Laserblast: Amityville, Cinderella, & Val Lewton Collection

Lots of great horror, fantasy & sci-fi DVDs to choose from this week, whether you're a fan of classic or contemporary films.

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR was a retread of a bogus, supposedly true story, but the film at least had some decent atmosphere and a few genuinely spooky moments. Now it's out on DVD as a "special edition," in both widescreen and full screen versions. For bonus features, you get eight deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, an audio commentary with actor Ryan Reynolds and the filmmakers, multi-angle on-set peeks, a photo gallery, and more.

Disney offers up its classic animated fairy tale CINDERELLA (which recently completed a ten-day "platform" release at the studio's wonderful El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood). This Special Platinum Edition Collector's Gift Set is loaded with extras. The film itself has been digitall restored, both visually and aurally. You get multiple languages and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The two-disc box set includes six exclusive drawings anda  new "Cinderella" book. The DVD bonuses include a making-of feuterette, a documentary disclosing deleted scenes, a "laugh-o-gram," reconstructions of deleted songs, a tribute to Disney's "nine old man" of anmation, the "Art of Mary Blair," a story-board-to-film comparison of the opening sequence, still frame and slideshow galleries, an excerpt from the Mickey Mouse club with Helene Stanley, original release and reissue traielrs, Cinderella and Perry Como, Cinderella title song (audio only), seven unused songs (audio only), three radio programs, House of Royalty (Sally learns to be a princess), the Royal Life (DVD-Rom design studio), Princess Pajama Jam, a sneak peek of CINDERELLA III, ESPN Classic's Cinderella Stories, and some all new music videos.

Last week, we mentioned the imminent arrival of the Val Lewton Horror Collection; now it's here. You get ten classic low budget horror films of a quality so high that it almost seems a shame to call them B-movies -- even though that's exactly what they were. RKO, a major studio, was reusing sets from expensive flops like CITIZEN KANE and THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS, in the hope of recooping their money. Val Lewton, a pulp novelist, was hired to produce a series of modestly-priced thrillers that would turn a profit, thanks to their lurid titles. Although designed to make a cheap, fast buck, the films were produced with great care and subtlety, including careful attention to scripting and an emphasis on atmosphere, punctuated by brief "shocks" (e.g., the loud air brakes of a bus that barges into frame unexpectedly, as a character fears she is being stalked by a monster).

THE CAT PEOPLE was the first, and it set the standard. It's about a Serbian woman (Simone Simone) who fears that she will turn into a lethal black panther when sexually aroused. Needless to say, this ruins her marriage, and her jealousy is aroused when her husband seeks other female companionship. The film's attitude toward the sexual undertones is dated (all the husband does is talk with another woman), but the atmosphere works well. The film is notable for not showing the transformation into panther, relying instead on shadows and suggestion. One could almost (but not quite) read the film as a psychological horror story about a woman who only believes she turns into a cat.

I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE is an effective variation on JANE AYRE, set in the West Indies. There is little in the way of shock, but this is one of the most beautifully done of the Lewton films - probably the best of those directed by the talented Jaques Tourner (which include the CAT PEOPLE and LEOPARD MAN).

THE LEOPARD MAN is generally cited as a decline in the series. The film is less an outright horror movie than a mystery thriller (about a murderer who disguises his crimes as the work of an escaped leopard). Nevertheless, the film has a handful of excellent sequences that make it essential viewing, including the famous nighttime walk by a young child sent out to run an errand - despite her fear of the dark. Her fears turn out to be justified; but mom, thinking her child is just being superstitious, refuses to open the door for the screaming child - with lethal results.

CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE is an oddball sequel, with three returning characters but little actual continuity. There are no curses or cat people; isntead this is a fairy tale-type story about a lonely child befriended by an imaginary friend (Simone again), who may or may not be a ghost. This film marked the entry of director Robert Wise into the series, who took over midway through production.

THE BODY SNATCHERS, also directed by Wise, is a very strong dramatic entry in the series, starring Boris Karloff and Henry Daniel, with Bela Lugosi in a supporting role. This has perhaps the most solid story of the series.  The film focuses on the dramatic conflict between the upper class doctor who needs corpses to teach anatomy and the lower class thug who supplies them. The overt horror content is minimal, relying mostly on the unsavory subject matter to convey chills, but the scare scenes are very effective when they come.

After Tourner, who was a master of atmosphere, and Wise, who was great with the drama, the next director to work for Lewton was Mark Robson (who decades later went on to direct the blockbuster disaster pic EARTHQUAKE). Robson's work tended to be competent but not inspired. His films in the series  (which included THE GHOST SHIP and THE SEVENTH VICTIM) are still worth seeing, but they do not quite hold up compared to the earlier filmsdirected by Tournerur and Wise.

Of these, ISLE OF THE DEAD and BEDLAM are perhaps of greatest interest, because of the presence of horror star Boris Karloff in lead roles. The former is set on an island suffering from plague that causes catatonia, resulting in people being buried alive and rising from the dead. Karloff plays a general who goes mad with superstition, thinking that the revived people are vampires. BEDLAM casts Karloff as the head of the titular institution for the mentally ill. The film is mostly a dark melodrama, with only a few scares (e.g., hands suddenly reaching out from behind bars), but it is quite good.

The DVD box set features audio commentary from film historian Greg Mank and star Simone Simon on the two CAT PEOPLE films, from journalists Kim Newman and Steve Jones on I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, from Steve Haberman and director Robert Wise on THE BODY SNATCHERS, from journalist Tom Weaver on BEDLAM and from Steve Haberman on SEVENTH VICTIM. Also included are theatrical trailers and a documentary called "Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy."

ALSO THIS WEEK

Other titles on DVD include STARGATE SG1 - Season 7 and STARGATE SG1 - Season 8; KOLCHACK - THE NIGHT STALKER television series with Darren McGavin; and STAR TREK: NEMESIS - Special Collector's Edition.