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Dracula: The Legacy Collection
Universal DVD

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Frankenstein: The Legacy Collection
Universal DVD

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The Wolf Man: The Legacy Collection
Universal DVD

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Very few people would find Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein horror films in the utilitarian sense anymore. It’s been a very long time since the chills were distilled out of Lugosi’s tuxedo-clad vampire or Karloff’s jar-headed zombie, so how to explain the abiding popularity of these iconic monsters?

For not the first time, Universal has issued their classic 30s and 40s horror film franchises on DVD. This time, the occasion is the imminent release of director Stephen Sommers’ Van Helsing, with Hugh Jackman as the fearless vampire killer. Sommers’ film may bomb, but there’s no arguing with the care taken with these three sets.

Dracula, Frankenstein and Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man have each been given a three-sided, two-disc slipcased set, collecting their screen debuts as well as various sequels, some of which cross over in tortuous ways, such as Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man, with Lugosi, not Karloff, as Frankenstein!

The gem is the Dracula set, which includes a lovely remaster of Tod Browning’s original film, augmented with spare but haunting new score by Philip Glass (performed by the Kronos Quartet) as well as the Spanish language Dracula, a slightly more dynamic version filmed at night on the same sets as Browning’s film, with a different director and actors.

The Frankenstein box is also worth owning. James Whale’s original film is justly celebrate for its abundant style and wit, and it’s the only franchise that was actually improved with a sequel – Whale’s Bride Of Frankenstein, an arch edifice of baroque camp that’s less frightening than it is wickedly amusing today.

1941’s The Wolf Man has always been the poor relation of the three. The original film lacks the luscious style that Browning and Whale brought to their films, and presents the only English village in film history where most of the residents speak with American accents. As with the other sets, it comes with a “tribute” to the original by Sommers, which masquerades as a trailer for Van Helsing, and a nice but brief documentary on the monster’s film career.

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Elephant
Warner Bros./HBO DVD

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Gus Van Sant’s imagining of the Columbine massacre has a stark power from the first scene, with a drunk dad swerving all over the road while driving his son back from lunch. The boy relieves his dad of the car keys, then gets a detention for coming back to school late. It’s the first hint of the humiliations and indignities that define high school life, and Van Sant’s ability to evoke them in Elephant is spectacular.

Van Sant’s take on minimalist filmmaking often just translates into “less is less”, but he achieves something marvelous with the first half of Elephant, as his camera follows various students around the school and back and forth in time, calmly gazing at the small but regular doses of brutality and anxiety that make being a teenager dull and harrowing at the same time.

It’s not surprising that this lucid style is so inadequate to the horrors of the second half, when two of the kids turn up armed and begin slaughtering staff and students. The curious distance which made unhappy banality so poignant can’t hope to convey terror and fear, and like most of Van Sant’s work, it’s an impressive but failed experiment. Comes with a short “behind-the-scenes” featurette.

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The Last Samurai
Warner Bros. DVD

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It’s hard not to dismiss The Last Samurai as a post-9/11 Shogun. Edward Zwick’s film is an epic mess, but it features some remarkable battle scenes and two thrilling sword fights - all hissing blades and jets of blood - that show that Zwick, almost as much as Quentin Tarantino, has studied Zatoichi and other samurai film classics.

Tom Cruise is a Civil War veteran and expert marksman whose pride and honour were crushed by the massacres of the Indian wars. He’s hired by the Japanese government to modernize their army and help crush a rebellion of rogue samurai warriors who, despite abjuring modern weapons, are still defeating the Emperor’s troops.

Captured by their leader (Ken Watanabe), he recovers his honour by learning to love their doomed cause. In a History Channel documentary included on the feature-packed bonus disc, one of the experts asked to comment on the film’s historical accuracy points out that Watanabe’s samurai were really the bad guys, a bloodthirsty elite whose hatred of everything western and modern was Taliban-like, and essentially anti-democratic.

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Calendar Girls
Touchstone DVD

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A menopausal Full Monty, Calendar Girls advances the interesting notion that Britain would be a better place if every middle-aged wife and mother embraced their inner “tits out” page three girl, if only to aid the charity of their choice.

Based on the true story of a provincial Women’s Institute group that replaced the scenic views of pastures and bridges with topless portraits of themselves in their annual calendar, the film goes a long way on the appeal of actors like Helen Mirren and Julie Walters, all of whom bare quite a bit of skin.

Taken together with Diane Keaton’s recent, famous nude scene, this might be remembered as the year where we saw more skin from women born during or after the Second World War than those born during Reagan’s first term. Comes with two nice documentaries featuring the women who inspired the story.

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Helen Of Troy
Warner Bros. DVD

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Troy: Beyond The Movie
National Geographic DVD

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With an epic new Troy coming out, Warner Brothers has reissued its 1955 film of the Homeric saga, a treat for those legions of fans of warriors in miniskirts, who may not be able to wait for Brad Pitt’s very tanned Achilles.

Another tie-in with the new film is a National Geographic documentary that analyzes the real history of Troy, or what we can piece together from the scraps of evidence uncovered in Turkey and Greece. While it was in doubt for centuries, it’s agreed now that there probably was a Troy, and perhaps even an Achilles, a Paris and a Helen, though it’s looking increasingly unlikely that Homer, the story’s legendary author, ever existed.

Robert Wise’s 1955 film is a vast but entertaining field of corn, full of declamatory acting and massive sets that still suggest wood frames and plaster instead of Troy’s famed stone walls. The bonus features are fascinating – three made-for-TV “making-of” promos for the film, as packed with flackworthy hype as the ones we see today.

©2004 rick mcginnis all rights reserved.