DVD PICK OF THE WEEK: THE 39 STEPS (VCI Entertainment)
Remaking Alfred Hitchcock — indeed, one of his most popular films — might seem like courting disaster, but this cheerful 1959 thriller replicates the Master without rancor or insult.
It’s hardly a shade on the ’39 original, but extremely agreeable entertainment nonetheless.
Based on the original John Buchan novel, the story offers a classic set-up: An innocent man accused of a crime he didn’t commit must elude the authorities and the baddies while putting the pieces of the conspiracy puzzle together. Needless to say, the clock is ticking.
Best known on these shores for playing stalwart, stiff-upper lip roles (A Night to Remember, Sink the Bismarck!), Kenneth More is relaxed and engaging as Richard Hannay, the quickthinking, fleet-footed hero, trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers. Taina Elg plays the woman he ropes into helping him, much to her chagrin.
A cast of familiar faces includes Brenda de Banzie, Joan Hickson, Michael Goodliffe, Sid James, Reginald Beckwith and Peter Vaughan (in his screen debut). It’s not Hitchcock but it’s in color (this version’s principal selling point at the time) and a pleasing diversion under Ralph Thomas’ breezy direction.
ARIZONA BAD MAN (Alpha Home Entertainment): One-time football star Reb Russell saddles up for this 1935 B Western featuring Lois January and Edmund Cobb. Running barely 50 minutes, it can’t be accused of overstaying its welcome.
BEASTLY (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): An aptly-named adaptation of Alex Flinn’s novel, a contemporary, teen-aged update of Beauty and the Beast with Vanessa Hudgeons as the beauty and Alex Pettyfer the beast. Weird, off-putting, and unconvincing even as fantasy. Mary-Kate Olsen plays the “witch” (none too well) who bestows the curse and Neil Patrick Harris plays a blind tutor with a quip for every occasion. Adapted for the screen and directed by Daniel Barnz, whose Phoebe in Wonderland kicked off the 2008 RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston- Salem. Rated PG-13.
THE IMAGE (Synapse Films): Also known as The Punishment of Anne, Radley Metzger’s 1975 adaptation of the novel L‘Image stars Carl Parker as an expatriate writer in Paris who becomes bewitched by Mary Mendum (AKA Rebecca Brooke), a young woman engaged in a sado-masochistic relationship with his old flame, Marilyn Roberts. An interesting but cruel, repetitious example of the “porno chic” trend of the 1970s, replete with graphic sex scenes.
LORD OF THE DANCE (Entertainment One): The successful international tour of the title production, featuring creator/producer/director Michael Flatley, has been captured in this bigscreen version, available as a special-edition DVD ($24.98 retail) or Blu-ray ($29.98 retail).
“MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000” (Shout! Factory): The crew of the Satellite of Love is back in action in the latest installments from the long-running (11 seasons!), award-winning cable series, riffing on Roger Corman’s low-budget 1956 Western Gunslinger; the 1961 German TV adaptation of Hamlet, starring Maximilian Schell in the title role; Bert I. Gordon’s 1957 giantgrasshopper epic The Beginning of the End; and Ray Dennis Steckler’s unforgettably titled 1964 drive-in favorite The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies. Each DVD retails for $19.99, a Gunslinger/Hamlet double feature retails for $39.98, and a four-film “bundle” retails for $69.96. Also available directly from the distributor: http://shoutfactory.com/
THE NESTING (Blue Underground): Originally titled Phobia, this slow-moving 1981 shocker stars Robin Groves as a troubled writer who moves into an old house that — surprise, surprise — turns out to be haunted. Venerable veterans John Carradine and Gloria Grahame (in her last film) round out the cast. This marked the last completed film of co-writer/producer/ director Armand Weston, who started his career in hardcore. The DVD retails for $19.98, the Bluray for $29.98. Rated R.
NIGHTMARES (Severin Films): Also known as “Stage Fright,” this 1980 Aussie slasher film stars Jenny Neumann as a troubled young actress whose debut production is hampered by a series of gory murders. There are amusing turns by Max Phipps as the director and John Michael Howson as a swishy theater critic, and Brian Mary’s blaring score adds some campy grandeur, but otherwise standard stuff. *’½
PLAYING HOUSE (Maya Entertainment): In order to save money, a young couple (Sarah Prikryl and Craig Welbzacher) invite the husband’s best friend (Matt Lusk) to move in, but the latter’s new girlfriend (Mayra Leal) turns out to be a murderous psychopath. Dull and doltish thriller, poorly written and acted.
RABBIT HOLE (LionsGate Home Entertainment): Nicole Kidman (Oscar nominee as Best Actress) and Aaron Eckhart are superb as a couple contending with the tragic loss of their son, in this well-rendered adaptation of David Lindsay-Adaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. One of 2010’s best films, this is a first-class tearjerker that never wallows in easy sentiment to achieve its aims. Rated PG-13.
ROARIN’ GUNS (Alpha Home Entertainment): Typical Tim McCoy Western, circa 1935 and directed by Sam Newfield, sees the black-clad good guy righting wrongs in the old West.
ROGER CORMAN CULT CLASSICS: THE WOMEN IN CAGES COLLECTION (Shout! Factory): A triple-feature of ’70s drive-in favorites produced by Roger Corman and all featuring Pam Grier: The Big Doll House (1970), Women in Cages (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). Each film is rated R. Special features include audio commentaries and a retrospective documentary. The DVD boxed set retails for $19.93, the Blu-ray boxed set (available in August) retails for $39.99.
THE RON HOWARD ACTION PACK: EAT MY DUST!/GRAND THEFT AUTO (Shout! Factory): Before he became one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers (and an Academy Award winner), Ron Howard toiled under the auspices of Roger Corman as the star of 1976’s Eat My Dust! (**), then parlayed that film’s success into cowriting (with father Rance), making his directorial debut and starring in 1977’s fun-filled car-crash comedy Grand Theft Auto (***), which also features his brother Clint. Both films are rated PG, and this DVD double-feature retails for $19.93.
THE SHADOW LAUGHS (Alpha Home Entertainment): A boring low-budget 1933 whodunit notable only as the screen debut of young Cesar Romero in a small role.
SILENT DISCOVERIES DOUBLE FEATURE (VCI Entertainment): A self-explanatory DVD twin-bill ($19.99 retail): The Italian-made 1920 Biblical epic After Six Days (AKA La Bibbia), based on stories in the Old Testament; and Yesterday and Today, a 1953 compilation of early silents narrated by George Jessel.
TRAILERS FROM HELL, VOLUME 2 (Shout! Factory): A collection of trailers from yesteryear (Seven Days from May, Deep Red, The Invisible Ghost and more) featuring commentary from such filmmakers as Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Guillermo del Toro and others, based on the popular website. This DVD ($19.93 retail) also includes the original 1960 Corman classic The Little Shop of Horrors, in widescreen for the first time.
UNTAMED FURY (Alpha Home Entertainment): There’s trouble brewin’ in the Okefenokee Swamp in this hokey but amusing low-budget 1947 melodrama, adapted from his story “Gator Bait” by producer/director Ewing Scott. The cast includes Gaylord Pendleton, Mikel Conrad (in his screen debut), Leigh Whipper, Mary Conwell, Althea Murphy and, briefly, EG Marshall. Surprisingly good location work and alligator footage.
Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. Copyright 2011, Mark Burger