The original 1942 Cat People (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) was made on a low budget for RKO’s B-movie unit, the first in an amazing series of B-horror films from producer Val Lewton that transcended its origins. It’s a masterpiece of mood and psychological ambiguity masquerading as a cheap exploitation knock-off. Cheap it is, but Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur create mood not out of what is seen, but what isn’t.
Simone Simon is a kittenish young artist from a rural Siberian village who has moved to urban America but still believes in the legends and superstitions of her homeland. Kent Smith is the generically charming American engineer who meets her in the zoo, where she obsessively sketches the black panther prowling its small cage, and they marry, but her fears prevent her from consummating the marriage. She believes that she comes from a cursed bloodline of the devil-worshippers and that any form of romantic passion will transform her into a jungle cat. That’s not exactly how the film frames it—she won’t even allow a passionate kiss out of her fear—but the film slyly makes the connection between sex (both repressed and unleashed) and horror. Smith sounds more parental than partner as he dismisses her superstitions and fears with a superiority that comes off as insensitive as best and arrogant at worst. The only transformation we see is in the character of the suddenly aggressive Simon when she becomes jealous of her husband’s coworker (Jane Randolph). Everything else is left to suggestion and imagination, using feline snarls and shadows on the wall and ingenious art direction (her apartment is filled with art featuring cats) to hint at transformation. Tom Conway is both slickly sophisticated and a little sleazy as a psychiatrist who becomes too interested in his troubled patient.
Tourneur proves to be a master of suspense and a brilliant director of poetic horror and he and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca created remarkable, evocative images on a limited budget, using light and shadow like a film noir in a dream realm. This is a landmark of psychological horror and one of the most beautiful horror films ever made.
The Blu-ray debut is mastered from a new 2K restoration and it includes some terrific supplements, including the 2008 documentary Val Lewton: Man in the Shadows, directed by Kent Jones and narrated by Martin Scorsese. It traces the career of the cult film producer from the class productions of the David Selznick organization (where he did uncredited work on such scripts as “A Tale of Two Cities” and “Gone With the Wind”) to head a unit making low-budget horror films for RKO Studios. He was saddled with bad scripts (which, we’re told, he often rewrote without credit) and crude, exploitative titles (which he could not rewrite), and through evocative imagery, inspired lighting, a creative use of sound and suggestive set pieces he overcame low budgets and minimal resources to make such classics as Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. In the words of Lewton himself (voiced by actor Elisas Koteas): “We make horror films because we have to make them, and we make them for little money, and we fight every minute to make them right.” Writer/director Kent Jones fills the production with rich clips and some inspired interviews (including Japanese horror master Kiyoshi Kurosawa).
Carried over from the 2005 DVD release is commentary by historian Greg Mank with archival audio interview excerpts of Simone Simon. New to the disc is an archival interview with Tourneur from 1979 and a new interview with cinematographer John Bailey, who shot the Paul Schrader remake and studied the film in preparation. The 16-minute video interview is both an appreciation of RKO studio cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (complete with a comparison to the more heralded John Alton) and a revealing discussion of his work on the film. Also includes a fold-out insert with an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien.
The Thing: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – John Carpenter’s love for Howard Hawks didn’t stop him from going back to the source novel for his 1982 film, resulting in not so much a remake of The Thing From Another World as a rethinking of the very story. The dozen men at an isolated Antarctic research station become genetic fodder for an alien creature that fits in by becoming its prey. It could be anyone, which is what makes the monster so much more insidious. The gooey, grotesque effects are creative and somewhat show-offy, bouncing between horrific and just plain bizarre, but it’s the way they just explode into the drama that sets this film apart. A truly paranoid horror film on the level of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but completely isolated in a desert of snow which Carpenter uses to great effect. Kurt Russell headlines the men-without-women cast, which includes Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Richard Masur, and Donald Moffat.
Shout! Factory’s new two-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray is mastered from a new 2K scan of the interpositive supervised by director of photography Dean Cundey and features a new 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack mix and new and archival supplements. New to this edition are commentary tracks by Dean Cundey and co-producer Stuart Cohen and over two-and-a-half hours of video interviews with director John Carpenter (interviewed by Mick Garris), film editor Todd Ramsay, visual effects supervisor Peter Kuran, Alan Howarth (who contributed uncredited to the sound effects and music), author Alan Dean Foster (who penned the novelization), and many of the supporting actors.
Notable supplements carried over from previous editions include the feature-length documentary “John Carpenter’s The Thing: Terror Takes Shape,” vintage featurettes, and galleries of production art, storyboards, and stills. There is also a standard definition copy of the network TV broadcast version of the film.
Carrie: Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) launched a number of careers. The 1976 feature was the first screen adaptation of Stephen King work and the first hit movie from director Brian De Palma, and it featured young actors John Travolta, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, and P.J. Soles their first substantial roles. Sissy Spacek made a powerful impression as Carrie, bringing a sensitivity to the role of a shy, tortured high school misfit who discovers inexplicable powers when she hits puberty. Piper Laurie (in her first screen role in over a decade) plays Carrie’s religious zealot of a mother who views her telekinetic powers as the work of the devil and her repressive hysteria bottles up tormented, isolated teenager until she just needs a little push to combust.
De Palma’s dreamy grace creates a lush cinematic beauty and Pino Donaggio’s romantic score (punctuated with violin screams out of “Psycho”) suggests an adolescent paradise about to be totally, terribly lost in nightmare. The pyrotechnic finale is literally a hell on earth unleashed by the emotionally scarred and scared little girl turned unrestrained vengeance-seeking powerhouse. Blood has never been more evocative. Nancy Allen is the vicious bully who provides that push (she practically orgasms while dumping blood over the virginal innocent), with the help of co-conspirators John Travolta and P.J. Soles. Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie earned Academy Award nominations for their performances, making Carrie a rare horror film to get Oscar attention.
Shout! Factory’s new two-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray is mastered from a new 4K scan of the original negative and features new and archival supplements. New to disc are two hours of interviews with actors William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, Piper Laurie, Edie McClurg and P.J. Soles, screenwriter Lawrence Cohen, director of photography Mario Tosi, editor Paul Hirsch, casting director Harriet B. Helberg, and composer Pino Donaggio, and the featurette “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds,” which revisits film locations, plus galleries of stills and production art and a collection of trailers.
The Hills Have Eyes (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD), the sophomore feature by Wes Craven, is just as notorious as his debut but with a whole new backdrop of savagery. A bickering family on the road to California with a station wagon and a trailer home takes a side-trip into the no man’s land of a desolate desert and breaks down near the cave home of a cannibal tribe on the hunt for fresh meat. It’s modern nuclear family versus wild desert dwelling clan, the latter led by a psychotic patriarch with a taste for human flesh he’s passed to his demented children. Craven shoots the film in a desolate plain ringed with the jagged prehistoric rock ranges, a savage land where the civilized are forced to resort to savagery to survive the human predators who rule it. It’s the feature debut of Dee Wallace and the break-out role for the unforgettable Michael Berryman, a man whose birth defects gave him with a bullet-head, a lizard face, and bulging eyes: one of the most cinematic faces in modern horror films.
The new Arrow special edition is mastered from a brand new 4K restoration of the film, supervised by producer Peter Locke and features both original and alternate endings (pick your version). New to this edition are two new commentary tracks (one with actors Michael Berryman, Janus Blythe, Susan Lanier and Martin Speer, the other with academic Mikel J. Koven), interviews with actor Martin Speer and composer Don Peake, and never-before-seen outtakes. Carried over from previous editions is commentary from director Wes Craven and producer Peter Locke (recorded in 2003, I believe), the excellent original 50-minute production “Looking Back on The Hills Have Eyes.” There’s also a booklet with essays and art.
Dead End Drive-In (Arrow, Blu-ray+DVD) – The Road Warrior is clearly an inspiration for Australian genre filmmaker Brian Trenchard-Smith’s mix of science fiction, gearhead action, and social commentary set in the near future where the rich live isolated in gated communities and everyone else scrambles to survive in a culture of crime and unemployment. With society on the verge of collapsing (or worse, exploding in rebellion), the authorities hit upon a brilliant solution to contain the frustrations of the young and the unemployed: turn the local drive-in into a concentration camp. Jimmy (Ned Manning) takes his girl (Natalie McCurry) on a date and finds the gates locked when he tries to leave. The drive-in becomes a witty metaphor for society, with the cars turned into homes and the inmates seduced into compliance with a steady diet of junk food from the snack bar and nightly movies. When they get restless, the authorities bus in Asian immigrants and stir racial tensions among the white youth, who protest the invasion of their community. The socio-political commentary and exploitation movie metaphors aren’t subtle but they are witty and effective, and the film can be enjoyed just as easily as a colorful science fiction drive-in movie with terrific car action and stunt work. Based on a story by Australian novelist and screenwriter Peter Carey, it’s a stand-out example of “ozploitation,”
On Blu-ray+DVD combo (two discs in one package) with director commentary and two bonus short films by Brian Trenchard-Smith: The Stuntmen, aka Dare Devils (1973), a television documentary on movie stuntman Grant Page (of Mad Max) and other Australian stunt performers, and Hospitals Don’t Burn Down, a 1978 public information film told in pure Ozploitation fashion. Also includes a behind-the-scenes gallery and a booklet with essays and art.