Still More Cult TV on DVD
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kids, it's tee-vee time once again at The
Bottom Shelf! Time to put aside those movie DVDs, cozy up
to the cathode ray and use your television for its original purpose:
watching hours and hours of episodic TV programming. And since most
definitions of cult TV include a heaping helping of sci-fi, fantasy
and horror, what say we concentrate on those genres this time out?
Why, that's a swell idea. Let's kick things off with the show that
redefined science fiction TV back in the 1990s...
X-Files - Black Oil: Four-Disc Mythology Collection
1995-97 (2005) - 20th Century Fox
As you are no doubt already aware, The
X-Files Mythology Collections are Fox's attempt to
repackage one of their most popular TV properties in smaller,
more affordable chunks than their already released complete
season sets. Black Oil is
the second bite-size collection, following Abduction
and preceding Colonization
and Super-Soldiers. Any
X-Phile worth his or her salt already knows the significance of
the title but for those not in the know, the Black Oil is a
viscous, conductive goop that allows the alien lifeforms to jump
from body to body, turning into a nasty looking, leech-like
thing that flows into the body via the nearest open orifice.
It's creepy when it enters a body but it's downright disgusting
when it leaves.
Anyway, the idea behind these four-disc sets is to collect the
key episodes in The X-Files'
series-spanning mythology story arc. It forms the backbone of
the story, from the childhood abduction of Mulder's sister to
the sinister conspiracy that runs the project. Black
Oil begins in the third season and goes up through
the first two episodes of season five. For the record, the
line-up includes Nisei,
and Talitha Cumi from
season three, Herrenvolk,
Memento Mori, Tempus
Zero-Sum, and Gethsemane
from season four and the two-part season five opener, Redux
and Redux II.
episodes include many key elements of the mythology and cover some
of the arc's finest moments. Scully is diagnosed with cancer as a
result of removing the microchip she found implanted in her neck
following her abduction. Mulder's mom has a stroke and we learn that
the ties between his family and the Cigarette Smoking Man run far
deeper than he suspected. We discover that the aliens have a healing
power and that not all of them are bad guys. And we're introduced to
those damn bees that carry the small pox virus in their stingers.
Speaking as a life-long apiphobe, I always hated those fuckin' bees.
These are some of my favorite episodes of The
X-Files mythology. Not so much for the important story
points they hit but for the little moments and character bits they
include. We get to see Mulder finally rip that damn cigarette out of
the CSM's mouth and stick a gun in his face in Talitha
Cumi. Gillian Anderson gets some of her best moments as
she comes to terms with the tumor that will likely take her life.
Skinner gets more of a chance to stand out in these episodes,
particularly in Zero-Sum. And
if you're a fan of Alex Krycek (and who isn't?), you'll get a
sadistic pleasure in watching him go through all kinds of hell in
this set, especially in the two-parter Tunguska
I like the idea of collecting these episodes in one place if for no
other reason than it makes it much easier to figure out what the
hell was going on. The X-Files
mythology is extremely complex but it's not nearly as confusing as
it first seemed. When these episodes first aired, you had to keep
track of all these details over the course of months and years,
remembering who all these characters were and what they did. Even
when you watch them on DVD in the complete season sets, the arc is
interrupted by the various one-off episodes. With these sets, you
can put all the pieces together with relative ease. Think of these
collections as The X-Files Cliff Notes.
On the other hand, as much as I enjoyed this aspect of the series,
it wasn't what I liked the most about The
X-Files. My favorite episodes had nothing to do with the
mythology. These were episodes like the very funny Small
Potatoes or Home,
an episode so frightening that Fox aired it with more "viewer
discretion advised" warnings than I've seen before or since. So
as an introduction to the series, the Mythology
Collection does a good job presenting the big picture.
But if you've never seen the show before, you'll be missing a lot if
you stop here.
The episodes look and sound quite good, just as they did on the
season sets. The X-Files switched
from shooting in the traditional television ration of 1.33:1 to
widescreen in season five and both of those episodes are presented
with anamorphic enhancement. The set comes packaged in a pair of
slick slim cases that each hold two discs in a slipcover.
As for extras, there are a few bonuses on here that you won't find
on the season sets. In theory this will irritate fans who want it
all but in practice, you shouldn't feel like you're missing much if
you already have these episodes. Three of the episodes include new
audio commentaries by their directors: R.W. Goodwin on Talitha
Cumi, Rob Bowman on Memento
Mori, and Kim Manners on Max.
Manners comes off best with a relatively lively track that includes
the amusing revelation that the entire two-part epic came about
because the show's special effects guy thought it would be cool if
somebody got abducted from an airplane in mid-flight. Goodwin and
Bowman's tracks are less interesting, full of dead air and
The other new bonus is the featurette Threads
of the Mythology, featuring new interviews with creator
Chris Carter and other members of the crew. This is a decent enough
look at the episodes included here but for the most part, you're not
learning a whole lot that you didn't already know. It's a fine bonus
for the newbies but only the most obsessive fan will feel the need
to get this set just for this featurette. And who ever heard of an
obsessive X-Files fan?
Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C+
Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection
1999-2003 (2005) - 30th Century Fox
Speaking of re-packaged TV shows, Matt Groening's Futurama
has already been given the complete season treatment by Fox. But
in this case, this show is a prime candidate for a smaller,
bargain-priced compilation disc. In many ways, Futurama
never got a fair shake when it was on the air. When your first
show is The Simpsons, it
doesn't matter what you come up with next. It's simply not going
to live up to those expectations. This situation wasn't helped
when Fox bounced it around its Sunday schedule for awhile before
finally settling it into a timeslot where it was almost
guaranteed to be forgotten about and/or pre-empted by football.
It was there that Futurama
When it debuted, I watched Futurama
and enjoyed it but it didn't stick in my mind as appointment TV.
Consequently, I couldn't justify the expense of picking up any
of the complete season box sets. But the brilliantly-titled Monster
Robot Maniac Fun Collection is just exactly what the
doctor ordered. Four episodes hand-picked by Matt Groening and
crew as their personal favorites from the series, this set
serves as a great reminder of the heights Futurama
first episode, Hell Is Other Robots,
has Bender find robot religion and forswear his former life of
gambling, drinking and debauchery. It culminates with Bender in
Robot Hell, tortured by a Robot Devil voiced by Dan Castellaneta in
a big production number that's as good as, if not better than any
original song ever done by The Simpsons.
The next episode, Anthology of Interest I,
is a trio of imaginary tales spurred by Professor Farnsworth's
invention of the What-If machine. The best one features guest
appearances by Stephen Hawking, Nichelle Nichols, Dungeons
& Dragons creator Gary Gygax, and then Vice President
The third and possibly the funniest episode is the Emmy-winning Roswell
That Ends Well, in which the Planet Express team end up
going back in time to 1947. Dr. Zoidberg is captured by the military
and Fry ends up becoming his own grandpa in this one. Finally in
The Sting, Fry is killed
protecting Leela from a giant space bee. This is a surprisingly
sweet and sentimental episode, although it also boasts a surreal "Don't
Worry, Be Happy" production number so it ain't all treacle.
While I never thought Futurama
was as consistently hilarious as The
Simpsons in its prime, I also never thought it was a bad
show. At its best, Futurama
delivered some of the smartest and sharpest satire around. I also
appreciated how well it developed its future world environment of
New New York City circa the year 3000. It was very consistent in its
tone and not afraid of the science fiction elements of the series.
But perhaps the best thing Futurama
had going for it was its look. This may well be the best looking
animated series ever put on television. Its combination of 2-D and
3-D animation resulted in some lavish moments unlike anything we'd
seen before. This aspect of the show is captured beautifully on this
DVD. It looks gorgeous and you'll want to replay bits like Bender's
trip to Robot Hell over and over again. The sound is also very good,
even though it isn't in true 5.1 surround.
Extras on the disc include introductions to each episode as well as
the disc itself by Groening, exec producer David X. Cohen, and other
crew members and characters. The only other bonus is the full-length
animatic of Hell Is Other Robots
with an optional commentary by Groening, Cohen, animation producer
Claudia Katz, animator Rich Moore, and voice actors John DiMaggio
(Bender) and Billy West (Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg,
among others). It's a nice addition to the disc, including a few
scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor and the commentary is
both lively and interesting.
The Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection
is an ideal way to get reacquainted with Futurama.
Widely available at a very nice price, it delivers four of the most
memorable episodes of the series. And even though I'm a big fan of
complete season sets, I wouldn't mind at all if they released
another compilation like this. For me, Futurama
is best when taken in smaller doses. But having said that, I'm very
much looking forward to the direct-to-DVD Futurama
movie that Groening announced at last year's San Diego Comic-Con.
The movie should be out in 2007. Until then, bring on another Monster
Robot Maniac Fun Collection!
Program Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/C+
from the Crypt: The Complete First Season
1989 (2005) - Warner Bros.
In this era of The Sopranos,
Six Feet Under and Deadwood,
it's hard to remember that in 1989, HBO's most prestigious
original series was hosted by a cadaverous puppet. Co-produced
by such A-listers as Joel Silver, Richard Donner and Robert
Zemeckis, Tales from the Crypt
adapted stories from the original EC Comics of the 1950s,
brought to life with big-name talent both behind and in front of
the camera. The stories were spiced up with a bit of gore and
occasional nudity, in the tradition of HBO's previous attempt at
a horror anthology, The Hitchhiker.
But unlike that show, Crypt
never took itself too seriously. In fact, I'd say it's virtually
impossible for a show to take itself too seriously when its
hosted by the Crypt Keeper, that creepy, cackling corpse who
just oozed bad puns... not to mention other assorted ooze-ables.
Good Lord! Choke!
first season collected here was an abbreviated affair, lasting just
six episodes as HBO waited to see if there was really an audience
for this nonsense. It turned out there was and the show lasted for
several years, spinning off an animated series and a couple of
feature films in the process. Unlike a lot of shows that stumbled
through its first season and found their footing later on, Crypt
hit the ground running. The first season contains some of the
series' best moments. Not to say that the later episodes didn't
contain some gems but for the most part, Crypt's
finest moments came early on. And if you don't like the episodes in
season one, you'd might just as well check out early.
All six episodes are included on disc one of this two-disc set. My
favorites are the first and the last. Episode one, The
Man Who Was Death, stars William Sadler as an executioner
who loses his job when the state abolishes the death penalty. Walter
Hill directs this one with style as Sadler narrates directly to the
camera, bringing us along for the ride as he goes freelance with his
skills. The last episode is directed by Mary Lambert of Pet
Sematary fame. Collection
Completed stars M. Emmet Walsh as a retired salesman who
takes up taxidermy after his wife's many pets begin to drive him
crazy. This is a very funny episode with Walsh and Audrey Lindley
(Mrs. Roper from Three's Company)
making a great couple.
Other stand-outs include Robert Zemeckis' holiday classic And
All Through the House, with Larry Drake as a demented
Santa stalking a murderess in her house. Richard Donner's
contribution, Dig That Cat... He's Real
Gone, stars Joe Pantoliano as a guy who receives a cat's
nine lives and uses the ability as a carny performer. Tom Holland's
Lover Come Hack to Me is just
OK, with Amanda Plummer as a virginal honeymooner just married to a
guy who intends to kill her for her money. The worst episode of the
bunch is Only Sin Deep,
directed by Howard Deutch. Lea Thompson is the world's unlikeliest
hooker (at least until Julia Roberts became Pretty
Woman a year or so later) who sells her beauty for a
chance to seduce a millionaire.
While the episodes are all fairly entertaining, they don't look all
that great. They show their age a bit more than I expected, coming
across as overly dark and muddy here and there. The sound is better
than the picture but it isn't terrific. The memorable opening title
sequence with Danny Elfman's great theme music appears only once
when you first load up the disc. Purists might gripe about that but
it is a pretty long sequence and its absence makes watching all the
episodes in a row much more tolerable.
The set's two extras are located on the second disc. Tales
from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television is a 50
minute documentary that provides an excellent history of the rise
and fall of William M. Gaines' EC Comics. Interviews include
original EC alumni like Al Feldstein and Jack Davis as well as
filmmakers and authors influenced by the comics like John Carpenter
and R.L. Stine. The doc is less effective on the "to Television"
part of its title, devoting only a few minutes at the end to the
series itself. And a truly comprehensive documentary charting the
path of Tales from the Crypt
would have included at least a mention of the 1972 Amicus Films
version which is totally ignored here. But as a history of the comic
book, this is top-notch. Several notches beneath is the Crypt
Keeper's History of Season One. This is a goofy five
minute featurette that sums up the first disc with punny narration
by the Crypt Keeper, giving himself all the credit for coming up
with the show. If you're really interested in the making of the
series, you won't get any straight answers here.
Tales from the Crypt was never
particularly scary and I always wondered why it didn't attract
actual horror filmmakers like Carpenter or George Romero behind the
camera. But for what it was, Crypt
was good macabre fun. It wasn't really trying to scare the audience.
It was just an exercise for some very talented people to play in the
haunted house for awhile.
Program Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/B/B-
Space - Fallen Angels
Now that Showtime's Masters of Horror
series has one-upped HBO's Tales from the
Crypt in the horror anthology department by bringing such
horror masters as Dario Argento and John Carpenter to television,
it's time to bring this mid-90's precursor to DVD. Fallen
Angels attempted to do for film noir what Crypt
did for horror. The short-lived series adapted short stories by
genre masters like Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy with a wide
variety of directors. Episodes were helmed by such notable
filmmakers as Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Soderbergh. Also like
Angels gave A-list actors, including Tom Cruise, Tom
Hanks and Kiefer Sutherland, a chance to get their feet wet behind
the camera. Fallen Angels was
probably destined to live a short life, as the production design and
look of the episodes suggested that this was likely an expensive
little show to produce. Considering the talent involved, I'm
surprised this series has been all but forgotten. It's ripe for
rediscovery on DVD.
Finally, an update on my last Shelf Space
pick, The African Queen. Turns
out that the rights for this movie have docked at Paramount and
they're hard at work restoring it. But don't expect this job to go
quickly. The film's in bad shape and a lot of work needs to be done
before it can be released on DVD. But at least it hasn't been
forgotten and it isn't being rushed out in a lousy version that
would infuriate everybody. So be patient, African
Queen fans. Our ship will come in someday. And anyone who
loves this movie knows it'll be worth the wait.
Jahnke - Main Page