(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.)
THE DEATH KISS (1932). Three of the stars of the 1931 horror classic Dracula — David Manners (Jonathan Harker), Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing) and Bela Lugosi (Drac, natch) — popped up the following year in this nifty little B flick that not only functions as an engaging murder-mystery but also doubles as a peek behind the scenes at a small-scale movie studio. At the fictional Tonart Studios (filming was actually done on the lot of the Poverty Row outfit Tiffany Pictures), leading man Myles Brent (former silent film star Edmund Burns in an uncredited bit) has been murdered, and the suspects are plentiful. The detectives on the case (John Wray and Wade Boteler) believe that the killer is movie star — and Myles' ex-wife — Marcia Lane (Adrienne Ames), since all evidence conveniently points in her direction. But her boyfriend, studio screenwriter Franklyn Drew (Manners), refuses to believe that, so he conducts his own investigation. Was it the studio head (Alexander Carr)? The publicity manager (Lugosi)? The director (Van Sloan)? Or is the hopelessly inept studio security guard (Vince Barnett) pulling a Keyser Söze? The answer isn't as obvious as it initially appears, and it's fun to watch Drew repeatedly uncover clues, to the growing exasperation — but also appreciation — of the bumbling coppers. The few instances of color-tinted items — the yellow from a flashlight, the red from a fire — in this black-and-white flick are a nice added touch.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith and the theatrical trailer for Lugosi's White Zombie.
HERCULES (2014). In picture after picture, Dwayne Johnson has proven to not only be a commanding screen presence but also a pretty good actor. It's unfortunate, therefore, to see him aping Schwarzenegger-as-Conan by starring in Hercules and turning the titular hero into nothing more than a lumbering bore. Based on Steve Moore's revisionist comic, this finds Herc and his posse (among them warriors played by Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell) working as mercenaries for a feeble ruler (John Hurt) who fears his kingdom will be conquered by an enemy army. Before it's all over, our hero will battle Narnia's Aslan, throw a horse over his head and be forced to wear a beard made from the hair off a yak's testicles (at least that's what Johnson stated in interviews). The CGI work is expansive but not very distinguished (or convincing), yet the real culprit is the parchment-dry script by newcomer Ryan J. Condal and Disney day laborer Evan Spiliotopoulos (whose resume almost entirely consists of straight-to-DVD efforts like Tarzan II, Cinderella III and Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure). McShane offers a few smiles as a psychic who wrongly keeps predicting his own death, but for true merriment, best to skip this arid endeavor and instead watch Joel and the Bots tackle Hercules Against the Moon Men on MST3K.
The Blu-ray contains both the PG-13 theatrical version as well as an extended unrated cut that runs an additional three minutes. Extras include audio commentary by director Brett Ratner and producer Beau Flynn; 15 deleted & extended scenes; and featurettes on the visual effects and weapons seen in the film.
KINGPIN (1996). Sandwiched between 1994's phenomenally successful Dumb & Dumber and 1996's phenomenally successful There's Something About Mary was another Farrelly brothers comedy that proved to be anything but successful. That's a shame, because while it falls short of the high-water mark of Mary, it's miles ahead of the utterly imbecilic D&D, offering big laughs and showcasing a number of memorable characters. (The late Gene Siskel so loved this movie that he placed it on his year-end 10 Best list, where it rubbed shoulders with the likes of Fargo and The English Patient.) Woody Harrelson stars as Roy Munson, a former bowling ace who has long since turned into a sleazy, small-time cheat. He gets a shot at salvaging his life when he hooks up with Ishmael (Randy Quaid), a naïve Amish guy who has the makings of a bowling champion; along with a brainy beauty (Vanessa Angel), they head out to Reno to compete in a major tournament. With select gags centered around horse mutilation, bull semen and raunchy tattoos, it's apparent that some stooping may be required to reach its level, but the film undeniably delivers on its comedy quotient. All of the actors are aptly cast, but it's Bill Murray who easily swipes the picture — he's at his unctuous best as Ernie McCracken, an oily bowler with an ego as enormous as his libido.
The Blu-ray contains both the PG-13 theatrical version as well as an R-rated cut that runs an additional four minutes. Extras consist of audio commentary by directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly; an interview with the siblings; and the theatrical trailer.
LE CHEF (2014). In the world of culinary cinema, if the Oscar-winning Babette's Feast is a 10-oz. filet mignon and Ang Lee's Eat Drink Man Woman is a 4-lb. lobster, then the French import Le Chef registers as a delectable bonbon, small and insignificant but nevertheless sweet and satisfying. The fine French actor Jean Reno stars as Alexandre Lagarde, a renowned chef known throughout Paris for his prowess in the kitchen (it also doesn't hurt that he has his own cooking show on television). Although he's the driving force at a tony restaurant named after him (Cargo Lagarde), the sleazy owner (Julien Boisselier) finds his dishes too old-fashioned and wants to replace him with a chef who specializes in the new-fangled cuisine known as "molecular gastronomy." The only way Lagarde can be fired is if his eatery drops from a three-star establishment to a two-star one, and that's likely as he's about to be visited by some cranky food critics just as he's set to introduce his spring menu. But unlikely help comes in the form of Jacky Bonnot (Michaël Youn), a wannabe top chef whose demanding nature in the kitchen costs him job after job. Lagarde takes a chance on Jacky, but even the veteran finds himself repeatedly exasperated by this young upstart's behavior. The French have long been efficient at producing streamlined comedies that offer spirited performances and many modest laughs (just stay away from the majority of the American remakes), and Le Chef is no exception. The subplot involving the relationship between Lagarde and his adult daughter (Salomé Stévenin) adds nothing to the picture, but the rest is tightly scripted and goes down as smoothly as a glass of warm milk.
Blu-ray extras include a behind-the-scenes featurette; deleted scenes; and a blooper reel.
MALEFICENT (2014). This past summer's third biggest box office hit (under Guardians of the Galaxy and Transformers: Age of Extinction), Maleficent offers some fundamental changes to the legend most people know from either Charles Perrault's original fairy tale La Belle au bois dormant or Disney's 1959 animated version Sleeping Beauty. In this new picture, the sorceress Maleficent is painted as a kind and gentle fairy, not only as a child but once she grows into womanhood (and played at this point by Angelina Jolie). It's only after she's betrayed by a man (Sharlto Copley) who places more importance on power than romance that she lashes out in righteous anger. Circumstances lead to her putting a curse on the beautiful young Princess Aurora (portrayed in her teen years by Elle Fanning), but as she comes to know the child in her guise as Aurora's "fairy godmother," Maleficent begins to question her own judgment. Debuting director Robert Stromberg is a five-time Emmy-winning visual effects artist (Star Trek: The Next Generation, Boardwalk Empire) and a two-time Oscar-winning production designer (Avatar, Alice in Wonderland), so it's a given that Maleficent looks magnificent. Unfortunately, he opts to go for cuteness on too many occasions, and this tends to undermine the sense of pungent menace suggested by the film's dark, dank look. Still, any weaknesses melt in the wake of Jolie's excellent work as the title figure. With dabs of CGI enhancing her already striking visage, she moves through the film with the ease and confidence of a panther striding through the jungle, and her relationship with Aurora (Fanning is just fine, if a bit underused) provides the picture with its sizable emotional heft.
Blu-ray extras include deleted scenes; a piece on adapting and expanding the classic fairy tale; an interview with Fanning; and featurettes on the visual effects and costume designs.
A MOST WANTED MAN (2014). While most cinema scribes seem to keep busy adapting YA novels or Nicholas Sparks bestsellers, it's nice to know that the brainy books by John le Carré never seem to fall out of fashion. A Most Wanted Man may not be in the same class as 1965's The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (featuring that incredible Richard Burton performance) or The Constant Gardener (the best film of 2005), but it's nevertheless an intelligent and absorbing watch, and it earns its keep by featuring yet another excellent turn by the late, lamented Philip Seymour Hoffman. The actor here plays Gunther Bachmann, the head of a German counter-terrorist outfit whose latest target is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a half-Chechen, half-Russian Muslim newly arrived in Hamburg. Bachmann isn't after Karpov to arrest him but rather with the idea that this immigrant might lead him to bigger game; to that end, he works alongside Karpov's lawyer (Rachel McAdams), a prominent banker (Willem Dafoe) and a CIA agent (Robin Wright). Director Anton Corbijn and scripter Andrew Bovell keep their heads down as they dutifully relate this low-key thriller, but even they can't do anything with a plot twist (ported over from le Carré's novel) that's so thumpingly obvious, it forces the viewer to mark time during the climax waiting for its inevitable appearance (it involves a double-cross by a duplicitous character whose intentions are glaringly apparent from their first scene). Still, the plot intrigues and the cast excels, making this a good bet for alternative couch viewing.
Blu-ray extras include a making-of piece and the featurette Spymaster: John le Carré in Hamburg.
NIGHTBREED (1990). Notorious for all the wrong reasons, writer-director Clive Barker's Nightbreed, based on his own novel Cabal, was viewed by its auteur as a different kind of horror film, an ambitious undertaking that would lead to further movies and a deepening of the story's mythology. Instead, the picture baffled the suits at distributor 20th Century Fox, who proceeded to butcher it in the editing room and subsequently promote it as a standard slasher flick. The released work proved to be a box office dud, and no one lived happily ever after ... until the inaugural Mad Monster Party here in Charlotte in 2012, when a premiere screening of the extended Cabal Cut ultimately led to a Director's Cut now debuting on Blu-ray and DVD from the good folks at Shout! Factory (releasing it through their Scream Factory arm). This new edit, which contains (in Barker's own words) "over 40 minutes of new and altered footage," is vastly superior to the theatrical version, expanding on the secretive realm of Midian and the monsters who reside in this underground lair. It's here where the troubled Boone (Craig Sheffer) ends up after he's falsely accused of a string of murders committed by his psychiatrist, Dr. Decker (a rare — and shaky — acting turn by director David Cronenberg). Midian's creatures of the night are an imposing lot, but they ultimately prove to be no more terrifying than the humans hell-bent on wiping out these misfits. While the story is fitfully interesting, it's the spectacular art direction and tremendous makeup designs that truly punch this across.
Blu-ray extras on the Director's Cut edition include audio commentary by restoration producer Mark Alan Miller; an introduction by Barker; a lengthy making-of feature; interviews with the makeup artists who worked on the picture; and the original theatrical trailer. Scream Factory has also released a limited edition version that contains both the Director's Cut and the original theatrical version as well as more extra features.
SQUIRM (1976). Like This Island Earth and Marooned (among a handful of others), Squirm is one of those above-average films that didn't really deserve to be skewered by the Mystery Science Theater 3000 gang. Viewers can watch that episode when Shout! Factory releases it as part of the next MST3K boxed set (out Nov. 25); for now, the company is offering the release of the original film on its own, without comments from the peanut gallery. Martin Sheen, Kim Basinger and Sylvester Stallone were all reportedly interested in this picture, but their roles respectively went to Don Scardino, Patricia Pearcy and R.A. Dow, which admittedly doesn't provide the same level of trivial-pursuit fascination (although Scardino has gone on to become an Emmy-winning director-producer best known for 30 Rock). Still, all three are aptly cast in this horror yarn about killer worms. Yes, worms. After a storm knocks down the power lines in a small Georgia town, the electricity that seeps into the ground turns all of the worms into crazed, flesh-eating creatures (but, hey, at least they retain their original size, unlike the laughable killer bunnies in 1972's Night of the Lepus or the laughable chickens and rats in 1976's The Food of the Gods). City slicker Mick (Scardino), visiting his girlfriend Geri (Pearcy), understands better than anyone else what's going on, a fact that doesn't impress Roger (Dow), the rural rube who's smitten with Geri. Squirm trumps those films that feature a cast of thousands, since its cast of real worms numbers in the hundreds of thousands (maybe even a million, since no official number was recorded). At any rate, it's an impressive undertaking, and it's supported by the gruesome makeup designs by — who else? — multi-Oscar-winner Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Men in Black) in the early stage of his career.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by writer-director Jeff Lieberman; interviews with Lieberman and Scardino; the theatrical trailer; and a still gallery.