The Strange Oeuvre of Coffin Joe, Part 2

...Continued from Part 1.

The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968) was actually made and released before Awakening Of the Beast, and in some ways feels at least a bit more like a proper Coffin Joe film, so it's a little odd they chose Awakenings over this for the Fantoma set. At least it's another horror film. But I suppose the strongest argument against its inclusion was that, despite the film's title, Coffin Joe the character doesn't really appear in this film at all. Marins is in it, though, as a diabolical villain who does some pretty similar things to his victims; but he's without the signature top hat, and no longer on the same mission to sire an heir.

The Strange World is actually an anthology film, no doubt inspired by the Amicus anthologies which had already started in the 60s. We have three stories presented here. The first is about a doll maker who's robbed a gang of hooligans, but has a sinister secret that makes them regret their act. Next is a weird story with no dialogue about a balloon dealer who falls for a girl and isn't deterred in making love to her even after seeing her get murdered. And the third and final entry is the one to finally bring Marins on screen, as a professor who kidnaps a fellow professor and his wife, performing experiments on them to prove a twisted theory. All together, it's really not as compelling as the original Coffin Joe films, but horror anthologies are always fun, and it is satisfying to have Marins back delivering his mad monologues for the final act.
Cinemagia on top; Anchor Bay on bottom.
We're down to only comparing two transfers, Cinemagia and Anchor Bay. And in this case, they're both identically framed as fullscreen; and they seem to be a dead even magic in terms of clarity and detail. Like Awakening, Anchor Bay has a slight yellowish tint, but it's not downright yellow as the first two films were, to the point where neither coloring is really very preferable. In direct comparison, I prefer the non-tinted Cinemagia, but when you're actually going to watch one DVD or the other, I'd say the difference is strictly academic. Of course, Anchor Bay's subtitles are still burnt in, while Cinemagia's are removable. That's a plus, although I doubt many of us are going to watch this with the subtitles off anyway.
If you've been reading along since Part 1 of my Coffin Joe coverage, you probably already know what to expect in terms of extras. Absolutely nothing from Anchor Bay, and a whole heap of terrific-sounding but untranslated extras from Cinemagia. And you'd be right. Specially, the list of Cimemagia's extras are: another intro, another commentary, a second commentary this time, four more audio recordings, an extracted fourth segment made for this anthology that runs 31 minutes(!), audio commentary for that fourth segment, 7 interviews, an on-camera radio interview with Marins, a making of doc and outtakes about the Coffin Joe claymation piece, another interview with Marins, another episode of Who's Afraid, five more galleries, the website piece and a bunch of trailers.
We really leave horror behind now for 1971's End of Man.  We also leave black and white behind as Marins enters the (mostly) full color world as a mysterious, nameless and naked man who walks out of the ocean and might just be the second coming. He basically walks around being completely passive, and everybody's reactions to him wind up drastically changing their lives. And he winds up attracting followers. It's kind of a religious allegory played for broad laughs, with a soundtrack that plays muzack versions of "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head." It's playful, Marins is in a lighter mood walking around in a red robe and turban, and people looking for sex and nudity will find some; but I still found it to be a heavy-handed slog to sit through.
Cinemagia on top; Anchor Bay on bottom.
My opinion of this film probably wasn't helped that the transfers look muddy, soft and de-saturated. Both discs now have that ghosting effect on certain (but different) frames, and they're both fullframe, although by the head room in many shots, I'd guess this was at least supposed to be 1.66:1. Anchor Bay again has that slight yellow tint to it, and the subtitles are burnt in as always. Otherwise I can't see one being any better than the other, detail and sharpness seem to be equal.
How does Cinemagia top Anchor Bay's barren feature collection of nothing this time? Let's look at what hasn't been translated this time? An original Coffin Joe intro, an audio commentary, four more audio recordings, a 50 minute "autobiography" film by Marins, clips from two films Marins didn't make that he appears in, 6 interviews, an interview with his webmaster (I think), a behind-the-scenes look at the recording of their audio commentaries, a music video by Liz Vamp, another Marins interview, another episode of Who's Afraid, their website thing (oh, and I'm certain they're all different now), and a bunch of trailers and stills galleries. Oh, how I wish I could understand what they were saying...
Thank goodness, Coffin Joe returns in Hallucinations of a Deranged Mind (1978). This is kind of a fun "meta" horror, along the lines of Wes Craven's New Nightmare but obviously decades earlier. A doctor is haunted by nightmarish visions of Coffin Joe. His colleagues can't cure him, so they enlist Marins, playing himself, the director of the Coffin Joe movies, to help. This is the first full-length Coffin Joe film since This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse, ten years earlier. But it loses a little of its punch by not having Joe as the protagonist this time around. And, like Nightmare In a Damaged Brain, Marins cheats by using clips from his past films as the nightmares the doctor is having. It's definitely a bit of a clip show episode, but at least Joe's back.
Cinemagia on top; Anchor Bay on bottom.
More muddy transfers with the same framing. Anchor Bay looks yellowish again, and this time noticably brighter as well. Blacks might be getting a bit crushed, but I still prefer Cinemagia. And again, AB's subtitles are burnt in.
Say it with me, gang: Anchor Bay has nothing; Cinemagia has a wealth of un-dubbed or subtitled extras. Specifically, Cinemagia has: a new intro, an audio commentary, 4 more recordings, a 40 minute documentary about Marins from 1978 called Horror Palace Hotel, 3 clips of films Marins presumably worked on, 7 interviews, a clip of Marins appearing at a rock performance, another interview with Marins, another episode of Who's Afraid, another website clip, more trailers and more galleries.
The year before Hallucinations, Marins made 1977's Hellish Flesh. This wasn't included in the other set because - holy cow; it's an Anchor Bay exclusive! I knew I bought that thing for a reason... Well, Hellish Flesh is not a Coffin Joe movie, but it is a horror film with Marins as the bad guy. He's a scientist who spends to much time at the lab, so his wife cheats on him. She and her lover plot to kill him by burning down the lab (and throwing acid in his face for good measure), but the scientist survives, as a disfigured madman now out for revenge. This is a real, classical-style horror tale; a throwback. That works in its favor compared to some of his weaker, less entertaining films like End of Man, but the fact that its more conventional means it doesn't rise to the heights of his greatest works either.
There's nothing to compare this full-frame transfer to, but it looks a little better than the last couple films we looked at. Of course the subtitles are burnt in, and there are no extras. But thanks to Anchor Bay's set. we got to see one more Marins horror flick, and it's a good 'un.
And it's not the only Anchor Bay set exclusive! Even before Hellish Flesh, Marins directed 1976's Strange Hostel of Naked Pleasures. Despite what you might gather from the title, this is actually a Coffin Joe film, although his character isn't quite as prominent as in the main trilogy. We get a hell of a colorful, wacked out introduction of exotic characters bringing Coffin Joe back from the dead. After the credits, the film is a bit more grounded as a variety of strangers arrive to stay the night at a hostel run by Marins not quite in Coffin Joe form. Things get weird, time stops, and they each have their own little narrative a la Tales From the Crypt. There are some goofy "naked pleasures" on hand - it does live up to that promise - but it's definitely more of a horror film than anything else.
More fullscreen interlacing frames and burnt in subtitles. And again, zero extras. But this is our only opportunity to see this film, despite it being one of the more enjoyable ones.
The Strange World of Jose Mojica Marins (2001) is a new (at the time - now it's fifteen years old. Where does the time go?) documentary about our hero. Not to be confused with The Universe of Mojica Marins, this is a more substantial, 65 minute doc that's only available in the Anchor Bay set. It's a cool overview of his life and career. We see Marins at home, talking about his childhood and his life as a filmmaker. For such an interesting person, this kind of documentary is essential.
It's full-frame, but since it was a new release at the time of this set, I assume that's how it's supposed to be. It's fine but underwhelmingly handled. I mean, the subtitles are even burnt in here. I just don't get the feeling Anchor Bay spent a lot of time putting this set together.
This flashback to the old film in the new one suggests how a restoration might look in 2015.
Finally, we have Embodiment of Evil (2009), Marins' comeback film where he finally completes the Coffin Joe trilogy. He has a surprisingly big budget and great technical look here, and the story is everything you would want it to be. Marins hasn't lost his touch, and Joe hasn't missed a step in his quest for a woman to give him a son. The fact Joe looks older and Brazil looks modern is easily explained by the fact that Joe has been sitting in prison for the last 40 years (which makes sense, given what he did in those past movies). I don't know how young horror fans would feel stumbling upon this film if they'd never seen the original Coffin Joe films; but for longtime fans, it's a real crowd pleaser. If you've seen his past films but avoided this one because you anticipated a big let down, I'd say it's safe, you should check it out.

This was originally released by Anchor Bay in 2009, on DVD and BD. At the time, I was just buying DVDs, so that's the first one I have here.  Then, Synapse released it as a BD/ DVD combo pack in 2011.  Finally, they reissued the DVD as part of their 2017 Coffin Joe Trilogy set.  It's the exact same DVD from 2011.
Anchor Bay DVD on top; Synapse DVD mid and Synapse blu-ray on bottom.
Anchor Bay's DVD is interlaced (I understand their BD is, too, though I haven't seen it to confirm), likely from a hasty NTSC to PAL conversion. It's also worth noting that Synapse's blu-ray is a dual-layer disc, while AB's is single. Synapse went back to the camera negative (it says so right on the back of the box) to strike a new transfer of Embodiment, and it's certainly quite noticeable. The framing's the same, but the colors are more natural on the Synapse disc, and the Anchor Bay is decidedly darker and smudgier. To be fair, though, I think the Syanpse disc could stand to be a sliver darker.
I've also shuffled the order a bit and didn't give away which shot is which with a caption this time. But you don't need me to tell you, do you? That's the dark, blurry, unreadable Anchor Bay disc in the center, without a clear distinction between where his cap ends and his head begins. And that's a much clearer, smoother and brighter Synapse DVD to the left of it. Of course, better still is the Syanpse blu on the right, which really takes away a lot of the compression flaws of the image, and its sign is by far the easiest to read. But even without the leap to HD, Synapse's transfer still clarifies each letter, whereas the Anchor Bay only manages to clarify each word from the next, like varying lengths of grey smear.

AB and Synapse mostly share the same extras (an enjoyable 30+ minute 'making of' and the trailer), except Synapse one-ups AB with an additional 14 minute featurette on the film's premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, where Coffin Joe speaks to a very large, enthusiastic crowd. The sound quality makes it a little hard to make out some of the words, but you certainly don't miss the showmanship as Marins is carried out in a large coffin by two burly men surrounded by... creatively dressed women.
Coffin Joe, as seen in one of his many exclusive Cinemagia intros.
So, that's about it for what's available. There are more Marins films out there, even more Coffin Joe ones; but none that have been released (except for some now very rare SWV video tapes). He's also still active as a filmmaker, so don't be surprised if one of his new works pops up on DVD one day. As I mentioned already, the now OOP Fantoma set has been reissued by Umbrella in Australia, so they're easier to find now. These titles have also been issued in a few other countries... I've seen Greek and Japanese discs online, and a collection from Italy which seems to have everything that Anchor Bay UK set offers. But I think those all just replicate the transfers and features we've covered here.

Overall, collecting Coffin Joe means you're either going to have to do a lot of double/triple dipping, or let some stuff go. Fantoma and Synapse have the best transfers, and some nice if brief extras; but they only have a few of his films. Cinemagia has more films and all those untranslated extras, plus that one translated soc. Mondo Macabro's disc kinda blows, but they have an exclusive extra. And considering how lacking Coffin Joe fans are in (translated) extras, you might be compelled to pick it up just for that. And Anchor Bay? They've got the most movies, but the worst transfers. It's really just a collection of compromises. It's just going to come down to how much do you feel you need beyond the core Coffin Joe trilogy of films. At least until somebody comes along and does a massive restoration of Marins' entire body of work.  But it seems Synapse's DVD-only Trilogy may be the best we'll get

It is unbelievably frustrating how much great material there is in the Cinemagia box without subtitles. Any company that simply reissued an English-friendly version of that box alone would have fans dying to give them their money. But of course, there's so much more that could be done. Look how good the original films could look. And you know what? I'd really like to see The Bloody Exorcism of Coffin Joe. It seemed like the buzz around Coffin Joe on DVD has simmered, but I'd love to see it boil back up for blu-ray. I've read so many fans say on forums that they were holding off on the Brazilian set, waiting for the English-friendly version that was sure to arrive in America. But it's been over a decade now. So let's keep hope alive, but in the meantime, we can at least make use of what's available.

Northanger Abbey 2007, The "UK Edition"

You sort of expect to have to dig through cut and censored prints of foreign horror movies on DVD; but you don't expect it to be just as bad collecting Masterpiece Theaters!

Northanger Abbey is the most under-adapted Jane Austen novel. There's pretty much only this version and the 1980s BBC one starring Peter Firth. Neither are definitive; both have their pros and cons and don't quite capture the entirety of the novel... so I'd recommend the pair of them about equally, and even together. A big part of the reason is because Austen was making a lot of direct references to - no, more than reference, almost parody of - contemporary literature. Of her day. Of course, with some smart alterations by a clever screenwriter, changes can be made that help bridge modern viewers to the story. But that requires us to step further away from Austen's writing, and the top quality thereof; because only a very small selection of audiences today could really appreciate all of the humor and implications of the novel as written.
You see, the lead character Catherine (Felicity Jones) reads a lot of novels. Far too many novels, according to everyone around her; but she's hopelessly caught up in her gothic romances. She has extensive daydreams and fantasies, which really set this one apart from Austen's other novels, to the point where she's neglectful of the real world. And when she's invited for an extended stay in a medieval country house, things finally get out of hand for her.

This version is written by Andrew Davies, who's pretty much the reigning king of adapting classic novels for British television, responsible for amazing versions of Vanity Fair, Bleak House, The Way We Live Now, He Knew He Was Right, Wives & Daughters, and of course the more modern House of Cards series. He's also been quite successful with Jane Austen, including the penultimate Pride & Prejudice version starring Colin Firth. Granted, he may have had a few missteps (I remember his modern retelling of Othello being a little goofy; but then again it seems to have quite good reviews, so maybe I need to revisit it), but this is not one of them. It's no P&P 1995, but it's still very good.
So let's talk about cut versions. As you might imagine, this modern version of Northanger does take the opportunity to spice up Catherine's fantasies a bit in the sexiness department. That ruffled a few purists' feathers, but that's not why this movie was cut. Did yo know, it's actually relatively common for Masterpiece Theater to cut down their British imports for broadcast? Yeah, so what you see on PBS is not always 100% of what people got to see aired in the UK. They just get out their scissors and trim things down a bit. Oftentimes, those cuts have been reinstated when it was time to release the DVDs... but not always.
In 2008, when WGBH released this on DVD, it ran a just under 85 minutes. Uncut, the movie runs just over 93 minutes. That's almost 10 minutes missing from an already short movie. And it's not just a PAL/ NTSC timing thing; lots of scenes were cut. A fantasy sequence, yes, but also conversations, small shots and moments. Fortunately, word got around and fans complained. So when they decided to release this on blu ion 2011, they came out with the "Original UK Edition" stamped on the front cover.

Update 5/23/15: Let's get real about this comparison! I've got the old, cut DVD here with me now, so let's look at precisely what was cut, and also hold up some screenshots to see exactly how different the SD and HD transfers are. We're not gonna settle for second best here at DVDExotica!

Note: the following time-coded section, explaining all of the cuts, is pretty spoiler heavy. Skip to the end of it if you wish to avoid spoilers.

When Mr. and Mrs. Allen talk about taking Catherine out into society for the first time, the cut version ends with Mr. Allen saying, "I entertain high hopes of our arriving at the rooms before midnight," and we cut to the carriages. But in the full version, the scene continues with Mrs. Allen saying, "how he teases us, Catherine. Midnight indeed." and Catherine smiling.

At the crowded ball, when Mr. Allen abandons the ladies for the card room, Mrs. Allen suggests, "perhaps we should cut to the tea room," Catherine nods, and we see a brief shot of dancing. The DVD then cuts to the introduction of our leading man, Henry, literally bumping into Mrs. Allen and then having a small chat. This actually skips over a whole scene, which continues follows the brief shot of dancing to Mrs. Allen and Catherine .comically spotting two empty seats, then running and pushing past a crowd of people to get to them before they're taken. The pair then have a substantial dialogue scene about how uncomfortable it is to be in society with nobody to introduce them. Starting to receive awkward looks, they conclude that they are unwelcome, stand up and make an embarrassed retreat from the room. Then they bump into Henry on their way out, and we're finally back in sync with the DVD. This isn't just an amusing scene onto itself, but adds some weight to the following scene, when Henry introduces them to the party and they are now made to feel welcome there. He didn't just show up and charm them, he rescued them from a social disaster. There's also a reference to this moment at the end of the movie, which only makes sense if you've seen the full version.

15.45: After leaving the dance, the DVD cuts to Catherine writing in her room, but the blu has an another scene first, where Catherine and Mrs. Allen tell Mr. Allen about Henry. Mr. Allen warns Catherine about the danger of "attracting all manner of scoundrels and adventurers." They then have a lengthy discussion of Henry, both comical and expositional; and it's here Catherine first hears of Northanger Abbey. "Is it haunted," she asks. "No doubt. These abbeys usually are," Mr. Allen replies. This is a pretty key scene, and it's hard to believe PBS thought it expendable. Trimming the button off the "arriving before midnight" scene is one thing - and I gather PBS's editor saw an opportunity for a site gag by cutting from Catherine asking Henry, "well, who's to say I keep a journal?" at the dance to a close-up of her furiously scribbling away in said journal - but it's a bit like cutting the part where Luke learns about the Force from Star Wars.

27.23: During the dialogue on the staircase, where Catherine is told Henry and his sister will not be keeping their promise to take her out, her friend says, "in this false world, people often make promises they have no intention of keeping." In the DVD, we then cut to Catherine saying, "but what if they come after all?" But in the blu-ray, her friend has more dialogue, saying, "remember, we are your true friends. We keep our promises," before cutting back to Catherine's line. It's a short moment, but, but not an unimportant bit of manipulation, considering they're actually the ones deceiving her.

39.39: After Catherine and Henry finally have their walk in the woods, and he asks her to keep his sister's meeting with a mysterious man a secret from their father, the DVD cuts to Catherine talking to her friend, skipping the following from the full-length version: first, a shot of a horse-drawn carriage racing at night. Then we find Catherine in a bath, and her voice-over narrates the further adventures of the monk receiving a magic talisman than will grant him access to a lady's bedchamber. We then enter her dream, where her bath is out in the woods, and Henry arrives in full preacher garb, helping her out, naked (though, for the record, nothing R-rated is ever in frame). She then awakens to her name being shouted. Finally, we see her friends walking through town towards her house, and that then cuts to the scene of them in her room as seen in the DVD.

This is the missing scene most people notice first, since it's easier to remember whether or not you saw Catherine naked in a bathtub in the woods rather than if you saw the extra lines of dialogue about whether they'd be late to the party. And it's probably the scene a lot of Austen fans mind losing the least, since nudity (even with nothing really shown, like here) and such overt sexual tension doesn't really feel faithful to Austen's sensibilities for the times she was writing in. I imagine the filmmakers would argue it's more like "if Austen had written it for today's audiences," but it's questionable at best. It's more a shame to lose that very funny voice-over about the monk that leads into the scene, however.

47.29: In the carriage, when Catherine is discussing with her friend why she danced with Henry's brother after just becoming engaged, her friend says, "he is the eldest son, you know,, the heir to Northanger Abbey. Not that that weighs anything with me; I'm in love with the best man in the whole world."The DVD then cuts to Catherine running dramatically down a stone corridor during a stormy night. But the complete version continues on in the carriage, with them further discussing the brother, "do you think he's handsome?" And Catherine asks the key question of the story, "then, how is one to know what to believe?" The carriage arrives, and then we cut to the stormy corridor scene.

50.45: After Catherine's friend tells her she has to wait two years to marry because her fiance has yet to come into his money, the DVD cuts to Catherine talking to Henry and his sister on a stairwell. But the extended version first cuts to a scene Catherine and Henry's sister walking through the woods discussing the two year delay, which turns into a conversation about "how many of us marry for love" and how Catherine's naive upbringing could indeed be dangerous for her. And Catherine confesses that she doesn't feel as pure of heart as people think her to be, for she has her terrible dreams. And then we cut to the staircase scene.

When the carriage arrives to take Catherine to Northanger Abbey, the extended version has a scene of Catherine saying goodbye to the Allens. A nice touch: when Mr. Allen says, "I should be sharp about it. These great folks don't like to be kept waiting," we see the captain outside pacing in frustration before Catherine bursts out the door. The US cut just cuts from the carriage arriving to Catherine coming outside.

59.09: After Catherine and Mr. Tilding's dialogue in the carriage as he takes her to Northanger Abbey, the US version cuts to them inside. The UK version shows their servants coming to meet them and help them out of the carriage. Honestly, this is the most painless of the trims.

1.01.32: The UK version has a shot of Mr. Tilney looking frustrated at how long Catherine is taking to come to dinner. We then see the ladies rushing through the house (being such a massive house, it's a long way to go) and finally arriving and apologizing. Mr. Tilney angrily shouts to his servants, "dinner to be on the table directly!" before leading Catherine to the table, where the US version begins. In short, the US version just cuts everything that's imposing and dramatic out of the Catherine's situation, and just gets right to the dialogue.

1.08.45: After Mr. Tilney's carriage rides off, the UK version gives us an exclusive scene of Henry and his sister taking Catherine apple pickings on the grounds, which the US version has excised. Hardly a critical loss, but it does sew some "when the cat's away" seeds (a la Mansfield Park), which of course lead to Catherine getting into so much trouble a short while later, and it's probably good to have a reminder of how well Catherine and Henry get along when things aren't as dark as the Abbey tends to cast them.

1.28.21: When Catherine admits to the the Allens that she may be as much to blame for being exiled from Northanger Abbey as any of the Tilneys, the US version cuts to her little cousins asking her if the abbey was scary. But the full-length version first has a scene of Catherine burning her novel in her room. It may be a bit of a heavy-handed moment, but it also seems to be a pretty key moment, and so near the ending, for PBS to callously cut it.

1.33.24: A single line is taken out of one of the very final scenes. Cuts so deep into the finale feel particularly presumptuous of PBS, though it is a rather fleeting moment. When Henry is confessing to Mrs. Allen, she says, "You had no part in what happened, Mr. Tilney. And Catherine is as you see her: no harm done. Any friends of our children are welcome here." To which he replies, "oh, very good." At least in the US cut. In the UK cut, Mrs. Allen says, "shall we agree to talk no more about it?" And that's when he replies, "oh, very good." So nothing earth moving, but the longer version does make Mr. Tilney more gracious, and the moment overall feels more natural in its complete form. It's also a strange cut, since PBS gained hardly any time at all, since the line goes by so fast. If they needed just an extra half second of commercial time, surely they could've just trimmed a few frames off an establishing shot instead?

All of these cuts just feel very meddling. And while most aren't too destructive, it's certainly a better film in its complete form. Enough so that I think any Austen fans who were initially disappointed by this film during its initial Masterpiece Theater broadcast or the DVD ought to make sure they've seen the complete cut before dismissing it. Nothing so huge was cut that you could no longer follow the plot, but anyone Austen reader knows that everything hinges on delicate moments.
2011 blu-ray on top; 2008 DVD below.
2011 blu-ray right; 2008 DVD left.
2011 blu-ray on top; 2008 DVD below.
And comparing screenshots, we can see there is definitely more detail and a clearer, more streamlined look to the blu-ray. This is pretty much what you'd expect from a blu-ray upgrade. But what I wasn't expecting to find was the weird PAL/ NTSC issues the DVD had. It's of course an NTSC disc, but it plays at PAL speed, considerably faster than the blu. And as you can see in the second pair of shots, it also has ghosting frames from the conversion. It's very noticeable in motion whenever the camera pans horizontally, it has a very herky-jerky look. Although I guess this is hardly the first UK show to have that problem on a US disc. But it's just one more factor that makes the blu-ray a more valuable improvement. It has the complete cut of the film, boosts it to HD and it corrects a bad PAL conversion job.

I'm not sure they would have even selected this title for a blu-ray release if it wasn't for the fact that this doubled as an opportunity to appease fans miffed about the cuts. So thankfully, this actually lead to us getting the full, uncut version and a nice upgrade to HD. ...Still no extras unfortunately, except for a Downtown Abbey commercial at the start of the disc and optional subtitles (the DVD at least had closed captions). The back of the box says this is 1080i, not p (because it was probably telecined that way for TV). Overall the image looks quite attractive, not interlaced, with a lot of intentional soft focus.
All in all, its a nice transfer of a nice movie, and an essential upgrade for anyone who bought the 84 minute DVD. There is also a blu-ray release in the UK, but it's only available as part of a set containing the ITV's other two Austen adaptations from the same period, and their Mansfield Park wasn't so hot. There's no extras on that one either, but it does purport to be 1080p so if anyone wants to splurge, they might find a minor improvement. But I imagine they're going to be pretty close. Recommended.

David Cronenberg Short Films

No serious fan of David Cronenberg should be without this DVD in on their shelves. David Cronenberg Shorts is the only release of two of his early short films, which are a lot more professional and eminently watchable than his better known student films that have received many more releases on DVD and blu from companies like Blue Underground, Alliance Atlantis, and even Criterion. For these, there's just this one Japanese DVD from 2003, by Happinet Pictures. It's been pretty widely distributed, so historically it hasn't been that rare, but the older it gets, the harder it becomes to track down a copy. So if you haven't snagged one yet, you'd better get on it.
First up is The Lie Chair, a twenty-odd minute horror story made as part of a series for Canadian television called Peep Show in 1976. It's its own isolated story, not part of an on-going narrative, as each the show was just meant to give upcoming Canadian filmmakers a showcase. You can read a brief history and description of the series on the Canadian Communications Foundation website here. So, it's part of a television series and this DVD makes no attempt to hide that, opening with the signature tune of the series before the individual episode's opening credits, and even closing with scenes from next week's episode, starring Martin Short in an early dramatic role.
So for The Lie Chair, Cronenberg forgoes his usual science fiction themes to present a sort of bizarre psychological thriller, written by David Cole, a writer/ producer who's been fairly prolific in television for decades, and recently wrote the film Straight A's. It's presented like a very traditional ghost story, with a lonely couple coming upon a big, isolated house in the middle of the night. Their car broke down during a thunderstorm, but of course the owner says they don't have a phone, so they'll have to spend the night. The maid who answers the door tells them the old lady who lives there wants them to pretend to be her grandchildren because she's gone senile and expects them even though they're not coming. But as soon as the maid leaves them alone, the old lady tells them she knows they're not her grandchildren, and is only pretending for the maid. Then the wife starts to notice that her husband seems to want to keep being the grandson. What is going on here?
This is a pretty smart story that will definitely have your mind racing along as more clues are laid down, though I'm not sure the ending entirely satisfies (it's both predictable and a bit of a misfit with the rest of the story). But you can certainly see the dark yet relatable psychological elements that must have attracted Cronenberg to the story, and he gets some strong performances from his cast to match it. It takes a tough look at the lies we tell ourselves, "not lies as evil, or lies as deceit, but lies to make a happier truth," and how they can actually wind up becoming the scariest of all.
The Lie Chair doesn't feel much like a Cronenberg film, largely because he didn't write it. But its look, too, has a old school television feel. Some episodes of Peep Show were shot on film, but most on video; and this is presumably one of the latter (or else this transfer has a lot to answer for). So it's very boxy and looks more like an Upstairs, Downstairs than Videodrome. But that can actually work in the film's favor, especially if you've watched a lot of the old BBC ghost stories... a creaky old ghost story in a creaky old house, displayed in a creaky old transfer. But it's not that bad as far as old television transfers go. I mean, they certainly didn't get the original footage and do any kind of fancy restoration, but it's at least free of the kind of problems, like ghosting or interlacing, that often plagues DVDs of old shows like this.
Well, we know where the lower half of the DVD cover comes from...
The yellow face on top? Not so much.
The Italian Machine isn't a horror story, but feels much more like a Cronenberg flick. I remember reading interviews where he talked about how crafting motorcycle engine parts can be high art, and only when this disc was released did I realize that line of thinking probably originated from this script. He wrote and directed this short film for a series called Teleplay, also in '76. Teleplay was similar in concept to Peep Show but ran a lot longer. Again, you can read CCf's write-up on it here. I've read online that Cronenberg also created two more episodes for Teleplay, but this is the only one to be released to date.
You'll also notice about half the cast here went on to appear in Cronenberg's other films including Rabid, The Brood, Fast Company and The Dead Zone. So, while I imagine a number of fans will be disappointed that this isn't horror or sci-fi, other fans will be pleased with how "Cronenbergian" it feels. An enthusiastic trio of motorcycle enthusiasts who all seem to live together in a garage are crushed when they learn that the most exotic bike in the city sold to some rich collector who doesn't want to ride it, just display it as an art piece in his living room. So they just have to come up with a plan to liberate it.
The Italian Machine is classic Cronenberg, with an eccentric cast of characters bonded by their fetishistic obsession and strange set of values. And it's funnier than Cronenberg's usual work, but without getting silly. That's thanks largely to the terrific cast who are a delight to watch. I was only a bit disappointed when it was over that there wasn't any more.
Unfortunately, this looks a little worse than The Lie Chair. No interlacing but a little ghosting and it's softer. This also looks like it was shot on film (though 16, not 35), so it probably has the potential to look a lot better. The Lie Chair's never going to look pretty, but there's the possibility for The Italian Machine. Still though, for an Asian import that's probably sourced right off a TV broadcast, this could be a lot worse.
Of course, there aren't any extras in this set - just optional (I'd say we dodged a bullet having them not burnt in) Japanese subtitles for both films. It would be terrific if the CBC would issue an official DVD of this with the other Cronenberg episodes - Hell, maybe even the whole series; I'm sure there's plenty more lost treasure in there. But rather than holding your breath, if you consider yourself a serious Cronenberg fan, I suggest getting this disc while you still can.