(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
CARRIE (1976). Like Jaws, here's one of those rare instances when the movie is better than the book. What's more, this box office hit easily remains the best adaptation of a King property (sorry, Shawshank and Shining groupies), thanks to an excellent cast, a richly layered screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen, and especially a bravura directorial turn from Brian De Palma. Sissy Spacek delivers a powerhouse performance as Carrie White, a high school outcast who uses her telekinetic abilities to exact revenge against her many tormentors. Filled with rising young stars (including Amy Irving and William Katt as good kids and John Travolta and Nancy Allen as bad ones), bolstered by Oscar-nominated turns by Spacek and Piper Laurie (as Carrie's religious nut of a mother), and packing a jolt of an ending that still haunts the dreams of baby boomers and Generation Xers, Carrie stands not only as a grade-A thriller but, with its look at the real-life horrors of peer pressure and the prom, also as a stinging and perceptive examination of teen angst. This marked composer Pino Donaggio's first collaboration with De Palma; he would contribute music to seven of the director's films, including the brilliant score for Dressed to Kill.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece in which we learn (among other facts) that the auditions for this film and Star Wars were held simultaneously, with De Palma taking a close look at many of the actors that George Lucas passed on (including Katt, who tried out for Luke Skywalker but ended up as Carrie's ill-fated prom date); new interviews with Laurie, Allen, Katt, Cohen, Donaggio and others; a piece on Carrie: The Musical; a still gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION (1932-1939). Just in time for Halloween comes this three-disc, six-title set from the Warner Archive Collection (www.wbshop.com), showcasing a wide variety of vintage horror flicks from the vaults.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) finds author Sax Rohmer's famed character on a quest to conquer the globe by obtaining the sword and mask of Genghis Khan; naturally, it's up to members of the British empire to thwart his plans. Boris Karloff plays the evil warlord with the right mix of menace and playfulness, and, yes, that's Myrna Loy as his nymphomaniac daughter.
Doctor X (1932) is notable for a number of reasons: the use of early two-strip Technicolor, the impressive Max Factor makeup, the involvement of director Michael Curtiz before he became Warner's top go-to guy (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy), and a rather grisly story about the search for a serial killer among a laboratory of top scientists.
Director Tod Browning (Dracula) remade his own silent film London After Midnight (starring Lon Chaney) as Mark of the Vampire (1935), with Bela Lugosi and spooky Carol Borland as bloodsuckers terrorizing a small Czech village. The twist ending is a beaut and provides Lugosi with a treasured movie moment.
Peter Lorre's memorable turn as a child killer in Fritz Lang's M had already established the actor as a familiar face when he arrived in the U.S. to make his first stateside picture. In Mad Love (1935), he cuts a striking figure as Doctor Gogol, who replaces the injured hands of a concert pianist (Colin Clive, Dr. Frankenstein in the Karloff classic) with those of an executed mass murderer.
Perhaps the most enjoyable film in the set, The Devil-Doll (1936) allows Lionel Barrymore the chance to go the Tootsie route. He plays Paul Lavond, a Devil's Island escapee who plots revenge against the three men who framed him. Disguised as a sweet old lady who runs a toy shop, he benefits from his acquaintance with a fellow fugitive, a scientist who has figured out a way to shrink human beings down to the size of dolls.
Despite its title, The Return of Doctor X (1939) is not a sequel to Doctor X. It's also not especially good, as two bland heroes (Wayne Morris and Dennis Morgan) investigate the shady dealings of a doctor (John Litel). What makes this one worth a peek is that the role of a pasty-faced zombie-vampire — a doctor who's been brought back to life and can only survive by downing human blood — is played by no less than Humphrey Bogart!
DVD extras include audio commentary by various film critics and historians on all films except The Devil-Doll, and theatrical trailers.
Doctor X / Mark of the Vampire / The Mask of Fu Manchu / Mad Love / The Devil-Doll: ***
The Return of Doctor X: **
THE INFILTRATOR (2016). Moviegoers needed another film about the drug trade as much as they needed a hole in the head — or, more specifically, a cocaine-caused hole in the nose — but the under-the-radar summer release The Infiltrator does just enough right to make it a welcome addition to the canon. After delivering last year's best male performance in last year's best movie (see full Best & Worst here), Trumbo star Bryan Cranston is again mesmerizing in a true-life tale, this one about a U.S. Customs agent attempting to bust open the drug trade in the mid-1980s. He's cast as Robert Mazur, who, with his more animated partner Emir (John Leguizamo) in tow, manages to successfully infiltrate the stateside operation of drug lord Pablo Escobar by pretending to be a money launderer named Bob Musella. The assignment requires the happily married man to not only pretend he has a fiancée — one provided to him by the agency in the form of rookie Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger) — but also (shades of American Hustle) develop a close and sincere relationship with Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt), a top Escobar aide who ends up genuinely liking Mazur/Musella. The unusual structure of the film — it could almost be tagged Four Funerals and a Wedding — and the stellar turns by the ensemble players (Leguizamo really needs to be landing more assignments in high-profile movies) easily eviscerate any lingering feelings of been-there-done-that.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Cranston and director Brad Furman; a pair of behind-the-scenes pieces; and deleted scenes.
THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016). Like James Bond, Tarzan has never gone away, but unlike the dapper double-oh agent, his movie appearances rarely generate much notice — one would have to go back to Disney's 1999 animated take to find a Tarzan flick seen by more than 12 people. This version, which seeks to jumpstart the franchise for a new generation, dispenses with the familiar origin story in a couple of flashbacks and instead begins with the former jungle man (Alexander Skarsgård) already having assumed the mantle of Lord John Clayton III, Earl of Greystoke, back in England. Happily married to Jane Porter (Margot Robbie), he's talked into heading back to Africa by human rights activist George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson), and ends up squaring off against amoral opportunist Léon Rom (Christoph Waltz). With his soulful eyes and ripped abs, Skarsgård is more than acceptable as Tarzan, although the same can't be said for his co-stars. Robbie is rather drab as Jane, while Jackson again proves to be too contemporary an actor to be believable in a period setting. Waltz is fine, but we've seen him play this part before. As for the animals — well, there are none. Part of the joy of the Burroughs adaptations of yore was watching Tarzan and Jane interact with the jungle denizens, but here everything has been created by computer. Indeed, the fact that the movie has been CGIed to death is one of its biggest shortcomings — even the jungles created on the studio back lots were more convincing than the sterile sheen that dogs this picture's every move. In short, imagination too often takes a back seat to artifice, and, despite the film's robust energy, the return to the intersection of Hollywood and vine deserved a more memorable retelling.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; pieces on the visual effects and the stuntwork; and a PSA on stopping the ivory trade.
MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (1997). John Berendt's nonfiction book was such a mammoth hit (four years on the bestseller list) that releasing Clint Eastwood's screen version in November 1997 — near the start of both the award season and the holiday box office season — seemed like a no-brainer. Instead, the film proved to be both a critical and commercial bust, one of Eastwood's biggest blots as a director. I was actually one of its few proponents upon its release, but the picture didn't hold up as well upon a pair of revisits in later years (including one for this review), leading me to realize that what I had initially thought was appropriate eccentricity on Eastwood's part was actually his incomprehension at such a strange tale. John Cusack plays John Kelso, a New York writer who travels to Savannah to cover a famed Christmas party thrown annually by the wealthy Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey). But Kelso gets a bigger story than anticipated after Williams is placed on trial for fatally shooting his lover, a volatile male stud (Jude Law). Backed by a song score featuring tunes from Savannah native Johnny Mercer, the picture has a smoky, laid-back style that suits it during quieter moments yet feels out of place when the piece's more spiritually tinged escapades (such as a late-night saunter to the local cemetery) are front and center. Kelso's relationship with a character not in the book, the sweet Mandy Nicholls (dryly played by Clint's real-life daughter, Alison Eastwood), periodically grinds the film to a stop, but other bits are more engaging, and there are nice turns by Spacey, Jack Thompson as lawyer Sonny Seiler, and The Lady Chablis, a Savannah drag queen cast as herself (sadly, The Lady Chablis passed away last month from pneumonia, at the age of 59).
Blu-ray extras consist of a piece featuring interviews with several of the real-life participants, and the theatrical trailer.
A SCANDAL IN PARIS (1946) / LURED (1947). Director Douglas Sirk has become so defined by his 1950s output, soaring melodramas like Magnificent Obsession and All That Heaven Allows, that any of his movies that don't fall into that window are often overlooked. Thankfully, the Cohen Film Collection has seen fit to bring two of his earlier efforts to Blu-ray.
Loosely based on the memoirs of François Eugene Vidocq, a criminal who later repented and became a police chief, A Scandal in Paris finds George Sanders lending his usual mix of suavity and sarcasm to the central role. Providing his own narration over the proceedings, Vidocq gets involved with two dissimilar women (vampish Carole Landis and virginal Signe Hasso) even as he and his right-hand man Emile (Akim Tamiroff) plot to steal a fortune from a trusting marquise (Alma Kruger). Rarely convincing but full of clever scenarios and cutting quips ("Emile was that grimmest of characters, an early-morning optimist"), A Scandal in Paris goes heavy on the comedy, light on the drama, and all-out on the entertainment.
The identities of the killers in the new theatrical releases The Girl on the Train and The Accountant are so predictable that they end up hurting the overall pictures. Not so with Lured, which offers a villain who can be fingered almost from his very first appearance and yet compensates for this obviousness by hitting on all other cylinders. Sanders appears in this one as well, although the largest role belongs to Lucille Ball — she plays Sandra Carpenter, an American dancer in London who's picked by Scotland Yard (repped by Charles Coburn) to help track down a serial killer who's been nabbing pretty young women. The suspects are many, including a womanizing producer (Sanders) and an eccentric fashion designer (Boris Karloff). The plot is wonderfully knotty, Ball is appropriately spunky, and there's a scene-stealing turn by horror heavy George Zucco, atypically cast as a crossword-loving cop assigned to protect Sandra.
Blu-ray extras on A Scandal in Paris consist of audio commentary by film critic Wade Major and the re-release trailer. Blu-ray extras on Lured consist of audio commentary by film historian Jeremy Arnold and the re-release trailer. The two-disc set also contains an eight-page booklet of credits and photos.
A Scandal in Paris: ***
THE THING (1982). I was all of 16 during that summer when The Thing and Blade Runner opened to blistering reviews and tepid box office, but even at that undeveloped age, I knew both critics and audiences were wrong. It took a little longer for John Carpenter's horror opus to earn its richly deserved kudos than it did Ridley Scott's science fiction epic, but time has nevertheless been kind to both films, with each now considered a masterwork of its genre. Based on John W. Campbell Jr.'s 1938 novella Who Goes There? (earlier turned into the 1951 classic The Thing from Another World), this version finds Kurt Russell delivering a suitably gruff performance as MacReady, just one of the 12 men stationed at an Antarctic research facility that's soon under attack by a shape-shifting alien entity. Because the creature has the ability to absorb and then imitate the men, it leads to all of them becoming fearful and distrustful of one another, a powder keg situation that becomes even more fraught once the hapless humans start getting picked off one by one. Far and away the best film of Carpenter's career, this features a tight script by Bill Lancaster (Burt's son) as well as one of Ennio Morricone's most minimalist — and greatest — scores. Between his work on The Howling and this picture, Rob Bottin proved himself to be a world-class makeup artist (it's ridiculous that his name isn't as well known as that of Rick Baker or Dick Smith), and his gross-out creations are nicely supported by the efforts of visual effects artist extraordinaire Albert Whitlock.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Carpenter and Russell; separate audio commentary by director of photography Dean Cundey; a making-of documentary; an interview with Carpenter; discussions of the visual and sound effects; the network TV broadcast version of the film; outtakes; and the theatrical trailer.
X-MEN: APOCALYPSE (2016). After the thrills of X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Days of Future Past, there's a palpable letdown when it comes to X-Men: Apocalypse. That's not to say there isn't still plenty to enjoy in this outing, but the overriding sense is one of missed opportunities. The evildoer here is En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), a mutant who made his presence known in Ancient Egypt but who has since been laying dormant. Awakened in the 1980s, he watches some TV, realizes humankind is a lost cause (presumably, he caught episodes of Joanie Loves Chachi and Who's the Boss? to help him come to this conclusion), and decides to destroy the world in order to rebuild it. Aiding him in his global cleansing are Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and various teenage mutants; standing against him are Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and more teenage mutants. As always, individual scenes offer some familiar faces (you-know-who turns up as a Weapon X of mass destruction) as well as some unexpected ones (The Breakfast Club represented!). And as in Days of Future Past, there's some scene-stealing being perpetrated by Evan Peters as Quicksilver — director Bryan Singer returns to the same slo-mo well, but it still yields multiple chuckles. But all engaging activity comes to an abrupt halt whenever the dull En Sabah Nur (aka Apocalypse) takes center stage. Isaac is an excellent actor, but he can do little with a part as parched as this one. Glowering under buckets of gloppy blue makeup, he doesn't seem to be playing a godlike figure capable of destroying the world as much as the sort of grumpy uncle who always complains at barbecues that there's not enough mayonnaise in the cole slaw.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Singer and co-scripter Simon Kinberg; a making-of piece; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.