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The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection: Deluxe Combo Blu-ray + DVD Review

The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection Deluxe Blu-ray + DVD Combo cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection
Shorts, Blu-ray & DVD Details

Writer/Director: Curtis Harrington

Fragment of Seeking (1946),
Picnic (1948),
On the Edge (1949),
The Assignation (1950),
The Wormwood Star (1953),
Usher (2002)


Running Time: 96 Minutes (6 shorts) + 88 Minutes (extras) / Rating: Not Rated

1.33:1 - 1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic); Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95 / Blu-ray Release Date: June 25, 2013
Two single-sided discs (1 BD-25 & 1 DVD-9) / Clear Thick Keepcase

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There's a good chance that at this very moment you are thinking "Who is Curtis Harrington and why does he get a Short Film Collection Blu-ray before the likes of Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, and Andy Warhol?"
While I'll leave the home video industry at large to explain the latter, buckle up for a thorough answer to the former, courtesy of Flicker Alley and Drag City's brand new Blu-ray + DVD combo release of The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection.

Harrington is no household name, but he did make contributions to cinema in the latter three-quarters of his 80-year existence spent dabbling in the medium. A graduate of UCLA with a film studies degree, Harrington made a number of avant-garde shorts in the 1940s while also working as a critic and writing a book on Josef von Sternberg. Harrington graduated to feature films in the 1960s, writing and directing a couple of offbeat thrillers (starring the likes of Dennis Hopper, James Caan, and Katharine Ross) as well as some shameless B-movies for schlock king Roger Corman.

Harrington's diverse and productive résumé earned some degree of respectability in the 1970s, enabling him to work with actresses like Shelley Winters and Debbie Reynolds, before moving to television (for which he directed episodes of "Charlie's Angels", "Wonder Woman", and "Dynasty") and largely leaving the industry shortly thereafter.

A young Curtis Harrington stars in his 1946 short "Fragment of Seeking." Mudpots bubble in Curtis Harrington's 1949 short "On the Edge."

That career arc might not illuminate the need for such a dignified release, but Harrington has some clout as one of the forefathers of the so-called "New Queer Cinema" movement and as the man who found, saved, and restored the 1932 James Whale/Boris Karloff horror comedy The Old Dark House. This collection has additional timeliness and relevance, arriving just a week after Drag City published Nice Guys Don't Work in Hollywood,
Harrington's posthumous memoir.

This two-disc set gathers six short films, which span from 1946 to 2002 and range from six minutes to 38. The longest and most recent of the inclusions is a pretty clear outlier which differs in dramatic ways from the other five for which Harrington presumably may be better known and more respected. Harrington wrote, directed, and occasionally starred in his shorts, which are generally silent, strange, moody, and metaphorical.

Here's a closer look at the films included here:

Fragment of Seeking (1946) (13:41)
Harrington plays a young man in a coat, hat, and glasses who follows a bored blonde woman he initially spots on the roof of a house up some stairs. The young man apparently returns to his apartment, where he sheds his hat, coat, and glasses to lay down for a nap. He is soon awoken by a knock on the door from the aforementioned woman, whom he pursues, only to see her turn into a rotting skeleton with hair.

Picnic (1948) (22:19)
A group of four (possibly a family) goes on a windy, hillside, beach picnic. There, a young man catches a glimpse of a dancing girl, prompting another dreamy pursuit. This chase involves climbing a cliff and then, after the girl is whisked away, ascending a treacherous set of stairs. The opening of the short is silent save for the demonic-sounding, clearly not recorded live howling wind.

On the Edge (1949) (6:12)
An old man walks around a pier, his sights ultimately set on an old woman knitting away in a rocking chair. The man runs off with her ball of yarn, unspooling it to his own demise among bubbling mudpots. This short is presented both in its original 1949 music-only soundtrack and a "new" 2003 effects & music mix which largely just adds the sound of those boiling waters.

The Assignation (1953) (7:30)
Harrington makes the leap to color (albeit the faded kind) with this story of a masked man holding a rose who gets an ominous boat ride around the canals of Venice to see a red-haired woman. Spoiler alert: its petals all fall off as he gives it to her. Is he Death?

"The Wormwood Star" presents the weird, soon destroyed artwork of Marjorie Cameron. A 75-year-old Curtis Harrington plays Roderick Usher and his sister too in the 2002 short "Usher."

The Wormwood Star (1955) (9:59)
In the set's weirdest and least narrative piece, Harrington supplies a portrait of occultist/artist Marjorie Cameron and her strange, surreal paintings. This is the first short here to include spoken words, although it is just Cameron reciting some odd poetry.

Usher (2002) (36:40)
Inevitably, the nearly 50-year gap in the program is felt in this departure from the methods of Harrington's older shorts. Adapted from Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher", this follows Truman Jones (Titanic's Sean Nepita), a young aspiring poet from New Orleans, to the ornate mansion of enigmatic poet Roderick Usher, where he gets more than the creative wisdom he sought. This prolonged short removes the mystery that the previous ones had been creating around their maker. Awkwardly written and played, it's kind of awful, campy and about what you'd expect if Tommy Wiseau had a gay American cousin get into filmmaking.
Crediting himself as G.C. Harrington, the writer-director is an unconvincing actor and his co-stars are no better, including -- despite the question mark in the closing credits -- what is clearly him in drag as Usher's sister Madeleine.

Watching this set in its default chronological order raises an obvious question: did Harrington lose his touch sometime in between the 1950s and 2002? Or did he even have a touch to lose? It's easy and tempting to herald something unconventional and not cleanly digested as genius. Even before encountering the horror that is Usher, I am reluctant to attach such a label on Harrington. It would be an overstatement to declare even his best short here (probably The Assignation) brilliant. Deliberately paced, dramatically scored by Ernest Gold (whose music comes to abrupt stops at times), and strikingly composed, Harrington's older shorts are trippy and seemingly substantial. At the same time, they are a series of strange, unsettling, logic-defying visions whose meaning is not apparent. I'm not sure whether that makes them more or less valuable than more traditional, coherent, narrative films. It does make them different and more conducive to academic dissection than repeat viewings chockfull of entertainment value.

VIDEO and AUDIO

From their comparable premium pricing to their use of identical packaging, Flicker Alley seems to fashion themselves after The Criterion Collection, a model of excellence every serious film buff can appreciate. But while the company and their collaborator on this project, the indie record label Drag City clearly pour passion into this release, the picture and sound quality leave quite a bit to be desired. You don't doubt that restoration work has gone into this set, but the presentation is still full of sometimes distracting wear and tear that age and modest production methods have probably made inevitable.

Imperfections are plain to see and mar a good portion of the films, all of which look and feel older than their given copyright dates. Even Usher, the only widescreen short on the set, looks more like a product of the late 1980s than the early 21st century and is hindered by unsatisfactorily looped sound, some soundtrack crackle, and even a reel change mark. Obviously, you've got to cut the set's authors some slack. They are making available notable content no other distributor would give the time of day ranging from long-lost (Assignation) to poorly preserved and they are doing it on a budget restricted by limited sales expectations. Still, even considering all that, it's a little upsetting to encounter a $40 Blu-ray in 2013 resembling a late-'90s bargain bin DVD in terms of print woes.

All sound is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. No subtitles are offered for the two featured shorts with speaking in them or the four extras.

A teenaged Curtis Harrington makes his improbably polished filmmaking debut in his 1942 silent student film "The Fall of the House of Usher." Machines turn natural resources into power in Harrington's government short "The Four Elements."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The Criterion comparisons extend to the bonus features, because Flicker Alley shares the boutique line's appreciation for tracking down and licensing valuable, relevant supplements. The extras begin with Harrington's original silent 8mm adaptation of Poe,
The Fall of the House of Usher (9:59, HD), made in 1942 as a 14-year-old high school student. As in his final film, Harrington plays both of the Ushers. There is something bizarre about a boy being a sharper filmmaker at 14 than at 75, but this crude, grainy version probably just seems less terrible as a fascinating curiosity with nary a sound or word.

Bridging the huge gap in the feature presentation is The Four Elements (12:38, HD), a 1966 government documentary short written and directed by Harrington for the United States Information Agency. It looks at how men and machines convert natural resources into power all over the nation. Its bonus feature designation is understandable, but it is interesting to see Harrington make something relatively boilerplate yet artful.

Rounding out the platter are two modern interviews of Harrington.

Curtis Harrington speaks with documentarians Tyler Hubby and Jeffrey Schwarz in 2005. Getty Research Institute gets a 77-year-old Curtis Harrington to commit his experiences to film.

The first (21:51, SD), recorded March 2005, has the director talk to Tyler Hubby and Jeffrey Schwarz, who developed it into in their 2009 half-hour documentary House of Harrington. In it, Harrington reflects on his education, his film work experiences, and his influences, expresses a kinship with creative, personal filmmakers (like David Lynch).

The second interview (43:07, SD) is from November 2003 and conducted by Rani Singh and Michael Friend for the Getty Research Institute. Harrington discusses his lifelong appreciation for Poe, his horror moviegoing experiences, his shorts and features, his European travels, and his Hollywood start.

The DVD included here contains everything that the Blu-ray does. It's a nice inclusion, especially fit for educators who might not have a Blu-ray player at their disposal, and one Criterion has yet to do.

The DVD's menu provides a photographic representation of every featured short... ...and bonus features too!

The Blu-ray's menu plays the opening score from The Assignation over a still photo of Harrington at work. The DVD's comparable screens creatively display an image from each short or supplement as it is highlighted.
The BD does not support bookmarks (or pop-up menus, for that matter), but it does kindly manage to resume unfinished playback.

The set's last component is found inside the Criterion-style clear keepcase (which utilizes the reverse side of the cover to display additional imagery): a thick 28-page companion booklet. It opens with a great essay by Lisa Janssen, the editor of Harrington's memoir, that both biographizes the filmmaker and analyzes his featured shorts. Then, Mark Toscano writes about working with Harrington to preserve his short films and discusses his experiences of restoring each short from the best available materials. It's an interesting read, which both sheds some light and raises some questions regarding the presentations, in addition to explaining two of this set's omitted shorts.

These stairs are a killer in Curtis Harrington's 1948 short "Picnic." A masked man with a rose takes a boat ride around Venice's canals in Curtis Harrington's 1953 color short "The Assignation."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection serves up a lifetime's worth of an outside-the-box filmmaker's work. Assembled with evident love and care, this set gives these shorts dignity that feels somewhat undue, although that might just be the result of the sour note on which Harrington's career and this set end. The director's shorts are not easily understood, nor should they be dismissed; there's enough interesting art in them to enjoy the trip they take you on. The Blu-ray's picture and sound leave plenty to be desired (though seemingly not for lack of effort) and the price is quite high, but the extras are good, the companion booklet is great, and this content isn't available anywhere else, all of which make the world's least likely combo pack worthy of some attention.

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Reviewed June 26, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1946-2002, 2013 Flicker Alley, Drag City, and Academy Film Archive.
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