HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION (1932-1939). Just in time for Halloween comes this three-disc, six-title set showcasing a wide variety of 1930s horror flicks from the Warner and MGM catalogues.
The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932) finds author Sax Rohmer's famed character on a quest to conquer the globe by obtaining the sword and mask of Genghis Khan; naturally, it's up to members of the British empire to thwart his plans. Boris Karloff plays the evil warlord with the right mix of menace and playfulness, and, yes, that's Myrna Loy as his nymphomaniac daughter.
Doctor X (1932) is notable for a number of reasons: the use of early two-strip Technicolor, the impressive Max Factor makeup, the involvement of director Michael Curtiz before he became Warner's top go-to guy (Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy), and a rather grisly story about the search for a serial killer among a laboratory of top scientists.
Director Tod Browning (Dracula) remade his own silent film London After Midnight (starring Lon Chaney) as Mark of the Vampire (1935), with Bela Lugosi and spooky Carol Borland as bloodsuckers terrorizing a small Czech village. The twist ending is a beaut and provides Lugosi with a treasured movie moment.
Peter Lorre's memorable turn as a child killer in Fritz Lang's M had already established the actor as a familiar face when he arrived in the U.S. to make his first stateside picture. In Mad Love (1935), he cuts a striking figure as Doctor Gogol, who replaces the injured hands of a concert pianist (Colin Clive) with those of an executed mass murderer.
Perhaps the most enjoyable film in the set, The Devil-Doll (1936) allows Lionel Barrymore the chance to go the Tootsie route. He plays Paul Lavond, a Devil's Island escapee who plots revenge against the three men who framed him. Disguised as a sweet old lady who runs a toy shop, he benefits from the discovery of his fellow fugitive, a scientist who has figured out a way to shrink human beings down to the size of dolls.
Despite its title, The Return of Doctor X (1939) is not a sequel to Doctor X. It's also not especially good, as two bland heroes (Wayne Morris and Dennis Morgan) investigate the shady dealings of a doctor (John Litel). What makes this one worth a peek is that the role of a pasty-faced zombie-vampire -- a doctor who's been brought back to life and can only survive by downing human blood -- is played by no less than Humphrey Bogart!
DVD extras include audio commentary by film scholars on five of the titles and theatrical trailers.
First Five Titles: ***
The Return of Doctor X: **
REDS (1981). It's been a long time coming, but Warren Beatty's masterpiece has finally been released on DVD. Billed here as the "25th Anniversary Edition," Beatty's magnum opus is an example of the sort of sweeping epic that Hollywood doesn't even attempt to make anymore. And in its masterful maneuvering between personal love story and large-scale historical saga, it's also superior to Doctor Zhivago, the film that generally comes to mind as the benchmark of such ambitious undertakings. Beatty, serving as producer, director, co-writer (with Trevor Griffiths) and star, delivers an impassioned performance as John Reed, the early-20th-century journalist and activist who became the only American buried at the Kremlin. Covering the final years of his short life, the film largely centers on Reed's relationship with writer Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton) and his eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution, detailed in his book Ten Days That Shook the World. Yet Reds is a movie so rich in purpose and detail that it manages to pack a number of events into its 195-minute running time: It also examines the period's feminist movement, the discussions and dalliances of leftist intellectuals, the constant turmoil involving the Socialist Party, the IWW and, later, the Communist Labor Party, and the disillusionment of those who had embraced Communism only to watch its principles get corrupted by the machinations of zealots. And through it all, we're treated to present-day (i.e. 1981) remembrances by Reed's contemporaries (including Henry Miller and George Jessel) as they discuss John, Louise and the events of that era in world history. Despite a number of note-perfect turns (Annie Hall, for starters), this remains my favorite Diane Keaton performance: In portraying Louise Bryant, she's intelligent, lovely, opinionated, sexy, strong and courageous. Jack Nicholson, meanwhile, contributes beautifully understated work as a brooding Eugene O'Neill -- it's arguably the most retrained performance he's ever given. The Academy initially got it right by nominating this for a whopping 12 Oscars, then blew it by only handing it three for Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Maureen Stapleton as feminist Emma Goldman) and Best Cinematography; it absurdly lost Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay to underdog Chariots of Fire. Besides a trailer, the only extras in the two-disc DVD set are interconnected making-of featurettes that combined total a little over an hour. They're highly informative, but considering how long we've had to wait for this movie, it's disappointing that Paramount didn't load up on the extras.
SLITHER (2006). If nothing else, this deserves credit for offering us a break from the current trend of nihilistic horror flicks whose sole purpose is to devise groovy new ways for psychopaths to torture and murder innocent people. Make no mistake: Slither offers gore by the bucketful, but the movie's in the spirit of those enjoyable, us-against-them monster yarns that ran rampant from the 1950s straight through to the mid-80s. Starting out as an "invader from outer space" opus (think The Blob) before switching gears to become a quasi-zombie flick (think Night of the Living Dead), the film involves a gelatinous E.T. that turns hicksville businessman Grant Grant (Michael Rooker) into its agent of evil on earth. The master plan eventually involves a mass assault by hundreds of slugs that take over humans' bodies by entering through the mouths; naturally, the entire planet is doomed unless double-Grant's wife (Elizabeth Banks) and an amiable sheriff (Nathan Fillion) can figure out a way to shut the otherworldly operation down. Slither takes its time getting started, but once it does, it never lets up, throwing the blood, slime and one-liners (some woeful, most of them witty) at the screen with feverish abandon. Banks is actually touching as the wife who doesn't comprehend why her husband has morphed into a human squid, and between his starring roles here and in last year's sci-fi tale Serenity, Fillion might end up becoming a new generation's Bruce Campbell. DVD extras include audio commentary by Fillion and writer-director James Gunn, 10 minutes of deleted scenes, various featurettes focusing on the special effects and a gag reel.