Sunday, July 24, 2022

BATTLE OF THE WORLDS (1961) (The Film Detective Blu-ray Review with Screenshots)

Special Edition Blu-ray 

Label: The Film Detective
Region Code: Region-Free
Rating: Not Rated
Duration:  84 Minutes
Audio:  English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Dual Mono with Optional English and Spanish Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1)
Director: Antonio Margheriti
Cast: Claude Rains, Bill Carter, Umberto Orsini, Maya Brent, Jaqueline Derval, Renzo Palmer

The Antonio Margheriti (Seven Deaths in the Cats Eyes) directed science fiction flick Battle of the Worlds (1961) starts of with scientist couple Dr. Fred Steele (Umberto Orsini, Emmanuelle 2) and Eve Barnett (Maya Brent) working together on an island astronomical observation station, there they detect what they believe to be a runaway asteroid that they dub “The Outsider”, as it has mysteriously entered our solar system on cataclysmic path with the Earth. A Mars military base experiences the disastrous effects of the asteroid first hand, and the scientists of Earth all agree that the object is headed our way, and we must do something about it. The sole dissenting scientific opinion comes by way of wily curmudgeon Professor Benson (Claude Rains, The Invisible Man) who predicts a near miss, contradicting the otherwise unanimous scientific community. His prediction proves to be accurate to a degree, while The Outsider does indeed miss the Earth it unexpectedly slows down and begins orbiting the Earth, which Benson and other Earth scientists agree indicates an alien intelligence is guiding it. As the asteroid, which Benson theorizes is actually a dead planet, begins tightening it's orbit of the Earth it affects our planet's weather patterns, causing  volcanos eruptions, tornadoes, earthquakes and tsunamis - causing mass destruction and panic.  

The military send military rocketships to explore the planet on it's approach but they are intercepted by a swarm of flying saucers which easily destroy the vessels before they can reach the surface. After studying the situation Benson figures out a way of control and destroy the alien saucers, and then accepts an offer to join a new expedition to the planet to investigate the rogue planet and the alien intelligence behind it. Arriving they discover that the aliens within the planet are long dead, there's Noah's Ark turned into a tomb as Benson puts it, but that a highly intelligent electronic brain is carrying on with the alien long since forgotten mission. Benson desperately wants to communicate with the alien computer brain to discover the secrets of the advanced civilization, but the military command realizing the immanent threat The Outsider continues to pose simultaneously plan to launch a nuclear strike to destroy it before it can wreak further irrevocable havoc on the Earth. 

The Battle of the Worlds titles on it's face sounds it would be straight-up 60's sci-fi schlock-fest but it's more serious minded than the usual space-opera crapola of the era, which I say with complete affection, I love sci-fi crapola! It pre-dates game-changers like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars with it's serious minded approach, but it still looks hokey with the vintage rocketships and miniatures, no doubt, but the subject matter is more serious. The gravitas of the situation is completely sold on the back of a fantastic late career turn from Claude Rains, who here in his early 70's was well past his prime, but he still invigorates this sci-fi thriller with a wonderfully committed performance - he wasn't phoning it in by any means. His cantankerous professor hangs out in his greenhouse caring for his plants and flowers, having a great disdain for the scientific
community, all the while scribbling world-saving formulas in chalk on large clay flowerpots, which I thought was a cool touch. 

There's still plenty of schlocky sci-fi hokum on display, the scenes of the rocketships are quaint in how vintage they are, and when a crew is pulling G's during a tight maneuver the over-anguished faces they make to sell it are pretty hilarious, but this was just how they did sci-fi in the 60's, it was several shades better than most of the stuff we were getting at that time. The is well shot, lensed by cinematogrher Marcello Masciocchi (Yor: The Hunter from the Future) it is easily a notch or two above the usual space-age wonders from this era, with an eerie opening that would not have been out of place in a surreal giallo murder-mystery, especially when paired with the otherworldly score by composer Mario Migliardi (The Price of Death). Once the expedition makes it's way to the inner planet the set design by Massimo Tavazzi (Mario Bava's Knives of the Avenger, Fellini's Satyricon) takes center stage with an alien world decked out in red and green tube structures that felt, well, alien, and unlike anything else I think we'd seen up to this point in a sci-fi film. The charred husks of the alien creatures were a bit disappointing, in fact if Benson hadn't of called out the fact that those were alien remains I would not have pieced it together. They certainly weren't the "Space Jockey" from Ridley Scott's Aliens, heck, it wasn't even the giant alien carcass from Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires. It's definitely more of a cerebral sci-fi flick and not the laser-zapping and face-hugging sort we've gotten used to post Star Wars, but it's also not the goofy 50's era sci-fi either, well not completely anyway - those flying saucers versus rocketship battles are just bad.  

At a certain point there's a countdown and the expedition must leave The Outsider before the military nuclear strike, we get a terrific scene of Rains as Benson preferring to stay and communicate with the alien computer-mind in a quest to "penetrate the secret of their immortal formulas", while cackling like a mad man, stating "of what importance does life have young fella if to live means not to know?" as he faces his own destruction. I will say that this is a flick with some tasty quotes, like when Benson is eulogized with "Poor Benson, if they opened up his chest, they'd find a formula... where his heart should have been", and we get plenty more tasty bits, it's a very intelligently written flick. This is a film that was at once ahead of it's time while also a product of it's era, but its also quite eerie and I can see the reach of it's influence on cinema ranging from Ridley Scott's Alien to Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce and well beyond to the more recent big-budget rogue celestial object thriller Moonfall

Audio/Video: Battle of the Worlds (1961) arrives on region-free Blu-ray from The Film Detective, scanned in 4K from an original 35mm archival print, framed in 1080p HD widescreen (1.85:1). There are a handful of apparent missing frames that were hard to miss but not ruinous, as well as what I would think were tears in the print that were restored, but not restored to absolute perfection - see screenshot #12, at the 13 min 49 second mark, you can see an anomaly on the bridge of Cathy's nose that last for a few seconds. Having been sourced from a print we don't get a ton of depth, clarity and fine detail, the image has grain structures but features can still look a bit waxy in spots. Overall I think it's a very attractive restoration but there is an an occasional vertical line or blemish that is noticeable, and colors from the print are muted.

Check out the over 90 screenshots from The Films Detective Blu-ray at the bottom of the review, it includes a comparison of the restored feature film versus the footage used in the half-hour featurette produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, which was sourced from an earlier transfer provided to them by The Film Detective, which shows a much heavier green infused patina.    

Audio comes by way of uncompressed DTS-HD MA dual-mono with optional English and Spanish subtitles. There are some age-related audio pops and it's fairly flat sounding, but quite serviceable, with a terrifically eerie sci-fi score from Mario Migliardi (Metalo!and a wonderful array of vintage laser, whirring machinery and rocketship sounds. 

Onto the extras we kick off with an Audio Commentary by film historian Justin Humphreys in which he covers a lot of ground, he talks about the eerie score, background information about the cast, crew and director, and some great info about the set design and miniatures rockets ships seen throughout, and what sets it apart from other more fly-by-night science fiction, in addition to the differences between this uncut version and The Planet of Extinct Men cut of the films.  

The 28-min A Cinematic Outsider: The Fantastical Worlds of Antonio Margheriti by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures - Narrated by Tim Lucas is pretty terrific. Lucas starts off recounting the first time he saw this flick on TV as a kid, even tracking down the date and time he saw it by researching local newspapers, and what his initial thoughts about the film were at that time. He walks a through a mini-history of vintage Italian sci-fi flicks of this era, tracking Margheriti's career path, his first directing gig with Assignment: Outer Space, and his love of pulpy sci-fi. He also compares Margheriti's career with that of Maria Bava, an Italian director was also stereotyped as a horror director, and highlighting the exotic sounding score for the film and attractive lensing that sets it apart.

Another terrific extra is the 10-Page Booklet with Original essay by author Don Stradley, Margheriti’s World, an illustrated full color booklet with an essay eschewing the genre-hopping talents of Margheriti, how it came to be that Claude Rains starred in this film (it was for money, 'natch), and highlighting the director's sometime overlooked importance to the Italian genre cinema. The single-disc release arrives in a standard keepcase with a single-sided sleeve of artwork featuring the original illustrated movie poster, the same artwork is featured on the disc as well. Inside we get the aforementioned booklet and am insert advertising a limited time 50% off promotion for the streaming service. 

 Special Features:
- 10-Page Booklet with Original essay by author Don Stradley, Margheriti’s World
- Audio Commentary by film historian Justin Humphreys
- All-new original production, A Cinematic Outsider: The Fantastical Worlds of Antonio Margheriti by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures - Narrated by Tim Lucas (32 min) 

Screenshots from The Film Detective Blu-ray: 


Screenshots Comparison:
Top: The Film Detective 2022 Blu-ray 
Bottom: Footage Used in the 'A Cinematic Outsider: The Fantastical Worlds of Antonio Margheriti' Featurette from an early scan of the film provided to Ballyhoo Motion Pictures by The Film Detective 

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