Monday, February 3, 2014

20 Horror and Cult Classics That Deserve the Criterion Treatment


For thirty years, the Criterion Collection has been restoring “important classic and contemporary films” and releasing them back into the wild on laser disc, DVD, and blu-ray. As their inaugural titles—King Kong and Citizen Kane— indicated, Criterion has long had great enthusiasm for horror and cult films. Yet even with more than 700 titles under its belt, Criterion has not refurbished every horror and cult classic that deserves it. Some of the most deserving have not been well served in the blu-ray age by any of the company’s chief rivals either. So for Criterion or Twilight Time or Shout/Scream Factory or any other distribution company with a serious interest in seriously great movies, here are twenty terrifying and strange titles for your consideration.

1. The Fall of the House of Usher (1928- dir. Jean Epstein)

What is it? A masterpiece of bad dreaminess and surreal imagery. An essential French horror film, of which there are few.

Current Region 1 availability Image Entertainment’s 2001 DVD is out of print. Used copies currently start at $90 on Amazon.com.

Why Criterion? The Fall of the House of Usher is certainly important in that it is arguably the first great feature-length Edgar Allan Poe adaptation. Its art house status is right up Criterion’s alley. Director Jean Epstein co-wrote the screenplay with Luis Buñuel at the same time he was making “Un Chien Andalou” with Salvador Dali. That short film would make a fabulous bonus feature!

2. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931- dir. Rouben Mamoulian)

What is it? The first and best sound adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s transfiguring horror classic. Released the same year as Dracula and Frankenstein, Paramount’s attempt to pounce on the monster bandwagon trounced Universal’s hits and helped complete the trio of classic monster movie tropes: vampire, creation monster, and transformation monster.

Current Region 1 availability New copies of Warner Home Video’s 2004 DVD twofer with the far inferior 1941 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are currently going for $40 on Amazon.com.

Why Criterion? Beautifully filmed, beautifully acted, and still really disturbing, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is important in that it is the first horror film to score an Oscar (Frederic March shared the best actor award with Wallace Beery). Obviously, it’s a classic for its quality too, though its underdog status next to the ubiquitous Dracula and Frankenstein makes it a perfect candidate for Criterion. MGM certainly doesn’t seem in any rush to restore this one and get it back on the streets.

3. The Old Dark House (1932- dir. James Whale)

What is it? James Whale’s second horror film is an alternately funny and frightening flick with a superb ensemble cast featuring Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Lilian Bond, Ernest Thesiger, Gloria Stuart, and Eva Moore.

Current Region 1 availability Kino’s 2003 DVD is readily available but desperately in need of restoration and redistribution on blu-ray.

Why Criterion? Well, Kino can do this one if they like, but if not, Criterion should swoop in and give it the business. Either way I’d be happy.

4. The Black Cat (1934- dir. Edgar G. Ulmer)

What is it? An adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe in name only, Edgar Ulmer’s demented art-deco pairing of Karloff and Lugosi is one of the most deliciously weird entries in the Universal horror canon.

Current Region 1 availability Universal actually rereleased The Black Cat less than two years ago, right before releasing its fab box set of nine select classic monster movies. Alas, the DVD-only Black Cat was not among them. 

Why Criterion? Well, Universal still has enough interest in this essential title— chosen ahead of The Mummy, the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon by a panel of critics for inclusion in The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die—to rerelease it in 2012, but its failure to refurbish the film for blu-ray is enough indication that an intervention is in order.

5. Mad Love (1935- dir. Karl Freund)

What is it? Released at a time when critics really started belly aching that horror movies were getting out of control, Karl Freund’s adaptation of The Hands of Orlac was one of the most gleefully perverse: a symphony of sadism, sexual perversion, and Peter Lorre. 

Current Region 1 availability In 2006, Warner Home Video dumped Mad Love on a triple-disc DVD set called Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection. There’s no sign a blu-ray restoration is forthcoming for the film that makes the greatest case for Peter Lorre’s status as a horror legend.

Why Criterion? Well, it’s the film that makes the greatest case for Peter Lorre’s status as a horror legend. That means it’s important. Mad Love is also a strange movie that often falls through the cracks in discussions of essential horror films of the 1930s. A Criterion refurbishment might help Mad Love get back in the discussion.

6. Dead of Night (1945- dir. Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden, Robert Hamer)

What is it? A multi-director portmanteau crawling with ghosts, haunted mirrors, bad buses, and killer ventriloquist dummies. The wrap-around story rises from the creepily uncanny to the feverishly nightmarish.

Current Region 1 availability In 2003, Anchor Bay put out Dead of Night on DVD as a twofer with the underrated and equally spooky Queen of Spades. It is currently out of print with new copies starting at $110 on Amazon.com.

Why Criterion? Dead of Night is the first British portmanteau in a great tradition of British portmanteaus. Many critics, commentators, and fans still rate it as the best.

7. & 8. The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947- dir. Felix E. Feist)/Born to Kill (1947- dir. Robert Wise)

What is it? What are they? A pair of wacko noirs starring Lawrence Tierney at his most menacing and uncontrollable. In The Devil Thumbs a Ride, he gets picked up while hitchhiking and expeditiously ruins the lives of everyone in the car. In Born to Kill, he marries a divorcee and ruins the lives of her and everyone she knows. Great fun!

Current Region 1 availability Although The Devil Thumbs a Ride is supposedly in the public domain, it has only been released in Region 1 once on the St. Clair Entertainment Group’s 2005 triple-DVD collection Classic Film Noir Movie Pack. Word is that the image and audio are shitty, which is pretty par for the course for PD movie distributors. Turner Home Entertainment’s 2005 DVD of Born to Kill likely looks and sounds better, but there is room for blu-ray improvement, as well as cool supplemental features, such as the insane “Tribute to Lawrence Tierney” on the Reservoir Dogs DVD that was inexplicably left off Lions Gate’s blu-ray of Tarantino’s film. Apparently, Tierney was every bit as impossible to contain as the psychos he played on screen.

Why Criterion? Lawrence Tierney is best known among modern viewers for playing Joe in Reservoir Dogs and Elaine’s intimidating dad on “Seinfeld”. His work in classic noirs is grandly deserving of greater exposure, and while The Devil Thumbs a Ride and Born to Kill might not have enough marquee value to move sufficient blu-ray units on their own, coupling them would be a groovy idea. This is not unheard of in the Criterion ranks. It stitched together two fine Kubrick noirs—Killer’s Kiss and The Killing—in 2011.

9. The Girl Can’t Help It (1956- dir. Frank Tashlin)

What is it? Tom Ewell and Jayne Mansfield go into the record-making business together. Tex Avery-style wackiness ensures… as do killer performances from Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, The Platters, The Treniers, and Gene Vincent and His Bluecaps.

Current Region 1 availability After years of unavailability, 20th Century Fox finally put The Girl Can’t Help It on DVD as part of its Jayne Mansfield Collection in 2006.

Why Criterion? 20th Century Fox apparently doesn’t understand what a gem it has in its vault, dragging its feet on putting out the first great Rock & Roll movie, then unceremoniously bundling it with a couple of other pictures (though Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? ain’t bad). I believe the folks at Criterion would bring The Girl Can’t Help It to blu-ray with greater respect.

10. The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957- dir. Jack Arnold)

What is it? Jack Arnold’s adaptation of Richard Matheson’s size-shifting novel The Shrinking Man with Grant Williams unforgettably encountering giant spiders and house cats while diminishing toward oblivion.

Current Region 1 availability Yet another movie initially released on DVD on one of those cheapy genre collections. Universal rereleased The Incredible Shrinking Man on its own in 2011, but did not deem this landmark picture worthy of a blu-ray upgrade.

Why Criterion? The Incredible Shrinking Man may be a B-movie, but it’s a B-movie with legendary special effects and a profound ending that does not treat its audience like dolts. Criterion did right by The Blob, so why not this superior sci-fi pot boiler, which was named a “culturally, historically, and aesthetically” significant movie deserving of permanent preservation by the National Film Registry in 2009? One possible roadblock—aside from the usual ownership rights—might be blu-ray’s unkindness to the kind of special effects on constant display in this movie.

11. House on Haunted Hill (1959- dir. William Castle)

What is it? William Castle’s first great film also features his first great gimmick: Emerg-o, in which an actual (trans: inflatable) skeleton actually emerges from the movie screen (trans: bounces over the audience on a string). The film is every bit as goofy and witty as that hoodwink with Vincent Price relishing his role as the master of an old dark house and Castle flaunting his underrated prowess behind the camera.

Current Region 1 availability Castle’s best movie is in the public domain, which means it has been subjected to uncountable shoddy releases. There’s even one on blu-ray in fce’s recently released Ultimate Horror Classic’s collection.

Why Criterion? As their release of Carnival of Soul’s proves, Criterion has no qualms about sprucing up a PD picture readily available on numerous other discs. They can even include a mini-Emerg-o skeleton you can swing from your TV top as the greatest extra in the history of home video!

12. The Innocents (1961- dir. Jack Clayton)

What is it? Elegant yet boundary-pushing adaptation of Turn of the Screw boasting a tension-fraught performance from Deborah Kerr as the governess of two kids, one of which displays some seriously inappropriate behavior.

Current Region 1 availability On DVD from 20th Century Fox since 2005.

Why Criterion? Artful genre films make up a good deal of Criterion’s backbone, and there aren’t many genre films more artful than this ghost story. I’d wager that 20th Century Fox wouldn’t give The Innocents the respect it deserves when upgrading it to blu-ray.

13. The Intruder (1962- dir. Roger Corman)

What is it? A true oddity…a dead serious, totally ahead of its time message picture from Roger Corman. No mainstream film of the early sixties dealt with racism as head-on as The Intruder. Trekkie hero William Shatner is bone chilling as a KKK shit-stirrer.

Current Region 1 availability New Horizons’ DVD from 2001 is still available. A blu-ray upgrade is not.

Why Criterion? Roger Corman truly was a great filmmaker, particularly when he wanted to be, and he put his all into The Intruder. He is most proud of this film, and if for no other reason than to give the dude his due respect, this movie deserves a respectful blu-ray release. I don’t doubt Corman would love to sit down for a retrospective interview about this one, which would make a great bonus.

14. Fail Safe (1964- dir. Sydney Lumet)

What is it? The same year that Stanley Kubrick decided the subject of accidental nuclear annihilation was too absurd to take seriously, Sydney Lumet took it quite seriously. The results are taut and terrifying. The cast—Dan O’Herlihy, Walter Matthau, Fritz Weaver, Henry Fonda, Larry Hagman—is explosive.

Current Region 1 availability In 2000, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment put this one on DVD. It’s still in print.

Why Criterion? Fail Safe is a powerful film, very well received during its day but seriously overshadowed by the more audacious Dr. Strangelove. It’s a classic film in need of rediscovery.

15. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1966- dir. Russ Meyer)

What is it? Russ Meyer’s tale of three bodacious go-go women on a road trip of mayhem and murder was transgressive in 1966 and it remains transgressive today even as audiences have become hipper to its knife-wielding humor and unintentionally empowering sexual politics.

Current Region 1 availability Russ Meyer’s company released his masterpiece on DVD in 2005, but by all accounts, the disc is overpriced and of poor quality.

Why Criterion? Criterion needs to break down the wall of the Meyer estate, get its hands on an original print of Faster Pussycat, and buff it up for blu-ray. This is a great looking movie that deserves to look great on home video.

16. Blow Up (1966- dir. Michelangelo Antonioni)

What is it? Italian filmmaker assesses the vapidity of Swinging London culture and defines it for generations to come. David Hemmings is at his best as a misogynistic model photographer who tries to give his empty life meaning by investigating a possible murder mystery. The Yardbirds pretend they’re The Who.

Current Region 1 availability Came to DVD via Warner Home Video in 2004. It is apparently still in print, yet new copies start at $40 on Amazon.com for some reason.

Why Criterion? Criterion has worked its magic on several Antonioni movies—L’Avventura, L’Eclisse, Red Dessert, La Notte—so the company is a given for revitalizing one of his most iconic. Let’s get a compilation of classic Yardbirds footage on there as a bonus!

17. Viy (1967- dir. Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov)

What is it? The second adaption of the Nikolai Gogol story that inspired Mario Bava’s Mask of Satan. Co-directors Konstantin Yershov and Georgi Kropachyov made a much more fanciful and colorful movie than Bava. Its wild, craft shop imagery would look amazing on blu-ray!

Current Region 1 availability Image Entertainment’s 2001 DVD is officially out of print, though inexpensive new and used copies can still be found on Amazon.

Why Criterion? Here’s another movie considered to be among the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, yet most folks have no idea it exists. As the very first Soviet-era horror film, it certainly has significant historical importance.

18. Night of the Living Dead (1968- dir. George Romero)

What is it? They’re dead. They’re all messed up.

Current Region 1 availability It’s still hard to believe that the first modern zombie movie and one of the greatest horror films ever made is in the public domain. Releases are bountiful, but only Elite Entertainment’s 2002 “Millennium Edition” is worth mentioning.

Why Criterion? Because of its PD status, anyone can release this movie and everyone has. Most see no value in actually renovating the film for blu-ray when they can just go the cheap route. Criterion doesn’t play that game.

19. Eraserhead (1977- dir. David Lynch)

What is it? The last great Midnight Movie, the first great David Lynch film, a waking nightmare, a work of transcendental poetry, a film you’ll never forget no matter how much you try. My favorite movie.

Current Region 1 availability David Lynch’s own Absurda released Eraserhead in 2001 and rereleased it as part of Lynch’s Lime Green box set in 2008.

Why Criterion? Criterion has actually long been rumored as the company that will finally bring this masterpiece to blu-ray, and indeed, streaming versions on Hulu and Amazon.com display the Criterion logo. Big deal. I want my bonus-packed physical media! “Asparagus”, Suzan Pitt’s surreally erotic cartoon that regularly screened before Eraserhead during its Midnight run, would make a spectacular extra!

20. Medea (1988- dir. Lars von Trier)

What is it? Between his tentative early features Epidemic and The Element of Crime and his breakthrough Europa, Lars von Trier adapted Euripides’ Medea from an unfilmed screenplay by Carl Dreyer for Danish television. The tragedy has all of Von Trier’s later day hallmarks—a woman forced into horribly extraordinary circumstances by patriarchal society, intense melodrama, nearly absurd grimness, enveloping atmosphere.

Current Region 1 availability Facets put out their DVD in 2003 and are now selling it as an on-demand DVD-R.

Why Criterion? Criterion and Lars von Trier are old pals. The company has put out The Element of Crime, Europa, Antichrist, and Melancholia and a triple-disc edition of Breaking the Waves is due this coming April 15.


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