Halloween Horrors from The Aisle Seat!
DVDs, Laserdiscs & Tapes Perfect for Halloween viewing
by Andy Dursin
While maybe dressing up as the masked killer from SCREAM or a member
of the Washington Redskins constitutes this year's trendy Halloween costume,
some things never change on October 31st--like Aunt Tillie's Pumpkin Pie,
the big bag of candy corn that you can't stop eating, and the memory of
the Mounds/Almond Joy ads that would run in between each commercial of
IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE BROWN (or the goofy "A CBS Special
Presentation" logo that used to run before all kids specials growing
up. Remember that one? The swirling circle and the crazy percussion, topped
by a full orchestra blaring at the end?).
As always, renting some appropriate videos is always a part of the mix,
though this year are numerous releases to choose from, particularly on
laser and DVD. As a companion to my "Laserphile" column from
the next FSM, here are several worthy candidates for viewing this year.
GHOST STORY (*** movie, *** presentation; Image
DVD, $29.95): Stylish, beautifully scored, and exceptionally well-photographed
adaptation of Peter Straub's sensational book manages to capture just enough
of the essence of Straub's novel to make it a recommended view.
Fred Astaire (in his final film), Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks,
Jr., and John Houseman play an group of elderly gentleman that gather intermittently
to tell ghost stories in a small upstate New England town. When one of
their sons (Craig Wasson) returns home, he finds the men being haunted
by something resembling a ghostly woman (Alice Krige) he encountered himself
while teaching in college, leading to a long-forgotten secret and its subsequent
cover-up that has now affected two generations of families in decidedly
Straub's book was a fascinating tapestry of flashbacks, folk tales,
and relationships set against the backdrop of a multi-layered ghost story.
Somehow along the line, screenwriter Lawrence D.Cohen and director John
Irvin's work was compromised, resulting in an often choppy film that seems
to have left a substantial amount of subplots on the cutting room floor
(I emailed Mr. Straub a year ago, and he said that even people involved
in the production of the film were left wondering "what happened?"
after watching the final cut at a premiere screening). A novel like Straub's
actually would have benefited from a lengthier, TV mini-series presentation
than a feature film adaptation, but fortunately there are still a handful
of spine-tingling moments on-hand that make GHOST STORY worthwhile.
After a rocky start which barely details the characters' backgrounds
and some shady supporting roles, the movie settles in and benefits greatly
from Jack Cardiff's atmospheric and evocative cinematography, which makes
GHOST STORY one of the more effectively shot pictures in recent genre history.
The entire set piece with Wasson and Krige is subtle and chilling thanks
to Cardiff, who unsettlingly uses water in a handful of different ways
as symbolic imagery for the origin of the haunting. Philippe Sarde's score--with
its dissonant, horrific passages and rapturous melodic lines--is as good
as any horror score of the last twenty years, and splendidly bridges the
gap between the often undernourished narrative elements of the final cut.
Image's DVD looks superior to the old MCA laserdisc, with crisper resolution
and stronger colors in place of the sometimes chroma-noise plagued original
transfer. The sound is in mono, which is unfortunate as Sarde's score would
have sounded that much better in stereo, though this is still a supremely
effective recording--even in single-channel mono, you can hear all the
creaky sound effects of the haunted house as if you were really there.
MCA's laserdisc did include a theatrical trailer (the only benefit of the
LD over the DVD), though neither release has the additional footage found
in Universal's syndicated TV prints (this version shows up occasionally
on Sci-Fi Channel).
If you've never read Straub's book, GHOST STORY is certainly worth a
look, and for those readers who know going in that the movie is a simplified
rendering of the novel's plot, it's still a better-than-average chiller
with a great score and truly haunting cinematography.
THE BEAST (**1/2 movie, *** presentation; Image
laserdisc, Stereo, $49.98): I admit it, I'm a sucker for Peter Benchley
movies. While JAWS is an all-time favorite for many viewers, I've also
enjoyed the boring--but beautifully scored by John Barry--THE DEEP and
also THE ISLAND. Remember that one? It's the Michael Ritchie directed,
unintentionally-funny 1980 fiasco with Michael Caine, made during that
prolific period when Caine was cashing checks from Irwin Allen. (If you
have a chance to catch this on Encore sometime, be sure to listen for Ennio
Morricone's laughable score, which sounds as if it's supporting an old-time
Errol Flynn swashbuckler!).
While I rather enjoyed PETER BENCHLEY'S THE CREATURE last May, this
1996 NBC mini-series "event" is superior in most regards, even
if Don Davis's score tips us off to the giant squid's appearance by hitting
us over the head with bombastic strings and brass each time out! William
Petersen and Karen Sillas make for an appealing pair of heroes ought to
stop a squid from ruining everything for a small community in the Pacific
Northwest; Larry Drake (L.A. LAW, DARKMAN), meanwhile, turns up in this
production's equivalent of Robert Shaw, while Charles Martin Smith (AMERICAN
GRAFFITI) appears as THE BEAST's Murray Hamilton.
Of course, you know formula is going to be a major element in any Benchley
production, though the filmmakers of THE BEAST--namely, screenwriter J.B.
White and director Jeff Bleckner--seem more content to adhere to the JAWS
blueprint than even Benchley's original book, which was set in the Caribbean.
There are the requisite ersatz scares and the gigantic confrontation between
man and beast, which does boast impressive special effects for a television
effort, and all of these things make for perfect escapist fare--and ideal
Halloween viewing, particularly if you have extra time to spare and your
kids' costumes are marked "Some Assembly Required."
Image's laserdisc exclusively contains the original, 3-hour mini-series
length version of THE BEAST (Universal cut the movie down for VHS) and
a strong stereo soundtrack that ably supports the sound effects and Davis's
score, which is better the lower you have the volume set. The transfer
is colorful and nicely captures all of the Australian locations the production
was filmed on. For waterlogged viewers like myself, THE BEAST is an enjoyable
EVIL DEAD 2 (*** movie, ***1/2 presentation; Anchor
Bay DVD, $24.95): Anchor Bay has taken the digitally remastered, letterboxed
transfer of EVIL DEAD 2 from Elite's Special Edition laserdisc and ably
transferred it to this more affordably-priced DVD.
For most viewers, Sam Raimi's 1987 sequel-remake to his humorless "Evil
Dead" is a blast of gory entertainment, made palatable for even mainstream
viewers by a surprising amount of slapstick humor and Bruce Campbell's
manic lead performance. As Ash, a guy who brings his girlfriend to a cabin
out in the woods for the weekend (mistake #1), Campbell displays perfect
timing and physical comedy skills as all things eeeeeevil (as Richard Burton
would say) begin emerging from the "Necronomicon," the Book of
the Dead, which a professor was working on in the cabin before things went
Raimi would fine-tune the ribald humor found here even further in this
film's sequel, ARMY OF DARKNESS, though die-hard horror fans still find
this picture to be the perfect blend of blood n'guts and comedy, sort of
a blend of the original "Evil Dead" and a Three Stooges farce.
As a Halloween rental, it's ideal, especially if you have some friends
over who have never seen it before.
Anchor Bay's DVD looks razor-sharp and exhibits few shifting backgrounds
or other artifacts of digital compression--in fact, it's the best looking
video version of EVIL DEAD 2 to date. The mono sound is average but Joe
LoDuca's enjoyable hodgepodge of a horror score still packs a pretty good
punch. While a theatrical trailer is included, none of the additional supplements
from Elite's laser have been incorporated (including Raimi and Campbell's
commentary and a behind-the-scenes featurette), though you can't beat this
price. Highly recommended.
SUPERGIRL (**1/2 movie, ** presentation; Anchor
Bay VHS, $10): Especially noteworthy for Jerry Goldsmith fans, Anchor Bay
has unearthed the full-length, 124 minute European version of SUPERGIRL
that has never been officially released in the U.S.
When this Alexander Salkind production was released domestically in
1984 by Tri-Star Pictures, a good 20 minutes were excised, some of which
necessitated alternate music cues in place of the longer compositions Goldsmith
originally wrote (many of these discrepancies are addressed on Silva Screen's
expanded CD release). While the European theatrical release turned up on
ABC's network airings (and more recently on TBS), it has only been the
abbreviated Tri-Star version that's been available here on video, at least
Anchor Bay's VHS release, despite erroneously listing the running time
as 114 minutes, was acquired through Canal Plus+ Distribution, and does
indeed include all of the additional footage from the European version
with the alternate Goldsmith cues--most notably a longer version of Supergirl's
first flight upon landing on Earth among others. The movie itself remains
a guilty pleasure, with its unpretentious comic book tone and campy performances
by the likes of Faye Dunaway and Peter O'Toole (who ends up being washed
up, on the rocks in the Phantom Zone in more ways than one) making for
irresistible fun, not to mention Helen Slater's cute debut performance
as the Maid of Steel.
Unfortunately, there are a few disappointing elements which hinder this
release from being dubbed a "definitive" presentation. The cropped
transfer of this Panavision film is murky and drab, looking very much like
one of ABC's TV airings, with the print appearing inexplicably dark around
the edges. It could be that the transfer was derived from a PAL video source,
accounting for the often blurry and barely-average resolution of the picture.
More frustrating is that the sound is in hi-fi mono, a genuine caveat given
that the movie was recorded in Dolby Stereo, with all previous video versions
and even cable airings having utilized the original stereo mix. Goldsmith's
score sounds pinched and compromised here, as do the "whooshing"
sound effects whenever Helen Slater flies into and out of the frame.
Anchor Bay, however, should be commended for releasing this SP-recorded
tape at a certainly affordable $10 pricetag, and if you're a Goldsmith
fan or an admirer of this movie (for whatever reason), it's hard to pass
up. However, if the company ever releases SUPERGIRL on DVD (an undertaking
which they currently have no plans for), a new letterboxed transfer of
a fresher, stereophonic print would be strongly advised.
I received this email concerning my last column, which covered the Goodtimes
DVD letterboxed reissues of HALLOWEEN II & III (and a possible goof
on the part of esteemed critic Roger Ebert in his print review).
From A. Doghty:
I've also read Roger Ebert's print review of HALLOWEEN III: SEASON
OF THE WITCH and I'm sure this is another case--there must have been a
couple--where Roger's rotund form had slumped forward and fallen fast asleep
while screening the film, probably resembling--in profile--the equally
rotund Alfred Hitchcock (I don't know where I'm going with this). Rest
assured, he didn't watch it too carefully.
There is a "sifting through the ashes" scene allright,
but it's pretty clear that the ashes being sifted through are those of
Cochran's robot drone which was torched in the self-immolation, car-fire
at the beginning and not Michael Myers'. Ebert may have been scraping to
find a reason to dislike a picture he originally reviewed quite favorably
on that edition of SNEAK PREVIEWS you mentioned. Ebert was visibly excited
while reviewing the film, dubbing it "surprisingly well-made"
with boyish, wide-eyed wonder. It was only when Siskel pretty much threatened
his professional reputation, saying, ominously, "Roger, I'm going
to remind you that you liked this one..." that he broke, defensively,
into his rendering of the "Silver Shamrock" ditty, as if fearfully
imploring Siskel to get on board with him and find something positive to
say about the film. Siskel merely rolled his eyes, and Roger appeared afraid,
Apparently concerned over the blow he might have dealt his journalistic
credibility, Roger's print review slammed the film--in some cases unjustly,
as with the misunderstanding of the "ashes" sequence--representing
a complete about-face from his earlier position. I remember this well,
because this was the first time I saw this--usually invisible--fascist
pressure not to be a "rogue-critic" with a fresh, non- traditional
take on a film of a type and genre historically loathed by the critical
establishment (Horror, and maybe teen-sex comedies...or teen-horror- sex-comedies).
Thanks for the note, A. I personally saw this same "about-face"
in several reviews of GODZILLA this past summer, most on notably one major
internet news site, where the author initially went on and on about how
great the movie was in his first review. THEN, after obviously reading
about the diminishing box-office returns and all the negative backlash
the movie received a few days after its premiere, he claimed to have "gone
back and re-viewed" the film to get "a second opinion,"
then proceeded to trash it like virtually every critic and media member
did. He did the same thing later in the summer with ARMAGEDDON but decided
to stick with his original "what a awesome movie" opinion after
seeing how much the movie grossed in its first week. As they say, be wary
of such two-faced critics. It's one thing to see a movie twice and change
your opinion over a period of time, but it's quite another to do so immediately
and obviously out of pressure to your so-called "professional reputation."
NEXT TIME: BRIDE OF CHUCKY and PLEASANTVILLE, two movies that
don't seem to belong in the same sentence. Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org