by ANDY DURSIN
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No series in the history of the cinematic horror genre has endured as long as the Universal Monster classics of the 1930s and ’40s – a time marked by the Great Depression, the rise of Hitler’s Germany and America’s eventual involvement in WWII. At the outset, the Universal films were hugely successful with audiences seeking an escape, but by the time the U.S. became embroiled in the conflict, the popularity of the studio’s trademark monsters became less inviting to viewers, who turned their attention to war-time enemies as the cinematic nemesis of choice. Before that happened, however, Universal established a litany of Monster Classics that would inspire long-running franchises and become favorites of viewers for generations to come.
Universal’s eagerly anticipated UNIVERSAL CLASSIC MONSTERS: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION arrives on Blu-Ray this week and pays a new, glorious high-definition tribute to eight of the studio’s genre benchmarks, all presented in fresh, and impressive, 1080p AVC encoded transfers marked by a surprising amount of detail.
Looking at Tod Browning’s 1931 DRACULA is virtually like gazing upon the Bela Lugosi classic for the first time. The movie is best remembered for its opening Transylvanian set-piece that introduces viewers to Lugosi’s unforgettable count, and while the London sequences tend to be static and dull by comparison, the increased detail seen here in the Blu-Ray’s HD presentation even makes the talky, latter sections of the picture more interesting. In fact, without any overt use of DNR, this ranks as one of the studio’s most satisfying catalog transfers to date. The DTS MA mono sound is nearly crackle-free, and Philip Glass’ Kronos Quartet score (which makes the stilted drawing room sequences a bit livelier at least) is also available in Dolby Digital stereo.
Supplements include two commentary tracks reprised from prior DVD editions: an authoritative discussion by historian David J. Skal, and a more recent talk with Steve Haberman (screenwriter of the awful Mel Brooks spoof “Dracula: Dead and Loving It”), both offer enlightening analysis and artistic commentary on the film; “The Road to Dracula” (35 mins.), hosted by Carla Laemmle, returns here from its original DVD appearance, as does the still gallery “Dracula Archives” (8 mins.), while “Lugosi: The Dark Prince” (36 mins.), a carry-over from the 75th Anniversary DVD, sports interviews with historians and directors including Joe Dante paying tribute to Lugosi’s career. Trailers are included for the whole Universal “Dracula” series (Dracula, Dracula’s Daughter, Son of Dracula and House of Dracula), and an eight-minute restoration featurette (HD) includes a look at the studio’s efforts to restore both the English and Spanish language versions as a part of their centennial efforts, noting that a portion of the Spanish “Dracula” had to be taken from an international print as the studio’s negative was badly damaged during the third reel.
Speaking of the Spanish “Dracula,” it too has been lovingly restored here in a 1080p AVC encode that’s perhaps not quite as crisp as the Lugosi version, even if the elements seem to be, on balance, in healthier condition. An optional introduction with star Lupita Tovar is included as well.
James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN introduced viewers to Boris Karloff in his legendary role as the Frankenstein monster, and while the film remains a striking work for its 1931 release date, it pales in comparison to THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, the 1935 sequel graced with a spectacular Franz Waxman score that shows, in the space of four short years, how quickly movie-making had progressed as a medium. Whale’s playful, inventive direction, the performances of Karloff, Colin Clive and Elsa Lanchester, and that Waxman score – one of the all-time greats – are unforgettable aspects of a film many regard as the finest in the pantheon of Universal Monsters.
Included here on separate BD platters, “Frankenstein” includes a number of supplements carried over from prior releases: “The Frankenstein Files” is an engaging 45-minute account of picture’s production and legacy; “Karloff: The Gentle Monster” (36 mins.) is a carryover from the 75th Anniversary release; “Frankenstein Archives” is another 10-minute assortment of stills; “Boo!” is a fun 1932 Universal “Brevity”; commentaries are provided by Rudy Behlmer and Sir Christopher Frayling; and a full trailer gallery boasts the original coming attractions for Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and House of Frankenstein.
Also present on the “Frankenstein” disc is Kevin Bronlow’s fine 1998 TCM documentary, “Universal Horror.” This examination of the beginnings of Universal’s monster franchises is narrated by Kenneth Branagh and offers ample vintage footage, interviews and an entertaining look into the genre’s origins.
Visually, both movies look more detailed than I’ve ever seen before, with crisp 1080p presentations that blow past prior DVD releases – even if there does seem to be, perhaps, just a bit more filtering on “Bride of Frankenstein” than “Frankenstein” or especially “Dracula.” Regardless, the image still looks exceptionally good, and extra features – not as substantive as the other discs – include the original DVD documentary, “She’s Alive! Creating ‘Bride of Frankenstein,’” plus a stills archive, commentary with historian Scott MacQueen, and trailers for Bride, Ghost and House of Frankenstein (surprisingly, “Son of Frankenstein”’s trailer is nowhere to be found in this set).
In 1932, “Dracula” cinematographer Karl Freund helmed the first appearance of what would ultimately become – thanks to both a handful of sequels and a contemporary series of modern fantasy films (with another version headed to theaters in 2014) – the most durable of Universal’s monsters, THE MUMMY. Boris Karloff carved out his second iconic studio role as Imohotep, who lusts after Zita Johann in an entertaining – if somewhat creaky – film with unforgettable imagery (though ironically, Karloff only appears in the patented Mummy make-up for a couple of minutes).
A bit uneven in its overall visual appearance, there’s some occasional filtering on-hand in “The Mummy”’s 1080p AVC encoded transfer compared to the other films in this set. It’s certainly an appreciable improvement on DVD, however – crisp detail is in evidence during most of the transfer, but some sequences look sharper than others. Extra features include “Mummy Dearest” (30 mins.), a documentary from the original DVD release; “He Who Made Monsters” (24 mins.), a Jack Pierce retrospective; “Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy” (8 mins.), a brief featurette from the 75th Anniversary DVD; “The Mummy Archives” still gallery; commentaries by Paul M. Jensen and a more recent track with Rick Baker, Scott Essman, Steve Haberman, Bob Burns and Brent Armstrong; and trailers for all the “Mummy” films (The Mummy, Mummy’s Hand, Mummy’s Tomb, Mummy’s Ghost, Mummy’s Curse).
Inbetween “Frankenstein” pictures, James Whale helmed a magnificent adaptation of H.G. Wells’ THE INVISIBLE MAN, a 1933 classic that, in certain ways, holds up better than any of Universal’s earliest genre outings for sheer dramatic impact. Claude Rains gives a memorable performance as a scientist who slowly goes mad after an experiment renders him invisible – a portrayal that relies heavily on his voice since Rains is only on-screen for a few minutes. John P. Fulton’s visual effects, especially for their era, are superb, and Gloria Stuart believably renders Rains’ sympathetic girlfriend.
Arguably tthe healthiest looking of the original, early ‘30s Universal Monsters classics, “The Invisible Man” appears in top form in its 1080p AVC encoded HD transfer here – there’s still a bit of filtering present in some sequences (like “The Mummy,” some scenes seem to be affected more than others), but on balance the transfer is exceptionally good for any film of its vintage. Special features include the original DVD doc, “The Invisible Man Revealed” (35 mins.) plus production photographs, trailers for the Invisible Man series, and commentary by Rudy Behlmer.
Scripted by Curt Siodmak, Universal’s 1941 classic THE WOLF MAN stars Lon Chaney as Larry Talbot, who becomes cursed with the fate of a werewolf after wandering in the forests of Wales and bitten by one of the creatures. Claude Rains plays Talbot's father, and the supporting cast includes Maria Ouspenskaya and Bela Lugosi as the Gypsies who predict Talbot's fate, along with Evelyn Ankers as the love interest and additional supporting turns from Ralph Bellamy and Patric Knowles. The settings, atmosphere, and direction (by George Waggner) are all top-notch and the movie compares favorably with the Universal chillers of the period.
Last released on DVD a couple of years ago, “The Wolf Man”’s 1080p AVC encoded HD transfer is solid, generally in-line with the other transfers in the box-set, with deep blacks and added detail over its standard-def releases. Extras are bountiful here, highlighted by David J.Skal’s "Monster by Moonlight” documentary, a DVD carryover hosted by John Landis, this is an engaging look into the Wolfman's creation and phenomenon as the last great character to originate from Universal's "Golden Age" horror cycle. Eschewing the testimony of countless historians (as were utilized in Skal's other documentaries) in favor of interviews with make-up artist Rick Baker (who discusses Jack Pierce's lasting legacy) and screenwriter Siodmak, the program is entertaining and enlightening, even though it uses a generous selection of film clips from the Wolfman's subsequent cinematic appearances to round out the program. Of special interest to film music fans will be the discussion of “The Wolf Man”’s musical score by Frank Skinner, Hans Salter, and Charles Previn, which is given a few minutes of analysis in the documentary by John Morgan and conductor William Stromberg. Morgan notes how most film scores today consist of musical wallpaper while Stromberg discusses one particular cue that had been cut down in editing, where Talbot watches a Gypsy burial. The "Archives" section also contains an abundance of still-frame photographs and publicity shots, underscored by the original music without dialogue.
Universal authority Tom Weaver’s insightful commentary also returns as well a “Wolf Man Archives” of still photos and artwork. Also on-hand are the eight-minute “The Wolf Man: From Ancient Curse to Modern Myth” (10 mins.) and the 2009 effort “Pure in Heart” (37 mins.), a loving tribute to Lon Chaney, Jr., with historian Gregory Mank, Rick Baker, Joe Dante, Kim Newman and others paying respect to the original Larry Talbot. Trailers for Werewolf of London, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula and She-Wolf of London round out the disc, which also includes the same Jack Pierce documentary contained on “The Mummy”’s Blu-Ray.
The sole Technicolor offering in the “Essential Collection” is PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, the studio’s lavish, operatic 1943 take on Gaston Leroux’s novel with an accent on the love story courtesy of director Arthur Lubin. Claude Rains is the Phantom to Susanna Foster and Nelson Eddy’s romantic leads; it’s a sturdy, if unspectacular, film that receives a similarly respectable 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The image looks a bit hazy at times and some of the source elements aren’t as vibrant as other Technicolor films of the era, but it’s still an upgrade over the DVD. Extras include the lengthy 51-minute DVD documentary “Phantom Unmasked,” plus Scott MacQueen’s commentary and the trailer.
The final disc in the set may be the most exciting for Universal Monsters fans, as 1954's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON debuts on Blu-Ray, not only in its 2-D version but its first-ever 3-D home video release as well! For 3-D enthusiasts, being able to see the film in pure three-dimensional form – and not an anaglyph 3-D version like we used to see on TV back in the ‘80s – is a revelation. Both occasional pop-out effects and depth-of-field photography add immeasurably to visuals that are often flat and uninspired otherwise. In fact, seen in its native 3-D format, effects and shots which otherwise look awkwardly (or routinely) framed make visual sense, and the overall experience enhances Jack Arnold’s ‘50s monster mash as a result.
One of many films shot in 3-D during the ‘50s, this Blu-Ray release of “Creature” hopefully will usher in a wave of 3-D catalog titles in the fledgling format (Warner has “Dial M For Murder” due out on October 9th; check next week’s Aisle Seat for a review), and certainly its inclusion here in Universal’s box-set makes this a must-have for “Creature” fanatics with 3-D home theater set-ups.
Other extras on the “Creature” platter include “Back to the Black Lagoon” (40 mins.), a DVD retrospective, plus Tom Weaver’s fascinating commentary, trailers for the Gill Man series, and production photographs. The 2-D version is also included, and probably because of the film having been shot in 3-D, it’s a bit blurry and less detailed in its 1080p AVC encoded transfer compared to all the other films on-hand in the box-set.
All the discs are contained in a hardbound “digibook” release with original poster artwork (consumers should be mindful that a bit of adhesive may be stuck on the edges of some of the discs, and ought to be removed promptly before playback). A small accompanying booklet offering trivia and glossy photographs rounds out the release, which will undoubtedly rank as essential Halloween viewing for all Universal Monster fans. Highly recommended – and here’s hoping sales are strong enough to scare up a second volume of all the various Classic Monster sequels in another release for next October 31st!
New From Warner
DARK SHADOWS Blu-Ray/DVD/Ultraviolet (***, 113 mins., 2012, PG-13; Warner): Maybe it's because I knew this remake of the old Dan Curtis TV series was “Tim Burton on auto-pilot” that I dialed my expectations down accordingly. Whatever the case may be, the 2012 “Dark Shadows” is an imperfect but -- surprisingly -- intermittently charming film that reaffirms how good an actor Johnny Depp can be.
The star’s performance as Barnabas Collins – a Maine vampire who awakens in the early ‘70s after having slept for over 200 years, only to find his ancestors on the downturn and his hated rival (a witch played by Eva Green) having overtaken their place in the community – absolutely anchors a sometimes chaotic and under-written (or is it over-written?) Seth Grahame-Smith screenplay that has too many supporting players running around to little or no effect. Yes, Depp's Barnabas is still "quirky" yet the actor retains enough of his aristocratic origins to make the part not just a rehash of the "colorful" characters the actor has been essaying of late; he's fascinating, alternately sinister and sympathetic, and the fish-out-of-water material, while not as dominant as the movie’s advertising campaign suggested, provides some of the film's more entertaining aspects.
The movie does fumble countless dramatic possibilities -- so much of it seems overstuffed and yet undercooked, between Barnabas' weakly drawn relationship with the younger Collins clan (Chloe Grace Moretz's part is close to a throwaway; after prominently establishing her early on, Bella Heathcote's role as the reincarnation of Barnabas' lost love disappears almost completely, resurfacing just in time for the climax), to his confrontation with Green, who turns in an unsatisfying performance (her affected American accent sounds more like she's from Texas as opposed to a witch who's lived in Maine for over two centuries). Michelle Pfeiffer, Jackie Earle Haley, and, of course, Helena Bonham Carter also appear in roles that never seem to serve the dramatic purpose that they should have.
It seems evident here that Burton didn't apply himself as much to his craft as usual -- despite using familiar personnel like production designer Rick Henrichs and costume designer Colleen Atwood, the picture has a glossy, "digitized" appearance unlike his past works -- and even Danny Elfman's score often takes a backseat to a parade of familiar, effectively utilized period pop tunes. Yet there's just something infectious about "Dark Shadows" when it does score -- particularly in several amusing moments of offbeat humor (Barnabas pounding his head against an electric organ; Alice Cooper showing up to perform at a Collins family party) and through Depp's winning performance. If nothing else, it's at least livelier than the moribund "Alice in Wonderland" and should find a receptive genre audience this Halloween season on video.
Warner’s Blu-Ray/DVD/Ultraviolet combo pack offers a clear 1080p transfer, with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography utilizing a striking pallet of colors throughout. The DTS MA soundtrack is effective and extras include just five minutes of deleted scenes (mostly involving Barnabas’ relationship with the modern Collins family – material that there should’ve been more of in the final cut) and “Maximum Movie Mode” behind-the-scenes “focus points.”
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS Theatrical Version/Director’s Cut Blu-Ray (****, 94/103 mins., 1986, PG-13; Warner): Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s off-Broadway musical hit was adapted to the screen in 1986 by Ashman (who wrote the script) and director Frank Oz, whose experience with The Muppets made him the ideal candidate to bring the project’s offbeat sensibilities to the big screen. Though the film wasn’t a box-office smash, Oz and producer David Geffen’s screen version of “Little Shop of Horrors” – itself a remake of the ‘60s Roger Corman B-movie favorite – ranks as one of the best movie musicals.
Rick Moranis stars as the hapless Seymour Krelborn, who works in a flower shop in Skid Row during the early ‘60s. In love with his co-worker Audrey (Ellen Greene, the only holdover from the stage version), who’s a punching bag for her abusive dentist boyfriend (Steve Martin), Seymour’s fortunes are stuck in the gutter until he discovers a new plant that feeds on human blood. Dubbed the “Audrey II,” the little plant sprouts into a full-blown talking – and singing – monster (voiced by Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops) whose aspirations seem to be larger than taking up more and more room in Mushnik’s Flower Shop.
Menken and Ashman’s score is one of their best (and that’s saying something): the marvelous early number “Downtown,” the ballads “Somewhere That’s Green” and “Suddenly Seymour,” the showstopping “Mean Green Mother From Outer Space” (written for the film) and the Greek chorus that comments on the action with a Motown-like sound carry viewers through a wacky and wild ride that Oz peppers with occasional star cameos (Bill Murray is hilarious as one of Martin’s overly eager patients; John Candy, Jim Belushi and Christopher Guest also briefly appear) and superb puppet effects.
When “Little Shop” was first released in 1986, the movie received mostly positive reviews with an occasional recurring criticism that the film’s climactic special effects overshadowed the picture’s overall tone. It’s ironic this complaint was levied at the movie’s theatrical version – one can only imagine the criticism Oz’s initial cut of the film would’ve been met with!
Adding nearly 10 minutes of elaborate special effects with the Audrey IIs trashing the planet, the “Don’t Feed the Plants” ending – restored here in Warner’s fabulous Blu-Ray release of “Little Shop of Horrors” – was wisely re-shot after test screenings confirmed that preview audiences almost unanimously hated it. Certainly it does everything some critics complained about the theatrical version and turns it up to the nth degree: shots of the plants eating their way through the streets of New York, tearing down buildings, consuming subway trains, and climbing up the Statue of Liberty are brilliantly designed and executed by Richard Conway and his model unit...but all of it comes out of left field. After watching a fairly intimate and confined musical dominated by two central characters you grow to care about (both of whom are killed off in the original ending), seeing the movie abruptly shift gears and become an FX-driven spectacle along the lines of “Godzilla: The Musical” simply doesn’t work. And while Ashman had intended this ending to be tongue-in-cheek (as it plays in the stage musical), the humor is diminished on-screen because of the scale of the special effects.
Though Oz wanted to stay true to Ashman’s script and the stage version’s story, the dynamics of making a film versus watching a play with live actors lead Oz to admit that he could understand why audiences disliked the original ending. As the director himself states in the Blu-Ray’s new featurette, “in a stage play you kill the leads and they come out for a bow – in a movie, they don’t come out for a bow, they’re dead. And the audience loved those people.”
At least viewers now have the opportunity to see Conway’s special effects and Oz’s original ending on Blu-Ray – even if, dramatically, it comes up short compared to the smartly reworked finale of the theatrical cut, fans of the movie can now see where most of the movie’s budget went (buffs will also note that Paul Dooley’s appearance has been restored in the Director’s Cut; his part was reshot with Jim Belushi in the revised theatrical cut ending).
Warner’s Blu-Ray edition of “Little Ship of Horrors,” which includes both versions of the film, looks as crisp as the film will ever appear: the AVC encoded transfer offers a good amount of detail and lack of DNR while the DTS MA soundtrack is satisfyingly mixed. Extra features are mostly carried over from the original DVD release of the film, the first pressing of which became one of the format’s all-time most collectible titles (it offered a B&W version of the unused ending, and then was promptly pulled and repressed without it). Oz’s commentary is a carry-over from that release (included on the theatrical version and the original ending of the Director’s Cut), as are outtakes/deleted scenes (with Oz’s optional commentary), trailers, and a 1986 promo special, “A Story of Little Shop of Horrors.” Added to this release is a nice, albeit brief, featurette with Oz and Richard Conway discussing the original ending and how thankful they are to Warner Bros. for newly restoring it for home video.
Housed in a sleek Digibook with glossy photos, “Little Shop” fans have a reason to rejoice with a great package no matter which version of the picture they choose to view – though I’m guessing for most viewers, a single viewing of the “Director’s Cut” itself will probably suffice.
Scream Factory’s Blu-Ray Debut
The '80s were infamous for sequels that were made for no other reasons than monetary ones, and indeed, both HALLOWEEN II and HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH – John Carpenter's two follow-ups to his original 1978 classic – were produced mainly so Carpenter and producer Debra Hill could reap in the profits they deserved (but didn't receive) from the first movie. Nevertheless, there's still a lot to like in both pictures, despite their relative insignificance in the genre as a whole, and Shout! has celebrated both as inaugural entries in their new fantastic line of “Scream Factory” Blu-Ray releases.
HALLOWEEN II (**½, 93 mins., 1981, R) was produced by Dino DeLaurentiis and distributed by Universal, which resulted in a bigger budget and Carpenter and Hill returning to write and produce this sequel, which begins immediately following the events of the original. With an ugly wig and few lines of dialogue, Jamie Lee Curtis is sent to Haddonfield Hospital while Michael Myers continues to stalk unsuspecting victims in and around the small Illinois town. Donald Pleasence, whose primary function is to continue rehashing the original's storyline (in case anyone forgot) and myths about the masked killer, tries to find Myers while the hospital's gaggle of idiot teens (including “The Last Starfighter”’s Lance Guest) are knocked off one-by-one by The Shape.
Rick Rosenthal took over the directorial reigns from Carpenter, but Carpenter's signature is still all over this movie, from his entirely synthesized score to the superb scope camera work of regular collaborator Dean Cundey. Carpenter also played a role in re-editing the film, adding some gross-out inserts of needles penetrating eyeballs and other gratuitous shots that are a stark contrast from the subtle filmmaking of its predecessor, but were apparently required after Rosenthal’s dull original version was initially screened by the powers-at-be. If you look at Universal’s syndicated TV version of the film (which aired on the "Universal Debut Network" around 1985, and is included here on DVD!), you'll have an opportunity to see a movie that is reportedly closer to Rosenthal's original version, which is cut differently, offering less gore, a bit more character development, and a somewhat swifter pace (even though it runs the same 92-minute length). Also look fast for Dana Carvey as an assistant who takes orders from a female journalist outside the Myers house.
“Halloween II” doesn’t generate much suspense or shocks, and really plods after a decent start. In fact, if it weren’t for Cundey’s cinematography, the film would resemble any other routine ‘80s slasher, yet I can’t deny that the sequel has a certain nostalgic charm about it, and Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s score offers a more electronic – and aggressive – rehash of their original “Hallloween” themes.
Universal previously released “Halloween II” on Blu-Ray just a year ago in a respectable transfer with the 1984 theatrical feature “Terror in the Aisles” (with Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen introducing clips from all kinds of horror films) included as a bonus feature.
Shout!’s first Scream Factory release does that package one better with a superior 1080p transfer that really lets the film breathe, appearing even more detail in an otherwise similar looking AVC encoded presentation. The movie’s early Dolby Stereo track is included in 5.1 DTS MA while a mono mix (which most audiences heard at the time) is also included. The disc is also rich with marvelous extra features, starting off with the exceptional “The Nightmare Isn’t Over,” a 45-minute documentary offering interviews with Rick Rosenthal, Lance Guest, Dick Warlock, Dean Cundey, Alan Howarth, Leo Rossi and others – it’s a well-rounded, appealing examination of the picture’s strengths and weaknesses, acknowledging its fundamental issues (Tommy Lee Wallace walked off the film in pre-production after reading a screenplay he deemed “horrible”) while praising its positive attributes. “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” includes an engaging tour of locations involved in “Halloween II” with some terrific before/after footage, while trailers, TV spots, radio ads, a stills gallery and deleted scenes (culled from the TV version) are offered with optional commentary from Rosenthal. Speaking of commentaries, the disc also has two tracks: one from Rosenthal and Leo Rossi, the other with Dick Warlock relating his work on the film as stunt coordinator and his performance as Michael Myers himself. The Rosenthal/Rossi track is surprisingly dry and marked by gaps of silence, though there are occasional anecdotes of note; the Warlock track includes a nice overview of his entire career, and probably has more value overall.
The package is completed by the inclusion of the movie’s TV cut on a separate DVD platter that also includes a PDF of the screenplay. Like many Universal films released in the 1980s, “Halloween II” was syndicated as part of the studio’s “Debut Network” to local channels around the country (WPIX in New York being one such outlet). In order to pad the running time after R-rated material was excised, several minutes of scenes were rescued from the cutting room floor among other alterations (i.e. the movie’s opening credits were moved to the very beginning of the film). This version has run on AMC and other cable outlets over the years, so it may be more familiar to some viewers than you might expect. Overall, it’s a great package with reversible artwork that fans will also get a kick out of (the new artwork is solid, but it can’t beat the original advertising campaign, which is included on the cover’s flip side).
In trying to establish the "Halloween" brand name as a perennial October franchise, Hill and Carpenter figured they had milked Michael Myers for all his worth. The duo strove to do something different with the Myers-free follow-up, HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (**½, 99 mins., 1982, R), which was intended to be the first in a long line of Halloween-themed, standalone horror films that would haunt multiplexes for years to come.
Working from a premise by British sci-fi author Nigel Kneale (who had his name removed from the credits after Carpenter and Wallace mucked around with his script), this curiosity stars Tom Atkins as a doctor who stumbles upon a crazy scheme hatched by an Irish toymaker (Dan O'Herilhy) to murder all the nation's kids wearing Silver Shamrock masks on October 31st, via a signal in TV ads that will trigger the masks to crush the little tykes' skulls. Stacey Nelkin, who has the requisite good looks and perky demeanor of any brainless '80s horror heroine (and who may also be remembered for a memorable bit in the hilarious 1978 Martin Mull comedy “Serial”), is on-hand to provide what little love interest there is in this creepy but underwhelming sequel, which benefits again from atmospheric Dean Cundey cinematography and a deliberate, spooky synth score from Carpenter and Alan Howarth, which ranks as one of their better collaborations.
Part III was poorly received by audiences expecting another Michael Myers stalkfest, while critics didn't care for the movie either (what a shock!). My friend Paul MacLean recalls that when Gene Siskel reviewed the movie on "Sneak Previews," he continuously mentioned and even sang the obnoxious "Silver Shamrock" theme song, which pops up in the movie with its goofy synthesized "London Bridge is Falling Down" altered lyrics more times than I would care to remember! Still, in spite of its nasty ending and mean-spirited elements, “Season of the Witch” works splendidly on a double-bill with its predecessor, since seeing anything different is preferable to another tiresome Michael Myers movie (which we nevertheless got in every sequel that followed, beginning with “Halloween 4," which belatedly hit theaters some six years after this picture’s release). After reading about Kneale's original concept, the film comes off as a missed opportunity, but at least it tries to put a twist in the series and the film is moderately entertaining from start to finish.
Once again Shout! Factory has produced a marvelous release that “Halloween” fans will love. The 1080p AVC encoded transfer has been freshly minted from the original negative, and since Dean Cundey’s cinematography is once again one of the picture’s strongest assets, the enhanced visual presentation adds to the film’s effectiveness accordingly. Dino didn’t spring for stereo this time, so the DTS MA mono mix is as effective as the source material allows.
“Stand Alone: The Making of ‘Halloween III’” is another top-notch, 33-minute new documentary recounting the production from the earliest fan backlash towards the project (even executive producer Irwin Yablans shakes his head over the concept) to Tommy Lee Wallace’s heartbreak over its commercial failure. Dean Cundey, Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin (who’s had a “bit” of work done), Irwin Yablans and Alan Howarth appear among others appear to discuss the controversial sequel and its initial box-office failure. Wallace also sets the record straight on the screenplay credits, saying it’s the most inaccurate in film history (Wallace says he ended up being less than thrilled not just with Kneale’s script but also Carpenter’s rewrite). The two commentaries here are more engaging than “Halloween II,” with Wallace and Atkins each flying solo and divulging plenty of fun stories about the picture. Trailers (which I don’t recall seeing before on any prior release), TV spots, another terrific “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” location featurette, and a stills gallery round out the package.
Both discs serve as sensational inaugural releases for Shout’s Scream Factory label, which has a number of tasty horrors lined up for release through the end of the year on Blu-Ray. Next up are Tobe Hooper’s underrated “The Funhouse” and the Jamie Lee Curtis outing “Terror Train,” with John Carpenter’s “They Live,” the uproarious Michael Caine/Peter Benchley adaptation “The Island” and the Paul LeMat/Peter Billingsley thriller “Death Valley” all due out by the end of the year. Horror fans, understandably, probably won’t be able to contain their excitement over those and the prospects of more cult titles ahead in 2013.
Also New on Blu-Ray
PET SEMATARY Blu-Ray (*½, 102 mins., 1989, R; Paramount): While prior Stephen King movies like “The Shining” and “Carrie” did well financially, numerous other cinematic adaptations of the author fizzled out at the box-office, making the inexplicably huge in-take of 1989's “Pet Sematary” harder to explain.
This cheap-looking and icky thriller does have Fred Gwynne as a native Maine-r who offers such sage advice as “sometimes dead is better.” Indeed, director Mary Lambert might have been wise to keep the franchise dead even though this spring ‘89 release ranks as one of the highest-grossing of all King features, leading to not just talk of a remake but a bizarre 1992 sequel with Lambert directing stars Eddie Furlong and Anthony Edwards (amazing as it may seem, the less-pretentious follow-up is actually better than the original...faint praise as that is). Aside from Elliott Goldenthal’s score (which boasts a few strains of Lalo Schifrin’s “Amityville Horror” in the main theme), there’s little technically interesting about the movie, and the stiff lead performances of small-screen stars Dale Midkiff and Denise Crosby do little to sustain viewer interest, much less sympathy.
Paramount’s Blu-Ray does boast a satisfying 1080p HD transfer and DTS MA audio, along with an attractively spooky 3-D lenticular cover. Extras are carried over from a 2006 DVD edition of the film, with Lambert’s commentary track and three featurettes included.
JEEPERS CREEPERS Blu-Ray (*½, 90 mins., 2001, R; MGM/Fox): Francis Ford Coppola-produced, low-budget horror entry might have seemed like a breath of fresh air at the time of its original release (back when serial killer flicks were still all the rage), but “Jeepers Creepers” is an awfully amateurish, awkwardly-performed monster tale that's unintentionally funny as opposed to scary. In Victor Salva's film, a pair of idiotic teens (and we're talking dumber than your typical scream queen here) end up running afoul of a local country demon dubbed "The Creeper," who sacks unsuspecting motorists and drags them down to his lair to take whatever body parts he needs. (Fun, right?).
Writer-director Salva has long been one of cinema's more controversial figures following his conviction on child molestation charges years back, but whatever you may think of him being able to continue his filmmaking career, he continues to be an awfully pedestrian writer-director, believing here that long, slow takes of his actors' faces are enough to create a feeling of unease in the viewer. However, neither stars Gina Philips nor Justin Long are capable enough to fill you with that sense of dread (often times they feel like they're engaged in an acting class workshop), nor is Salva up to the challenge of creating a mythology and legend for "The Creeper," ending the movie and setting us up for a sequel just when the action should be getting started.
That said, “Jeepers” was MGM's most profitable release of 2001, and the studio has brought the film to Blu-Ray offering a number of behind-the- scenes supplements, including a Making Of, deleted/extended scenes, a photo gallery and the original trailer. The 1080p AVC encoded transfer is fine, and the DTS MA audio likewise effectively utilized.
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2: Blu-Ray (**½, 101 mins., 1986, Unrated; MGM/Fox): Tobe Hooper’s only sequel to his groundbreaking 1974 horror staple is a frothier, wildly uneven brew that ups the comedic elements at the same time it delivers more down-home gore. Dennis Hopper and Caroline Williams essay the duo who run into Leatherface and his clan in this Cannon-produced 1986 release, which wants to be a parody at the same time it asks you to take portions of it seriously. Indeed, the movie’s original advertising campaign -- which directly satirized “The Breakfast Club” with the Sawyer family in the same poses as the cast of John Hughes’ film -- directly ties in with the satirical element, though the finished film was neither quite as amusing, or scary, as most fans hoped.
MGM serves up a very strong Blu-Ray edition boasting a nicely detailed 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack. Extras are reprieved from the DVD, including two commentary tracks (one with Hooper and author David Gregory; another with Caroline Williams, co-star Bill Moseley, and make-up guru Tom Savini), deleted scenes, and a documentary.
Following on the heels of the hilariously good “Lifeforce” and hilariously bad “Invaders From Mars,” Hooper concluded his Cannon trilogy with the same uneven results that marked his previous two pictures at the studio. There are some hysterical moments and memorable sequences scattered about “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” but it’s a bumpy ride best recommended for fans of the original, and not the deadly-serious (and more pretentious) remake and prequel produced by Michael Bay and company.
Also new from MGM/Fox on the catalog front is the Chiodo Bros.’ 1988 cult favorite KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (**½, 86 mins., PG-13), a genial, low-budget genre outing that includes all of its DVD extras (commentary; five featurettes; two deleted scenes; bloopers; the original trailer) with a new 1080p AVC encoded transfer and 2.0 DTS MA stereo soundtrack.
AMERICAN HORROR STORY Season 1 Blu-Ray (532 mins., 2011; Fox): Those with a high tolerance for creator/producer Ryan Murphy’s sensibilities will be the most likely to enjoy his new FX genre offering “American Horror Story,” an off-the-wall – and often off-putting – exercise in perversity (and the supernatural) that drew plenty of attention when it aired its first season a year ago.
Dylan McDermott, Connie Britton and Taissa Farmiga play the Harmon family, a troubled unit who unfortunately move into a haunted home with disfigured burn victim Denis O’Hare and crazy Jessica Lange living nearby. S&M, gore, sexual depravity, and occasional black comedy all intertwine in a show that’s nasty and unpleasant – but nevertheless managed to scare up solid ratings. (A second season, also with Lange, begins shortly, though it is supposedly unrelated to the characters and events of Season 1).
Fox has produced a solid Blu-Ray package of “American Horror Story”’s first season. The 1080p AVC encoded transfers are all excellent and extras include a Making Of, separate featurettes for the title sequence and “Meet the House Ghosts,” plus “The Murder House” featurette and commentary on the pilot episode. The DTS MA soundtracks are also uniformly well-engineered.
THE TALL MAN Blu-Ray (106 mins., 2012, R; Image): Interesting, though not entirely successful, thriller from French director Pascal Laugier – making his English feature debut – stars Jessica Biel as a nurse in a small town where young children are going missing. Residents claim to have seen them disappear around a presence dubbed “The Tall Man,” though his motivations aren’t what they may seem at first glance in a film also written by Laugier with Jodelle Ferland and Stephen McHattie co-starring.
“The Tall Man” has ample atmosphere and stylish cinematography by Kamal Derkaoui – the film looks good and Laugier plays up the movie’s mood effectively – but the ultimate resolution is such a huge letdown, requiring a major suspension of disbelief, that it negates much of what came before it.
Image’s Blu-Ray of the picture includes a strong 1080p transfer with a nicely mixed DTS MA soundtrack. Extras include a deleted scene, the trailer and “Visual Concepts” featurette.
CHAINED Blu-Ray (94 mins., 2012, R; Anchor Bay): Jennifer Lynch’s latest film is a disturbing, if well-acted, account of a serial killer (Vincent D’Onofrio, chillingly convincing) who abducts a young boy after slaying his mother (Julia Ormond) and ends up making him part of his killing spree. Years later, the boy – renamed “Rabbit” – is as damaged as his new “father,” though Lynch saves a twist about D’Onofrio’s identity until the very end. “Chained” isn’t particularly believable and comes off as incredibly depressing, but the performances are capable if nothing else. Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack includes a commentary with Lynch and D’Onofrio, an unrated version of “Mary’s Murder” and the trailer, along with a 1080p transfer and Dolby TrueHD soundtrack.
MONSTER HIGH: GHOULS RULE DVD (72 mins., 2012; Universal): The popular Mattel line of dolls generates its first made-for-video movie with the colorful “Ghouls Rule,” which Universal brings to DVD on October 9th, offering a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 soundtrack and three bonus animated shorts.
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