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Halloween at the Aisle Seat

Reviews of New Genre DVDs
Plus: The Mail Bag Addresses RED DRAGON!

By Andy Dursin

Halloween -- ahhh, that wonderful time of year when leaves fall from the trees, candy corn is readily available at your local drug store, and our pal Linus will be forever waiting out in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to arrive with his bags of toys and presents.

It's also a time when a deluge of new horror flicks arrive in theaters. This year we've seen the American remake of THE RING and the upcoming GHOST SHIP, but there's another genre movie that most of us haven't seen and likely won't be able to, either: David Twohy's WWII haunted submarine thriller, BELOW.

This is a film that's received solid reviews and yet is playing on just a couple of hundred screens nationwide -- and, in most of those theaters, only in late-night showings at that!

So what's the reason for the under-the-radar release? A friend of mine had heard from someone at Miramax (yes, this is sheer speculation) that part of the reason Dimension dumped this out is because Twohy had final cut on the movie and that angered the Weinsteins to no end.

Now, whether that makes any sense or not, I still find it so amusing that Miramax pretends they're a bastion of independent filmmaking, when in reality the Weinsteins interfere in the production, editing, and release of their films more than any other producers in Hollywood!

BELOW sounds like it's a solid genre piece, and since we see so few of those these days, you have to wonder why most of us won't be able to see it until it hits DVD. If anyone can shed more light on this subject, email me at dursina@att.net and we'll try and get to the bottom of it.

In the meantime, DVD owners have a plethora of choices available to them for Halloween viewing. Here's our annual Aisle Seat Halloween round-up for viewers of all ages!


Vintage Chillers

STEPHEN KING'S IT. 187 minutes, 1991, Warner.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: TV mini-series of Stephen King's mammoth novel proved to be a gargantuan ratings success for ABC. Lawrence D. Cohen ("Carrie") adapted King's book and a fine cast was assembled in this tale of a group of childhood friends who reunite to combat an ancient evil hiding out in their small Maine town. Tim Reid, Harry Anderson, John Ritter, Richard Thomas, Dennis Christopher and Annette O'Toole comprise the fine ensemble cast that goes up against evil personified most memorably by Tim Curry's Pennywise the Clown -- and less memorably by a ridiculous-looking monster during the film's rushed climax. Still, the story is compelling and the flashbacks involving the cast's juvenile counterparts (including Seth Green and Jonathan Brandis) provide the bulk of the scares.

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: I'm not quite sure why Warner continues to release 4:3-shot TV mini-series in 1.85 widescreen -- especially those filmed years before 16:9 TVs were any kind of reality. Whether or not the director intended this, the aspect ratio here seems too cramped, cutting off picture at the top and bottom without adding anything to the sides. What's worse, the DVD runs a full five minutes shorter (!) than the original TV mini-series and its original video and laser releases (which will undoubtedly make those a lot more collectible than they have been in years past). Too bad, too, because the disc includes a terrific group audio commentary and a colorful transfer that just happens to be matted incorrectly.

HALLOWEEN SPOOK-O-METER RATING: *** for the show, ** for the disc itself. IT is one of the better King mini-series, boasting strong performances, a moderate amount of scares, and a memorable orchestral score by Richard Bellis. Warner's disc is definitely a disappointment with its edits and questionable aspect ratio, which should make it an iffy purchase for die-hard fans if they aren't interested in the commentary track.


CAT'S EYE. 94 minutes, 1985, PG-13, Warner.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: Still one of the best Stephen King feature films, the scribe himself penned this anthology film that was packaged together by producer Dino De Laurentiis while "Firestarter" was in production. Dino recruited that film's star -- the young Drew Barrymore -- to topline this highly amusing piece, featuring three stories by King (one of them written expressly for the screen). The first features James Woods as a smoker trying to kick the habit; the second spotlights Robert Hays as a guy who Kenneth McMillan tries to kill after he sees him cheating on his wife; and the third stars Barrymore as a young girl terrorized by a tiny gremlin-like creature created by Carlo Rambaldi. Each story is tied together by the presence of a cat scurrying around town, ultimately trying to save the little girl. Director Lewis Teague directed this commercially unsuccessful yet surprisingly well-reviewed 1985 feature, and its release on DVD -- finally capturing all of Jack Cardiff's wide scope cinematography -- is a welcome treat this season.

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: Teague contributes an informative audio commentary, wherein he discusses the film's excised opening prologue, working with the cast, and other tasty anecdotes. It would have been nice to actually SEE the deleted material he's talking about, but short of that, Warner has done a good job with the CAT'S EYE DVD. The 2.35 transfer is excellent and it's great to finally see the movie in its full aspect ratio again. The 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo is also more than adequate (sporting an early Alan Silvestri score), and the original theatrical trailer rounds out the package.

HALLOWEEN SPOOK-O-METER RATING: ***. Now that the movie is finally available in widescreen, CAT'S EYE is a perfect DVD for Halloween viewing, especially if you've got older children (the movie is still one of the few PG-13 rated King flicks). Underrated and well worth a look.


'50s Frights

HORROR OF DRACULA. 81 minutes, 1957, Warner.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: First and pretty much the best in what turned out to be an endless series of Hammer Dracula flicks, "Horror Of" is a tight and vigorous retelling of the Bram Stoker classic. We have Peter Cushing as the irrepressible Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as a mute Drac, but Lee's physical presence and magnetic stare brought a whole lot more charisma to the role than many of his more verbal counterparts. Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster set the blueprint for the handfuls of genre films that followed, establishing a sexier and gorier (though tame by today's standards) trend that came to distinguish the Hammer brand name -- and influence recent films like Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow." For me, this 1958 film is the best of the Hammer films, eclipsed only (arguably) by its immediate (and Lee-less) follow-up, the terrific "Brides of Dracula," which remains available only on laserdisc.

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: Warner has done a nice job with the long-awaited "Horror of Dracula" DVD. The transfer is matted at 1.85 and marks the first time that the film has been available in a letterbox format in the U.S. Compositionally the disc looks generally good, though there are a few times when head room seemed a little cramped (likely it's being matted too tightly). The print, on the other hand, is a marked improvement from past VHS and LD releases I've seen. For special features, the disc is bare-bones aside from the trailer and production notes, though for the price, it still comes recommended.

HALLOWEEN SPOOK-O-METER RATING: ***1/2. One of the true horror classics of the '50s, HORROR OF DRACULA is finally available in a quality print on this side of the Atlantic. Admittedly, the matting is too tight and there are no supplements to speak of, but on the whole I was impressed with the presentation (especially considering the so-so job Warner did on Hammer's "The Mummy" last year).


EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS. 83 minutes, 1956, Columbia TriStar.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: It's "Independence Day," Harryhausen-style! This fun, briskly-paced (80 minutes) and exciting Charles H. Schneer production is best remembered for its Ray Harryhausen special effects finale, wherein extraterrestrials fire upon Washington, D.C. and cause destruction o' plenty. This 1956 sci-fi fantasy boasts a better-than-average plot (by George Worthing Yates, Raymond Marcus and Curt Siodmak) that's not as plastic as, say, "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," but it's still the effects wizardry of Harryhausen that's the reason for the picture's enduring popularity among genre fans.

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: One of the last remaining Harryhausen titles in the Columbia library ("Mysterious Island" is due out next week), EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS offers a generally superb 1.85 transfer and adequate mono soundtrack. For special features we once again have "The Harryhausen Chronicles" documentary and featurettes on Dynamation and a "Making Of" Photo gallery and trailers round out another solid effort from Columbia.

HALLOWEEN SPOOK-O- METER RATING: ***. This is '50s sci-fi fun at its best, with a memorable climax representative of some of Harryhausen's best work. For a nostalgic, vintage Halloween entertainment, this comes strongly recommended.


Sequelitis!

JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY. 93 minutes, 1993, R and Unrated versions, New Line.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: After a surprisingly robust (but financially disappointing) eighth installment in 1989, Paramount opted to cast off the masked villain who had served them so well during the '80s. Fortunately for fans, New Line was interested in picking up the Jason franchise, and JASON GOES TO HELL was billed as the final "Friday" upon its release in 1993. Writers Dean Lorey and John Hughley concocted a "Body Snatchers"-like send-off for Jason, having his spirit possess various victims and cause them to commit a rash of murders. In the process, the two -- along with director Adam Marcus -- throw in references to other genre flicks and have a bloody good time playing around with some of the conventions of the series. At least you have to give points to the filmmakers for trying to inject a little life into the series, though the picture's paltry box-office returns put the kibosh on any future installments -- at least until the studio tried another go-around with this year's "Jason X" (reviewed below).

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: New Line scores again, this time with a Special Edition offering both Unrated and R-rated versions of this entertainingly gory sequel. The 1.85 transfer is as good as the movie can possibly ever look, while DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks are solid on the audio side. The best special feature is a hilarious audio commentary with the filmmakers, who have no problem admitting the film's shortcomings and brainless plot -- but still have an obvious affection for the material. This is easily one of the more good-natured discussions I've heard in a commentary in a long while. Other extras include some interesting deleted scenes that were included in the TV version (which should have been restored back into the film) and the original trailer.

HALLOWEEN SPOOK-O-METER RATING: **1/2. I know I'm in the minority on this one, but I enjoyed the spin on oh-so-familiar material that the filmmakers attempted with JASON GOES TO HELL. Certainly the added extras and typically excellent New Line presentation add immeasurable value to the DVD, making it well worth a viewing this Halloween.


JASON X. 91 minutes, 2002, R, New Line.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: It must have sounded like a good idea at the time: Jason Voorhees running around on a 25th century spaceship, hacking away at teenagers every bit as idiotic as the ones in the 1980s, but this cheapjack and often tedious new entry in the "Friday" series is one of those instances where all the best lines were present in the trailer. Moreover, if you're going to incorporate camp, at least go all the way with it (like Don Mancini did in his outrageous "Bride of Chucky") and don't do what director Jim Isaac did here: basically put Jason in a pedestrian "Alien" rip-off with a half-hearted attempt at self-parody. Sure, there are a couple of funny lines, but suspense-wise, the movie falls completely flat, with most of the movie shot in what seems to be one or two rooms. Even Harry Manfredini's score is a dud, performed entirely on synthesizers. "Jason X" may be worth a look for die-hard fans after downing a few brews, but stay far away from it in any other circumstance.

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: This is another excellent Special Edition release from New Line. In addition to both exemplary picture and sound (1.85 widescreen, 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital), the studio has included a plethora of extras. The best of these is "The Many Lives of Jason Voorhees," which examines the "Friday" phenomenon with interviews from Sean S. Cunningham and Kane Hodder to film historian David del Valle. This is definitely one of the more entertaining documentaries I've seen in a while, and covers all the bases despite not having access to clips from the Paramount series. There's also an audio commentary with the filmmakers, a 17-minute "Making Of" featurette, the original trailer, and DVD-ROM content including the original screenplay.

HALLOWEEN SPOOK-O-METER RATING: **1/2 for fans, *1/2 for everyone else. JASON X isn't the worst in the "Friday" series, and certainly plays better on video than it did in theaters, but it's still an awfully routine and tedious offering just the same.


Direct-to-Video Sequels

VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS. Columbia TriStar, 97 minutes, R, 2002.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: Plenty of action and blood highlight this low-rent but agreeable enough made-for-video sequel to John Carpenter's underwhelming 1998 scare picture. Jon Bon Jovi (obviously in between touring gigs) takes over the reigns from James Woods as a vampire hunter whose latest assignment takes him deep into Mexico to combat a female bloodsucker with the help of a new team (including the often under-utilized Natasha Gregson Wagner). Carpenter pal Tommy Lee Wallace ("Halloween III") wrote and directed this predictable sequel, which does move at a brisker, more satisfying clip than its predecessor, and boasts some light, R-rated bursts of gore to satisfy fans. It's nothing extraordinary but considering its small-screen pedigree, you could certainly do a lot worse.

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: Columbia's 2.35 and full-screen transfers are both terrific, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is bass-heavy, featuring a score by Brian Tyler. Though it may be surprising for a small-screen feature to be shot in scope, with Carpenter's aspect ratio of choice being 2.35, it shouldn't be that shocking that Wallace chose the anamorphic format to shoot this sequel. The disc also includes a commentary track with Wallace that fans should enjoy, plus the original trailer.

HALLOWEEN SCARE-O-METER RATING: ** scoops of candy corn. Thanks to a tighter pace and the absence of the really heavy Baldwin brother, VAMPIRES II is actually a little more entertaining than Carpenter's slicker but more overblown original. If it's possible to make a B-movie rendition of a film that wanted to be a B-movie in the first place, LOS MUERTOS is probably it. If you're an aficionado of the original, by all means give this one a spin.


HELLRAISER: HELLSEEKER. Dimension, 89 minutes, R, 2002.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: Yes, it's another made-for-video sequel in the Clive Barker franchise, but this low-key installment proves to be one of the more watchable entries in a long while. Dean Winters plays the latest victim of Pinhead's supernatural trickery: a bewildered man who just lost his wife (none other than original series star Ashley Laurence, second-billed for five minutes of screen time) in a car accident. What follows from there is the HELLRAISER variation on "The Sixth Sense" and "Jacob's Ladder," complete with a "surprise" twist ending. Along the way we have the usual Barker S&M and gratuitous gore, but director Rick Bota handles the jumbled story with a fair amount of atmosphere, particularly compared to the last few films in this never-ending series. The result is a decent enough rental for die-hard fans, though if you've never been a particular aficionado of the franchise, you're best served staying away.

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: Dimension's 1.85 transfer is good and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack effective, featuring a Steve Edwards score also less bombastic than previous series entries. The DVD even includes a few special features, including an interesting commentary track from the director, a handful of alternate scenes culled from a workprint, and a visual effects walkthrough with supervisor Jamison Goel. All in all, a solid disc for fans.

HALLOWEEN SPOOK-O-METER RATING: ** for casual viewers, **1/2 for fans. This is easily the best in the series since Anthony Hickox's "Hellraiser III," adeptly reprising elements from the previous films and combining them with its own subtle (at least considering the brand name) atmosphere. Confusing, and yet surprisingly watchable.


For The Kids

MICKEY'S HOUSE OF VILLAINS. 70 minutes, 2002, Disney.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: A handful of Disney bad guys descend upon Mickey and Co.'s night club in an attempt at taking it over. In the process, we're treated to several classic Disney cartoons -- most all of a Halloween theme -- from the '40s and '50s, cobbled together with new animation (of an obviously lesser quality). This made-for-video feature is a perfect DVD for the season and the entire family, who sound enjoy the quick pace and vintage animation on-hand. It reminded me of one of the Warner Bros. Bugs Bunny theatrical features, which were comprised of old cartoons and new linking material -- and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: Games and interactive features for the kids are included, along with a sound effects demonstration. The full-frame transfer is colorful and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack a treat.

HALLOWEEN SPOOK-O- METER RATING: ***. While the DVD packaging does not highlight the fact that this is basically a Disney Halloween special, HOUSE OF VILLAINS is an ideal family feature for the season. Check it out!


SCOOBY-DOO. 86 mins., 2002, PG, Warner.

HORRIFIC INGREDIENTS: Ugh. Over the years we've seen dozens of beloved TV series turned into feature films: some more successfully ("The Brady Bunch") than others ("McHale's Navy," anyone?). This live- action rendition of the Hanna-Barbera cartoon ranks with the worst, which is something of a surprise since simply re-making one of the original cartoons would have been at least somewhat amusing if nothing else. Instead, writer James Gunn and director Raja Gosnell made this brainless feature -- a commercial product disguised as a movie if there ever was one -- that's almost completely devoid of laughs and an ounce of thought. Three quarters of the casting does, to its credit, work: Matthew Lillard is energetic enough as stoner bud Shaggy, Sarah Michelle Gellar does Daphne as a Buffy-like heroine, but best of all is Linda Cardinelli's dead-on impression of Velma. Only the lifeless Freddie Prinze, Jr. fails to animate the ever-bland Fred, but truth be told, SCOOBY's problems are far more than its young ensemble cast. This movie is a total disaster on every level: it's not funny, it's not cute, and it's not nostalgic. Gunn's script has the Mystery, Inc. gang investigating a rash of supernatural happenings on a mysterious vacation island run by daffy Rowan Atkinson (cashing a big check), but rest assured nothing remotely interesting happens. It's hard to believe this DOO -- filled with vulgar bathroom jokes aimed at seven-year-olds -- grossed some $150 million, but chalk that up to a big marketing campaign and little else.

DVD FRIGHT FEATURES: Warner has done a nice job with the DVD, offering a 1.85 transfer (a separate full-screen version is also available) and a bombastic 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack. Special features are primarily aimed at kids, offering various interactive DVD-ROM games and plenty of behind-the- scenes footage. There are also featurettes, commentaries, and other assorted extras, though the bulk of the film's more "mature" jokes were reportedly left on the cutting room floor and are nowhere to be found on the DVD, either.

HALLOWEEN SPOOK-O- METER RATING: *. Undemanding kids are about the only audience for this sorry adaptation of the hit TV show. It's hard to believe that Mike Myers once wrote his own script for the SCOOBY-DOO project, only to have it rejected by Warner studio brass-- and then they go and make THIS?!?!


Aisle Seat Mail Bag

From Mark So:

In response to your musings about "Red Dragon" and qualms about Danny Elfman's score, might I suggest that it was a shitty movie with a score tailored (perhaps more by worried producers than Elfman's "genuine" dramatic sensibilities) to create an exciting smoke screen as a way of distracting audiences from 1) an extremely predictable plot 2) a general lack of suspense and mystery 3) thoroughly unengaging performances by Norton and Feinnes and 3) Hannibal Lecter's failure to get under our skin, either because Hopkin's phoned it in, or because the part was written/directed badly. I recall Ronnie Howard made a shitty, bloated movie a few years back called "Ransom," and its Howard Shore score was tossed, no doubt for what IT didn't do (i.e., distract from the film's blandness by pumping up the violence and heroism), and replaced by a pounding, blazing James Horner opus. I think Elfman's scoring on "Red Dragon" represents a safe course, designed to play to the film's and Brett Ratner's strengths -- superb technical control/timing, a beautiful sense of visual style -- and distract us from the generally poor, unexciting storytelling. The two highlights of the film for me were the opening title sequence, which was edited/paced beautifully with scoring that brought it out perfectly, and the stabbing scene in Lecter's study, which was almost better-conceived than the strangling scene in Hitch's "Dial M for Murder," with scoring that may have bested Tiomkin's in tension and dramatic flair. I think on the right projects, Shore and Elfman are the most subtle yet daring film composers working today, but projects like "The Lord of the Rings" and "Red Dragon," respectively, reduce them both to craftsmen.
From Michael Karoly:
I agree with you -- RED DRAGON falls short. MANHUNTER is more eerie and suspenseful. That could be because, before 1985, we weren't inundated with crime horror as we were in the 90s. THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was so good, with such a strong cast, that it hurt HANNIBAL and RED DRAGON's chances at being huge successes. SEVEN redefined the genre for the 90s, and I can't think of a single film that has come out since that doesn't incorporate some little bit of something from it (or from LAMBS, for that matter). Finnes portrayal of Dollarhyde is, well, over the top and somewhat laughable at times. I saw no threat or menace in Hannibal- he's there for comic relief at this point. And while Emily Watson was good, I never felt her vulnerability or fear as I did Jodie Foster's Clarice. The worst thing about the film was that, after all is said and done, despite the fact that it represents the book written in 1981, the techniques and turns in the story come off as being the same-ol' same-ol -- very cliched. At least it was better than HANNIBAL, which ignored everything Clarice Starling is and was poorly acted and directed. I agree that viewing MANHUNTER is the better choice--
From Bruce P.:
While I can't describe myself in any way to be an expert on film scores, I do fully agree with you that the score for red dragon was beyond disappointing. To say there was a score at all is being kind.

To bash The Red Dragon in support of Manhunter I have to find absurd. I have seen 'Manhunter' in it's full 'directors cut with it's generous addition of 3 minutes, and the fact that people find anything redeemable from this film is hard to believe. The only part of it that I didn't find to be a totally stylistic nightmare was Brian Cox's portrayal of Lector. Beyond that, the film is shameful for all involved. From William Petersons stiff and sometimes described as 'wooden' portrayal of Will Graham, to the set design which I can only describe as tacky beyond all belief. I wish Brian Cox had been given more of a shot at Lector, but I guess we can thank manhunter again for it's poor script which oddly drops lector in the beginning of the film and then just fades him out. I was so disgusted after viewing manhunter I had to purchase the book and find out what Thomas Harris's true intentions were in the story. Somehow i doubt he really though Dolarhyde would pull out an 8-track of "In-a-gadda-da-vida".

My point is that the endless praising of Manhunter by critics such as yourself, the fellow in the Boston Globe, and others proves a marked inability to detect a quality script, a lack of knowledge of the original novel, and makes it obvious that your praise of a dated disaster like Manhunter only reveals your nostalgia for what 'Manhunter' is: A sad , low budget attempt at a film that has been eclipsed. Not once. Not Twice. But three times. I honestly wish people would just let Man Hunter die. Aside from Brian Cox, it is not at all what Thomas Harris envisioned. I mean, it ends in the worst way possible. From the standpoints of script, style, and acting ability of the cast Red Dragon is in a league far about manhunter and it's tacky miami vice direction. Even for the 80's, it's disgusting.

From Scott Hanson:
I'm glad to see you covering the Muppet Show releases by Time-Life and Columbia Tristar. Just one correction about the Time-Life set though: they've only released 45 episodes on 15 volumes so far. There were originally 120 episodes spanning over a 5 season run from 76-81. Also, the Columbia Tristar volumes are exact reprints of the Time-Life discs, except that their intended run is meant to go up to 20 volumes... meaning 15 episodes more than has been released so far, but still 60 episodes shy of the full run of the show. Columbia's in no hurry though as they're only releasing 2 volumes at a time so far, and there's been no mention as to when they next set is due to street. Hopefully strong sales will allow them to reconsider and extend the line.
Thanks for the correction, Scott!


NEXT WEEK: Back to Trekkin' with the Collector's Edition of STAR TREK III, the Special Edition of SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, and more! Send all comments to dursina@att.net and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!


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