Tag Archives: Val Guest

Day Featured

World Cinema Paradise’s Best of Blu – 2014

Despite nearly everyone’s insistence (so it seems) that physical media is dead as a doornail, 2014 has, truly, been a remarkable year for home video, Blu-ray particularly. From an agonizingly slow start when the format was new, the flow of classic titles really exploded in the last year. It’s been hard to keep up with all of the terrific catalog titles, even if most are being sublicensed by the majors to boutique labels like Olive Films, Kino, and Twilight Time.

Region-free Blu-ray players have become an essential piece of hardware, with so many of the best titles emanating from the damndest places. For instance, some of the best ‘50s Hollywood Westerns and sci-fi pictures, for instance, are currently exclusively available from German labels. Further, video transfers and better extras from non-U.S. labels (Britain’s Arrow Films, for instance) are often far superior to their American counterparts. Sporadically, many French, Spanish, German, Italian, Indian, and other countries occasionally offer domestic Blu-rays of their country’s classic films with English subtitles.

But perhaps most exciting developments in the Blu-ray realm have been the growing list of classic 3-D titles and the continuing reemergence of long-lost Cinerama releases. These movies were next to impossible to see anywhere in the world at all. Today one can enjoy a very good approximation of what it was like for paying audiences when these movies were new, in the comfort of one’s own home. And that, folks, is simply amazing.

Narrowing a Best of Blu-ray list to only ten titles proved a daunting task. This is not a list of the greatest movies released in 2014 or even necessarily the greatest video transfers. In large part, however, it does take into consideration the work that went into reconstructing/restoring/presenting it (as opposed to simply releasing a preexisting video transfer), the “bang for the buck,” particularly in terms of the results versus the funds available to the label to do the work, and the creativity and ingenuity involved in the creation of extra features.

And away we go…

Day Earth Caught Fire

1. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (Val Guest, 1962)
This extremely smart and adult science fiction film seemed pretty good when for years it ran panned-and-scanned on commercial television, but the BFI’s outstanding Blu-ray offers a picture-perfect transfer of its extremely impressive ‘scope photography (and special tinting for its opening and closing reels), with audio far superior to Anchor Bay’s years-ago DVD release. All of the fine extras from that earlier release have been ported over, along with many fine new ones – look for Leo McKern, in one his last interviews, doing a hilarious imitation of star Edward Judd!

Mad World

2. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (Stanley Kramer, 1963)
Fans of Stanley Kramer’s all-star epic comedy have for years been clamoring for a reconstruction of this film’s short-lived original roadshow version. Criterion’s release reinstates nearly all of the lost footage, which subtly but effectively improves the film’s pacing, even with its longer running time, adding fine little bits of comedy long thought lost. The many fine extra features include 2014’s Audio Commentary Track of the Year, a deeply affectionate yet densely informative track that’s a real joy to listen to.

Werner Herzog

3. The Werner Herzog Collection (Werner Herzog, 1967-1987)
I envy those who’ll “blind-buy” this amazing collection of shorts and features, viewers unprepared for Herzog’s uniquely hypnotic, visionary films. If this set, well under $100 had included only Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Nosferatu, the Vampire (1979), Fitzcarraldo (1982), and Cobra Verde (1987) it would have been worth every penny, but this boxed set includes scads more films and shorts, and hours-upon-hours of extra features content.

Seven Wonders

4. Seven Wonders of the World (Tay Garnett & Paul Mantz & Andrew Marton & Ted Tetzlaff & Walter Thompson, 1956)
David Strohmaier and his plucky band of restoration artists rescued three Cinerama titles from oblivion in 2014, the other two being Search for Paradise (1957) and Holiday in Spain (1960). Seven Wonders of the World is the best of the three, a visually spectacular tour around the globe chockfull of natural and man-made sights from a fascinating, singularly 1950s “Free World” perspective. More than any other movies from its time, the Cinerama format is the movie’s equivalent of a time machine, an experience not to be missed. Crammed with great extras.

Pit Stop

5. Pit Stop (Jack Hill, 1969)
Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider get all the praise, but Jack Hill’s movies of the 1960s and early ‘70s are in their own way just as revolutionary and innovative. Another gorgeous high-def transfer from Arrow Films, this is one of Jack Hill’s best (and frequently startling) films. Despite its ultra-low budget, this is a fascinating and smart little movie you’ll not want to pass up. As usual for Arrow, this is packed with creative extra features.

Planet of Vampires

6. Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965)
Mario Bava’s enormously influential sci-fi horror film (Ever see Alien?) is an eye-popping parade of surrealistic sets, costumes, and special effects, but even in Bava’s home country the best anyone could come up with until was a widescreen DVD. Scorpion’s new Blu-ray rectifies all that, with a gorgeously, richly-colored transfer that at long-last does Bava’s vastly-underrated work justice. Add to that a densely packed, fact-filled and observant audio commentary by Bava authority Tim Lucas and you’ve got one of the year’s best releases.


7. Inferno (Roy Ward Baker, 1953)
This classical era 3-D production was initially released Region B only by British label Panamint Cinema but, almost under the radar, they’ve reissued it region-free. If you’ve got a 3-D set-up at home, this is one you’re going to want to get. A terrific desert noir, Inferno stars Robert Ryan as a wealthy, urban company president whose mettle is tested when his trophy wife and her secret lover abandon him (and his broken leg) in the middle of the desert, miles from civilization. Filmed in Technicolor (and thus requiring no less than six strips of 35mm film for each shot!) this release is a thing of stereoscopic beauty, perhaps the best-looking 1950s 3-D release on Blu-ray so far.

55 Days Blu

8. 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)
In this age of CGI excess, the gargantuan roadshows of producer Samuel Bronston seem downright tasteful and restrained now, and despite their occasional shortcomings remain intelligent, thoughtful, and undeniably awesome in their full-scale epicness. This one, set during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, features an incredible reproduction of turn of the century Beijing, all built full-scale on the plains of Spain. On big home theater screens (I watched this on a 90-inch screen), the film’s grandeur is truly a sight to behold, especially via the picture’s stunning restoration from its original Super Technirama 70 negative.

Mack Sennett

9. The Mack Sennett Collection (various, 1909-1933) Flicker Alley; ALL
A revelatory set of rescued silent short subjects (plus a couple of feature) that demonstrate the incredible range not just of producer Sennett but also his company of comics, gag writers, and directors. Those whose image of Mack Sennett is limited to the Keystone Kops will be enormously surprised – and delighted – by the range of these delightful comedies. Many fine extras, including a genuinely touching This Is Your Life.

Price 2

10. The Vincent Price Collection, Volume 2 (various, 1958-1972)
A worthy follow-up to Shout! Factory’s Volume 1, this set – featuring House on Haunted Hill, Return of the Fly, The Raven, Comedy of Terrors, Tomb of Ligeia, The Last Man on Earth, and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Most were licensed from MGM, but Shout! went the extra mile licensing and insuring good transfers of the Allied Artist Haunted Hill and Fox’s Return of the Fly, as well as locating and creating lots of good new supplements.

Some Honorable Mentions:

The Essential Jacques Demy, The Sicilian Clan, Gravity (3-D), Gulliver’s Travels, Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster, Tomorrow, Judex, Man Hunt, His and Hers, The Death Kiss, Dragonfly Squadron (3-D), The Bubble (3-D), Last of the Unjust, The Conformist, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Girl Hunters, The François Truffaut Collection.

Snowman Featured

Blu-ray Review: “The Abominable Snowman” (1957)

Snowman 1

Movies produced by Britain’s Hammer Films, especially the most famous examples of “Hammer Horror,” are slowly trickling out onto Blu-ray. Generally, up to now, the pattern has been for each picture to debut on Blu-ray first in the United Kingdom then, often months or even a few years later, they’ve been making their way to other parts of the world, including the U.S., mostly with identical transfers and extra features. A few, however, turned up first in Australia, while The Abominable Snowman (1957)*, Val Guest’s film version of Nigel Kneale’s television play, inexplicably debuted in Japan.

Bearing a “Hammer Films Legacy Limited” copyright notice, this Happinet home video release is legitimate, and while the video and audio show no signs of any restoration work, the 1920 x 1080i high-def transfer shows off this early 2.35:1 “Hammerscope” production to good effect.

The movie is an intelligent, tensely exciting adventure-thriller, writer Kneale’s forte. The first two of his “Quatermass” TV plays, “The Quatermass Experiment” (1953) and “Quatermass II” (1955) had both been filmed by Hammer, in 1955 and 1956, Guest directing both. Although Kneale disliked the condensation of his much longer, multi-episode TV serials into relatively short feature films, and especially the casting of American Brian Donlevy in the leading role, both movies are excellent, with Quatermass II among the most intelligent and suspenseful science fiction films ever made. In between these first two Quatermass stories (two more, also superb, eventually followed) Kneale adapted George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954), one of the high-water marks of early British television drama, a production that also made Peter Cushing a star. Next came “The Creature,” again with Cushing, this time as scientist-mountaineer John Rollason, and headlined by rising film star Stanley Baker (Zulu) as the story’s antagonist, Tom Friend.

The play was inspired by recent mysterious reports concerning the Yeti, an elusive creature or creatures supposedly residing high in the Himalayas. Interest in the Yeti peaked around the time Kneale’s television play aired. Eric Shipton’s photographs of alleged Yeti footprints in 1951, Sir Edmund Hillary’s sighting of more footprints while ascending Mt. Everest in 1953, and a 1954 Snowman Expedition sponsored by the Daily Mail all fueled intense public interest.

Snowman 2

The television play, apparently presented as a self-contained episode rather than the serial format of the Quatermass stories, is not known to survive. The movie, however, is generally quite faithful to the TV version, the main difference being the addition to two characters by Kneale: Rollason’s wife, Helen (Maureen Connell), and their colleague, Peter “Foxy” Fox (Richard Wattis). Both characters add to the film’s effectiveness, adding shading to Cushing’s character.

The story has the Rollasons and Foxy collecting medicinal botanical samples in the Himalayas while guests of a remote Buddhist monastery. Unknown to Helen and Foxy, John has made arrangements to participate in a second expedition led by American Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker in the film version) to prove the existence of the Yeti.

Intelligent early scenes revolve around Rollason’s conflicted emotions. Though all three Brits are respectful of the monks and their alien culture at the monastery, only Rollason actually embraces it, and this impresses the Lama (Arnold Marlé, an Austrian-born German actor who looks anything but Asian; he reprises his TV performance). The Lama, however, tries to dissuade Rollason from searching for the Yeti, as do Foxy and especially Helen, who distrusts Friend and his American trapper collaborator, Ed Shelley (Robert Brown, with unconvincing accent). She’s also concerned about her husband’s safety. He’d given up climbing after a serious accident, and only two others are joining the dangerous expedition: photographer Andrew McNee (Michael Brill), who claims to have seen the Yeti once before, and Kusang (Wolfe Morris), their lone Sherpa guide.

The premise of both the TV play and the movie, unlike other Yeti stories filmed around that time (Man Beast, The Snow Creature), supposes that the Yeti are an intelligent, even advanced race in many ways superior to man. The Lama (and, later, Rollason) suggests that the Yeti may have fled high into the mountains to hide from a more violent mankind, patiently awaiting their inevitable extinction, an idea that plays better in 2014 than it did in 1957. In other words, Kneale posits that man, rather than the Yeti, is the monster, more violent and brutal than the barely-glimpsed white-haired giants seen in the film.

Snowman 3

The main criticism lobbied at The Abominable Snowman is that the greedy and brutish natures of the ironically named Friend and trigger-happy Shelley are overdone. Stanley Baker, Tom Friend in the TV version, was mostly playing villains at this time and may not have been much more subtle than Tucker, but it’s possible. That both Friend and Shelley are inelegant, sometimes outright rude and crude Americans provides an obvious contrast to articulate, diplomatic, and cultured Rollason, but there’s no shading, either (particularly when one compares the subtle, better-written differences among the three English characters in the first act).

If Kneale bludgeons home his message, it’s still a legitimate one done with great intelligence, if lacking in subtlety. Further, Tucker and especially Cushing give good performances that make their characters believable. Director Guest found fault with Tucker, a concession to the American market, but the problem isn’t with his performance, but rather the way the character is written. (However, Robert Brown, normally an excellent actor specializing in reserved, sometimes stuffy authority figure types, is really out of his element and unpardonably hammy.)

The movie seems to have enjoyed a larger (though still modest) budget compared to other Hammer films of the period. Guest was allowed a 10-day second-unit shoot in the French Pyrenees for the film’s climbing footage, which matches well with Bernard Robinson’s seemingly expansive sets built mostly at Pinewood. Their components could be swiveled or repositioned so that the same boulders and rock faces could be used multiple times. This becomes apparent after awhile, but the atmospheric lighting hides much of this.

The advantages of the Blu-ray format greatly enhance the viewing experience. I’d seen an excellent 35mm print at the Directors Guild, part of a festival sponsored by the American Cinematheque (Val Guest was in attendance). Anchor Bay’s good DVD followed in 2008, but this new release offers a viewing experience much closer to what it was like seeing the film in 35mm. Here, the big monastery sets built at Bray Studios look all the more vast and impressive, while Guest’s superb direction of the tense action in the lonely mountains comes off better, its characters seeming more isolated in this suffocating snowy wilderness than ever. (Guest is particularly good handling the film’s many nighttime scenes.)

The region “A” encoded disc presents an unrestored version of the film, whose master exhibits fair amounts of negative damage that varies from reel-to-reel, even shot-to-shot at times, as does the English-only audio. The 2.0 Dolby Digital mono (billed as stereo on the disc) is rather muffled on the first reel but gets better, and the volume likewise changes from reel-to-reel. The Japanese subtitles are removable. Like the Anchor Bay disc, there are no special features. (Correction: As several on the Classic Horror Film Board have helpfully pointed out, the disc, actually released in 2000, did include an audio commentary track with Guest and Kneale, a trailer, and “World of Hammer” episode, so you’ll want to hold onto that DVD and I’ll want to stop relying on Amazon for DVD release data.)


* The movie was retitled The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas in the U.S. The Japanese Blu-ray reviewed here is listed under the title 恐怖の雪男.