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Paramount Studios presents
Red Letters (2000)

"In murder, what can you trust, your emotions or the evidence?"
- Promotional tagline

Review By: Joel Cunningham   
Published: February 27, 2001

Stars: Peter Coyote, Nastassja Kinski
Other Stars: Udo Kier, Fairuza Balk, Jeremy Piven
Director: Bradley Battersby

MPAA Rating: R for (strong language including sexual dialogue and some nudity)
Run Time: 01h:42m:04s
Release Date: January 30, 2001
UPC: 097368603141
Genre: suspense thriller

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C+ C-CB- C-

DVD Review

Alfred Hitchcock is widely recognized as one of the greatest film directors of all time. Of his 64 films, many are remembered as classics. What a lot of people forget, however, is the fact that Hitchcock made some stinkers in his later years. His last few films were downright bad. Red Letters, a 2000 release that, as far I can tell, premiered on video, could be called a Hitchcockian thriller, in that it could have been one of his final, really stupid movies. No, sorry, I'm overselling it. It's more along the lines of a Jeannot Swarc-ian (Supergirl, Jaws 2) masterpiece, except it isn't as good as Somewhere in Time. Suffice it to say, I am not a fan.

Dennis Burke (Peter Coyote), professor and author of a popular novel about sexuality, is forced to move across country to get a job after he is fired from his university position for having an affair with a student. Just days after he arrives at his new home, he receives some rather interesting letters in the mail, all postmarked from a women's correctional facility. It seems the previous occupant of Burke's apartment had an interesting correspondence going with an incarcerated woman, Lydia (Nastassja Kinski), who claims she didn't commit the murder she was imprisoned for. After Lydia escapes, Burke must deal with the police, his university's administration, and the sex-crazed daughter of the dean, Gretchen (Fairuza Balk), who is obsessed with his novel.

Director Battersby (who also co-wrote) tried to infuse Red Letters with a distinct, oppressive visual style (at least, that's what he says in the commentary). In reality, he has created a visual style that is ugly and uninteresting. For some reason, everything looks like it was shot through a fine film of dust. I guess that adds style, or something. Snerk. And talk about overselling the material... Battersby plots the film like a gripping mystery full of twists, turns, and sexual tension. Unfortunately, there are no twists, since we are told who did what almost immediately, and any attempts to create a moral crisis or any sort of tension between Burke and Lydia fail totally.

The plot was so routine, I began to pick on little inaccuracies in the film that really began to irritate me. Red Letters really talks down to the audience, making sure every single piece of evidence is carefully explained. For example, at one point we see Kinski drive off in Burke's car. Minutes later, Burke sees the car parked outside the university. He then helpfully comments, "Lydia is in there!" just so the audience members with less than or equal to four brain cells can keep up. There is also a long-winded, Psycho-like explanation at the end that tells everyone's motives and such.... Hey, it really IS Hitchcockian!

Acting is hit or miss. Coyote isn't too bad per se, but I wouldn't say he really has "leading man" written all over him. I'd say he more has "Announcer of the Oscars" written all over him. He just seemed too overblown and theatrical to me. Kinski is fine, but her part is pretty microscopic. Balk is nice, as always, but she likewise isn't given much emoting to do. Jeremy Piven is a bright spot. He brings a lot of energy and humor to some very bad dialogue. My favorite performance, however, is that of the great Udo Kier as Kinski's estranged husband, who is always a blast to watch. That creepy accent just amuses me to no end. Here, he is saddled with, hands down, the worst line of dialogue I have ever heard. When Kinski says something along the lines of, "We've got a few things to straighten out," Kier replies, "Yeah, you can start with my d---." Horrible, right? Well, just imagine Kier saying it. "Ya, jou chan sthart weeth my deek." Classic.

Red Letters could have been good. I went into it expecting a fun, erotic, Basic Instinct, guilty pleasure type thriller. Unfortunately, the film doesn't live up to the description on the back of the box. Instead of a delectably cheesy, overdone sex mystery, we get a bland, boring, and decidedly unsexual mystery.

One final note: Peter Coyote's character has a strange obsession with Nathaniel Hawthorne. He keeps a copy of The Scarlet Letter framed on his desk, and he tells anyone who will listen that it is a signed first edition. Now, at one point, he removes the book from the case and hands in to a man he has just met—WHO IS EATING—because the guy has never read it. Now, I'd say, "Yeah, it's a good book, but buy a copy at Barnes and Noble, and keep your donut-stained mitts off my priceless first edition!" Not this Burke guy, however. In fact, he gives the damn thing away, like he has another at home. Also, at one point the "inscription" is shown. It is in ballpoint pen and Hawthorne's name is misspelled.

Rating for Style: C+
Rating for Substance: C-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The image on this disc is not the best. Colors are very bland and muted, although after listening to the somewhat overblown commentary track, I am inclined to think this was intentional. Fine detail is sorely lacking, and there is a bit of edge-enhancement, although nothing major. There is also a lot of film grain, betraying the movie's low budget. Overall, just not very nice to look at.

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: This audio track is fairly standard. Everything takes place in the front soundstage, with dialogue always sounding clear and clean. The surrounds are basically inactive, except for a few passages of score. Still, the film doesn't call for much more than this, since there only one real action scene.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Director Bradley Battersby, writer Tom Hughes, and DP Steven Fierberg
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:12m:22s

Extra Extras:
  1. Still gallery with talent facts
Extras Review: Paramount has provided a number of unnecessary supplements for this release, but I guess even a bad movie deserves a shot at a commentary track.

Said commentary, with the director, writer, and the DP, is very, very dry and technical. The three seem to think they have made a much better movie than what is on screen. Several times they mention shots that were intended as homage to great filmmakers like Godard and Truffaut. It seems like they just picked out these scenes to show off their knowledge of film history, because they certainly don't add much to the story at hand. They also frequently make comments like, "The drywall in this shot represents the invasion of the new into the old," which is the kind of stuff I hadn't expected to hear after finishing Intro to Film History last year. I mean, come ON! This is a Silk Stalkings-level storyline, and they are talking about metaphor?

Also included is a short photo gallery of promotional stills for each of the stars, along with a short text bio.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Don't be fooled by the box art to Red Letters. It would imply that it is a fairly thrilling and suspenseful ride, with a bit of S&M sex thrown in. Nope. There is little mystery to the proceedings, and except for some really nauseating nudity at the beginning, we don't even get Cinemax-level sex in this one. And what is the deal with that lady in black leather down at the bottom of the picture? Nothing remotely like that is in the film. Not even a knife. Maybe I'll pretend I saw THAT movie. See, she has a mask on. Maybe she is a new superhero, the S&M Avenger, who smites evil with the pleasure of pain! Or something. Anyway, don't rent this, watch the USA network instead.


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