10/11/05 Edition

An Aisle Seat HALLOWEEN celebration, Part I

Andy Rounds Up The Latest Genre DVDs

Ghosts, ghouls, tricks, treats -- you name it, and this year’s crop of new horror/sci-fi DVDs has something to please everyone this Halloween. Here’s Part One of our seasonal wrap-up of the best and brightest new genre discs.

LAND OF THE DEAD (***, 2005). 97 mins., Unrated, Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Making Of featurettes; Deleted Scenes; Commentary; 2.35 Widescreen (16:9), 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital soundtracks.

The Movie: Exciting, surprisingly robust return to the genre from director George A. Romero, short on character development but satisfying in its depiction of a world where humans attempt to survive by alluding the dead that lurk outside their guarded metropolis.

In this future -- set some time after Romero’s last zombie flick (the disappointing “Day of the Dead”) -- Dennis Hopper essays a Trump-like megalomaniac who provides a luxurious living for wealthy inhabitants in the “living” city’s tallest buildings, while all others attempt to survive on the streets below. All, though, share a distaste for the dead, who continue to mope around outside the city but are showing gradual signs of evolving into....well, something more than simply brainless zombies. Rebel leader Simon Baker attempts to cool off brash mercenary John Leguizamo by telling him the enemy isn’t as clueless as before, but Baker’s attempts are futile as our hero joins hooker Asia Argento and others in a last-minute run for the Canadian border.

Poorly marketed by Universal and ill-timed as a summer release, “Land of the Dead” now makes for an ideal Halloween DVD. Romero coaxes solid performances out of his able cast, adds a bit of subtext to the story (asking who’s worse -- the zombies or the calculating Hopper?), and doesn’t forget to include humor and some fresh narrative touches. More entertaining than the overpraised “Dawn of the Dead” remake, this one isn’t overwhelmingly gory or as predictable as you might anticipate, and even ends on a strangely optimistic note.

DVD Rundown: Universal’s Unrated Widescreen Edition DVD includes a fantastic DTS soundtrack that ranks right up with any disc I’ve heard this year. The 2.35 transfer is a bit dark, but something tells me “Land of the Dead” was intended to be screened that way, so no complaints on that front, either. Supplements include a few minutes of deleted scenes, commentary with Romero, a pair of Making Of featurettes, and an amusing look at the “Shaun of the Dead” stars who cameo in the film.

Fright Factor: Most viewers bypassed “Land of the Dead” when it was released last June, so Universal’s DVD arrives at a most welcome time. Packed with action and surprises, this isn’t the predictable zombie sequel that I was anticipating, and ranks as a must-view for horror fans on DVD.

THE INNOCENTS (****, 1961). 100 Mins., Not Rated, Fox. DVD FEATURES: Widescreen 2.35 (16:9) and pan-and-scan transfers, 2.0 Dolby Stereo sound; trailer.

The Movie: Jack Clayton’s classic ghost story still ranks as one of the all-time great cinematic representations of the supernatural. Deborah Kerr plays a governess to a pair of children (Pamela Franklin, Martin Stephens) haunted by the deaths of their previous caretaker and the estate’s sadistic handyman. The question in William Archibald and Truman Capote’s script (adapted from Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw”) is whether or not the behavior of the children was influenced by their peers, or if something supernatural is tormenting them still.

Eloquently shot in Cinemascope by Freddie Francis, “The Innocents” is a sterling example of the genre at its finest. Maturely directed and written, this is a movie that not just holds up to multiple viewings but actually encourages them. Though ambiguous enough that any explanation can be viewed as valid, Clayton still seasons his film with ample evidence that something ghostly is indeed occurring...regardless of Kerr’s mounting insanity. The performances of Kerr, Stephens and Franklin are eerie and pitch-perfect, and George Auric’s score (which was reportedly reworked by credited music supervisor Lambert Williamson) offers a creepy main theme with lyrics by Paul Dehn that’s nearly as unsettling as the film itself.

DVD Rundown: Fox’s no-frills DVD offers a satisfying 2.35 (16:9) transfer, preserving Francis’ original Cinemascope photography. Curiously, only a 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtrack is present, containing a somewhat “airy” remix of the original mono sound. The theatrical trailer is also on-hand, along with a worthless pan-and-scan transfer that should be avoided at all costs.

Fright Factor: One of my personal favorites, “The Innocents” was rightly touted as one of the first cinematic ghost stories “for adults.” Even today the picture holds up remarkably well, with unnerving moments, fantastic performances, and an ending that still sends shivers up my spine. Essential for any cinephile’s DVD collection.

THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS (**, 1985). 92 mins., R, Fox. DVD FEATURES: Widescreen 1.85 (16:9) and Full-Screen transfers; 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo, theatrical trailer.

The Movie: Dylan Thomas’ original screenplay about grave robbers (Stephen Rea and Jonathan Pryce) who steal bodies -- and fresh ones at that -- for a misguided doctor (Timothy Dalton) in 19th century England finally became a Brooksfilms production in the mid ‘80s.

Alas, despite a terrific cast -- Dalton, Pryce and Rea are joined by Julian Sands, Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart -- “The Doctor and the Devils” was a box-office flop. Freddie Francis (cinematographer of “The Innocents” and Hammer Films vet) shot the film atmospherically in widescreen, but the movie is a short, forgettable affair, worth a view for genre fans based on the cast but with little to recommend it.

DVD Rundown: Fox’s DVD marks the premiere of “Doctor and the Devils” on video in its original JDC Scope (2.35) format. The transfer is solid, though John Morris’ score offers a borderline-grating main theme also heard in the movie’s theatrical trailer (included here as the disc’s sole extra). A cropped pan-and-scan version is available on the disc’s flip side.

Fright Factor: A noble (and reportedly expensive) attempt at crafting a serious, real horror film, “The Doctor and the Devils” is well-acted but dreary and dull. That the movie has basically been forgotten since its scant theatrical release can be easily explained by taking in a viewing of Fox’s satisfying DVD presentation.

LADY IN WHITE (***½, 1988). 118 mins., 1988, MGM/Sony. DVD FEATURES: Commentary by Frank LaLoggia, new introduction with the director; Deleted Scenes, Behind the Scenes Footage, photo gallery, trailer; 1.85 Widescreen (16:9), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The Movie: Lukas Haas plays a young boy in early ‘60s upstate New York who encounters the restless spirit of a murdered girl. After being locked up in his school closet on Halloween and witnessing the apparition, Haas’ Frankie Scarlatti attempts to convince his family (father Alex Rocco, brother Jason Presson) that the haunting is real, and the girl’s killer is still at large in the quaint, picaresque town they reside in.

Writer-director-producer-composer Frank LaLoggia’s tour de force, “Lady in White” is a beautiful movie on many levels. It works not only as a ghost story (and a fine one at that) but also as a childhood memory and chronicle of family life that LaLoggia based, in part, on his own upbringing. Subsequently, the movie rings true with its warm, humorous sequences of Frankie and his family (which includes a pair of grandparents), nicely counterpointing the central story. There are times when LaLoggia’s script stretches a bit to encompass “To Kill a Mockingbird”-like overtones -- and the ending goes on far too long -- but there are few movies that capture the Autumnal warmth of the Northeast and the Halloween season as effectively as “Lady in White.”

DVD Rundown: Sony/MGM’s new DVD doesn’t have all the bells-and-whistles of the old, out-of-print Elite Special Edition, but it makes up for it with a new, improved 16:9 transfer of the extended Director’s Cut. The 5.1 sound is on-par with the previous DVD, and numerous supplements have been retained, including LaLoggia’s original laserdisc commentary, behind-the-scenes footage, a photo gallery, and numerous deleted scenes. Though fans will want to retain the Elite DVD for its additional extras (including the full soundtrack album and a promotional “mock up” version of the movie shot to encourage the participation of investors), MGM’s DVD is technically superior, and also offers a new, on-camera introduction from LaLoggia himself.

Fright Factor: Suitable for older children, “Lady in White” is a perfect, non-gory genre film that offers superb performances, a satisfying story, wonderful atmosphere and a few chills to spare. MGM’s DVD offers most of the previous Special Edition’s supplements and enhances the technical aspect, making for the most satisfying presentation to date of this viewer favorite. Unquestionably recommended!

HOWLING II: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF (*, 1986). 91 mins., R, MGM/Sony. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen (16:9) and Full-screen transfers, 2.0 Dolby Digital mono sound; theatrical trailer.

The Movie: Generally regarded as one of the worst horror sequels of all-time, this insipid mess wastes a nude Sybil Danning as the Queen of the Werewolves and top-billed Christopher Lee as a werewolf hunter out to knock off Danning and her punk-rockin’ minions in a dreary Transylvania.

With little connection to Joe Dante’s original, this Philippe Mora-helmed, Orion-released dud was filmed in 1984 and shelved for a solid two years before being sent straight to video -- and it’s easy to see why. Even on a “so bad it’s good” level “Howling II” is a disaster: instead of campy laughs or excessive gore we get a tedious story, countless interludes with a godawful punk rock band performing the same song over and over, and repeated flashes of Sybil’s breasts from one specific shot in the movie. Even Christopher Lee looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.

DVD Rundown: MGM’s DVD offers a decent 16:9 transfer with a matching full-screen version on the alternate side. The mono sound is OK and the little-seen theatrical trailer (with the subtitle “It’s Not Over Yet”) is also available.

Fright Factor: Even die-hard Christopher Lee and Sybil Danning fans will be hard-pressed to get much enjoyment out of Howling II. So bad it’s bad, this one should have stayed dead and buried on the video store shelves where -- even back in the ‘80s -- this dog was banished to.

THE AMITYVILLE HORROR (**, 2005). 89 mins., R, MGM/Sony. DVD FEATURES: Commentary; Deleted Scenes; Featurettes; Photo Gallery; On-Set Multi-Angle Feature; 2.35 Widescreen (16:9), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The Movie: MGM and Dimension Films teamed up with Michael Bay to produce this slick, competent, but surprisingly bland re-do of the 1979 American-International box-office hit. Based on the supposed true story of the Lutz family (whose tale inspired Jay Anson’s book and various reports of a hoax in recent years), Ryan Reynolds and Melissa George play the recently married couple who pack up -- along with George’s children -- for the quaint Long Island community of Amityville and that infamous house where evil dwells.

Slickly shot in scope and adequately packaged by director Andrew Douglas, the new “Amityville Horror” presents a more potent visual package than its blandly-directed -- though more effectively low-key -- predecessor. Reynolds and George both manage to give good performances despite a thinly-drawn script (the film ends around the 80 minute mark), and even the young actors playing their children aren’t overly affected. There’s even one especially effective set piece set on top of the Amityville home, where the Lutz daughter attempts to jump off the roof.

Unfortunately, “Amityville” ‘05 suffers from some of the same ailments as the original movie: namely, the direct influence that can be felt from other, better genre films. Here, you’ve got not only the sense of deja vu provided by the original and “The Exorcist,” but also “The Ring” (the dead little girl who causes all sorts of trouble), “What Lies Beneath” (look out for the bathtub!), “The Shining” (dad goes more ballistic in this rendition), “Poltergeist” (an angelic young blonde girl flirting with the supernatural), and even “Jeepers Creepers” (a mysteriously clad, shadowy figure wearing a fedora who may be at the center of the haunting).

That latter aspect also ties in with the movie’s most regrettable element: the addition of a “cause” for the haunting that’s ridiculously P.C. As described by Dr. Hans Holzer in his original investigation, the Amityville house in question was built on an Indian burial ground, and the haunting itself was allegedly caused by an angry Indian Chief simply mad at those living in the abode above him. Apparently it’s not Politically Correct to have that as the center of the problem, so the producers here have pulled a “Poltergeist II” and concocted the tale of a Christian missionary who tortured Native Americans, and how HIS anger is the root of all the evil (chalk it up as yet another blow against organized religion in movies). Predictably, though, none of this is really developed, though a brief appearance by the Creeper-looking like bad guy could leave the door open for future sequels...sigh.

Not that the altered denouement of the movie is the only problem: a senseless subplot involving an oversexed babysitter (about as believable as 28-year-old George having three kids, including a 15-year-old) is a needless addition, while the climax fizzles out right when it seems to be building up a head of steam. And why is it that only one of the slain DeFeo family -- their youngest daughter -- is still trapped in the house, while the others are apparently out having a smoke? (Naturally these are the sorts of questions not worth asking in a movie of this sort, but when you’re as bored as I was while watching the film, they do cross your mind!).

DVD Rundown: MGM’s last theatrical release has been given a solid presentation on video courtesy of Sony. Ryan Reynolds and producers Andrew Form and Brad Fuller provide an engaging commentary that fans will appreciate, while a discussion of the real DeFeo murders fuels the intriguing featurette “Supernatural Homicide.” Another featurette, “Source of Evil-Making,” provides a behind-the-scenes look at the movie, which can also be found in multi-angle on-set “peeks” and a photo gallery. A group of deleted scenes with optional commentary are also on-hand though, sadly, none really add any depth to the story. The 16:9 (2.35) transfer is decent and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound effective.

Fright Factor: Though not a complete misfire, “The Amityville Horror” fails to take advantage of a great opportunity to make an effective modern haunted house tale. More often than not the movie is simply dull, regurgitating cliches and scenes from other movies, and stumbling when it tries to differentiate itself from the pack. A rental at best.

THE FOG (**½, 1979). 90 mins., R, MGM/Sony. DVD FEATURES: Documentary, Outtakes, Making Of Featurette, Commentary (All From the Previous 2002 DVD); Widescreen 2.35 (16:9), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and 2.0 mono.

The Movie: John Carpenter’s highly atmospheric -- but heavily flawed -- 1979 feature boasted a bigger budget and cast than his previous smash, “Halloween.” Unfortunately, the Carpenter-Debra Hill script about a fog that enshrouds a Northern California coastal town and the mysterious figures lurking within it is a relatively disappointing genre affair that teases more than it satisfies...despite some creepy moments and superb Dean Cundey cinematography. Tellingly, Carpenter had to re-shoot large chunks of the movie after the rough cut was deemed a dud by the studio.

DVD Rundown: With the remake of  “The Fog” coming out this week, it’s no surprise that Sony has reprised the contents of the previous (and highly recommended) MGM Special Edition DVD from 2002. That release included an excellent 16:9 transfer, enhanced 5.1 soundtrack (plus the original mono version), a new documentary, outtakes, the original 1980 featurette, and the outstanding commentary from Image’s mid ‘90s laserdisc. The version I received is an identical repackaging of the 2002 DVD, except for a new 2005 copyright. Other flavors (found at Best Buy) offer a discounted ticket to the remake and a differently tinted cover, but from what I’ve read, the actual transfer and supplemental contents are, indeed, identical to the original 2002 DVD.

Fright Factor: Despite its problems, “The Fog” is a cult favorite because of Carpenter’s trademark use of widescreen and a few unnerving moments. When viewed as a whole, however, the movie has its problems and, for a change, I can see why a remake could possibly improve on its predecessor. While the jury is still out on that front, this DVD re-issue offers a superb collection of supplements with a low price. If you haven’t bought it before, this one’s a must-have for Carpenter buffs.

MONSTER HIGH (*, 1989). 84 mins., R, Sony. DVD FEATURES: Full-Screen Transfer, Dolby Digital mono sound: Horrid made-for-video parody of the genre offers a crazy extraterrestrial terrorist who tries to take over the universe by infiltrating a normal SoCal high school. With shoddy production values, amateurish performances and effects, this little-seen late ‘80s item has little to recommend it. Sony’s DVD offers a soft, grainy full-screen transfer and weak Dolby Digital sound, both as bland as the movie itself.

MGM MIDNIGHT MOVIES DOUBLE FEATURE: AT THE EARTH’S CORE (**½, 1976). 90 mins., PG. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen (16:9), 2.0 Dolby Digital mono. WAR GODS OF THE DEEP (**½, 1965). 85 mins. DVD FEATURES: 2.35 Widescreen (16:9), 2.0 Dolby Digital mono, MGM/Sony.

The Movies: Entertaining MGM Midnight Movies Double Feature couples the 1976 American International production of “At The Earth’s Core” with AIP’s 1965 effort “War Gods of the Deep,” which completes the cycle of the company’s Poe adaptations on DVD.

“Earth’s Core” is a modestly entertaining fantasy, adapted from the Edgar Rice Borroughs tale, starring Peter Cushing and Doug McClure as adventurers who penetrate the planet’s surface and find a civilization of dinosaurs and sexy tribeswomen like Caroline Munro. Like “The Creatures That Time Forgot” and “The People That Time Forgot,” the production’s F/X are less than stellar (even by mid ‘70s standards), but the movie is still good, juvenile fun, supported by an infectious Mike Vickers score (with some very dated synthesizers of the era utilized throughout).

“War Gods,” meanwhile, is deemed by some to be a part of American International’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle, since it was loosely based on a poem by the author and also starred series stalwart Vincent Price as an insane malcontent controlling an underwater civilization. Tab Hunter and David Tomlinson are the folks who try and save Susan Hart from Price’s clutches (he believes she’s the reincarnation of his dead lover), in a movie that’s a lot more like grade-B Jules Verne than Poe. Still, director Jacques Tourneur (“Curse of the Demon”) has fashioned an atmospheric -- if not sluggishly-paced -- fantasy finally preserved in its full scope ratio on DVD.

DVD Rundown: Superb 16:9 transfers of “Earth’s Core” (1.85) and “War Gods” (2.35) with satisfying mono sound and the original trailers.

Fright Factor: Entertaining B fantasy films coupled together conveniently on one disc, this is yet another superb release in MGM’s Midnight Movies line. Hopefully Sony will keep the series going in future months.

POOH’S HEFFALUMP HALLOWEEN MOVIE (***, 2005). 66 mins., G, Disney. DVD FEATURES: Interactive Games; 1.78 Widescreen (16:9), 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The Movie: Lumpy the Heffalump celebrates his inaugural Halloween in this engaging Disney made-for-video yarn, as much fun as this year’s earlier “Heffalump Movie” theatrical release. Kids and adults alike should enjoy the colorful animation and engaging story line -- a portion of which has been recycled from the ‘80s Disney special “Boo To You, Too.”

DVD Rundown: Disney’s DVD offers numerous interactive games for the young ones. The 1.78 Widescreen transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are both colorful and razor-sharp.

Fright Factor: Unsurprisingly there’s nothing scary about the second Heffalump movie, making this an upbeat, entertaining DVD perfect for children and Pooh fans of all ages.

EVIL DEAD 2: BOOK OF THE DEAD EDITION (***, 1987). 84 mins., Not Rated, Anchor Bay. DVD FEATURES: Remastered “Divimax” transfer (16:9) with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound; Commentary; New Featurette; Original DVD Featurette; Trailer.

The Movie: Sam Raimi’s manic sequel to his earlier, straight-faced “Evil Dead” is regarded by many as one of the most effective fusions of horror and comedy ever devised on film. Bruce Campbell’s perfectly modulated performance as “Ash” anchors this deliriously entertaining frightfest, which was followed by the equally satisfying (and bigger-budgeted) “Army of Darkness.”

Anchor Bay’s new, Limited Edition “Divimax” edition contains a spruced-up DVD transfer in collectible packaging produced by make-up designer Tom Sullivan as well (it even screams when you press its right eye!).

DVD Rundown: A new featurette, “Behind The Screams,” is basically a 20-minute photo montage narrated by Sullivan, and is included here along with the previously-released “The Gore The Merrier” featurette. Anchor Bay has also reprised the laserdisc commentary with Raimi, Campbell, co-writer Scott Spiegel and make-up guru Greg Nicotoero, along with the theatrical trailer.

Fright Factor: Despite the imitators that have surfaced over the years since, “Dead Before Dawn” remains undeniably entertaining and inventive. Whether it’s worth another $30 or so just for the elaborate packaging and moderately superior transfer clearly depends on how much of a Deadite fan you are.

THE MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN (**, 2005). 90 mins., Not Rated, Anchor Bay. DVD FEATURES: Commentary with Bruce Campbell and David M. Goodman; Making Of featurettes; Trailer; 1.78 Widescreen (16:9) and 2.0/5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

The Movie: Lighthearted but tedious Sci-Fi Channel movie written and directed by the affable Bruce Campbell, who tries valiantly to put this featherweight genre spoof over the top.

Campbell stars as a wealthy American entrepreneur who ends up murdered while on business in Bulgaria. Daffy mad scientist Stacy Keach concocts an idea to transplant half the brain of a local cab driver into Campbell’s skull, resulting in the (supposedly) zaniest tag-team since Ray Milland and Rosie Greer rode off singing “O Happy Day” in “The Incredible Two-Headed Transplant.”

Sadly, the good-natured “Man With the Screaming Brain” comes across as a disappointment, even on a B-movie level. The story takes too long to kick into gear, and while the modest laughs will please Campbell devotees, the project doesn’t have enough energy to make a full viewing worthwhile. Ted Raimi gets the most mileage out of his role as Keach’s henchman, but the jokes are intermittent, as is the overall entertainment value of this made-for-the-small-screen production.

DVD Rundown: Anchor Bay’s DVD includes commentary with Campbell and producer David Goodman, plus two featurettes that examine the production of the movie. The trailer, some behind-the-scenes goodies and storyboard/comic book galleries round out the disc. The 1.78 widescreen transfer is decent, befitting the modest production values of the movie, while the 5.1 Dolby Digital and 2.0 Dolby Surround soundtracks are okay, supporting a better-than-it-should-be Joe LoDuca synthesized score.

Fright Factor: For the most devoted of Bruce fans only.

NEXT TIME: Traveling Pants, Carlito's Way 2, and More! Don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, direct any emails to the link above and we'll catch you then. Cheers!


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