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Halloween Treats on DVD

Anchor Bay's HALLOWEEN and Warner's New Releases Promise to Send Chills Your Way

An Aisle Seat Entry

By Andy Dursin

Seemingly everything is being released on DVD these days, and with prices dropping and selection increasing, there's certainly a lot for consumers to choose from at the local video store.

Naturally, with this being Halloween Week and all, it's not surprising that several noteworthy horror genre releases have found their way onto DVD, with two of them dressed up in new THX transfers and Dolby Digital soundtracks to boot. So, if you crave videos ideal for Trick or Treat viewing, then look no further than the next group of releases! (And avoid the godawful transfer on Universal's new BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN DVD, which is another topic for another day).

Anchor Bay, one of the format's champions for their deluxe treatment of forgotten genre films and obscure classics, has been the primary driver behind the recent restoration of two beloved horror flicks, which should be of the most interest to buffs this Halloween season.

John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN (2-DVD Limited Edition set, $44.95, ***1/2 movie, ***1/2 presentation) has been released on home video more times than perhaps any genre film. Being independently produced and distributed (it's still one of the most profitable films ever made), HALLOWEEN is a landmark genre film that remains as fresh and entertaining today -- particularly in the wake of SCREAM and the recent revival in horror/slasher films -- as it did back when it was regionally distributed around the country to theaters in the late '70s.

For starters, Carpenter's film makes excellent use of Dean Cundey's cinematography and the director's own musical score, establishing mood and atmosphere instead of blood and guts gore. The film's look has never been duplicated, and even though the shocks (once you have seen the movie a handful of times) become routine at times, it's the overall environment of the piece that's creepy and always worth revisiting. Jamie Lee Curtis makes the most of her first starring role (admitting it was her best part until TRUE LIES came along years later), while Donald Pleasance's perfectly pitched performance as Doctor Loomis remains one of his finest hours, finding the right note between heroic crusading and deranged lunacy.

And what's more, Carpenter's direction accentuates the unseen horrors as much as it does the on-screen violence: quite unlike its imitators and even its own sequels, most of the killings occur off-screen. Carpenter ends up getting more jolts out of sound effects and quick cutting than he would showing the various murders of Michael Myers on-camera, and it's a lesson that a lot of filmmakers should have taken into account whenever tackling similar material. It isn't the script so much as it is the execution that makes this movie the classic that it is.

Most home video releases of HALLOWEEN, however, have rarely done justice to the film. Back when I was a kid, we had to settle for Media Home Entertainment's ugly, out-of-focus, pan-and-scanned cassettes (some of which erroneously contained the expanded TV version), which still managed to scare the heck out of any impressionable youngster. I recall one particular birthday party where a friend of mine rented the movie and everyone was scared to death, not exactly the usual after-school fiesta!

Things definitely changed a few years ago when Criterion released their deluxe laserdisc, which offered the very first letterboxed presentation of Carpenter's full Panavision frame. Seeing that Criterion disc, which was also packed with a handful of outstanding extras (including a terrific audio commentary), was like viewing HALLOWEEN for the very first time, and that's a feeling I had once again while watching Anchor Bay's brand-new, remastered DVD edition.

With a gorgeous, flawless new THX remastered transfer, Anchor Bay's DVD truly does live up to its billing as a HALLOWEEN "like you've never seen or heard before." The picture is flawless and improves on the Criterion laserdisc with its superior contrast level and complete lack of video noise. Even more impressive is the all-new Dolby Digital soundtrack, which was produced by Chace Sound and composer/sound designer Alan Howarth expressly for this Anchor Bay release.

While every previous laser/DVD release has been in the original mono sound, HALLOWEEN's soundtrack has been given a complete stereophonic overhaul, and the impressive layering of new digital sound effects, blended with the original music and dialogue tracks in 5.1 Digital, creates a whole new listening experience.

Complimenting the vibrant new soundtrack and transfer is a wealth of supplemental materials headed by Mark Cerulli's "Halloween Unmasked 2000," an enjoyable new documentary that offers recent interviews with Carpenter, co-writer/producer Debra Hill, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nick Castle (who played "The Shape"), Moustapha Akkad, and others. Running just under a half-hour, the program offers an engaging recap of the film's production and release, and subsequent rise as a genre classic.

While the Anchor Bay DVD lacks the commentary and still-frame extras of the Criterion laser, the documentary adeptly compensates for those omissions, and AB has rounded out the DVD with two trailers, radio spots, and an extensive still gallery of photos and poster concepts.

You can get this HALLOWEEN package for $29.98 as a single DVD release, or could splurge $44.95 for the Limited Numbered Edition 2-DVD set, which offers the "Expanded" 104 minute version of HALLOWEEN, including the 12 minutes of additional scenes Carpenter shot during the filming of HALLOWEEN II to augment NBC's network TV showings. However curious the new footage will be to viewers, these scenes -- while opening up the narrative to include the rationale for Michael Myers' stalking of Jamie Lee Curtis (the plot revelation that they are, in fact, siblings is first mentioned only in the sequel) - - are basically static and throw off the deliberate pacing of Carpenter's film to a noticeable degree.

There's also a plus and minus to Anchor Bay's presentation of these sequences: while letterboxed at 2.35 (the Criterion laserdisc presented them pan-and-scan), the DVD is also missing a noticeable transition dissolve! When little Michael is unmasked by his parents, there should be a fade-out and segue to a title card establishing the time and place of the next sequence. Here, Anchor Bay's TV version abruptly cuts right INTO the added scene of Donald Pleasance at a hospital board meeting determining Myers' fate, missing the title card introduction altogether. As such, the TV version on Anchor Bay's presentation is technically incomplete, giving one reason to hang onto your Criterion laserdiscs (or old VHS tapes of the TV version).

However, it's just one minor quibble with an excellent set overall, one that's a definite MUST for any HALLOWEEN fan.

Anchor Bay has also given a Deluxe, 2-DVD Limited Edition presentation to Sam Raimi's third "Evil Dead" entry, ARMY OF DARKNESS ($44.95 2-DVD Limited Edition, *** movie, ***1/2 presentation), which comes packed with the kinds of extras AB jammed on their HALLOWEEN disc.

I've probably seen ARMY OF DARKNESS too many times by now to render an objective opinion on it, the result of countless college screenings and multiple showings on video than I care to remember. However, when I first saw the movie, I found it to be exhilarating fun, a perfect blend of spoof, sword-and- sorcery horror, and homage to the films of Ray Harryhausen.

Die-hard EVIL DEAD aficionados were ticked off by Sam Raimi's accent on slapstick and humor, but a lot of this film's fans admired the switch to outright comedy, this reviewer included. Bruce Campbell reprises his role as Ash in a twisted take on "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," where our hero is transported back to Arthur's kingdom to fight the evil Deadites, who here resurrect an army of skeletons and corpses in an effort to retrieve that elusive Necronomicon, the book of the Dead. Comedy, hilarious one-liners, and fun special effects ensue in this brisk and marvelously entertaining fantasy, which was cut down (against the filmmakers' wishes) by Universal for its U.S. theatrical release back in early 1993.

Anchor Bay's Limited Edition 2-DVD set gives you both the original U.S. theatrical version, presented in a new THX transfer with a remixed Dolby Digital soundtrack (courtesy again of Chace Productions), as well as the domestic premiere of Sam Raimi's original "Director's Cut," running 96 minutes with additional, never-before-seen outtakes making their debut on home video.

Now, while the "Director's Cut" contained herein runs longer than both the Japanese import laserdisc and the TV version screened on Sci-Fi Channel last year (both of which contained footage excised from the U.S. release), it also LOOKS vastly inferior to both of those presentations. While letterboxed mildly at 1.66:1, the transfer is often muddy, dark, and out-of-focus, the result of using a workprint and videotape (at least it looks like some of the extra scenes were culled from tape) to secure the original, longer sequences. Why the producers didn't go looking for the source elements utilized for that Japanese laserdisc (which contained the "international release version" producer Dino DeLaurentiis sent outside the U.S.) is anyone's guess, since that LD contained a vivid picture and excellent stereophonic soundtrack -- certainly far better than the erratic and disappointingly uneven transfer contained on this DVD. Anchor Bay did go to the trouble of making this version enhanced for Widescreen TVs, which is appreciated but not necessary given the wildly inconsistent look of the Director's Cut.

On the other hand, I actually prefer the U.S. theatrical cut over Raimi's original version, and after listening to Raimi and Campbell's commentary on the "Director's Cut," I'm not too sure that Raimi didn't agree with some of the changes Universal mandated, either. While the movie's running time was cut by a good 15 minutes (sometimes trimming down too much atmosphere in the process), several Ash lines were substituted at various points by funnier takes, and the "downbeat, ironic" original finale -- which may have suited a darker, edgier movie -- was eliminated in place of a much funnier, more exciting ending that puts a perfect cap on the preceding.

Certainly the THX transfer and Dolby Digital soundtrack on the U.S. theatrical version is far, far superior to the "Director's Cut," so in terms of picture and sound, most viewers will be sticking to the American version anyway. The U.S. theatrical version DVD also contains the original trailer (illustrating how perplexed Universal was in selling a sequel film to a public that had, by and large, never seen its predecessors), a behind-the-scenes featurette, both letterboxed and full-frame versions of the film, and the original ending as an added supplement.

This DVD is available separately as a $29.99 single disc edition, while the $44.95 Limited Edition DVD offers the added second disc presentation of the "Director's Cut," which also features an enlightening audio commentary with Raimi and Campbell, four completely deleted outtakes (which have never seen the light of day, not even on the myriad bootlegs that have been circulating around), director's storyboards and other conceptual art.

While the single-disc edition gives you the best presentation of the U.S. theatrical version (and does, admittedly, offer the original ending as a bonus), die-hard ARMY OF DARKNESS fans should definitely splurge for the Limited Edition 2-DVD set, since the commentary and extra deleted scenes can only be found on the second disc. Despite the disappointing transfer on the "Director's Cut," it's nevertheless a highly recommended package for the denizens of ARMY OF DARKNESS fans around the world.

Not to be outdone, Warner Home Video has released three chillers on DVD this week that are also worth taking a look at before, on, or around October 31st.

William Castle's 1959 chiller HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL ($19.99, **1/2) is regarded as one of the fright filmmaker's best flicks, starring Vincent Price as a playboy millionaire who invites a handful of folks to spend the night in his haunted house. If they're alive the next morning, each receives a $10,000 check, though it's clear that there's more than ghouls and ghosts on Price's mind as corpses turn up, women scream, and Elisha Cook looks on with the downcast look of a man haunted by spirits.

A murder-mystery with a few fun jolts, HOUSE is only 75 minutes long and never quite transcends its B- movie roots, but it still gets a lot of mileage out of Price's performance, which is calmer than usual but just as campy as one would hope it to be. The black-and-white cinematography is effective and the movie remains an enjoyable lightweight thriller, with Von Dexter's bombastic orchestral score being strictly a product of its time.

Warner's DVD, issued undoubtedly in conjunction with both Halloween and the release date of its special effects filled remake (which opens this Friday), is remarkably clear with only a few shots near the opening credits showing any sign of print wear and tear. The Dolby Digital encoded monophonic sound is also distortion-free, and there's a theatrical trailer included along with some wacky menu screens. The DVD comes in both a matted widescreen and non-letterboxed format.

Also out from Warner is the complete mini-series presentation of Tobe Hooper's SALEM'S LOT ($19.99, ***), the 1979 made-for-TV adaptation of Stephen King's bestselling novel.

David Soul plays a writer who returns back to his native Maine hometown, only to find the place overrun by an antiques shop owner (James Mason) who's leading a parade of vampires into the community. Teacher Bonnie Bedelia is obviously concerned, as are many of the town's parents, once the undead even begin claiming some of the children in Salem's Lot.

SALEM'S LOT was the first King made-for-TV project (and was adapted by Paul Monash for the small screen), and the medium illustrated that what it lacked in showing on-screen violence, it compensated for in allowing additional character development, the product of longer running times. King has always recycled elements of his work in various novels and scripts (there's a lot of NEEDFUL THINGS in SALEM'S LOT, for example), but Hooper manages to create several memorable moments, and gets several good performances out of his cast (particularly the menacing Mason) along the way. The images of the undead child scratching on the bedroom window of his friend are disturbing and extremely effective, and the ending is satisfying even if the unnecessary epilogue seems as if it was intended to launch a prospective weekly series that never materialized.

Filmed as a two-part TV movie, SALEM'S LOT was released to European theaters in an abbreviated 112 minute cut that added several shots of gore not included in the American televised version. This DVD includes the full, 183-minute cut of the U.S. mini-series version, but with the extra shots from the overseas prints inserted back into the picture.

Warner's DVD looks remarkably clear and colorful, so much so that one is alerted to the fact that the movie's occasionally brash cinematography is the result of a network television production. Harry Sukman's sometimes heavy-handed score also comes across well in the punchy, Dolby Digital-encoded monophonic soundtrack, and there's a theatrical trailer (for the overseas version) included as well.

Finally, even though it's not a product of the horror genre, Michael Chricton's effective 1978 adaptation of Robin Cook's COMA ($19.95, ***) also sees a Warner release on DVD this Tuesday, and it's actually ideally suited to this time of year.

Genevieve Bujold and Michael Douglas star in this creepy medical thriller, featuring Bujold as a doctor who investigates a series of coma cases that may have been intentionally caused by a Institute that steals the bodies for their own "research." Richard Widmark is excellent as the menacing Dr.Harris, while Chricton -- who directed and wrote the screenplay -- paces the film deliberately, perfectly mounting tension and exploiting the dramatic situation at hand. It's curious that, while this movie may not as explicitly violent or horrific as the genre films discussed above, it's actually more disturbing than expected since its basis in the real world of medical research makes it the kind of thriller that COULD, possibly, happen.

Warner now controls COMA as a result of Time Warner's merger with Ted Turner's company (which means Warner's library now includes all MGM movies made prior to 1986), and their DVD looks quite good all around. The non-anamorphic 1.85 transfer is clean (there's also a full-frame version on the flip side), and the Dolby Digital mono soundtrack is also free from any distortion. Jerry Goldsmith's eerie score makes the drama even more frightening, though I would avoid viewing the theatrical trailer (which divulges too much of the movie's plot) until after seeing the picture.

For $20, it's a solid effort by Warner Home Video, though I would assume their spelling of "Metro- Goldwyn-MEYER" will be corrected on future pressings!

WEB ALERT: In case you missed it, the official SLEEPY HOLLOW website has a sneak preview of Danny Elfman's score available via 10 downloadable audio "tracks." These are, in actuality, all quite brief and each very bombastic (at least the ones I listened to appear to be of the same "horrific vocal wailing and brass" variety), but at least you can get some indication of what Elfman's score is going to be like. You can find it at http://www2.sleepyhollowmovie.com/multimedia/music/music.html

NEXT TIME: The "New" HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and, of course, your comments. Remember to direct all emails to me at dursina@att.net and we'll catch you next time. Happy Halloween!


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