CREATURE COMFORTS is the first Oscar-winning film from the unbeatable team of Aardman Animations and director Nick Park. Presented as a documentary, the 1990 stop-motion production features a series of interviews with zoo animals, who express an amusing variety of views regarding their stay in captivity – sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant.
Much of the humor derives from the casting of the animal characters to match the pre-recorded voices. CREATURE COMFORTS, which took home an Academy Award in the Animated Short Subject category, features claymation creatures (technically, plasticine) whose lip movements are synchronized with unscripted dialogue recorded live via interviews with people asked about living conditions in England. Putting these words in the mouths of animated animals, suggests some interesting parallels between the human condition and living life in a cage: A gorilla complains about the cold, wet climate. A koala bear feels very looked after by his keepers. The highlight is a puma, obviously feeling confined in his pen, who keeps repeating the word “space” as he years for wide-open terrain.
The animation, with its exaggerated lip movements to match the human enunciation, delivers perfect performances that bring the characters to life as they struggle to make their point for the camera. The psuedo-documentary format results in a talking-heads style of filmmaking, but Park adds a few visual flourishes, in the form of sight gags taking place in the background. The result is a delightful short subject with as much entertainment and artistic value as many feature-length films.
Now out of print, Image Entertainment’s 2000 DVD combines CREATURE COMFORTS with three other titles from Aardman Animations: WAT’S PIG, NOT WITHOUT MY HANDBAG, and ADAM. CREATURE COMFORTS is presented in a 1.85 transfer enhanced for widescreen TVs; the other films are presented in full-frame 1.33 transfers. There are no bonus features. CREATURE COMFORTS is the highlight of the four, but the other films are all remarkable and entertaining in their own right.
WAT’S PIG, written and directed by Peter Lord, is an amusing prince-and-the-pauper type tale of identical twins separated at birth. The story, which is presented as a sort of mini-epic, is told without more than a word or two of dialogue, with a split screen detailing the lives of the two boys as they grow up and eventually meet when the peasants rise up and storm the local castle. The ambitious film was nominated in the Animated Short category in 1996.
NOT WITHOUT MY HANDBAG – written and directed by Boris Kossmehl, with an assist on the script from Andrea Friedrich – is a mondo-weird, almost psychedelic story about what happens when a woman misses a payment on a home appliance: according to the fine print, she forfeits her soul, which is dragged to hell. However, the woman just can’t rest quietly without her handbag back on Earth, so she returns to the land of the living to reclaim it. Fortunately, her neice is not too alarmed by the unexpected reappearance (“My aunt is a zombie from Hell,” she observes casually”). Despite the Aardman pedigree, and the bright colors, NOT WITHOUT MY HANDBAG feels a bit like something from Tim Burton and/or Henry Selick. If you dig NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS or CORALINE, you should get a kick out of this.
ADAM is another Oscar nominated Animated Short from Peter Lord. Presented with a tongue-in-cheek simulation of awe, the film depicts what happens when the hand of God (or more accurately, the stop-motion animator) fashions a lump of clay into the first man, and then creates a companion for him (though not quite the companion that was expected).
This is strange entry in the careers of George A Romero and Dario Argento, as fans expecting an anthology along the lines of Creepshow were instead given essentially 2 almost completely unrelated hour-long features based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe. Romero’s episode is about a wealthy patriarch who dies while under hypnosis; his gold-digging wife (Adrienne Barbeau giving one of her best performances) hides the body in the cellar until the estate can be settled. You needn’t have read Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of Mr. Valdemar” to guess what happens next. We actually think this is one of Romero’s better films from this period, without the amateurish acting that occasionally plagues his efforts.
Argento’s effort is based on Poe’s “The Black Cat” and stars Harvey Keitel as Rod Usher , a crime scene photographer who kills his girlfriend’s black cat, photographing it at the point of death. Once she discovers the nightmarish photos in Rod’s just-published book, she confronts him, they struggle, and he kills her – but this is still a Poe story, and walling up a dead body isn’t always the best method of disposal. Unfortunately, this film falls in line with Argento’s other weak efforts from the period, including the Pittsburgh-filmed Trauma from 1993. Even with Argento’s trademark visual flair, the film seems much more slowly paced than Romero’s segment when the opposite ought to be true; even with the limited running time the film drags as we are left too long in the company of Keitel’s Usher character, an utterly unlikeable bastard who illicit zero sympathy. The heavy-handed gore (courtesy of Tom Savini) also seems forced – more like a contractual obligation than artistic method.
Like Blue Underground’s previous HD efforts, this Blu-Ray disc is gorgeous, bringing out excellent color and detail (though still limited by the occasionally rough source material – this wasn’t a lushly budgeted film). The extras replicate BU’s previous edition, including the documentary “Two Masters’ Eyes,” featuring interviews with both filmmakers.
Regarded as Lucio Fulci’s 8½, CAT IN THE BRAIN is a late-career film for a director whose best days were behind him. Fulci began doing yeoman’s work in the Italian film industry in the early ’60s, doing everything from lowbrow comedies to westerns. It was an undistinguished career, marked only by the occasionally interesting thriller like A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971) and Don’t Torture a Ducking (1972). But it was a cheapie rip-off of George A Romero’s Dawn of the Dead that cemented Fulci’s name in the exploitation Parthenon, 1979’s Zombi. Something about the Caribbean-set gorefest inspired Fulci’s visual acuity, and the combination of atmospheric location photography, slumming British thespians, and outrageous gore hit a nerve with genre fans, and Fulci embarked on an interesting series of violently graphic gothics in the early ’80s, including House by the Cemetery, City of the Living Dead, and what is likely his ultimate expression, The Beyond. The thoroughly vile and misogynistic The New York Ripper showed a director becoming less and less interested in the mundane issues like narrative focus and characterization and concerned only with cramming his films with as much violence and nudity as possible (which, ironically, would up being cut from most release prints anyway).
Cat in the Brain was one of Fulci’s final films, a bizarre but unique effort in which the director appears as himself – a genre filmmaker being haunted by horrifically violent visions. Feeling like he’s losing his grip on reality and disturbed by the murderous impulses he’s beginning to feel, Fulci consults a therapist, who sees a chance to exploit the director’s visions to his own murderous ends.
Cat in the Brain (also known under the slightly more elegant Nightmare Concert) is certainly fun, but it’s also sadly inept and lazy. Fulci’s trademark gore effects are so shoddy that they’re likely to illicit little more than laughter from most audiences, and there’s also a heavy reliance on clips from Fulci’s previous films (and not the good ones, either – hope you like Ghosts of Sodom). Diehard fans will say that the humor is intentional and we’d love to think so – but it has always felt like the work of someone very, very tired.
We’ve no complaints about Grindhouse’s new 2-disc edition, however. The image is taken from a new HD master and looks remarkably good (having previously been consigned to the domain of the gray-market). If features both English and Italian audio options (though the majority of the language spoken before the camera appears to have been English). Extras include a long-form interview with Fulci (filmed just prior to his death in 1996) and footage of his only appearance at a stateside horror convention in 1996, another long-form interview with actor Brett Halsey (who appears in CAT IN THE BRAIN courtesy of archive footage from When Alice Broke the Mirror), numerous trailers for other Grindhouse releases, and a more substantial-than-usual insert featuring remembrances from Lucio’s daughter, Antonella, David J Schow, and Eli Roth.
CAT IN THE BRAIN (Un Gatto nel Cervello, a.k.a. NIGHTMARE CONCERT, 1990). Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by John Fitzsimmons, Lucio Fulci, Giovanni Simonelli, Antonio Tentori. Cast: Lucio Fulci, David L. Thompson, Jeoffrey Kennedy, Malisa Longo, Shillett Angel, Brett Halsey (archive footage).
Tim Burton’s “Elephant Man”
After hiring on as a director to projects developed without him (PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN), Tim Burton showed what he could do when he developed a project of his own. The result is this sweet 1990 fantasy that for the first time crystallized the latent themes in the director’s work: the notion of the artist as outsider, of skills that make one special but at the same time different. A sweet but tragic fantasy, the film borrows much of its imagery from Gothic-styled genre films (the lone scientist [Vincent Price] creating an artificial being) but stops just short of going full-tilt horror (Edward’s frustration at not fitting in never quite leads to a CARRIE-like revenge-rampage). Although there seems conventionally-minded critics who prefer ED WOOD for its well-written drama, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS is probably Burton’s best live-action fantasy.