I fast discovered that every year since I started doing my Blog that fewer and fewer classic horror, science fiction and crime/noir titles are being released. Why? Well, the best ones have already been released. Now distributors seek out the remaining few classics and the dribs and drabs of the near classic or the obscure. That means that more and more of the made-to-order Warner Archive Collection will make my top-ten list each year, and fewer and fewer mainstream releases will appear.
Even if we are dealing with more B productions and the obscure, there were still many incredible films released to DVD and Blu-ray this past year.
Here is my top-10 list in no particular order!
THRILLER: THE COMPLETE SERIES
My absolute favorite DVD of the year has to be Image Entertainment’s release of the entire two-year run of THRILLER, the classic anthology series hosted by Boris Karloff. As a child I thrilled to classic horror episodes such as The Hungry Glass, Pigeons from Hell and The Cheaters. But as seen today in its entirety, I find myself gasping at how good the series was, even the majority of the suspense/crime episodes. And many supernatural-oriented episodes, the ones not usually referenced, as often excellent as well. As I take my time and watch all 67 episodes, I am entertained, terrified and riveted. And I am shocked at just how many episodes I am seeing here for the first time. Truly a revelation and a treasure trove of pleasure!
Hammer was on its last legs in 1972 when VAMPIRE CIRCUS was released. Not classic in terms of either production or presentation and lacking creative input from any of the original Hammer auteurs (Tony Hinds, Michael Carreras, Terence Fisher, James Bernard, Roy Ashton), the movie still shines. Strangely mystical and almost made as a horrific fairy tale, VAMPIRE CIRCUS is rather audacious for the time, presenting vampires as a plague that haunts a small traveling circus and lures victims into the deadly Hall of Mirrors, where all enter but not everyone leaves. This Blu-ray presentation is magnificent, presenting the original vibrant color hues and deep contrast missing from the film since its original theatrical release (which was cut in the U.S.). VAMPIRE CIRCUS today seems rather old school featuring classical vampires with elongated fangs, but for Hammer, the movie was a totally new take on an old Hammer chestnut. And it is one fine horror movie that now looks and sounds gorgeous.
Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO was the master’s slumming, low-rent masterpiece. Coming after the ornate NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PSYCHO seems like an after-though B production. However, as presented re-mastered anamorphically in Blu-ray with digital sound, Hitchcock’s imagery and creepy soundscape (punctuated by the classic Bernard Herrmann musical score) approximate crisp 35mm projection. For once we can appreciate all the deliberate cinematography that Hitchcock mastered by this point in his career—Norman Bates surrounded by his stuffed birds; Martin Balsam’s overhead attack by Norman’s “mother” and his slow glide fall backwards down the steep staircase; the infamous shower murder sequence; the overhead light swinging to and fro as the corpse of “mother” is revealed; the sun-glassed cop’s cold, piercing eyes staring at the just-awakening Janet Leigh, as she rises up in her car. The list goes on and on. But the Blu-ray restores a classic vision to a formerly well-worn masterpiece.
THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1939)
While only available as part of the Bob Hope: Thanks for the Memories Collection, this first-time ever DVD release of Bob Hope’s seldom seen horror classic THE CAT AND THE CANARY looks terrific restored as best as possible for any movie originally released in 1939. While THE GHOST BREAKERS has been available on home video for a long while, THE CAT AND THE CANARY has always been missing in action. And the movie is the perfect compliment to the other Hope chiller, featuring horror film icons George Zucco and Gale Sondergaard in delightful roles, excellent sets and designs featuring a haunted swamp-side mansion with secret rooms and nighttime boat rides down a fog-shrouded river. And Bob Hope brings his comedic style to every sequence. Perhaps the film’s puffed-up reputation makes fans expect too much, but nonetheless, THE CAT AND THE CANARY is a marvelous film too long missing from home video.
STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR
Many consider STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR to be the first film noir, while others see it as a visually adventurous suspense film featuring a knife-wielding psycho (played deliciously by Peter Lorre). Bottom line, it is one of the best RKO B productions ever made, one featuring a cabbie wrongfully accused of robbery and murder (slicing the victim’s throat from ear to ear) and the attempts of regular people to discover the truth. Peter Lorre as the “stranger” is creepy and becomes classic early Lorre, with those sad eyes and tentative delivery of dialogue (even buying raw hamburger for his dog becomes off-putting). The movie contains such powerful symbolic visuals that approximate dream reality and hold audience attention. Finally made available as a made-to-order Warner Archives release, STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR is a must-see film for horror, noir and Peter Lorre fans.
ICONS OF SUSPENSE: HAMMER FILMS
Now that all the Gothic color Hammer classics have been released, as well as a host of not-so-classic releases (THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH; THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL), as well as their pirate movies and other odd productions, it is about time that the black and white psycho thrillers and other overlooked titles are finally seeing the light of day. This collection contains THESE ARE THE DAMNED, one of the finest pre-atomic war fear films ever concocted (featuring an art film sensibility and a catchy rock’n’roll theme song). Wonderful suspense thrillers THE SNORKEL and MANIAC are included, with perhaps the rare but mediocre STOP ME BEFORE I KILL also included. NEVER TAKE CANDY FROM A STRANGER is at last released, another excellent story of a small village pervert (with privilege and wealth that protects him) who preys on young girls. But the gem of the set is CASH ON DEMAND, a heist thriller starring Peter Cushing in one of his finest roles, playing a prissy bank manager. And along for villainy is a steely-eyed Andre Morell. For me finally seeing the extremely rare CASH ON DEMAND was the treat of the collection, and seeing Peter Cushing create another first-rate performance is worth the price of admission.
GORDON SCOTT TARZAN COLLECTION:
For years fans have been clamoring for the release of the fan-favorite Gordon Scott Tarzan movies, released between 1955 and 1960. Fans and critics alike have called Scott’s final two entries, TARZAN’S GREATEST ADVENTURE and TARZAN THE MAGNIFICENT, two of the best Tarzan entries ever produced, and they are indeed just that. In this Warner Archive made-to-order release, it is a shame that these films could not have been given a full restoration and digital cleaning, but as seen here, the color saturation is deep and the black and white entries have good (if not great) contrast. For me Gordon Scott was the greatest Tarzan of them all and these six films remind me of going to the theater to see most of them as a small boy with my father. When it comes to iconic heroes of the baby-boomer generation, the well-chiseled physique and down to earth kindness of this king of the jungle, Gordon Scott, will continue to linger for generations in the imagination of children everywhere (and adults as well).
NIGHT OF THE HUNTER
When it comes to the scariest of non-horror cinema, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, the only film directed by Charles Laughton, contains some of the most terrifying cinematography ever to grace a suspense thriller. Add to that Robert Mitchum’s second greatest psychopathic performance (his twisted reverend here is one notch below his Max Cady in CAPE FEAR, in my estimation) and we have a true classic. In this Criterion Blu-ray restoration, the movie shimmers with his excellent contrast black and white photography. The sequence with Shelley Winter’s body sitting in that old jalopy underwater, dead, has to be one of cinema’s most iconic sequences. And in the final quarter when the children are on the run, sleeping in barns and racing down the river in a rowboat, the film mesmerizes. Perhaps the ending lacks the emotional rush audiences were hoping for (for me the film’s main flaw) as Mitchum’s villain receives a rather un-dramatic comeuppance. But NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is classic in every sense, with gorgeous cinematography, and Robert Mitchum commands the screen.
I never truly enjoyed WHITE CHRISTMAS until I saw it through Susan’s eyes. While many fans enjoy HOLIDAY INN more than this one, in recent years the tide seems to be turning. And having watched the film year in and out, now I know why. The splendid, lush VistaVision image, bathed in Technicolor hues, containing wonderful performances by Bing Crosby, Danny Kay, Vera-Ellen and Rosemary Clooney warm the heart. Now available in Blu-ray, the film visually dazzles more so than ever. WHITE CHRISTMAS is the equivalent of warming winter comfort food. Yes, the script is easily predicted but the performances colored by the musical production numbers win us over. This is one Christmas film that I can watch over and over again, and it never fails to bring a smile to my lips. And now, the film has never looked or sounded better.
COLUMBIA PICTURES FILM NOIR CLASSICS, VOL. 2
Generally, the quality of Volume 2 of any DVD collection is inferior when compared to Volume 1, but with the Columbia Pictures initial box set of film noirs, I was rather disappointed. Of course Columbia produced the B noirs, the low-rent movies that never garnered the attention of the higher profile Warner and Fox releases. However, Volume 2 kicks Volume 1 to the mat with infinitely superior movies. The most fun occurs because viewers probably never saw the majority of the films contained within these Columbia noir sets; It’s always exciting to ponder films unseen for the first time. In Volume 2 are treated to solid crime dramas such as Jacques Tourneur’s NIGHTFALL and Fritz Lang’s HUMAN DESIRE. We also have Fred MacMurray’s PUSHOVER, the other film besides DOUBLE INDEMNITY that shows MacMurray consumed by lust, becoming another tragic idiot whose internal flaws destroy him. But the ace of the deck has to be THE BROTHERS RICO, a film that foreshadows family mob films such as THE GODFATHER. And Richard Conte delivers a bravura performance that impresses long after the final end credits appear. For me seeing each of these films for the first time was a real treat.