It’s not just the cult indie labels who are releasing interesting collections on Blu-ray.
When we think of the Blu-ray labels issuing collectable, feature-laden editions of great movies, we tend to think of the same handful of indie, ‘boutique’ labels – Arrow, Indicator, Criterion, Second Sight, 88 Films and a few others. These are the cutting-edge film distributors bringing new life to underrated, under-appreciated movies from the past. Perhaps, though, we should spread the net wider in our search for spankingly good editions of cult classics.
For the last few years, StudioCanal has been quietly building a catalogue of classic British films that everyone should be investigating, but which have – to a large extent – slipped under the radar. But as they have just launched their new Vintage Classics website, celebrating and collating over 100 British films, it seems a good idea to look into what they’ve been quietly doing. And I do mean quietly because even though these films are finally being packaged as a collection, they haven’t really been promoted as one.
I’ve certainly overlooked these releases. I have just five of the releases, which don’t exactly give a hint of the variety of the collection but let’s go through them anyway.
There’s the classic 1944 supernatural wartime drama The Halfway House, which is a bit of a regular on talking Pictures TV these days but is rather nicer here. This is one of my favourite old British movies, one that I first saw by accident on TV and immediately fell in love with, it’s combination of wartime propaganda, middle-class drama and a slowly developing ghost story that builds to an impressively dark finale making it one of the great unsung British horror classics.
In contrast to that, there is The Masque of the Red Death, the restored and uncut version of Roger Corman’s ultimate Poe movie – one of the two films in the series to be shot in England and unquestionably the best of the lot. We’ll be covering the Corman Poe cycle in depth soon, but for now let’s just say that this is essential for fans of gothic horror, with its Seventh Seal-inspired reinterpretation of Poe’s story.
There’s also a pair of Nicolas Roeg films – Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Do I need to even tell you how important and great these two are? Probably not. Once again, we’ll be covering Roeg’s work in more detail in a separate piece at some point soon.
The most interesting of my personal sampling of this collection, in some ways, is the 1972 British psycho horror film Fright. I think Fright is one of the great British horror films of the 1970s but it’s one that is often critically overlooked. It’s an intense and unnerving study in growing tension that finally bursts into madness with a bravura performance by Ian Bannen as the escaped psychopath terrorising babysitter Susan George, long before Halloween mined the same narrative. Once a British TV regular, the film has been rather disregarded in recent years, and for it to be included here is rather satisfying because it gives the film a certain validity. You could, of course, cynically argue that it is here simply because StudioCanal owns the rights to it – and you might well be right. Nevertheless, if this helps it find a modern audience, I’m all for it – and I think the film absolutely qualifies as a ‘classic’.
In many ways, that’s the point of a collection like this – or any collection of disparate movies, for that matter. Films that might be otherwise overlooked are given new significance for an audience simply by virtue of being part of a collective, be that a series of titles like this or by inclusion on a specific cult label. Of course, some of the more obsessive collectors – the ones who collect films based on the label that has released them rather than the quality or individual appeal of specific movies – have probably overlooked this collection because StudioCanal are, after all, a multinational major and it’s easy to ignore them if you are a purist who is collecting every release by Arrow or Indicator or whoever. We should never underestimate the obsessiveness of some people, the ones who buy everything a label releases and store them – often still shrinkwrapped – in catalogue number order. I know that some people have been outraged when a label like Indicator issues a film they don’t like or feel is unworthy – Indicator’s Adventures... series seems to be a case in point – because they feel they still have to buy it or else face having an incomplete collection – and what could be worse than that? I’m not sure we can really do much about those people, some of whom don’t even watch the films they buy. But even these people, fixated as they are and unlikely to be distracted by the other pleasures of life that might help empty our wallets, will still have a finite amount of disposable income and will very much focus on specific labels. They probably don’t even notice when other labels release interesting titles (I recall how, before Second Sight made the big push as the producers of highly collectable special editions, the label released Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case collection to the widespread indifference of the same people who then became very excited when Arow picked the titles up a few years later).
StudioCanal does seem to be making an effort to give these releases some sense of continuation – and has been doing so from the start. If you look at the spines of these titles, you’ll see a small but significant design point at the top – each has a little gold box featuring the year of production. For the more obsessive OCD-driven collector, it means that you could put them on the shelf in chronological order to make a series, much as some people do with Indicator’s numbered releases. It does suggest that this has been a series all along, rather than a bunch of individual releases suddenly bolted together. All these discs all come in slipcases as well – except for The Man Who Fell to Earth. That might just be my copy – but the devil in me rather likes the idea of one or two titles not quite fitting in with the rest of the collection. Imagine how annoying that would be to the anal retentive collector on a shelf of these films side-by-side? But seriously – if this disc doesn’t have a slipcase on all editions, it perhaps speaks to how this series has not been quite as thought through as those from rival labels.
Some of these films are coming with significant extras. Others – understandably – have rather less. There is no need or expectation for many of these films to have any extras really – I mean, no one would really expect The Halfway House to have any supplementary content at all, but someone went to the trouble of shooting a Matthew Sweet interview. The two Roeg movies I mentioned have extensive extras, as much as you’ll find on many releases from the fashionable boutique labels. And these are – I’ll go out on a limb here – the best you’ll ever see these films. A few (including The Man Who Fell to Earth) are available on UHD (I don’t have that edition so can’t comment on it) but all seem to be new restorations – and I’m not sure we’ll ever see (or need) better editions.
Other films in the collection that I have yet to pick up – and you know what, I’d say that the whole collection is worth owning – include And Soon the Darkness, Brighton Rock, Circus of Horrors, Dead of Night, Entertaining Mr Sloane, It Always Rains on Sunday, Murder By Decree, Quatermass and the Pit, School For Scoundrels, That’ll Be The Day and Stardust, The Elephant Man, The Frightened City, The Servant, The Tales of Hoffman, The Wicker Man and Villain – that’s just a few personal favourites, in case anyone from StudioCanal is reading and needs to make some stock cupboard space. But you know what? This is one of the few Blu-ray collections where I’d happily own the lot if finances and shelf space allowed.
What’s most interesting about this collection is that it comes in the wake of Network’s British Film collection that was launched a good few years back after they bought the rights to a huge amount of movies from… StudioCanal. While a lot of the more vintage Network titles are of very niche appeal (I mean, I can’t see a double bill of 1940s comedies Banana Ridge and Aren’t Men Beasts exactly flying off the shelves), others seem just as commercial and well known as films here – in fact, one of the films in Network’s collection is another Nic Roeg film, Bad Timing.
The British Film collection does, however, seem to have been fairly successful within the limits of niche releases – and frankly, isn’t that almost everything on a physical format these days? – and perhaps the collective nature of the series encouraged buyers to be a bit more adventurous than they might have otherwise been. To be fair, I watched and reviewed a lot of these titles back in the day and even the worst wasn’t without its charms. Perhaps the revelation that there really was an audience for these obscure titles spurred StudioCanal into realising that these British classics were worth putting some effort into after all. It certainly doesn’t seem as though Network got the arse-end of the available titles – both collections feature the well-known and the relatively obscure. If that collection did encourage StudioCanal to see the value of their own back catalogue, all the better. Having two labels issuing these movies is nothing to complain about.
But StudioCanal has not, until now, pushed its own collection and so the films have probably been easy to ignore – much of it had passed me by before the new site was launched. The more of this stuff that is out there the better as far as I’ve concerned and so I’d very much recommend that, if you are a fan of vintage British cinema, you investigate these further and encourage the series to continue. If we know one thing, it’s that StudioCanal are sitting on a lot of titles and we need as many of those out there as possible.
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