(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.)
BODY SNATCHERS (1994). What's interesting about the cinematic adaptations of Jack Finney's novel The Body Snatchers is that each was specifically tailored to its time. Depending on one's political bent, the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which emotionless "pod people" from outer space take over human beings, was either a warning about Communism or an indictment of McCarthyism. The 1978 version (same title) tapped into post-Watergate paranoia, also finding room to comment on the rampant New Age-y philosophies of the time. The most recent version, 2007's The Invasion, touched upon both war and drugs, but it was too much the snoozer to make effective points about anything. As for this 90s offering, producer Robert H. Solo stated at the time that it was about how contemporary youth needed to overcome its feelings of alienation and locate its own sense of identity. Watching it again, I still feel it works better as an examination of the destruction of the nuclear family and the attendant repercussions. The setting here is a military base in Alabama, where a teenager (Gabrielle Anwar) notices that those around her seem to be misplacing their emotions. Director Abel Ferrara keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, and both the actors and the effects are convincing. But unlike the earlier versions, this one's never particularly creepy nor psychologically engaging, and the short running time (under 90 minutes) means that we never get to see the characters as full-blooded people — a detriment in a movie meant to celebrate the individuality of humans.
The only extra on the Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer.
CHILD'S PLAY (1988). Most of the earlier demonic-doll projects had tended to focus on ventriloquists' dummies (Dead of Night, Magic, episodes of The Twilight Zone), but with Child's Play, writer Don Mancini opted to up the unease by making the tiny terror a children's toy. Brad Dourif is initially seen and then only heard as Charles Lee Ray, a mass murderer who, finally cornered by diligent detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), manages to transport his soul (via voodoo incantation) into the frame of a Good Guy doll. The widowed, overworked and underpaid Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks) manages to buy this particular Good Guy for her son Andy (Alex Vincent), and only the small boy knows that his new doll Chucky actually harbors the spirit of a psychotic killer bent on revenge. Mancini, writer-director Tom Holland and co-scripter John Lafia deliver the goods with a fast-paced horror flick that also benefits from fine performances (Hicks later found sustained success on TV's long-running 7th Heaven, but she really deserved a more vibrant film career) and excellent visual effects (with a special shout-out to Kevin Yagher for designing the Chucky doll). A modest box office hit, Child's Play was followed by five sequels, all penned by Mancini (and, in the case of the last two, also directed by him).
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Holland; separate audio commentary by Vincent, Hicks and Yagher; separate audio commentary by Mancini and producer David Kirschner; audio commentary by Chucky on select scenes; a vintage making-of featurette; a behind-the-scenes piece featuring interviews with Hicks, Sarandon, Dourif, Mancini, Lafia, and others; behind-the-scenes special effects footage; a photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer.
THE EXORCIST III (1990). It's Brad Dourif as a serial killer ... again! (See Child's Play, above.) One can't blame William Peter Blatty, who wrote both the bestselling book The Exorcist and the 1973 film adaptation (for which he won an Oscar), for wanting to reclaim the property after the laughable debacle that was 1977's Exorcist II: The Heretic. The Exorcist III, based on his novel Legion, isn't in the same league as the classic original, but it at least returns the franchise to a state of sobriety and seriousness. Lee J. Cobb passed away in 1976, so George C. Scott takes over the role of Detective Kinderman, who in the earlier picture was friends with Father Karras (Jason Miller), the priest who died while performing the successful exorcism. In this new film, Kinderman investigates a string of gruesome murders, all of which appear to have been committed by the Gemini Killer (Dourif). But the Gemini Killer died 15 years ago in the electric chair, around the same time that Karras took his fateful tumble down those imposing Georgetown steps — Kinderman realizes that the events are connected, and only the patient being held in Cell 11 at a psychiatric ward holds the key to the mystery. The film is excessive in many spots — did we really need a lavish dream sequence, or cameos by the likes of Larry King, former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and Fabio? — and Scott's emoting is occasionally overripe, but Blatty (also serving as director) maintains a suitably somber atmosphere. Ed Flanders is excellent as Father Dyer, and look for Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Corrigan (both also appearing that year in GoodFellas) as, respectively, a blind man and an altar boy.
The Blu-ray contains the theatrical version and a shorter Director's Cut that eliminates the studio-imposed character of Father Morning (Nicol Williamson). Extras include an audio interview with Blatty; a five-part retrospective; a deleted prologue; and bloopers.
EYE OF THE NEEDLE (1981). In John Sturges' exciting 1976 film The Eagle Has Landed, Donald Sutherland plays an Irishman who works as a spy for the Nazis. Five years later, the Canadian actor again toiled under Hitler, this time portraying an actual German agent. In this fine adaptation of Ken Follett's bestseller, Sutherland is Heinrich Faber, an undercover operative nicknamed "The Needle." Skilled with his trusty switchblade, Faber is tasked with discovering where exactly the D-Day invasion will take place; once armed with the Jeopardy!-worthy answer of Normandy, he attempts to hop aboard a U-boat and hightail it from Britain back to Germany. Instead, he finds himself stranded on the aptly named Storm Island, spending time with the lovely yet lonely Lucy (Kate Nelligan), her paraplegic and perpetually angry husband David (Christopher Cazenove), and their little boy. Faber strikes up a romance with the neglected Lucy, even as Inspector Godliman (Ian Bannen) and other British authorities attempt to ascertain his whereabouts and stop him from delivering his intel to Der Fuhrer. Aided by excellent work from both Sutherland and Nelligan, director Richard Marquand, whose next project was a little picture called Return of the Jedi, and scripter Stanley Mann, who would subsequently adapt bestsellers by Stephen King (Firestarter) and James Clavell (Tai-Pan), have fashioned a satisfactory film that works as a thriller and functions even better as a tragic love story. The penultimate score by composer Miklós Rózsa (Spellbound, Ben-Hur) is an added bonus, and keep your eyes peeled during the final half-hour for an appearance by an impossibly young Bill Nighy, making his film debut as a squadron leader.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman and music historian Jon Burlingame; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of Rózsa's score.
INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016). Talk about a holiday weakened. The first inanity in Independence Day: Resurgence — and what is this sequel to the 1996 smash if not an endless stream of inanities? — arrives when it's revealed that the entire global community felt so connected in a United Colors of Benetton sort of way following the defeat of the invading aliens 20 years ago that everyone has lived in peace ever since. There have been no territorial wars, no terrorist psychos blowing up buildings, no televised Sean Hannity rants against the dangers of "libtards," not even a couple of kids throwing spastic punches in the schoolyard. And that Kumbaya feeling only threatens to expand once those nasty e.t.'s return for the 20-year reunion, again set on annihilating all humankind. Will Smith may have opted not to collect a sizable paycheck, but practically everyone else is back, including Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Brent Spiner and the late Robert Loggia (who passed away last December). The problem, though, isn't the old-timers — it's the newcomers. While the original ID contained characters who kept us entertained, this picture adds characters — and their attendant actors — who are so devoid of personality, they barely register as living organisms. Chief among the culprits is The Hunger Games' Liam Hemsworth as a cross between Top Gun's Maverick and a rock, but others guilty as charged include Jessie T. Usher as the stepson of Smith's character and not one but two actors added for irritating comic relief: Travis Tope as a woman-obsessed nerd and Nicolas Wright as a more generic nerd. In Independence Day, we pulled for the humans; in this daft, dreary and derivative sequel, our sympathies rest entirely with any otherworldly creature who can just shut these guys up.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Roland Emmerich; a making-of featurette; deleted scenes; and a gag reel.
MCCABE & MRS. MILLER (1971). This early 70s effort from Robert Altman is a bleak, bruising beauty — small wonder, then, that its soundtrack is primarily comprised of moody Leonard Cohen tunes. Warren Beatty is John McCabe, a fledgling entrepreneur in a fledgling mining town in the Pacific Northwest. McCabe opens a brothel, but it doesn't take off until he acquires a business partner in Constance Miller (Julie Christie), a savvy prostitute who becomes the establishment's madam. The bordello becomes too successful, since it draws the attention of the heads of a powerful mining company — men who plan to take over the whorehouse by any means necessary. Altman and cowriter Brian McKay (adapting Edmund Naughton's book McCabe) have made a revisionist Western that strips the genre bare: Instead of gallant heroes and beautifully choreographed gunfights, there are only stupid men and sloppy shootouts, nothing worth turning into the stuff of legend. Christie earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination — the movie's sole bid — but I was more impressed with Beatty, who mutes his matinee-idol appeal in order to emphasize his character's social awkwardness and often sluggish mental capacities. Also exemplary are the cinematography by the great Vilmos Zsigmond (who passed away January 1 of this year) and the production design by Leon Ericksen.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary (from 2002) by Altman and producer David Foster; a making-of piece; a discussion about the movie between film historians Cari Beauchamp and Rick Jewell; archival interviews with Zsigmond; and excerpts from a pair of 1971 episodes of The Dick Cavett Show featuring Altman and film critic Pauline Kael.
THE NIGHT OF THE GRIZZLY (1966). What Clint Walker lacked in dramatic range, he made up for in sheer physicality. At 6'6", the barrel-chested — make that barrels-chested — actor cut an imposing figure for the seven seasons he appeared in the television Western hit Cheyenne (1955-1962). Unlike fellow TV player James Garner (whose successful series Maverick ran roughly during the same period), Walker was never able to make the leap to movie stardom, although he did score a supporting gig as one of the titular 12 in 1967's The Dirty Dozen. He also enjoyed a rare leading role in the previous year's The Night of the Grizzly, which was made by Paramount Pictures but often plays like the sort of live-action flick Disney was routinely offering during this decade (e.g. Swiss Family Robinson, In Search of the Castaways). Walker stars as Big Jim Cole, a sheriff who gives up the badge once he inherits a prime stretch of frontier land. The difficulties begin immediately for Jim, his wife Angela (Martha Hyers), and the rest of their extended family: They use most of their savings to pay off an outstanding mortgage; the house is in dire need of repair; a local bigwig (Keenan Wynn) covets the valuable property; a bounty hunter (Leo Gordon) Jim once sent to prison appears on the scene; and, most damagingly, an imposing grizzly bear known as Old Satan has a reputation for unexpectedly showing up and killing man and beast alike. The everything-but-the-kitchen-sink plotting keeps the film percolating on a low simmer, although the frequent broad humor is often too broad to allow the picture to maintain any dramatic consistency.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan; an interview with Walker; and archival footage from the film's world premiere.
THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958). It's an interesting title, in that the "Returns" suggests this might be a direct sequel to one of the countless Dracula flicks produced at some point during the previous decades. Instead, it's its own entity, a low-budget effort seeking merely to cash in on the audience love of all things Bram Stoker. Francis Lederer essays the role of the Count, here evading European vampire slayers by killing a Czech artist named Bellac Gordal and assuming his identity as he heads off to America to meet the victim's stateside relatives. As his widowed cousin Cora (Greta Granstedt) hasn't seen Bellac since they were children, it's an easy deception to pull off. It proves even easier to fool Cora's daughter Rachel (Norma Eberhardt), since she's impressed with the new man of the house and dotes on his every word. But a vampiric presence tends to lead to unusual circumstances, such as the gutting of a kitten loved by Cora's little boy (Jimmy Baird), or the strange behavior of Rachel's blind friend Jennie (Virginia Vincent), or the simple fact that Cousin Bellac never seems to be around during the daylight hours. Average in most respects, The Return of Dracula does include some arty touches by director Paul Landres that are worth noting, including the fog surrounding Dracula even as he rests in his coffin and the splash of blood-red appearing for a few seconds in this otherwise black-and-white endeavor. The plot is fairly nonsensical — the Count keeps his coffin in a beachside cave, which seems rather inconvenient — but Lederer (best known for his turn opposite Louise Brooks in the 1929 silent classic Pandora's Box), despite being miscast, still brings the proper measure of weariness to a Dracula having to deal with (the horror!) small-town Americana and chatty relatives.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is the theatrical trailer.
TRILOGIA DE GUILLERMO DEL TORO (1993-2006). To date, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has directed six Hollywood pictures, but while Hellboy and Pacific Rim may have their fans (and I myself am partial to Mimic), this assortment can't compare to the three Spanish-language films he helmed. The Criterion Collection has just released a gorgeous box set featuring this trio — it's a perfect treat for Halloween viewing and an equally worthy purchase to instill Christmas cheer.
Del Toro made his debut as both writer and director with Cronos (1993), a trippy yarn in which a soft-spoken antique dealer (Federico Luppi) comes into possession of a centuries-old device that can bless its owner with eternal life but also curse him with a vampire's thirst. The kindly old man succumbs to the awful allure of the object, but his troubles don't end there, as a dying millionaire (Claudio Brook) who craves the device sends his brooding, brutish yet decidedly offbeat nephew (Ron Perlman) to retrieve it. The first half is stronger than the second, but the picture retains its refreshing edge throughout, and Perlman offers a wonderfully quirky turn.
Following 1997's Mimic, del Toro returned to his native language to helm The Devil's Backbone (2001), a Mexican-Spanish co-production (filmed in Madrid) about an orphanage that's haunted by the spirit of a murdered boy. Fine performances (particularly from the child actors), innovative effects, and the pointed backdrop of the Spanish Civil War all work in tandem to lift this above functioning as merely another obvious ghost story.
Needless to say, Pan's Labyrinth (2006) is not one for the kiddies. Even with that inviting title, even with fairy tale trappings full of faunas and faux-Tinkerbells, even with memories of the family-friendly Jim Henson-David Bowie concoction Labyrinth, del Toro's audacious adventure is packed with disturbing images, political subtext and gory interludes. In short, when was the last time a fantasy flick brought to mind Schindler's List? Set in 1944 Spain, the story centers on young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she and her pregnant mother (Aridna Gil) journey to a remote outpost to join her mom's new husband, a brutal Fascist officer (Sergi Lopez) in Franco's army assigned to wipe out the resistance fighters in his midst. Steering clear of her stepdad, Ofelia stumbles upon a magical world lorded over by a faun (Doug Jones). But this fantasy realm isn't a peaceful retreat from the horrors of the everyday world; rather, it's a manifestation of the fears and pains that define one's daily existence. Full of wondrous and disturbing images (The Pale Man, also played by Jones, is one of the great monsters in recent cinema), this is a rich viewing experience that demands additional viewings. Nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay), this nabbed a trio of awards for Best Cinematography, Art Direction and Makeup.
Blu-ray extras on Cronos include audio commentary by del Toro; interviews with del Toro, Luppi, Perlman and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro; del Toro's 1987 short film Geometria; and a tour of del Toro's home office, patterned after the late, great Famous Monsters of Filmland editor Forrest J Ackerman's Ackermansion. Blu-ray extras on The Devil's Backbone include audio commentary by del Toro; an introduction by del Toro; a making-of piece; and deleted scenes. Blu-ray extras on Pan's Labyrinth include audio commentary by del Toro; separate interviews with del Toro and Jones; various making-of featurettes; and storyboards. The set also contains a 100-page hardcover booklet.
The Devil's Backbone: ***
Pan's Labyrinth: ***1/2
THE TWILIGHT ZONE: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1959-1964). This classic and perpetually popular TV series has been available on DVD for years in both complete box sets and single-season editions, but the good folks at Paramount and CBS have opted to re-release the entire show in a special 25-disc collection that dispenses with the extras in order to be offered at a lower cost than before (the list price is $79.99, but it can be found online for around $50-$55). Thus, fans can acquire all 156 episodes from the five-season series for roughly 35 cents a show, an incredible bargain if ever there was one. As for the series itself, it needs little introduction: Rod Serling's brainchild is one of the defining programs in television history, employing the anthology format to relate offbeat tales often further distinguished by a twist ending. The number of instantly recognizable episodes (among them "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," "Eye of the Beholder," "The Invaders," "Time Enough at Last," and the only episode that was a pick-up and not created specifically for the series, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge") is on the high side, while the guest list reads like a who's-who of future stars: Charles Bronson, Carol Burnett, James Coburn, Robert Duvall, Peter Falk, Lee Marvin (whose episode "Steel" later served as the inspiration for the 2011 Hugh Jackman film Real Steel), Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, the Star Trek gang of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, George Takei and James Doohan, and many, many more. Interestingly, the show was hardly a ratings bonanza during its original run — it never once cracked the Nielsen Top 25 during its five seasons — and while it failed to ever be nominated in the Outstanding Drama category, it did win Serling a pair of consecutive Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing (Drama).
VILLA RIDES! (1968) / FROM NOON TILL THREE (1976) / MURPHY'S LAW (1986). The long, varied career of Charles Bronson (born Charles Buchinsky) can basically be divided into three chapters: The Supporting Actor in the 1950s and 60s, The Leading Man in the 1970s, and The Fading Star in the 1980s and 90s. Olive Films has recently released a title from that first act while Twilight Time has served up a pair from the latter designations.
Many of Bronson's best performances were in those earlier pictures in which he wasn't the star (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, etc.). Unfortunately, even he can't do much for Villa Rides!, a disappointing drama starring Yul Brynner (complete with toupee) as the Mexican revolutionary. Despite being written by The Wild Bunch's Sam Peckinpah and rewritten by Chinatown's Robert Towne, there's little of substance here: It's worthless as history and generic as an epic action tale. Robert Mitchum co-stars as an American gunrunner who gets involved with the cause, while Bronson appears as Villa's trigger-happy right-hand man.
By 1976, Bronson was a global superstar, and on the home front, he was nearly as popular as Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. What's interesting about From Noon Till Three, though, is how it's different from Death Wish, Breakout and the other '70s films that made him a box office draw. Playing less like a Western and more like a spoof of a Western, it's an utterly charming comedy about Graham Dorsey (Bronson), an outlaw who decides to quit the bank-robbing biz after he meets the prim and proper Amanda Starbuck (Jill Ireland). They spend three passionate hours together (from noon till three, for those wondering), but a case of mistaken identity leads Amanda to believe that Graham is dead — this in turn leads to much mythologizing (via book, song and even guided tours) of their brief encounter, to the point where it overtakes Romeo and Juliet as the greatest of all tragic love stories. Bronson is hysterical in a rare comedic part — especially in the later scenes when he tries to convince everyone he's Graham Dorsey (no one believes him, insisting Dorsey was taller and handsomer) — and the kicker of an ending is especially satisfying.
Ireland was Bronson's wife and the love of his life, and they worked together on countless productions. Of the trio covered here, she appeared in one scene in Villa Rides!, shared star billing on From Noon Till Three, and served as co-producer for Murphy's Law, one of those junky Cannon flicks made by Bronson as his career sadly winded down. He plays Jack Murphy, a hard-drinking cop who's targeted by a psychopath (Carrie Snodgress) he once arrested. After she frames him for murder, he's forced to take it on the lam, finding himself (shades of The Defiant Ones) handcuffed to a obnoxious street urchin (Kathleen Wilhoite) he previously had busted for theft. Rancid even by Golan and Globus standards, this mainly suffers from the irksome performance by Wilhoite, whose character spends the entire picture hurling insults like "dildo-nose," "jism-breath," and "snot-licking donkey fart." Where's a script rewrite by Alvin Sargent when you need one?
There are no extras on the Blu-ray for Villa Rides! Blu-ray extras on From Noon Till Three consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Elmer Bernstein's score. Blu-ray extras on Murphy's Law consist of audio commentary by Wilhoite and film historian Nick Redman; the theatrical trailer; and an isolated track of the score by Marc Donahue and Valentine McCallum.
Villa Rides!: **
From Noon Till Three: ***
Murphy's Law: *1/2