Music Monday: What day is it again? Edition

It’s a little late (this is getting to be a trend), but here’s our track for the week, sourced from Mike Vickers’ criminally unrepresented score for Amicus’ production of At the Earth’s Core (from the novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs). To the best of my knowledge Vickers’ score for this film, as well as the later Warlords of Atlantis, have never been properly issued. The music presented here, the wonderful opening title for the film, is taken from a Netflix stream and includes some sound effects.

Things to Come

directed by William Cameron Menzies
1936 / London Films / 96′
written by
H.G. Wells from his novel The Shape of Things to Come
original music by Arthur Bliss
cinematography by George Perinal
starring Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Sir Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Maurice Braddell
released June 18th, 2012 by
Network / Granada
video: 1080p / 1.33:1 / B&W / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: 24-bit LPCM 2.0 Mono (English)
subtitles: English
discs: single layer BD25 / Region B (locked)
and dual layer DVD9 / Region 2 / PAL
Things to Come is available for purchase through Amazon.co.uk.

Penned by H. G. Wells from his novel The Shape of Things to Come and directed by feature newcomer William Cameron Menzies, who had already garnered acclaim for his accomplished production design, the lavish 1936 Alexander Korda production of Things to Come never quite amounts to the sum of its parts. A masterwork of design and ideas hamstrung by cold human drama and a penchant for speechifying, Things to Come is perhaps best described as an unforgettable failure – a sprawling epic of speculative fiction and philosophical propaganda that’s no less a classic for all of its faults.

Things to Come‘s ambitious narrative follows the 100 year history of the English metropolis of Everytown, from its destruction in war-time in Christmas of 1936 to it’s glittering future rebirth. The yarn is constructed around two generations of the family Cabal (both played by Raymond Massey, Arsenic and Old Lace), who are rarely so much characters as they are mouthpieces for Wells’ selfsame political-scientific philosophy. In 1936 John Cabal volunteers for the war effort, taking to the air as a fighter pilot. As the global conflict drags on for decade after decade, reducing Everytown to a pre-industrial autocracy, Cabal secretly organizes a new society of scientific fascists – a technologically unchallenged and black-suited army for peace. His Wings Over the World fills the skies of 1970, putting an end to all warmongers with the ‘gas of peace’, setting humanity on a track towards miraculous scientific progress and transforming Everytown into a glittering underground utopia.

In 2036 John Cabal’s great grandson Oswald Cabal, leader of the future governing council, must face a new threat to progress – an uprising among the citizens of Everytown who seek to halt mankind’s first trip around the moon. As hordes of rioters surround the enormous Space Gun that is to launch the rocket, Cabal orders it fired, preserving man’s quest for knowledge and sending the protesters into oblivion. The conclusion sees Cabal standing before an enormous telescopic lens, contemplating whether mankind is doomed to be Earthbound or fated to expand its conquest to the rest of the Universe. “Which shall it be?” he asks, words that are repeated again in the rapturous chorus that closes the film.

Propelled by the shear magnitude of its production alone, Things to Come is dramatically inert for the most part. Sir Ralph Richardson (DragonslayerThe Bed Sitting Room) takes a memorable turn as a mid-century despot of Everytown known only as the “Boss”, while Sir Cedric Hardwicke (George Pal’s War of the Worlds) does much the same as the doomed revolutionary Theotocopulos in the future Everytown of 2036. Unfortunately the “Boss” and Theotocopulos are little more than straw men, existing solely to be put down by righteous Cabal (either of them) and lost to the unstoppable march of progress. For his part Raymond Massey does well by a role that’s less forgiving than any of the rest, and effectively ties the multi-generational drama together even though he’s given little to do but strike a pose (often in one of two ridiculous costumes) and espouse interminable tracts of Wells’ philosophy.

While Wells himself can be blamed for the deficiencies in Things to Come‘s drama, having penned the script himself (with updates by Korda associate Lajos Biro, The Thief of Bagdad), it was the power-struggle between producer Korda and Wells, who had been granted unprecedented access to and influence over the production, that would lead to the film’s steady decline. Wells proved difficult and inflexible with regards to the production, while Korda often reacted to what he disliked about the picture (like Wells’ interminable exposition) by simply removing it. By the time the film first reached American shores Korda and its distributors had already excised half an hour of its original 130 minutes, compromising its continuity and whatever narrative flow there had been in favor of the spectacle alone. Further release variations would be even shorter, with some running barely more than an hour.

Director William Cameron Menzies, along with photographer Georges Perinal, designer Vincent Korda and effects director Ned Man, assured that Things to Come would at least have a cohesive visual style, from the opening moments in pre-war Everytown to the closing starscape, and no matter how cold and turgid its dramatics may be the technical achievements of the thing are difficult to overstate. The futuristic rebuilding of Everytown, in which massive excavators hollow out a cavernous expanse that swiftly develops into a vast antiseptic city of porcelain and glass (complete with moving sidewalks and glass-tube elevators) with the booming themes of Arthur Bliss taking precedence over any sort of sound effects, is perhaps the mother of all science fiction montages. Even the substantively embarrassing Space Gun, the film’s one absolute piece of scientific bunk (it even has a sight!), is of impressive construction and imposing scale.

But the spectacle is hardly limited to the future of 2036. The air raid sequence that begins the picture is one of most successful undertakings of its kind, with swift and lyrical cross-cutting between a panicked population and defensive military operations culminating in a terrifying tour-de-force of urban destruction and human misfortune. Mann’s complex miniature and composite effects are certainly more transparent a full seventy five years after the fact, but the brilliantly realized imagery (explosive anti-aircraft barrages, buildings reduced to rubble, survivors struggling among the wreckage, and the body of a child half-buried in debris) has lost none of its visceral potency. The montages that follow, detailing a horrific futility of a decades-long war between nations through the power of image alone, are pure Menzies, a mix of the literal and the symbolic that drives the story more effectively than any of Wells’ truncated drama. The plague-ravaged and despotic future of 1970, complete with a massive exterior set of bombed-out Everytown, invites one of science fiction’s great visuals – a fleet of improbably gigantic aircraft flown by the peace-dealing soldiers of Wings Over the World, emerging from the clouds to put an end to the warmongers once and for all. That’s the image that so captivated a much-younger me, viewing Things to Come on television for the first time in one of its many confounding broadcast versions, and though the ideas behind it don’t settle so easily with me anymore the scene has lost none of its grandeur.

While its difficult for me to believe that the potential with Things to Come was not greater than what eventually came to pass, the final product still ranks as the unparalleled science fiction achievement of its generation. The ravages of time, battles with overzealous editors and a dubious public domain status may have conspired to eradicate much of this top-tier production’s original luster, but it’s still a hell of a thing, brimming with big ideas and some of the most classic of classic sci-fi conceptions. Regardless of whatever problems it may have Things to Come is still must-see genre material, and gets an easy recommendation from me.

The atrocious Legend Films Blu-ray of last year (which crammed colorized and black and white versions of both Things to Come and SHE onto one over-stuffed BD50) can now soundly be laid to rest, having been properly trounced by Network / Granada’s Blu-ray update of their already fine PAL DVD set from 2007. That DVD edition was already the superior of Legend’s presentation, besting it in both image quality and substance at every turn, but this new Blu-ray certainly seals the deal.

Not only is Network / Granada’s new presentation sourced from superior elements – a full restoration of the longest extant version of the film, and the same used for their earlier DVD – but it improves markedly on the technical front as well, more than doubling the bitrate of the Legend Films. It’s not a perfect representation, of course. The 75-plus year old film naturally shows some age in the form of dirt, specks, and scratches as well as in some minor image instability. There’s also an odd two-frame glitch during the bombing of Everytown, though in motion it flits by too quickly to really be noticed (the glitch is present in the 2007 DVD as well, and thus must be present in the HD source files).

Otherwise I’m at a loss to complain about much of anything here. Detail, already very strong in the earlier DVD, resolves even better in its native HD, and the contrast (a major shortcoming of the Legend Blu-ray) is tremendous. Georges Perinal’s ace photography is crisper and more spectacular than ever, especially during the bombing of Everytown and feudal post-war sequences, and the texture of the film, itching to break through in the SD, clarifies into a lovely grain. Technical specifications are modest, and even so mark a huge advancement over the Legend Films release. The video receives a middling Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 19.6 Mbps, but holds together nicely all the same. Posterization is never an issue, and the occasional artifacting is of such minor stuff as to go unnoticed in playback. I’m very pleased - Things to Come has never looked better on home video than it does here, and I doubt much could be done to demonstrably improve upon it.

Looks aren’t everything, though, and if there’s a real weakness in this presentation of Things to Come it’s the audio. To be clear, this is a film that has never sounded good by modern standards, but Network / Granada have caused as many problems as they’ve corrected in their efforts to restore it. The problem here is the over-zealous filtering that was done to clear the track of pops, cracks, and especially hiss. While much of this has been remedied, and to some good effect, the processing has also created an anomaly that reminds of the phasing problems that plague some sub-standard surround mixes. The effect was exaggerated in the PAL DVD of the film, where the up-pitching did it no favors, but it’s still perfectly noticeable in this film-speed rendering. It’s a distracting issue, particularly with regards to Arthur Bliss’ score (which sounds weaker and more tinny than usual here – the original recording was rough enough to start with), but, as with the earlier DVD, I found it livable here. I know there are others out there more sensitive to the problem, and those who found the DVD’s audio overly distressing should proceed with caution here. For those concerned with the technical side, the monophonic recording is presented in lossless 24-bit LPCM and yes, optional English subtitles (yellow) are provided.

With the exception of two image galleries, which are now presented in HD on the first disc, the rest of the supplements are duplicated from the earlier 2-disc DVD set in SD PAL. The Blu-ray disc of the film features the same audio commentary with Things to Come historian Nick Cooper, the two aforementioned image galleries, as well as a US re-release trailer for the film and a .pdf format copy of the post-production script, accessible with a BD-ROM drive.

Disc 2 of the Blu-ray edition is a PAL-format dual layer DVD9, and all of the other material from the earlier DVD edition appears to have been included. You get On Reflection: Brian Aldiss on H.G. Wells, a vintage 25 minute documentary from 1971, a lengthy Russell Harty interview with Things to Come star Sir Ralph Richardson from 1975, as well as The Wandering Sickness, a 78rpm recording from London Films in 1935. Also included is a Things to Come virtual extended edition, which uses text and images to relate various material, both cut and unfilmed, to produced what Network / Granada advertise as a “tantalizing ‘what-if’”. This is one of the more fascinating extras ever devised for a DVD release, and while the constant interruption of text and stills keep it from being traditionally entertaining, the intrigue factor is sky high. The clear-case packaging replicates the exceptional work done for the special edition DVD with some dimensional alteration (love that cover!), and includes a new printing of that edition’s extensive (and I mean extensive) booklet of liner notes from Nick Cooper. Things to Come is region-B locked (bonus DVD is Region 2), and will require multi-regional hardware to play domestically.

I’ve been looking forward to an inevitable hi-def upgrade of Network / Granada’s swell SD special edition for several years now, and though the final product is imperfect (particularly the audio) it more than meets my expectations. Those who have been waiting for a quality HD presentation of Things to Come finally have it, and I can’t help but recommend.

Comparison grabs
Network / Granada DVD (upscaled to 1080) | Legend Films Blu-ray | Network Granada Blu-ray

More Network / Granada Blu-ray Screenshots

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. The comparison shots were sourced from our earlier review of the Legend Films Blu-ray.

The Colossus of New York

directed by Eugene Lourie
1957 / 20th Century Fox / 88′
written by
Thelma Schnee from a story by Willis Goldbleck
original music by Van Cleave
cinematography by John F. Warren
starring John Baragrey, Mala Powers, Otto Kruger, Robert Hutton, Ross Martin, Charles Herbert
released June 19th, 2012 by
Olive Films
video: 1080p / 1.78:1 / B&W / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono (English)
subtitles: none
discs: single layer BD25 / Region A (B, C untested)
The Colossus of New York is now available on both DVD and Blu-ray through the usual online outlets.

A product of producer William Alland’s (It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula!) brief late-’50s stint with Paramount Pictures, 1958′s The Colossus of New York was never granted the time or resources necessary for it to be truly great in its own right, but in terms of pure style it’s second to none among the genre output of the decade. A bit like Frankenstein by way of Donovan’s Brain but with an odd, temporally estranged sensibility all its own, Colossus really hooked me as a kid in its infrequent television airings. The film was never made available on VHS or Laserdisc (officially), much to my young disappointment, but thanks to Olive Films (and their quest to release seemingly everything that lies dormant in the Paramount back catalogue) Colossus has been resurrected not just on DVD, but in a newly-released Blu-ray edition as well.

The story here, credited to Willis Goldbleck (Young Doctor Kildare) and future parapsychologist Thelma Schnee (better known as Thelma Moss), is a pretty straight-forward affair. Just after receiving the Nobel Prize for his advancements in mechanized industry, genius scientist and father-of-the-year Jeremy Spensser (Ross Martin!) is struck down in a freak accident while chasing down his son Billy’s toy plane in a parking lot. The shocked family mourns, but Jeremey’s father (Otto Kruger, Dracula’s Daughter), an ace brain surgeon, refuses to allow fate to deprive the world of his son’s genius. With the help of Jeremy’s less successful brother Henry (John Baragrey, Shockproof), dear old dad transplants Jeremy’s brain into a grand new mechanical body. At first horrified and resentful of his newfound inhumanity, Jeremy, unbound by bodily constraints, soon finds his mind possessed of impossible abilities. Brilliance perverts into deranged hubris, and sympathy turns to revulsion. Jeremy’s once-humanitarian pursuits give way to an insane dictatorial ambition and the Colossus finally looses itself, roasting the toast of the scientific community in the lobby of the United Nations.

First things first, it must be said that the eponymous Colossus is as indelible a thing as was ever to emerge from the mid-century golden age of science fiction. There’s a decidedly classical influence on the design, which is heavily reminiscent of various sculptures of Roman dignitaries. Indeed, the 8-foot-tall Colossus even looks more sculpted than mechanical, its ambiguous, unalterable expression set as though in marble, and its broad shoulders boast a suitably noble robe. The shear magnitude of it begs the obvious question – why would Jeremy’s father construct such a large body for his dead son’s brain, except to more easily facilitate its inevitable malevolent turn? Beyond the necessity of having a monster, I always thought there was a certain elegant sense to the doctor’s design for the Colossus. Blinded by his own single-minded determination to see the world benefit from his son’s mind, the father devises a self-same monument / benefactor whose appearance directly reflects the importance he attributes to his son’s intellect. In his arrogance he can’t possibly see the monstrosity of what he is creating, obvious as it it may be to the rest of us.

Adding a bit of welcome psychological complexity to the proceedings is Jeremy’s brother Henry, who assists in his father’s scheme as a way of garnering some paternal attention for himself, so long deprived of the same by Jeremy’s position as the favored son. Henry’s resentment of his brother’s success doesn’t end there, however. With Jeremy’s body hardly cold, and his brain chilling in an aquarium in the household lab, Henry begins positioning himself as suitor for his brother’s widowed wife and fatherless son. It’s no surprise, then, when the robotic Jeremy sets his death-ray sights on his errant brother, a move that cements his megalomania and sets him on his murderous course.

Of pre-eminent art director Eugene Lourie’s four forays into feature film direction (the other three of which are quintessential dinosaur-on-the-loose movies), The Colossus of New York always struck me as being the most interesting, if not exactly the best. A lot of that, I suspect, is to do with the literal timelessness of it all. The various machinery on display – laboratory equipment, an airplane, automobiles, a television set, even the Colossus itself – are all quite modern, but the style is something else entirely. Despite its contemporaneous trappings The Colossus of New York feels much older, oozing an aesthetic that recalls the end of the silent era – as a kid I remember having trouble telling just when the film was supposed to be taking place for this very reason. In addition to the moody expressionist lighting and occasional diffused close-ups, themselves enough, taken with the black and white photography, to secure the film’s old-school pedigree, Colossus features another throwback, brief bursts of undercranking that speed-up some of the action set-ups. The clincher here, however, is the piano-only score from prolific composer and music arranger Van Cleave, itself a novel solution to a strike by the Musicians’ Union at the time of production. Van Cleave’s score, written for three keyboardists, has also seen something of a resurrection as of late, courtesy of a CD release (along with the same composer’s work for Jack Arnold’s The Space Children) from Film Score Monthly.

The Colossus of New York isn’t a perfect film. Constrained by the aforementioned time and budget it can’t help but feel smaller than it ought to (even the primary location, the Spensser family estate, is only a table top miniature in its wide shots), but with a brisk running time of less than 70 minutes one can’t accuse it of overstaying its welcome. Perhaps most notable now for the brief appearance of Ross Martin (Experiment in Terror), here only a few short years away from his immortal turn in TV’s The Wild Wild WestThe Colossus of New York nevertheless maintains a unique appeal, if for its eponymous monster and retro style alone. Frequent readers know where I stand on this sort of cinema, and for fans of the same Colossus is a must-see.

Previously available only in gray-market dupes from old television screenings, Olive Films’ officially licensed Blu-ray treatment of The Colossus of New York is nothing short of a revelation. Presented in 1080p with the open-matte photography cropped comfortably to 1.78:1, the image here is unrestored but, given the nature and age of the production, I can’t complain. There’s plenty of minor damage to ponder – frame-specific specks, flecks, scratches, emulsion marks and so on – and there’s a persistent printed white hair visible at the center of the right side of the frame for a lengthy stretch, from roughly 9:30 to 33:30, but given the quality of the transfer otherwise I was undeterred.

Detail is surprisingly crisp where DP John F. Warren’s (Torn Curtain) photography allows, and contrast is rich. The image appears free of any undue digital manipulation, and a fine layer of film grain is visible throughout. I have to admit that I was at first taken aback by the meager technical specifications (the brief feature is granted a modest single-layer Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 23.5 Mbps), but aside from some minor posterization the show never really suffers for them. Audio is healthily related by way of a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 monophonic track, and Van Cleave’s score sounds especially strong. As is becoming too common for these sub-licensed releases there are no subtitles, and par for the course for Olive Films, with the exception of a functional menu the disc is void of any extra content.

I’ll not argue the virtues of high-price boutique label releases here, as it seems I’m doing that practically every other article these days. Suffice to say that, being very fond of the picture and having paid premium prices for bootleg copies in the past, I thought the disc was well worth what I put into it. Olive Films’ The Colossus of New York was never going to be the must-own Blu-ray property of the year, and it was never intended as such, but those keen on the film’s unique brand of sci-fi are certainly encouraged to indulge.

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: We are Controlling Transmission Edition

While I’m not overly fond of the episode itself, I have to admit that Tourist Attraction, from season 1 of the original The Outer Limits, had some smashing music composed for it. Co-producer and regular composer Dominic Frontiere (Hang ‘em High) brought in fellow composer Robert Van Eps (a veteran of studio music departments) to do the majority of the scoring work for the episode, and I can’t argue with the results.

Here’s Dive #2 / Capturing the Creature, off disc 1 of the 3-disc limited edition The Outer Limits: Original Television Soundtrack from La-La Land in 2008. For those of you fans who have yet to pick this release up, do so while you have the chance – it’s worth every penny.

Twilight Time Takes a Road Less Traveled: John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus

directed by Victor Vicas
1957 / 20th Century Fox / 88′
written by
Ivan Moffat from the novel by John Steinbeck
original music by Leigh Harline
cinematography by Charles G. Clarke
starring Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Dan Dailey, Rick Jason, Betty Lou Keim, Dolores Michaels
released June 12th, 2012 by
Twilight Time
video: 1080p / 2.35:1 / B&W / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono (English)
subtitles: none
discs: single layer BD25 / Region A (B, C untested)
supplements: Original Theatrical Trailer, Isolated Score (DTS-HD MA 2.0)
The Wayward Bus is released as part of the Twilight Time limited edition series (only 3000 copies), and is available through ScreenArchives.com.

My last Twilight Time article was a bit of a mope-fest, pondering the implications of the appearance of recent big-Hollywood schmaltz on a niche label’s release roster, but those worried about a repeat performance with regards to the company’s second June offering can rest easy. Far from prompting any kind of sky-is-falling revelation, this limited edition issue of John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus instead serves as an exemplary reminder of why labels like Twilight Time, Olive Films and the like have become so important (at least in my estimation) to the contemporary home video marketplace. Whether justifiably neglected, criminally undervalued, or somewhere in between, there is a literal mountain of cinema that, thanks to the prevailing “new or nothing” sentiment of the majors, has no good probability of seeing Blu-ray release at their hands. Twilight Time and even the recently prolific Olive Films will never be enough to pick up all that slack, but at least they have the gumption to try - I shudder to think of the state of my Blu-ray shelf without them.

As for the film, one would be hard-pressed to describe John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus as any kind of classic – the fact that it’s been wholly absent from video circulation until now, even with Jayne Mansfield headlining and Steinbeck attached, isn’t entirely unjustified. Yet the film is not without its charms. Adapted by Ivan Moffat (Giant) from the eponymous bestselling 1947 novel, though with what level of veracity I don’t know, and directed by the little-known Victor Vicas (who would go on to have a substantial career in French television), The Wayward Bus is ultimately less a literary odyssey than a twisting, turning excursion into high Hollywood hokum that punctuates its predominating emotional conflicts with landslides, wash-outs, and all the subtlety of a kick to the groin. Still, somehow it compels, and I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the ride.

The Wayward Bus chronicles a particularly eventful bus ride from a bleak California crossroads to a terminal in San Juan, and if the title doesn’t offer enough ominous portend then an early radio warning about “stormy weather” certainly makes up for it. Stormy weather indeed, as in addition to the patently theatrical flash and crash and a whopper of a backcountry deluge, there’s a marriage headed for the rocks as well. The Chicoys have enough on their hands even before the death-defying antics of the day, with the distractions of running both a bus line and a crossroads convenience stop, not to mention wife Alice’s perennial alcoholism, proving just too much for their love life (interrupted early by the proverbial fly in the pudding) to stand. As Johnny ushers the day’s load of malcontents to their various fates, wondering all the while what direction to take his own, Alice stays behind, searching for the importance in her life through the bleary filter of Scotch.

The less said about Ivan Moffat’s screenwriting, with its drama poured on so thick it could choke a guy, the better, though it does offer any number of fine moments for The Wayward Bus‘ oddball ensemble. The beautiful Joan Collins is out of her element as the nigh-bipolar Alice, but she certainly makes an impression, hunched drunken over a cash register or judging her disheveled looks in the chrome of a cigarette dispenser – and those eyes! The fated Jayne Mansfield also shines in one of her few roles of any depth, here as a jaded showgirl looking for a way out (and finding it in salesman Dan Dailey, an itinerant peddler itching to settle down). Properly stealing the show is relative newcomer Dolores Michaels (The Fiend Who Walked the West), playing the sultry and oversexed daughter of a sleazy businessman (Larry Keating, mastermind of the Space Ark in George Pal’s When Worlds Collide) – Michaels’ acid delivery is almost worth the price of admission in and of itself. The fine special effects, credited to reliable Fox artisan L.B. Abbot (Journey to the Center of the Earth), are plenty memorable themselves, and the sight of the film’s rickety namesake creeping along a flood-ravaged bridge is of indelible stuff indeed.

John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus works itself to no satisfying conclusion (I was left with the sense that Johnny and Alice’s relationship is of a Sisyphean sort, doomed to repeat in the same manner again and again), though at least it does so quickly – the sleek CinemaScope production clocks in at a trim 88 minutes, and is really all the better for it. Though no classic by a long shot, The Wayward Bus is still engaging enough in its own strange way to warrant a grudging recommendation from this reviewer. If for Dolores Michaels alone, it’s worth a watch.

Working once again from Fox’s variable high definition elements, Twilight Time present John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus in an edition that’s entirely acceptable, if imperfect – a fitting turn for the film in question.

Presented in 1080p in its intended 2.35:1 CinemaScope, The Wayward Bus shows its age (55 years!) with a bit of flicker and minor damage, but looks quite good all told. My only major complaint is with the light sharpening that has been applied, which leads some textures (the patterns of some clothing) to pop unnaturally in motion and leaves the sharper imagery marked by tell-tale edging artifacts. The effect is slight enough to be no deal breaker in my estimation, though those more sensitive to the issue may wish to take note. Otherwise The Wayward Bus offers lovely contrast and a nice level of detail, and leaves very little to complain about. The usual Twilight Time encoding standards have been modestly altered for this single-layer BD25 presentation, but the Mpeg-4 AVC video encode (at a strong average bitrate of 29.3 Mbps) shows no obvious deficiencies for the trouble. Beyond the sharpening, which would have been applied well before Twilight Time ever got their hands on the material, I’ve no complaints.

The original 4-track stereo elements for John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus appear to have fallen by the wayside in the decades since it was made, but the offered 1.0 monophonic track, presented here in lossless DTS-HD MA, does the job just fine. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, as are the cues from Disney alum Leigh Harline – the isolated score is offered as an extra, and presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo. I must admit that my patience is wearing thin with Fox’s continued reticence to provide subtitles for those titles they license to Twilight Time. With sad predictability, none are provided here. An original theatrical trailer for the show (2 minutes, SD) rounds out the supplemental content, and the disc comes packaged with another fine set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus isn’t exactly the best of the best from Twilight Time, but much like the film, this Blu-ray will do. It perhaps stands best as an example of the label’s willingness to think outside the box, and present audiences with something they’ve, in all likelihood, never had the opportunity to see before. If for that alone I applaud it.

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.

Universal Classic Monsters headed to Blu-ray in October

Pre-orders are already available through Amazon (currently 30% off retail) and other outlets. From the press release:

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 debuts on October 2, 2012 from Universal Studios Home Entertainment. Digitally restored from high resolution film elements in perfect high-definition picture and perfect high-definition sound for the first time ever, Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection brings together the very best of Universal’s legendary monsters—imaginative and technically groundbreaking tales of terror that launched a uniquely American movie genre. This definitive collection features eight films on Blu-ray, a collectible 48-page book featuring behind-the-scenes photographs, original posters, correspondence and much more.  Each iconic film is accompanied by an array of bonus features that tell the fascinating story of its creation and history, including behind-the-scenes documentaries, filmmaker commentaries, interviews, storyboards, photo galleries, and trailers. Especially appealing for fans are 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.

From the era of silent movies through the present day, Universal Pictures has been regarded as the home of the monsters. Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection honors the studio’s accomplishments with the most iconic monsters in motion-picture history including Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, Bride of Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, Phantom of the Opera and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Featuring performances by legends of the horror genre, including Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Jr., Claude Rains and Elsa Lanchester, these eight iconic films also feature groundbreaking special effects and innovative makeup that continue to influence filmmakers into the 21st century. Sure to be a Halloween favorite for years to come, Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection is the ideal gift for film buffs and horror aficionados alike.

Synopses and Bonus Features

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. The Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection includes the original version of this chilling and evocative tale, as well as the rarely seen Spanish version of Dracula. Filmed simultaneously with the English language version, the Spanish version ofDracula is an equally ominous vision of the horror classic shot with the same sets and script. Cinematographer George Robinson and a vibrant cast including Carlos Villarias and Lupita Tovar deliver a chilling and evocative tale filled with the same terror, mystery, and intrigue.

Bonus Features:

  • Dracula, the 1931 Spanish version, with Introduction by Lupita Tovar Kohner
  • The Road to Dracula
  • Lugosi: The Dark Prince
  • 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
  • Trailer Gallery

 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. Based on H.G. Welles’ classic novel and directed by the master of macabre, James Whale, The Invisible Man fueled a host of sequels and features revolutionary special effects that are still imitated today.

      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

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
  • 100 Years of Universal: Restoring the Classics
  • Trailer Gallery

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
  • 100 Years of Universal: The Lot
  • Trailer Gallery

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

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 3D
  • Back to The Black Lagoon
  • Production Photographs
  • Feature Commentary with Film Historian Tom Weaver
  • 100 Years of Universal: The Lot
  • Trailer Gallery

Provided Universal can keep their filtering proclivities at tasteful levels for these classic films, this could easily shape up to be the genre release of the year (and perhaps of the format thus far). With my pre-order already in, here’s hoping for the best!

Day of the Giants

by Lester del Rey
originally published in the December 1950 issue of Fantastic Adventures magazine as 
When the World Tottered, and reprinted  in hardcover by Avalon Books / Thomas Bouregy and Company in February 1959. Reviewed from the Airmont Publishing Company Inc. paperback, circa March 1964. 

It’s always a little dangerous to go about buying books based strictly upon the merits of their covers, but what self-respecting pulp fiction fan could possibly pass up this, with its promises of amorphous gargantuan city-stompers, fleets of flying saucers, and silhouetted acts of chivalry? I certainly couldn’t, even with my backbrain veritably screaming that it couldn’t all be true. It wasn’t, of course, though thankfully that isn’t enough keep Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants from delivering a fine afternoon-worth of escapism.

Albeit labelled “A Science-Fiction Classic” this is more a fantasy with sci-fi trappings than any kind of pure example of the genre, and the front blurb promising a “Final battle between the Norse gods and the Giants!” is infinitely more accurate than the cover art.

The tale begins with a world in turmoil, in which the sudden ushering in of a new ice age sees cities descending into anarchy and citizens battling one another for the remaining spoils. Superstitions run wild, and reports of angel sightings rule the news. In the midst of the inexplicable cataclysm and mystical weirdness Midwesterner Leif Svensen makes a bid for survival on his rural farm, even as his once-neighbors coalesce into a lynch mob hell-bent on killing his faithful pooch Rex, unjustly pinned for a spate of local wolf attacks, and possibly him as well. Complicating matters are Leif’s thrill-seeking war hero twin brother Lee, who claims to have once seen an angel himself, and the arrival of a grisled stranger of questionable origin.

Introduction are slight here, but no matter. As soon as readers are given a taste for the characters del Rey launches headlong into the action, pitting the four (dog included) in a losing battle against a malignant local horde that leaves countless nameless citizenry dead and both Leif and Lee gravely wounded. Fortunately for them divine providence is right around the corner. As the twins lay dying several Valkeries (the angels spotted earlier) descend from the sky on horesback to whisk them away from the mortal world of Midgard and across the rainbow Bifrost to Asgard – the world of the gods. There the brothers’ find their life renewed, though not without purpose. Loki (the grisled man, now revealed to be a god himself) leads the pair to a council with Odin, at which their destinies are secured. The catastrophe threatening Earth is no less than the foretold Fimbulwinter, precursor to Ragnarok, and Odin has called Leif and Lee to fight alongside him in Asgard’s final battle against the fearsome giants of Jotenheim!

Though low on artistic pretensions (del Rey was, after all, an author reported to once have said “Get out of my ghetto” in reaction to academic ingress into his beloved genre) Day of the Giants is sky-high on the escapism meter, and if nothing else offers one of the best wish-fulfillment scenarios I’ve heard to date. Though presenting with no especially heroic ambitions at the outset, humble Leif soon finds himself not only fighting for the future of the Universe (a fight he takes to zealously, concocting such modern arms as grenades, exploding arrows, bazookas and atomic bombs (!) for the gods’ fighting forces), but weeding out a plot of godly usurpation and courting the affections of the beautiful goddess Fulla as well. Even his skills as a farmer are put to grand use in Asgard, where he uses his know-how to revive the ailing tree that provides the gods their golden apples of power and immortality. Odin is so pleased with his progress that he makes the mortal a god (!!), changing his name from Svensen to Odinsson and allowing him to feast upon the golden apples, that he might cultivate his godly powers! Who could ask for more?

Being mercifully short, Day of the Giants maintains a high level of action while outright ignoring anything inessential to its single narrative thread. The downside to this is the underdevelopment of some aspects of the story, most notably that of the treacherous plot to overthrow Odin. That said, it’s difficult for me to fault del Rey for neglecting that sort of thing when he otherwise loads the tale with such terrific action setpieces as the recovery of the sword of Freyr from Jotunheim, Leif riding to battle on a bladed chariot lead by two massive armored goats, and Fulla using the flying horse Hoof-Tosser (Hófvarpnir, the closest we get to the flying saucers on the cover) to bomb the encroaching giant horde with atomic grenades. Those hoping for deep characterization and substantive discourse will be out of luck with Day of the Giants, but if it’s pure ridiculous mythology-fueled heroics you’re in the mind for then del Rey definitely has you covered.

And I think that’s as far as I’ll allow this review to go, lest I betray the good-fun intention of the thing and begin to take it too seriously – it just wouldn’t do to have del Rey rolling in his grave after he’s entertained me so greatly. Day of the Giants may be the literary equivalent of the cool, saccharine stuffs that see us through the haze of Summer (it’s 128 pages of shave ice, sundae, and root beer float with a heaping helping of Mjölnir on top), but as I see it that’s no insult. This makes for perfectly outlandish company on a toasty late-June afternoon, and comes well recommended.

Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants is available in multiple editions, though the cheapest and most readily accessible may be the 1964 paperback from which I read.

Twilight Time Gives as Good as it Gets

As Good as it Gets
directed by James L. Brooks
starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight
released June 12th, 2012 by
Twilight Time
video: 1080p / 1.85:1 / Color / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround (English)
subtitles: English SDH
discs: dual layer BD50 / Region A (B, C untested)
supplements: Original Theatrical Trailer, Isolated Score (DTS-HD MA 2.0)
As Good as it Gets is part of the Twilight Time limited edition series (only 3000 copies), and is available through ScreenArchives.com.


My apologies for the briefer than usual article, but the fact is that the brand of schmaltzy, saccharine drama represented by As Good as it Gets just isn’t my cup of tea, never has been, and I fear never will be. Rather than torment myself and bore you all to tears in an attempt to squeeze 1000 words out of a film that completely disinterests me, I’ll be sticking to the video review this go around.


In its way As Good as it Gets may be the most disheartening addition yet to the ever-expanding Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray catalog, not in terms of content but in what it says about the current state of the video industry in America. With their earlier Fright Night (a cult favorite with big appeal, and Twilight Time’s only sell-out to date) came similar concerns with regards to a lack of studio confidence in their own libraries, but this is a further step down the rabbit hole. As Good as it Gets was released to rave reviews and Academy Award nominations (and wins) just 15 years ago, and its cast offers enough name recognition to ensure broad appeal for a mainstream video release even now. With Sony’s past cult releases (like Night of the Creeps) performing below expectations the move of Fright Night into niche label territory was neither surprising nor particularly unforgivable, but that a film so recent and mainstream as As Good as it Gets is being sub-licensed as well speaks sad volumes about the future of big-studio video releases, and in particular of just how poorly we can expect library titles to be represented by them.1

But enough doom and gloom – whether or not the industry as we know it is in its death throws, dammit, we’re here to discuss video! In that respect there’s nothing in the least bit discouraging about As Good as it Get‘s Blu-ray debut, which stands as another fine representative of the quality of presentation Twilight Time has come to be known for.

Produced only a decade and a half ago, and as such all but immune to the age-related concerns so often raised in my articles, As Good as it Gets makes for a splendid HD presentation. There are a handful of opticals peppered throughout (a view of a marina from a hotel window, the opening and closing credits) that show the odd speck or two and the thickness of multiple layers of film, but otherwise this is a remarkably clean show. Grain-a-phobes should be pleased by the modesty of the film texture (the light grain is never overpowering), while those allergic to digital mitigation efforts will find none to bemoan here – this transfer is sublimely filmic. In addition to the texture of the medium, the level of detail improves markedly in the bump to HD. Close-ups offer an impressive range and photographed textures (cloth patterning and so on) are tight. The predominantly warm color scheme is very well rendered, bolstered by healthy contrast and natural light levels throughout. Despite the dubiousness of their licensing practices, Sony have left little to complain about here – this is another grade-A high definition transfer from the company.

Twilight Time stick to the standards that have marked so many of their recent releases, and that’s just fine by me. Spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, the 2-hour-plus As Good as it Gets receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps (with a maximum bitrate of 38.0 Mbps) and the results are, for all intents and purposes, flawless – those sensitive to encoding artifacts will find nothing of distraction here. Aside from a bit of screaming As Good as it Gets isn’t especially impactful on the sound front, but Sony’s 5.1 surround mix (in lossless DTS-HD MA) gives it superior technical support just the same. Hans Zimmer’s buoyant score (also available in its own isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track) shines through nicely, and the rest of the dialogue-heavy production’s recording is perfectly clear and intelligible – optional English SDH subtitles are included, so I’ve no complaints. An original theatrical trailer (2 minutes, HD) rounds out the on-disc content, and the package arrives with another fine booklet of liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

As Good as it Gets remains about as wide of my area of expertise (and interest) as a film can get, and the less I say about it here the less I’m apt to embarrass myself, but even a lukewarm reaction to the feature wasn’t enough to dull my senses to Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition. This is another excellent video presentation, the likes of which should really be the norm for the format, and those keen on the production are encouraged to indulge.

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

1 And still, As Good as it Gets is far from the worst news regarding Sony’s catalog confidence – the company recently made a 250 picture deal with bargain bin megalith Mill Creek, which says plenty about how much they currently feel their library is worth. At this point I suppose I should just be happy that there are still independent distributors out there who are able and willing to pick up the big-studio slack.