Sure, we all know Get Smart! is out on DVD in time for the holidays, and the Superman films (all of them, going back to 1948), and Mission Impossible: The Ultimate Missions Collection, sure, sure, as if you could miss the bleating sirens of studio publicity. But if gift-giving is to be judged, it is not merely by list-checking the familiar, but by unpredictability and inspiration. So here are current/recent DVD slam-bangs, plumbing relatively off-road cinematic territory, that may’ve fallen beneath your radar.
Hollywood’s Legends of Horror Collection (Warner). Running parallel to the great roar of Gothic spirit represented by the classic Universal horror cycle of the ’30s and ’40s, the frankly bizarre genre chillers emanating from Warner Brothers and MGM were unsurprising box-office also-rans. Today, their psychological creepiness has a distinctly toxic tone. This six-movie box begins with Doctor X (1932), a Michael Curtiz–directed pulp fiction shot in early, two-strip Technicolor, which here envelopes the action in an algaeic sea of queasy green. The risible non-sequel The Return of Doctor X (1939) notoriously features Humphrey Bogart as a fey, blood-drinking ghoul, while The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), a deliriously psychosexual “exotic” antique, has Boris Karloff as Sax Rohmer’s Chinese mastermind. Mad Love (1935) was the second version of The Hands of Orlac, a fetishistic melodrama with Peter Lorre jealously grafting a killer’s hands onto pianist Colin Clive’s stumps (Pauline Kael thought it a visual pre-echo of Citizen Kane). Finally, we have two late (for him) Tod Browning genre exercises, Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil Doll (1936). Five of the six films come with new genre-scholar commentaries, and all come with original trailers.
Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales (Criterion). Rohmer’s famous anti-romance cycle comes into its own when viewed as a single work, which is easier than ever with this all-inclusive Criterion box. My Night at Maud’s (1969) remains, to all eyes, the masterpiece in the middle — non-Rohmerians should begin with this snowy eclogue, pitting righteous piety against bohemian freedom in a Clermont-Ferrand bedroom warmed by a single vivacious woman (who is but is not, in Rohmer’s world, the hero’s best shot at happiness). The project’s tapestry — knitting itself together purely via pattern and theme — stretches from the utterly lovely short “The Bakery Girl of Monceau” (1962) to Love in the Afternoon (1972). The set is muscular with the right kinds of supps: five additional Rohmer shorts, ranging from 1951 to 1999; scores of interviews, old and new; a separate booklet of essays; and a volume of Rohmer’s original short stories, reissued by Penguin.
The Irving Klaw Classics (Cult Epics). For the nostalgic pornologer in your circle, this might be the ultimate reward of the digital age: a classily designed, four-disc compilation of the work of one Irving Klaw, known to those who know about these things as the mid-century’s greatest producer of 8mm stag reels. Four and a half hours of cheap ’50s hotel-room underwear vamping, with and without the legendary Bettie Page, broken up into helpful subcategories: the fetish films, the “dance” films, the “wrestling” films (all of which, it is claimed, were the first cultural expressions of those kinks in the US), and those featuring Page, curvaceous subgoddess of the Eisenhower-era bachelor party. Extras include actual nudity and terrific ’50s soundtracks.