Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Celluloid Ramblings: November Spins

by JB
Ah, November! When the weather turns cold, the leaves fall from the trees, and we are all reminded again of our own mortality…

One advantage of being retired is that I no longer need to devote hours and effort to a pesky “job.” Time enough at last! The downside is that frequently “unlimited time” becomes “no time”—it is far too easy to say, “I’ll just do it tomorrow,” and to repeat that mantra as tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace. It’s a conundrum. It’s a problem. I’m sure I will have your complete sympathies… as soon as you’re all done working.

In last week’s column, I shared my “Top Ten Still-Unwatched” DVDs and asked for viewing suggestions from you, my gentle readers. Thank you to all who commented, especially those of you who provided reasons for your choices! It was instructive. It helped me structure my movie-watching time. It gave me new insights into the minds of my readers.


While I didn’t get around to everything on my list (because naps) I did enjoy many of those DVDs. Here’s the nickel tour of what I have been spinning lately.

The Human Monster (1939)

This one was a disappointment, though it stars Bela Lugosi (in a dual role, yet!) and remains an interesting footnote in his filmography. In the late 1930s, Lugosi’s career was on a downward slide, but the success of this film and his role in Son of Frankenstein the same year brought him back to some level of success. Though Argyle Films produced The Human Monster in England, Monogram Pictures distributed it in America. The success of this film led to the studio signing him to the long-term contract that gave us “The Monogram Nine,” the famous string of low-budget quickies that Bela made in the 1940s.

The Plot In Brief: When Scotland Yard starts finding dead bodies in the Thames, it doesn’t take long for them to discover that the victims were all insured by the kindly Dr. Orloff (Bela Lugosi). Orloff is so kindly, there couldn’t be any malfeasance here, could there? This isn’t a horror film, is it?

The transfer here is problematic. Although I am sure this disc looks better than the dozens of public domain VHS tapes available in the 1980s, it is still “dupey” looking with insufficient black levels. The film is a snooze for the first hour, and the transfer is hard to watch… so is it worth it?

The one feature that makes this disc recommendable is the pair of commentary tracks that VCI includes. Lugosi scholar Gary Don Rhodes provides a textbook “just the facts” commentary. Meanwhile, on audio track #3, David Del Valle and Phoef Sutton engage in a freewheeling, stream-of-consciousness commentary. I wish that the two tracks could have been joined somehow. It would have been like listening to a football game with Rhodes doing the play-by-play and Del Valle and Sutton as his color commentators.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray of Hellraiser (1987)
I can think of few other first films that so clearly announced its maker’s copious talents. Upon Hellraiser’s release, Stephen King famously commented that he had seen “the future of horror.” The film was so different than the horror films made at the time, and yet seemed to harken back to mid-period Hammer Films and the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Bravo, Barker!

Arrow Video’s new Hellraiser Blu-ray is a mixed bag. I am afraid that I am getting spoiled by special editions that gather up all the supplementary material from previous special editions, as Arrow’s recent An American Werewolf in London set did so well. While there are plenty of special features on the Arrow disc, most of the 2009 Anchor Bay Special Edition extras have not been ported over.

The transfer is problematic. Am I becoming spoiled by astounding transfers? Is it getting to the point where a simply great transfer seems ho-hum? This new version of Hellraiser seems all over the place: some scenes are beautiful and perfect, especially the darker scenes; daylight scenes seem overly grainy; and some scenes seem a bit too soft. Is this simply the best transfer Arrow could manage given the quality of the materials available? I love this film and I always have; yet I found this transfer distracting. The last thing we want is for the presentation to “pull us out of the film.”

4K Blu-ray of It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
The Pope of Film once proclaimed this the 41st Greatest Film Ever Made. You can read that column here.

The transfer on this new 4K disc is astounding. I can still remember when this film was a perennial public domain VHS eyesore! It may just be this disc’s inky dark black levels, but I found this transfer a tad darker than others I have seen, even in the early, bucolic scenes. Were the technicians responsible for this disc trying to use the transfer itself as a subtle form of foreshadowing? After all, one of my college film professors once called It’s A Wonderful Life “a film noir wrapped in Christmas paper.” This new Blu-ray is the best-looking transfer of this film that I have ever seen.

Network Video’s new restoration of Monty Python’s Flying Circus

I ordered this one so long ago that I had almost forgotten that I had. Network spent plenty of time and money, going back to the original 2” videotapes and 16mm film, and did a complete restoration and upscaling to HD. The results are revelatory. This is a series I have been watching since I was in the seventh grade. I had almost started to think that the soft video quality and grungy animation were somehow part of the production team’s preferred aesthetic! Kind of like how, in the 1970s, some critics thought the horrible quality of bootleg dubs of Night of the Living Dead were somehow intentional. Nope!

Network’s restoration work here rates with Elite Entertainment’s Night of the Living Dead restoration and Universal Pictures’ recent restoration of Dracula. The results are so stunning that they force one to re-evaluate the program and make it so much easier to enjoy it even more.

There are 45 original episodes of the television program and a good amount of supplementary material, so it’s going to take me a bit more time to get through it all. I’m about halfway in, and this already qualifies as the restoration of the year. In a short supplementary feature, restoration colorist Jonathan Wood shows his work to Terry Gilliam (whose animations benefit most from the restoration) and Gilliam almost cries with joy when he sees his work restored to what he originally intended. It’s a wonderful moment, and Gilliam admits just how shitty the program has looked on video for the last forty years.

One quibble. The four seasons of the program are housed in an elaborate, “exploding Norwegian Blu-ray” box, which arrived at my house damaged. Friend of the site Mikko Vannikka reported on the Twitter machine that his set also arrived damaged. Hell, even Bill Hunt’s review copy for The Digital Bits website arrived damaged! Each individual season is in a sleeve with a substantial book detailing its creation, and the cardboard crib inside the box that cradles them is just not up to the job. The damage reminded me of a similar design flaw in Rhino’s The Complete Monkees Blu-ray set. Hopefully, Network Video will begin a program to ship out replacement boxes. The set was not inexpensive.

So, kids, what have all of you been watching lately? Anyone dig into the new Criterion Godzilla set? I haven’t, but would love to hear what you all think!


  1. I should get my Monty Python set today, if UPS doesn't screw it up again (long story). I read a lot of report of damaged packaging because the inside of the box is made so flimsy. Still can't wait to get it

    1. Wow! I now know of four people who own this-- all four received broken boxes!

    2. It's pretty much the rule and not the exception. If you go on blu-ray.com forum, there's a ton of comments about it

    3. But, the outside looks fine, did a little work inside, and the discs themselves play perfect. Also those thick books with each seasons are just perfect

    4. Yes, Like I said, I'm a big fan of the contents. I wish that as much thought had gone into the packaging. I wonder what the odds are of Network sending out replacement boxes?

    5. So far nothing from them. Some people got vague replies, but basically they're still working on a plan.

    6. Yeah, they said they're looking into it and figuring out how to fix it, so that's promising I guess.

      (And you almost got my name right, JB :D)

    7. I'm sorry. I pronounce it MEE-KO VA-NEE-KO, so it rhymes!

    8. No worries.

      (I pronounce it Mikko Viinikka.)

    9. Weird. Disc 1 played fine in my north american PS4, but disc 2 won't even load. Luckily i have a second blu-ray player (region free) that loading it fine

    10. You guys probably got the same email I got, but I'll mention it here anyway.

      Good news! Network are offering all affected a choice between a £10 refund, an empty box as a replacement (while stocks last) and a complete refund if you return the set. I (of course) opted for the replacement box.

    11. Yup, got it, sent my reply asking for the £10

  2. Question: did both of you send an e-mail of complaint, or did you receive the Network “options” e-mail simply because you had ordered it? I have not received their e-mail.

    1. I emailed them immediately after receiving the box. But just email them with a photo of the damage, your order number, and which of the 3 options I mentioned you want, I'm sure they'll sort you out.

  3. Many of Bela Lugosi's movies after the mid-1930s are not that good. I have enjoyed the few Monogram pictures I have watched, though. The Corpse Vanishes was a fun viewing for October.

    It's A Wonderful Life is one of those films I have a troubled relationship with. That blend of sentimentality and darkness I do not always have a positive reaction to.

    I did not get the Godzilla set but watched a lot of the transfers on Turner Classic Movies last month. They look lovely. I have mainly watched films on TCM recently, including the wonderful pre-code Warner Brothers production Three On A Match. Pasolini's Teorema was an intriguing watch as well.