The lasting pleasures of second-tier golden age Universal horror movies

Dr. Ernest Sovac (Boris Karloff) makes unethical decisions to further his research in Arthur Lubin's Black Friday (1940)

Three two-disk sets from Eureka provide an overview of Universal Studios’ horror movies from the mid-’30s to the early ’50s, in the period when the first wave of early sound horrors petered out and briefly flourished again as low-budget B-movies as the Depression gave way to World War Two. Karloff and Lugosi are joined by notable, if lesser, genre figures like Lionel Atwill and Rondo Hatton in a mix of science fiction and the supernatural, with gangsters and Gothic trappings spicing the mix.

Buddy Giovinazzo’s American Nightmares

Johann (Heino Ferch) and Rafaella (Ornella Muti) have had enough of their old friend Mickey (James Russo) in Buddy Giovinazzo's The Unscarred (2000)

Severin’s recent release of Buddy Giovinazzo’s fourth feature, The Unscarred (2000), on disk reconfirms this outsider as an intriguing auteur; a chamber piece in which the psychological games of four old friends grown increasingly darker is a taut, polished piece of work which sent me back to watch his raw first feature, Combat Shock (1986), again. As technically different as the two movies are, both reveal a filmmaker with a bleak view of the world tempered by a deep empathy for broken people.

Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers on Blu-ray from Criterion

Alonzo (Lon Chaney) realizes that his romantic feelings for Nanon (Joan Crawford) will never be returned in Tod Browning's The Unknown (1927)

Criterion’s two-disk Tod Browning’s Sideshow Shockers showcases three of the director’s best movies, including the peak of his long collaboration with Lon Chaney in The Unknown (1927) and Browning’s masterpiece Freaks (1932) along with the lesser-known The Mystic (1925). Fine 2K transfers and some illuminating extras leave you hoping that more of Tod Browning’s work will turn up on disk in restored versions.

Winter 2024 viewing, part three: Other labels

You don't have to be crazy to do this job, but it helps: Grant Page in Brian Trenchard-Smith's Stunt Rock (1978)

More recent viewing, with excellent restorations of classic fantasies by Arrow – Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968) and John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982); a pair of impressive German film school projects – Tilman Singer’s Luz (2018) and Lukas Feigelfeld’s Hagazussa (2017); a couple of entertaining Australian features which mix fiction and documentary in interesting ways – Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Stunt Rock (1978) and Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce’s Top Knot Detective (2017): and Shredder Orpheus (1990), a low-budget indie version of the Orpheus myth made by Seattle musicians and skateboarders.

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.

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.

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

Brief comments, part one

The National Film Board of Canada

Sophie Compton & Reuben Hamlyn’s Another Body (2023): deep-fake porn and stolen identity

DVD diary: another eclectic week – part one

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