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  • The Skull (1965) Blu-ray Review

    The Skull (1965)

    Director: Freddie Francis

    Starring: Peter Cushing, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green, Jill Bennett, Michael Gough, George Coulouris & Christopher Lee

    Released by: KL Studio Classics

    Reviewed by Mike Kenny

    Based on a story by Robert Bloch (Psycho), The Skull centers on occult antiquities collector Dr. Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing, Horror of Dracula) whose encounter with the skull of the Maquis de Sade proves frightening.  Forewarned of its effects by friend and former owner of the dreaded remains, Matthew Phillips (Christopher Lee, The Curse of Frankenstein), Maitland’s livelihood quickly becomes threatened by the skull’s evil forces.

    A supernatural mystery produced by noted Hammer competitor Amicus Productions, The Skull is a stylishly eerie effort from British genre titan Freddie Francis (The Evil of Frankenstein, Tales from the Crypt) that utilizes atmosphere and improvisational knowhow to its advantage.  Following a historically earlier pre-title sequence where a grave robber’s excavation of the Maquis de Sade’s cranium leaves him dead from an unknown presence, The Skull’s modern day London setting introduces occult collector Dr. Christopher Maitland whose pricy offering of the very same specimen by a shady dealer proves far too expensive albeit, very intriguing to the curious researcher.  Learning the item was stolen from a fellow colleague who was glad to be free of it, warnings of its evil capabilities fall on Maitland’s deaf ears, prompting him to retrieve it after the thieving dealer is unexplainably killed.  Casting a spell of madness and nightmarish hallucinations upon on its new owner, Maitland’s terrifying firsthand experience with the skull reveals its true potential to the previously skeptical scholar.  Headlining the feature with expected grace, Peter Cushing sells his descent into terror with a conviction memorably showcased during a particularly nail biting nightmare sequence of forced Russian roulette.  Appearing in a guest starring role, Christopher Lee’s small but welcome inclusion as a rare non-villain gives an added class to the film’s ghoulish festivities while, Francis’ resourceful direction, demonstrated in the film’s frantic and virtually dialogue-free final act, is overwhelmingly suspenseful regardless of the “floating” skull’s noticeably seen wires.  An early chapter in Amicus’ horror history, The Skull remains an effectively strong picture of its creepy caliber with its direction earning the most praise of all.

    KL Studio Classics presents The Skull with a 1080p transfer, preserving its 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Bearing noticeable signs of scuffs and speckles throughout its runtime, colors also appear occasionally drab while, skin tones and delicate facial features revealing aging lines and acne scars are well-detailed.  Meanwhile, black levels are mediocre yet, costume textures and the many artifacts spotted in Maitland’s library are agreeable.  Although a fresh scan would have been appreciated, the results remain quite adequate.  Equipped with a rather flat but serviceable DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, dialogue is handled sufficiently while an early encounter between Maitland and Marco, the sleazy dealer, registers slightly lower.  Scoring cues are decent but lacking oomph with a mild layer of hiss detected.  Special features include, an expertly researched Audio Commentary with Film Historian Tim Lucas, Jonathan Rigby on The Skull (24:14) and Kim Newman on The Skull (27:18), both of which offer encyclopedic insight into Amicus Productions, its founders, Freddie Francis and Robert Bloch’s original short story making each featurette invaluable compliments to the film.  Furthermore, The Skull: “Trailers from Hell” with Joe Dante (2:36) and additional Trailers for Tales of Terror (2:21), The Oblong Box (1:56), Madhouse (1:48), House of the Long Shadows (2:27) and The Crimson Cult (2:03) are also provided alongside Reversible Cover Art.

    A well recommended Amicus offering, The Skull brings some of gothic cinema’s finest faces together for chilling thrills and consummate direction from Freddie Francis making it a technical sight to appreciate given the film’s originally less than solid screenplay.  Possession, death and the black arts reign wildly in this nightmare come to life with a most fascinating selection of supplements making KL Studio Classics’ upgrade of the film an easy choice for fan’s unholy collections.

    RATING: 3.5/5

    Available now from KL Studio Classics, The Skull can be purchased via KinoLorber.com, Amazon.com and other fine retailers.

  • The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review

    The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

    Director: Wes Craven

    Starring: Bill Pullman, Cathy Tyson, Zakes Moake, Paul Winfield, Brent Jennings, Michael Gough & Dey Young

    Released by: Scream Factory

    Reviewed by Mike Kenny

    From the director A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Serpent and the Rainbow centers on anthropologist Dennis Alan (Bill Pullman, Spaceballs) as he journeys to Haiti to retrieve a mystic powder said to bring life to the dead.  Navigating the dangerous locale, Dennis finds himself involved in the deadly world of voodoo where the undead, possessions and ancient curses reign.  Cathy Tyson (Mona Lisa), Zakes Moake (Waterworld), Paul Winfield (The Terminator), Brent Jennings (Witness), Michael Gough (Batman) and Dey Young (Strange Behavior) co-star.

    Inspired by real life experiences documented in Wade Davis’ book, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a daring exploration of voodoo and the black arts.  Shot partly in the reportedly unsafe Haiti, Director Wes Craven’s nightmare-fueled opus is a noticeable departure from his previous shockers with an emphasis on the island’s factual political turmoil.  After barely surviving an Amazonia search for rare herbs and experiencing a psychedelic episode, anthropologist Dennis Alan (Pullman) is summoned by a domestic drug corporation to investigate a mysterious powder used during voodoo practices in Haiti that supposedly raises the dead.  Aided by doctor Marielle Duchamp (Tyson), Dennis’ encounter with a local zombie who roams cemeteries fuels his desire to locate the substance only to find himself ruffling the feathers of the barbaric authorities, led by Captain Dargent Peytraud (Moake).  Warned but not harmed, Dennis’ search leads him to swindling witch doctor Mozart (Jennings) who makes a deal to show the American how to develop the drug.  Pursued once again by the authorities, Dennis finds himself in dire straits when he is ruthlessly tortured and has his scrotum nailed to a chair, demanding his immediate departure from Haiti.  Riddled with frightening nightmares of rotting corpses and sinister snakes, Dennis’ short-lived return to America where friends are possessed and his concern for Marielle increased, leads him back to the black magic plagued isle.  Upon arrival, Peytraud’s power and influence knows no bounds as people are slaughtered with the resilient doctor learning firsthand the grave danger he is in.

    Although hesitantly considered a horror film, Craven’s cult classic supplies plenty of unsettling nightmare imagery where a serpent emerges from a decomposing body to attack Dennis while, dark forces cause a scorpion to crawl from the mouth of a living man.  In addition, the savage brutality of the Tonton Macoute beheading innocent lives is equally grizzly and not far removed from reality.  Akin to a fever dream of terror that never wanes, The Serpent and the Rainbow is one of Craven’s most progressively daring features that affects viewers on a purely visceral level of fear.  Earning respectable returns at the box-office, The Serpent and the Rainbow is the rare voodoo related feature that lives up to its intent as a supernatural spectacle.

    Scream Factory presents The Serpent and the Rainbow with a newly struck 1080p transfer from the inter-positive film element, sporting a 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  Although appearing occasionally soft in the dilapidated dwellings of the Haitian villages, greenery is noticeably lush and striking throughout.  Skin tones read moderately well and natural with several instances falling on the redder side.  Meanwhile, detail is strong with perspiration glistening on faces and the intricacies of rotting flesh found on the undead looking quiet noticeable.  Psychedelic colors and blood pop nicely while, black levels are inky and clear.  Filmic and hosting very scant scratches, The Serpent and the Rainbow makes a respectable high-definition debut.  Equipped with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix, dialogue is audible and effective while, the bustling sounds of the Haitian streets are lively and appropriately balanced.  Meanwhile, Brad Fiedel’s (Fright Night, Terminator 2: Judgement Day) score makes impressive statements against the shrieking screams of terror.  Welcomed into Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition series, special features include, an Audio Commentary with Actor Bill Pullman, moderated by Rob Galluzzo.  Although Pullman is only present for less than an hour due to filming commitments, Galluzzo does a remarkable job keeping the conversation interesting with Pullman injecting plenty of anecdotes about the filming experience.  In addition, The Making of The Serpent and the Rainbow (23:57) features new (audio) interviews from Pullman while, Author Wade Davis, Director of Photography John Lindley and Special Makeup Effects Artists Lance Anderson and David Anderson appear on-camera.  Yet another typically informative retrospective that fans will appreciate although, the scholarly insight from the late Craven is sadly lacking.  Furthermore, the Theatrical Trailer (1:23), TV Spot (0:31), a Photo Gallery (60 in total) and a Reversible Cover Art featuring the original 1-sheet artwork conclude the supplemental package.

    In what appears to be their last Craven related release and classily dedicated to his memory, Scream Factory welcomes The Serpent and the Rainbow’s unsettling levels of voodoo terror and nightmarish imagery into their respected line of Collector’s Editions.  Casting a superior looking curse with its Blu-ray debut, special features, although understandably lighter than past Craven efforts, deliver worthwhile information that fans of this cult classic will surely appreciate.  Hosting another stellar art design by Joel Robinson (Nightbreed, The Vincent Price Collections), The Serpent and the Rainbow will possess you with its frightening twists and turns.

    RATING: 3.5/5

    Available now from Scream Factory, The Serpent and the Rainbow can be purchased via ShoutFactory.com, Amazon.com and other fine retailers.