Tuesday, October 18, 2011

THE GUNS OF NAVARONE: Blu-ray (Columbia 1961) Sony Home Video


Few movies have been as effective at invisibly weaving their narrative fiction into our collective consciousness as fact as J. Lee Thompson’s The Guns of Navarone (1961); a magnetic – if slightly pulpy – WWII melodrama loosely based on Alistair McLean’s novel. Before proceeding it must be pointed out that the entire tale is a work of fiction; brilliantly reconstituted by Thompson as perhaps, the peerless example of Hollywood’s machinery still alive and churning out fantasy from its ‘dream factories’The Guns of Navarone is a tale of heroism in all of its many forms. The screenplay by blacklisted writer Carl Foreman never clear cuts or white washes the reality of war and what it’s done to these enlisted men fighting for a cause they may or may not believe in wholeheartedly. Even Gregory Peck’s Capt. Keith Mallory reveals a darker side to his stoic purpose – strangely unsympathetic at times, yet always flavored with Peck’s own inimitable brand of manly grace to counterbalance the character’s rather cold-blooded approach to the mission.
The Guns of Navarone is arguably one of the most perfectly cast movies ever made; its stars hand-picked by Thompson and fitted according to type. After an exhilarating prologue containing mere kernels of truth about WWII, the story shifts into high gear with Mallory, a staunchly determined strategist, assigned the near impossible task of taking a crack team of military misfits to a remote Nazi stronghold on Kiros in the Greek Isles to blow up their impregnable fortress. Mallory’s team includes embittered explosives expert, Cpl. Miller (David Niven), feisty Col. Andrea Stavros (Anthony Quinn), barbarous assassin with a knife, Brown (Stanley Baker), pragmatic Maj. Roy Franklin (Anthony Quayle) and rookie solider, Pvt. Spyros Pappadimo (James Darren). Their mission is hardly foolproof. Fate is anything but on the expedition’s side.
Camouflaging themselves as a fishing trawler, Mallory and his men are intercepted by a German cruiser on the open waters where, after some initial trepidation, they make short shrift of the Nazis, murdering all aboard and sinking the vessel into silence. Franklin takes particular notice of the antagonistic relationship between Stavros and Mallory, and Mallory later informs Franklin that through his own blunder he earlier caused the Nazis to put to death Stavros’ wife and young son. Hence, when the expedition is over – and if they should both survive it – Stavros has promised to avenge these deaths by murdering Mallory. That night the modest fishing vessel is wrecked against the coastal rocks during a violent storm at sea with Mallory and his men scaling a perilous cliff to conquer their first Nazi stronghold.
In the process Franklin is wounded, but Mallory refuses to give in, give up or leave his superior officer behind to die. Miller recognizes the futility of their journey, encouraging Mallory to shoot Franklin. For left alive he will surely be discovered and tortured by the Nazis until he divulges the purpose of their expedition. Instead, Mallory elects to take Franklin along. But Mallory lies to Franklin about the trajectory of their expedition so that if Franklin is captured by the Nazis and made to talk he will provide them with false information. When Miller realizes how heartless and calculating Mallory has been he vehemently chides him.  
Mallory and his troop make their way to some ancient ruins outside of Kiros where they are met by resistance fighter Maria Pappadimos (Irene Papas) and her presumably mute cohort, Anna (Gia Scala). It seems that Maria is Spyros’ cousin. But she has also taken an immediate shine to Stavros, making no secret of her attraction. Anna, so Maria explains, was tortured by the Nazis and left unable to speak by the atrocities committed on her person. Regrettably, a traitor is in their midst, one who having leaked their whereabouts to the Nazis now awaits Mallory’s ambush by at an outdoor Greek wedding reception. Interrogated but escaping their Nazi captors, Mallory and his men regroup at the ruins where Stavros exposes Anna as the liar.  Miller tells Mallory that Anna must be killed and points his finger at Mallory to be the one to assassinate her. Unwilling to murder a woman Mallory is spared his duty when Maria shoots Anna dead instead. Next, Stavros, Miller, Pappadimo and Mallory make their way to the Nazis' fortress high in the cliffs overlooking the bay. During an exchange of gunfire, Spyros and Brown are killed. With the Nazis bearing down, Mallory and Miller rig explosive charges under the two massive guns pointed toward the sea just as an armada of Allied ships are approaching off the coast. The Nazis inadvertently set off Miller’s charges and the stronghold is demolished in a hellish ball of flame as Mallory and Miller dive into the sea to escape the deluge. They are rescued by a boat navigated by Stavros and Maria; the former having set aside his revenge as they observe the bombed out remains of their handy work.
The Guns of Navarone is an exceptional yarn. Foreman's prose makes the story real, despite the historical record. We believe the movie as fact, mostly because Gregory Peck, Tony Quinn, David Niven et al. sell its premise not merely as high movie art but a definitive history as yet untold in the annals of time. It goes without saying that The Guns of Navarone is immeasurably blessed by its perfect casting. Each actor is an iconic presence with built-in cache and/or baggage brought aboard; Peck’s integrity, Niven’s conviction, Quinn’s lusty zeal for portraying men of feisty Greek origin, etc. etc.  The story succeeds partially because the actors have a presence that is sweetly familiar to the audience. We know the characters because we think we know the men behind them and this adds yet another layer of verisimilitude to the exercise.   
The Guns of Navarone is one of those films almost lost to us, thanks to inferior storage and preservation over the years and inferior film stock suffering from a perilous state of vinegar syndrome almost from the moment it was locked away inside Columbia’s vaults and left to molder with the rest of the studio’s illustrious past. For decades The Guns of Navarone was shown on television with its opening sequence misprinted. Immediately following the credits, a plane is seen landing on a runway (shot day for night but printed darker). During the original theatrical release this plane lands at night. On television, it always landed in broad daylight. The sequence also contains a major special effects flub – another plane seemingly suspended in the sky without moving.
In the mid-1990s, Columbia contacted UCLA restoration expert, Robert Gitt to aid in the restoration, accomplished without the added benefit of a digital frame-by-frame cleanup. In 1999, Columbia released The Guns of Navarone to DVD in a less than stellar incarnation, with bumped contrasts, faded flesh tones, very weak colors and shimmering of fine details. A lot of these flaws were inherent in the original print elements, and prior to the wizardry of digital restoration were impossible to correct using standard photochemical techniques. But now Sony Home Video has really gone to town with a ground-up 1080p hi-def restoration. The results are superb. But let's get something straight. The Guns of Navarone will never look pristine. Arguably, it was never intended to. But decades of neglect, poor film stock and processing, and, even poorer storage have all conspired against this movie classic. Thankfully, Sony has gone back to the drawing board on first generation Cinemascope elements (the original camera negative no longer exists) with mostly successful results.
Day for night photography is still problematic, the image considerably grainier. But the outdoor photography, particularly sequences shot in the full light of day, on this Blu-ray are a minor revelation. Flesh tones that once appeared as chalky orange have been brought back into line and are very natural looking throughout. Colors are, at times, startlingly vibrant. The ambush at the Greek wedding positively blew me away with its stark white stucco façades and lush green foliage. Gia Scala's eyes registered a sublime coral blue brilliance. Visually, The Guns of Navarone on Blu-ray has come to life as I never thought it would - even if its film elements remain fundamentally flawed. Sony has also done absolute wonders with the original 4-track stereo too, herein represented as DTS-HD 5.1. Again, it isn't crystal clear, but it is light years ahead of anything we’ve ever heard reproduced on home video before.
The one new extra is 'the resistance dossier' - a beautifully composed series of featurettes that are brief but poignant. For the rest, Sony gives us all of the featurettes and documentaries that came with their deluxe 2-disc DVD from several years ago. None of these older extras have been cleaned up so don't expect high quality video or audio. Still, given Sony's base price for this vintage catalogue title and the immeasurable efforts put forth to restore the film to 'almost' its opening night splendor makes me want to stand up and cheer. The Guns of Navarone Blu-ray is a no-brainer must have/must own. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
3.5

CAPE FEAR: Blu-ray (Universal 1991) Universal Home Video



Outspoken director John Waters once said “You shouldn’t be remaking the good movies. You should be remaking the bad ones in the hopes of improving them.” In theory, I am inclined to agree with Waters. Few remakes can hold a candle to their originals for inspiration. Most are little more than thinly disguised and an utterly misguided regurgitation of the past, while others make the even more futile attempt to break with tradition, usually wandering into the artistic mire and failing to gel on their own terms. But then what are we to make of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear (1991); a remake based on a superior thriller – both film’s exceedingly compelling and successful in their own right and uniquely different from one another?  Scorsese’s remake is a superb and harrowing psychological thriller - a diabolical masterpiece based on John D. MacDonald’s ‘The Executioners’, and more directly the 1962 B-noir film classic of the same name costarring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.
Yet Scorsese’s film, apart from its title and general premise, stands alone - a superior departure from both the book and the earlier movie in many ways. Originally, director Steven Spielberg had approached Robert DeNiro with a screenplay by Wesley Strick. DeNiro immediately liked the idea, and was ready to commit to the project outright. For one reason or another Spielberg decided to bow out from doing the movie, leaving DeNiro with the option to shop the story around elsewhere. So DeNiro took it to Scorsese who showed little interest at first, in as much for the fact that he did not want to do a remake as he felt Strick’s central narrative was too grandiose and void of the intimate familial connections he wanted to explore.
Scorsese did however connect with the similarities between the story's central antagonist Max Cady and those of Travis Bickle (whom DeNiro had played for Scorsese in Taxi Driver 1976). Eventually, Strick was brought on board and on set by Scorsese to reshape the story, emphasizing the familial discourse as well as the generational disconnect within the Bowden clan. Scorsese also asked Strick to remove the larger set pieces from the screenplay that he felt were too theatrical and not particularly compelling from a narrative point of view. Strick obliged. The results speak for themselves.
Plot wise, our story opens with the prison release of Max Cady (Robert DeNiro), an embittered rapist who has spent the last fourteen years behind bars for brutalizing a minor. Cady’s first bit of business is to reintroduce himself to his former attorney, Sam Bowden (Nick Nolte). It seems that while in prison Cady self-taught to interpret the law and, while perusing his own court records discovered Sam had suppressed a crucial piece of evidence about his victim’s promiscuity that might have set him free at the time of his trial.
Driven by revenge Cady slowly begins to unsettle the Bowden household. Wife Leigh (Jessica Lange) is already rife with suspicions and cynicism beyond her years, thanks to an extramarital affair Sam had with one of his former law clerks. Daughter Danielle (Juliette Lewis) is a typical angst-ridden teenager who believes her parents’ constant bickering perfectly illustrates just how hypocritical and out of touch they are. Max contacts Leigh first, returning a dog collar and leash after the family dog has mysteriously died. He further stakes out the Bowden home on the fourth of July and thereafter ingratiates himself to Sam’s latest flirtation; Lori Davis (Illeana Douglas) whom he brutally rapes as a precursor of the violence yet to befall the Bowdens. The infamous sequence in which Cady brutalizes Lori by taking a considerable bite out of her cheek was improvised at the last minute, using raw chicken as a more edible substitute for human flesh.
Max gains Danielle’s confidence by pretending to be her drama teacher and, in a nail-biting moment, performs a bizarre seduction that includes some very naughty thumb-sucking. Sam contacts Lieutenant Elgart (Robert Mitchum - Max Cady in the original film) but is informed that, apart from a mild warning there is nothing the law can do to repel Cady’s seemingly harmless advances. Sam’s next recourse is to contact private investigator Claude Kersek (Joe Don Baker) whose first attempt at hiring a trio of thugs to severely beat up Cady in a back alley backfires when Cady actually exacts his own wrath upon the men. Kersek then decides to stake out a trap at the Bowden home. But this too ends in a night of bloody carnage instead. Cady strangles Kersek with a piece of piano wire and slits the throat of the Bowden’s devoted housemaid, Graciella (Zully Montero). Discovering their bodies lying in a pool of blood in the kitchen, the terrified family retreat to their houseboat moored at Florida's Cape Fear, only to discover that Cady has managed to climb aboard the vessel first and is awaiting their arrival. Thus begins one traumatic night of terror where mere survival is the best that anyone can hope for.
Discrepancies between the original and the remake are many and worth noting. In the original story, Sam (Gregory Peck) is a loyal family man who witnessed Cady’s crime of rape and testified against him at trial. The Bowden’s teenage daughter (Nancy in the original) was terrorized by Cady in the earlier film from the start, as opposed to exploring her own sexualized thoughts through Cady’s devious manipulation of her impressionable mind. In the original the rape victim (Diane) was a transient barfly without any connection to the Bowden family. In introducing the character of Lori Davis in the remake as Sam’s burgeoning romantic dalliance, Scorsese crystallizes the immediacy of Cady’s purpose – his revenge against Sam and his family drawing its parallel between Sam's mild illicit romantic appetite and Cady's more ravenously destructive one. The remake is also blessed by a well-deserved bit of deja vu. Although no one but DeNiro was ever considered for Max Cady, the part of protagonist Sam Bowden went through several revisions before Nick Nolte signed on. Nolte infuses Sam with a sustained sense of flawed humanity, stripping away the cordial mask of his profession one layer at a time.
DeNiro is superb as the unrelenting and obsessive Pentecostal psychopath determined to teach Sam the true meaning of ‘loss.’ Jessica Lange delivers a searing performance as the dutiful wife once scorned and never again as trusting of her man or marriage vows. Cast in cameos, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck (as Bible spouting attorney, Lee Heller) provide a direct link to the original movie. Henry Bumstead’s production design and impressive matte work by David S. Williams and Bill Taylor, coupled with Freddie Francis’ sumptuous cinematography produce a claustrophobic environment of ever-constricting desperation. Cape Fear is a disturbing spiral into the warped mind of a confirmed madman. But the film owes little to the original movie classic.
At the time of its release Scorsese was blessed by the fact that few remembered the 1962 film. The inside joke of having Mitchum play the noble lawman in the remake while Gregory Peck (1962's Sam) worms his way as the oily lawyer stands the conventions of the original movie on end. DeNiro's Max Cady is a perverse sadist. Mitchum's was merely a depraved reprobate. Peck's Sam was a variation on the actor's own persona - typecast as the perennial everyman with noble intentions. But Nolte's Sam is a tragically flawed philanderer. There's more of Max Cady in him than he's willing to admit - even to himself. And in narrowing the margin of error and blurring the line between the virtuous and the depraved Scorsese and Strick deliver a much more chilling comparison between these two men.
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray is hardly the eye-popping 1080p transfer I expected. In fact, colors are remarkably subdued when directly compared with Universal's 2-disc Collector’s Edition DVD release from some years ago. Flesh tones are the big improvement on the Blu-ray. On the DVD they appeared slightly pasty and overly pink. On the Blu-ray skin tones are varied and infinitely truer to life. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Blacks are deep and solid. But whites look a tad muddy to my eye, adopting either an ever so slight pinkish or bluish tint that is not present on the 2 disc DVD incarnation. Age related artifacts are the other big improvement on the Blu-ray. The DVD had minor edge enhancement and film grain that is digital in appearance. The Blu-ray's grain looks very filmic, while edge enhancement is virtually a non-issue. Where the Blu-ray absolutely excels is in its Tru-HD DTS audio that blows the anemic Dolby 5.1 on the DVD right out of the water. Bernard Hermann's repurposed score, ever so slightly tweaked by Elmer Bernstein, is the real benefactor here. Extras are all direct imports from Universal's 2 disc DVD set and include a running audio commentary with Scorsese at his frenetic best, embracing all aspects of the film’s production; several extensive and extremely informative documentaries on the making of the film that contain choice vintage and newer interviews with cast and crew; a stills gallery and theatrical trailer. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
3.5

THE BAD SEED: Blu-ray (WB 1956) Warner Home Video


Not all children are born innocent. Even today the name Rhoda Penmark (Patty McCormick) conjures to mind rather disturbing, sickening and vial chills. It’s no wonder; there is something genuinely unsettling about The Bad Seed (1956). On the surface Rhoda is a precocious eight year old blonde moppet; considerate, charming and alarmingly mature for her age in all her lady-like grace. She is the apple of her parents' Christine (Nancy Kelly) and Col. Kenneth Penmark's (William Hopper) eye and an adoringly sweet child to landlady Monica Breedlove (Evelyn Varden). But under this thin veneer lurks pure poison – a sadist capable of inflicting pain, suffering and even death on anything or anyone who gets in her way without so much as an ounce of remorse. How far will this gargoyle in pigtails go? Well, she murders Claude Daigle, the boy who beat her in her school's spelling bee, just to steal his medal. Then she sets fire to Leroy Jessup (Henry Jones), the caretaker who's figured out her wicked ways.
Rhoda's pantomime of innocence hasn’t fooled her school’s head mistress Claudia Fern (Joan Croyden) who attempts to warn Christine of her suspicions before expelling the child. Nor does it entirely convince the late Claude Daigle's distraught and alcoholic mother, Hortense (Eileen Heckart) that the girl in not responsible for his death. But by the time Christine has figured this out for herself it's almost too late. She has become the next intended victim of Rhoda's diabolical quest to be the center of attention. The Bad Seed is a paralyzing and very creepy tale that continues to rattle the nerves primarily because of McCormick’s deliciously wicked performance – one that regrettably typecast the child star and basically brought about a premature end to her promising career. The 1970s would take this fascinating preoccupation with bad kids to more perfunctory extremes in movies like The Exorcist and The Omen. But The Bad Seed isn’t about the obviousness of evil – demonically influenced or otherwise - but rather its obfuscation, especially when encapsulated by a fresh-faced façade incongruously masking its more deliciously rancid deviances.    
And Patti McCormick’s performance is both bizarre and hypnotically compelling. She is able to generate and maintain our mixed feelings of guilt, compassion and reviled disgust for Rhoda Penmark. At once we’d like to coddle and/or slap her, although neither action would likely draw clarity from the very murky wellspring that is Rhoda’s twisted mind. She is a psychopath – perhaps the first to be so eloquently represented in adolescent form on the big screen. Long before the capricious mind-numbing/knife-wielding slaughter depicted in Halloween by a blank-eyed Michael Myers, The Bad Seed’s Rhoda Penmark arguably became the template for childhood sadism. The trick to McCormick’s performance goes well beyond the way she is able to convincingly alter between manipulative moments of gooey saccharine treacle and despicably venomous acts of violence unbecoming a tot of her limited scope and years. Perhaps it is a little difficult to quantify exactly what makes McCormick so bone-chillingly fun to watch – although, the same could arguably be said for the public’s perverse fascination with serial killers.     
Nancy Kelly is almost as good as Rhoda’s conflicted mother – unable to choose between disciplining her offspring, turning a blind eye or coming to terms and the realization that Rhoda is evil incarnate. Eileen Heckart's grieving mother is quite simply superb. One can feel her self-destructive agony oozing from every pore. Under Mervin LeRoy’s direction, the story nimbly unleashes its reign of terror, ultimately leaving the audience with many nightmares yet to come. Loosely based on William March's novel and more directly on Maxwell Anderson's brilliant stage adaptation, The Bad Seed revels in its almost suffocating claustrophobia. Rarely do we move outside the Penmark’s apartment, and even when we do, the repercussions from Rhoda’s actions are more implied than revealed. As example: partly due to the stringency of the production code – which forbade explicitness - we never see Rhoda drown Claude or burn Leroy. But LeRoy’s direction is suggestive enough of these crimes, allowing the audience’s imagination to run rampant. John Lee Mahin's screenplay ably adapts this source material, ever so carefully opening up the stage bound contents without losing any of its shock value. In the last analysis, The Bad Seed is a good show; compelling, thought-provoking and decidedly hair-raising.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is a mixed bag. The DVD was full frame with a very smooth gray scale, a respectable smattering of grain and very clean looking with deep blacks and excellent contrast levels. The Blu-ray has been re-framed to 1:85:1, presumably as the film was presented theatrically. But the Blu-ray image looks oddly cramped, more disturbingly grainy and much darker in this new aspect ratio, particularly when directly compared with the DVD presentation.
For example, in the 'reframed' Blu-ray we don't see the table Miss Fern is setting her party favors on at the park shortly before Claude Daigle's death. This may seem a moot point, but on the Blu-ray we're not quite sure what Miss Fern is doing while Christine questions her about Rhoda’s pending expulsion, while on the DVD her actions - and pregnant pauses - are quite obvious. I also have to say that at least on my HD display I was unable to properly frame the opening credits without a distinct cropping of the Warner shield at the top, while the word 'with' in the subsequent credits listing supporting cast names was entirely cut off.
In 1:85.1 the Blu-ray image seems somewhat 'blown up' with an exaggerated amount of film grain that borders on digitalized grit in some scenes not visible on the full frame DVD presentation. Contrast levels also appear brighter than they ought. The DVD's tonality was very natural in appearance but the Blu-ray's mid-register looks artificially boosted with a notable loss of fine detail. Not having ever seen this film in a theater on film stock I cannot in good faith say which presentation on home video is most like its theatrical engagement. But I can offer a personal opinion. I still prefer the image quality of my full frame DVD to the Blu-ray without question.
On both DVD and Blu-ray the audio is mono and adequately represented. Extras are imports from the DVD and include a featurette (billed as a documentary) in which Patty McCormick – all grown up - rambles about the making of the film. Truthfully, McCormick’s reminiscences boil down to a “look at me, wasn’t I wonderful?” diatribe with inserts from the film as filler. There’s also an audio commentary with McCormick and Charles Busch that’s somewhat entertaining but equally self-congratulatory. Not recommended if you already own the DVD.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
2

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: Blu-ray (Orion 1991) MGM/Fox Home Video


It is impossible to set aside one’s own appetite for liver and Fava beans without remembering the good Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) and his affinity for whatever else might be on the menu. Jonathan Demme’s sadistic The Silence of the Lambs (1991) – a loose ‘sequel’ to Michael Mann’s Man Hunter (1986, based on the novel by Thomas Harris) remains a delectably hair-prickling excursion into the mind of a madman. In bringing the unrepentant flesh-eating physician to life Anthony Hopkins resurrected his own sagging movie career. Hopkins performance is a tour de force; breathing in maliciousness for mankind while quietly expelling a queer admiration for his intended next victim, fledgling FBI agent, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) whom he ultimately spars the indignation of his Ginsu. The mutual fascination that develops between these sworn enemies is bizarre to say the least. Yet, it fuels the movie’s otherwise conventional crime-solving narrative with an almost involuntary and enthralling underlay of sexual friction that increasingly becomes the central focus.
For Clarice Starling is very like the ‘little lost lamb’ so depicted in her own anxious childhood recollections throughout the story and more astutely accredited in the movie’s title; an innocent thrust into the midst of wolves – her male counterparts in the FBI, including boss and mentor, Jack Crawford, played with subtle salacious inferences by Scott Glenn and more odious obviousness by Anthony Heald, leering and leaning in as the despicable curator of a maximum security asylum, Dr. Frederick Chilton. Ted Tally’s screenplay draws an unflattering, though remarkably clairvoyant parallel between all three men in Clarice’s life; the influences they exert – or try to – on her life and career, and, the commonalities they possess; namely, to claim her for their own. One of the movie’s more perverse ironies remains that the only man capable of seeing Clarice living up to her potential is Hannibal Lecter – his appreciation for her cleverness, but moreover, her honesty not yet jaded by its tenure at the FBI – allows him to forgo his usual modus operandi and let Clarice live.  
The story is seen almost entirely from Clarice’s point of view; in her pursuit of copycat killer James 'Buffalo Bill' Gumb (Ted Levine), and, from her unrelenting drive to become the best possible criminologist within the FBI’s patriarchal infrastructure. We revisit her fearless angst-ridden quest to be rid of her early childhood trauma and her hopelessly flawed relationships with Lecter – whose fascination with her is only marginally more grotesque than that shared by Jack Crawford, who abnormally relishes keeping Clarice slightly off balance in his presence. As portrayed by Jodie Foster, Clarice Starling is clever enough to play their game but smart enough to know when she can bend the rules to get exactly what she wants. Once again, Clarice’s one true intellectual equal is Lecter – aberrant but clear-headed.
The tale begins with Crawford sending Clarice – still a trainee - to the maximum security asylum to interview Hannibal. Crawford needs insight into the mind of another serial killer whose recent string of copycat murders has resulted in the disappearance of a Senator’s daughter, Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith). The asylum supervisor, Dr. Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald) is himself a sadist who delights in the sublime torture of the inmates from this motley freak show. He flirts with Clarice before allowing her into the bowels of the institution where she does indeed come face to face with evil incarnate. Hannibal Lecter is not about to publicly share his secrets – that is, not without a little glimpse into Clarice’s own psyche – a bit of quid pro quo psychoanalysis that threatens to reveal far too much about Clarice’s past. Instructed by Crawford not to partake in any of Hannibal’s head games, Clarice instead decides to gamble her own memories for the sake Catherine’s safe return. Eventually, the FBI learns enough to make an arrest – only they’ve miscalculated the clues and showed up at the wrong house. Hannibal leverages his ‘intelligence’ and is granted a provisional move to a lower security venue where he inevitably escapes.
For the next two hours, we are riveted to our seats; eyes opened wide by the twisted machinations of two sadists; one who oddly enough, we come to like…sort of. In the end, goodness prevails – at least on the surface. Clarice finds and kills Buffalo Bill before he can skin Catharine alive. She achieves the level of cadet and graduates with top honors. But at the post-commencement party Clarice receives a phone call from one admirer she perhaps did not expect; Hannibal Lecter – still at large and in hot pursuit of Dr. Chilton; a friend who he plans to have…“for dinner”.
In these last few moments The Silence of the Lambs is elevated from its basic unrelentingly bleak crime/thriller genre to a genuinely corrupt and paralyzing artistic iniquity; penetrating even in all its haunted resonance for skin-crawling dread that undoubtedly had most looking over their shoulders as they exited the theater into the parking lot. Afterward, fava beans and Chianti just never seemed to go together. Evidently Academy voters disagreed. The Silence of the Lambs went on to win Oscars in all of the major categories including Best Actor (Hopkins), Actress (Foster), Director (Demme) and Best Picture - a coup not seen in Hollywood since Frank Capra's decidedly more buoyant It Happened One Night (1934).
The Silence of the Lambs on Blu-ray is a revelation. The various DVD incarnations all suffered from less than stellar transfers marred by excessive grain and middling color fidelity that infrequently looked more washed out than anything else. These oversights have all been corrected on the Blu-ray, as have issues of edge enhancement and pixelization. This image is smooth yet robust, revealing a startling amount of fine details.The audio is a 5.1 DTS re-mastering revealing more subtle effects in the original sound mix. Extras are all imported from MGM's Collector's series DVD and include a documentary, several featurettes, stills - plus an extensive array of featurettes delving more comprehensively into the cast, crew, editing style and the psychology of a serial killer. In a genuinely morbid twist – you also get 5 cooking recipes that Hannibal Lecter would definitely approve. I shudder to think of their protein content.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS
4

THE THING: Blu-ray (Universal 1982) Universal Home Video


“In movies the sky is the limit…and because of this you have to have great discipline in what you do.”  - Vincente Minnelli
Minnelli was of course referring more directly to the Hollywood musical – arguably his forte. Yet the same analogy can easily be ascribed to the horror genre. Inundated today by a barrage of SFX laden fantasy yarns, each inexcusably ratcheting up the gore factor, it is as much a rarity to discover the ‘good fright’ in the cinema of today as it is to suddenly realize the ‘good cry’. True dread is not conjured to mind by the grotesqueness of the image on the screen, rather by the perceived perversity in the exercise as reconstituted in the mind’s eye.
As example, there are those among us today who believe they have actually witnessed Anthony Perkin’s knife hack into Janet Leigh’s flesh during the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) despite the fact that a shot-for-shot analysis reveals these two elements never coming in contact with one another. Consequently, there are as many fans who insist on the brutal devouring of the first victim – a nude innocent – during her moonlit swim at the start of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). It never happened…or rather did: we just didn’t see it. Hence, perception is the key to terrorizing the audience.
By the late 1970s it had become increasingly difficult to rattle people out of their theater seats. John Carpenter had paved the way with Halloween (1978) before stepping aside to allow all of the cheap imitations to proliferate the marketplace. Carpenter didn’t walk away from horror altogether, but he did seem to waffle somewhat after Halloween’s success, intermittently hitting his target with a bull’s eye, though only by increasingly falling back on the ploy of more blood and guts to agitate his audience. John Carpenter’s most enduring movies, Halloween, The Fog (1980), The Thing (1982) and Christine (1983) represent not only the director at the peak of his powers; they also attest to a level of craftsmanship in the horror genre that has been mangled since and almost as badly as the ever-rising body count that continues to ring cash registers around the world.
A lot can happen in the middle of the frozen tundra and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) proves it. Loosely based on Winchester Films' Howark Hawk’s 1951 classic The Thing from Another World, Carpenter's remake is in a class by itself. Like the best of Carpenter’s work The Thing retains its’ sense of ominous foreboding, parceling off its schlock gore for maximum shock effect. Yes – there are intervals of hideousness that leave the viewer repulsed (as when ‘the thing’ – all gooey and mucus-covered from being recently torched – is analyzed as a micro-organism capable of mutating into any shape or form). But these ten second scares are counterbalanced by Carpenter’s masterful blending and balance of an ever-mounting anxiety; an uncertainty that helps breed paranoia both within the group of scientists as represented on the screen, but also within the audience who have already begun to sense by the hairs prickling on the back of their necks that something more sinister and faintly tragic is afoot.  
As a movie, and as a remake, The Thing excels not because of its intermittent blatant disregard for the aforementioned ‘slow burn’, but rather because Carpenter cleverly recognizes exactly when too much is just enough and has still not crossed so far over the threshold that he cannot pull back to ply the audience with more exposition guaranteed to unsettle them even further. This of course is the hallmark of a master storyteller and Carpenter is exactly that and much more – with horror being his forte. Dean Cundey’s contributions to the film cannot be overstated; his moody interplay of shadow and light revealing just enough shape-shifting panic coming out of the dark; his ability to relay visual information succinctly refraining the most gruesome scenes from becoming mindless slasher fodder.    
Our story concerns a group of well-intended scientists conducting experiments in the Antarctic ice caps where they soon discover a strange anomaly buried within the ice. Could it be an alien craft? Team leader R.J. McReady (Kurt Russell) doesn’t seem to think so…that is, until the company’s husky mascot turns rabid, then begins to exhibit the beginnings of being controlled by an another life force determined to break free from its’ bowels and systematically devour the rest of his team members. McReady’s chief concern is how to identify who is human and who has been infected with this alien organism. Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) begins to perform a series of blood tests. Unfortunately, he becomes the prime suspect after further infestations claim more lives. So, who can be trusted? Who will survive?
Carpenter’s screenplay is loosely faithful to the premise and characters of John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There? that was, in fact, the basis for the 1951 movie. But Carpenter has bettered his source material; ‘mutated’ it to augment the fear factor with an even more perilous conflict brewing between its human protagonists. The underlay of the piece shifts from human vs. alien to what it means to be human – or human vs. humanoid. Man against himself – when even he cannot recognize who and what he is, or – more to the point – has become, is a powerful subtext that Carpenter fully exploits with deft logic and an even greater insistence, to perhaps prove a point – that left to his own devices, and in his desire to rule the planet and the heavens, man will inherently destroy himself. In the final analysis, The Thing is a perfect horror movie – not because it manages to effectively deliver the equivalent to a thirty second jolt from an electric cattle prod, but because it leaves one feeling alone, frightened and soulless long after the houselights have come up.  If the purpose of all horror is to instill a lingering dread then The Thing excels as few horror movies of any vintage.
Universal’s Blu-ray is a welcome disappointment. Welcomed because we finally get a 1080p scan of this horror classic that delivers the goods where image quality is concerned. Colors are vibrant. Fine detail is fully realized. Grain is accurately reproduced and contrast is superb. The image will decidedly NOT disappoint.  Also, the DTS 5.1 audio has given us the very first credible sound mix with Ennio Morricone’s spooky techno score permeating from all five channels. But this disc is a colossal disappointment because it omits virtually all of the Collector’s Edition DVD special features. Honestly, what was the point of that?!? I am going to recommend this Blu-ray for its peerless transfer. But if you own Universal's Collector's Edition from 2003 this isn't the time to trade up. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
0

MISERY: Blu-ray (Polygram 1987) MGM/Fox Home Video


I must confess to an artistic narrow-mindedness: Rob Reiner would not have been my first choice to direct any movie based on a Stephen King novel. There – I said it. Evidently, King agreed with me back in 1989…or perhaps simply did not want anyone in Hollywood tampering with what he considered to be his favorite and most closely guarded literary masterwork. Thankfully Reiner didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Nor did he give up on the project, coaxing King into preliminary meetings that revealed a mutual verve for the movie that the author eventually embraced. And Reiner has since proven that he was exactly the right director for Misery (1990); a paralytic and spellbinding psychological melodrama.
Misery takes us on a terrorizing journey into the mind of a very disturbed middle-age frump; think Susan Boyle with a few loose spark plugs. In Misery’s case, the house-bound chicklet is one Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates in an Oscar-winning role); the self-professed biggest fan of best-selling author Paul Sheldon (James Caan). For the next 114 min. Annie will save Paul’s life only to make him wish she had let him die out there in the snow after an impromptu blizzard caused his Mustang to careen over the side of a very steep cliff.
Movies about two people essentially talking to one another in a confined space are very cheap to make but exceedingly difficult to pull off without tedium quickly setting in for the audience. In order for everything to click the director needs but two essentials beyond mere bravery. He needs a killer screenplay with plenty of suspense and pathos, and, actors capable of sustaining scenes in close proximity to one another without the added benefit of being infrequently interrupted by SFX or even a periodic change in scenery to keep the eye focused and mind entertained.
In this regard Reiner has been heaven-blessed with the presence of James Caan and particularly Kathy Bates in her breakout role as the unhinged freak with a literary fixation. Caan, who spends three quarters of the story strapped to a metal bed or bound in a wheelchair, infrequently drugged and having his feet repeatedly broken at the ankle with a sledgehammer while being mentally tortured by other means, nevertheless makes his presence known and felt. But Bates is the star – warts and all – her unprepossessing plain Jane looks a deceptive masquerade that slowly reveals the severity of her extreme melancholia and mental derangement.  Bate’s Annie can make one’s skin crawl with her ever-increasing instability that pivots on a dime; cheerful and accommodating one minute – raging lunacy the next. Herein, Annie’s displeasure seems to be dictated by Paul’s decision to kill off Misery Chastain; the fictional character he created and had sustained through a series of wildly popular romance novels.
When Paul’s car accidentally overturned and rolled down the mountainside he was on his way to Manhattan for a meeting with story editor, Marcia Sindell (Lauren Bacall) on his latest, and final, installment in the Misery series; his piece de resistance. Too bad Annie doesn’t feel the same way. A nurse – presumably retired and living obscurely in the woods – Annie dragged Paul to her secluded cabin where she bound his wounds and reset his broken legs. Paul is undeniably repulsed by his first glimpse of those shattered limbs, but rather impressed at how well he had begun to heal – thanks to Annie’s vigilant expertise. That is, until Annie read his as yet unpublished manuscript and realized that Misery Chastain has died. For Paul, it’s a fitting conclusion to a heroine he’s known, loved, but more recently begun to resent. After all, his commitment to the Misery series has prevented him from exploring his craft as a writer in new and alternative ways.
But for Annie, Misery’s demise represents an implosion of her entire world – one based in fantasy and dictated by her own precariously perched imagination.  Plunged into a maelstrom of all-consuming mental chaos Annie forces Paul to burn his manuscript before embarking on a complete rewrite that will resurrect Misery Chastain from the fiery ashes. But as Paul begins to re-conceptualize his words, working feverishly to finish the rewrite, he becomes more acutely aware that Annie will never let him leave her house alive.
The now famous ‘hobbling’ scene, in which Annie breaks both of Paul’s feet with a sledgehammer after he has tried to escape, caused more than a few hysterical winces in theaters back in 1990. Today, it remains a pivotal moment of grand guinol. Yet, what is most unsettling of all is Bates’ sustained and subtly nuanced performance that convincingly reveals the utter craziness of her character; Annie’s slow descend into insanity made chillingly real and observantly evil. As the audience we increasingly fear for Paul’s life while perversely sympathizing with Annie’s inexplicable derangement that – like Paul - has made her a prisoner of Misery Chastain’s celebrity culture.
If the movie endures at all – and it decidedly does – it is because of Kathy Bates’ variedly and haunting layers of psychosis – if only because Bates makes them all seem so palpably genuine and plausible. When her Annie speaks to Paul under the influence of this increasingly derailed sanity Bates’ eyes are as lifeless as a shark’s, her tone monolithic, yet like a great molten vat of lava brewing beneath the surface, ready to explode and consume any and everything in its path. Misery would have been nothing at all without Bates’ presence and she wields a mighty axe (or sledgehammer, as the case may be) indeed; her performance full of some strange and sublime off key music (apart from her fascination with Liberace) that continues to decay Annie’s mental clarity as it increasingly plucks the audience into a nail-biting and frenzied nightmare.
And yet, Misery is not just Kathy Bates, or even James Caan. Rob Reiner illustrates that he knows how to direct a movie using nothing more than two or three camera set ups in very tight quarters. With the exception of the film’s opening sequence – taking place in a mountain chalet – and the finale – where an emotionally and physically crippled Paul meets Marcia for lunch only to think he suddenly sees Annie approaching them with a pushcart of desserts from across the room – the bulk of the visuals shot inside a remote, dark and decidedly unattractive cabin in the snowy woods; most of the action taking place in the den Annie has converted into Paul’s bedroom, and later, down in the even more uninviting damp basement where Annie has dragged Paul to hide him from an investigating sheriff, Buster (Richard Farnsworth).  Regrettably, Buster discovers Paul anyway and is thereafter shot through the stomach at close range by Annie with a double-gauge shotgun.
Reiner’s attention to pacing is subtle but he never allows the story to drag. The movie ‘moves’ like a careening car through some dark ride thrill attraction at the county fair, evoking thrills, chills, danger and the ultimate resolution – Annie’s death as she is repeatedly struck in the head by Paul using his Underhill typewriter and left to bleed out on the floor. Misery is quite possibly the all-time great cinematic adaptation of a Stephen King novel.  The story was solid to begin with; but Bates, Caan and Reiner have given us the goods with a decidedly chilling visualization; the net result – Misery is no longer King’s favorite story…it’s also his favorite film.  
After having to contend with lackluster, non-anamorphic transfers from the now defunct Polygram Home Entertainment and early MGM DVD releases that did not fare much better MGM/Fox Home Entertainment has revisited Misery on Blu-ray with a stunning re-mastered Collector’s Edition. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits exemplary visual quality. Colors are fully saturated, bright and vibrant. Contrast levels are bang on with deep blacks and very pristine whites. Age-related artifacts have been cleaned up as has earlier edge enhancement and pixelization issues for a visual presentation that is smooth and easy on the eyes. Fine details are fully realized even during the darkest scenes. The audio is remastered in 5.1 DTS; quite aggressive during the opening blizzard sequence and final showdown between Paul and Annie. A litany of extras are all direct imports from the MGM DVD and include: five featurettes detailing (1) the film’s production, (2) the psychology of Annie’s character (3) the law and celebrity stalking, (4) the psychology behind celebrity stalking, and (5) the development of the screenplay – plus stills, audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
3.5

POLTERGEIST: Blu-ray (MGM 1982) Warner Home Video


Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982) continues to rank among a handful of truly scary horror movies. That the film’s narrative mixes both the light and the fantastic is perhaps no great surprise given that Steven Spielberg was its’ executive producer and co-writer. Yet, it is Hooper’s involvement on the project, coming as it did a scant eight years after his foray into tasteless gore with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) that helps to keep Spielberg’s usually light touch with SFX whimsy well-grounded in a dark realm of truly palpable chills.

Behind the scenes, the shoot was as arduous and traumatic as anything seen on the screen. Production memos report that actor Oliver Robins was nearly strangled by his toy clown when the release apparatus suffered a malfunction and instead continued to tighten. While horror aficionados have ascribed a ‘damned’ quality to the making of the film – primarily because two of its youngest cast members, Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne suffered gruesome deaths shortly after wrapping – the film itself emerged relatively unscathed from this macabre backstage intrigue, becoming an instant – and now enduring - blockbuster.

Craig T. Nelson and Jo Beth Williams are cast as married couple, Steve and Diane Freeling. He’s a successful architect. She’s a hip housewife with plenty of time to discover the growing mélange of oddities creeping into their new home nightly. At first it’s just a bunch of chairs regrouping themselves in the kitchen or some kinetic energy that causes objects to slide across the floor. However, before long, the Freeling’s youngest child, Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) is hearing strange voices coming from the static off the T.V. As the supernatural signs become more ominous in tone, and eventually life-threatening, the Freelings contract a paranormal psychologist, Dr. Lesh (Beatrice Straight) and her psychic compatriot, Tangina (Zelda Rubenstein) to unravel the secrets of their spirit-possessed abode.

Unbeknownst to Steve, his most recent and successful housing development project has been built on lands of an ancient Indian burial ground. Rather than relocate the bodies, the developer, Mr. Teague (James Karen) has simply removed the headstones and bulldozed the corpses to make way for this new subdivision. Tragically, for all the living concerned, Teague’s frugality doesn’t necessarily mean that the dead will remain buried for very long.

The film is a potpourri for special effects, with matte paintings, full scale models and puppetry, claymation, pyrotechnics, mood lighting and good old fashioned sound effects providing most of the earthly bound scares. In fact, they were Oscar nominated and continue to hold up remarkably well under today’s digital scrutiny. It’s a pity Hooper and Spielberg did not collaborate on future projects in this same vein of genius, since Poltergeist is a fright-fest with much to admire.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray reissue exhibits a 1080p anamorphic image so sharp and smooth with solid colors, deep saturated blacks and a considerable amount of fine detail evident throughout that you'll practically feel the unearthly ghosts haunting your living room. All of the shortcomings of the DVD have been eradicated for a stunning new visual presentation that will surely not disappoint! The 5.1 audio mix is a tad dated but continues to hold its own and is considerably aggressive during action sequences.

Given that Hooper and Spielberg did not get on, there is no audio commentary or ‘making of’ featurette to mark the occasion of the film’s 25th anniversary. Instead, there is a scant featurette on real life hauntings and some junket materials, but curiously enough, no theatrical trailer. Bottom line: for transfer quality this Blu-ray comes highly recommended!


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


5


VIDEO/AUDIO


4.5


EXTRAS


2

HALLOWEEN II: Blu-ray (Moustapha Akad 1981) Universal Home Video


Rick Rosenthal's Halloween II (1981) ought to be ‘required viewing’ for any director attempting a sequel, remake or update of a classic horror film. This sequel pulls off the near impossible task of matching John Carpenter's horror classic chill for chill. And, it remains so reverent to the mood, tone, style and pacing of the original that it’s pretty hard to discern both films were not directed by the same person. Hence, continuity is upheld, the result being that watching both movies back to back feels very much like one four hour epic slasher. Despite the fact that Dick Warlock takes over as 'the shape' from Nick Castle in the original I have never been able to discern any jarring differences in the performance given. Purists: please don't flood this blog with examples of how the two men differ in their take on Michael Myers. Let's just agree that they do, but unremarkably so to the untrained eye.
Scripted by John Carpenter and Debra Hill Halloween II takes up exactly where the original ended and it is to the film makers' credit that despite the passage of nearly four years between the two films, the time lapse is virtually imperceivable. Doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance) sends Michael Myers (Dick Warlock) over a second story balcony to his presumed death by firing six slugs into him with his revolver. Regrettably, the inhuman Michael is immune to gunfire. He gets up and continues his bloodthirsty pursuit of Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), the only survivor from the first movie.
After witnessing the slaughter of virtually all her high school friends, Laurie is in a state of catatonia. She is hurried to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital by attending EMS workers Budd (Leo Rossi) and Jimmy (Lance Guest) for treatment (In the original script by Hill and Carpenter Michael stalked Laurie through her new high rise apartment complex). The hospital is well staffed but totally unprepared for the evil lurking just outside. Dr. Mixter (Ford Rainey) administers a powerful sedative that leaves Laurie incoherent and barely conscious. Meanwhile, Michael has arrived at the hospital to inflict his carnage. Systematically he picks off the staff one at a time and in the most terrifyingly creative ways.
He drains the blood from head nurse Mrs. Alves (Gloria Gifford) in an operating room, strangles Budd, drowns Budd's girlfriend, Nurse Karen (Pamela Sue Shoop) in a scorching recuperative bath that peels away her skin, sticks a hypodermic needle through Nurse Janet's (Ana Alicia) eye, whacks a hammer through security guard Mr. Garrett's (Cliff Emmich) head and sticks a knife into Nurse Jill's (Tawny Moyer) back, using it as a handle to raise her up to the ceiling until her shoes fall off. If nothing else we have to give writers Carpenter and Hill top marks for keeping the slaughter amusing and varied at all times.
In the meantime, Laurie becomes semi-conscious. Realizing she must escape Michael once more, Laurie stumbles through the bowels of the hospital, crawling on wounded hands and knees through tight windows and air ducts until Sam Loomis arrives. He confronts Michael inside one of the operating rooms, opens the valves on the oxygen tanks and instructs Laurie to run for her life, moments before igniting the tainted air with an open flame from his cigarette lighter. Michael emerges from this blaze as a human torch but falls to his 'presumed death' inches away from Laurie.
Halloween II is a spooky film. In keeping with Carpenter’s original intent, the gruesomeness of the aforementioned acts of slaughter in Rosenthal’s sequel is kept at bay, mostly photographed in half-shadow with quick edits. We get just enough to shock us out of our seats without turning our stomachs. That’s clever, in a way that so many horror movies regrettably are not.  It was always Carpenter's intent that his serial killer should die at the end of this sequel. That various directors have continued to resurrect Michael Myers from the ashes is a pity because none of the subsequent movies have been able to retain that all pervasive air of unbridled evil that permeates every frame of the original film and nearly all of the scenes from this first sequel.
Director Rosenthal has gleaned valuable lessons from the master. He recaptures the mood and terror of the original without 'aping' it. Stylistically, Rosenthal manages another minor coup. His staging retains the best elements of suspense from the first film, never devolving into pure camp or gore. Even so, it is rumored that Carpenter was recalled to the studio after the rough cut had been assembled to re-edit this footage. Rosenthal was reportedly not pleased with this decision or with what he perceived as Carpenter's 'tampering'. Nevertheless, Halloween II stands on its own because of Rosenthal's meticulous attention to detail.
Universal Home Video's 30th Anniversary Blu-ray isn’t as good as Shout! Factory’s reissue, reviewed elsewhere on this blog. Nicks and chips have not been cleaned up. In a movie as darkly lit as Halloween II these white specs are even more glaringly obvious when viewed in 1080p. Comparisons between the Shout! release and Universal’s offering reveal striking similarities with color saturation more intense on Shout! disc. There don’t seem to be any digital manipulations going on herein. Film grain looks like grain. The audio has been reprocessed to 5.1 DTS with remarkable clarity. Dialogue still sounds frontal and a tad strident but otherwise the sound mixers at Universal have done a rather handsome job of upgrading this vintage audio.
For this 30th Anniversary Universal has added some meaningful extras. Besides getting virtually all of the scenes shot for the television release included as outtakes (it would have been nice to have the entire TV version included, as in Shout!’s offering) we also get the TV ending that has Laurie reunited with Jimmy in the back of an ambulance. In the theatrical cut Jimmy slips and falls in a pool of blood siphoned from Nurse Alves, presumably dying from the fall by cracking open his skull. But by far the most impressive extra included herein is the feature length docu-tainment, Andrew J. Kuehn's Terror in the Isles, narrated by Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen. This retrospective on horror/suspense and sci-fi movies covers everything from Hitchock's To Catch a Thief and De Palma's Dressed to Kill to Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein, Forbidden Planet, The Birds, The Exorcist, The Omen, Halloween and Jaws and just about everything in between. Great stuff! Bottom line: Halloween II on Blu comes highly recommended! A must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
3

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: Blu-ray (UA 1978) MGM/FOX Home Video


Mankind’s internal disassociation from the world at large, the communist threat and McCarthy witch hunts robbing us all of our individualism, and, fear of modern mechanization dehumanizing life as we know it; these were just some of the socio-political critiques ascribed to Walter Wanger’s 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers – an intelligent, if slightly campy sci-fi B-movie that attempted to address more meaningful questions of isolationism during the repressive fifties using science fiction as its artistic patina for getting to more fundamental truths. In reinventing the story for the more socially ambiguous 1970s, director Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake all but diffused and/or distilled any and all of these subliminal references into a nightmarish landscape where people are being consumed by an alien life-force hoping to breed on the planet earth. No – they don’t want to coexist. They want to take over.
I am still trying to exact my own kernel of fascination from such self-destructive narratives. Over time, and as humans, we have increasingly become enamored by our own demise. Whether embracing the movie genres of disaster, horror or sci-fi, it seems that we just cannot exact enough catharsis from watching our own species die at the mercy of another more superior one hell bent on watching us expire. In reality I can’t imagine anyone wishing for such an apocalyptic conclusion to our world. Yet, in the movies – particularly the summer popcorn blockbusters – such devastation is not only permissible, but built around that morbid curiosity to watch it all go to hell and a hand basket. Sick – but fun too. And Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is much more than just a light smattering of either.    
Arguably, it is one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Quite easily it is one of the best remakes attempted; a far more terrorizing excursion this time around that delves deeply into the sinister supernatural. The original book's cosmic terrors are real and terrifying. In W. D. Ritcher's screenplay the migration of the ‘pods’; aliens from outer space cast down onto the atmosphere of an unsuspecting earth, is masked by a cleansing spring rain, the pods attaching themselves to other living plant life in and around the San Francisco Bay area, producing a colorful purple blooms that proves enticing to the human population.
The flowers are first observed with curiosity by micro-biologist, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) as she heads home after a long day, working as a chemist in the public health offices. Liz’s live-in boyfriend, Dr. Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle) thinks her speculation about parasitic plants is farfetched to say the least. Actually, he doesn’t care about much of anything except sports. Very shortly, however, Geoffrey discovers the truth when one of the pods grows into his counterpart – a human/alien hybrid. The new Geoffrey looks pretty much the same, but he is utterly void of emotions or sentiment. At first Elizabeth suspects Geoffrey is having an affair but dispels this theory regarding his strange behavior when she witnesses him engaging in the transfer of a strange pod-like material between both men and women from all walks of life, meeting in deserted parking lots and back allies.
To get a better handle on what might be going on Elizabeth consults her friend, Board of Health investigator, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland). At first, Matthew is just as reticent about accepting Elizabeth’s theory of alien colonization. Then, he begins to witness the changes first hand as he frequents local establishments in the city, only to discover an emotionless population staring blankly back at him. Keen viewers will recognize actor Kevin McCarthy's brief cameo as a frightened man who runs into Matthew's car on a crowded Frisco street, relentlessly pursued to his death by the pod people.
Meanwhile across town, massage therapist Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) and her husband Jack (Jeff Goldblum) begin to suspect that their establishment has already been frequented by the pod people. Eventually, the Bellicec's approach Matthew and Elizabeth with their findings – a look-a-like of Jack having grown from a pod inside their backroom. But it's too late for San Francisco. The pod people outnumber the human populace. Now this foursome must flee the city limits – masquerading as pods themselves to infiltrate the city, only to learn that they are already near the tale end of complete extinction.
Kaufman’s apocalyptic vision generates an ever-growing sense of dread, fear and paranoia. The special effects are gruesome and hold up very well under contemporary scrutiny. Yet, it is the overall believability we glean from the actors who really sell this monster mash as the gospel. In retrospect, Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays much more like grand tragedy than a traditional horror movie – the final moment where Nancy, having escaped the pods, approaches Mathew from across the parking lot near city hall, only to discover he too has become a pod, leaving us all a little shell-shocked and terrorized that the end for the rest of us is near.
What really sells this remake are the performances; not a false one among the roster. The ensemble works so well that we can easily bypass the star personas, forgetting it is Donald Sutherland or Jeff Goldblum or Leonard Nemoy or Veronica Cartwright or Brook Adams and simply buy into the story at face value. Even better, Michael Chapman’s moody cinematography transforms sunny California into a dreary gray landscape looking very worn and creepy. Most of the movie take place at night; all those shadowy recesses hiding Lord knows what ready to burst forth and devour us. Yet, even the daytime sequences contain a constricting sensation – that, somehow, everything belonging to the age of man is in a steep decline, fast-tracking into a paralyzing oblivion.  Chilling on every level and sure to lead to a few sleepless nights besides; Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film not so easily dismissed from our consciousness once the houselights have come up.
MGM/Fox Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray easily bests any DVD incarnations. The 1080p Blu-Ray is razor sharp with very solid contrast and accurately represented colors. The ugly orange flesh tones on the DVD look quite natural on the Blu-ray. This is a very film-like presentation with a good smattering of grain that looks like grain. Truly, there's nothing to complain about visually - or aurally. The audio is a new 5.1 DTS from the same Dolby Digital stems used to master the DVD. Invasion of the Body Snatchers played in theaters in a mono mix and while this 5.1 re-purposing won’t rock the house, the spatial spread across all five channels sounds pretty awesome. Extras include a thorough audio commentary, original theatrical trailer and 3 featurettes detailing the film’s creation and impact. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
3