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FIR HALLOWEEN COLUMN 2014

By • Oct 26th, 2014 •

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Good news: despite the decline of DVD/BluRay, there are some spectacular titles out there for Halloween. I’m even in one of them (but don’t let that stop you from picking it up…) Also, we’re still drowning in zombies, so they get their special section at the end of the column.

DVD Deluge:

UNIVERSAL 30-FILM COLLECTION(Too many to list, but contained therein are the sagas and family trees of FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA, THE MUMMY, THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE WOLFMAN (with a werewolf and a she-wolf thrown in), and THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON)

Even back in 2012 when the remastered BluRay collection of 8 magnificent titles was released, there was a booklet in the box that listed the big 30 titles of the Universal monster collection. Now, two years later, that massive collection of Universal classics has arrived. Even though all thirty titles are released here on DVD, the remastered eight use those sumptuous remasterings as their DVD printing material, so those choice titles are jaw-droppers of pristine proportions. Additionally, the copious supplementals, including commentaries, have all been carried over, so as far as DVD goes, this is the definitive collection to own, and if you’re willing to part with your earlier DVD releases with their lovely full-color covers, you’ll find that Universal has kindly freed up a good deal of shelf space in the bargain. There are, by the way, two new titles – not good ones by any means, but new ones nonetheless, that may have been released in a comedy collection, but never in a horror collection – ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE INVISIBLE MAN, and ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET THE MUMMY. Also, some titles are repeated in each separate collection. For example, the entire FRANKENSTEIN series is contained in one four-disc mini-box, including ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN. But this title is also found in the DRACULA series mini-box and the WOLFMAN series mini-box, suggesting that they will be released separately as well. A few supplementals are also repeated in the separate boxes.

The Universal horror films from the 30s and 40s represent both the Golden age of Horror (the 30s) and a half-decade beyond. I don’t care if your film romance is with the gangster genre or screwball comedy, if you care about film history, you really need to own this collection as well. Here is where German Expressionism landed on our shores in a big way. Here is where the subconscious demons of the Great Depression took root on the silver screen. This is vitally important historical cinema, and those restorations are drool-worthy.

Essential Book review:

UNIVERSAL HORRORS: The Studio’s Classic Films, 1931-1946. 2nd Edition – 2007. McFarland * www.mcfarlandpub.com * 800-253-2187. $55.00. 616 pages. Hardcover.

This is the required companion piece to the above collection. The original edition (1990) was compulsive reading, and it often accompanied me to bed at night, where I’d digest a chapter until I drifted off to sleep (and only twice did the book fall on my face at that point, fortunately not driving an eye-glass lens into my retina). The new volume has the same amount of pages, but the pages themselves are an inch taller, so more print can fit onto each page. If this edition fell on my face, I’d be in trouble…

Authors Tom Weaver, and Michael and John Brunas, have presented these Golden and Tarnished Bronze years at Universal in a wondrously well researched and infinitely re-readable form. They’ve scoured the lives of the actors, directors, studio personnel, etc., inserting sometimes the slightest addition, as little as a word, in the new edition, to increase the emotional impact we get while being drawn back into these creative times. In their closing paragraph on THE SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, for example, they originally wrote, about the film’s director, “On December 21, 1975, Rowland V. Lee died after suffering an apparent heart attack. The 84-year old filmmaker had just completed writing a screenplay, a mystery thriller entitled The Belt.” In the new tome, the paragraph goes “On December 21, 1975, Rowland V. Lee died after suffering an apparent heart attack. The indefatigable, 84-year-old filmmaker had just completed writing a new screenplay, a mystery thriller entitled The Belt.” Just a word, but it gives the filmmaker his due. And while this paragraph was the end of the chapter in the older book, it isn’t the end of that chapter any longer. Now, each film analysis is followed by a column of review excerpts. As for SOF, here’s one: “Artistically, Son of Frankenstein is a masterpiece in the demonstrating of how production settings and effects can be made assets emphasizing literary melodrama – The Motion Picture Herald, 1939.” I couldn’t agree more.

86 titles are covered in depth. However, not all the DVD boxed sets above are among the choices. The Abbott and Costello films are not discussed except in passing, and the same applies to the CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON franchise of the 50s. That’s fine. The authors have set their parameters the same way that Andrew Sarris set his limits at 1968 for his important book on American Cinema.

My only gripe is that while both volumes are chock full of pictures, they are usually not duplicated from one volume to the next. Does this mean I have to hang onto volume one…?

BluRay Septet:

VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION # 2 – (SCREAM!)
THE RAVEN, THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, THE TOMB OF LIGEIA, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN!, THE RETURN OF THE FLY, and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.

All of them feature Vincent Price in the lead, with support from Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone, Elizabeth Shepherd, Robert Quarry, Elisha Cook Jr. Directed by Roger Corman, Robert Fuest, William Castle, Jacques Tourneur, Edward Bernds. Written by Robert Towne, Richard Matheson, Robert Fuest, Edward Bernds.

The first edition was a success, so here comes the second batch, and by no means should these titles be considered sloppy seconds. PHIBES RISES AGAIN is far and away the more creative film of the two, even though it is not nearly as well produced as the first PHIBES, which appeared in the previous collection. There were two endings released with the film, due to music rights problems. This version concludes with the original ‘Over the Rainbow’ music cue. A smart supplemental would have been to include the orchestral alternate ending cue when, I presume, rights problems prevented the use of the Oz score on original home video releases. Though not as ironic, that score was powerful and effective.

Many feel THE TOMB OF LIGEIA to be the best of the Corman/Poe series, not to mention that among the supplementals for this title is a juicy commentary track featuring Elizabeth Shepherd (the best female co-star Price teamed with in the Poe’s). Elizabeth goes into great detail about everything, from the backgrounds of the cast to working with Price to working with Corman. And modesty forbids my applauding too loudly the knowledgeable moderator, who happens to be…me.

The visual quality of LIGEIA is slightly problematic. The color in the former MGM DVD release is more robust, more full-bodied, particularly in the first half. Outdoor shots, and close-ups of Shepherd’s face, are pale and more desaturated in the BluRay version. On the other hand, sharpness is admirably improved in this new release. So it’s a mixed verdict on the transfer. On close inspection it seems as if there were exposure problems as early in the process as during production, and that this may have always presented a challenge to the lab personnel.

THE RAVEN is not as strong as TALES OF TERROR from compilation one, but it’s Price, Lorre, AND Karloff. And then there’s THE COMEDY OF TERRORS, with the three horror icons, plus Basil Rathbone. Director Jacques Tourneur’s pacing is off in this comedy/horror, but it’s still a treat to watch the cast having fun with the material, particularly Price, who is admirably varied and nuanced in his deliveries.

THE LAST MAN ON EARTH (1961-64) holds up rather well after all these years, in fact actually better than it did on release. Jump to the 18-minute mark for a surprise. That’s right: it’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, unmistakably, yet it’s four+ years before Romero’s film appeared. Depicted as vampire-like creatures in Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel, they’re clearly modern zombies here, and it’s the garlic and mirrors and crosses that seem out of place. Romero apparently told Matheson he’d borrowed the story from I AM LEGEND for his classic genre watermark indie horror film. In my History of Horror class at SVA, I do two classes on zombie – Zombies BR and Zombies AR…meaning Zombies Before Romero, and Zombies After Romero. But this is an aberration in that schism, more so than CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

David Del Valle and Derek Botelho discuss the film, both from the perspective of their research, and with their knowledgeable speculations. It’s a pleasant and wide-ranging conversation, with a decent amount of time spent on the genealogy of the Italian horror genre. The widescreen B&W image has some wear, but is excellent as well. The sound is solid, though the Italian propensity for post-dubbing all dialogue hurts the film’s quality, and the literary level of Price’s Voice Over often falls short of matching the quality of the visuals.

Of the many other supplementals, it’s historically vital and greatly appreciated that Roger Corman appears talking about his work. Never an exhibitionist personality, Corman has always been concealed and private; not the material of great commentary tracks or even great interviews. But that given, it’s a gift to us to have his presence in the collection nonetheless. You have him on LIGIEA and, if you pick up the previous Price Collection, he also is present on the PENDULUM, MASQUE, PALACE and USHER.

Criterion Weighs In:

THE INNOCENTS (Criterion) 1961. 100 mins. B&W. AR 2.35:1

In 1961, Fox released this cerebral wide-screen ghost story in a form that is still as upsetting as it is food for reflection. Upsetting (in a positive way) because director Jack (ROOM AT THE TOP, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES) Clayton fought for his ending, with its blatant suggestion of pedophilia, and for the characterization of the child Miles, all against the strong misgivings of the studio brass, and for a change, a director got what he wanted.

One of many versions of Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw,’ this was the only one co-adapted by Truman Capote, and that alone should prepare you for a treat. In addition, apparently several Hammer films were screened for the key crew, the reason being that Clayton wanted the film to look nothing like a Hammer horror. And it doesn’t. Not for a moment.

Clayton Associate Produced for John Huston (MOULIN ROUGE through MOBY DICK) before striking out on his own directorially, and he displays a strong style owing nothing to Huston’s, but perhaps as a producer he benefited greatly in that capacity from the relationship. [He also associate produced THE QUEEN OF SPADES, a marvelous little horror tale directed by Thorold Dickinson in 1949, starring the riveting and delicious Anton Walbrook, which can be found sharing a double-bill with DEAD OF NIGHT on DVD.]

Deborah Kerr is the tightly wound governess, Miss Giddens, who arrives at a secluded estate to look after two offbeat children, having been given carte blanche to do whatever she wants, no matter the circumstances. Under these conditions, and given her vague knowledge of the previous nanny’s relationship with Peter Quint, an unsavory groundsman, Kerr supplies the rest of the puzzle pretty much out of the tainted recesses of her head, and the narrative may actually be about mental disintegration rather than unearthly visitations (though historian Christopher Frayling makes the case for both interpretations co-existing within the script).

The cinematography by Freddie Francis is as good as B&W cinematography gets, playing with an enormous tonal range, CITIZEN KANE-worthy depth of fiend, abetted by Wilfred Shingleton’s fastidious art direction. A point is made in the commentary that James Clark edited the film almost entirely with dissolves between scenes, which slowed the pace, but also created a very deliberate, haunting mood. I’ve screened the film for my students at SVA, and it is as effective now as it was 50+ years ago.

Criterion’s BluRay presentation is beyond pristine, and Frayling’s audio commentary (as well as his on-camera introduction, which treads much of the same territory) is extremely enlightening, though I don’t quite buy a few of his conclusions, nor his analysis of some of the imagery. There is, in addition, a new interview with cinematographer John Baily about fellow DP Freddie Francis, as well as a new piece about the production of the film featuring interviews from 2006 with Francis, editor Clark, and script supervisor Pamela Mann Francis.

A Great Indie Classic:

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 40th Anniversary BluRay (MPI/Dark Sky Films) 1974. 83 Mins. Rated (amazingly) ‘R’.

Quite simply, this is one of the best horror films ever made. It’s better than all but a few of the other films listed in this scintillating column-full, and it’s as good, in my opinion, as BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, THE BLACK CAT and THE INVISIBLE MAN, which are the best horror films of the 1930s. And if you’ve never owned it in any of its many incarnations, this is your best opportunity, in splendid BluRay shape, and with copious extras.

I listened to the new Tobe Hooper commentary, and he sounds in considerably better shape than he did on the SCREAM! LIFE FORCE commentary a few years ago. Possibly that’s because he’s been called upon to remember CHAINSAW more often than then he has the campy mega-budget sci-fi exploiter.

I remember Tobe visiting me at my apartment on 56th street between 5th and 6th in Manhattan, while he was in town to promote the film’s opening back in ’74, He was a mild-mannered guy, friendly, into the genre, and he’d heard that Wes Craven’s LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT also had chainsaw action, but hadn’t caught up with it yet. As it happened I had a 16mm print of LAST HOUSE. I threaded it up for him and we watched the third act. The two films have absolutely nothing in common aesthetically, including the chainsaw, but it was fun to see it with him. I wished him well, and off he went, out of my apartment and into the annals of film history.

There are 4 commentaries on the single disc BluRay (there’s also a two-disc release), and we get to hear reminiscences from (sadly, recently deceased) Actress Marilyn Burns (who plays driven-into-screaming-madness better than anyone I can remember), Gunnar (Leatherface himself) Hansen, Cinematographer Daniel Pearl, editor J. Larry Carroll and Sound Recordist Ted Nicolaou.

Cult Classic from Germany

NEKROMANTIK (Cult Epics)

Score one this Halloween season for quirky niche distributor Cult Epics. In the past they’d pretty much cornered the market on Tinto Brass’s output, and they also distributed the wonderful soft-core exploitation period recreation, VIVA. But now comes their latest release, one of their biggest cult acquisitions: Jorg Buttgereit’s gruesome 8mm necromance, NEKROMANTIK, released in Germany in 1987.

I recall Buttgereit’s concern when he heard that there was a ‘penis scene’ in STREET TRASH, a film I wrote and produced, which came out the same year. In my documentary THE MELTDOWN MEMOIRS, in a sequence shot for me in Germany (courtesy of Buddy G), he shares his relief when he finally saw ST and realized that while my film was a comedy, his was a love story (a conclusion on his part that you will have to judge for yourselves).

This release is in BluRay, and contains two versions of the film – one off of Buttgereit’s original 8mm elements, the other off of a 35mm blow-up. In addition there are several worthy supplementals, including a Q&A with the director at the American Cinematheque in 2013, his audio commentary, and a never-before-released short film HOT LOVE (1985) with its own commentary. A few of these xtras have appeared before, on an earlier DVD release, but the new transfers take a decidedly low-tech film to dizzyingly hi-tech levels.

ZOMBIES ON PARADE

Too many to mention, but here are a few worth catching up with.

THE DEAD & THE DEAD 2 (Anchor Bay)

This is the zombie equivalent of CNN’s ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.’ In each episode the zombies are eating people in a different country. Exact same concept as the Bourdain show, including momentary diversions to take in the beautiful locales, faces, clothes and colors. When it comes to breakfast, lunch and dinner, however, their tastes run to human flesh. I don’t think Bourdain would’ve been thrilled with the menu.

Zombie attacks lend themselves to editing. You can play endlessly with suspense that way. Montage is very much the domain of the undead, and the Ford Bros use it well.

What is it that is so compelling about zombies? Certainly one major lure is their relentlessness. They keep coming, not only in the movie you’re watching, but in a hundred other zombie movies you can shift to gracefully. Of course the running dead are a kind of aberration. 9/10ths of them since 1968 have been staggerers, threatening you not with speed but with overwhelming numbers, creeping up on you relentlessly as your energy and focus wear down.

THE BATTERY (SCREAM!)

Much like the wonderful WILLOW CREEK, this found-footage-type meller seems all too familiar and budgetarily bare-boned for quite a while, but ends on a completely different note, leaving us shaken. Well shot, miked, and blocked for a measly six grand, it’s a two-man psychodrama in the wake of an (as usual) unexplained zombified America. Two barely-friends tread the back roads of New England to avoid run-ins with the undead, and they’re pretty much successful, though not successful enough to avoid that brilliant third act, which compensates for the slow pacing up front.

IN THE FLESH,The Complete Seasons One and Two, from the BBC.


This is not necessarily the UK’s answer to THE WALKING DEAD, but it is a more restrained zombie series in which there are in-betweeners known as ‘partially deceased syndrome sufferers’ who are the targets of zombie-racism, particularly by a black female investigator, and the irony isn’t lost on us. The protagonist, one of the PDSS’s, would like to quietly get out from under all the negative attention, but that isn’t about to happen.




A Book of Zombies:

‘THE MAKING OF GEORGE A. ROMERO’S DAY OF THE DEAD’ by Lee Karr, published by Plexus, London

This is a fan’s extravaganza, and why not? The horror genre is built on the backs of fans, not critics. It thrives through horror conventions, midnight shows, mass re-enactments, and passionate word of mouth.

Beyond the presence of fan-aura, this is a remarkably in-depth investigation into the making of the third in the original Romero ‘Dead’ trilogy. At the time regarded as somewhat less ground-breaking, and less successful, than the first two installments (NIGHT and DAWN), due, it was felt, to sudden budgetary cuts before filming began, the years have been good to the film, Romero told me it was his favorite of the three because of the fun he had making it, so this archeological dig is as important as it is delicious reading. Everyone still alive (and quite a few have perished) puts in their two cents, major players are dissected with pros and cons, and the perils of living in that cavern-location six days a week without a speck of sunlight lends the proceedings an air of claustrophobic hysteria. Lavishly illustrated, often with non-professional pictures from the files of many different participants, it’s a tough one to put down. There’s also a delightfully cynical four-page comic strip churned out during production, which really puts the screws to some of the key players. Very funny, and wonderfully drawn.

Book of Who:

DOCTOR WHO – THE SECRET LIVES OF MONSTERS. Text by Justin Richards, original illustrations by Peter McKinstry. Published by Harper Design (an imprint of HarperCollins)

I’m not a DOCTOR WHO fan. But even I can tell that this is a juicy volume, covering everything from the Daleks to the Weeping Angels, and it includes a packet in back with removable artwork. I wasn’t sure whether to list it for Halloween or wait till Christmas, but here it is. If you love the good Doctor(s), I think this will stir many treasured memories. I was a huge fan of 5’ 10” Scottish Karen Gillan as Amy Pond. What a lovely face, as if sculpted from latex by Ray Harryhausen, and I loved the frozen image of her, mid-run, on the season five box. Why was she in it for such a short time? Well, anyway she’s in this volume, along with so many other cast members past. It’s devoted mainly, however, to the monsters.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!

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