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A Halloween Harvest of DVD Terror!

From PITCH BLACK to ICHABOD & MR. TOAD and THE BLACK CAULDRON, there are treats for everyone this October on DVD

An Aisle Seat Entry by Andy Dursin

It cannot be any coincidence that once we get close to Halloween, major studios see fit to begin releasing a glut of horror, sci-fi and fantasy films on DVD.

This year's crop of genre releases offers something for every creature in your household -- young or old, classic horror fan or Cinemax aficionado (and you know who you are!). Let's start by breaking it down into several categories for your trick-or-treating convenience (including some underrated fare you might have missed), and don't forget to email your comments to me at dursina@att.net for inclusion in next week's Aisle Seat. Happy Haunts, everyone!


NEW HORRORS

A surprising hit in theaters last spring, David Twohy's PITCH BLACK (**1/2, $29.98) is now likely poised to become an even bigger success on the small screen.

Vin Diesel, who is quickly trying to become an action star through his own blatant self-promotion if nothing else, plays a convict on a transport ship that ends up crashing on a barren planet infested with a strange assortment of flying, dinosaur-like creatures.

Twohy, who co-scripted this formulaic but entertaining sci-fi thriller with Jim and Ken Wheat, has quietly been involved in the making of a handful of pictures that were surprisingly good, from "G.I. Jane" to the highly underrated (and hilarious) action thriller "Terminal Velocity" with Charlie Sheen.

Making his directorial debut here, Twohy does his best behind the lens to jazz up the modest budget of this Polygram (USA Films) production, utilizing widescreen lenses, filters, and competent CGI effects to create a fairly suspenseful ride. The trouble with the picture, alas, is the script and a collection of unlikable characters, from Diesel's psycho protagonist to Radha Mitchell's abrasive female captain.

The movie also could have used some more humor and the removal of a weak teen character that doesn't end up serving much purpose, but despite all of that, "Pitch Black" manages to get the job done for genre aficionados, particularly if your expectations are lower than they might have been shelling out $8.75 to see it in theaters.

One thing's for sure: Universal's DVD offers a splendid video and audio presentation, with a crisp 2.35 transfer and both Dolby Digital and DTS tracks, the latter of which is especially effective. A handful of supplements include two commentary tracks (both featuring Twohy, who shares some of the same anecdotes on them!), trailers, and promotional featurettes.

It should be noted that Universal is releasing two versions of "Pitch Black" on DVD: the R-rated theatrical cut, plus an "unrated director's cut" with some three minutes of extra gore. We did not receive the unrated version for review so I don't know about the specific changes in the picture, but the supplements are reportedly the same on both discs. Recommended viewing either way.

Not a brand-new release but an overlooked 1996 title making its widescreen debut on home video, Eric Red's werewolf chiller BAD MOON (***, $19.98) is also newly out from Warner Home Video on DVD.

A Morgan Creek production that was unceremoniously dumped into theaters with no fanfare the day AFTER Halloween that year (good thinking, right?), this stylish and taut B-movie is surprisingly well- written, adapted by the director from Wayne Stevens' novel "Thor" about a boy, his dog, and his uncle -- who happens to be a werewolf newly transplanted to the Pacific Northwest (and who happens to be played by Michael Pare of "Eddie and the Cruisers" fame).

Mariel Hemingway plays the boy's Mom, but the real star of the movie is the German Sheppard that plays Thor, who ends up kicking the heck out of the man-wolf in an exciting climax that makes you wonder why the studio didn't have more confidence in this short (79 minutes including credits) but highly entertaining horror picture at a time when were (and still are) overloaded with too many genre flicks that simply don't know how to tell a good story.

Red, who made the equally engaging "Body Parts" but has since been through reported personal problems, does a fine job accentuating story and character here, making this a gem of a werewolf picture that really deserved a better fate at the box-office and among genre fans, who have hardly heard of it.

Warner's DVD marks the first-ever release of the movie on video in its 2.35 widescreen aspect ratio, since a planned laserdisc release never materialized. The transfer is good, the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is fine (featuring a better-than-average score by Daniel Licht), and a theatrical trailer has been included for extras.

For the price, you can't go wrong, and "Bad Moon" is a perfect example of an overlooked movie you should take a chance on this Halloween season.


ALL-AGE TERROR

If R-rated fare isn't on your agenda this October, there are plenty of alternatives for good, decent, trick-or- treating viewing -- especially if you have youngsters around.

Buena Vista has timed the release of two of their animated features perfectly for Halloween consumption: the 1950 classic THE ADVENTURES OF ICHABOD AND MR. TOAD (****, $29.98) and the first-ever widescreen release of the 1985 fantasy THE BLACK CAULDRON (**1/2, $29.98).

ICHABOD AND MR.TOAD combines the delightful adaptation of "The Wind and the Willows" with the equally-classic version of "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." The 68-minute program was released as a single feature but, over the years, has often been cut in half, with Disney showing either the first part or the second half of the picture. The DVD presents the original theatrical cut of the production in a gorgeous, colorful print with an effectively remixed stereo soundtrack as well.

While the "Willows" is undeniably a charming work, the portion with the most interest at this time of year is easily the Sleepy Hollow half of the double-bill, narrated by Bing Crosby in a superlative piece of Disney Americana. The wonderfully articulated characters and justifiably acclaimed climax (the most renowned element of the production) have become staples of Halloween over the years, but what is often forgotten are the charming songs and marvelous work of Crosby, who vocalizes some of his narration in what ought to be essential viewing for any lover of October 31st.

The 1.33:1 framing is here preserved in a terrific transfer, and I also enjoyed the reprocessed-for-stereo 5.0 soundtrack, which throws the dialogue into the center channel with a general, stereophonic presence detectable in the musical underscore. The Disney short "Lonesome Ghosts" (which I fondly recall from having on my 3-D Viewmaster as a youngster) is also included, along with a trivia game and a "Sleepy Hollow Storybook" which kids should enjoy.

Passed over on laserdisc, THE BLACK CAULDRON makes its first "high-end" video release with as a generally acceptable DVD. An expensive, long-in-production Disney effort, this PG-rated feature is a somewhat disappointing adaptation of one of Lloyd Alexander's "Chronicles of Prydain" books, which are truly magical and charming in a way that this rather formulaic animated effort -- as visually impressive as it is -- fails to capture on-screen.

Still, what the picture is best remembered for comes across well here: the animation, shot in the anamorphic Super Technirama 70 process, is given its first watchable video transfer (2.35:1), while the soundtrack is presented in a pungent Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. As I mentioned in last week's column, however, the print Disney used for the DVD is far from pristine: occasional speckles, dirt, and an erratic contrast hamper the presentation, something that should confirm to animation buffs that CAULDRON has never been regarded as one of the studio's finest hours.

Nevertheless, for animation fans, the movie is recommended, as it is most certainly is for Elmer Bernstein's wonderful score -- the movie's chief asset. THE BLACK CAULDRON might have been an expensive disappointment for the Mouse, but it does succeed on a visceral level, and can be looked at as the impetus that lead to the successful overhaul of the company's animated features just a few years later.


BACK TO THE '80s: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE CHEAP!

Like all red-blooded young American guys, growing up in the '80s meant going through a number of rites- of-passage, including my first exposure to R-rated movies. Fortunately, sneaking into them at the multiplex proved easy enough, and when we finally had cable available to us, the coming of Cinemax meant something else altogether: being able to watch a plethora of "After Dark" favorites and a handful of incredibly bad, B-grade horror efforts that I fondly recall in my memory.

One of those flicks was NECROMANCER (Image, $19.98), a massively cheesy but oh-so-fun piece of cinematic junk food about a college student who gets raped by some nasty fellows and decides to exact some revenge by getting involved in the deadly game of voodoo and murder -- specifically, letting out an evil temptress who enjoys making out, and then murdering, the male vermin responsible for the crime!

It doesn't matter if Image's transfer appears a bit lackluster, since the movie's cinematography and cheap, low-low-budget look and score do more for nostalgia than any THX mastering would have accomplished.

For a movie that cries out desperately for any signs of cinematic intervention, it figures that the producers must have blown the majority of the budget on nailing down top-billed Russ Tamblyn to headline the cast. Tamblyn, who plays a goofy play director in several fleeting minutes of screen time, must have been desperate before his semi-comeback in David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" to appear in this production, which nevertheless makes for perfect, MSTK-like viewing for you and your posse if cheap laughs are on your viewing roster.

Anchor Bay has been a friend of many different genres to buffs, but no more so than in the realm of horror and spooky chillers. After last year's terrific one-two punch of limited edition packages for HALLOWEEN and ARMY OF DARKNESS, the independent label has been turning out one spine-tingler after another just in time for seasonal viewing -- some of adequate quality, others engagingly less than that.

My favorite among their new releases is the New World Pictures fave SLUGS ($24.98), a hysterically funny and also incredibly disgusting 1987 monster opus that finds a group of genetically-enhanced slugs wrecking havoc on the entire population of a small town.

Shot in Spain and dubbed into English (often quite amusingly, I might add), SLUGS is a movie that I rented on video while hanging out with some friends during a break from my freshman year at college in 1993. Obviously, with limited time on my hands, there was room for only a bit of movie-watching, but I can assure you SLUGS fit the bill at the time and, after watching it in Anchor Bay's new widescreen DVD release (oh, don't you just LOVE this label?), I can verify that it certainly works its "magic" for the blood n'guts lover of bad cinema.

Where else can you see a couple making out in a gratuitous sex scene -- and then be promptly eaten by slugs? How can you properly describe a sequence where, at a posh restaurant, a man explodes because he's being consumed by the slimy creatures? SLUGS is not a subtle movie by any means but, if you are ever in the mood for this kind of movie, I can't think of a better one off-hand than this one, which boasts a hilarious script that cobbles together elements of '50s B-grade sci-fi flicks with "Jaws" and the gross-out goo you'd expect from any solid '80s genre flick.

With its 1.85 transfer and theatrical trailer, SLUGS has finally been rescued from obscurity in your local video chain's "previously viewed" bin and can now be enjoyed by all of your Halloween party-goers. Trust me, SLUGS doesn't disappoint.

Keeping along the lines of wild and woolly '80s cinema, Anchor Bay has also released solid presentations of a series that "Necromancer" fans almost certainly will enjoy, if they haven't already: the MIRROR, MIRROR trilogy, which have been released as three separate, full-frame DVDs ($29.98).

The original -- still the best and a cable staple -- features the unenthusiastic Rainbow Harvest (there's a name for you) as a Winona Ryder-ish teen shunted by the "cool crowd" at high school. Using a strange old mirror in her room, Rainbow unwittingly unleashes an evil that turns the movie into a fun clone of "Carrie" but in a terribly shoddy, '80s direct-to-tape kind of way.

Still, the movie was successful enough to spawn two sequels: MIRROR MIRROR 2, which stars former "Mr. Belvedere" ingenue Tracy Wells (whatever happened to her, incidentally?) in a laughable sequel that copies only the premise of its predecessor, while RAVEN DANCE: MIRROR MIRROR 3 appears to be an in-name-only sequel (perhaps produced without any involvement in the preceding pictures) focusing on a male protagonist who unleashes more supernatural mayhem, including a sexy temptress right out of your typical "Cinemax After Dark" epic.

Now, these movies clearly aren't on the same level as "Slugs," but if B-grade horror is your game, you could do worse than to check out any of these pictures, which for me, have that nostalgic, Friday late-night viewing after a torturous week in school kind of feel.

Getting back to more mainstream fare, Anchor Bay has finally completed its run of the original "Halloween" movies with a surprisingly extras-packed edition of the 1989 release HALLOWEEN 5 (**, $24.98), which -- along with its belated 1995 follow-up "Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers" -- rank as the two series entries that fail to stand alone without prior knowledge of the preceding pictures.

After "Halloween 4" hit paydirt at the box-office, producer Moustapha Akkad went full-speed into an immediate follow-up -- perhaps too hastily, since part five lacks some of the efficient, B-grade thrills of its predecessor. Picking up right where part four left off (and negating that picture's obvious "twist" ending), Michael Myers is still alive and stalking little Jamie (Danielle Harris again), while an even more possessed Donald Pleasence returns as Doc Loomis, still pursuing Myers -- but hey, it's tough to keep a dead man down, right? Alan Howarth's music is subtle and eerier than his work on "Halloween 4," quoting John Carpenter's theme only sparsely throughout the action. Unfortunately, director Dominique Othenin-Girard doesn't fare nearly as well as Dwight H. Little did on IV, and the plot-heavy script ends with a gigantic, open-ended climax, one that took an unmanageable six years to properly conclude on the big-screen.

Anchor Bay's DVD features a strong 1.85 transfer, effective 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed soundtrack, plus a trailer and a featurette containing new interviews with Akkad (admitting, more or less, that this picture was too rushed in its conception and production), plus Harris and cute co-star Ellie Cornell, who is offed in the first 10 minutes of the sequel -- one of the movie's major faults (and one that Akkad also admits was a mistake). Fans should be alerted that the featurette contains videotaped footage of a prologue cut from the final print, plus a snippet of one deleted scene.

With HALLOWEEN VIII now on the docket for October 2001, here's hoping Akkad brings the series back to its small-town, B-grade roots, since HALLOWEEN 4 and 5 -- while anything but classics -- are at least as effective as the slicker but less entertaining HALLOWEEN: H20, a "studio" picture that nevertheless made enough dough for the further adventures of Michael Myers to continue.

Finally, Anchor Bay has rolled out a deluxe, THX presentation of Clive Barker's 1988 New World production HELLRAISER (*1/2, $24.98), a movie that has never been a favorite of mine particularly but boasts a strong cult following among genre fans.

A gross and rather unpleasant odyssey of demonic terror, Barker's big-screen career was launched with this effort, establishing Doug Harvey's Pinhead as a Freddy Kruger-like menace and Barker as "the future of horror," or at least according to Stephen King at the time. Twelve years later, Barker's filmmaking career has cooled off, and HELLRAISER is now best known as a film that produced a series of increasingly-poor sequels, including a brand new effort that's on its way to video stores everywhere.

There are individual moments of terror but the claustrophobic and rather shoddy production only magnifies the goo and gore of the picture, though I did appreciate Christopher Young's orchestral score. Anchor Bay's DVD features a strong 1.85 transfer, excellent 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, commentary, trailers, and a new documentary on the production of the picture, focusing heavily on the make-up effects work.

If this is your cup of tea, go for the limited-edition set, which also contains the bombastic HELLBOUND: HELLRAISER 2, a sequel which Anchor Bay won't be releasing individually on DVD until next year.


NEXT TIME... AIRPLANE! flies on DVD, plus TUCKER and DOCTOR DOOLITTLE, too! Until then, direct all emails to dursina@att.net and pray we don't have a Subway Series. Excelsior!


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