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Forgotten gems live on video

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Video stores provide a flood of Hollywood offerings, but as the holiday giving season draws near, some fans may want to peer beyond the latest buzz-titles for more surprising treats.

The crown jewel of the new crop dates from the fabled silent-screen era. Les Vampires, directed by Louis Feuillade, is a 10-part serial focusing on the exploits of a criminal band headed by the beautiful Irma Vep, whose name is an anagram for the gang. She and her gang are as wily as can be, but ultimately no match for the hard-nosed reporter who tracks them down. "Les Vampires" is available from Water Bearer Films in a superbly restored four-cassette package featuring color tinting, English title cards, and the sort of sprightly music that might have accompanied the movie's 1915 debut.

If this puts you in a mood for suspense, you might try Kino Video's new discoveries from the Hollywood studio vaults. The most striking is Lured, made in 1947 by Douglas Sirk. The wildly eclectic cast includes Lucille Ball as a dance-hall girl turned detective, Charles Coburn as her Scotland Yard mentor, George Sanders as a suspicious suitor, and Boris Karloff as an aging artist with very strange ideas.

Ren Clair's 1944 It Happened Tomorrow stars Dick Powell as a dashing reporter who finds he can read the next day's headlines in today's newspaper. Also new from Kino is Alibi, directed in 1929 by Roland West who brings a shadowy Germanic style to a tale of crooks vs. cops during Prohibition. Some critics consider West a forgotten genius, and there's no better example of his talent than The Bat Whispers, a 1930 melodrama (on Milestone) that helped inspire pop-culture wizard Bob Kane to invent his "Batman" comic strip.

More dreamlike touches are found in another Milestone offering: Night Tide (1963), directed by Curtis Harrington. Dennis Hopper plays a sailor in love with a mysterious woman who may be a mermaid, or a monster, or perhaps just an ill-starred person who doesn't fit into the everyday world. One of the most understated "creature features" ever made, it's delightful to view in this restored edition.

* Water Bearer Films: 800-551-8304 or www.waterbearer.com; Kino Video: 800-562-3330 or www.kino.com; Milestone: 800-603-1104 or MileFilms@aol.com.

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