By George Bass (Contributor New York Times | The Guardian | New Scientist)
It’s strange to think that, in the time before broadband and digital renting, access to well-regarded films and TV lay in the hands of schedulers. Special edition Blu-Ray has therefore been a lifeline for viewers who long to revisit cult entertainment – the movies and shows deemed too ‘niche’ for streaming or repeat broadcast, but deserve to be seen in high definition…
Everyone has ‘that’ programme from their childhood that caused them sleepless nights. If you were a nipper in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, mid ‘80s, early ‘90s or 2001 – when Captain Scarlet was regularly aired – there’s a good chance your insomnia was caused by Gerry Anderson’s bass-voiced Martians, and the colour-coded earth security organisation tasked with stopping them. Just the sight of those menacing circles of light sliding over background scenery is enough to make viewers’ hair stand up, while the agents of Spectrum look even more dazzling now they’ve been restored to pin-sharp quality.
Weekend at Bernie’s 
This adaptation of Jorge Amado’s 1959 novella, The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell, sees insurance juniors Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy arrive at their boss’ island party only to find host Bernie (Terry Kiser) dead, and a clutch of guests too self-centred to notice. Cue set-pieces, including personal trainers commenting on how relaxed their dead client’s shoulders feel, a cadaver accidentally going water-skiing, and coked-up yuppies pitching business ideas to a man whose soul has passed on to another realm.
The Lodger 
A silent nail-biter from iconic director Alfred Hitchcock, The Lodger is an early showcase for the plot devices which would define the term ‘Hitchcockian’: a killer of women, mistaken identity, and sexual taboo. A serial murderer has struck seven times in London, targeting blondes each Tuesday night. When a drifter matching the chief suspect’s description rents a room in the house of fair-haired model June Tripp, her police sweetheart Malcolm Keen is convinced he’s got his man – especially when a search of the new arrival’s room reveals a gun, a map of the killings, and victim photos. But as Hitchcock would show us so many times over the next five decades, things are rarely as they seem.
The Prisoner 
You may have seen the parodies before you saw the original, but Patrick McGoohan’s counterculture landmark remains one of the most talked-about TV shows nearly 60 years after airing. The actor plays an ex-spy who’s abducted from London, branded ‘Number Six’, and placed in a seaside village from which there’s no escape. Or so he’s told… The Prisoner’s striking imagery has become the stuff of legend: from the totalitarian (and multi-faced) Number Two, to the modern interactive map, and the giant Rover balloon, which consumes potential escapees like a jellyfish. Confinement has rarely looked trippier.
To Die For 
1995 was a mammoth year for critical and commercially popular movies: Seven, La Haine, The Usual Suspects, and Heat… Just as dark but light-footed with it is Nicole Kidman’s turn, as murderous weather presenter Suzanne Stone. Apparently based on media co-ordinator turned accomplice-to-murder, Pamela Smart, Suzanne is determined to conquer TV, even if it means seducing a young Joaquin Phoenix in the hope he’ll kill her restaurant-owner husband Matt Dillon. Kidman has great fun as the barmy femme fatale, and Gus Van Sant shoots her devilish antics in a primary palette that somehow clicks with the film’s heavy metal soundtrack.
The Man With the Golden Arm 
Decades before Trainspotting (1996) was the defining heroin addiction movie, this black-and-white drama from Otto Preminger saw Frank Sinatra give a gripping (and controversially sympathetic) performance as hard drug addict Frankie ‘Dealer’ Machine. Determined to stay clean after his release from a Kentucky jail, he’s taught himself drumming and has a new outlook on life. But his crash-victim wife Eleanor Parker begins to manipulate him for compensation money, and Dealer is soon lured back into the world of illegal gambling – and the street narcotics trade that helps finance it. A film whose impact helped change the MPAA regulations on what could and couldn’t be shown on screen.
Department S 
It wasn’t just Patrick McGoohan who could combine a thriller plot with the height of ‘60s fashion. Intelligence agents have rarely looked cooler than Peter Wyngarde as the louche Jason King: a master problem-solver and adventure novelist who dresses like a Carnaby Street mannequin, and is rarely seen without a model on his arm. Along with dashing ex-FBI agent Joel Fabiani and computer expert Rosemary Nichols, the trio pursue international scoundrels, and solve cases that leave Interpol scratching their heads. Prepare to give your flatscreen a workout with the neon title sequence and Wyngarde’s moustache alone.
Here’s Stan and Ollie as they deserve to be seen: projected in such crisp quality you can see every grain of sand as they “accidentally” enlist in the French Foreign Legion. The pair soon find that, to earn their three cents a day, they’ll have to iron the battalion’s laundry, plot an escape, face death by firing squad, and survive an aerial pursuit. Flying Deuces remains one of the duo’s most cherished films – but brace yourself for ‘that’ ending, which hits harder than the closing scene of Old Yeller (1957).
Hell Drivers 
“Nerve-shredding haulage films” is a niche subgenre, for too long dominated by The Wages of Fear (1953), William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977), and the Transporter franchise. Cy Enfield’s 1957 drama deserves to join their ranks: it might lack the nitroglycerin and body count of its rivals, but Stanley Baker compensates with his ticking performance as the ex-con antihero who takes a job moving ballast. Long before he gets to his first transport café, he finds himself enmeshed in a world of killer shortcuts, sabotaged brakes, a corrupt boss (William Hartnell), and a four-shilling hourly rate. Expertly shot by Superman (1978) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth, Hell Drivers lives up to its title: the locker room fight with psychotic foreman Red (Patrick McGoohan) sees its pugilists repeatedly collide with the bars of their payment counter.
The Professionals Mk I 
If you like your cop shows to be a little less jazzy and a lot more high-octane, this iconic series about the exploits of the fictional CI5 intelligence service is a must. Ticking every box on the LWT drama checklist – scenery-chewing villains, raunchy theme tune, one guaranteed fist-fight per episode (often every scene) – The Professionals saw paratrooper/SAS veteran Bodie (Lewis Collins) and former detective Doyle (Martin Shaw) face off against London’s underworld. From our heroes’ rocketing Ford Capri, to their state-of-the-art weaponry, The Professionals have stayed cool for decades, with the buzz around the show leading to Collins once being touted as a possible James Bond for the ‘80s.
Night of the Living Dead 
The film that kickstarted the zombie genre, this first entry in George Romero’s six-strong Living Dead series sees a small band of Pennsylvania residents trapped in a farmhouse and fighting off hordes of undead ghouls. Led by little-known stage actor Duane Jones, our heroes not only set the template for nearly every future zombie flick, but also proved the power of the siege formula when done correctly (Night made back its $100,000 budget 250 times over, and famously traumatised drive-thru audiences who were expecting popcorn shlock). A genuine cult classic that still says as much about society as it does the eating habits of the deceased.
Another cop show, but this time the villains are inside the station as well as prowling the streets. ITV’s Wolcott has the honour of being both the first British mini-series and a snapshot of the tensions brewing between frontline cops and urban communities. George Harris plays black British DC Winston Churchill Wolcott, whose PR-stunt promotion belies the fact he’s a highly capable and streetwise copper. On the wrong side of the law is Clockwork Orange’s Warren Clarke as respected businessman/crime boss Terry Rowe, and a clutch of officers who view Wolcott as the “Met’s pet”. Look out for members of the Comic Strip (Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle among them) in pre-Young Ones straight roles playing agitators – the type the detective has to face on every assignment.