Video Dispatches is a regular column covering recent home video releases.
Dodsworth (1936) – Warner Archive
William Wyler’s 1936 drama about an American couple drifting apart as they attempt to transition into retirement is remarkable for how maturely it treats its protagonists as separate, distinct people rather than a unit.
Dodsworth (Walter Huston), the patriarch and auto magnate, takes his wife, who’s significantly younger than him, abroad to discover what else life has in store for them. The couple quickly realizes they have different comforts and ambitions — Dodsworth a more simple fellow with modest ideas of discovery, while his wife (Ruth Chatterton) has bigger, broader hopes for their new life.
Though the seams of their marriage are quickly apparent, Wyler draws out Dodsworth’s self-realization with great patience, and the way the man trusts his wife, rather than with suspicion, makes for a lovely drama that privileges individual character development over plot machinations.
Flesh-Eating Mothers (1989) – Vinegar Syndrome
While James Martin’s direct-to-video zombie cheapo, in which women in upstate New York suddenly start transforming into, well, flesh-eating mothers, isn’t exactly remarkable, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve the deluxe treatment from the video saviors at Vinegar Syndrome.
What I found most remarkable about the actual film, however, was how ahead of its time its humor was. During the climax, especially, the dry timbre of its jokes anticipates the humor that made stuff like Shaun of the Dead and countless commercials so popular.
I get the sense that James Martin was also a bit confounded by the choice to resuscitate his film, or at least on the supplements he admits to all but divesting total interest in his 1989 film and filmmaking in general (though he wouldn’t turn down being offered to write a new film…). He also has a refreshing sense of honesty about why he decidedly made a horror film.
Phase IV (1974) – 101 Films
UK home video label 101 Films recently put out Saul Bass’s sole full-length directorial effort, Phase IV, coinciding with the centennial of the birth of the groundbreaking graphic design artist who developed many of the most recognizable logos in American culture, including AT&T, Girl Scouts, Lawry’s Foods, Quaker Oats, YMCA, and others.
The film is a sci-fi story about an ant takeover in the Arizona desert and the two scientists (Michael Murphy and Nigel Davenport) who arrive at a geodesic lab in the middle of the same desert to figure out how to stop them. The film’s opening 20 minutes is a great visual spectacle — clearly the work of someone who trades primarily in visuals, utilizing fantastic model work and animation. The story, meanwhile, pokes at vulnerable humanity who can fathom a species that is able to resist human domination despite being tiny insects that merely follow a chain of command.
On the bonus feature and the commentary track, film historians Allan Bryce and Richard Holliss do a fine, if not spectacular, job contextualizing this type of sci-fi film in the American 70s. But the clear highlight of this package is the essential second disc, which is filled with all of Saul (and Elaine) Bass’s short films. Between them all, a visual identity and interest in the material earth starts to form quite quickly. And there’s also a healthy short on all of the director’s film title works (up until that point) that allows him to speak at length about his graphic work.
Emanuelle in America (1977) – Mondo Macabre
Italian schlock master Joe D’Amato and his unbelievable (until you see some of them) prolificacy is one of cinema’s more interesting pockets of history, and Mondo Macabro has done him justice with their recent release of one of his entries to the Emanuelle films, Emanuelle in America, wherein a journalist almost immediately leaves America to do “journalism” during a series of vignettes that feature varying degrees of sexual content.
I was particularly taken with an underwater scene that looks downright gorgeous in Mondo’s new 2K transfer, as well as an odd food orgy scene later in the film. It should be noted that the film most certainly tips more than a toe into hardcore pornography, like many of D’Amato’s films.
Also of interest on this release is the always dependable commentary of Nathaniel Thompson, here with Bruce Holecheck. But the real boon here is the supplemental full-length documentary Joe D’Amato: Totally Uncut, which gives the filmmaker a chance to talk at length about his own work.
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