These days, so-called movie fans are only capable of eating and shitting and streaming and downloading. Regardless of a film’s power, if it’s not at our Dorito-stained fingertips, we can’t be bothered. We’re worthless.
So you need to ask yourself: How sincere is your interest in movies? Is it bigger than a RedBox? If the answer is no, there are plenty of convenient methods for suicide. But if the answer is a thunderous “YES!,” you’re in luck. Against all odds and current market trends, several Hollywood studios have thrown open their vaults and are unearthing, remastering and releasing some of the very best films you’ll ever see. From universally forgotten oddities (Warner Bros’ 1950 midget drama It’s a Small World) to undeniable masterpieces (MGM’s long-overdue release of gritty 1977 actioner Rolling Thunder), the major players have realized they’re sitting on a trembling volcano of cinematic dynamite.
Basically, Warner Archives, MGM Limited Edition Collection and the Universal Collection offer the ridiculously amazing service of making beautiful DVD masters from their archival prints and making them available to us schmucks on demand. These aren’t shoddy DVD-Rs, but instead clean, gorgeous, high-quality DVDs with fancy full-color covers and the whole nine yards. And since the studios don’t have the pressure of selling thousands of units, they’re releasing the most varied and often electrifyingly bizarre titles in their vast libraries.
I firmly consider this trend to be the most exciting development to hit movie fans since the original DVD format came around. As far as I’m concerned, digital theatrical projection will never have the depth and richness of actual 35mm film, and a Blu-Ray is just a DVD in a gaudy prom dress. But to actually be able to unearth thousands of movies that have never been available in any home video format…that means something.
Beginning this month, I’ll be offering a humble critical sampling of the dozens of titles being released in the Manufactured-On-Demand (or “MOD”) format. If the films I cover don’t immediately strike you, rest assured that something out there will. This month alone, there are over 50 features – from the ‘20s to the 2000s – seeing light for the first time, beginning with…
THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN
Dir. William Sachs / 1977 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
This earnest throwback is among thousands of entertaining works to be wrongly disregarded as “one of the worst movies ever made.” What the world’s hyperbolic frowners don’t know enough to understand is that this is a ‘50s scifi/horror movie for the ‘70s, and a really fun one to boot. Melting Man is basically the curdled cream of flawed late-night features like Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, The Hideous Sun Demon and Night of the Blood Beast, updated and brow-lowered with impossibly juicy pus-n’-gore splatterwork by legendary effects master Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London).
Like the movies mentioned above, the story kicks off with a NASA tragedy. Venus-bound astronaut Steve West (Alex Rebar) gets too close to some unexplained force that kills his fellow cosmonauts and leaves him a bubbling hunk of blood-starved stewmeat. He escapes from the military hospital and wanders the nearby hillsides, chewing on whoever bumbles past.
That’s about it. And that’s all it needs. Today’s top-heavy, empty-headed genre films play like visual techno music. Science fiction and horror of the ‘50s and ‘60s was built on visceral reactions. A jolt may be cheap, but it’s real. Much like Good Burger is a great ‘80s movie that just happened to be made in 1995, The Incredible Melting Man is a hideous gift from a simpler, better era.
Of course, that’s not to say that the film doesn’t offer some revolutionary moments, such as when a comically obese nurse busts through a glass door in slow motion. Or the intensely close shot as the creature coldly crushes a sandwich beneath his boot. 7-year-olds smoke Marlboros while an elderly couple steals lemons from an orchard. But a tremendous portion of the runtime features the transformed manster wandering the forest, murdering fisherman, terrifying topless women and dropping his goopy digits like pudding-soaked pretzel sticks.
If this all sounds like sheer camp, don’t be fooled. Instead, gird your loins for one of the more grim endings in ‘70s horror (and that’s one grim cinematic decade). I can’t throw enough praise at the top notch Rick Baker effects work, from severed heads to severed arms to the metric tons of sloopy slop poured on and from the film’s lead actor. Poor Alex Rebar was probably initially overjoyed to land a starring role in the production, but he reportedly despised the humiliating make-up he spent his days and nights in. To be fair, the degree of slurpiness is severe, and predates future technicolor gurgleblasters like Street Trash and The Toxic Avenger (both featuring goopwork by innovative new wave latex-slinger Jennifer Aspinall).
Though it’s now largely forgotten, The Incredible Melting Man was released worldwide, often with even more entertaining titles. In Germany, it translated to “Best Regards from Planet Saturn,” and in Spain it was simply “Stickiness.” Whatever you choose to call it, MGM’s DVD offers it in a beautifully mastered presentation. The picture is pristine, the sound is dynamic and the plentiful gore is red as the center of the sun.
HICKEY AND BOGGS
Dir. Robert Culp / 1972 / MGM Limited Edition Collection
In 1965, Bill Cosby and Robert Culp began flashing grins and guns as the charming, verbally playful international agents of I Spy. Four years after the hit show folded, Culp himself took the director’s seat for an unexpectedly grim reunion, pairing the duo for this family-unfriendly big-screen LA noir.
Best pals Al Hickey and Frank Boggs (Cosby and Culp, respectively) are partners in a floundering private detective operation. Both are recently divorced and painfully depressed, swapping hangdog expressions and monotone rants against life itself. They accidentally find themselves buried in an unnecessarily complex money-laundering scheme, and spend 110 minutes misfiring their way out. Along the way, they’ll frown, argue with their ex-wives, drink alcohol, cry, express many regrets and manage to not crack a single joke.
A thousand books have dissected the ways ‘70s American cinema shaped the crime film into a sweat-stained, formidably believable genre. Hickey and Boggs hits every mark in the playbook: deeply flawed protagonists, white collar felons, crumbling architecture, homosexuality, social class friction, naked ladies…the works. The movie features automobile explosions, black militants, automatic weapons and six utterances of the word “bitch.”
First time screenwriter Walter Hill foreshadows his incredible work on Peckinpah’s The Getaway and his own staggering directorial efforts, but the film feels like it buckles under the weight of its smog-choked atmosphere. LA is portrayed as a hopeless expanse of back-stabbings and failures, our two emasculated heroes basically touring us through the city’s unique miseries while failing to stop the story’s unavoidable tragedies. Culp and Cosby seem to be fighting their natural warmth and screen chemistry in the hopes that their joylessness will make the film more gripping. An impressive cast joins them in full- tilt sourpussing: James Woods, Vincent Gardenia (Death Wish), Michael Moriarty (Q the Winged Serpent), Rosalind Cash (The Omega Man) and many other familiar faces who turn their lemonade into lemons for your viewing displeasure.
The recently departed Robert Culp was one of the truly great leading men of television, and I will always be down for The Cos. But watching these two gargantuas of entertainment grouch, drink scotch and utter PG swear words is like watching Norman Rockwell paint a crude picture of Pamela Anderson’s butt. Cosby pulled off drama in the 1971 western Man and Boy, but the indignities he suffers in Hickey and Boggs make you want to take him out for a double scoop of rainbow sherbet. It’s an intelligent project that’s beautifully shot and undeniably well acted, but the casting and the creators are ultimately more fascinating than the movie itself.
So if you’re really in the mood to watch a 1972 release where an American TV legend say the word “fag,” I instead recommend Warner Archive’s release of They Only Kill Their Masters starring James Garner. That movie is raaaaaaaging.
In the light of the remake, Warner Archives has released a remastered version of the original 1973 TV-shatterer Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, now with an optional commentary track.
Other Halloween-scented titles from Warner include scifi monster epic The Snow Devils, crazed animal thriller Black Zoo, and the Joan Crawford camp-horror blowout Berserk!. They’re also providing us with blaxploitation barn-burners like Fred Williamson’s Black Eye and the 4-DVD Shaft TV Movie Collection. Plus frenetic tough guy opus The Super Cops, galactic mind-stealer Moon Zero Two, bizarre whodunnit The Couch and a whole slew more.
MGM has gotten in gear and become every bit as productive, offering 1974’s black zombie masterpiece Sugar Hill, Dolph Lundgren vs. alien junkies in I Come in Peace (released as “Dark Angel”), the stomach-churning revenge cheapie Act of Vengeance (a.k.a. Rape Squad) and even the lovably goofy Phil Silvers ‘50s comedy Top Banana!
Look for reviews of all of these and more in the next Vault of Secrets. Until then, give one or two of these films a shot. Life is waaaayyyy too goddamn short for another Jonah Hill comedy.