By Chris Hyde
December 23, 2003
With Christmas 2003 just about upon us, isn’t now a pretty good time to start wondering what we’re going to get under the tree next year? So here’s a DVD wish list for Santa -- and let’s hope that the cool companies who put out discs in the format are paying attention, too.
A couple of months ago there was a column in this space about some movies that I have long been wishing would be updated with new versions in a digital form. Since that time, a title or two from that piece has actually been announced for 2004 release -- with the obvious conclusion being that I must actually wield a great influence over this process (yeah, sure). Luckily for the world at large, I’ve decided to use this awesome power for good -- not evil -- and so what follows is another nearly endless list of great titles that need to be brought to DVD. There might be a film or two in the list below that’s already seen some sort of overseas release, but in the main I've tried as hard as possible to stick to movies that have yet to make it into digital form anywhere on the planet. And heck, some of these never even made it onto videocassette -- so those titles particularly need releases for reasons of posterity alone, if nothing else. But without further ado, let’s get a look at some movies now that we certainly hope to be unwrapping on that festive Xmas morn some fifty two weeks from now.
Fly Me (1972)
Prolific Filipino director Cirio H. Santiago has a number of credits to his name that seem ripe for reissue presently: I mean, who doesn’t pine for a copy of Vampire Hookers (with John Carradine!), Cover Girl Models or Darna and the Tree Monster? However, his '70s story of a gang of martial arts terrorists taking over a plane only to come up against some sexy, high kicking stewardesses surely tops the list here. Plus, it also features ubiquitous B-movie king Dick Miller as a cabbie.
Tidal Wave aka Nippon chinbotsu (1973)
An adaptation of Sakyo Komatsu’s apocalyptic novel of Japan sinking into the sea, by reputation this film is supposedly far more than an Eastern take on the disaster movie. By all accounts, the film triumphs on the strength of its story, dialogue and character -- with the apparently excellent effects work just an added bonus. Fairly downbeat in outlook, the film was a smash hit in Japan at the time of its release, but for some unknown reason has more or less remained submerged since that time.
The Butterfly Ball (1976)
Excessive drug use during the '60s and '70s led to all sorts of execrable behavior from addled musicians who were psychedelically deluded into thinking that making overblown rock operas was a really good idea. While the Beatles’ ill advised Magical Mystery Tour fiasco is likely the worst of these self-indulgent, extremely un-rock and roll epics, having members of Deep Purple convene to record a soundtrack for a kiddie animated cartoon narrated by Vincent Price should also be placed in the “ideas that sound best while tripping on acid” folder. But me, I’m still ready for my flashback.
Hot Blood (1956)
I can honestly say that I don’t know a whole lot about this one, but let’s just tick off what I am cognizant of: Nicholas Ray direction? Check. Jane Russell as a hot-blooded gypsy woman? Check. Music by Les Baxter, cinematography by Ray June, Cinemascope and Technicolor? Triple check. It’s got all of that, and to boot there’s even a character in the story that is named Velma. I’m sold American.
The Candy Snatchers (1973)
A gritty slice of '70s roughness, The Candy Snatchers follows three youthful hoods who kidnap a convent schoolgirl, bury her alive and hold her for ransom. Their plans go awry when the father is seemingly indifferent to their daughter’s fate, even going so far as to lie to her boozehound mom (played by Dolores Dorn, “Cuddles” from Samuel Fuller’s Underworld USA) about the whereabouts of their progeny. Things don’t really get much cheerier from there, but all in all this is a tightly plotted man little film that transcends its low budget trappings. Also, the film’s incredible theme song is called “Money is the Root of All Happiness”.
Having just recently purchased VCI’s very nice disk of Blonde Ice and hearing the name of this obscure film noir mentioned a couple times in the extras, I actually have fairly high hopes on this particular crime picture showing up on DVD soon. Starring Jean Gillie (just shortly before her untimely death at the age of 33) as an especially nasty femme fatale who “treats men like they’ve been treating women for years!”, this trip into '40s gangsterdom sounds like a gritty poverty row outing. Director Jack Bernhard’s low-key style worked extremely well with the cheap milieu of Blonde Ice, so one would have to assume that the same should be true here as he directs his wife in the best man-hating role of her tragically too short life.
World on a Wire (1973)
When it comes to enfant terrible Rainer Werner Fassbinder, perhaps the work of his that most needs to be given the digital treatment at this point is his epic 15 hour take on Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. But putting that aside for now, yet another key missing piece of this great filmmaker’s career is his only foray into science fiction, a serial that he made for German television based upon the same novel as the recent film The Thirteenth Floor. Given the recent crash and burn of the Matrix trilogy from high flying kung fu metaphysics into bad war movie cliché-dom, this would appear to be a propitious time to get the reality warping story of a computer named Simulacron out into the mainstream.
Susan McBain and the late Terri Hall star in this XXX take on the era of roller derby, a lost sport if there ever was one (and yes, I remember the WSL et cetera--that stuff doesn’t count). According to the press of the time, the vivacious McBain had the reputation of being “porn’s most accident prone actress” (now there’s a distinction for your biography) and reportedly suffered both chipped teeth and a sprained ankle during the making of this wheeled epic. Now I’m not much into pain, so I don’t really need a Special Edition with any of the brutal outtakesbut a new release of this one-of-a-kind sex film would be just peachy.
Rancho Notorious (1952)
This revenge western by one of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers (Fritz Lang) fairly shrieks from the ether for a digital renaissance. Starring Marlene Dietrich as Altar Keane, patron of the Chuck-a-luck ranch where poor Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) ends up while on the trail of the coldhearted killers who offed his wife-to-be. In the end, no one involved with the events of the plot ends up looking all too good, but it’s an insightful little trip into the nether reaches of man’s inhumanity to man. This one’s also famous for a reference from Jean-luc Godard’s Contempt, where Brigitte Bardot’s character tells Mr. Lang (who is playing himself) that this is her favorite of his films.
Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)
French director Robert Bresson didn’t make all that many films in his life, totaling only 14 screen projects over the course of his life. But some of these rank among the most brilliant to ever come out of Europe, with Bresson’s signature pared-down style always in full visual effect. Though my personal favorites thus far are Lancelot du Lac and Pickpocket, the minimalist filmmaker’s lonely story of a mistreated donkey is one that I have yet to see and do hereby fondly hope for this masterpiece to hit the shelves sometime soon. And since a brand new print of this Gallic classic was playing in New York last October, here’s wishing for a quick digital transfer.
Turning from the sublime to the ridiculous, let’s now lament the fact that Luigi Cozzi’s brutal Star Wars ripoff has yet to garner a nice Special Edition DVD. What’s up with that? Doesn’t anyone want to see David Hasselhoff on the planet of the Neanderthals again? Or Christopher Plummer as the Emperor of the Universe and Joe Spinnell as the evil Zarth Arn? Perhaps scream queen Caroline Munro flashing lots of skin tickles your fancy? The other great features here are lousy dubbing, awful dialogue, inane special effects, outlandish costumes and sets that look recycled from prior Italian sword and sandals epics. Need I say more?
Pretty Poison (1968)
Here’s a darkly comic thriller that seems to have slipped through the cracks since its late sixties run, and given its credentials should be ready for another shot at being seen. Anthony Perkins, playing off his Norman Bates persona, is an unbalanced man in a bucolic New England town who tells innocent Tuesday Weld that he’s a spy. This lie leads to all sorts of small town hijinks, with the threat of bloodshed never too far away. At the time of the film’s creation 20th Century Fox didn’t particularly like the project and more or less killed it dead, though later championing by critic Pauline Kael did eventually ensure some attention for this hidden gem.
Darktown Strutters (1975)
Here stands one of the more bizarre artifacts of the 1970s, a blaxploitation tale of insanely costumed motorcycle drivin’ mamas. The story is really too out there to even synopsize, but its main thrust is that the lead bikeress Syreena (played by Trina Parks, most famous for her role in the 007 flick Diamonds Are Forever) is out searching for her lost mother, Cinderella. But there’s also her kung fu kicking brother, a rival gang of KKK bikers, an evil Colonel Sanders-a-like who is profiting off his ripoff rib joints, some floundering racist cops, and a plot to clone black community leaders so as to use them to ensure white supremacy. And hey, did I mention there’s an amazing '70s funk soundtrack and some wildly misplaced musical numbers? Notably, this utterly insane screenplay was written by George Armitage, the director responsible for Miami Blues, Grosse Point Blank and the upcoming Owen Wilson/Morgan Freeman vehicle The Big Bounce. Perhaps that makes 2004 the perfect time for resurrecting this unique vision of a decade now long gone.
The Earrings of Madame D (1953)
Is there some sort of a conspiracy against having the films of the great Max Ophuls come out in Region 1? Last DVD wish list I lamented about a couple of his neglected Hollywood crime pics, and now I’ll turn to crying about a movie he made after his return to France (and not long before his too early death). Danielle Darrieux, Charles Boyer and Vittorio de Sica find themselves caught in a triangle of love, lies and misunderstanding after a Countess sells off a present from her husband to cover some gambling debts. Stunningly acted and beautifully shot by journeyman cinematographer Christian Matras, this is yet another motion picture by Ophuls that really shouldn’t have to just languish in analog form for too much longer.
Bloody Mama (1970)
Now there may be good excuses out there for some of the films on this list not yet getting to DVD, but here’s one film that I will accept no cheap apologies re: its digital omission thus far. Because Roger Corman’s take on the legend of Ma Barker and her brood just about has it all: the usual over-the-top performance from Shelley Winters as the clan’s matriarch, multiple scenes of violent hilarity, Scatman Crothers, Bruce Dern as one of the Barker son’s gay lovers (though he finds time to bed down with Ma as well) and a young and scrawny Robert De Niro as a glue-sniffing junkie. While the scene where Ma gives De Niro a bath is pretty top notch, it sure can’t touch the one bank robbing set piece where Winters waves around her machine gun with gleeful abandon. Whoever’s got the rights to this had best get started with the digital transfer now, ‘cause I’m just sitting out here waiting.
The Hidan of Maukbeiangjow (1973)
If this film’s tagline (“If you can’t say it, go see it!”) or alternate title (Invasion of the Girl Snatchers) weren’t enough to spark interest in this lost classic, a brief look at its insane story should do the trick. Following the abductions of six young women, a private eye picks up the job of tracing what has happened to them, and his legwork uncovers a mysterious alien scheme for global domination. It seems that a strange religious cult called the Order of the Red Star is involved in the business of procuring bodies one-by-one for the aliens to inhabit and…well, heck, I don’t want to go and spoil all of the amazing plot points for you. Suffice it to say that you don’t want to miss this period oddity when it hits DVD in all its bell bottomed and topless glory.
L’ Important c’est d’aimer (1975)
Underrated Polish director Andrzej Zulawski here directs the luminous Romy Schneider in this offbeat melodrama. Softcore photographer Servais Mont (Fabio Testi) borrows money from some gangsters to finance a production of Shakespeare so that Nadine Chevalier (Schneider’s character) can garner a meatier role than the exploitation fare she has previously made her mark in. Though she eventually begins to fall for Servais, Nadine still has an obligation to her husband that sets up the grand tension on which the plot revolves. An amazing motion picture helmed by a man whose skills have yet to receive the sort of accolades that they truly deserve. Some shiny new DVD’s of his work would go a looooong way towards fixing up that indiscretion.
Bordell SS (1978)
Many connoisseurs of Golden Age adult fare extol the virtues of the high production value work of Radley Metzger (aka Henry Paris), but fewer realize that he stole many of his tricks from European helmsman José Bénazéraf. As this Moroccan born director is really a towering figure in the history of modern pornography, it’s amazing how little of his film work has been re-released since its European heydaythough you can supposedly spot him as an uncredited actor in Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless (no, that’s not the one with Richard Gere). In any case, though there’s plenty in his career output that could stand to appear once again, I’ll plead the case here for a re-issue of this rare bit of Nazisploitation that is one of two Benazeraf projects that feature Brigitte Lahaie, probably the greatest of all French XXX actresses.
Cleopatra Wong (1978)
This Singaporean ripoff of Cleopatra Jones is a pretty rough and tumble affair, but what would you expect from a movie that stars a woman wielding a shotgun while dressed in a nun’s habit? Feisty and beautiful Marrie Lee is a secret agent like none other you’ve ever seen, and yet for some unknown reason this project continues to languish in obscurity. But since I’ve recently heard Quentin Tarantino yap about this film in recent interviews with the Straits Times, maybe he should put his money where his mouth is and help get some copies of this film into the stores. That’d help counterbalance the fact that he works for Miramax, today one of Asian film’s most mortal enemies.
Pink Lady’s Motion Picture aka Pinku redi no katsudoshashin (1978)
Seeing as I have still only gotten through the first hour long episode of my Pink Lady box set (and nearly died in doing so), you’d think my appetite for this '70s Japanese duo would be pretty much sated. But it’s not. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Pink Lady were Mitsuyo Tsukuda and Keiko Kuwaki, a schoolgirl duo who won a talent contest and were scooped up by the music machine and transformed into huge stars. Towards the end of the decade their star dimmed a bit in Japan and they lit out for Las Vegas, and events somehow conspired to assure that in 1980 they were paired with comedian Jeff Altman and given a network television variety show. Unfortunately, combining the girls’ minimal English skills with lame comedy and semi-stars like Larry Hagman and Teddy Pendergrass resulted in perhaps one of the worst television shows ever made--which given the wasteland of detritus this device has poured out since its inception is really saying something. In any case, this Japanese flick of the duo predates their horrendous American period, so hopefully it’s of higher quality than their tv work. Though if that’s true, perversely it may end up being somewhat less entertaining.
Screaming Mimi (1958)
Here’s another tasty-looking forgotten film noir, this time starring Swedish superstar Anita Ekberg as a nightclub dancer in a sordid tale of stabbings and weird statues. Also along for the ride are stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and Harry Townes, not to mention bandleader Red Norvo (playing himself). Toss in the usually steady direction of German expat Gerd Oswald (the helmsman of many of the best episodes of the Outer Limits television show), source material by great crime novelist Frederic Brown and cinematography by the always excellent Burnett Guffey and this nugget looks like a surefire winner.
Director Val Guest directed some quality films over the course of his career, including The Day the Earth Caught Fire and The Quatermass Experiment, but this attempt at a sci-fi musical might be the oddest artifact of his career. It stars a young mini-skirted Olivia Newton-John as the leader of a band kidnapped by aliens who need the perky group’s music for some bizarre intergalactic reason. This whole shlockstravaganza was dreamed up by Don Kirschner in an attempt to capitalize on his successful Monkees formula once again, but the film was not at all a smash and Ms. Newton-John would need to wait a few years for her big mainstream movie success. A final added attraction for this historic bit of bubblegum arcana is the background music by Hugo Montenegro.
Y’know, I could easily go on and on and on, given the plethora of films that still have yet to see the digital light of day. But since I’m already at the 3,000 word mark, I guess it’s time to pause -- for not only do I not wish to overwhelm you, gentle reader, but I need to save some choice material for later pieces on this very subject. While I realize that video shelves everywhere are already quite filled to burstin’, when I glance at what’s out there I simply can’t help but see the gaps where neglected bits of film history should -- nay, must -- be placed. So tune in again a few months from now, and we’ll reprise some more lost bits of the celluloid past that haven’t yet gotten their just DVD due. There’s sure plenty out there to hope for.