This week's home video releases are a bit of a sorry lot. Who really needs SLITHER and/or AN AMERICAN HAUNTING on DVD - except as coasters? With that in mind, we'll give a brief rundown of the new discs on the market, followed by some classics recommended for the Halloween season.
SLITHER is a bit of a misfire, a gross-out horror comedy that plays like a no-budget midnight movie inexplicably shot on a studio budget. There are soem good bits and pieces scattered throughout, but overall this is a film that takes the easy course: go for cheap laughs to cover up the deficiencies in story-telling. You'd be much better off checking out last week's unrated DVD release of FEAST, a film that knows how to pull this kind of thing off.
The SLITHER DVD comes in fullscreen and widescreen editions. Bonus features include extended scenes, a gag reel, a look at bringing the monsters to life, a set tour with star Nathon Fillion, a making-of featuette, and an audio commentary by Fillion and writer-director James Gunn.
AN AMERICAN HAUTING, which claims to be based on the "true" story of the Bell Witch, came and went from theatres earlier this year, without much fanfare. Now you can own it in one of two versions, either the PG-13 theatrical cut or a new unrated cut.
Bonus features include: "video" commentary by director Courtney Solomon; alternate and deleted scenes; an interview with Solomon and actress Sissy Spacek; Internet promotions, trailers, and TV spots.
NIGHTMARES & DREAMSCAPES: FROM THE STORIES OF STEPHEN KING offers up a mini-series comprised of eight separate tales, with episodes starring William H. Macy, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Kim Delaney, Steven Weber, Henry Thomas, and Clair Forlani. The DVD includes additional scenes, a featurette, interviews, and production sketches.
HALLOWEEN HORROR RECOMMENDATIONS
Halloween arrives next week. Those of you too old to trick-or-treat may be looking for a way to enjoy the holiday, possibly with a favorite horror movie playing in your home video system. Here's a brief list of some DVDs we recommend. We're not necessarily trying to pick the most obvious or popular choices, just ones that are right for the season.
THE BELA LUGOSI COLLECTION offers old-fashioned horror at its finest. Lugosi, who became a star as DRACULA, did not have a particularly successful subsequent career, often relegated to low-budget schlock movies, but this single-disc package (with excellent cover art) assembles five relatively lavish films he made at Universal Studios, four of them co-starring rival horror star Boris Karloff. Only BLACK FRIDAY (made in 1940) truly disapoints. MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, THE BLACK CAT, THE RAVEN, and THE INVISIBLE RAY are all enjoyable films. The storytelling can be creaky by todays standards, but the movies are drenched in black-and-white atmosphere that stands the test of time.
Bonus features are limited to re-release trailers for MURDERS, RAY, and FRIDAY. The most intersting of the three is the last one, which gives the full-on Hollywood hype for a publicity stunt wherein Lugosi was supposedly hypnotized to think he was really suffocating during his death scene. Strangely, the scene as it plays in the movie itself barely registers; the film seems almost demure in its handling, compared to the emphasis in the coming attractions footage.
Like THE BELA LUGOSI COLLECTION (also released by Universal), the Hammer Horror Series is a barebones DVD set that is worthwhile because it collects a number of essential titles into one affordable package. In this case, we're getting early '60s horror from England's Hammer Films, when the company was experimenting with the traditional Gothic form (as with their interesting but overly melodramatic adaptation of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA), as well as dabbling in black-and-white psycho-thrillers like PARANOIAC and NIGHTMARE.
The highlights here are BRIDES OF DRACULA and CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, two of Hammer's best efforts. KISS OF THE VAMPIRE is an interesting variation on the familiar mythology (the vampires behave a bit like a religious cult) that clearly influenced Roman Polanski's DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES. NIGHT CREATURES is more of an adventure-thriller, with a phony supernatural element, but the movie still entertains. Only EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is an outright disapointment, thanks to a weak screenplay; still, the creation scenes is suitably spectacular.
THE VAL LEWTON HORROR COLLECTION assembles ten films (including a documentary) on five DVDs into one impressive box set. These chillers, produced by Lewton in the 1940s, emphasize suggestive shudders instead of outright shocks, and the scripts tended to take a sophsticated, adult approach to horror. There are seldom if ever any real supernatural elements; instead, people grapple with superstitious beliefs as they face terrifying situations, implying that the real horror dervies from internal psychology rather than cat people, zombies, and vampires.
I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and THE BODY SNATCHER (the latter with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi) are probably the two best of a very good bunch. THE CAT PEOPLE is also quite good, although a bit compromised (the studio wanted to see an actual panther, instead of suggesting that the woman-to-cat transformation took place only in the lead character's mind). CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE is more of a children's fairy tale than a horror story, but it remains a lovely film. BEDLAM is a powerful drama set in an insane asylum, with another strong Karloff performance. ISLE OF THE DEAD is a bit jumbled, but it has a nicely sustained mood of pessimisim and despair, as characters suffering from the plague succumb to superstition, gradually belieivng they are victims of a vampire. THE LEOPARD MAN is generally considered a disappointment; it's more noir mystery than outright horror, but it has several powerful scenes, including the famous one of the little girl pounding on the door to get inside, while her mother refuses to open up, believing the daughter to be simply afraid of the dark - until blood runs under the doorjam. Finally, THE GHOST SHIP is a misleadingly titled thriller about a ship whose captain is pretty much a certifiable psychopath. It has an interesting story, with a new upstart officer trying to alert the crew to the truth that only he sees, but the resolution is a bit melodramatic and pat.
The discs are loaded with a fairly impressive set of extras for a seires of films made so long ago. Besides the informative documentary "Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy," there are several trailers and audio commentaries. Most of the commentaries are by film historians, but Robert Wise (director of BODY SNATCHER) and Simone Simon (star of CAT PEOPLE) also show up. All in all this is an essential set for fans of classic horror and/or simply good cinema.
King Kong is not exactly my idea of Halloween horror (I prefer vampires and witches this time of year), but he is one of the most famous movie monsters ever, so I'll include him in this list, thanks to the KING KONG COLLECTION. This box set assembles three DVD releases into one glorious package: the 1933 KING KONG, its same-year sequel SON OF KONG, and the 1948 psuedo-Kong effort MIGHTY JOE YOUNG. Only the first one is a true classic, but the two follow-ups have their moments and are certainly essential viewing for fans.
The SON OF KONG disc is pretty bare bones (just a trailer), but both KING KONG and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG are packed with features. YOUNG includes two featurettes with Ray Harryhausen, who provided much of the stop-motion work that brought the oversized ape to life. There is also a theatrical trailer and an audio commentary with Harryhausen and Ken Ralston (of Industrial Light & Magic).
Even better is KING KONG, a two-disc set that includes two great documentaries, one about the career of producer Merian C. Cooper and one devoted to the production of KONG itself. There is also a gallery of trailers from Cooper's films; test footage from CREATION (an abandoned film that provided many dinosaur sequences for KONG); and an audio commentary by effects experts Ray HarryHausen and Ken Ralston, which incorporates quotes from Cooper and actress Faye Wray, who played the girl in the hairy paw.
Moving from monsters to ghosts, we have UGETSU, a Japanese film whose title translates as "Moonlight." This is a certifiable classic that recently ranked on Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest movies ever made. Directed by Kenji Mizoguchi, it is a period drama about the effects of war on two married couples, but the chaotic disruption of normal life soon gives way to spectral scenes of the supernatural. The effect is more tragic than frightening, but this is one of the greatest achievements ever when it comes to presenting ghosts on screen, with only simple bits of trickery to clue viewers in to the undead existence they are witnessing (at one point, a human man's breath clouds into fog as he crosses paths with a woman he thinks is alive).
The box set contains two discs. The first includes an excellent high-definition transfer of the film, with new subtitles; an authoritative audio commentary; theatrical trailers; and some informative featurettes and interviews with the late Mizoguchi's co-workers. The second disc features the 1975 documentary KENJI MIZOGUCHI: THE LIFE OF A FILM DIRECTOR. There is also a beautiful 72-page booklet that includes an essay about Mizoguchi and three short stories that inspired his film.
This may not be your typical Halloween horror film, but it is a great movie. Even if you're not a big fan of Japanese cinema, you may find yourself surprised by this one. And even people who don't like ghost stories will fall under its spell.
I know, I know: this list contains an awful lot of classics, but right about now you're probaby hungering for something more contemporary. Here goes:
The RINGU ANTHOLOGY OF TERROR assembles the four original Japanese films in the RINGU series, which inspired the Korean remake THE RING VIRUS and the American remake THE RING. The best of the bunch is the original RINGU, which remains one of the greatest horror films of all time, far outdistancing any of its follow-ups. RASEN, RINGU 2, and RINGU 0 may not match their predecessor, but all of them have strengths that make them worth seeing, and taken together they form a fascinating quiltwork of themes and ideas. Unfortuantely, the four-dsic box set contains no bonus features.
If you cannot stand Japanese subtitles in your ghost stories, and insist on seeing American stars, then we suggest you check out the Director's Cut DVD of THE GRUDGE. The editorial differences are minor (a few moments of horror linger longer on screen, and there is some re-ordering of scenes), but they combine to create a notably stronger impact than the PG-13 theatrical version. You also get fifteen deleted scenes; two short films from director Takashi Shimizu; some video diaries from Sarah Michelle Gellar and KaDee Strickland regarding their time in Tokyo; and lots of other stuff. The highlight has to be the audio commentary with Shimizu, producer Takai Ichise and actress Takado Fuji (who plays the ghostly Kayako), wherein Shimizu repeatedly laments the restrictions put on him by the American producers and chides them for trying to script the film to explain away all the mysteries in the original Japanese version, JU-ON: THE GRUDGE (explanations that ended up on the cutting room floor, thankfully).
Finally, for those who sincerely believe it's not frightening if it's not full of blood-and-guts, we recommend the unrated director's cut of George A. Romero's LAND OF THE DEAD. It's no match for Romero's 1968 NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and his 1979 DAWN OF THE DEAD, but it does show the master back at work and expanding on his living dead mythology in interesting ways, using the zombies as a metaphor in a political satire and drenching all of it in outrageous carnage. Read our review of the film, including DVD details, here.