Tuesday, July 22, 2014

THE BABY (Blu-ray)

One of the weirder mainstream movies from a decade packed with weird mainstream movies, director Ted Post's THE BABY (1973) is an offbeat and often disturbing thriller, released last week on Blu-ray disc from Severin Films. As I reviewed the standard DVD edition a couple years ago, I'll be repeating most of that here, with the new technical specs of this HD upgrade below.

Ann, an  attractive young social worker (Anjanette Comer, NETHERWORLD) is assigned (at her request, as it turns out) to a very unusual case - that of the Wadsworth family. Specifically, the only male member of the Wadsworth clan: Baby, a 25 year-old man with the mental capacity of an infant, who cannot walk, nor talk, and sleeps in an over-sized crib. Baby's mother (Ruth Roman, THE KILLING KIND) and his sisters (Marianna Hill and Susanne Zenor) resent the social worker's intrusion into their lives and her insinuations that they are deliberately preventing the manchild from developing mentally and physically (and of course, they are), and before long, decide that she has to go, so they can continue to care for Baby as they see fit. But Ann has plans of her own for Baby.... 

Director Ted Post was an odd choice for THE BABY, as he was best-known as a journeyman contract director, efficient but unimaginative. The sort of guy you'd hire for a Clint Eastwood Western (HANG 'EM HIGH), Chuck Norris potboiler (GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK), franchise sequel (MAGNUM FORCE, BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES) or network TV episode. Something like THE BABY, with its emotionally sick and abusive characters, implied incest, graphic violence, and unexpected twist ending, would seem to be far outside his comfort zone. Still, he does a fine job, allowing the cast to breathe life into their character roles, and keeping everything moving at a solid pace. The lack of intrusive directorial "style" actually benefits the film, as everything is shot and edited in a straightforward, natural manner, without swooping, shaky camerawork, dutch angles, flashcuts or slo-mo. Post doesn't need any tricks - he just tells the story.

Ruth Roman as the Wadsworth matriarch, is astounding. With an acting career dating all the way back into Hollywood's Golden Age, and classics like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN on her resume, Roman brings surprising weight to her role as the sinisterly overprotective mother and manages a nuanced, layered performance that makes Ma Wadsworth more than a stock B-movie battleaxe. Hill and Zenor, are also very good as Baby's sexy grown sisters.The script is intelligently structured and culminates in a final twist that I doubt you'll see coming. It's completely logical, though.

The new Blu-ray from Severin Films is a slight upgrade visually from the previously-released DVD. The 1080p HD, 1.78:1 widescreen transfer is solid and reasonably sharp, with only minimal evidence of print damage/debris. Overall, a decent presentation, if not spectacular. Likewise, the 2.0 Mono audio. Extras include audio interviews with director Ted Post and actor David "Baby" Mooney, and the theatrical trailer.

For fans of the offbeat and unusual, THE BABY is worth checking out. It's a well-crafted film with great performances (especially by Roman) and a pure early-70s aesthetic. It's not for everyone, though. Recommended.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND (Blu-ray)

With Hollywood's new take on the King of the Monsters still raking in cash at the box office, fans and newbies alike will likely be searching out the earlier, classic Godzilla films on home video. Fortunately, Kraken Releasing has just unleashed three vintage G-flicks on Blu-ray, including 1972's monster mash, GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND (a/k/a GODZILLA VS GIGAN).

In this 70s series entry, an aspiring manga cartoonist accidentally uncovers a plot by extraterrestrial villains to conquer the Earth by means of two terrible space monsters: the legendary King Ghidorah and the bizarre, buzzsaw-bellied, hook-handed Gigan. Fortunately, the cartoonist and his friends don't have to battle the aliens alone, as Godzilla and his former foe-turned-ally, Anguirus, arrive from Monster Island in time to tag team the titanic invaders in an epic behemoth beatdown.

Directed by Jun Fukuda (SON OF GODZILLA), GODZILLA VS GIGAN is a return to form (and formula) following the previous year's offbeat and excessive GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER. The story - and budget - is smaller, the tone is lighter, and the movie recycles lots of stock footage destruction from previous films (basically any shot of King Ghidorah attacking Tokyo). There's a lot to enjoy, though: the aliens are hiding out in a children's theme park, complete with a Godzilla-shaped tower, the new monster, Gigan, has a unique and odd design (later entries would establish that Gigan is some sort of cyborg), and the human characters are mostly appealing and intentionally amusing.

Kraken Releasing has brought GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND (it's U.S. title) to HD in America for the first time, with a very pleasing 2.35:1 widescreen transfer from a near-pristine source. Colors are bright and stable, details are good, and there are only a few infrequent speckles and pops on the print. As with the other two Kraken releases, the original Japanese soundtrack and English dub are available in DTS-HD Master Audio Mono. The only supplemental feature is the original Japanese theatrical trailer, presented in high-def.

Not the best of the Big G's adventures, MONSTER ISLAND is still a fun kaiju romp, and worth checking out. Definitely recommended for diehard G-fans, who will want to upgrade their standard-definition DVDs to Blu-ray.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

JONNY QUEST - THE COMPLETE EIGHTIES ADVENTURES

Around 1986, animation studio Hanna-Barbara dusted off a couple of their perennial kidvid favorites - THE JETSONS and JONNY QUEST - for a new cartoon syndication package called THE FUNTASTIC WORLD OF HANNA-BARBARA. The classic 1960s episodes were supplemented with newly-created installments to make said package more appealing to station programmers who didn't want to just air more repeats of old shows. For QUEST, H-B produced 13 new, updated episodes, and now the Warner Archive Collection has brought JONNY QUEST: THE COMPLETE EIGHTIES ADVENTURES to manufactured-on-demand DVD.

The premise and characters remain unchanged: young Jonny (voiced by Scott Menville) is the son of world-renowned scientist/inventor/adventurer Dr. Benton Quest (Doug Messick, reprising the role from the original series), and together with their government bodyguard, Race Bannon (Granville Van Dusen), Dr. Quest's ward Hadji (Rob Paulsen) and pet dog, Bandit, they traveled the world investigating scientific anomalies and testing the doctor's latest technological marvels. In these latter-day installments, there's a greater emphasis on fantasy, best exemplified by the addition of an ancient, monolithic "stone man" named Hardrock to the team.

The animation is technically better than the 1960s version, but it lacks the strong graphic style of creator Doug Wildey, with more generic-looking character designs and a distinct lack of mood/atmosphere. The scripts are fast-paced and imaginative, but considerably less violent than the originals, and the characters seem somewhat blander than their earlier incarnations. Still, there are some cool monsters (like "Vikong") and new gadgets/vehicles for the Quest team.

The two-disc MOD set from Warner Archive contains all 13 episodes, presented in their original 4x3, 1.37.1 aspect ratios. The prints used for the transfers are in good shape, with bright colors and minimal evidence of wear or damage. The Dolby Digital Mono audio is clear and relatively crisp. There are no extras included.

Ultimately, the "Eighties Adventures" aren't bad at all, but they do lack the "personality" of the groundbreaking Sixties originals. Nonetheless, I'd definitely recommend them for QUEST fans and animated adventure aficionados.

Buy This Disc at Warner Archive.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

BRET MAVERICK - THE COMPLETE SERIES

Actor James Garner is probably best known for two signature television roles: wandering Old West card shark and conman Bret Maverick, of the 1950's TV program MAVERICK, and as private eye Jim Rockford on the quintessential 70s series, THE ROCKFORD FILES. Both characters were created by writer Roy Huggins, and shared a number of common traits, which Garner embodied perfectly. In fact, after his six season run on ROCKFORD, Garner dug out his old black hat and string tie, and returned to his roots with 1981's sequel series BRET MAVERICK. It only lasted one season, but it was a pretty good show, and is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection.

After years of roaming the West, surviving on his wits, his poker skills, and - when necessary - his derringer, gambler Bret Maverick wins a saloon in Sweetwater, Arizona. Deciding to settle in the town (over the objections of many of its solid citizens), Maverick buys a spread and retires to the life of a gentleman rancher. But of course, it's not that easy. His own restless nature and hunger for excitement undermines his life of leisure, and before long he's back to gambling and looking for the big score. But his life is different now, and he has friends and neighbors who don't always appreciate his schemes...

Much more of an ensemble show than the original 50's series, BRET MAVERICK features a fine supporting cast, most notably country singer Ed Bruce as Maverick's best frenemy, Tom Guthrie. As the ex-sheriff of Sweetwater, Guthrie ends up as Maverick's cranky partner in the Red Ox Saloon. Rigid, moralistic and honest to a fault, Guthrie often finds himself in opposition to his roguish friend. Other regulars include Darleen Carr as the local newspaper editor, Ramon Bieri as the town's banker, and Richard Hamilton as Maverick's cantankerous ranch foreman.

The initial scripts were a bit clunky, and it certainly suffered from not having MAVERICK creator Huggins involved, but there was plenty of Garner charm. The show had high production values and excellent performances by both guest stars and regulars, with Ed Bruce really standing out. His skill was especially remarkable, as it was his first acting job. (He also wrote and sang the theme song!) Still, despite decent ratings and steadily improving storylines, the network cancelled the show after a single season.

The newly-released manufacture-on-demand DVDs from Warner Archive collects all 18 episodes on five discs. The episodes are presented in their original, 4x3, 1.37:1 television aspect ratio and feature Dolby Digital mono audio. Overall picture and sound quality is very good, with only the occasional speck evident and clear audio. There are no bonus features included.

BRET MAVERICK is an enjoyable TV Western, with plenty of charm. Garner is his usual charismatic, engaging self, and the show is plenty entertaining. Recommended.

Buy This Disc at Warner Archive.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

FORCE: FIVE

After the worldwide success of ENTER THE DRAGON, that film's producer and director (Fred Weintraub and Robert Clouse, respectively) repeatedly tried to catch that lightning in a bottle again. Unfortunately, they no longer had Bruce Lee. So they kept attempting to find a martial arts star who could take his place. After trying and failing with both Jim Kelly (BLACK BELT JONES) and Jackie Chan (THE BIG BRAWL), they decided to showcase multiple stars in their next effort: 1981's FORCE: FIVE.

Long on my "most wanted" list, this early-80s New American Cinema actioner has recently come to DVD courtesy of Scorpion Releasing.

The plot is familiar: a millionaire recruits a team of martial arts experts to infiltrate the island stronghold of a charismatic religious leader, Reverend Rhee (played by legendary kung fu master Bong Soo Han, KILL THE GOLDEN GOOSE), and retrieve the millionaire's wayward daughter (Amanda Wyss,  A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) from the clutches of his cult. The team arrives on the island posing as a part of a U.S. senator's entourage, and much martial arts mayhem ensues. Basically it's ENTER THE DRAGON again (and remarkably similar to the same year's South African actioner, KILL AND KILL AGAIN).

Handsome, blond world karate champion Joe Lewis (JAGUAR LIVES!) plays Jim Martin, leader of the titular quintet. Despite his good looks and karate cred, Lewis was neither particularly charismatic nor much of an actor, and despite a couple of other attempts, never became the film action star he wanted to be. Still, he adequately anchors the flick and executes his fight scenes with aplomb. It helps too that the filmmakers have backed him up with a handful of other genuine fighters, including Richard Norton (EQUALIZER 3000, RAGE AND HONOR), Benny "The Jet" Urquidez (DRAGONS FOREVER), and Sonny Barnes (GYMKATA). Unable to find a female fighter, the producers cast starlet Pam Huntington to portray the distaff member of the team - she couldn't fight worth a damn, but she was certainly pretty.

The script is rather predictable, and lifts its structure - as well as whole sequences - directly from ENTER THE DRAGON. But the fights are reasonably well-staged (at least by 1981 standards), the direction is relatively brisk, and there's even a bit of gratuitous nudity, all making for a perfectly satisfactory drive-in diversion.

The DVD from Scorpion Releasing is well above average for an older cult title, with a very commendable 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from a new HD master. It's a shame they didn't choose to release this on Blu-ray, because the image is very nice, with good detail (even in standard-def), rock-steady colors, and virtually no print wear or damage evident. The mono sound is likewise solid. The only extras are the original theatrical trailer and a slew of trailers for other Scorpion titles.

FORCE: FIVE is, admittedly, a nostalgic favorite - I first saw it at a drive-in on a double bill with CIRCLE OF IRON, and then again, a few years later, on VHS - but it holds up remarkably well. It's derivative, dumb fun, and highly entertaining. Definitely recommended for fans of vintage action flicks.

GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (Blu-ray)

With the arrival of director Gareth Edwards' new mega-budgeted Hollywood GODZILLA film, Kraken Releasing has  brought three of the Big G's classic Toho Studio adventures to high-definition Blu-ray for the first time in the U.S. Arguably the best-known of the trio is 1971's GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER (a/k/a GODZILLA VS. HEDORAH), which is generally considered the most bizarre of the gargantuan reptile's classic cinematic adventures, pitting the mon-star against a grotesque - and deadly - shape-changing adversary spawned from civilization's waste and pollution.

When the monster Hedorah emerges from the polluted sea, spreading its toxicity across Tokyo, the mighty Godzilla appears to battle the inadvertently man-made threat. Unfortunately, the malleable muck creature can take on various forms, including a poison gas-spewing flying configuration, and a trudging, sludge shape that can go toe-to-scaly-toe with our heroic lizard. As the titans clash - leaving toxic devastation in their wake - the Japanese authorities scramble to find a way to help Godzilla defeat the nigh-indestructible Hedorah.

GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER is an offbeat entry in the long-running kaiju series, with a grim, fatalistic tone, and genuinely unsettling and bizarre imagery. Director Yoshimitsu Banno, in his one and only contribution to the series, attempts to bring back the moralistic aspect and serious tone of the original 1954 GODZILLA, but also throws in such oddities as random animated sequences, surrealistic images, and the unexpected spectacle of a flying Godzilla! This is also the first entry since the original to show on-screen deaths of humans, as Hedorah's poison wipes out large portions of the populace. Reportedly, Toho's series producer Tomoyuki Tanaka was hospitalized during filming, and unable to supervise the production. When he saw the final film, he was aghast at Banno's handling of the property and banned him from the franchise!

Still, because of it's unusual approach to the kaiju genre - and specifically, the Godzilla canon - GODZILLA VS THE SMOG MONSTER has its share of die-hard fans.

The new Blu-ray edition from Kraken Releasing represents the first time this film has been available in HD in the United States. The 1080p, 2.35.1 widescreen transfer is quite decent, with a reasonably sharp image, good detail, well-saturated colors and a film-like patina of grain. Stock footage shots are noticeably fuzzier and grainier, of course. Print damage is minimal, with only a few errant specks and small scratches.

Both the original Japanese audio and English dub are provided, in DTS-HD Mono. The only extra is the original Japanese trailer in HD.

I wouldn't recommend SMOG MONSTER for Godzilla or kaiju newbies - it's just a little too weird for that - but for fans looking to upgrade their standard DVDs to high def, the Kraken disc is both a reasonable improvement in quality and bargain priced. Recommended.

Monday, August 12, 2013

SUPERBOY - THE COMPLETE THIRD SEASON

The fine folks at Warner Archive have recently released the third season of the 1989-1992 syndicated (THE ADVENTURES OF) SUPERBOY television series, as  3-disc manufactured-on-demand DVD set.

This third season was superior to the previous two, with a major change in the premise (and setting) as Shuster College students Clark Kent (Gerard Christopher) and Lana Lang (Stacy Haiduk, SEAQUEST DSV) going to work as interns for a government agency known as the Bureau For Extranormal Matters, which investigated strange and unexplainable occurrences and creatures... including a certain caped Kryptonian.

The tone (and cinematography) of the series got a lot darker (probably influenced, like the prime-time FLASH series of the same vintage, by the success of Tim Burton's BATMAN the year before), and the stories were a lot more interesting, including a couple of imaginative two-parters where Superboy travels to alternate Earths and discovers different paths he could have taken - in one, he's killed Lex Luthor (Sherman Howard, DAY OF THE DEAD) and in another, he rules the Earth as the tyrannical "Sovereign." He also encounters an adult version of himself, played by Ron Ely (TV's Tarzan and the big screen's Doc Savage)!  Another memorable episode has a Kryptonite-weakened Superboy and Lex Luthor trapped together in a mine cave-in, forced to work together to survive. The episode was written by actor Sherman Howard, and is a surprisingly effective character piece.

I admit it - I'm a fan of the show. While not every episode is a gem, I dig it's Silver Age-styled stories (the writers understood the character a lot better than his current corporate and creative custodians, that's for sure) - honestly, I'd rather watch this show over SMALLVILLE any day. Several of the better episodes are directed by David Nutter, who would go on to be a regular director on THE X-FILES.

The Warner Archive 3-disc set includes all 26 episodes of the third season, presented in their original 4x3, 1.37.1 television aspect ratio. The picture quality is pretty good, but suffers from the late-80s production method of shooting on film, but then transferring the footage to video for editing and post-production special effects. This results in an unavoidably soft image overall. Audio is a satisfactory Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. There are no extras included.

SUPERBOY is a product of its time, written and produced for a presumed adolescent audience. The stories are unabashedly "comic booky," but I find that refreshing. It's also just great to be able see these shows again, since, due to a bunch of legal wranglings in the 90s, these shows never aired in U.S. after their original run. If you're a fan of the Superman/boy character, and especially if you're a fan of this series, this is the season you've been waiting for. Recommended.

BUYSuperboy: The Complete Third Season

Thursday, August 8, 2013

BOMBA THE JUNGLE BOY: VOL. 1

When he was just eight years old, the ebullient Johnny Sheffield was chosen to portray the adopted son "Boy," of the legendary Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller) in MGM's jungle adventure TARZAN FINDS A SON (1939). Seven years and eight Tarzan films later, the character of Boy was written out of the series, but Sheffield wasn't done with the jungle quite yet. In order to pay for college, the strapping young actor quickly signed on with Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures to headline a dozen of his own vine-swinging capers as the heroic BOMBA THE JUNGLE BOY, loosely based on a children's book series by "Roy Rockwood."

The first six of these - BOMBA THE JUNGLE BOY (1949), BOMBA ON PANTHER ISLAND (1949), THE LOST VOLCANO (1950), THE HIDDEN CITY (1950), THE LION HUNTERS (1951) and ELEPHANT STAMPEDE (1951) - all directed by Ford Beebe, have recently been released on manufactured-to-order DVD by the fine folks at Warner Archive.

The plots of these low budget, backlot epics are all pretty similar: orphan jungle boy Bomba, who was raised by a misanthropic old naturalist (now deceased) beyond "The Great Rift," deep in the heart of the African jungle, encounters various groups of explorers or hunters hoping to exploit some native resource, be it diamonds, gold, or wild animals. These groups usually include one young, unattached female about Bomba's age as a romantic interest. The "civilized" intruders get greedy, and Bomba fights to maintain peace in his wilderness home.

Although made quickly and on a shoestring, these short (average running time of 70 minutes) B-movie adventures move briskly and are reasonably entertaining, if formulaic and predictable. Monogram's production values were admittedly low, with lots of stock animal footage of varying quality and plenty of fake foliage, but not much worse than some of the RKO Tarzan films produced around the same time.The earnest Sheffield is appealing and athletic, even if the writers tend to make him a little dim, and the supporting casts are filled out with an array of talented character actors of the time.

The Warner Archive set is quite decent, with the six movies spread out across three discs. All are presented in their original, 4x3, 1.33:7 aspect ratio, and are sourced from very decent prints. There are some specks and scratches, and a little age-related wear/damage, but overall, they're quite watchable. Audio is a satisfactory 2.0 Dolby Mono. There are no bonus features in this set.

Though not as slick as the Tarzan films he appeared in for MGM (and RKO), Johnny Sheffield's tenure as jungle boy Bomba is still a lot of undemanding fun, perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon or insomniac late show. If you enjoy old B-movie jungle capers, this set comes highly recommended.

BUYBomba The Jungle Boy Volume 1

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

SOLOMON KANE (Blu-ray)

"He was . . . a strange blending of Puritan and Cavalier, with a touch of the ancient philosopher, and more than a touch of the pagan. . . . A hunger in his soul drove him on and on, an urge to right all wrongs, protect all weaker things. . . . Wayward and restless as the wind, he was consistent in only one respect—he was true to his ideals of justice and right. Such was Solomon Kane.”

Created in the late 1920s by pulp magazine scribe Robert E. Howard (a talented, if troubled, author best known for another of his sword-wielding protagonists, Conan The Barbarian), the dour Puritan monster hunter SOLOMON KANE finally made his way to the motion picture screen in 2009... in Europe, anyway. Unfortunately, Michael J. Bassett's dark fantasy failed to garner a U.S. theatrical distribution deal, finally getting a belated Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray release from Anchor Bay Entertainment only about a month ago.

The film is an "origin story," that chronicles events that took place before those related in Howard's original pulp tales. Solomon Kane (James Purefoy, ROME, JOHN CARTER) is a savage mercenary and pirate who renounces his life of violence after discovering that his eternal soul is forfeit and he is doomed to eternity in Hell. When a young Puritan girl is kidnapped and her family murdered by the followers of the sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng, PRIMEVAL), he once again takes up arms and seeks redemption by battling evil.

Although not strictly faithful to the Word, SOLOMON KANE nonetheless captures the spirit of the Bob Howard pulp adventures in a way that no other REH adaptation has yet approached. The screenplay is a bit too Hollywood boilerplate - and, thus, predictable - but the film as a whole rises above its script's over-familiar conventions and is, ultimately, a superior entertainment. Production design, casting, photography and musical score are well above par.

James Purefoy is note-perfect as the grim swordsman, and writer/director Michael Bassett keeps the film moving at a fair clip while still allowing the characters time to earn the audience's sympathy/empathy. Also notable is the terrific musical score by Klaus Badelt and the gorgeous cinematography by Dan Lausten.

As for the special effects, yeah, there are a few dodgy CGI bits in the beginning and some cartoon demons in the mix, but it is a sword & sorcery saga, after all. I've heard more than a few complaints about the end of the film, too, but it mostly worked for me. Compared to every big budget Hollywood fantasy film I've seen in the last 5+ years, the climactic scene of SOLOMON KANE was positively restrained in its use of CGI; it was hardly the sort of pixelated overkill/cartoon orgy that's become de rigueur these days.

Anchor Bay's Blu-ray presentation is technically excellent, with a stunning 2.35:1 1080p HD widescreen transfer. SOLOMON KANE is a very dark film visually, as well as in tone, and Anchor Bay's high-definition transfer handles the copious blacks and subdued color palette with aplomb, and still provides remarkable detail and texture. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is equally excellent; clear and rich. Extras include an audio commentary by Bassett and Purefoy, a "Making Of" featurette, a special effects featurette, seperate interviews with Bassett and Purefoy, original concept art, and a deleted action scene.

In the end, though SOLOMON KANE is not a perfect film, nor a literal adaptation of Howard's prose, I loved the movie. It is the best sword & sorcery flick I've seen in ages, and far better than the most recent CONAN film. And though some fans would disagree, I suspect that Kane's creator, the two-fisted pulp author from Cross Plains, Texas, would have gotten a kick out of it, too. Recommended.

BUYSolomon Kane [Blu-ray]

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION

It's been about three years since the last DVD release, but four more late-period Charlie Chan mysteries from Monogram Studios are coming to DVD today, courtesy of Warner Home Entertainment's latest CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION

I had never seen any of these four particular crime capers - SHADOWS OVER CHINATOWN, DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS, SHANGHAI CHEST and THE GOLDEN EYE - which were produced on a shoestring by the legendary Poverty Row studio, before receiving this attractively-boxed four disc set, but as an unrepentant B-mystery & Chan fan, I enjoyed them all.

SHADOWS OVER CHINATOWN (1946) is the best of  this particular lot, and marks the last of the Sidney Toler Chan films to make it to DVD. Directed by Terry Morse, it's a nicely convoluted tale of missing persons, multiple identities and murder, set in San Francisco. Toler is his usual sly self, and with the help of #2 son, Jimmy (Victor Sen Yung), and chauffeur Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland), the famed Asian-American sleuth soon has the web of deception untangled.

DOCKS OF NEW ORLEANS (1948), like the remainder of the films in this collection, stars Roland Winters as Chan. In this one, directed by Derwin Abrahams, Chan and his aides attempt to solve the murder of the head of a chemical syndicate. The script for this movie is recycled from Monogram Studios' earlier "Mr. Wong" film series, and doesn't quite feel like a proper Charlie Chan mystery. 

SHANGHAI CHEST (1948) is a slight improvement, as Chan attempts to solve a series of murders that, according to the fingerprints found at the scenes of the crimes, appears to have been committed by a dead man. Directed by the notoriously quick William "One Take" Beaudine.

THE GOLDEN EYE (1948) is better still, with Chan and company heading to Arizona to investigate strange happenings in and around a gold mine, the titular "Golden Eye." This Beaudine-helmed entry actually has some outdoor location shooting and slightly less-formulaic plot, and makes a nice change from the other, often claustrophobic, set-bound entries.

All of these flicks are from the final days of the franchise and were shot on very low budgets, with limited sets, very few exteriors, and hastily composed scripts. The pacing in most of them is too leisurely for their brief running times, and they generally lack the snappy dialogue and challenging puzzles of the earlier, Fox-produced Chan films. 

I also don't care much for Roland Winters' portrayal of the detective. It's not that he's notably taller & younger than his predecessors, although both factors hinder my acceptance of him in the role. It's more that while Warner Oland and Sidney Toler each played the Honolulu detective differently, they were both playing Charlie Chan. Winters acts like he's doing a Chan "impression" rather than creating a character of his own. (It also irks me that, for some unknown reason, in Winters' films, Victor Sen Yung's #2 son character is called "Tommy," rather than "Jimmy." Everyone knows that Tommy is #3 son!)

Warners' CHARLIE CHAN COLLECTION features all four movies in their own Amray cases, tucked into a sturdy, colorful, cardboard box. Each movie is presented in their original 4x3, 1.33:7 Academy aspect ratio, and are transferred from astoundingly clean prints. Picture quality is generally excellent, with good contrast, solid blacks, and virtually no distracting scratches, specks or other print damage. Audio is equally satisfactory, presented in Dolby 2.0 Mono with nary a pop or hiss to be heard. There are no supplements or bonus material provided.

For Charlie Chan completists, the set is an essential purchase, and fans of Forties B-movie mysteries should enjoy it too. As I said, these are from the late period of the long-running series and do not measure up to many of the earlier installments in terms of production value or story. But they're still entertaining, and the impoversished productions do have their own simple charms. Recommended.

BUYCharlie Chan: Collection

Friday, May 3, 2013

CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE VOL 2 - THE CRAWLING HAND / THE SLIME PEOPLE

VCI Entertainment strikes again with the CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE VOL 2, an enjoyably awful Z-movie double bill consisting of a couple of drive-in classics from 1963: THE CRAWLING HAND and THE SLIME PEOPLE!

In THE CRAWLING HAND, an American astronaut is possessed by a malevolent alien force while returning from a moon mission, and ground controllers are forced to destroy his ship on re-entry. But one of the spaceman's arms (and hand, 'natch) survives the blast and washes up on a beach, where it is found by a young medical student  named Paul (Rod Lauren). He stashes the dismembered appendage in his landlady's pantry, only to discover too late that it has an evil will of its own! Soon, his landlady's dead, and the local sheriff (Alan Hale, GILLIGAN'S ISLAND) wants to hang Paul for it. Can a couple of investigating NASA scientists find the creepy Crawling Hand and clear poor Paul of the crime?

Directed by Herbert L. Strock (I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, GOG), THE CRAWLING HAND is a surprisingly entertaining 88 minutes of cinematic schlock. The special effects are ludicrous, the script is banal and there's nary a thrill or chill to be had - but it's somehow compelling. Maybe it's the earnest performances of its cast, or maybe its the sweetshop jukebox constantly playing the Rivington's hit, "The Bird." Who knows? But I enjoyed it.

In THE SLIME PEOPLE, Los Angeles is overrun and conquered (before the movie starts) by the titular subterranean reptile men, who have enclosed the city in a bubble of impenetrable "hard fog." The film chronicles the harrowing adventures of a small group of survivors as they attempt to evade the slow-moving, spear-carrying invaders from beneath the Earth's crust, and somehow make their escape from the City of Angels.

While the plot makes little sense - it's never really satisfactorily explained just how the awkward Slime People defeated the city's better-armed U.S. military defenders, for example - and the shoestring budget is always evident, the movie somehow manages to work... if just barely. There's a palpable sense of dread and menace throughout the film (aided, in no small part, by the omnipresent fog), the Slime People suits are surprisingly well-designed and executed, and there are some excellent stunts during the film's infrequent action scenes. The cast is pretty good, too.

VCI presents both of these exploitation favorites in 1.78: 1/16x9 anamorphic widescreen, with solid transfers culled from remarkably nice prints. There's a little bit of speckling and other minor defects in evidence throughout, but nothing particularly distracting. Contrast and detail is very good, too - both films were previously released on VHS and DVD by Rhino Home Video, and VCI's transfers are much superior. As with the first CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE volume, VCI has secured the participation of genre film historian Tom Weaver, who provides an interesting audio interview with SLIME CREATURES star Susan Hart. The original theatrical trailers of both films are also included.

As with Volume 1, the CREEPY CREATURES DOUBLE FEATURE VOL. 2 is a terrific addition to any monster movie fan's DVD library. Both movies are nostalgic gems and are presented in fine form by VCI Entertainment. Highly recommended.

BUYVol. 2-Crawling Hand/Slime People

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

THE BOWERY BOYS - VOLUME TWO

The comedy team known as THE BOWERY BOYS began their long film career as the "Dead End Kids" in 1937's eponymous DEAD END, famed producer Samuel Goldwyn's hard look at how poverty, social neglect, and the mythologizing of gangsters could turn urban kids into delinquents hellbent down a sordid path of desperation, crime and inevitably violent ends. The "Kids" would eventually star in a handful of very serious, socially conscious Warner Brothers crime films.

Over the next decade, the Kids evolved into the comic "Little Tough Guys" and the "East Side Kids," before finally settling into the "Bowery Boys" identity at Poverty Row studio Monogram in 1946. By this time, the serious social commentary had been replaced by purely lowbrow, slapstick comedy.
Anchored by two of the original stars from DEAD END - Leo Gorcey as bossy "Slip" Mahoney, and Huntz Hall as his  idiotic sidekick "Satch" - the Bowery Boys parlayed their juvenile antics into a successful comic formula that packed the kids in for Saturday matinees for twelve years and a record 48 feature films!

Warner Archive has recently released a dozen of the team's films in the BOWERY BOYS VOLUME 2 collection. This 4-disc set includes the titles SPOOK BUSTERS, HARD BOILED MAHONEY, BOWERY BUCKAROOS, SMUGGLER'S COVE, GHOST CHASERS, LET'S GO NAVY!, HOLD THAT LINE, LOOSE IN LONDON, CLIPPED WINGS, PRIVATE EYES, THE BOWERY BOYS MEET THE MONSTERS and HIGH SOCIETY. The titles alone give you pretty much all you need to know about the respective plots.

Directed by efficient, low-budget veterans like William "One-Shot" Beaudine (BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA, BILLY THE KID VS DRACULA) and Three Stooges ringmaster Edward Bernds (HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS, THE QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE), these brief comedies (averaging about 70 minutes apiece), are briskly-paced romps, packed with slapstick humor, unrelenting sight gags, and goofy verbal byplay between the two stars (spiced up by Gorcey's trademark malapropisms, uttered in exaggerated Brooklynese). It's formula stuff, but it's also reliably entertaining.

The 4-disc, Manufactured-On-Demand set from Warner Archive is surprisingly nice, with solid, good-looking B&W transfers from very well-preserved source prints, presented in their original, 1.37:1/4x3 aspect ratio (except for MEET THE MONSTERS and HIGH SOCIETY, which are presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen). Audio is a clear and robust Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. There are no bonus features.

If you grew up watching these movies on television in the Sixties and Seventies (as many of my friends did), and you're a fan of the team, then these DVDs are well worth adding to your home video library. The technical presentation is excellent, and the nostalgia value is high. Recommended.

BUYThe Bowery Boys: Volume Two

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE VOL 1 - MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR / SERPENT ISLAND

VCI Entertainment has recently released two volumes of CREEPY CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURES, containing vintage drive-in era monster movies. Volume One contains Roger Corman's first film as producer, MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR (1954) and the never-before-on-home video SERPENT ISLAND (also 1954).

MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR is a talky, shoestring effort, chronicling a young woman's (Anne Kimbell) search for an amorphous sea creature lurking beneath the waves off the Mexican coast (although actually shot at Catalina Island, California). Aiding her in her search is a smitten and skeptical marine biologist (Stuart Wade, TEENAGE MONSTER) with a nifty, one-man mini submarine.

Directed by Wyatt Ordung (TARGET EARTH, ROBOT MONSTER), MONSTER FROM THE OCEAN FLOOR is an hour and five minutes' worth of  undemanding entertainment. It's a bit slow, but occasionally suspenseful, and if the final reveal of the titular sea beast is a bit underwhelming, it does have its 50s, Z-movie charms.

The companion feature, SERPENT ISLAND, is a nearly unwatchable "adventure" film starring Sonny Tufts (CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON) as a alcholic bum, pretty Rosalind Hayes as a secretary, and Tom Munro as a cranky sea captain, all searching for a lost treasure in the Carribbean. This ultra-low budget color film, shot on 16mm Kodachrome for a reported $18,000, is padded with nearly endless stock footage of island flora and fauna, including Haitian voodoo ceremonies. It plods to its anticlimax so slowly that its brief 63 minute running time is a truly trying endurance test.

SERPENT ISLAND was the first feature of writer/director Tom Gries, who went on to much bigger and better things, directing tons of television in the 60s & 70s (and creating THE RAT PATROL), before helming a number of fine films, including the Charles Bronson vehicle BREAKHEART PASS and the Raquel Welch/Jim Brown Western, 100 RIFLES. The movie was shot by cinematographer Bert I. Gordon, who went on to be a prolific B-movie filmmaker (BEGINNING OF THE END, FOOD OF THE GODS, etc.)

VCI presents both films on one disc, presented in their original 4x3, 1.37:1 aspect ratios. MONSTER looks a bit faded but otherwise clean and sharp. SERPENT ISLAND has faded colors and some minor print damage, but, bearing in mind that it was shot on the cheap and incorporates so much stock footage of varying quality, it looks okay. Both films feature somewhat tinny mono audio.

The disc includes a handful of extras, including a terrific phone interview with Roger Corman conducted by genre film historian Tom Weaver, who also supplies an audio film trivia featurette. The disc is rounded out with a handful of deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer for MONSTER.

Fans of vintage trash filmmaking should enjoy this fun and nostalgic trip back to the 50s. Recommended.

BUYVol. 1-Monster from the Ocean Floor/Serpent Island

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

MESSAGE FROM SPACE

In the wake of the unprecedented box office bounty of George Lucas' seminal STAR WARS in 1977, filmmakers around the world raced to unveil their own epic space operas, all hoping to strike gold mining the same cosmic vein.  Among the most prominent of these international productions was Toei Studios' MESSAGE FROM SPACE (UCHU KARA NO MESSEJI), distributed in the United States in the Autumn of 1978 by United Artists... and which has now received a new Region 1 DVD release from Shout! Factory.

The planet Jillucia has been conquered by the Gavanas Empire, its natural beauty devastated after years of war. The few survivors call upon their gods and are given eight magic seeds (that look like walnuts), which they send out into the universe to find eight champions to help Jillucia overthrow its conquerors. The seeds end up in the hands of a motley crew - including a disgraced Earth general Garuda (Vic Morrow, COMBAT!) and his robot, a couple of young "space hot rodders" (Philip Casnoff, DOLLHOUSE, and Hiroyuki Sanada, LOST), a thrill-seeking heiress (Peggy Lee Brennan), and an exiled Gavanas prince (Sonny Chiba, STREETFIGHTER, KILL BILL). Ultimately, these individuals embrace their destiny and unite to face the evil Empire and save Earth from destruction.

Fast-paced, absurd and fun, director Kinji Fukasaku's (BATTLE ROYALE, THE GREEN SLIME) MESSAGE FROM SPACE is a giddily insane interplanetary samurai fantasy, loaded with space dogfights, laser battles, swordplay and explosions. The miniature effects are extraordinarily well-crafted, and the production design is lavish. The cast is pretty good, too; I really like Morrow as the noble, drunken Garuda, and, of course, Sonny Chiba rocks as the ronin-like Prince Hans.  Etsuko Shihomi - better known to cult film fans as "Sue Shiomi" of the SISTER STREETFIGHTER films - makes a lovely space princess, even if her character is sadly under-used and she never gets to demonstrate any of her legendary ass-kicking skills.

 The story owes as much to traditional Japanese chambara (samurai cinema) as it does to George Lucas' space opera, and while Western audiences might find it both convoluted and juvenile (especially the magic, glowing walnuts!), I actually find it to be a rather charming outer space fairy tale.

Previously available in the United States on a region-free import disc from Eastern Star (reviewed HERE), MESSAGE FROM SPACE has just garnered its first authorized Region 1 home video release from Shout! Factory. Shout's disc sports a 2.00:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from the United Artist's U.S. version. Content-wise, this is nigh-identical to the Japanese cut on the Eastern Star DVD; the only apparent difference being the English titles and a very slightly wider image. Overall, the source material is in good shape, if a bit soft and grainy; only a very few errant specks and spots mar the image. It does appear a bit fuzzier and darker than the Eastern Star DVD, though.

Unlike the Eastern Star disc, Shout offers only the English language audio track, in Dolby Digital Mono. Supplemental material includes the English and Japanese trailers, a still gallery containing production art and photos. Finally, there is a text feature on the cast of the film and an 8-page booklet with liner notes, both provided by the always-knowledgeable Asian film expert, August Ragone.

If you enjoy Asian fantasy films or 70s space opera, you owe it to yourself to check out MESSAGE FROM SPACE.

BUYMessage From Space

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

FLASH GORDON - THE COMPLETE SERIES

I'm a big fan of the character of Flash Gordon, created in 1934 by cartoonist Alex Raymond. I love (and collect) the original comic strip, the comic books, novels, 30s movie serials, cartoons and even the 1980 feature film. The basic premise of an ordinary man from Earth rocketing to an exotic, alien world and uniting its oppressed inhabitants against a merciless tyrant - well, it's classic fantasy adventure. When the SciFi Channel announced in 2007 that they were going to air a "fresh, new" FLASH GORDON television series, I was cautiously optimistic... until I saw the first few press releases and photos. I didn't have cable at the time (I still don't, actually), so I never got to see if the show lived down to my low expectations, or actually turned out okay... until now. This week, Mill Creek Entertainment released the complete 22 episode series on DVD for the first time (in the U.S.).

In this re-imagined FLASH, the titular character, Steven "Flash" Gordon (Eric Johnson), is a small-town auto mechanic and marathon runner who lives at home with his mother. His father, a scientist working on something called the "The Portage Project," supposedly died in a laboratory fire several years ago. In the course of one very eventful day, his old high school girlfriend, Dale Arden (Gina Holden) returns to town as a local TV reporter, an eccentric scientist named Hans Zarkov (Jody Raciot) shows up, claiming to have been his father's colleague, and a ray gun-wielding armored alien appears out of a "rift" in the air (remember SLIDERS?). The alien is from an extradimensional planet called Mongo, which is ruled over by a blond-haired, perpetually constipated-looking despot named Ming (John Ralston). Over the next 22 episodes, Flash and his friends (which include a sexy renegade female bounty hunter from Mongo named Baylin) attempt to foil Ming's efforts to use the "rift" technology to conquer Earth, and seek the truth about he fate of Flash's dad.

Based on the evidence at hand, it appears that the producers' mandate was to take everything that made the property interesting and popular for 70 years and... discard all of it. The planet Mongo has had almost every fantastic element removed - no more varied nonhuman races, no more floating cities or rocketships, no winged hawkmen (now they're "dactyls," with glider capes) or water breathing sharkmen. No, this Mongo is portrayed simply as red-tinted Canadian woodland locations, cramped sets, and one under-detailed CGI cityscape. Flash and company spend more screen time in exotic, far-off suburban Maryland (actually British Columbia) than Mongo, and there are no rocketships or space travel. (In fact, Mongo doesn't even appear to have vehicles of any sort - everyone walks. Must be a small planet.) In other words, the show is a very cheap production, and every aspect has been downscaled to match that shoestring budget.

The casting is a mixed bag. Eric Johnson is an amiable, charismatic Flash, and even somewhat resembles actor Steve Holland, who played the character in a 1950s TV series. Gina Holden is an equally likable Dale Arden, smart, attractive, and admirably strong-minded. John Ralston, however, makes a very unimposing Ming - he's the shortest member of the cast and underplays the role to the point of somnambulism. Unlike the comic strip version of the character, he controls the populace of Mongo not through fear and terror, but by controlling the planet's only water supply, which reduces him to basically a 90s-styled Eurotrash gangster. (Mongo looks remarkably lush for a supposedly water-poor world, but I digress.) Anna Van Hooft, as Ming's bratty daughter Aura, is very pretty, but wooden, a description which also applies to most of the other supporting players as well.

Notable guest stars include Steve Bacic (ANDROMEDA, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: RAZOR), and movie Flash, Sam J. Jones, who shows up for one episode as a prisoner of Ming's dungeons.

Mill Creek's new DVD set includes all 22 episodes on four discs, formatted to a 16x9, 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio. picture quality is basically flawless, and the audio is crisp and clear. There are no extras included.

So, what if you're not already a fan of the classic Flash Gordon? Does the series work on its own as a science fiction adventure show? Yes, but it's still not particularly good. Change the names, and you'd still have an underachiever of a genre show, with a likable cast, but a derivative, uninspired storyline realized in the cheapest possible manner. Fans of the show - and I'm sure there are some - will appreciate having it available on DVD for their home collections (especially as it retails for only about $10), but it's hard to recommend FLASH GORDON to anyone else.

BUYFlash Gordon - The Complete Series

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

GORGO (Blu-ray)

Very few motion picture directors have been quite as narrowly typecast as Eugène Lourié. An accomplished film Art Director/Designer, he made only four features as a director and three of them were giant monster movies. (One can argue that his fourth, THE COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, fit into that genre as well, but it didn't have a rampaging prehistoric beast like the other three.) His final directorial effort was 1961's GORGO, now on Blu-ray disc from VCI Entertainment.

A pair of maritime salvage experts (Bill Travers & William Sylvester) discover a 30-foot tall prehistoric reptile off the Scottish coast. They capture the critter and bring it to London, where they exhibit it in a circus. Soon, however, scientists discover that the beastie - nicknamed Gorgo - is only an infant, and that its parent is ten times bigger.... and on her way to London to rescue her baby. Not even the British Navy can deter the gargantuan lizard from her mission, and soon she's wading up the Thames toward the heart of the city....

Famous for its "happy ending" (for the monsters, anyway), it's said that after making two dinosaur movies where the creatures had ultimately been killed by man (THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH), Lourié wanted to make one where the monsters triumphed for a change. Produced by independent American producers, the King Brothers, and filmed at MGM's British Studios, GORGO is a terrific entertainment with solid performances, a smart script, and - for the time - state of the art special effects. Gorgo himself is realized through Godzilla-like "man-in-suit" techniques, but the costume is unique and marvelously convincing. Some of the bluescreen and optically generated "fog" effects don't hold up quite as well, but overall, the flick delivers plenty of spectacle and monstrous destruction.

VCI has previously released GORGO twice on DVD, with a quality upgrade between releases. This new, high definition edition offers even more improvement in picture and audio, with a brand new, digitally restored, 1080p HD, 1.78:1 widescreen transfer from a recently unearthed print. Compared to previous editions, there is a significant improvement in both color and detail. It looks really good, but it still doesn't - and can't - look like a modern film. The movie is full of Old School optical effects, which, due to the nature of how they were executed, inevitably degrade image quality. Thus, much of the movie still looks a bit soft, and the extensive stock footage sequences still look battered, with lots of damage & "dirt." A vintage special effects movie like this needs to be graded on a curve, and when judged fairly, this is a very fine presentation of a technically troublesome, 50 year-old motion picture.

Supplemental material on this HD edition includes THE NINTH WONDER OF THE WORLD, a new retrospective documentary; "video comic" presentations of the Charlton Comics comic book adaptation from 1961 and a European "photonovel" edition; several still galleries; an eye-opening restoration comparison; and an optional music/effects-only audio track.

Fans of classic giant monster movies should really appreciate this new HD release. While the image quality isn't perfect, it is the best that GORGO has ever looked on home video. Between that significant technical upgrade and the terrific new documentary, the GORGO Blu-ray should be considered an essential purchase.

Recommended.

BUYGorgo [Blu-ray]