Scream Factory Releasing John Carpenter’s ‘Vampires’ Collector’s Edition Blu-ray

Shout! Factory’s horror imprint, Scream Factory, will release a collector’s edition Blu-ray of John Carpenter’s 1998 film Vampires Sept. 24.

When Master Vampire Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith) decimates an entire team of vampire hunters, its leader (James Woods) another survivor (Daniel Baldwin), set out in pursuit. Meanwhile, Valek nears the climax of his 600-year search an artifact that can grant him and all vampires the omnipotent power to walk the world in daylight.

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New bonus features include “Time to Kill Some Vampires,” an interview with composer/director John Carpenter, producer Sandy King Carpenter and cinematographer Garry B. Kibbe; “Jack the Slayer,” an interview with actor James Woods,” “The First Vampire,” an interview with actor Thomas Ian Griffith; “Raising the Stakes,” an interview with special effects artist Greg Nicotero; and “Padre,” an interview with actor Tim Guinee.

The Blu-ray will also include audio commentary by John Carpenter, an isolated score track, a vintage making-of featurette, a theatrical trailer, TV spots and a still gallery.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Klute’ and ‘The Leopard Man’


Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, ‘R.’
Stars Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider, Charles Cioffi.
1971. Released in relatively stealth fashion during a unforgettable movie summer, Alan J. Pakula’s Klute is a psychological drama wrapped in thriller/mystery trappings rather than a thriller/mystery per se — which possibly resulted in its being underrated at the time, though Jane Fonda did win a Best Actress Oscar for a performance that is among the significant ones of the modern screen era.
Extras: Blasting out of the gate with a new 4K remastering of Gordon Willis’s trademark anti-solar cinematography, Criterion’s new Klute release is one of the best-produced Blu-rays I’ve ever seen, and its combined package of nary-a-dud bonus extras now pounds it into me how unusual this film was. We get two remarkable Fonda interviews, conducted decades apart, that artfully operate in tandem here.
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The Leopard Man

Shout! Factory, Horror, $29.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks.
Directed by Jacques Tourneur shortly after he and producer Val Lewton turnedThe Cat People into one of the most profitable sleepers of the entire World War II movie era, The Leopard Manwas the third of nine creepy features Lewton made for RKO during his famously remarkable run from 1942 to 1946.
Extras: There are two bonus commentaries — one by The Exorcist director William Friedkin, the other a highly informative nuts-and-bolts one by film historian Constantine Nasr that gives a compelling back-dropper about the kind of miserable-sounding life that source author Cornell Woolrich seems to have led.
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The Leopard Man


Shout! Factory;
$29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks.

Directed by Jacques Tourneur shortly after he and producer Val Lewton turned The Cat People into one of the most profitable sleepers of the entire World War II movie era, 1943’s The Leopard Man was the third of nine creepy features Lewton made for RKO during his famously remarkable run from 1942 to 1946. It is also, for some, the most problematic due to its unusual story construction, and it didn’t help matters that when Warner Home Entertainment released an overall terrific Lewton box in 2005, The Leopard Man print was the one entry whose print didn’t look very good.

This second problem has been solved by this new Scream Factory release of a new 4K remastering off the original negative; seeing it at its best, one marvels (at least in its interiors and street scenes) how Lewton was able to create an acceptable New Mexico town on 59 cents and a lot of sets/costumes scavenged from past RKO films. Beyond this, was there ever a movie from that studio that didn’t benefit from its Roy Webb score? I only have to hear a few strains from any of them to be transported back to a TV set in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the RKO catalog got played to death by local stations everywhere. Welcomely.

The structural oddity of this 66-minute feature (which was actually cut some for its re-issue before the footage was eventually restored) has to do with the lobbing of its most chilling salvo so early in the picture. A borrowed leopard from a traveling circus has escaped town and nocturnally kills a screaming young girl (after a late trip to the store and then a desperate chase to her front door). Mom’s inside, and she’s temporarily miffed at her daughter’s tardiness; as a result, she takes her time answering it until the screams and pounding get a little too insistent, by which time, it’s too late. One can easily see why The Exorcist director William Friedkin calls this one of the great horrific suspense scenes of all time, which it is.

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Even though this set piece is powerful enough to carry a bottom-line interesting curio over its short running time, the movie does peak early — though it is interesting to see how the borrowed leopard escapes in the first place. An overeager press agent (Dennis O’Keefe) borrows the creature to upstage in real time the nightclub act of a rival to one of his clients; spooked, the animal escapes and runs out the entrance into the night. It’s really tough to see how the leopard could possibly be rattled; it’s only hit by nightclub lights, well-dressed patrons reveling at their tables and the fact that the rival performer (Margo) is insistently playing her castanets.

Margo, who should have had a better career, is really good as the woman who for a while is the central character — worried about what a local fortune teller’s “cards” might hold. Previously memorable in Lost Horizon and (if memory serves) her screen debut in the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Crime Without Passion, she was apparently politically blacklisted in later years — though you’d think that just the fact that she was married to Eddie Albert (who reputedly rescued 70 Marines at Tarawa) would have gotten her over that hump. As far as I know, I hosted Margo’s last public appearance of note a little more than a year before her death — an impromptu affair when we pulled her out of the audience at the AFI Theater when I was interviewing Albert in stage during a weekend tribute that included a sell-out Green Acres afternoon. (Footnote: He was so happy to learn that he and Acres were in Gene Sculatti’s must-read Catalog of Cool — along with 3D View Masters and Louis Prima — that I gave him my copy.) But I digress.

O’Keefe was around in bit parts forever before kind of making it in the mid-’40s and early ’50s as a dependable ‘B’-movie regular. He wasn’t an actor of much depth, but he had a likable presence both in light comedies and crime melodramas (I was surprised by how easy he was to take playing an insurance investigator during my recent viewing of the 1949 ‘B’-pic Cover Up, which you wouldn’t really expect to be on Blu-ray but is). With a few exceptions, ‘B’-pictures are what he made, as with the first movie I ever saw him in (a theatrical first-run of 1955’s Chicago Syndicate, a passably time-killing glob of Sam Katzman/Fred Sears cheese whose ad copy could and should have screamed, “And with Xavier Cugat as Benny Chico”). The Leopard Man is one off the few O’Keefe movies whose title might spark recognition by the non-hard core that nonetheless knows a little something about the movies.

Instead of his character being arrested on some kind of charge after the first killing (yes, there are more) or having Nancy Grace put him on her hit list, we’ll note that this was a nowhere Southwestern town away from big-city forces, though you’d think that some of its young men would have been draft-eligible. (WWII is rarely, if ever, a force in Lewton horror, even those few taking place in time settings or milieus where it would apply.) Instead, O’Keefe and the performer he manages (Jean Brooks, a versatile actress who succumbed to alcohol) are allowed to sleuth the case — which becomes a case with each new homicide. The victims are always young women, which gets increasingly suspicious, leading some to wonder if the cat really is responsible. As in the first killing, Tourneur gets a lot out of his “is the creature nearby?” scenes, including a beaut where you can’t tell if a tiny speck of light at night is the cat’s eyes or a reflection of something.

There are two bonus commentaries — one by Friedkin, the other a highly informative nuts-and-bolts one by film historian Constantine Nasr that gives a compelling back-dropper about the kind of miserable-sounding life that source author Cornell Woolrich seems to have led. These voiceovers are complementary, with Friedkin mounting a vigorous defense of the picture while acknowledging certain shortcomings. Even though The Leopard Man tends to take up one story, drop it and go on to another with perhaps a haphazard sense of direction, Friedkin likes this structure and offers a brief that this was one of the first modern Hollywood movies of its type due to its unconventional, non-linear storytelling. As with Alfred Hitchcock pulling the rug out from Janet Leigh a third of the way into Psycho.

I can’t say I totally agree, though I do see his point, which had not occurred to me before. And besides, Lewton follow-up The Seventh Victim doesn’t cohere particularly well, and yet it’s probably my favorite of the series (out of four or five contenders) because I can think of few Hollywood films from the 1940s that so get under your skin. This is a great service that Shout/Scream Factory is performing, getting this milestone collection out in even better prints than I was able to get for the AFI Theater when I was programming. I would really salivate to see Victim and I Walked With a Zombie, in particular, get their Blu-ray day.

Mike’s Picks: ‘Klute’ and ‘The Leopard Man’

This Island Earth


Shout! Factory;
$26.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue, Rex Reason.

To borrow the parlance that my third-grade colleagues would have used at the time, This Island Earth is quite “neat” for its day yet remains wounded by the same cardboard dramatics that have always plagued it. But this said, Scream Factory’s unexpectedly lavish new Blu-ray is still the definitive presentation of a ’50s sci-fi biggie that entranced a lot of kids at the time — not only because it was in Technicolor but because it had a larger than expected budget all around, though probably not one as large as it needed.

Just as the replicated art ad still says on the Blu-ray box, Earth was “2 1/2 Years in the Making” after director Joseph M. Newman found the property himself — though I always figured that maybe a year-and-a-half of this went toward fitting and pasting on those distinctive skull caps that gave lead Jeff Morrow and his lackeys sky-high foreheads, to say nothing of those that adorn the movie’s villainous mutants whose corresponding skulls resemble exposed brains. No one who’s ever seen them has ever forgotten them, and this is one thing no one will ever be able to take away from a film that works at least fitfully in spite of itself.

In other words, the picture takes a long time to get rolling, and it’s not exactly an actor’s paradise — aside, perhaps, from the pathos Morrow brings to his role as a friendly alien caught between the hardline sentiments of rulers on his own planet (Metaluna) and the affection he feels for Earthlings, with whom he’s spent considerable time. Not so sure of this benevolence is a hunk-ish scientist/electronics whiz (Rex Reason), who can also pilot a jet — an authoritative guy all around who is always savvily asking the right questions. On one of the myriad bonus commentaries/interviews here (the sheer number of them dazzle), someone gives Reason’s performance a little credit; beyond having a great voice, he was handled a stiff role and pretty well filling this bill with the poor hand he was handed. Unfortunately, femme lead Faith Domergue doesn’t fare as well on this count (and ’55 was the actress’s big boomer-kid year, given that Cult of the Cobra and Ray Harryhausen’s irresistible cheese slice It Came from Beneath the Sea were two of the four other Domergue films that had recently preceded Earth in theaters).

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Though Metaluna eventually turns out to be in big trouble (which is why it needs Earth’s help due to an energy shortage), the alien planet wields the standard supernatural powers we came to expect in ’50s sci-fi cinema. It can take over the piloting of Reason’s jet to make an impression, which is why later — when it entices him to board a Metaluna craft to journey to God-knows-where — he lands and is picked up by Domergue in … a woodie station wagon. Turns out that after all this arduous and presumed major star trekking he’s ended up in Georgia with other recruited U.S. scientists that include one played by Russell Johnson (later The Professor on “Gilligan’s Island”). For suspicious reasons, they come off as mum and intimidated — so much so that Domergue denies that she and Reason had a brief relationship swimming in Vermont a few years earlier. Which, in ’50s censorship code, probably means they did it.

Putting aide the drearily obligatory “sidekick” comedy relief early in the picture, there’s all kinds of talk throughout at the expense of action. And yet, it’s also true that the backdrop to all this yakking is mighty easy on the eye because Earth got under the wire enough to have been shot in three-strip Technicolor during the format’s waning days (those hot lights turned the wearing of mutant makeup and costumes into something pretty close to a miracle diet). This wasn’t the first ’50s color sci-fi (Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and The War of the Worlds were all Technicolor, while Invaders From Mars was in notably expressive “Supercinecolor”). But it was the first time Universal-International took the plunge, and for the intended demographic, this was a big deal.

One of the bonus highlights is what’s billed as an “extended” 47-minute documentary on the film’s production and reception where New Jersey-bred director Joe Dante (who would know) said his circle of buds knew Earth was a big picture because it played alone on a single bill. As for my town, Earth rated a downtown booking but in the least of its four first-run theaters — one that played a lot of Universals, a lot of Republics and a lot of Westerns. In this case, it did have a co-feature — United Artists’ Sabaka, with Boris Karloff and Victor Jory; no turnstile buster it — and this package lasted a week.

Reviews generally were unkind (1955 was a really strong and competitive movie year), though there was also probable prejudice against the genre when at least the art direction should have gotten mention. The payoff climactic scenes — whose volume of explosions make you wonder if someone trucked over to steal a caravan of munitions from the U-I lot where Audie Murphy’s To Hell and Back was shooting — look crude today but still remain imaginatively crude once all hell breaks loose on poor Metaluna. The general consensus among commentators here is that the studio’s sci-fi Main Man Jack Arnold did not shoot these or any other scenes, despite frequent reportage to the contrary.

Despite the ballyhooed length-of-production, Earth was kind of rushed into shooting, which means that it was photographed close enough to the dividing line between 1.37:1 and wider-screen renderings that two versions exist; both are included here, and the 1.85:1 version definitely the way to go. One of my favorite bonus features is a long printed history of Perspecta Stereophonic Sound, which offered something like stereo to exhibitors for less money and effort and which lasted from roughly 1954 through 1957. The history’s pages are fairly easy to read off a big screen, and I spent quite a long time with this extra, though the material is elaborate enough to eat up most of a day. A restored Perspecta soundtrack is one of two included on the disc, and uilizing it did a lot to keep me near-fully engaged despite the script’s dramatic shortcomings.

Still, it was really a miscalculated 1996 exercise for Universal to employ Earth as the target when it made Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie — though I grant that the studio had to have something close to an A-picture to lampoon because audiences weren’t going to shell out theatrical admission prices to see Eegah or its like taking lumps. Despite my love for “MST3K,” it really was a cheap shot, starting with the fact that the original movie ended up being butchered so badly that the entire ’96 release ran significantly shorter than the full-length Earth by itself — even with the all the additional screen time devoted to the barbs tossed its way by Mike Nelson & crew. Dante also points out that Earth’s color intensity got badly degraded as part of the techno process of superimposing the “MST3K” jesters over the bottom of the image.

There was always something about actor Morrow that registered positively with boomer male kids even when he played a heavy — as he did in both the Martin & Lewis Western Pardners and The Creature Walks Among Us, both of which I saw twice theatrically in their original ’56 releases. I, at least, always picked up on a possible twinkle-eyed hint that he knew how outlandish a lot of his big-screen situations were (one exception is his played-straight performance in Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot, a movie I really like).

With his impossible hair-forehead combo, Morrow plows his way through Earth fairly successfully in a manner that’s difficult not to acknowledge. But his dexterity ran out a couple years later with producer Sam Katzman’s impossibly and hilariously cheap (even for him) The Giant Claw, which was directed by the prolific Fred Sears (dead of a heart attack the same year at 44, and you have to wonder). As others have previously mentioned, it is Claw that would have been a foolproof “MST3K” target. Morrow’s account of the premiere is on, and it’s worth reading if you’re into mortification.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Patch of Blue’ and ‘This Island Earth’

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Face in the Crowd’ and ‘Tarantula’

A Face in the Crowd

Criterion, Drama, $29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau, Anthony Franciosa, Lee Remick.
Elia Kazan’s warning shot about how broadcast mass media might be able to “package” political candidates the way Madison Avenue had done for antacid TV spots may be one of the most prescient of all American movies, and was Andy Griffith’s screen debut.
Extras: The Criterion bonus extras are illuminating, as they especially need to be on a movie like this. Interviewed historian Ron Briley strengthens the undeniable case that Kazan’s work got better and more committed after he named communists to HUAC, while an excellent 2005 featurette doc is carried over from the old Warner DVD release, which this 4K transfer puts very much in the shade. In addition to critic April Wolfe’s beauty of an essay, there’s a lengthy excerpt from Kazan’s introduction to the published Crowd screenplay from 1957, as well as the same year’s New York Times profile on Griffith.
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Shout! Factory, Horror, $29.99 Blu-ray, NR.
Stars John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll.
Compact; helped by a casting mix that works; and the visual advantage of watching the jumbo title “thing” stalking the wide-open desert makes this one of the more disturbing ’50s mutation movies.
Extras: Includes an often funny commentary by Tom Weaver, David Schecter and Robert J. Kiss.
Read the Full Review




Shout! Factory;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll.

My ex-wife says that 1955’s Tarantula is the ’50s mutation pic that most freaked her out as a child, and I suspect that my reaction would have been the same had I been able to catch it in in early ’56. That’s when it played my main neighborhood theater following a downtown run that had paired this desert chiller with the William Campbell-Mamie Van Doren-Keenan Wynn biker pic Running Wild, a double bill that appeals to me more than anything I’ve seen on my local multiplex marquee this year. (For one thing, I never miss any Keenan Wynn movie about hot wheels.) Unfortunately, my parents wanted me to do something comparably dull instead — I think it was something really unreasonable like eating Sunday dinner with the family — and the huge argument that ensued means that I didn’t catch one of the most essential creature features until college.

And more than a decade after its first release, Tarantula was still very good of its kind, as Parents magazine used to say in its monthly movie guide: compact (though even at 80 minutes, there’s a little too much yakking); helped by a casting mix that works; and the visual advantage of watching the jumbo title “thing” stalking the wide-open desert (I don’t think the clutter of a metropolitan setting would have worked as well). And, let’s face it: On a warm-and-fuzzy level, tarantulas may well have the “fuzzy” part covered — but in my experience, the only guys who have tarantulas as pets are pot dealers who also have 500 pet mice in their apartments when someone goes over to buy a lid. In other words, it’s not like 1957’s The Deadly Mantis, in which you can say: “everyone loves praying mantes — most of the time.” Conversely, nobody’s going to lobby against dead tarantulas, even though they’re generally harmless to humans unless agitated.

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But not this one. Baby boomer favorite Leo G. Carroll, who in ’55 had just completed his network run with the title role in TV’s “Topper” before years of syndication, plays a scientist who works in secrecy way out in Nowhere, Ariz. In a large isolated home that Universal-International recycled from 1948’s Tap Roots and other studio predecessors, caged creatures lounge around behind glass enclosures between injections of serum that Professor Carroll is guinea-pigging them with; it’s part of an experiment he hopes will cure world food shortages. As a result, these animals grow at an amazing rate, with the bunnies evolving on a dime from teensy little things into a casting call for Night of the Lepus. So you can imagine the terror that ensues (to say nothing of the amount of livestock remains on the ground) once a similarly affected tarantula skedaddles — the damned thing moves surprisingly fast — out of the lab.

This escape occurs due to an unfortunate side effect when the serum is injected into humans: acromegaly (which the script manages to call by a slightly different name) — a distorter of hands, feet and sometimes facial features. One of these victims — and as with a similarly afflicted and similarly dying colleague we see in the first scene, he’s now uuuuuuuggggg-ly — decides as a final gesture to attack Carroll in the lab and inject him with the same stuff, which results in a physical altercation that busts open cages and, well, you get the idea. I have to believe that for 1955 Baby Boomers, the continuing sight of Cosmo Topper with his face falling off (with each shot of him worse than the last) was as scary as the giant tarantula, which, make no mistake, is imposing.

Clint Eastwood had four big-screen bit parts in his ’55 debut year (including one in Lady Godiva, which my prurient 8-year-old side really wanted to see at the time, and not because Grant Withers was also in it). In this case, Clint’s face is obscured behind Air Force goggles once the nearly-beaten desert authorities have no other recourse other than to say, “Bring on the napalm.” But the main leads are (as a local doc) John Agar, whose earnestness I always found appealing — plus U-I contract babe and future lifelong Eastwood pal Mara Corday as another ’50s scientist’s assistant who could just as well be one of that decade’s Playboy Playmates, which, matter of fact, Corday was in real life. According to the bonus commentary by Tom Weaver, who wrote the sci-fi movie book (actually, he wrote many more than one), poor Agar signed with the studio in hopes of getting more substantial parts than playing opposite Cleo Moore in Bait over at Columbia for Hugo Haas. Whereupon, U-I put Agar in Revenge of the Creature (coincidentally Eastwood’s debut), then let him sit around for a year before putting him in Tarantula. (As for The Mole People, which followed later, I didn’t even like that one when I was a kid.)

The commentary, which can be funny and is shared with David Schecter and Robert J. Kiss, is a new one on me: actors are utilized to deliver quotes from Weaver’s many interviews of sci-fi movie principals, including some of the talents here. Schecter does a riff of 10 or 11 minutes on how Tarantula’s effective score here was largely patched together from previous pictures, while Weaver offers persuasive evidence that the movie’s cult director, Jack Arnold, was apparently one of those guys who claimed credit for everything (though if I’d been Jack, I’d have blamed Bob Hope’s A Global Affair on someone else).

The estimable Gary Tooze of DVD Beaver recently knocked this Blu-ray’s look on the website, and anyone hoping that the movie will look as sharp as the recent Val Lewton RKO’s from Scream Factory should forget it. My own view is that the 1.33:1 copy on Koch Media’s Reg. B import looks the best (but that means 1.33 for a December 1955 release) and that the 1.78 alternative on the same disc is too grainy for my eye. That leaves this new 1.85 Scream Factory version somewhere in the middle — a nice width-to-height rendering but otherwise only on the high side of just OK.

And speaking of Inside Baseball (or maybe Inside Insects), the movie’s title appears as Tarantula on the screen — sans exclamation point — but as Tarantula! nearly everywhere else these days, including on the package art and menu here. As one who assisted Leonard Maltin on his Movie Guide dating back to when The Osmonds were charting, I can tell you that Len spent half of his adult life trying to sort out this kind of twisted arcania, which more than once must have made him ask, “I went to NYU for this?” It’s the kind of thing that makes you wish you’d pursued a more reputable profession in life — like, say, mad scientist. Though truth to tell, Carroll’s character really isn’t mad here but one who simply fell in with the wrong crowd, as in once diminutive tarantulas who eventually necessitate the employment of bombing crews.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Face in the Crowd’ and ‘Tarantula’

Scream Factory Releasing ‘Universal Horror Collection Vol. 1’ Blu-ray June 18

Scream Factory, the horror imprint of multi-platform distributor Shout! Factory, will release Universal Horror Collection Vol. 1 on Blu-ray June 18. Celebrating the legacy of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, the collection includes their collaborations in the films The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936) and Black Friday (1940).

The Black Cat will include new commentaries from film historians Gregory William Mank and Steve Haberman, the documentary “Dreams Within a Dream: The Classic Cinema of Edgar Allan Poe” narrated by Doug Bradley, the featurette “A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part One — The Black Cat,” and vintage footage of “The Black Cat Contest.”

The Raven comes with a new 2K scan of the original film elements, plus a commentary with Haberman, another commentary with Gary D. Rhodes, the featurette “A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Two — The Raven,” and an audio recording of Lugosi reading Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart.

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The Invisible Ray features a new 2K scan of the original film elements, a commentary with film historians Tom Weaver and Randall Larson, the featurette “A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Three — The Invisible Ray,” and a Re-Release theatrical trailer.

Black Friday comes with a new 2K scan of the original film elements, a commentary with film historian Constantine Nasr, the featurette “A Good Game: Karloff and Lugosi at Universal Part Four — Black Friday,” an “Inner Sanctum Mystery Radio Show” performances of The Tell-Tale Heart starring Boris Karloff, and the theatrical trailer.

All films will also include still galleries.

The Body Snatcher


Shout! Factory;
$29.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Russell Wade.

The Body Snatcher from 1945 finds the young Robert Wise in his career breakout (or something close), adapting a Robert Louis Stevenson story that does not have celestial seed pods nor Dana Wynter in a cocktail dress as standout components. The result is a 77-minute fan favorite that goes against certain expectations, though most would venture a good (and also correct) guess that Val Lewton produced it. Lewton’s onetime boss David O. Selznick may have had Dom Perignon budgets at his disposal, but Lewton had to do it the hard way. His touch remains as unmistakable here in terms of mood, atmospherics and tight storytelling — except that he had to produce quality on bankrolls, which, by comparison to the wallet marked DOS, conceivably might have floated a six-pack of Nehi’s.

The mild surprises I noted come in the casting. Here’s a Boris Karloff-Bela Lugosi pairing filmed not at those horror titans’ standard homestead Universal but at RKO — though, yes, 1940’s You’ll Find Out had been at RKO as well. Of course, that one was primarily a Kay Kyser musical, which tends to take it out of this discussion — though I suppose one can make a case that Ish Kabibble (who was popular band leader Kyser’s house lunatic) was as scary as either. The other surprise here has to do with some misleading hype: against Lewton’s wishes, a second-billed Lugosi was added to the cast as an afterthought for some added box office clout — and yet it’s a surprisingly small role even if Lugosi does totally nail it in one his big scene here of note.

In truth, all three principals nail what primarily turns out to be a heavyweight acting duel between Karloff and Henry Daniell, as the former finesses a characterization fully equatable with his career meal-ticket Frankenstein — while Daniell carries a huge chunk of the story’s dramatic load playing a med-school proprietor and potentially brilliant surgeon who’s also become a borderline dissipated sot. The latter’s fall from grace is due to the Daniell character’s sanctioning of grave-robbing from a nearby cemetery in 1831 Edinburgh to make it possible for his students to have hands-on experience, which is probably not the way to get invited to all the best parties. Karloff is the actual robber who graduates to the deal-breaking practice of murder, and their unholy alliance extends way back into their younger days — leading to a kind of blackmail situation that pretty well guaranteed that Karloff would become a lifelong leech.

A master at projecting constipated villainy often accompanied by a mean streak, Daniell had been unforgettable not long before his turn as boarding school proprietor Reverend Brocklehurst in the 20th Century-Fox version of Jane Eyre — the one whose sadistic severity leads to little Elizabeth Taylor’s death from pneumonia. In Body Snatchers, his character is rigid as well, yet with a sympathetic streak that suggests a potentially good man, at least at the beginning, who never had a chance to relax. It takes nearly a movie’s length of prodding even to get him to consider operating on a little girl (RKO’s resident femme child Sharyn Moffett) whose paralysis he might cure.

As the editor of Citizen Kane, the young Wise had wanted to direct, and he got his chance for at least a shared on-screen credit when initially hired Gunther V. Fritsch fell behind schedule on Lewton’s The Curse of the Cat People and had to be replaced mid-production. Wise’s work pleased the studio, and his work was seamless with Fritsch’s — something you can easily see in People’s earlier Scream Factory Blu-ray release. That one was more visually stunning (particularly in the Simone Simon apparition scenes) than this heavily nocturnal Stevenson yarn, but this Body Snatchers Blu-ray is a big leap over the old DVD. Beyond that, it rarely lets up in the character dynamics, and even the comparably bland Russell Wade as a med school student/assistant projects the naive sincerity his role demands.

Lewton produced 11 low-budget movies at RKO from 1942 to 1946 (two of them unsuccessful non-horror entries) after his Cat People debut became one of the biggest box office sleepers of the war years. Body Snatchers came late in the horror cycle (seventh of the nine) after a multi-picture contract with Karloff pushed the series into a slightly higher production bracket. Though their choice of material couldn’t have been more different, Lewton’s success was eerily reminiscent of Preston Sturges’; both filmmakers were like comets who had an amazing but brief run of movies that are as good now as when they were made. Oddly, Lewton’s slide began when he left RKO for Paramount after a contract skirmish, while Sturges lost his touch after leaving Paramount for — talk about a fool’s errand — a typically pipe dream deal with mercurial Howard Hughes.

Beyond 4K scanning, the Blu-ray is a nice mix between the recycled and new, starting with a shared commentary between Wise (who died in 2005) and Steve Haberman, whose credits include the screenplay for Mel Brooks’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, whose stake-through-the-heart scene got the single hardest guffaws I ever heard at a New York press screening. Both voiceovers are self-contained, with Haberman taking over after Wise’s personal reminisces (i.e. they’re not scene-specific) about what was for him a pleasant experience. There’s also the 2005 doc Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy, plus a new featurette (You’ll Never Get Rid of Me: Resurrecting The Body Snatcher) that in part tries making the quite defensible case that this was the best horror film of the ‘40s.

When all was said and done, Wise also rated Body Snatchers as a personal career favorite, along with The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Sand Pebbles, to name three for which he had significant fondness. I’m assuming he had considerable affection for West Side Story and The Sound of Music as well, both Oscar winners that were a long way from the Lewton pictures, Wise had his share of clunkers to go along the films of his that are still beloved, but there weren’t too many directors whose careers had as many dimensions.

Mike’s Picks: ‘The Body Snatcher’ and ‘Road to Utopia’

Scream Factory Releasing ‘Poison Ivy’ Blu-ray Boxed Set

Shout! Factory’s horror imprint, Scream Factory, will release the four-disc The Poison Ivy Collection on Blu-ray Feb. 12.

The set includes the theatrically released erotic thriller Poison Ivy (1992) and its direct-to-video sequels Poison Ivy II: Lily (1996), Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (1997) and Poison Ivy: The Secret Society (2008), all making their Blu-ray debuts. The set includes the rated and unrated versions of each film.

Poison Ivy stars Drew Barrymore as a teenager named Ivy who befriends introverted teen Sylvie (Sara Gilbert) and seduces her father (Tom Skerritt). Poison Ivy 2 features Alyssa Milano as a college student named Lily, who finds Ivy’s diaries and is inspired to pursue a life of uninhibited sexual risk-taking. In The New Seduction, Ivy’s sister, Violet (Jaime Pressly), seeks revenge on the family the betrayed her mother. In Secret Society, a college freshman (Miriam McDonald) is invited to join an exclusive campus sisterhood, whose cold-blooded ambition causes the group to seduce, blackmail or do away with anyone that gets in their way.

The set includes a new commentary on the theatrical version of the first film with co-writer/director Katt Shea, plus trailers for each film.

According to Shout! Factory’s press release, the unrated versions of the first three films were created by inserting standard-definition footage into the HD rated version.

Poison Ivy: The New Seduction

Starman: Collector’s Edition

As discussed in depth in the bonus materials of the new Scream Factory Blu-ray of 1984’s Starman, director John Carpenter was eager to use the film to veer away from the scary fare he was known for and into the gentler realms of sci-fi and romance. Jeff Bridges anchors the film with a quirky, subtle performance as an alien entity trying to adjust to life as in a human body as he makes his way across the country to rendezvous with his mothership.





Shout! Factory;
$34.93 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Jeff Bridges, Karen Allen, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Jaeckel.

To differentiate itself from the recent success of E.T., 1984’s Starman was billed as a “science-fiction romance” that played heavily on the idea of the “Greetings From Earth” messages launched with the Voyager space probes a few years earlier.

Director John Carpenter took on the project because he wanted to distance himself from his reputation as a horror director, but he was no stranger to science-fiction. He made his directorial debut with the expanded student film Dark Star in 1974 before establishing himself as a horror icon with Halloween, The Fog and Christine. But interspersed with those was the Elvis TV movie (with Kurt Russell), not to mention the Escape From New York and The Thing, both undisputable examples of sci-fi, even if The Thing takes full advantage of his horror sensibilities. And four years later he would make They Live.

Starman, however, would prove to be much lighter in tone than his previous works, with Carpenter putting an emphasis on the road trip aspect of the story that would center on the rapport between his two leads. While most of the film is a conventional “government searching for aliens” type of plot, it succeeds primarily due to the performance of Jeff Bridges, who was nominated for an Oscar for his efforts.

The film stars with one of the Voyager probes being intercepted by an alien ship, which finds the golden record on it containing samples of Earth culture and an invitation from the U.N. for alien life to visit. The aliens then send a smaller craft to accept the invitation, only for it to be shot down by the U.S. military.

After the ship crashes in rural Wisconsin, its occupant discovers the remote cabin occupied by Jenny (Karen Allen), who is pining over her recently deceased husband (Bridges). The alien uses photos of the man and some DNA from a lock of his hair in a scrapbook to create a body it can use to study humanity. This is where Bridges shines through, amplifying the awkwardness of an alien form in a new body slowly growing accustomed to it as he learns more about the world around him.

Bridges in the bonus materials recalls the approach he took to the character as one of an advanced being in a human body trying to impersonate a human. The transformation of the alien into Bridges was the result of the combination of work from three masters of movie makeup effects: Dick Smith, Rick Baker and Stan Winston.

Jenny is understandably freaked out by the clone of her dead husband standing in front of her, but quickly comes to understand what he’s there for. He needs to travel to Arizona to be picked up by his people in three days, before his human body can no longer sustain his alien energies (which allow him to control electronic devices, such as jumpstarting a car or keying the jackpot of a Vegas slot machine).

With the aid of some little metal spheres, the Starman’s powers include the ability to shield himself from danger and resurrect the dead, as in a memorable scene in which he cures a deer from recently being shot by a hunter.

Starman’s antics naturally cause a disturbance wherever he goes, creating a ripple effect that is being tracked by a group of government operatives who are divided by their interests in the alien. Some want to learn from him (as in Charles Martin Smith SETI scientist), but some want to dissect him, which creates some tension over which group gets to him first.

Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray edition looks fantastic and really does justice to the cinematography of Donald M. Morgan. Aside from the few necessary visual effects shots to establish the alien spacecraft, most of the film’s look is defined by subtle lighting effects that come across really well in high-definition.

The film gave Bridges a chance to show off some of his musical chops thanks to his alien persona relaying himself through music he’s picked up, and a film-reel flashback of his human self playing the guitar and singing “All I Have to Do Is Dream” with Allen (a duet that was included on the film’s soundtrack album). He’s eventually win the Best Actor Oscar for playing a musician in 2009’s Crazy Heart. For Allen, this was probably her best-known role outside of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The Blu-ray combines some legacy bonus materials with a new 24-minute retrospective, called “They Came From Hollywood: Remembering Starman.” Bridges, Smith, Carpenter and a handful of the filmmakers are shown in separate interviews recalling their experience of making the film and what it meant for their careers.

For Bridges in particular, the film marked the start of a tradition in which he would assemble the photographs he takes on the set of his films into a scrapbook memento for the cast and crew.

The audio on some of the interviews is a bit scratchy, so viewers shouldn’t worry that their speakers are blowing out.

The Blu-ray also includes a great, insightful audio commentary with Carpenter and Bridges ported over from an overseas Blu-ray release, plus an 11-minute promotional featurette from the ’80s.

The film would go on to spawn a short-lived sequel TV series in 1986, though none of the cast reprised their roles. The show is available as a manufactured-on-demand DVD from Sony.