Saturday, 30 November 2013

VAMPIRES, TRAINS, DALEKS, A SKULL AND A MOTH: THE PETER CUSHING BLU RELEASES OF 2013


2013, as any self-respecting Peter Cushing fan is aware, marks what would have been the one hundredth birthday of the great man.  Those of us who grew up watching faded, often cut versions of his signature films on TV have become spoiled in recent years by the glut of DVD releases – and now, with the advent of Blu-ray and high definition, we’re becoming more spoiled still.  To date, only a comparatively small sample of Cushing’s films have hit the shiny new format. Inevitably, some of the bigger projects with which he was associated were among the first to garner Blu-ray releases.  Now that Christmas is right around the corner, it might be a good time to consider which Cushing titles are available in the new format – just in case you’re looking to treat yourself or a loved one to a bit of Cushing for the holidays.  The following list is not meant to be comprehensive, as a decision has been made to focus more on his horror output, but chances are good that the Star Wars buffs among you have already upgraded to Blu-ray, anyway….


The Curse of Frankenstein (Lionsgate; Region B/Region 2 Blu-ray/DVD combo) – The film that started it all, this has also been rather shabbily treated on home video.  VHS releases were badly faded, a DVD release from Warner Bros. was over-matted.  So how does the Blu-ray fare?  So-so, truth be told, but happily the good outweighs the bad.  On the downside, the materials are still a bit faded and the folks at Hammer elected to minimize the print damage by going for a softer-looking image.  The end result is frustrating: the restored eyeball footage is lovely to behold, but it doesn’t emerge looking nearly as good as the format might allow.  Even so, it’s a perfectly watchable transfer that will have to do until a proper (and expensive) restoration is undertaken… if ever.  The disc gives on the option of watching the film open matte/full frame or in the 1.66 aspect ratio; the former provides more visual information, inevitably, while the latter seems rather tight.  The disc is loaded with extras, including a touching tribute to Cushing and a marvelous audio commentary by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby.


Dracula (Lionsgate; Region B/Region 2 Blu-ray/DVD combo) – The most iconic of Hammer’s horror films, Dracula was fully restored in association with the British Film Institute and had some legendary “lost” footage reinstate… and yet it still became one of the most controversial home video releases of the year.  Viewers going by 50+ year old memories of seeing the film in 1958 swore up and down that the Blu-ray did a poor job of replicating Jack Asher’s color schemes, while others praised it for its increased detail and richness.  I fall into the latter camp, admittedly, and the disc emerged as one of my favorites of the year.  Viewing options include the original BFI restoration (which does not include the cut scenes, which were unearthed after the fact) and Hammer’s subsequent in-house restoration; the latter incited the wrath of many viewers for having a “modern” blue hue; the former seems to have been embraced by those who couldn’t tolerate the look of Hammer’s restoration.  Extras are again copious, with yet another informative audio commentary by Hearn and Rigby and the surviving reels of the legendary “Japanese print” which includes a bit of footage from Dracula’s demise which somehow didn’t make it back into the final restoration.


The Mummy (Icon; Region B/Region 2 Blu-ray/DVD combo)  – It doesn’t tend to get the same love as the first two Hammer Gothics, but there’s a persuasive case to be made that The Mummy was the film where director Terence Fisher and his crew finally nailed the formula down pat.  The film moves at a great clip, despite some awkward transitions in the screenplay, and it looks like it cost ten times as much as it really did.  The new restoration is a thing of beauty: detailed, sharp and colorful.  For once, the online critics had little to complain about here, making this the clear cut “winner” of the “vintage” Hammer Blu-ray releases.
 

The Brides of Dracula (Final Cut – Region FREE Blu-ray/DVD combo) – Final Cut’s release of Hammer’s most visually sumptuous Gothic took a lot of flak for its inaccurate aspect ratio.  Yes, the 2:1 ratio is off – and yes this deserves to be reported.  On the upside, however, the overzealous over-matting is at the bottom of the frame, making it – for all intents and purposes – negligible to the human eye.  The transfer is otherwise nicely detailed, with ample grain and robust colors.  There’s also a fun making of documentary narrated by Edward De Souza, but a commentary track would have been appreciated as well.  Still, nitpicks to one side, this is a handsome presentation of a gorgeous looking movie.

The Evil of Frankenstein (Final Cut Region FREE Blu-ray/DVD combo)  Aspect ratio issues do not bog down this release, as the film is presented in its intended 1.85 framing.  Colors are again vivid and the image is as detailed as John Wilcox’s sometimes (deliberately) hazy cinematography will allow. Extras are a little light, once again, but the film’s the thing – and it’s well served in this presentation.
 

The Skull (Paramount/Legend – Region A Blu-ray) – It’s a funny thing, but for years the only way to see The Skull was via pan and scan TV prints.  Paramount showed little interest in releasing it until the 1990s, at which point it was issued on VHS – in a pan and scan version.  Happily, things changed when they finally released the film in its full 2.35 glory to DVD – and then to Blu-ray, where it was paired with Terence Fisher’s The Man Who Could Cheat Death.  The Skull is far and away the better film of the two – and happily it gets the better transfer, to boot.  The full scope framing allows one to appreciate Freddie Francis’ most creative and stylish film as it was intended; the transfer is sharp and colorful, with the grain intact that one would expect from the Techniscope process.



Dr. Who and the Daleks/Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 – (Studio Canal – Region B Blu-ray) – Cushing’s Dr. Who films are an acquired taste, much like his portrayal of the character himself.  Suffice it to say, I don’t count myself among the fans of either film (or performance) – but that’s no slag against the wonderful presentations of these films by Studio Canal.  The image looks terrific throughout on both films, and extras again allow one a glimpse into the making of these juvenile sci-fi adventures.


Corruption (Grindhouse – Region FREE Blu-ray/DVD combo) – Cushing’s most notorious film, this is a low budget/no class rip off of the Georges Franju masterpiece Eyes Without a Face, with Cushing in the role of the obsessive doctor trying to restore a loved one’s lost beauty.  The film is a mess, pure and simple, but Cushing elevates it with one of his finest performances.  Grindhouse deliver one of the best releases of the year with this truly comprehensive package: it includes not only the familiar release which played in the US and the UK, but a stronger “export” edit with some truly startling extra footage, including a scene of Cushing savagely beheading a topless prostitute and rubbing blood over the girl’s exposed breasts!  The film has its champions and it’s wonderful to finally have it presented in such a loving manner.  By this point it no doubt reads like I’m getting a bribe for every time I reference Jonathan Rigby’s commentary tracks, but they really are that good – and here he is paired with the equally knowledgeable and enthusiastic David Miller.  The two men give a tremendous insight into the making of the film and manage to convey real enthusiasm for it without coming off like brain dead fan boys.


The Blood Beast Terror (Odeon – Region B Blu-ray; Redemption – Region A Blu-ray) – Cushing once referred to this as the worst film he ever made; harsh words and not entirely deserved, as this admittedly daffy concoction involving a life size killer moth still has some entertainment value, especially compared to some of the other dogs he leant his name to.  Both Blu-ray releases look comparable in terms of image quality, but the Odeon release wins out by virtue of the bonus features: an interview with co-star Wanda Ventham and a lively and informative commentary track by Jonathan Rigby and David Miller.


The Vampire Lovers (Shout! Factory – Region A) – Shout! Factory have released some of the best “cult” Blu-ray releases of the past couple years, but they didn’t exactly set the world on fire with their release of The Vampire Lovers.  The film itself is a bit of a snooze, from my point of view, but it has some memorable moments and better production values than most of the other Hammer horrors shot at this time.  The transfer looks a little soft and doesn’t mark a truly significant upgrade from the old MGM DVD edition, but it is reportedly vastly superior to the Region B release from Shock in Australia.  Extras include the commentary with  director Roy Ward Baker and star Ingrid Pitt (both now sadly deceased) from the DVD release, and a new interview with co-star Madeline Smith, who seems a bit ashamed of the film. 


Twins of Evil (Synapse – Region A/Region 1 Blu-ray/DVD combo) – Synapse has established a reputation for doing meticulous work on their releases, so it came as a surprise when their release of Vampire Circus came under fire for being too dark and murky.  Fans were therefore cautiously optimistic when Twins of Evil was due to be released… and happily the end result was met with considerably more enthusiasm.  The film is one of Hammer’s best latter day features and offers Cushing at his most intense as the pious religious zealot, Gustave Weil.  Extra features include a feature-length making of retrospective, with feedback from many of the film’s surviving participants, including director John Hough.


Horror Express (Severin – Region B/Region 1 Blu-ray/DVD combo) – Horror Express, long consigned to the bargain bin of public domain releases, finally got something of an overhaul thanks to the good folks at Severin.  This most enthralling of the many films co-starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing evoked the Hammer aesthetic of being a low budget production with plenty of production gloss, and the two actors are clearly having a ball bouncing the many witty one-liners off of one another.  Severin’s transfer failed to utilize the full bit rate and resulted in some anomalies in the image, but truth be told – it’s still a pretty good looking transfer, and it certainly blows other editions out of the water.  Extras include interviews with the director and the composer.



Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (Shock – Region B/Region 1 Blu-ray/DVD combo) – As alluded to above, it would seem that Shock rushed these last Hammer titles through – and the end result is a gorgeous looking and fully uncut version of Hammer’s most notorious Gothic… in PAL, which results in a higher pitch to the soundtrack and an abbreviated running time.  Is it a deal breaker?  It depends on how you look at it.  Until this was pointed out to me, I was championing this as a top notch release.  Now I’m aware of the problem and must dock it points accordingly… but it’s still the best I’ve ever seen the film look, and the restored gore is most welcome.  Extras include a featurette on director Terence Fisher (this was to be his last film) and a new commentary with Shane Briant, Madeline Smith and Marcus Hearn.  It may have been a licensing issue, but it would also seem likely that the commentary from the old Paramount DVD (with Smith and David Prowse, who plays the monster in the film) was dropped as it wouldn’t have been in synch with the PAL image. Cautiously recommended, nevertheless, as there is no announcement of a UK release on the horizon – and Paramount has shown zero interest in releasing it in the States.

And there you have it – an eclectic group of titles, to be sure.  There are some significant ones still missing in action, and one remains hopeful that the new year will see at least a few of them – ranging from The Revenge of Frankenstein and The Hound of the Baskervilles to The House That Dripped Blood and Dracula AD 1972 – popping up in newly remastered editions.

Written by Troy Howath
Images Marcus Brooks


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