The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Flicker Alley, Blu-ray) was the film that elevated Lon Chaney from talented character actor and chameleon leading man to Hollywood superstar, and it was a project he nurtured to the screen. Famous for his elaborate make-up creations and physical transformations, Chaney made his Quasimodo an arrested child in a deformed body. He gave himself a gargoylish face of distorted cheekbones, a distended eyeball, and teeth broken to nubs, mats of coarse hair across his chest and shoulders like a werewolf, and of course his massive hump. But the make-up is only the surface. Chaney gave Quasimodo a dynamic physical life, scrambling down climbing ropes or hanging from the bell rope like a big kid, and a childlike innocence that gave every emotion a purity and intensity that drove his loyalties. His devotion to gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller), who shows him kindness when the rest of the world revels in his torment, is like a whipped dog transformed by a gentle touch. It’s big, broad performance that befits a massive production and Hunchback was huge, Universal’s biggest production to date.
Wallace Worsley was unfortunately not the ideal director for such a production. Though he had directed Chaney in four previous films, he lacks the grace for intimacy and the vision for an epic scope. The film unfolds with a dutiful introduction of the characters and a matter-of-fact movement between scenes, which works fine given the spectacle of the sets created for the film and of Chaney himself. In fact, the film’s major misstep is in the script: the character of Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame who in the novel is the protector and stern father figure of Quasimodo but whose obsession for Esmeralda twists him into villainy, is split into two separate characters: the good (though largely passive) holy father and the bad secular brother who moves freely between the church, the aristocracy and the underworld and tasks Quasimodo to carry out his dirty work. So much conflict and dramatic gravity is lost in that one compromise.
Yet it is still an amazing production thanks to the scope of the lavish backlot recreation of medieval Paris and the Notre Dame plaza (the sets remained for decades and were reused for Universal’s run of horror classics in the thirties), Chaney’s impassioned portrayal, and Ernest Torrence’s commanding appearance as Clopin, the King of the Beggars. The towering Torrence underplays where everyone else reaches, letting his presence alone be threat enough. The immediate response of the criminal hordes to his orders, his gestures, even a quick glance, confirms his authority.
Flicker Alley’s release is produced by David Shepard and Serge Bromberg, mastered from a 16mm reduction print struck in 1926 from the original camera negative, the same source as the 2007 The Hunchback of Notre Dame: Ultimate Edition DVD release by Image. The wear on the print is evident in a steady rain of scuffs and vertical scratches down the image, but the trade-off is an improvement in sharpness and image from the earlier Image release (which was already far and away better than the other public domain editions on the market). It also features the orchestral score compiled by Donald Hunsberger and adapted and arranged by Robert Israel, conducting a small orchestra in the Czech Republic, commentary by Lon Chaney biographer and professional make-up artist Michael F. Blake, the (incomplete) 1915 short Alas and Alack featuring Chaney in two roles (one of them a hunchback), and newsreel footage of Chaney (out of costume) on the Cathedral set of Hunchback, all ported over from the earlier DVD. New to this edition is a slideshow gallery with over 100 original production and publicity stills set to selections from the score (it runs about 14 minutes), and a digital reproduction of the original souvenir program (both mastered in HD).
In The Hidden Fortress (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD), Akira Kurosawa melds western fairy tale adventure with Japanese history for a pre-Samurai era classic of a young princess and a determined General (the gruff ruthless, and often comically exasperated Toshiro Mifune) trying to escape from behind enemy lines with a fortune in royal gold. Long recognized as one of George Lucas’ primary inspiration for Star Wars (among other things, the bickering peasants who wander into the odyssey inspired R2D2 and C-3PO), it’s Kurosawa’s his first go at the widescreen format and he proves to be a master at it, dynamically spreading his compositions out to an epic scope and boldly setting his cascade of sharp action scenes against a magnificent landscape. It’s a grand adventure of flashing swords, thundering horses, giant battles and intimate duels, Kurosawa’s most purely entertaining film and one of his biggest hits.
Mastered from a 2K digital restoration with mono soundtrack and an alternate 3.0 surround soundtrack preserving the original 1958 “Perspecta Stereophonic” soundtrack and presented in DTS-HD on Blu-ray. New to this release is commentary by film historian and Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince and the documentary about the making of the film created for the 2003 series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Carried over from the earlier DVD release is a brief interview with George Lucas, who talks of his love of the film and the work of Kurosawa. The accompanying booklet features an essay by film scholar Catherine Russell.
Also new from Criterion: Errol Morris’ documentary A Brief History of Time (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo, DVD) featuring Steven Hawking and the Blu-ray debut of David Gordon Green’s debut feature George Washington (Criterion, Blu-ray+DVD Combo), both remastered in HD and filled out with extras.
Samson and Delilah (Paramount, Blu-ray) was something of a warm-up by Cecil B. DeMille, classic Hollywood’s defining big screen showman, for his ultimate Biblical epic The Ten Commandments. This bible story was on a decidedly smaller scale but it had all the elements that DeMille had perfected back in thirties: treat the patrons to a spectacle of sin and flesh, then punish the bad behavior with a smiting of (dare I say it?) Biblical proportions. The script is dopey and the stars unconvincing, but DeMille puts on quite a pageant.
Victor Mature plays the brawny strongman Samson, who kills a lion with his bare hands in the first act. Half of the shots reveal that he’s tussling with a moth-eaten ruin but it’s still manly enough to rouse the passion of Hedy Lamarr’s Delilah. Samson heaves enormous building stones at enemy soldiers, all but takes apart a royal house in a wild brawl and for finale pulls down a temple around him with nothing but the strength of his massive arms. Never mind that DeMille’s special effects often lack the weight of conviction, it’s all in the showmanship and De Mille is as gaudy as they come. This has all lavish sets, slinky outfits, wicked Philistines, sexy maidens, and holy retribution in glorious Technicolor. Mature walks a plodding balance between grinning arrogance and righteous vengeance as God’s strong arm on Earth while Lamarr purrs through her turn as the Bible’s bad girl, a temptress with a wicked sense of vengeance. George Sanders contributes his brand of silky villainy as the Saran of Gaza and DeMille brings out the ham in him.
It’s been remastered in HD but the Blu-ray features no supplements except for the trailer.
Dead Kids (Severin, Blu-ray Combo), the 1981 cult horror better known stateside as Strange Behavior, is an odd duck of a film. Created in the heart of the slasher movie boom, this is actually a mix of mad scientist thriller and revenge movie dropped into a somewhat surreal recreation of small-town Illinois in New Zealand. Director Michael Laughlin isn’t much of a technician when it comes to traditional horror set pieces but he creates an off-kilter atmosphere and a strange sense of dislocation, partly due to the New Zealand locations (which never really look like Midwest America) and partly due to the weird blur of 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s culture swirling around this town out of time. He draws excellent performances from adult leads Michael Murphy and Louise Fletcher (cast, refreshingly, as a comforting friend of the family in love with widowed Murphy) and from Dan Shor, who plays the easy-going high school senior who signs up as a paid test subject in in the behavior modification experiments at the local college. His transformation into a cocky ladies man is actually quite unsettling, but that’s not the worst to come. It’s the first horror film made in New Zealand and also the first screenplay by future Oscar winning screenwriter Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters).
It’s newly remastered for Blu-ray from the original 35mm negative, which reveals a softness around the edges of the Panavision frame, and features a new commentary by director / co-writer Michael Laughlin and video interview with make-up effects artist Craig Reardon along with the original commentary track by writer Bill Condon and actors Dan Shor and Dey Young recorded a decade ago for the original Elite DVD release.
Frightmare (Kino Classics / Redemption, Blu-ray) and The Flesh and Blood Show (Kino Classics / Redemption, Blu-ray) are new editions of horror films from British exploitation horror-meister Pete Walker. The Flesh and Blood Show (1972) is a tawdry little picture about a shady repertory company where the young actors who have a tendency to disappear and die between rehearsals, but the 1974 Frightmare is more interesting. It’s a gory horror film about a little old lady cannibal and fortune-teller (Sheila Keith) who likes to take an electric drill to the skulls of her customers, her enabling, doting husband (Rupert Davies), and their two daughters: one torn between devotion and disgust, the other eagerly taking up the family business. Walker’s skills really grew between the films–his portrait of family tensions is both savage and sad–but his penchant for numbing, nihilistic climaxes remains as strong as ever.
Both are newly remastered in HD and feature video interviews with Walker and original theatrical trailers. Flesh and Blood includes the restored 3D sequence in both digital 3D (which requires a 3D TV, compatible 3D glasses, and a Blu-ray 3D player) and the anaglyph format (which requires red/blue 3D glasses, not included). Frightmare also includes commentary by director Pete Walker and DP Peter Jessop and the featurette “Sheila Keith: A Nice Old Lady?”
Slumber Party Massacre (Shout Factory, Blu-ray) earned its reputation as a “feminist” slasher film largely because of its creators (from feminist author Rita Mae Brown and first-time director Amy Holden) and its self-aware approach to the stalk-and-slash genre. In this take, the male killer attacks his female victims with a giant drill. Newly mastered in HD from the original camera negative, it includes commentary by director Amy Holden Jones and actors Michael Villela and Debra De Liso and the featurette “Sleepless Nights: The Making Of The Slumber Party Massacre.”
Thirst (Severin, Blu-ray Combo)
Hatari! (Warner, Blu-ray)
El Dorado (Warner, Blu-ray)
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (Warner, Blu-ray)
Mysterious Skin (Strand, Blu-ray)
Iron Sky: Director’s Cut (eOne, Blu-ray Combo)
Justice League: War (Warner, DVD Two Disc Special Edition)
The Jungle Book 2 (Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital)
The Black Stallion (MGM, Blu-ray)
Hollow Triumph (Film Chest, DVD)
Ozploitation Trailer Explosion (Intervision, DVD)
42nd Street Forever – The Peep Show Collection Vol. 1 (Impulse, DVD)
Schoolgirl Report Vol. 12: If Mom Only Knew (Impulse, DVD)
A Saint, A Woman, A Devil (Vinegar Syndrome, DVD)
Sadie / The Seductress (Vinegar Syndrome, DVD)
The Altar of Lust / Angel on Fire (Vinegar Syndrome, DVD)
Horror at 37,000 Feet (Paramount, DVD)