Aisle Seat Universal Horror Edition

New Classic Monsters, DRACULA, VAN HELSING and ED WOOD, too!
By Andy Dursin

In the late '70s, the vampire genre had nearly run its course. Decades of fanged Draculas - -- from the Universal classics through Hammer's seemingly endless succession of Christopher Lee efforts à had turned the undead into a cliché that often bordered on self- parody.

With George Hamilton's box-office success "Love At First Bite" still in theaters, Universal, producer Walter Mirisch and director John Badham attempted to revitalize the classic Dracula mythos with their own adaptation.

Utilizing the Hamilton Deane-John L. Balderston play (and, to a lesser degree, Stoker's novel) as its principal guide, the 1979 DRACULA (***, 110 mins., R; Universal; The Aisle Seat DVD Pick of the Week) was a classy production that tried to bring style and seriousness back to the genre.

Fresh off his acclaimed and successful run as the character on Broadway, Frank Langella starred as the Count, bringing with him an enormously charismatic, sexual aspect to the role that's been absent from more recent Dracula portrayals. Laurence Olivier is Van Helsing, in a performance that was marred by the actor's declining health -- he lacks the energy one might have anticipated Olivier bringing to the part, but other performances compensate, from Kate Nelligan's Lucy to Donald Pleasance and Trevor Eve.

W.D. Richter's script departs from other "Dracula" adaptations in a number of areas, but for the most part works well, with John Badham's film being graced by a peerless technical crew, most of whom were veterans of the James Bond series. Maurice Binder contributes an unmistakably Binder-esque love scene, Peter Murton's production design and Gilbert Taylor's cinematography ably capture a classic Gothic horror look, while John Williams' outstanding musical score enriches every moment of the film.

Williams' sweeping score includes one of his most memorable main themes -- a darkly romantic theme for Dracula that fits hand in hand with Langella's equally superb performance -- and for me, ranks as one of his most under-rated works.

Even with Langella's performance and all its visceral assets, "Dracula" was a box-office disappointment at the time of its release -- a result attributed to the over-saturation of the genre and the success of Hamilton's spoof. Though the movie's gore (what little there is of it) is tame by today's standards, the picture was heavily criticized for being excessive at the time, despite Langella's insistence on Dracula neither drinking blood nor appearing with cliched aspects of the role (glowing eyes, fangs, etc.).

Today, Badham's "Dracula" holds up as one of the more memorable adaptations of its source. Having grown up watching the film (along with the classic Universal Monsters), I admit I've always had a personal preference for Langella's interpretation, and together with Williams' score, they accentuate the romantic, sexual aspects of the material, making for a refreshing change from the usual vampire fare.

Univeral's Special Edition DVD re-issue, out this week, supplants the previous Image DVD release, which was a straight port of the laserdisc presentation. The transfer looks crisp and vibrant in 2.35 Widescreen, though fans may be disappointed that the movie contains Badham's "re-tinted" color scheme, which drains most of the color out of Taylor's original cinematography. Badham had apparently wanted to shoot the movie in B&W to begin with, but was forced out of it by studio heads; his revenge was de-coloring "Dracula" for laserdisc in the early '90s, and it's this presentation that has been seen of the movie ever since.

Despite the tinting, the source material is in the best condition we've seen it on video to date; the movie looks sharper than the previous laser/DVD releases, and Williams' score packs a bit more punch in this 2-channel Dolby Surround mix as well.

Even better, Universal has added some brand-new special features, including a terrific 40-minute documentary, "The Revamping of 'Dracula'," produced by Laurent Bouzereau. Offering fresh interviews with Badham, Langella, Richter, Mirisch, John Williams, and other members of the production team, this is an honest evaluation of the production and its eventual, disappointing box-office performance.

Langella's comments are often the most revealing, with the actor discussing his work as the Count on Broadway, and how he battled Universal execs at the time, who wanted a more visceral, explicit horror movie. Also fun is a discussion over Maurice Binder's "love scene," which the filmmakers seem to be split right down the middle on (Langella hates it, Mirisch loves it, and Badham seems a bit indifferent to it). Williams' score, meanwhile, is rightly singled out by both Langella and Mirisch, who heap deserved praise on the ravishing London Symphony Orchestra soundtrack.

In addition to a photo gallery, Badham also contributes an amusing audio commentary, with the director being impatient with what he feels is an overly-leisurely running time.

Other than the absence of the original theatrical trailer, this is a stellar disc for a movie ripe for re-discovery and perfect for Halloween viewing. Highly recommended!

Also out from Universal this week is the Special Edition release of VAN HELSING (***, 132 mins., 2004, PG-13), along with the latest Universal Monsters LEGACY COLLECTION sets, starring The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon.

Having grown up on the Universal monster mashes of the '30s and '40s (thanks in no small part to "Creature Double Feature" on Saturday afternoon TV), I was gratified to see the homage director Stephen Sommers pays to James Whale's original "Frankenstein" in "Van Helsing"'s prologue. Following that, the movie becomes a generally enjoyable, matinee-style adventure that owes as much to Indy Jones and Sommers's own "Mummy" films (thankfully more the original than its sequel) as it does to the Universal classics of yesteryear.

With generally negative reviews and mediocre box-office results, "Van Helsing" became one of 2004's financial underachievers. Still, I found the film sufficiently enjoyable, provided you approach it from the right angle. If you find soaring bat-women ridiculous, then you'll likely find "Van Helsing" to be an outlandish comic book unworthy of your time. On the other hand, if you can get into the proper frame of mind that this kind of fantasy requires, you'll find Sommers's film to be an enjoyable piece of hokum.

Allen Daviau's cinematography beautifully captures the dark fairy-tale quality of the action and is matched by Allan Cameron's sets, which manage to convey atmosphere both appropriate to the old classics and a modern day effects extravaganza. Speaking of F/X, the animation by ILM and a host of other houses is generally superb, and backing up the whole film is Alan Silvestri's sensational score. Just as intense as his work on "The Mummy Returns" but a good deal more effective, this is easily one of Silvestri's finest efforts in years, being rambunctious, rousing and melodic in equal measure.

Universal's Special Edition DVD includes interactive featurettes on "Dracula's Castle," Visual FX featurettes, a pair of commentary tracks, outtakes, and a playable level from the Xbox video game. The 1.85 transfer is exceptional and the 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack throbbing with bass-heavy effects for nearly the entire 132-minute duration of the film.

"Van Helsing" may not be "Raiders of the Lost Ark," but that doesn't mean there isn't room for this silly, but stylishly made, comic-book adventure. The kind of film that has "kids stuff" written all over it, has no other ambition than providing a good ride for two- plus hours, and works if you've got a soft spot for the type of old-time horror that the golden age of the Universal Monsters once provided on the big screen.

Speaking of which, if you're more interested in that old-time horror, the new LEGACY COLLECTION box sets should prove absolutely essential to own on DVD.

Following on the heels of the previous "Legacy" sets from last spring, these three box- sets compile the respective franchises of The Mummy (from the original "Mummy" through its four sequels produced between 1940 and 1944), The Creature From the Black Lagoon (in three pictures produced between 1954 and 1956), and The Invisible Man (from James Whale's outstanding 1933 film to its four follow-ups, none of which are connected with the original, and one of which is an outright comedy).

As with before, the box-sets retain all the special features from the previous Universal DVD releases of these classics, including documentaries on each principal film, audio commentaries, production photographs and more. "Creature From the Black Lagoon" also bows commentary tracks on its two sequels, both with Universal experts Tom Weaver and Bob Burns, and co-star Lori Nelson (on "Revenge of the Creature"). Transfers and sound are fine throughout the three sets, with the low price tags (under $25 for each package) making them perfect for trick-or-treat viewing.

Though Universal's releases may be the most exciting for buffs this week, they're certainly not the ONLY genre discs you'll see being newly issued this month. Also out (or about to be released) are the following titles, all of which are perfect for Halloween viewing:

DAWN OF THE DEAD (*1/2, 2004). 110 mins., Unrated, Universal. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Commentary; Deleted Scenes; Make-Up, Effects Featurettes; 2.35 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Though I've long held a fondness for horror movies, the zombie genre has never been a particular favorite of mine. Unlike your average movie monster, vampire or werewolf, the zombie does little but feast on human flesh. He snorts, eats a limb or two, sucks on blood, then moves on looking for more. He has little to say -- if they ever staged "American Monster Idol," you'd have to think that the zombie would be quickly voted off by the viewing public in favor of other genre types.

I say this because I went into the new remake of "Dawn of the Dead" fingers-crossed, hoping for more. The early reviews pegged this as an effective remake of George Romero's seminal '70s zombie classic, and clearly one of the better mainstream-received horror releases in recent memory.

Taking a page out of Danny Boyle's superior zombie thriller "28 Days Later," the zombies in "Dawn" 2004 move a whole lot faster than our walking undead friends of old: here, they run, leap, jump, and seem to be on the kinds of steroids that have been rumored to aid today's baseball players in taking annual runs at the single-season home run record.

Aside from that, however, these zombies are no different than any others we've seen. They still don't dance, sing, or pose any other kind of menace other than growling and eating flesh. And most of the human characters in director Zack Snyder's wildly over- praised remake likewise have little else to offer: it's one thing to have one blatantly stereotypical White Trash character on-hand, but in this movie we have a whole slew of them -- plus a pregnant woman who gets nibbled on the arm just in time to give birth to the most unintentionally funny genre off-spring seen since the end of the third night of "V: The Final Battle."

Not that the new "Dawn" doesn't start out well. The first ten minutes are supremely effective, showing nurse Sarah Polley returning home to her husband one night and being properly awakened the next morning by the zombie incarnation of the little girl next door. Within seconds, Polley and the audience are thrown into a widespread zombie apocalypse, and her escape from the suburbs is a well-executed set-piece that keeps you glued to your seat.

Just like Romero's original, Polley and several other human survivors (including cop Ving Rhames and expectant father Mekhi Phifer) then seek refuge in that towering pinnacle of American commercialism, the local mall. They hole up, hoping to wait it out, and ward off the advancing hordes of zombies congregating in the parking lot.

It's here, unfortunately, where the new "Dawn" deteriorates into a tedious, predictable, and ridiculous parade of cliches. It would have been fine if Snyder and writer James Gunn (of "Scooby-Doo" I & II infamy) stuck to Polley as the film's central character, yet they make the fatal choice of shifting the focus off her and adding an abundance of idiotic, weakly-drawn supporting characters -- truckers, a male chauvinist, and a dying dad played by Matt Frewer -- all complimented by some of the dumbest dialogue heard in any recent movie. In fact, there are so many characters that, when someone calls an individual by their first name, you have no idea who they're talking about since the movie hasn't bothered to develop any one person in the entire film (Frewer, for example, is in and out of the movie in about 90 seconds).

When the smoke is cleared and all the legs, arms, and other body parts devoured, "Dawn of the Dead" shapes up as a tired new version of a horror staple. I'm at a loss to explain why this film has received so many positive notices, especially when most genre films are shrugged off by mainstream critics as "just another horror show." Maybe I'm too old to find this kind of film scary or disturbing (indeed, with the movie's throbbing rock soundtrack, it seems as if viewers who weren't born when the original was released are its target audience), but for whatever reason, I ended up caring more about the movie's dog than any of its human leads ("as long as the dog is OK, I don't care if they all get eaten," carped my girlfriend). In the words of one fellow audience member, who couldn't contain his laughter when "the baby" is born, "this movie is [expletive deleted] ridiculous!"

Universal's Director's Cut DVD offers some eight minutes of unrated content, along with "The Lost Tape," featuring some 15 minutes of bonus footage, commentary with director Zack Snyder and producer Eric Newman, plus copious featurettes on make-up and visual effects. The 2.35 transfer is excellent, as is the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

ED WOOD (***, 1994). 127 mins., R, Buena Vista. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Deleted Scenes; Audio Commentary; Behind the Scenes featurette; Make-Up featurette; Production Design/Visual Effects featurette; Theremin featurette with Howard Shore; Music Video; Trailer; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Finally! Tim Burton's hilarious and occasionally touching account of the Z-movie director has been in the DVD pipeline for years, even debuting in a Special Edition package overseas some time ago.
Now, after several announced dates and subsequent delays, that Special Edition has arrived here in the U.S., sporting excellent new supplements: "Theremin" looks at how Howard Shore utilized the instrument in the creation of his eclectic score; "Making Bela" examines Rick Baker's attempts to make Martin Landau resemble Lugosi (it worked; Landau copped an Oscar); "Pie Plates Over Hollywood" sports an interview with production designer Tom Duffield; while "Let's Shoot This F#+%@r!" sports about 15 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage.

An odd (what else?) music video, theatrical trailer, and over 10 minutes of deleted scenes are also included, plus a fascinating commentary with Burton, Landau, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, costume designer Colleen Atwood and cinematographer Stefan Czapsky.

The movie is good fun, stylishly made and atmospherically shot, despite some of the liberties that the filmmakers took with the real events of Ed Wood's life. Still, even on a fanciful level, this is a marvelously entertaining film, with great performances from Johnny Depp as Wood, Landau's Lugosi, and Bill Murray and Jeffrey Jones as two members of the auteur filmmaker's wacky troupe. Essential viewing!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (**, 1980). 111 mins., R, Columbia TriStar. DVD FEATURES: 1.85 Widescreen, Dolby Digital mono sound.
Studio-produced, early '80s genre film is better made than most (J. Lee Thompson directed the movie before he sank into the abyss at Cannon Films), but it's still an odd mix of mystery-thriller, teen horror, and gory slasher film.

Melissa Sue Anderson plays a seemingly demure student whose friends are murdered -- in increasingly grotesque fashion -- at a Canadian college. Glenn Ford (yes!) plays her psychiatrist, who attempts to help Anderson cope with the trauma that she still suffers from a tragic accident the previous year. Is Anderson responsible for the murders? And, if not, will she find out the culprit before it's too late?

Though the dated soundtrack is snappy and the performances perfectly adequate (Anderson makes for an ideal tortured heroine, and certainly has a great scream), "Happy Birthday to Me" ultimately succumbs to a ridiculous ending that leaves you with a bad taste in the mouth.

Still, genre die-hards might enjoy Columbia's DVD, which sports a solid 1.85 transfer that looks to be in surprisingly good shape considering the picture's age. The mono sound is OK, but the score wouldn't sound too hot no matter what format it's replicated in.

FRANKENFISH (**, 2004). 84 mins., R, Columbia TriStar. DVD FEATURES: 1.78 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Modestly entertaining B-movie monster opus centers on a genetically engineered mutant fish causing all kinds of trouble for unsuspecting folks on the Louisiana Bayou.

Mark Dippe directed "Spawn," and despite having a lower budget at his disposal for this made-for-video flick (which debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel just a few weeks ago), "Frankenfish" turns out to be a good deal more entertaining than that jumbled comic- book opus, thanks to pretty adequate CGI special effects (better than most small-screen fare) and a trashy, fast-moving story line. Sure, the first half of the movie is mostly talk and no monster, but when "Frankenfish" finally kicks into gear, the results are a decent view for genre fans pre-disposed to this kind of fluff.

Columbia TriStar's DVD includes an excellent 1.78 widescreen transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

WHITE CHICKS (**, 2004). 115 mins., Unrated, Columbia TriStar. DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Wayans Brothers audio commentary; Make-Up featurette; Making Of special; 1.85 Widescreen, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.
OK, so maybe this Wayans Brothers comedy hit isn't a genre film, but still -- just glancing at the make-up that Marlon and Shawn Wayans wear to resemble a pair of Long Island Caucasian women might send a chill or two down your spine. Neither Shawn nor Marlon is remotely convincing in the Greg Cannom-Keith Vanderlaan make-up they're forced to wear as FBI agents trying to switch places with two idiot high society girls in order to foil a kidnapping plot, but there are some sporadic laughs to be found here nevertheless.

Elder brother Keenan Ivory Wayans helmed "White Chicks," which boasts the requisite race/gender shenanigans you might anticipate from the premise, along with a few big laughs and far too much plot. At 115 minutes, the movie rambles on way past its welcome, despite a lot of energy from the two leads and the occasional big gag that actually works.

Columbia TriStar's Unrated Edition DVD, out next week, includes commentary from the Brothers Wayans, along with an Encore "Making Of" special, a look at the make-up effects, featurette on the Wayans, a fine 1.85 Widescreen transfer with a perfectly acceptable 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack.

NEXT TIME: Back with more reviews, news and more.


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