Most home video releases are mass produced and marketed by faceless conglomerates interested only in separating you from your hard-earned cash. If you look closely though you’ll find smaller labels who love movies as much as you do and show it by delivering quality Blu-rays and DVDs of beloved films and cult classics, often loaded with special features, new transfers, and more. But yes, they still want your cash too.
Top Shelf is our new bi-weekly look at these labels and the films they’re releasing. The movies won’t always be classics in the traditional sense and you may not even recognize the titles (or stars or directors), but somebody somewhere loves them which is enough of a reason for us to shine a light their way.
This week we’re taking a look at two new releases from the UK’s Arrow Video. They’re the sleazier, more entertaining brother of Arrow Academy, and while they predominantly focus on resurrecting horror films like Squirm, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and anything Dario Argento has ever pointed his camera towards, they also dabble outside the genre with releases like The Last American Virgin.
Horror is their bread and butter though, so horror is where we’ll start. Two of Arrow’s releases this month are considered classics from acclaimed directors Philip Kaufman and Wes Craven, but while they both have their fans only one of the films still holds up today.
Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Wispy pods float and tumble across an alien surface before launching themselves into the atmosphere on a journey towards a blue dot in the vast distance. Earth receives these seemingly fragile invaders with a whimper, but as rains fall tiny tendrils appear on plants before giving rise to small, strange flowers. Soon people are acting unlike themselves and those who suspect something is amiss are labeled as paranoid or overly stressed. Certainly it’s nothing a little sleep in a dark place wouldn’t help, right? A small group of friends and acquaintances (including Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, and Veronica Cartwright) find themselves on the run in San Francisco as the world they once knew changes ever so slightly before their eyes.
Whenever someone starts spouting on about how remakes are guaranteed to suck you should immediately remind them of three films. John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (If they counter that these movies are actually new adaptations of the original source material as opposed to true remakes, just go ahead and cut your losses and walk away. Your friend sounds like an ass.)
Jack Finney’s novel, The Body Snatchers, was first adapted in the 1956 genre staple starring Kevin McCarthy (who returns in a cameo here), but Kaufman’s 1978 update matches it beat for quality beat while managing to up the horror factor. There are some legitimate thrills here thanks to a quartet of strong lead performances, a creeping menace that oozes throughout the film, and the most disturbing appearance of a dog ever. Seriously, it’s the stuff of nightmares. Add in one of the best screamers in the business (Cartwright), Leonard Nimoy as the surprisingly skeptical host of In Search Of, and an ending that still, after dozens of viewings, manages to send chills down my spine and you have a movie that’s not only a great remake but one that’s also a great film, period.
Arrow brings the film to Blu-ray with a fairly gorgeous HD transfer that highlights the detail while still allowing a minimal amount of grain. Some of that clarity falls a bit during the handful of really dark scenes, but it’s far from a distraction or a negative. The audio was in need of no improvements, and none have been made aside from the restoration of an audio snippet during the taxi cab ride.
Arrow’s release includes reversible cover-art and a booklet featuring David Cairns, Philip Kaufman, and W.D. Richter. The disc itself features a commentary track with Kaufman, an original trailer and the following special features.
- Discussing the Pod: A new panel conversation about Invasion of the Body Snatchers and invasion cinema featuring critic Kim Newman and filmmakers Ben Wheatley and Norman J. Warren [51:53] ‐ This is an odd trio, but they keep a lively discussion going on the film and genre at hand.
- Dissecting the Pod: A Conversation with Annette Insdorf [17:24] ‐ Insdorf is a professor and Kaufman biographer, and she discusses the director, this film, and how he’s worthy of study regardless of not being an auteur.
- Pod Novel: A new interview with Jack Seabrook, author of “Stealing through Time: On the Writings of Jack Finney” about Finney’s original novel ‘The Body Snatchers’ [11:15]
- Re-Visitors from Outer Space: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pod ‐ a documentary on the making of the film featuring Philip Kaufman, Donald Sutherland, writer W.D. Richter and more [16:14] ‐ The story’s themes are discussed along with recollections on the film’s production.
- The Man Behind the Scream: The Sound Effects Pod ‐ a look at the film’s pioneering sound effects [12:47]
- The Invasion Will Be Televised: The Cinematography Pod ‐ cinematographer Michael Chapman (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) discusses the look of and influences on the visual style of the film [5:24]
- Practical Magic: The Special Effect Pod ‐ A look at the creation of the special effects from the opening space sequence [4:38] ‐ Not a lot to this segment, but it’s interesting hearing how they achieved the opening sequence with minimal budget and time.
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Wes Craven’s The People Under the Stairs (1991)
Fool isn’t even a teenager yet, but the hardships of life are already trying to beat him down. Poverty and health issues lead the boy to join two adults intent on robbing the landlord who has turned their homes into a rotting ghetto, but they find more than valuables in the creepy couple’s fortress-like home. There’s a captive girl upstairs, a bevy of mute men with dietary restrictions in the basement, and several floors of S&M gear, dog teeth, and racist crackers in between.
But don’t worry about little Fool. This is a comedy!
Wes Craven’s early ’90s film has its fans and it starts with one of his creepier setups, but it’s not long before the tone starts making jarring moves towards the comedic. This would be fine if they landed, but Craven’s script neglects to make his comedy funny. Slapstick and other tone-deaf gags jockey for screen time with some fairly horrific implications including murder, cannibalism, and sex abuse, and the result is a movie that just doesn’t work for very long at all. The movie grows dumber the more it tries for laughs until we’re left with what amounts to Home Alone meets The Last House on the Left (only not nearly as good as that sounds). And that ending. Woof.
This is a shame for many reasons, but there are still some bright spots to be found. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie ( both Twin Peaks veterans) are fantastic as the twisted couple, and both Ving Rhames and A.J. Langer stand out in early roles. There’s also some interesting and fun social commentary here that, while far from subtle, displays an interest beyond simple thrills.
Arrow’s new Blu-ray looks better than past DVD releases, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for it looking all that great. It’s an older film, but it still doesn’t pop as well as the even older film above does. The release also includes a booklet and reversible cover-art, and the disc itself features a commentary track, original trailer, and additional special features below.
- Commentary with Brandon Adams and moderator Calum Waddell
- Fear, Freud and Class Warfare: Wes Craven Discusses The People Under the Stairs [24:38] ‐ Craven discusses the real life news story that first gave him the story idea as well as his preference for playing with expectations of who the good and bad characters really are.
- Behind Closed Doors: Leading Lady A.J. Langer Remembers The People Under the Stairs [13:38] ‐ Langer talks about showing the film to her husband who had apparently never seen any of her work. This seems odd.
- Silent But Deadly: Sean Whalen Remembers Roach [14:00] ‐ Whalen recalls auditioning for what would become his first feature before discussing the experience of having fun on the film while being simultaneously grossed out and scared.
- Underneath the Floorboards: Jeffrey Reddick on the Lasting Impact of The People Under the Stairs [9:05] ‐ Reddick, who created the Final Destination series (apparently), talks about his love of the film and Craven as well as their contributions to the genre.