DVD reviews: Plenty of light in 'The Town That Dreaded Sundown'
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
Despite the title, this is not quite a remake of Charles B. Pierce's cult flick "The Town that Dreaded Sundown" but a sequel that has a new killer recreating the murders from the first. The original is based on a real series of murders and ends with the killer's identity unknown (in real life the murderer was never apprehended). Although this remake/sequel purports to be based on fact it is entirely fictional; neither The Phantom, as he was dubbed, nor a copycat has terrorized the Texarkana area in the years since the original slayings. The set-up is simple; an unknown killer, wearing a burlap sack on his head, is targeting people – mostly teenagers – who are engaged in sexual activity. His first victims are a young couple in a parked car; the young man is killed but Jami (Addison Timlin), the young woman, escapes but the murderer is soon texting her, using her late boyfriend's cell phone. The new killings replicate the old ones so the only inventive one has a Bowie knife attached to a trombone slide. Most of the victims are merely shot or stabbed. Perhaps as a sign of the times two gay teenagers are among the victims but essentially we're in slasher territory here.
Still if we must have slasher flicks – and it seems we must, the subgenre can't be killed with a shovel, it seems – let them all be as stylish as what has been delivered by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (currently receiving kudos for "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" and apparently destined for greater things). He has the good sense to depict some of the murders as brutal attacks without explicit gore (though be warned some are quite graphic) and thus avoids a mind-numbing parade of splatter that is usually a feature of such films. Composition and editing are both striking throughout and intriguing use is made of footage from Peirce's feature, notably in an opening scene that has that movie projected at a most makeshift drive-in. A strong cast has been assembled, including Veronica Cartwright, Gary Cole, Ed Lauter (in his final screen appearance) and Edward Herrman (in one of his last roles) in supporting roles. The film mostly falls on the shoulders of Timlin and Travis Trope, the latter portraying a socially awkward archivist who aids Jami in researching the original murders. Both turn in noteworthy performances. "The Town that Dreaded Sundown" won't play well with anyone who is averse to gore but fans of slasher films and thrillers will find this a superior entry.
2014 / Image Entertainment, RLJ Entertainment / 86m / $27.97 [R]
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Despite a score of notable movies that appeared over his signature, William (nee Wilhelm) Dieterle is one of the most under-rated of the directors who were active in Hollywood's Golden Age. He worked with stars as diverse as W. C. Fields and Bette Davis and his films are highly thought of: "All that Money Can Buy" (aka "The Devil and Daniel Webster"), "Portrait of Jennie," "The Prince and the Pauper," several of Paul Mini's biopics and quite the nuttiest version of "The Maltese Falcon," yclept "Satan Met a Lady." With my typical perversity, it's my favorite treatment of the Dashiell Hammett novel; my favorite Dieterle however is "The Last Flight," an offbeat study of four WWI pilots who decide that with the war over they're going to get drunk, stay drunk, bum around Paris and vie for the attentions of a young woman who favors having a set of dentures in her champagne glass; it just may be the best film ever made dealing with the Lost Generation. And then of course there's the 1939 "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," the object of a recent restoration and release to BluRay. Despite many alterations from the source material — especially its tragic ending – this remains the best screen version of Victor Hugo's sprawling novel. Dieterle's stylist touch is evident in everything from the small, intimate moments to the exciting crowd scene where Paris' lower classes storm the cathedral.
And the casting is superb. Charles Laughton's Quasimodo is one of his most finely judged and sensitive portrayals and has been rightly praised over the years but he's matched by Maureen O'Hara (then a mere 19 years of age) as Esmeralda, the Gypsy with whom he's smitten. Also taken with her charms are the poet Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien looking unrecognizably cute before he put on weight) and the sinister Frollo (Sir Cedric Hardwicke), who frames her for murder because he can't reconcile his lust for her with her "heathen" heritage. And then add in two favorites of mine: Harry Davenport as King Louis XI and George Zucco as an inquisitor. It just doesn't get much better than this, especially when it also boasts an exquisite score by Alfred Newman. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" is as close to a perfect movie as exists. RKO threw a ton of money at the production, building the cathedral façade and the surrounding medieval city at its ranch even though the same, built for the 1923 version, was still standing on the Universal backlot and could easily have been rented. And even if Hugo's ending has been altered the one crafted by writer Sonya Levien is so poignant I forgive the modification. The final moment of Laughton with the cathedral's gargoyles boasts one of the great movie lines of all time.
1939 / Turner Classic Movies / 117m / $19.98 BR [NR]
Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley's Island of Dr. Moreau
While it's been tarred as one of the worst movies of all time, I have a soft spot for the 1996 "The Island of Dr. Moreau," a truly wackadoodle adaptation of H. G. Wells' 1896 novel. It may even be a work of genius but given its torturous production history it isn't easy to determine who the genius responsible might be. It began with Richard Stanley who had achieved some success with two genre productions, "Hardware" and "Dust Devil." Stanley was obsessed with bringing Wells' book, which he'd read as a youth, more faithfully to the screen than had ever been managed. At the same time he wanted to update it so that, like the book, it was set in the near future. The vivisection methods by which Moreau was attempting make humans from animals became DNA experimentation. Stanley's script would be followed, sort of; he cast the film, including stars Marlon Brando and Val Kilmer, and the designs for the mutated creatures were all determined under his supervision, but only days into the production he was fired as director after clashing with an ego-tripping Kilmer and showing numerous indications he was not equipped to handle a major motion picture. The production would soon go off the rails in spectacular fashion and "Lost Soul" tells the story of the human and natural disasters that made it happen.
Kilmer wanted the film (or at least his role in it) finished as quickly as possible because just before he arrived on location he'd been served divorce papers (ironically his behavior was much responsible for the production time increasing from two months to six). Brando delayed his arrival for ages because of his daughter's suicide and, once he reluctantly arrived, was displeased to encounter a different director than the one whose script he admired. Brando quickly departed from the script causing daily rewrites to reflect the changes he'd wrought. Because he was Brando all of his ideas, no matter how bizarre (and that included his eccentric costuming) were honored. One was to have a diminutive South American actor always in his scenes and dressed identically (a resulting scene of that actor playing an equally diminutive grand piano atop the one Brando is playing is one of the great insane images of modern cinema). Brando may well be the other genius who made "Island" one of the great crackpot entertainments of all time. "Lost Soul" documents how it came to be and is nearly as entertaining, particularly when actor Marco Hofschneider is onscreen doing spot-on impersonations of Brando, Kilmer and others involved in the trainwreck. For a look at how movies shouldn't be made (but too often are) this documentary can't be beat.
2014 / Severin / 100m / $24.95 BR [NR]
This look at the supernatural is culled from various programs broadcast on A&E, including "The Unexplained," "MonsterQuest" and "In Search of History." While the aggregate title is "Poltergeists" the entries include looks at voodoo, demonic possession and the Salem witch trials. Mostly, however, the collection is interested in ghosts. Now, admittedly, no one really knows what hauntings are but it's always been my understanding that poltergeists were a distinctly different phenomena from ghosts. Known as noisy or mischievous spirits, poltergeists move things about or make them disappear; sometimes they materialize objects that are not among the household possessions and some start fires (rather extreme mischief admittedly). They do not manifest themselves and they may not be spirits of the dead. As they almost invariably are found in houses with teenage girls they may not be spirits of any kind but some sort of psychic energy released by puberty. The very first episode touches on this but then goes ahead and examines cases where the haunting is decidedly from ghosts; those who believe in such things think ghosts are the spirits of the dead who have not crossed over because of unfinished business of some sort.
Perhaps moving on to ghosts – or confusing the two unexplained phenomena – is because ghosts are more interesting than something that merely levitates your teacup or hides your checkbook. The ghosts here include one long ago romantic triangle where the men decided to solve the problem by killing the woman and tossing her head in a cistern. Another case has a dear departed mistake the owner of a country western bar for her equally late lover and take malevolent action against his wife. Now that's exciting stuff. Serious researchers, such as Lloyd Auerbach, are interviewed as well as several psychics (at least one of whom is clearly emotionally disturbed) and in "The Unexplained" episodes so are a number of skeptics. The opinions of the latter are somewhat suspect as none of them has troubled themselves to actually investigate the cases presented but simply profess the opinion that people are misinterpreting or just plain lying. I wonder if these particular talking heads were chosen on the basis of their explanations being so lame. I have to admit their bloviating is no less unconvincing than what is presented by the Electronic Voice Phenomena people who listen to a recording of what sounds like a dog clearing its throat and proclaim it is a specific word or phrase. There is nothing here will convince unbelievers; they're aimed strictly at the choir.
1996-2008 / Lionsgate / 315m (2 discs) / $14.98 [TVPG]
J. Sheridan LeFanu's "Carmilla" has been frequently adapted for the screen though almost never under its own title (think "Vampyr," "Blood and Roses," "Terror in the Crypt" and "The Vampire Lovers" to cite just a few). Bret Wood's "The Unwanted" follows in that tradition but it makes a number of other alterations, some quite significant. The basic plot has been updated with reasonable cleverness and has Carmilla (Christen Orr) arrives at the rural home of Troy (William Katt) and his daughter Laura (Hanna Fierman). Carmilla is seeking information about her mother Millarca whose last known location was Troy's farm; he however claims he's never heard of the woman. His story is contradicted by Laura who later encounters Carmilla at the diner where she works; she even shows the other young woman the trailer on her father's land where Millarca resided for a time. The two women enter into a kinky relationship – Laura is into cutting herself and has little trouble persuading Carmilla to slurp up the red stuff – and discover that their mothers had also become lovers. Troy of course was not pleased with that nor is he thrilled about his daughter's Sapphic dalliance.
I'm a tad divided on "The Unwanted." On the one hand, Wood has done an admirable job of re-setting the tale in the present day. In LeFanu, Carmilla becomes a houseguest after a carriage accident, her mother insisting the injured young woman remain behind while she continues onward on urgent business. The daughter turns out to be a vampire who victimizes her host's daughter. Here Millarca arrives on the scene after the car in which she's been hitching a ride crashes. Some of the updated details may be combined and/rearranged and/or rethought – is Laura a victim for instance? – but they all derive from Lefanu. While substituting the drinking of blood resulting from cutting is an interesting notion I'm not sure removing the original's vampiric aspect was a wise idea. Without the supernatural angle this just becomes another lesbian love story (albeit with a psycho, incestuously-inclined father). And the ending – which follows LeFanu – seems unpleasantly nasty as a result. Katt delivers a performance quite different from anything I've seen him do in the past. Relative newcomers Orr and Fierman score very nicely as well. The film may not be a complete success but it works at least as much as it doesn't.
2013 / Kino Lorber / 96m / $24.95 BR [NR]