Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends, made midway through his short but incredibly prolific career, unfolds like a brutal car crash in slow motion. It’s almost immediately evident what is going to happen to the naïve carnival worker Fox (played by Fassbinder himself with a startling lack of guile), but there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it, least of all the oblivious protagonist.
The cynicism runs bone-deep in this portrait of transactional bourgeoisie gay culture. A compulsive lotto-player, Fox finally sees his persistence pay off after he wins 500,000 marks. But Fassbinder completely elides the actual discovery of his win. It’s possibly the only moment of unsullied joy for Fox within the film’s borders, and it might as well not exist.
Shortly after his big win, Fox is introduced to a group of upper-class friends by Max (Karlheinz Böhm), an antiques dealer he’s picked up by at a public restroom, and soon he’s become enamored with Eugen (Peter Chatel). Sensing an opportunity, Eugen starts seeing Fox and then asks for money. He doesn’t wait long and he doesn’t start small, securing a 100,000-mark loan for his company before convincing Fox to buy an apartment and fill it with lavish furniture and décor from Max’s shop.
As usual, Fassbinder shoots interior spaces with an eye toward their oppressive and distancing effects, and Fox and Eugen’s apartment, stuffed from floor to ceiling with ornate accessories, is an especially overwhelming place. Fox never seems aware of his new friends’ capacity for manipulation, but his alienation is palpable, even if his carefree personality deflects it on the surface. Even one of his favorite spots — a dive bar that Eugen et al sneer at — is eventually transformed into a space where he no longer feels at home.
This is depressing, harrowing and emotionally penetrating stuff, and Fassbinder never lets up. The indignities persist for Fox up through the film’s final shot. He gets one final gut-punch, and so do we.
Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is sourced from a new 4K digital restoration by the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation, and it looks essentially identical to the Arrow Region B Blu-ray, sourced from the same restoration. Fine detail is excellent, grain is well-supported and colors are stable and vibrant, with a slight yellowish warm hue to them. The uncompressed mono soundtrack is limited by the dullness of the post-dubbed dialogue, but there are no major hiss or noise issues.
While Arrow’s disc included an informative commentary track from Hamish Ford, Criterion’s disc offers more quantity, including two newly filmed interviews. Filmmaker Ira Sachs offers an appreciation of the film and Fassbinder’s place within queer cinema, while actor Harry Baer, who played Eugen’s ex, reminisces about making the film and sadly notes that only three of the principals are still living. Two brief archival excerpts are offered: Fassbinder talks about the film’s politics and composer Peer Raben discusses the cabaret-influenced score. A trailer and an insert with an essay from former Criterion staff writer Michael Koresky round out the supplements.
Criterion Collection / 1975 / Color / 1.37:1 / 124 min / $39.95
Before he became notorious as an insanely prolific director of horror films of, let’s say, dubious quality, Jess Franco emerged with his breakthrough, The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962). Two years later, Orlof was back with an additional f in Dr. Orloff’s Monster, a film that references Orloff all of once. Cash-in implications of the title aside (it’s also known as the not-quite-accurate-either The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll), this not-sequel is certainly of interest.
A stock horror template is given some dimension via moody lighting and a pervasive sense of melancholy that seems to especially afflict the film’s murderous creature, Andros (Hugo Blanco, caked in crusty face makeup), a reanimated corpse who does the bidding of Dr. Jekyll (Marcelo Arroita-Jáuregui). That bidding is mostly limited to strangling prostitutes and cabaret performers.
Meanwhile, Jekyll’s niece Melissa (Agnès Spaak) returns to the family castle, where she’s alternately puzzled and creeped out by her Aunt Inglud (Luisa Sala) and Uncle Jekyll. Melissa wants to know more about her family history, particularly her father who died when she was young, but there isn’t much information forthcoming.
Even at just 84 minutes long, Dr. Orloff’s Monster is relentlessly shaggy, luxuriating in lengthy nightclub scenes that are punctuated with brief bits of horror. The plot is mostly coherent, but that’s due more to its simplicity than any facility for visual storytelling. Franco seems to have no regard for spatial awareness, cutting haphazardly and mangling almost any sense of suspense. The murder scenes are miserably blocked.
That doesn’t mean Franco had no sense of visual style; it’s here in spades, from foggy graveyards to smoky clubs, often shot at unusual canted angles. Franco never had the polish or psychological depth of a Jacques Tourneur or Georges Franju, but Dr. Orloff’s Monster proved he could make a brand of atmospheric horror of his own.
Redemption/Kino’s Blu-ray presents Dr. Orloff’s Monster in a 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer that generally follows in the footsteps of their other releases of 1960s Franco films. The image is a little contrast-y, but is overall decently sharp and detailed. Tram lines, scuffs and scratches are all here, but nothing too egregious. Audio options are two DTS-HD Master Audio mono soundtracks, one in French and one in English. Both feature persistent low-level hiss, and the English dialogue is performed considerably more histrionically at points.
Extras include a typically studious audio commentary from Tim Lucas and 11 minutes of silent footage —almost exclusively of the nudie variety — that was excised from some cuts of the film. Theatrical trailers round out the disc.
Redemption / 1964 / Black and white / 1.66:1 / 84 min / $29.95
Kino goes back to the Buster Keaton well with two new double-feature releases, sourced from 2K restorations by Lobster Films. Generally, these releases improve upon the previous Kino Blu-rays, but Region A Keaton fans may want to wait for the forthcoming releases from Cohen Media, who have restored some Keaton titles in 4K, and will be sourcing additional 4K restorations from Cineteca Bologna. (More info about that in this helpful NitrateVille thread.)
Undoubtedly, Kino wanted to get these new editions out there before they are likely to be superseded by the Cohen releases, but to their credit, they’ve made them relatively affordable ($29.95 for a two-disc Blu-ray set). With no firm release date yet for the Cohen Blu-rays, these refreshed releases could be worth a first-time purchase, though it probably doesn’t make much sense to upgrade from the old Kino Blu-rays until one gets a look at what Cohen has in store. (Eureka also has a Masters of Cinema Region B box set with The General, Sherlock Jr. and Steamboat Bill, Jr. coming sometime this year.)
Each set pairs a Keaton masterwork with a lesser title, releasing these films in different configurations than previously available. The General, Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College were all released as standalones, while Three Ages was paired with Sherlock Jr. (another masterpiece Kino no longer has the rights to).
The General isn’t just one of the greatest comedies ever made; it’s one of the best Civil War films, and his final independent silent feature Steamboat Bill, Jr. features Keaton’s most astonishing collection of risky stunts, culminating in an incredible cyclone sequence. While the stale D.W. Griffith parody of Three Ages wears out its welcome in a repetitive triptych, the trend-chasing College maintains a lot of slapstick charm despite its derivative nature.
Transfer-wise, these new 2K restorations offer some noticeable upgrades, although I have mixed feelings about The General. Kino’s old disc presents the film with a slight sepia tint, and there are some hefty scratches and blotches throughout. The new disc features a much cleaner image and gets rid of the tint. But while the new transfer is unquestionably more stable, it’s also quite a bit darker, with heavy contrast obscuring some details. Some might prefer the transfer with less damage, but Kino’s old disc is often a more pleasurable viewing experience.
With the other three films, the new transfers are clear winners. Three Ages gets the biggest boost, and is now presented in 1080p instead of 1080i. While nitrate deterioration still plagues the film, the image is often much sharper, with clearer detail visible beneath the damage. The elements limit how good this film can look, but this a significant step up over the cloudy old transfer.
Steamboat Bill features a more stable image, with better fine detail and a tighter grain structure. Whites that looked slightly blown out on the old disc are better here. College is still afflicted with a fairly persistent softness, but damage has been mitigated greatly.
Audio and extras-wise, these discs are significantly different. At least one new score has been made available for each film, while all but College have at least one removed. The General loses some featurettes, but gains an audio commentary by historians Michael Schlesinger and Stan Taffel. Thankfully, the Orson Welles and Gloria Swanson introductions have been retained.
Three Ages adds a Keaton-starring Alka-Seltzer commercial and Candid Camera segment and retains the excerpt of Griffith’s Man’s Genesis (1912), while dropping two featurettes.
Steamboat Bill feels the deepest cut, losing a complete alternate version of the film comprised of different angles and takes, as well as vintage song recordings, a making-of featurette and a montage of Keaton stunts. Added are a Schlesinger/Taffel commentary track, an introduction from Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg and a different Alka-Seltzer commercial.
College fares the best, losing no extras (a Rob Farr commentary track, locations featurette and 1966 industrial film The Scribe — Keaton’s final film role) and adding several more: a Bromberg intro, a Lillian Gish intro and 1928 collegiate two-reeler Run, Girl, Run, starring Carole Lombard.
The General and Three Ages: Kino Lorber / 1926, 1923 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 79 + 64 min / $29.95
Steamboat Bill, Jr. and College: Kino Lorber / 1928, 1927 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 69 + 65 min / $29.95
Many reviews of cloying/charming Australian film Girl Asleep have focused on its influences, and the Variety pull-quote on the Blu-ray’s back cover sums up most of those observations, mentioning Wes Anderson, Napoleon Dynamite and Where the Wild Things Are. OK, fine. The hermetically framed opening shot certainly recalls some of Anderson’s, though the film’s formalist touches tend to diminish. And yes, there are aggressively weird family members and costumed creatures in the woods, so sure, those other two are represented.
This can be a lazy way to review movies, but Girl Asleep invites it with its pastiche of other, more original ideas. Before it was a film, Girl Asleep was a stage production at Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre, and the company’s artistic director Rosemary Myers directs the film adaptation. Like a lot of fringe theater, there’s more emphasis on the “imaginative” than the dramaturgically sound. There are fun costumes, kitschy production design and a winking disco dance number, but does that add up to much of a movie?
When the film does work, it’s mostly due to its appealing performances, particularly from Bethany Whitmore as shy protagonist Greta and Harrison Feldman as the gawky, kindhearted Elliott, who befriends her when she moves to a new school in a new town. Elliott and Greta become fast friends, but she doesn’t have much luck in her other relationships, enduring torment from a trio of mean girls and disinterest from older sister Genevieve (Imogen Archer).
When her well-meaning but clueless parents (Amber McMahon and screenwriter Matthew Whittet) throw her a 15th birthday party, Greta is forced to come out of her shell, but it’s not long before she’s been plunged into an allegorical dreamscape where she must confront her worst fears. Regular teenage awkwardness and discomfort probably doesn’t warrant such heavy-handed metaphorical inquiry.
Girl Asleep comes to Blu-ray from Oscilloscope, whose 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer faithfully reproduces the golden-amber tones of the film’s late-1970s setting. The image is sharp, and fine detail is excellent. Brightly colored costumes, especially yellows and blues, pop, while detail remains strong in shadowy scenes. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is crisp and dynamic.
The most enjoyable bonus feature is one unrelated to the film, except for having been packaged with Girl Asleep theatrically. Amy Nicholson’s documentary short Pickle (2016) details one couple’s indefatigable ability to care for a host of unusual pets, and the inevitable deaths that follow. Also included: a standard making-of doc, a separate interview with Myers that features some overlap, a promo video for Windmill Theatre Company and a trailer.
Oscilloscope Laboratories / 2016 / Color / 1.33:1 / 77 min / $32.99
Gruesome occult horror and slapstick don’t really make for a logical pairing, but that doesn’t stop Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General) from trying to fuse the two in his feature debut Revenge of the Blood Beast, a tonal mishmash that mostly holds together thanks to Reeves’ steady directorial hand.
Barbara Steele is striking as always as Veronica, a woman honeymooning in Transylvania who becomes possessed by the spirit of an ancient witch after a car crash into the lake where she was drowned by the townspeople centuries ago. Unfortunately, this means Steele is largely absent for the majority of the film, replaced by a man in hideous hag makeup.
Her milquetoast husband Philip (Ian Ogilvy) must try to reverse the curse, aided by a descendant of Count von Helsing (John Karlsen, a perma-twinkle in his eye) who was previously just a bit of annoying local color as Philip and Veronica passed through town.
Revenge of the Blood Beast has everything you could want in a movie, provided your list consists only of leering, rapist hotel clerks (Mel Welles, playing the unsubtly named Groper), gags about Communists (there’s a visual hammer-and-sickle joked wedged into a brutal death scene) and car chases featuring bumbling cops (apparently shot by the second unit without Reeves’ knowledge or initial approval).
Still, even though the comedy (or attempts at it) never feels congruous with the mission to defeat a bulbous, bloodthirsty beast on a rampage, Revenge of the Blood Beast is an entertaining enough Euro-horror jaunt.
Raro’s 1080p, 2.35:1 transfer of Revenge of the Blood Beast is surprisingly strong, with stable color reproduction, healthy amounts of detail and a well-supported grain structure that isn’t afflicted with any obvious digital manipulation. Skin tones are natural, while colors like blood red and the yellow of von Helsing’s car are fairly vibrant. Audio is presented in a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio English soundtrack that seems to betray the weakness of the source due to its low volume and low-level hiss. Despite a claim on the packaging, there is no Italian soundtrack included.
The major extra is a 30-minute audio interview with Steele about her career that plays over still images and is interspersed with clips from the film. An included booklet features an essay by Nocturno that explores Reeves’ career, tragically cut short by his overdose death at age 25.
Raro Video / 1966 / Color / 2.35:1 / 79 min / $29.95
Ousmane Sembène’s seminal Black Girl, his debut feature and a watershed work of art for African cinema, makes its way to Region A Blu-ray from Criterion. In 2015, the BFI released the film in a fantastic dual-format set (reviewed here), but Criterion has improved on it with its Blu-ray release, including a transfer sourced from the same World Cinema Project 4K restoration and adding a number of valuable new bonus features.
Excerpted from my previous review of the BFI’s disc:
Mbissine Thérèse Diop stars as Diouana, a young woman who takes a job working for a rich French couple (Anne-Marie Jelinek, Robert Fontaine), moving from her home in Dakar to the Mediterranean resort city of Antibes. Diouana anticipates a life of caring for the couple’s children and exploring a brand new country. Instead, she’s saddled with additional cooking and cleaning responsibilities and her sightseeing is limited to the car ride from the boat to the house when she first arrives. As Diouana says in one of her flat, resigned voiceovers, France is merely a kitchen, a living room and a bedroom to her.
Sembène’s politically charged film runs on an engine of focused righteous anger, its characters emblematic of a poisonous symbiosis. The couple’s fundamental misunderstanding of Diouana’s humanity is ugly and patronizing — to them, she’s simply a task-oriented automaton or an exotic trinket to show off to “less-cultured” friends. Diouana is a woman isolated, stripped of any agency and relegated to an even more inconsequential position than her life back in Senegal, shown through flashbacks.
Her alienation is strikingly realized by Sembène, who frames her pinned against lily-white backgrounds. The couple’s living spaces are notably unadorned; one wall is home only to a tribal mask given to them as a gift from Diouana when they first met. Soon, it will become an object of struggle as she engages in a futile fight to reclaim at least a portion of her identity, cultural, personal or otherwise.
Criterion’s 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer is the equal of the BFI’s, displaying the same excellent levels of fine detail, clarity and grayscale separation, while the uncompressed mono French audio is clean and unaffected by damage.
Criterion’s disc emerges as the winner on the supplement front, particularly thanks to two new scholarly interviews packed with a wealth of information.
Samba Gadjigo puts Sembène’s work into the context of African cinema at the time, which was basically nonexistent outside of French-controlled film productions. There was no film infrastructure, and Gadjigo details how Sembène worked from scratch to create his early films that challenged dominant paradigms.
Manthia Diawara contributes a deep analysis of Black Girl, discussing Sembène’s approach to enlightening his viewership. Diawara argues that Sembène took a fundamentally intersectional approach, understanding that gender, race and class conventions would all have to be challenged to bring about change.
Also exclusive to Criterion’s release: a newly filmed interview with star Diop, who explains her serendipitous entry into the movies, and a brief excerpt of a 1966 interview with Sembène about his surprise Prix Jean Vigo win for Black Girl.
Overlapping with the BFI disc: Sembène’s debut short, Borom Sarret (1963), also sporting a new 4K restoration; a brief alternate color sequence that Sembène dropped (presented here as a standalone, not integrated into the film like on the BFI disc); and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Diawara’s 1994 documentary Sembène: The Making of African Cinema.
A trailer and an insert with an essay by critic Ashley Clark are also included.
Criterion Collection / 1966 / Black and white / 1.37:1 / 59 min / $39.95
Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.