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 THE ROAN COLLECTION REVIEWED: PART 1

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laserkb

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PostSubject: THE ROAN COLLECTION REVIEWED: PART 1   Tue Oct 25, 2011 2:29 pm

I’ve been away and also had my PC in dry dock for repairs, so no posts recently. However, after trumpeting here a few weeks ago about completing my collection of Roan LDs, I’ve finally got round to watching some of them and it was suggested I give some sort of overview. So here is an appraisal of the first half of this impressive set.

The first thing to say is also the most obvious. The Roan Group was not Criterion. Neither was it linked to any of the major film distribution companies, so its entire schedule of 58 laserdisc releases over six years is, by its very nature, going to be a bit odd. Words that come to mind are “independent”, “eclectic” and “cult-oriented”. In short, Cary and Toby Roan simply put out those weird and wonderful movies – of ALL genres – that they could get their hands on. Mavericks to the end, it was no co-incidence that, when the time came to sell up, they handed everything over to those mad people at Troma, home to ‘The Toxic Avenger’. ‘Toxie’ himself never featured in any Roan laserdisc, but some pretty oddball characters did.

So what do we get in the first 29 releases? Well, as with EVERY Roan title, you get something that looks really smart on the shelf. Every LD cover is a joy to behold (even though the back cover sleeve notes are often peppered with typos – the unnecessary apostrophe in “its” is an almost constant error) and all the artwork and lettering draws you in immediately.

But what of the discs themselves? The truth has to be told that Roan didn’t get off to a very promising start and several releases in their first dozen or so are technically not too polished. Many of these discs contain films with prevalent print damage, soundtracks are often very hissy (no CX noise reduction was used) and some seem to be transfers from second or third generation video sources. The group made much of their ‘restoration’ work in titles such as WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) but others, GORGO (1961) for example, were clearly not very serviceable prints to start with. Criterion have issued a much better version of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932), and Alistair Sim’s SCROOGE: A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951) was really a challenging viewing experience because of its poor sound and image quality.

The very first release was ambitious enough, being a triple bill of Zane Grey westerns, but they were distinctly ‘vintage’, being all from the 1930s and at least one print, John Wayne’s HELL TOWN, was in very poor shape. Much better were the later colour Westerns, released in two separate double bills, that included an early Kirk Douglas picture, THE BIG TREES (1952) and Sterling Hayden in KANSAS PACIFIC (1953), both very spectacular examples of the genre.

Westerns aren’t my usual choice, however, and it was their classic horror releases that first brought Roan to my attention. Unfortunately, in this first half of their schedule, they issued mostly Poverty Row potboilers. These, particularly those in the KARLOFF-LUGOSI BOXED SET, were welcome additions but they probably didn’t attract too many younger horror fans. It was only much later that the Roans got their hands on some Argento and Bava classics, not to mention their Hammer offerings, but those are for another time. In this first Roan batch, it was mostly black-and-white ‘lost’ classics – THE MONSTER MAKER, DARK EYES OF LONDON, etc. – and, indeed, of the 44 individual films collected in these first 29 releases only 12 were in colour and 1995’s MOMMY (see below) was the most recent title! It seems that the Roans were really limited back then for the rights to any decent contemporary movies.

However, don’t be misled. There ARE some real gems in this first half of the schedule. I guess the real jewel is Orson Welles’ rarely seen masterpiece, THE TRIAL (1962), based on Franz Kafka’s novel. Not only is this a riveting film, with Anthony Perkins giving a mesmerizing performance way past his ‘Norman Bates’ persona, it is also a splendid print. The B&W tones are perfect, the restoration magnificent, and the whole edition reeks of class. Criterion could not have done better.

Also technically superb is the 1972 made-for-TV film GARGOYLES. I’d always wanted to see this as it has a heavy cult reputation and it did impress but, like so many TV movies, it could have amounted to more. The low budget really did limit what was a very promising idea. Mind you, back in ’72, I bet this scared a few people into hiding behind their settees.

Among the real rarities was a piece of sci-fi hokum called TARGET EARTH (1954) and an undiscovered delight re-titled ALICE, SWEET ALICE (originally released in 1976 as COMMUNION). The latter was an exceptionally powerful and disturbing psychological horror piece. Acting and direction were top-notch.

I cannot say the same for MOMMY (1995) which is just dire – and it was made on video, too. The players do well enough with a decent script, but the direction is just so wooden and the music is so bad that I thought it was some sort of deliberate joke at first, but no. That was the music the director wanted. I don’t hold out much hope for MOMMY 2 when I get to it in the second half.

I must mention before I go that this list also includes two of the very worst films I have ever seen. Fred Olen Ray’s HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS (1988) does have its fans and is rather fun in its puerile way but I can think of better ways to spend 90 minutes. When I was about 14 and had never seen women jiggling their breasts about or gallons of oh-so-fake blood being sprayed all over the place, I guess I would have thought it OK, but I’ve grown up since then. Clearly, Mr Olen Ray hasn’t and good luck to him. I note that this LD was the first of a planned series of such gore classics but mercifully the rest never appeared. I wonder why not?

The other travesty is DRACULA VS FRANKENSTEIN (1971). The culprit this time is director Al Adamson. Again, Mr Adamson has his supporters, but some people will watch anything out of sheer perversity. The film does feature Lon Chaney Jr and J. Carrol Naish (two of my genre favourites) but both are well past their Use By dates and really should have been spared this indignity. Surely they didn’t need the money that much? Chaney was so great in Jack Hill’s SPIDER BABY (1968), a non-Roan laserdisc, three years earlier so why is he so poor in this movie? The answer lies with the director. Words like ‘inept’ and ‘impoverished’ don’t begin to describe this awful film. For Adamson the auteur read Adamson the amateur.

No other Roan releases are as bad as these. In fact, of the rest, honourable mentions must go to BORDERLINE / CAUSE FOR ALARM (a great noir double bill), ANGEL ON MY SHOULDER (a superb 1946 comeback film for Paul Muni from director Archie Mayo) and Steve McQueen in only his second picture, THE GREAT ST LOUIS BANK ROBBERY (1960). William Lustig’s VIGILANTE (1983) and Jules Dassin’s THE NAKED CITY (1948) both take their cameras and dramas out on to the real streets of New York to great effect. Equally interesting are Anthony Mann’s double feature of T-MEN and RAW DEAL (1948). In fact, it was these hidden delights, such as Frank Sinatra in SUDDENLY (1954) and Burt Lancaster in BRUTE FORCE (1947) that gave the Roan catalogue the prestige they were seeking.

In their latter releases, with one or two exceptions, they built on this concept to produce some of the finest and most collectable laserdiscs of all time. More about these in Part 2.

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HippieDalek

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PostSubject: Re: THE ROAN COLLECTION REVIEWED: PART 1   Wed Oct 26, 2011 3:50 am

Looking forward to part 2!

I've heard of a few of the films you mentioned but haven't actually seen them. Certainly sounds like a great way to explore some lesser known classics.
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