Category Archives: DVD/Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-Ray Review: Hollywood Story (1951).

Directed by William Castle
Produced by Leonard Goldstein
Story and Screenplay by Frederick Kohner and Fred Brady
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Film Editor: Virgil Vogel

Cast: Richard Conte (Larry O’Brien), Julie Adams (Sally/Amanda Rousseauz), Richard Egan (Police Lt. Bud Lennox), Henry Hull (Vincent St. Clair), Fred Clark (Sam Collyer), Jim Backus (Mitch Davis), Houseley Stevenson (John Miller), Paul Cavanagh (Roland Paul), Katherline Meskill (Mary), Louis Lettieri (Jimmy Davis), Francis X. Bushman, Betty Blythe, William Farnum, Helen Gibson, Joel McCrea

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Art imitates life here. Hollywood Story (1951) concerns a producer (Richard Conte) solving an old Hollywood murder mystery, while prepping a movie about that mystery. It was based on the actual 1922 murder of director William Desmond Taylor. This scandalous crime, which created a media circus and plenty of completely fabricated news stories, was never solved.

Conte buys an old movie studio and learns of the murder that took place there. Intrigued, he decides to use it as the basis for his next picture, and he reaches out to a number of people who were working at the studio at the time — from a writer (Henry Hull) to the daughter of one of the studio’s biggest stars (Julie Adams). With that framework, the picture manages to follow the Taylor case fairly closely as Conte pieces together what happened.

L-R: Richard Conte, Francis X. Bushman, Helen Gibson, William Farnum, Betty Blythe.

William Castle directed several entries in Columbia’s The Whistler series, moody mini-noirs starring Richard Dix. They were excellent, and Castle’s same no-nonsense approach can be found here. Hollywood Story was done before Castle went gimmick crazy with his late 5os horror movies, but there’s a gimmick anyway, bringing in a few silent stars — Betty Blythe, Francis X. Bushman, William Farnum and Helen Gibson. Their parts mean nothing to the movie, but their names look good in the ads. (They were paid peanuts.)

This was one of a handful of pictures Castle did at Universal International. He did some cool stuff there — this one, Undertow (1949) and Cave Of Outlaws (1951) — before returning to Columbia, where he’d start working for producer Sam Katzman.

Hollywood Story gives us a great look at early 50s moviemaking, particularly at Universal International. Joel McCrea has a cameo in one of the on-the-set scenes. Judging from his costume, he might’ve been shooting Frenchie (1950) when his brief scene was done. We also visit a number of Hollywood points of interest — such as Jack’s At The Beach, Ciro’s, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, Ocean Park Pier and the old Chaplin Studio (as the scene of the crime).

The cinematography from Carl E. Guthrie is terrific, adding plenty of mood when it’s needed and playing up the bright lights of Hollywood. Universal’s movies from the 50s, whether they were in Technicolor or black and white, have a real sparkle to them, thanks to masters like Guthrie. And that’s what makes this Blu-Ray such a great thing. It presents Guthrie’s work flawlessly. It’s much better than the old DVD. Brighter, with better contrast. It adds a level of depth you don’t see very often, which is really effective in the darker, scenes. 

Hollywood Story is a solid movie, and it’s been given a sterling transfer for Blu-Ray. Mill Creek has paired it with Castle’s New Orleans Uncensored (1955). It looks great, too, and since each picture is on its own disc, the bit rates are quite high. They’re priced right, too. For William Castle fans, this set is an absolute must. More, please!

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Filed under 1951, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Joel McCrea, Julie Adams, Mill Creek, Universal (-International), William Castle

DVD Review: Dan August – The Complete Collection (1970-71).

Before getting this set, I don’t think I’d ever seen an episode of Dan August all the way through. I thought of it pretty much the way most folks do: either it was this TV thing Burt Reynolds did before Deliverance (1972) made him a big deal, or it was just another 70s cop show — take your pick. Either way you look at it, you’re selling it short.

The set Dan August – The Complete Collection kicks off with the 1970 TV movie House On Greenapple Road that introduces the Dan August character, played by Christopher George. Like the series that would come after it, it’s got a terrific cast — Janet Leigh (who’s really good), Keenan Wynn, Julie Harris, Walter Pigeon, Ed Asner, Paul Fix and Barry Sullivan. Whether they saw it as a pilot or just a TV movie at the time, it’s really good.

Dan August is a homicide detective in the fictional Southern California town of Santa Luisa. It doesn’t seem to be a very big place, but people sure do turn up dead a lot. And that’s were August comes in. Christopher George played him as the typical late 60s TV detective, and he’s very good. But when the series came along, George turned it down and recommended his friend Burt Reynolds for the part. It took some time to sell Quinn Martin (and Burt) on the idea, but it all came together.

Reynold’s Dan August is younger and more physical, which brings in more topical subject matter (drugs, hippies, homosexuals, protests, etc.) and a lot more action. Burt does all his owns stunts — leaping over fences and cars, fighting one crook after another, and always running. He must’ve been a bruised-up, exhausted mess when he got home each day. Of course, it adds a lot of authenticity to the show. His self-deprecating sense of humor isn’t on display here, and the series is better off without it. 

The principal cast was reimagined with Burt in the lead. His partner’s Norman Fell (taking over from the movie’s Keenan Wynn), and Richard Anderson replaced Barry Sullivan as the Chief Of Police. Ned Romero and Ena Hartman were kept from the TV movie.

The shows are well-written and sharply, stylishly directed. And the casting from episode to episode is fabulous, bringing in folks like Ricardo Montalban, Vera Miles (above), Harrison Ford, Dabney Coleman, Larry Hagman, Diana Muldaur, Julie Adams, Carolyn Jones, Bradford Dillman, Donna Mills, Victor French, Richard Basehart, Lee Meriweather, Don Stroud, Sal Mineo, Ellen Corby, Billy Dee Williams and Mickey Rooney. It’s a lot of fun watching for who’ll pop up in the next one.

Even though Burt was nominated for a Golden Globe, Dan August only lasted one season (on ABC). It was an expensive show to make, and it was up against some heavy competition. Burt would quickly move on, and after he was a major star, Dan August would be rerun by CBS both late at night and in primetime.

Now, thanks to the DVD set Dan August – The Complete Collection from VEI, it runs whenever you want it to run. The shows are complete and look really good. The pilot movie, House On Greenapple Road, looks terrific, bright with rich color. The set is highly recommended.

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Filed under 1970, 1971, Barry Sullivan, Burt Reynolds, Carolyn Jones, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Julie Adams, Mickey Rooney, Richard Basehart, Television, Vera Miles

Blu-Ray Review: Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933).

Directed by Michael Curtiz
Screenplay by Don Mullaly and Carl Erickson
From the story by Charles S. Belden
Photography by Ray Rennahan
Art Director Anton Grot
Edited by George Amy
Gowns by Orry-Kelly

Cast: Lionel Atwill (Mr. Igor), Fay Wray (Charlotte Duncan), Glenda Farrell (Florence), Frank McHugh (Editor), Allen Vincent (Ralph Burton), Gavin Gordon (George Winton), Edwin Maxwell (Joe Worth), Holmes Herbert (Dr. Rasmussen), Arthur Edmund Carewe (Darcy/Sparrow)

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There’s something about a “lost” film that magically lifts it above the usual concerns about quality. It’s lost, good or bad doesn’t matter anymore. Same goes with what it looks like — we’ll take anything, it’s lost!* When a 35mm Technicolor print of Mystery Of The Wax Museum (1933) turned up in Jack Warner’s personal archive (about 50 years ago!), all that mattered was seeing it. It once was lost, but now it was found.

Sadly, the 16mm color prints (pulled from Jack’s 35) that made the rounds of colleges and film festivals weren’t much to write home about. (The story goes that the picture’s cinematographer, Technicolor artiste Ray Rennahan, attended one of those screenings, and he was so dismayed by what was on the screen, he left.)

Well, enough time’s gone by that Mystery Of The Wax Museum isn’t a lost film anymore. To most folks, it’s just a creaky, creepy old horror movie with weird-looking color. In fact, it’s probably better known now as the movie House Of Wax (1953) was a remake of. But thanks to Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray — from a miraculous restoration by UCLA and The Film Foundation, with funding from The George Lucas Family Foundation, it’s certainly not lost. It’s not nearly as creaky. And its color, while still a little weird, shines like a diamond (or an emerald since there’s so much green). And I’m happy to say, man, this thing’s creepier than ever.

Come to think of it, it’s like it’s been found again! We don’t have to look past or through anything anymore. We don’t have to imagine what it looked like back in ’33. We can just enjoy it for what it is. This restoration (a second print was later discovered in France) levels the playing field to let it compete with its ghoulish gang of contemporaries — 30s horror masterpieces like Frankenstein (1931), White Zombie (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and so on. And while it might not reach some of those lurid, lofty heights, it really holds its own. 

We all know the plot by now. A sculptor (Lionel Atwill) is disfigured when a London wax museum is burned by its owner for the insurance money. Years later, that sculptor has relocated to New York and is about to reopen a new museum with recreations of his greatest works. A young reporter (Glenda Farrell) notices that the Joan Of Ark figure looks a lot like a young women who died a few days ago, and whose body disappeared from the morgue. (Obviously, House Of Wax was a very faithful remake.) Then, as luck would have it, Fay Wray wanders into the museum, and she’s the spitting image of Atwill’s melted masterpiece, Marie Antoinette. From there, things get even weirder and far more sinister as Atwill’s evil plan and despicable working methods are discovered.

Seeing it look this good, and with its sound cleaned up to an astonishing degree, there are some things about the film that really strike you. The dialogue has that snappy early-30s cops and reporters repartee going on, which we know from pictures like The Front Page (1931). Some of it’s a real hoot — and some a little suggestive, which helps remind you that this is a pre-Code picture.

The picture seems to wallow in its more lurid aspects. Atwill’s employees are quite a seemly, leering bunch. One, Darcy (Arthur Edmund Carewe), is a junkie who the police question until his DTs cause him to spill. There’s a bit of talk about bootlegging. And we get to spend time in the morgue, with a body rising to a seated position, an eery result of the embalming process. And of course there are numerous opportunities to gawk at Fay Wray’s legs. It’s all part of the fun. 

Ray Rennaham (behind camera), Lionel Atwill and Michael Curtiz.

There are times when it’s quite obvious the wax figures are played by people. The hot lights needed for Technicolor photography didn’t get along with the wax figures. Queen Victoria blinks. Joan Of Arc’s lip twitches. 

Speaking of those hot lights. Mystery Of The Wax Museum was the last feature shot in two-color Technicolor. Ray Rennahan and set designer/art director Anton Grot worked with the process’ limited color palette to create plenty of atmosphere. As we see the picture today, two colors were not a handicap for these folks. The odd color enhances the odd nature of the story, especially the vivid greens in a few creepy closeups. It’s surprisingly stylish.

Mystery Of The Wax Museum has always been a favorite, and I cherish my laserdisc of it paired with Doctor X (1932), another creepy two-color picture from Atwill, Wray, Curtiz and Rennahan. (Would love to see Doctor X get a similar restoration.) Seeing Mystery Of The Wax Museum on Blu-Ray is a revelation, making it quite obvious that the damage and semi-color were a real detriment to how much we enjoyed it over the years. The extras — a tribute to Fay Wray, a before/after comparison of the restoration and two commentaries — make for a nice package indeed.

Film history nuts (especially those fond of the technical stuff), pre-Code fans and those of us who just can’t get enough classic horror really need this Blu-Ray. It shows what can be done these days to bring a beat-up old movie back from the brink — and lets us sit back and really enjoy this creepy old thing like never before. Essential. 

* If London After Midnight suddenly turned up, would you care what kind of shape the print was in — or if the movie was actually any good? I didn’t think so.

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Filed under DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Fay Wray, Pre-Code, Warner Archive, Warner Bros.

Blu-Ray Review: Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1.

I discovered Frederick Bean “Tex” Avery in high school. While my classmates were spending their after-school hours at football practice, rehearsing for some school play, working at McDonald’s or God knows what else it was that they did, I was watching Tom & Jerry cartoons on one of the TV stations out of Philadelphia. Scattered in-between shorts like Texas Tom (1950) or The Flying Cat (1952) would be something from a guy named Tex Avery.

It didn’t take long to figure out that the Sony Betamax needed to be brought into play, and armed with it and a copy of Leonard Maltin’s book Of Mice And Magic, I was checking off Avery cartoons like Deputy Droopy (1955) as I captured them. Maybe this made me a bit of an obsessive shut-in loser, but I sure laughed a lot.

What makes Tex Avery’s cartoons so good, and him the widely-acknowledged King Of Cartoons, was his experimentation. How fast could a gag be and still register in the mind of the audience? How over-the-top could a reaction be and still be relatable? How many visual puns can you cram into six minutes? The pace of his pictures just got faster and faster, and if you watch the Tom & Jerry cartoons in chronological order, you can see that Avery’s experiments were rubbing off on William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. 

All that insider baseball is great, but who would care if the cartoons themselves weren’t so damn funny? There’s terrific evidence of just how funny they are in Warner Archive’s new Blu-Ray Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1.

You get —
Tex Avery Classics
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943)
Who Killed Who? (1943)
What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943)
Batty Baseball (1944)
The Hick Chick (1946)
Bad Luck Blackie (1949)
Garden Gopher (1950)
The Peachy Cobbler (1950)
Symphony In Slang (1951)

Screwy Squirrel
Screwball Squirrel (1944)
The Screwy Truant (1945)
Big Heel-Watha (1944)
Lonesome Lenny (1946)

George & Junior
Hound Hunters (1947)
Red Hot Rangers (1947)

Droopy
Dumb-Hounded (1943)
Wags To Riches (1949)
The Chump Champ (1950)
Daredevil Droopy (1951)

This red-hot helping of wonderfulness looks and sounds fabulous, better than I’ve ever seen these things look. I found myself pausing them to study the beautiful backgrounds from MGM’s incredible stable of artists. And I really appreciated the way the disc was set up — you can watch ’em straight through, one at a time, or grouped as you see them above. A tremendous amount of care went into this set, and a big fat thanks to everyone involved.

But maybe the best thing about this Blu-Ray is the “Volume 1” in its title. I’m already waiting for Volume 2.

Tex Avery Screwball Classics Volume 1 is absolutely essential. How’d we all make it this long without this thing?

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Filed under Cartoons, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Hanna-Barbera, MGM, Tex Avery, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray Review: The Return Of Ultraman (1971-72).

When the Japanese special effects master Eiji Tsuburaya passed away in 1970, his son Hajime took over the family business, Tsuburaya Productions. In what would prove to be a very smart move, he resurrected the Ultra Series with The Return Of Ultraman. (Sadly, Hajime Tsuburaya passed away in 1973.)

The Return Of Ultraman was the fourth entry in the Ultra Series, and what’s cool about this batch is that Ishirō Honda, the principal director of Toho’s Godzilla movies and other kaiju pictures, was on hand for a few episodes, including the first one, “All Monsters Attack.” Honda is the John Ford of Japanese monster movies — everyone copies what he did, but no one could come close to the master’s work. (Years later, Akira Kurosawa would coax Honda our of retirement to work on his later films, sometimes as a second unit director.)

You could probably say The Return Of Ultraman is more of the same. Which, if you like the earlier stuff, sounds like a pretty good deal. (Today, Hollywood pretty much lives on the “more of the same” approach to filmmaking.) There are some subtle differences in how our new Ultraman, a race-car driver named Hideki Go, works — and there are some alterations to the Ultraman outfit, but when it comes to Ultraman battling monsters, the Tsuburayas knew they were onto a good thing.

The Monster Attack Team (MAT) and their gorgeous 1971 Mazda Cosmo Sport.

What I found interesting about The Return Of Ultraman is that the Ishirō Honda episodes have a slightly different look and feel to them. Honda’s style, while maybe hard to describe, seems to be impossible to duplicate (whether it’s Godzilla or Ultraman, features or TV).

Mill Creek has released The Return Of Ultraman as part of their ongoing Ultraman DVD/Blu-Ray program, and like its predecessors, it looks and sounds terrific. They’re presented in Japanese with nice English subtitles (even the theme song),  they look like a million bucks, and they’re packaged with obvious care. The monster “roster” included in the booklet is a lot of fun. It’s always nice to see something like this, as goofy or juvenile as it may seem, receive stellar treatment like this. For fans of this sort of thing, this is highly, highly recommended.

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Filed under 1971, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Eiji Tsuburaya, Ishirō Honda, Kaiju Movies, Mill Creek

Blu-Ray Review: Underwater! (1955).

Directed by John Sturges
Written by Walter Newman
From a story by Robert B. Bailey & Hugh King
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Film Editor: Stuart Gilmore
Music by Roy Webb

Cast: Jane Russell (Theresa Gray), Richard Egan (Johnny Gray), Gilbert Roland (Dominic Quesada), Lori Nelson (Gloria), Robert Keith (Father Cannon), Joseph Calleia (Rico Herrera), Eugene Iglesias (Miguel Vega), Ric Roman (Jesus), Jayne Mansfield

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Howard Hughes was notorious for screwing around with the movies at his RKO. This time, Howard gets his mitts on John Sturges’ Underwater! (1955), a film put together as a star vehicle for Jane Russell (and titled The Big Rainbow). The trouble is, going in, Sturges had been lead to believe it was going to be a B action movie. After months and months of pre-production, shooting, the usual Hughes tampering and a boatload of reshoots, the finished picture had its world premiere underwater at Silver Springs, Florida — with the cast, various studio people, the press and assorted celebrities and dignitaries watching the picture 20 feet down wearing aqualungs. Really.

The plot’s a pretty flimsy one (though there were more than 20 drafts of the screenplay). Richard Egan and Gilbert Roland discover a 17th-century treasure ship, perched precariously on the edge of an underwater cliff. As they try to remove the booty before the ship drops into the abyss, they tackle sharks, Joseph Calleia and the bends. Jane Russell is Egan’s wife and Roland’s sister,  and she seems to possess an inordinate amount of swimwear.

Before it was all over, some location work was done in Hawaii and Mexico (most of it with doubles and little of it actually used), a giant tank was built on the RKO lot, and a couple million was spent before the thing was finished. Lori Nelson was borrowed from Universal-International and wasted in a nothing part — some say she had the lead and was replaced with Russell, so a role was added to fit her in (after all, they were paying U-I for her services).

It’s a real mystery why Hughes didn’t get involved in the engineering of Jane’s bathing suits, as he did with her brasserie for The Outlaw (1941). It was supposed to be shot in 3-D, but it was abandoned in favor of Technicolor and RKO’s SuperScope widescreen process. John Sturges never met Hughes; they just spoke on the phone in story conferences. The trouble-plagued location stuff was done before the cast had been nailed down, so everything had to be shot from a distance. The water in the RKO tank would get murky every so often and have to be drained. By the time Hughes and his micromanaging got to the reshoots, Sturges had reported to MGM for Bad Day At Black Rock (1955), no doubt sparing him a great deal of heartache. Ah, the joys of Hughes-era RKO.

The critics hated it, but it was a hit anyway. It turned out to be Russell’s last picture for Hughes.

While it’s easy to dismiss Underwater! as a pleasant enough film, it has plenty going for it. The Mexican and Hawaiian scenery is beautiful — and beautifully shot by Harry J. Wild. The boats we see in the harbor, and the yacht our heroes take on their adventure, are incredible. The film’s greatest assets turn out to be Jane Russell (no pun intended) and Gilbert Roland. Jane’s accent is terrible, but she looks terrific and has the likable quality that seems to carry her through some pretty shaky movies. By this point in his career, Roland was in his 50s and proving to be a real force of nature. Other films from this period, such as Anthony Mann’s Thunder Bay (1953) and George Sherman’s The Treasure Of Pancho Villa (1955), also benefit from his presence. In Underwater!, he steals about every scene he’s in, even when he’s up against Russell in a bathing suit.

Jane Russell and her double Pat Deane Smith.

Like a lot of movies with diving sequences, things slow down below the surface. Even the great Thunderball (1965) suffers from this. But with Underwater!, it isn’t much of a deficit, and the 99 minutes cruise along just fine.

Warner Archive has done everyone concerned proud with their Blu-Ray of Underwater!, presenting it in its original SuperScope 2.0 and making sure the Technicolor pops like it’s supposed to. It’s stunning how sharp it is at times, highlighting just how much craftsmanship went into a picture Russell called a turkey — and RKO pronounced one of its biggest hits. Recommended, not so much for the film, but for Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland and Warner Archive’s terrific presentation.

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Filed under 1955, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Howard Hughes, Jane Russell, John Sturges, RKO, Warner Archive

Blu-Ray Review: A Bucket Of Blood (1959).

Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Charles B. Griffith
Cinematography: Jacques R. Marquette
Music by Fred Katz
Film Editor: Anthony Carras

Cast: Dick Miller (Walter Paisley), Barboura Morris (Carla), Antony Carbone (Leonard de Santis), Julian Burton (Maxwell H. Brock), Ed Nelson (Art Lacroix), John Brinkley (Will), John Herman Shaner (Oscar), Judy Bamber (Alice), Myrtle Vail (Mrs. Swickert), Bert Convy (Detective Lou Raby), Jhean Burton (Naolia)

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This is the kind of blog, read by the kind of people, where A Bucket Of Blood (1959) doesn’t require a lot of set-up. It was written by Charles B. Griffith, directed by Roger Corman for AIP, shot in five days for $50,000 (on sets left over from Diary Of A High School Bride), with the great Dick Miller in the lead. The end result is wonderful.

So, 60 years later, we get A Bucket Of Blood on Blu-Ray from Olive Films, part of their Signature series, and it’s incredible. You probably never thought you’d see this movie look like this. I certainly didn’t.

Sure, it’s still a $50,000 movie about a guy that kills people to make statues. But now we get a chance to really appreciate all that’s going on. We see Corman showing some real confidence as a director, displaying some real chops here and there — and turning out one of the better Horror Comedies, a very-hard-to-pull-off sub-genre. Dick Miller makes Walter Paisley both a lovable chump and a creepy killer. And everyone seems to be in on the fun when it comes to showing us how pretentious, cynical and hypocritical the whole Beatnik scene could be. The dime-store set design is really effective and fun to study in high definition.

Olive Films has given A Bucket Of Blood the attention I think it deserves. We’ve seen it looking so bad for so long — from muddy 16mm dupes to crappy PD VHS tapes and DVDs, it’s a bit of a shock to see it so crisp and clean. I found myself pausing it repeatedly to study things.

Along with the movie looking like a million bucks, a big leap from its $50K origins, we get a bucket-load of terrific extras, most courtesy of Elijah Drenner, whose documentary That Guy Dick Miller is a treasure. Drenner provides a new interview with Corman, an audio commentary and a wonderful visit with Dick Miller and his wife Lanie. This package is a joy from one end to the other, and a great way to revisit an old favorite. Highly, highly recommended.

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Filed under 1959, AIP, Charles B. Griffith, Dick Miller, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Olive Films, Roger Corman

Blu-Ray Review: Ultra Q (1966).

Until this Mill Creek set turned up in my mailbox, I hadn’t seen an episode of Ultra Q (1966) in its entirety. Now, about halfway through the show’s 28 episodes, I’m having a blast.

If I had seen Ultra Q when I was 10 (and could understand Japanese), it might’ve been my favorite TV show.

It goes like this. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects maestro behind Toho’s Godzilla movies, started his own production company and kicked things off with Ultra Q. It’s about a team of investigators who look into different mysterious goings from episode to episode — similar to the setup of, say, The Night Stalker or The X Files. But this being Japan in the mid-60s, that premise (inspired by The Outer Limits) becomes a showcase for a giant monster every week. Toho was an investor in Tsuburaya’s new production company and gave the show access to their prop warehouse, filled with monster suits waiting to be unleashed on another miniature Tokyo. Part of the fun is spotting disguised monsters from the Kaiju movies, such as Godzilla dressed up to play Gomess in the first episode.

It’s a pretty whacked-out affair. All sorts of things come from space or out of the ground, and our intrepid team — a scientist, a young reporter and a pilot — take them on as the Japanese countryside and infrastructure get stomped. That’s pretty much it. The half-hour format really works in its favor, as time is never wasted — they get right to the monster.

Ultra Q only lasted one season. Tsuburaya Productions moved on to the first Ultraman series (in color) in 1967, and that franchise is still going.

Mill Creek has done a terrific job on this set, available in regular or steelbook packaging, and on their first Ultraman set (released the same day).

Ultra Q‘s gorgeous black and white is perfectly presented on Blu-Ray, with the contrast masterfully dialed in. Everything’s sharp as a tack, allowing for some grainy stock footage from time to time. The sound is clear as a bell (it’s got a great Surf-y theme song), and the English subtitles (it’s in Japanese only) are nicely done. (There was evidently an English version prepared that never aired. It’d be cool to see some of those.)

Ultra Q was quite a discovery for me, and I’m sure fans of the show will be overjoyed by this set. If only every TV show got this kind of attention.

Mill Creek is to be commended for this one. Highly recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

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Filed under 1966, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Eiji Tsuburaya, Kaiju Movies, Mill Creek, Toho

Blu-Ray Review: The Shooting And Ride In The Whirlwind (Both 1966).

This was a post I really wanted to get right. There were two previous attempts, which I hated and discarded (to say too much about these movies, in a way, takes away from them). Hope the third time’s the charm.

The backstory. Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson did a couple of pictures in the Philippines for Roger Corman (Back Door To Hell and Flight To Fury, both 1964). When there was talk of doing something else, Corman asked them to make a Western. That became two Westerns to be shot back-to-back — similar to their Filipino arrangement. The budgets were $75,000 apiece, with  three weeks scheduled for each.

Nicholson wrote Ride In The Whirlwind and The Shooting came from Carole Eastman (as Adrian Joyce). Both films were shot in Utah by Gregory Sandor, with Nicholson serving as producer. They share the same tiny crew and Nicholson and Millie Perkins in the casts. The Shooting was done first, with a period of about a week before Ride In The Whirlwind started. The finished films played a few festivals (Montreal, Cannes) and some foreign bookings, but were sold straight to TV in the States (though Variety reviewed Ride In The Whirlwind back in ’66).

There were plenty of ugly VHS releases before VCI brought them to DVD. That was a great day indeed, and these terrific little Westerns started to find an audience. They’ve been given the red-carpet treatment by The Criterion Collection, with an incredible batch of extras. It took quite a while, but they’re finally getting their due.

The Shooting
Directed by Monte Hellman
Written by Adrian Joyce (Carole Eastman)
Director Of Photography: Gregory Sandor

Cast: Warren Oates (Willett Gashade), Will Hutchins (Coley), Millie Perkins (The Woman), Jack Nicholson (Billy Spear)

The Shooting was shot first (and I saw it first), so we’ll begin with it. Warren Oates returns to his mining camp to learn that his brother killed a boy in town and fled. Then a mysterious woman (Millie Perkins) appears and pays Oates to lead her to the town of Kingsley, for reasons she won’t share. They begin their trip through the desert, trailed by a lone gunman dressed in black (Nicholson).

Ride In The Whirlwind
Directed by Monte Hellman
Written by Jack Nicholson
Director Of Photography: Gregory Sandor

Cast: Cameron Mitchell (Vern), Millie Perkins (Abigail), Jack Nicholson (Wes), Harry Dean Stanton (Blind Dick), Katherine Squire (Catherine), George Mitchell (Evan), Rupert Crosse (Indian Joe), Tom Filer (Otis)

A group of cowboys (Cameron Mitchell, Jack Nicholson and Tom Filer) stumble upon a cabin where Blind Dick (Harry Dean Stanton) and his gang invite them in. The next morning, the cabin’s surrounded by a posse — and the three innocents are instantly wanted men.

The idea in The Shooting of the gunman after someone, we don’t know who, is the backbone of Jack Arnold’s No Name On The Bullet (1959) with Audie Murphy. When it comes to Ride In The Whirlwind, there are plenty of innocent men on the run movies. There’s a fatalist, noir-ish feel to some of both films’ dialogue, but that comparison falls apart, too. These were unlike any Western that came before them — or after them, for that matter.

While most of Roger Corman’s young directors showed promise under his leadership, then went on to do great things, Monte Hellman managed to make two great films while still in the Corman camp. These seem to share the same basic approach as his Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) — a deceptively simple, and purposefully vague, situation is established, and for the rest of the picture, we watch the characters react to that situation. In The Shooting, like Oates, we don’t know what the hell is going on, but we’re pretty sure it’s not going to be good. Ride In The Whirlwind lets us share the desperation of Mitchell and Nicholson. And we don’t get to know the characters of Two-Lane Blacktop because there really isn’t anything to know — they just keep going.

There have been complaints over the years that some of the performances in these Westerns are wooden. The leads seem pitch-perfect to me. Millie Perkins and Jack Nicholson are fine in both. Cameron Mitchell was always dependable, no matter what kind of junk he was in. Will Hutchins is terrific. And Warren Oates was simply one of the best film actors ever, incapable of being less than stellar (and Hellman seemed to draw his best work out of him).

The camerawork from Gregory Sandor is stunning. There was no time or money or crew for lights, so everything was done with natural light. The frame of Oates with the coffee cup, above, from a long take in the first few minutes of The Shooting, sums up these movies for me. The lighting seems real, not Hollywood, and the oddball composition is perfectly imperfect. For some reason, that image has stuck with me for over 20 years.

The new 4K masters done for the Criterion release are some of the best I’ve ever seen, for any movie. Both The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind really look like film here, and the color seems rich even though everything is brown and dusty. Just as there was no time or money for lights, there wasn’t much for makeup, either. Millie Perkins didn’t feel she was presented very well in either film, though I disagree. She looks exactly how she ought to look.

While the merits of every film on video should hinge on the film itself, Criterion put together a series of extras that really add to your appreciation of these gems. The commentaries by Monte Hellman, Blake Lucas and Bill Krohn are some of the best I’ve ever heard. They cover everything you’d ever want to know about how these pictures came to be. Even if the films were terrible, their combined production history would be fascinating stuff. The fact that they’re absolutely brilliant makes it all the more special. Adding the package are interviews and short documentaries.

Back when these Westerns looked awful on VHS, they were something to be tracked down and studied, especially for those with a thing for Monte Hellman. This Criterion set, presenting both in stunning quality and with a serious stack of extras, is nothing short of essential. My highest recommendation.

A big thanks to Blake Lucas.

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Filed under 1966, Criterion Collection, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Harry Dean Stanton, Jack Nicholson, Monte Hellman, Morris Ankrum, Roger Corman, Warren Oates

Blu-Ray Review: The Shadow On The Window (1957).

Directed by William Asher
Screen Play by Leo Townsend & David P. Harmon
Based on a story (“Missing Witness”) by John & Ward Hawkins
Cinematography: Kit Carson
Music by George Duning
Film Editor: William A. Lyon

Cast: Phil Carey (Tony Atlas), Betty Garrett (Linda Atlas), John Barrymore, Jr. (Jess Reber), Corey Allen (Gil Ramsey), Gerald Sarracini (Joey Gomez), Jerry Mathers (Petey), Sam Gilman (Sgt. Paul Denke), Paul Picerni (Bigelow)

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This tough little gem from Columbia can be found in Kit Parker’s nine-movie, three-disc Blu-Ray set Noir Archive, Volume 3 (1956-1960). These sets offer up a real wealth of riches — and I hope they keep coming.

A little boy (Jerry Mathers) sees his mother (Betty Garrett) getting roughed up by some punks as they rob and kill an old man. He wanders off, in shock, and is picked up on the side of the road by a couple of truckdrivers. Turns out he’s the son of police offer Tony Atlas (Phil Carey). With very little to go on (Mathers is able to tell them a few things), the cops race against time to find her.

Of course, we’ve seen this kind of thing before — crooks hiding in a house with a witness or two that can’t be allowed to live to rat ’em out. (There’s even an episode of Little House On The Prairie like that.) And while we’re sure the police procedural stuff will lead to the creeps before it’s all over, there are some good performances (Betty Garrett and Jerry Mathers are very good), some over-the-top menace from John Barrymore, Jr. and a great parade of 50s character actors to keep me happy — Sam Gilman, Paul Picerni, Norman Leavitt, Angela Stevens, Mel Welles and so forth. William Asher’s direction is tight and assured — a long way from his loose-as-a-goose Beach Party movies.

But what gets me about movies like this is the unshakeable craft of the crew. From the sets to the cinematography, what you see is a well-oiled machine powered by people who knew what they were doing and, despite the budget, came through every single time. Cheap studio movies from the 50s usually look very good. Kit Carson’s cinematography on this one was never going to win him an Oscar, but he creates mood where he needs to and helps conceal the pictures’s limited budget. Carson did a lot of TV and only a handful of features.

So far, this series has given us 27 features, and every one of them looks terrific (some a bit better than others, as you’d expect). The Shadow On The Window is one of the nicest of the bunch — nice 1.85 framing, superb contrast and the kind of grain that reminds you that this used to be on film. This movie’s easy to recommend — and these sets are essential stuff.

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Filed under 1957, Columbia, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Kit Parker, Phil Carey, William Asher