THE BLACK SLEEP (1956) / QUEEN OF BLOOD (1966) / BILLY TWO HATS (1974) / THE GREAT SCOUT AND CATHOUSE THURSDAY (1976). In the same manner as Warner Bros. with its Archive Collection, Fox has started its own MOD ("manufacturing on demand") program. Approximately 60 movies have already been released in this format since last winter. Here's a look at four of them: two terror tales and two Westerns.
A fantastic cast of horror all-stars is the chief selling point of The Black Sleep, although the film itself doesn't come close to living up to its marquee power. Basil Rathbone stars as Dr. Cadman, who's conducting gruesome brain experiments on unwilling subjects provided by a purring gypsy (Akim Tamiroff, offering the comic relief in a role originally intended for Peter Lorre). Cadman's menservants are among the botched results, and although Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi essay these roles, their participation produces feelings of depression rather than elation: Both men were addicts at this point in their lives — Chaney with alcohol, Lugosi with drugs — and they're handed thankless roles bereft of even one line of dialogue between them (Lugosi would pass away later in the year, but Chaney struggled until 1973). More enjoyable are fellow genre mainstays John Carradine and Tor Johnson, who appear all too briefly in the frenzied finale. The Black Sleep isn't nearly as bad as its reputation, but a higher budget and a more accomplished director than Reginald LeBorg might have yielded a more respectable horror yarn.
1958's It! The Terror From Beyond Space is an acknowledged influence on Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien, but I daresay that some of Queen of Blood's DNA can also be found in its extraterrestrial composition. Set in the year 1990, which as we all know was when space stations were established on the moon, this largely takes place on a spaceship whose members have picked up a green-skinned humanoid Martian (Florence Marly). It turns out that she requires blood to live, and she soon starts picking off the crew members like a space-age vampire. John Saxon and a pre-Easy Rider Dennis Hopper are among the intrepid astronauts, while Basil Rathbone and Famous Monsters of Filmland's legendary editor, the late Forrest J Ackerman, co-star as scientists studying the situation from a safe distance. This dry endeavor picks up steam during its final half-hour, but by then, most viewers will have checked out.
After enjoying a 21-year run as a top box office star, Gregory Peck endured a decade-long downturn, appearing in seven consecutive flops in the years sandwiched between 1966's Arabesque and 1976's The Omen. Billy Two Hats was the last of the septet, and like his other duds from this era, it's by no means awful, just routine and forgettable (although I admittedly have a soft spot for the 1969 Western Mackenna's Gold, butchered mess though it may be). Forget the Spaghetti Western: Billy Two Hats represents the Matzo Western, considering it was filmed entirely in Israel. Perhaps in preparation for his wild Nazi madman in 1978's The Boys from Brazil, Peck exuberantly tries out a different type of accent here, playing bushy-bearded Scottish outlaw Arch Deans. Displaying fierce loyalty to his half-Indian sidekick Billy Two Hats (Desi Arnaz Jr., looking lost so far away from the Desilu studio), Arch rescues him from a relentless sheriff (Jack Warden), only to become injured in the process. Ensuing events lead them to a small ranch house, where a battered mail-order bride (Sian Barbara Allen) finds herself attracted to Billy's gentleness. With In the Heat of the Night director Norman Jewison serving as a producer, it's no surprise that the movie attempts to deal with matters of racism (several of the characters look down on Billy for being a "breed"), but good intentions aren't enough to distinguish this ordinary oater.
Little Matthew Brunson first saw The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday at the age of 13 — it premiered in Portugal, where I was living at the time, two full years after its U.S. theatrical bow (there, it was called Turmoil in the Wild West). Coupled with her role in the TV miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man (which appeared around the same time), it led to my lifelong crush on Kay Lenz; it also cast British actor Oliver Reed as a Harvard-educated Native American with a master plan to spread the clap among the white man, the sort of casting-and-character-combo one doesn't forget over the ensuing decades. Finally revisiting the film after a handful of viewings during my teens, I can't say that the picture is especially good, but fans of bawdy comedies will appreciate at least some of its choices. Lee Marvin hams it up as the great scout of the title, seeking revenge on the slimy politician (Robert Culp) who betrayed him years earlier; Lenz sweetly plays Thursday, a teen prostitute who falls for Marvin's grizzled old coot; and Strother Martin portrays another in his long line of unkempt eccentrics, handed most of the script's insults — when informed that a presidential candidate plans to give women the right to vote, he snorts, "He might as well give them the right to pee standing up; they still won't know what to do with it".
There are no extras on the DVDs except for the original theatrical trailers on The Black Sleep and Billy Two Hats.
The Black Sleep: **1/2
Queen of Blood: **
Billy Two Hats: **
The Great Scout and Cathouse Thursday: **1/2
BLUE VALENTINE (2010). Ingmar Bergman's superb 1974 release Scenes from a Marriage went beyond allowing the viewer to feel like a fly on the wall: It made the viewer feel like a fly pinned to the wall, privy to everything going on in the room but unable to flee from the scene when things got nasty. A similar sense of uneasy omniscience informs Blue Valentine, a raw look at the ugly disintegration of that hallowed union between a man and a woman. Moving his story around in nonlinear fashion, director-cowriter Derek Cianfrance starts out by showing Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cindy (Oscar-nominated Michelle Williams) toward the end of their unhappy time together. Thereafter, he flashes back to the days when they were eager young kids in loopy love — Dean was the more spontaneous and romantic of the pair, Cindy the more sensible and intelligent. Jumping back and forth, Cianfrance nails with absolute clarity the opening and closing acts of this doomed romance, but he doesn't always satisfactorily connect the narrative from A to Z, leaving important questions unanswered. Nevertheless, this punishing drama is worth a look thanks to the excellent work by the leads as well as Cianfrance's ability to employ the appropriate mood to help capture his own prickly scenes from a marriage.
DVD extras include audio commentary by Cianfrance and coeditor Jim Helton; a 14-minute making-of featurette; 20 minutes of deleted scenes; and a three-minute "home movie" by Dean and Cindy.
THE GREEN HORNET (2011). Seth Rogen, superhero? It's nearly impossible to wrap the mind around such an outlandish idea, almost on par with Sarah Palin as U.S. president or Ricky Gervais as the next recipient of the Golden Globes Lifetime Achievement Award. Yet it's Rogen's slovenly appearance and snarky asides that help transform The Green Hornet into not just another superhero movie — having said that, this is still rough going in many respects. An update of the 1960s TV show starring Van Williams and Bruce Lee (and a 1930s radio show before that), this finds Rogen (who also co-scripted) giving the Judd Apatow treatment to the role of Britt Reid, a wealthy party animal who, along with his ingenious employee Kato (Jay Chou), decides to fight crime by donning a mask and becoming The Green Hornet. We're not talking Dark Knight territory here: The plot doesn't advance so much as lurch forward like an alcoholic making another trip to the bar, the villain (played by Inglourious Basterds Oscar winner Christophe Waltz) is a cinematic zero, and the initially exciting action soon becomes redundant. But the comic approach works more often than not, Rogen and Chou banter with ease, and some of the gadgets are indeed pretty cool. Note to self: I've got to get me one of those coffee makers!
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by Rogen, director Michel Gondry, co-writer Evan Goldberg and producer Neal H. Moritz; six behind-the-scenes featurettes totaling 55 minutes; 27 minutes of deleted scenes; and a seven-minute gag reel.