Johnnie To’s The Heroic Trio/Executioners (1993): Criterion Blu-ray review

Flights of martial arts fantasy in Johnnie To & Ching Siu-Tung's Executioners (1993)

Before attaining international critical success with a series of cool, formally precise thrillers, Johnnie To made a pair of wildly inventive superhero movies fraught with anxiety about the approaching hand over of Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997. The Heroic Trio and Executioners (both 1993) mix fantasy, science fiction, traditional martial arts and modern action into a potent dystopian stew centred on three of Hong Kong’s biggest female stars – Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh and Maggie Cheung. Criterion’s three-disk dual-formal edition showcases stunning restorations by L’Immagine Ritrovata.

Lost films and alternative histories

A cultured ape (Zain Rahnat) teaches life lessons in Donn Greer's The Rare Blue Apes of Cannibal Isle (1975)

Film restoration is usually seen as an effort to preserve the canon, but there are vast areas of film history which may be less reputable, but still represent significant aspects of the past century’s most popular art form. In their recent six-disk, ten-movie set Lost Picture Show, Vinegar Syndrome highlight their own efforts to unearth and give new life to cheap, obscure, frequently disreputable examples of movies made far from the mainstream – sex. violence, politics and an occasional talking animal are on display in this ragged, sometimes enlightening, sometimes frustrating collection.

Movies and reality intersect in two recent releases

The sociologist (Flavio Bucci) grasps the metaphysical mystery in Giuliano Montaldo's Closed Circuit (1978)

Our relationship to movies is complex; we know that we’re watching illusions, yet the intellectual and emotional responses we experience are very real. Movies give us access to a seemingly infinite range of experiences which take us out of out immediate lives. Two recent releases delve into this phenomenon in visceral ways — Giuliano Montaldo’s Closed Circuit (1978) addresses the metaphysics of movie watching with humour and suspense, while Charlie Victor Romeo (2013) provides disturbing access to an aspect of real life we might prefer not to think about: the moments during which flight crews try to deal with catastrophic technical failures immediately preceding air crashes.

Arrow’s Savage Guns: 4 Classic Westerns on Blu-ray

Sole survivor Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi) heads back into the wilderness in Lucio Fulci's The Four of the Apocalypse (1975)

Arrow’s third collection of spaghetti westerns, Savage Guns, brings together another four movies which display the range and flexibility of the genre, from Lucio Fulci’s elegiac and mystical The Four of the Apocalypse (1975) to Mario Camus’ veiled political criticisms of the Franco regime in Wrath of the Wind (1970) and Paolo Bianchini’s intersection of personal motives and historical events in I Want Him Dead (1968). Edoardo Mulargia’s El Puro (1969), about a drunken gunfighter forced back into action, is the most conventional of the four features.

The Criminal Acts of Tod Slaughter on Blu-ray from Indicator

James Dalton, the Tiger (Tod Slaughter) becomes desperate at the end of George King's The Ticket of Leave Man (1937)

Indicator closed 2023 with one of their finest offerings yet – a four-disk, eight film box set of blood-and-thunder melodramas produced, and mostly directed, by George King and starring the inimitable Tod Slaughter as a roster of heinous villains portrayed with gleeful enthusiasm by an actor who devoted his long career to preserving an art form incubated on Victorian stages and largely fallen out of favour by the time these films preserved it with such relish. With striking restorations, mostly from original nitrate negatives, supplemented with commentaries, interviews and Slaughter-related ephemera, this is definitely the highlight of the past year.

Monsters, killers and existential dread on Blu-ray

Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) herself is drawn towards the flames in Youssef Chebbi’s Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation (2022)

Recent releases cover a range of horrors, from a 4K restoration of the classic Canadian working class slasher My Bloody Valentine (1981) to a 4K restoration of Stephen King’s mad dog tale Cujo (1983) to a pair of low-budget ’70s monsters – Creature From Black Lake (1976) and Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973) to Ashkal (2022), a haunting Tunisian police procedural with supernatural overtones, and World of Giants (1959), an obscure, short-lived TV series about a six-inch tall secret agent.

Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961): Criterion Blu-ray review

Documentary background detail in Allen Baron's Blast of Silence (1961)

Shot on a small budget, first-time writer-director-actor Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence (1961) is a taut film noir about an out-of-town hit man beginning to question his career as he closes in on his target in New York a few days before Christmas. Striking documentary images of the city, presented on Criterion’s Blu-ray from a new 4K scan, serve as background for the killer’s existential doubts.

Crime and Horror from Radiance

Cynthia (Barbara Steele) descends into the cellars in search of answers in Riccardo Freda's The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962)

A sampling of releases from new U.K. label Radiance covers a range of favourite genres from the 1960s and ’70s – from classic Japanese yakuza film Big Time Gambling Boss (Kôsaku Yamashita, 1968), to the American indie horror Messiah of Evil (Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz, 1973); from the Swedish police procedural Man on the Roof (Bo Widerberg, 1976) to a pair of Italian Gothic horrors separated by a decade, the perverse The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (Riccardo Freda, 1962) and The Night of the Devils (Giorgio Ferroni, 1972), a contemporary retelling of the final story from Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (1963); topped off with a revisit to Gordon Hessler’s Scream and Scream Again (1970), which seems to get better every time I see it. All of them come with excellent presentations and a wealth of extras, including commentaries, documentaries, interviews and visual essays.

Blasts from the past

Harry Dean Stanton’s swansong: Lucky (2017)

Clive Rees’ The Blockhouse (1973) and other recent Indicator releases

DVD Review: The Disco Exorcist (2011)

A post-Covid 3D evening

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