The Thing


Viewed – 24 October 2017  Blu-ray

Growing up I must have seen this movie on TV several times, and always marvelled not only at the atmosphere and setting, but those incredible creature effects by makeup artist Rob Bottin.  Over the years CGI has taken over considerably, the recent ‘prequel’ being a noteworthy example of CGI not able to replace decent practical effects, and so despite this being over thirty years old, how does it hold up compared to today’s offerings?

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Kurt Russell leads a cast of characters which bare at least thematically a resemblance to the crew of Alien’s Nostromo.  These guys, working at a remote research facility in the Antarctic are not marines, but simple blue-collar workers, not unlike what you’d find of an oil rig … who are about to get an unexpected and unwelcome visitor.  Director John Carpenter took inspiration from 50s b-movie The Thing From Outer Space, but brings his own personality and considerable directing chops to deliver probably one of the stand out horror movies of the 80’s.  Colourful characters bring a realism to the movie that works well and the cast all do a fine job with Russell proving a great lead.  The setting is also claustrophobic and well filmed; combining a mix of traditional cinematography with hand-held camera work.  Once the ‘thing’ starts imitating various characters, tension ramps up and it became pretty disturbing and scary, especially with how the characters convey their paranoia and fear for those they once called friends.  However the star of the show is the creature itself and it’s transformations and gory appearances are stuff of cinematic legend by now – and all these years later still impress.  The scenes with tentacles, spiders legs and all sorts of other things still sent shivers my way.  Yet Carpenter sensibly chose to make this as much a character piece as a creature feature and for that reason it excels.Thing Arrow VideoArrow Video once again deliver a stunning package with the movie’s latest treatment on Blu-ray, improving immeasurably over the previous Universal release which suffered from lip-sync problems.  Here we get a 4K restoration boasting a clean, detailed image free of dust or damage and in fine shape, even if it’s not the most vibrant movie you’ll see.  All those gory details certainly get showcased however.  Add to this a choice of original 2.0 Stereo, 4.1 and also DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio, and along with Ennio Morricone’s ominous score and clear dialogue – this is impressive stuff.  Now as usual Arrow don’t shirk on the special features and here we get two audio commentaries; firstly an archive Kurt Russell & John Carpenter one which feels like two old time buddies watching a movie together, complete with laugh-out-loud reactions to certain scenes.  The other is a commentary by a trio of podcasters that’s well worth a listen for endless titbits and geeky knowledge.  We also get several featurettes, some archive, some new that are well worth dipping into if you’re a fan (and let’s admit it, if you’re reading this you already are).  The Blu-ray limited edition I picked up also comes with a fold out poster, art cards and a detailed booklet as well as fancy slip case packaging.  Which makes this edition essential.

Verdict:

(the movie)  5 /5

(the Blu-ray)  5 /5

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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage


Viewed – 20 June 2017  Blu-ray

Cult Italian horror auteur Dario Argento’s 1970 debut, has all the trade marks that have distinguished his career right through to the present.  The black gloved killer, beautiful female victims, superb camera work, an effective, characteristically unnerving musical score, and grand set-piece murders.  Tony Musante plays an American writer travelling in Rome with his girlfriend (the gorgeously photogenic Suzy Kendall, who resembles like a young Suzanne George), when he witnesses an attempted murder on a local female gallery owner by a dark figure dressed in a black raincoat.  He quickly becomes amateur sleuth after the local detective takes away his passport, and soon further murders take place and he grows ever closer to unmasking the assailant.

Although by no means as graphic as the director’s other works, this well told murder mystery harks back to the classic films of Alfred Hitchcock in both the theme and iconic imagery.  Dario Argento has been often labelled the Italian Hitchcock, and with this thriller such a label is hard to deny.  Yet although his work has become more abstract and bizarre over the years, and such creating a style that is distinctly his own, with this effective film, the director made a mark in cinema that introduced the world to a bold and brilliant new visionary.  Engaging performances by its lead actors (especially Musante), several colourful, odd-ball characters and situations that really get your pulse racing create a distinctly classy thriller right up their with the director’s best.  

Bird with the Crytsal Plumage

This newly restored 4k transfer from the always dependable guys at Arrow Video comes in a deluxe box set that boasts a vintage poster, a detailed booklet and the movie itself on both Blu-ray and DVD complete with a plethora of extras.  We get an essential audio commentary by Argento expert Troy Howarth as well as a new interview with the director, featurettes, trailers and newly commissioned artwork with a reversible sleeve.  Add to this 6 art cards.  The movie itself is in great shape with a clean, grainy image that only suffers from somewhat garish colours (which I’ll admit suit the era the movie was made in).  The soundtrack may only be in it’s original mono audio but is still effective, especially with composer Ennio Morricone’s memorable, haunting score.  An impressive treatment for a genuine classic of the Italian giallo genre.

Verdict:

(the movie)  4 /5

(the Blu-ray)  5 /5

Cat O’ Nine Tails


Viewed – 02 March 2012  Television

This is one of the few films made by famed Italian horror director Dario Argento (Suspiria, Opera) that I had previously never seen.  Forming the unofficial middle of his acclaimed ‘animal trilogy’ that also features The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, I naturally jumped at the chance to watch this 1971 effort when it turned up late night on TV recently.

A blind man (Karl Malden) and his young niece become involved in the mystery surrounding a break in at a reasearch facility and team up with a reporter (James Franciscus) when witnesses to the crime start turning up dead.  For an Argento movie this is firmly in the murder-mystery thriller category rather than the gory horrors he is known for, and is a smart, engrossing watch with plenty of the director’s trade mark imaginative camera work and experimental editing techniques.  The score by seasoned veteran Ennio Morricone is haunting and effective, and for an Argento movie the acting is surprisingly better than expected, even if the odd bizarre character and wooden extra rears its head.  I found the story a little slow and difficult to follow however and the murders lack some of the director’s flair, even if a stand out elevator shaft fall still impressed.

As a fan, I would say this was a weaker entry in the director’s often illustrious cannon, but retains enough of his style and expertise to make it enjoyable none the less.

Verdict: 3 /5

Dario Argento – a reflection


With moderate hype surrounding his latest opus, The Mother of Tears…I thought it would be a good idea to post my thoughts on his back catalogue of films, especially the ones I have collected on DVD.  The other year you see, I went about collecting the best versions of his films on DVD, and have built up an admirable (in my opinion) set of DVD releases, and here are my thoughts on them… 

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Dario Argento with daughter Asia

OPERA

My favourite Argento film (aka Terror at the Opera in the UK), that I own in the limited edition Anchor Bay version comprising the the film, completely uncut and in a brilliant widescreen transfer and THX optimized 5.1 Dolby Digital EX and 6.1 DTS sound.  We also get a 36 minute documentary, trailers and music video.  Add to this the soundtrack on a seperate CD – and I am proud to have this in my collection.  I think the only thing missing from it is a commentary.  This film itself is an explicitly-violent, masochistic take on the Phantom of the Opera story, and has some of Argento’s best set-pieces, of which I won’t spoil for you here.  With a great soundtrack by Goblin (an Argento regular) and a great lead performance by Cristina Marsillach, the only downside to this great film is a rather wierd ending that seems tacked-on and a little out of flavour to the rest of the film.

SLEEPLESS

One of Argento’s more recent efforts seems to me like a best-of, throwing together some of his greatest trademarks such as the black-gloved killer, eerie soundtrack by Goblin and grand, bloody murder set pieces.  For me the opening train sequence is the best the film has to offer, but its classic who dunnit plot is gripping and has a great performance from Max Von Sydow as a retired Cop investigating a series of murders seemingly linked to a past, unsolved case.  This is classic Argento, and so far the last really good film he has made.

The DVD release I own is the UK M.I.A. release that boasts a second DVD with the really rather excellent An Eye For Horror doumentary hosted by UK film critic Mark Kermode.  The film itself is presented in a quality widescreen transfer and is in 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, that is all the better for Goblin’s superb theme playing thoughout.

SUSPIRIA

This is probably his most famous film, and an essential part of any horror-fans collection.  Unlike most of his other films, this is more fantastical and mysterious and isn’t really a murder-mystery.  Set in a high-class ballet academy, this spooky film follows the story of a young student who gets mixed up in a series of murders and disappearances and uncovers a witches coven as a result.  This very distinctive film in Argento’s career forms the first part of his Three Mothers Trilogy, which also encompasses Inferno and soon The Mother Of Tears, and is a stunning assault on the senses that may not be to everyone’s taste.

The U.S. Anchor Bay release is the best you can find, and the one I own is a 3 disk set with a stunning wide-screen transfer in 5.1 Dolby Digital EX, 6.1 DTS aswell as an option for Italian and French soundtracks.  We also have poster galleries, a 25th Anniversary documentary and the original soundtrack on a seperate CD.  If u can find this still online anywhere – u have to own it.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage

Argento’s 1970 debut, inspired by the novel The Screaming Mimi, is a classic who-dunnit with many trademarks that shaped the rest of his career.  With a stand-out lead performance from Tony Musante this stylish thriller is still one of Argento’s finest films.  With a great soundtrack from seasoned master Ennio Morricone, this formed the first part of Argento’s Animal Trilogy, which also includes Cat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies On Grey Velvet, and was heavilly influenced by many similar films of the era, especially those of his mentor Mario Bava.  Not as grizzly as much of his later releases, this still has some shocking moments and probably his finest script.

The DVD I own from U.S. label Blue Underground is probably the best to go for, presented on 2 disks with a commentary by Argento biographer Alan Jones and UK film critic Kim Newman that is well worth listening to.  The film is presented in a very-good (if slightly grainy) widescreen transfer and has 5.1 Dolby Digital and 6.1 DTS sound.  Add to this interviews with Argento, cinematographer Vittorio Sotraro,  composer Ennio Morricone and actress Eva Renzi  – and this is the kind of treatment a classic film such as this deserves.

 

Other films from Dario Argento I heartilly recommend, but thus far don’t all have the deserved DVD treatment as those mentioned, include:

Tenebrae – still boasting some of his best camera-work and set-piece murders, and a great performance from Anthony Franciosa. We also get a rare audio commentary by Argento alongside composers Claudio Simonetti of Goblin.  I own the UK Anchor Bay release, that unlike the U.S. equivalent boasts a quality anamorphic widescreen transfer (which if u know anything about wide screen TVs, is the one to go for).

Deep Red – the only versions we have are the censored UK release from Platinum Pictures or an uncut Anchor Bay / Blue Underground release (that I own) which jumps from dubbed English to Italian at an alarmingly frequent rate, although does have a full Italian soundtrack to compensate.  The film itself is another who-dunnit but has some fantstic murders and a great soundtrack, again from Goblin – and is also one of Argento’s most acclaimed films after Suspiria.

I am also looking forward to the Blue Underground release of The Stendhal Syndrome, one of Argento’s most misunderstood films, with daughter Asia Argento as a rookie cop investigating a serial rapist.  This is not pleasant viewing but does have some great moments and stylish direction throughout.

Update:  See my review of the recent Blue Undergrund release HERE

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