Color, 1975, 111m. / Directed by Ken Russell / Starring Oliver Reed, Ann-Margret, Roger Daltrey / Columbia (US R1 NTSC, UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.0

Ken Russell's manic film of The Who's rock opera, Tommy, adapted that best-selling double album into a visual feast with a host of familiar names delivering one song after another without any dialogue to impede the flow of music. For such a purely sensory experience, the film has fared quite badly on the small screen. Originally shown in a pre-Dolby sound process dubbed "Quintophonic" (five separate discrete channels of sound were pumped into the theatre), the film first debuted on home video from Columbia in an ugly, orange-hued transfer with a pallid basic stereo mix in which one channel simply echoed off the other with no discernable separation effects at all. The remastered widescreen laserdisc a few years ago was only a marginal improvement, with the surround mix basically matrixing out two stereo channels from the original mix. To make matters worse, the image quality was too pale and bright, and the overzealous letterboxing matted off a crucial amount of information on the top and bottom of the screen. Now on its third go-round, Columbia has gone back and painstakingly restored the original five-channel sound mix, and the results are, to say the least, breathtaking.

The story follows the narrative threads of the original album but tosses in a couple of extra songs ("Champagne," "Bernie's Holiday Camp") as showcases for Ann-Margret and Oliver Reed, respectively. In World War II, a newlywed, Nora Walker (Ann-Margret) loses her pilot husband (Robert Powell) in an aerial attack. She bears a son, Tommy, and eventually remarries the sleazy, conniving Frank (Reed). However, Captain Walker, badly scarred, is still alive and catches Nora and Frank in bed. In the heat of the moment, Frank kills the Captain, and little Tommy witnesses the entire sordid event. The guilty pair scream, "You didn't see it! You didn't hear it! You won't say nothing to no one ever in your life." Unfortunately, Tommy takes them literally and becomes deaf, dumb, and blind. When he grows up to become Roger Daltrey, Tommy is subjected to a number of attempted cures, including a trip to a Marilyn Monroe cult and an acid-dispensing diva (Tina Turner), while his various relatives including Cousin Kevin (Lisztomania's Paul Nicholas) and Uncle Ernie (Keith Moon) molest and torment the poor guy. Tommy inexplicably becomes a famous pinball champion, playing only judging from the vibrations of the machine. He defeats the reigning Pinball Wizard (Elton John in some really great shoes) and becomes a pop culture messiah to thousands of teens. The bizarre events continue to unfold as Tommy finds himself exploited and commercialized until he eventually decides he must try to go back and find his true self.

Russell's treatment of Tommy is open to many interpretations, though his jabs at the insanity of the constructs of most organized religions stand virtually at face value. On first viewing this can seem overwhelming and bombastic, but a closer look reveals that Russell constructed the film carefully down to the last detail -- note the repeated pinball and spherical imagery, right down to the silver ball cane Tommy carries, which mirrors the circular nature of the narrative itself. Rather than providing a firm beginning and end which spoonfeed the entire message on a first pass, the film operates on a number of levels ranging from intellectual to pure visual and aural texture. All of the performers seem to be putting in their all, with Ann-Margret giving a particularly impressive and uninhibited performance for which she justifiably received an Oscar nomination. The care which was obviously lavished on the film becomes even more apparent on the DVD, which represents the first fully successful presentation of this film outside a movie theatre. The fullscreen side presents most of the available image, and the picture quality is absolutely stunning. Tommy has simply never looked like this before on video. The widescreen version is somewhat better judged than the previous laser and, best of all, is anamorphically enhanced. The colour purity is startling on both editions; the heavily saturated orange-red hues which suffuse the film at regular intervals right from the opening titles have appeared distorted and noisy before but look pure and vivid now. The audio reveals countless new pleasures to savor, with numerous sound effects and musical touches now present. Most noticeably, the "Go to the Mirror, Son" sequence, which features a singing Jack Nicholson as a doctor, has been fully restored. (Most damagingly, the widescreen laserdisc flipped the image of this scene halfway through for no discernable reason.) On the DVD, the scene plays out correctly, and at last, Ann-Margret can be heard clearly singing along with all of Oliver Reed's lines. The DVD packaging also includes an exhaustive explanation of the efforts Columbia went through to present the Quintophonic soundtrack in Dolby Digital; their labors were absolutely worth it and paid off for everyone who loves this film. No notable extras besides some skimpy bios, but considering the quality of the presentation, there's really no room at all to complain.

Color, 1988, 89m. / Directed by Ken Russell / Starring Glenda Jackson, Stratford Johns / Pioneer (US R1 NTSC)

A relatively obscure entry in the Ken Russell canon, Salome's Last Dance fell during the director's creative outpouring for Vestron Pictures during the 1980s (Lair of the White Worm, The Rainbow, Gothic). The film presents a straightforward adaptation of the notorious Oscar Wilde play, a fetishistic retelling of the John the Baptist and Salome story from the Old Testament, mixed with more than a few of Russell's expected dotty touches. The results divided viewers sharply down the middle, with the literate and often claustrophobic approach faring better on the small screen than in the theatre.

At a plush brothel catering to the kinky and well-to-do, Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) arrives to observe a production of Salome performed by the locals. While the performers go about their stylized business, Wilde comments on the action and takes time out for an occasional liaison; however, the play itself consumes the bulk of the running time. The production, a gaudy and colourful concoction in the style of Café Flesh, presents Salome (Imogen Millais-Scott) as a petulant brat whose mother, Herodias (a marvelous Glenda Jackson), constantly bickers with the flatulent King Herod (Stratford Johns). Salome's infatuation with John the Baptist (Douglas Hodge) remains unconsummated thanks to his conversion to Christianity, and after he refuses to even offer her a kiss, she strikes a bargain with Herod -- in return for the head of John the Baptist on a plate, Salome will dance for the king. The results, of course, are extremely outlandish and visually startling, with a few dollops of sexually perverse imagery thrown in for good measure. As with the other Vestron titles passed over to Artisan and Pioneer (e.g., Parents), this DVD has been transferred from the same full frame master used for the Vestron/Image laserdisc. The results are significantly better, with much improved colour and some eye-popping detail obscured in the old edition; however, a fresh new transfer could have probably been even better, as that old '80s video mist still lingers in a few shots, notably over the opening credits. The Ultra-Stereo sound is nothing special but serviceable, offering some nice musical directional effects. Ken Russell himself provides his second commentary track to date, offering some amusing literary and cinematic insights into this quirky little chamber piece. A scholarly wit, Russell makes for good company and will hopefully continue to perform this service on future DVD releases. The DVD also includes the original trailer, as well as a trailer for Lair of the White Worm.

Colour, 1988, 93m. / Directed by Ken Russell / Starring Amanda Donohoe, Hugh Grant / Artisan (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD4.0

Perhaps an acquired taste, Lair of the White Worm is in many ways the ultimate Ken Russell film. All of his filmmaking strengths really hit their stride here: a twisty, insane narrative; outlandish sexual imagery and hallucinatory visuals; and pithy, literate banter focusing on class conflicts. Of course, it's also fortunately a ripping good horror film, packed with jolts and sick giggles. Though still relegated to minor cult status for some reason, Lair deserves far more acclaim and, aside from being a key film for anyone interested in Russell, also happens to be a pivotal entry in late 1980s terror cinema. Eve (Catherine Oxenberg) and Mary (Sammi Davis) Trent, two sisters, run their family farm after the mysterious deaths of their parents. A visiting Scottish archaeology student, Angus (Peter Capaldi), digs around their property and comes across a strange, dragon-like skull and a bizarre mosaic. Soon bizarre events begin to engulf the countryside, including weird visions and an attack on the local aristocrat, Lord James D'Ampton (Hugh Grant), whose distant relative made history by slaying a medieval wyrm (dragon). Could it all have something to do with the seasonal residence of the slinky, sexy Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe)? And why do the locals keep disappearing? To reveal any more would be heresy, but Russell manages to use Bram Stoker's seldom read, radically different novel as a springboard for a dizzying array of recurring motifs contrasting paganism with Christianity, sensuality with purity, and earth with fire. All of the actors bite into their roles with pure gusto, though Donohoe easily takes top honors for her intensely erotic and amusing Lady Sylvia, tormenting policemen and Boy Scouts alike with her beautiful allure. Davis, a sadly underused actress best known for Hope and Glory, makes a fine, vulnerable heroine, as does Royal Family relative Oxenberg in her stylish designer underwear. Hugh Grant fans may be a little startled by his flawed "heroic" portrayal (he ultimately has little to do with the outcome), but he proves here that he can be subdued and avoid most of his familiar mannerisms when the job calls for it. Russell fans should have a ball picking out some subtle touches, including a cameo appearance by regular Christopher Gable as the late Mr. Trent during one dream sequence. Russell's penchant for theatrical, campy special effects really shines here, from the drive-in style worm to the outrageous images of impaled nuns! As with Crimes of Passion, Russell also manages to pack in enough phallic imagery to make a Freudian's head swim, drawing some obvious parallels between the white snake and... well, figure it out. And finally, don't forget that theme song!

Originally released in a very disappointing, murky transfer from Vestron on laserdisc and VHS, Lair of the White Worm has never even remotely resembled its theatrical incarnation on home video until now. Thanks to a new visual facelift from Artisan and Pioneer, Russell's film looks better than it has in years, with the hellish orange flames of the Trent girls' snaky hallucinations now thoughtfully intact. It still can't quite compare to the eye-popping colours of the theatrical experience (Lady Sylvia's lime green windows under the stairwell, for instance, still look a dull gray on the small screen), but this is a highly satisfying presentation. The letterboxed, anamorphic transfer shaves a tiny sliver from the full frame presentation while adding considerably to the left and right sides. The Ultra-Stereo sound mix pales compared to standard Dolby, but the DVD sounds fine and features crisp channel separation. Like Salome's Last Dance, this title has been outfitted with a running Ken Russell commentary; as usual, he provides some witty, precise insight into his rationale behind the film and his experiences while making it, particularly the odd local customs and cultural quirks which fueled his writing of the script. The DVD also includes some solid production notes, including effects studies and a cursory comparison to the novel, as well as the frisky US theatrical trailer (which spoils the last scene's punchline) and a 30 second TV spot apparently lifted from a very old videotape.

Colour, 1992, 206m. / Directed by Ken Russell / Starring Joely Richardson, Sean Bean / Metrodome (UK R2 PAL) / DD2.0

For more than a century, the name "Lady Chatterley" has become synonymous with softcore naughtiness. The scandal surrounding D.H. Lawrence's oft-censored novel (and two subsequent, tangentially related works) was just the beginning, really, as various attempts to film the book also ran into trouble around the world. From the relatively tame 1955 French version to Just Jaeckin's soft focus 1981 adaptation with Sylvia Kristel (and a host of cruddy cable knockoffs), Ms. Chatterley has gone through quite a bit and yet continues to come out unscathed. In 1992, Ken Russell decided to take a crack at the Lady Chatterley story, a logical decision following his successful films of Lawrence's Women in Love and its literary prequel, The Rainbow. Russell decided to make a miniseries instead of a feature film, thus allowing him to adapt nearly every single word from Lawrence's text. Like The Rainbow, this adaptation finds the outrageous filmmaker more subdued than usual, with delicate pastoral photography and some great period costumes providing all of the visual flair. The story is pretty familiar by now: Lady Connie Chatterley (Joely Richardson) is saddled with an intelligent but embittered, wheelchair bound husband, Clifford (James Wilby). Emotionally and physically frustrated, she finds herself drawn to the feral, simple gamekeeper, Mellors (Sean Bean). The lovers are soon faced with a number of obstacles, primarily their differences in class and education. Is it just a matter of animal passion, or could it be true love? While literature and Russell devotees will find plenty to enjoy here, there's no denying that the running time (over three hours) will prove daunting to the average viewer. Metrodome's DVD breaks down each of the four episodes, allowing for periodic viewing (the best option) and, since we all know the selling point of this disc anyway, a menu option to skip to all the sex scenes. Actually, the "very erotic sex" promised on the packaging looks like pretty weak tea, but for TV this is spicier than usual. Fans of Ms. Richardson will be happy to know that she disrobes often and still manages to turn in a solid performance, while the underrated Bean is great as always. The image quality is very good, with crisp detail and solid colour rendering, and the sparse surround track focuses mainly on ambient woodland noises and the restrained, neoclassical music score.

Color, 1986, 87m. / Directed by Ken Russell / Starring Natasha Richardson, Gabriel Byrne / Artisan (US R1 NTSC) / DD2.0

One of Ken Russell's more misunderstood and poorly marketed films, Gothic provoked almost universal disappointment from filmgoers expecting a wild, trashy horror film crammed with rampaging beasties. Instead, they got a surreal, melancholy, and eccentric study of four tortured souls locked together for one very long evening. What a difference a simple matter of perspective makes. During a balmy summer evening in 1816, Percy Shelley (Julian Sands) and his mistress (and eventual wife), Mary (Natasha Richardson), arrive by boat at the lakeside estate of Lord Byron (Gabriel Byrne). Accompanying them is Mary's cousin, Claire (Miriam Cyr), who is secretly pregnant with Byron's illegitimate child. The night starts out harmlessly enough with some light drinking, psychological torture, and group sex, but the trouble really starts their substance abuse and an ill-advised seance around a skull provoke a series of group hallucinations. Mary is tortured by images of her miscarried child, Shelley indulges in his darkest fantasy of a woman with eyes in her breasts, and the creepy Dr. Polidori (Timothy Spall), a literary acquaintance of Byron, is torn apart by his repressed sexuality. Soon the unholy quintet comes to believe that their communal fear may be spawning a physical manifestation, something dark and unavoidable which they will have to confront before morning comes. Almost impossible to appreciate on its first viewing, Gothic is definitely not one of Russell's major films but does offer its own modest giddy pleasures. Byrne and Richardson are both standouts in their first high profile leading roles, with the only weak link provided by Sands, even whinier than usual here. Synth pop maestro Thomas Dolby (yes, the guy who did "She Blinded Me with Science") provides a genuinely strange electronic score that ranges from kitschy to terrifying, and the costumes and scenery are consistently beautiful to behold. The sheer oddness and nastiness of the film's imagery makes it impossible to forget: the prodigiously endowed living suit of armor, Polidori's forced stigmatizing by a nail, and the screen's most grotesque (and stylish) abortion sequence, to name just a few. Sadly, Artisan's DVD really isn't up to the demands of Russell's visually intricate film. While their transfers of Salome's Last Dance and especially Lair of the White Worm were tremendous improvements upon the old VHS and laser editions from Vestron, this DVD is simply a rehash of the very outdated and unsatisfying Vestron print. The opening ten minutes are especially disastrous, with distracting print damage and muddy colours completely undermining the lyrical main titles and lakeshore arrival. Things improve somewhat once the nighttime activities begin, and the colours look more natural and accurate, but this movie truly screams out for a new transfer. The mono audio is also muddy and unsatisfying; to make matters worse, the film was originally recorded in stereo but is presented here in very flat mono. On the positive side, the DVD does include the terrific original US trailer, which is almost worth the price by itself. If you can find this reasonably priced and don't already have the tape or LD, this disc is worth picking up for the movie itself; just don't expect anything special.

Color, 1980, 109m. / Directed by Ken Russell / Starring William Hurt, Blair Brown / Warner (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / DD5.1

Most actors don't usually start out successful, award-winning careers by playing giant pulsating blobs of protoplasm, but that's exactly how William Hurt spent his first leading role on the big screen. Of course, considering it was in a Ken Russell film, this should really come as no surprise. Exactly how you respond to this visually relentless jackhammer of a film will depend on your tolerance for Russell's orgiastic camera pyrotechnics, which actually surpass what he achieved a few years earlier in Tommy. Fortunately Russell also keeps a firm grip on the narrative and characterizations (a skill with which has been credited far too rarely), keeping this from descending into a mindless sci-fi freakshow. Based on the novel by Paddy Chayefsky (who wrote the screenplay but disowned the final project before its release), Altered States follows the unusual relationship between university research scientist Eddie Jessup (Hurt) and his wife and intellectual equal, Blair Brown (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) as he experiments with the process of de-evolution on his own body. Beginning with simple isolation tank flashbacks and descending into dangerous mixtures of mind-altering chemicals, the socially challenged Jessup finds his body and mind transforming beyond prehistoric man and into realms beyond the grasp of religion and science. Predominantly a horror film at heart (Hurt's apeman zoo chase recalls any number of 1950s monster on the loose films, and the dazzling, ear-bursting lightshow finale anticipates Poltergeist by a couple of years), this film managed to beat the odds (no big stars, an unbankable director, endless behind the scenes troubles) to become the most successful head trip movie since 2001. Able support from Bob Balaban (who later directed the bizarre cult item Parents) and Charles Haid, as well as early appearances by Drew Barrymore (her first film) and John Larroquette, should satisfy more traditionally demanding viewers.While decent prints of Altered States have circulated on cable for over a decade, its fate on video has been very messy. The first VHS and laserdisc edition was impenetrably dark and muddy-looking; the "remastered" edition some years later featured greenish skin tones and way too much grain. Luckily, the third time's the charm: both versions on the DVD look terrific, with rich colours and sharp detail. The widescreen version, enhanced for 16:9 monitors, looks a bit crisper, though the image has been matted-- it gains a little on the sides and loses a bit on the bottom, but honestly the film is so centrally composed it doesn't really matter either way. The Dolby Digital 5.1 remix is nothing short of room-shaking, with John Corigliano's remarkable avant garde score and the swirling sound effects demanding this be viewed with the volume at full blast. After watching this, though, two obvious questions come to mind: why hasn't Russell directed another Hollywood film in over ten years, and when is Warner going to get around to an uncut DVD of Russell's The Devils?

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