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Aisle Seat Halloween Thrillers

From TREMORS 3 to THE MUMMY RETURNS, Creepy DVDs for October 31st!

By Andy Dursin

No use in beating around the bush this week -- Halloween is just over a week away, and now is the time to plan your viewing schedule. This year, the spooks have been running rampant through the DVD shelves, culminating in plenty of diverse flicks to suit your trick-or-treating needs. Here's our rundown of the spooky digital lot...


New and Noteworthy

REPLICANT (***, Artisan, $24.98): Maybe it figures that one of Jean-Claude Van Damme's best movies is one of the few that has gone straight to video.

Before you shudder at the thought of watching any Van Damme movie deemed NOT good enough for theaters, at least consider this taut and exciting twist on the same old martial arts nonsense, directed stylishly by Ringo Lam and backed by a superb performance from the always dependable Michael Rooker.

Rooker plays a veteran cop -- on the verge of retirement -- obsessed with tracking down a serial killer (Van Damme #1) who preys on mothers with young children. The "National Security Council" decides to genetically create a clone of the killer (Van Damme #2) that's nowhere as evil, yet just as physically talented, holding a physic link with his very nasty, "real" twin.

With a reasonably strong budget at hand here (considering a film bypassed for theatrical release), Lam is able to craft an efficient thriller with just enough action to keep fans watching, while the Lawrence David Riggins-Les Weldon script actually bothers to develop characters -- concentrating especially on the relationship between the "Muscles from Brussles" and Rooker.

It's no classic, but REPLICANT is still superior B-movie entertainment, managing to strike the right balance between sci-fi and action that eluded Van Damme in his promising but ultimately disappointing 1994 hit "Timecop."

Artisan's DVD features a fine 1.85 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, along with Van Damme's audio commentary, a full slate of deleted scenes culled from a workprint, storyboards, and a trailer.


THE FORSAKEN (**, Columbia TriStar, $24.98): WB network stars Kerr Smith ("Dawson's Creek") and Brendan Fehr ("Roswell") top-line this low-budget and sporadically entertaining teen vampire opus from writer-director J.S. Cardone.

While taking a jaunt across the desert, Smith stumbles across hitch-hiker Fehr and a girl (Izabella Miko) about to be turned into a vamp unless the duo can track down the source of the infection -- namely, one-time rising teen star Johnathon Schaech, who rides around like one of the bums you'd find in a '60s beach party flick, excepting for sucking the life out of all those he comes in contact with.

With an obvious limited budget at his disposal, Cardone does a fairly capable job of keeping the action moving in this short and mildly entertaining effort, which offers ample doses of blood and some nudity -- all perfect for its intended teenage audience.

Columbia's DVD features a solid 1.85 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, an informative commentary from the director, a pair of featurettes (again clearly intended for the "Tiger Beat" audience the movie was going after, despite its R rating), several deleted scenes, theatrical trailers, and a full-frame version of the movie as well.

THE FORSAKEN may not be "The Lost Boys," but if you know what you're getting yourself into, it's an above-average candidate for Halloween viewing.


CIRCUITRY MAN DOUBLE FEATURE (*** original, ** sequel, Columbia TriStar, $24.98): In the annals of straight-to-video sci-fi features, the late '80s and early '90s were a fertile time. During the span of a couple of years, we saw the arrival of everything from the British bomb "Slipstream" to the Lovy Brothers' CIRCUITRY MAN, which first hit store shelves in 1989 and became something of a minor cult classic.

This tale of an android searching for his place in the world does not resemble A.I. in any regard. Instead, it fits comfortably into the post-apocalyptic genre begun by MAD MAX but with a disarming sense of humor and low-key tone that has made it a fan favorite.

Jim Metzler plays the Circuitry Man, a "pleasure" droid who accompanies one-time "Fletch" star Dana Wheeler-Nicholson's bounty hunter on a trip across the wasteland, smuggling computer chips that create a virtual "high" for all its recipients. Vernon Wells, who co-starred in THE ROAD WARRIOR, plays the villainous Plughead, a freakish looking bad guy who wants to steal the chips and destroy the brain cells of all living humans.

It may sound like a formulaic mix of MAD MAX, CHERRY 2000, and JOHNNY MNEMONIC, but this unabashed B-flick is engaging sci-fi fun, right down to Deborah Holland's atypical score, which features a jazzy, lounge-room ballad as its theme song.

The Lovy Brothers, who wrote and directed the original, returned for PLUGHEAD REWIRED: CIRCUITRY MAN II in 1993, but like a lot of unnecessary follow-ups, it's nowhere as fresh or fun as its predecessor. Here, Wells nabs top billing (relegating original leading man Metzler to third billing and less screen time) as Plughead plots to take over the world in an overlong rehash of the original, minus most of the charm that marked the first installment.

Columbia's DVD presentation offers a two-sided DVD with the original on one side and the sequel on the other (though they're mismarked on my review copy). Both 1.85 transfers are more than acceptable, with 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks of the original "Ultra" Stereo mixes. Fun commentary tracks include the filmmakers and composer Holland, who admits she's received letters from fervent fans of her soundtrack, including one who wanted a copy of her title song for his wedding! (No, it definitely was NOT me).

In all, a nice Double Feature DVD from Columbia, certainly considering the price.


Universal Horrors

TREMORS 3: BACK TO PERFECTION (**, Universal, $26.98): The principle of diminishing returns has finally caught up with everyone's favorite saga of giant underground worms, which first burst onto the scene in the 1990 sleeper hit with Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward. It was followed by a surprisingly fun and engaging 1995 direct-to-video sequel ("Tremors 2: Aftershocks") that brought back Ward and gun-totting survivalist Michael Gross, as the worms mutated into two-legged critters with heat-seeking sensors.

With Fred Ward now out of the picture, Gross' Burt Gummer takes center stage in TREMORS 3 as the worms return to the sleepy town of Perfection, Nevada -- setting of the original "Tremors." Joined this time by a would-be theme park entrepreneur (Shawn Christian) and the daughter of the town's late supermarket owner (Susan Chuang), Gummer takes out the buggers once again, though this time they mutate into strange bat-like critters that create a formidable presence above the ground as opposed to simply below it.

Brent Maddock, who wrote the first two installments with partner S.S. Wilson, makes his debut in the director's chair this time out, and brings many of the original film's supporting cast along with him -- including Ariana Richards, now all grown up as the former pogo-stick-jumping Mindi.

Unfortunately, the slim budget severely puts a damper on the whole show, with below-average special effects and production values sinking the filmmakers' obvious enthusiasm for the project, along with game performances by the cast.

"Tremors 2," while a straight-to-tape project itself, did offer some terrific creatures from Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, and production values that were comparable to the original. It's unfortunately evident from some of the very first frames of TREMORS 3 that the cash flowing into the project was much tighter than its immediate predecessor, as it results in a lot of dry, talky sections (especially during the first 40 minutes) and action that happens off-screen. Even the mechanical effects of the giant worms has been primarily replaced with poor CGI work, the kind that wouldn't even look proper in a video game on your PC. That's not to say that viewers who enjoyed the originals may not be amused by this project -- just that it's a major comedown from the solid genre thrills offered by both of its predecessors. Universal's DVD features a good 1.85 transfer but a remarkably weak 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack, boasting a disappointing, formulaic score by Kevin Kiner (making you all too aware of the film's meager budget) and a dialogue track that's sometimes tough to hear. Trailers for all three "Tremors" and a featurette round out the package.


THE MUMMY RETURNS (**1/2, Universal, $29.98): Saying that there's a lack of surprise involved with this bigger sequel is a bit absurd, given that there wasn't much in the way of originality in its predecessor. This time out, writer-director Stephen Sommers has cut down on the labyrinthine, claustrophobic settings of his original hit and made a broader, more expansive adventure with exciting fight sequences and a brisker pace -- though minus a compelling story to hold your interest the second time around. The plot revolves around the bracelet of one Scorpion King (wrestler The Rock, on-screen for less than a handful of minutes), the resurrection of our old pal Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo again), and the quest for control of an army of the undead which could give the Mummy -- or the Scorpion King -- power over the entire world. In order to save us all, Brendan Fraser is back with wife Rachel Weisz, Egyptian warrior Oded Fehr, and brother-in-law John Hannah, all of whom are not only after the bracelet but Fraser and Weisz's wise-acre eight-year-old son, whom Imhotep has kidnapped. Also back in a more prominent role is Patricia Velasquez as the latest reincarnation of Imhotep's beloved, Aksunamon.

THE MUMMY RETURNS is more Indiana Jones-like in its execution than the original -- meaning it's even less like the vintage Universal horror series it loosely originates from -- but it's hard to resist the movie's visual charms, at least on initial viewing. Adrian Biddle's colorful cinematography, ILM's special effects (which range from merely-adequate to excellent), and Sommers' set-pieces are all more elaborate than the original film, meaning there's a lot less of Fraser wandering around corridors and more scenes of warring armies, lush forests in the middle of the desert, and flashbacks to ancient Egypt.

On the other hand, I was struck by how little plot and character development there was while sitting through it again on Universal's DVD -- even for the kind of brainless fantasy Sommers produced here. Kids will enjoy the film, but I have to admit that I may have over-rated this picture when I first viewed it in on the big screen.

Certainly Universal's dynamite 2.35 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack will prove to be near-reference quality for many home theater addicts. The supplements, though, are far from definitive: outtakes consist of a rock-music video montage of bloopers, while the feature commentary track offers director Sommers and editor Bob Ducsay in a reasonably informative chat. Most of the extras, though, are strictly of the promotional variety, from ads for the upcoming spinoff "The Scorpion King" (with a brief interview with The Rock himself), to a 20-minute "Spotlight on Location" that's a typical product of the studio PR machine, and a music video of the truly hideous Live song that runs over the end credits.

Alas, there's no music-only track of Alan Silvestri's superb soundtrack, but after the isolated score debacle on the original "Mummy" DVD, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise.


PLAY MISTY FOR ME (***, Universal, $24.98): A special edition DVD from master supplemental producer Laurent Bouzereau, PLAY MISTY FOR ME -- Clint Eastwood's feature directorial debut -- was the original "Fatal Attraction," an exciting pop-thriller that set the formula for many a demented ex-lover picture to follow.

Eastwood gives a laid back performance as a California DJ with a caller (Jessica Walter) who develops an unhealthy obsession with the velvet-voiced radio host. The two start an affair after they meet up (bad move, Clint), but after Eastwood calls it quits, Walter pulls what would later become known as "The Glenn Close thing," stalking our leading man and his new girlfriend (Donna Mills).

The movie's look and feel aren't anything extraordinary (Eastwood had yet to begin his career-long love for 2.35 cinematography), but PLAY MISTY FOR ME holds up quite well despite some of its dated '70s fashions and music. (For laughs, be sure to check out the mind-boggling, over-the-top theatrical trailer -- a definite sign of the times.)

Bouzereau's 50-minute documentary forms the centerpiece of the supplements, offering new interviews with the participants (including Eastwood and Walter) and a look back at the production. Other extras include a photograph montage, Eastwood briefly discussing the benefits of DVD as well as his friendship with mentor Don Siegel, and a neat look at various poster designs.

The 1.85 transfer and mono soundtrack, in the meantime, are both as strong as any Universal movie from the same period could possibly appear.


BLOOD SIMPLE (***, Universal, $24.98): The Coen Brothers' first film doesn't include the humor of their later pictures -- something that's either good or bad, depending on your point of view.

Either way, BLOOD SIMPLE is still a suspenseful and quirky film noir variant, with small-town Texas wife Frances McDormand having an affair with John Getz, while spurned husband Dan Hedaya hires detective M. Emmet Walsh (in one of the character actor's best roles) to investigate the couple. From there, it's a complicated web of double-crosses with occasional touches of the Coens' off-kilter sense of humor giving just enough distinction to the preceding.

Ironically, it's this sense of humor that gets the bigger boost out of their new 96-minute cut, which saw a limited theatrical release last year. A spoofy "restoration expert" appears to discuss the movie at the start, while an audio commentary track is provided by "Kenneth Loring of Forever Young Films" -- quite obviously a joke perpetrated likely by one of the Coens themselves, pretending to be a snobby British member of the crew! Universal's DVD also contains a 1.85 transfer and 2.0 surround soundtrack, plus the theatrical trailer.

BLOOD SIMPLE isn't one of my personal favorite Coen films, but it's nevertheless essential viewing for film buffs, and an important part of the filmmakers' canon now preserved on DVD.


Pungent Paramount Chillers

ALONG CAME A SPIDER (**1/2, Paramount, $29.98): Morgan Freeman reprises his Alex Cross role from "Kiss the Girls" in a moderately enjoyable thriller that was, according to numerous reports, heavily doctored in post-production. (That may explain why the ending comes across as incredibly basic; according to a friend of mine, the scenes without Freeman were entirely re-filmed, with only his shots remaining from the original finale!) Up until the end, director Lee Tamahouri spins an intriguing kidnapping tale with nutcase Michael Wincott abducting the daughter of a U.S. senator (a wasted Michael Moriarty). Jerry Goldsmith's by-the- numbers but effective score and the widescreen lensing give the movie a glossy sheen, but the big problem is bland co-star Monica Potter, whose distinct lack of charisma on-screen and Julia Roberts imitation wear thin -- fast. Together with Freeman's already-stoic character, there's no emotional pull to the movie, even though it consistently keeps you watching. Still, ALONG CAME A SPIDER is the kind of film that is more enjoyable on the small screen, and Paramount's DVD is the way to go in order to catch the original 2.35 Panavision cinematography. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is polished, though for extras, only a standard featurette and the original theatrical trailer are included.


TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: THE MOVIE (**, Paramount, $24.98): Aaah, remember those fun '80s TV horror anthology shows like the "Twilight Zone" update and "Tales From the Darkside"? Neither were Peabody Award-winning, yet both were fun in a cheap, over-the-top, '80s kind of way.

For some strange reason, the "Darkside" producers decided to produce a theatrical film based on their show several years after the fact, and the result was this oddball but-not-bad 1990 effort featuring three stories: Michael McDowell's "Lot 249," starring Christian Slater with early appearances by Steve Buscemi and Julianne Moore; George Romero's "Cat From Hell," with William Hickey; and McDowell's "Lover's Vow," with James Remar falling for mysterious single mom Rae Dawn Chong. Framing the stories is a bit of tongue-in-cheek silliness with witch Debbie Harry ready to fry one of Joey Lawrence's little brothers (fun!).

Most anthology films don't work too well, and while there's nothing exceptional about "Darkside: The Movie," it's still kinda fun for those who remember the era in which it was made.

Paramount's DVD features a fine 1.85 transfer, the trailer, a 5.1 soundtrack, and best of all, one of the year's more engaging commentary tracks with Romero and director John Harrison. They're both candid about working in the business and on the film, and neither takes any of the film too seriously -- providing the perfect accompaniment to the film itself.


WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (***, Paramount, $24.98): End of the world movies may not seem all that appealing at the moment, but this no-frills edition of George Pal's 1951 saga offers an interesting glimpse of what happens when Earth is on track to crash into a star that has veered off-course, and how only a handful of people can board a spaceship for another inhabitable planet.

The Sydney Boehm script is a bit more provocative than you may expect from an early '50s sci-fi opus, but the key is the special effects, which rightly nabbed an Oscar in their day. They're so good, in fact, that you'll forgive the hideous matte painting of the alien planet (with pink tree cutouts) at the end of the film, which apparently was a temp effect that was never finished!

The DVD offers an adequate full-frame transfer from decent source materials, with a so-so monophonic soundtrack. The original trailer is included as an extra.


THURSDAY: You've waited patiently, and now Trekkies will be rewarded with the Director's Cut of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE. The Laserphile's all-knowing review, plus more DVDs for your perusal. Direct all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then!


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