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Mark Burger’s Video Vault

by Mark Burger

PICK OF THE WEEK:

THE PHANTOM CREEPS (VCI Entertainment): This 12-chapter Saturday-morning serial from 1939 remains one of the most durable of the cliffhangers – especially among fans of the inimitable Bela Lugosi, here playing (as he often did) a mad genius bent on world domination.

Not only has Dr. Zorka perfected formulas for invisibility and suspended animation, but he has also constructed an 8-foot-tall robot with a built-in snarl on its metallic face. Given that robot, and Zorka’s repeated claims to being a genius, the world at large clearly has reason to worry.

Battling the bad doctor’s best – and worst – efforts against humanity are Robert Kent as stalwart Capt. Bob West and Dorothy Arnold (who later married Joe DiMaggio in real life) as particularly resourceful newspaper reporter Jean Drew, while Jack C. Smith plays Zorka’s sidekick, whose browbeaten loyalty is repaid in typical fashion. Even Edward Van Sloan, Lugosi’s old nemesis from the original Dracula (1931), turns up in a supporting role.

Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize footage from Universal’s The Invisible Man and sharp-eared viewers may recognize Frank Skinner’s memorable score from Son of Frankenstein (also released in ’39 and also starring Lugosi). In one scene, actual footage of the Hindenburg disaster is used to depict one of Zorka’s acts of sabotage!

The special effects, particularly the aforementioned killer robot, are sometimes laughable but undeniably in the proper comic-book spirit. Little wonder that The Phantom Creeps remains a quintessential example of its long-deceased genre. It’s good, old-fashioned, campy fun. ***

ALSO ON DVD

12 ANGRY MEN (MGM Home Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Director Sidney Lumet made his (Oscar-nominated) feature debut with this timeless 1957 courtroom drama in which the jury deliberation of a capital murder case is complicated by a single juror (Henry Fonda) convinced the suspect is innocent. A peerless cast includes Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, Martin Balsam, EG Marshall, Jack Klugman, Jack Warden, Robert Webber, Ed Binns, George Voskovec, Joseph Sweeney and John Fiedler (in his screen debut) as the other jurors. Despite additional Academy Award nominations for best picture and best adapted screenplay (Reginald Rose), it was not a box-office hit. This is the only film produced by either Rose or Fonda, and it’s a great one. To this day, 12 Angry Men remains one perfect movie. ****

BELLS OF INNOCENCE (GoodTimes Entertainment): Mike Norris (also an executive producer), David White and Carey Scott star as friends who wind up stranded in a strange Texas town, where the inhabitants appear to be in the grip of some sort of Satanic panic. This boring, low-budget melodrama is along the lines of the 1973 horror classic The Wicker Man, albeit told with a far heavier hand. Mike’s wife Valerie and niece, Gabby DiCiolli, also appear, as does his real-life father, Chuck Norris, cast as a mysterious farmer who turns out to be an angel. *

“THE COLOR HONEYMOONERS” – COLLECTION 2 (MPI Home Video): This boxed set, which retails for $39.98, features eight episodes of “The Honeymooners” from the 1966-’67 season of Saturday night’s “The Jackie Gleason Show” from CBS, starring Gleason (of course) as Ralph Kramden and Emmy Award winner Art Carney as Ed Norton, with Sheila MacRae as Alice and Jane Kean as Trixie.

CONFESSIONS OF AN AMERICAN GIRL (MGM Home Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Jena Malone (also a co-producer) plays a pregnant, suicidal, trailer-park teenager determined to reunite her family with dear old Dad (Chris Mulkey), who’s in jail for life, at the annual prison family picnic. Originally titled, simply, American Girl, this uneven black comedy is sometimes more creepy than funny. Good cast also includes Michelle Forbes, Alicia Witt, Clifton Collins Jr. and the late Brad Renfro. Rated R. **

DEATH AT A FUNERAL (MGM Home Entertainment/Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Frank Oz directed this cheeky, sometimes tasteless, comedy in which a dysfunctional family is reunited for the death of the patriarch… who’s not taking all of his secrets to the grave. An engaging ensemble includes Matthew Macfadyen and Keeley Hawes (wed in real life), Jane Asher (as the acerbic widow), Rupert Graves, Peter Vaughan, Ewen Bremner, Peter Egan and Peter Dinklage. Rated R. **½

“EDWARD G. ROBINSON FILM NOIR DOUBLE FEATURE” (Acme DVD Works/VCI Home Entertainment): A pair of thrillers showcasing the talents of Edward G. Robinson. Producer/director Fritz Lang’s 1945 classic Scarlet Street (***) stars Robinson as a hen-pecked husband and frustrated artist who falls prey to predatory Joan Bennett. There are plenty of surprises, and a then-controversial denouement, in this coolly controlled thriller. Delmer Daves’ 1955 adaptation of George Agnew Chamberlain’s novel The Red House (**½) stars Robinson as a farmer who’s obsessive guilt over a past tragedy threatens his family. This one’s a slower go, but the cast includes Judith Anderson, Lon McCallister, Rory Calhoun and Ona Munson (in her last film) ­- and Miklos Rosza’s score is terrific. Best line: “Don’t put so high a price on courage, son. It’s overrated.” Despite Robinson’s tough-guy screen persona, in both films he’s playing a troubled and indecisive character. Both films are available on various public-domain labels, and although the transfers here aren’t great, you do get two movies for the price of one.

EUGENIE DE SADE (Blue Underground): Jess Franco’s 1970 softcore shocker, based on a story by the Marquis de Sade (which one, we’re not sure) stars Soledad Miranda as a sexually curious young woman who teams with her equally twisted stepfather (Paul Muller) to seduce and murder innocent men and women in order to satisfy their kinks. Franco himself co-stars as Attila Tanner (“the famous writer”) and, to make matters even more confusing, Franco made another film with Muller the same year simply called Eugenie, which is the title this was promoted under in several territories. By any name, it’s not very good – but the prolific Franco (nearly 200 films to his credit) does boast a cult following. *

HITMAN (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): When his employers make the mistake of betraying him, a genetically-enhanced, specially-trained assassin (Timothy Olymphant) goes on a rampage of revenge. This adaptation of a popular video-game series is not short on firepower, only on brains. Olyphant and Dougray Scott (as the cop on his trail) deserve better. Rated R (also available in an unrated edition). *½

JUSTICE LEAGUE: THE NEW FRONTIER (Warner Home Video): An animated feature based on Darwyn Cooke’s graphic novel, which explores the origins of the Justice League of America, whose members include such superheroes as Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, as they band together to fight evil throughout the world ­- and beyond. The voice talent includes Kyle MacLachlan (as Superman), Lucy Lawless (as Wonder Woman), Jeremy Sisto (as Batman), Brooke Shields, Miguel Ferrer, John Heard, Neil Patrick Harris and Kyra Sedgwick. The DVD, which boasts plenty of special features for the DC Comics faithful, retails for $19.98; a two-disc, special-edition DVD (with even more special features) retails for $24.98.

THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE (Blue Underground): A 2-disc special edition of director Jorge Grau’s award-winning (!) 1974 shocker in which a small town is overrun by the living dead. Ray Lovelock and Cristina Galbo portray the resident hero and heroine, while Arthur Kennedy chews the scenery as an antagonistic police inspector who grills our long-haired hero: “You’re all the same, the lot of you – with your long hair and faggot clothes! Drugs, sex, every sort of filth!” Few, if any, actors could make that line work, and Kennedy isn’t one of them – but he steals the show, nonetheless. Clunky in places, this does have its memorable moments… and a fervent cult following (I can attest to that). Also known as Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, and released in the US as Don’t Open the Window (with the old catchphrase: “Keep repeating: ‘It’s only a movie… it’s only a movie….'”). **½

MONSTURD (Elite Entertainment): Just when you thought it was safe to go to the toilet…. An escaped serial killer (Brad Dosland) is exposed to raw sewage and toxic chemicals, and becomes a monstrous, marauding, giant turd. Given the budget and subject matter – which are low and lowbrow, respectively – this silly sci-fi spoof is actually pretty funny. There’s gratuitous gore, gratuitous vomiting and gratuitous police brutality on a ventriloquist’s dummy (a huge plus). Writer/producer/editor/directors Dan West and Rick Popko also portray dim-witted deputies, and the film is set in Butte County (Get it?!). **½

NADINE (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): Writer/director Robert Benton’s laid-back 1987 screwball comedy stars Jeff Bridges and Kim Basinger as an estranged couple mixed up with unsavory characters while they try to patch up their marriage (or their divorce) in Austin, Texas circa 1953. Lots of good people on hand – Glenne Headly, Rip Torn, Gwen Verdon, Jay Patterson and Jerry Stiller – but its relaxed pace (even at only 85 minutes) works against it. Rated PG. **

PALMER’S PICK-UP (Razor Digital Entertainment): Robert Carradine (not bad) and Richard Hillman (not good) star in executive producer/co-writer/director Christopher Coppola’s botched black comedy about a pair of bumbling truckers hired to haul a mysterious cargo to Florida before the millennium. Neither a cameo-laden cast (including Rosanna Arquette, Piper Laurie, Talia Shire, Grace Jones, Soupy Sales and Morton Downey Jr. in his final appearance) nor a dedication to PT Barnum can save this cult wannabe. Bring back Repo Man. Rated R. *½

“PSYCHOTRONICA COLLECTION #1” (VCI Entertainment): The first in what will likely be a DVD series of low-budget feature films from the golden age of drive-in exploitation. Volume 1 includes Edmond O’Brien in Dream No Evil (1973) and Michael Pataki in 1974’s Delinquent Schoolgirls (also known as Carnal Madness). Volume 2 includes Jack Hill’s Mondo Keyhole (1966) which includes a commentary by Hill, and the 1965 nudist epic The Raw Ones. Volume 3 includes The Mermaids of Tiburon (1962) – including the re-edited version featuring nudity, and Yambao: Cry of the Bewitched (1957). Each volume retails for $19.99 and the boxed set for $49.99. They don’t make ’em like this anymore… perhaps with very good reason!

SANDS OF OBLIVION (Anchor Bay Entertainment): A series of supernatural happenings in the California desert is tied to both an ancient curse relating to the discovery of King Tut’s tomb and the production of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 version of The Ten Commandments. This goofy shocker, which premiered on the Sci-Fi Channel, has some good ideas but is kind of a mess overall. The cast includes “Serenity” veterans Adam Baldwin and Morena Baccarin, Victor Webster, John Aniston (Jennifer’s real-life dad), Dan Castellaneta (the voice of “Homer Simpson”) in a brief – but good – appearance as DeMille, and George Kennedy, who it’s always nice having around… even if only briefly. **

“STORM HAWKS 2-DISC COLLECTOR’S SET – HEROES OF THE SKY” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): A collection of 10 episodes from the ongoing, 3-D animated Cartoon Network series pitting five teenagers and their sidekick Stork against the inter-galactic forces of evil. This boxed set retails for $29.95.

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Believe it or not, a “Studio Classics Collection” special-edition DVD of director Mark Robson’s 1967 adaptation of Jacqueline Susann’s best-selling debut novel, which follows the lives and loves of three young beauties (Barbara Parkins, Patty Duke and the breathtaking Sharon Tate) as they wend their way through fame, fortune and failure. Like Susann’s novel, this is glossy, tawdry and trashy – and sometimes it’s also a laugh riot, but it also goes on forever. Also on hand: Susan Hayward (who replaced Judy Garland), Paul Burke, Joey Bishop, George Jessel (hosting the Grammys!) and, in his screen debut, Richard Dreyfuss. John Williams’ score earned the film’s only Academy Award nomination, and it would be the first of 45 (and counting) nominations. Rated PG-13. *½

WILD THINGS: DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): The third installment of the “franchise” shares the same fictional setting (Blue Bay, Fla.) and the expected formula of sex, deception, betrayal and murder. But if anything, it goes a few twists too far and veers into absurdity. Leading ladies Sarah Laine and Sandra McCoy are certainly easy on the eyes, with Dina Meyer (no slouch herself), Brad Johnson and Linden Ashby (back from the second film) rounding out the cast. Rated R. *½

THE WINDSPLITTER (VCI Entertainment): Writer/director JD Feigelson’s 1971 drive-in favorite stars Jim McMullen as a Hollywood star who returns to his close-minded Texas hometown and gets a cold shoulder from many locals – because he’s got longish hair and drives a motorcycle (hence the title). Inspired by the success of Easy Rider, this is fairly sincere – and low-key – for an exploitation movie, but it’s a mildly entertaining artifact of the era. That’s future director Tobe Hooper as one of McMullen’s tormentors. Rated PG. **

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2007, Mark Burger

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