(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD.)
FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966). With such titles as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes, the 1960s proved to be a particularly rich decade for science fiction cinema, and Fantastic Voyage stands as one of the period's most imaginative efforts. An Eastern Bloc scientist who's critically shot as he defects to the West now lies in a coma, unable to pass along his vast knowledge to his U.S. handlers. The only way to revive him is by removing a blood clot in his brain, one that cannot be accessed by normal surgery. Luckily for those involved, a way has been discovered to shrink people and objects down to microscopic size, meaning that a submarine carrying five passengers — three scientists (Raquel Welch, Donald Pleasence, Arthur Kennedy), the sub captain (William Redfield) and a CIA agent (Stephen Boyd) — is injected into the scientist's blood stream, with the crew tasked to destroy the blood clot. Even within the boundaries of the story, the science is dubious (to put it mildly), but most viewers will be having too much fun to give it much thought. Watching the crew contend with making its way through various parts of the body — it gets pretty windy in the lungs, and stay clear of the heart! — is engaging enough, but those aboard also have to deal with a traitor in their midst. Nominated for five Academy Awards (all in technical categories), this won for Best Visual Effects and Best Color Art Direction-Set Decoration.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film and music historian Jeff Bond; a look at the film's visual effects; and a storyboard-to-scene comparison.
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973). Apparently having taken plenty of notes while making movies for directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, Clint Eastwood made his own directorial debut with 1971's Play Misty for Me and followed that by helming his first Western behind the camera. Yet while highly praised in some circles, High Plains Drifter is a shaky sophomore effort, with Eastwood's strong compositions weakened by a screenplay (by Ernest Tidyman) that comes up short on a couple of fronts. Eastwood plays The Stranger, who wanders into the dusty town of Lago and immediately is forced into a shootout with three thugs. Wary of this mysterious man but impressed with the way he gunned down his aggressors, the locals decide to hire him to protect them against three desperadoes who were arrested in Lago and have sworn to come back for revenge. The Stranger has nightmares in which these same three are whipping the former Lago sheriff to death while the townspeople idly stand by and watch — is there a connection between the marshal and this man with no name? Tidyman's script all too often plays like an extended — and inferior — episode of The Twilight Zone, and the frequent attempts at dark humor are only sometimes successful. There are some nice narrative thrusts — the bit involving literally painting the town red — but Eastwood, with editor Ferris Webster and director of photography Bruce Surtees in tow, would direct a far superior Western, The Outlaw Josey Wales, three years later.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer, although the Blu-ray does also include a Digital/UltraViolet code.
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013). A prequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc., this looks at the period before the diminutive, one-eyed Mike Wazowski (voiced again by Billy Crystal) and the furry and gentle giant James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) were BFFs working together at the Monsters, Inc. factory, generating scares from small children in order to generate power for Monstropolis. The setting is college, where Mike has enrolled to pursue his lifelong dream of graduating as a top scarer. Because of his small stature and non-threatening demeanor, he has to hit the books hard in order to learn all the scaring techniques; not so Sulley, whose imposing size and ground-shaking roar means that he feels he can coast through his courses. Sulley bullies Mike, which brings out Mike's competitive streak; it all leads to a mishap that forces the pair to join the worst fraternity, Oozma Kappa (OK). The film's second half works feverishly to instill its underdog tale with the usual kid-geared messages such as it's OK to be yourself and individuals accomplish more when they work together as teams. It's the sort of head-patting that Pixar used to present so subtly, it almost qualified as a subliminal message; here, it's punched across with the sort of thumping obviousness found in other studios' toon efforts. Luckily, the film is a clever concoction in so many other ways that it's still worth a rental. Most importantly, there's no betrayal of character on the part of the scripters, as the adult monsters we first met in 2001 would logically have formed from the college critters we see here.
Blu-ray extras include The Blue Umbrella, the charming short that preceded Monsters University during its theatrical run; featurettes focusing on the various creative processes involved in the making of the movie, including the composition of Randy Newman's score and the design of the campus; and deleted scenes.
THE OTHER (1972). Taking a brief respite from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King and James Herbert, teenage me elected to check out a pair of books by actor-turned-author Tom Tryon — and was floored by the results. The Other and Harvest Home were both compelling, creepy reads, and while I preferred Harvest Home on the written page, the big-screen adaptation of The Other trumped the 1978 TV-miniseries version of Harvest Home (starring Bette Davis). Robert Mulligan, who coaxed lovely performances out of his child actors in 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, here gets good work from twins Chris and Martin Udvarnoky (in their first — and final — screen appearances), with their characters involved in all manner of sordid activities that Scout, Jem and Dill doubtless couldn't even imagine. Niles Perry (Chris U.) is the good kid: helpful to his widowed mother (Diana Muldaur), loving toward his grandmother (Uta Hagen) and cheerful to everyone around him. Holland (Martin U.), on the other hand, is the bad seed: selfish, foul-tempered and unforgiving toward those who anger him. Here's that rare movie that equals its source material: While the mid-point plot twist is easier to spot in the film — and while the pitchfork scene in the novel is far more disturbing than on celluloid — the movie is more ambiguous than the book, and that in turn makes it far more haunting on multiple levels. Three-time Oscar-winning director of photography Robert Surtees, whose son Bruce also became an accomplished cinematographer (see High Plains Drifter above), contributes a burnt, burnished look that amplifies the eerie proceedings. Two enduring TV stars, Three's Company's John Ritter and Highway to Heaven's Victor French, respectively appear as the twins' genial brother-in-law and the family's ill-fated handyman.
Blu-ray extras consist of the original theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Jerry Goldsmith's score.
THE UNINVITED (1944). Have you seen The Haunting? The Innocents? The Conjuring? It all began with The Uninvited, which was reportedly the first dramatic movie about a haunted house (previous pictures had all been heavy on the comedy). That's not to say the film lacks humor — Ray Milland's engaging performance makes sure of that — but when it comes to its supernatural shenanigans, it takes its business quite seriously. Milland and Ruth Hussey star as Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald, siblings who on a whim decide to buy a sprawling, cliffside house located in Cornwall. The owner (Donald Crisp), whose grown daughter died there, is only too happy to sell the property; that's not the case with his 20-year-old granddaughter Stella (Gail Russell), who lived there as a child and loves the house because it reminds her of her mother. Roderick and Pamela quickly settle in, but it isn't long before they notice strange occurrences, beginning with the sounds of a woman sobbing in the period just before dawn breaks. But this proves to be more than just a ghost story, as the twists turn it into a full-blown mystery that stirs up memories of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca. Charles Lang's black-and-white cinematography deservedly earned an Oscar nomination, while Victor Young contributes a first-rate score that includes the haunting melody "Stella By Starlight." Later outfitted with lyrics by Ned Washington, the song became a huge hit and today stands as a classic standard, having been performed by (among others) Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald.
Blu-ray extras consist of a visual essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda (Nadja) that goes beyond the movie to also examine Milland's career as well as the tragic fate of Russell (a heavy drinker, she died of alcohol-related problems at the age of 36); two radio adaptations (1944 and 1949), both starring Milland; and the theatrical trailer.
THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION (1960-1971). This must-own set contains six films starring the great Vincent Price, one of the legends of the horror genre. The first four movies are part of the renowned series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman. Corman and Price actually made seven Poe flicks together, and while it would have been wonderful to have all of them collected together in one Blu-ray compilation, I'm not about to complain about the two non-Poe titles filling out this collection.
The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) begins the Poe-Corman-Price run in high style, with a white-haired Price cast as the tortured Roderick Usher. When young Philip Winthrop (Mark Damon) arrives at the estate with plans to marry Madeline Usher (Myrna Fahey), her brother Roderick insists that a family curse prevents them from ever leaving the house. This film set the template for the series with its literate script, Corman's effective direction (he did the best work of his lengthy career on these Poe flicks), Price's immersive emoting and brilliant employment of light and color. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961) proves to be its equal, with Don Medina (Price) mourning over the death of his wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele, fresh from her star-making work in Mario Bava's Black Sunday). But her brother Francis (a wooden John Kerr) suspects something's not quite right about her passing, so he conducts his own investigation.
The Haunted Palace (1963) takes its name and a couple of lines from Poe, but it's actually more of an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's story "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," with Price as a warlock who's burned at the stake and returns a century later with the intent to possess his descendant (also Price). Slack storytelling and an unsatisfying ending make this the weakest picture in the set; the presence of a clearly unfit Lon Chaney Jr. also doesn't help, as the fine horror star was at this point deeply suffering from the alcoholism that would eventually take his life. The Masque of the Red Death (1964) is the best of the set's Poe pics, with Price delivering a potent performance as Prince Prospero, a sadistic Satanist who leads a hedonistic lifestyle while the country is ravaged by the plague. The sharp script not only draws from the title tale but also works in Poe's excellent short story "Hop-Frog," while the setting and shooting style can't help but smack of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (Corman himself admits as much in one of the set's extras). The marvelous camerawork is by Nicolas Roeg, who would go on to direct such excellent features as Walkabout and Don't Look Now.
Witchfinder General (1968) is the best picture in the collection, even if it's not a bona fide horror film so much as a genuinely disturbing historical drama. Price is superb as real-life witchhunter Matthew Hopkins, who satisfies his lusts for money, power and sex under the guise of a Christian seeking to rid the world of Satan worshippers. Writer-director Michael Reeves pulls no punches with this absorbing material, and while the film (based on Ronald Bassett's novel) fudges many of the historical facts, it's unrelenting in its depiction of the way in which unbridled evil has the power to destroy all forms of innocence and virtue. Finally, The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) concludes the collection in tongue-in-bloody-cheek fashion. Price has a field day as the title madman, using the idea of the 10 Egyptian Plagues (locusts, frogs, etc.) to kill the doctors he holds responsible for not being able to save his wife on the operating table. There's camp to spare — check out the doc's house band — but there's also plenty of innovation on display, to say nothing of ample amounts of effective humor.
Five of the six pictures include an introduction and closing comments by Price (filmed in 1982 for an Iowa PBS station), while Corman is represented via audio commentaries on two of the Poe flicks and interviews on the remaining two. Other extras include audio commentaries on their respective films by The Abominable Dr. Phibes director Robert Fuest and Witchfinder General producer Philip Waddilove and co-star Ian Ogilvy; an hour-long interview with Price that was conducted in 1987; a rare prologue for The Pit and the Pendulum that makes no sense in the context of the film (is there also a long-lost epilogue that ties it all together?); the featurette Witchfinder General: Michael Reeves' Horror Classic; theatrical trailers for not only all six films in this set but also for several other Price titles like The Raven, House of Wax and The Fly; and a 24-page booklet packed with great photos.
The Fall of the House of Usher: ***
The Pit and the Pendulum: ***
The Haunted Palace: **1/2
The Masque of the Red Death: ***1/2
Witchfinder General: ***1/2
The Abominable Dr. Phibes: ***1/2