At last available on Blu-Ray courtesy of Twilight Time, STRANGE INVADERS (***½, 97 mins., PG) is director Michael Laughlin’s terrific 1983 homage to ’50s sci-fi. In Laughlin and Bill Condon’s original script, Columbia professor Paul LeMat searches for his ex-wife (Diana Scarwid), whose disappearance leaves their young daughter in his care, and a tabloid news journalist (Nancy Allen) hot on the trail. Turns out the quaint little Midwestern town Scarwid hails from harbors a deep, extraterrestrial secret – as does Scarwid herself!
I loved “Strange Invaders” when I watched the old Vestron VHS tape as a kid, and Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray – limited to 3000 copies – enables both fans and newcomers the opportunity to savor the film in high-def, since the film has been out-of-circulation for years save a 2001 MGM “Midnight Movies” DVD. That release looked good at the time, but the Blu-Ray’s 1080p (2.35) AVC encoded transfer is even better, with superior detail that enhances the movie’s strong use of Panavision cinematography.
This is a knowing, funny, and delightful homage to the kinds of sci-fi flicks that were so popular in the ’50s, with just a dash of ’80s gore (it still qualified for a PG) and a fantastic score by John Addison that adds just the right tone to the action. The performances are fun, and the script by Laughlin and Condon (future Oscar-winner for “Gods and Monsters”) manages to rehash old cliches without turning into a campfest. TT’s Blu-Ray also includes a DTS MA mono soundtrack, the trailer, the DVD’s commentary with Laughlin and Condon (recorded separately), plus an isolated score track.
A cult classic that’s a must for sci-fi fans, “Strange Invaders” is one of my favorite sleepers of the ’80s and Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray is the best presentation of it yet on home video by far. Highly recommended!
Also new this month from Twilight Time:
JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES (**½, 107 mins., 1998, R): Carpenter’s last “widely viewed” excursion in the horror genre is an assured piece of directorial craftsmanship, from its scenes of empty Southwestern landscapes and open vistas, yet it’s disappointingly derailed by a lackluster script and a ponderous pace.
James Woods gives it his all as the head Slayer of a Vatican-sanctioned collection of vampire hunters driving through the Southwest, disposing of undead creatures in their often grimy habitats. Before you can say “Mission: Impossible,” and unbeknownst to Woods and partner Daniel Baldwin (trying to interject some very Alec-like method acting), the Master Vampire (Thomas Ian Griffith) that the team couldn’t find appears to slaughter Woods’s entire group at a dirty desert motel.
After a series of decapitations that ends with bitten hooker Sheryl Lee becoming the hunters’ psychic link to Griffith, Woods finds out from Vatican priest Maximilian Schell (if you have to slum in a horror film, it might as well be here) that this grungy fang is none other than the source for the vampiric plague itself that has quietly spread throughout the world–a former priest who was turned into a demonic creature after denouncing the church and an exorcism gone awry. Before you can say “Blade,” it turns out that Griffith is now after a power source (here a black crucifix) that will further transform him into an even more powerful form of evil, which naturally Woods is out to stop.
There’s a lot to like in “Vampires,” particularly the western-like atmosphere of the film, and the sense of camaraderie between Woods, Baldwin, and the subsequent Vatican priest who aids the duo. The film is free of the unrelenting cynicism that Carpenter brought to many of his late-career films (“In the Mouth of Madness” in particular), and the ending is surprisingly solid for one of the director’s efforts.
Woods, in a rare heroic role, grits his teeth and has a grand old time, but too often he’s saddled with lame lines like “die! die! die!” while Carpenter spends the first half hour filling the frame with too many dissolves and slow-motion shots of Woods maiming corpses and the heroes walking along the side of a highway. This may be “cool” but it’s also boring.
Carpenter’s “mood” movies, like “Prince of Darkness” and “The Fog,” greatly benefit from the director’s keen sense of mounting tension – showing vacant backgrounds and using foreboding cinematography to create viewer apprehension without much happening on-screen – yet because “Vampires” attempts to tell a linear story with a handful of different characters, the very distinctive atmosphere and deliberate pace that Carpenter brings to the table also holds this film back from being something more than it is. The movie should be quicker, smarter, and louder – too often it tends to downplay the action, using montages instead of full-blown set-pieces, all of which are accompanied by a leaden Carpenter soundtrack.
Most of the fault, however, ought to be placed on the screenplay. There should have been more development to Woods’s role; aside from a few lines about his origins, he essentially plays a Bruce Campbell character without an arsenal of hilarious one-liners. Griffith’s vampire also never becomes the sort of worthy adversary that Woods requires – he looks and acts like an aging member of KISS, and is about as scary as a badly attired Anne Rice fan at a horror convention. Don Jakoby’s script, then, lacks the panache and wit of a typical episode of “Buffy” or even “Blade,” where the latter’s stylish fight scenes complimented a better-than-average script (at least in that film the villain was properly developed and didn’t act or look like a left-over nosferatu from a Full Moon movie). Worst of all, though, are the scenes involving Baldwin’s explanations to Lee about her “condition” – these play like amateurish improv, generating unintended laughs at the expense of character development. Baldwin (who must have been the third Baldwin sibling down on the casting wish list) gives a performance that’s funnier than anything else in the movie, especially when he finds himself burning his arm (and overacting), Rambo-style, to prevent the bad blood from spreading through his immune system.
I could also mention the routine quality of the special effects, which are essentially limited to bloody heads and burning bodies, but I think I’ve grilled “John Carpenter’s Vampires” enough. I do so, however, only because there was so much potential in the premise, the possibility for a great genre romp was certainly in place. It’s a shame that the film wasn’t tightened up and the script revised to bolster the dialogue, because Woods’s performance is on-target, and the cumulative effect of “Vampires” is that of a moderately entertaining horror film with some clever touches. Too bad it wasn’t more than that – but at least it’s better than “Ghosts of Mars.”
TT’s good looking Blu-Ray of the 1998 Largo Entertainment production (bought up by Columbia once Largo went under) boasts a commentary with Carpenter, Making Of, the trailer, an isolated score track, and a superb 1080p (2.35) transfer with 5.1 and 2.0 DTS MA audio. Sure to sell out fast among the director’s devotees.
BLACK WIDOW (102 mins., 1987, R). THE MOVIE: Entertaining if somewhat undercooked “modern noir” offers luscious leading ladies Debra Winger and Theresa Russell as, respectively, a harried justice department worker and the mysterious femme fatale notable for marrying wealthy men – who have a habit of prematurely kicking the bucket. Bob Rafelson directed an original Ronald Bass script in this first-class Fox production, which boasts a superb supporting cast (Dennis Hopper, Sami Frey, Nicol Williamson) and textured cinematography by the great Conrad Hall. TWILIGHT TIME TECHNICAL SPECS: Michael Small’s score doesn’t quite give the film the kind of score John Barry wrote for “Body Heat,” but it works well enough within the confines of the film, and is also isolated here in Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray. TV spots, the trailer, and a new commentary with Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo lead the rest of the supplements. The 1080p (1.85) transfer is crisp and does full justice to Hall’s cinematography, and matching 5.1 and 2.0 DTS MA audio options comprise the rest of the tech specs. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: ***. Despite all the talent involved, “Black Widow” never really kicks into high gear, and peters out near the finish line – but it’s still a worthwhile view with Winger and Russell in their prime.
DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS (101 mins., 1995, R). THE MOVIE: Another fine, if not altogether satisfying, studio-produced thriller finds Denzel Washington comfortably inhabiting the role of “Easy” Rawlins, a private eye in post-WWII Los Angeles hired to find a missing woman (Jennifer Beals). Intended to launch a franchise based on the books by Walter Mosley, “Devil in a Blue Dress” unfortunately fizzled at the box-office in the fall of 1995, nixing Sony’s future hopes of having Washington reprise the character, which is a shame, because this Jonathan Demme production – helmed by Carl Franklin, who also scripted – is beautifully shot (by Tak Fujimoto), acted (Washington is joined by Tom Sizemore, Maury Chaykin and a young Don Cheadle who’s just terrific) and scored by Elmer Bernstein. TWILIGHT TIME TECH SPECS: Commentary by Franklin, an isolated score track, Cheadle screen test, and the trailer comprise TT’s supplemental section. TT’s 1080p (1.85) transfer and 5.1/2.0 DTS MA sound options, licensed through Sony, are all highly satisfying. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: ***. Though many remarked – justifiably – that “Devil”’s central mystery isn’t as compelling as its period atmosphere and characters, this is still a sturdy, well-acted film that comes strongly recommended.
SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (94 mins., 1969, R). THE MOVIE: Putting aside the disappointment that stars Vincent Price (who doesn’t really make a big appearance until late), Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (a cameo) never share a scene together, “Scream and Scream Again” is one of the daffier – and more endearing – late AIP horror outings. A co-production with England’s Amicus, this teaming of director Gordon Hessler and writer Christopher Wicking (who just collaborated with AIP’s late-era Poe adaptation “The Oblong Box”) finds mad scientists, neo-Nazis and government agents involved in the creation and cover-up of synthetic humans, produced through the recruitment of body parts from the living. It’s wild, woolly stuff, backed with a nutty jazz score, on-camera musical performance from “mod” group Amen Corner, some unintended laughs and Michael Gothard running from the authorities in a sequence that comprises nearly a quarter of the film! TWILIGHT TIME TECH SPECS: TT’s Blu-Ray offers a 1080p (1.85) transfer culled from MGM’s AIP U.S. version of “Scream and Scream Again,” which offers ample nicks and scratches throughout, but a strong amount of detail over its prior DVD release just the same. The mono audio is delivered as best it can be in a 1.0 DTS MA track. Extras, in addition to an isolated score track and a trailer/radio spot, include a fine commentary with Del Valle and Sullivan; a superb 20-minute new look at Hessler’s work at AIP; interview with star Uta Levka; and a still gallery. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: ***. Perfect for Halloween consumption, “Scream and Scream Again” is great fun from its era, even if it doesn’t make the best use of its legendary stars.
COUNT YORGA, VAMPIRE (93 mins., 1970, PG-13). THE MOVIE: Robert Quarry stars as a dapper vamp who heads into Los Angeles, promptly causing all kinds of undead shenanigans in this first of two American-International programmers featuring the Count (Shout released “Return of Count Yorga” last month on Blu-Ray). TWILIGHT TIME TECH SPECS: A full run of extras include commentary with genre authorities David Del Valle and Tim Sullivan; a Quarry “Rogue Morgue” interview that’s reproduced with Del Valle voicing Quarry’s responses to Sullivan’s questions; “Fangirl Radio Tribute” to Quarry with Sullivan; still galleries from MGM and Sullivan’s personal collection; the trailer; a solid 1080p (1.85) transfer of the movie’s most-uncut version seen to date (notable since the film began production reportedly as a soft-core sex film!), 1.0 DTS MA mono sound, and an isolated score track. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: **½. Quarry’s performance sells this typical AIP chiller, best recommended for genre addicts with fond nostalgia for the era.
VACATION Blu-Ray Combo Pack (**, 99 mins., 2015, R; Warner). THE LOWDOWN: Flaccid remake of the original “National Lampoon’s Vacation” puts Ed Helms through Chevy Chase’s paces as Rusty, now the head of the Griswold clan, who decides to set out on a cross-country trek with the fam (including wife Christina Applegate) to Wally World. Part of the problem with this go-around from writers-directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley is that it has no reason to exist. The original “Vacation” was borne out of writer John Hughes’ adolescence, spinning autobiographical details into a larger comedic fabric that made the picture a classic. Here, Goldstein and Daley do little except repeat the formula while upping the raunch quotient and bodily fluid jokes, making the R-rated ‘83 “Vacation” look like a PG-rated release by comparison. Despite a few funny gags – including Chris Hemsworth parodying himself – this box-office disappointment is one of the sorriest, most pointless remakes of a cherished cinematic property to date. BLU-RAY FEATURES: Warner’s combo pack of “Vacation” 2015 includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, “Griswold Odyssey” and “Return to Walley World” featurettes, a DVD, digital copy, and 1080p (2.41) AVC encoded Blu-Ray transfer with 5.1 DTS MA sound. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: Warner and New Line Cinema took forever getting this “Vacation” recycling off the ground, reportedly because they couldn’t figure out whether to go for a PG-13 rating (as all the subsequent films in the series had) or a harder R along the lines of most modern comedies. The decision to make the latter was a bad idea, as was the entire project.
BATMAN: Season 3 DVD (655 mins., 1967-68; Warner): Adam West’s Batman and Burt Ward’s loyal sidekick Robin are back for the third and final season of the legendary ‘60s TV series. In these 26 colorful, action-packed, camp-filled episodes, the Caped Crusaders take on some of the usual suspects (Frank Goshin’s Riddler, Burgess Meredith’s Penguin) while welcoming in guest stars like Milton Berle and Joan Collins as villains Siren, Luie the Lilac and Egghead come wandering in, causing all kinds of trouble in Gotham City. For those who didn’t purchase Warner’s superb, Complete Series box-set from last year, this is a good way to gradually add to one’s collection, with Warner’s DVD package offering the exact same remastered 4:3 transfers and mono soundtracks as the already-available editions. Recommended!
THE FIFTH ELEMENT 4K Remastered Blu Ray (***½, 126 mins., 1997, PG-13; Sony). THE LOWDOWN: Bruce Willis is an intergalactic taxi driver, Milla Jovovich is a Ronald McDonald-haired outer-space goddess who holds the key to the galaxy, and Gary Oldman does a Russ Perot accent in this inventive sci-fi fantasy, pure eye candy courtesy of writer-director Luc Besson. It doesn’t matter that the plot is recycled out of a number of genre films — that’s part of the point of Besson’s tongue-in-cheek script, which makes just enough sense to hang all of his outlandish and simply spectacular visuals on. Speaking of which… BLU RAY FEATURES: Sony’s third go-round for “The Fifth Element” on Blu Ray offers a pleasingly detailed, remastered in 4K presentation that does one better than the 2007 repressing of the original Blu. The newly remastered 1080p transfer is spectacular and the Dolby TrueHD sound with Atmos compatability (new to this re-issue) are both exceptionally strong, while extras (featurettes) have been ported over from prior editions. AISLE SEAT BOTTOM LINE: One of the more entertaining fantasies of the ‘90s is back, more colorful than ever, in Sony’s new edition, which is also available as part of Sony’s “Supreme Cinema” limited-edition packaging.
LEON THE PROFESSIONAL 4K Remastered Blu-Ray (***, 109/133 mins., 1994, R/Not Rated; Sony): One of Luc Besson’s most satisfying works also arrives in a top-notch, new 4K remastered Blu-Ray from Sony.
Sporting both the film’s original theatrical version (109 minutes) as well as its more leisurely paced Director’s Cut (133 minutes), “Leon” has never looked or sounded better than it does here — the AVC encoded 1080p (Remastered in 4K) transfer deftly showing off the film’s stylish, detailed cinematography and the Dolby TrueHD (Atmos compatible) sound providing a powerful backing for the highly active sound design and Eric Serra’s score. Details are more abundant here than in the prior Blu, but those with larger sets are most likely to appreciate the enhancements.
Extras are carried over from prior DVD editions and are quite satisfying: “Natalie Portman: Starting Young” contains a retrospective interview with the actress, reflecting back on her still-discussed, career-launching role in Besson’s 1994 film; “Jean Reno: The Road to Leon” offers then-recent comments from the international star, while the 25-minute “10 Year Retrospective” includes comments from Portman, Reno, and other cast/crew members, with the notable omission of Besson.
Speaking of which, Besson apparently prefers to let his films speak for themselves, which would explain the disc’s lack of commentary or interview comments from the filmmaker. However, there is an additional trivia track on the extended version which should provide fans with additional insight into the film’s background if they choose to access it. A digital HD copy is also included for both titles.
TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack (82 mins., 1973, Arrow): Ulli Lommel’s horrific 1973 look at the “Butcher of Hanover”, Fritz Haarmann, is rooted in fact – Haarmann’s inexplicable, gruesome crimes reportedly became part of the inspiration for Fritz Lang’s “M.” Lommel’s film, produced by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, provides a strange, disturbing (as you’d anticipate) look at Lommel’s murders of young boys and men in post-WWI Germany, without a lot of explicit violence but with the power of suggestion, which arguably makes the material even more unsettling. Arrow’s new 1080p transfer (1.78) was derived from the Fassbinder Foundation (a DVD is also included) with PCM uncompressed mono sound, and both elements of the Blu-Ray are top notch. Extras include commentary from Lommel; newly translated English subtitles; a new interview with Lommel; a conversation with cinematographer Jurgen Jurges; an interview with actor Rainer Will; appreciation from author Stephen Thrower; a stills gallery; trailer; and liner notes from Fassbinder authority/historian Tony Rayns.
A pair of films from late in the career of Charles Bronson – as well as two of the final releases from the then-fading Cannon Group – are included in Olive’s new Blu-Ray releases this month.
In MESSENGER OF DEATH (91 mins., R) Bronson plays a reporter who tries to solve the murder of three Mormon women and their children in an adaptation of Rex Burns’ novel “The Avenging Angel” that paints a sensationalized and convoluted view of Mormonism in addition to serving up typical Chuck-styled action. Trish Van Deere, Laurence Luckinbill, Jeff Corey, Marilyn Hassett and John Ireland appear with Bronson in one of his many outings with director J. Lee Thompson.
Bronson followed that film with KINJITE (FORBIDDEN SUBJECTS) (98 mins., 1989, R), another Thompson-directed outing, with Bronson here essaying yet another cop out to expose a child prostitution ring and take down its vile pimp (Juan Fernandez). Peggy Limpton, Jerry Lopez and a young Nicole Eggert co-star in a decent variation on the usual Bronson formula, with both films presented in no-frills 1080p (1.85) AVC encoded Blu-Rays with DTS MA audio and no extras.
Finally, Burt Reynolds starred and directed THE END (100 mins., 1978, R), a hit black comedy starring Burt as a real estate agent, told he has just months left to live, who tries to end his life. Needless to say, few of Reynolds’ efforts work, backfiring in comic fashion as Reynolds meets Dom DeLuise’s insane inmate, who likewise fails to get the job done. Sally Field, David Steinberg, Joanne Woodward, Kristy McNichol, Robby Benson, Carl Reiner and Norman Fell co-starred in this occasionally funny but often strident pic, scored by Paul Williams and written by Jerry Belson, that became a big hit back in ‘78 despite being panned by most critics, who (understandably) found the tone all over the map. Olive’s 1080p (1.85) transfer is acceptable and DTS MA mono sound rounds out the disc.
GETTING ON Season 2 Blu-Ray/Digital HD (180 mins., 2015; HBO): Extremely funny HBO comedy follows the staff at a Long Beach, California hospital, where nurses, doctors and their fellow staff attempt to take care of predominantly elderly patients. Laurie Metcalf, Alex Borstein, Niecy Nash and Mel Rodriguez star in this effective American remake of the BBC series of the same name, which returns to Blu-Ray this week in a new Season 2 release. In addition to 1080p transfers and 5.1 DTS MA soundtracks, the set includes deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a digital HD Ultraviolet copy.
THE EXORCISM OF MOLLY HARTLEY Blu-Ray (96 mins., 2015, Unrated; Fox): Sequel to 2008’s theatrical “The Haunting of Molly Hartley” (remember that one? me neither, and I reviewed it!) finds Molly now possessed by a demon and a defrocked priest (Devon Sawa) trying to resolve the issue (good luck!). This Canadian-lensed follow-up offers a solid performance from Sarah Lind as the title character but is essentially a lightweight “Exorcist” knockoff not worth recommending. Fox’s Blu-Ray includes three featurettes, a digital HD copy, 1080p (1.78) transfer and 5.1 DTS MA sound.
CHARLIE’S FARM DVD (94 mins., 2014, Not Rated; Alchemy): Tara Reid and her pals decide – unwisely – to venture onto a farm in the Australian outback where a Texas Chainsaw-like clan once perished. Naturally, they’re not all dead as Reid and friends find out in Chris Sun’s slasher pic, which is slow to get going but does deliver the grizzly goods in its final third. Alchemy’s DVD features a 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 soundtrack.
Also new from Alchemy is the more entertaining LAVALANTULA (84 mins., 2015), another brainless, goofy spoof in the “Sharknado” mode that finds Steve Guttenberg and half the surviving cast of “Police Academy” (Michael Winslow, Marion Ramsey and Leslie Easterbrook) taking on creatures that emerge out of a volcano in the Santa Monica Hills. Ridiculous, obviously, but done with sufficient cheese courtesy of Cinetel Films, which produces the better Syfy Channel original movie content these days. Alchemy’s DVD offers a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 sound.
SHELBY: A MAGICAL HOLIDAY TAIL DVD (92 mins., 2015; Anchor Bay): Rob Schneider voices a stray pup who’s adopted by a spoiled rich-kid – and promptly runs away into the basement of an aspriring 10-year-old magician (John Paul Ruttan). Tom Arnold plays the dogcatcher on Shelby’s trail and Chevy Chase is an understanding grandfather in this Canadian-produced family film, coming to DVD in plenty of time for the holidays November 3rd. Anchor Bay’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.
PAPER ANGELS DVD (86 mins., 2014; Cinedigm): Author Travis Trasher and country star Jimmy Wayne collaborated to write a novel about a businessman who picks out the name of a teenager through the Salvation Army’s Angel Tree program and gives him more than just a gift for the holidays. Josie Bissett, Matthew Settle and Rustin Gresuk star in this feel-good family picture now on DVD from Cinedigm in a 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.