Excuse my yuletide sentimentality, but where are all those massive home-video boxes you used to see around this time of year? The ones with coffee-table books, copies of the script, lobby-card reprints, paperweights, the all-important ”certificates of authenticity,” and, oh, yeah, the movies themselves? The answer is, in the remainder bin; since such costly packages have sold underwhelmingly in the past, video companies now seem content to wrap cardboard around a few tapes and let it go at that.
The upside is that there are inspired gift-set ideas out there this year; they’re just not loaded down with promotional widgets. In fact, if you’re looking to tantalize the sofa spud on your Xmas list, you may be torn between several similar prospects. Below are some of the knotty choices you may face — and our best shot at screening the good from the excellent.
Mr. Bean or the Pink Panther? Call it the Battle of the Brit Twits. In this corner, Rowan Atkinson’s gormless comic creation Mr. Bean reigns on the big screen, and PolyGram has made sure that the 1996 boxed collections of his TV show, A Box of Beans and Another Box of Beans (each with four tapes, at $69.95 a box) are available in stores. In the other corner, the late Peter Sellers’ unflappably destructive, syllable-bending Inspector Clouseau is spotlighted in MGM/UA’s five-tape Pink Panther collection ($64.92). Our recommendation: Spill for the Beans. They’re more consistently hilarious, whereas the Panther set includes low points (the editing-room assemblage of the final Trail of the Pink Panther) and a curious omission (where’s 1975’s Return of the Pink Panther?) alongside bona fide classics like the original Pink Panther and the first sequel, A Shot in the Dark.
Ellen Ripley, Fox Mulder, or Tom Servo? To take advantage of the big-screen Alien Resurrection, FoxVideo is promoting three new wide-screen editions of the Alien films ($19.98 a pop) almost as if they were a boxed set; Fox’s 1995 box ($39.98) is also available. The latest X-Files collection ($39.98) compiles six episodes from the third season on three tapes, and Rhino’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 set ($49.95) gives the postmodern raspberry to three sci-fi anticlassics: Red Zone Cuba, The Atomic Brain, and I Accuse My Parents. Our recommendation: Why settle for three Aliens when you can no doubt have all four — next Christmas, in a brand-new boxed set? The MST3K set is a video gift that keeps on giving — it takes at least two viewings to pick up all the pop-cult references — but The X-Files’ air of paranoid doom isn’t exactly in keeping with the holiday spirit. Unless you think Santa’s an alien.
The Hard-Boiled Detective or the Singing Detective? MGM/UA’s Humphrey Bogart Collection ($44.92) isn’t the usual patchwork star box: You get the eternal Casablanca, Bogie facing Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo, and the once-lost original version of The Big Sleep, including 20 minutes that were cut and replaced by scenes beefing up the Bogart-Bacall relationship (a post-film documentary compares the two versions). FoxVideo’s six-tape Singing Detective ($99.98) is writer Dennis Potter’s phantasmagorical, autobiographical, musical revamp of the private-eye genre, unavailable on video since its critically lauded 1988 PBS airing. Our recommendation: Depends on who’s getting it. If the recipient’s an AMC-addicted classics hound, Humphrey’s your man. If he or she can handle something different, the seven-hour Singing is hilarious, biting, imaginative, and deeply moving — a one-of-a-kind experience that rewards repeat viewings.