The U.S. declared its independence from the United Kingdom in 1776, but let’s be real. Culturally, Americans never really strayed far from that womb. This side of the pond can still be fixated with anything imported from that side of the Pond. Doesn’t matter if it’s Diana Rigg in a cat suit or that man from the Ministry of Silly Walks, Brits know how to deliver entertainment, and there are any number of Yanks more than willing to pay top dollar for it.
This time we look at a bunch of DVDs with some essential tie-in to Great Britain, one way or another. Some might not be your cuppa, but overall you can’t deny there’s something you’ll probably want. Cheers!
HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER II/25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
When Clive Barker’s original Hellraiser was released, it not only redefined British horror, but the entire genre in total. Still, the rules of horror require that if the first film is a success, there absolutely must be a sequel. Fortunately for all, Barker and company did the truly extraordinary and made an even better film than the original.
A true sequel, the Hellbound picks up a short time after the auto de Fe of the first. This included the return of almost all of the original cast, including Doug Bradley (Pinhead), Ashley Laurence (Kirsty), Claire Higgens (Julia) and the rest of the Cenobites. One key casting addition is Kenneth Cranham as the chilling asylum director who would take on Pinhead, Dr. Crannard. His transformation from human to Cenobite is still one of the most memorable aspects of the movie.
More important, thanks in part to contributions from director Tony Randel and writer Peter Atkins, the Hellraiser universe is greatly expanded. Aktins transformed the Cenobites from boogie men with incredible fashion sense into creatures with some serious and deep, well, bite to them. As for Randel, even though the budget he got to work with was somewhat larger than the first movie—Bradley has an interesting story to say about the budget in the EC—he creates a hell that is the true realm of nightmares. Wrap these two facts together Barker’s overall supervision and you have one of the greatest horror movies of the century.
Finish it off with new extra content featuring pretty much everyone involved, and you have a very nice upgrade to the Hellraiser library. In other words, if horror is your pleasure, this monster delivers.
SHAUN THE SHEEP/Off the Baa! (Hit)
Is Aardman capable of doing anything wrong? They have been on a success streak that spans over a decade. Their latest TV series, Shaun The Sheep is further proof.
For those not familiar with the shrimpy Scottish Blackface was introduced in a Wallace & Gromit short, “A Close Shave.” The frisky farm animal became so popular, Aardman main men Nick Park and Peter Lord figured he deserved his own show.
This disk collects the first eight Shawn shorts, each one a gem. Aardman surrounded Shaun with a memorable cast of barnyard buds. This includes Shaun’s clueless Farmer, Gromit relation Bitzer, the too-adorable-for-his-own-good lamb Timmy and even more clueless Mum, the physics defying Shirley and those Naughty Pigs. Together they can turn a head of cabbage into the focus of a football match that cab match Glasgow’s Celtics versus Rangers, make ordering pizza or getting sheered an epic adventure. Most important, they will keep all members of a family entertained for hours upon hours.
The extra content includes a quick kids game, an overview of various characters and some peaks at future releases. Still, the reason you’ll want this set is this set is the first in what should be one excellent series. That’s all you really need.
and the rest…..
THE COMPLETE SECRET POLICEMAN’S BALL(S) (Shout! Factory) (3 DVDs)
Back in the late 70’s, Monty Python co-founder John Cleese was so convinced Amnesty International was worthy of his patronage he not only send them checks, he decided to do a benefit concert for them.
So Cleese gathered all his Flying Circus co-stars (except Eric Idle for some reason), the equally talented Beyond The Fringe and other British superstar comics for would become the Secret Policeman’s Ball. It was so successful Cleese turned it into a regular event, bringing in the likes of Rowan Atkinson, Laurie & Fry, French & Saunders, The Spitting Image puppets and Billy Connolly, just to name a few. Music also became involved. Among the legends were Pete Townsend, Jeff Beck, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour.
The first one was held in 1976, nine full years before such copycats as Live Aid and Comic Relief. In many ways, it’s still the best. The Ball continues to this day. When Cleese decided he had enough he passed the baton to Jennifer Saunders. It’s currently under the aegis of Eddie Izzard, and it still manages to make serious money for Amnesty.
This collection covers most of the Balls held in the 70s and 80s. The various acts, whether it’s Cleese and Palin doing a blistering brutal revision of their Dead Parrot skit to the Spits crucifying the Royals, what goes up on stage will literally leave you on the floor, absolutely breathless. The music’s equally fine, with the likes of Lou Reed and a duet between Beck and Eric Clapton being personal highlights. Extra content includes a 2004 documentary on the history of the Ball, and is worth seeing in and of itself.
Yet what gave the Balls their edge over other benefits is the insistence everything be done live, on a real theatrical stage. There’s something about such top flight comics blasting their best bits in front of a real people. Here’s to hoping someone does finally collect the rest of these fundraisers. Considering the quality of the five shows collected here, and who they benefit in the long run, they should all be in a comedy fan’s library.
DEATH RACE (Universal)
Put Brit action star Jason Statham and director Paul WS Anderson (Resident Evil, AVP) on a Roger Corman classic, and you should expect the very foundation of the film to be severely shaken, not stirred. In fact, the people who should be the most shook up are the fans of the trash racing classic.
Directed by the legendary Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul), and starring David Carradine and Sly Stallone, the 1975 version had young punks tearing out of the drive-ins, going turbo, screaming “points’ at terrified pedestrians. Carradine was Frankenstein and Stallone was Machine Gun Joe. In monstrously suped up speedsters they ran over anyone who was in their way. Ostensibly Frankie was the good guy.
In this “re-imagined” version by Anderson, Frankenstein, only voiced by Carradine, is killed by the new Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson). Enter Statham, who’s blackmailed into putting on the monster mask While Anderson made sure there is plenty of brutality and car crashes, he forgot the subversive humor that made Bartel’s version such a B-movie masterpiece.
What we have here is something dark, grim, gritty, pretentious and humorless, especially when compared to the source. The inclusion of an “unedited” version doesn’t make things any better. In other words, when compared to the Bartel edition, this remake blows a rod.
• Four To Doomsday
• The War Machine
Here are two more additions to the ever expanding Who library.
War Machine was the last series in the fourth season of this show. The year is 1966, and the UK is marveling over it’s recently constructed Postal Tower. Enter the First Doctor (William Hartnell), who’s about to return his current companion, Dodo Chaplett (Jackie Lane), to her home. Not to worry, two new companions, Polly (Anneke Wills) and Ben (Stephen Craze) will shortly make their debuts.
The 4-episode plot revolves around a supercomputer inside the Tower, WOTAN. Its scriptwriter must have read DF Jones book, Colossus, which was published that year, as the plot is just this short of plagiarism. Not the best way to end a season, but a serviceable story. The extra content has its points of interest, particularly about the Tower and what the BBC went through to restore this arc. It would have been interesting to add some stuff on the story, cast and/or crew movement, and other items regarding this one’s production. Still, it fills a spot in the collection.
Four To Doomsday was the second arc featuring the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison). Accompanied by Nyssa (Sarah Sutton), Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Adric (Matthew Waterhouse), he’s out to stop an alien set to strip the Earth the same way it did its home world. While Davison is still getting the role down, the deliciously mad performance of guest villain The Monarch (Stratford John) is well worth the viewing. This time the extra content features Davison appearing on a guest show just as he had started the role and some of early takes on this shoot. Again, not the best of the Who series, but it does fill another slot for us fanatics.
HORROR DOUBLE FEATURE
• It/The Shuttered Room
• Chamber of Horrors/The Brides of Fu Manchu
Back in the mid-60s, Hammer Films dominated the horror world with their wonderful B-movie goths. One of their distributors happened to be Warner Bros. Then WB-Seven Arts, the company thought if they could strike gold once, they could do it with other small British studios, thus the start of this collection. All these movies come from the late 60s.
It is one of the best of this lot. It starred Roddy McDowell as a museum curator named Pimm, who happens to have a few bugaboos from one of the star’s previous roles, Norman Bates. He discovers a statue in his care happens to be the legendary Golem of Prague, and uses it to cause even more murder and mayhem. While the acting isn’t bad, the pacing is horrendously slow. Pity, liked Hammer there’s some tremendous sets and even a decent script.
The Shuttered Room had some solid possibilities. It starred a very young Oliver Reed and B-movie legend Gig Young for starters. The story was based on a collaboration between August Derelith and HP Lovecraft. What we get though is the worst of Deliverance and a Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte. Seeing Young do karate chops has some unintended hilarity, but that’s it.
The second collection is superior, but not by much. Chamber of Horrors throws some Castle-inspired hijinx, and it has a very lavish Hammer-like sets. Otherwise, this potboiler about a one-hand axe murderer comes of about as good as pre-Barnabas Collins Dark Shadows. Kinda creepy, but never truly scary.
The pick of the litter though is Fu Manchu, but not for the horror elements. Starring Christopher Lee as the nefarious villain, it’s just a nice, juicy pulp with the right number of plot twists, purple acting and lurid sci-touches. Nice Saturday evening fare. Make sure to put enough butter on the popcorn.
MI-5/Series 6 (BBC) (DVDs)
There’s been talk about Kiefer Sutherland and the crew at 24 have been working over their show. That being the case, let’s hope they’re taking some notes from this auspicious UK spy series.
For this season, the counter-terrorist crew at Britain’s premier intelligence operation must contend with a train bomb, a military grade bubonic plague in both Tehran and London and at least a half-dozen assassinations before the first episode is through. From there, the casualties, mistakes and double crosses, particularly from Bagdad and DC, make this potboiler seriously addictive. Extra content has video diaries and interviews with present and soon-to-be past cast members.
So if Kiefer’s taking notes, then he’s cribbing from a great source.
SAXONDALE (BBC) (3 DVDS)
If you need any proof Steve Coogan is the next big comic to invade the U.S., look here.
Saxondale is a former roadie of the stars (like Jimmy Page) keeping English gardens free of rabbits, pigeons, and all other creepy crawlies that terrorize Britain’s suburbs. He’s aided and abetted by a former anarchist-gone-shop owner Magz (Ruth Jones) an imposing pile of womanhood who comes with an equally twisted sense of humor. His disciple and patsy is young Raymond (Rasmus Hardicker), who may not comprehend the words of wisdom Coogan dispenses, but sure is a perfect foil. Add the very important element of Saxondale/Coogan’s pride and joy, a proper Ford Mustang, replete with the driver’s side being on the left side of the vehicle, and you have a solid counterculture comedy.
Besides, the soundtrack includes dinosaurs like Focus, Jethro Tull and more. They’ve never sounded more appropriate, either. A true cult classic.
SIMON SHAMA’S AMERICA’S FUTURE: A HISTORY (BBC) (2 DVDs)
The Beeb just wouldn’t be the same without some resident historian on board. One could say this latest four-part documentary is proper 15-part sequel to his landmark A History of Britain.
Like his magnum opus, Schama is not afraid to confront the audience with personal political opinions. So, if you are offended by the election of Barack Obama, don’t pick this up. On the other hand, like the late great Alistair Cooke before him, Schama kicks over a couple of rocks most us natives wished were kept unturned. He puts his spotlight on items undeservedly kept in the dark (i.e. the positive as well as the negative points of American’s religious fervors, how racial bias worked against the Chinese and Mexican Americans, and more). At the same time, he points out the American way of eventually owning up to its faults, and overcoming them, with Obama as his central metaphor for why he’s now an American citizen.
So if you want a truly educated perspective of the U.S. of A. based on its real history, look no further. Schama is gives viewers plenty to think over.
THE SECRET DIARY OF A CALL GIRL (Lionsgate) (2 DVDs)
When this remake of the British series came out, a number of Doctor Who fans gave birth to kittens. The title character was their beloved good girl companion Rose Tyler. They never though the actress behind the role, Billie Piper, could play such a role, and convincingly at that.
This set collects the first season of the recently aired Showtime series. Piper is Belle, a high priced call girl who openly admits she’s lazy, likes money and loves sex. She also has as many issues as her colleagues and clients. Piper relishes of the role and it’s light years away from her job as a Companion to the Doctor.
As to the series itself? While Piper can be deliciously tart, one only wishes many of her co-stars were equally as tasty. One episode in particular, where she’s an escort to a high class sex party, truly was underwhelming. The show often substitutes Piper and friends riding each other as all they need to keep the audience’s attention. That might work for some, but plot and character development, which really doesn’t kick in to the second half, would be a nice thing, too. .
Then again, there are many who watch TV. For some, seeing any gorgeous woman running around au natural is all they need.
NEXT COLUMN: Got another ton of toons to lay on ya….