I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but overall 2008 was somewhat of a lackluster year for new Region 1 DVD releases of 1960s and 1970s era films when compared to the previous two years (See: 2006 and 2007). Some of my favorite DVD companies such as BCI Eclipse and most recently New Yorker Films have folded. Boutique DVD companies are releasing fewer products and what is being released is often of questionable quality. With the failing economy and the rise in popularity of Blu-ray discs, it seems like the number of new worthwhile DVD releases might continue to drop dramatically in 2009. Many companies such as Blue Underground and Criterion are choosing to re-release films that have already been available on DVD, while big studios like Warner Brothers and Paramount seem to be focusing a lot of their energy on re-releasing titles on Blu-ray instead of releasing old films from their vaults.
Even with this disappointing turn of events, fans of 60s and 70s cinema were still offered some great DVD box sets from companies like Lions Gate as well as Criterion. Sony Pictures has also released an interesting batch of DVDs under their new “Martini Movies” label. And with curiosity about Japanese pink films on the rise, companies like Mondo Macabro and Media Blasters took full advantage of this and released some unexpected gems last year. 2008 was also a great year for British horror fans. Besides multiple Hammer DVD releases including the Icons of Horror: Hammer Films Collection and the Icons of Adventure Film Collection, there were also some great Amicus films released such as Freddie Francis’ The Skull and The Deadly Bees.
In previous years I’ve shared a list of my Top 30 Favorite DVD releases, but this year I’m narrowing my list down to my favorite Top 20 releases. This is mainly due to my disappointment with last year’s DVD offerings and I wanted to focus on a limited selection of new releases that I really enjoyed. As always, my list only features films that were originally released between 1960 and 1979 on Region 1 DVD. I tried not to include any DVD re-releases on my list or TV shows, but there were plenty to choose from. My selections are listed in alphabetical order and I’ll be posting them in two parts in the coming week. Below are selections #1-10.
1. Alain Delon – Five Film Collection (Lions Gate)
Anytime an Alain Delon film finds it’s way onto DVD for the first time there’s a celebration in my home! The Lions Gate Alain Delon DVD boxset was a real treat and offered viewers the opportunity to see five films starring my favorite French actor. I thought the best films in the collection were easily La Piscine aka The Swimming Pool (1969) and Diaboliquement vôtre aka Diabolically Yours (1967), which I reviewed back in 2007. But The Widow Couderc and Notre Histoire also make for some worthwhile viewing. Le Gitan aka The Gypsy (1975) is a bit like sitting through Zorro II, but it’s missing the catchy theme song. I actually enjoy Delon’s original Zorro (1975) film, but Le Gitan left me a little cold. For more information about this DVD release please see my previous comments about it here.
2. The Anderson Tapes (Sony Pictures)
The Anderson Tapes (1971) is one of the hidden gems that can be found in the recent batch of “Martini Movies” released by Sony Pictures. This ’70s caper film was directed by Sidney Lumet when he was at the top of his game and it’s based on a novel written by Lawrence Sanders. The movie features a great cast that includes Sean Connery, Dyan Cannon, Martin Balsam, Alan King and a very young and incredibly cute Christopher Walken in his first major film role. The premise of the film involves a group of con men that Anderson (Sean Connery) brings together in order to pull off a major heist at an upper-class apartment building in New York. Unfortunately for Anderson everyone he contacts is under surveillance for different reasons, so every move he makes is being carefully monitored. Sidney Lumet does an impressive job of filming the events as they unfold through the use of surveillance cameras and sound. And I really liked the adult way that Connery’s relationship with Dyan Cannon was handled. The film was released a year before the Watergate scandal made headlines and three years before Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal film The Conversation, which tackled similar themes. I was surprised by how much The Anderson Tapes had obviously influenced Coppola’s later films and I’m not just referring to The Conversation. Clearly writer Lawrence Sanders and director Sidney Lumet were well aware of the way surveillance was starting to play a role in modern society and the film does a terrific job of exploring the way it invades the life of one unsuspecting man. Quincy Jones created the film’s soundtrack and I think is one of the composers most experimental and unusual efforts. Jones used electronic sounds and noise to convey various emotions and ideas in the film and it works really well with the way Lumet handles the material. The film is presented in widescreen and the print looks terrific. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of extras on the DVD besides the original trailer and the Martini Movie features which come with every one of their releases.
3. Assault! Jack the Ripper (Mondo Macabro)
This is not an easy film to recommend and many will undoubtedly be shocked by the film’s subject matter. Some hardened horror fans will even shy away from the graphic nature of the film, but Assault! Jack the Ripper (1976) is easily one of the most transgressive and fascinating violent pink movies I’ve seen and in turn, one of my favorite DVD releases of last year. Assault! Jack the Ripper was directed by Yasuharu Hasebe who has made some of my favorite Japanese films including Black Tight Killers (1966), Bloody Territories (1969), Female Prisoner Scorpion: #701’s Grudge Song (1973) and the Stray Cat Rock films. The movie centers around the violent and erotic adventures of a young couple who accidentally discover that they get sexual satisfaction from torturing and murdering other women. The film used true crimes such as the notorious Chicago nurse murders committed by Richard Speck for inspiration. It’s propelled by an incredible Euro-flavored soundtrack and some breathtaking cinematography. Assault! Jack the Ripper is not light viewing and audiences should be prepared to watch the DVD extras that come with the film in order to get a deeper understanding of the movie’s subversive themes, but it’s well worth the effort for adventurous viewers who can stomach a little “ultraviolence.” The DVD extras include an insightful interview with author Jasper Sharp who wrote Behind the Pink Curtain: The Complete History of Japanese Sex Cinema, extensive notes about the film and a great documentary called The Erotic Empire which discusses Nikkatsu Studios “Romantic Pornographic” aka Roman Porno films.
4. Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (Special Edition) (BCI / Eclipse)
A lot of Paul Naschy films found their way onto DVD last year, but Carlos Aured’s Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll (1973) was my favorite of the bunch. In this Spanish giallo Paul Naschy plays a deeply troubled ex-con who gets hired as a caretaker for a lavish estate owned by three beautiful sisters who seem to all vie for Naschy’s affections. After Naschy takes the job, a serial killer begins terrorizing the countryside and removing the eyes of his blue-eyed victims. Is Naschy the cold-blooded killer or is someone else to blame for the horrible murders? You’ll have to watch the film to find out! No one in Blue Eyes of the Broken Doll is particularly likable, but I found that aspect of the film strangely compelling. Carlos Aured does a good job with the dream sequences in the film and Paul Naschy ‘s script features plenty of unusual twists and turns to keep viewers entertained. Fans of European thrillers should find the film enjoyable. The DVD comes with some great extras including audio commentary with Paul Naschy and director Carlos Aured.
6. The Delirious Fictions of William Klein – Eclipse Series 9 (Eclipse / Criterion)
This Eclipse/Criterion DVD collection was one of the best things the company released last year and for my money, possibly the best DVD film collection of 2008. Previously William Klein’s films were incredibly hard to come by and the prints that were floating around from various sources were often very poor. Criterion’s choice to release three of Klein’s films was a real surprise and a treat for anyone like myself who enjoys avant-garde cinema from the 60s. William Klein was a fashion photographer and an American expat living in Paris when he made these films, which satirize the fashion industry, skewer pervading cultural values, attack capitalism and mock American political policies. Although many critics seem to see the films as mere products of the times that they were made in, I think they’re still extremely relevant today. Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? aka Qui êtes-vous, Polly Maggoo? (1966) and Mr. Freedom (1969) are the standout features in this three-film set and I’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite from the two. Both films feature some incredible visuals and lots of dark humor. The Model Couple (1977) is also well worth a look even if it’s lacking the style and intellectual punch of the other two films in the collection. This terrific set of films deserves a lot more attention than I can give it now but I briefly mentioned how excited I was about this DVD release last year and you can find that post along with a clip from Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? here. Unfortunately like all the Eclipse/Criterion DVD releases, this DVD collection is very bare bones, but still well worth owning.
7. Icons of Horror: Hammer Films (Sony Pictures)
I’m always happy to see any Hammer horror films finding their way onto DVD and the 2-disc Icons of Horror collection contained one of my long-time favorite Hammer productions, Terence Fisher’s The Gorgon (1964) as well as Seth Holt’s exceptional thriller Scream of Fear (1961). This four-film collection also featured Michael Carreras’s The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (1964) and The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). I hadn’t had the opportunity to see Terence Fisher’s The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll before this DVD release and I was really surprised by how well done the film was. I personally think it’s one of the better films based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic story thanks to Paul Massie’s excellent duel performance as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb is definitely the weakest film in the collection, which still means it’s better than most of the horror films you’ll find playing at your local multiplex right now. All the films look terrific and are presented in widescreen. Terence Fisher and Seth Holt were two of the finest directors that worked with Hammer studios so it’s nice to see them both represented in this great new DVD set. Unfortunately, it suffers from a lack of extras which plagues many Hammer DVD releases but it’s hard to complain when you can currently purchase all four films for a mere $16.99 at Amazon (see link above).
8. It!/The Shuttered Room (Warner Home Video)
I have so much I want to say about these two joint British/American productions that I hate trying to sum up my feelings in one paragraph so I may revisit them later, but in an effort to get this list finished up I’ll try and formulate a few quick thoughts.
It! (1966) is a highly entertaining horror movie directed by Herbert J. Leder and it stars the talented Roddy McDowall. McDowall plays a mentally disturbed museum curator (playing homage to Anthony Perkins) who finds himself in all kinds of trouble after he displays a strange statue at the museum where he’s employed. The highly improbable plot gets more and more ridiculous as the film unfolds but I won’t spoil it for potential viewers. It! is a really fun and just has to be seen to be believed plus Roddy McDowall is terrific in it. The second film in this two-movie set is David Greene’s The Shuttered Room (1967) and it’s the real reason you should purchase this DVD. The movie features a great cast and two exceptional performances from the film’s star Carol Lynley and her co-star, the late great Oliver Reed. The script is based on a story written by August Derleth who was H. P. Lovecraft’s posthumous collaborator and Derleth used many of Lovecraft’s own notes and ideas to compile his tale. The final result may seem a little uneven to some but I think The Shuttered Room is one of the few films that successfully captures the unsettling mood found in some of Lovecraft’s best fiction. David Greene’s direction is impressive at times and the film is really elevated by the experimental avant-garde score composed by controversial British jazz musician Basil Kirchin. Kirchin composed music for other British horror films such as The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and The Mutations (1974), but his score for The Shuttered Room just might be his most effective. This is another bare-bones DVD bare-bones with no worthwhile extras but it’s great to see these deserving horror films finally being made available. I’d previously only seen washed out and cut-up prints of The Shuttered Room on television so I was thrilled by the print quality of this new DVD from Warner.
9. Le Doulos (Criterion)
Le Doulos (1963) is one of Jean-Pierre Melville’s earliest crime films (aka “policier”) and while it’s missing some of the polish of the director’s later efforts, it’s still an exceptional film featuring a truly memorable performance from the great Jean-Paul Belmondo. Belmondo charms his way through the film playing a surprisingly ruthless gangster named Silien who may or may not be a police informant referred to as a “Le doulos” in French slang terms. The film borrows from many classic noir films, but Melville brings his own trademark style and edginess to the proceedings, which gives Le Doulos lots of modern appeal. Criterion did an exceptional job on this and one can only hope that they’ll continue to release more of Melville’s films on DVD in the future. Besides a beautifully restored print of the film, the new DVD comes with some great extras including archival interviews with Melville and actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Serge Reggiani, audio commentary by film scholar Ginette Vincendeau, the original theatrical trailer and a thoughtful new essay by film critic Glenn Kenny.
10. Ludwig (KOCH Lorber Films)
Few directors know how to create epic historical dramas like Luchino Visconti and Ludwig (1972) is one of the director’s most ambitious efforts. This four hour film is not without its flaws but if you take the time to watch this dramatic retelling of the life of the “mad” Kind Ludwig II of Bavaria you’ll be rewarded with some lush cinematography, grandiose set designs, fabulous period costumes and great performances from the film’s impressive cast. Like many of Visconti’s previous efforts, the film offers viewers an intelligent critique of the powerful and wealthy while celebrating their extravagances and mourning the passage of time. One of my favorite actors is the Austrian born Helmut Berger who stars as King Ludwig here and this film offered him one of his most expansive and fascinating roles. Visconti and Berger were long-time lovers and they work extremely well together. Visconti indulged Berger during the making of Ludwig and gave the actor plenty of freedom to bring the mad King to life but he also knew when to rein him in. The film also features Trevor Howard as composer Richard Wagner, Silvano Mangano as Wagner’s mistress Cosima Von Buelow and Romy Schneider was smartly cast as the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. The lovely and talented Romy Schneider had previously become a star due to her sympathetic portrayal of the young Empress Elisabeth in the popular Austrian Sisi films and she brings a lot of experience to her role. This impressive two disc DVD set from KOCH Lorber Films features a digitally restored and re-mastered widescreen print of the film and it’s loaded with extras including a documentary about director Luchino Visconti, profile of actress Silvano Mangano and an interview with costume designer Piero Tosi. I wish one or two of the extras included with the DVD focused a bit more on the film’s star, Helmut Berger, but this release is a real treat for Visconti fans like myself.
The second half of my Favorite DVDs of 2008 list can be found here.