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TRICKS & TREATS: HALLOWEEN 2010

By • Oct 28th, 2010 •

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This is not a banner year for Halloween releases on DVD or BluRay. The studios have not reached deep into their vaults for exciting tricks and treats. It makes me worry that some classics may never surface. Hopefully I’m just being overly anxious in that regard.

THE EXORCIST
(Warner Bros Home Entertainment)

Both versions are available on the new BluRay release, which is important because, exciting as the extended version is, many people prefer the original theatrical release. The discs also contain a slew of pre-existing supplementals, and one important new one. It’s a very special film, and represented a shocking step forward in the genre when it was released in 1973. For more on this release, I refer you to my latest editorial.

TROLL 2
(MGM Home Entertainment)

Taking a page from the SLIME CITY book, elements of Greg Lamberson’s culty ’80s goo fest are reprised in PG-13 clothing, but the result is hardly child-friendly – a tale of vegetarian Goblins (nary a Troll in sight – one of the juicy little adsurdities the deriders of this little flick hold up to ridicule) out to convert meat-eaters to green mush, and then devour them. The BluRay box wrapping contains a sticker which proudly indicates that a documentary – BEST WORST MOVIE (2009) – was made about this release, directed by the actor (Michael Stephenson) who played Joshua, the child protagonist.

I settled down to watch it, anticipating a rival for the title of Worst Film Ever Made – and on BluRay yet! But such did not prove to be the case. The screenplay, for instance, is often clever. It opens with a child (Stephenson) being regaled by his grandfather (Robert Ormsby) about the evil goblins – in a direct and intentional replication of the opening of THE PRINCESS BRIDE…except that we soon learn that the grandfather has been dead for several months and the kid is imagining the whole thing, a wonderful twist on the former film’s framing device. And there’s plenty more of this kind of imaginative thinking. Much of the film’s cinematography is good as well. [Must make mention: the blonde girl – a goblin in disguise – who seduces the young man in the story the grandfather tells in the first act, is about the purest and loveliest looking creature I’ve laid eyes on since Angela Lansbury graced the frames of THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. And that’s even with a bunch of foolish freckles painted on her face. Who she is, and where she is now, I have no idea. Maybe I’ll learn this when I catch up with BEST WORST MOVIE, since Stephenson makes a brief appearance in the scene with her.]

Where it all falls apart, however, and falls hard, is in the direction of the actors. Most of them speak their lines as if they’re reading off a teleprompter while on Xanax. It’s as if Werner Herzog had loaned them the hypnotist who got all the actors zoned out for HEART OF GLASS. Apparently director Claudio Fragasso spoke no English, and rigidly insisted the lines be read exactly as written, over the cast’s adamant protestations. Any kidding aimed at their delivery is well-deserved – it’s really awful. In addition, there are lines that are ripe fodder for howls of unintended laughter (and maybe a few that were intended – by the actors if not by the director). One such line, “They’re eating her…and then they’re going to eat me!” has apparently become one of the biggest viral videos of all time. And the Goblin masks are generally the stuff of Halloween costume stores – rubber face-pieces with sightless glass eyes.

Generally the older actors acquit themselves decently. There’s a local sheriff (Gary Carlson) who has a nice bit, and Ormsby is often effective. Oddly enough, however, it’s Stephenson, the child protagonist, who delivers the best performance of the bunch.

RED, WHITE AND BLUE
(IFC Films)

I’m mentioning this for Halloween, but I’m not sure when it’s coming out on DVD. It’s already been VODed, so you can catch up with it one way or another. Director Simon Rumley is a serious filmmaker – though his films are not an easy fit for the horror genre. But just to make things easy, lets say they infringe on the genre.

This one is more accessible than his last admirable job – THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, and its narrative surprises make it difficult to discuss without fear of giving too much away. Amanda Fuller (who starred in a short called DEATH, CAN I BUY YOU A DRINK?), and also appeared in many TV series) plays a jaded young woman who only likes one-night stands. Where does this lead…? Into pretty dark territory. Trust me.

The film was shot in the vicinity of the remarkable Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, and produced in part by Drafthouse people such as Tim League. It’s well cast, well written and acted. The editing rhythms are lovely, as is its use of space. Perhaps a character motivation or two had me unconvinced, but overall it’s one of the better films of the year…of any genre.

HOUSE
(Criterion Collection)

For coverage of this uncategorizable oddball classic, I refer you to Ben Peeples’ review elsewhere in this current FIR Halloween updating. I’d heard of it for years, but fortunately waited for Criterion’s BluRay release to finally see it, and, like everyone else (none excepted) I was nonplussed at what I was watching. Criterion’s worthy supplementals make it more digestible. Incidentally, I watched it a second time with my son, who hadn’t seen it, and it got better. I’m told this is one of those films that, due to how much sensory overload it packs into its 88 minutes, tends to behave that way on subsequent viewings.

FROZEN
(Anchor Bay)

This seemed, from its ads, and from word of mouth, like a followup to the simplistic but intriguing one location/few actors-therefore-low-budget concept of OPEN WATER, where scuba divers are left behind and have to tread water for a day until one of them dies and the other swims away. Except that this time the hapless victims are stranded on a ski-lift, abandoned to the elements, 50-ft up in the air. Actually it sounded less original than the water scenario.

Except that this one is wonderfully shot, with such abundant coverage that one never feels marooned like the protagonists. And the acting by the three leads – Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers & Emma Bell – guided carefully by director Adam Green, is really first rate. Added to that are some narrative surprises that are ultra-harrowing, plus good make-up and sound design, and you’ve got a superior horror thriller, possibly the best of the year.

ALIEN ANTHOLOGY
BluRay (Fox Home Entertainment)

When this collection originally came out on DVD, as ALIEN QUADRILOGY, it was the best release of the year. Nothing else came close. The ALIEN series is perhaps the finest film compendium in history. All the directors are so gifted. Each installment is so markedly different from the others, yet terribly creative and satisfying (even # 3, ladies and gentlemen, even # 3, in its dour, morbid way). When I heard this was coming, I couldn’t wait, as I’m sure all the rest of the ALIEN-loving hordes couldn’t wait. It’s debuting in stores this week, and since I only just received my review copy, please don’t expect me to have watched all 50 hours of primary and supplemental material for this Halloween Column review.

Let’s start with the packaging. The DVD packaging…my god, it unraveled across my living room, into the hallway, and ended up in the street outside my brownstone. This thing had more flaps than an accordion. It was very impressive, but more than a bit unwieldy.

The BluRay collection is in book form, brilliantly designed with thick, hard pages, every other one containing a disc that slips out of flat envelope. It’s literally half the size of the DVD box. This is good. Good for wear and tear, and good for your shelves.

The disc I chose to compare with the DVD release was ALIEN 3. That was a dark mother, with lots of sound design and score. Right off the bat, the Fox logo (whose final notes, as you recall were tampered with, morphing into something less triumphant and more ominous then the proud Fox fanfare). On the DVD, it’s a bit subdued. On the BluRay, holy shit, it cracks like a whip inside your ear drums. And on it goes from there. More volume, more substance, more definition of instrumentation, and more dramatic in its mix.

The image – less clearly improved, is certainly as good as the DVD release. I’d have to do a lot more watching to say something definitive about the various versions and the overall visual quality, but the audio jumped out at me. It’s markedly better on the BluRays.

COLIN
(Walking Shadows)

Someone gets an Executive Producer credit at the end. What did he do, put up the seventy-five bucks?

No one warned me how somber this film was. It’s not a fun watch, but it’s a well observed slice of life…rather, death. I’d heard it was from the POV of a guy who gets bitten and turns into a zombie, and that is indeed what it’s about, and it’s a clever idea. But it’s the melancholy and the sense of loss that’s pervasive here. Being a zombie is a no-win affair; Romero’s films, and SHAUN OF THE DEAD, distance us from that grim fact by using comic relief and living protagonists. Also, it very much reminds me, at its best, of the work of Peter Watkins (THE WAR GAME, PUNISHMENT PARK, BATTLE OF COLLODON). I wonder if Watkins has seen it? Director Marc Price certainly seems to have studied Watkins’ work. The ‘you are there’ hand held camera realism that Watkins pioneered is present in several nicely staged scenes. It’s not the hand held, say, of BLAIR WITCH; it’s not trying to be shaky for effect so much as trying to stay steady against overwhelming emotional odds and failing.

It’s quite an accomplishment if it were done for as little as the press releases claim. But it’s an accomplishment no matter what the micro-budget was. The mise-en-scene is well attended to. At times the silences, the wrinkling skin representative of zombification (which could also represent old age if this film were all one big metaphor for where we’re heading), the use of space and shadow, and the barriers of life we just can’t control, creep through the horror story and become what COLIN is really about.

Don’t know how often I’d watch this film, but it’s certainly impressive. I have a Noir shelf, an Epic shelf, a Western Shelf, a Silent Film shelf, etc., etc. As you can imagine, I could easily have an entire Zombie shelf, given the vast amount of films made on the subject over the past twenty years. But this one goes up on the Fake-Documentary shelf next to Watkins’ work.

BOOKS:

NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD
Written by Joe Kane
(Citadel Press)

Joe was the infamous “Phantom Critic” for the Daily News, and later (and still) the editor of one of the best genre-review rags – “The Phantom of the Movies’ VIDEOSCOPE.” Here he presents us with a comprehensive soft cover book on the phenomenon that was, and is, and will continue to be, one of the most influential films on the planet, even if you don’t like the horror genre – George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. The cover copy makes the author’s intent very clear: “behind the scenes of the most terrifying zombie movie ever,” and “includes the original legendary screenplay by John Russo.” Making it a perfect Halloween gift for the zombie lover in your life.

It goes well beyond the original breakthrough zombie flick that changed the direction of the genre. Sequels, inspirations, remakes, all are discussed, and there are lists of films to read about – zombie comedies for example, so that the genre gets a good and thorough going over before the book is closed. Interviews with many of the film’s participants or other horror filmmakers are included, even one with yours truly, who Joe maintains made the first documentary about the making of a horror film – DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD. I was honored to be included in this omnibus accounting, and greatly enjoyed, as I always do, Joe’s unique, clever, and droll use of prose.

MUSHROOM CLOUDS AND MUSHROOM MEN: The Fantastic Cinema of Ishiro Honda
Written by Peter H. Brothers
(Authorhouse)

Here’s another lovely voyage through a director’s career, including reasonably in depth analysis of the films in the vast series he created. Ishiro Honda was the director of GODZILLA. For a number of years I’ve been teaching History of Horror classes at the School of Visual Arts, and I’ve long since ceased to be surprised at how many college students truly adore the Godzilla films. Therefore I think this book is a safe bet as a Halloween gift for your favorite horror aficionado.

After acquainting us with the quartet of filmmakers who form the creative core of the Toho monster films – Director Honda, Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, Japan’s Father of Special Effects Eiji Tsuburaya, and composer Akira Ifukube – author Brothers guides us carefully and at length through Honda’s life and directorial style. He is meticulous even in documenting opposing views about the filmmaker – for example at one point explaining that Honda focused more on the technical aspects of production and left the actors to do for themselves, then later quoting an actress who claims that he was an actor’s director. Also Honda’s wishes to have done more varied and better-budgeted films makes itself clear over the course of the book, though he was a mild-mannered man, ultimately happy to be working as steadily within the studio system as he did.

Honda worked a lot before he got to GODZILLA, but once he directs his most famous film, it and each subsequent fantasy/sci-fi/or/horror project is given a separate chapter. I was chagrined to learn that one can’t get a good print of THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN on DVD. I’ve always loved Yeti legends, and thoroughly enjoyed the film made from Nigel Kneale’s screenplay by Hammer Studios. But Brothers claims that Honda’s take on the subject is the best that’s been done, and that it has been suppressed by Toho, perhaps due to its negative depiction of indigenous peoples.

Also, I’m a fan of the noirish THE H-MAN (1958), but a similar film by Honda, THE HUMAN VAPOR, according to Brothers, is the better of the two, and I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing that one, so after Halloween I’m going to go hunting.

Brothers calls 1963 the last year of Honda’s really good work. But in the years and films that follow, he finds stand-alone elements that still soar – be it the cinematography, the music, the effects, or the appearance of American actor Nick Adams, who did two films for Honda and might have done more had he not ended his life shortly after these roles. I remember being in the Forum of the Twelve Caesars restaurant in NYC in the early 60s and spotting Adams at a table nearby. Soon everyone knew he was there, because he had a telephone brought to his table and called someone, announcing in a loud voice “Hi. This is Nick Adams.” The rest of the call escapes me, but it was just the intro that he wanted all of us to hear.

I don’t know what’s become of copy editors nowadays. You will come across a goodly amount of errors in the book, but fortunately they don’t spoil the fun.

THE PERFECT HORROR FILMS NOT PLAYING AT THIS YEAR’S HALLOWEEN PARTY
By Glenn Andreiev

Yes, 2010 has been a weak year for horror, mostly “tribute” horror films produced by Eli Roth, like THE LAST EXORCISM and PIRANHA 3D. They make you want to break out the DVD’s of the classic films they were “saluting”. What about the classic films that for some crazy reason never saw a DVD release?

Top of the “should-be-on-DVD” list is Paramount’s 1933 THE ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. H.G Wells felt this film was an overly perverse take on his novel The Island of Dr. Moreau, which told of an exiled surgeon who sped up the evolutionary process in animals, having them become half-men. In this rare film, Moreau, as played with psychotic relish by Charles Laughton, performs live dissections on his manimals and tries to get hero Richard Arlen to bed with a half-panther half-hottie who runs around in a bikini. Cinematographer Karl Struss (BEN-HUR, SUNRISE, LIMELIGHT) lensed most of the film through gauze to create a washed out dream-like look. After 68 minutes of cutting live manimals open, hints of bestiality, and after 80 years still a truly scary ending, the tail credits appear with happy music best suited for that studio’s Lubitsch or Marx Brother comedy. It could be the most unfitting tail credit music of all time. The reason for this is that ISLAND OF LOST SOULS was released at the height of the depression. Even after serving a depression era audience (and all audiences afterwards) a buffet of welcome creepy hysteria, Paramount wanted their audiences leaving the theatre happy.

THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1938) is a somber, fast paced British horror suspense masterwork not to be confused with a same-titled Warner Brothers truck-driving drama starring Humphrey Bogart and George Raft released in America two years later. This Brit DRIVE BY NIGHT is directed by Arthur Woods, Britain’s intended replacement for a certain master of suspense who went to Hollywood. This film is very Hitchcock in nature. A recently released ex-con, Shorty (Emlyn Williams) yearns for a fresh start, an honest living and his ex-girlfriend. However, he finds his ex freshly strangled in her apartment. Feeling the finger of blame will point to him, Shorty heads off to find the real killer, who turns out to be a meek, gentle soul – Mr. Hoover (played with prissy excellence by Ernest Thesiger). Hitchcock touches abound here. A guilt-ridden Shorty ducks out into a movie theatre which is playing a short heralding how Scotland Yard can find anybody, and the villainous Hoover relaxes by reading a large book titled Sex In Prison. In a touch of early cinematic technical brilliance, ala Hitchcock, we have a wide shot of Hoover’s spooky old house. The camera quickly cranes forward to a close up of Hoover peering through a second story window. Because of the Bogart-Raft film of the same title, this THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT was never released in America. Sadly, director Arthur Woods, showing immense promise here, died during World War II while serving as a fighter pilot.

Back in America, RKO’s B-Movie unit put out STRANGER ON THIRD FLOOR. In this 1940 shocker, Mike (John McGuire), a struggling reporter, is letting poverty and bitterness rot his soul. His neighbor, Meng, is a nosy pest One evening, Meng is found murdered in his apartment – his throat cut. Meng is the latest victim of a local serial killer. The highlight of the film is Mike’s nightmare of being wrongly accused, tried and convicted. The nightmare sequence rivals CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI for the wildest set design ever. For example, people stand at warped street-corners reading newspapers bigger than they are. Peter Lorre is perfect as the homeless stranger who is really the killer. Just his delivery of such dialog as (delivered to a deli clerk) “Hello. I would like some meat…. raw please.” will make you want to grab a DVD of this film, but sadly, nobody has put this film on DVD. Mike’s girlfriend is played by Margaret Tallichet, aka Mrs. William Wyler. This is a very early film noir – catch it.

DARK SHADOWS was the compelling gothic horror soap opera that ran in afternoons on ABC from 1966 to 1970. It was hampered by minimal sets, contrasty black and white TV cameras, and technical hiccups galore, but its performances, atmosphere, and overload of macabre thrills earned it international fans. In 1970, its director, Dan Curtis, released a theatrical movie version of the series, HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS. Here Dan and stars Jonathan Frid and Joan Bennett are given serious coin by MGM, and they give us a vampire thriller that bursts with terrific location shooting, mounting suspense and a nightmarish ending where everybody in the cast becomes a crazed vampire.

Our list ends with a cinematic salute to uncontrolled lunacy – 1983’s NIGHT WARNING. The great Susan Tyrrell is Aunt Cheryl, an unhinged, homicidal middle aged woman who really, really likes her nephew (Jimmy McNichol) She will do anything to get close to him. The film is blood-drenched, melodramatic as all get out, and should be on DVD. I could also add to this should-be-on DVD list – Michael Curtiz’s THE MAD GENIUS (1931) with John Barrymore and Boris Karloff, overlooked vintage Universal studio classics like SECRETS OF THE BLUE ROOM with Lionel Atwill, and THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD with Claude Rains. These would be the films I would play at my Halloween bash, and I’d run Disney’s SKELETON DANCE from 1929 between each film.

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One Response »

  1. Hi Roy,

    FROZEN was a four start DVD. It just missed out my top ten list of 2010. A tailored film made for the best. See you Soon and great choice.

    Kudos to Adam Green and his pack of wolves.

    Best to you and the fam, my friend.

    PS- Want to go skiing?

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