Anton Bitel provides a look at six titles heading to streaming and physical media releases this month that you should add to the top of your viewing list.
In 1816, England’s most famous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Julian Sands), his lover Mary Godwin (Natasha Richardson) and her stepsister Claire Clairmont (Myriam Cyr) visited the self-exiled Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne) and his biographer Dr John Polidori (Timothy Spall) at Villa Diodati in Geneva – and from this meeting would emerge Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein and Polidori’s 1819 short story The Vampyre.
Ken Russell and his screenwriter Stephen Volk reimagine these events as a hallucinatory psychodrama of the creative process. With Byron playing devilish, omnisexual master of ceremonies, the five – all under the heady influence of laudanum – engage in childish games and regressive rituals, “beckoning the spark of creation” for a storytelling contest. In a castle full of gothic props – cobwebs, skulls, suits of armour, automata, mirrors, a mask, a goat and a snake – traumas are triggered, nightmares come to life, there are visions of future doom and a tripping, terrified Mary will be galvanised into merging her past grief and present panic into a story of monstrous rebirth.
Russell’s exuberant style is perfectly suited to a libertine story which finds entirely visual means for showing the complex, often grotesque workings of an author’s imagination. It is a reflexive orgy of future horrors.
Gothic is released on Blu-ray, 18 September via BFI
“I definitely need something new,” Valley girl Julie Richman (Deborah Richman) tells her female friends as she contemplates dumping her long-term, locally enviable boyfriend Tommy (Michael Bowen) whom she is starting rightly to recognise as a ‘total pukoid’. To replace him, Julie has another San Fernando Valley bratboy lined up, but then ‘trippindicular’ Hollywood punk Randy (Nicolas Cage, in his first starring rôle) comes crashing into a Valley party and into her life – and the rather naïve Julie will have to decide between popularity among her peers, or embracing difference in pursuit of love.
Self-consciously modelled on Romeo and Juliet (a neon sign for which is visible at one point on a Sherman Oaks theatre marquee), Martha Coolidge’s feature offers all the dilemmas and transgressions of a coming-of-age romance. As Julie takes her walk on the wild side – the ‘real world’ of central Los Angeles from which the Valley has sheltered her – we are also getting a time-capsule view of two different subcultures (three if you count Julie’s ageing hippie parents, played by Colleen Camp and Frederic Forrest) as well as a whistle-stop tour of LA hangouts from the early Eighties. Great soundtrack, too.
Valley Girl is released on Blu-ray, 18 September via Eureka!
While robbing the home of a restorer of religious art, brutish Ismael (Karra Elejalde) is distracted by a painting of a mother and child with the canvas between them slashed, and when the restorer interrupts him, he shoots her dead, and her young daughter too. Many years later, Ismael is unreformed – abusive to his girlfriend Maite (Lio), and murderous to others – but when he spots the little girl Leire (Ana Alvarez), alive as though resurrected and all grown up, but mute and childlike owing to her head injury, he is not sure whether he wants to murder, fuck or parent her.
Juanma Bajo Ulloa’s second feature is a baroque melodrama about more than one broken family. Classically crafted and at times near Hitchcockian in its suspense, the film catches us between a rock and a hard place, in this case a man who seems utterly irredeemable, and a young woman so affectless and unresponsive (except to blood or chocolate) that any characterisation can be projected onto her. Ismael keeps promising to kill Leire, but something keeps stopping him – and so this violent devil will also, paradoxically, end up an iconic, stigmatised Jesus, whose damage is in need of restoration.
The Dead Mother is released on Blu-ray, 18 September, via Radiance Films
Byron Orlok is an old-school horror icon so plainly modelled on Boris Karloff (who plays him) that excerpts from an actual Karloff film (Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code, 1930) are here expressly used as part of his own filmography. As Byron contemplates retiring from acting, young director Sammy (Peter Bogdanovich) tries to persuade him that there is still a place for him in modern cinema. Meanwhile, family man Bobby (Tim O’Kelly) goes on a shooting spree that will end at a drive-in presentation of Byron’s latest movie.
“My horror isn’t horror anymore,” Byron tells Sammy, offering as contrast a newspaper article about a supermarket massacre. Coming out in the same year when Rosemary’s Baby and Night of the Living Dead would usher in a new age of horror, Bogdanovich’s sophisticated, meta cinematic feature debut brings into confrontation Karloff’s era of castle gothic (which Byron complains is now viewed only as ‘high camp’) and a more contemporary, ripped-from-the-headlines realism that is finding its way into the genre, and into films like this one. Itself loosely drawn from the recent University of Texas Tower Shooting, this is a sly, serious examination of the violent intersection between different horrors, fanciful or real.
Targets is released on Blu-ray, 25 September via BFI
“The past is never really the past, it stays with me all the time,” says Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, also directing for his first time). It is not just that his long-dead mother lives rent-free in his head while being literally mummified in the old gothic house behind the rundown motel that he manages, but also that his latest guest, Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid), shares both her appearance and initials with Marion Crane, whom Norman both fancied and murdered 22 years earlier. Meanwhile journalist Tracy Venable is digging for missing local woman Emma Pool (from Richard Franklin’s Psycho II), while grifting musician Duane Duke (Jeff Fahey) is looking for any money-making angle.
Maureen has her own internal conflicts, as a novice nun forced from her religious order after her doubts and desires led to the death of her Mother Superior. Where Norman imagines Mother is still alive and still murderously jealous, Maureen has a vision of her dragged-up would-be killer as the Holy Virgin – and so these two, both torn between lust and guilt, both with respective mother issues, seem oddly compatible. Yet this knowing sequel, unable to free itself of its established serial tropes, is inevitably a tragic romance.
Psycho III is released on UHD and Blu-ray, 25 September, as part of Arrow’s Psycho Collection boxset
“It’s everything you ever wanted,”, says doctoral student Steve (Colm Hill), after laying out his plans for their next five years together. His younger girlfriend Frankie (Kelly Bastard) is not so sure – after all, Steve is controlling, and she still fancies old flame Jonah (co-writer Michael Mitton). Now, a third man has entered her life – an inchoate mannequin whose path of supernatural violence will help her determine what she really wants.
“Frankie, this is your dream”, Jonah says, inadvertently decoding the nightmarish illogic of this horror from director/co-writer Micheal Bafaro (also appearing as old expositor Viktor Malick). It certainly plays out like a surreal remix of horror motifs. “It follows,” Frankie says (twice) of the mannequin, unconsciously citing a major influence. For like the Annabelle doll, and especially like Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels, this inexorably murderous stalker is never seen moving, but radically changes position every time it is unwatched, as an uncanny antagonist of cinema itself.
Meanwhile, after Kelly’s friends are shown watching The Shining on television, Steve goes all Jack Torrance, talking to a barman who isn’t there and writing the same word over and over in his thesis. Still, as Frankie says, “Dreams can change.”
Don’t Look Away is released on digital, 25 September, via Central City Media
Published 15 Sep 2023
By Anton Bitel
Two Altman gems, a killer shark and an assassin-for-hire are among the best films hitting streaming and physical media this month.
By Anton Bitel
From Robert Eggers' warring wickies to a duel in Edo era Japan, we bring you six unmissable treats from the world of physical media and streaming.