Fox Horror Classics Vol. 2
If you're looking for scares, the three titles that make up Fox's Horror Classics Vol. 2 collection are about as frightening as your average Jane Austen adaptation. That doesn't mean they aren't enormously entertaining examples of Golden Age Hollywood craftsmanship. They are proof that Fox's B-level responses to Universal's successful monster movies could hold their own on any matinee double bill.
The box set begins, chronologically, with 1932's Chandu the Magician, which pits an unconvincing hero — a trained yogi named Chandu (Edmund Lowe) — against a too-convincing villain played by a hammy Bela Lugosi, a lunatic with no inner-monologue who chews up the scenery like taffy. As Lugosi tortures a scientist in attempt to learn the code for his world-conquering death ray, Chandu and his entourage travel through perilous terrain and some astounding and trippy special effects influenced by the silents of Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau.
Next up is 1942's Dr. Renault's Secret, an above-average mad-doctor quickie with grounds in Darwinism. Dr. Larry Forbes (John Sheppard) is set to marry the daughter (Lynne Roberts) of a prominent scientist, Dr. Renault (George Zucco), who lives in a typically foreboding gothic mansion. Forbes begins to take notice of slow-witted servant Noel (J. Carrol Naish), who, with his extra-large nostrils and animalistic senses, turns out to be a most unusual "experiment" for the mild-mannered Renault. Cast only with B-movie character actors, the real star of the film is the spooky set design, once again rooted in German expressionism.
Chandu and Renault stand up on their own rights, but both pale in comparison to the third title, Dragonwyck, from 1946. Everything about it suggests a high-caliber prestige picture rather than a back-lot B-movie, and its literary antecedents — Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, Daphne du Maurier and Anya Seton — rightly forecast a movie that is more gothic romance than horror. The first writer-director credit from the legendary Joseph L. Mankiewicz (All About Eve, The Barefoot Contessa), Dragonwyck is eloquent beyond its genre, no matter what you consider it to be.
Bristling with verbally stylized Mankiewiczian acridity, Vincent Price stars as Nicholas Van Ryn, the proprietor of the ominous Dragonwyck estate. Calling himself a distant cousin, he extends an invitation to his lugubrious home to Connecticut farm girl Miranda (Gene Tierney), whom he has every intention of seducing, despite the little problem of his wife (Anne Revere). More than anything, Dragonwyck is anchored by an egalitarian heartbeat, with the corrupt Van Ryn pitted against the lower-class proles he forces to toil in his fields, class warfare ready to erupt at any moment. Set in a House of Usher-like mansion full of buried secrets and directed with more visual flair and ambience than Mankiewicz usually provided, Dragonwyck is nearly the equal of Hitchcock's Rebecca and Lean's Great Expectations.
Fox continues to be the standard-bearer for the economical bonus feature, amassing a collective of experts both personal and professional (from Mankiewicz's son to colorful horror scholar Kim Newman) to illuminate every corner of each title in fast-paced 15-minute featurettes. At just $13.99, there's no reason for you not to buy this set, for Dragonwyck if nothing else. —John Thomason
MANswers: The Best of Season One
With Manswers inexplicably beginning its second season in mid-September, it seems like an appropriate time to look back at this dudefest's first go-round and try to ascertain exactly how a show this gratingly obnoxious and forthrightly sexist could've succeeded. The short answer is that Spike knows its audience, and is gleefully unashamed of it. While most networks would shy away from a show this dumb, Spike revels in its beer-pong demographic and MANswers was crafted specifically for them. By answering such important questions as "Which human organ is best to eat?" "Can you take a dump of death?" and "Is she a hooker or is she a cop?" MANswers is the most unserious "fact-based" show ever to have been shown on TV. Almost all of these segments are built around drinking, trying to get laid or some element of the Table of Awesoments, which means that subtlety (or gender sensitivity) is not on the menu. In fact, when obnoxious narrator Matt Short shouts "Damn, one of these chicks has got to put out!" (in an episode about "What do the shape of her boobs tell you about her personality?"), it doesn't seem all that offensive. Just dumb. The best part of the show are the questions themselves, much more so than the answers (see: "Is the death touch for real?"), so one can only hope that season two is able to dig up some equally profound ponderances. —Jason Ferguson
Blood. Guts. Sexed-up teens. Maniacal killers. Power tools. They're the slasher mainstays, so it's hard to image '80s horror without them. Sure, Meyers and Voorhees rose to cultish status with their seemingly endless sequels during the decade of excess. But while the slashers and their ilk where killing at the box office and sparking criticism, myriad less gruesome horror flicks came and went without fanfare. 1982's The Sender is one such flick. But a lack of big-titted coeds and bloody corpses hurt its appeal. What's missing in body count, though, is made up in stylish direction by Roger Christian (who, by the way, snagged an Oscar in set decoration for Star Wars), a smarter-than-average plot and exceptional performances by its leads.
A young amnesiac is labeled John Doe #83 when he's committed to a mental hospital after attempting suicide. Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold) takes special interest in her new patient, especially when she and the staff begin to have hallucinations. Farmer suspects that he's telepathic and tries to piece together his past. Thing's get stranger still when a woman named Jerolyn (played with icy perfection by vet actress Shirley Knight) arrives, claiming to be John Doe's mother and that she has kept her son locked away, convinced that he's the second coming. What's the truth and what's not makes for a creepy and compelling mystery. But don't think this is strictly PG viewing material. This flick earns its R-rating with several blood-soaked scenes and some freaky special effects sequences reminiscent of Scanners. This forgotten gem finally debuts on DVD, which isn't a moment too soon considering a new Friday The 13th is due out next year. — Paul Knoll
Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project
This John Landis-directed documentary (which aired on HBO last year) is actually two cinematic valentines — one to the legendary comedian who made racial slurs into terms of endearment, and the other to Las Vegas when it was Sin City and run by mobsters — just as nature intended. We wouldn't have had the former without the latter, but in remembering the Golden Nugget and the Sands, Landis condenses too much Rickles history in the latter half, including testimonials from every comedian on why he's funny, generally followed by a clip of Don that often doesn't live up to the praise. Rickles is way more hilarious than this. And vicious. Here's a guy who ridiculed Sinatra in a crowded room and chided mobsters in their own casinos without consequence, as recounted in his memoirs. I would've liked to have heard about the people who couldn't take his barbs, like director and Judy Garland spouse Sid Luft, who had to be physically restrained from punching Don for saying, "Laugh it up, Sid! Judy has written you out of the will."
As a kid, I was dragged to Atlantic City and as a side benefit I got to see the man live, skewering audience members only to blunt it by breaking into his theme song "I'm a Nice Guy" a little too often. By then, the emergence of Archie Bunker made it necessary to do insult comedy with disclaimers. Political correctness has never been good for comedy — witness Jay Leno and his flag lapel pin in one of the segments. Rickles is best going for the jugular, like those Dean Martin roasts where his stints at the mic were the only ones that didn't sport canned laughter.
What Landis does give you is an appreciation of Rickles the actor, who made an appearance on every '60s show from The Munsters to The Twilight Zone and had a movie career that stretched from Roger Corman to Martin Scorsese to Pixar.
As a Rickles for Dummies primer, this'll do, but one day someone will compile a DVD of his Tonight Show appearances and his TV specials, and dig up film of his nightclub act. Let's hope it's before Mr. Warmth is colder than a hockey puck. —Serene Dominic
Arts Alliance America
The second film from writer-director Gina Kim earned a Jury Prize nod at the 2007 Sundance Festival, and it's not hard to understand why; Never Forever tackles difficult and personal subject matter — adultery, infertility, the immigrant experience — and does it in a thoroughly resonant and deeply effective way. Vera Farmiga (The Departed, Down to the Bone) is Sophie, the loving, sad-eyed wife of brooding and suicidally sad Andrew (David McInnis). The one thing Sophie wants more than anything is to give Andrew a child, thinking, as many delusional people do, that a baby is the solution to all problems marital and emotional. Unfortunately, Andrew's little soldiers aren't up to the task, leading Sophie to, um, employ the services of a Korean immigrant she runs into at her fertility clinic. Jihah (played with a perfect mix of frustration, slyness, and befuddlement by Ha Jung Woo) can't make a donation in the typical way because of visa issues, Sophie can't tell Andrew that she'd like to get another man's sperm to do the work that his can't, money is offered, sex is had and a desolate and desperate movie unfolds. Kim fearlessly takes on a number of issues in Never Forever, but also manages to imbue the movie with an emotional core that makes for a number of darkly funny moments. —Jason Ferguson