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Archive for October, 2013

The Stranger (1946) Blu-Ray Review

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Stars: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles, Richard Long, Billy House
Director: Orson Welles
Released by Kino

Reviewed by Steven Ruskin

With his third film credited as a director, Orson Welles set out to show Hollywood that he could make a film on time and on budget. He wanted them to see that he could make a tamer mainstream vehicle that could make money for the studio – in short that he could be trusted. According the period box office reports The Stranger was indeed the only film Welles directed that turned a profit on its initial theatrical release. Still this is an Orson Welles film through and through. Even though this is basically a post war find the killer hiding in a small town cat and mouse game Orson Welles makes the most of his camerawork, lighting and editing at every chance he can. Many of the interiors seem to recall the work of Greg Tolland, who shot Citizen Kane (1941) for Welles. Russell Metty who shot this one never made a thriller or horror film before he worked on The Stranger with Welles. Interestingly he shot Lady form Shanghai (1947) for him afterward. Clearly Welles imprinted his favored style of lighting and composition on the film. Unlike Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) which featured the Merry Widow Killer hiding out in beautiful small town Americana with its bright sunny days most of The Stranger is filmed inside or at night. It is a dark world that detective Edward G. Robinson follows Nazi War criminal Welles into. Welles is masquerading as a teacher in a prep school for boys and will marry the headmaster’s daughter played by Loretta Young the day Robinson arrives. When we first see her she is hanging curtains in the house where she will soon live. Beautiful and unaware of what surrounds her.

The plot unfolds slowly until a dinner table scene in which Welles’ teacher espouses some rhetoric that tips his hand. Form then on it is just a matter of time until Robinson gets the goods on him. Catching a train on his way to the town Robinson steals a mystery magazine from the ticket seller. It’s a very subtle touch that maybe alludes to what kind of petty crimes are acceptable and which ones truly cross the line. He befriends the bride’s younger brother (Richard Long) in a plotting device that lets him explain to him, and by proxy to us his observations on this case. It is clear very early on that Robinson knows that Welles is his man so we are left with a cat and mouse game that just does not have a whole lot of maneuvering. The bulk of the middle of the film is made up of him trying to convince Loretta Young that she has married a Nazi war criminal. He explains the psychological underpinnings of her denial to the boy and to her father. He even gets the maid to keep tabs on her and promise to delay her by any means if she tires to go anywhere on her own. Though the camerawork and editing are always entertaining the plot feels like it is straining to fill out its 94 minute running time. There is perhaps too much of Loretta Young in her confused “gaslit” stage of disbelief and confusion and not enough suspense.

With the exception of the checker hustling town clerk played with lots of charm by Billy House there is no comic relief or humor. Barely does Welles allow himself even a hint of his charm or let go a smile. Robinson gets to play with his pipe and hide in a neat plume of smoke a few times but his role is pretty straight forward. What drives this film is the wonderful tour de force opening section that finds the lower level Nazi Meineke let out of custody so Robinson can follow him as he seeks out his superior, the most wanted war criminal Franz Kindler. This whole front section features magnificent swooping camerawork. We dolly along with characters as they run into the shadows. Sinister faces reflect in camera lenses. The entire beginning is cut beautifully with an urgent rhythm that only stop to pause when Meineke finally meets up with Welles in the Prep School where he works as a teacher. They disappear into the woods for murder scene that is delicious. The end game of the film played out in the clock tower is also a fabulous price of filmmaking whose lofty setting recalls the ending of Frankenstein (1931) with the villagers gathering far below as man and monster battle it out high up on the clock tower. The shots of the rickety ladder with several rungs set to give way reeks of that early German expressionist style with all the creepy shadows and obtuse angles. Even the demise of one of the characters literally at the hands of the clock angel is terrific. While the predictable destination derails any kind of intricate plotting or characterization we are still left in the hands of a masterful filmmaker. There is an awful lot to like in the way this film is made.

Video 1.33:1
This is a rescue of a film that has lingered in poor editions due to its public domain status over the years. However there are more scratches and speckles that the one that TCM has been showing. This one has several vertical scratches that run from the bottom to the top of the frame albeit on the side. These instances are usually for only a few moments with one lengthy exception but they are very noticeable. The one I saw on TCM in January of 2010 that was preceded by an MGM logo had no such scratches. However there are sequences in this Kino blu-ray that have very nice contrast. There are some scenes with better clarity. Toward the end when Loretta Young is lying down in repose on a bed there is an exceptional beauty shot of just her face. The lighting changes subtly getting ever so brighter ever so slowly. The Kino version has quite a bit of grain in this bit and it looks very nice. However there are instances when the white scale seems washed out. That is something that cameraman Russell Metty would never have permitted. Welles pushes the contrast of whites and blacks in many scenes but never to the point that they are overblown as they can look here. Again there are several scenes that offer significant clarity but it is a tough call to say that they are able to elevate the entire viewing experience. The cover touts that this is sourced from a 35 MM archival restoration. Though it is clearly a step above the usual shoddy prints we’ve seen on most VHS and DVD editions, they could have done better with their source materials.

 

Audio – Mono. No subtitles are offered
Dialogue is clear for the most part though there are a few mumbled lines that you have to pay attention to hear. There are times when Welles’ voice does not exhibit that wonderful resonance he had. The music cues sound very good and get a nice treatment in the mix.

Extras – There are three Orson Welles radio broadcasts, a commentary with historian Bret Wood, an image gallery, a trailer and an absolutely harrowing piece entitled, “Death Mills”. This 21 minute short made by Billy Wilder details the discoveries made by allied troops as they enter the liberated concentration camps. There are scores of bodies. They are burned and charred, tossed in ditches, and left in piles to rot. We see some emaciated survivors barely able to walk. At the end of the short the citizens who lived near the death camps during the war are lined up and made to walk through so they can see first hand what they chose to ignore and deny for so many years. A part of this short is shown by Edward G. Robinson to Loretta Young in the movie so she can see what her husband was part of. This is an incredibly powerful piece of film that will leave you shell shocked and emotionally gutted.

On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic

Blu-Ray – Good

Movie – Good / Excellent

Synapse Adds Argento Classic To Roster!

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

DARIO ARGENTO’S HORROR CLASSIC
GETS THE SYNAPSE
TREATMENT!

SUSPIRIA

COMING TO DVD,
BLU-RAY,
AND OTHER OPTICAL MEDIA!

 

suspiriaSYNAPSE FILMS,
INC. LICENSES DARIO ARGENTO’S SUSPIRIA, SOUNDTRACK BY GOBLIN, FOR DVD, BLU-RAY AND
FUTURE OPTICAL MEDIA.

ROMULUS, MI – Oct. 31, 2013 – Synapse Films, Inc. has acquired the North American home-video rights to Dario Argento’s 1977 classic horror film SUSPIRIA, with an original soundtrack by European prog-rockers Goblin. Described as “one of the scariest films of all time” by Entertainment Weekly, SUSPIRIA stars the beautiful Jessica Harper (Brian De Palma’s PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, Woody Allen’s STARDUST MEMORIES) as a young girl caught up in a coven of witches controlling a German dance academy, with a guest appearance by Udo Kier (Lars von Trier’s NYMPH( )MANIAC, Andy Warhol’s FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA).

“I’ve been involved in the restoration and release of many films in my career, but SUSPIRIA has always eluded me, until now,” says Donald May,
Jr., President of Synapse Films. “It’s one of my favorite horror films and I’m ecstatic that my business partner, Jerry Chandler, was able to negotiate with
the rights holders to release this film. This is going to be an amazing project for us.”

Synapse Films, Inc. will work closely with Technicolor Rome and Technicolor Los Angeles to create an all-new high-definition 2K scan from the original negative for a possible 2014-15 video
release. “It’s important to spend as much time as possible to create the definitive high-definition home video version for the fans,” May explains. “We’re going to take our time with this one.”

Synapse Films, Inc. is currently planning the extensive work on SUSPIRIA in conjunction with Technicolor, utilizing both their Rome and Hollywood facilities. The film scanning will be coordinated and supervised by Technicolor Hollywood’s Director of Restoration Services, Tom Burton, whose film restoration credits include Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER,
Georges Méliès’ A TRIP TO THE MOON, and Blake Edwards’ BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S.

Final specifications, retail pricing, and extras for the Synapse Films release of SUSPIRIA will be announced closer to the as yet to be determined release date.

SUSPIRIA

Synapse Films

 

 

Oui, Girls: DVD Review

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Oui, Girls (1982)

by Troy Howarth

Directed by Fred J. Lincoln

Main Players: Anna Ventura, Paul Thomas, Lisa De Leeuw, Sharon Kane, Tiffany Clark, Joey Silvera

Barbara (Anna Ventura) is persuaded by policeman Nick (Paul Thomas) to go undercover in search of a murderer and things do not go as planned…

  

Oui, Girls belongs to an era when hardcore porn was shot on film and contained something of a plot.  It’s not much of a plot, of course, but it is there – and it helps to keep the film moving along, even as it stops periodically for some good old fashioned shagging.  Fortunately, director Fred J. Lincoln manages to keep things lively enough that it never overstays its welcome.  The plot doesn’t get too ridiculously involved, and the sex is never so padded as has become the norm in shot on video sex flicks.

  

As noted above, the film was directed by Fred J. Lincoln.  Lincoln is best remembered by genre fans for his role as “Weasel” in Wes Craven’s notorious exploitation watershed, The Last House on the Left (1972).  In addition to acting in the occasional film, he was also a veteran porn director.  Indeed, he would helm over 300 titles in this genre, with Oui, Girls being one of his earliest efforts.  His handling of the material shows why he was so popular in this capacity.  He handles the material with flair.  The pacing is smooth throughout.  The sex scenes are done with variety in terms of coverage, so the viewer is spared the customary barrage of tight closeups of a clinical/gynecological nature.  More importantly, the material surrounding these scenes – the downfall of many a “plot” driven porno flick – is developed with humor, as well.  The film therefore manages to remain engaging as both a narrative and as a sex film, which is something of a feat in itself. 

  

The director is well served by a game cast.  The actresses assembled are some of the finest adult performers of the period: Anna Ventura, Lisa De Leeuw, Sharon Kane, Tiffany Clark… suffice it to say, there’s no shortage of good scenery.  The actresses also do a credible job in the thesping department, delivering their lines with more conviction than one normally sees in films of this ilk.  The lead actor, Paul Thomas, is also very good as the shifty cop; he would become a prolific director in his own right, as well, including the recent The New Behind the Green Door (2013). 

Fans of vintage erotica will certainly find much to like here.  Viewers who’ve been reared on more rough and ready fare may be comparatively skeptical, but the sex is good and the story is involving… so give it a shot.

Film:

Oui, Girls makes its DVD debut thanks to Impluse Pictures.  The 1.85/16×9 transfer is sourced from an uncut print which bears signs of wear and tear.  The opening titles look especially rough, but the quality improves after that point.  The various scratches and imperfections do help to set the right 42nd Street porno theatre ambience, but the damage is never overwhelming or unduly distracting.  Colors look stable and detail is very good and sharp.

Audio:

The mono soundtrack is in good shape.  There’s some background hiss evident but, again – nothing too distracting.

Extras:

There are no extras.  Zip.  Zero.  Nada.

Film: *** out of *****

Video: *** out of *****

Audio: **1/2 out of *****

Extras: No Stars

The Films of Chester Novell Turner

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

The Films of Chester Novell Turner

by Troy Howarth

Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984)

A lonely, religiously preoccupied woman (Shirley L. Jones) buys a strange doll and may not live to regret it….

Writer.  Producer.  Director.  Editor.  Cameraman.  Chicago-based filmmaker Chester Novell Turner does it all.  Sad to say, he doesn’t do any of them very well.  The mainstream press has devoted a lot of time and ink in “celebrating” Ed Wood, Jr. as the worst filmmaker of all time.  If you have asked me to pick my own worst filmmaker, as of yesterday I likely would have elected Al Adamson.  But now that my head is swimming with Chester Novell Turner’s output… I think we have a new winner.  In a way it’s hard to fault Turner for trying.  And unlike Adamson, you do get a sense that he was really doing what he could under the circumstances; there’s a bit of child-like enthusiasm on display here, something which can never be said for Adamson’s tedious output.  So perhaps he’s not really QUITE the worst.  A lifelong fan of classic horror films like James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), he decided to channel his love for the genre by investing some money into making a horror film of his own.  He picked up a camcorder, rounded up a few friends and set out to make a tongue-in-cheek horror film titled The Puppet.  The film was clearly influenced by the infamous Zuni Fetish Doll segment of Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror (1975), but whereas that film managed to be legitimately scary and unsettling, this one is simply dreadful.

It’s hard to know where to start when racking up the various points that are so very wrong in this film.  Certainly, deciding to make the doll look like Rick James could only have been comical when it was made – and now, in light of the Dave Chappelle show, it comes off as utterly hilarious.  Turner’s approach to filmmaking is very much to lock the camera down and zoom around the settings to pick up various details.  The obsession with bric-a-brac and set details is kind of interesting in a way, but it serves no real purpose.  The acting is unspeakably awful, with leading lady Jones alternately appearing comatose or chewing the scenery with amateurish abandon.  The various shocks are poorly handled and the gruff voice for the doll, calling Jones “bitch,” is more than slightly funny.  True, Turner did say he wanted the film to be a bit tongue in cheek, but this is more than a bit… the film is boring, padded and slow moving, and the only relief comes in the form of unintended laughs.  Add in a monotonous soundtrack, apparently improvised on a child’s keyboard, and the end result is almost surreal.

Tales from the Quadead Zone (1987)

A woman (Shirley L. Jones… again!) reads a couple of creepy tales to her dead son… in the first, a family goes to extreme measures to deal with their hunger problem… in the second, feuding brothers extend their hatred beyond the grave….

Turner was a little disappointed by the returns on Black Devil Doll from Hell and decided to handle distribution of his follow-up himself.  The film is an anthology in the spirit of the classic Amicus films of the 1960s and 1970s… albeit without the gloss, professionalism and entertainment value.  What little entertainment one may get from this particular trainwreck depends upon one’s tolerance for the inept.  If possible, the film is arguably even worse than Black Devil Doll, suggesting that Turner had learned little from his previous on the job experience.  Maybe it’s just as well: we wouldn’t want this one to outshine the predecessor too much, now would we?

The stories are beyond pathetic, with obvious sting in the tail endings that can be seen a mile off.  The acting is as atrocious as one might expect, and production values remain at an all time low.  Turner and co. do manage a few moderately clever practical effects here and there – necessity being the mother of invention - but don’t let that fool you: this is still amateur hour all the way, with yet another repetitious synth score in place to remind one that not everybody can be John Carpenter when it comes to scoring their own films.  Turner literally pedaled the end result to video stores himself, running off copies from VCRs rented from local video outlets and hustling copies for $29.95 a pop.  The end result didn’t earn him much money, of course, and with that, Turner packed up his camcorder and left movie making behind him.  Perhaps it’s just as well….

Video:

Massacre Video has assembled Turner’s two films in a two-disc special edition.  The slipcase and cover art leave one in no doubt of the kinds of films these really are, and they are to be commended for going out of their way to make this a definitive release.  Both films are presented in their appropriate full frame ratio.  The films were shot on VHS, and quality would degenerate as the scenes were copied and recopied in the editing process, resulting in plenty of defects in the image.  These are lousy looking films and there really isn’t anything to be done about that.  This isn’t Massacre Video’s fault, by any means; this is simply how the films look.

Audio:

The mono audio tracks are as distorted and amateurishly recorded as ever.  Dialogue sometimes gets hot, music sometimes threatens to drown it out, and sound effects are very limited.  To test a cliché, however: it is as it was.

Extras:

Extras include commentaries on both films by Turner and leading lady Shirley L. Jones, an oncamera interview with the two of them, the re-edited/re-scored Black Devil Doll from Hell that was prepared by Hollywood Video (yes, even Chester N. Turner had the indignity of having his directorial vision compromised by The Man), trailers and stills galleries.  The commentaries are rambling affairs, so one would do better to watch the half hour on-camera interview instead.  Turner, for what it’s worth, comes off as a fairly friendly sort of guy – though his admission that the scene of Jones being pawed at by the horny doll turned him on during filming may fall into the category of T.M.I.

Film: * out of ***** (for both)

Video: * out of ***** (for both)

Audio: * out of ***** (for both)

Extras: *** out of ***** (for both)