By Jim Kaz
One of the best things about this time of year is the flood of scary movies to hit the shelves. But with so many options and so little couch time, which ones should you be checking out? Never fear…here you’ll find a clutch of new DVD and Blu-ray releases, plus a few classic goodies to help get your spooks on in high style.
House of Wax 3-D
Vincent Price starring as an overly sensitive, murderous sculptor out for revenge? That’s enough right there to scare the pants off of any unsuspecting moviegoer. In spite of a few unintentionally funny bits, the over-the-top acting and big production values make this original 3D shocker from 1953 a timeless treat to watch. (Warner Bros.)
Vincent Price Collection
Fans of Price and the gothic horror genre should be seriously rejoicing over this killer set…at least I am. This hi-def collection culls Price’s best films—the ones he worked on with Roger Corman—into one meaty Blu-ray package. During this period, Corman adapted the works of Edgar Allen Poe into some colorfully creepy period pieces that did well to showcase Price’s uncanny persona.
Films include: The Fall of House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Haunted Palace (1963), The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and Witchfinder General, aka The Conqueror Worm in these parts (1968) and The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Out of all, The Masque of Red Death is especially effective, with its premium Victorian sets and decadent satanic bits, some of which would obviously find their way into the proto-metal imagery of Black Sabbath a couple years later, as well as all the ‘70s-worshipping doomy bands of today. (Shout! Factory)
Lords of Salem
Respectable critics seemed to rejoice in bashing Rob Zombie’s latest cinematic venture. Maybe it’s the fact that he’s a musician with a strong metal pedigree, which isn’t necessarily going to endear him with the hip set no matter what he cranks out. In my view, though, there are a fair amount of positives to be had. It’s got an intriguing premise, loads of eerie atmospherics, grotesque visuals, and a well-matched soundtrack, not to mention Sheri Moon Zombie, who’s screen presence goes from modest to larger than life.
What it lacks is an ending to help pay off the premise, which deals with witchcraft and vengeance from beyond. Its slow pacing and Sheri Moon Zombie’s understated bits may not be for everyone, but in this case, I thought it worked well. In fact, I viewed it several times in the hopes that I would glean something new at the end, like I do with much of David Lynch’s work. Unfortunately, there were few new insights to be had. But there are a few Lynchian bits in here, which makes for some interesting visuals. Lords of Salem may not be Zombie’s best work, but it’s still effectively spine chilling in spots. (Anchor Bay)
Halloween 35th Anniversary Edition
John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece gets a hi-def reboot with this latest edition. While widely recognized as the first in a long line of fairly low-budget slasher films, it also should be pointed out that its chills rely heavily upon psychological horror, as the gore factor is fairly low. And that’s another major reason why it’s superior to most all of the others; it messes with the mind, which is a much harder thing to do. This new Blu-ray edition comes in a hardback book with tons of special features. (Anchor Bay)
This clever little import is causing quite a stir for its creative take on the Frankenstein legacy, and deservedly so. It’s the waning days of WWII and a few fatigued Russian soldiers stumble into the lair of a crazed scientist with an army of human/machine hybrids at his disposal. The monsters themselves are clever concoctions culled from appliances and human body parts. There is also no shortage of gore and at least a little nausea—mostly from the shaky, home-movie style camera POV. (Dark Sky)
Nothing Left To Fear
I was really rooting for this one. And I’ll admit the fact that Slash from Guns N’ Roses is a producer did play into it a bit. As an avid horror fan and one of the few of the old-guard rock stars to stick to his guns and still succeed gives him a bit of a head start, credibility-wise.
Unfortunately, Nothing Left To Fear is a fairly by-the-numbers rural cult/possession storyline that moves at an incredibly slow pace for its first hour, so much so, that at times it feels like a Lifetime made-for-TV movie. When it finally picks up, the special effects are impressive, which is obviously where Slash and his partners chose to invest their capital. But in the end, the nonchalant acting and predictable story do little to match up to eye candy in the final act. (Anchor Bay)
Prince of Darkness
As one of the better satanic-flavored horror flicks, this late ‘80s shocker—directed by John Carpenter—does well to cast an ominous aura across its entire run. A mysterious canister containing a percolating green slime is unearthed in the basement of a church, with origins that tie back to Lucifer himself. In the meantime, a stodgy priest—played by horror icon Donald Pleasance—and a professor seek to undo the Dark One’s machinations before Earth gets overrun with evil. Speaking of which, none other than Alice Cooper leads the charge of the possessed vagrants that terrorize the church. (Shout! Factory)
American Horror Story: Asylum
It’s still a little hard to fathom that network TV actually has decent horror going on. This second season of FX’s warped shock-fest is set in a mental asylum run by Jessica Lang in a nasty, sadistic role. The visuals are racy and grotesque at times, the storyline unpredictable, and the overall aura completely doom-laden. Quite honestly, some of the stuff that goes on in this show are more depraved than even some of the more infamous exploitation flicks I’ve taken in. (FOX)
Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell
Hammer Studios cranked out loads of gothic goodies during the ’60s and early ’70s, putting a saucy and colorful spin on some of the old Universal classics such as Dracula and Frankenstein.
But by the mid ’70s, Hammer was running out of steam at rapid pace, and this film obviously suffers from some that, in spite of the fact that it featured Hammer stalwarts like actor Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher, plus future Darth Vader star David Prowse as the monster.
Trouble is, the monster looks more like an ape than anything resembling the classic Frankenstein creature, and the story feels rushed and a bit fragmented. But with its gothic touches, buxom bombshells and other key Hammer-isms, it’s still a worthy view.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Samantha Stephens. After all, she’s beautiful, perky, kind, and…an all-powerful witch. This hip ’60s hit about a seemingly normal family living in the suburbs brims with quirky supernatural situations, kooky otherworldly characters, and Samantha (played deftly by Elizabeth Montgomery), who lights up the screen with her subtle comedic charm and 60’s mini skirts. This new set collects all eight seasons of the show, in sharp, remastered form. (Sony)
This entry in the Frankenstein canon puts a sleazy, comedic twist on the proceedings. Jeffery Franken mourns the loss of his fiancée and sets out to bring her back to life, using the body parts of—you guessed it—ladies of the night. This low-budget cult fave may be fairly low on true scares, but is funny and entertaining nonetheless. This Blu-ray edition came out a little while back, but is still readily available. (Synapse)
The Bird With the Crystal Plumage
Referred to as the “Italian Hitchcock,” director Dario Argento is known for his eerie atmospherics, supernatural twists, flamboyant visuals and an almost poetic sense of the slaughter. The maestro has carved a niche for himself over the past few decades with a sub-genre he helped evolve: the giallo thriller (sex/horror mysteries).
Released in 1970, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage was Argento’s directorial debut and follows a hapless writer who witnesses a colorfully crafted murder attempt in an art gallery. From there on he attempts to unravel the mysterious event. As in other Argento giallos—most notably the superior Deep Red—Argento messes with the mind in a very overt way and it’s a treat from a visual and psychological perspective. Now available in a svelte hi-def package, this one’s a must-have. (VCI)
In The Flesh
This oddball little series puts a unique spin on the zombie genre. This time out, zombies actually receive treatment and rehab, so that they can be positive contributors to society. Trouble is, it doesn’t always work, and that’s where the fun begins. In The Flesh is as riveting and twisted as it is original and clever—another triumph for BBC TV. (BBC)
World War Z
I had doubts about this one. As an adaptation of a popular book with an A-lister at the top of the billing, there’s bound to be issues. But, Mr. Pitt delivers a decent performance and even though the film puts its own spin on the proceedings, it still works well. As it’s a big-budget blockbuster, the production values are tops, with each zombie more menacing than the last. Definitely a worthy view if you’re a fan of the zombie genre and in the market for a slightly different take. (Paramount)
One of mainstream TV’s most popular shows has more meat to it than one would normally expect. The post-apocalyptic world our heroes have to navigate is riddled with blood, guts and suspense, which is due to its clever storylines and believable special effects. The third season increases the threat level by focusing on the evil that men do—not just the dastardly deeds that our dead friends commit. This Blu-ray edition showcases it all in hi-def, with a clutch of worthwhile extras. (Anchor Bay)
Amityville Horror Trilogy
The first Amityville Horror film turned more than a few heads when it first came out in the late ‘70s. Panned by critics, the indie film that follows a family living in a house possessed by less-than-friendly spirits, was a massive success, spawning a slew of sequels and becoming a cult favorite.
Starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, the film has a melodramatic and mainstream TV feel in parts, and the notion of a house that spooks its owners does get a little tiring. But, there are a few successful shocks, which helps to explain the first film’s popularity. The sequels? I don’t really need ‘em, or the remakes for that matter, but with this set, you get the first three installments in one hi-def package. (Shout! Factory)
After watching it twice, I’m still not sure what to quite make of this obscure little Japanese flick. But, it does have a few things to endear it: zombies, blood, explosions and punk rock—courtesy of Japanese stars Guitar Wolf. Obviously done on a shoestring budget, Wild Zero is often completely nonsensical and disjointed, but it’s so over-the-top that it’s hard to peel your eyes away. Live sequences with Guitar Wolf are pretty cool, too. (Synapse)
Dark Night of the Scarecrow
While horror on the small screen is not always a viable option, this TV movie from 1981 is a welcome addition to this list. Released on Blu-ray a couple years ago—and still widely available—Dark Night of the Scarecrow is a surprisingly terse thriller that relies more on increased tension and solid acting than it does on actual gore. When a few hicks unjustly murder a mentally challenged outcast, things begin to go awry for the hapless hoodlums, but finding out who the cause of the skullfuckery is remains a mystery.
While the amazing cover art may imply a certain violent angle, the action is much more subtle, and the film never gives up the ghost, leaving the viewer to wonder what exactly might’ve happened. (VCI)
Q: The Winged Serpent
American B-movie pioneer Larry Cohen was responsible for a few choice exploitation flicks in his day. Cutting his directorial teeth on early ’70s blaxploitation films such as Black Cesar, Cohen’s first foray into horror was the cult favorite It’s Alive. In Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), New York City is terrorized by a flying dragon-like creature, and it’s up to anti-hero crook Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) to make things right. The film’s special effects, plus Cohen’s clever script make Q a minor classic in the monster genre. (Shout! Factory)
As the title implies, Driller Killer (1976) involves a murderer and a power drill. And it was thought to be so shocking at the time that Britain banned it as one of its “video nasties.”
The film follows an artist’s psychological decline into murderous mayhem—all triggered by the sounds of punk rock (!). What sets the film apart is its artsy approach. Director and star Abel Ferrara utilizes religious symbolism, seamy urban landscapes and rhythmic pacing to move the story along, and it makes for a violent but almost lyrical experience. This two-disc set features the rare, uncut version of the film, plus tons of extras, including early short films of Ferrara, and trailers. (Cult Epics)
I always find documentaries to be a bit unnerving. There’s something about seeing things in past tense that can warp the imagination, making even simple events seem strange and twisted. This show explores supposed paranormal activity at various historical locations around the country. Even though we’ll never know for sure what’s real and what’s concocted to help sell soap on TV, this release does make for some spooky late-night fare. (Lionsgate)
Last Man on Earth
Based on the novel I Am Legend by Richard Matheson, the film was remade as Omega Man with Charlton Heston in the ’70s, then most recently under the
original title starring Will Smith. The Price version is presented here in grainy black and white, which greatly enhances its dreary, psychological feel.
The story follows Price as Robert Morgan, a medical researcher who survives a horrible plague that turns the rest of society into vampires. Price is predictably over-the-top, sounding both bitchy and nervous at once, which adds to the offbeat experience. This DVD package also comes with a colorized version of the film, but I’d stick with the original. (Legend)
Wizard of Oz
No one’s collection is complete without a copy of The Wizard of Oz on the shelf. Released in 1939, the film did decent business at the time, but once it made the leap to TV, its popularity soared. While on the surface, it may seem like a lighthearted musical journey, if you dig a little deeper, there is an unsettling undercurrent throughout—the notion of one man alone controlling the masses through lies, deception and false media is just one example, and is inherently eerie in its own right.
This remastered Blu-ray edition celebrates the film’s 75th anniversary with a new 3D transfer. In watching it as a grown-up, I see it all with a whole new perspective. (Warner Bros.)
Silence Of the Lambs was a well-crafted, truly scary film. And I’m told that the books it’s based on are also quite compelling. But, that doesn’t mean that I automatically welcome a mainstream, network prequel series.
Fortunately, Hannibal the series does not disappoint. The storylines are well written, the acting solid, and there’s a decent amount of purposeful violence and suspense. (Lionsgate)
As a kid, I loved watching the Sinbad movies when they were shown on Saturday TV. The special effects seemed wondrous to a wee lad, even if there was a bit of camp to be had. Fast-forward to now, and we get a revamped version with even better special effects and even more campiness. This contemporary take feels a bit safe, but said effects do make for some interesting visuals. (BBC)
Cockneys vs Zombies
Fans of the kooky classic Shaun of the Dead should love this one. Putting a satirical twist on the ever-popular zombie genre, this one follows a bunch of senior citizens who are in danger of losing their home to some greedy developers and are aided by a clutch of inept thugs. Things go further awry when we learn that there’s a zombie outbreak in London.
Part of the film’s charm lies in the streetwise cockney-isms of the main characters. Add to that, some cleverly executed slapstick and a few hip, urban zombie creatures enhanced by deft makeup and svelte CGI, and you’ve got a killer comedy. (Shout! Factory)
Best of the Worst
This budget collection compiles 12 B-grade films ranging from the 1940s through ’70s, some of which may be best left kept behind the vaults.
That said, there loads of unintentionally funny bits as in Bela Lugosi’s turn in The Apeman, as well as fellow icon Boris Karloff’s less-than-inspired bits in The Terror, along with a very young and goofy Jack Nicholson. And, then there’s the psychological twists of Demntia 13, which are fairly effective, especially when viewed in the grainy transfer included here. (Mill Creek)
For comments, questions or something you’d like to see, drop me a line at Retrohead77@yahoo.com. Cheers, JK.