Saturday, September 24, 2005

More DVD De-Lights!

Among this past week's DVD discoveries are two sets you might miss, and should definitely consider renting or purchasing, if possible. I'm bundling out the door this morning for Burlington, so just a few sentences on each will have to do for now:

* Universal has bum-rushed two jaw-dropping collections out for Halloween, and both are well worth snapping up while they're available. Both feature titles Universal could have readily released individually at full-price, but sorely-in-need-of-a-new-moniker The Franchise Collection honchos instead package these as fold-packaged sets, one with five features, the other with eight!

The Bela Lugosi Collection offers four exceptional and one OK but very interesting chestnuts that didn't fit the bill for the upscale treatment afforded The Universal Monsters Collection titles, released here in no-frills (damn, no Tom Weaver commentaries!) but pretty sterling transfers. The compression on the transfers is solid, in part due to the barely-over-60-minute running time of all but one of these titles, so don't hesitate picking this up. Robert Florey's fascinating Murders in the Rue Morgue opens the set, with Lugosi's quartet of Universal Boris Karloff co-star vehicles comprising the rest: the faux-Poe double-bill of Edgar Ulmer's stunning, perverse, and exquisite The Black Cat and the serial-like The Raven, both with Lugosi at full-peer strength alongside Karloff. These are followed by two Karloff vehicles relegating Lugosi to second-character roles (alas, his fate all too soon at the studio as Karloff's star rose and Lugosi's waned): the low-key borderline genre gangster opus Black Friday, and the essential The Invisible Ray, arguably the first unofficial big-screen H.P. Lovecraft film, cribbing key elements from Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space" three decades before Karloff went through similar paces in the 'official' adaptation of that story Die, Monster, Die!

All in all, it's an incredible bargain, eclipsed only by Universal's companion release of The Hammer Horror Series, which crams all eight of the Hammer Studios 1960s Universal-distributed titles onto two discs, as bereft of extras as the Lugosi Collection, but no matter: the transfers are simply eye-popping, and blessedly complete and uncut as far as I've been able to see thus far. The litmus test for me (and the first title I accessed upon my return home with my booty) was The Curse of the Werewolf, which Universal had previously released on laserdisc in its complete UK edition, featuring footage we'd never seen in the US before. These include syphillis-riddled Anthony Dawson picking dead skin from his face in the unsavory opening, lycanthrope Oliver Reed's bloodiest mayhem in a brothel, and Hammer makeup freelancer (he was not salaried, can you believe it?) Roy Ashton's explicit squib effects in the climax, which pre-date Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch by years. All this was missing from all previous US releases I'd ever seen of Curse, save for that sterling Universal laserdisc -- after 20th Century Fox's sad DVD release of Hammer's and Harryhausen's One Million Years B.C. in cut form, ignoring Fox's own stunning laserdisc release of the complete UK version a decade ago, I feared the worst for this Universal set, but I'm happy to report thus far I've been quite happily surprised.

At this writing, other than Curse, I've sampled Kiss of the Vampire -- which looks and sounds stunning! -- and I've screened Night Creatures, originally released in the UK as Captain Clegg, among my favorite non-horror Hammers and one of Peter Cushing's finest 80 minutes ever -- a truly masterful performance, a delight from beginning to end, and to my mind undoubtably the best of Hammer's land-locked 'pirate' movies of the period. The uninitiated should note that Night Creatures is Hammer's remake of the 1930s George Arliss vehicle Dr. Syn, based on the lively Russell Thorndike novel series which none other than Walt Disney was adapting at the same time as Hammer as The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh, starring Patrick McGoohan (yep, Secret Agent and The Prisoner himself!) in the Cushing role! That's a childhood fave I hope sees DVD release soon (it may, given Disney's recent and ongoing DVD releases of the studio 'B' live-action titles and TV items), but much as I love the Disney version, Hammer's remains the most rousing cinematic rendition of the material to date. It's a corker, and it features more of Curse of the Werewolf's youthful Oliver Reed and Yvonne Romain (aka Yvonne Warren, Yvonne Romaine, of Circus of Horrors and Devil Doll), here enjoying some onscreen chemistry as the sympathetic lovers seemingly doomed by circumstance though blessed by Clegg. A pre-Roman Polanski appearance by Jack MacGowran (later of Cul-de-sac and the elder vampire hunter of The Fearless Vampire Killers) was a bonus I'd forgotten, and Milton Reid registers memorably here as the mute mulatto; Reid was a fixture of the Hammer Films of this period, including faux-oriental roles in Terror of the Tongs and the like. Anyhoot, a great film, beautifully showcased in all its robust color and widescreen glory.

I also peeked at Paranoiac, another of my fave '60s Hammers for its relentlessly twitchy, full-blown sociopath Oliver Reed performance, inventive Freddie Francis direction and black-and-white imagery, genuinely chilling setpieces, and a perverse/pathetic finale that always worked for me in spades. Universal's presentation is fully letterboxed and looks fantastic, leaving me aching for more time to savor the rest of this set: Terence Fisher's absolute classic The Brides of Dracula and the compromised but potent The Phantom of the Opera, Freddie Francis's flamboyant The Evil of Frankenstein and black-and-white psychodrama Nightmare (not as deliciously akimbo as Paranoiac, but still quite engaging and entertaining).

Great stuff, and two amazing DVD bargains worth adding to your library. Tomorrow: more DVDs you've probably ignored or never heard of...

OK, off to Burlington and today's Literary Fest comics activities! I'll be posting late tomorrow -- after our return home -- so don't fret if you don't find me here until the wee hours of Sunday evening.

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