Summertime Blues?

Summer at the movies — on DVD

click to enlarge GET SERIOUS: DVDs like Halfaouine: Boy of the - Terraces offer a respite from megaplex dreck this - summer. - COURTESY OF KINO INTERNATIONAL
GET SERIOUS: DVDs like Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces offer a respite from megaplex dreck this summer.

It's not even June yet and you're already bored with this year's crop of summer movies?

Ordinarily, I'd say you were in trouble. This year, however, there are so many appealing alternatives that even the most insatiable cinephile might find it possible to spend the entire season without once setting foot in a megaplex.

We're talking DVD, natch. There are so many great movies coming out these days on DVD that you could spend the rest of the summer watching two or three a day and still barely scratch the surface of what's available. The following sampling of the cream of the digital crop offers, regardless of what Pete Townsend and Eddie Cochran have to say, a perfect cure for the Summertime Blues.

The best thriller you might see all summer is The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, a 1933 masterpiece from the great German director Fritz Lang. It's a pulp crime adventure raised to the level of high art, with elements of the supernatural and political allegory applied liberally.

This was Lang's second sound film (made right after M), and when it was banned by Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels (who saw Testament, rightly, as a thinly veiled attack on Hitler) Lang took the hint and fled Germany for America. The film does indeed encapsulate the nightmarish zeitgeist of its time, while its images of madmen eager to throw the world into chaos evoke both Hitler and the spitting image of a modern day terrorist.

The film's titular lunatic, Mabuse, is a criminal genius who, even while confined to an asylum cell and apparently catatonic, uses vast paranormal powers to run an empire of crime that holds all of Berlin in its grip. Despite the extravagantly dream-like sequences for which it is justly famous (including haunting images of Mabuse as a ghostly, bug-eyed apparition), Testament moves at a clip, brimming with colorful characters, intricate conspiracies and an ominous yet richly poetic atmosphere.

Criterion's two-DVD edition is a beauty, beginning with an absolutely stunning transfer of the film (culled from two separate sources) and a fascinating and compulsively listenable commentary track by Mabuse expert David Kalat.

The second disc is so jam-packed it's almost ridiculous. We get a complete, alternate French version of the movie (shot simultaneously with different actors), extensive interviews with Lang and Testament actor Rudolf Schündler, and an in-depth look at writer Norbert Jacques, creator of the Mabuse character. Factor in David Kalat's comprehensive comparisons of the film's German, French and English versions, as well as galleries of production design drawings, memorabilia, stills and posters, and you've got one of the best DVDs of the year.

If, like many Americans, you see the Muslim world as little more than one big hive populated by angry, sexless drones, have I got a movie for you. Tunisian director Férid Boughedir's Halfaouine: Boy of the Terraces is a beautifully realized Arab film that positively overflows with warmth, humor, color and sensuality.Halfaouine is the coming-of-age tale of Noura, a petite and sweet-looking 13-year-old boy whose non-threatening appearance allows him to accompany his mother to the women's public baths. Even as Noura struggles to understand the feelings that all that wet, naked female flesh is beginning to stir in him, Halfaouine treats us to a variety of colorful characters and numerous other subplots depicting daily life in a typical Tunis neighborhood.

The film displays wit, savvy and a surprisingly light touch while detailing a society composed of rigidly segregated worlds for men and for women — worlds as separate as the realms of boyhood and adult life between which Noura finds himself suspended. Where the movie really shines is in its ability to thoroughly entertain us, even as it offers rare glimpses of the cracks in an Islamic society in conflict with itself.

The lovely looking Kino-on-Video DVD of Halfaouine contains only one real extra feature, but it's a doozy. Férid Boughedir was a respected film critic and scholar before he became a director, and the full weight of his knowledge is on display in Camera Arabe, Boughedir's full-length documentary on the history of Arab cinema. Filled with rare insights and amazing clips from dozens of legendary movies that few of us in the West have ever seen, Camera Arabe is such an absolute gem that it almost steals the show away from the main attraction on this essential DVD edition.

Just when I was beginning to wonder if I'd ever get the taste of Van Helsing out of my mouth, along comes the DVD of The Ghost/Dead Eyes of London, a double bill of grade-A goosebump-generating material from the early '60s.Neither of the movies featured on the disc are strictly horror films so much as solid, slow-burning thrillers, although both get great mileage out of some luxuriously gothic atmosphere. The Ghost does trade in some elements of the occult, but its main claim to horror fame is the presence of Eurocult goddess Barbara Steele (the face from Mario Bava's legendary Black Sunday).

Bava's colleague Riccardo Freda directed The Ghost (under the Anglo-fied pseudonym Robert Hampton), and the film is filled with the eerie and imaginative touches that typify his best work. Freda's flair for the macabre is on full display in this tale of a beautiful but perverse woman (Barbara Steele) whose plot to kill her husband goes awry when forces from beyond the grave appear to manifest themselves. Sections of the movie appear a bit unfocused, but the bulk of the film is a triumph of gloriously creepy mood, color and composition. Oh, and did we mention Barbara Steele?

The co-feature on Retromedia's DVD, Dead Eyes of London, is a prime example of the German-produced thrillers known as Krimi (crime) pictures. Like the somewhat juicier Italian giallo films to which they're loosely related, krimis are basically murder mysteries typified by weird crimes and even weirder characters, any one of whom might turn out to be the killer. Like Dead Eyes of London, many of these films were based on books by Edgar Wallace, which accounts for London being the setting of choice.

In Dead Eyes of London, dead bodies are popping up all over London, prompting a smart young inspector to wade through the fog investigating characters who are anything but the usual suspects. Among them are a very young, very slimy Klaus Kinski and a massive and extremely grotesque Tor Johnson lookalike. Clues pile up, secrets are revealed, and the suspense builds steadily until the very last minute.

The Ghost and Dead Eyes of London are featured in solid if not exactly reference quality transfers. The Ghost looks a touch softer than its co-feature, but it's still significantly sharper and more vibrant than any previous incarnation. Even more importantly, The Ghost is finally presented in its proper sequence — a major coup in that the first two scenes of this much admired film have been reversed in every previous video version for the past two decades.

Extras are limited to the theatrical trailers and a gallery of stills, but inside the DVD is a real treat. Inserted is a beautiful, eight-page reproduction of the original German press book of Dead Eyes, and that alone is worth the proverbial price of admission.

Contact Film Critic Lance Goldenberg at [email protected].

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