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TOD BROWNING’S ‘DRACULA’ (1931): CHALLENGING THE REVISIONISTS April 2, 2009

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Guest review by Alfred Eaker

Tod Browning’s Dracula is often unfairly compared to Murnau’s unauthorized Nosferatu, and it is an unfair comparison because the two are very different films, which merely happen to share the same literary inspiration.  (Neither are mere adaptations.  The only film to fairly compare to Murnau’s would be Herzog’s remake with Kinski and, indeed, it compares very favorably).  The vampire of Murnau and Schreck is an accursed, repulsive animal, the carrier of a dreaded plague and the beast fights fiercely to sustain it’s life, like a rodent in it’s death throes.  The Dracula of Browning and Lugosi is an outsider, a mesmerizing and intensely austere intruder, who comes to nourish on the aristocratic London Society, who he, paradoxically, yearns to to join (fittingly, for a genuine outsider, it is to no avail of course; he makes rather pronounced overtures and goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill his ambition there).

Dwight Frye’s pre-bitten Renfield is nearly as strange an outcast as he is after his transformation, albeit in a far dracula1different light. Renfield is a bizarre, urban effeminate in an old meat, potatoes and superstition land. The villagers are outcasts too, but among them, Renfield is the doomed jester, misguidedly blinded by his foolhardy feeling of superiority over them and stubbornly oblivious to the peasants’ warnings.

The introduction to the inhabitants of Castle Dracula is among the most discussed in the annuls of Universal Horror and, to many viewers,it is also most perplexing. This is quintessential Browning. The static silence is punctuated with genuine dread, surreal humor, and the unnerving whimpers of a opossum. Karl Freund’s camera pans over a decidedly unreal set. The vampire brides slowly emerge as a bee scampers out of it’s little coffin. An opossum seems to be ducking for cover in it’s dilapidated coffin and it’s cries are the only living sounds we hear as we are introduced to Lugosi’s Count staring directly at the camera.

Renfield’s journey to Castle Dracula perfectly captures the sensory view of a crepuscular world. Indeed, no other Universal horror film would convey it as vividly and attempts to do so in later films proved pale imitations.

Renfield’s arrival to the castle, and state of confusion, is juxtaposed against the awkward but pertinacious emergence of Dracula. Lugosi’s emergence seems to partake of a genuine struggle and this echoes the delivery of his greeting which follows. This emergence sharply contrasts with the startling and confused appearance of armadillos scurrying in the ruins below, which also heightens Renfield’s confused state.

Critics have unfavorably compared this scene to Melford’s much more fluid shot of Villar’s Count appearance atop the stairwell in Dracula (The Spanish Version). This can be dismissed as sloppy, revisionist criticism. Browning is a master at those elongated pauses where little seems to be happening. With careful, focused attention, this proves to be deceptive, but admittedly is a struggle for viewers corn fed on television bred aesthetics. Comparing the two is akin to comparing an artist as opposed to a mere craftsman. Melford’s scene is surface dramatics and cannot illicit anything remotely comparable to the surreal queasiness Browning evokes here. Additionally, Melford’s entrance climaxes with a jerky and unintentionally comic Villar greeting his visitor. With Melford, the effect is ruined, never recovers,and only worsens. With Browning, the unreal dread has just begun.

The vampire’s lethargic descent, set against the massive sets, resembles the

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SHORT: やった (2001) April 1, 2009

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fivestar

DIRECTED BY: Unknown

FEATURING:  Greenl

PLOT:  Six bouncy naked men (whose genitals are tasteful disguised by fig

leaves) experience love and loss in modern Japan, eventually achieving artistic and financial success through music. 

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: やった is a hallucinogenic barrage of bizarre imagery.  A peppy musical score contrasts ironically with the magical mystery tour taken by the six naked men, whose travels through impossible landscapes consisting of fields of ostriches and giant sushi platters are shown in brief, almost subliminal flashbacks.  The six scantily clad principals appear delusional, and its is possible that the director intended this short film to be an expressionist depiction of a state of paranoid schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder, with each member representing a separate Jungian archetype.

COMMENTS:

On the surface the やった seems to be nothing more than shock cinema, weirdness for weirdness’ sake.  Closer examination will reveal it to be one of the saddest stories ever told, an entire universe of bereavement and nihilism encased in a devilishly hummable 4 minute disco montage.  The scene where a fig leaf wearing man brushes past a beautiful woman on a busy Tokyo street, looks back wistfully as she passes, and is immediately consoled by his five naked brothers (who magically emerge from a nearby alley), is perhaps the most melancholy romantic scene put to film since Bernstein told his tale of the girl with the white parasol in Citizen Kane.

Some have claimed that this short film is actually a satirical skit by a comedy troupe meant to poke fun at Japan’s eternal optimism in the face of economic and political woes.  Such reductionist interpretations miss the larger point, however.  やった tells a tale of the existential struggle to survive, forge an identity, and promote a boy band made up of naked middle aged men in an uncaring, absurd universe.  In a shot that seems almost to be a throwaway sequence, but actually is the key to interpreting  やった’s deeper meaning, a fig life springs to life from the crotch of one of the singers and rises in the air, finally transforming into the word “hope.”  American directors would do well to take heed of their Japanese counterparts willingness to express such deep emotional truths without the fear of looking silly.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY
“Irrational Exuberance gains its genius from the fact that it effectively translates the concepts in Yatta! to an American audience, who wouldn’t get the Snore! Snore! Pass! Pass! part, but can appreciate the way that commercialism dumbs down their society. Hey, as long as we’re happy, who cares if we’re dancing in our skivvies?”–Sekicho, Everything2.com

16. CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) March 31, 2009

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“We hoped for the look of a Bergman film and the feel of Cocteau.”–variously attributed to screenwriter John Clifford or director Herk Harvey

fivestar

DIRECTED BY: Herk Harvey

FEATURING: Candace Hilligoss, Sidney Berger

PLOT:  Mary Henry, a church organist, is the lone survivor of an accident when the car she’s riding in plunges over the side of an old wooden bridge.  Looking to start over, she takes a job as an organist at a new church in a town where she knows no one.  She finds herself haunted by the sight of a pale grinning man who appears to her when she is alone, and fascinated by an old abandoned carnival pavilion visible from the window of her boarding house that she senses hold a mysterious significance.

carnival_of_souls

BACKGROUND:

  • Carnival of Souls was made in three weeks for less than $100,000 (figures on the budget vary, but some place it as low as $33,000) .  The film was a flop on its initial release, but gained a cult following through late night television showings.  The film was restored and re-released in 1989 to overwhelmingly positive reviews.
  • Director Herk Harvey, screenwriter John Clifford and composer Gene Moore worked together at Centron Corporation, an industrial film company, creating short safety documentaries such as Shake Hands with Danger and high-school propaganda/hygiene films such as What About Juvenile Delinquency?  None were ever involved with a feature film again.
  • Mesmerizing star Candace Hilligoss acted in only one other feature film, 1964’s The Curse of the Living Corpse, before retiring to raise a family.
  • The movie has been very influential on other films, particularly low-budget horror films.  Director George Romero has said that the ghostly figures in Carnival of Souls inspired the look and feel of the zombies in The Night of the Living Dead (1968).  Other writers see a Carnival of Souls influence on films such as Eraserhead (in regards to its ability to evoke the nightmarish quality of everyday objects), Repulsion (disintegration of the mind of a sexually repressed woman), and even Apocalypse Now (the shot of Martin Sheen rising from the water mimics a similar scene involving The Man–thanks to Matthew Dessem of “The Criterion Collection” for the catch).
  • Carnival of Souls was “remade” in 1998, although the plot (about a clown killer and rapist) shared nothing with the original except the name and the final twist.  Wes Craven produced.  The remake went direct to DVD and was savaged by critics and audiences alike. 

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  What else, but the titular carnival?  Ghostly figures waltz to an eerie, deranged organ score on what appears to be an old merry-go-round at the abandoned amusement park.  The tableau recurs twice in the film: once clearly in a dream, and once near the end as a scene that may also be a dream, but may be another state of being entirely. 

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRDCarnival of Souls is set in the ordinary, everyday

8 minute clip from Carnival of Souls (with annotations supplied by a youtube user)

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WHAT’S IN THE PIPELINE March 30, 2009

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A full review of the classic 1962 microbudget horror, Carnival of Souls, should post tomorrow.

Next in the review queue is Terry Gilliam’s 2005 offering, Tideland.

Alfred Eaker has agreed to provide writing for the site on a weekly basis.  We’re looking forward to his critical re-evaluation of Tod Browning’s Dracula on Thursday.

In addition, we are working on moving the entire site to new hosting as soon as possible.  WordPress free hosting has been truly wonderful and we recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone looking to start a free blog.  We can offer more content and hopefully deliver some improvements to the site by moving it to our own domain, however.  This website will remain here indefinitely, but new content will be posted at the new domain once it’s up and running.

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 3/27/09 March 27, 2009

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A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

IN THEATERS (WIDE RELEASE):

Monsters vs. Aliens (2009):  A DreamWorks 3-D adventure for children about a group of mutated monsters fighting an alien invasion.  The trailer begin with the phrase “The weird will save the world.”  Moderately interesting possibility to introduce kids to old b-movie tropes. Also screening in IMAX.  Featuring the voice of Reese Witherspoon.    Monsters vs. Aliens Official Site

That’s it this week!  Remarkably slim pickings for fans of the offbeat…

What are you looking forward to? If you have any weird movie leads that I have overlooked, feel free to leave them in the COMMENTS section.

STANLEY KUBRICK, CULTURAL OMNIVORE March 26, 2009

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This guest essay is by Alfred Eaker, director of Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes!, which was voted Best Experimental Film in the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival, and the feature W the Movie.

“We must be cultural omnivores and raid all the art forms to enhance our own art”Pierre Boulez; Modernist French composer.

Although, the meaning of postmodernism is replete with vagaries, one prominent characteristic of the so-called movement is that it abounds in eclecticism.  Pierre Boulez’s advice for artists to mantle a mental state of being cultural omnivores seems tailor made for much that is pronounced in postmodernism.  In that light, the movement had one of it’s most well-known, brilliantly driven, unofficial spokespersons in the late Stanley Kubrick.kubrick1

Kubrick, of course, patterned his body of film work after a Beethoven aesthetic.  Each of Beethoven’s nine symphonies had an individual theme.  The Eroica was Beethoven’s initial support, later renounced, bio-portrait of Napoleon.  The 4th, according to Robert Schumann, was a Greek maiden between two Norse gods.  The immortal fifth was THE anti-war statement.  The 6th ; a pastorale, the 7th; a series of  rhythmic movements, the 8th, more abstract, is a favorite among modernist conductors, and, of course, the mighty Ode to Joy.

Kubrick wanted to create a work in each of the genres and it’s unfortunate he never got to make his western (Marlon Brando foolishly took over directing One Eyed Jacks, after having Kubrick sacked).  Regardless of genre, each Kubrick film is filtered through his own unique sensibilities (ie; the dehumanization of man), thus rendering the idea of applying something as superfluous as a genre to something akin as hopelessly trivial labeling.  When it comes to Kubrick, the genre/subject is almost incidental.  Kubrick defiantly stamped his personal vision onto everything he approached (as author Stephen King would discover, to his complete dismay, when Kubrick took on The Shining. Kubrick was no assignment director).

Volumes have been written about Kubrick’s body of work with wildly varying and opposing opinions, but the almost unanimous conclusion that can be drawn is that Kubrick’s films are not designed for casual viewing.

Indeed, upon repeated absorption, Kubrick’s films reveal the degree to which Kubrick was a cultural omnivore.

Kubrick’s rep as being a “supremely controlled” artist is a misnomer.  He was just as apt for experimentation, improvisation, and utilizing ideas from actors, etc.  Hence, Kubrick’s reason for disallowing the publishing of his scripts (which he often deviated from) and ordering the destruction of all unused footage.  In it’s rough cut, Clockwork Orange was originally a four hour film.

One of Kubrick’s most compelling scenes in Clockwork Orange was, by turns, supremely controlled and experimental, yet gives compelling insight into Kubrick’s multi-hued layering and eclectic aesthetics.

Alex and the droogs appear at an ultra modernist home, which welcomes visitors with a lit sign, marked simply “Home.”   Kubrick’s customary symbolic red and white design work is as heavy laden here as it is throughout the rest of the film.

Husband Patrick Magee types away at his typewrite when the doorbell rings.  The doorbell sounds of the overly familiar first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth; Fate knocking at the door.  However, those four notes sound deceptively innocuous here, almost tinkling.

The camera pans across the room revealing Magee’s red head wife, Adrienne Corri, dressed in red pajamas, sitting comfortably in a white, plastic chair in the next room.  Husband and wife are detached from one another, echoing the barrenness of the house.  Corri answers the door to hear Alex proclaim “there has been an accident outside” and his request to use the telephone.  Corri is reluctant, but Magee instructs her to let the visitors in.  With the unlocking of door, Fate enters in like a Beethovenian storm.

The “Singing in the Rain” beating/dance was not scripted and was improvised, worked, and re-worked until Kubrick was satisfied with the flowing tone.  Adding this element was a brilliant instinct on Kubrick’s part.  Without it, the breaking-in would have felt more like a tempest than a storm.

After Magee is tied up and beaten, Alex and the droogs turn to Corri.  They take her in front of painting on the wall and begin to rape her.  The visuals in this vignette reveal a homage narrative, akin to developing patterns in an unfolding puzzle.  The design of the painting on the wall has a pronounced familiarity.  In it’s colors and forms, it is a homage to Gustav Klimt and bears striking resemblance to Klimt works like “Farmhouse with Birch Trees”.  Corri appears as a Klimt model personified.  She is Klimt’s mysterious red head, pale and thin (ie; ‘Hope 1’).  She and the scene call to mind imagery from Klimt’s “The Beethoven Frieze” (especially in the sections, ‘The Longing for Happiness Finds Repose in Poetry’ and ‘Hostile Powers’).  In essence, Kubrick is paying homage to Klimt paying homage to Beethoven.

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CAPSULE: THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES (2002) March 25, 2009

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fourstar

DIRECTED BY: Mark Pellington

FEATURING: Richard Gere

PLOT:  A Washington Post reporter loses his wife in an automobile accident,

mothman_prophecies

then finds himself spirited away to a West Virgina town where the residents are spotting monsters and undergoing horrifying precognitive hallucinations.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Taking its cues from parapsychology and cryptozoology, and positioning itself as a “true story,” The Mothman Prophecies paranoidly posits a world where omniscient Mothmen are simply a part of the natural order.  I wouldn’t want to dishonor the producer’s sincere “the truth is out there” vision by suggesting there’s something a little weird about it.  On a more serious note, The Mothman Prophecies is an effective chiller with a mildly unique spin on a conventional horror yarn that generates enough unease to make it worth checking out for fans of the eerie side of the weird, but it’s ultimately too lightweight and conventional to be more than a passing diversion.

COMMENTS:

Director Mark Pellington, who previously explored themes of conspiracy and paranoia in the thriller Arlington Road, translates his talents to horror well and does a very fine job of pleasantly chilling the viewer’s blood through the early segments of the Mothman Prophecies.  Unexplained occurrences, from an impossible car detour that lands our protagonist on the Ohio border with West Virginia to a yokel who swears he’s been visited by Richard Gere before, pile on top of each other until the viewer is pleasantly on edge and disoriented.  When the antagonist is eventually revealed, his powers verge on the omnipotent and his motives lie firmly in the realm of the inscrutable.  The conclusion ties things up in a nice little bow–sort of, because all the pieces resolved belong to subplots.  The central mystery of  the Mothman is never even touched, which frustrated viewers who crave nothing more than narrative cohesion but shouldn’t bother weirdophiles a bit.  Despite its silly premise, Mothman is a highly effective unease-generating machine, which is (or at least, should have been) its only aspiration. 

The “based on a true story” angle is patently a scam.  Although it’s true that there were “Mothman” sightings in West Virginia in the 1960s and a bridge collapsed soon thereafter, anyone who doesn’t recognize the convenient presence of an attractive romantic foil for Richard Gere and the archetypal visit to the reclusive old wizard for a bit of exposition and dire warnings as the work of a screenwriter rather than a documentarian probably should be permanently ineligible for jury duty.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…thriller that purports to be based on true events but operates in that bombastic plane of reality reserved for the apocalyptic horror movie.”–Jan Stuart, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)

15. STEPPENWOLF (1974) March 24, 2009

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“…it seems to me that of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other, and frequently it is actually the affirmative and enthusiastic readers, rather than those who rejected the book, who have reacted to it oddly… “–Hermann Hesse in the 1961 prologue to Steppenwolf

threestar

DIRECTED BY:  Fred Haines

FEATURING: Max von Sydow, Dominique Sanda, Alfred Baillou

PLOT:  Harry Haller is a world-weary writer and intellectual in the Weimar Republic who is considering committing suicide soon.  One night he meets Hermine, a beautiful young woman, who shows unusual interest in him and makes him pledge obedience to her as she initiates him into the pleasures of the flesh, including jazz, drugs, and sex.  Eventually Hermine leads Harry to the Magic Theater, where a deleirous dream about some aspect of his personality lurks behind every door–including, perhaps, his homicidal side.  

steppenwolf

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie was adapted from Nobel laureate Hermann Hesse’s classic 1927 novel Steppenwolf, which had been rediscovered and adopted by the 1960s counterculture because of it’s perceived revolutionary vision and it’s apparent endorsement of free love and psychedelic drugs.
  • This was the only film directed by Fred Haines.  He had previously been co-nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for Ulysses (1967)
  • The Czech artist Jaroslav Bradac created the wonderful animated sequence, “The Tractate on the Steppenwolf”; the artist Mati Klarwein (who was also responsible for classic album covers for Miles Davis and Santana) created the fascinating paintings that line the corridors of the Magic Theater.

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  For a movie that is so deliberately visionary, there’s not one single image that sticks out far above the others.  The most obvious choices are the images which show Harry simultaneously as a wolf and a man, a concept that is often chosen in numerous variations for covers of paperback editions of the novel.  

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  The heavy symbolism and feverish imagery of

Original trailer for Steppenwolf (1974)

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FREE ONLINE WEIRD MOVIE ALERT: COMING SOON (2008) March 23, 2009

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coming_soon

I’ve just been alerted to the presence of a recent surrealist Czech film that is available for viewing for free (with the permission of its owners, of course) online.  The operators of the webiste say the film will be available for online streaming for a limited time only, but don’t give a date for it to be removed.

I have only briefly glanced at it, but it looks like genuine, certified weirdstuff.  A full review in the near future is probable.

WARNING TO VIEWERS:  Although the film does not appear to be explicit, it deals with controversial subjects that may upset some people: bestiality and religion.

The film is called Coming Soon (2008) (not to be confused with the 1999 sex comedy of the same name!), and can be accessed at:

http://www.comingsoon.cz/

In case the server load is too high at the official site, it’s also available in a lower resolution on Google Video:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-152460894465175765&hl=en

The film is in Czech, but with English voiceovers.

From the filmmakers’ synopsis:

COMING SOON can be seen as a documentary about our civilization’s eternal quest for “the perfect balance” between love, tolerance, morality, censorship, tradition, experimentation, etc. COMING SOON can be seen as a futuristic tragi-comedy about civilization’s next “Great Debate”. COMING SOON can be seen as a fantastic adventure through world philosophies – both past, present and future. COMING SOON can be seen as championing the rights of animals and zoophiles.

Inspired by Nietzsche, Svankmajer and Pasolini, Sir Tijn Po and dozens of friends have created a challenging journey for the experimental mind.

The film is also being sold on DVD through the site and through Amazon.com.  If you enjoy the online version, I encourage you to buy the DVD.

WEIRD HORIZON FOR THE WEEK OF 3/20/09 March 20, 2009

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A look at what’s weird in theaters, on hot-off-the-presses DVDs, and on more distant horizons…

Trailers of new release movies are generally available on the official site links.

IN THEATERS (WIDE RELEASE)

Knowing (2009):  Alex Proyas (Dark City) brings us this “Twilight Zone” style tale with Nicolas Cage about a time capsule that contains coded prophecies for the future.  Generally panned, but curiosity rises with descriptions of a conclusion described as “ridiculous” and “ludicrous” that dropped critics jaws.  It may be unintentional comedy in the vein of Cage’s recent The Wicker Man remake flop.  Knowing Official Site.

FILM FESTIVALS:

The New York International Film and Video Festival begins tonight in Manhattan and runs through Thursday, March 27th, showcasing underground and experimental shorts along with documentaries and feature films.  Movies of potential weird interest include the Indian comedy I Am a Love Addict,  W the MovieThe Gingerbread House (an Italian retelling of Hansel and Gretel), Let Me Out, Heaven Earth (an “experimental documentary” about hallucinogenic South American plants),  Sacred Game, and the violent Malaysian comedy The Dogs.

NEW ON DVD:

The Murnau Collection:  From the archivists at Kino comes this essential set of restored classics, containing Nosferatu (1922), the weirdest and scariest Dracula adaptation, and the expressionist masterpiece The Last Laugh (1924), along with the essential historical films The Haunted Castle (1921), The Finances of the Grand Duke (1924), Tartuffe (1925), and Faust (1926).  Each disc comes with extensive extras, and The Haunted Castle,  The Finances of the Grand Duke and Faust also receive separate special edition releases.  A nice catch for lovers of early cinema, although four of these six films were already available, along with the documentary Tabu (1931), on Kino’s earlier box set, “The F.W. Murnau Collection”.

NEW ON BLU-RAY:

Sleepy Hollow (1999)/Sweeny Todd (2007):  A double feature release of two Gothic Tim Burton/Johhny Depp collaborations is always worth a mention.