ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)
The buildup: A disgraced big city news reporter (Kirk Douglas) stuck in Albuquerque discovers an amateur archaeologist (Richard Benedict) has been trapped in a mine. Under the guise of rousing local interest and helping him, he tries to prolong the rescue so his story turns into a national media sensation that will revive his moribund career. But there are serious consequences to his machinations.
The breakdown: Director/co-writer Billy Wilder’s follow-up to Sunset Boulevard was a searing indictment of the American way of life that is still relevant today. Naturally it did not fare well. While the story offers many tragic characters, the ultimate tragedy is the way in which one man’s suffering fuels profiteering from so many more people unconnected to him. Criterion’s well-curated reissue includes vintages interviews with Wilder and Douglas and recent thoughts from Spike Lee.
A BUNDLE OF BIG G: GODZILLA REISSUES ON BLU-RAY
The buildup: Eight movies from the Heisei (1984-1995) and Millennium (1999-2004) series of Godzilla get paired up in four new Blu-ray two-packs. The effects, particularly the digital enhancements in the latter group, blow away the earlier films, and many of the stories are good too. All the films include the original Japanese language tracks with English subtitles, which is so much better than the inevitably lame English dubbing.
The breakdown: The new American Godzilla movie is quite good, but devoted longtime fans still love their rubber suit monsters. There is plenty of fun to be had here—from the Heisei series, Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah (1991) and Godzilla Vs. Destroyah (1995) in particular, and from the Millennium series, Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. (2003), featuring a badass Mothra, and the epic Final Wars (2004), which brings back every monster from the franchise’s history. The Big G will always be an acquired taste in America, especially people who do not appreciate the practical effects and miniature sets, but these movies have enough self-referential humor to balance with their environmental messages to make them endearing. Plus Godzilla’s look in the Millennium series is fantastically ferocious. Let’s hope that the unreleased films in these final two Japanese series—Godzilla 1985, Godzilla 2000, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, and Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla—get their Blu-ray due soon.
One side note: There are a few other new Blu-ray releases from the kaiju world of the ’50s through the ’70s, including Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, Godzilla Vs. Gigan, Ebirah Horror Of The Deep, King Kong Vs. Godzilla, King Kong Escapes, and all of the vintage Gamera movies.
TV TERRORS: GHOST STORY aka CIRCLE OF FEAR: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1972-3) and MONSTERS: THE COMPLETE SERIES (1988-1991)
The buildup: Two cult horror shows from the past finally get a DVD release. A short-lived William Castle production, Ghost Story was developed by famed novelist and Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson and delved into different supernatural sagas over each hour-long episode. It was later retitled Circle Of Fear, its host removed and theme music reworked, in a futile attempt to save it. In a similar vein, the Richard P. Rubinstein-produced Monsters, a successor to Tales From The Darkside, served up various creepy creatures throughout its three-season run. The cautionary tales were on the low budget side and tended to stick to one to two locations for their 21-minute running time. Both series featured famous faces new and old and some future stars, which often provides an extra level of fun in watching them.
The breakdown: Like any anthology series, both Ghost Story and Monsters have their good and bad points. Given the respective decades they were released in, their pacing is slower than modern shows, but their buildup to a payoff is part of their charm.
The 23 episodes of Ghost Story are old school fear fare, the emphasis being on story, character, and atmosphere as opposed to cool effects. The episodes that click have genuinely creepy premises, such as the young boy who unintentionally conjures an evil doppelganger in “Alter-Ego,” a couple haunted by ghosts from an old horror movie in “The Graveyard Shift,” and the predatory college professor (an uber creepy Hal Linden) who may or may not be a bloodsucker in “Elegy For A Vampire.” Throughout the series, be on the lookout for Jodie Foster, Janet Leigh, a young Leif Garrett, and Susan Dey, among other guest stars.
Monsters is easier to digest, with 72 episodes that can be devoured at three per hour. They have a tongue-in-charm that adds levity to the darkness, and the first season alone has a number of standouts, including “My Zombie Lover” (an undead high school reunion), “Pool Sharks” (a game of stakes with a vampire), “Holly’s House” (an animatronic doll gone haywire), and “The Match Game,” in which four teens (including a young Tori Spelling and Hellraiser‘s Ashley Laurence) conjure a homicidal spirit through a storytelling game. I find myself watching these two or three at a time. Many familiar faces pop up throughout the series, like Meat Loaf, Chris Noth, Gina Gershon, and Wil Wheaton.
The actual quality of the shows varies. Both were shot on film, although Monsters clearly comes from broadcast quality videotape as that is what it was likely cut on, although it still looks pretty good. With Ghost Story, if I could not tell from very minor details, I would have thought I was watching a Blu-ray. Kudos to Sony for the superb DVD transfer.
Horror hounds and anthology fans will find much to enjoy here. Unlike modern series obsessed with the beautiful people and endlessly piling on scares and plot twists, these two shows are more subtle but offer their own rewards.
FANGED FRATERNITY: NOSFERATU (1922) and DAN CURTIS’ DRACULA (1973)
The buildup: Two very different variations of the famed Dracula have re-emerged, one from the silent era and one from ’70s television, and both worthy of exploration. Kino Lorber brings the famous FW Murnau film Nosferatu to Blu-ray with a new restoration, a score remastered for 5.1 surround sound, and new supplemental materials including excerpts from five other Murnau movies. Dan Curtis’ TV production of Dracula starring Jack Palance was shot in England and Yugoslavia and is restored to its uncut widescreen form that was evidently seen in theaters overseas. The extras include interviews with Palance and Curtis nearly 20 years after the film was made.
The breakdown: Nosferatu has never had a perfect restoration since it was an unauthorized German adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Stoker’s widow sued for copyright infringement and won with all the prints to be destroyed back then, but one print that made it to different countries survived and became the primary source for future video releases. Kino’s Blu-ray looks and sounds good (the original score is mostly lost and has been reconstructed here). While not overtly scary in 2014, Max Schreck’s eerie portrayal of Count Orlok continues to resonate and prove influential today.
Dan Curtis’ Dracula alters the original tale somewhat and plays off of producer/director Curtis’ romantic Dark Shadows TV soap opera, which ran from 1966-1971. There are less key characters here and a romantic subplot absent from Stoker’s original tale. As written by Richard Matheson and portrayed by Palance, Dracula is the tragic figure of Vlad the Impaler who is seeking out the reincarnation of his long-lost love. There are a few scares within, but the ominous atmosphere and dazzling cinematography really make it work. The British cast is quite good, and Palance, while occasionally over-the-top, imbues his arrogant alter ego with an aching loneliness, making him more of a romantic anti-hero rather an outright villain.