HOUSE/HAUSU: Blu-ray Review

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HOUSE (or Hausu in its native Japan) is one film that truly defies description. Combining elements of the horror genre, an experimental film, and advertising commercials, it channels a unique dreamlike quality. Perhaps the strangest thing about HAUSU is that it was a big commercial hit in Japan when it was first released. Hated by the critics but loved by teenagers, it has attained legendary status over the years. Unfortunately, it never saw North American theatrical release until 2009, when it appeared at a handful of specialty theatres.
Director Nobuhiko Obayashi moved from experimental films to a successful career directing commercials. After the success of JAWS in 1975, the search began for a young Japanese director who could match Spielberg’s success. When Obayashi was selected, the producers had something more conventional in mind. However, Obayashi delivered something decidedly non-conventional. Combining his twin influences in experimental and commercial production, he created something that resembled Scooby Doo on acid or an episode of THE MONKEYS directed by Fellini.
Inspired by his young daughter’s dreams, Obayashi fills HOUSE/HAUSU with images so strange they bear repeated viewings. I have seen the film four times and each new viewing brings fresh revelations. On the surface, HAUSU concerns the adventures of a group of Japanese schoolgirls spending their summer vacation in a spooky old house, owned by one of the girls’ aunt. The house is filled with evil spirits determined to possess and consume them one by one, which it does both literally and spiritually.
hausu copyVisually, HOUSE/HAUSU is stunning. Set in a background of dreamscape matte paintings, the house takes on a character all of its own. Obayashi uses a mixture of pixilation, animation, and intentionally cheap special effects – including a demonic cat, a carnivorous piano and killer futons. Severed heads dance in the air; the piano chews up its victim; and a wall clock grinds another into a bloody pulp.
HAUSU forces you to make your own conclusions: my wife thought it was juvenile and consciously pandering, while my teenaged daughter loved its imagery and absurdity. I gave up trying to make sense of it and just enjoyed the experience.
Criterion’s package is superb, as always with a crisp high definition transfer and uncompressed soundtrack on its Blu-ray edition. The disc lacks an audio commentary track, which I think is a good thing in this particular case – an audio commentary would only distract from the weirdness.
There is an excellent short documentary featuring the director, the screenwriter, and Obayashi’s daughter, who provide an excellent background for the film, including why a studio like Toho would agree to make it in the first place. The disc also features EMOTION, a short experimental film that Obayashi did in the mid 1960s. Other features include an appreciation by director Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL), the original theatrical trailer, and an essay by Chuck Stephens.
housuThanks to Criterion, HAUSU finally gets the treatment it deserves. Now North American fans have an opportunity to see where the recent J-Horror boom draw much of its inspiration.
HOUSE (Hausu, Japan 1977; Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, October 26, 2010) Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi. Screenplay by Chiho Katsura, from an original story by Chigumi Obayashi. Cast: Kimiko Ikegami, Kumiko Ohba, Yoko Minamada, Ai Matsubara, Miki Jinbo, Masayo Miyako, Mieko Satoh, Eriko Tanaka.


13 Ghosts: A Celebration of 1960 Horror Retrospective

13 Ghosts (1960)

In the hot summer of 1960, one of the few places that had air conditioning in the small town where I lived was the local movie theater. That summer we went to the movies a lot. I can’t remember if it was during THE BELLBOY or THE ALAMO, but there was a preview for William Castle’s 13 GHOSTS and I was hooked. I had to see it.

13 Ghosts (1960) publicity still
Spooky publicity still of a scene that does not appear in the film

By 1960 producer-director William Castle was at the height of his career. He had already unleashed such “shockers” as MACABRE, THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and THE TINGLER. Castle was a showman first and movie-maker second. I like to think of him as the smiling carny who stood outside the tent and promised things he couldn’t possibly deliver. However, when you are seven years old, you believe him when he promises that the amazing new process of Illusion O will allow you to see 13 ghosts on screen. More importantly, if your nerve deserted you, the process would allow you to make the ghosts disappear.
After endless weeks of anticipation, the opening day for 13 GHOSTS finally arrived. Every kid in town had lined up for the Saturday matinee, hoping for one of the coveted seats in the balcony of the Geneva Theatre (please note, I am Canadian and we spell it theatre, instead of theater). Everyone got their own ghost viewer when they entered the theatre, handed out by bored ushers who instructed us that we would need them to see the ghosts.
All the kids who crowded into the theater were wired up on a giant sugar rush powered by soda and chocolate. The air was filled with flying popcorn boxes and anticipation as the lights dropped. The curtain rose and William Castle himself gave us a pseudo-scientific lecture on how to use our ghost viewers. To see the ghosts we needed to look through the red lens, if we were chicken we could make them disappear by looking through the blue lens (as if).
13 GHOSTS is really old fashioned, with bad dialogue, lame acting and cheesy special effects. However, it captivated a group of small town seven-year-olds and even shut up the rowdies in the balcony.
13 Ghosts (1960)13 GHOSTS follows the adventures of the Zorba family, who always seem to be on the verge of bankruptcy even though Mr. Zorba appears to have a good (albeit somewhat undefined) job at the local museum. The family, who seem like great candidates for a subprime loan, have just had all their furniture repossessed by the finance company, when a telegram arrives (producing one of the few genuine shocks in the film) to inform them that a distant uncle has passed away and left them his house and, as we later find out, his collection of ghosts from around the world.
The late professor Zorba, we learn, had invented a ghost viewer – which was much more elaborate than the cheap cardboard versions we got – that allowed him to see and capture the ghosts and then contain them in his house. All this is explained by a young lawyer who might as well have a flashing sign over his head to indicate his role in all of this. The lawyer was played by Martin Milner, who would go on to television stardom that fall in ROUTE 66.
The Zorba family happily packs up and moves right in. Apart from their dubious financial skills, the Zorbas are also numb-skulls: the father, mother, and daughter are basically throw away characters, while the son Buck stands in for the target demographic, impressionable young boys.
Margaret Hamilton
Margaret Hamilton

The only lively piece of acting in 13 GHOSTS arrives courtesy of Margaret Hamilton as the mysterious housekeeper. Her performance is enhanced because she doesn’t have much of the clunky dialogue that the script overflows with. Most of her role involves not too subtle references to her classic part as the Wicked Witch of the West in THE WIZARD OF OZ.
Once the ghosts show up the film comes to life. Part supernatural thriller and part old dark house mystery, 13 GHOSTS reaches a more or less satisfying conclusion with the mystery solved, the Zorbas rich and the house ghost free… or is it?
My friends, who hadn’t seen nearly as many horror movies as I had, spent the movie sliding down deep into their seats while I spent the entire film mesmerized. When it was over we all agreed that it was “awesome” or whatever the 1960’s equivalent to “awesome” was, and we all vowed to go again and again.
We never did.
13 GHOSTS created an indelible memory that I carried down the years, refusing to see the film again because I was afraid that it wouldn’t live up to my recollections of it from the summer of 1960. Several months ago, we watched the DVD of Joe Dante’s MATINEE, and my teenaged daughter asked who William Castle was. We watched the documentary on the William Castle box set that Sony released last year, and she really wanted to see some of the films including 13 GHOSTS.
Finally relenting, I picked up a copy of the DVD that included the ghost viewer version with the color inserts that revealed the ghosts through the tinted lenses (the Sony box set, unfortunately, includes only the all black-and-white version). What would a slightly cynical, hip teenager think of this black and white museum piece? And what would I think after a half a century?
The ghosts appear
The ghosts appear

Sure, the story is corny, the acting stilted and the special effects cheesy, but my daughter got caught up in the mystery and the mechanics of her ghost viewer. And, I must confess, for 85 precious minutes, I was sitting amid the flying popcorn boxes, clutching my orange soda and ghost viewer thrilling at flying meat cleavers, headless lion tamers and hidden treasure in a haunted house.
William Castle went on to create ’60s cult classics such as MR. SARDONICUS, HOMICIDAL, and STRAIGHTJACKET. Today he is celebrated for the outrageous gimmicks he employed to draw audiences, and if he were making films today it would be interesting to see what kind of gimmicks he would use.
Fifty years ago his ghost viewer opened a whole new doorway into the supernatural for a generation of bored school children. And as part of that audience I hail him and 13 GHOSTS for making the summer of 1960 a chilling one for my friends and me.
13 GHOSTS (1960). Produced and directed by William Castle. Written by Robb White. Cast: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Martin Milner, Rosemary DeCamp, Donald Woods, Margaret Hamilton, John Van Dreelen.
13-ghosts 13 GHOSTS (1960) 13 Ghosts opening title sequence


Clash of the Titans (2010) Blu-ray review

The transfer of the film onto Blu-ray is excellent, and the interactive exploration of the behind-the-scenes experience is more interesting than the film itself. 

I will likely be pilloried for stating that I consider Ray Harryhausen’s version of CLASH OF THE TITANS to be one of his lesser films (down there with THREE WORLDS OF GULLIVER). I am not sure if his intention was to do a sequel to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS or what, but at the beginning of a decade when effects went into hyperdrive, I found it a weak note on which to finish his career.
Needless to say I was less than enthusiastic when Warners announced they were doing a high-budget remake. I think my reaction at the time was “Why?” Fortunately, the new version has lots of redeeming qualities: a great cast, a thin but engaging story, state of the art special effects, and competent direction. Best of all is an economical running time during which the action just seems to rip along. I was also fortunate enough to see the new CLASH OF THE TITANS in 2D in the theater (not with the much-criticized post-production 3-D face-lift).
The transfer of the film onto Blu-ray is excellent as you would expect. The HD picture quality and surround sound are stunning, bringing the movie theater experience to the living room. Although the DVD version is a bare bones release with minimal extras (deleted scenes anyone?), the Blu-ray offers up a Maximum Movie Mode feature that allows us to explore the entire filmmaking process in one window while the film plays in an another. Instead of a simple narrated audio commentary, this format offers a truly interactive experience that I found more interesting than the film itself. We get to see CLASH OF THE TITANS as it evolves through the hands of the director Louis Leterrier (THE INCREDIBLE HULK), his art director and effects team, and finally the cast.

Director Louis Letterier did the motion-capture performance for the Kraken
Director Louis Leterrier did the motion-capture performance for the Kraken

Watching the MMM version is worth it just for the scenes of Leterrier directing while dressed in a hooded green screen costume and acting the part of the Kraken. I was also impressed with the design of the film; the epic scale of the story is captured using large sets and panoramic scenery instead of just green screen and CGI.
As impressive as the MMM feature is it still does not answer some of the fundamental questions that CLASH OF THE TITANS raises, specifically why the humans had declared war on the gods in the first place.
Apparently, CLASH OF THE TITANS did so well at the box office that Warners is developing a sequel, though I can’t imagine where they will take the characters next (I suggest Hawaii and a surfing motif). However, it is good news for Sam Worthington (AVATAR, TERMINATOR: SALVATION), who now has three major franchises to keep him busy for the foreseeable future.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963): Blu-Ray special edition

The concept of a single artesian working away in monkish solitude might seem quaint by today’s standards – think of the end credit roll on Avatar with its thousands of digital effects technicians – but Ray Harryhausen was able to create a wonderful world of monsters and myths using nothing more than his hands and his imagination. Sony has long recognized the treasure trove they have with their Harryhausen catalogue and are lovingly upgrading the home video versions to meet the digital standards of a new century. The new Blu-ray release of JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS features what has to be the finest transfer of a Harryhausen film ever, in any format.
Although THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD may rank as the critical (and my) favorite among Harryhausen’s films, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is still his personal favorite. The film is fine vintage Harryhausen, with its roots in classic mythology and its effects state of the art, for the time. Harryhausen manages to tell an epic tale on a low budget in less than two hours without sacrificing grandeur. There are some pacing problems, but there is also some of Harryhausen’s best work, including the giant Talos and the Hydra which guards the Golden Fleece. Most people agree that the skeleton fight at the end of the film is the finest stop motion sequence in cinematic history.
In case you feared another Blu-Ray fiasco like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD transfer – wherein the grain was so pronounced that it looked as if the film was made in a blizzard of black snow – you can relax. On the new JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS disc, the picture is sharp and vibrant, with the day-for-night scenes – most notably, the Harpy sequence – properly color corrected as they were first seen theatrically in 1963. For those who were lucky enough to see the film in the theater as I did in 1963, this comes close to recreating that experience.
As with the picture, the sound mix has been vastly improved and is presented in HD DTS 5.1. For the purist, the film is also offered in its original mono. However, in 5.1, Bernard Herrman’s music has never sounded so good.
This new Blu-Ray package is a little skimpy on bonus features, recycling earlier DVD extras; however, it does feature two commentary tracks: the first by Harryhausen and writer Tony Dalton; a second with director Peter Jackson (THE LORD OF THE RINGS) and special effects artist Randall William Cook THE GATE). For serious students of Harryhausen, neither audio commentary provides much in the way of new information (like which actor actually dubbed Todd Armstrong’s voice) but they are fun and entertaining.
Harryhausen and Dalton in their audio commentary take us through the film with the ease of a couple of old friends. Harryhausen at 90 sounds somewhat frail, but still has the mind of a master craftsman as he pulls the curtain open and reveals how many of the effects were created. His behind-the-scenes recollections create a fascinating guide of how to create a masterpiece with a smallish budget.
Jackson and Cook alternate between geeky reverence and interesting analysis of Harryhausen’s animation techniques. Both have a genuine love for the film while still being objective enough to point out its shortcomings. Most interesting are their personal antidotes including the revelation that Cook discovered a trove of Harryhausen’s animation dailies, which Jackson has had transferred to high quality digital masters. They hint that some, or all, of this material could be seen in a documentary that Harryhausen and Dalton are planning for the near future.
Features ported over from the DVD include the Skeleton Fight Storyboards, a John Landis’ interview with Harryhausen, the Ray Harryhausen Chronicles and The Harryhausen Legacy. Unfortunately, the special features are presented here in standard format, not remastered for high definition.

Jason slays the Hydra, which guards the Golden Fleece.
Jason slays the Hydra, which guards the Golden Fleece.

To say that Ray Harryhausen is unique among filmmakers is putting it mildly. No other behind-the-scenes movie technician has achieved the same iconic status. His vision and artistry have inspired succeeding generations of filmmakers, including most of the “A” list directors working in Hollywood today. He set the standard for what great special effects should be, no matter what the budget.
This JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS Blu-ray stands as a fitting tribute to a master. Hopefully, Sony will follow with other special editions of Harryhausen’s work especially MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and FIRST MEN IN THE MOON.

Birdemic: Shock and Terror review

Birdemic: Shock and TerrorThere are the classics of bad cinema – PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE, THE ROBOT MONSTER, THE GIANT CLAW – and the contemporary examples – BATTLEFIELD EARTH, HOWARD THE DUCK, TROLL 2, and everything by Uwe Boll.
The art of making a bad film is akin to paving the road to hell: it starts out with the best intentions and leads us to perdition, due to hubris or delusion or lack of talent or, ideally, all three. The auteurs of these “masterpieces” are mostly oblivious to the horror that they have unleashed, totally lacking the insight or objectivity to look beyond their own ego and their crazed desire to become the next Spielberg.
No Spielberg here, or even Ed Wood, BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR ‘s director James Nguyen stands alone in creating the perfect storm of badness. While most other bad movies have some redeeming features – a good soundtrack, cinematography, tight editing or a passable performance by an actor, his film has none of these.
BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR is unrelentingly bad in every aspect. The audio mix is horrible with sound cutting in and out constantly and dialogue that is often unintelligible. The cameraman can barely keep things in frame and constantly uses crane shots and dolly moves just to remind us he is there. Not to mention the pointless pans across restaurant walls and empty vistas. The editing is beyond sloppy, with shots clipped before they are over and others left pointlessly long.
BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERRORThe music is an odd mix of library tracks that are totally out of sync with the action on the screen; sounding at times like the score of a 1950’s social hygiene film and at other times like a 1970’s porno film. The “terrifying” special effects are clip art animations of flocks of birds which appear to be on an endless loop. Some effects, such as a forest fire, actually end before the action on the screen does.
Imagine our excitement as our heroes fight off a bird attack with coat hangers – which has to be the most thrilling use of a cinematic coat hanger since Faye Dunaway wielded one in MOMMY DEAREST. Or how about one of the heroes constantly firing a machine gun that magically never runs out of ammo? Or the fact that there appears to be an apocalypse going on that has not affected the background traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway? Or a film that doesn’t conclude, it just stops? BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR has all of this and more.
For the first ten minutes of BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR, Nguyen appears to have a fetishist’s obsession with the blue Mustang the hero drives, and drives, and drives, and drives. Of course, this is out of sync with the film’s overall message of global warming. Once the credits have ended and the blue Mustang is safely parked, we finally meet our hero, Rod, who then burns up the next few minutes walking and walking and walking… Of course, after meeting Rod (played by Alan Bagh – in a performance that redefines inept) I began to wish we could go back to Rod driving or walking again, anything to relieve the pain.
Now it doesn’t help that the script by Nguyen is crammed with dialogue so wooden you could fashion an ark from it. Rod, you see, works as a high level salesman in a billion dollar software company, something we instantly believe when we see Rod’s tacky work cubicle. Rod is also a lonely guy, hardly surprising once you see him coming on to his love interest Nathalie (played by Whitney Moore). His romantic style is a cross between a stalker and a serial killer, and he couldn’t be any more sinister if he carved a cross into his forehead with a razorblade and invited his best gal out for a night of creepy crawling.
Moore appears to be a more capable actress, though her focus seems to be “get this over with”. The rest of the cast is just as wooden and even more forgettable. There are a couple of doctor types who pop up to warn us of the dire effects of global warming, after the birds go crazy and start pecking eyes out and slashing throats.

Romantic leads Ron and
Whitney Moore and Alan Bagh

BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR is half over before the bird action begins, so that we can experience in excruciating detail the budding romance between Rod and Nathalie. Guess which half of the film is more horrifying.
Now, to be fair, this is a bad film, and it shouldn’t be subjected to the standards that you would apply to the latest Hollywood megaplex product – JONAH HEX, anyone? No, a different standard applies here, and the audience knows it. They savour every bad piece of acting and dialogue, plot absurdity, and amateurish camera move.
BIRDEMIC SHOCK AND TERROR has to be seen with an audience, preferably a large one, lubricated on beer and weed. It felt like a flashback to the midnight screenings of my youth, watching THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.
Or maybe the Toronto audience I saw it with just needed a release after a very strange week of earthquakes, tornados, and G20 rioting in the streets. We needed the hilarious badness of BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR to calm us down and refocus us on what is really important in life: a deliciously bad movie that delivers more laughs than Adam Sandler’s latest.


BIRDEMIC: SHOCK AND TERROR (2008). Written and directed by James Nguyen. Cast: Alan Bagh, Whitney Moore, Tippi Hedren, Janae Caster, Colton Osborne.

The Dark Knight – Film Review

By Peter McGarvey

You know it’s going to get grim when the film opens with a murky bat symbol against boiling black clouds.
And THE DARK KNIGHT is grim, unrelentingly so. Christopher Nolan’s second round in the Batman saga is the most fully realized superhero film ever made and certainly the most literate. The story this time is much more complex and much more focused, unlike BATMAN BEGINS, which was really two storylines grafted together. Nolan carefully braids the main characters together in an ever tightening storyline that arrives at a stunning and, somewhat shocking conclusion.
THE DARK KNIGHT is truly a movie about monsters – the Joker, Harvey Dent/Two Face and even Batman himself – consumed by hubris and passion. Much has already been written about Heath Ledger’s Joker – he is, in turn, terrifying, brutal and funny – acts as a kind of twisted Jiminy Cricket to Batman’s Pinocchio. The Joker’s main obsession is his desire to release the monster that he knows resides within all of us. Continue reading “The Dark Knight – Film Review”

Laserblast: The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Phase IV, The Sender

THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH - Legend DVD artIt’s been a great month for Hammer fans.  Columbia just released the Icons of Adventure box set of four Hammer adventure films – Stranglers of Bombay, Pirates of Blood River, Terror of the Tongs and Devil Ship Pirates.  Despite the terrible cover art, this is an amazing package of never-before-on-DVD films. Now, our friends over at Legend Films are releasing Hammer’s The Man Who Cheat Death in July as an exclusive at Best Buy.  Up to now this is one of the few “golden age” Hammers that has not been available on video. Already working their way through the classic monster canon – Frankenstein, Dracula – the studio embarked on a remake of the ’40s Paramount horror classic The Man on Half Moon Street.  The result is an odd combination of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Jack the Ripper. That said, the film is extremely static, perhaps betraying its origins as a play. Continue reading “Laserblast: The Man Who Could Cheat Death, Phase IV, The Sender”

Speed Racer – who needs it?

What were they thinking at Warner Brothers?  Take a 1960’s Japanese cult cartoon, lavish it with a huge budget and pray that it will find an audience. The result: a film that one Toronto reviewer proclaimed, “is like having someone vomit a bellyful of skittles at you for two and a half hours, and only slightly more entertaining.”
Just who did Warner Brothers think would want to see this mess anyway?  It’s not like they weren’t warned – they must have seen the Wachowski’s MATRIX sequels? 
SPEED RACER has the distinction of being the first major league critical (and likely) box office disaster of the summer movie season. It is completely incoherent, like an over amped version of Joel Schumacher’s Batman films, where the action is almost impossible to follow and just tries to pound you into submission.  The only redeeming thing about this film is that it has a good cast.  Too bad they didn’t have something to do.  Continue reading “Speed Racer – who needs it?”

The Andromeda Strain (2008) – TV Review

andromeda-bratt-copy.JPGOriginally commissioned by the Sci-Fi Channel but then bumped up to A&E as a “television event,” the new version of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, based on Michael Crichton’s bestseller, will be broadcast over two nights this Memorial Day weekend. I have fond memories of Robert Wise’s film version, which I first saw in the theater in 1971. Wise was a master of using space.  In films such as THE SOUND OF MUSIC, WEST SIDE STORY and STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE his camera revealed a world of wide vistas and soaring grandeur. However, he could go the other way as well and confine us in a frame that was extremely insular and claustrophobic. Watching films such as RUN SILENT, RUN DEEP and THE HAUNTING this unseen side of the frame helped him create a unrelenting sense of menace. His version of THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN contained both.  The film begins with high angle wide screen views of the infected town Continue reading “The Andromeda Strain (2008) – TV Review”

The Mist: Two-Disc Collector's Edition – DVD Review

Director Frank Darabont has made a cottage industry out of bringing Stephan King stories to the screen. In the past he has done big-budget adaptations of THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and THE GREEN MILE. Finally released from prison he decided to adapt THE MIST, a short story from King’s Skeleton Crew collection. The fact that THE MIST was a failure at the box office has not stopped Dimension from giving it the deluxe two-disc “Collectors Edition” treatment. As with the film, the sum of the parts of the DVD is better than the whole.
As Steve Biodrowski pointed out in his review of the film it has major structure problems – the first half is engrossing and taunt while the second half falls apart as a sloppy metaphor married to a TWILIGHT ZONE ending, albeit a bleak one. It’s the tone of the times, a post 9/11 sensibility that Continue reading “The Mist: Two-Disc Collector's Edition – DVD Review”