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,
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 email@example.com 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!
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
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.
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
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,
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
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
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
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.
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,
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
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.
From Scott Hanson:
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
and we'll catch you then. Excelsior!