Film and Television Features

Home Cinema – February 2015

In this monthly column we look at the newest releases in home cinema Blu-Ray and DVD, with a particular focus on the best of cult and classic cinema. There’s plenty of variety in this month’s picks, as we take a look at vintage 1930’s Hitchcock, an elusive documentary masterpiece, and an unsettling 1970’s horror.

Pictures of the Old World (DVD, Second Run)

The great film critic and historian Mark Cousins wrote a short but thoughtful piece last year on the predictability of the documentary film canon. Most lists you encounter of the ‘greatest ever films’ typically draw from a shallow pool of repetitive greats, and this goes double for documentary, long considered by many to be a secondary sibling to fiction film. Cousins was absolutely right to call for the world’s non-fiction cinema to be explored more thoroughly, and even backed himself up with a list of underappreciated and largely unknown documentary filmmakers just waiting to be seen. The difficulty on being confronted with such a list however, is figuring out how exactly you’d ever find and see these films. Pictures of the Old World has long been one such documentary for me; an elusive and hard to find Slovakian film with a weighty reputation as one of the greats of the non-fiction form. Thanks then to Second Run, who recently gave the film a UK DVD release as part of their continuing efforts to uncover the little known highlights of Slovakian cinema.

Taking as its starting point a series of images by photographer Martin Martincek, Pictures of the Old World is a visual essay of sorts on the elderly and forgotten outsiders of Eastern Europe. The political utopias promised to these people seem to have amounted to nothing, and they find themselves living much the same simple, poverty-stricken existence that they’ve done for decades. It’s a life characterised by hardship and determination, which can be seen in every tactile close up of their weathered faces. One of the film’s most striking examples comes in a form of a disabled man we meet who, with no access to a wheelchair, has spent much of his adult life crawling across the ground. He seems to regard being unable to walk as little more than a minor irritation however, and hasn’t let it stop him from constructing an entire house. The success of a documentary is very often determined by the real life ‘characters’ its able to find and present us with, and Pictures of the Old World boasts an almost embarrassing wealth of fascinating individuals.

Just as remarkable as the people on screen however is director Dusan Hanak’s innovative filmmaking style. Pictures of the Old World has the feel of an experimental collage: its unpredictable editing playing freely with associations and ideas. The film eschews lengthy interviews in favour of fragmentary snippets of sound and image, all complimented by some beautiful use of music. The unexpected juxtapositions this creates can be funny as often as they’re moving, but they always feel intensely humane. It’s wonderful that you can still encounter films such as this that still feel somehow surprising and new despite being 43 years old. Sadly this enthusiasm was not shared by the authorities of the time, who prohibited the film from being released until after the fall of the Communist regime. The film’s reputation has steadily risen ever since and it’s easy to see why; Pictures of the Old World is a treasure.

This Second Run release is joined by a duo of rare short films by Hanak, as well as a booklet that offers some insightful analysis of the man’s work. Mass records the rituals of a religious ceremony with the same wonderful eye for detail seen in the main feature. Of the two films though, Old Shatterhand Came to Us, is the most striking. Its topic is everyday Slovakian street life on a cultural collision course with Western tourism, which Hanak again presents as an almost dizzying audio-visual collage. What leaps out immediately here is the director’s mischievous sense of humour, which slyly undercuts the utopian politics of the time. Thus, we get Socialist motivational working songs played over the top of footage of slumbering workers. As a trio of films they immediately mark Hanak out as filmmaker worth delving into further, and I hope this won’t be the last of his work we see released by Second Run.


The Lady Vanishes (Blu-Ray, Network)

When discussing the peaks of Hitchcock’s (frankly ridiculous) filmography, it tends to be his slick Hollywood productions that receive most recognition, and in particular his astonishing 9 film run between 1954’s Rear Window and 1963’s The Birds. What’s really remarkable about Hitchcock’s work though is just how many impressive films can be found spread right across his 53-year career. Thankfully we’ve seen numerous reappraisals of other eras Hitchcock’s work over the last decade, and organisations like the BFI have been keen to highlight just how exceptional many of his earlier British films really were. Far from being simply the precursors to his later Hollywood peak, many of these films were confident works in their own right showing all the technique and personality we’ve come to expect from the master of suspense. Two of the very finest films from Hitchcock’s 1930’s British period, The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps (also a film very much deserving the accolades it often receives), were released by Network last month as part of their series of high-definition British classics.

The Lady Vanishes is built upon a simple, but fantastic premise. Iris (Margaret Lockwood), is a young tourist enjoying one last burst of independence before she succumbs to the mundanity of life as a 1930s housewife. During a train ride across the mountains of a fictitious European nation she meets an elderly governess (Dame May Whitty), and the two form a bond. However, when Iris returns to her cabin to continue their conversation she discovers that the elderly lady has vanished, and been replaced by a stern faced imposter. The rest of the passengers in the carriage, growing increasingly hostile by the minute, all explain to Iris that this was always the case, and that the elderly lady never existed. Even the receipts from the dining car seem to suggest that the elderly lady was a fictitious creation, possibly the result of a bump Iris received to the head hours earlier. As everyone around her does their best to convince her she’s having some sort of psychotic breakdown, Iris can’t quite shake the feeling that something altogether more sinister is occurring.

While you could easily imagine this premise working just as effectively as the beginning of a shadowy paranoid nightmare, Hitchcock’s approach here is light and breezy. The Lady Vanishes is the murder mystery imagined as a playful escapade. It’s an approach that shares more in common with the likes of North by Northwest than Psycho; more ‘fun’ than Frenzy. It’s also an approach that succeeds brilliantly, thanks heavily to some witty dialogue and the chemistry between the central performers. Iris’ partner in the investigation is cocky musician Gilbert (Michael Redgrave), initially described by Iris as ‘the most contemptible person I’ve ever met in all my life’ (admittedly he is quite irritating). The pair’s snappy back and forth exchanges and antagonistic relationship form a large part of what makes the film so enjoyable. Though The Lady Vanishes’ tone is more overtly comedic than many of Hitchcock’s thrillers, this isn’t to say it’s lacking in his trademark ‘Hitchcockian’ suspense. The director would go onto do wonderful things with confined spaces in films such as Lifeboat, Rope and Rear Window, and we can perhaps see the beginnings of that in The Lady Vanishes, where the film’s initially pleasant train carriage setting increasingly feels like a trap for all involved.

Perhaps most interestingly though, The Lady Vanishes also succeeds as a commentary on the troubled politics of its era. The film was released in 1938, only a year before the fighting of WWII broke out, and Hitchcock clearly intended the film to serve as a critique of the passive and cautious attitudes held by many of his fellow Brits. As it becomes increasingly clear that sinister Fascist agents are everywhere on the train and that an elderly woman’s life may be in danger, most of the British travellers remain more concerned with keeping out of trouble and getting home in time for the cricket match. Such political commentary could easily smother the film’s otherwise playful tone, but thankfully here it enriches it. The Lady Vanishes is classic British Hitchcock, and an irresistibly charming adventure.


The Other (Blu-Ray & DVD, Eureka)

Much of the unease felt in the beginning of Robert Mulligan’s 1972 horror The Other comes not from traditional horror imagery, but from the idyllic pleasantness of its family farm setting. Its 1935, and we’re in an almost sickly-sweet world of hay barns and kindly rural neighbours, all illuminated by the warm tones of a drowsy summer heat. The film spends a long time instilling its setting with a sunny, upbeat ambience, which only serves to put you on edge as you wait for the inevitable cracks to appear. And appear they do. First, it’s the constant presence of death and misfortune hanging over everything, as farm accidents become an increasing regularity. Bit by bit The Other’s pleasant Americana surface chips away to reveal something horrifying underneath.

We witness all of this through the eyes of a child, Niles (Chris Uddvarnoky), who sees his farmland playgroup morph into an altogether darker place. Niles is the epitome of an All-American kid; all ‘gee whiz’ gusto and wide eyed over-enthusiasm. There’s also a manic glint in his eyes though, which makes his interactions with other characters feel a little uncomfortable, and foreshadows events to come. Niles’ playmate is his twin brother, Holland, a mean spirited and cruel reflection of Niles. The two get into trouble across the farm, with Niles typically taking the blame for Holland’s actions. This is understandable though - as far as most of the farm inhabitants are aware Holland died months ago.

The Other’s opening can occasionally feel a little laborious but the reasons for this become clear once the film reaches its climax, which delivers something entirely more unpleasant. Even in a film such as this where the twists are admittedly easy to predict, the darkness of The Other’s closing scenes come as something of a shock. Throughout this the film does an excellent job of keeping supernatural and psychological horror in balance, with neither side ever completely dominating or becoming the definitive explanation for events.

The film’s cinematography was shot by the excellent Robert Surtees (The Last Picture Show, The Graduate, The Bad and the Beautiful), whose use of colour here sadly falls victim to the washed out tones of many films of its era. Also very much showing the film’s age is the cinematography’s over-reliance (and sometimes irritating overuse) of zooms. Despite this, this Blu-Ray release frequently looks fantastic, with textures in the film’s extreme close ups looking particularly great. Also notable is the cinematography’s ever present sense of claustrophobia. What should be a film of wide open spaces and farmland fields is instead shot mostly as a series of confined close ups, which does an enormous amount to contribute to the film’s feeling of psychological unease. The Other is an unusual but welcome release from Eureka, and comes recommended for any fans of 1970’s horror.