DVDanger: Justice League vs. Teen Titans

Why is DC Animated better than DC's Cinematic Universe?

DC done right in Justice League vs. Teen Titans

If there’s a consensus among comic fans as to why Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice failed creatively, it’s because Zack Snyder et al. clearly did not understand the characters. Mercifully for them, the DC animated features department is back to the rescue with Justice League vs. Teen Titans.

OK, so you’re probably thinking, if Snyder couldn’t introduce three core characters in two and a half interminable hours, how on Earth 2 can veteran DC animation director Sam Liu (The Batman, All-Star Superman) fold in the classic roster of the Justice League (Batman, Cyborg, the Flash, Superman, and Wonder Woman) plus an amalgam of classic Teen Titans (Beast Boy, Raven, Robin, and Starfire) and newcomers (Blue Beetle), and explain some deep DC mythology, in under 80 minutes?

OK, first off, how much do any of these characters need explaining? The Justice League are omnipresent, while a whole generation grew up watching Teen Titans. So if you just present them as everyone knows them, there’s instant recognition. It’s a simple setup: The League are the savers of worlds, and the Titans are the heroes of the future.

The wrinkle in the equation comes when Batman decides to send a new member to the minor leagues: The original Robin is now a hero in his own right, under the guise of Nightwing, so Batman has given the cowl to his own son, Damian (voiced by Stuart Allan.) He’s got the "beating up villains" down perfectly, but the "helping the innocent" part of heroism is seemingly beneath him. After all, he was raised by his grandfather R’as al Ghul, the merciless supervillain whose end goal is to save the world by erasing most of humanity. Batman, not exactly being the model of supportive parenting skills, decides to send his murderous little prodigy off to the closest thing he knows to normal kids: the Titans.

It’s a big ensemble, but it comes down to Raven and Robin, and the story’s underlying theme of legacy and lineage. Both come from demons (in Raven’s case, quite literally, since she’s basically Rosemary’s baby, the spawn of a coven’s misguided attempt to create the Antichrist.) It’s not a juvenile romance between she and Damian, but an understanding. After all, they are the only people who really get the menace they could represent. But when Trigon, the beast that sired Raven, comes calling, then they will be the last branch to keep each other out of the maelstrom.

The DC animated brand is now strong enough to get pretty much anyone they want to do voiceover work (adding Rosario Dawson and Jon Bernthal to their deep bench of in-house talent.) There’s one bizarre moment of casting, and it’s in a central character of Taissa Farmiga as Raven. She’s great, but all she’s really doing is a stellar impression of the gravelly whisper developed by Tara Strong, who defined the character in the animated shows Teen Titans, New Teen Titans, and Teen Titans Go! At least Kari Wahlgren gives enough distinction from Hynden Walch’s definitive take on the joyously naive Starfire to make it fresh: After all, she’s now elevated to team leader, so it’s a more mature take on the character.

What really distinguishes this from Snyder’s trainwreck is that Liu can lard in so many tiny details that it all feels … well, DC-y. It’s in little moments, like Cyborg feeling as at home with the Titans as he does with the more mature League, or Wonder Woman’s gloriously awkward emulation of mere human interactions, or Beast Boy’s cycle of giddiness, deflation, and elation, or the terrifyingly brilliant way that Batman avoids becoming one of Trigon’s pawns. That part’s a real kick in the cerebellum to anyone that thinks you can’t do grim in the DCU. You just have to do it well, and with the right characters.


Justice League vs. Teen Titans (Warner Bros. Animation) is available now on DVD/Blu-ray combo and digital. Also out now:

The ultimate selling commercial for contraception: John Carpenter's takes a trip down memory lane to remake Village of the Damned.

Village of the Damned (Scream! Factory) is one of the lesser-regarded John Carpenter films, a work-for-hire piece. True, it’s not on par with Halloween or The Thing, but it’s a terrifically underrated addition to his canon that demands reappraisal. It’s technically an adaptation of the 1960 Village of the Damned, which was an adaptation of John Wyndham’s seminal 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos, transferred from rural England to rural California. The core idea remains the same: An entire community passes out from a mysterious force, and when they wake up they discover that 10 women are pregnant. Time passes, and it becomes clear that, whatever these kids are, they are not human.

There are some contemporary nods, such as the introduction (and rapid dispatch) of a Mrs. Carmody-esque figure who feels like pure Stephen King. At the same time, Carpenter’s clear nods to the original film (the silver-haired kids, for example) made it feel slightly antiquated at the time, especially since its release came as The X-Files was hitting its paranoiac stride. But there’s still a lot to relish and reappraise here, not least a stellar cast including Christopher Reeve, Mark Hamill, Linda Kozlowoski, a brief cameo from one-time heartthrob Michael Paré, and a gloriously over-the-top performance by Kirstie Alley as the film’s own Smoking Man.

Moreover, Carpenter keeps to the coolly nihilistic tone of Wyndham’s novel. He was an heir to Lovecraft’s doom-laden belief that an empty universe would be a huge improvement over one in which aliens are aware of us: Carpenter retains that by having everyone realize from the moment of impregnation (or more likely implantation) that the children are not of this Earth. Although there are moments of conventional horror as the psychic brats mentally abuse their guardians, the true creeping dread is in the battle of wills between unwilling hosts and impassive usurpers.

Science! Herbert West (Jeffrey Coombs) ponders matters cerebral before everything gets fleshy in Bride of Re-Animator.

Speaking of Lovecraft’s legacy, Bride of the Re-Animator (Arrow) is the nonsensical but brilliant 1989 sequel to Stuart Gordon’s masterfully campy/scary 1985 adaptation of the literary horror master’s Herbert West: Re-Animator. It’s an unstated (and seemingly variable, depending on the scene) period of time since mad scientist West (Jeffrey Coombs) and his sometimes unwilling partner in crime Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) raised the dead and paid the price. Now they’re in an unnamed Latin American country (which makes no sense, since West clearly died at the end of the first film), hiding from the consequences of their crimes. They suddenly decide to go back to the States (wait, weren’t they wanted for mass murder?) and basically get their old jobs back. West also gets back to reanimating corpses, while Dan (who ends up seeming like the heartless and consistently shirtless villain of the piece) is in love with a rebel he brought back from the civil war, a dying patient, and his girlfriend who died in the first film. Confused yet? You will be.

Prequel producer Brian Yuzna had blown audiences away with his directorial debut, slick horror satire Society. After that, the sleazy and overloaded Bride is an undoubted step down. It’s also a gorier shadow of Gordon’s genre-defining original. But with those caveats in place, Yuzna’s sequel has its own high Gothic charm. West has become a delightful parody of himself, making ridiculous toys out of connected parts (landmark work by the nascent K.N.B. Effects), while an overly dense script somehow flows with insanity. The denouement is a baroque retelling of the other great influence: A clear nod to James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein (itself a silly but successful sequel to a superior first chapter), it turns the noir-tinged nightmare of the original into full-blown Grand Guignol.

Giallo and drug madness in Death Walks at Midnight, part of the Death Walks Twice set from Arrow Films

Death Walks Twice (Arrow) is a good, old-fashioned giallo double bill, featuring the collaboration between director Luciano Ercoli and the Kim Novak to his Hitchcock, his wife Nieves Navarro. Never heard of her? That’s because, like most Italian performers of the period, she took an American stage name to break into the American market. As Susan Scott, she starred in two back-to-back psycho-crime dramas under Ercoli.

The set begins in 1971 with Death Walks in High Heels, a scuzzy little sexploitation thriller with Scott as Nicole, a burlesque performer in Paris who finds out her estranged father has been murdered on a train. It seems the murderer is convinced that he was back in his old habit of diamond smuggling, and when there’s no sign of the gems on his body, the murderer turns his attention to Nicole, who he believes must now have them.

The screenplay begins as an overwrought potboiler but turns into a back-and-forth whodunit, as Nicole missed obvious clues and plentiful red herrings (something that the script lays on heavier than anchovies on a triple anchovy pizza). This definitely isn’t style over substance, with an incredibly dense (if not always coherent) plotline involving diamonds, multiple murders, jealous spouses, voyeurs, a trip to the English countryside, and endless ranks of disposable side and main characters.

Aside from some fairly graphic eye surgery B-roll (don’t ask), it’s mostly a mood piece, but the following year, Scott and Ercoli took a bloodier bath with Death Walks at Midnight, a deranged excursion into Rome’s seedy underbelly. This time Scott plays Valentina, a model on the upper end of her career (both in celebrity and, in the judgmental world of fashion, her age). For a big stack of cash, she takes an experimental drug and talks to a photojournalist about her experiences on this new hallucinogenic (this kind of thing was weirdly popular for a long while. Because science). She sees a lot more than just pretty colors and thinking people have monkey faces. She sees a murder, but the only problem is that it took place six months earlier. Fixated, and convinced that the murderer is now following her, she tumbles into a thick swirling fog of drug deals, lunatic asylums, treachery, murder, and weird psychic visions.

There’s a great degree of entertainment to be found in listening to the original English dialogue track and count how many words it shares with the English subtitles for the Italian dialogue (hint: zero), which could damage the coherence of the plot. However, bar a couple of info-dumps, by comparison to Death Walks in High Heels’ twists, this time Ercoli is mostly a visual director. Plus, bar one actually very predictable revelation, the bad guys are clearly stereotypical, giggling, terrible haircut and bad beards giallo villains, so it’s not exactly a challenging view (especially after the blink-and-you’ll-miss-everything convolutions of Death Walks in High Heels.) But Ercoli keeps the intensity up, and until the by-the-numbers rooftop chase finale, Scott is a lot more than the standard “woman in peril” that plagued the genre. If there’s one disappointment here, it’s that this being an Ercoli two-pack means Scott’s 1973 Rear Window rip-off Death Carries a Cane (directed instead by Maurizio Pradeaux) isn’t here, but that’s a small complaint.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

DVD Watch, DVDanger, Scream! Factory, Shout! Factory, Warner Bros. Animation, Arrow Video, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Village of the Damned, Bride of Re-Animator, Death Walks at Midnight, Death Walks in High Heels

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