Laserblast: Last House, Bird with Crystal Plumage, Four Flies, Akira

It’s a busy week for DVD and Bluray releases, with titles from such classic and cult genre names as Wes Craven, Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Barbara Steele and Tod Slaughter arriving in stores.

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Last House on the Left (MGM/UA DVD)
Wes Craven’s landmark 1972 shocker gets a second DVD go-around with a much more comprehensive set of extras, but the recent UK DVD release easily trumps all previous entries. Few horror pictures have had as checked a history on home video as Last House; two different edits appeared on VHS, courtesy of the beloved Vestron Video, the second of which was billed as ‘complete and uncut’, running roughly 83 minutes. MGM/UA’s first go around with the title on DVD, back in 2002, offered the most complete version yet, along with commentary by Craven and Cunningham, featurettes on the production and Hess’ music, and several minutes of outtakes, some of which feature extra moments of intestine-pulling that was best left on the cutting room floor.
Last year, the UK was finally able to see the film without cuts in a nation-wide release (it had previously held a place of honor at the top of the BBFC’s “video nasties” list) via a massive 3 disc set from Metrodome, featuring an additional commentary track with baddies Hess, Lincoln, and Sheffler, a brand new 40-min production documentary produced by Blue Underground (”Celluloid Crime of the Century”), which provides an extensive look into the making of the film; the interesting “Krug Conquers England,” which covers the first uncut theatrical showings in the UK; an excerpt from the short film “Tales that’ll Tear Your Heart Out ,”which reunited Craven and Hess; all of this in addition to the same set of outtakes and general ballyhoo from the previous release. However, the main selling points that might drive interested parties to double-dip are housed on the second disc, which includes a marginally different cut of the film under the title “Krug & Company” (which contains some footage found in no other version and has at least one astounding plot difference regarding the fate of Mari), and some the infamous soft core sexual footage shot during the forced copulation of Mari and Phyllis. Like much of the film’s more extreme footage, it had fallen victim over the years to the vagaries of local “decency laws”, with theater managers excising out any would-be offending material (and saving it for their own personal collection, of course) and few prints making it back to the distributor’s office intact.
MGM/UA’s newest offering is geared to take advantage of Rouge Pictures’ upcoming remake, and cherry picks several features off the Metrodome set, while leaving off the Krug & Company alternate cut and the “Krug Conquers England” featurette to fit onto a single disc (the 3rd disc on the Metrodome set was devoted to a documentary, Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film). Unfortunately, the new MGM release continues the tradition of no-thought, Photoshop paste ups for the cover art; Last House has some of the most memorable promotional artwork ever made for a horror film (much of which is retained on the Metrodome set), but MGM’s disc makes it look like a DTV Wrong Turn sequel. Read a complete review of the film here.
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The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (Blue Underground Blu-Ray)
It’s hard to remember a time when a POV shot of a knife-wielding, black-gloved killer stalking through a European cityscape wasn’t considered cliché, but Blue Underground’s gorgeous Blu-Ray edition of Dario Argento’s classic goes a long way towards transporting the viewer back four decades to experience what made this movie such a sensation. It’s a shame that a film which relies so heavily on its visual punch has had to suffer so many years of lackluster presentations. Previous editions have been beset with both image and sound issues, and it wasn’t until Blue Underground’s DVD presentation in 2005 that we finally had an edition that could be called definitive. Their stunning new Blu-Ray transfer, however, trumps all contenders with a 1080p image that squeezes out an amazing amount of detail and clarity without the (apparent) application of excessive digital noise reduction. Also present are a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 7.1 Dolby TrueHD English tracks, either of which works fine even without 17 speakers. The Italian language track is available as well, but since the lip movements for most actors are clearly in English (and Musante and Kendall dubbed their own voices on the English track), there’s no need to get sniffy about watching the show in its “original” language. All extras from the previous edition are ported over as well, including a terrific commentary track featuring journalists-authors Alan Jones and Kim Newman, and featurettes on Argento (“Out of the Shadows”), cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (“Painting with Darkness” – and thank God that neither Argento nor Blue Underground have let him get his hands on the transfer and pimp-smack it into his beloved universal aspect ratio of 2:1), composer Morricone (“The Music of Murder”), and the late Eva Renzi (“Eva’s Talking”). Read a complete review of the film here.
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Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Mya Communications DVD)
Having just released an international smash with The Bird with the Crystal Plumage in 1970, Argento followed up with 1971’s Cat ‘o Nine Tails and 1972’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet. Although Four Flies is a fairly conventional thriller – particularly in light of Argento’s later, edgier work – the beginnings of the visually audacious style that would come to full fruition in Deep Red, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). The director has a ball with camera placement, and even uses an early variation of the bullet-time slow motion sequence, later made famous (and ubiquitous) in the Matrix pictures. Much of Four Flies on Grey Velvet’s reputation stems from its unavailability on home video. US residents have had to live with dodgy bootlegs of questionable quality while pleas for a proper DVD release fell on deaf ears at rights-holding studio Paramount Pictures. We don’t know what strings were pulled, but Somehow Mya Communications has managed to secure domestic DVD rights, and the results are glorious – an uncut print (sourced from an Italian negative) with excellent color and detail that finally allows for a proper evaluation of the show. There are both English and Italian tracks available (both in mono), though as was the case with most of Argento’s films of the period, the vast majority of the actors (including the leads) were clearly speaking English. The package is rounded out with a collection of fascinating vintage trailers, including one without dialog or narration that is decades ahead of its time. Read the complete review here.
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Akira (Bandai Blu-Ray)
Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, based on the director’s own series of comics (or Manga, if you’re nasty), is set in Neo-Tokyo in the year 2019, roughly 3 decades after it was destroyed by a nuclear blast at the beginning of World War III. Newcomers to the film (or to Anime itself) will find that Akira pleasingly breaks from the typical cost-cutting practices, with incredibly detailed animation (even going so far as to sync lip-movements to dialog, a rare practice in Japan at the time). If, like me, you owned Criterion’s towering (and pricey) laserdisc of the film and yearned to see its myriad extras duplicated on Bandai’s new Blu-Ray, you’ll likely be disappointed. Aside from a collection of trailers there’s little else in the way of extras – a real shame given the rich production history of the film and a real lost opportunity to introduce new viewers (for whom Akira may well be the only Anime title in their collection) to the genre with supplemental materials. But the important thing is the presentation, and the Blu-Ray looks fabulous, bringing unprecedented detail to the title (enough even to expose the limits of the source materials, an increasingly common problem). Read a complete review of the disc here.
The rest of the week’s considerable releases include:

  • The Haunting of Molly Hartley. This low budget ghost story generated little positive word of mouth when it received a limited platform release last Halloween.
  • Blu-ray releases of Friday the 13th Part 2 (reviewed here) and Friday the 13th Part 3 (reviewed here).
  • A double-bill DVD of The Whip and the Body/Conspiracy of Torture. The former is a colorful and atmsopheric effort from Mario Bava, who reuses many of his old tricks from Black Sunday in this tale of S&M from beyond the grave; it’s beautiful to watch, but molassas could outrun the pace of the story.
  • Another double bill DVD, this time of two features starring cult horror queen Barbara Steele, The Long Hair of Death/An Angel for Satan. The first is atmospheric and entertaining, providing a good opportunity for Steele to shine, even if the storyline is muddle. The second is a rare title that seldom if ever showed up on U.S. shores before the advent of home video. (Don’t hold me to this, but I think it never received a theatrical release here, and I never saw it showing up on late night television or on Saturday afternoon Creature Features.)
  • And yet a third double bill disc, this one showcasing melodramatic Victorian villain Tod Slaughter in Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barbar of Fleet Street/Incredible Crimes at the Dark House. You can read a review of the former here, including a sketch of Slaughter’s career.
  • Tales of the Unexplained is an old British television anthology, featuring horror icon Boris Karloff (FRANKENSTEIN).
  • Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder arrives on Blu-ray and DVD, and also as part of the Futurama Movies Collection.
  • And lastly, Noah Wylie returns as the Librarian in Curse of the Judas Chalice.

Steve Biodrowski contributed to this article.

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