DVD Round-up: Sep-Oct 2019 edition

As the nights have drawn in over the last couple of months, the crop of home video release have been especially abundant. Criterion’s release of The Naked Kiss on 2nd September was the first of a number of Samuel Fuller titles – a suburban noir baked in sexual hypocrisy, misogyny and violence.

Meanwhile, Eureka’s set, Fuller At Fox, incorporates five of the director’s films while he was contracted to 20th Century Fox, including the brilliant cold-war noir Pickup at South Street. Boutique label Arrow Video got in on the noirish vibes with their release of Dark City – a serviceable thriller notable mainly for Charlton Heston’s first starring role – also released on 2nd September. Also in Arrow’s lineup over this period was Leo McCarey’s The Bells of St. Mary’s, Billy Wilder’s comedy The Major and The Minor, and the 1957 biopic Man of A Thousand Faces, starring James Cagney as screen chameleon and horror icon, Lon Chaney. The label got Halloween chills in early with The Prey on 16th September – a pretty standard teens-in-the-woods slasher from 1983, but enjoyable none the less for aficionados of the genre.

John Irvin’s celebrated African-set action thriller, The Dogs of War got its 14th October release from the ever-reliable Eureka video. Starring a callow, never-more-intense Christopher Walken as a mercenary developing something approaching a conscience, The Dogs of War prefigures modern examples of cerebral, postcolonial action cinema like Sicario. Luc Besson’s 1990s action classic Leon got a re-release from StudioCanal, featuring the director’s cut and new artwork. No month would be complete without a martial arts boxset from Eureka, and 7th October brought us Three Films from Sammo Hung, the legendary director, choreographer and performer.

As the season of Halloween grew nearer, so the frequency of horror releases increased: lukewarm British proto-slasher Fright saw its release on 14th October from StudioCanal, while Eureka released George Romero’s fun psycho-thriller, The Dark Half, on the 14th. Meanwhile, the disturbing, problematic Toys are Not For Children got a welcome release from Arrow. Criterion served up some much-needed levity with Jon Water’s bonkers 1981 smell-o-rama fest Polyester – starring his muse par excellence, Divine, followed by Paul Bartel’s very funny, scrappy cannibal black comedy, Eating Raoul on the 21st Bartel’s film about an uptight cash-strapped couple who take to luring fetishists to their apartment, murdering them and selling their bodies as meat pairs very well with Polyester – both films dealing in sub/urban lives as modern dystopian fantasy.


Shock Corridor – 2 September (Criterion)

Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor is seminal in its representations of madness and the asylum as a site of psychological horror. One need only look at One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, and even the TV series American Horror Story for a sense of its influence on American cinema and popular culture.

Its premise is simple – in order to investigate a murder that happened inside an asylum, journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) is to pose as a patient with a sexual fixation on his sister, played by his real girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers). To convince the doctors he must fully inhabit his character twenty-four hours a day. Among the cracked minds and Caligari-esque corridors of the ward, it’s no surprise that the walls between his performative and his real self begin to crumble. Even contemporary racial and sexual politics of the outside world cross the barrier into the inner space the sanitorium, while Johnny’s psychosis is externalised through Stanley Cortez’s increasingly surreal cinematography.

The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 – 16 September (Arrow Video)

The original The Hills Have Eyes was a brutal, even cynical exercise in savagery and amorality. Conceived by a hungry director at the start of his career in Wes Craven, The Hills Have Eyes tempered in the social crucible of political and social collapse. Sadly, this 1984 sequel reflects the commercial imperatives of the subsequent slasher boom, but with little of its contemporaries’ inventiveness or brio. The relatively small cast make for dull, sparse kills, most of which are cribbed from better films, while the original’s reheated setting and premise offer a roundly unappetising proposition. Still, among the endless teen whining and low-key sexual harassment, there is liberal use of stock footage of the first film to pad out the run time; even the dog gets numerous flashbacks which are undoubtedly the film’s highlight.

The Koker Trilogy – 23 September (Criterion)

Among Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami’s most accomplished works, The Koker Trilogy spins complex beauty from poetic simplicity. Each film in the series is set at one remove from the last, positioning its predecessor as a work of fiction within its own reality. Where Is The Friend’s House?, the first film of the trilogy, plays like a fable, about a schoolboy trying to return his friend’s schoolbook to prevent him from being expelled the next day. The banality of its premise is gilded with narrative magic, told with a documentary style that captures Ahmed’s (Babek Ahmed Poor) perspective. As Babek makes his journey to the neighbouring village, the film teases out a magical realism that relies not on externalised imagination, but on the palpable feeling of Babek’s meagre horizons being expanded by his quest.

The second feature, Life and Nothing More, takes us back to Koker by way of an imagined director – a thinly-veiled analogue to Kiarostami – returning with his son to the setting of the previous film. The tragedy and disruption of the 1990 Iranian earthquake waylay the pair, and they must make an alternative route to the village, meeting displaced and bereaved inhabitants along the way. The film’s centrepiece – a discussion with a young man whose losing his entire family prompted him to marry his sweetheart – is devastating and affirming in equal measure. The trilogy’s closing piece, Through the Olive Trees, again uses the sequence as its dramatic hinge, but this time with the actor who played the young man amorously pursuing his on-screen wife. The final scene, an extreme wide shot, quotes its predecessor’s finale, rendering a personal moment epic against the sublime Iranian landscape.


Old Boy – 7 October (Arrow Video)

Arrow’s outstanding release of Korean master Park Chan-wook’s revenge opera is somewhat of a misnomer: hiding behind the title of director Park’s 2003 film is actually the entire Vengeance Trilogy, incorporating 2002’s Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, the titular Oldboy, and the 2005 trilogy-capper, Lady Vengeance. Though pitched in this set as the lynchpin of the trio, Oldboy is arguably the series’ outlier. More kinetic and less stately than its counterparts, it was the only film of the three based on a graphic novel. And while its violence is thrilling in its brutality and forwards momentum, Oldboy’s drama is far broader than the neo-Gothic melancholy of either Vengeances Mister or Lady.

Narratively unconnected, the three films are linked by their concerns with family, primal sexuality, and cold rage untempered by the passage of time. Across the series, few of Park’s players get out alive; fewer still survive with their souls intact. Oldboy’s horrifying denouement may be the most memorable, but Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance cyclical climax stings the deepest, while the final moments of Lady Vengeance evoke a melancholy catharsis – best viewed on the disc’s Fade to White version – that eludes its predecessors.

And Soon the Darkness – 14 October (StudioCanal)

With the success of Ari Aster’s prismatic horror Midsommar earlier this year, and genre fandom’s current infatuation with folk horror, StudioCanal’s release of Robert Fuest’s 1970 And Soon The Darkness is a timely reminder that the dawn of daylight horror is no recent phenomenon. Fuest was a celebrated director in genre circles, working across film and TV. He also worked on children’s TV, with which its low budgets, quick turnaround and need for arresting, vibrant imagery surely provided an unlikely set of transferable skills for his work in horror cinema. This release is being paired with the proto-slasher Fright, presumably for their contrast in settings: one taking place primarily in an English house and night, while the other during daylight hours in the French countryside. While the former film certainly has merit – sadly spent before its torpid conclusion – And Soon The Darkness remains gripping throughout.

Fuest’s film was remade in 2010 with Amber Heard, yet it’s the original that retains a sense of contemporary relevance. Fuest couldn’t have predicted that the contemporary cultural aesthetics he was working in would one day be mined – as in the satirical Scarfolk PSA posters and spoof YouTube kids’ TV, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared – for their retro-creepiness. Nevertheless, for a modern audience the ineffable early 70s-ness of And Soon the Darkness is simply too evocative to deny. From the brilliant, simple premise of two English-rose types mysteriously separated on a cycling holiday in France, to the naff Gallic villages and their grumpy inhabitants and the lonely afternoon light that bathes the country road that Jane (Pamela Franklin) must endlessly traverse in a nightmare of repetition, And Soon The Darkness exists in a realm of imagined nowhere, an un-nostalgia bore from contemporary sexual and social anxiety.

Red Heat – 21 October (StudioCanal)

With the latest entry in the seemingly unkillable Terminator franchise receiving surprisingly decent notices, it seems that the appeal of Arnie is as strong as ever. Still, Red Heat was probably never at the top of anyone’s list of Schwarzenegger joints: not over the top enough for the likes of Commando or The Running Man, and not sufficiently interesting or thrilling to sit alongside Predator or Total Recall. Instead, we have a very solid buddy-cop actioner that gets by on a handful of satisfyingly crunchy set pieces and mostly funny chemistry with co-star James Belushi as police officer Art Ridzik.

The gimmick is that Arnold’s Ivan Danko is an officer of the USSR – doing surely his only (barely) non-Austrian accent ever – covertly tracking a wayward Soviet in America on the run from Russian authorities. It’s a classic culture-clash concept, set in the context of relations between the US and the soon-to-be-former Soviet Union starting to thaw. And whaddya know, maybe Art and Ivan might have learned a thing or two by the closing credits.


The Fate of Lee Khan – 21 October (Eureka)

The final part of legendary Chinese filmmaker King Hu’s wuxia Inn Trilogy, The Fate of Lee Khan is less operatic than its predecessors, but no less elegant in its balletic violence and historic-fantasy intrigue. Taking place largely in the confines of an inn while a civil war between Mongol lords and Chinese rebels wages across the country, The Fate of Lee Khan is a masterclass in establishing and manipulating cinematic space. Like the wretched hive of scum and villainy of Star Wars’ Mos Eisely cantina, the inn serves as a hub both for ne’er do wells, criminals and political dissidents. While the former conduct the shady business in openly, the latter hide their rebellion in plain sight, communicating with tokens indistinguishable to the uninitiated from normal coins.

The luminous magic of A Touch of Zen’s visuals is left at the door here, the former’s florid earthiness is retained, leaving an impression both of grit and vibrancy. The grain of the inn’s wooden beams and rustic tables are balanced by the intense colours of the inn waitresses’ outfits. Drawn from the ranks of outlaws and recruited into the insurrection, they are helpfully colour-coded to keep track of once the fists start flying. Just as the architectural space of the inn is meticulously constructed, so too is the film’s narrative structure, divided into an establishing first act, a second that piles on the tension, heralded by the arrival Mongol Lord Lee Khan, and a climax in which the film can no longer bear the load of its own suspense. The result is violent, cascading catharsis.

Journey To The Beginning of Time – 27 October (Second Run)

This magnificent prehistoric fantasy adventure, from Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman, finds a welcome and loving release from Second Run with a new 4K restoration and a suite of extras. Perhaps best known for The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, here Zeman deploys his whimsical sense of wonder in the service of four boys who journey back through time to see where a trilobite fossil they found came from. After discovering the fossil, the boys decide to take a rowboat down the river and back to the time of the dinosaurs – no boring explanations needed, thank you – in order to satisfy nothing more than their curiosity.

Much is made on the disc’s special features of the mixed techniques Zeman employed to bring his prehistoric land to life – stop-motion animation, matte paintings, puppets and life-size models. Indeed they were ingenious, perhaps even rivalling the great Ray Harryhausen for sheer imaginative power. Yet the real magic of Journey To The Beginning of Time is how it makes you not notice the brilliance of the effects, instead sweeping us up in its childlike wonder at discovery. There are no grand set pieces, very little peril, no great McGuffin for the boys to chase: just the endless wonder of depthless time and its endless variety of form. Its sheer simplicity and appreciation of the marvels of the world are adventure enough.

The Before Trilogy – 28 October (Criterion)

It doesn’t take a great critical eye to notice that Richard Linklater has always been concerned with the passage of time across people’s lives. The showiest example of this was with his decade-long project Boyhood, in which he filmed a teenage boy growing into adulthood in real-time. But it was surely his Before trilogy, a series that evolved gradually over nearly twenty years, where much of Linklater’s style was consolidated and matured. Their organic development, filmed at unplanned but pleasing intervals of nine years, is crucial to their vitality and honesty as an examination of a decades-long relationship.

The first film, Before Sunrise, works as a one-off: a naive, sincere depiction of two hopelessly romantic kids caught up in the magic of a chance encounter in Vienna. One of the joys of revisiting the series – Sunrise in particular – is to measure the increasing distance between yourself and Jesse and Céline (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) their naivete and pretensions, and their innocence, becoming more noticeable as maturity settles on us. Yet at the same time, we catch up with them in the increasingly complex presents of the second (Before Sunset) and third (Before Midnight) instalments, growing through the ongoing saga as they do.

There’s an increasing maturity to the style, too, from Linklater’s slightly on-the-nose dialogue in the first film and the real-time experiment with Before Sunset, to the collaborative approach he fully adopted with Delpy and Hawke in Before Midnight. It’s a magic trick that few other film series can match so effortlessly. We call the films a trilogy because at the moment there are three of them, yet in 2004 the series could just as easily have ended as a two-fer. Self-contained yet expanding beyond the frame, there’s no reason we shouldn’t expect another glimpse into Jesse and Céline’s lives (Before Breakfast?) in a few years.


Nightbreed – 28 October (Arrow Video)

Beside the BDSM triumph of works like Hellraiser, Clive Barker’s monstrous fantasy saga feels more a footnote than a major entry into the horror auteur’s oeuvre. Originally intended as the first part of a trilogy, the plan was abandoned after studio suits got cold feet at Butcher’s strange vision and butchered his cut. Nightbreed was nevertheless embraced by fans, resulting in the Cabal cut – a barely watchable fan edit that attempted to resurrect Barker’s original vision through scratchy old VHS footage. Its scrappiness is belied by the deep affection and dedication that was poured into it: an affection clearly transferred into the director’s cut available here that restores around forty-five minutes of original footage, while excising a further twenty or so minutes of studio-mandated editions.

The result is a rich and evocative – if minor – fantasy horror that, while not up to viscerally disturbing heights of Barker’s best work, feels significant in its own right. The vast mythology that Nightbreed hints at, and the mythical city of Midian – built up portentously in the first act – is undercut slightly by the fact it’s pretty easily accessible through a graveyard just outside town. Nevertheless, the slight naffness of the setting rarely distracts from the imagination of the production design and makeup, especially the variety of sympathetic monsters – each worthy of their own story – not to mention a masked serial killer played by none other than David Cronenberg. If nothing else, Nightbreed is exemplary of Barker’s excess of imagination that draws as much from the prophetic visions of William Blake as it does the primal nightmares of Lovecraft.

An American Werewolf in London – 28 October (StudioCanal)

What better way to close out October than with arguably the best werewolf picture since Lon Chaney Jr. transformed into the Wolf Man in 1941? Rightly celebrated on release for its outstanding special effects – and the first film to win the Oscar for Best Make-Up – Rick Baker’s work on An American Werewolf in London remains the best monster transformation ever put to film.

But it’s the distillation of humour and horror that truly sell John Landis’ film. Coming off the success of The Blue Brothers, Landis was finally able to shoot the script that he’d been hawking around Hollywood since the 1960s. The film as a parable for antisemitism is not only inferred from the horrifying Nazi dream sequence but also from the way David (David Naughton) is treated as a stranger in a strange land. And like any werewolf tale worth its salt, there’s always a chance that it’s all in David’s head: there’s a lot of mileage in imagining he is only imagining himself as a wolf as he rampages through the tube and Soho. The London setting, the deeply unwelcoming Yorkshire pub peopled by great British character actors, Jenny Agutter’s questionable nursing techniques, the fake-porno See You Next Wednesday – kicking off the film’s gratuitous climax – are the cherry on the cake, bringing effortless character and charm to this modern folkloric tale.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell