Saturday, July 14, 2012

New on Blu-ray: OUTLAND (1981), ALTERED STATES (1980), and TWINS OF EVIL (1971)

(UK - 1981)

Conceived by writer-director Peter Hyams (CAPRICORN ONE) as an outer-space western, OUTLAND finally gets a worthwhile home video presentation on Blu-ray.  The long out-of-print DVD was one of the first issued in the format and was utterly abysmal in quality.  OUTLAND did generally well at the box office in 1981 and has always been held in high regard by genre fans, and despite a couple of dubious effects shots late in the film, it's aged very well.  Sean Connery is O'Niel, a Federal Marshal assigned to a one-year tour heading the police force on Io, the third moon of Jupiter, where Con-Am runs a very profitable titanium ore mining facility. Sheppard (Peter Boyle), Con-Am's manager on Io, is very proud of his operation's increased productivity and profitability and politely tells O'Niel to just go with the flow.  O'Niel senses something fishy when two miners have psychotic episodes resulting in their deaths.  Sheppard orders the bodies sent back to the space station off Jupiter but O'Niel manages to get a blood sample from one and with the help of curmudgeonly, hard-drinking Dr. Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), finds traces of a powerful experimental drug that allows users to stay up for days on end, thus increasing their furious work output.  The side effects, Lazarus says, are that continued use can cause complete psychotic breaks after 10 or 11 months.  Sheppard and some associates are running the drug operation into Io, and as long as productivity, profits, and bonuses are high, everyone, including O'Niel's deputy Montone (Hyams regular James B. Sikking), is content to look the other way.  When O'Niel doesn't back down, Sheppard and Con-Am execs decide to bring in three hit men from the space station to kill him, and it's here that OUTLAND turns into essentially a post-STAR WARS variation on HIGH NOON, complete with a large digital clock in a sleazy Io bar showing the countdown to the next shuttle arrival.  Like Gary Cooper's Will Kane, Connery's O'Niel is forced to face the killers alone (with a little help from Lazarus), as an entire work force of minors and even his own deputies prove unwilling to help him. 

OUTLAND is a top-notch sci-fi thriller and the miniatures and matte work still look superb and are more convincing today than most CGI.  The cast is terrific--Connery and Sternhagen make an unlikely and very likable team, and Boyle is memorably smug, telling Connery to "go home and polish your badge...you're dealing with grown-ups here."  It's a film that's fallen through the cracks over the years, but hopefully this proper HD presentation will allow it--and Hyams, a very underrated director and wonderfully snappy writer who was unstoppable in his 1974-1990 prime--to find a new audience.  Hyams provides a newly-recorded commentary that covers all elements of the production (he wanted to call it IO, but everyone kept mistaking it for 10), with a lot of interesting Connery stories (they also worked together on 1988's THE PRESIDIO).  Also with Clarke Peters (THE WIRE, TREME), Steven Berkoff, and John Ratzenberger as a freaked-out miner whose head explodes in the opening scene. (R, 109 mins)

(US - 1980)

It's a testament to just how much filmmaking, marketing, and audiences have changed over the last 30 or so years when one considers that Ken Russell's surreal, philosophical, challenging, jargon-heavy, sensory-deprivation, devolution sci-fi/horror mindfuck was not only bankrolled by a major Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) with an unknown (William Hurt in his debut) in the lead role, but it was released in theaters on Christmas Day 1980. ALTERED STATES tells the story of psych professor Eddie Jessup's (Hurt) search for the Ultimate Truth via isolation tank and a hallucinogenic mushroom-based solution concocted by an indigenous Mexican tribe that's purported to take one back to "first soul" and be "propelled into the void."  The more time he spends in the tank with himself as the experiment, monitored by a colleague (Bob Balaban), an endocrinologist (Charles Haid), and later, his estranged wife (Blair Brown), the more Jessup's genetic makeup devolves with horrifying results.  Written by Paddy Chayefsky (NETWORK), who fought with Russell and took his professional name off the finished film (going by his real name, Sidney Aaron), ALTERED STATES is pretty deep and heady stuff, filled with stunning (though a bit dated today) imagery and visual effects and room-shaking sound (which got an Oscar nod).  As ambitious and thought-provoking film as it is, it probably ranks as one of Russell's more strangely commercial films, and the one-sheet depicting Hurt upside-down in the flotation tank immediately became an iconic image.  The film (also featuring Drew Barrymore, in her first film as well, playing one of Hurt's young daughters) instantly put Hurt on the map as an actor to watch and he'd have an Oscar within five years for 1985's KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN.  Hurt is so familiar as a reliable character actor in supporting roles these days that it's easy to forget he was an A-list star in the 1980s.  The new HD transfer for the Blu-ray release is crystal clear and absolutely beautiful.  The only extra is a trailer, but at a relatively low price, this is the best ALTERED STATES has ever looked.  (R, 103 mins)

(UK - 1971)

Hammer's box office appeal may have been in decline by the early 1970s, but some of the studio's best films were being made in this period, as evidenced by John Hough's TWINS OF EVIL, just out on Blu-ray from Synapse Films.  The third in the studio's "Karnstein" trilogy (after 1970's THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and 1971's LUST FOR A VAMPIRE), based on the works of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, TWINS OF EVIL has twin Playboy playmates Mary and Madeleine Collinson as orphans sent to live with their puritanical, cold-hearted uncle Gustav (Peter Cushing), a local witchfinder who leads a group of religious fanatics called The Brotherhood, finding presumed witches and burning them at the stake.  One of the twins falls under the spell of Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas, who has a strange resemblance to Jimmy Fallon), a wealthy, well-connected Satanist whose activities have awakened undead vampire Mircalla (Katya Wyeth).  Written by Tudor Gates and featuring David Warbeck and Dennis Price, TWINS OF EVIL is a highly enjoyable cult horror classic that showcases elements of the newly-explicit vampire genre (Hammer was taking advantage of the increasing demand for gore and nudity) and gave Cushing an opportunity to take part in the then-trendy "witchfinder" films popularized by 1968's THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL (with Vincent Price), 1970's THE BLOODY JUDGE (with Christopher Lee), and 1970's MARK OF THE DEVIL (with Herbert Lom).  Cushing turns in one of his all-time great performances here, showing the complexities of noble intentions gone horrifically awry.  Cushing's wife died unexpectedly shortly before filming began, and he's bringing a wide range of emotions to his role here as his Gustav is ultimately both terrifying and tragic.  Synapse's Blu-ray transfer is absolutely impeccable, and it's loaded with bonus features, including the feature-length documentary THE FLESH AND THE FURY, which explores the works of Le Fanu, the "Karnstein" trilogy, and the making of TWINS OF EVIL, with appearances by genre luminaries and historians like Joe Dante, Kim Newman, Tim Lucas, Ted Newsom, David J. Skal, and Sir Christopher Frayling, in addition to TWINS co-star Thomas and director Hough.  One of 2012's best Blu-ray releases.  (Unrated, 87 mins)

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