To say that 2021 has been an uneasy time would be a serious understatement. From the ongoing effects of the pandemic to the political divide, insurrection, shortages, and general sense of unease, it’s pretty safe to say that things are still in flux, which for some, can be scarier than any kind of fictional horror show. But never fear, there are a few bright spots to be had, and in this case, they take the form of a few oddball horror and Sci-Fi Blu-Rays, served up just in time for your Halloween enjoyment.
First up, Dune. These days, the film that many thought could never be properly made, is actually all the rage. The latest iteration of the epic Sci-Fi novel by James Herbert has been remade by celebrated director Denis Villeneuve, with the story being told in two parts. Part 1 just came out simultaneously on HBO Max for streaming and in a limited theatrical run, due to lingering COVID stuff. It’s been announced that the second installment will be forthcoming in the next year or two.
Due to the fact that Dune is such a multi-layered tale with several intertwining political, religious and conspiratorial threads — think Game of Thrones in space — a standard two-hour theatrical release would hardly do it justice. In fact, filmmakers as far back as the mid-’70s have attempted to bring it to life. Cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky was the first, but the project fell apart before getting off the ground, and it was rumored that his original script could fill up 14 hours of footage. Director David Lynch should also understand this all too well.
Hot off the success of the massively influential and innovative cult classic Eraserhead and then Elephant Man, for which he received an Oscar nomination for best director, Lynch was a hot Hollywood commodity during the early ’80s. But due to his surrealistic leanings and unflinching vision, the director remained reluctant to take on overtly mainstream projects. Ironically, he was approached by George Lucas to direct the third installment in the Star Wars saga, Return of the Jedi. While this could’ve elevated Lynch’s career and bank account to new, unseen heights, the maverick filmmaker turned it down, citing that it ultimately would not be his vision, but that of Lucas’s. A little while later, he was offered to bring Dune to the big screen by OG producer Dino de Laurentiis. Perhaps regretful about turning down George Lucas for the soon-to-be iconic third Star Wars film, Lynch consented to direct this new proposed blockbuster.
With a massive budget and resources at the ready, Lynch set about recreating Frank Herbert’s space opera on a scale hardly ever seen before. Released in 1984, the film would go on to be a box-office bomb and get critically panned, on top of being scorned by diehard fans of the book. And it’s no surprise. Lynch’s quirkiness and idiosyncratic style was obviously not the right match for such a serious and almost rigid piece of modern literature. But, despite all the negativity, Lynch’s Dune has plenty of positive aspects that have endeared it to hordes of fans in the decades to follow, who appreciate its twisted visuals, eerie atmosphere and visionary take on the classic work.
From the elaborate sets, innovative costumes and makeup, iconic soundtrack, and excellent performances, David Lynch’s Dune is not something you can easily forget. Lynch’s take on the material mixes Sci-Fi special effects with high drama, mystery, and comedic bits that were most definitely a factor in the negative response from fans of the book. Case in point, the main antagonist, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. Played to the hilt by actor Kenneth McMillan, the obese, sadistic, and gleefully unhinged villain is absolutely vomit-inducing in his skintight suspension suit, with sweaty, bulbous skin oozing with pus, all embellished with a depraved smile. When compared to the more brutal and stoic version in Villeneuve’s new version, this earlier Baron comes across like a side-show caricature beset with a deviant sexual appetite and permanently leery expression. In a word, he’s a nightmare and one that could only be concocted by David Lynch. Lynch would later create similarly themed baddies in Blue Velvet and Lost Highway.
Lynch’s Dune was recently given a pristine 4K HD makeover courtesy of Arrow Video. For fans of the 1984 release, this set’s a goldmine. It comes with the original theatrical release (there have since been several recut versions) restored in 4K and sourced from the original negative. There’s also a slew of extras including a documentary on the making of the film, interviews with cast and crew, and new commentaries. For Dune obsessives, the set comes with a poster, postcards, and a 60-page book documenting the history of this mind-blowing production.
For fans of vintage horror, another set worth checking out is The Eurocrypt Of Christopher Lee Collection (Severin). Along with Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr., Vincent Price, and Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee is cinematic horror royalty. From his earlier days portraying Dracula for Hammer Studios to his work on the Lord of the Rings series in the 2000s, the actor’s versatility and range are beyond measure. But aside from the more renowned classics, there was a period during the 1960s where he focused heavily on the European market, cranking out several low-budget horror and exploitation films that have long since sunk into obscurity…until now.
This new collection unearths five films, a soundtrack CD, and a super-rare TV anthology series Lee worked on called Theater of the Macabre. (Think a bargain-basement version of Twilight Zone.) Also included, is the book Christopher Lee: The Continental Connection by renowned horror documentarian Jonathan Rigby that chronicles the period. For fans and Lee completists, this plush new set up-levels these mostly lost films in one amazing package.
Another batch of Blu-rays worth checking out, come from Italian horror maestro Dario Argento. While I’ve covered some of these titles here in the past, three of Argento’s best films have just been reissued in crisp 4K HD. A pioneer in the Giallo genre (murder/sex suspense mysteries), Argento’s prolific canon is characterized by his knack for complex storytelling and a vivid color palette bursting with crimson.
Argento’s first film The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) follows the seemingly senseless murders of several young women and a journalist who’s found himself caught up in the chaos. The Cat O’Nine Tails (his second film) features a genetics institute, blackmail, and a few gruesome murders for good measure, resulting in a completely deranged thriller that’s almost as satisfying as the first film. My favorite of all is Deep Red (1975). When a musician coincidentally witnesses a murder across the way, he becomes obsessed with solving the puzzle, which becomes more complex with every frame, and includes one of the most bizarre and scary flashback scenes ever committed to film. At this point in his career, Argento was able to build on the success of his earlier films to the fullest extent, the result culminating in this, one of his most renowned masterpieces.
Each of these films can now be experienced at home in the best way possible—in crisp 4K HD culled from the original camera negatives, ensuring that all the blood and decadence literally oozes forth from the screen. (Arrow Video)
Another vintage release of note is the new Blu-Ray edition of UK gothic-horror goodie Eye of the Devil (Warner Archive). Originally released in 1966, the film is notable for a couple of compelling reasons. First, it featured a top-tier, classic mainstream British actor in David Niven, who rarely ever did any horror films, and who gives this production an air of gravitas, even though it’s a dark riff on the occult. But, possibly even juicier is the inclusion of a young actress by the name of Sharon Tate (yes, that Sharon Tate), just a couple of years before she was brutally murdered by the Manson family.
Niven plays modern-day French aristocrat Philippe de Montfaucon who gets summoned back to his family’s ancient vineyard to address the years-long dry spell. When he and his family arrive, they are greeted by a host of bizarre characters, including Tate as a wicked, overheated young nymph along with her equally overly stimulated brother played by horror vet David Hemmings. Soon, we learn that a sinister plot involving ancient occult rituals and a host of other mysterious happenings is underway and it could end up very badly for Phillipe and his family.
The film’s soft, black-and-white tones provide the perfect canvas for the bizarre, sometimes hallucinogenic imagery, jagged gothic architecture, and offbeat scenes, such as the quasi-religious ceremony staged around a headless dove. For a proper British production (much the opposite of some of the aforementioned Christoper Lee Euro-trash movies described above), this is an unexpected bonus, on top of the intriguing plot. The new 1080p pressing does a decent job of replicating the original source material, but the disc lacks any significant bonus material, except for a theatrical trailer.
One newer film that recently caught my eye is Tailgate (Film Movement). This Dutch production may not be a blockbuster in these parts but packs a serious punch, both in its stealth direction and anxiety-driven performances. When overly anxious husband and dad Hans hits the road with his family, his douchey personality and persistent impatience get the best of him when he starts tailgating a nondescript van in a fit of road rage. The mysterious driver is obviously not one to be messed with—and soon brings a reign of terror upon Hans and his family.
From a technical standpoint, director Lodewijk Crijns is a genius, with some truly deft camera work and staging, and his skill for heightening the tension frame by frame is top-notch. Add to all this, the van driver’s unique choice of weaponry and his insatiable quest for revenge, and you have a sweet little gem for your Halloween viewing pleasure.
At a time where everyone seems to be on edge in real life, Tailgate is a sage reminder that civility is a welcome addition to any interaction, no matter how dark things seem to get. For questions, comments, or things you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers.