’s first credited movies as a director were the nudie flicks The Bellboy and the Playgirls and Tonight for Sure; James Cameron’s was the low-budget Piranha II: The Spawning. Sidney Lumet, on the other hand, didn’t mess around: After several years cutting his teeth on television, he made his film debut with 12 Angry Men, an instant classic that earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and — yep — Best Director. Lumet later helmed such gems as Fail-Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network (oh, and Serpico, reviewed two weeks ago), yet this arguably remains his most compelling work, a sweaty, sustained drama that milks its claustrophobic setting for all it’s worth. Adapted by Reginald Rose from his own teleplay, this finds practically all of the story unfolding in a hot New York City jury room in which 12 people must decide the fate of a Puerto Rican teenager accused of fatally stabbing his father. Eleven jurors are convinced he’s guilty; only one (Henry Fonda) believes there’s room for doubt, and it’s his Herculean task to convince the others to re-examine the evidence before sending the boy to the gas chamber. Fonda (who co-produced the film with Rose) is quietly authoritative as always, and he’s backed by a superb cast of character actors, many of whom went on to stellar careers (among them Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, and Jack Klugman). The movie’s examination of this nation’s jury system is double-edged, portraying it as inefficient when tainted by bigotry and ignorance and admirable when ruled by a cool-headed examination of the evidence.

Extras in the 4K UHD + Blu-ray edition include film historian audio commentary and the trailer. The set also contains the 1997 TV-movie directed by William Friedkin and starring Jack Lemmon (in Fonda’s role) and Emmy-winning George C. Scott (in Cobb’s part).

Movie: ★★★★

New Gods: Yang Jian (Photo: GKIDS & Shout! Factory)

Short and Sweet:

NEW GODS: YANG JIAN (2022). The second installment in the “New Gods” series (the first was 2021’s New Gods: Nezha Reborn), this anime effort follows an all-powerful bounty hunter whose latest assignment requires him to chase after his own nephew. It’s Chinese mythology filtered through steampunk stylings, yet while the animation is frequently eye-popping, it can’t compensate for the bloated storyline (the film overextends itself at 128 minutes) and tedious characters.

The new Blu-ray edition from Shout! Factory and GKIDS offers both the original Mandarin audio and the English-language dub. Extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; an interview with director Zhao Ji; and an art gallery.

Movie: ★★

Jane Fonda and Robert De Niro in Stanley & Iris (Photo: Sandpiper)

STANLEY & IRIS (1990). Stanley & Iris basically marked the end of Jane Fonda’s remarkable movie career. She returned 15 years later, but it was mainly to awkwardly appear in atrocious movies like Monster-in-Law, Georgia Rule, and This Is Where I Leave You. She and Robert De Niro are both nicely understated, bringing quiet strength to the story of a harried single mom and the bashful and gentle man she teaches to read. The first half is the stronger slice, focusing on the realistic struggles endured by working-class Americans just trying to keep their heads above water. The second part is sloppier — for starters, relatives played by Swoosie Kurtz and Jamey Sheridan disappear completely from the proceedings without so much as a by-your-leave — and prone to fanciful plot developments guaranteed to help this cross the “feel-good” finish line.

There are no Blu-ray extras.

Movie: ★★½

Geneviève Bujold in Coma (Photo: MGM/UA)


COMA (1978). Adapted from Robin Cook’s smash bestseller by writer-director Michael Crichton (himself no stranger to smash bestsellers, thanks to the likes of Jurassic Park), Coma casts Geneviève Bujold as Dr. Susan Wheeler, who notices that many of the patients at Boston Memorial Hospital are meeting unpleasant ends after supposedly routine procedures. But no one, not even her boyfriend (Michael Douglas), believes her talk of a conspiracy, leaving her to single-handedly unravel the mystery. The boys’-club politics at the hospital provide the picture with interesting subtext right in line with the sexual dynamics of the period; Bujold proves to be a worthy champion for the feminist cause, delivering a committed performance as a woman who refuses to be patronized. Intelligent and occasionally chilling, this finds small, early roles for Tom Selleck as a luckless patient and Ed Harris as an obnoxious staffer.

Movie: ★★★


Review links for movies referenced in this column (all links open in new window):
Abe Lincoln in Illinois
Cannonball Run II
MST3K: I Accuse My Parents
Piranha II: The Spawning
The Silence of the Lambs
Stroker Ace
Young Mr. Lincoln

1 Comment »

  1. Seems like a long time ago and another life — especially given my current deep dislike of big city driving — but early this century, I volunteered to chauffeur some of the Fantasia film festival’s distinguished guests. Among them were Jean Rollin and his wife Simone, who turned out to be an adorable pair. He was quite worthy of his birth name of ‘Gentil’.

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