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DVD reviews: 'Dark Film Mysteries' provides bang for buck

Collections of one sort or another have landed in the mailbox recently, and topping the list as regards value for money is Film Chest’s “Dark Film Mysteries” (1945-52 / 968m (3 discs) / NR) that collects a whopping 11 films for a mere $19.98. Film lovers have reason to beware of such abundance at such low cost but the films here (many reviewed as stand-alones) have been beautifully restored. For a change, you can actually see what’s going on in “The Red House” and appreciate the gorgeous play of light and shadow in the nighttime forest scenes. Other gems include Fritz Lang’s “Scarlet Street,” Orson Welles’ “The Stranger” and – giving Edgar G. Ulmer a decent budget for a change and a chance to indulge his romantic propensities – “The Strange Woman.” Ulmer’s “Detour,” widely hailed but never my favorite of his works, is also included as well as “Woman on the Run,” “Quicksand” (where Mickey Rooney sinks metaphorically into the titular muck – and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy), “Inner Sanctum” (not a part of the well-known Universal series), the nifty heist thriller “Kansas City Confidential,” “Fear in the Night” and the deliciously twisted “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.” You may have seen these public domain titles on various cable stations but I’m betting you’ve never seen any of them looking this good.

A trio of Film Detective releases represent the first appearance on Blu Ray of several public domain titles. The best known of them is John Huston’s “Beat the Devil” (1953 / 89m / $14.99 / NR), that boasts a notable cast headed up by Humphrey Bogart, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley and Peter Lorre but not much more. Often described as a parody of Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” it has little in common with that production other than Bogart, Lorre, a bit of quoted dialogue and Bogart’s referring to Morley as Fatgut, an allusion to the Caspar Gutman character. “Devil” involves a group of swindlers about to embark on a scheme involving uranium – that the plot centers on their attempts to reach Africa (where Huston, Bogart and Morley would soon travel to make “The African Queen”) is one of many in-jokes tucked into the script that was written day by day by Huston and Truman Capote and looks it. It’s more a naughty schoolboy prank than a movie.

“Hollow Triumph (aka “The Scar” – 1948 / 83m /$14.99 /NR) is firmly in noir territory with Paul Henreid as a crook on the run from the crooks he robbed. He thinks he’s found his ideal way to hide by killing and assuming the identity of a dead ringer psychiatrist, only to discover he may not have bettered his situation after all even though he finds true love in the person of Joan Bennett, doing her usual noir “dame” thing. I won’t reveal more than that in case you’ve never seen the film (I hadn’t managed to catch up with it until now) except to note that it has one of those plots where perfect plans always go awry. Now, as noted, I’ve never watched this film before, so I don’t know what condition it might have been in but it looks spectacular; director Steve Sekely, a Hungarian who departed Europe during the rise of the Nazis, brings all his German Expressionist tendencies to the production – and the distinctive noir look was after all essentially German Expressionism. The film is informed by inky shadows and quirky camera angles; it may not be one of the truly great noirs but it’s a stunningly photographed film.

The most notorious film is the batch is “Salt of the Earth” (1954 / 94m / $14.99 / NR), the only film to be blacklisted due in part to the participation of blacklisted Herbert J. Biberman (director), Michael Wilson (writer), Paul Jarrico (producer), Sol Kaplan (composer) and Will Geer. Funding coming from the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers couldn’t have helped. Based loosely on an actual labor action, it depicts the strike of Latino miners demanding safe working conditions and equality with their white co-workers; that includes such luxuries as hot water in their company-provided houses. A surprising element for the time is the strong feminist message that emerges partway through when the wives insist on sharing the burden of the strike, even taking over the picket line when the men are legally precluded from marching.

Barely seen in U.S. theaters and denounced on the floor of the House of Representatives and by everyone from American Legion to Pauline Kael, the film is undeniably leftist agitprop and sometimes simplistic but – especially in its use of a cast largely made up of non-professionals (who, as it happens, are pretty good) – it is also as close as U.S. films ever got to neo-realism. Like “Beat the Devil” it has been seen only in milky, washed out prints for many years. The digital restoration it has undergone may not have improved things much on that score – it was after all a very low-budget affair – but it has given the film a sharper image than I’ve witnessed previously.

Improving things not one whit are the Blu Ray restorations on three titles from Synapse. “Manos, the Hands of Fate” (1966 / 74m / $24.95/ NR) has been termed the worst movie ever made. In a world that includes any film to which the name Conrad Brooks is attached that may be not fully deserved but “Manos” is pretty dire. It involves a family who on a vacation trip fall into the clutches of an undead worshipper of Manos (whoever or whatever that might be). That’s pretty much the whole of the plot, and the running time is taken up with The Master laconically pursuing his objective of making the wife his next bride (considering the quarrelsome nature of his existing collection I’d say he already has a few too many). If you do decide to, um, treat yourself to this collection of ineptitude in every conceivable aspect, be prepared to bail within the first 10 minutes or so, which features the longest, most boring car ride ever committed to celluloid (yes even more so than “Solyaris”). A later cat fight amongst the Master’s wives is similarly interminable and a scene in which a character is killed by hand gestures must be seen to be believed. The digital restoration sure sharply defines the moths that flit about betwixt the performers and the camera.

There’s nothing technically incompetent about “Morituris” (2011 / 89m / $24.95 / NR) an Italian film with some of the dialogue in Romanian (some of which goes without subtitles). It too features a long car ride at the beginning; the camerawork at least is better than in “Manos” but the inane babbling of the auto’s quintet is every bit as boring. The two young women have gone on this excursion with three men who are total strangers to them in expectation of arriving at a rave. The men have other motives and on arrival deep in the forest they rape the two women in a long and nasty sequence, and the film becomes unpleasant as well as boring. Eventually some muscular gladiators inexplicably rise from the grave and commit carnage that is fairly graphic but scarcely more interesting.

Looking good by comparison (yes, we are grading on a curve here) is “Mosquito” (1995 / 92m / $24.95 / NR) where a disparate group of individuals – a couple on their way to the woman’s new job, some forest rangers and a trio of bank robbers – do battle with giant mosquitoes that result when an alien spacecraft sends a probe (or something) to earth. The acting is unremarkable and when a surviving group of characters takes refuge in an abandoned farmhouse and board up the windows it’s hard not to think of a certain George Romero film. The special effects are quite good, however, if that’s enough to float your boat. The film is total cheese and sliced thickly at that but it doesn’t take itself seriously (heck it even finds an excuse for Gunnar Hansen to wield a chainsaw!) and might provide some fun for genre fans.

While there are seven novels in the V. C. Andrews series of books that began with “Flowers in the Attic” it appears Lifetime has decided to pack things in after adapting the first four (the fifth one is more in the nature of a prequel anyway and much doubt exists as to whether it was written even in part by Andrews). Shortly after the release of “Seeds of Yesterday” as a standalone Lionsgate has gathered it and the previous three – “Flowers,” “Petals on the Wind” and “If There be Thorns” – onto two double-sided discs (2013-15 / 360m / $29.98 / TV-14). It would be futile for me to attempt to synopsize the downright epic history of abuse, incest, betrayal, murder, mental torment and hidden family secrets of the Dollanganger family in the space I have here. Suffice it to say it begins Gothic with four children transported by their mother (Heather Graham) over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s (Ellen Burstyn) house where they are secreted in an attic for years. This is so grandpa won’t learn of their existence and disinherit mom. He’s aware of her incestuous affair with her brother but not that it resulted in offspring. Children grow, as they are wont to do, and the elder son and daughter have sexual relations with each other. Eventually they escape captivity and start careers – he as a doctor, she as a dancer – but cannot escape their feelings for each other so they pose as a married couple and have a family.

And so it goes. The films (like the novels) descend into pure soap after the first and feature the usual melodramatic happenings – injuries kill dancing careers (twice!), daughter sleeps with mom’s new husband and becomes pregnant, one brother takes up with the other’s wife, several blackmail attempts transpire and so on. The production values are high and the gloss does manage to compensate to a degree for a sudsy and predictable storyline. Once Burstyn disappears from the narrative (she’s prominent only in the first movie and only briefly involved in the second) things get uninteresting rapidly though I can’t fault any of the actors; it’s simply that granny is the most interesting character. Graham does well though how anyone can look at those eyes and not conclude she’s completely off her rocker is a right puzzler. She, too, departs the proceedings before the final installment – not the only character to suffer a Havisham-like fate. Despite the outlandish proceedings these Andrews adaptations take themselves very seriously. But this cheese is Velveeta not camembert.

After such profundity, it’s refreshing to encounter “Shaun the Sheep Movie” (2015 / Lionsgate / 85m / $34.99 BR+DVD+digital / PG), which exists simply for pure, unalloyed fun. If you know the work of the Aardman studio from the “Wallace and Grommet” shorts or from “The Curse of the Wererabbit” and “Chicken Run,” you have some idea what to expect from this stop-motion feature. Shaun is a character from several Aardman short subjects (which I have not seen) and here leads his wooly compatriots in a scheme to get a day off from their boring routine – even the farmer who has raised them from when he was a young man seems to be on autopilot through the day. After cleverly putting the farmer into a slumber, the sheep stash him in a vintage trailer that breaks free and zips off into the city. Nutty complications ensue, including Shaun and friends having to elude an animal control fanatic and the amnesiac farmer becoming the hottest hairstylist in town. The Aardmans have a rare gift for building comic sequences (if you recall the one with the toy train in “The Wrong Trousers” you know what I mean), and that’s on display here in abundance, particularly in the scene of the runaway trailer careening into the city. While the movie is essentially intended as kiddie fare, I see no reason why adults can’t also enjoy it without an iota of guilt.