By Matt Singer and Alison Willmore
DVD box sets remain the go-to gift for any film fan in your life — they come in a range of sizes and prices, so that you can scale up or down depending on how much you like the recipient, and this time of year they’re often discounted for last-minute holiday shoppers (and those treating themselves to a present). Here are the new or revamped box sets from 2008 that we’ve been eyeing:
Mystery Science Theater 3000 20th Anniversary Edition
Shout Factory, $59.99
“Mystery Science Theater 3000″‘s inaugural release from Shout Factory (after many years and discs with Rhino Records) celebrates the show’s 20th anniversary with a spiffy box set featuring four never-released-to-DVD episodes: “Werewolf” (with the “great” Joe Estevez), “Future War,” “First Spaceship on Venus” and the long-awaited and highly coveted “Laserblast,” the final episode on Comedy Central. The set also includes an 80-minute documentary on the show’s MSTory, and footage from a panel from this summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, where the series’ various cast and creative teams assembled publicly for the first time in years (hosts Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson appear in public together about as often as Clark Kent and Superman). By my count, I already own 31 episodes of “Mystery Science Theater,” somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 hours of bad movie riffing, in various home entertainment formats — I’ve even got a couple on both VHS and DVD — but I’m still embarrassingly excited about this set, particularly the limited edition version that comes with a Crow T. Robot mini-bust.
Classic Sci-Fi Ultimate Collection 1 & 2
Universal Studios, $59.98
Universal Pictures created some of the most famous monsters to be seared onto celluloid and our collective movie memory — Chaney’s “Phantom of the Opera” and “Wolf Man,” Karloff’s “Frankenstein,” Lugosi’s “Dracula” — absolutely none of which appear on this ten-disc set of dreckier, campier and excellently entertaining selections harvested mainly from the studio’s ’50s B-movie library. Instead, you have giant insects springing from scientific experiments gone wrong (“Tarantula”) or glaciers melting (“The Deadly Mantis”); predatory females (Faith Domergue as a vengeful snake woman in “Cult of the Cobra,” Coleen Gray as an aging housewife harvesting pineal glands for youth in “The Leech Woman”); underground kingdoms of dinosaurs (“The Land Unknown”) or Sumerian albinos (“The Mole People”) and miniaturization both mysterious (“The Incredible Shrinking Man”) and intentional (“Dr. Cyclops”). And at the price, it’s a deal that can’t be beat — the glimpse of a strikingly young Clint Eastwood as an unnamed “Jet Squadron Leader” in “Tarantula” alone makes it worth your while.
10 Years of Rialto Pictures
Criterion Collection, $149.95
If you’ve got to buy a present for a teenager (or anyone, really) who’s starting to take an interest in classic arthouse cinema, you can’t go wrong with “10 Years of Rialto Pictures,” a streamlined ten-film set from the Criterion Collection commemorating the tin anniversary of the great repertory distributor founded in 1997 by Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein. You won’t get much in the way of extras, there are a few surprising omissions (“The Battle of Algiers,” for example) and the set can never recreate the fun of seeing these films in the Forum’s musty ambiance surrounded by rabid cinephiles. Nevertheless, it’s a great introduction to many of the giants of international filmmaking, from Buñuel (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”) to Bresson (“Au Hasard Balthazar”) to Godard (“Band of Outsiders”). Plus, if you’re trying to acquaint a skeptic with old movies, the lineup isn’t too heavy or highfalutin’, with choices that touch on film noir (Jules Dassin’s “Rififi”), thrillers (Carol Reed’s “The Third Man”) and dark comedy (Alberto Lattuada’s “Mafioso”).
Essential Art House: Vol. 1
Criterion Collection, $99.95
If the ten-discer above seems a little much, Criterion also has a lighter-weight six-disc box of selections from their Janus Films-fueled Essential Art House collection. “Vol. 1” is a bite-sized encapsulation of the hefty, covetable and, for most, utterly out of reach 50-film $850 “Essential Art House” bound-book set that came out two years ago to be drooled over by many a movielovers, ourselves included. Offered in this first volume breakdown are four unimpeachable arthouse classics — Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries,” Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” and Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” — along with two slightly edgier choices, Polanski’s masterfully claustrophobic debut “Knife in the Water” and the 1963 adaptation of “Lord of the Flies.” It’s another fine starter kit for someone who’s just starting to explore arthouse film, and one that, while again, doesn’t come with many of the expected extras, does break down to a per-disc average that’s around half the cost of the typical Criterion release.
Dirty Harry Ultimate Collector’s Edition
Warner Home Video, $74.98
With Clint Eastwood’s turn as a crotchety, gun-toting racist in the new “Gran Torino” drawing comparisons to his iconic maverick cop Inspector Harry Callahan, it’s a great time to reexamine the “Dirty Harry” series, and the “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” makes a convenient one-stop shop. You get all five “Dirty Harry”s, each with its own new commentary track and a variety of other new-to-the-set extras, including a feature-length documentary on Eastwood’s career, “Out of the Shadows.” None of the sequels matched Don Siegel’s original for brains or brawn, but the franchise did a better job than many of its contemporaries — like, say, the “Death Wish”es — of refusing to pander to a certain segment of their audience by devolving into a succession of brainless kill-fests. Even late entries like the Eastwood-directed “Sudden Impact” from 1983 continued and expanded the first film’s exploration into the nature of and limits to justice, in a story that saw Harry on the trail of a vengeful rape victim. The coolest-slash-goofiest extra: a replica wallet and police ID, I guess so you can run around like a lunatic, screaming at people “Go ahead: make my day…what? No officer, it’s not my fault! Blame the people at Warner Home Video!”
David Lynch: The Lime Green Set
Let’s get this out there off the bat: There are only a quartet of features contained in this ten-disc set, put out by David Lynch’s own Absurda label — “Eraserhead,” “The Elephant Man,” “Blue Velvet” and “Wild at Heart,” the director’s first four, sans “Dune,” and all already available on DVD. But you’re not being asked to plop down such a significant chunk of change for the movies, you’re being asked to do it for the endless oddities with which they come swaddled: interviews with Lynch, a doc on Joseph Merrick, the “Eraserhead” soundtrack on CD, the experimental stage musical “Industrial Symphony No. 1” (previously obtainable only on long out-of-print VHS). Then there’s the much-speculated-over “mystery disc,” chock-a-block with snipped “Wild at Heart” footage, shorts, web series episodes (“Rabbits” and “Out Yonder”) and a “Twin Peaks”-era music video. Needless to say, “The Lime Green Set,” which comes in the promised shade of extreme viridian, was created for the dedicated Lynchophiles out there, who’ve probably already cleared shelf space in anticipation for sequel sets in other bright colors built around works from later in the filmmaker’s career. If you’re looking to pick this one up, DavidLynch.com seems to offer the best bargain.
Houdini: The Movie Star
Everyone knows Harry Houdini’s legacy in the world of magic, and documentaries about his life always include newsreel footage of his death defying stunts, but until I heard about Kino’s three-disc “Houdini: The Movie Star” I didn’t even realize that Houdini’s presence on the early silver screen went beyond actualities into the world of fiction. In fact, Houdini made numerous serials and features throughout the 1910s and 20s, and though Kino’s set also includes footage of many of Houdini’s actual tricks, the bulk of the collection’s devoted to the former rather than the latter. They sound freaking awesome; 1919’s “The Master Mystery,” for example, stars Houdini as a government agent who busts up a patent con scheme while escaping dangling-over-vats-of-acid death traps and fighting over crazed robots. And since Houdini had a keen interest in the supernatural and the afterlife, there’s also stuff like “The Man From Beyond” (1922) a feature where he plays a guy frozen in a block of ice, thaws out, and hooks up with the reincarnation of his former flame. Sadly, a lot of this material isn’t intact — the serials are missing numerous chapters — but Kino compiled all the material that does exist and included title cards and stills to bridge the gaps in the storylines.
The Rat Pack Ultimate Collectors Edition
Warner Home Video, $59.98
The definitive Rat Pack movie is a title that, for audiences these days, is far more likely to bring up thoughts of a tuxedoed George Clooney and a tieless Brad Pitt than Ol’ Blue Eyes and Dean Martin. But what’s surprising, watching the 1960 “Ocean’s Eleven,” the highpoint of this four-film collection, are the hints of darkness fluttering around the edge. Soderbergh’s con men ease effortlessly through their multiple-casino heist, but the gang in the original are old army buddies with wives to rescue from stripping, or terminal cancer and families to support, or dead-end careers due to their race. Then again, Soderbergh needed every inch of filmmaking style he could summon just to measure up to the luminescent star power of the Pack at its height: Frank Sinatra, Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, not to mention Angie Dickinson and a cameo from Shirley MacLaine. The Rat Pack members may have been comfortable on camera, but they weren’t always great actors; this box set also includes western comedies “4 for Texas” and “Gunga Din” reworking “Sergeants 3” as well as gangster musical “Robin and the 7 Hoods,” all with their highs and lows, but all, in their capturing of the talent and even more impressive rapport of their performances, ineffably entertaining. This set also come with lobby card reproductions, stills, a deck of Rat Pack cards and commentary tracks on three of the films from Frank Sinatra Jr.
Murnau, Borzage, and Fox
20th Century Fox, $239.98
One of the most well-reviewed (“the best that home video has to offer in quality, scholarship and enduring aesthetic interest” raved The New York Times‘ Dave Kehr), not to mention expensive (at almost $250 beans) box sets of the year includes a dozen films from its two titular directors. Only two — 1927’s landmark silent “Sunrise” and 1930’s “City Girl” — come from F.W. Murnau, who died in a car accident in 1931, just five years after emigrating from Hollywood from Germany. The ten other features come from his studiomate at Fox, Frank Borzage, an American who paid close attention to Murnau’s visual style and applied it to his own burgeoning aesthetic in movies like 1927’s “Seventh Heaven.” Though Borzage was more prolific, made more money and remained a key figure in the transitional period between silent and sound cinema, he’s largely forgotten to history (note whose name comes first in the box’s title), a fact this set will hopefully come to rectify. Extras include several documentaries, commentary tracks and a book about the filmmakers and their time at the innovative Fox studio.
Ray Harryhausen Gift Set
Sony Pictures, $80.95
Harryhausen! And not the giant Cyclops/dueling skeletons Harryhausen of “The Fantastic Films of Ray Harryhausen” (released back in 2004) — this three-film set offers two-disc versions of the stop-motion master’s greatest work in sci-fi, “20 Million Miles to Earth,” “It Came From Beneath the Sea” and “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers.” In the first feature, a specimen brought back from Venus grows into a gigantic, sulfur-gobbling, elephant-murdering monster that wreaks havoc on Rome (picked because it was where Harryhausen wanted to have his vacation). “It Came From Beneath the Sea” finds a massive radioactive octopus (that, for budgetary reasons, only actually had six tentacles) attacking San Francisco. And “Earth vs. The Flying Saucers” offers an invasion by alien spaceships, effects that were groundbreaking at the time and that are still impressive. Each of the films comes in both the original black and white and colorized editions, and the set includes figurine of the “20 Million Miles to Earth” creature.