BLACK ZOO (1963) / TROG (1970) / NIGHT OF THE LEPUS (1972) / FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974). Just because Halloween is over doesn't mean we can't still enjoy a steady diet of horror and fantasy flicks. In addition to Island of Lost Souls, Jurassic Park and The Phantom of the Opera (all reviewed below), here are four recent releases from the Warner Archive label.
In light of the recent tragedy in Ohio involving the wholesale slaughter of the exotic animals that had been released by an unbalanced owner of an animal preserve, Black Zoo might be tough going for some viewers. Others will simply be underwhelmed by the lackluster presentation of a fair premise. Michael Gough stars as Michael Conrad, who loves the wild creatures at his private zoo but shows disdain for all humans, including his wife (Jeanne Cooper) and his hunky, mute assistant (Rod Lauren). Conrad also belongs to a cult whose members worship the animals, and he's always eager to dispatch his beasts — lion, gorilla, etc. — whenever someone threatens to disrupt his business. The movie's serious intentions are frequently undermined by its rampant silliness, although it's always nice to see character actor Elisha Cook Jr. in a small role; perpetually cast as ill-fated wimps and patsies, he meets a gruesome end here as well. Gough, a favorite of Tim Burton (five films for the director, starting with Batman), passed away this past March at the age of 94; more lurid was the fate of Lauren, who committed suicide four years ago after being investigated for possibly ordering a (successful) hit on his wealthy wife.
The box copy for Black Zoo states that it was "the third and final collaboration of Gough and producer Herman Cohen"; actually, the pair ended up making two more films together, including Trog. Here, the lead is Joan Crawford, whose unfortunate swan song in this celluloid turkey puts her in the same standing as Errol Flynn (Cuban Rebel Girls), Bette Davis (Wicked Stepmother) and other Golden Age legends who ended glorious careers in desultory fashion. Crawford plays an anthropologist who helps discover a troglodyte (Joe Cornelius) living in a nearby cave; believing him to be the missing link, she treats him like a "retarded child" by teaching him to play with dolls, roll a ball, and refrain from mauling the locals. But the resident grouch (Gough, overacting outrageously) wants to see him destroyed, so he does what he can to insure that the scientist's pet project comes to a tragic end. Freddie Francis, a great cinematographer (Oscars for Glory and Sons and Lovers) and a fine helmer of horror flicks for Hammer and Amicus (Tales from the Crypt, The Skull, etc.), doesn't do such a hot job in the director's chair this time around, although his stagnant direction is no worse than the woefully underdeveloped screenplay or the rancid turn by Crawford. During shooting, the actress was reportedly chugging vodka like NFL players down Gatorade, which makes her performance even more dispiriting.
In the Medveds' The Golden Turkey Awards, Night of the Lepus is one of the five nominees for The Worst Rodent Movie of All Time, along with The Killer Shrews, The Mole People, The Nasty Rabbit and the wholly deserving winner, The Food of the Gods. It's certainly one of the silliest movies of all time, since the monsters terrorizing the good citizens of an Arizona town turn out to be bloodthirsty, oversized ... bunny rabbits. It's up to a husband-and-wife team of scientists to stop the vicious critters, although it's hard to take anything seriously after a rancher (50-year-old Rory Calhoun) describes the pair (44-year-old Stuart Whitman and 45-year-old Janet Leigh) as "that young couple." Still, the dialogue comes across like vintage Woody Allen when compared to the quality of the visual effects, which basically consist of smearing some red food coloring on the rabbits' choppers and having them hop around miniature sets — oh, and for a couple of scenes, the makers did hire a guy dressed up in a bunny costume. And, yes, that's Star Trek's Dr. McCoy, DeForest Kelley, in a supporting role, frantically looking around for a transporter to whisk him off the set.
There was a stretch from the mid-60s through the mid-70s when anthology horror films were in abundance, and while From Beyond the Grave doesn't rank with the best of them, it's still a safe bet for suckers of this sort of thing (like me). Peter Cushing is the link between the four episodes, playing an antique-store owner who doles out fitting punishments to customers who try to cheat him. The best story is "An Act of Kindness," largely because it's the only one whose denouement isn't glaringly obvious. Ian Bannen plays a hen-pecked husband who strikes up a friendship with a former military man (Donald Pleasence) and his odd daughter (Donald's real-life daughter Angela Pleasence); to make a positive impression, he swipes a distinguished medal from the antique store (named Temptations Ltd.), thereby sealing his own downfall. As for the other tales of terror, "The Gate Crasher" finds David Warner as the owner of a demonic mirror, "The Elemental" casts Margaret Leighton as a clairvoyant hired to deal with a malevolent spirit, and "The Door" centers on the horrific events transpiring behind the titular construct. Incidentally, the director is Kevin Connor, who once had the (ha!) honor of directing me in the TV miniseries Master of the Game (check it out here).
There are no extras on the DVDs except for theatrical trailers on Trog, Night of the Lepus and From Beyond the Grave.
Black Zoo: **
Night of the Lepus: *
From Beyond the Grave: **1/2
CARS 2 (2011). Before Cars 2, Pixar had released 11 feature-length tales, all but one of them considered unqualified gems that spoke to adults as much as to the kids. The exception was 2006's Cars, which earned mostly positive notices but was dismissed as lightweight children's fare. I would argue that it's a bit stronger than that — its Route 66 mythology, coupled with the presence of Paul Newman in what would turn out to be his final role, lent it a nostalgic, bittersweet tinge — but when placed alongside the magnificence of, say, Up or the Toy Story trilogy, it clearly doesn't possess the same emotional or artistic wallop. And neither does Cars 2, which, bombarded with blistering reviews upon its theatrical release, replaced its predecessor as the new runt of the Pixar litter. But so what? If the Pixar gurus occasionally want to kick up their heels and make movies that offer only surface pleasures, then so be it. The only requirement should be that they entertain, which is something that Cars 2 certainly does. Adopting an international template, this sequel finds Lightning McQueen (voiced again by Owen Wilson) invited to participate in an international Grand Prix event. McQueen reluctantly takes Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) with him, only to be immediately humiliated by his best buddy's redneck behavior. But while McQueen tries to ignore these distractions and concentrate on beating his racetrack rivals, Mater gets mistaken for a brilliant secret agent by a pair of British operatives (Michael Caine as Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer as Holley Shiftwell) trying to uncover the shadowy head of a criminal cabal. Had Cars 2 been released by any other studio's toon department, it would have been praised for its inventiveness and eye-popping animation; instead, Pixar found itself punished for having a track record like no other. Yet I defy anyone to tell me with a straight face that this is worse than fellow family flicks Zookeeper and Mr. Popper's Penguins. Yeah, that's what I thought.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director John Lasseter; Hawaiian Vacation, the animated short (starring the Toy Story characters) that preceded Cars 2 during its theatrical run; and the "Cars Toon" animated short Air Mater.
CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE. (2011). Just how likable is Crazy, Stupid, Love.? Likable enough that it survives not one but two absurd narrative coincidences that would cripple a lesser film. The secret to the movie's success starts with its blue-chip cast, this past summer's finest gathering with the possible exception of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. Steve Carell plays Cal Weaver, a typical suburban schlub; Julianne Moore is Emily Weaver, who announces to her husband that she wants a divorce. Rocked right down to his rumpled pants and designer sneakers, Cal spends his post-breakup period wallowing in nightly pity parties at a stylish bar. His caterwauling attracts the attention of uber-stud Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), who elects to take Cal under his wing and teach him how to be a successful ladies' man. Before long, Cal is reborn as a swinging single, but the resultant meaningless sex can't conceal the fact that all he really wants is his wife back in his arms. For his part, Jacob finally meets a woman — Emma Stone's aspiring attorney Hannah — who stirs his heart as much as his libido. That right there is enough plot to pack a running time (in fact, it once was; see the similarly themed Hitch), but writer Dan Fogelman clearly had taken his vitamins before cranking this one out, adding on a few more story strands. It's a lot of material for one film, and to help himself make all of these competing plotlines somewhat manageable, Fogelman takes some shortcuts by tossing in the aforementioned pair of whopping coincidences. The first is minor and easily dismissed, but the second affects the entire film and, worse, is revealed in a silly sequence that culminates in an over-the-top physical brawl. Fortunately, the actors continue to shine, the movie's hard-won truths are articulated in an unlikely but effective denouement, and all is (mostly) forgiven.
Extras in the Blu-ray Combo Pack (includes DVD and UltraViolet Digital Copy) include two featurettes (totaling 13 minutes) of on-set interviews with Carell, Gosling and Stone; and 12 minutes of deleted scenes.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932). It's safe to say that the British Board of Film Censors was a rather squeamish lot during the first half of the 20th century, considering that its members banned outright five films that dealt with misshapen people and/or scientists conducting gruesome experiments on human flesh. The infamous five consisted of 1914's Dr. Zanikoff's Experiences in Grafting (a film so obscure that it's not even listed on the all-inclusive IMDb!), 1932's Freaks (which screened in Charlotte earlier this year), 1935's Life Returns, 1946's Bedlam and this adaptation of H.G. Wells' classic novel The Island of Dr. Moreau. It took 25 years — yes, a full quarter-century — before the Board lifted its ban, a long time to have to wait to see a film as good as this one. (But let's not be too hard on our U.K. friends, as the picture was also banned in a dozen other countries, not to mention a handful of these united states.) Charles Laughton, whose next film (The Private Life of Henry VIII) would earn him a Best Actor Oscar, is pure purring menace as Dr. Moreau, who employs vivisection in order to turn various animals into humans in his aptly named "House of Pain." The resulting mutations shuffle around his island lair, repeating the points of the Law ("Are we not men?") and trying to steer clear of the doctor's whip lashes. After a shipwreck survivor (Richard Arlen) ends up on the island, Moreau decides to breed him with his most successful creation, the alluring panther woman Lota (Kathleen Burke). Prolific makeup designer Wally Westmore created the excellent "manimal" designs, and that's Bela Lugosi buried under all that facial hair as the Sayer of the Law. This was remade twice under the title The Island of Dr. Moreau: The underrated 1977 version, starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York, is distinguished; the notorious 1996 bomb, starring Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, is not.
DVD extras include audio commentary by film historian Gregory Mank; a 17-minute discussion between filmmaker John Landis, makeup artist Rick Baker and genre expert Bob Burns; a 13-minute interview with horror-film historian David J. Skal; a 14-minute interview with Richard Stanley, the original director of the 1996 dud; a 20-minute interview with Devo members Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale, whose band was influenced by the 1932 film; and Devo's 10-minute film In the Beginning Was the End: The Truth About De-Evolution (1976), which includes the song "Jocko Homo" (with its line, "Are we not men?").
JURASSIC PARK TRILOGY (1993-2001). Whereas Steven Spielberg's three Indiana Jones films in the 1980s were all winners (as, to a lesser degree, was the belated fourth installment), his Jurassic Park series suffered the same dip as most movie franchises. But the first film has lost none of its ability to dazzle and delight.
1993 was an exceptional year for Spielberg, scoring critical and commercial kudos with both his summer blockbuster Jurassic Park and his year-end awards contender Schindler's List. The hype surrounding the dinosaur film was deafening, and yet the movie largely managed to meet expectations. Based on Michael Crichton's bestseller, it centers on the efforts of various characters — including scientists charismatically played by Sam Neill, Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum — to escape from a theme-park island that's crawling with genetically recreated dinosaurs. Spielberg treats us much as he does his characters, leading us into a strange land and then expecting us to make it out with all our faculties intact; it's a tall order, given the heart-stopping, blood-curdling, limbs-numbing excitement packed into the second hour. The effects work is astonishing — then again, when the team members' past credits had included the likes of Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day and the original Star Wars trilogy, that was to be expected. While Schindler's List was sweeping most of the major Oscars, Jurassic Park went 3-for-3 in its technical bids, winning for Best Visual Effects, Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing. Even more impressive was its phenomenal box office: At close to a billion dollars internationally, it still ranks among the all-time Top 20 grossers.
You didn't have to be a rocket scientist — or even a paleontologist — to know that its 1997 sequel, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, would similarly rake in tons of dough, regardless of the quality of the picture. That was doubtless a relief to studio suits, considering that this is arguably Spielberg's most impersonal movie to date, failing to retain its predecessor's sense of mystery and majesty. It's entertainment on autopilot, with the dinosaur basically reinvented as a slasher-flick stalker. Goldblum returns from the first film, but his character has been transformed from an eccentric sidekick into a listless action hero; new co-stars Julianne Moore and Vince Vaughn fare even worse. The effects are about as impressive as those in the original Jurassic Park; unfortunately, it's the movie surrounding them that remains hopelessly mechanical.
Spielberg served only as executive producer on Jurassic Park III (2001), handing directing duties over to Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger). Screenplay duties were assigned to Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, the team that would later win Oscars for penning Sideways, and William H. Macy joined a cast that included Neill and Dern, both returning from the first picture. Yet despite all this talent to burn, JPIII still turned out to be even worse than the second installment. There's one exciting sequence involving Pteranodons, but the rest is clumsy, uninvolving and often laughable — the scene in which Neill's character learns to speak "Velociraptor" and orders these vicious creatures to go away is particularly risible. In short, this is Hollywood's version of a red-light district, with lots of talented people selling themselves for quick cash.
Blu-ray extras include a new 130-minute, six-part documentary, Return to Jurassic Park; a 50-minute making-of piece on Jurassic Park; a 53-minute making of piece on The Lost World; a 23-minute making-of piece on Jurassic Park III; a 15-minute interview with Crichton; audio commentary by the Jurassic III visual effects team; and numerous featurettes on the trilogy's effects work.
Jurassic Park: ***1/2
The Lost World: Jurassic Park: **
Jurassic Park III: *1/2
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925). One of the landmarks of silent cinema, this adaptation of Gaston Leroux's novel was also the film that firmly cemented Lon Chaney's reputation as a superstar as well as set the stage for Universal Pictures to continue producing definitive horror classics throughout the 1930s and 1940s. If it was no match for the fright fests that were being made over in Europe during this decade (Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it was certainly one of the most epic American undertakings this side of D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, with the Paris Opera and surrounding streets beautifully recreated on the studio lot and populated with that literal cast of thousands. There have been approximately a dozen screen versions of the story, but not one of the subsequent actors to essay the role of the Phantom — among them Herbert Lom, Robert Englund and Gerard Butler — came close to matching Chaney's brilliant portrayal. (Best among the runners-up was Claude Rains in the 1943 interpretation, largely playing up the tragic rather than horrific dimensions of the character.) Chaney, who also created his own makeup, is mesmerizing as Erik, the disfigured underground dweller who won't let anything stand in the way of his love for a singer named Christine (Mary Philbin). The picture admittedly suffers whenever Chaney's not around, but his string of remarkable sequences — including his unmasking at the organ and his entrance at the costume ball — make up for any shortcomings.
Image Entertainment's new Blu-ray contains three versions of the film: the 1925 edition in standard definition (114 minutes) and two speeds of the 1929 reissue in high definition (92 minutes and 78 minutes). The various color sequences (mostly two-strip Technicolor or color-tinted) remain intact. Extras include a reproduction of the theatrical souvenir program; an extensive photo gallery; the complete film script; audio commentary on one of the 1929 versions by Dr. Jon Mirsalis, a composer and Chaney buff (and NC State grad); and a 10-minute interview with Gabriel Thibaudeau, who composed the score for one of the 1929 cuts.