As modern-day Hollywood tries to remember what a movie is, several major studios have taken a bold step forward in reviving their legacies. Warner Bros, MGM and others have quietly started making digital masters of their rarer archival prints and offering them to us undeserving jerks on DVD. And we’re here to assess a sampling of ‘em twice a month, new and old, good and bad.
Now note that these aren’t shoddy DVD-Rs, but instead clean, gorgeous, high-quality DVDs in the films’ original aspect ratios, with fancy full-color covers and the whole nine yards. Many have never been available on any home format, and since the studios don’t have the pressure of selling thousands of units, they’re releasing the most varied and often electrifyingly bizarre titles in their vast libraries. For example:
THE STONE KILLER
Dir. Michael Winner / 1973 / Sony via Warner Archive
The World’s Perfect Human (a.k.a. Charles Bronson) stars in this emotionless, relentless exploration of the anti-criminal mind. Bronson plays police detective Torrey, an unapologetically violent law enforcer with none of that “conscience” bullshit. If a man commits a crime, he simply deserves a boot heel in the nuts and/or a bullet in the face. Dismissed from his New York beat after gunning down a teenage hood, Torrey relocates to Los Angeles and immediately dives into the dissembling of a crime empire. Joining him in his crusade is Norman “Mr. Roper” Fell and his Three’s Company co-star John Ritter in one of his earliest (and blandest) roles. The pavement of L.A. is quickly clotted with felon blood as Torrey and company bludgeon and manslaughter their way to the top of the underworld.
Admittedly, the movie isn’t as compelling as many of the other collaborations between the rugged action star and director Michael Winner (i.e. The Mechanic and the first three Death Wish entries), but there’s plenty here to recommend. Naturally, Bronson himself tops the list. Like many of his greatest characters, Torrey is too deep in his hatred and misery to know he’s experiencing those emotions. He lives to eradicate crime while he’s fully aware that the task is impossible. So he continues firing away because it’s all he knows how to do.
There’s not a single moment that indicates that Torrey eats, sleeps, has read a book or kissed someone. In one memorable moment, he questions a hippie girl during a tambourine jam at a psychedelic love-in. She gives him a once-over:
HIPPIE: You could stick around…I’ve never balled a cop.
TORREY: Another time. Another place. Another cop.
GodDAMN. Anyway, you get the idea. If you like Charles Bronson, you’ll enjoy this movie. If you don’t like Charles Bronson, please eat a bag of razorblades.
DON’T WORRY, WE’LL THINK OF A TITLE
Dir. Harmon Jones / 1966 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
If banana peels n’ joy buzzers tickle your fancy, then gird your funnybones for some girdle-busting madcappery! Zany cornball Morey Amsterdam stars as hard-luck schmuck Charlie Yuckapuck, a joke-slingin’ goof-ass who can’t do a thing right but is too dumb to care. Along for the avalanche of buffoonery is his suffering pal Annie, played by Amsterdam’s long-time Dick Van Dyke Show co-star Rose Marie. The two leap from one implausible scenario to another, and whether it involves making a boss sit on a cake or some half-baked spy espionage, you can be assured that it’ll all be sealed with a skull-crackingly unforgivable pun.
It’d be futile to attempt a plot summary. Yuckapuck and company just fall into different giggle vortexes while various comedy legends poke their heads in just long enough for an uncredited pie-in-the-crotch cameo. Danny Thomas, Steve Allen, “Uncle” Milton Berle, Carl Reiner and even the great Moe Howard stumble through the chaos as Amsterdam pratfalls himself into Hollywood’s unremembered history. If this movie was a human, he’d be wearing a plaid polyester blazer and selling rubber chickens on a street corner in Paducah. Recommended!
THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT
Dir. Val Guest / 1955 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
Based on the 1953 BBC series of the same name, this is a primordial, atmospheric scifi chiller from England’s prolific Hammer Studios. No-nonsense American researcher Prof. Quatermass speeds to England when a manned rocket lands with two less men than expected. The only survivor is Carroon, who seems rattled to the point of total zombification. The catatonic cosmonaut is quarantined as authorities search for the remains of his colleagues, but the mysteries only mount as the spaceman reveals his new – and true – self, drippy tendrils and all.
It’s an effective monster opus steeped in some heavier-than-average science, with dedicated performances from a fundamentally strong cast. Quatermass is played by Brian Donlevy, a veteran of the ol’ Preston Sturges stock company, and his years in the fast-talkin’, verbal-jabbin’ Sturgeon trenches enhance his role greatly. Also worth noting is Richard Wordsworth as the agonized, transforming Carroon. The skeletally gaunt actor honestly conveys his pain and confusion believably, which is no easy feat when your character is mutating into an alien gelatin beast.
The seemingly misspelled title was actually a nod to the UK’s ratings system, as The Quatermass Xperiment was the first scifi feature deemed too intense for viewers under 16 years old. It was given the dreaded X rating, and in an insane twist of fate, the censors were right for once. At an American screening the following year, nine-year-old attendee Stewart Cohen was so affected by the on-screen terror that he ruptured an artery, and this became the first and only film known to have made a person actually die of fright.
* * * * * *
…Other recent-ish unleashings from the archives of MGM include the unfrozen samurai ‘80s epic Ghost Warrior, surprisingly screwball 1948 noir Behind the Mask, Jack Palance war rager Kill a Dragon, all-American family crime film The Boy Who Caught a Crook, international spy basher Golden Needles (starring Joe Don Baker!), medical madness with Doctor Blood’s Coffin, Lance Henriksen back-stabbing TV movie Deadly Intent, the Burt Young-scripted tragedyfest Uncle Joe Shannon, and the incredible Malone starring Burt Reynolds and a whole lotta shotgun blasts.
Warner Archive has graced us with the international scifi insanity of Moon Zero Two (“The first space western!”) and unhinged Italioid production The Snow Devils. Joe Don Baker battles man-eating dogs in 1977’s The Pack, and Fred Williamson is cold as ice and harder than steel in Black Eye. And pretty much just all the time.
The bulk of these (and too many more) will be covered in upcoming installments of Vault of Secrets, so toss your Matrix Blu-ray in the toaster and let’s get right down to business already.