BLACK NARCISSUS (1947). Writer-director-producers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the British dynamic duo responsible for a fair number of their country's classic flicks, crafted a real cinemaphile favorite with this atmospheric and exquisitely rendered drama based on Rumer Godden's novel. In one of her earliest significant roles (as well as one of the last before leaving the U.K. for Hollywood), Deborah Kerr stars as Sister Clonagh, who's tasked to establish a convent in the Himalayas with the help of four other nuns. It's a near-impossible assignment, given the locals' disinterest, the expected culture clashes and the open-air elements that seem to amplify the sisters' own doubts and frustrations; even Mr. Dean (David Farrar), the local British government agent, finds their task a waste of time. But the nuns persevere, some better than others — most damaged by the surroundings is Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), whose grasp on reality begins to slip as she falls for Mr. Dean and grows resentful of what she sees as unfulfilled longing between this dashing rogue and Sister Clonagh. Filmed entirely on the British Isles, mostly on studio sets (no footage of India was employed at any time), Black Narcissus is recognized as one of the film medium's greatest displays of artifice, and production designer Alfred Junge and cinematographer Jack Cardiff both deservedly won Oscars for their efforts. Byron's bug-eyed turn as the increasingly insane Sister Ruth is a matter of taste, but Sabu adds spark as a jovial royal, an 18-year-old Jean Simmons oozes sensuality as a naughty peasant girl, and Kerr (who copped the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Actress prize) excels in a difficult role.
DVD extras include audio commentary (recorded in 1988) by Powell and Martin Scorsese; an introduction by French director Bertrand Tavernier; a half-hour making-of piece from 2000; and a half-hour featurette (also from 2000) on Cardiff and his cinematography.
CLASH OF THE TITANS (2010). Fans of the 1981 original won't find many improvements here: Ray Harryhausen's lovingly crafted stop-motion effects have been swapped out for the usual CGI sound and fury; the ingratiating sense of camp has been obliterated, replaced by a solemnity signaled by furrowed brows and stone faces (and not just on those who encounter Medusa); and the amusing banter between the gods (played by the likes of Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith) is noticeably MIA. On its own terms, however, the film is passable spectacle. As Perseus, the mortal son of Zeus (Liam Neeson) who must thwart Hades (Ralph Fiennes) by defeating a string of ghastly beasts and saving both a city and its princess (Alexa Davalos), Avatar's Sam Worthington is merely OK (the reason for his high demand continues to elude me), but his character is backed by a colorful assortment of warriors who make his journey memorable. Fiennes' portrayal of Hades may not fall far from the Voldemort tree, but he nevertheless cuts a menacing figure. And while most of the mythical creatures (Medusa, the Kraken) pale next to Harryhausen's achievements, the monstrous scorpions prove to be an exception, and superb FX work allows their battle with the humans to emerge as the film's action highlight. Those hoping for a Harry Hamlin sighting (he played Perseus in the original) will be left hanging, but rest assured that there's a clever cameo appearance by another vet of the '81 release. It would be cruel to ruin the scene here (clue: it involves a non-human character), but it's an amusing gag, and it slices through the rest of the picture's glumness with the precision of a sword crafted by Zeus himself.
DVD extras are limited to 18 minutes of deleted scenes and theatrical trailers.
GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) / FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982). Shout! Factory's "Roger Corman's Cult Classics" series continues with two sci-fi yarns that fail to live up to their already meager reputations. Although it was conceived as an Alien rip-off, Galaxy of Terror (aka Mindwarp: An Infinity of Terror) gets some credit for branching off in its own direction, relating how a spaceship's crew members end up on a planet that pits them against their own fears (the "worm rape" sequence earned this film a small measure of notoriety, and was probably the reason this played endlessly on HBO back in the day). Some ripe performances and a thinly developed script kill this, but then again, where else can you find a cast eclectic enough to include Joanie Loves Chachi's Erin Moran, Twin Peaks' Grace Zabriskie, future softcore filmmaker Zalman King (Red Shoe Diaries), House of 1000 Corpses' Sid Haig, and a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund? And the fellow primarily responsible for the impressive set design? Merely a rising talent named James Cameron. Corman and company went back to the Alien well for Forbidden World, which skews more closely to its source in that it basically finds a gruesome creature bumping off the hapless humans in a deep-space lab complex. Arguably the gloppiest movie ever made — alien slime, human innards, or some variation thereof seem to pop up in nearly every sequence — there isn't much to recommend this formulaic jaunt, although I guess I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the titter-inducing scene in which, in the midst of all the bloodletting, the blonde scientist (June Chadwick) and the curvaceous lab assistant (Dawn Dunlap) elect to shuck their clothes for a shower in which they calmly discuss the situation while soaping each other's backs.