‘Tis the season for studios to roll out the latest deluxe editions and box sets to lure in you and your dollars. Here are some releases that are worth checking out.
ETERNAL FEAR — Universal Studios’ famous monsters have proven to be enduring cinematic creations, ever since The Hunchback Of Notre Dame first graced the silver screen in 1923. Certain images from these movies are forever etched into pop culture consciousness. The Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection unites eight vintage tales together on HD for the first time: Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride Of Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, The Wolf Man, Creature From The Black Lagoon and Phantom Of The Opera (the 1943 color version). Spanning 1931 to 1954, a lot of these titles have aged well (although admittedly, I’m not a fan of The Wolf Man nor this version of Phantom). The boxed packaging is colorful (including the 48-page House Of Horror book with liner notes, photos and poster art), the transfers are superb and while most of the extras are from previous DVD reissues, there are a few small new additions. The original 3D version of Creature will be a plus for those with 3D tvs, and if you didn’t watch it before, the Spanish language incarnation of Dracula, shot at the same time with the same sets, is superior to the Bela Lugosi version, even if Lugosi is better in the title role. Some fans are griping that some of the sequels were not included, but I hear rumors those may be forthcoming in one form or another in the future. The limited edition Universal Monsters Coffin Box Collection version already sold out.
BOX OF BURTON — Quirky film director Tim Burton is one of the most iconic modern film directors, delivering creepy cool characters and stories consistently over the last three decades. The Tim Burton Collection packages seven of his works together—Batman, Batman Returns, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Mars Attacks!, Beetlejuice, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride—and the amazon.com limited edition comes with a colorful 64-page hardcover mini-book featuring liner notes, photos and production art. I could do without the Charlie remake and wish Mars had bonus features, but there’s plenty of Burton goodness to go around here. Pee-Wee might seem out of place with the darker tone of these other films, but his zany sense of humor fits the Burton oeuvre and his weird encounter with Large Marge is its own brief horror show. (Plus there’s the cameo of Twisted Sister shooting a video for “Burn In Hell.”) Looking back at the original films here—Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride—I long for the day when the director returns to more original fare since he’s mostly been remaking other people’s work and his own over the last decade. Ironically, however, Sleepy Hollow is my favorite.
REPLICANT REDUX — While not a hit upon its summer 1982 release (thanks, E.T.), Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?) is now a bona fide sci-fi classic. While many genre pieces feature aliens, explosions and intergalactic peril, this film focuses on Earthbound blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), drawn out of retirement to hunt down four replicants (including Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah), artificial humans designed for off-world jobs often too dangerous for many humans. The replicants are back here seeking to meet their human maker from the Tyrell Corporation and elongate their limited life span, and they’re in no mood for games. Further complicating things, Deckard falls for Tyrell’s replicant assistant Rachael (Sean Young). The visual effects from Douglas Trumbull (2001) were astounding then and hold up very well today. The movie looks and sounds great in HD, and like the last Blu-ray reissue, the 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition includes all five cuts of the film (you read that right) and now also comes with 1,000 archival stills and a book of production art and photos. There is also a limited edition version of the Blade Runner set that includes a model Spinner car. Presumably this will be the last word about this movie on video. Let’s hope they don’t do a sequel or prequel. Revere the original!
HAMMER TIME — After they made their last film for nearly 30 years in 1979, gothic horror merchants Hammer Studios sought to keep their brand alive with two tv shows. The first was 1980’s Hammer House Of Horror, a 13-episode series exploiting classic scenarios of ghosts, ghouls and curses with new twists. Of note is the strange, Groundhog Day-like tale of lust, jealousy and murder starring Ian Holm; a story about a rural werewolf family; and an unsettling yarn of a deceptively nice, old pet store owner (Peter Cushing) involved in sinister human experiments. That last episode has one of the greatest horror tv endings ever. Synapse Films new DVD reissue of The Complete Hammer House Of Horror is superior to the A&E release from 2001. The sound and picture are much improved, and a couple of new featurettes (notably interviews with actresses Kathryn Leigh Scott and Mia Nadasi) have been added. Fans of old school Hammer will enjoy these little gems. While some of these anthology episodes tend to have a slower pace and endings that are not as shocking as what we might see today, they possess their own artistry and charm. Many of them will still get under your skin.
INDEFATIGABLE INVESTIGATOR — The fun in watching Peter Falk’s portrayal of police lieutenant Frank Columbo was the way in which he acted like a bumbling, clueless fool as he pursued well-to-do criminals that he usually knew were responsible for murder. He would irritate, inflame and wear down his suspects by interrogating them and deducing their cover-ups through seemingly innocuous conversations and repeated visits. He was just waiting for them to make a slip, and that was the entertaining part of it. Columbo: The Complete Series includes all seven seasons from the ‘70s as well as the 24 tv movies that aired between 1989 and 2003. The famed detective was known overseas as well—Falk appeared as himself (and identified as Columbo by a passerby in Berlin) in Wim Wenders’ classic 1988 film Wings Of Desire. A short-lived 1979 spin-off series Mrs. Columbo starred future Star Trek: Voyager captain Kate Mulgrew in the title role and co-starred future violinist/singer Lili Haydn as her young daughter. (Falk was never seen.) Three of those breezier episodes are included in this set, and although she was as shrewd as her hubby (yet only worked for the small local newspaper The Weekly Advertiser), the Mrs. seemed younger and prettier than the wife many fans expected of his betrothed. The upbeat, perennially smiling character fooled criminals with her perkiness. But when the ratings did not come in, the producers tried to change her name and wipe away references to her famous unseen husband. I wonder if we’ll ever see the whole series come out; certain Captain Janeway fans might snatch it up.
007 OVERLOAD — It’s hard to believe that the James Bond series is 50 years old this year, and with the rugged Daniel Craig returning for their highly acclaimed Skyfall, it’s still kicking. MGM/Fox Home Entertainment’s handsomely packaged Bond 50 Blu-ray set collects all previous 22 movies (many never before released in HD) with most of the special features from their respective DVD releases and a bonus disc of new but not essential features. I’m not sure why all of the original extras did not carry over, but space may have been an issue. While I always like packages with liner notes (a breakdown of bonus features would have been nice), the extras included with each disc delve quite extensively into each movie (we’re talking hours and hours of stuff), and there are plenty of photos accompanying the book sleeves. Everyone has their favorite Bond, and each has their strengths and weaknesses. Movie-wise I am partial to Goldfinger (Sean Connery), The Man With The Golden Gun and Octopussy (Roger Moore), Goldeneye (Pierce Brosnan) and Casino Royale (Daniel Craig), and I love John Barry’s moody score for On Her Majesty’s Service, which co-starred Emma Peel herself, Dame Diana Rigg. Some online outlets are selling the Blu-ray set for $130, and with shipping that comes out to a little over $6 per movie. Seriously, that’s a steal. This would make a great gift for the 007 fan in your life that has yet to include many of the movies or wants a hi-def upgrade.
ACTION PACKED – Every summer brings about a plethora of new shoot ‘em up and beat ‘em up movies, and 2012 was no exception. If you’re into superhero fare, The Amazing Spider-Man certainly enthralled audiences and scooped up its share of box office gold. Rebooting the Spider-Man franchise so soon seemed like a bad idea, but surprisingly director Marc Webb, stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone and their whole team pulled it off, staying closer to some aspects of the original storyline while making Peter Parker a bit more modern. The Lizard comes off as one badass villain on-screen, even though he’s basically a big CGI creation. This variation on Marvel Comics’ famed webslinger is different enough to merit another entry.
On the flip side lie the anti-heroes of The Expendables 2. They are strong, powerful fighting machines without actual super powers, but they have plenty of muscle and firepower. The testosterone-fueled team ends up on a quest for vengeance and stopping a villain intent on selling deadly plutonium to the highest bidder. It’s fun to see Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Terry Crews and Randy Couture together in one rip-roaring adventure, and Arnold and Bruce get more screen time in this installment. The DVD/BD release also includes a feature about ‘80s action icons and a look into the real world of private security professionals that is both fascinating and scary. They make this particular home video release quite worthwhile.
CELEBRATING ZEPPELIN – While I have never been a huge Led Zeppelin fan, I certainly have respect for the massive influence they had on rock ‘n’ roll. They explored a wide breadth of styles throughout their decade-long recording career, and numerous hard rock and hair bands during my ‘80s youth attempted to crib from their sound. Since breaking up in 1980 following the death of drummer John Bonham, singer Robert Plant, guitarist Jimmy Page and bassist John Paul Jones have explored different musical ventures separately. They did three brief reunions—at Live Aid (1985), the Atlantic Records 40th anniversary party (1988) and their 1995 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction—and Page and Plant worked together again between 1994 and 1998. But Led Zep never came back to do a full public concert for nearly 20 years until Dec. 10, 2007, when they performed at London’s O2 Arena in tribute to the late Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun, who signed them to the label. The 16-song set was highly acclaimed, but YouTube clips were quickly pulled and only now are we getting a full account of the evening.
The nicely packaged Celebration Day Deluxe Edition includes two CDs and two DVDs (one the concert, the other behind-the-scenes footage) that will easily satiate fans who missed out on this historic event (i.e. most of them). With Jason Bonham filling in for his father behind the kit, the foursome sound tight and ferocious, exciting the large throng before them as they drive through such classic numbers as “Black Dog,” “Kashmir,” “Dazed And Confused” and “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” While Plant’s voice still sounds strong, he clearly avoids hitting the high notes, with Page’s gnarly guitar providing that push over the cliff. It still works. Seeing as a reunion tour may never happen, this is an essential release for long-time fans and younger ones eager to see why they are so legendary. There are multiple versions of this release that include a 2 CD/1 DVD digipak (in DVD and Blu-ray size), a 3-LP version and a 2-CD release.
WATCHING EVEN MORE WATCHMEN – Zack Snyder’s cinematic rendering of the amazing Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons graphic novel Watchmen was a pretty good adaptation, although it clearly lacked the incredibly detailed interweaving of storylines that would have taken an entire tv mini-series to integrate, including one involving a young comic book reader, the newsstand he frequents and the pirate tale he gets absorbed by. The Ultimate Cut (out of print from its original 2009 release) includes the animated version of that comic book within a comic book as part of the live action narrative. That’s a cool idea actually, although I have heard mixed reactions to it. That ambitious version is part of the Watchmen Collector’s Set, which I received right before I was finishing this column and have not had a chance to delve too deeply into it. The four-disc boxed collection features a lenticular cover and comes with the Ultimate and theatrical cuts of the movie (but why no Director’s Cut?), numerous HD bonus features, the Watchmen motion comic and a hardbound copy of the original series/graphic novel with sketch art. If your loved one or friend is a diehard Watchmen aficionado (or perhaps simply likes ginormous box sets), this looks like a wise purchase as it covers most of the bases.