Hammer SD: Cash on Demand

Available in Sony’s The Icons of Suspense Collection: Hammer Films 3-disc DVD set, along with ManiacStop Me Before I Kill!The SnorkelNever Take Candy From A Stranger, and These Are the Damned. Order now through Amazon.com

Hammer may be best known for their horror productions, which would become their dominant stock and trade by the beginning of the 1970s and continues to be in their more recently revived form, but horror is by no means the only thing to have emerged from beneath the studio’s banner. In the early decades of its career Hammer proved itself quite a versatile film production outfit, turning out everything from pirate-themed action adventures and light comedies to science fiction and films noir. Proof positive of this versatility is 1962′s compact suspense vehicle / parable Cash on Demand, a real-time character driven piece that offers an answer to a question no one seems to have been asking  - what might Dickens’ A Christmas Carol have been like had it been about a bank heist instead?

True to its Dickensian roots Cash on Demand takes place around Christmastime, as the good employees of the Haversham branch of City and Colonial Bank prepare for both the holiday and the annual office party that comes along with it. Spirits are high, but Scrooge surrogate Mr. Fordyce (the esteemed Peter Cushing), manager of the branch, seems singularly determined to dampen them. He finds ink wells too dirty, pen tips corroded, and lo, Christmas cards as well? “Do you feel it really necessary to make such a display of your popularity?” he intones, with quiet disgust, upon finding one employee’s desk covered with the things. “Banking is one of the few dignified businesses left in the world. Do you mind terribly if we keep it that way?” Humbug, indeed.

Then there’s the matter of bank clerk Mr. Pearson (Richard Vernon, The Tomb of Ligeia), Cash on Demand‘s answer to Bob Cratchit and the predominant recipient of Mr. Fordyce’s abusive criticism. Two days before Christmas the business at hand is a botched transaction from some days prior in which a customer was overpaid to the tune of a ten pound note. The money was returned and everything seemingly set in order, but Mr. Fordyce is unconvinced. In the balance sheets he sees not a single errant transaction, but a whole conspiracy of falsification and embezzlement. As such Mr. Pearson’s takeaway for the holidays is not a bonus or even a pat on the back for a year’s work well done, but the threat of termination and a black mark on his record so severe as to prevent him from ever finding employment in the industry again.

On that cheerful note the tills are filled and the doors are opened. Unfortunately (or perhaps not) for Mr. Fordyce the first customer of the day is a real doozy – Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future all rolled into one. Col. Gore-Hepburn (Andre Morell, ) reads his card, and though he soon proves not to be from the home office of the bank’s insurer, an alleged unannounced inspection by which Gore-Hepburn uses as his cover, he remains an important man indeed. Dealing only with Mr. Fordyce directly, and careful not to invite the suspicions of the bank’s staff, not-Gore-Hepburn reveals his true intentions. The bank is loaded with Haversham’s Christmas Eve payroll, some £90,000 in all. Gore-Hepburn wants it, and has insured Mr. Fordyce’s cooperation in the most fiendish of ways. The banker’s wife and child have been taken as collateral, and unless Mr. Fordyce does precisely as instructed a grim fate is assured for both. The stage set, Gore-Hepburn puts the screws to Mr. Fordyce, along the way revealing a curious relish for teaching him the importance of Good Will Toward Men.

Like a number of other Hammer Film productions of the time, most notably The Abominable Snowman and the Quatermass trilogy, Cash on Demand was adapted from a previously successful teleplay – in this case The Gold Inside, a 70 minute program penned by teleplaywrite and novelist Jacques Gillies and produced and directed by Quentin Lawrence (The Crawling Eye) for ITV’s weekly Theatre 70. Though rewritten (and expanded from its network timeslot) by Lewis Greifer and David T. Chandler (Hammer’s SHE), Hammer were kind enough to retain two important elements from the previous television production – producer / director Quentin Lawrence, who served as director for Cash on Demand, and star Andre Morell, here reprising the role of the fallacious Col. Gore-Hepburn. Now paired with ace director of photography Arthur Grant (The Reptile, Quatermass and the Pit) director Lawrence, a fixture of English television but rarely of film, can do no wrong, and his star players certainly don’t hurt. Morell seems to relish the opportunity to set Peter Cushing (taking over for Richard Vernon from the teleplay) squirming all over again, having already done so once before as the sinister O’Brien (against Cushing’s Winston) in Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale’s lauded adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The contributions of original teleplay writer Jacques Gillies should not be understated here, however, and the picture’s all-important suspense builds effortlessly from his premise. Amusingly the greatest anxiety is generated not during the heist itself but afterwards, when the safety of Fordyce’s family is left wholly dependent on the success of Gore-Hepburn’s getaway. A suspicious co-worker’s call to the police ratchets the level of dread still further, and just how close to being licked by Perdition’s flames Fordyce comes I’ll not say (the Dickinsian influence goes a fair way towards giving things up as it is). I must admit, though, that the film had me right where it wanted all the while. Jaded as I am it’s damned hard for any picture to manipulate me as such anymore, and if for that success alone Cash on Demand is deserving of praise.

Cash on Demand received its domestic (and perhaps worldwide) DVD debut courtesy of Sony’s seemingly abandoned Icons line, and aside from the dreadful packaging (like the earlier Toho Collection all three discs are stacked, one atop the other, on a central hub) it’s difficult to find a fault with the presentation. Cash on Demand is offered in an 80 minute cut at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1, and for a standard definition release it looks damned good. Detail and contrast are tight in the black and white image, which retains an appropriate hint of filmic texture and presents with very little in the way of damage. For a low budget production of so long ago (50 years now) it looks very nice indeed, and I’ve no complaints. Audio is serviceable, accurate DD2.0 monophonic, and is accompanied by optional English SDH subtitles. A theatrical trailer is the only supplement.

While the same logical conundrum that weighs against recent efforts like Phone Booth applies (just why does the robber care whether or not his mark has the proper social graces?) in general I found myself very pleased with Cash on Demand. It certainly delivers the suspenseful goods, and practically anything with Cushing or Morell attached is worth watching. The film looks great in its latest (and thus far only) iteration, and lamentable disc-stacking abuses aside Sony’s collection is a real steal. Highly recommended!

Order Cash on Demand  from Amazon.com

Screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in VLC Media Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Order Cash on Demand  from Amazon.com

Music Monday – Space-o-Saurus Edition

Either you love or hate 1977′s Planet of Dinosaurs, and those in the latter camp likely hold more against the picture than just its amateur production values and dubious performances. Kelly Lammers and John O’Verlin’s ultra-low-budget synth score has earned plenty of ire in its own right, and seems almost to have been calculated to etch itself indelibly upon impressionable minds. Indeed, in the now decades since I first saw the picture I’ve never forgotten a note of it.

Whether the electronic tinkerings of Lammers and O’Verlin evoke fond remembrance or send you crawling up the wall, this Music Monday is for you. Needless to say Planet of Dinosaurs has never had an official soundtrack release, so the track today is sourced straight from the long-OOP Goodtimes DVD – the sample is of the traveling march composed for the film, a track that was the next best thing to nails on chalkboard to my poor mother. Enjoy it, loathe it, torment your friends… and be sure to check out the film here.

Twilight Time: Cover Girl

Cover Girl is reviewed from screener graciously provided by Twilight Time. Per the usual for the label, the release is a limited run of 3000, and is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com.

While not exactly my area of expertise I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for classic Hollywood musicals, particularly those wise enough to enlist the likes of Busby Berkeley, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire or, as is the case here, Gene Kelly. While my reaction was lukewarm at best to the only other musical reviewed here, 1957′s Sinatra / Hayworth / Novak vehicle Pal Joey (coincidentally also out on Blu-ray from Twilight Time), Charles Vidor’s Cover Girl is more my speed. A shining example of the feel-good cinema that thrived in the wartime ’40s, Cover Girl also boasts a top-flight production and lush Technicolor photography from aces Rudolph Maté (The Passion of Joan of Arc, When Worlds Collide) and Allen M. Davey (A Song to Remember). The film was a smash hit and made a bona fide star of young Gene Kelly, and the level of control he was allowed over certain aspects of the production gave audiences their first real taste of that Kelly style, later to be immortalized in classics like An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.

Chorus girl Rusty (Rita Hayworth, reaching the height of her Columbia career) is happy with her lot in life as the star attraction of boyfriend Danny’s (Gene Kelly) small-time nightclub – happy, at least, until she chances into mega-stardom courtesy of a cover-girl contest put on by magazine mogul John Coudair (Otto Kruger, The Colossus of New York). Rusty’s newfound fame opens the usual doors and attracts the usual callers, and of them none are more persistent than Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman,Buck Privates), who, by way of a proposal, casts her in a musical extravaganza and makes her the toast of Broadway. With Danny too sore about losing his star and his girl in one fell swoop to do anything about getting either back, it’s up to stage jokester Genius (MSgt. Bilko himself, Phil Silvers) and Rusty’s own (belated) good sense to set things right.

Packed with the usual emotional ups and downs but careful to keep audience anxieties to a bare minimum, Cover Girl is quintessential war-time Hollywood fare that invites viewers to wrap themselves in a manufactured conflict whose cheerful resolution is never in doubt. Screenwriter Virginia Van Upp is as calculating as Capra when it comes to eliciting a potent “feel good” whallop, even if she never lets her characters slip so close to perdition as the latter’s – with war raging on two fronts the romantic antics here were doubtless deemed dour enough.

While earthy verisimilitude it may lack, Cover Girl certainly isn’t left wanting in the production department. For aficionados of grand old-school Technicolor the picture is aces, courtesy of format directors Natalie Kalmus (Gone With the Wind) and Morgan Padelford (The Adventures of Robin Hood), art directors Lionel Banks (His Girl Friday) and Cary Odell (Cool Hand Luke), and the aforementioned directors of photography, Allen M. Davey and the legendary Rudolph Maté. More impressive still is the sheer scope of the thing – star Rita Hayworth was never given a more beautiful opportunity to demonstrate her considerable performance talents.

Still, brightly as Hayworth shines it is Kelly who really steals the show, crafting (with frequent co-conspirator Stanley Donen, Saturn 3) a few breakout dance numbers that elevate the film (and perhaps a whole genre) well above its former stage-bound limitations. Most memorable by far, and most indicative of the wonders Kelly was to achieve half a decade hence, is the late-film duet / tap-dance-off between Kelly and a literal mirror image of himself on a deserted city street that’s very Singin’ in the Rain indeed. A concept that might have been unforgivably bungled in less capable hands, the scene instead becomes an exercise in expert choreography and technical precision, a hell of a thing in its own right and the number one reason to search the film out. For those 4 minutes Cover Girl bursts towards the stratosphere, leaving its humble entertainment aspirations behind on its way to becoming high art – little else from the time can compare.

There’s an even-better-than-usual Sony restoration backing Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray of Cover Girl, with the result that it’s easily one of the best looking classic film releases of the year. Presented in 1080p at the accurate full-frame ratio of 1.33:1, the image here leaves precious little for even persnickety reviewers like myself to complain about. The practically blemish-free transfer belies what was surely a substantial effort on the part of Sony’s ace restoration team, but the transparency of their work is perhaps its own reward. Cover Girl looks camera fresh, with brilliant Technicolor saturation and contrast to match. The appearance is lush, if not exactly razor-sharp, and those allergic to grain manipulation will find none to distract here – the film’s texture is alive and well, and blessedly unperturbed.

Technically this is one of Twilight Time’s less robust efforts, with the 107 minute feature and minimal supplements occupying just a single layer BD25, but any adverse effects are negligible. The video is well represented by an Mpeg-4 AVC encode at a nice average bitrate of 26.4 Mbps, and aside from a bit of posterization briefly glimpsed in a few of the flat color backdrops to the title music number I noted nothing untoward. Audio is a simple unboosted DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic track that sounds quite magnificent, bearing in mind the age of the production (nearly 70 years!), and is accompanied by optional English SDH subtitles. While it’s unusual for a Twilight Time release to boast much supplemental content Cover Girl takes the issue to the extreme, offering no on-disc extras whatsoever (not even the usual isolated score). Another excellent essay by Julie Kirgo helps make up for the limitation, as does the modestly lower price point - Cover Girl retails for $29.95.

I’m well out of my depth when it comes to much of anything musical, and Cover Girl is no exception, but strong showings from Hayworth, Kelly, an excellent cast of supporting players (Kruger, Silvers, and the wonderful, underrated Eve Arden as no-nonsense secretary Cordelia “Stonewall” Jackson) and a similarly excellent roster of production personnel won me over handily. For those keen on classic musicals Cover Girl is a must-see, and even with its paucity of extras Twilight Time’s Blu-ray delivers the goods. Recommendations don’t come much easier.

Blu-ray screenshots:

All screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Music Monday – Spacey Edition

Another week, another sample from the unreleased score for an old Amicus production. In this case it’s the main title to famed cinematographer and sometimes director Freddie Francis’ hip ’60s sci-fi They Came From Beyond Space, a film that has the unfortunate distinction of being considered public domain here in the states. The music itself is composed by James Stevens (Sparrows Can’t Sing) and conducted by regular Hammer music supervisor Philip Martell.

Not only is the groovy score to They Came From Beyond Space at present unavailable, but all the domestic copies of the film are crap as well. Those interested in a quality presentation of it (and really, you should be) should check out StudioCanal’s new proper widescreen PAL-format DVD, available now through Amazon.co.uk.

Hammer Definition: The Reptile

Before I begin, a huge thanks is owed to my readers, without whom this Blu-ray review of The Reptile would not currently be possible. It was your support of this site, through our Amazon affiliate links, that allowed for the purchase of the disc here reviewed, as well as The Plague of the Zombies, which is to be reviewed here shortly. Thank you!

The final in an unsuccessful four-film experiment by producer Anthony Nelson Keys to make Hammer Film Productions’ operations at Bray Studios more cost effective, John Gilling’s The Reptile was produced back-to-back with the same director’s The Plague of the Zombies and released in the Spring of 1966 on a double bill with Don Sharp’s Rasputin: The Mad Monk. A small-scale horror produced with modest resources, The Reptile was the only of Keys’ four experiments to come in both on time and under budget, but it proved a case of too little success too late. Hammer Films’ operations at Bray Studios wrapped in October of 1966 with the conclusion of production on The Mummy’s Shroud, coincidentally also a Gilling film (this time under producer Michael Carreras), and scarcely four years later Bray was sold outright.

Though in scope only a minor Hammer horror, noticeably constrained by the limits of both time time and budget (the title for the original concept, The Curse of the Reptiles, hints at greater things, if by plurality alone), The Reptile ultimately rises above its modest ambitions through a keen sense for atmospherics and a generous helping of weird. More than that, The Reptile stands as a quintessential example of English Gothic horror cinema, replete with suspicious locals, strange happenings on the moors, and deep family secrets, and anchored with a downright Jamesian perspective on the dangers of venturing where one doesn’t belong.

After the unexpected, unexplained death of his brother in a small Cornish village, Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett, of Thunderbirds and Stingray fame) and his young wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniels, Kiss of the Vampire) take over his small cottage estate as their own, much to the consternation of superstitious locals. Suspicious as to the nature of his brother’s untimely demise Harry sets about investigating, and finds an unlikely co-investigator in friendly barkeep Tom (Michael Ripper, Hammer’s preeminent regular). It seems a regular spate of unusual deaths has the populace spooked, convinced that pestilence is afoot, but an examination of exhumed victims reveals things stranger still. The afflicted present with grotesquely swollen, blackened faces and, more bizarre, puncture wounds not at all unlike those inflicted by the King Cobra – a creature not exactly native to Cornwall.

Meanwhile the Spaldings become increasingly acquainted with Dr. Franklyn (Noel Willman, ), a domineering theologian who keeps a stranglehold on his beautiful daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) with the help – or is it hindrance? – of a mysterious Malay servant (Marne Maitland). Dr. Franklyn, who spent his professional years investigating the obscure cults of Southeast Asia, keeps the temperatures within his sprawling isolated estate at tropical levels, perfect for the exotic plants that fill his greenhouse and fit, perhaps, for a reptile…

The Reptile certainly isn’t the first film to ponder the cinematic potential of people who moonlight as monstrous snakes (it’s a sub-genre especially well represented throughout Asia), but it may be the first to attach to them the principals of Gothic horror – and indeed, the transposition of such an alien thing upon Victorian English sensibilities is a deliciously odd one. More interesting still is the context for it all. Though far from loaded with subtext The Reptile‘s premise does offer a bit of intellectual bite by way of an oblique criticism of England’s colonial past. In his travels through Asia Dr. Franklyn trespasses where he isn’t wanted, presuming the sanctity of his own research in an invasive investigation of local rites, and finds himself cursed for so long as he lives by a feared and secretive snake cult. As repayment for his own assumptions of superiority he must now watch as his own beloved daughter is regularly transformed into a malignant inhuman beast, powerless all the while to control her murderous impulse.

For his part character player Noel Willman is superb in the role of the tormented yet dominating Dr. Franklyn, a man trying desperately, if ineffectually, to keep the family secret under wraps. It certainly helps that Willman’s character is the one most developed in the screenplay (courtesy of regular Hammer producer / writer Anthony Hinds), but the actor layers the part with genuine pathos, backing a cold and icy demeanor with a palpable sadness. Jacqueline Pearce’s Anna evokes a comparably conflicted nature, but underwriting keeps her from being truly memorable beyond her exotic looks (including those plastered so thoroughly on the film’s advertising, the intriguing if not entirely effectual creation of ace make-up artist Roy Ashton). Pearce had starred in Hammer’s previous production The Plague of the Zombies, but isn’t the only carry over here. Fifth-billed Michael Ripper takes a substantial second turn as well as the good-hearted barkeep, and seemingly the only friendly sort in town. Ripper remains one of Hammer’s most recognizable faces (and voices), and though never so prominent as mainstays Cushing and Lee he would go on to appear in more of the studio’s productions than either.

Hammer’s close-knit staff of artisans were masters of style in their time, and despite the limitations of its production The Reptile is a pre-eminent example of the same – no small feat given that director Gilling was veritably hounded to bring the film in as swiftly as possible. The set and production design of studio regulars Don Mingaye (They Came From Beyond Space) and Bernard Robinson (These Are the Damned) is stellar, dominated by sprawling Gothic interiors that belie the compactness of the production. Ace DP Arthur Grant (Quatermass and the Pit) treats Mingaye and Robinson’s work right, demonstrating again his keen understanding of the importance of shadow, while director Gilling (The Flesh and the Fiends) does his best to elevate a shoestring production to something more. By my estimation he and his crew succeed admirably. The Reptile may not always work, but it’s rarely if ever a bore.

StudioCanal disappointed with the lackluster video presentation on Dracula: Prince of Darkness, a particularly embarrassing development given its status as a flagship Blu-ray from the most recognizable of Hammer franchises, but to their credit they appear anxious not to repeat the mistakes of that release here. Quatermass and the Pit still reigns as the superior HD Hammer presentation, but The Reptile certainly isn’t far behind.

Restored from a fresh 2K scan of the original negative (with the exception of the ratty opening title sequence), The Reptile looks absolutely marvelous in its new Blu-ray edition. The 1080p 1.66:1-framed transfer isn’t entirely spotless, and still kicks up the occasional speck or vertical scratch, but a substantial effort has obviously been undertaken (as the included restoration comparison attests) to ensure that it appears as good as is reasonably possible. The fine film grain isn’t quite so well rendered as on Quatermass, but it does appear demonstrably filmic and goes blessedly unperturbed by the kind of egregious digital manipulation that ruined Dracula: Prince of Darkness – in motion it looks damned good. Otherwise, contrast is at robust levels and the level of detail is impressive, with some of the close-ups looking mighty impressive. I really have no complaints, and can’t imagine The Reptile looking much better.

Technical specifications are similarly impressive. The Reptile receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at an average bitrate of 31.9 Mbps, with peaks reaching as high as 35.0 Mbps. The encode is stable and free of issues, thoroughly avoiding the issues of posterization and noticeable artifacts. Perhaps the best thing one can say about this sort of thing is that it’s transparent, and doesn’t obscure the strengths of a transfer. The Reptile‘s encode fits that bill, and I’ve no complaints. It’s more difficult to laud the audio presentation, though the issue rests soundly with the quality of the original mix and not with any error on the part of Hammer / StudioCanal. The Reptile simply sounds no better and no worse than other efforts of its place and time, and while the mix will rarely impress its 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic rendering here is authentic and trouble free, and remarkably clean to boot. A set of optional English SDH subtitles is included, and as with the rest I’ve no complaints.

Supplements are a bit lighter here than with Quatermass and the Pit or Dracula: Prince of Darkness, but no matter – any love at all for this modest film is appreciated. Newly produced is the short documentary The Serpent’s Tale (22 minutes, 1080i / 25fps HD), featuring interviews with writer / actor Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen), Hammer historians Marcus Hearn and Wayne Kinsey, critic Jonathan Rigby, film music specialist Dr. David Huckvale, Pinewood restoration manager Jon Mann, and The Reptile‘s surviving art director Don Mingaye. Other feature-related content is limited to a nifty theatrical trailer (2 minutes, 1080p 24fps HD) that wisely avoids showing Pearce’s make-up and a brief restoration demonstration (2 minutes, 1080p 24fps HD) that reveals the not inconsiderable work that has been done to restore the film. Rounding out the package is the World of Hammer episode Wicked Women (25 minutes, PAL SD), which is perhaps most interesting in that it doesn’t discuss The Reptile at all!

The double play package includes both the Blu-ray disc reviewed here and a PAL format DVD that duplicates its contents for standard definition viewers. The package is region locked, region B for the Blu-ray disc and region 2 for the DVD – as such viewers outside of those respective territories will need multi-region capable hardware in order to view it.

I have to admit that when I first saw The Reptile many years ago it didn’t do much for me, but with time the film has definitely grown on me. Imperfect as it may be it’s rarely less than interesting, and at times it manages to be quite an arresting Gothic horror experience. Words cannot express how much it pleases me to say that there’s nothing at all wrong with Hammer / StudioCanal’s Blu-ray edition, which so thoroughly trounces the mediocre standard definition representations of the past that they don’t even bear mentioning. Even with the distraction of region locking (which can be circumvented easily enough these days) this gets an easy recommendation – fans of the Hammer horrors are heartily encouraged to indulge.

Order The Reptile on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

Screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.
 

Order The Reptile on Blu-ray from Amazon.co.uk

 

Music Monday: Blissful Edition

Firstly, my apologies for the lack of The Horror!? last Friday. I’ve been… distracted by recent events to an extent that I did not expect, but things are returning to normal. Last week’s The Horror!? column will post this Friday. Meanwhile, Music Monday must go on.

Up today is a selection (actually three selections combined for your enjoyment) from Sir Arthur Bliss’ tremendous score to director William Cameron Menzies and producer Alexander Korda’s epic 1936 misfire Things to Come, courtesy of a fine re-recording from the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and conductor Rumon Gamba. These cues were composed for the effects-heavy building of the future Everytown, a scene I describe in my review as “perhaps the mother of all science fiction montages.” Bliss’ cues are as indelible as the imagery, and perhaps even more so, and it’s easy to see why his compositions are still popular with symphonies more than 75 years later.

The music here is sourced from the album The Film Music of Sir Arthur Bliss, which is quickly becoming a house favorite. Needless to say it comes highly recommended, and is readily available in both CD and MP3.

Night of the Living Duped, or Why Forgotten Films’ Dead Blu-ray Deserves to Be

This article is an addendum of sorts to the substantial coverage of Night of the Living Dead and its Blu-ray iterations that is already available here. Those who want to hear what I have to say about the film should look here, while those interested in the other two Blu-ray releases I’ve reviewed thus far should look here. And those of you looking for a review of the unlicensed gray market Forgotten Film’s Blu-ray of Night of the Living Dead, you’re in the right place.

Now forgive me for my brevity, but I really don’t want to waste any more time than is absolutely necessary on this one. As the screenshots included here will no doubt convince, Forgotten Films’ Blu-ray edition of Night of the Living Dead from 2009 is little more than a copy of another Blu-ray edition that uses Dimension Films’ HD master of the film (I suspect the Optimum given its cheapness and date of availability). Little more, but yes, a little. For some dubious reason, either to hide their outright thievery or to bolster their claim to copyright in case anyone should chance to copy their “work” (there are scads of copyright statements in their presentation), Forgotten Films have imposed a slight but painfully obvious cut during one of the film’s dialogue scenes. The cut arrives between Barbara’s lines, “We came to put a wreath on my father’s grave,” and, “And he said ‘Oh it’s late, why did we start so late?’” and eliminates all that rests between. The two frames below appear immediately before and immediately after the cut:

 

Otherwise differences are minimal here. The similarity in contrast is exacting, as is the tight framing, long a sticking point with the Dimension Films transfer and the editions minted from it (including a domestic DVD and several foreign Blu-rays). Sharpness is reduced modestly in the Forgotten Films, doubtless a byproduct of their copy / cut / paste process. Audio is lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 monophonic, but the rest of the technical specs are sound enough. The 1080p transfer is well encoded in Mpeg-4 AVC at an average video bitrate of 30.4 Mbps. Too bad it’s stolen, and edited besides.

The disc comes housed in decidedly amateurish packaging (note the misspelling of the word “struggle” on the front, if you can distract yourself from the awful art for long enough to read it that is), and the only supplement is a worthless 18 minute still gallery of images culled directly from the film. Needless to say I can’t recommend, especially not with superior and officially licensed editions being so readily available from other territories. Those looking to blow $20 on an inferior product can look this one up Amazon themselves – I’ll have no further part in it. The rest of you should steer clear.

Comparison images are taken from the Optimum Releasing Blu-ray, reviewed separately here. Order is Optimum first, followed by Forgotten Films. 

All new screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. 

Music Monday – Don’t Give a Damn About Dinosaurs Edition

What can I say – I love John Scott’s score to Amicus’ minor 1977 Burroughs adaptation The People That Time Forgot. The sequel to the swell The Land That Time Forgot largely eschews the narrative of the eponymous Burroughs source story and filling in the spaces with some nonsense about a living volcano and an inordinate amount of explosive pyrotechnics. Provided expectations are checked it can be a whole heap of fun. John Scott’s score is of higher stuff than the film (best remembered these days for star Dana Gillespie’s gravity-defying prehistoric top) really deserves, and its moody themes have stuck with me since childhood.

I had a time deciding which track from the score to share here today, but ultimately settled on Court of Nagramata, a set of cues that concludes with the memorable March of the Nagas, a rousing number that was bouncing around my young mind for days after I first saw the film. The complete John Scott score to The People That Time Forgot is available on CD through the composer’s own JOS records, and can be purchased through Amazon.com or ScreenArchives.com.

Daimajin Trilogy on Blu-ray from Mill Creek in September

Fans of giant monsters and jidaigeki alike should mark your calendars for September 18th, as that’s the date Mill Creek will unleash Daiei’s inimitable Daimajin trilogy on domestic Blu-ray. Those who want a primer on the films should check out our article here. Each and every of them is a long-time favorite of mine, and needless to say, I’m excited.

Quoting from Mill Creek:

In 1966, the Daiei Motion Picture Company – the studio behind Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON and the Gamera series – released a trilogy of films that combined elements of the popular daikaiju (giant monster) and jidaigeki (period drama) genres.  Set during Japan’s “Warring States” era, the Daimajin movies told the story of Majin, a giant statue of an angry god that would come to life in times of desperation to punish evildoers. But when Majin’s rage was unleashed, it could be directed at both the wicked and innocent, alike.

Acclaimed for their serious tone and spectacular special effects, DAIMAJIN, RETURN OF DAIMAJINand the rarely-seen DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN present a unique take on a monster who is both savior and devil.

CONTENTS:

1. DAIMAJIN 
2. RETURN OF DAIMAJIN
3. DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN

Bonus Features – All New English language track for DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN

Mill Creek’s Daimajin 2-disc Blu-ray collection streets September 18th with a retail price of $24.98, and is currently available for pre-order through Amazon.com.

Score One for the Old Country: The Universal Classic Monsters Blu-ray Debacle

When I reported not so long ago that Universal’s new Classic Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray was due in October, I was under the impression that Amazon’s pre-order price for the title – $111.99 for the 8-disc set – was perfectly reasonable. That was before news of the UK edition arrived, and I’ve since changed my tune dramatically.

Quoting from Amazon.co.uk, the specs for the release are as follows (region coding is unknown at present):

For the first time ever, eight of the most iconic cinematic masterpieces of the horror genre are available together on Blu-ray as Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection. Digitally restored in perfect high-definition picture and perfect high-definition sound. This essential set includes a never-before-seen featurette about the restoration of Dracula and the first ever offering of Creature from the Black Lagoon in its restored Blu-ray 3D version.

Contain hours of bonus features, a 44 page booklet and 8 exclusive art cards with original theatrical posters.

Dracula (1931):
The original 1931 movie version of Bram Stoker’s classic tale has for generations defined the iconic look and terrifying persona of the famed vampire. Dracula owes its continued appeal in large part due to Bela Lugosi’s indelible portrayal of the immortal Count Dracula and the flawless direction of horror auteur Tod Browning.

Bonus Features: Dracula: The Restoration – New Featurette Available for The First Time!, Monster Tracks: Interactive Pop-Up Facts About the Making of Dracula, Dracula Archives, Score by Philip Glass performed by the Kronos Quartet, Feature Commentary by Film Historian David J. Skal, Feature Commentary by Steve Haberman, Screenwriter of Dracula: Dead and Loving It , Trailer Gallery

Frankenstein (1931):
Boris Karloff stars as the screen’s most tragic and iconic monster in what many consider to be the greatest horror film ever made. Dr. Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) dares to tamper with the essential nature of life and death by creating a monster (Karloff) out of lifeless human body parts. Director James Whale’s adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel and Karloff’s compassionate portrayal of a creature groping for identity make Frankenstein a timeless masterpiece.

Bonus Features: The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster, Karloff: The Gentle Monster, Monster Tracks: Interactive Pop-Up Facts About The Making of Frankenstein, Universal Horror, Frankenstein Archives, Boo!: A Short Film, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, Feature Commentary with Historian Sir Christopher Frayling, 100 Years Of Universal: Restoring the Classics, Trailer Gallery

The Mummy (1932):
Horror icon Boris Karloff stars in the original 1932 version of The Mummy in which a team of British archaeologists accidentally revives a mummified high priest after 3,700 years. Alive again, he sets out on an obsessive-and deadly-quest to find his lost love. Over 50 years after its first release, this brooding dream-like horror classic remains a cinematic masterpiece.

Bonus Features: Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed, He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art Of Jack Pierce, Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy, The Mummy Archives, Feature Commentary by Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns and Brent Armstrong, Feature Commentary by Film Historian Paul M. Jensen, 100 Years Of Universal: The Carl Laemmle Era

The Invisible Man (1933):
Claude Rains delivers an unforgettable performance in his screen debut as a mysterious doctor who discovers a serum that makes him invisible. Covered by bandages and dark glasses, Rains arrives in a small English village and attempts to hide his amazing discovery, but the drug’s side effects slowly drive him to commit acts of unspeakable terror.

Bonus Features: Now You See Him: The Invisible Man Revealed, Production Photographs, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, 100 Years of Universal: Unforgettable Characters

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935):
The acclaimed sequel to the original Frankenstein has become one of the most popular horror classics in film history. The legendary Boris Karloff reprises his role as the screen’s most misunderstood monster, now longing for a mate of his own. Colin Clive is back as the proud and overly ambitious Dr. Frankenstein, who creates the ill-fated bride (Elsa Lanchester). The last horror film directed by James Whale features a haunting musical score that helps make The Bride of Frankenstein one of the finest and most touching thrillers of its era.

Bonus Features: She’s Alive! Creating The Bride Of Frankenstein, The Bride Of Frankenstein Archive, Feature Commentary with Scott MacQueen

The Wolf Man (1941):
Originally released in 1941, The Wolf Man introduced the world to a new Universal movie monster and redefined the mythology of the werewolf forever. Featuring a heartbreaking performance by Lon Chaney Jr. and groundbreaking make-up by Jack Pierce, The Wolf Man is the saga of Larry Talbot, a cursed man who transforms into a deadly werewolf when the moon is full. The dreamlike atmospheres, elaborate settings and chilling musical score combine to make The Wolf Man a masterpiece of the genre.

Bonus Features: Monster by Moonlight, The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth, Pure in Heart: The Life and Legacy of Lon Chaney, Jr., He Who Made Monsters: The Life and Art of Jack Pierce, The Wolf Man Archives, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver

The Phantom of the Opera (1943):
This lavish retelling of Gaston Leroux’s immortal horror tale stars Claude Rains as the masked phantom who haunts the Paris Opera House. A crazed composer who schemes to make beautiful young soprano Christine DuBois (Susanna Foster) the star of the opera company, the Phantom also wreaks revenge on those he believes stole his music. Nelson Eddy, as the heroic baritone, tries to win the affections of Christine as he tracks down the murderous, horribly disfigured Phantom.

Bonus Features: The Opera Ghost: A Phantom Unmasked, Production Photographs, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Scott MacQueen, 100 Years of Universal: The Lot, Theatrical Trailer

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954):
Captured and imprisoned for scientific study, a living “amphibious missing link” becomes enamored with the head researcher’s female assistant (Julie Adams). When the hideous creature escapes and kidnaps the object of his affection, a crusade is launched to rescue the helpless woman and cast the terrifying creature back to the depths from which he came. Featuring legendary makeup artist Bud Westmore’s brilliantly designed monster, Creature from the Black Lagoon is an enduring tribute to the imaginative genius of its Hollywood creators.

Bonus Features: The Creature From The Black Lagoon in Blu-ray TM 3D, Back to The Black Lagoon, Production Photographs, Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver , 100 Years of Universal: The Lot, Trailer Gallery

The only substantial differences between this list and the specs for the US edition is the exclusion of the Spanish version of Dracula, considered by many to be the superior film, but don’t fret. While I’m unsure of why it is excluded from the spec sheet, Universal Pictures UK have confirmed that it will be included on the release itself, making this set nigh identical to its upcoming US counterpart with the exception of the possible differences in packaging.

Now for the kicker: The UK Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray, including the same 8 discs of films and supplemental material, is currently available for pre-order at a whopping £37.49 through Amazon.co.uk. At present exchange rates the total comes to just $54.00, shipping included, for orders originating in the United States, or less than half the price of ordering the domestic equivalent!

Needless to say I’ve since cancelled my US pre-order – $55 plus in savings is too much to pass up on. While there is a slim chance that the set will be locked for Region B (the majority of Universal’s UK releases are region free duplicates of versions they’ve made available worldwide), those unencumbered by the troubles of region compatibility are encouraged to go the same route.

The UK Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection Blu-ray is due for release on October 1, 2012.