Sunday, April 4, 2010

Movies Worth Googling: strange movie reviews by Jenny Orosel

Legal: 'Bootlegs' from Warner Brothers
By Jenny Orosel

I was browsing movies at the local used store. There was a copy of Bad Ronald on the shelves, priced forty bucks and marked "out of print". I didn't know it was available, but I recognized the company. The DVD was from the Warner Archives and, so never really out of circulation.

Let me explain: the Warner Archives is an interesting experiment. Little by little, the Warner Brothers studio plans to make their entire backlog of movies available for home viewing. Sure, they can mass produce special editions of The Wizard of Oz or the Harry Potter flicks and be guaranteed a profit. But what about lesser known titles like The Rain People or Gilda Live? The bootleg circuit has proved there's an audience out there, but enough to make a fifty thousand DVD run profitable? The safest bet is to print exactly the number ordered. Hence, a year ago the Archives collection was born.

At a current count of near 900 titles, the Warner Archives are sold through the web as either direct downloads or print-on-demand DVD-Rs. After seeing that "out of print" title at the store, I came home, browsed the catalog, and found way too many for myself.

They have a great selection of 70s made-for-television horror. I have to admit, I have a deep love for that little sub-sub-genre. In the 70s, studios realized they could lure moviegoers away from theaters and drive-ins to stay comfortably at home. All they had to do was produce comparable entertainment. However, challenges came with the medium; for drive-in, grindhouse horror, all the moviemakers needed was some shock, some splatter and a sprinkling of sex. None of these could be show on prime time. Instead, TV filmmakers needed to use subtlety, pacing, great writing and good acting to deliver the scares. When it worked, oh did it work.

The first one I popped in was The Stranger Within. Like many TV movies of that era, this one was helped by the Richard Matheson script. Barbara Eden is an older housewife who finds herself pregnant. The problem is, her husband had a vasectomy. Nobody believes she didn't have an affair. They think twice, though, when her pregnancy starts advancing at triple the normal rate, when Eden nearly absorbs every book she glances at, and starts speaking in an odd language. She's pregnant, that's for sure, and her husband isn't the father, also for sure. So where did this baby come from and, most importantly, what is it?

The Stranger Within is effective, not in spite of its lack of snazzy effects but because of it. The horror is in watching Eden, torn between the joy at finally becoming a mother, and the terror of what could possibly be happening inside her. Half the success is due to Eden, the other half to the Matheson screenplay. It was paced so perfectly than none of the 74 minute runtime is wasted, yet it never felt rushed.

The second flick was Dying Room Only, another Matheson treat (this one based on his own short story). Cloris Leachman and Dabney Coleman are a vaguely happy married couple. They fight and bicker over the little things, but generally love each other deeply. In the middle of a road trip, they stop in at a small-town diner in the middle of nowhere. The cook and waiter are snide, condescending, and rude to the outsiders. Leachman gets up to go to the bathroom, and when she comes back, her husband is gone. Neither of the locals helps her out, and the sparse inhabitants of the nearby town aren't any more useful. Her car is gone, her husband is gone, and she is left to her own devices to not only find him, but get out alive.

While the Matheson script is always a bonus, the success lies almost solely on Leachman's shoulders. A lesser actress could have easily turned this into a melodrama (and in fact, co stars Ross Martin and Ned Beatty seem to be trying to bring it to soap-opera dramatics). Leachman, though, channeled the right balance of strength and believable vulnerability to make both her role, and the movie as a whole, work.

Next came Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. This little flick seemed to be trying to hide its humble television beginnings and be like its theatrical counterparts. Alex and Sally are a young couple who move into a creepy old house. Sally is stuck with the job of trying to fix up the place, get the couple settled, and adjust to her new life while Alex is at work most of the time, chasing a big promotion. Suddenly Sally starts seeing little demons running around. Nobody else can see them. Are they real, or is she just vying for Alex's attention? For most of the movie it's like every other standard monsters-in-the-house flick...until the end. The ending snuck up, out of genre conventions, and bit me on the leg. It was that one moment I didn't see coming that ultimately made the movie work.

They're releasing a remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark later this year and I'm not sure how I feel about that. My boredom with remakes aside, this one does have room for improvement. The monster design of the original made the demons look more cute than menacing. Modern effects technology could definitely scary them up. The acting in the 70s version was wooden. But the remake stars Katie Holmes, so I don't have full confidence in more authenticity. The ending worked because it went against 70s TV movie conventions. If the remake follows today's nihilistic horror trends, the ending is exactly what is to be expected. I have a strange feeling I'll simply ignore this one upon its release.

I found way too many fantastic little horror flicks in their catalog (including a couple not mentioned here because I'm saving them for "Book vs. Movie" reviews) as well as some non-genre fun (Gilda Live and Urgh! A Music War). The sheer number of oddities available is the biggest plus of Warner Archive. Combine that with a surprisingly quick shipping time (considering they print-to-order) and I am one happy customer.

There are a few downsides. The base cost is 20 for DVD-Rs and 15 for digital copies. Then there is the video quality. The DVDs themselves are fine, but each has a warning saying they were made from the best source material possible, which in many cases are marred and grainy. Still, I have to weight both of these against the bootleg option. If the best source material they find is flawed, it's hard to believe the bootleg version will be any better. And as far as price goes, they do often run specials, and I've ordered bootlegs for near the same price. Those rarely come with even a cover, and by ordering from Warner Archives I'm proving there is an audience out there for the near-forgotten flicks, and hopefully encouraging them to release more.

My suggestion-next time you're in the mood for an oddity, check the Warner Archives rather than ordering a bootleg. The movie you're looking for may already be in there. And if they're successful, maybe it'll encourage other studios to do the same. The more near-forgotten gems that get to see the light of day, the better for us fans.

WHERE TO FIND THE MOVIES: Warner Archives Shopping