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Aisle Seat Halloween DVD Edition!


By Andy Dursin

With Halloween just a few days away, this is the perfect time to examine the barrage of horror/sci-fi/fantasy DVD offerings that have been accumulating here at the Aisle Seat offices. Sure, we might have received an inch of slushy snow already here in New England (just as the foliage was hitting its peak), but it's all about the horror, dear readers -- not the holidays -- this week! So, without further rambling prologue material, here are the tastiest nuggets to accompany your Halloween festivities this October 31st--

Top Trick-or-Treat Choices

DRAGONSLAYER. 107 mins., 1981, PG, Paramount. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Peter MacNicol, Ralph Richardson, Caitlin Clarke. COMPOSER: Alex North. SCRIPT: Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins. DIRECTOR: Matthew Robbins. DVD TECHNICAL SPECS: 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

This expensive 1981 collaboration between Paramount Pictures and the Walt Disney Studio was a flop in its day, though time has fortunately been kind to Matthew Robbins' Medieval fantasy.

A dragon terrorizes the countryside, forcing the sacrifice of young virgins to satisfy the monster's appetite. To try and save the day comes wizard Ralph Richardson, whose befuddled apprentice (Peter MacNicol) finds himself in over his head once he's put in charge of slaying the beast.

It's easy to see why DRAGONSLAYER failed to find an audience in its initial release: the movie is overly serious and too dark (literally) for kids, while suffering some problems in the casting of its central leads. Robbins and co-writer Hal Barwood created a totally believable world for its characters and dragons to exist in, but the miscasting of female lead Caitlin Clarke and particularly MacNicol (he claimed to have left the movie off his resume for years), combined with its lack of humor, made it a tough sell with audiences.

That being said, the picture's story and developed surroundings make DRAGONSLAYER a worthwhile fantasy to revisit, especially now that Paramount has given us easily the best-looking presentation of the movie ever on DVD. The ILM special effects were top-notch for their day, and the execution/design of the dragons and their flight sequences are still unsurpassed. The sense of local communities dealing with the horror give the movie a strong sense of a "real" time and place, and the film is also graced by a gorgeous Alex North score, which ranks as one of his best.

Even if you owned the previous letterboxed LaserDisc, Paramount's DVD is more than worth the purchase to upgrade. The newly remastered 16:9 transfer blows away all previous versions of DRAGONSLAYER, being clearer and brighter than I've ever seen the movie before. The 5.1 Dolby Digital surround is also terrific, with noticeable bass effects and North's rich score making for a pleasing sonic experience. Though there aren't any special features, the enhanced transfer of the movie does more justice to the movie's cinematography than any prior video issue, and that alone makes it highly recommended.

If you saw the movie as a kid and were disappointed, or haven't seen the film in years, DRAGONSLAYER is grand entertainment in spite of its casting issues, and more than worth another view.

28 DAYS LATER. 113 mins., 2003, Fox, R. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Cillian Murphy, Naomie Harris, Christopher Eccleston, Megan Burns. Brendan Gleeson. COMPOSER: John Murphy. SCRIPT: Alex Garland. DIRECTOR: Danny Boyle. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Garland and Boyle; three alternate endings; deleted scenes; Making Of; music video; storyboards; still gallery; trailer. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Danny Boyle's apocalyptic zombie thriller isn't overwhelmingly scary or disturbing, but does boast gritty filmmaking, solid performances, and compelling characters who try and dodge flesh-eating monsters that have ravaged the world.

In a move reminiscent of John Wyndham's "Day of the Triffids," Jim, a young man who slept through the initial onslaught, wakes up in a hospital, only to find London almost entirely devoid of human existence. Instead, he finds hordes of zombies -- the result of a plague unleashed by unsuspecting animal rights activists who break into a lab conducting experiments on simians. Fortunately for Jim (Cillian Murphy), he finds company with a tough female (Naomie Harris) and a father (Brendan Gleeson) trying to keep his teen daughter alive, and soon the group sets out to find other survivors in the world.

More humanistic than past zombie films, 28 DAYS LATER is easily one of the more satisfying horror films made in recent years. The performances are uniformly strong and the dialogue between the characters more natural than the preachy, moralistic tone other films of this nature have contained in the wake of George Romero's "Night of the Living Dead." While things become a bit more predictable when our heroes run into a group of military nuts (with the predictable "who's more human?" angle thrown in), the film regains its footing with an optimistic ending -- finally, here's a zombie movie that actually DOES bother to throw some fresh twists into the mix (plus, these undead monsters move at breakneck speed, not at a languid, Karloff-ian pace).

Fox's DVD of this sleeper hit (which raked in nearly $50 million domestically) features a fun and informative commentary track from the filmmakers, along with a Making Of segment, deleted scenes, and no less than three alternate endings! These range from a bleaker and less satisfying end to the story, to a slightly re-arranged version of the ending that was used. The third ending is a storyboarded finale that didn't make it past the scripted page and is narrated by the filmmakers. Fox's 1.85 transfer looks fine, the 5.1 soundtrack isn't anything elaborate but gets the job done, and the movie itself a highly satisfying genre experience at a time when little cinematic ground is being broken.

Definitely recommended!

Horrific Hammer Outings

CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER. 91 mins., 1972 (released in 1974), R, Paramount. ANDY'S RATING: ***. CAST: Horst Janson, John Carson, Shane Briant, Caroline Munro. COMPOSER: Laurie Johnson. SCRIPT-DIRECTOR: Brian Clemens. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Clemens, Munro, and journalist Jonathan Sothcott. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen, mono sound.

FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL. 93 mins., 1973, R, Paramount. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, David Prowse, Madeline Smith, Bernard Lee. COMPOSER: James Bernard. SCRIPT: John Elder (aka Anthony Hinds). DIRECTOR: Terence Fisher. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary by Smith, Prowse, and Jonathan Sothcott. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen, mono sound.

Though Hammer Films' output generally declined in quality as the British House of Horror neared the end of its run, the studio at least went out with a pair of superior efforts, each newly issued by Paramount on DVD.

CAPTAIN KRONOS: VAMPIRE HUNTER was reportedly a disappointment at the box- office, though the movie has developed a sizable cult following over the years on video. This fun mixture of Hammer horror, black comedy, and even Saturday Matinee-styled serial stars a dubbed Horst Janson as Kronos -- a member of the British Imperial Guard who now spends his time with his faithful hunchback companion running through the countryside slaying the undead. After running into gorgeous gypsy Caroline Munro, Kronos and Co. try and solve the deaths of several young girls from rapid aging -- suspecting a vampire to be the culprit.

This is leisurely paced but tongue-in-cheek stuff (quite atypical for a Hammer film), and Paramount has done an excellent job mastering CAPTAIN KRONOS on DVD. The 16:9 transfer looks solid and the mono sound in good shape, sporting a fine score by Laurie Johnson. Extras are limited to a superb audio commentary featuring Munro and writer- director Brian Clemens, moderated by Hammer expert Jonathan Sothcott.

Also newly available is the last Hammer entry in their Frankenstein series, FRANKENSTEIN AND THE MONSTER FROM HELL, which was theatrically released on a double bill with "Captain Kronos" and is seen by some fans as the best entry in the series.

With Peter Cushing back as the mad Doctor -- now conducting his experiments in an insane asylum -- Terence Fisher's swan song is a bloody good time, with David "Darth Vader" Prowse essaying the monster (who's got an unusual look, no two ways about it) and composer James Bernard sending off the series on an appropriately bombastic note.

Hammer fans should note, though, that Paramount's DVD features a remastered version of the film's R-rated U.S. release print. This means it's missing some gratuitous gore sequences that were found in the much sought-after Japanese LaserDisc -- something that might disappoint the die-hards, though those scenes added little to the movie from a dramatic standpoint.

For everyone else, though, the DVD will be more than satisfying, sporting a terrific new 1.85 (16:9) transfer with clear mono sound. Extras are again limited to an excellent commentary track with actress Madeline Smith, David Prowse and Hammer author Jonathan Sothcott, one that's funny, amusing, and full of tasty anecdotes Hammer buffs will love (and likely worth the price of the disc alone for that reason).

Also Newly Available

MIMIC 3: SENTINEL. 78 mins., 2003, R, Miramax. ANDY'S RATING: **1/2. CAST: Karl Geary, Amanda Plummer, Alexis Dziena, Rebecca Mader, John Kapelos, Lance Henriksen. COMPOSER: Henning Lohner. SCRIPT-DIRECTOR: J.T. Petty. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary, featurette, cast auditions. TECHNICAL SPECS: 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Second made-for-video sequel in the "Mimic" series is a major improvement from its predecessor. Karl Geary plays a photographer in an apartment building where his fellow tenants begin to be picked off one-by-one by the same insect menace that plagued mankind back in Guillermo Del Toro's original movie. There are plenty of cute Hitchcock homages in this Romanian-lensed sequel that's best described as "'Mimic' Meets 'Rear Window'."

J.T. Petty's movie is a crisply-edited, efficient genre piece (78 minutes including credits), and as made-for-video fare goes, it surprisingly gets the job done. Most of its modest effectiveness is due to the cast, from Geary's lead to appearances by veterans like Amanda Plummer and Lance Henriksen. Aside from a few brief CGI shots, there's little in the way of heavy shock value or effects -- just a decent little horror movie that fans should enjoy as a Halloween rental.

Miramax/Buena Vista's DVD offers a solid 1.85 transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; extras include a running commentary with director-writer Petty; cast audition footage; plus a promotional, behind-the-scenes featurette. Special kudos go out to composer Henning Lohner, whose orchestral score offers a colorful, amusing variety of thematic material.

ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES: Special Collector's Edition. 87 mins., 1980, PG, Rhino Home Entertainment. ANDY'S RATING: **. CAST: David Miller, George Wilson, Sharon Taylor, "Rock" Peace, Jack Riley, Von Schauer. COMPOSERS: Gordon Goodwiin, Paul Sundfor. SCRIPT: Costa Dillon, Steve Peace, John DeBello. DIRECTOR: John DeBello. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Audio Commentary, deleted scenes, original 8mm version with commentary, trivia, trailer, radio spots, Making Of. TECHNICAL SPECS: Full-screen, 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed sound.

One of the great horror titles of all-time, ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES is a modestly amusing spoof from director John DeBello that became a cult favorite over the years. Indeed, the movie spawned a 1988 New World Pictures sequel (with George Clooney!), several made-for-video follow-ups in the early '90s, and even a Fox Kids animated Saturday morning cartoon!

It's a great story of an improbable franchise success, though let's be honest: the original movie itself isn't all that funny, filled with awkward performances and sporadic laughs that can't quite sustain its feature length. There is, however, a certain charm in the movie's quaint, homespun feel, and viewers nostalgic for memories of seeing the movie over 20 years ago will love Rhino's Special Edition DVD (it's also a good choice for young trick-or-treaters).

Packed with superb special features, the Collector's Edition DVD boasts commentary from the filmmakers, a new Making Of with fresh interviews, trailers, radio spots, deleted scenes, director John DeBello's original 8mm home movie, and plenty more. Consumers should note that this Special Edition is marked as such, and comes in an oversize cardboard case with a foldout poster. The movie-only version is $10 less, but because the supplements are a large part of the appeal, I'd only recommend the Special Edition version.

Anchor Bay Special Editions

FEAR NO EVIL (**1/2, 99 mins., 1980, R; Anchor Bay): Years ago I interviewed writer-director Frank LaLoggia ("Lady in White") for a Canadian magazine I contributed to. At the time, LaLoggia spoke harshly about the treatment his 1980 debut film, FEAR NO EVIL, suffered after he sold it to Avco Embassy, who in turn cut the movie down without his consent. I assumed that LaLoggia would one day re-edit the movie back to his intended form, but the version included in Anchor Bay's Special Edition DVD is, alas, the same theatrical cut that's been released on video before. Not that this version of FEAR NO EVIL isn't worth a look, because this intriguing mix of high school horror (think "Carrie"), zombie film (think Romero), and apocalyptic terror (say "The Omen") offers some fresh twists on the genre. LaLoggia's upstate New York lensing, eye for interesting detail and story set on a grand scale (in spite of the movie's low budget) make for a recommended view, particularly now that the film is on DVD. Anchor Bay's disc offers liner notes, commentary with LaLoggia and cinematographer Frederic Goodlich, behind- the-scenes footage shot by LaLoggia during production, the trailer, TV spots, poster gallery, and script on DVD-ROM. The 1.85 transfer is still grainy but better than your fading VHS tape, while the 5.1 remixed sound is crisp and pungent. This is a neat, '80s indie horror film from a director whose voice we haven't heard nearly enough of, and well worth a view.

SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT/SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART II (** movies; 85-88 mins., 1984-87, R; Anchor Bay): Remember all the controversy that spiraled out of control due to Tri-Star Pictures' 1984 "Killer Santa" slasher film? This single-disc Double Feature DVD from Anchor Bay offers both the original movie that started it all, plus its lame 1987 sequel that recycles a large portion of its predecessor's footage. It's nostalgic, junky '80s horror at its pulpiest, though Anchor Bay has does an excellent job by touching upon the original's back story, by including liner notes and a phone interview with its director, Charles E. Sellier, Jr. I distinctly recall the first movie opening locally in Rhode Island just days prior to Christmas '84, and critic Mike Janusonis ripping its tasteless Christmas setting (sure enough, Mike's review is excerpted in the DVD's critic comments, dubbed "Santa's Stocking Of Outrage"). It's also interesting to note that Tri-Star's logo and credit on the movie have been totally blacked out (apparently the movie really was a black eye in their view). Widescreen transfers and additional extras round out a solid disc that should appeal to all viewers nostalgic for the films, which improbably continued well into the '90s with a series of endless made-for- video sequels.

More Horrific Offerings

LEATHERFACE: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III (*1/2 movie, *** presentation, 1990, R and Unrated; New Line): I'm not a huge fan of Jeff Burr's third entry in the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" series, but New Line's superb Special Edition DVD is definitely worth a purchase for Leatherface fans. The disc includes both the original R-rated theatrical cut, plus the extended Unrated version and a bevy of deleted scenes, including an alternate ending. TCM aficionados have long lamented the various MPAA-imposed cuts the movie suffered when it was trimmed for its theatrical run, and having both versions on the disc allows buffs to dissect the various trims and edits. There's also a commentary track from the filmmakers, a revealing Making Of program documenting the troubles the production encountered in the days leading up to its release, trailers and more. Transfer wise, the disc's 1.85 aspect ratio looks solid, and the 5.1 Dolby Digital and 6.1 DTS mixes are superb. Well worth a look for horror buffs and TCM nuts, though the movie itself -- a mostly routine rehash of the original -- isn't anything to write home about. For Leatherface fans, though, this is digital nirvana (everyone else has been warned!).

WRONG TURN (*, 2003, 80 mins., R; Fox): Dreadful, dumbed-down "Deliverance" knock-off has a group of idiot twentysomethings running into a group of deformed, inbred monsters in the hills of West Virginia. Stan Winston co-produced this sorry exercise in "horror," wasting the efforts of its young cast (Eliza Dushku, Desmond Harrington, Jeremy Sisto), who look like they're out of a new Gap ad, ready to play the requisite lambs-for-the-slaughter in director Rob Schmidt's film. Unfortunately, there's nothing remotely scary or interesting about this by-the-numbers exercise, which boasts a few violently gory scenes, but nothing interesting at all from either a filmmaking or characterization standpoint. Even Elia Cmiral's score comes off as shoddy. Fox's DVD offers both wide-screen and full-frame versions; the transfer looks great (as do female leads Dushku and Emmanuelle Cirqui), while the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is passable. Special features include commentary from Harrington, Dusku and the director; three brief deleted scenes (one of which is an assembly of dailies for one of the death sequences); brief featurettes on Dushku and Stan Winston; and a poster concept gallery. Good for a few laughs, maybe, but little more.

LAWNMOWER MAN 2: JOBE'S WAR (**, 93 mins., 1996, PG-13; New Line): Surprisingly watchable sequel to the early '90s hit offers Matt Frewer and Patrick Bergin in the roles of Jeff Fahey and Pierce Brosnan, respectively, from the original film. This futuristic sci-fi fantasy does a fair job continuing the dead-end story from its predecessor, with good-looking scope cinematography and an excellent Robert Folk score breathing some life into the action. It's nothing exceptional, but the movie is a good deal more entertaining than its DOA box-office performance indicated. New Line's DVD offers a good looking widescreen transfer (16:9 enhanced) plus a cropped full-frame transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and the original trailer.

Artisan Double Feature DVDs

Artisan has recently released a handful of single-disc DVD Double Features, pairing genre favorites from the '80s. As these versions offer only full-frame versions and no special features, I'm just going to mention them briefly in the interests of fans. Despite their lack of remastered transfers, these are still recommended if you're interested in the respective films -- a whole lot better than your old VHS tapes, and worth their low prices (around $10 or less at most outlets).

PROM NIGHT III: THE LAST KISS (1989, 97 mins., R; **1/2) and PROM NIGHT IV: DELIVER US FROM EVIL (1992, 95 mins., R; *1/2): After Jamie Lee Curtis and Leslie Nielsen top-lined the original "Prom Night," this Canadian series waited several years before returning in a series of watchable, in-name-only sequels. "Prom Night III" is actually a direct follow-up to the entertaining "Hello Mary Lou, Prom Night II" (which itself was better than the first movie), with the ghostly dead prom queen returning to haunt her high school's current quarterback. "Prom Night IV" is the least of the series with no connection at all to its predecessors, this time sporting a dead zombie priest who stalks a pair of young couples. By the way, if you're looking for DVDs of the first two movies, you'll have to do some work: "Prom Night II" is available only from Alliance Atlantis in Canada, while Anchor Bay's "Prom Night" DVD has been out of print for quite a while and fetches a high price online.

WAXWORK (1988, 100 mins., NR, **1/2) and WAXWORK 2: LOST IN TIME (1991, 104 mins., R ***): Director Anthony Hickox was a hot commodity for a short while on the horror genre front, thanks to these highly enjoyable, spoofy horror films. The original 1988 "Waxwork" stars Zach Galligan ("Gremlins") and Deborah Foreman ("Valley Girl") as two youngsters who become lost in David Warner's wax museum, where the various set pieces come to life. It's good fun with many homages to genre classics, while the made-for-tape 1991 sequel is even more campy and entertaining. Be on the lookout for cameos from Drew Barrymore among others, while Alexander Godunov provides a solid villain.

WATCHERS (1988, 99 mins., R; *1/2) and WATCHERS II (1990, 101 mins., R; **): Roger Corman's low-budget adaptations of Dean R. Koontz's original "Watchers" novel originated with the 1988 effort with Cory Haim. Better, though, is the 1990 sequel with Marc Singer and Tracy Scoggins, which is more of a remake that's superior to its predecessor.

NEXT WEEK: CHARLIE'S ANGELS, MARRIED WITH CHILDREN, plus the return of the Mail Bag! Email and we'll catch you then. Happy Halloween!!

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