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What’s New in Old Movies: January Edition

by Don Stradley

 

Welcome to the New Year! And what better way to ring in 2024 than by purchasing some physical media?

 

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) is one of those movies you’ve probably heard about but never sat down to watch. It’s an Xcellent space age thriller from Hammer Films about three British astronauts who have to crash land after losing radio contact with Earth. Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donleavy) investigates the crash site and finds that a parasitic alien organism has eaten two of the astronauts, while the third doesn’t look too great, either. The movie is ahead of its time, with many subsequent films owing something to it.

 

It was directed and co-written by Val Guest, who was responsible for a variety of films in many different genres. In the horror-sci fi category he gave us this one, plus Quatermass II, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, and a personal favorite of mine, The Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas. All artists have their peaks and valleys, and The Quatermass Xperiment was certainly a peak for Guest. (It’s also known as The Creeping Unknown.)

 

There’s plenty of folklore around the movie, including it’s battle with the British Board of Censors over an X-rating, the casting of American tough guy Donleavy as the professor, and the long held argument that no matter how good it may have been, Guest’s movie wasn’t quite as good as the BBC series that came first. (We’ll never know, because much of the TV series is long gone, like many old BBC programs.) What can’t be denied is that The Quartermass Xperiment changed the fortunes of Hammer Films, and is generally regarded as the movie that made the company into a major player.

 

Kino Lorber put The Quatermass Xperiment back on the market in December as a so-called “special edition Blu ray,” though it isn’t vastly different from the disc they released in 2014. But if you never got around to that earlier version, this one is a keeper. It includes new audio commentary by film historian and screenwriter Gary Gerani, plus some other Xtras, including an on-camera Interview with legendary and always interesting director John Carpenter, an interview with Val Guest by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn, audio commentary by Guest, and some trailers and short features. Buy it for someone you love. Or buy it if you love bloodthirsty fungus. (B&W, 82 min.)


 

In a different vein, Kino Lorber has also released Roger Vadim’s Please, Not Now! (1961), a comedy starring Brigitte Bardot. Younger film buffs probably can’t imagine it, but at one time Bardot was a female colossus bestriding the film world like few others of her era.

 

At the time, the pop culture seemed to be in a holding pattern in the years between Elvis Presley’s army stint and the arrival of The Beatles.  Foreign films had become popular, and the actresses, in particular, were becoming instantly iconic. Bardot, a French beauty who appeared barefoot on talk shows, seemed almost otherworldly, too big for the screen. She had a mesmerizing effect. Male moviegoers would’ve trampled Taylor Swift for just a glimpse of Bardot, such was the power and allure she had in those days. She retired from acting in 1973 at age 39, but in her prime she was starring in films, recording albums, and defining a new era for female stars. When Please, Not Now! was released in America in 1963, Bardot was billed as “The Most Exciting Woman in the World.”

 

Bardot was 27 when Please, Not Now! was made, and long divorced from Vadim, the first of her four husbands. According to film lore, Bardot had the original director fired and insisted ex-hubby Vadim be brought in for this project, a comedy where Bardot learns her boyfriend is leaving her for another woman, and then plans to assassinate her rival. Vadim stepped in and rewrote parts of the script. The result is the sort of zany, slapstick “sextacular” that was briefly popular in the 1960s. Bardot sings for the first time in a movie, does a frenzied striptease, and shows enough flesh that the film was often paired as a double feature with The Stripper, a Joanne Woodward potboiler. 

 

Unfortunately, not even the mighty Bardot could keep this movie from tanking. Critics were puzzled by it. There’d been some controversy in the U.K. where 12 minutes were lopped off and it was still given an X-rating, but the trimmed version was barely watchable. It was, noted a London critic, “lightweight Bardot.” Hampered by poor English dubbing and the missing footage, there wasn’t much to like. Hence, the film sank without a trace and is hardly remembered in the Bardot oeuvre.

 

The Kino Lorber version is back to the original 86 minutes, and includes audio commentary by film historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, plus the U.S. theatrical trailer. Apparently, the poor dubbing that ruined the original release is gone and replaced by English subtitles. (Blu-ray, available Jan 2, 2024)


 

From Criterion comes McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Robert Altman’s period piece about a prostitute and a gambler who become partners in a remote mining town. Warren Beatty stars as McCabe, though there is some mystery as to whether he’s really the notorious gambler he’s supposed to be. Julie Christie is the Mrs. Miller of the title, while the usual Altman stock company fills out the rest of the cast (John Schuck, Keith Carradine, Shelley Duvall, Rene Auberjonois, etc). It’s not quite a Western, but it is great mood piece and probably accurate as far as its grimy setting. It is perhaps the coldest, muddiest movie ever made. Just watching it may give you dysentery.

 

Despite the Washington Post calling it the “most important American movie since Bonnie & Clyde,” the film was a bit of a flop when it first appeared. Over time it developed a cult following thanks to late night television and occasional art house revivals. Now it’s regarded as one of Altman’s many masterpieces. (It’s also notable for the somber Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack. Such an unusual choice!)

 

The new Criterion package includes a 4K restoration with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack, audio commentary from 2002 featuring Altman and producer David Foster, plus archival interviews with production designer Leon Ericksen and revered cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond. You’ll also get the usual commentary and essays from a gaggle of film historians, though excerpts of Altman on The Dick Cavett Show sound promising. (121 min., available Feb. 6)


 

As we hear more about artificial intelligence, you may be yearning for a melodrama where technology runs amok. I’d suggest The Terminal Man (1974), coming soon from Shout Factory in honor of the film’s 50th anniversary.

 

Michael Crichton had originally been chosen to write and direct The Terminal Man based on his novel of the same name, but was allegedly fired when his screenplay veered too far away from the novel. Enter: British director Mike Hodges, who took Crichton’s taut little thriller and stretched it into a nearly two-hour dirge. Lest you think I’m one of those children of the internet who can’t sit still for a slowly developing movie, even the New York Times' critic reviewing it in 1974 wrote that The Terminal Man “moves as slowly as a glacier.” 

 

The film follows the tragic story of Harry Benson (George Segal), a violent epileptic who undergoes a kind of ‘psychosurgery’ that involves implanting wires in his brain meant to curb his antisocial tendencies. 

Alas, the process overloads his brain and turns him into a real creep; he’s either attacking people, or walking around in a stupor, trying to recover from his last blackout. It’s an updated, sterile retelling of the Frankenstein saga, nearly ruined by flat, stereotypical characters: the police are dumb; scientists are cold-hearted; nurses are simpletons; and everyone fears that technology is another word for “mind control.”  

Joan Hackett is cast a psychiatrist who tries to help Benson, but her role is considerably slimmed down from Crichton’s novel, where it was already one dimensional to begin with. Crichton was a good plotter, and could make science easily digestible for us civilians, but his characters were usually stick figures. Hodges, who adapted the novel, is no better at bringing the characters to life, and his cheeky touches don’t help. If Crichton was in hot water over his changes to the novel, what about Hodges? His reworking of the novel’s climax is heavy-handed, and his ending, where an anonymous eye peers into the audience and a voice warns that we are next, was cornball 50 years ago.

 

Segal’s twitchy, eye-rolling performance was ridiculed by critics when the film was released, but I like what he did.  How would you act if your brain was full of wires, and you kept receiving jolts to modify your behavior? Probably a lot like Segal does here.

 

I also loved the macabre and unexpected way Segal kills someone during one of his seizures. True, it borrowed from the shower scene in Psycho, but it was frightening. There’s also an excellent scene where a very young and unknown Jill Clayburgh, cast as the woman who helps Benson break out of the hospital after his surgery, sits in a hotel watching the old sci-fi classic Them! while Benson lies on a bed having a fit. It’s a nice touch – old sci-fi meets new. If only Hodges had been less stingy with these flourishes and spared us the interminable medical scenes. 

 

But even with its flaws, there’s something about The Terminal Man that works. There’s elegance to it, and a few moments that are truly captivating. (Shout Factory, Blu-ray, 104 min. available February 6)

 

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