Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Holy Motors (Carax)
2. Bug (Friedkin)
3. Germany, Pale Mother (Sanders-Brahms)
4. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax)
5. Palermo or Wolfsburg (Schroeter)
6. Sun Don’t Shine (Seimetz)
7. Hitler: A Film from Germany (Syberberg)
8. Grace (Solet)
9. The Devil’s Backbone (Del Toro)
10. Before Sunset (Linklater)


Blu Hammer


Newly released on Blu-ray from Lionsgate UK is a newly restored version of Hammer Studios’ original 1958 production of Terence Fisher’s Dracula (also known to ugly Americans as Horror of Dracula). While I am by no means a Hammer expert, I do love a good horror movie as well as a good restoration job; this release happily combines both of those things in a high-quality package that probably deserves to be called the definitive home video presentation of Fisher’s masterpiece. One should not confuse this restoration, however, with the 2007 BFI restoration of the very same film. Hammer’s new version happily restores approximately 20 seconds of sensuality and gore, recently unearthed in Japan, that had been ordered cut by the British Board of Film Censors before its original release 55 years ago (more on that later). Longtime fans should be eager to scoop up this set — not only because of the newly restored footage but also because this release presents Dracula on home video for the very first time in its original theatrical aspect ratio and in the closest approximation of its original color timing. Horror aficionados who haven’t yet seen it should also be curious to find out why it is perhaps the most influential cinematic adaptation of Bram Stoker’s often-filmed novel (barring perhaps only Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s unofficial version from 1922). It should be noted that this release of Dracula is a Region-B locked disc, meaning anyone living outside of a designated “Region-B” country needs to have a multi-region Blu-ray player to enjoy it.


The first thing one notices about Hammer’s approach to Dracula is how much director Fisher and Hammer contract-writer Jimmy Sangster have streamlined Stoker’s narrative. When Jonathan Harker (John Van Eyssen) travels to Dracula’s castle at the beginning of the movie he is no longer a clueless real estate agent but a vampire hunter and scholar instead. We learn that Harker has accepted a job working in the Count’s library as a mere pretext for gaining access to the title bloodsucker’s home in the hopes of vanquishing him. Dracula (Christopher Lee), however, is on to Harker and ends up subjugating him first. The vampire hunter’s partner, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), soon arrives hot on Harker’s heels to investigate. In addition to this tidier exposition, the Hammer version also dispenses, after its opening scene, with the first-person narration of Stoker’s epistolary novel and even some of the book’s most important supporting characters (e.g., everyone’s favorite bug-eating maniac, Renfield). More importantly, Fisher’s movie, while retaining the novel’s 19th century setting, clearly uses Stoker’s story as a means of commenting on the still-stifling social mores of post-war Britain. The filmmakers certainly knew what they were doing when they cast the sensual and charismatic Lee as Dracula and the stuffier, more reactionary-seeming Cushing as Van Helsing. (For an in-depth account of how Hammer presents the Count as an ambiguous “counter-cultural hero,” largely because of the sexually liberating effect of his attacks on his seemingly willing female “victims,” check out Pete Hoskin’s brilliant essay at Gary Tooze’s invaluable site DVD Beaver).


Now on to the good stuff: the 20 seconds of previously unseen footage is confined to just a few shots in two scenes. And yet what a difference 20 seconds can make! The censored scenes in question are Dracula’s seduction of Mina Holmwood (Melissa Stribling), the aforementioned “sensuality,” and Dracula’s daylight disintegration, the aforementioned “gore.” The earlier scene makes explicit something viewers had previously only strongly suspected — that Mina, like all of Dracula’s female victims, actually enjoys the Count’s nocturnal visits. While this sensuality is latent in both Stoker’s novel and in Murnau’s Nosferatu (check out the way Greta Schröder’s Ellen flings the window open to offer herself to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok), it really comes to the fore in the Hammer version — and now more than ever in the new restoration. The seduction scene now contains a single new shot of Dracula “kissing” Mina by lightly brushing his lips all over her face before moving in to bite her neck. The angle of this shot favors Mina’s facial expression, which is undeniably one of erotic ecstasy. Even more tantalizing for longtime fans of the movie, however, is the restoration of several shots to Dracula’s death scene. This new footage includes gruesome images of Dracula clawing at his own disintegrating face with his disintegrating left hand as sunlight streams in through a nearby window. A short documentary titled Resurrecting Dracula, one of many welcome extras on Lionsgate’s Blu-ray, shows how British restorers worked a veritable miracle in cleaning up and re-integrating these shots, fairly seamlessly, from the badly damaged Japanese source reels.


About the transfer: in another extra in this set, Hammer historian Marcus Hearn says that the studio’s successful formula was not only combining horror and sex but also “color.” Hammer’s celebrated use of lurid Technicolor, which on American home video releases has always skewed too warm (especially where skin tones are concerned), is finally being presented here in a cooler, more blue-ish color scheme that more closely corresponds to the look of IB Technicolor prints of the late 1950s. This has the effect of making the color red, when it does periodically appear, pop out all the more. (Blood, as seen in the celebrated opening credit sequence that ends with the substance ominously dripping onto a grave, has the same stylized “red paint” quality that Godard would employ in Weekend a decade later.) Another welcome facet of Lionsgate’s release is that Dracula is presented in its correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1, allowing viewers to see more information, especially in Bernard Robinson’s handsome period sets, on either side of the frame. The thickness and depth of the images in this transfer are extremely impressive overall, boasting the kind of healthy black levels and wonderful film grain textures that one has come to expect from good Blu-ray releases. Image quality is also thankfully matched by the audio in a linear PCM mono track that shows off composer James Bernard’s powerful Wagnerian score to great effect. Another classic movie has gotten the Blu-ray presentation it deserves: Dracula has truly been resurrected.

The trailer for the BFI’s 2007 restoration of Dracula can be seen via YouTube below:

Celluloid Flashback: Martin Scorsese’s Casino

This may be the first in a semi-regular series of posts in which I briefly describe how I’ve come to re-evaluate a movie over time.


Out of all the films I used to feel ambivalent about but which I have since positively reappraised due to my immaculate angel of a wife’s having watched them over and over in front of me, none has risen more dramatically in my estimation than Martin Scorsese’s Casino. I first saw it during its original theatrical run in 1995 when I was 20-years-old. I left the theater feeling disappointed — mainly because it failed to live up to Goodfellas, the prior Scorsese movie that it seemed to most closely resemble. They both, after all, featured Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci as mobsters, there were shocking bursts of violence, epic tracking shots, copious amounts of voice-over narration, healthy doses of black humor, eclectic soundtracks on which the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” prominently featured, and so on. Comparisons were always going to be unavoidable. But what really rankled was the way Casino seemed to me like a gaudier, more Hollywood-ized version of Goodfellas — as if Scorsese and co-writer Nicholas Pileggi had taken some of the elements of their successful earlier film and re-shuffled them with the added commercial elements of a Las Vegas setting, a bigger budget and the star power of Sharon Stone (then one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities). While I did admire Casino for its impressive and undeniable cinematic value (it was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between Scorsese and his now-longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson), I largely felt indifferent about it on the whole.


Almost 20 years later, after revisiting the film many, many times (thanks, Jill!) on television and Blu-ray, all of my previous complaints have been swept aside and I now consider it one of Scorsese’s finest works. When I first saw it, one thing I didn’t quite understand was what Scorsese was up to in regards to the Las Vegas setting. I remember feeling back then that the quintessential “New York filmmaker” seemed out of his element “out west” and that, in spite of a few faux-documentary interludes, he didn’t seem to have much of an affinity for the gambling scene. (This is born out by the fact that, to this day, serious gamblers appear to prefer the 1998 poker film Rounders as their Vegas movie of choice.) I realize now that it was wrong of me to have expected the same kind of lovingly detailed views of Las Vegas as those of New York City that can be seen in Scorsese’s other films. For Scorsese, Las Vegas is primarily a metaphor: it’s a “paradise lost” to his gangster characters from “back East.” The notion that Sam “Ace” Rothstein and Nicky Santoro (the characters played by DeNiro and Pesci, respectively) had it all and then blew it is one of the ways in which the film poignantly shows the influence of one of Scorsese’s favorite movies, Raoul Walsh’s Prohibition-set masterpiece The Roaring Twenties. Both Scorsese and Walsh seem to be saying that no matter how violent, immoral and unconscionable the behavior of their characters might be, they were inextricably part of a colorful and exciting era that has since been replaced by something duller and more sanitized. The tone of each movie is therefore elegiac and bittersweet.


As far as the “gaudiness” is concerned, I now believe this is actually Casino‘s strongest stylistic virtue: there is much more voice-over than in Goodfellas, the music is nearly wall-to-wall and the song choices are wackier (e.g., Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction”!), while the clothes, the decor, and the use of color are all deliriously over-the-top. In 1995, what I somehow missed was the way Scorsese and his production team’s deliberately outrageous sense of style was taking its cues directly from the Vegas setting, and I was more apt to criticize the film then for what it wasn’t (i.e., another Goodfellas) rather than what it was (the tragedy of a man who was given the keys to the kingdom of a modern-day Babylon and then willingly let them slip through his fingers). In contrast to the eternal coolness of the 1950s and 1960s New York-milieu of Goodfellas — with its great cars, clothes and music — nearly everything about Casino, in terms of content and form, is rooted in the tackiness and excess of the Las Vegas fashions of the 1970s and early 1980s. And what I didn’t see at the time but what has since become abundantly clear in hindsight is how much this tackiness also provides the film with some of its most inspired and humorous touches. This is nowhere more evident than in a poster recently created by Boston-based artist Ibraheem Youssef that depicts every suit worn by Ace Rothstein in the movie:


My current top five Scorsese films:

5. Casino
4. Shutter Island
3. Taxi Driver
2. Goodfellas
1. Raging Bull

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Chungking Express (Wong)
2. Bernie (Linklater)
3. In the Mood for Love (Wong)
4. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks)
5. The Cannibals (De Oliveira)
6. Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (Vasyukov/Herzog)
7. Ravenous (Bird)
8. The Big Lebowski (Coens)
9. Deep Cover (Duke)
10. Moolaade (Sembene)

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