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The Bottom Shelf by Adam Jahnke

TVD-A-Rama! Still More Cult TV on DVD

Adam Jahnke - Main Page

Hey, kids, it's tee-vee time once again at The Bottom Shelf! Time to put aside those movie DVDs, cozy up to the cathode ray and use your television for its original purpose: watching hours and hours of episodic TV programming. And since most definitions of cult TV include a heaping helping of sci-fi, fantasy and horror, what say we concentrate on those genres this time out? Why, that's a swell idea. Let's kick things off with the show that redefined science fiction TV back in the 1990s...

The X-Files - Black Oil: Four-Disc Mythology Collection

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The X-Files - Black Oil: Four-Disc Mythology Collection
1995-97 (2005) - 20th Century Fox

As you are no doubt already aware, The X-Files Mythology Collections are Fox's attempt to repackage one of their most popular TV properties in smaller, more affordable chunks than their already released complete season sets. Black Oil is the second bite-size collection, following Abduction and preceding Colonization and Super-Soldiers. Any X-Phile worth his or her salt already knows the significance of the title but for those not in the know, the Black Oil is a viscous, conductive goop that allows the alien lifeforms to jump from body to body, turning into a nasty looking, leech-like thing that flows into the body via the nearest open orifice. It's creepy when it enters a body but it's downright disgusting when it leaves.

Anyway, the idea behind these four-disc sets is to collect the key episodes in The X-Files' series-spanning mythology story arc. It forms the backbone of the story, from the childhood abduction of Mulder's sister to the sinister conspiracy that runs the project. Black Oil begins in the third season and goes up through the first two episodes of season five. For the record, the line-up includes Nisei, 731, Piper Maru, Apocrypha, and Talitha Cumi from season three, Herrenvolk, Tunguska, Terma, Memento Mori, Tempus Fugit, Max, Zero-Sum, and Gethsemane from season four and the two-part season five opener, Redux and Redux II.

These episodes include many key elements of the mythology and cover some of the arc's finest moments. Scully is diagnosed with cancer as a result of removing the microchip she found implanted in her neck following her abduction. Mulder's mom has a stroke and we learn that the ties between his family and the Cigarette Smoking Man run far deeper than he suspected. We discover that the aliens have a healing power and that not all of them are bad guys. And we're introduced to those damn bees that carry the small pox virus in their stingers. Speaking as a life-long apiphobe, I always hated those fuckin' bees.

These are some of my favorite episodes of The X-Files mythology. Not so much for the important story points they hit but for the little moments and character bits they include. We get to see Mulder finally rip that damn cigarette out of the CSM's mouth and stick a gun in his face in Talitha Cumi. Gillian Anderson gets some of her best moments as she comes to terms with the tumor that will likely take her life. Skinner gets more of a chance to stand out in these episodes, particularly in Zero-Sum. And if you're a fan of Alex Krycek (and who isn't?), you'll get a sadistic pleasure in watching him go through all kinds of hell in this set, especially in the two-parter Tunguska and Terma.

I like the idea of collecting these episodes in one place if for no other reason than it makes it much easier to figure out what the hell was going on. The X-Files mythology is extremely complex but it's not nearly as confusing as it first seemed. When these episodes first aired, you had to keep track of all these details over the course of months and years, remembering who all these characters were and what they did. Even when you watch them on DVD in the complete season sets, the arc is interrupted by the various one-off episodes. With these sets, you can put all the pieces together with relative ease. Think of these collections as The X-Files Cliff Notes.

On the other hand, as much as I enjoyed this aspect of the series, it wasn't what I liked the most about The X-Files. My favorite episodes had nothing to do with the mythology. These were episodes like the very funny Small Potatoes or Home, an episode so frightening that Fox aired it with more "viewer discretion advised" warnings than I've seen before or since. So as an introduction to the series, the Mythology Collection does a good job presenting the big picture. But if you've never seen the show before, you'll be missing a lot if you stop here.

The episodes look and sound quite good, just as they did on the season sets. The X-Files switched from shooting in the traditional television ration of 1.33:1 to widescreen in season five and both of those episodes are presented with anamorphic enhancement. The set comes packaged in a pair of slick slim cases that each hold two discs in a slipcover.

As for extras, there are a few bonuses on here that you won't find on the season sets. In theory this will irritate fans who want it all but in practice, you shouldn't feel like you're missing much if you already have these episodes. Three of the episodes include new audio commentaries by their directors: R.W. Goodwin on Talitha Cumi, Rob Bowman on Memento Mori, and Kim Manners on Max. Manners comes off best with a relatively lively track that includes the amusing revelation that the entire two-part epic came about because the show's special effects guy thought it would be cool if somebody got abducted from an airplane in mid-flight. Goodwin and Bowman's tracks are less interesting, full of dead air and uninteresting observations.

The other new bonus is the featurette Threads of the Mythology, featuring new interviews with creator Chris Carter and other members of the crew. This is a decent enough look at the episodes included here but for the most part, you're not learning a whole lot that you didn't already know. It's a fine bonus for the newbies but only the most obsessive fan will feel the need to get this set just for this featurette. And who ever heard of an obsessive X-Files fan? Preposterous.

Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C+

Futurama: Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection

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Futurama: Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection
1999-2003 (2005) - 30th Century Fox

Speaking of re-packaged TV shows, Matt Groening's Futurama has already been given the complete season treatment by Fox. But in this case, this show is a prime candidate for a smaller, bargain-priced compilation disc. In many ways, Futurama never got a fair shake when it was on the air. When your first show is The Simpsons, it doesn't matter what you come up with next. It's simply not going to live up to those expectations. This situation wasn't helped when Fox bounced it around its Sunday schedule for awhile before finally settling it into a timeslot where it was almost guaranteed to be forgotten about and/or pre-empted by football. It was there that Futurama quietly expired.

When it debuted, I watched Futurama and enjoyed it but it didn't stick in my mind as appointment TV. Consequently, I couldn't justify the expense of picking up any of the complete season box sets. But the brilliantly-titled Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection is just exactly what the doctor ordered. Four episodes hand-picked by Matt Groening and crew as their personal favorites from the series, this set serves as a great reminder of the heights Futurama could hit.

The first episode, Hell Is Other Robots, has Bender find robot religion and forswear his former life of gambling, drinking and debauchery. It culminates with Bender in Robot Hell, tortured by a Robot Devil voiced by Dan Castellaneta in a big production number that's as good as, if not better than any original song ever done by The Simpsons. The next episode, Anthology of Interest I, is a trio of imaginary tales spurred by Professor Farnsworth's invention of the What-If machine. The best one features guest appearances by Stephen Hawking, Nichelle Nichols, Dungeons & Dragons creator Gary Gygax, and then Vice President Al Gore.

The third and possibly the funniest episode is the Emmy-winning Roswell That Ends Well, in which the Planet Express team end up going back in time to 1947. Dr. Zoidberg is captured by the military and Fry ends up becoming his own grandpa in this one. Finally in The Sting, Fry is killed protecting Leela from a giant space bee. This is a surprisingly sweet and sentimental episode, although it also boasts a surreal "Don't Worry, Be Happy" production number so it ain't all treacle.

While I never thought Futurama was as consistently hilarious as The Simpsons in its prime, I also never thought it was a bad show. At its best, Futurama delivered some of the smartest and sharpest satire around. I also appreciated how well it developed its future world environment of New New York City circa the year 3000. It was very consistent in its tone and not afraid of the science fiction elements of the series. But perhaps the best thing Futurama had going for it was its look. This may well be the best looking animated series ever put on television. Its combination of 2-D and 3-D animation resulted in some lavish moments unlike anything we'd seen before. This aspect of the show is captured beautifully on this DVD. It looks gorgeous and you'll want to replay bits like Bender's trip to Robot Hell over and over again. The sound is also very good, even though it isn't in true 5.1 surround.

Extras on the disc include introductions to each episode as well as the disc itself by Groening, exec producer David X. Cohen, and other crew members and characters. The only other bonus is the full-length animatic of Hell Is Other Robots with an optional commentary by Groening, Cohen, animation producer Claudia Katz, animator Rich Moore, and voice actors John DiMaggio (Bender) and Billy West (Fry, Professor Farnsworth, Dr. Zoidberg, among others). It's a nice addition to the disc, including a few scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor and the commentary is both lively and interesting.

The Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection is an ideal way to get reacquainted with Futurama. Widely available at a very nice price, it delivers four of the most memorable episodes of the series. And even though I'm a big fan of complete season sets, I wouldn't mind at all if they released another compilation like this. For me, Futurama is best when taken in smaller doses. But having said that, I'm very much looking forward to the direct-to-DVD Futurama movie that Groening announced at last year's San Diego Comic-Con. The movie should be out in 2007. Until then, bring on another Monster Robot Maniac Fun Collection!

Program Rating: B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B/C+

Tales from the Crypt: The Complete First Season

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Tales from the Crypt: The Complete First Season
1989 (2005) - Warner Bros.

In this era of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Deadwood, it's hard to remember that in 1989, HBO's most prestigious original series was hosted by a cadaverous puppet. Co-produced by such A-listers as Joel Silver, Richard Donner and Robert Zemeckis, Tales from the Crypt adapted stories from the original EC Comics of the 1950s, brought to life with big-name talent both behind and in front of the camera. The stories were spiced up with a bit of gore and occasional nudity, in the tradition of HBO's previous attempt at a horror anthology, The Hitchhiker. But unlike that show, Crypt never took itself too seriously. In fact, I'd say it's virtually impossible for a show to take itself too seriously when its hosted by the Crypt Keeper, that creepy, cackling corpse who just oozed bad puns... not to mention other assorted ooze-ables. Good Lord! Choke!

The first season collected here was an abbreviated affair, lasting just six episodes as HBO waited to see if there was really an audience for this nonsense. It turned out there was and the show lasted for several years, spinning off an animated series and a couple of feature films in the process. Unlike a lot of shows that stumbled through its first season and found their footing later on, Crypt hit the ground running. The first season contains some of the series' best moments. Not to say that the later episodes didn't contain some gems but for the most part, Crypt's finest moments came early on. And if you don't like the episodes in season one, you'd might just as well check out early.

All six episodes are included on disc one of this two-disc set. My favorites are the first and the last. Episode one, The Man Who Was Death, stars William Sadler as an executioner who loses his job when the state abolishes the death penalty. Walter Hill directs this one with style as Sadler narrates directly to the camera, bringing us along for the ride as he goes freelance with his skills. The last episode is directed by Mary Lambert of Pet Sematary fame. Collection Completed stars M. Emmet Walsh as a retired salesman who takes up taxidermy after his wife's many pets begin to drive him crazy. This is a very funny episode with Walsh and Audrey Lindley (Mrs. Roper from Three's Company) making a great couple.

Other stand-outs include Robert Zemeckis' holiday classic And All Through the House, with Larry Drake as a demented Santa stalking a murderess in her house. Richard Donner's contribution, Dig That Cat... He's Real Gone, stars Joe Pantoliano as a guy who receives a cat's nine lives and uses the ability as a carny performer. Tom Holland's Lover Come Hack to Me is just OK, with Amanda Plummer as a virginal honeymooner just married to a guy who intends to kill her for her money. The worst episode of the bunch is Only Sin Deep, directed by Howard Deutch. Lea Thompson is the world's unlikeliest hooker (at least until Julia Roberts became Pretty Woman a year or so later) who sells her beauty for a chance to seduce a millionaire.

While the episodes are all fairly entertaining, they don't look all that great. They show their age a bit more than I expected, coming across as overly dark and muddy here and there. The sound is better than the picture but it isn't terrific. The memorable opening title sequence with Danny Elfman's great theme music appears only once when you first load up the disc. Purists might gripe about that but it is a pretty long sequence and its absence makes watching all the episodes in a row much more tolerable.

The set's two extras are located on the second disc. Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television is a 50 minute documentary that provides an excellent history of the rise and fall of William M. Gaines' EC Comics. Interviews include original EC alumni like Al Feldstein and Jack Davis as well as filmmakers and authors influenced by the comics like John Carpenter and R.L. Stine. The doc is less effective on the "to Television" part of its title, devoting only a few minutes at the end to the series itself. And a truly comprehensive documentary charting the path of Tales from the Crypt would have included at least a mention of the 1972 Amicus Films version which is totally ignored here. But as a history of the comic book, this is top-notch. Several notches beneath is the Crypt Keeper's History of Season One. This is a goofy five minute featurette that sums up the first disc with punny narration by the Crypt Keeper, giving himself all the credit for coming up with the show. If you're really interested in the making of the series, you won't get any straight answers here.

Tales from the Crypt was never particularly scary and I always wondered why it didn't attract actual horror filmmakers like Carpenter or George Romero behind the camera. But for what it was, Crypt was good macabre fun. It wasn't really trying to scare the audience. It was just an exercise for some very talented people to play in the haunted house for awhile.

Program Rating: B
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/B/B-

Shelf Space - Fallen Angels

Now that Showtime's Masters of Horror series has one-upped HBO's Tales from the Crypt in the horror anthology department by bringing such horror masters as Dario Argento and John Carpenter to television, it's time to bring this mid-90's precursor to DVD. Fallen Angels attempted to do for film noir what Crypt did for horror. The short-lived series adapted short stories by genre masters like Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy with a wide variety of directors. Episodes were helmed by such notable filmmakers as Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Soderbergh. Also like Crypt, Fallen Angels gave A-list actors, including Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Kiefer Sutherland, a chance to get their feet wet behind the camera. Fallen Angels was probably destined to live a short life, as the production design and look of the episodes suggested that this was likely an expensive little show to produce. Considering the talent involved, I'm surprised this series has been all but forgotten. It's ripe for rediscovery on DVD.

Finally, an update on my last Shelf Space pick, The African Queen. Turns out that the rights for this movie have docked at Paramount and they're hard at work restoring it. But don't expect this job to go quickly. The film's in bad shape and a lot of work needs to be done before it can be released on DVD. But at least it hasn't been forgotten and it isn't being rushed out in a lousy version that would infuriate everybody. So be patient, African Queen fans. Our ship will come in someday. And anyone who loves this movie knows it'll be worth the wait.

Adam Jahnke

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