Every Tuesday, discriminating viewers are confronted with a flurry of choices: new releases on disc and on-demand, vintage and original movies on any number of streaming platforms, catalog titles making a splash on Blu-ray or 4K. This biweekly column sifts through all of those choices to pluck out the movies most worth your time, no matter how you’re watching.
Spooky season is upon us, and streaming companies and home video distributors are looking to scratch that itch with HD upgrades of several horror classics, as well as a new installment of a recent scary franchise. Plus, we’ve got a couple of noteworthy new releases, a handful of big 4K debuts, and a few stranger genre titles for you adventurous sorts.
PICK OF THE WEEK:
“Columbia Classics 4K Ultra HD Collection Volume 2”: The first Columbia Pictures 4K collection went from an HD totemic object to a rarity with what seemed like breakneck speed; it’s now fetching up to a thousand dollars on eBay, so the new follow-up seems a smart buy as, if nothing else, an investment. But it’s also a crackjack collection of its own, featuring six titles of both high quality and laudable variety – “Anatomy of a Murder,” “Oliver,” “Taxi Driver,” “Stripes,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and “The Social Network” – in breathtaking transfers, and loaded with first-rate extras. The $120 price tag is hefty, yes, but that breaks down to $20 a movie, and at that price, they’re a steal. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, featurettes, trailers, Q&As, reunions, trailers, and a bonus disc of twenty Columbia cartoons and short subjects.)
ON AMAZON PRIME:
“My Name is Pauli Murray”: The ever-busy “RBG” directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West (who also have another documentary, “Julia,” on the festival circuit at the moment) helm this enlightening look at a frequently-overlooked figure in the history of civil rights: Murray, a Black non-binary lawyer who was fighting the battles of racial and gender equality as far back as the 1940s. This is a remarkable story, both in its details and semi-obscurity (how have we not heard about Murray for our entire lives?), and Cohen and West tell it well, wisely placing Murray’s copious writings in the foreground and spinning out the narrative from that sturdy center.
“V/H/S/94”: Omnibus movies like “V/H/S/94” are always tricky to review and recommend – the nature of the enterprise lends itself to unevenness, and there are bound to be segments that shine over others. Here, the wraparound section is weak (but that’s all but a tradition in these movies by now), and while Timo Tjahjanto’s “The Subject” is exciting to watch, the aesthetics are all wrong; it feels more like a sizzle reel than a short story. But the remaining segments are top-notch – particularly Ryan Prows’ “Terror,” dressed as the home videos of a self-important Michigan militia group (“Get this for posterity, can you focus on this?”) whose rhetoric, cleverly, is reflective of both the 1994 setting and the current moment. ”V/H/S/94” is a real return to form for the indie horror franchise – its weakest pieces are still entertaining, and the good stuff is exceptionally so.
ON 4K ULTRA-HD BLU-RAY / BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
“The Green Knight”: We’ve seen plenty of cinematic adaptations of the Arthurian legends, but never one quite like this. Writer/director David Lowery brings a real sense of playfulness to the material, with winking on-screen text and borderline satire approaching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” territory. But he can flip to absolute terror and moody peculiarity at a moment’s notice, all the better to keep his audience off-balance; by the closing scene, his aims have become clear. There are entire notions of bravery, gallantry, and masculinity deconstructed and demystified, and any filmmaker who can do that, this slyly, is a filmmaker of real gifts. (Includes featurettes and trailer.)
ON BLU-RAY / DVD / VOD:
“Free Guy”: Director Shawn Levy’s megahit became an unexpected flashpoint for the Extremely Online among us when an unapologetically audience-pandering moment from its climax went viral a couple of weeks back. And, yes, that scene is awfully embarrassing, as are a couple of the supporting performances and needle drops. (“The Humpty Dance”? Really?) But there’s also a lot to engage with here, with Ryan Reynolds (at his Ryan Reynolds-iest) as an NPC in a “Grand Theft Auto”-style urban carnage game who decides he’s not going to be a background player anymore. It’s utterly silly but hard to dislike, and Jodie Comer continues to impress, crafting a marvelous two-part performance that’s easily the best thing in the picture. (Includes deleted and extended scenes, gag reel, and featurettes.)
ON 4K ULTRA-HD BLU-RAY:
“Universal Icons of Horror”: One can understand some purchase hesitancy towards this package; Universal loves to package and re-package its classic horror movies, and it first released a best-of package similar to this one on Blu-ray back in 2016 before releasing an exhaustive 30-film box two years later. Will they do the same for 4K? Well, perhaps, but this is nevertheless a tasty collection to tide us over, with jaw-dropping new restorations of four of the biggies – “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Invisible Man” and “The Wolf Man” – all of which warrant a seasonal rewatch, whatever the format. (Includes the Spanish language version of “Dracula,” audio commentaries, featurettes, and trailers.)
“Inglourious Basterds”: Quentin Tarantino’s 2008 hit marked a turning point for the filmmaker, as he shifted from genre-inspired films of contemporary setting into period pieces of historical fiction and revisionism. His take on the WWII “man on a mission” movie is fully loaded with his trademarks (multi-pronged storytelling, ultra-violence, quotable dialogue, cinephilia), so much so that this viewer finds it one of the few films in which the oft-leveled criticism of self-indulgence carries some weight. But mine is a minority opinion – and there’s still much to praise here, particularly in the last half-hour, a breakneck flurry of shock storytelling and gleeful, anything-goes moviemaking. (Includes extended and alternate scenes, interviews, “Nation’s Pride” film-within-the-film, featurettes, and trailers.)
“Misery”: Rob Reiner’s 1990 adaptation of Stephen King’s bestseller has become so widely accepted as one of the best King movies (and one of Reiner’s finest hours) that it’s easy to take it for granted; after all, it was a box office smash, a critical success, and an Oscar winner for Kathy Bates. But it still plays like absolute gangbusters, slowly and delicately unpeeling its narrative, cruelly intercutting the doomed investigation of the disappearance of Paul Sheldon (James Caan), building nail-biting suspense his many attempts to escape the clutches of “number one fan” Annie Wilkes (Bates). The composition and cutting of those sequences are a master class in tension. While Bates’s performance remains an all-timer, don’t overlook the wry underplaying and tricky physicality of Caan’s work. (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, and trailers.)
“Halloween”: There’s not much new to say about John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic; it redefined the genre, ignited multiple careers, and spawned a franchise that is continuing, in theaters, this very week. Yet, despite all of that cultural ubiquity, currency, and imitation, it remains an unimpeachable classic of terror, unspooling with an emphasis on tension over gore and character over lore, and executed with a formal elegance that still astounds. It’s been an oft-released title of the home video era, with multiple versions on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, but it’s never looked better than it does on Scream Factory’s new 4K, as supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey; his deftly deployed shadows and darkness have the richness and texture they deserve. (Includes original color timing presentation, audio commentaries, archival interviews, extended cut, featurettes, trailers, and TV and radio spots.)
“Halloween II”: Three years elapsed between the release of “Halloween” and its first follow-up, and three years is a long time in the world of horror cinema. So it’s perhaps understandable that Carpenter and co-writer Debra Hill felt the need to top all of their imitators by ramping up the gore for their sequel, which picks up immediately (and I mean immediately) where the original left off, following Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) to the Haddonfield Hospital, where she is further stalked by Michael Myers. The emphasis on blood (and blood and blood) is a bit of a miscalculation, but this is nevertheless a solid scare movie, creating moments of real tension (and creepy kills) in its confined setting. (Includes audio commentaries, television cut, interviews, featurettes, deleted scenes, alternate ending, trailer, and TV and radio spots)
“Halloween III: Season of the Witch”: Having killed Michael Myers at the end of “Halloween II” (they thought), Carpenter and Hill had the ingenious idea of using the marketable “Halloween” name to launch an anthology of unrelated horror stories set in the spooky season. This was the first and only attempt, landing so poorly with both audiences and critics that the series resurrected Myers (see below). It’s not hard to see why; writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace never quite finds the balance between small-town terror and sci-fi silliness. But much of the picture remains haunting, and Wallace shows a natural flair for crafting creepy scenarios. (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, interviews, trailer, and TV and radio spots.)
“Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers”: It’s tempting to dismiss the last two sequels of Scream Factory’s 4K upgrades as lesser efforts, a once-trendsetting series chasing after the easy bucks of its blatant, trashy imitators. But “Return” is a sturdy entry, lifted by the charisma of stars Ellie Cornell and future genre perennial Danielle Harris, and by director Dwight H. Little’s keen understanding of the sandbox he’s playing in – watch how carefully he chooses when, exactly, to bring in that iconic theme. (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, trailer, and TV spots.)
“Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers”: “Return” was such a hit in 1988 that resourceful producer Moustapha Akkad rushed yet another “Halloween” in front of cameras in time for All Hallows Eve 1988, and the hastiness of the production sometimes shows. But this one has its moments – a strangely affecting opening credit sequence, a shocking murder right out of the gate, and a climactic party during a black-out that throws back to the first film’s clever manipulation of the shadows. (Includes audio commentaries, featurettes, behind-the-scenes footage, trailer, and TV spots.)
“High Sierra”: We’ve spent so much time praising Ida Lupino as a groundbreaking female filmmaker – one of the few of her era – that it’s easy to forget what a giant movie star she was (enough so to parlay that into directing). In fact, this 1941 thriller from director Raoul Walsh, new to the Criterion Collection, top bills her over no less than Humphrey Bogart, and it’s a hell of a performance, deftly capturing a woman who wears her hard-bitten world-weariness on her sleeve. And Bogie is just chilling as a recently pardoned bank robber who gets right back to work, a man who uses quiet intimidation rather than physical force (until it’s his last resort). It’s a character drama disguised as a crime picture, a story of potential redemption and rehabilitation gone horribly wrong. (Includes Walsh’s 1949 Western remake “Colorado Territory,” featurettes, new interviews, radio adaptation, trailers, and an essay by Imogen Sara Smith.)
“Onibaba”: “The world’s turned upside down,” she muses, and boy, that’s an understatement. Kaneto Shindo’s1964 classic (a new Blu upgrade from Criterion) is a potent mixture of supernatural horror, period drama, and psychosexual thriller, with Nobuko Otowa and Jitsuko Yoshimura as a pair of desperate women, left behind in a 14th-century civil war, who rob passing soldiers and send them down a pit to their deaths. They’re ruthless, and so is the movie, especially when an equally heartless runaway soldier (Kei Satō) enters the picture. Shindo’s images are vibrant, and the sudden terror of his violence is striking. Still, the film’s power is ultimately in the collision of its well-defined characters and the slow boiling of the inevitable outcome. (Includes audio commentary, on-location footage, archival interview, and an essay by Elena Lazic.)
“Primetime Panic”: Fun City Editions brings its usual care and curation to a trio of TV movies from the early 1980s, with exemplary results. “Dreams Don’t Die” is a cautionary tale of crime and danger among New York City teens, and though it’s totally formulaic, the savvy filmmaking and earnest tone make it genuinely involving. Jonathan Kaplan’s “Death Ride to Osaka” (also known as “Girls of the White Orchid”) is an enjoyably tawdry little item, with a young Jennifer Jason Leigh as an aspiring singer brought to Tokyo to work as a performer – and more. But the best of the batch is “Freedom,” from “Taking of Pelham One Two Three” director Joseph Sargent, which begins as an “Ordinary People”-style portrait of a strained mother/daughter relationship, but subverts those expectations, becoming an affecting character study (thanks in no small part to Mare Winningham’s vulnerable, unguarded performance). That film, in particular, underscores a key takeaway of this set, and other recent TV movie restorations: that before the indie boom of the ‘90s (and the TV movie’s descent into tackiness), films like these gave ambitious auteurs the chance to make modest, character-driven dramas of real depth and power. (Includes audio commentaries, interviews, featurettes, and essays by Cristina Cacioppo and Justin LaLiberty.)
“What Really Happened to Baby Jane? And the Films of the Gay Girls Riding Club”: The GGRC was a California crew of gay and drag performers who, under the direction of filmmaker Ray Harrison, produced a series of wildly funny and unapologetically transgressive shorts and features, many of them sending up mainstream Hollywood classics. AGFA’s new Blu-ray collects five of those films, including the broad, bold title film (a quick turn riff/spoof) and “All About Alice,” a trashier, more explicit take on “All About Eve.” The films are a blast, but the collection also attests to an evolution; the early films are rough-edged, almost silent comedies in black and white with no sync sound, while “Alice,” the last of the bunch, is a smoothly executed, color-and-dialogue affair, coming off as more “professional” while still preserving the homemade burlesque flavor. (Includes audio commentary and outtakes.)
“WNUF Halloween Special”: Back on Halloween night, in 1987, a local television station aired a special investigating a brutal murder and attempt to communicate with the evil spirits in the house – and this off-air recording captures what happened. At least, that is the premise of his 2013 horror-comedy, and the highest compliment I can pay it is that the premise is so convincing; director Chris LaMartina and his collaborators use all the right tech, but more importantly, they have the distinctive look and feel, the shooting and cutting patterns, of local news and cheap TV spots down cold. The movie never really works on a narrative level (and some of the actors blow it by going too hard). But as a technical achievement and a comic sketch movie, it’s priceless. (Includes audio commentaries, deleted scenes, outtakes and bloopers, featurettes, and trailer.)
“For Madmen Only: The Stories of Del Close”: Del Close was something of a Zelig figure in the world of comedy, brushing up against (and, later, instructing and inspiring) everyone from Nichols and May to the casts of “Saturday Night Live” and “SCTV” to the Upright Citizens Brigade. A legend has clouded up around him – “this myth of the guru who invented improvised comedy,” per the narration by Close’s one-time student, Amy Poehler – which Heather Ross’s new documentary attempts to both honor and puncture, memorializing and even lionizing his contributions to the form while still acknowledging that he was “literally nuts.” Her deviations from bio-doc norms (including inventive dramatizations and animation) are welcome. However, the highlights, unsurprisingly, are the talking head interviews with many hilarious people and a treasure trove of terrific old footage of those stars in their early days. (Includes audio commentary, additional and extended interviews, improv footage, featurettes, and trailer.)
“Kid Candidate”: Musician Hayden Pedigo was all of 24 years old when he ran for City Council of Amarillo, Texas, a campaign powered primarily by his oddball, low-tech, homemade viral videos. But this was not a gag or stunt campaign; Pedigo was serious about what was wrong with his city (and its political system) and about trying to fix it, even if the reach of his ambitions exceeded the grasp of his knowledge. Jasmine Stodel’s documentary account of the campaign is relatively lightweight (it runs a slender 69 minutes), but it’s personal and thoughtful, particularly when delving into the sketchy political machine of this seemingly typical city and the juicy villainy of its corporate candidates. (Includes audio commentary, deleted scenes, festival Q&A, and featurette.)
“Blades”: This 1989 Troma horror/comedy (lovingly restored and released by Vinegar Syndrome, the first of their new titles this month) is a deliciously winking combination of “Caddyshack” rip-off and “Jaws” send-up. And there are no half-measures of the latter score; this tale of a “renegade lawnmower” taking out golfers apes Spielberg’s classic beat for beat, from the central title theme (which verges on plagiarism) to the character match-ups (including a country club president in the Mayor Vaughn mode) to several echoing scenes (and even a dolly zoom). So fans of that film will delight in following along since director Thomas R. Rondinella takes all of this exactly as seriously as he should – which is to say, not at all – and the results are genuinely funny and completely deranged. (Includes audio commentary and featurette.)
“Shallow Grave”: This low-budget 1987 thriller winks at the movie buffs in its audience right away by all but aping the opening shot of “Blow Out” before explicitly replicating the “Psycho” shower scene (with extra nudity, of course). Once the direct homages are out of the way, director Richard Styles teases out some roadside suspense before slipping into the realm of seedy, small-town noir, as our four nubile heroines accidentally witness a brutal murder and… well, let’s just say things get twisty from there. “Shallow Grave” is rough around the edges. Still, there’s a genuine technique on display here – Styles sure-handedly sets the sweaty Georgia scene, the plot turns are clever, and the closing sections are genuinely unnerving. (Includes audio commentaries and interviews.)
“Resurrection”: This 1999 straight-to-video thriller, which reteamed director Russell Mulcahy with his “Highlander” star Christopher Lambert, is a shameless “Seven” imitation, from its central premise (a serial killer on a Bible-inspired mission) to even its casting (“Seven” day player Leland Orser co-stars), aiming to top its inspiration in anatomical gore and sheer sordidness. But Mulcahy is, as ever, an impeccable stylist, pouring sheets of rain and shafts of light onto his Grand Guignol tableaux, and it’s all so overwrought that it becomes strangely captivating in the home stretch. (Includes interviews.)
“Devil Story”: The last of this month’s VS batch is the biggest head-scratcher, a 1986 French grotesquery loaded with copious if unconvincing gore and bizarre behavior. The standard rules of engagement are off here; it’s borderline surrealist in its imagery and storytelling, both of which are either over-or–under-explained; a fair amount of its scant running time is spent on slow-motion blood spurting, accompanied by the sound of grunting and/or whinnying. Most viewers won’t engage with it at all. The rest of you, well, you know who you are. (Includes select scene commentary, featurette, interview, French TV coverage, and trailer.)