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Critics back in the day seemed to be shocked that the 1999 film of THE HAUNTING (112 mins., PG-13; Paramount), director Jan De Bont’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel “The Haunting of Hill House” – itself previously adapted in Robert Wise’s celebrated 1963 genre work – represented a conscious lightening of its source material, but what did they expect in a PG-13 rated haunted house movie from Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks studio? It’s bubblegum, ersatz-horror all the way, but at least it was given a classy production mounting thanks to a top-flight technical team. And, after over 20 years, the often maligned film is finally available on Blu-Ray, where its artistic accomplishments can be best appreciated.

Lili Taylor gives the film’s best performance as a sheltered and emotionally scarred young woman who is recruited by Liam Neeson to undergo a “sleep disorder study” (really a front for an experiment in observing human paranoia) in a gothic mansion in western Massachusetts. Joining Taylor are Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson, who creep around the ghostly house while Neeson looks on, wondering if the apparitions that become visible to Taylor are indeed a product of her imagination – or something else lurking in the house.

Movies like the original “The Haunting” and Jack Clayton’s supreme supernatural classic “The Innocents” effectively played off their protagonist’s mounting fear by raising questions about their sanity (or lack thereof). In this “Haunting,” the more subtle approach of those pictures is eschewed in favor of explicit visual effects and a point-of-view that never questions Taylor’s behavior, even though Neeson isn’t quite sure that she’s mentally all there.

It’s just one discrepancy in David Self’s screenplay, which is nevertheless given a superb visual presentation in director Jan DeBont’s glossy production. Beautifully designed (by Eugenio Zanetti) and photographed (kudos to Karl Walter Lindenlaub), “The Haunting” provides low-rent scares in a grade-A studio setting. Say what you will about the lack of a compelling story, but the film’s $80 million budget is certainly evident on-screen in its depiction of Hill House, with its towering corridors, gothic designs, pockets of spider webs and paintings evoking purgatory.

It’s a shame, then, that the movie never really comes to life and produces the kind of spine-tingling moments one expects from this material. The film has a difficult time generating true chills, with the biggest scare coming from a skeleton that briefly comes to life, and a mural of child sculptures whose expressions change from one cut to another (evidence that, yes, some shocks can be generated without CGI). In place of subliminal horrors are those computer-generated special effects, some of which are impressive but none of which come close to evoking the juvenile frights of the Haunted Mansion ride at Disney World. The climactic showdown between Taylor and the house’s “host” actually recalls the Grim Reaper design in Peter Jackson’s turkey “The Frighteners” and that’s likely not the kind of cinematic comparison DeBont and company were aiming for here.

Producer Spielberg’s influence, meanwhile, can be felt throughout. In many ways, “The Haunting” plays like “Poltergeist” by “The Goonies” – there are corridors and gadgets, hidden rooms and a rationale for the Poltergeist phenomena that culminates in an ending more uplifting than its cinematic predecessor (which this film is not a remake of). Indeed, several reports in the NY Post just prior to the movie’s release claimed Spielberg extensively reshot some of the film, bearing an eerie resemblance to the whole “did Tobe Hooper direct Poltergeist?” fiasco from 1982. Certainly there’s ample evidence on-hand that tampering was done to the picture’s ending (not to mention Lili Taylor’s hair changing lengths in a couple of spots, which could be continuity glitches or clear evidence of re-shot material).

The cast tries hard, but, other than Taylor (billed fourth despite having the lead role!), are given little to do. Neeson looks more lost here than he did in “The Phantom Menace” while Zeta-Jones’s toughest job is finding a rationale for changing her wardrobe during the course of the story. Owen Wilson’s surfer dude might have worked better as comic relief if his character resembled Jeff Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” but the movie just misses that kind of inspiration. Predictably, none of them are able to steer clear of some unintentionally funny dialogue, most of which occurs near the picture’s climax. (My favorite is Neeson, having just witnessed a haunted house crumbling down and statues coming to life around him, bark out, “what does he think this is? A game?!”, as if ghosts should have a “code of conduct” for interacting with the living!)

DeBont’s pacing is efficient, though, and I admit that I generally enjoyed looking at the movie – it’s worth it for its production design alone, and I’ve even warmed to Jerry Goldsmith’s score as time has gone on (it’s more than the “Poltergeist leftovers” I thought at the time). Thanks to the sets and the movie’s technical artistry, “The Haunting” is enough to warrant a mild recommendation for genre fanatics, even if the only members of the audience who’ll be truly scared by it will be fully grown only by the next time that this story is remade again.

Receiving a long-overdue Blu-Ray release as part of Paramount’s “Presents” line (surprising it’s taken so long given that the movie nearly scared up $100 mil in domestic receipts alone), “The Haunting” has been given a 4K restored transfer (2.39) that’s clear, detailed, and just splendidly presented. The movie’s look is key to its appeal, and the 5.1 DTS MA sound is as well engineered as any mix you’ll find, with active rear speakers and deep bass. In addition to archival extras (two trailers, vintage featurette), the disc includes a nine-minute interview with DeBont, who laments some of Spielberg’s meddling (admitting that much of the FX and animated corpses were added at the insistence of the producer) and that their inability to secure remake rights to the Robert Wise version lead them to retool the script from scratch. Also interesting is that DeBont had been developing “Minority Report” at Dreamworks but “traded projects” with Spielberg when “The Haunting”’s script needed to be overhauled.

THE VANISHED DVD (114 mins., 2020, R; Paramount): Anne Heche and Thomas Jane play a distraught couple, trying to find their missing daughter, who take matters into their own hands when their local sheriff (Jason Patric) doesn’t turn up any new leads. Actor Peter Facinelli wrote, directed and also appears in this Saban Films production new on DVD from Paramount. The disc includes a 16:9 transfer, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and a Digital copy.

Vinegar Syndrome New Releases

Vinegar Syndrome, brilliant purveyors of the cult and curious, have resurrected a trio of horror titles from around the globe for their new October Blu-Ray releases. While all hailing from the late ’80s, each of these offers a bevy of unique attributes that ought to appeal to genre devotees – especially if you scoured the video store shelves for horror movies back during the era.

MEMORIAL VALLEY MASSACRE (93 mins., 1988, R) is one of those: intended to be filmed as “Memorial Day,” this early production of Brad Krevoy’s Motion Picture Corp. of America is a ridiculous exercise in prehistoric terror (kind of). When land developer Allen Sangster (Cameron Mitchell) opens his latest campground, a bevy of campers unfortunately finds out the hard way that they’re being stalked by a killer. In this case, a wig-wearing, caveman-type who harbors a secret connection with the park ranger (you won’t believe it!) and who really, really dislikes modern contraptions like engines.

Also known as “Valley of Death,” “Memorial Valley Massacre” is about as scary as “Encino Man,” the later Hollywood Pictures comedy with Brendan Fraser playing a neanderthal. However, that’s not to say there isn’t entertainment value in this one, as the movie’s mostly plastic performances give way to some unintentional laughs – especially once the killer shows up (and it doesn’t take long).

Shot mostly in bright outdoor settings (not exactly a horrific setting), “Memorial Valley Massacre” is a nostalgic hoot with Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-Ray boasting a new scan and 4K restoration (1.85) from the 35mm original negative. Interviews with star John Kerry and director Robert C. Hughes are included along with a promo still gallery and 2.0 DTS MA stereo soundtrack, the picture sporting a pokey synthesizer score by Jed Feuer.

Italian-produced, U.S.-shot horror movies typically make for a strange brew: witness “Zombie 5,” better known here as KILLING BIRDS (92 mins., 1987). This effort from director Claudio Lattanzi opens with a grizzly sequence wherein a returning Vietnam vet massacres his entire family (save his baby boy) after witnessing his wife in bed with another man. After he’s blinded by a falcon, years later a group of Louisiana college students run into the man (now played by Robert Vaughn) and work with him while studying an endangered woodpecker. What they find instead of birds are zombies ready to cause a ruckus.

“Killing Birds” starts off with a bloody beginning but shifts gears quickly into a more character-driven study of the supernatural (almost more like a thriller than a horror film) with some seriously stilted performances – especially the opening sequences in Loyola University (New Orleans) where we first meet our younger protagonists. The film doesn’t entirely work as a whole but horror fans, and especially those with a predisposition to Italian schlock, should take to the movie just the same, and Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-Ray offers a robust restoration of the picture. The transfer (1.85) has been newly restored in 2K with two soundtracks (English and the Italian dub) and enjoyable extras including a long, subtitled interview with Claudio Lattanzi, a video chat with sound man Larry Revene, a new commentary with critic Samm Deighan, and both U.S. and Italian trailers.

The one movie you wouldn’t have seen on the VHS racks is GRAVE ROBBERS (88 mins., 1989), a Mexican feature that I don’t believe received distribution in the U.S. It certainly was deserving of some kind of release, since there’s effective gore and a good amount of fun to be had in this story of a group of teens – raiding an old tomb – who run afoul of a hulking, chain-wearing killer who looks like Frank Langella’s Skeletor and lurks around, trying to father Satan’s son.

Decent production values (considering its budget) make for an effective little genre exercise from Ruben Galindo Jr., who’s also interviewed in an engaging on-camera conversation here about this film as well as his many decades in the Mexican film industry. The newly scanned, restored 4K transfer (1.85) is gorgeously crisp and a commentary from The Hysteria Continues! is included alongside a clear Spanish soundtrack.

Coming From Scream Factory

Though it’s not being released until November 10th, I’d be remiss if I didn’t provide my highest recommendation for Scream Factory’s highly anticipated Collector’s Edition of BRIDES OF DRACULA (86 mins., 1960; Shout!). 

This first of many sequels to the original Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Hammer “Dracula” (aka “Horror of Dracula” in the US), “Brides” was released domestically by Universal and offers a spectacularly colorful product minus the Count himself. No, Christopher Lee doesn’t appear here (his first reprisal of the role would have to wait for the inferior “Dracula: Prince of Darkness” six years later); in his vampiric place is a Baroness and her undead son, who provide the menace to Cushing’s stalwart Van Helsing, here to save the day in Terence Fisher’s film just in the nick of time.

With warmly saturated color cinematography, a tight script (credited to Jimmy Sangster, Peter Bryan and Edward Percy) and brisk pace, “Brides of Dracula” is rightly regarded as one of the finest Hammer films. Certainly it’s one of the best of their Dracula series, even minus Lee; the movie provides an intriguing enough premise to offset his departure, and Cushing is certainly able to carry the load dramatically in his absence. It culminates in an exciting climax that has long enhanced its reputation as a Hammer fan favorite.

“Brides of Dracula” was previously available on Blu-Ray in Universal’s Hammer Film Collection box-set. Scream’s Collector’s Edition houses a new and improved 2K scan from the interpositive in both 1.85 and 1.66 aspect ratios and mono sound, and it’s a keeper; flesh tones and colors are better rendered here, with new extras including a commentary with Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr and freshly produced segments on Terence Fisher, Jack Asher and composer Malcolm Williamson. Other supplements include Final Cut’s half-hour “Making Of,” the trailer; a still gallery; and TV/radio spots.

 

 

Also New & Noteworthy

While 2009 would eventually became dominated with the release of “Avatar,” a release from earlier that year proved to be a far more durable piece of science fiction: Neill Blomkamp’s DISTRICT 9 (***½, 112 mins., 2009, R; Sony), a film produced on a fraction of the budget of James Cameron’s blockbuster, but far more satisfying in terms of story, character, and overall entertainment.

The picture, written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, also offers a story of a human (Sharlto Copley) who becomes wrapped up in an extraterrestrial culture — but that of a group of insect-like “prawns” who accidentally end up marooned in a very real-looking South Africa, where they’re segregated in shanty towns to live a dismal existence for decades to come. Copley starts off as a clog for another large corporation assigned to move the prawns out of their slum and into internment camps; after dousing himself with a liquid that begins to transform him into one of them, his previous prejudice for the aliens gradually shifts to an understanding of their plight, particularly one prawn with a young son who finds a possible way to reactivate their long-dormant ship which still hovers over the skies of Johannesburg.

Told mostly in an effective, pseudo-documentary style, “District 9″ is, like “Avatar,” a film assembled out of other movies to some degree as well: there’s a dash of “Alien Nation,” “The Fly” and several other sci-fi movies here, but the difference is that Blomkamp takes the time to develop its characters and makes its aliens ultimately sympathetic, though at first blush these creatures are more repellent than other-worldly. In fact, it’s the very nature of the drama shifting gears and existing in shades of grey — not just in a cookie-cutter, black-and-white world like “Avatar” — that makes “District 9″ all the more compelling as opposed to Cameron’s film. This is a constantly exciting, occasionally violent but nevertheless enthralling science-fiction film that has since become regarded as one of the era’s most satisfying, and durable, genre works.

Sony’s 4K UHD package of “District 9” is superb: the HDR10 transfer (1.85) is exceptionally good, as most of Sony’s releases are, while Dolby Atmos audio is as potent as the earlier Blu-Ray 5.1 track (also included), housing a fine score by Clinton Shorter. Extra features include deleted scenes, Blomkamp’s commentary, a three-part documentary, visual effects featurettes, plus a digital copy of the movie and a 4K UHD exclusive “Comic Con Extravaganza” segment, plus trailers.

THE GREAT – Season 1 DVD (9 hours, 2020; Paramount): Anachronistic, black comic take on the life of Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning) frames the anti-heroine as a romantic idealist wanting to change her country’s fortunes while dealing with an arranged marriage with Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult). Tony McNamara, who spun “The Favourite,” wrote this Hulu original series, presented here in a four-disc DVD set by Paramount with two featurettes, a gag reel, 16:9 transfers and 5.1/2.0 stereo sound on-hand.

Lionsgate New Releases: Leonardo DiCaprio is one of the porudcers of History Channel’s documentary GRANT (256 mins., 2020), a three-part mini-series that mixes historian commentary with dramatic re-enactments to create an engaging production that brings new life to Civil War and Reconstruction history. Lionsgate’s DVD (1.78) is now available with 2.0 stereo sound in a two-disc set…Debuting on Blu-Ray is the rather anemic comedy FRIENDSGIVING (96 mins., 2020, R), the story of two friends (Kat Dennings, Malin Akerman), trying to have a quiet Thanksgiving together, who end up expanding their field of guests to include a number of party crashers (Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho among them). The cast is far more talented than the material, with Lionsgate’s Blu-Ray including a commentary from writer-director Nicol Paone, a featurette, gag reel, 1080p (1.85) transfer, 5.1 DTS MA sound and a Digital HD copy.

BLACK LIGHTNING Seasons 2 (674 mins., 2018-19) and 3 (673 mins., 2019-20; Warner): DC Comics’ extensive TV empire taps into a more obscure good guy – the 70s African-American hero Black Lightning – for this entry into their CW series. Joining the ranks of “Flash,” “Supergirl” and “Arrow” among others, “Black Lightning” updates Jefferson Peirce for the Trump era, meaning this Greg Berlanti production is heavy on stereotypical characters (mostly white villains who, in one instance, even tell you want to make the country “great again”) and messaging that’s predictable in its political posturing. All of it takes a toll on what’s an otherwise agreeable program, one that coasts along through its Season 2 and 3 DVD packages – each now available separately from Warner. 16:9 transfers amd 5.1 sound are included plus a 2019 Comic Con panel (Season 3) and “Whale of a Villain” featurette (Season 2).

More vintage TV is out from Warner on DVD this month: Season 2 of the ABC sitcom HEAD OF THE CLASS (587 mins., 1988-89), with Howard Hesseman returning as unorthodox substitute teacher Charlie Moore. Mr. Moore once again finds himself trying to inspire his Individualized Honors Program students, this time by having them teach themselves. A mix of comedy and drama punctuate Season 2 of the show which became part of ABC’s popular TGIF primetime block; Warner’s DVD includes full-length episodes with 4:3 transfers and mono soundtracks.

PBS New Releases: New on DVD this month from PBS is Season 1 of COBRA (270 mins., 2002), a Sky series starring Robert Carlyle as the Prime Minister of England during a major crisis that requires the mobilization of “COBRA” – a team consisting of senior personnel, experts and crisis management planners. This dramatic series co-starring Victoria Hamilton, Richard Dormer and David Haig tries to paint an all-encompassing profile of how authorities react to an emergency, and comes to disc in the form of a two-disc set from PBS sporting four featurettes, 2.0 sound and 16:9 transfers…Marc Warren stars in VAN DE VALK (270 mins., 2019) as a savvy detective who takes on tough cases from drug addiction to high crimes in contemporary Amsterdam. PBS’ double-disc set offers three episode cycles (Love in Amsterdam; Only in Amsterdam; Death in Amsterdam) with a bonus introduction to the series, 16:9 transfers and 5.1 sound…Francesca Annis and Imelda Staunton star in FLESH AND BLOOD (180 mins., 2019), an ITV series about a family trying to handle their recently widowed mother’s (Annis) relationship with a retired surgeon (Stephen Rea). This limited series debuts on DVD from PBS in a two-disc set with a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital audio.

BONANZA: THE OFFICIAL ELEVENTH SEASON Volume 1 (13 hours, 1969-70) and Volume 2 (13 hours, 1970; CBS): It’s time to saddle up for one of the last remaining seasons of the long-running TV western. In the eleventh season of “Bonanza,” CBS has divided the action from the show’s 1969-70 campaign into two separate volumes, each sporting remastered 4:3 transfers and mono sound, along with numerous, welcome extras. These include new, exclusive commentaries from the set’s producer, Andrew J. Klyde, plus vintage Chevy commercials with Lorne Greene; “extensive and rare episodic, behind-the-scenes and on-location photos”; additional photo galleries; and original NBC logos and promos on individual episodes. For fans, these sets come unquestionably recommended, with CBS providing the original music and transfers presented from original film elements, along with alternate Spanish language audio tracks as well.

EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE Blu-Ray/DVD Limited Edition (122 mins., 2019; Sony): Aaron Paul returns to reprise his “Breaking Bad” role of Jesse Pinkman, here trying to reconcile his past actions and hope to set up his future after he escapes from the “Brotherhood” compound. “Bad” creator Vince Gilligan wrote and directed this feature-length film which reunites Paul with several of his series cast mates, including Bryan Cranston; Sony’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack is housed in a very attractive Steelbook sporting a vibrant 1080p (2.39) transfer with 5.1 DTS MA sound. Ample extras include commentary with Gilligan and Paul; an ensemble “Super Commentary” track of cast and crew members; a Making Of; gag reel; deleted/extended scenes; promo materials; and a Digital HD copy.

QUIZ DVD (152 mins., AMC/RLJE): Fascinating docu-drama recounts the UK’s biggest game show scandal about Charles and Diana Ingram’s participation – and the latter’s cheating – during the original run of “How Wants to Be a Millionaire?” in England nearly 20 years ago. Matthew Macfadyen, Sian Clifford and Michael Sheen star in this mini-series with AMC’s DVD including 16:9 transfers, 5.1 sound, and four featurettes.

BEN 10 VS. THE UNIVERSE: THE MOVIE DVD (69 mins., 2020; Cartoon Network/Warner): Ben 10’s arch-nemesis, Vilgax, returns to battle Team Tennyson and Planet Earth, forcing Ben to take them on outside the galaxy while Gwen, Drandpa Max and Kevin 11 team up to save Earth in this feature-length extension of the popular Cartoon Network series. Warner’s DVD is out this week, including a 16:9 transfer and 2.0 stereo sound.

THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA DVD (366 mins., 2020; HBO): “The Wire”’s David Simon and Ed Burns produced this HBO limited-series adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel – the story of how Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency in an alternate reality and turns America into a fascist dictatorship during the 1940s. Heavy-handed commentary meant to connect with the current Prez, just in time for election day. HBO’s DVD includes 16:9 transfers and 5.1 sound plus a featurette.

NEXT TIME: New Clint Eastwood Blu-Rays from Kino Lorber and more! Until then, don’t forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address.

 

 

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