9/19/06 Edition

A Spooky Trip Into THE WOODS
Long Delayed Chiller Finally Gets Released...on DVD
Plus: Universal's Latest Monsters, SMALLVILLE Season 5 and More!

Lucky McKee’s “The Woods” has been on the shelf for so long that many have forgotten M. Night Shyamalan had to change the name of his “Woods” to “The Village” since this United Artists-produced horror flick went into production first in 2003.

Though the movie was ready for release in 2004, THE WOODS (***½, 91 mins., R) became caught up in the turmoil of MGM’s sale to Sony Pictures, and after the dust settled, neither MGM’s old regime nor Sony decided to theatrically release the film -- sending it instead straight to video where it will premiere on October 3rd.

Despite some of the movie’s problems, whoever is responsible for the movie’s lack of theatrical play ought to be ashamed that they let this beautifully crafted, eerie and thoroughly memorable chiller slip through the cracks -- especially when recycled Japanese remakes (“The Grudge” 1 and 2, “Ring Two,” “Pulse”) and assorted over-rated imports (“Wolf Creek,” “The Descent”) have comprised most of the genre’s offerings over the last few years.

Director Lucky McKee’s film is a somewhat muddled but visually spellbinding tale of a young girl (Agnes Bruckner) whose parents enroll her at an all-girls boarding school in mid '60s New England. In addition to having problems fitting in, Bruckner soon witnesses all sorts of bizarre supernatural occurrences taking place: the headmistress (Patricia Clarkson) and her staff appear more than a little creepy; the wind seems to have a voice of its own; and several girls begin to disappear in the middle of the night, with nothing but leaves and branches left in the beds where they once slept.

Writer David Ross’ script does have some gaps, at least in this finished version (much was apparently cut and there are scenes, shown in trailers, that clarify the story but are missing from the film), but even taking its shortcomings into account, “The Woods” is marvelously entertaining. The mood, scope cinematography and weird, ambiguous story all combine to create a movie that’s delectably vivid and unique in all its gloomy Autumnal atmosphere.

Adding to the effectiveness are the superb performances -- Bruckner’s bitchy young heroine is consistent and more believable than most standard-issue genre leads, while Clarkson is pitch-perfect as the villainess -- and the most effective Dolby Digital sound design I've heard all year. The sonic collage of whispering voices, John Frizzell's effective score, and Lesley Gore '60s pop tracks all hauntingly evoke time and place.

Sony's DVD isn't out until October 3rd and doesn't have any extras (despite having been announced with deleted scenes and commentary), but the 16:9 (2.35) transfer is marvelous and that 5.1 Dolby Digital sound design as good as it gets in terms of creating a sound design that constantly catches you off-guard, looking behind your shoulder at something that isn’t there.

“The Woods” isn’t perfect but as an authentic American tale of the supernatural, it ranks at the head of the class for recent genre thrills. If you’re tired of horror movies that hammer you over the head with sarcastic teenage leads or derivative Asian remakes with black-haired female ghosts, this is a must-view, and the best horror film I’ve seen in a very, very long while. (Available October 3rd)

New Horrors From Universal

On September 27th, Universal will issue new, double-disc editions of the studio’s classic monster flicks FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA.

Both movies have been previously available in individual and improved box-set releases (under the “Legacy Collection” moniker), but the studio isn’t merely rehashing those editions for their new DVDs.

Both of the “75th Anniversary” DVDs feature fresh supplemental material: new commentary tracks on each disc, including Sir Christopher Frayling on “Frankenstein” and writer Steve Haberman on “Dracula” (Haberman wrote the awful Mel Brooks spoof “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”). Both offer intriguing insights into the two respective films, while the older historian commentary talks (from David J. Skal on “Dracula” and Rudy Behlmer on “Frankenstein”) have been reprieved, along with Skal’s fine documentaries from the previous DVD editions of both pictures.

There are new, approximately 40-minute documentaries on each DVD -- “Lugosi: The Dark Prince” and “Karloff: The Gentle Monster” -- which give the viewer a broadly painted, entertaining overview of each actor’s career, with an obvious accent on their Universal work. Interviews with critics and filmmakers (from Joe Dante to Hammer’s Jimmy Sangster) compliment these most welcome inclusions, while new pop-up trivia tracks offer the viewer more information about the lasting impact of both 1931 releases.

Kevin Bronlow’s fine 1998 TCM documentary, “Universal Horror,” also makes its DVD debut in each package. This examination of the beginnings of Universal’s monster franchises is narrated by Kenneth Branagh and offers ample vintage footage, interviews and an entertaining look into the genre’s origins.

It should be noted as well that both “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” have been newly remastered for these 75th Anniversary DVDs. Unfortunately, whether you find the improvements to be legitimate enhancements or not may depend on personal preference.

There’s no question that both movies (“Dracula” in particular) appear much sharper than their previous DVD editions, but some of the added detail seems to have come at the expense of the overall image. By comparison, the older “Legacy Collection” editions of both movies seem less sharp but a little cleaner overall -- perhaps because of noise reduction techniques that weren’t employed here. The result is a somewhat “dirtier” looking picture that almost appears like it has a sort of filter over it; however, there may be fans who will appreciate the enhanced detail at the same time there’s more noise in the image (“Dracula” also has the added benefit of restoring some audio that was accidentally left off the “Legacy Collection” release).

All the other major supplements from the prior DVDs (from Philip Glass’ Kronos Quartet “Dracula” score to the short “Boo!” and the Spanish version of "Dracula") have also been reprieved, making both discs strongly recommended for Universal Monster fans -- even if you already own the older “Legacy Collection” releases, and may find these newer transfers to be inferior to the studio’s previous efforts.

Karloff’s performance as Mord the Executioner fuels the silly 1939 costume drama “Tower of London,” with Basil Rathbone as Richard, the King of Glocester, who teams with Karloff to murder as many heirs as he can en route to the British throne. Not a horror film per se, the movie does have the standard, high-quality Universal atmosphere one would anticipate finding in a studio film of its era, and director Rowland V. Lee (“Son of Frankenstein”) gets a ton of mileage out of Rathbone’s cunning, terrific performance as the future Richard III.

As flawed as the film may be, it’s still the chief attraction in Universal’s five-film “Boris Karloff: Franchise Collection” set, which also includes the minor 1937 programmer “Night Key”; the entertaining 1944 Curt Siodmak-co-authored “The Climax,” a variant on “Phantom of the Opera” with impressive Technicolor cinematography; and a pair of early ‘50s flicks, “The Strange Door” (starring an over-the-top Charles Laughton) and “The Black Castle,” with Boris in comparatively thankless roles, though the latter at least affords Karloff the opportunity at re-teaming with Lon Chaney, Jr. The films are spread across three discs with generally solid transfers that fluctuate between pristine and rough-looking, which is to be anticipated with the age of the materials being utilized. Recommended for the most hard-core Karloff addicts and Universal completists, though I’d hesitate to call any of the films in this set a classic.

FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973, 185 mins., Universal): Well-regarded early ‘70s TV movie comes to DVD for the first time in an unedited presentation courtesy of Universal. James Mason plays the elder doctor who tutors young Victor Frankenstein (Leonard Whiting) in the art of reanimating the dead; Michael Sarrazin is the creature that results from their collaboration, while Nicola Pagett, Jane Seymour, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, David McCallum, and Agnes Moorehead lend strong support to this three-hour Jack Smight-directed tele-film, written by Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. The duo’s high-minded script takes its own liberties with Shelley but is closer to the spirit of the novel than virtually any of the films that had predated it upon its 1973 broadcast; still, the production often crawls at a snail’s pace, with a bombastic Gil Melle score and long stretches of tedium taking away from the infrequent moments of the show that remain effective. Reagrdless of that (and the somewhat unintentionally humorous ending), “Frankenstein” fans are urged to give this “different” treatment of the material a look, with Universal preserving the original, uncut version of the production on DVD at long last (many versions were cut to two hours after its initial broadcast). The transfer is a bit soft and grainy, but given how seldom the full version has been screened over the years, most fans won’t be complaining.

INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES: The Complete Collection (Universal, 1943-45): Two-disc DVD package preserves the complete, six-film “Inner Sanctum” series, adapted from the popular ‘40s radio program of the same name. Each of these entertaining, hour-long Universal programmers stars Lon Chaney, Jr. and numerous familiar faces of the period (Evelyn Ankers, Brenda Joyce, etc.) in forgettable-but-fun mysteries with ample atmosphere to spare. The transfers are surprisingly good in this set, with appealing, nostalgic artwork complimenting the release.

THE MUNSTERS: Two Movie Fright Fest (Universal, 1968-81): Single-disc “Franchise Collection” DVD couples the 1968 Universal feature “Munster, Go Home!” with the 1981 TV-movie “The Munsters’ Revenge.” The former is a lot more entertaining than the latter, though the original cast (Fred Gwynne, Yvonne DeCarlo, Al Lewis) does reappear in the later, mediocre reunion movie, and at least it’s better than other early ‘80s sitcom films like “The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island” (faint praise that it is). Both movies have been previously issued on DVD, though each has been remastered for Universal’s new release: “Munster, Go Home!” is presented in spiffy 16:9 (1.85) widescreen, while “Munsters’ Revenge” has been framed in its original full-screen aspect ratio. On the audio side, the mono sound is in good shape on both, with Jack Marshall’s original score and theme carrying the 1968 feature and Vic Mizzy’s wacky, fun blend of his “old school” comedic scoring and early ‘80s pop-disco making his score for “Revenge” one of that picture’s strongest assets.

Universal TV on DVD and Other New Releases

I had my doubts that the Americanized version of the popular Ricky Gervais Britcom “The Office” would be a big success. After all, NBC’s recent track record with situational comedies (even ones without laugh tracks) has been scattershot since the heyday of “Must See TV” and star Steve Carrell was jumping in to fill Gervais’ shoes after basically making a name for himself on “The Daily Show.”

Fortunately, my reservations were totally unfounded as the U.S. version of THE OFFICE (2005-06, 22 Episodes, 8 hrs., Universal) has proved to be every bit the success that its British counterpart was, though obviously with more of an American sensibility.

Coming off its recent Emmy win as Best Comedy Series, “The Office” has just seen its second season released on DVD. This first full season for the program is even more satisfying than its inaugural 13 episodes (which initially adhered too closely to the UK version), with Carrell settling into his role as a Pennsylvania paper supply company manager. Carrell’s performance is more broadly played than Gervais’ more low-key (and perhaps funnier) British counterpart, but that aspect is balanced out by a uniformly fine supporting cast that’s arguably more impressive than its predecessor: John Krasinski is perfect as Jim, the “straight man” to Carrell’s often hilariously misguided Michael Scott, while Jenna Fischer is likewise ideal as Pam, the sweet secretary who exchanges glances with Jim despite being engaged. Rainn Wilson, meanwhile, is often uproarious as Dwight, the outlandish suck-up second-in-command to Carrell.

If you’ve never seen the program before, sampling “The Office” on DVD can prove to be addictive: the short, 20-minute episodes (amazing that a full one-third of a half-hour series is advertising these days!) can be gobbled up quickly and the series’ low-key “documentary” styled filming lends itself to the sort of comedy that can sneak up on you over time.

Universal’s four-disc set includes top-notch 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers of the series’ 22 second season episodes and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks. Even better is that the supplements are uniformly amusing: the fake PSA’s (grilling NBC’s “More You Know...” announcements), bloopers and deleted scenes are legitimately funny, while additional commentaries shed light on the show’s production.

The result is an excellent DVD package just as satisfying as the series itself. Recommended!

Also newly available from Universal is the second batch of Season 2 episodes from the acclaimed, top-rated Sci-Fi Channel remake of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2005-06, 10 Episodes, aprx. 9 hours, Universal).

Featuring episodes “Pegasus” (extended episode), “Resurrection Ship” Parts 1 and 2; “Epiphanies”; “Black Market”; “Scar”; “Sacrifice”; “The Captain’s Hand”; “Downloaded”; and “Lay Down Your Burdens” Parts 1 and 2, this group of 10 episodes completes the series’ second year with a shocking climax and more of the ample character development that has made it a mature fan-favorite (though not with die-hard fans of the old Glen A. Larson series that inspired it).

Universal’s three-disc DVD set includes deleted scenes, podcast commentary tracks, and producer “video logs,” along with uniformly fine 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. Unquestionably recommended, particularly if you’ve taken in the previous DVD box sets or want a refresher before Season 3 starts up on Sci-Fi this fall.     

UNITED 93: Limited Edition (***, 2006). 111 mins., R; Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Director Commentary; Memorial Pages; Making Of featurettes; 16:9 (2.35) Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Paul Greengrass’ straight, no-nonsense direction boasts this effective chronicle of the doomed 9/11 flight’s hyjacking and subsequent crash far off-course from its intended target. Naturally, there’s a fair amount of speculation involved in telling the story of “United 93,” but the fact that its passengers likely did anything but stand idly by while terrorists seized control of the plane is undeniably, and compellingly, conveyed in Greengass’ film, with mounting tension culminating in a predictably tense climax.

“United 93" doesn’t spend a great deal of time on the specific passengers -- they’re mostly anonymous in this feature -- but Universal’s excellent 2-disc Limited Edition package includes memorials for each and every individual on the flight (boasting some 40 full biographies written by the victims’ family members), plus moving featurettes involving the families meeting the actors. Another excellent featurette, “Chasing Planes: Witnesses to 9/11,” focuses on the military and civilian response teams, and what each went through on that day (this 48-minute featurette is exclusive to the 2-disc Limited Edition set).

The DVD supplements are so good, in fact, that they’re actually more moving than the movie itself, which I found extremely well-produced yet overly “to the point” at the same time -- in fact A&E’s docu-drama “Flight 93" is possibly even more effective in portraying the probable events, both nightmarish and heroic, that took place on that day.

Yet, the film is nevertheless well worth seeing, with Universal’s 16:9 (2.35) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack being outstanding on every count.

RADIOLAND MURDERS (**½, 1994, 108 mins., PG; Universal): This overly-manic comedy from executive producer George Lucas gestated for decades before finally being produced in 1994 under the direction of Mel Smith. It’s hard to tell if “Radioland Murders” was actually intended to be a successful feature or just a testing ground for Lucas’ desire to shoot a movie with all-digital backdrops. Indeed, this farce boasts production personnel (cinematographer David Tattersall, production designer Gavin Bocquet) who would later work on the “Star Wars” prequels, but while the movie’s story is more frantic than funny, it’s not the total loss you might have thought: this tale of a murder during a live radio broadcast in 1948 Chicago does boast a terrific ensemble cast (Mary Stuart Masterson, Ned Beatty, Jeffrey Tambor, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Stephen Tobolowsky, Brian Benben, plus cameos by George Burns and Rosemary Clooney) and a wonderfully vintage soundtrack by Joel McNeely, sporting ample amounts of nostalgic ‘40s standards. Universal’s new DVD edition offers a remastered 16:9 (2.35) transfer that’s light years better than Image’s old, non-anamorphic DVD, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is acceptable enough. The original trailer is the disc’s only extra.

New From Warner

SMALLVILLE: Season 5 (2005-06, 22 episodes, 925 mins., Warner). DVD FEATURES: Two commentary tracks; Unaired scenes; 16:9 (1.78) Widescreen, 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound.

The fifth season of the contemporary “Superman” series on The WB saw the series move to Thursday nights in what was anticipated as being the final year for the program -- particularly with the much-hyped “Superman Returns” feature film due out at year’s end.

Fortunately, as series co-creator/executive producer Al Gough mentions in his liner notes, the series truly did see both a creative and ratings renaissance in its fifth year, with exciting new storylines and plot developments that took advantage of its fine cast and the potential that exploring the life of a young Clark Kent entailed.

In year five, Clark (Tom Welling) and the gang have gone their separate ways after high school graduation, and young Mr. Kent enrolls at a college where his new teacher (played by “Spike” himself James Marsden) is actually the villain “Brianiac,” sent from Krypton to unleash General Zod and all hell on Earth. Meanwhile, Clark’s on-going off-again/on-again relationship with Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk) reaches a breaking point; Lex Luthor’s continued mining of Kryptonian meteorites comes closer to unlocking the truth about Clark, though with decided ramifications for his father (the superb John Glover); and Jonathan Kent’s running for U.S. senator necessitates much of the family’s energy, with Lois Lane (Erica Durance) assisting Kent’s run against challenger Lex himself.

As usual with “Smallville,” a compelling central plot line is augmented by fun, effective standalone episodes, like “Aqua,” featuring a young Aquaman (which nearly led to a spin-off series before the pilot was rejected); the excellent, holiday-oriented “Lexmas,” exploring an alternate existence for our young villain-in-training; and “Thirst,” with Kreuk’s Lana temporarily becoming a fetching vampire vixen (!) in an amusing, if over-the-top, Halloween episode.

Warner’s six-disc DVD set once again hits the nail on the head in terms of visual quality. The 16:9 transfers on a good upconverting DVD player are virtually HD-quality (it’s hard to imagine how the HD-DVD version will compare), while the 2.0 Dolby Surround tracks are decent, though not as remarkable.

Numerous unaired scenes (love the glimpse of Lex on Brainiac’s ship in the season finale!), two commentaries, promo “webisodes,” excerpts from the “Look Up In The Sky...” documentary, and a featurette on Smallville’s 100th episode all make for a terrific DVD package essential for all Smallville (and Superman) fans.

Also newly available from Warner Home Video are the Second Seasons of THE BATMAN (12 Episodes, 338 mins.) and TEEN TITANS (13 Episodes, 286 mins.).

These two jaunty WB animated series are aimed specifically at younger children and “The Batman” seems to have appreciably improved in year two. Perhaps it’s because the series seems to be settling into its own groove a bit and comparisons to the admittedly-superior Bruce Timm-produced “Batman: The Animated Series” have died down, but I enjoyed what I sampled of the series’ second season. The stories seem to be more confident and while the shows tend to vary between strictly kid-centric and more mature fare, fans of the program will enjoy Warner’s 2-disc collection of 13 episodes in full-screen transfers, 2.0 Dolby Surround, and extras including one Making Of featurette.

“Teen Titans,” meanwhile, was more embraced by its fan base right off the bat, and the second season continues the wacky adventures of Robin and company (Cyborg, Raven, Starfire, and Beast Boy) in more excellent full-screen transfers, 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks, and a standard behind-the-scenes featurette rounding out the release.

NEXT TIME: Gerard Butler swashbuckles (more or less) in BEOWULF & GRENDEL! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above . Cheers!

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