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by Mark Burger

DVD Pick of the week: ISLAND OF LOST SOULS

(The Criterion Collection)

The first, best screen adaptation of HG Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau retains the power to shock nearly 80 years since its 1932 release. The story’s inherent savagery and sensuality — to say nothing of its allegorical implications regarding evolution — are exploited about as far as the era allowed, and maybe a bit more, as the film was even banned in Wells’ own Britain! (The author hated the film, by the way.)

Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is marooned on a tropical island lorded over by Dr. Moreau (Charles Laughton), who has been conducting illicit experiments turning animals into humans. In the film’s most controversial line, Moreau asks Parker “Do you know what means to feel like God?” For his moral transgressions, Moreau will ultimately meet his fate at the hands, claws and paws of the monstrosities he has created (including Bela Lugosi’s Sayer of the Law) in his laboratory, the dreaded “House of Pain.”

A trim 70-minute running time keeps the pace from flagging, and the makeup remains vivid after all these years. So does Laughton’s performance. Moreau is a quintessential mad scientist, but he’s also a visionary — and he knows it. The scenes where he cracks the whip (literally) on his creations and demands “What is the law?” are unforgettable. The DVD retails for $29.95, the Blu-ray for $39.95.

AMERICA: THE STORY OF US (A&E Home Entertainment): A DVD “collector’s edition” ($59.95 retail) containing all 12 episodes from the History Channel miniseries that explores 400 years of American history. Four Emmy nominations with a win for Outstanding Sound Editing for Non-fiction Programming.

BASEBALL’S GREATEST GAMES (A&E Home Entertainment): A DVD “collector’s edition” ($99.95 retail) boxed set featuring the full broadcast of 10 classic baseball games, including two involving the Philadelphia Phillies (one they won, one they didn’t).

BILLY THE KID’S SMOKING GUNS (Alpha Home Entertainment): Having saved the universe as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, former Olympic gold medalist Buster Crabbe saddles up in the title role of this 1942 Western programmer, in which the heroic outlaw(!) battles corruption in Stone City, aided by sidekicks Dave O’Brien and Al “Fuzzy” St. John.

“COUGAR TOWN”: THE COMPLETE SECOND SEASON (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment): Executive producer Courteney Cox stars as a divorced woman trying to juggle family with dating, in in all 21 episodes from the 2010-’11 season of the prime-time ABC situation comedy co-starring Busy Phillips and Christa Miller. The DVD boxed set retails for $34.99.

DEATH OF THE VIRGIN (Indican Pictures):

Occasional flashes of style aren’t enough to salvage this talky, ultimately pretentious horror thriller starring Natasha Allen as a troubled young woman about to take her first vows as a nun at a spooky Italian monastery.

ED HARDY: TATTOO THE WORLD (Docurama Films): Emiko Omori’s feature documentary ($24.95 retail) explores the life and career of Ed Hardy, who made true his childhood dream of becoming the world’s premiere tattooist, as well as a successful design artist.

FLYING BLIND (Alpha Home Entertainment):

An engaging, fast-moving 1941 programmer with Richard Arlen and Jean Parker as a pilot and stewardess who start their own airlines — “Honeymoon Air Service” — only to have the inaugural flight complicated by an international spy ring. A delightful smorgasbord of comedy, melodrama and disaster movie, with delightfully antique special effects, a script co-written by Richard Murphy (future two-time Oscar nominee) and a score by Dimitri Tiomkin; this must’ve been a warm-up for his Oscar-winning score for The High and the Mighty 13 years later. Also on hand: Nils Asther, Roger Pryor, Eddie Quillan, Grady Sutton, Dick Purcell and Dwight Frye.

FOREVER PLAID: THE MOVIE (Flatiron Film Company/New Video): The smash off-Broadway musical about a ’50s doo-wop group that gets its one chance to perform on Earth after being wiped out in a car accident celebrates its 20th anniversary with this screen adaptation written and directed by show creator Stuart Ross, and reuniting three of the original four cast members: Stan Chandler, David Engel and Larry Raben, with Daniel Reichard joining and David Hyde Pierce narrating. “Rags to Riches,” “Heart and Soul,” “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Chain Gang” are among the ditties dutifully trotted out. The DVD retails for $26.95.

THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (Blue Underground): Married couple Catriona (Katherine) MacColl and Paolo Malco move into the title house with their young son (Giovanni Frezza) — after which things get bloody indeed — in Lucio Fulci’s 1984 shocker, marked by Fulci’s trademark gore and a surprisingly downbeat ending. The DVD retails for $19.98, the Blu-ray for $29.98.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment): Johnny Depp’s back in action, and still a delight, as Capt. Jack Sparrow in the fourth of producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s mega-buck franchise, joined again by Geoffrey Rush and newly paired with Penelope Cruz as the tempestuous daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane). Entertaining and extravagant, but like its predecessors a victim of overkill and overlength. Rob Marshall seamlessly picks up the directorial reins from Gore Verbinski. Yet another box-office blockbuster, and the ending leaves the door wide open. Available as a DVD/ Blu-ray combo ($39.99 retail), as a five-disc 3-D DVD/Blu-ray combo ($49.99 retail), or as part of a limited-edition 15-disc boxed set ($169.99 retail) containing all four films. Rated PG-13.

SHANGHAI MYSTERY (Indican Pictures):

Great use of locations in writer/director Oscar L. Costo’s thriller with Vivian Wu as a widow tracking down her husband’s killers. Hampered by a storyline that shifts back and forth in time, but Wu’s always worth watching and there’s good work from You Ge as a police interrogator and Richard Burgi as a mystery man. Rated R.

THE STOOL PIGEON (Well Go USA): Director Dante Lam’s award-winning crime drama (originally titled Sin yan) stars Nicholas Tse in the title role, a street racer who infiltrates a gang on behalf of a hard-boiled Kowloon cop (Nick Cheung). In Cantonese with English subtitles.

The DVD retails for $24.98, the DVD/Blu-ray combo for $29.98.

THE TEMPEST (Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment): Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic stars Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, backed by a star-studded cast: Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, Djimon Hounsou, Alan Cumming, Felicity Jones and Tom Conti. Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design. The DVD retails for $29.99, the Blu-ray for $39.99. Rated PG-13.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Depression-era orphan Robert Pattinson joins the circus in this big-screen soap opera based on Sara Gruen’s best-selling novel. Reese Witherspoon plays the rider who captures Pattinson’s heart and Christoph Waltz (who stepped in when Sean Penn dropped out) plays her husband, the ringmaster. Well made and lushly photographed, but the second half sags. Also on hand: James Frain, Ken Foree, UNCSA graduate Tim Guinee and the always-welcome Hal Holbrook. Rated PG-13.

WRONG TURN 4: BLOODY BEGINNINGS (Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment): Blood and guts galore in this prequel to the 2003 shocker, depicting how all this butchery began. Hint: It involves three in-bred hillbilly cannibals who escape from a mental institution and some dopey, oversexed college students on holiday break. Aggressively unlikable and pointless, with the camera lingering over every gory moment.

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92. © 2011, Mark Burger

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