This is another film that I had a chance to watch as a kid (with my paternal uncle, if I remember correctly) in a jam-packed South Korean theater with an eager and enthusiastic audience. I vividly remember that being impressed by the title track, not realizing that it was wholesale pilfered (illegally, of course) from Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. Many years later, when I had a chance to watch the film in a Japanese dubbed version (I in fact own the Japan-released Blu Ray) I was surprised to hear a perfectly decent, uber-funky original score (composed by Joseph Koo, who also did other Hong Kong films including Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon). Well, both versions are included in this great presentation from Eureka! The film is a fascinating blend of exaggerated ethnic stereotypes functioning as villainous but superhuman traits, combined with a kabuki-like theatricality of “chop socky” action. It is almost as stylized as a Japanese sentai (think Power Ranger) series, which explains its popularity among Japanese, despite the almost grotesque presentation of the head Japanese villain as literally an ogre with two-inch incisors protruding from his mouth.
15. The Damned (1969, Blu Ray- Region A, Criterion Collection)
I have always had mixed feelings about the “fascism as erotic/sexual corruption” subgenre of European cinema, starting with The Conformist (which I believe is a masterpiece despite my misgivings about its sexual politics) and down to Night Porter (which I believe is not even good as a pornography. Give me Radley Metzger over this kind of self-important, self-consciously “disturbing” Liliana Cavanini claptrap any time of the year). Sitting somewhere in the middle in my estimation is Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, with the kind of once-in-a-lifetime international cast colliding into an icy melodrama of familial conspiracy, corruption, sexual predation and betrayal, interspersed with the disturbingly authentic-looking sequences of young, naked Nazi soldiers violently frolicking, cross-dressing and then belting out patriotic and military songs in German. Criterion Collection’s excellent presentation properly contextualize this problematic work within Visconti’s oeuvre as an aristocratic and gay Italian filmmaker.
14. Irezumi (1966, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)
I honestly do not believe there has been any cinematic adaptation of Tanizaki Jun’ichiro that has avoided some form of controversy, or fans of the Japanese author attacking it for just not “getting” what makes his novels so exquisitely and sometimes disturbingly attractive. Premier among the cinematic adaptors of Tanizaki is incontrovertibly Masumura Yasuzo, whose Manji (1964) can be used as a great example of how to tackle a supposedly “unfilmable” work of literature. Irezumi, another adaptation of a Tanizaki story, shows a strong color of the screenwriter Shindo Kaneto, and perhaps pushes the story a bit away from its almost psychedelic masochism toward not-quite-feminist, socially angry pulp noir. Yet a mere vista of Wakao Ayako’s amazing performance as a uber-femme fatale with the demon-faced spider tatoo squirming in her backside, rendered in the hypnotically eroticized, deeply shaded color cinematography by the master Miyagawa Kazuo, is sufficient to make any nay-sayer look like a complete idiot. Arrow’s expert presentation based on Kadokawa’s new 4K restored transfer is accompanied by reliable scholarly exegeses, topped by an audio commentary by David Desser.
13. The Forbidden Door (2009, Blu Ray- Region Free, Severin Films)
Indonesian genre films have steadily been gaining international reputation since at least mid-2000s, and I am partial to them (as opposed to, say, the more aesthetically consistent Thai horror films) for various reasons. Joko Anwar’s Forbidden Door is one of those films with cult reputations that nonetheless seem to fall through the cracks. I have been on a lookout for a decent physical media presentation of this ambitious third directorial effort from Anwar, but it literally dropped on my lap from Severin Films in 2021. Now that Severin has not only this film but also the 1982 original Satan’s Slaves (which Anwar remade into another crackling horror in 2017) under their belt, it is sincerely hoped that they will continue the mine the rich treasury of Southeast Asian-Indonesian horror in the future.
12. The Invisible Man Appears/ The Invisible Man vs. Human Fly (1949-1957, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)
Arrow’s expertise in curation of the more obscure titles from the vaults of classic Japanese cinema is currently unmatched by any other label, including the studios in Japan. These two takes on Invisible Man tropes are fascinating in their reflection of the immediate postwar Japanese culture and mores, but also in their reworking of the prewar legacies of Japanese cinema, such as the striking presence of the androgynous musical star Mizunoe Takiko. The competent special effects for The Invisible Man Appears are the handiworks of Tsuburaya Eiji, who in 1948 had been fired from Toho Studios by the Allied Powers GHQ for his technical contribution to the wartime propaganda films, and for whom this unassuming programmer was the first special effects supervisor credit after that harrowing experience.
11. Daimajin Collection (1966, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)
The three Daimajin films, minor classics of the Japanese special effects cinema and all released within the space of one year, like Gamera the Flying Turtle films, have previously been available as blu rays via Mill Creek productions, but Arrow’s gorgeous designed box set simply ups the ante by showering the film with meticulous attention befitting a high-end catalogue for a major museum exhibition of a renowned woodblock artist. As is the case with Gamera collections, the astonishing care and respect Arrow pours on these titles by themselves warrant a double dipping for any serious collector of the Asian genre cinema.
9. The Dungeon of Andy Milligan Collection (1968-1998, Blu Ray- Region Free, Severin Films)
One of the massive, jaw-dropping boxset collections to have come out in 2021, the Andy Milligan collection is only ranked at the tail end of the Ten Best because, let’s face it, some of Milligan’s films do not necessarily invite multiple revisits, even for seasoned connoisseurs of the cult and exploitative cinema. Having said that, would I shell out the dough for the Andy Milligan boxset any day over a Jess Franco or Lars von Trier boxset? You bet your steaming mug of matcha latte! The lot of the Staten Island maverick’s oeuvre are not merely grungy or scuzzy, but imbued with a strangely authentic nastiness that is in many ways a hallmark of a genuine auteur, someone who is working out a twisted personal vision. The dedication and commitment that Severin put into this boxset is, needless to say, exemplary and sets the bar as high as any collector could ever hope.
8. Cast a Dark Shadow/Wanted for Murder (1946-1955, Blu Ray- Region A, Cohen Media)
I purchased this double feature release from Cohen Media based on only the titles and the designation “British film noir.” Turns out that this was the “why didn’t I know about this movie until now?” title of 2021. Both films draw upon the idioms of classic mysteries but also reflect the dark undercurrents of postwar film noir in their styles, characterizations and themes. Cast a Dark Shadow in particular is distinguished by a remarkable performance from a young Dirk Bogarde, strikingly sympathetic and complex, even when he is plotting a cold-blooded murder of his much older wife.
7-6. The Day of the Beast/Perdita Durango (1995-1997, 4K UHD Blu Ray, Severin Films)
This year’s 4K UHD selections went to the surprise releases of Alexis de la Iglesia’s audacious and more than a little crazy ‘90s prime cut examples of extreme cinema, The Day of the Beast and Perdita Durango, the latter film memorable for, among other things, having introduced to me Javier Bardem and pre-Sopranos James Gandolfini (that was already fifteen years ago! Egad…). Seen in this sparkling ultra-high-definition presentations, these two early works of de la Iglesia come across as unexpectedly nostalgic and robustly cinematic, with strong ties to the macho-excessive, in-your-face works of American masters from earlier generations, such as the films of Robert Aldrich, whose magnificent “dirty” Western Vera Cruz is reverentially referenced in Perdita.
5. Nightmare Alley (1947, Blu Ray- Region A, Criterion Collection)
One can debate whether this unsung masterpiece from the immediate postwar period is actually a film noir, but no matter. It features an authentically great performance by Tyrone Power, as a beautiful-looking carny barker who plots to make it big as a spiritualist with the help of titanium-hearted psychiatrist femme fatale Lilith Ritter, played with great aplomb by Helen Walker. Criterion’s very welcome special edition does this unexpectedly thoughtful and deeply mysterious “thriller of the soul” justice. The graphic design is especially pleasing, including a set of major arcana Tarot deck designed by Ricardo Diseño, representing the Tarot signs represented by the film’s characters (Lilith is designated as The Emperor, a truly apt choice!).
4. Mill of the Stone Women (1960, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)
After nearly fifty years, I am still rediscovering the European-Filipino-Japanese-Mexican-Latin American horror films that I had watched through the crack opened up between my comforter and pillow on the American Forces Korean Network channel in late ‘60s and early ‘70s, where such titles as Brides of Blood (1968) would air uncensored (yep, all nudity and gore intact) and in black and white. Mill of the Stone Women is one of the premier titles that I remember from these days, because it is the one that for one reason or another my Dad translated key dialogues for my benefit, not that you had any difficulty following the thread of horrific events taking place in the film, by simply taking in visual information onscreen.
Mondo Macabro had previously brought this film out to DVD, but Arrow Video’s lavish Blu Ray special edition justifies the double dipping any way you cut it. Arrow performed a 2K restoration on the original negative, but also presents four different versions in Italian, French and English languages with varying extents of exploitation contents and rolls out a series of unbeatable supplementary materials spearheaded by a Tim Lucas commentary and an essay on female wax figures/statues in Gothic horror films by Kat Ellinger. Topping it all off are sumptuous art design with illustrations by Adam Rabalais. In a nutshell, the boxset is a work of art in and of itself.
3. Shawscope Collection vol. 1 (1972-1979, Blu Ray- Region A, Arrow Video)
I do not believe any self-respecting fan of Sinophone martial arts films (should I keep using the designation “kung fu” films? Most characters of these films do use the term kung fu or gongfu, so it is perhaps not so far off the mark) could possibly pass up this twelve-film collection that comes with an appropriately widescreen-formatted booklet and original illustrations from a host of artists that reproduce the look and feel of the ‘70s Asian theater marquees. A special mention should be made about the fact that some of these Shaw Brothers extravaganzas— especially King Boxer, The Five Venoms, and The Boxer from Shantung, which I have been able to check out in some detail— have been restored by Arrow from the original negatives and sport the looks significantly different from their previous HD editions, much more film-like and missing that excessively smooth countenance familiar from some Celestial Pictures transfers of the Hong Kong classic films.
And of course, the fans need not be reminded that this collection, massive and overwhelming as it is, is only volume one!
2. Deep Cover (1992, Blu Ray- Region A, Criterion Collection)
On top of my list for a long time for the most desirable American titles from late ‘80s-early ‘90s that should have received special edition treatments but been neglected for all these years (other titles include M Butterfly and The Mosquito Coast), Deep Cover is in my view the most interesting and politically prescient urban Afro-American films that came out in this era, more so than anything directed by Spike Lee, the Hughes Brothers or Mario Van Peebles. Twenty years of time has only deepened our appreciation of the film’s trenchant and direct critique of the Reaganite-Republican hypocrisies of the so-called War on Drugs, its enormously entertaining filmmaking finesse, and great acting by the participants all around, including only once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Lawrence Fishburne, also in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, and Jeff Goldblum, just coming off playing the hideous psychopathic killer in Mr. Frost. This is not exactly Sidney Poitier bantering with Tony Curtis, folks, uh-uh, nope.
1. The Eurocrypt of Christopher Lee Collection (1962-1972, Blu Ray- Region A/Region Free, Severin Films)
This year’s number one title goes to another unreal boxset crafted with love and care by the good folks of Severin. This boxset includes some films that are, let’s be honest, complete duds, the kind of films that would not necessarily merit inclusion in a sumptuous collection such as this had they not starred Christopher Lee. After all these years, I am realizing that, among all deceased great film actors regardless of their nationality, training or eras they were active in, I miss Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee most. I dearly wish they are still around, appearing in all manners of movies. How much I would have loved to see Mr. Cushing appearing as one of the villains or sympathetic scientists in a South Korean SF or horror film! Yes, I do dearly miss Sir Laurence Oliver, Kirk Douglas, Heo Jang-gang (the premier villain actor in classic Korean cinema), Mifune Toshiro, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Bruce Lee (Notice that I am confining myself to male actors here. I am hundred percent sure I will get a chance to ramble on like this about deceased great female actors soon), but none of them occupy quite the position Mr. Cushing and Mr. Lee have in my movie fan’s pantheon of great stars.
We should consider ourselves fortunate that these gentlemen have left such a bountiful legacy, many of which after all these years are ripe for rediscovery. So perhaps my nostalgia pushed this boxset to the top position in the list. So be it. I really cannot think of a more appropriate reason for it belonging here.
So it is finally done this year as well! Better late than never, what can I say? My profound thanks to all the labels who keep believing in the physical media as the premier venue for watching classic cinema, led by Severin Films and Arrow Video, but also including Criterion Collection, Kino Lorber, Shout! Factory, Cohen Media, Vinegar Syndrome, Cult Epics, Studio Canal, Warner Archive Collection, Powerhouse Indicator and many others. Additional showers of gratitude to ever-reliable online reviewers, again led by DVD Savant and Mondo Digital, and including DVD Beaver, Blu-ray.com and other sites. Let us all hope that 2022 will see resumption of the semblance of normalcy for movie theaters, but I have zero concern as far as the continued availability of great classical films on the physical media.
One final note: Severin’s stupendous, jaw-dropping boxset, All the Haunts be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror, was obtained in early weeks of January and I briefly considered including it in the 2021 list, but I have decided not to. I was not really concerned about technicalities such as whether the boxset was really copyrighted to 2021 or 2022, but the fact that it included so many titles that I was not even aware of and doing it justice would definitely take more time than merely one month or so. It will be amazing if any other boxset/special edition beats it out for the top spot in the 2022 list!