Thursday, October 13, 2005

It Came from Netflix! Slapstick Symposium: Charley Chase Vol. 1

Charley Chase is in the second tier of silent movie comedians, along with the Harold Lloyds, the Fatty Arbuckles, the Ben Turpins and whatnot. Of course, that’s hardly an insult, given that the first tier includes Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel & Hardy. (Indeed, Chase is probably best remembered for a small but memorable part as a prank-playing lodge member in L&H’s sound classic The Sons of the Desert.) That’s rarified ground.

One reason that Chase probably hasn’t remained as popular is that he really didn’t have an identifiable screen persona. Chaplain, needless to say, was the Little Tramp. Keaton was the great stone face (and one of cinema’s most amazing acrobats, right up there with Jackie Chan), and Laurel & Hardy, were, well, Stan and Ollie.

Chase, meanwhile, was an Average Joe. He was generally pleasant, occasionally vindictive, had an eye for the ladies and could be somewhat brash at times, but in all he was amusing without being distinctive.

To compensate, his shorts often relied upon forthrightly ridiculous storylines. That is confirmed by the six shorts found on this DVD, one of Kino’s new Slapstick Symposium series. Both Chase and Lloyd have been treated to two volumes in this series, with other discs featuring solo shorts starring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy from before they teamed up.

Of the six short subjects found on this disc, two feature generic slapstick set-ups. In one Chase and his automobile suffer various misfortunes due to an extremely muddy road and a rather large pool of water found therein. In another, finds Charley at work as he futilely attempts to avoid being the butt of practical jokes on April Fools Day.

The remaining four shorts feature the sort of outrageous plots I referred to earlier. In Long Flib the King, a foreign princess must marry in 24 hours to assume her country’s throne. Charley is on death row (!) and due to be executed the next day, and agrees to fulfill the requirement. Then he is freed, needless to say, although luckily—as often happens in silent comedy shorts—she has instantly fallen for him and is glad to have him as her king. (The 3 Stooges once had a short with a similar premise, but the ladies were gold-diggers, not royalty, and were less pleased at their husbands’ luck.)

There’s some fish out of water humor, but the main plotline involves Charley trying to avoid a duel with a fellow out to take his place on the throne. Meanwhile, modern audiences will no doubt wince at Charley’s stereotypical Jewish sidekick. Also, watch for Oliver Hardy in a small role.

In Crazy Like a Fox, Charley and a young lady who have never met are subjected by their fathers to an arranged marriage, but accidentally bump into each other and (again) instantly fall in love without realizing who the other is. In attempting to get out of the entanglement with the woman that he doesn’t know he already loves, he rather strenuously pretends to be crazy. I have to admit, this wasn’t my favorite short.

Mum’s the Word finds Charley visiting his mom, who has recently married a rich man and is afraid to admit to him that she has a son for fear that he’ll divorce her. As such, she introduces Charley at their new valet, and wackiness ensues as a French style farce occurs, with everyone thinking that everyone else is playing around on each other. If viewers are askance about the Jew character in Long Flib the King, they will be suitably appalled at the ‘black’ butler played by a white guy in blackface.

In the most ludicrous short (and one that shows how racy the ‘20s were), Charley is a man with severe buckteeth married to a woman with a huge nose (sort of). In a Gift of the Magi riff, both secretly have their afflictions removed, whereupon they meet and don’t recognize each other (!!!). Each feeling attractive for the first time in their lives, they basically decide to cheat on each other with each other—that’s the implication, anyway—and wackiness ensues.

If you aren’t an aficionado of silent comedy, you don’t want to start here, especially with all of Chaplin and Keaton and some of L&H on disc already. However, if you are a fan of this sort of thing, the material here should provide a mildly entertaining diversion for a couple of hours.

All-day horror film fest in Chicago this weekend...

The beautiful Music Box Theatre will be hosting a 24 hour horror movie fest, starting this Saturday at noon. They are starting with early stuff and moving on to harder material. The first show is Nosferatu, with live organ accompaniment, and that and Creature from the Black Lagoon are about it for the oldies.

Included in the line-up is Scanners, The Crazies, The Return of the Living Dead, The Howling, Near Dark, Two Thousand Maniacs and more.

Details here:

Tickets can be purchases in advance, over the web, for $20. $24 at the door.

This blessed day...

Once a month (which, sadly, is more than I can say at the moment), we are blessed with a new review by Steve and Pam over at Gangrene Widescreen. This month they boldly take on the fans of Italian director Lucio Fulci as they go to The Beyond and back again.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Coming soon to DVD... announces that the first seasons of Irwin Allen's Time Tunnel and the TV spin-off show Alien Nation are due to hit shelves in January.

According to their report: "Alien Nation will include audio commentary by Kenneth Johnson on the 2-part pilot, while Time Tunnel will include the series' unaired pilot episode, along with Irwin Allen home movies, network promo spots, radio spots, an FX camera test, galleries of production art, production and merchandise photos, and a comic book."

Hopefully Voyage to the Bottom of Sea, featuring the Seaview, the coolest sub ever, will follow shortly thereafter.

[Speaking of, I just noticed that Seaquest DSV: Season One is out in December. Yeesh. I know which show I'd rather watch. At least Voyage was entertainingly bad.]

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Kolchak: The Night Stalker / Episode 1: The Ripper

For whatever reason, I have few memories from childhood. However, I do remember sitting in my PJs in our basement in 1974, at the age of 10, waiting breathlessly for the premiere of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. The program promised a weekly batch of monsters when such things were much harder to come by. (Only three networks, not much genre programming, no cable, no home video…)

To my delight, the show was also set in Chicago. Admittedly, it probably wasn’t filmed there, but they did shoot insert shots of Carl Kolchak tooling his sporty yellow Mustang around the city, past recognizable landmarks. Moreover, they made a real effort to use actual areas of the city (the “Loop,” etc.) and street names in the stories.

Reporter Carl Kolchak, after losing jobs in both Las Vegas and Seattle after attempting to report on supernatural events that the authorities wanted to hush up, has ended up working for the small INS (Independent News Service) Chicago branch office. Undoubtedly he has a job due to the guilt of his longtime and long-suffering editor, Tony Vincenzo. This despite the fact that Vincenzo too had lost jobs due to Carl’s crusades.

Vincenzo and Kolchak had one of the great TV relationships. Kolchak was an old-school, even by the standards of the ‘70s, street reporter. Much of the episodes were spent watching him track down information and interviewing often comical witnesses to bizarre events. Kolchak was all about the shoe leather, cynical about yet perpetually outraged by corruption in all its many forms, and although not an outwardly brave man (at least in that bluff TV character way), insanely motivated to follow the truth of wherever his current story led him, no matter what the cost.

Vincenzo was more of a go-along, get-along type. After all, when Carl was whipping up a crap storm with the authorities, it was his job to sooth all the ruffled feathers again. Kolchak’s antics seemingly kept Tony on the verge of a heart attack. In the end, though, as compromised as Vincenzo was from the journalistic ethic (in the large, mythic sense), he couldn’t quite shake his feeling of obligation to it. As much grief as Kolchak caused him, Vincenzo kept him employed, even with Carl’s perpetual defiance and even at the risk of his own jobs—and Tony’s station in the journalistic firmament had fallen as much as Carl’s had—because Kolchak was a living representation of everything that he didn’t have the drive to stay true to. Plus, when all was said and done, they were friends.

In any case, Darren McGavin as Kolchak and Simon Oakland as Vincenzo has proved some of the canniest casting in TV history. They are both simply terrific and utterly believable in their roles, and will never be forgotten because of them.

The first episode was "The Ripper", and it seemed designed to emulate as much as possible the immensely successful Kolchak TV movies, The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. As in the former, a supernaturally powerful character is seen shrugging off masses of bullets and tossing around entire squads of policemen like dolls. Meanwhile, the backstory of the killer was extremely similar to that of The Night Strangler. Both were survivors of the 19th Century who stayed perpetually young by cyclically arising to slay a set number of attractive young women.

These recurrent periods of murderous activity (again used as a plot device in several X-Files episodes, like "Tooms") made sense from a plotting standpoint. The police, always focused on the immediate issue of catching a presumably normal killer, would never think to check for similar patterns of slayings going back a hundred years or more. As a reporter, however, Kolchak’s search for background information on the bigger story would make it more plausible for him to stumble over such facts.

Here the killer really is the original Jack the Ripper, who pops up in some major city every once in a while and slays five women so as to sustain his supernatural existence. He does prove to have a weakness, obviously, and the way Carl figures it out by piecing together data from old news stories is pretty slick.

The show handily sets the tone for the series to come. There’s a lot of comedy, but all of it rooted in character, and while the violence tended to be committed off-stage, the show was willing to kill off extremely likeable characters. Tony and Carl’s relationship is already firing on all cylinders, but we also are here introduced to Carl’s prissy, unctuous coworker, Ron “Uptight” Updyke. Carl’s more lovable officemate, the elderly advice columnist Miss Emily, is much mentioned but so far absent from the screen.

The Ripper remains a more than decent encapsulation of what the show was about, and thus ably serves as an introduction to the series. Already, though, we see the beginnings of the stress caused by the inevitable repetition of certain plot elements. These would not only eventually injure the regular viewer’s ability to suspend disbelief, but ultimately so disenchanted actor McGavin that he himself, according to his account, actually pulled the plug on the series.

One of the charms of the show for viewers of a certain age (like myself) is the raft of familiar character actors each show featured in guest roles. Here we only get a couple. Beatrice Colen plays Kolchak’s fellow reporter Jane Plumm. The name might not be familiar, but she played Lynda Carter’s best friend and Navy coworker Etta Candy in the ‘70s Wonder Woman television series.

Far weirder is veteran character actress Ruth McDevitt playing an elderly interview subject of Kolchak's, one who had written a letter to the absent Miss Emily which provided a clue to the killer's whereabouts. Ms. McDevitt had a long career in movies and TV guest spots playing daffy but lovable old ladies, and she would graduate from her cameo appearance here as a Miss Emily correspondent to playing Ms. Emily herself for the rest of the series!

A foxy blonde undercover policewoman (staking out a massage parlor in hopes of catching Jack) was played by exploitation actress Roberta Collins, who starred in a number of Roger Corman women-in-prison movies and other such fare. Most notably, she played Matilda the Hun in Paul Bartel's Death Race 2000.

As for the DVD presentation, this episode is no-doubt one of the most problematic, image-wise. In an effort to keep the Ripper a mysterious figure, much of the narrative is filmed at night and with minimal lighting. Moreover, the show was presumably filmed during the early, primitive days of videotape (as opposed to older shows, which were often shot on film, and thus counterintuitively look better on home video). Therefore the image can often get fairly grainy. This does serve, on the other hand, to make it seem more ‘real.’

Still, I don’t have much of an eye. For myself, the image quality was easily good enough, although obviously it would have been nice if the DVD producers had gone to the trouble to remaster the video elements. As noted, though, later, better-lit episodes no doubt look better. I’d give the image quality a B, and that by the heightened standards of DVD. The shows naturally look better on disc than they did on tape.

Unlike in reruns, too, the shows here are full-length. Shows back in those days use to feature far little commercial interruption, and each show is, with the show’s terrific title credit sequence, 52 minutes, a good six or seven minutes longer than ‘hour’ long network shows are today.

There are no extras on the disc, another sad aspect, but again something one can live with.

Very cool new blog news...

Tim Lucas, the publisher of the invaluable Video Watchdog magazine, has started Video WatchBlog, which happily will be an instrument for him to briefly cover DVDs and such that he can't fit into the magazine.

New on DVD (10/11/05)...

The big release today is the second season set of Arrested Development, perhaps the most brilliant TV comedy of the last decade. As it limps to its death now in it (no doubt soon to be abbreviated) third season, we can clutch the show to our bosom via the miracle of DVD. $28.

A mystery is the Captain and Tennille Ultimate Set. However, since it’s a three disc collection, I assume it collects their short lived ‘70s variety show, which did include one of my favorite running bits as a kid, episodes of the Captain’s favorite (fake, obviously) TV show, The Bionic Watermelon. Otherwise it’s standard ‘70s kitsch, including, no doubt, several performances of the excruciating “Muskrat Love.” (With, if I remember right, dancers in Disney World-esque muskrat suits nuzzling for the camera.) The set was originally supposed to be out on the 11th, but Amazon is now posting an Oct. 25th release date. $30-$33.

Other television sets out this week include The Fat Albert Christmas Special, Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids Vol 2., Fresh Prince of Bel Air S2, Jeffersons S4, Little House on the Prairie S9 (!), Mutant X S3, Soap S4, South Park S6, Veronica Mars S1.

As we approach Halloween, more marginal horror stuff hits the market.

Two films that traded on the Amityville series, Amityville: A New Generation (haunted mirror) and Amityville: It’s About Time (haunted clock), hit the shelves for well under $10.

Doll Graveyard is, surprise, a horror movie featuring dolls and from Charles Band. Wow, that’s a shock. $10.

Media Blasters is (supposedly) releasing the highly goofy horror flick The Dark. This is the infamous film that started out as a supernatural monster movie and then in the editing process, was unsuccessfully attempted to recut to be a sci-fi monster movie. This pretty much made a shambles of what doesn’t look like much of a film to start with. I remember Roger Ebert really taking an axe to it. Info on the disc is surprisingly skimpy, but it may feature a producer/director (the latter being John “Bud” Cardos) commentary. Under $20.

The Fog is unrelated to either the John Carpenter movie or its remake and is, in fact, an Indian horror flick. $15.

Hammerhead is a killer man-shark (!) movie, ala the TV flick Creature of several years ago. Stars Jeffrey Combs. The DVD guy at calls the movie “disgusting” (!), by which I intuit he means it suck. What a shocker. $15.

High Tension is the well-regarded French slasher flick that had a brief theatrical run earlier this year. There’s an R rated and separate Unrated version, and extras including a commentary. Under $20.

Night Fangs is another DTV vampire flick, apparently with (surprise) lots of gore and ‘sexuality.’. $15.

Plaga Zombie: Mutant Zone is a zombie flick from Argentina, on a no doubt nice 2-disc set by the fine folks at Media Blasters. $10.

The Ridge sounds like a standard DTV slasher film. $15.

Undead is a raucous Australian zombie movie, along the lines of stuff like Bad Taste. The disc features, amongst other goodies, two commentary tracks. Under $20.

Undead and High Tension are undoubtedly the quality horror releases of the week. The Dark is my official Schlock Release of the Week.

Also, Retromedia is apparently re-releasing many previously available titles. I’m sure there website has the details.

In non-horror fare

Chop socky fans will welcome Sonny Chiba’s The Executioner and The Executioner II: Karate Inferno (on two separate discs), each running under $15.

Fans of The Duke will mosey over to peruse the release of Hondo: Special Edition (featuring documentaries and a Leonard Maltin commentary track) and McClintock!: Special Edition, with similar extras. Both good packages, and for a thrifty $10 each.

Misty Mundae Euro: Vixen is for fans of the faux lesbian starlet, and features supposedly naughtier European versions of such standard cable fare as Mummy Raider, Roxanna, Satan’s School for Lustand Vampire Vixens. 3 discs for about $20.

The Sex a Go Go Collection brings together three ‘60s era Brit sexploitation films, the sci-fi oriented Zeta One, Yellow Teddybears and Secrets of a Windmill Girl. The latter two are apparently disappointingly 'serious,' so beware. Three discs for under $15.

This year’s here-today, gone-tomorrow martial arts flick Unleashed, starring Jet Li, is set free for about $20, in both R and Unrated versions.

Monday, October 10, 2005

I Heart DVD....

One of the generally underappreciated features of DVD as opposed to VHS--how quickly we get spoiled--is how much bang you used to get for your buck. Back in the bad old days, pretty much any movie on VHS cost $20. Therefore, my rule of thumb was $10 per hour (although in the case of an 80m movie, you actually didn’t even get that rate).

That why I was always annoyed when they’d put one friggin’ episode of some TV show—Maverick, Wild Wild West—on a tape for $15. First, damn, those shows ran for years, and you couldn’t stick two episodes on a tape? Second, that means they were trying to get $15 for a measly 45 or 50m of material. Jerks.

DVD, needless to say, is vastly cheaper on a per-hour basis. Last week was rich in newly released sets, which provide your best bargains. Let’s take a look at what I bought, from Amazon as it happens (free shipping/no tax), which all arrived this morning.

The Best of Abbott & Costello Volume 4

I got sets 1 and 2 (although not 3), and probably could have skipped this one. The other sets had like eight movies (on two discs) for around $20. This one has 3 movies, one compilation ‘best of’ film, a TV special (Abbott and Costello Meet Jerry Seinfeld) and a half hour documentary on the A&C “Meet the Monster” films, ported over from the earlier Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein disc, which I already own.

Obviously, Universal have run through their A&C stock, given the lame offerings here—Meet the Mummy and Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the only reasons I bothered getting this—so I don’t forsee a fifth such set.

Even so, and despite a bit of buyer’s regret, for $19 I got six and a half hours of material. Even if I only watch the two monster movies, I didn’t pay more than I would have for the same movies on VHS, and the discs are lighter, take up less space, and are way more durable.

$19 Five movies/TV specials. A measly 357 Minutes, or six hours.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker

All twenty episodes of the classic series. To admit I’m a fool, I years ago—before DVD—bought the “one a month” tapes from Columbia that had two episodes each on them for about $25 a shot (including monthly shipping charges). I ended up with a shelf full of tapes that cost me about $250, and that (here’s really the worst part) that I only watched one tape of.

Now I have all the same material—a bit over 17 hours of material, for $28, a little over what one of the videotapes cost me. The image quality will be better, the set is about an inch wide, and they will (according to what we’ve been told) play as well in thirty years as they do now.

The Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- Season 1

Collects all 39 (!) episodes. (Back in the day, they didn’t rerun network shows—this being back when there were but three networks—but ran them nine months straight, with little or no preemption, and then put in a summer show for the remaining three months.) Also features a documentary on the show.

Alarmingly, though, all this material is on three discs, and there have been reports of faulty DVDs. Hopefully I won’t get one of the bad ones. Still, for $28 I’m getting nearly 17 hours of material, less than two dollars per programming hour. And not fake hours (as when you got a 90 minute movie for $20, or ten bucks an ‘hour’), but full ones.

The Val Lewton Horror Collection

No exact hour count available. However, the set features nine complete classic movies on five discs—many previously unavailable even on VHS—at, I would figure, around 80 minutes a movie. Right there, that’s about twelve hours of material.

The set also features commentaries on seven of the movies (including one by recently deceased director Robert Wise). Functionally, if you like commentaries—and I do—that’s adding seven more entire movie-lengths of material. Also included is a documentary on Lewton, length unknown.

To put this in perspective, back in the days of VHS (had all these films been available, which they again were not), with no extras—which in this set probably equal nine to ten hours of material—and in a format inferior in all ways to DVD, buying each film represented here would have run right around $180. Plus tax. I paid $42, for a longer lasting format with improved quality, etc. And all those extras.

Also, I haven’t seen a lot of these films (five of them, to be exact), which I can’t say about many horror films from the ‘classic’ era. So I’m really thrilled.

Good times. You whippersnappers have no idea.