October 10, 2009

An America Werewolf in London, Army of Darkness and Van Helsing Blu-ray.jpg

Halloween brings out the ghosts, ghouls and reissues of Haloween favorites and “favorites.” Universal, one of the great studios for catalog Blu-ray releases has put out two cult-classics, and one film that might strain to be some day. My reviews of An America Werewolf in London, Army of Darkness and Van Helsing after the jump.

An America Werewolf in London Blu-ray.jpgJohn Landis has a great and awkward career, one that started with promise and mutated into saggy but somewhat enjoyable enterprises. It’s hard to say if the joy is gone because his first episode of Masters of Horror suggested that the man still has some game. An American Werewolf in London may not be his best movie (it’s hard to argue between it, Animal House and Trading Places), but it’s one of the great modern horror films.

David Naughton stars as David Kessler, who’s out backpacking with his best friend Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) across the British Moors. Well, it’s a dark and stormy night, and when they run across the pub The Slaughtered Lamb they stop in for a pint but get kicked out. The locals know something is out there, something not exactly human. Jack gets killed and David wounded by a creature that when it gets shot reveals itself to be a man, but attacked like an animal. David is taken to a London hospital where he meets and is seduced by Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter). She takes him in, but Jack has come back from the dead to warn him that he will turn into a wolf and kill people. Of course, the warnings go unheeded, and David faces the fact that he’s a werewolf.

There are interesting Jewish characteristics that underline the film, along with it being a story of puberty (as Landis has always stated). Regardless of its intentions, the film works as a narrative, but also as a freak show, and it’s there that Rick Baker’s make up effects take center stage. I love this movie as a movie, yet it’s hard not to acknowledge this is one of the great showcases of effects work. Along with Rob Bottin’s work on The Thing, this is the sort of thing that CGI has never been able to top. You still question how they did it; you still hang on ever cut. It’s also a rather funny film, and Landis has no problem mixing the comedy and horror. But perhaps because it’s a horror film first is why it works. But the timing of a gag and a scare are very, very similar. Landis understands both and delivers both in spades.

an_american_werewolf_in_london__2_.jpgUniversal’s Blu-ray presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD. The transfer is grainy, but this isn’t a drawback so much as the nature of the film itself. It adds to the texture, and the film has never looked better. The soundtrack is a bit showy, but solid. Extras include a commentary by Naughton and Dunne, which is repeated from the DVD. New here is the feature length fan-documentary “Beware of the Moon” (98 min.) made by Paul Davis, simply because he loved the movie. It’s a great piece of work, and he gets everyone he can who’s still alive. The enthusiasm for the film is infectious, though the format of the making of is somewhat route at this point. Also new is “I Walked with a Werewolf” (8 min.), which offers a recent interview with Rick Baker that talks up the new Wolfman film, which was supposed to come out this October. The original featurette (5 min.) is included, along with a DVD interview with Landis (18 min.) and Baker (11 min.). “Casting of the Hand” (11 min.) offers archival behind the scenes for the make-up effects, while outtakes (3 min.) feature some cut footage and a jokey interview with Landis. Also included are storyboards (2 min.) and a photograph montage (4 min.)

Army of Darkness Blu-ray.jpgSpeaking of jokes, I once noted to a friend that I had bought enough copies of Evil Dead 3, aka Army of Darkness, AKA The Medieval Dead, because I had the old laserdisc, the original two disc set with the alternate cut, and the Hong Kong Region 3 release with the better copy of the extended edition. As a fan, I also had a copy of the TV cut, which offers a different version of the film as well, and had a copy of the Japanese Laserdisc at one point or another, which offered the alternative ending. For there was a time where Sam Raimi had not transitioned into the mainstream, and his Evil Dead films were his calling card. As a fan, these alternate cuts meant the world. Now, he’s the director of Spider-Man. Life changes.

The premise of Army of Darkness is that Ash (Bruce Campbell) is transported into medieval times by the book of the dead. In this world he must battle the zombie deadites that plague the time, and is offered a passage home, but in trying to make that possible… well, he’s Ash, and Ash is a numbskull. Such leads to a battle against the army of the dead, headed up by his own doppelganger. There’s a love interest (Embeth Davidtz) for Ash as well.

This is a silly movie, made even sillier by the theatrical edition, which plays up the comedy, and down the sword and sorcery setting. If you see the extended cut, the final siege is actually fairly masterfully put together, but here it’s about getting the film to a less than 90 minute running time. But such is also why the film is a huge cult favorite. This is a hopped up ride of a jack-ass trying to show his superior 20th century intellect and failing miserably often. Ash is unintentionally heroic, and it’s fun when he succeeds and equally fun when he fails. The ending is obviously reshot, but a lot of people love the film for it. Ash is pure fantasy in this cut, so why not hail to the king? Sam Raimi knows how to put scenes together, and even in this most truncated version, the film is a gas.

Universal presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD. This track is as much fun as the movie, and adds quite a bit of oomph. The picture quality is awkward and grainy at times, but mostly looks pretty kick-ass. Extras include a new interview with Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger (21 min.) called “Creating the Deadites” and the alternate ending (5 min.) which is well known to fans, but gives Ash a less satisfactory but more perfect conclusion for the character. Also included is the theatrical trailer, and n U-Control a production photograph gallery of behind the scenes stills. This does not include the alternate cut of the movie, or any of the supplements from the previous and multiple Anchor Bay special editions. Such is life. I will now own three copies of the film.

Van Helsing Blu-ray.jpgMy reaction to Van Helsing watching it again was like seeing a person burning a pile of money trying to impress you, and then seeing that you’re unimpressed, kept burning larger and large piles of money. Hugh Jackman is the titular Helsing, Kate Beckinsdale is Anna, a girl fighting against Dracula and his minions, which include the wolfman. The wolfman kills her brother and turns him into a wolfmann as well, but Dracula’s looking for Frankenstein’s monster to power his babies, and Van Helsing, and his monk compadre Carl (David Wenham) must defeat him.

Loud, long, and CGI stupid, this film is fascinating to watch as virtually every decision is a mistake, and was done better by other people. There’s some Roman Polanski in here, some Sam Raimi, but the film needs to take some Ritalin and figure out what story it wants to tell. Instead it obeys no laws of physics, or pacing, and wears you out by sheer force of will. I admire Richard Roxburg’s indecent performance as Count Dracula, because at least it’s over the top and stupid. He alone seems to know what he’s making. But this is the sort of bloated and bad expensive movie that’s almost compulsively watchably terrible. I still can’t believe they thought this would be a good idea.

Universal’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS 5.1 HD. Here is a track that really delivers, if that’s your thing. As a modern movie it looks super kick ass and comes with a commentary by director Stephen Sommers and editor/producer Bob Ducsay, and a second track by Richard Roxburg, Shuler Hensley (Frankenstein’s Monster) and Will Kemp (Wolfman). There’s also a PIP with behind the scenes footage. “Van Helsing: The Story, The life, The Legend” (58 min.) talks about the character’s history and how they were seen in the past and how Sommers transformed them. “Track the Adventure” (34 min.) takes you to all the stages used to make the film, while “Bringing the Monsters to Life” (10 min.) gives the CGI and other artists their due. “You are in the movie” (5 min.) is a look behind the scenes look, and “The Music of Van Helsing” give the composer Alan Silvestri his blame or due (10 min.). There’s bloopers (6 min.), Time lapse of a set with “Dracula’s Lair is Exposed” (3 min.), behind the scenes on the masquerade ball sequence (25 min.), an art gallery (5 min.) and three Easter Eggs (2 min.).

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