Film » View from the Couch

Batman TV series, The Believers, Vincent Price set among new home entertainment titles

This week's reviews of what's new on Blu-ray and DVD

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(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what's new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale.)

Anthony Hopkins and Susan Swift in Audrey Rose (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Anthony Hopkins and Susan Swift in Audrey Rose (Photo: Twilight Time)

AUDREY ROSE (1977). Thanks to the gargantuan success of 1973's The Exorcist, demonic possession proved to be a major fad in '70s cinema. Along the same lines, filmmakers also saw an opportunity to cash in with flicks involving reincarnation, resulting in the likes of 1975's The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, 1978's The Manitou and this adaptation of Frank De Felitta's novel. (Incidentally, the trend didn't end with the decade, as evidenced by the 1980 releases of Oh! Heavenly Dog, in which Chevy Chase comes back as Benji the mutt, and The Shining, in which Jack Nicholson comes back as, well, a crazier Jack Nicholson.) De Felitta himself wrote the screenplay, which finds British professor Elliot Hoover (Anthony Hopkins) informing Manhattan couple Janice and Bill Templeton (Marsha Mason and John Beck) that their young daughter Ivy (Susan Swift) is actually the reincarnation of his daughter Audrey Rose, who perished in a fiery car accident alongside her mother just moments before Ivy was born. Veteran Robert Wise, perhaps second only to Howard Hawks as a consummate jack-of-all-trades director (credits include The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles and Star Trek: The Motion Picture), establishes a suitably eerie mood during the first half, bolstered by intense performances from Hopkins and Mason (whose 1977 was defined not by this picture but her Oscar-nominated turn in the smash hit The Goodbye Girl). But De Felitta's story turns absurd in the second hour, starting with a trial in which the notion of reincarnation is placed on the stand (next to this, even Santa's courtroom appearance in Miracle on 34th Street looks as grounded in reality as the Nuremberg trials) and culminating in an ending that's illogical, unsatisfying and open to an ungodly number of viewer questions.

Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Michael Small's score.

Movie: **1/2

Burt Ward and Adam West in TV's Batman (Photo: Warner Bros.)
  • Burt Ward and Adam West in TV's Batman (Photo: Warner Bros.)

BATMAN: THE COMPLETE TELEVISION SERIES (1966-1968). As fleeting as the fabled Bat-Signal's appearance in the Gotham skies, Batman premiered on ABC on Jan. 12, 1966 — and was off the air in just a little over two years. Yet over the course of those 27 months, three seasons and 120 episodes, Batman was the pop culture phenomenon of the mid-60s, delighting kids and adults alike and influencing all manner of filmmakers, trendsetters and toymakers. Unique for a network program, the superhero saga aired twice a week during its first two seasons, with each week's first episode ending in cliffhanger fashion and the story then resolved in the second show. Thus, for its initial season, Batman had the honor of placing twice in the Nielsen Top 10, landing at #10 for the Wednesday time slot and #5 for the Thursday episodes (but nothing, not even the Caped Crusader, could knock Bonanza out of the top spot during this period). Campy beyond compare, the series found Batman/Bruce Wayne (Adam West) and Robin/Dick Grayson (Burt Ward) battling a gargantuan roster of revolving villains, including such favorites as The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Catwoman (Julie Newmar, then Eartha Kitt), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin, the only performer to receive an Emmy Award nomination for his work on the show) and Egghead (Vincent Price). It's hard to ascertain which remains more cringe-worthy — West's wooden acting or Robin's god-awful puns — but the filmmakers never took any of this seriously, and neither should you. At any rate, this is the sort of collection that's perfect to view with friends in tow — and for a speedy drinking game, have everyone take a swig whenever Robin exclaims, "Holy ____, Batman!"

(Photo: Warner Bros.)
  • (Photo: Warner Bros.)

The Limited Edition Blu-ray set is a thing of beauty, with the show's colors popping as if every episode had been filmed just last week. Extras include a piece on West; a featurette on rare and valuable Batman collectibles; a roundtable discussion with West, filmmaker Kevin Smith (Clerks, Comic Book Men), actors Ralph Garman (Family Guy) and Phil Morris (Smallville) and comic book writer-artist-publisher Jim Lee (X-Men); and a new look at the creation of the classic series. The set also contains a 32-page episode guide, the 36-page photo booklet The Adam West Scrapbook, 44 trading cards and a Hot Wheels replica of the Batmobile. Oh, and press the button on the side of the box whenever you want to hear a snippet of the famous Batman theme.

Collection: ***1/2

The Believers (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • The Believers (Photo: Twilight Time)

THE BELIEVERS (1987). During the summer of 1987, a hefty number of quality films made good at the box office, including The Untouchables, Full Metal Jacket, RoboCop, Spaceballs and The Living Daylights (unfortunately, the season's top grosser was the painful Beverly Hills Cop II). It's a shame The Believers didn't join their ranks; instead, it has to take solace in being the period's best flop. But from its opening sequence, in which police psychologist Cal Jamison (Martin Sheen) and young son Chris (Harley Cross) watch as a faulty coffeemaker electrocutes wife/mom Lisa (Janet-Laine Green), to its freeze-frame finale, this is an exceptionally well-made horror yarn that really gets under the skin. Following the tragedy, the distraught Cal and Chris move to New York City, where Cal immediately gets roped into helping with a case that involves the ritualistic slaughter of children by members of a religious cult. As Cal becomes further drawn into the mystery, it becomes apparent that both he and Chris are in constant danger. While the film subtly indicts Reagan-era avarice, it works just fine as a straight-up chiller, thanks to the restrained direction by John Schlesinger (an Oscar winner for the brilliant Midnight Cowboy) and a sharp script by future Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost. Sheen and Cross engender massive audience sympathy, and they're backed by a terrific supporting cast that includes Helen Shaver as Cal's new girlfriend, a delightful Richard Masur as his lawyer and best friend, Robert Loggia as a hard-nosed detective and Jimmy Smits as a tortured cop. And then there's Malick Bowens: So likable as Meryl Streep's head servant Farah in Out of Africa, here he's all coiled menace and piercing eyes as the most skilled of the voodoo practitioners.

Blu-ray extras consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of J. Peter Robinson's score.

Movie: ***1/2

John Lloyd Young in Jersey Boys (Photo: Warner Bros.)
  • John Lloyd Young in Jersey Boys (Photo: Warner Bros.)

JERSEY BOYS (2014). Like other screen adaptations of acclaimed Broadway smashes, films like Les Miserables, The Producers and The Phantom of the Opera, this one loses a bit in the transition from floorboards to clapboards. It's a handsomely mounted production, and a sound decision was made in casting the members of The Four Seasons with relative newcomers: John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli (Young won the Tony for essaying the part on stage), Erich Bergan as Bob Gaudio, Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito and Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi are note-perfect (in more ways than one) in their respective roles. But the problem begins with the selection of Clint Eastwood as helmer. His appreciation of jazz is well-documented — director of Bird, executive producer of Thelonious Monk: Straight, No Chaser, composer on several of his own pictures — but there's never been any indication that he would be able to pull off a pop effort like this one. An excellent filmmaker when it comes to pensive, low-key dramas, he never quite locates the proper beat for this tale, and he's furthered hindered by a script (by the show's scribes, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) that often fails to break away from the rigid template that constricts too many musical biopics. The film also has trouble with time: There's often no sense of what's taking place when, and when we do know, it sometimes doesn't ring true (as when a girl in 1951 talks about wanting to see The Blob, which wasn't released until 1958). Jersey Boys contains enough pleasant ingredients to warrant a mild recommendation, but it's at its best when Clint curtails the characters' kvetching and lets the music play.

Blu-ray extras include a making-of featurette; a chat with Donnie Kehr, who played the role of loan shark Norm Waxman in both the film and Broadway versions; and a look at the preparation for the climactic "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" musical number.

Movie: **1/2

Roy Scheider in Last Embrace (Photo: Kino)
  • Roy Scheider in Last Embrace (Photo: Kino)

LAST EMBRACE (1979). An early credit for The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme — it followed three cheapies for Roger Corman, an episode of TV's Columbo and a film about the then-faddish CB radio craze (1977's Handle with Care) — this thriller has long been described in countless quarters as being in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. Sure, if we're talking about mediocre Hitchcock efforts like Topaz and I Confess. Roy Scheider is fine as Harry Hannan, a government agent still reeling from the senseless death of his wife (killed by his side while he was on assignment) but hoping to distract himself by getting back into the game. His oily superior (Christopher Walken, seen far too briefly) believes he isn't ready, but Harry nevertheless finds himself caught up in intrigue when he notices that he's not only being followed but has also started to receive cryptic messages that might be death threats. With the help — or is that hindrance? — of a Princeton student (Janet Margolin), an anthropology professor (John Glover) and a private eye (Sam Levene), Harry follows a string of clues that eventually leads him to Niagara Falls. The set-up is suavely handled, but the film ultimately unravels as thoroughly as the villain's plans, with some far-fetched developments and a distasteful whiff of misogyny tainting the proceedings. Look for brief (very brief) appearances by notorious character actor Joe Spinell (Rocky, Maniac) and a young, bushy-haired Mandy Patinkin.

Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with producer Michael Taylor and the theatrical trailer.

Movie: **

Susan Sarandon and Melissa McCarthy in Tammy (Photo: Warner Bros.)
  • Susan Sarandon and Melissa McCarthy in Tammy (Photo: Warner Bros.)

TAMMY (2014). It's fitting that family dysfunction is at the center of Tammy, since a different sort of familial discord was responsible for this dud being made in the first place. Melissa McCarthy stars in the picture, her husband Ben Falcone handled directorial duties, and the couple collaborated on the screenplay. If their marriage can survive this film, it can survive anything. McCarthy was a potent comic presence in Bridesmaids (earning an Oscar nomination) and The Heat, but here she proves to be curiously ineffectual. She's the title character, a small-town nobody who loses her cheating husband, her minimum-wage job and her car all in one day. With her grandmother (Susan Sarandon) by her side, Tammy hits the road in search of a better life, yet that's difficult to do when life is stacked against you and when Granny turns out to be an alcoholic. Tammy was promoted as a comedy on its theatrical release (and even now for the home market), yet that's only half the story, as the film begins with plenty of comic situations before burrowing deep down into dramatic developments. Unfortunately, neither approach really works. The mirthful bits simply aren't funny — the cast tries hard, but you can practically see the flop sweat pouring off brows. As for the heavy developments, they're obviously meant to add heft to the picture and endear us even further to these sad-sack characters. Instead, the opposite holds true: After even just a half-hour of their tiresome antics, we wish someone would just run them off the road already.

The Blu-ray contains both the R-rated theatrical cut as well as an extended version (also rated R) that runs approximately three minutes longer. Extras include deleted scenes; a featurette of McCarthy and Falcone on the road; and a gag reel.

Movie: *1/2

Johanna ter Steege and Gene Bervoets in 1988's The Vanishing (Photo: Criterion)
  • Johanna ter Steege and Gene Bervoets in 1988's The Vanishing (Photo: Criterion)

THE VANISHING (1988) / THE VANISHING (1993). Director George Sluizer's The Vanishing is a terrific thriller with an uncompromising ending, while director George Sluizer's The Vanishing is a limp thriller with a compromised ending. And if that seemingly contradictory statement sounds like something Agent Dale Cooper might have heard during a Twin Peaks dream sequence, it actually just means that, shockingly, the same man was responsible for both film adaptations of Tim Krabbé's novel: the 1988 Dutch original and the 1993 American remake. Both versions are new to Blu-ray, so revisiting both simultaneously reveals that time has not changed either's worth one iota.

The plots are identical: A vacationing couple (Gene Bervoets and Johanna ter Steege in the original, Kiefer Sutherland and Sandra Bullock in the remake) stop off at a gas station, where the woman disappears without a trace. The husband spends the next few years looking for her, eventually finding his love for her overpowered by his obsession with simply discovering what happened. He gets his chance when he's approached by the abductor (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu in '88, Jeff Bridges in '93), a mild-mannered professor and family man who on the surface seems incapable of hurting a fly.

Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges in 1993's The Vanishing (Photo: Twilight Time)
  • Kiefer Sutherland and Jeff Bridges in 1993's The Vanishing (Photo: Twilight Time)

With Krabbe adapting his own book, the Dutch take (known as Spoorloos in its home country) is a sweat-inducing psychological thriller that carries out its diabolical machinations right through the unsettling ending. In the Yank version, the same climax is reduced to a stepping stone in the plot, completely missing the point of the story. Instead, the film continues for another 10-15 minutes, crammed with the usual thriller clichés: the madman chasing a woman through the nocturnal woods, the hero inexplicably saving the day, etc. (America, fuck yeah!) Lacking the claustrophobic atmosphere, elliptical set-up and overriding sense of dread of the Dutch treat, the American effort only gets as far as it does on the backs of fine performances from Bridges and Nancy Travis as Sutherland's new squeeze.

Blu-ray extras on 1988's The Vanishing consist of interviews with Sluizer and ter Steege and the theatrical trailer. Blu-ray extras on 1993's The Vanishing consist of the theatrical trailer and an isolated track of Jerry Goldsmith's score.

The Vanishing (1988): ***1/2

The Vanishing (1993): *1/2

Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill (Photo: Shout! Factory)

THE VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION II (1959-1972). Last year around this time, Shout! Factory's Scream Factory arm graciously released The Vincent Price Collection (reviewed here), featuring six movies starring the great horror star. Since one good turn deserves another, we're now blessed with a second set, this one showcasing seven more titles. While this edition contains no out-and-out classics like Witchfinder General and The Masque of the Red Death, it still offers some choice selections for Price aficionados.

One of director-producer William Castle's most enjoyable flicks, House on Haunted Hill (1959) casts Price as an eccentric millionaire who offers five strangers $10,000 apiece to those who can survive a night at his haunted mansion. Upon its theatrical release, Castle employed a gimmick he dubbed "Emergo," having a skeleton swoop over the auditorium to coincide with its appearance in the film. Even without this added benefit, couch viewers will find themselves satisfied with the on-screen shenanigans. Return of the Fly (1959) is the middle film in the trilogy that began with 1958's The Fly and concluded with 1965's Curse of the Fly. In the original (see review here), Al Hedison played the scientist whose experiment resulted in mutation, while Price co-starred as his concerned brother. Price returns in Return, tsk-tsking at his nephew (Brett Halsey) as the late scientist's son performs the same experiment as his pop. Not bad, and check out that human-hamster hybrid!

Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson in The Raven (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • Peter Lorre and Jack Nicholson in The Raven (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Four of the seven Edgar Allan Poe adaptations made by director Roger Corman and starring Price were included in last year's box set, and two of the remaining trio can be found here (still a no-show is 1962's Tales of Terror). The first of these is The Raven (1963), which found Corman and scripter Richard Matheson electing to expand on Poe's poem by fleshing it out into a full-scale comedy. This is easily the campiest picture in the set, but what other movie in history allows audiences the opportunity to see a young and awkward Jack Nicholson cast as Peter Lorre's son? In this tale of battling wizards, Price is cast as the Good, Boris Karloff plays the Bad, and Lorre is the Ugly, dishonorably switching loyalties as he sees fit and turned into a raven whenever he misbehaves. The other Poe offering, The Tomb of Ligeia (1964), is far more serious, a lush period tale in which widower Verden Fell (Price) marries the lovely Rowena, only to discover that his late wife Ligeia is still making her presence known around his estate. Elizabeth Shepherd is excellent (and completely different) as both Rowena and Ligeia, and the literate script was penned by no less than future Oscar winner Robert Towne (Chinatown). Price found himself reunited with Lorre, Karloff and Matheson for The Comedy of Terrors (1964), a delightful yarn directed by the perennially underrated Jacques Tourneur (Cat People). Price delivers one of his greatest comic performances as Waldo Trumbull, an unscrupulous undertaker making life miserable for his wife (Joyce Jameson), his partner (Lorre) and the clueless father-in-law (Karloff) he's always trying to poison. Lorre's pratfalls and the delicious verbiage written for Price and Karloff (the latter's eulogy for a landlord played by Basil Rathbone is hilarious) make this a real treat.

Vincent Price in Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (Photo: Shout! Factory)
  • Vincent Price in Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Like House on Haunted Hill and The Raven, The Last Man on Earth (1964) had long fallen into the public domain, meaning any joker outfit could release it in a horrible condition. The presentations of these three films in this Blu-ray set are doubtless the best that will ever be seen; in the case of Last Man, that translates into sharp black-and-white images that suit this tale of a lone figure (Price) forced to fight hordes of vampires after a plague has decimated the planet. The ending is feeble, but this still ranks as the best of the three big-screen adaptations of Matheson's novel I Am Legend (the others being Charlton Heston's terrible The Omega Man and Will Smith's so-so I Am Legend). Lastly, Dr. Phibes Rises Again! (1972), the sequel to 1971's The Abominable Dr. Phibes (included in the first collection), finds the disfigured madman (Price) still seeking to resurrect his dearly departed wife and disposing of anyone who gets in his way. This contains a few riveting set-pieces, but it largely lacks the freshness and inventiveness of its predecessor.

Three of the seven pictures include an introduction and closing comments by Price (filmed in 1982 for an Iowa PBS station). Other Blu-ray extras include audio commentaries by film historian Steve Haberman on House on Haunted Hill, Halsey and film historian David Del Valle on Return of the Fly, Corman and Shepherd on The Tomb of Ligeia, and Del Valle and author Derek Botelho (The Argento Syndrome) on The Last Man on Earth; interviews with Matheson on The Raven, The Comedy of Terrors and The Last Man on Earth; a discussion with Corman on The Raven; a trio of pieces looking at Price's career; theatrical trailers; still galleries; and a 32-page booklet.

House on Haunted Hill: ***

Return of the Fly: **1/2

The Raven: ***

The Tomb of Ligeia: ***

The Comedy of Terrors: ***

The Last Man on Earth: **1/2

Dr. Phibes Rises Again!: **1/2

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