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Mark Burger’s Video Vault

by Mark Burger

PICK OF THE WEEK:

THE SENDER (Legend Films): Years before Freddy Krueger made nightmares big box-office, there was this forgotten 1982 shocker that died at the box-office but became something of a cult favorite on cable-TV. Only now is it making a quiet DVD debut.

Zeljko Ivanek plays a suicidal amnesiac known only as “John Doe #83.” Incarcerated at a mental institution, he is treated by Dr. Gail Farmer (Kathryn Harrold), who is quickly exposed to his uncanny psychic abilities. He’s able to get inside people’s heads and make them live his nightmares – a fairly dicey proposition given the mental state of his fellow patients.

Gail’s colleague, Dr. Denman (Paul Freeman, fresh from Raiders of the Lost Ark), attempts to find a rational explanation for the strange goings-on (a futile endeavor, to say the least), while Gail encounters John Doe #83’s mysterious mother (Shirley Knight), who’s never around when you need her but frequently around when you don’t.

First-time director Roger Christian, who won an Oscar for Star Wars (art direction/set decoration) and later helmed the ridiculous Battlefield Earth, does exercise a lot of rudimentary scare tactics: rats in the bedroom, roaches in the refrigerator, and that old standby – blood pouring out of the faucet. There are some grisly scenes in The Sender, but it’s a classier endeavor than the slasher films of then (or now), and as it transpires, many of the violent interludes are mere hallucinations.

Trevor Jones’ fine score augments well the weirdness, although the freeze-frame ending (so common back then) is a cheat. Still, The Sender is a little gem – not quite polished around the edges, to be sure – but worthy of rediscovery by horror fans. Rated R. ***

ALSO ON DVD

“THE ADVENTURES OF OZZIE & HARRIET” – BEST OF RICKY & DAVE (Shout! Factory): A selection of 26 episodes from the long-running (14 seasons!) ABC-TV prime-time series focusing on the day-to-day lives of show-biz couple Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and real-life sons Ricky and David. Undoubtedly one of the quintessential shows of the Baby Boomer era, this remains the longest-running live-action situation comedy in TV history. This boxed set retails for $34.99, and features a dozen of Ricky’s performances including “Fools Rush In,” “Hello, Mary Lou” and “Right By My Side” – all of which became chart-topping hits.

“BRAVESTARR” – VOLUME TWO (BCI): The final 32 episodes of the animated science-fiction/Western series (originally broadcast in 1987), in which strapping Marshal BraveStarr lays down the law on the planet of New Texas. This marked the final series produced by Filmation. This boxed set retails for $39.98. In addition, BCI has released Filmation’s 1988 animated feature BraveStarr: The Movie (which retails for $9.98), and the 1985 “He-Man” animated feature The Secret of the Sword (which retails for $9.98), which introduced the character of She-Ra.

THE BUSY BODY (Legend Films): Adapted from a Donald Westlake novel, William Castle’s 1967 black comedy stars Sid Caesar as a low-level mobster who desperately tries to retrieve a dead colleague’s funeral suit with $1 million sewn into it – lest his bellicose boss (Robert Ryan) have him rubbed out, too. In some ways, this is a missed opportunity; Jerry Lewis would have been better suited to Caesar’s role, and producer/director Castle was hardly renowned for his comedic dexterity. On the other hand, Ryan (who rarely played comedy) is great fun, and an eclectic cast includes Kay Medford (as Caesar’s meddling mother), Anne Baxter, Ben Blue, Godfrey Cambridge, Charles McGraw, Bill Dana, Marty Ingels, Arlene Golonka, Dom DeLuise (“Excuse me, my lettuce is wilting”) and Richard Pryor, in his screen debut. **½

CECILIA (Blue Underground): Muriel Montosse (billed as “Mary Monty”) plays a wealthy woman who becomes a sexual libertine in this ponderous 1982 kink-fest from the indomitable Jess Franco. Originally titled Sexual Aberrations of a Housewife and released in the US as Diary of a Desperate Housewife. By any title, and despite the copious nudity, it’s pretty dull. *

“COMANDO TNT – TONTOS NO TARADOS” (BCI Latino/BCI): In the “grand” tradition of “Jackass” comes this Latin variation, in which the cast regulars (Paul Neumane, Ali and Eman Shankhamrani, Fausto Gonzalez and Marcelo Lalama) engage in a series of wild and wacky stunts that frequently go awry. This has become a huge hit on South American TV, and this marks the series’ initial DVD release in the US. This DVD retails for $12.98.

DICK TRACY RETURNS (VCI Entertainment): Ralph Byrd once again dons the fedora of Chester Gould’s comic-strip crime-fighter in this 15-chapter 1938 serial that finds the dogged G-man in hot pursuit of crime boss Pa Stark (Charles Middleton) and his five felonious sons. This DVD retails for $29.98.

“FASTLANE” – THE COMPLETE SERIES (Warner Home Video): All 22 episodes of the first (and only) season of the Fox Network series starring Bill Bellamy, Peter Facinelli and Tiffani Thiessen as something of a latter-day “Mod Squad,” as they go undercover to right wrongs and bring evildoers to justice. One reason that this series, which won an Emmy for outstanding stunt coordination (for the episode “Asslane”), lasted only one season (2002-’03) was because it was so expensive to produce. This boxed set retails for $59.98.

“THE FUGITIVE” – SEASON TWO, VOLUME ONE (CBS DVD/Paramount Home Entertainment): Wrongly accused of murdering his wife, Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen) is still on the run, and still being pursued by the dogged Inspector Gerard (Barry Morse), in the first 15 episodes from the 1964-’65 season of the popular ABC-TV prime-time drama. Janssen earned an Emmy nomination for outstanding continued performance by an actor in a series (lead). William Conrad provides his trademark staccato narration. This DVD retails for $39.98.

“ICONS OF ADVENTURE” (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): A selection of four films produced by Britain’s much-loved Hammer Studios (best known for gothic shockers), all making their DVD debuts in this boxed set, which retails for $24.96. The set includes Terence Fisher’s The Stranglers of Bombay (1960); Christopher Lee in The Terror of the Tongs (1961); John Gilling’s Pirates of Blood River (1962) with Lee, Kerwin Mathews, Andrew Keir, Glenn Corbett and a young Oliver Reed; and The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), with Christopher Lee headlining again. Each film features an audio commentary, three of which include screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, who’s always fun to listen to. This collection is highly recommended for Hammer fans.

I’LL ALWAYS KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): The third in the horror franchise, which bypassed theatrical release, once again sees a group of teenagers being taunted and killed a year after a friend was killed in a tragic accident. The Utah scenery (subbing from Colorado) is nice and the girls are cute, but the formula’s as old and worn as the murderous fisherman’s regalia. Still, this is better than the second film in the series. Sony has also released a collector’s boxed set of all three films, which retails for $39.95. Rated R. *½

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (Legend Films): Anton Diffring plays a brilliant physician who has discovered the secret of eternal youth in this 1959 remake of The Man in Half-Moon Street – but it comes with a horrible price. Directed by Terence Fisher, well-shot by cinematographer Jack Asher, and adapted from Barre Lyndon’s play by Jimmy Sangster, this doesn’t have the reputation of other films produced by Britain’s Hammer Studios, but it’s still pretty good. The discussions about human morality (and mortality) retain interest, although the story tends to play out as a drawing-room melodrama. A sturdy supporting cast includes the great Christopher Lee (in an early heroic turn), Hazel Court (who died earlier this year), Arnold Marle, Francis De Wolff and long-time Hammer favorite Michael Ripper. Although the film is set in Paris, no one seems to speak with a French accent! **½

PHASE IV (Legend Films): In this 1974 sci-fi thriller that marked noted designer Saul Bass’ only directorial feature, Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy portray scientists pitted against highly-intelligent ants that are making a concentrated effort to establish dominance on this planet. The insect footage is incredible, but the pretentious and incomprehensible denouement hurts. Still, this does boast a small and not-undeserved cult following. Rated PG. **½

“PRIDE 33 – THE SECOND COMING” (Pride FC Worldwide LLC/BCI): This DVD, which retails for $19.98, showcases highlights from the Pride Fighting Championship mixed martial-arts tournament held in February in Las Vegas. Matches include Wanderlei Silva vs. Dan Henderson, Takanori Gomi vs. Nick Diaz, Sergey Kharitonov vs. Mike Russow, and more.

SHEA GOODBYE: 45 YEARS OF AMAZIN’ (MLB Productions/Genius Products): Matthew Broderick hosts this sports documentary tracing the history of Shea Stadium. Among the highlights are the “Miracle Mets” winning the 1969 World Series, Joe Namath leading the Jets to victory in Super Bowl III, the Beatles’ concert in 1965 and more. This DVD retails for $24.95.

“SYDEWAYZ PRESENTS ‘STREET GRAFFITI’ – THE SERIES” (BCI): Inspired by the award-winning documentary, this ongoing video series highlights auto side-shows and racing demonstrations in East Oakland. This DVD retails for $14.98.

“SWORD AND SANDAL DOUBLE FEATURE” (VCI Entertainment): A dubbed double-bill of Italian-made “epics,” both directed by Riccardo Freda: Predating Stanley Kubrick’s epic by several years, 1953’s Sins of Rome (**) stars Massimo Girotti as the brawny slave Spartacus, whose organized rebellion nearly brought the Roman Empire to its knees in 74 BC; 1960’s Giants of Thessaly (*½), a cheesy version of Jason and the Argonauts with Roland Carey as Jason, seeking the Golden Fleece in 1250 BC. Girotti turns up again, in a supporting role. The talking sheep is a highlight. In both cases, the remakes of these films were far superior.

WON TON TON, THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD (Legend Films): Madeline Kahn, Bruce Dern and Art Carney head a star-studded cast in director Michael Winner’s 1976 comedy about a German shepherd (that would be “Won Ton Ton”) that becomes a superstar during Hollywood’s silent era. More scattershot than screwball, this box-office flop nevertheless features a fabulous array of classic Hollywood cameos: Victor Mature, Broderick Crawford, Billy Barty, Ethel Merman, Edgar Bergen (sans Charlie McCarthy), Fernando Lamas, Rhonda Fleming, Ann Miller, Jimmy and Harry Ritz (of The Ritz Brothers – anyone remember them?), John Carradine, Milton Berle, Walter Pidgeon, Aldo Ray, Dennis Morgan, Ricardo Montalban, Dorothy Lamour, Johnny Weismuller, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Henny Youngman, Huntz Hall, Dean Stockwell, Tab Hunter, Robert Alda, and the final screen appearances of Janet Blair, Stepin Fetchit, Rudy Vallee and George Jessel. It’s fun to spot the stars for a while, but despite Kahn’s best efforts this just isn’t funny, and it’s occasionally mean-spirited … for all the wrong reasons. Rated PG. *½

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

Copyright 2008, Mark Burger

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