Ermanno Olmi is hardly as well known as his contemporaries, directors like Bernardo Bertolucci and Pier Paolo Pasolini, so the appearance of these two gem-like early films by Olmi is a rare gift when many of his famous peersí films are still unavailable on DVD.
Il Posto and I Fidanzati are Olmiís second and third films, bound together by common themes - the anxiety of change overwhelming Italian society in the 60s. In the first film, we follow a shy young man into his first job, in a Milan corporate office; in the second, we watch as two lovers are separated when the man takes a job at a factory in Sicily.
Both films have pivotal, evocative scenes set in suburban dance halls, and male protagonists who donít speak much, the younger man (Sandro Panseri) always warily observing the world around him, the older one (Carlo Cabrini) sinking into a lonely reverie, obsessing over his memories of his fiancť in the north.
Olmiís deep familiarity with the world of factories and offices is explored in the wonderfully candid interviews included with each disc, where he recalls how he learned to make films when he convinced the company he worked for to buy him a camera to make industrial films. He recalls with still-smarting irony how he was attacked by left-wing film critics for being insufficiently enthusiastic about the changes in Italian society, and accused of being a reactionary.
The film transfers are up to typically high quality Criterion standards, and Il Posto features a bonus TV film by Olmi that anticipates John Hughesí smart-aleck teen angst films by two decades.
House of 1000 Corpses
Rob Zombieís gleefully irredeemable first feature is a sticky bolus of undigested Z-grade slasher flicks and horror exploitation fantasies. That isnít to say that it isnít enjoyable in a morbidly adolescent way, and in its own way, itís as clever a tribute as the genre deserves.
Tellingly set in the cultural low point of 1977, House of 1000 Corpses (no, I didnít count, but I doubt if House of a Couple Dozen Corpses would sound as good) begins with the usual hapless teens losing their way in the maniac-infested backwoods of middle America. They end up at the tender mercies of a psycho clan equal parts burlesque troop and Manson Family. As the matriarch, Karen Black is her usual ominous self, and her close-eyed stare is scarier than most of the eviscerations and decapitations.
For all of its gratuitous gore, the film has far fewer scares than your average horror flick - tellingly, it strives for the enraged eeriness of a heavy metal song rather than the mechanical thrills of a Scream or Friday the 13th flick. Includes deleted scenes and a directorís commentary.
The Inn of the Sixth Happiness
This overlong epic is classic mid-century Hollywood Technicolor humanism, the sort of film made to remind moviegoers that, Cold War and Korean War notwithstanding, the Chinese were people, too.
Alas, itís also the kind of film where white actors like Robert Donat and Curt Jurgens play orientals, though it bravely has Ingrid Bergman, as an idealistic missionary worker, speak halting Mandarin until itís assumed that sheís learned the language. Based on a true story, Bergman plays a noble soul who overcomes adversity and discouragement in the exotic squalor of northern China on the eve of the Japanese invasion.
The key sequence, where Bergman leads a hundred orphaned children over the mountains through Japanese lines to safety, is just a bit less grueling than the real thing, and the romance with Jurgensí Eurasian army officer feels a bit contrived, but Bergman suffers beautifully for the cameras. Includes commentary track and newsreel footage of the filmís 1958 premiere.
The Thing From Another World
The monsters in even the best 50s monster film are always disappointing, but James Arnessí hulking vegetable alien in 1951ís The Thing From Another World has always been a notable disappointment.
It would explain why the filmís wry, crackling, all-American dialogue has always been itís talking point, and the basis of a longstanding rumour that it was producer Howard Hawks, not credited director, Christian Nyby, who really helmed the film.
Even more notably, you canít help but compare the stalwart, can-do attitude of the soldiers and scientists trapped at the North Pole with the blood-sucking Thing, with the dread-wracked, terrified, hapless humans of latter-day films like Alien. It was, as they say, a very different time. No notable bonus features.