The buildup: Before famed thespians Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen (whom you may know as Professor X and Magneto, respectively) performed Waiting For Godot and No Man’s Land in repertory on Broadway last year, they brought Godot to audiences in London’s West End in 2009. This documentary series, comprised of eight half-hour episodes, takes you behind-the-scenes of the show’s sold-out run and chronicles the hard work it takes to bring theater to the masses.
The breakdown: Although the stars are the initial draw, this British series gives greater time to the personnel that keep the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London running smoothly, from the theatre manager and deputy stage manager to the ushers and plumbers. The different personalities are fresh and fun, and theater buffs will love the inside look. The fourth episode takes a slight detour as it explores the ghostly visitations of former theatre owner/actor/playwright John Buckstone. Evidently his specter unnerves Stewart during one performance.
BARBARY COAST (1975-6)
The buildup: After he played Capt. Kirk but before he became T.J. Hooker, William Shatner portrayed a master of disguise (and ethnic stereotypes), federal agent Jeff Cable, who teamed up with not-so-crooked casino owner Cash Conover (Doug McClure in the series; the more charismatic Dennis Cole in the pilot) to bring down criminals along the Barbary Coast in the 1880s. This is the same area that was explored with greater grit and profanity three decades later in Deadwood.
The breakdown: Even though this earlier ABC show has a more rollicking, upbeat tone than the modern HBO series—they do have mud streets and ornery characters in common—Barbary Coast still has its moments. The original 96-minute pilot directed by the late Bill Bixby (David Banner on TV’s The Incredible Hulk) has an edgier feel than the 13 episodes that follow, and it’s easy to see why it didn’t stick around, but fans of Shatner and ’70s TV (and various guest stars of the era) should get a kick out of it. Look for the towering Richard Kiel (aka Jaws from two James Bond movies) as a prominent saloon employee.
NURSE 3D (2013)
The buildup: Abby Russell (Boardwalk Empire‘s Paz de la Huerta) is a sexy, hard-working nurse who during her off-hours seduces and murders philandering family men. She’s got a big chip on her skinny shoulder. But when she becomes obsessed with a female co-worker, she begins to make murderous plans for the people around her (boyfriend included) who could keep them apart.
The breakdown: While de la Huerta’s stunning physique is on ample display here (she was a Playboy cover model in 2013), her acting chops leave a lot to be desired, and the often vicious violence (orgasmic for Abby) is yet another argument that the horror genre, which I love, is still ripe with misogyny. That’s particularly ironic considering Abby is trying to rid the world of cheating spouses who display little remorse. Nurse 3D may be well-made, but it comes up empty.
A CORNUCOPIA OF CRITERION
The buildup: The Criterion Collection has become synonymous with amazing restorations of both classic and cult films that the company deems worthy of deeper inspection and prolonged discussion. They usually come packed with many bonus features, including modern and vintage documentaries, essay booklets, outtakes, and more. June 2014 features a great lineup of dual format (Blu-ray/DVD) releases, including Judex, L’Eclisse, Picnic At Hanging Rock, and the famed Beatles film A Hard Day’s Night, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
The breakdown: I love the fact that among the arty titles released this month is a superhero-ish film and a rock movie. The long-lost Judex (1963) crosses crime caper with science fiction; L’Eclisse (1962) is the third and final part of a trilogy about “contemporary malaise” in the early ’60s from director Michelangelo Antonioni, who later made the Oscar-nominated Blow-Up; Picnic At Hanging Rock (1975) chronicles the disappearance of a group of young female college students and was produced before director Peter Weir made Witness with Harrison Ford; and A Hard Day’s Night (1964) features a young Fab Four running amok in London and being their goofy selves on the cusp of their superstardom. What makes these releases stand out beyond the quality of the films and their painstaking restorations are special bonus features: vintage short films from Judex director George Franjus, an hour-long documentary on Antonioni, the novel for Picnic At Hanging Rock, long out-of-print in America, and an 80-page book with photos about the Beatles film. Criterion titles cost more than most catalog video releases, but you often get valuable special features that are more than worth the price.
A DOUBLE DOSE OF INGRID PITT
The buildup: The famed Hammer Studios beauty did not make a lot of movies, but many are still memorable today. Inspired the real-life story of Countess Bathory, Countess Dracula features Pitt as an aging aristocrat who discovers she can look young again (temporarily) if she bathes in the blood of a virgin. Soon her bloodlust is insatiable as she stays young to woo a younger man while angering the aging general who wanted her at her real age. In The Vampire Lovers, the 18th century vampire tale Carmilla gets retold with Pitt as she portrays a bloodsucker who lives with a wealthy family while feeding on the locals and falling for their beautiful daughter Emma (Madeline Smith).
The breakdown: Countess Dracula is one of those films that is beguiling not for a terror-inducing mood but for its lush look, twisted concept, and the mesmerizing presence of Pitt in the titular role (even though she was inexplicably dubbed over). Synapse Films’ new transfer looks and sounds great and offers good extras including a short documentary about the actress. The Vampire Lovers offers not only Pitt’s real voice but a tragic love story as she portrays the sexy, bloodthirsty Marcilla. The film is the first of the “Karnstein Trilogy” of horror films from 1970-1, including Lust For A Vampire and Twins Of Evil, which featured overt exhibitions of lesbian eroticism that were very racy for their day. As usual, Scream Factory provides a kickass restoration and solid bonus features, including a reading of “Carmilla” by Pitt herself.
RETRO VIEW: A First Look At Older Video Releases
BODY PUZZLE (1992)
The buildup: One of the lesser known works in the canon of director Lamberto Bava, son of legendary Italian horror maestro Mario Bava, Body Puzzle stars Joanna Pacula (Virus) as a recent widow being stalked by a twisted serial killer who leaves her body parts from recent kills. Tomas Arana is the detective aiding and romancing her as he tries to sort out the sordid mess.
The breakdown: Despite its late ’80s clichés and a ludicrous plot twist at its finale, Body Puzzle serves up some creepy and gory scenes, with the killer listening to Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain” on a Walkman each time he slashes his prey. Cinematographer Luigi Kuveiler and composer Carlo Maria Cordio help set the dark mood, and the uncommon approach of already knowing the killer and seeing how he will be caught keeps it interesting. It’s not a classic but still worth a look if you’re a fan of Italian giallo films.