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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 supernatural ways.

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 diversion.

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 bad.

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 until now.

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.

Reader Replay

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, very 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

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