18 New Genre Blu-rays That Offer A Welcome Blast From The Past
This late in the year, there’s a good chance you’re starting to feel a little tired of 2019. Fortunately, you can always abandon the present and take a cinematic time machine to the past via some recent releases of old movies on Blu-ray. In recent weeks, we’ve found ourselves particularly preoccupied with the ’70s and ’80s thanks to the always exceptional efforts of Arrow Video and Shout! Factory. With their recent output in mind, here are 18 new genre Blu-rays that offer a welcome blast from the past.
Chaos On Campus
Now that high school students are settled into another new school year, the time is right to unleash some teen-fuelled chaos on (and off) campus. One of the most enduring cult movies of the ’70s, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School—an irreverent celebration of punk trailblazers The Ramones—got the deluxe Blu-ray treatment nearly a decade ago, but Shout! has wisely revived those old extras for a new SteelBook edition that also includes a new 4K scan and a new 70-minute documentary entitled Class of ’79: 40 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. While most of these anecdotes are familiar from the old extras, this well-crafted doc from Ballyhoo Motion Pictures serves as an ideal introduction to the film’s backstory—and a vivid reminder for those who have ventured into this territory many times before.
A case could be made that Weird Science lacks the enduring appeal of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, but fans of the film should find everything they’re looking for on Arrow’s comprehensive new special edition. In addition to three different versions of the film, we get an enlightening booklet and over 100 minutes of extras. While at least one of the featurettes (It’s Alive: Resurrecting Weird Science) is familiar from earlier editions, most of this content is new, including a revealing interview with casting director Jackie Burch, who discusses some near misses (Sharon Stone, Robin Wright) and the celebratory alarm bells that went off when an unknown Robert Downey, Jr. entered her office.
High Stakes Entertainment
The ’70s was a great decade for movies of all kinds, but vampire films went through a particular renaissance. In earlier instalments of this column, I’ve highlighted the third (Dracula: Prince of Darkness) and ninth (The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires) entries in Hammer’s celebrated Dracula series and we now have a Blu-ray for movie number six: Scars of Dracula. As the participants in this disc’s 18-minute featurette (Blood Rites: Inside Scars of Dracula) explain, Scars is departure from earlier films in the series—Christopher Lee has more dialogue, a paler complexion, and bloody new contact lenses—that nearly equals its predecessors. Additional extras include two commentary tracks, a gallery, and two trailers.
Nobody could have seen it coming, but coming off the blockbuster success of Saturday Night Fever, director John Badham went and made one of the decade’s best vampire films: 1979’s Dracula. When it was released, this romantic take on the iconic title character (played by then-heartthrob Frank Langella) was full of saturated colours—that Badham stripped from it in 1991, in order to create a more classic look that borders on black-and-white. Fortunately, Shout!’s horror arm Scream Factory includes both versions on this disc, along with three hours of new interviews. The standouts are Badham and writer W.D. Richter (1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Big Trouble in Little China), both of whom dwell on the director’s uniquely pleasant, easygoing, and generally quite effective approach to filmmaking.
For obvious reasons, movies about the murder of children are relatively uncommon, but these two ’70s gems prove this provocative subject matter can make for engrossing, unsettling viewing. Fortunately, Who Saw Her Die? (Italian director Aldo Lado’s follow-up to Short Night of Glass Dolls) gets the child murder out of the way in the opening minutes, before settling into a moody exploration of grief, mystery, and violence in Venice. If that sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of Don’t Look Now, but this is no knock-off, as it arrived in theatres a year earlier.
A more stylized and sensationalistic exploration of similar subject matter can be found in Alice, Sweet Alice (aka Communion), an unfairly overlooked slasher film from 1976 that owes an acknowledged debt to Alfred Hitchcock and, you guessed it, Don’t Look Now. In addition to two cuts of the film and two commentaries, this Blu-ray includes over an hour of new extras. The highlight is a 19-minute interview with director Alfred Sole, who reflects on the legal battles connected to his early (adults only) work, the value of his editor’s good judgment, his positive experience working with Brooke Shields (and her mother), Roger Ebert’s enthusiasm for the film, and his own ongoing efforts to remake Alice, Sweet Alice.
Attitudes about movies shifted in the ’70s, resulting in a new preponderance of dangerous fringe characters onscreen, a trend that continued into the ‘80s. A vivid example of this can be found in the (largely offscreen) madman quietly wreaking havoc in Road Games, arguably the greatest achievement by skilled Australian genre filmmaker—and student of Hitchcock—Richard Franklin (Patrick, Psycho II). Many die-hard fans of the film have already acquired the region-free Australian Blu-ray that came out in 2016 and the transfer/extras on this disc are relatively similar. However, Scream Factory also throws in some score demos, a new commentary, video of a script read, and a new interview with star Stacy Keach, who offers an enlightening perspective on Jamie Lee Curtis’ oddly muted stance on Road Games.
Another horror highlight from 1981, The Fan gives its violent obsessive centre stage. Like Joker, this film taps heavily into the sensibilities and subject matter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, but to very different effect. Not to be confused with Tony Scott’s Robert De Niro vehicle of the same name or 1982’s equally disturbing Der Fan, this little-seen gem makes an impressive HD debut, thanks to a strong transfer, a new commentary, and over 80 minutes of interviews. Everyone on hand agrees that screen legend Lauren Bacall was downright nasty during the shoot, but star Michael Biehn offers the most coherent production history, revealing how a once-classy thriller turned into a trashy slasher film (hint: it has something to do with Dressed to Kill). Unnecessary gore notwithstanding, this is a surprisingly nuanced and intelligent horror obscurity.
If you think about how restrictive notions of horror tend to be in 2019, it’s fascinating to note how many options were still on the table in the ’80s. Filmmakers routinely embraced a spirit of silliness—intentionally or not—resulting in surprisingly laid back, carefree filmmaking. Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes Part II is a perfect illustration of this, a short-lived indulgence the filmmaker abandoned later the same year when he reached a career high with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Arrow Video’s Hills Part II Blu-ray is relatively light on extras, but it’s a handsomely packaged release with at least one essential 31-minute featurette: Red Shirt Pictures’ Blood, Sand and Fire: The Making of The Hills Have Eyes Part II. This entertaining look at the production features many key cast members making pertinent references to disco, cocaine, and that notorious (but undeniably memorable) dog flashback.
Without a semi-respectable franchise to prop it up, Scared Stiff is more likely to fly under the radar, but this is oddball ’80s horror of the highest calibre. Co-written by David Lynch’s unsung Twin Peaks collaborator Mark Frost, this supremely strange film follows a family in crisis—complete with nods to The Shining—as they deal with the presence of ghosts from their home’s 19th century roots. Of course, attempting to describe (or make sense of) the plot is completely beside the point, as this is first and foremost a feast of bizarro horror imagery that brazenly defies the limits of literalism. Proving that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm, the people behind this disc went to the trouble of interviewing several of the film’s key creative forces, resulting in Mansion of the Doomed: The Making of Scared Stiff and several other worthwhile extras. This may not be a classic, but it’s one oddity you will never forget.
While Shout Select’s releases don’t always fit into the same genre film territory as the titles above (and below), there’s an intriguingly marginal, cult-y quality about many of their releases that stems from their mix of movie stars and obscurity. This is certainly the case with three of their latest releases, each of which feature prominent actors, directors, and/or writers, but remain little known. The Great Waldo Pepper reunited Robert Redford with director George Roy Hill (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting) for a look at the adventures of a daredevil biplane pilot, but third time was not the charm in this case. As even screenwriter William Goldman had to admit, this film never quite recovers from the mid-movie death of a key character. That may explain why extras on this disc are limited to a gallery and a trailer.
Biloxi Blues proves to be a more charming effort, reuniting director Mike Nichols with frequent stage collaborator Neil Simon for a likeable, low key military comedy starring Matthew Broderick, fresh off his triumph in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The only extra of note on this disc is an interview with co-star Corey Parker, who praises Nichols and Broderick, adding that co-star Christopher Walken “out-crazied” everyone on the set.
Lastly, 1999’s Snow Falling on Cedars gets a long overdue HD release, to coincide with its 20th anniversary. While not without its shortcomings, this adaptation of David Guterson’s acclaimed novel features one of Ethan Hawke’s most deeply felt performances and jaw-dropping cinematography that earned Robert Richardson (frequent collaborator of Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino) one of his nine Oscar nominations. The process of transferring the film to Blu-ray—without the help of a film print—is detailed in a featurette with Richardson, and the production as a whole gets an impressively comprehensive new 52-minute documentary.
Since cult movie fandom is basically a subculture, it’s not shocking that films venturing underground to deal with other subcultures often attract a cult following. Given its brutal violence and confrontational aesthetic, Cruising never had much of a chance with the mainstream, but even a cult following took time to form, as many accused the film of homophobia. Decades later, audiences are more divided about that charge, and the urgent skill of William Friedkin’s filmmaking is more apparent than ever, making this a welcome HD upgrade. Although most of the extras on this Blu-ray are old, Arrow has included a new Friedkin commentary that references an abandoned disclaimer from the opening. In calling this “an ass-covering measure that covered no ass,” he touches on the one undeniable truth of Cruising: no matter who you are, its shocks are inescapable.
On the less controversial end of the spectrum, Kathryn Bigelow (and co-director Monty Montgomery) put leather to similarly good use in 1981’s The Loveless, a revivalist biker film that marked the big screen debut of both Bigelow and star Willem Dafoe. In their effort to create a hybrid of Scorpio Rising and Once Upon a Time in the West, the filmmakers established a sensibility that set the stage for a long list of likeminded rebel auteurs, including Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, and Quentin Tarantino. In addition to a commentary with Montgomery, this disc includes over an hour of new extras, most notably a 34-minute featurette (No Man’s Friend Today: Making The Loveless) that includes anecdotes from most of the cast. Dafoe is particularly insightful, tying the film’s backwards-looking preoccupation with rockabilly to the then-current punk explosion, making this film the cinematic equivalent of then-emerging punk bands (ie. X, The Cramps) under the spell of early rock ‘n’ roll.
One area where Arrow Video has consistently excelled is in their releases of Japanese cult films on Blu-ray. Recent examples include Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy—which collects three celebrated films (This Transient Life, Mandala, Poem) from the overlooked master of all things spiritual, philosophical, and disturbing—and Teruo Ishii’s Yakuza Law, which features the same brand of unhinged, anything goes violence that brought worldwide attention to the Lone Wolf and Cub series three years later. Comprised of three distinct stories, the latter is rarely engrossing on a narrative level, but every few minutes, we’re treated to an extreme flourish of violence, most of which defy audience expectations and break new ground in onscreen excess. This is particularly true in the volatile final segment, which offers everything from face-melting to involuntary bungee-jumping out the side of a moving helicopter—with zero regard for the terrain below.
Last but not least, Scream Factory has released 1979’s Prophecy, a flawed but enjoyable environmentalist monster movie that fails to deliver on the potential of writer David Seltzer’s well-regarded script (in a new interview, actress Talia Shire calls it “remarkable”), instead offering viewers an abundance of visually striking schlock. Fortunately, this disc’s 105 minutes of new interviews hold nothing back in explaining how a strong script became a silly movie. As you might expect, the harshest words come from Seltzer, who abandons his sense of industry decorum, speaking very ill of the dead director John Frankenheimer, who he describes as an alcohol-fuelled egomaniac with no grasp of the script. While the writer has every reason to be disappointed, those with less skin in the game should marvel at the excesses of this stylish horror oddity.