PICK OF THE WEEK
BLACK CHRISTMAS (Scream Factory/Shout! Factory): The original holiday horror classic, director Bob Clark’s award-winning 1974 shocker remains an enduring cult favorite, having inspired countless films (including Halloween and When a Stranger Calls) and been remade three times, each worse than the last. Yes, I often call this my favorite Christmas movie -- along with Die Hard (1988). True enough!
For the sisters at the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house, the holiday season is fatal rather than festive, as an unseen assailant has taken up “residence” and is making obscene phone calls – when he’s not on the prowl, killing the girls. It being the holidays, some believe they’ve simply gone home for Christmas break, but they’ve never left. The simple but effective narrative grows more focused and more intense, as Clark expertly tightens the screws. It’s a slasher film crossed with a whodunit, and the combination works.
First-timer Roy Moore’s screenplay is a cut above (no pun intended) because the characters have depth and dimension. Everyone’s in good form: Olivia Hussey as the terrified heroine, Keir Dullea as her troubled music-student boyfriend, John Saxon (who replaced Edmond O’Brien) as the local cop, Margot Kidder (one of her best performances), a pre-SCTV Andrea Martin, Lynne Griffin (in her feature debut), Art Hindle, and Marian Waldman as the alcoholic house mother, Mrs. Mac. Credible characters all.
When Warner Bros. acquired the film for U.S. distribution, it was retitled Silent Night, Evil Night because it was thought Black Christmas would be perceived as a blaxploitation movie (!). NBC aired it on primetime as Stranger in the House, but by any title this is a nifty, nasty little number that has lost none of its holiday “luster” over the years ... and watch out for that final, cold-blooded plot twist.
The “collector’s-edition” 4K Ultra HD combo ($39.98 retail) includes multiple audio commentaries, retrospective and vintage featurettes and interviews, theatrical trailers and TV spots, and more. Rated R. ***
AINBO: SPIRIT OF THE AMAZON (Shout! Kids Factory/Shout! Factory): Writer/producer Richard Claus and first-time story writer/producer Jose Zelada co-directed this award-winning animated feature set in South America, detailing the efforts of the title character (voiced by Lola Raie) to save her village and the Amazonian Rainforest from destruction, available on DVD ($19.98 retail), replete with bonus features.
“BETTER CALL SAUL”: SEASON SIX (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment): Producer Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as shifty attorney Jimmy McGill (AKA “Saul Goodman”) in this critically acclaimed spin-off of AMC's classic crime series Breaking Bad, created by executive producers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, set before the events of Breaking Bad. Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, Patrick Fabian, Michael Mando, Tony Dalton, and Giancarlo Esposito round out the regular cast. Nominated for seven Emmy Awards including Outstanding Drama Series, Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (Odenkirk), Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series (Seehorn), and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. All 13 episodes from the 2022 (and final) season are available on DVD ($35.99 retail) and Blu-ray ($45.99 retail), each boasting bonus features including audio commentaries, behind-the-scenes featurettes, gag reel, and more. Sony Pictures is also releasing the self-explanatory “Better Call Saul: The Complete Series” ($215.99 retail).
CAN’T BE STOPPED (Can’t Be Stopped Productions/MVD Entertainment Group): Cody Smith makes his feature debut as editor/producer/director of this documentary tracing the history of the “Can’t Be Stopped” crew, from its origins in the 1980s to its current status as the most influential graffiti crew in Hollywood, its inspiration and popularity spreading far beyond the boundaries of Tinseltown, available on Blu-ray ($24.95 retail).
CARRIE (Scream Factory/Shout! Factory): The “collector’s-edition” 4K Ultra HD bow ($39.98 retail) of Brian De Palma’s knockout, award-winning 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s best-selling novel, starring Sissy Spacek as the titular teenager, a withdrawn girl whose telekinetic abilities come to the fore when she is repeatedly bullied by her high-school classmates. This perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the time and the agonies of adolescence in equal measure, earning Oscar nominations for Spacek (as Best Actress) and Piper Laurie (as Best Supporting Actress), who ended a self-imposed 15-year retirement to unforgettably portray Carrie’s religious-fanatic mother. The surprise success of this film gave a big career boost to a lot of people, including De Palma, King, John Travolta, Nancy Allen, Amy Irving (in her feature debut), William Katt, P.J. Soles, and Betty Buckley (in her feature debut) – and it still holds up. Bonus features include audio commentary, retrospective interviews and featurettes, theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots, and more. Rated R. ***½
CASABLANCA BEATS (Kino Lorber): Screenwriter/producer/director Nabil Ayouch’s award-winning drama (originally titled Haut et fort) stars Anas Basbousi (in his feature debut) as former rapper who finds inspiration in teaching inner-city students in the titular town the art of hip-hop, which bonds them together and gives them a common goal. Loosely based on actual events, the film features many of the actual students from the cultural center where the film is set. In Arabic with English subtitles, available on DVD ($19.95 retail).
CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS (VCI Entertainment/MVD Entertainment Group): Before Black Christmas (see above), director Bob Clark – billed as “Benjamin Clark” – notched his first cult classic with this wildly uneven but undeniably entertaining low-budget 1972 chiller filmed in Florida, in which the members of an amateur – and very amateurish – theater company decide to raise a little hell on a remote island, only to unwittingly raise the dead. Campy, goofy and sometimes pretty scary, this has a crude energy all its own, and like Black Christmas the ending is twisted. Whenever this aired on late-night television when I was a kid – and it was a lot -- my schoolmates would inevitably ask me about it. Even then I was the resident movie expert. The 50th-anniversary “collector’s-edition” 4K Ultra HD combo ($39.95 retail) includes audio commentary, the documentary Dreaming of Death, Q&A sessions, music-video tributes, photo and poster gallery, and more. Rated PG. **½
CHRISTMAS IN PARADISE (LionsGate): Writer/producer/director Philippe Martinez’s PG-rated follow-up to his 2019 yuletide comedy Father Christmas is Back, reunites Elizabeth Hurley, Nathalie Cox, and Caroline Quenton as saucy siblings – named “Christmas,” no less – who pursue errant father Kelsey Grammer (also encoring) when he impetuously and unexpectedly jets to the Caribbean for the holidays. Another sequel, Christmas in the Caribbean, is currently in post-production. The DVD retails for $19.98, the Blu-ray for $21.99.
FREE PUPPIES! (First Run Features/Kino Lorber): First-timers Christina Thomas (co-producer/editor) and Samantha Wishman (producer/editor/writer) co-directed this sweet-natured but not sugary documentary feature that salutes those tireless workers in rural Georgia who attempt to treat (and in some cases save) stray dogs and broker their adoptions to loving families throughout the nation, available on DVD ($19.95 retail), replete with bonus features. ***
“MYSTERY ROAD: ORIGIN” (Acorn TV): This prequel to the award-winning Australian mystery series (based on the 2013 film) stars Mark Coles Smith as the young detective Jay Swan, newly assigned to the remote region of the Outback where he was raised, contending with both his estranged family and a rash of violent crimes, in all six episodes from the inaugural 2022 season, with Tuuli Narkle, Steve Bisley, Hayley McElhinney, Kelton Pell, and Daniel Henshall rounding out the regular cast, available on DVD ($39.99 retail), replete with behind-the-scenes featurette.
OLD FRIENDS, A DOGUMENTARY (What Were We Thinking Films/MVD Entertainment Group): Writer/producer/director Gorman Bechard’s documentary feature explores the Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary in Tennessee, founded by Zina and Michael Gooden to save older dogs that have been abused and/or abandoned, available on Blu-ray ($24.98 retail), replete with bonus features including Q&A sessions, behind-the-scenes featurettes, trailer, and more.
“REACHER”: SEASON ONE (Paramount Home Entertainment): Alan Ritchman steps into the (large) shoes of the titular hero Jack Reacher in all eight episodes from the inaugural 2022 season of the Amazon Studios action series created by executive producer Nick Santora and based on executive producer Lee Child’s best-selling series of novels, with Malcolm Goodwin, Willa Fitzgerald, Hugh Thompson, Chris Webster, and Bruce McGill rounding out the regular cast, available on DVD ($25.99 retail), Blu-ray ($33.99 retail), and 4K Ultra HD combo ($44.49 retail), each boasting bonus features.
SOUTH PARK: POST COVID (Comedy Central/Paramount Home Entertainment): Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s Emmy- and Peabody Award-wining Comedy Central animated juggernaut continues in this special two-part episode (“South Park: Post COVID” and “South Park: The Return of COVID), which aired on Paramount+, addressing – in its own irreverent fashion – how the COVID-19 pandemic affected South Park and its denizens, available on DVD ($13.99 retail) and Blu-ray ($17.99 retail).
“STAR TREK: DISCOVERY” – SEASON FOUR (CBS Home Entertainment/Paramount Home Entertainment): The immortal science-fiction franchise soars once more in all 13 episodes from the 2021-'22 season of the Emmy-winning, prime-time Paramount+ series created by executive producers Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtman, based (naturally) on Gene Roddenberry's original vision and set a decade before the events of the original series, featuring an ensemble cast including Sonequa Martin-Green, Doug Jones, Mary Wiseman, Anthony Rapp, Wilson Cruz, and David Ajala, available on DVD ($39.99 retail), Blu-ray ($43.99 retail), and limited-edition Blu-ray Steelbook ($49.99 retail), each boasting extensive bonus features.
THREE THOUSAND YEARS OF LONGING (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/United Artists Releasing/Warner Bros. Home Entertainment): Screenwriter/producer/director George Miller’s R-rated adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s short story The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye) pairs Tilda Swinton as an intrepid scientist and Idris Elba as the mystical “Djinn” who offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom … but there are strings attached, available on DVD ($29.98 retail), DVD/Blu-ray combo ($34.98 retail), and 4K Ultra HD combo ($34.99 retail).
(Copyright 2022, Mark Burger)