DVD Tricks and Treats: Small Screen Halloween Picks

Instead of the usual “best of” countdown of familiar classics, here’s a look at some of the more interesting horrors that have arrived on DVD within the last year. (Reviews originally published on seanax.com)

The Hills Run Red
The Hills Run Red

Direct to DVD:

The Hills Run Red (Warner) is the rare self-aware horror by an unabashed fan of the genre that works on its own terms. Dave Parker’s first feature, his sadly underappreciated love-letter to Italian horror films and giallo buffs The Dead Hate the Living!, was made ten years ago. In the meantime he honed his technical skills on movie documentaries and featurettes for DVDs. As a result, The Hills Run Red—which sends another horror buff on the trail of a lost movie with a camera, a small crew and the lost girl-turned-junkie stripper daughter (Sophie Monk) of the mysterious, long dead director and into a real-life continuation of the film—is leaner, tighter, more assured in its direction and less obvious in its references. His male leads are a bit thin—Parker creates likable characters but not particularly vivid or memorable heroes—but Sophie Monk takes a big bloody bite out of her part and William Sadler makes the mad movie director into a real gone guy, an obsessive lost in his delusions of suffering for art. Other people’s suffering, that is. “Everybody is expendable for the good of the movie,” is his mantra. “Everybody.” The signature villain, Babyface, is as visually distinctive a figure as you could hope for (it has eerie echoes of a creature escaped from a Quay Brothers nightmare) and the shake of a baby rattle as he runs after his victims is a nice touch.

You can find echoes of Psycho, Peeping Tom, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Blair Witch Project and Theodore Roszak’s cult cinephile novel Flicker in the script (which was significantly worked over by The Crow screenwriter David J. Schow) and imagery, and there’s a timely meta-textual debate on the aesthetics of modern horror cinema that is played for grisly humor between warring art-killers. While one argues for the importance of context and emotional resonance, the other makes the case for shock value and upping the ante on sadism spectacle: “Nobody cares about that subtext shit.” But the film works on its own merits. Parker knows what he wants and he gets it. He plays with the contrast of movie-movie gore (the idea that what we’re seeing is a special effect) and the “real” gore assaulting our characters by shifting our perspectives time and again, and he blurs the line between on-screen and off-screen reality, at least for these characters. Features commentary by Parker with writer David J. Schow and producer Robert Meyer Burnett and the shot-on-location featurette “It’s Not Real Until You Shoot It: The Making of The Hills Run Red,” which is a bit disorganized but captures the excitement of the creators (like Parker, they create trailers and DVD featurettes for other people in their day jobs) getting to make their own feature.

Trick ‘r Treat (Warner) is the second direct-to-DVD feature out of the Warner Independent line to make the case that the lower-budget, more creatively freed format is a better source for interesting—or at least entertaining and unpretentiously creative—horror movies than the by-the-numbers remakes and sequels in the theaters. Michael Dougherty (screenwriter of X2 and Superman Returns) makes his feature directing debut with this lively horror anthology, stirring up, intercutting and at times interweaving the strands of his five short stories into a smartly paced, playfully directed and entertainingly atmospheric collection of serial killers, ghosts, vampires, werewolves, demon children and other creatures of the night who gather for an eventful Halloween romp. Anna Paquin plays a little red riding hood who goes for a walk in the woods, Dylan Baker is a high school principal who lets his more feral instincts loose on problem students and unsuspecting teens in the dark of the holiday spirit and Brian Cox is a cranky old hermit and humbug who gets a visit from the demon spirit of Halloween present. It has a great Halloween sensibility and a body count without becoming grisly or grim or slipping into self-parody. And while this technically direct-to-DVD horror film did not get a theatrical release, it did have a lively trip through film festivals around the world. Also features Trick ‘r Treat: Seasons Greetings, a 1996 animated short by Michael Dougherty that inspired a key figure in the film.

Curiosity is a killer on the horror of Clive Barker. In The Midnight Meat Train (Lionsgate), an adaptation of his short story (one of the first he wrote), a photographer (Bradley Cooper) becomes obsessed with a mysterious butcher (Vinnie Jones) who silently boards the subway every night, right before more New Yorkers go missing. It’s the American debut of Japanese director Ryuhei Kitamura and, for all the gore and grotesque spectacle (flying eyeballs, crushed skulls, bodies hanging like sides of meat in the subway car), it’s the most narratively disciplined film I’ve seen from him. There’s a pitiless order to Barker’s universe – the butcher isn’t a sadist, merely an employee with a dirty job and a grim efficiency – and Kitamura gets it. Plus he unleashes tricks I’ve never American horror directors do. The disc features the unrated director’s cut and commentary by author/producer Barker and director Kitamura, which is good fun (especially as they point everything cut for the R-rated version). Also includes three featurettes. Read my longer review on Parallax View here.

The Burrowers (Lionsgate), JT Petty’s third feature, is another of his distinctively unusual takes on a generally conventional genre. Set in the Dakota Territory of 1879, where survival is already a challenge, Petty brings a starkly unglamorized sensibility to life and mortality on the Dakota prairie: it opens with a boy come a courting to a farmgirl only to discover a massacre and what appears to be the abduction of the girl. Clancy Brown and William Mapother, who have faces that look like they’ve survived tough times, are perfect as the leaders in a hunting party after a kidnapped girl: confident but unpretentious and very respectful of the country. But they think they’re tracking an Indian raiding party. What they find are fetid holes in the prairie ground filled with bone and blood and sinew, as if a body has been digested by the Earth. Which is close to the truth. Petty plays the unforgiving tensions between the settlers and the native tribes with palpable animosity, the distrust so great that their fragile truce snaps before they even take on the burrowers, the underground creatures that have been hunting on the prairie. He keeps the threat visually vague and the insect-like burrowers shadowy and smudged, creating his horror out of mystery and suggestion, but it’s nothing supernatural or alien. It’s a real western/horror/monster movie with a devoted frontier sensibility and loving nods to The Searchers. The DVD features commentary with Petty and actor Karl Geary and two featurettes. Read my interview with JT Petty here.

Foreign Fears:

”][REC][REC] (Sony) uses the same first-person camera conceit as The Blair Witch Project by way of Diary of the Dead, but this time locks it in a building quarantined by the authorities because of a possible viral outbreak – the zombie virus, for lack of a medical term. The camera is courtesy of a documentary TV series that follows the lives of nocturnal workers and the host is Angela (Manuela Velasco), a bubbly TV reporter who accompanies the midnight shift of a firefighter squad on a routine call in an old apartment building, where they are suddenly quarantined in an apartment building by ominously unseen authorities while a viral infection tears through the dwindling population. Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, rising stars in the Spanish horror scene, create a buzzing urgency in a familiar premise with their combination of real-time style of raw footage shot on the fly and the claustrophobic environs where we have only as much information as the victims. It was remade in the U.S. as Quarantine. Here’s your chance to see the original Spanish horror. In Spanish with English subtitles and an optional English dub soundtrack, with an 18-minute Spanish language making-of featurette.

A strong directorial debut from Belgian director Pieter Van Hees, Left Bank (IFC) is a moody horror film about a world class track star (Eline Kuppens) recovering from injury and exhaustion who moves in with a new boyfriend in his Left Bank apartment building. It seems pretty great, until she discovers that last tenant disappeared mysteriously and finds her neighbors an odd sort. Oh, and it seems the building was built on a sacrificial pit from medieval times and the creepy energy invades her dreams, her neighbors and soon her entire existence. It has an uneasiness that recalls Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant (Polanski just doesn’t seem to go away quietly) but with a decidedly pagan bent, and Van Hees focuses on the character drama and dynamics, letting the horror and supernatural elements bubble to the surface. It’s not particularly scary, but it is unsettling and remarkably effective and it ends with a warp that you won’t see coming but, in retrospect, is perfectly in tune with the odd energy of the film. Includes 15 minutes of deleted scenes. In Dutch with English subtitles.

Fermat’s Room (MPI) is a cerebral thriller with a different kind of locked-room mystery. A select group of brilliant mathematicians are invited for an exclusive evening of brain teasing conundrums (“enigmas,” as they are called here). They have a time limit to solve each problem. When time runs out, the walls start to close in, powered by the same industrial-strength hydraulic presses that crush cars into cubes, and only stops once they send the correct answer. Written and directed by Luis Piedrahita and Rodrigo Sopena, it’s a neat little thriller where the overarching mystery—who is doing this and why?—and the nicely-seeded red herrings complicate their survival by distracting their focus. It’s a horror film for folks who prefer puzzles and tension over gore and spectacle. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Audition: 2-Disc Collector’s Edition (Shout! Factory) – Japanese gonzo maverick Miike Takashi solidified his international reputation with his disturbed and disturbing 1999 psycho-horror nightmare that begins as a gentle romance based on a lie and then shoots into the Twilight Zone of obsession, sadism, and mutilation. Ryo Ishibashi is a quiet widowed father who decides to marry again and uses the audition process of a phony film as a dating service and Eihi Shiina is his ideal: elegant, submissive, demure. The restrained romance has the calm feel of a Yasujiro Ozu film, until she disappears halfway through and his investigation reveals a dark past with demented dimensions. Takashi plays with narrative sleight of hand in dreams and flashbacks that wind through the story and undermine any feeling of grounding, and the transgressive turns in the story plays on guilt, paranoia, and a fear of women that seems to permeate Japanese horror in an age when social expectations have turned inside out. Be warned: this is not for viewers with weak nerves. The film has been release twice before in the U.S., both in special editions. This edition is newly remastered and features all new supplements, including commentary by Miike and screenwriter Daisuke Tengan (moderated by Masato Kobayashi) and over 70 minutes of new interviews with the cast members (all in Japanese with English subtitles). And it also debuts on Blu-ray.

Classics:

William Castle is the carnival showman of horror cinema. Once a journeyman director in the B-movie basement of Columbia Pictures, he became so frustrated with his assignments that he went independent and recreated himself as a drive-in Hitchcock with a P.T. Barnum sense of ballyhoo and self-hype. It was a cagey make-over that he nurtured carefully with goofy gimmicks (his first was an insurance policy—backed by Lloyds of London—to insure all ticket buyers against “death by fright” during his 1958 film Macabre; needless to say, no one tried to collect) and personal appearances promoting and introducing his films, just like Hitchcock was doing on TV. And in some ways it trapped him in that identity: the director as huckster, successful but not taken seriously as a filmmaker. William Castle Film Collection (Sony) collects eight newly remastered films—three of them making their DVD debut—in a box set offering a cross section of his most entertaining films, his most creative gimmicks and his most lighthearted efforts.

Among the latter are two tongue-in-cheek productions starring Tom Poston: Zotz! (1962), a whimsical fantasy about a magic coin, and a remake of The Old Dark House (1963) as a comic romp of eccentrics killing one another off for an inheritance. Both make their DVD debuts here, as does 13 Frightened Girls (1963), a light espionage thriller with a Nancy Drew heroine in the form of a diplomat’s daughter (Kathy Dunn) at an exclusive European private school who turns sweet sixteen Mata Hari. It’s not a horror film (despite the title, a reference to his earlier 13 Ghosts) and not really a thriller. The girls may be frightened in the first scene, but by the end of the film they’re just having a grand time goofing with the Chinese assassins. These are the films that Castle completists have been waiting for, but are lesser titles compared to his gimmicky classics like The Tingler (1959), Castle’s third feature in this vein and his second and final film with Vincent Price. “Ladies and gentleman, please do not panic,” Price cautions the audience. “But scream – scream for your lives!” Given that the creature of the title is a cheap rubber model that looks like a lobster crossbred with a centipede, such encouragement is necessary. Theatergoers were goosed into a reaction with a device that Castle dubbed “Percepto,” a fancy name for a small, motorized vibrator placed under select theater seats and wired to the projection booth. Home video audiences are left to imagine the effects.

Mr. Sardonicus
Mr. Sardonicus

If William Castle imagined himself a B-movie Hitchcock, then Homicidal (1961) is his Psycho, right down to the psychologist’s explanation at the end. This devious little gem is an inspired twist on its inspiration, kicking off with a weird little first act that pays off in a shocker of murder, and then getting stranger through the film, thanks largely to a pair of genuinely unsettling characters: the cooing killer Emily, everyone’s worst nightmare of a care-giver, and the awkward Warren, always tensed and stiff as if coiled up and ready to spring. Always armed with a gimmick, Castle created the “Fright Break” for this one, a clock countdown to “allow anyone to leave the theater who is too frightened to see the end of the picture” (in Castle’s own cheery voice-over) to leave to the theater. I guess we’re welcome to hit the stop button. Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is Castle’s version of a Universal horror—part gothic horror, part Jekyll and Hyde, and part Eyes Without a Face—with his own sadistic slant and trademark gimmick ending (this one is the brilliant “Punishment Poll”). The acting is less interesting here and the castle location too brightly lit to get the musty, creepy atmosphere of a spooky Central European manor, but the make-up is inspired and Oskar Homolka steals the show as the long suffering, whipped-into-submission servant Krull. Straight-Jacket (1964) stars Joan Crawford (fresh from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane) in demented diva form and 13 Ghosts (1960), a mix of playful hauntings and supernatural creepiness (the disc, sadly, does not feature the “Illusion-O” process or the “Ghost Viewer” glasses of the previous DVD release).

Castle’s films are all about ideas over execution, showmanship over style. He tends to be slack in his direction, better with startled shrieks than slow building tension, but he can layer in the gruesome details and spring a shock cut with the best them. This five-disc set also includes the trailers for each film (which are an essential part of the Castle experience), the featurettes and bonus archival goodies of the previous DVD releases and the 2007 documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, an excellent study of the director and survey of his career. It’s a portrait in contradiction, a man who finds success in gimmicks but so wants to be taken seriously. It’s too affectionate a portrait to really dig into Castle’s weaknesses as a director but it does acknowledge his ambition and his frustrated desire to be taken seriously with the identity he created for himself.

The title of Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics (Warner) is bit misleading: the four films are neither classics nor in most cases even horror. The Walking Dead (1936) is the best of the bunch, a mix of gangster drama and mad scientist thriller, with Boris Karloff as an ex-con framed for murder and brought back to life after being executed. Michael Curtiz kind of tosses the film off but Karloff brings a sympathetic quality to the rehabilitated patsy who just wants a shot at going straight and ends up sacrificed in a vendetta. His vengeance isn’t even malevolent—he’s more like the ghost of a conscience than an evil spirit—but it is satisfying in a B-movie fashion. In Frankenstein 1970 (1958), Karloff plays a disfigured descendent of the original mad scientist who rents out of his family castle to a film crew and then uses them for spare parts as he continues the family business. His face looks like it has been melted under the hot lights of the movie set, and after a stylish prologue settles into a mundane horror cheapie. The Bela Lugosi section of this collection is represented by a pair of horror spoofs. Karloff, Lugosi and Peter Lorre all co-star in You’ll Find Out (1940), but play second fiddle to bandleader Kay Kyser, and Lugosi is back spoofing his image as a mad scientist in Zombies on Broadway (1944), a comedy vehicle for radio stars Wally Brown and Alan Carney. There’s critical commentary on the two Karloff films.

Mad Monster Party?: Special Edition (Lionsgate) – In the midst of making their classic Christmas specials (like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer), producer Arthur Rankin and director/lyricist Jules Bass put their stop motion “Animagic” talents to this monster movie spoof. The title says it all: “Uncle Boris” von Frankenstein (voiced by a paternal Boris Karloff) invites the monsters of moviedom, from Dracula to the Invisible Man, along with his white-sheep nephew Felix, a naïve klutz with a passion for science and the willful ability to treat the Wolfman as a puppy dog, to his island castle for a passing of the torch. The pun-filled concoction is stuffed with sight gags and one liners (give partial credit to co-writers Harvey Kurtzman and Forrest J. Ackerman, who were called in to give the script a little jolt) and quasi-adult asides (the va-va-voomish Francesca—the closest Rankin and Bass ever got to a real sex doll—comments to Felix when he remarks on her unexpected weight: “I wanted to show you I was no easy pickup”). The eclectic soundtrack see-saws from the standard Rankin-Bass sing-along styled, banjo-based “You Gotta Stay One Step Ahead” to the groovy pseudo-rock groove “Do the Mummy” to the James Bond vamping theme song (sung by Ethel Ennis in a Shirley Bassey impression). Hilarious? Not always, but the mix of innocence, stop-motion slapstick, off-beat spoofing, and just plain goofiness is a lot of fun, and sometimes the sheer absurdity of it all can sneak up on you. Phyllis Diller is unmistakable as the Monster’s Mate (the figure was obviously modeled on the real life comedienne, and she calls the Monster “Fang” throughout), and Gale Garnett and Allen Swift provide additional voices. This new edition has a fine retrospective featurette with producer Arthur Rankin and voice artist Alan Swift and Rankin/Bass historian Rick Goldschmidt, plus featurettes on the stop motion techniques and the music of the film (with composer Maury Laws).

“Thrill me!” Fred Dekker pays tribute to drive-in horror cinema with Night Of The Creeps: Director’s Cut (Sony), a colorful and highly entertaining invasion movie from 1986. The invaders are slugs from outer space that turn humans into bloodthirsty zombies and the heroes are hapless college kids and a hard-boiled detective (Tom Atkins) who talks like a character in a pulp novel: “What is this? A homicide, or a bad B-movie?” Given the black-and-white prologue, a veritable movie-within-a-movie featuring innocent teenage lovers, a meteor crashing in the woods, an escaped ax-murderer and a mutiny aboard a UFO, that’s a fair question. And I’ll hazard an answer: This is a fun B-movie, full of genre love and filled with tributes to Dekker’s horror movie heroes (including characters named Landis, Raimi, Cronenberg. Romero and Carpenter). The DVD pays tribute with the affectionate hour-long “Thrill Me: Making Night of the Creeps,” two commentary tracks (one by Dekker, the other by the cast), a collection of deleted scenes and the alternate theatrical ending.

And one unqualified classic that made its DVD debut in 2009. Criterion originally released Repulsion (Criterion) on laserdisc, the old-school high-definition standard of the pre-DVD age. For its long-awaited DVD and Blu-ray debut, Criterion goes back to the original elements for a beautiful new digital transfer approved by director Roman Polanski. “I always considered Repulsion as the shabbiest of my films,” confesses Polanski in the commentary track, originally recorded in 1994 for the laserdisc, referring to the technical seams and budgetary limitations. Reviewing the film for the first time decades, I found a masterfully conducted portrait in madness, a horror defined not in the murders perpetrated by an unbalanced young woman (Catherine Deneuve) losing herself in nightmares and phobias, but in the loss of self as the alienated Belgian beauty disconnects from the world and unravels into her fantasies and fears. Deneuve’s Carol is a child-woman both fascinated and repulsed by sex, but her nightmare fantasies of rape also suggest repressed memories of abuse bubbling to the surface in her isolation and urban alienation. Polanski doesn’t explain, he explores with disturbing detail and eerie imagery (walls split with a thundercrack, hands reach out from the hallway like a Cocteau nightmare, food decomposes as in no other film) as the fragile girl slips into helpless madness. One thing is certain: Apartment living is dangerous to your mental health and your soul in Polanski’s movies. This is his first victim. Polanski is joined by numerous collaborators in the 24-minute “A British Horror Film,” a 2003 retrospective documentary profile of the film and its production, and there’s priceless footage of Polanski directing Deneuve in the archival 1964 French TV program “Grand Ecran.” Also features the original trailer and a booklet with a brief essay.