(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray, DVD and Streaming. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)
THE DAY AFTER (1983). Thirty-five years after its debut, The Day After still remains the most-watched TV movie of all time. A major event by any measure, this ABC production resonated far beyond the boob tube, with controversy swirling around its creation, content and broadcast. Set primarily in Lawrence, Kansas, it focuses on ordinary Americans immediately before, during, and after a nuclear attack. Jason Robards heads the cast as a respected doctor who, like everyone else, hopes for the best but fears for the worst; other characters include his dedicated nurse (JoBeth Williams), a no-nonsense college professor (John Lithgow), a local farmer (John Cullum), and a young hitchhiker (Steve Guttenberg). It’s never determined whether the Americans or the Russians launched their weapons first, and it doesn’t matter. The point of this chilling drama is merely to illustrate the horrors of the ultimate nightmare of the Cold War — a nuclear Armageddon — and to illustrate how there are no winners, only the dead and the (for now) survivors. For his part, President Reagan was impressed and affected by the movie; chickenhawk conservatives, on the other hand, objected to its existence and rushed out to make their own comparatively facile and doltish takes on the matter (specifically, the 1984 theatrical release Red Dawn and the 1987 TV miniseries Amerika). Nominated for 12 Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Drama/Comedy Special, Directing (Nicholas Meyer), Writing (Edward Hume) and Supporting Actor (Lithgow), The Day After earned a pair of technical awards for its visual effects and sound editing.
Kino’s Blu-ray edition contains both the original 122-minute TV version and the 127-minute theatrical cut. Extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin; an interview with Meyer; an interview with Williams; and theatrical trailers.
HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES (2018). All three of director John Cameron Mitchell’s previous pictures — 2001’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, 2006’s Shortbus, and 2006’s Rabbit Hole — landed on my 10 Best lists in their respective years, so imagine my shock and disappointment to find that his fourth feature at bat comes nowhere near their heady heights. Although it’s based on a short story by Neil Gaiman, the film strongly recalls the 1983 cult sensation Liquid Sky (reviewed here). But whereas that unique oddity oozed an authentic punk/New Wave sensibility, this one tries to channel the punk aesthetic but ultimately feels like merely a case of dress-up and make-believe. Tony Award winner Alex Sharp plays Enn, a punk who likes to hang out with his best mates Vic (A.J. Lewis) and John (Ethan Lawrence) in 1977 London. One night, they elect to crash a strange party, not aware that it’s being held by alien beings from another planet. Enn becomes acquainted with the most rebellious among them: Zan (Elle Fanning), who orders Enn to teach her about “the punk.” Mitchell has set out to make a movie that operates as a splashy musical, a trippy sci-fi yarn, a counter-culture anthem, a sexual awakening, an affecting love story, and a Pride parade – and while all that on paper makes this sound ab fab, the result is more often obnoxious, overbearing and distractingly self-indulgent. Fanning and Sharp are excellent in the central roles — as the owner of a rowdy nightclub, Nicole Kidman isn’t as consistent but has her moments.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by Mitchell, Fanning and Sharp; a making-of featurette; and deleted scenes.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II (1988). A modest hit when it was released in 1985, the tongue-in-bloody-cheek horror yarn The Return of the Living Dead (reviewed here) has only seen its reputation grow over the ensuing years. That’s not the case with Return of the Living Dead Part II, which offers a similar scenario as its predecessor but with diminishing returns. In this outing, one of the mysterious, military-owned canisters familiar from the first film breaks open, unleashing the fumes that turn people into zombies. As before, a ragtag band fights for survival as friends and neighbors try to munch on their “Brains!” James Karen and Thom Mathews, who played the hapless warehouse employees in the original, return in different roles as a pair of graverobbers, but it’s to no avail — in fact, it’s depressing to see Karen, so hilarious in the first film, required to do little but shriek incessantly in this outing. Philip Bruns is amusing as the loopy Doc Mandel, and the cinematography is by future Oscar winner Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood). Otherwise, this derivative sequel lacks the potency of its predecessor, which clearly possessed “More Brains!” Twin Peaks fans will note that the heroic Tom is played by Dana Ashbrook two years before he essayed the role of Bobby Briggs on David Lynch’s TV show, while readers of Famous Monsters of Filmland will at least be amused with the cameo by Forrest J Ackerman as the zombie Harvey Kramer.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Ken Wiederhorn and co-star Thor Van Lingen; separate audio commentary by co-star Suzanne Snyder; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and a piece on the makeup effects.
SUPERGIRL (1984). While 1978’s Superman remains the best superhero movie ever made (see review here), this desultory spinoff wouldn’t even crack the genre’s top 50 (or 60, or 70…). The primary culprit is David Odell’s script, a nonstop barrage of wince-inducing exchanges and head-smacking coincidences. Helen Slater is appealing as Supergirl/Zor-El/Linda Lee, journeying to Earth to retrieve the wayward bauble (the Omegahedron) required to save the Kryptonian burg known as Argo City. The great Faye Dunaway, lamentably trapped in the post-glory part of her career, camps it up as Selena, a witch who acquires possession of the Omegahedron — although she claims that her endgame is world domination, she spends an ungodly amount of her (and our) time chasing after a dim-witted hunk (Hart Bochner) who instead becomes enamored with Linda Lee. You also get Peter O’Toole, who can barely disguise his apparent contempt for his role as the irresponsible genius Zaltar, and Marc McClure, whose appearance as Jimmy Olsen links this back to the Superman series. (Christopher Reeve was set to appear briefly as Superman, but scheduling conflicts forced him to drop out; methinks he probably read the script and thought it best to bail.) Uninspired villains, wimpy battles (a possessed construction vehicle?), and ham-fisted camp at every turn sink this one.
The new edition from the Warner Archive Collection contains the 125-minute International Cut on Blu-ray and the 139-minute Director’s Cut on an accompanying DVD. Extras on the Blu-ray consist of audio commentary by director Jeannot Szwarc; a vintage hour-long making-of featurette; and the theatrical trailer.
VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960). Based on the John Wyndham novel The Midwich Cuckoos, this eerie British production (a hit on both sides of the Atlantic) centers on a small town in which every citizen falls asleep as the village gets enveloped by a mysterious, unseen force. Soon after the force dissipates, many of the local women become pregnant, eventually giving birth to malevolent children with the power to read people’s minds and manipulate them into causing harm (to themselves and others). It’s up to Professor Zelaby (George Sanders), whose wife Anthea (Barbara Shelley) gave birth to the leader (Martin Stephens) of this band of emotionless, white-haired youngsters, to devise a plan to stop them before they leave town. An American adaptation might have forced potentially underlying themes to the forefront of the story — a commentary on the incomprehension that often exists between generations, for example, or yet another parable about soulless Communist invaders — but director Wolf Rilla (co-scripting with Stirling Silliphant and George Barclay) prefers to serve up a straight chiller. That he does with remarkable efficiency, resulting in an atmospheric and intelligent watch. Village of the Damned was followed in 1964 by an interesting (if flawed) sequel, Children of the Damned, and in 1995 by a dreary remake directed by John Carpenter and starring Christopher Reeve and Mark Hamill.
Back in 2004, Warner presented both Village of the Damned and Children of the Damned on the same DVD as a double feature; alas, the new Blu-ray from the Warner Archive Collection only offers the first film, meaning fans will have to play wait-and-see regarding its sequel ever hitting the format. Extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Steve Haberman and the theatrical trailer.
FROM SCREEN TO STREAM
(A look at a film that's currently available on streaming services)
HOOSIERS (1986). Long considered one of the best sports movies ever made by those in the know (i.e. wags at Sports Illustrated and ESPN as well as basketball fans across the country), Hoosiers works the underdog formula so expertly that it's no surprise the film still has the ability to uplift audiences over a quarter of a century later. Much of its appeal comes courtesy of Gene Hackman, whose work here — a canny mix of aw-shucks bluster and below-the-surface slyness — was a warm-up for the career-best performance he would deliver two years later in Mississippi Burning. Hackman stars as Norman Dale, a basketball coach who arrives in the small town of Hickory, Indiana, in 1951 to take the reins on a high school basketball team (the Hickory Huskers) whose beloved coach has just passed away between seasons. Still nursing emotional wounds from a secretive past, Dale finds himself facing townspeople who don't approve of his coaching methods, though he does acquire some allies in a plainspoken teacher (Barbara Hershey), the town's hoops-savvy drunk (Dennis Hopper) and, eventually, the players themselves. Both Hopper and composer Jerry Goldsmith earned Oscar nominations for their worthy contributions (although Hopper actually earned more honors elsewhere for his demented turn in the same year's Blue Velvet). (Amazon Prime)