DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection, Blu-ray (1942-2002/2013)

Short films from a little-known filmmaker; for those into historic and obscure art films.

Published on July 10, 2013

The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection, Blu-ray (1942-2002/2013)

  1. Fragment of Seeking (1946)
  2. Picnic
  3. On the Edge
  4. The Assignation
  5. The Wormwood Star
  6. Usher (2002)
  7. The Four Elements (1966)
  8. The Fall of the House of Usher (1942)
    Casts: Curtis Harrington, Nikolas Schreck, Zeena Schreck
    Studio: self/DragCity/Flicker Alley FA0030 [5/2/13] (Deluxe Combo Edition – 2 discs)
    Video: 4:3 and 16:9, black & white and color 1080p HD
    Audio: PCM mono and stereo
    Extras: Two video interviews with Harrington, Standard DVD of the films, Printed booklet with notes on restorations and an essay by Lisa Janssen
    Total Length: 124 minutes
    Rating: ***½

I didn’t know about this late director/filmmaker, and after seeing his films I think I know why. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have appeal to buffs of historical art films, obscure films, and I should also mention that Harrington was in the 1940s an influential figure in what became known as New Queer Cinema. He began making films as a teenager and in some of these films, such as the second and third ones above, he stars his own parents. He became a close friend of avant filmmaker Kenneth Anger, though his own films are not that avant. He later worked in the film factory of Roger Corman, and  then found some commercial success in television production. On the Edge is a poetic fantasy with a chilling conclusion, using Harrington’s father in the main role. The Wormwood Star presents the artwork of an occultist follower of Alistair Crowley and is rather a bore, but The Assignation is hauntingly simple and effective, shot in color in Venice, which Harrington loved. As being once a budding filmmaker without sync sound equipment (he shot in 16mm, I shot in Super8), I enjoyed the clever ways Harrington got around there being no sync sound. For example, in Picnic the sound is nothing but wind noises all the way thru it.

He was nuts about Edgar Allan Poe and made his juvenile Fall of the House of Usher in 8mm in 1942, which is included in the extras of this collection. Though silent in this restoration, it was somehow synced then to a recording of Griffes’ The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. (One of my personal favorite pieces too.) In 2002, after having directed a few Hollywood films that were quite far from his own personal shorts, he got to do a professional 35mm film version of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. The house used is perfect for the story, and Harrington plays both Roderick Usher and his sister Madeline, just as he did back in 1942. He cast members of the Church of Satan, showing his continuing interest in things occult. It also gave him another chance to cross-dress on film. (The film’s end credits show him as playing Roderick Usher, and under it for the actor playing Madeline Usher is merely a “?”) Roderick plays the piano at one point, and he plays a portion of The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan. Everything is much more professional about the later production, but I felt short-changed because at the end the House of Usher does not fall or even catch fire. The young visitor merely leaves. (That’s probably why it’s only titled Usher.)

—John Sunier

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