10/31/06 Edition -- Happy Halloween!

An Aisle Seat Halloween, Part 2
Warner's Vintage LEGENDS to Stephen King's NIGHTMARES
Plus: GROOVIE GOOLIES and the Frightful TV on DVD Wrap Up!

The candy corn is ready to go, the costumes have been pulled out of the closet, and Halloween is just hours away! (Or, if you’re reading this Tuesday, it’s already here!). Still looking for last-minute viewing recommendations? The Aisle Seat has got you covered with Part 2 of our seasonal round-up, with box sets, new TV on DVD titles, and more profiled below. Read on, and Happy Halloween!
MONSTER HOUSE (***, 2006). 90 mins., PG, Sony.

SPOOKY SUMMARY: Producer Robert Zemeckis’ second stab at a motion-capture animated feature is a major improvement on “The Polar Express.”

A young boy watches as the mysterious, broken down house across the street consumes childhood tricycles and exhibits a life of its own; his friend helps out investigate the supernatural activity, particularly after its old, reclusive owner seemingly kicks the bucket.

With dazzlingly lifelike animation, “Monster House” is grand fun for kids and adults alike. Though the movie uses the same motion capture process as “The Polar Express,” it seems as if director Gil Kenan and his crew were able to work from their own designs and create a fully “alive” animated world with its own unique inhabitants (and not just animate over, say, Tom Hanks’ captured expressions). The result are exaggerated but emotive characters that are a substantial improvement from the stilted, robotic humans seen in “The Polar Express,” and the colorful, widescreen design of the picture is even more stunning than Pixar’s recent offerings.

It also helps that the story (credited to Dan Harmon, Rob Schrab, and Pamela Pettler) is appealing as well, with the various vocal performances (Jason Lee, Steve Buscemi, Jon Heder, Fred Willard are among the cast) being likewise splendid.

FRIGHTENING DVD FEATURES: Commentary from the filmmakers and short Making Of featurettes comprise a standard, unspectacular DVD supplemental assembly. Technically, the 16:9 (2.40) transfer is nothing short of captivating -- as satisfying as any “standard” DVD you’ll ever see -- and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound robust at every turn, offering a solid score from newcomer Douglas Pipes in an unsurprisingly Silvestri-ian vein.

ANDY’S CHILL-TASTIC RATING: “Monster House” is visually compelling, funny, and enormously satisfying -- in other words, perfect for the Halloween season. Check it out!

HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION (2006 Compilation; 6 Films, Warner).

SPOOKY SUMMARY: Vintage horror fans rejoice! Warner has done it again, diving head-first into the MGM, First National, and Warner Bros. vaults to unearth this reasonably priced (aprx. $30 in many outlets) anthology of six 1930s chillers.

The three-disc “Legends of Horror” set (two films are coupled on each platter) is highlighted by the debut of two MGM films that the great Tod Browning produced in the wake of his tenure at Universal: the 1935 fan-favorite “Mark of the Vampire” with Lionel Barrymore, Bela Lugosi and Elizabeth Allan, and Browning’s 1936 “The Devil-Doll,” also starring Barrymore, this time as a Devil’s Island escapee who uncovers the secrets of miniaturization and in turn sends shrunken subjects to exact revenge on the men who imprisoned him.

Also new to DVD here are the highly entertaining (if dated) 1932 MGM production of “The Mask of Fu Manchu” with Boris Karloff as Sax Rohmer’s mad man and Myrna Loy memorably essaying his alluring daughter; the early 1932 First National-Vitaphone release “Doctor X” with Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, and Lionel Atwil in a Michael Curitz-directed outing that’s talky but noteworthy for its use of two-strip Technicolor; that film’s in-name-only 1939 sequel “The Return of Doctor X,” co-starring Humphrey Bogart; and “Dracula” camera man Karl Freund’s highly entertaining 1935 MGM production of “Mad Love,” with a demented Peter Lorre performance and ample atmosphere to spare.

FRIGHTENING DVD FEATURES: Newly remastered transfers on “Mark of the Vampire” and  “The Mask of Fu Manchu” present the healthiest appearance for either film in decades; the other transfers tend to be just a bit less sharp, but are still nearly as satisfying, despite the age of the materials being utilized and the uneven condition of some elements. Supplements include informative historian commentaries (from the likes of Steve Haberman, Kim Newman, Scott Maqueen and others) on all of the movies except for “The Devil Doll.”

ANDY’S CHILL-TASTIC RATING: For “Golden Age” Horror this box-set is the best of the year’s DVD releases (surpassing Universal’s solid, though not spectacular, 75th Anniversary releases of “Dracula” and “Frankenstein” last month). With a good assortment of vintage features and enlightening commentaries on-hand, this is a sterling package for old-fashioned genre fans. Highly recommended!

NIGHTMARES AND DREAMSCAPES: From the Stories of Stephen King (2006, 378 mins). Warner, Not Rated.

SPOOKY SUMMARY: Well-mounted TNT adaptation of some eight, previously unfilmed Stephen King tales ought to be appreciated by the author’s legion of fans, despite the highly varied quality of the individual episodes.

The best of the lot is “Battleground,” a tense, exciting tale starring William Hurt as a hitman being stalked by plastic toy soldiers belonging to the toy maker he’s just assassinated. Brian Henson helmed this taut, word-less tale with superb effects and loads of mounting tension. Also at the top of the list is “Autopsy Room Four,” a Mikael Salomon-directed piece with Richard Thomas (“It”) as a comatose man, believed dead, reliving his life as he’s about to be dissected in the morgue. With black comedy and suspense mixed together splendidly, this is a terrific King adaptation by writer April Smith and a nice companion to the more somber episodes in the program.

Other entries in the series run the gamut from the mediocre (Rob Bowman’s “The Fifth Quarter”; “The End of the Whole Mess” with Ron Livingston and Henry Thomas) to the disappointing (“Ulmney’s Last Case” starring William H. Macy; Tom Berenger in “The Road Virus Heads North”) and downright poor (the silly “Crouch End” with Claire Forlani and vapid “You Know They Got a Hell of a Band” with Kim Delaney and Steven Weber).

On the plus side, Jeff Beal’s musical scores are excellent across the board, the production values are high, and the casting superb -- even familiar faces like Mia Sara turn up in bit parts (she’s the passenger next to Hurt on the airplane in “Battleground”).

FRIGHTENING DVD FEATURES: Shortish featurettes and a longer look at the production of the show are complimented by an outstanding 16:9 (1.85) transfer that, with a capable upconverting DVD player, virtually looks HD-quality. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks are likewise excellent.

ANDY’S CHILL-TASTIC RATING: I realize more than half of the eight episodes are average or possibly below, but the choice moments in “Nightmares and Dreamscapes” stand out as some of the best recent King adaptations and come strongly recommended, with excellent production values and scores on-hand throughout the entire mini-series.

THE OMEN (**½, 2006). 110 mins., R, Fox.

SPOOKY SUMMARY: A straightforward remake of Richard Donner’s 1976 smash from director John Moore (“Behind Enemy Lines”) that met with lukewarm box-office results this past summer. This time out, Liev Schrieber and Julia Stiles are the not-so fun couple who find out too late that their child Damien isn’t really their son and really IS the Anti-Christ.

I had mixed feelings while watching the 2006 “Omen.” On the one hand, the film is reasonably well-produced and Moore adds a few visual twists (namely, a number of nightmarish dream sequences) that truly surprise since they’re unexpected. Sadly, the film otherwise is so bland, banging all the same notes as the original film but with less style and inferior production values. Whatever deviations are made from David Seltzer’s original script (an additional death sequence at the beginning; less of a reliance on biblical prophecy) are also ill-advised and Stiles seems far too young to carry off her part.

FRIGHTENING DVD FEATURES: Fox’s single-disc DVD edition contains a commentary track, a few extended scenes and an alternate ending that’s not a whole lot different than what ended up in the final cut. Of the few Making Of featurettes, there’s a fairly lengthy look at Marco Beltrami’s score on-hand, while the 16:9 (1.85) transfer is fine and the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound layered with creepy effects.

ANDY’S CHILL-TASTIC RATING: Marco Beltrami’s score sums up the whole movie: it’s perfectly serviceable, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Jerry Goldsmith’s original ‘76 soundtrack, primarily because there’s no memorable thematic material in Beltrami’s score. The rest of the new “Omen” basically conveys a similar sentiment -- there’s nothing “wrong” with the film per se, but why watch a John Moore version of this story when you can see Richard Donner’s rendition...and with Gregory Peck and Lee Remick in place of Schrieber and Stiles. Sounds like the better deal to me.

ABOMINABLE (**, 2006). 96 mins., Anchor Bay, R.

SPOOKY SUMMARY: Ryan Schifrin’s indie thriller aspires to be a higher-minded genre piece than most of the junk masquerading as horror today. Good intentions aside, “Abominable” follows a wheelchair-bound hiker (Matt McCoy) as he spies something moving in the woods...and near a group of young ladies living next door. Shades of “Rear Window” work in with the requisite monster elements in a moderately fun little flick that’s unfortunately undone by often meager production values, including dim photography and a few shaky supporting performances. Schifrin does get the best out of cameos from genre stalwarts Lance Henriksen, Paul Gleason (particularly amusing in his final screen appearance), Dee Wallace Stone, Jeffrey Combs and Rex Linn, not to mention strong output from his famous composer father Lalo, whose rich dramatic score clashes with the threadbare production aspects of “Abominable.”

FRIGHTENING DVD FEATURES: Anchor Bay’s Special Edition includes commentary from Ryan Schifrin, McCoy and Combs, plus deleted scenes, bloopers, trailers, the script in DVD-ROM format and Schifrin’s short USC student film “Shadows.” The 16:9 transfer shows the limitations of the production, which debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel earlier this year, while the 5.1 sound captures Papa Schifrin’s solidly effective soundtrack.

ANDY’S CHILLTASTIC RATING: “Abominable” has its heart in the right place and old school Creature Feature fans will certainly warm to it more than most of the modern genre trash that’s out there. Ultimately, I felt the movie was too rough around the edges to really score, but Anchor Bay’s solid DVD ought to please its admirers just the same.

REST STOP (*, 2006). 85 mins., Not Rated, Warner.

SPOOKY SUMMARY: Warner’s first direct-to-video effort under their “Raw Feed” banner is a typically gory tale of a young couple (Jaimie Alexander, Joey Mendicino) who run afoul of a disturbed man in a pick-up truck. Her "Bf" goes missing, she thinks it’s a prank, and you can basically take it from there...though nobody can see Joey Lawrence’s supporting role coming.

DVD FEATURES: No less than three alternate endings and the trailer are complimented by crime scene photos and “Scotty’s Family Album,” the latter two directly tying in with the movie’s narrative. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are acceptable.

ANDY’S CHILL-TASTIC RATING: I must be behind the times -- isn’t horror supposed to be legitimately scary? This grizzly tale will satisfy gore-hounds and the reasonably assured direction of “X-Files” vet John Shiban is better than average (especially for direct-to-vid flicks), but the movie is hard to classify as entertaining, even of a genre kind.

TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2: Gruesome Edition (**½, 1986). 101 mins., Not Rated, MGM/Fox.

SPOOKY SUMMARY: Tobe Hooper’s only sequel to his groundbreaking 1974 horror staple is a frothier, wildly uneven brew that ups the comedic elements at the same time it delivers more down-home gore. Dennis Hopper and Caroline Williams are the duo who run into Leatherface and his clan in this Cannon-produced 1986 release, which wants to be a parody at the same time it asks you to take portions of it seriously. Indeed, the movie’s original advertising campaign -- which directly satirized “The Breakfast Club” with the Sawyer family in the same poses as the cast of John Hughes’ film -- directly ties in with the satirical element, though the finished film was neither quite as amusing, or scary, as most fans hoped.

FRIGHTENING DVD FEATURES: MGM serves up a very strong Special Edition with two commentary tracks (one with Hooper and author David Gregory; another with Caroline Williams, co-star Bill Moseley, and make-up guru Tom Savini), deleted scenes, and a fine new documentary. Six still galleries round out the disc, which sports a new 1.78 (16:9) transfer with 2.0 Dolby Surround stereo.

ANDY’S CHILL-TASTIC RATING: Following on the heels of the hilariously good “Lifeforce” and hilariously bad “Invaders From Mars,” Hooper concluded his Cannon trilogy with the same uneven results that marked his previous two pictures at the studio. There are some hysterical moments and memorable sequences scattered about “Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” but it’s a bumpy ride best recommended for fans of the original, and not the deadly-serious (and more pretentious) remake and prequel produced recently.

AN AMERICAN HAUNTING (**½, 2006, 91 mins., Unrated; Lionsgate): Director Courtney Solomon’s independent ghost story grossed a modest amount in theaters last spring. Now on DVD, this tale of the only supposed supernatural-related death in recorded U.S. history makes for a low-key, old-fashioned tale of a rural haunting in 1800's Tennessee. Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek are the parents of a tight-knit clan being tormented by the infamous Bell Witch; Adrian Biddle’s cinematography of the Romanian landscapes (the film was shot there, substituting for the U.S.) is vivid and the film highly atmospheric with an appropriately haunting sound design. Sadly, Solomon’s script nearly ruins everything that came before it with a wickedly ill-advised framing device that ends the movie like some sort of “After School Special.” Subsequently, the finale is massively unsatisfying, but if you can prepare yourself for the let down, there are enough chills on-hand here to warrant a viewing for interested supernatural addicts. Lionsgate’s DVD includes several alternate endings, deleted scenes, and a video commentary with the director; the 2.35 (16:9) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both excellent.

THE RED SHOES (**, 2005, 103 mins., Tartan): Run-of-the-kill Korean import tries for something a little different with its uber-loose connection with the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, but director Kim Yong-Gyun’s movie ultimately ends up just another Asian horror import with ghosts from beyond the grave looking to exact revenge on the living. Reasonably well-produced but predictable and all too formulaic given the genre’s other, better recent imports. Tartan’s DVD serves up a top-notch DVD with a subtitled commentary track, visual effects and general Making Of featurettes, the trailer, a 16:9 transfer and 5.1 DTS and Dolby Digital sound. For die-hard Asian horror fans only.

TV on DVD Round Up: Frights, Animation & More!

GROOVIE GOOLIES: Complete “Saturday Mourning Collection” (BCI Eclipse, 3 Discs, 352 minutes)
DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH: Complete Series, Vol. 1 (BCI Eclipse, 4 Discs).

You’ve got to hand it to BCI Eclipse. The Navarre Corporation label has done a spectacular job unearthing several classic Filmation series on DVD over the last few months, and has struck gold yet again with two more outstanding compilations of popular ‘70s and ‘80s cartoons.

The GROOVIE GOOLIES were a collection of classic monsters (lead by Frankie, Drac, and Wolfie) who starred in this goofy and groovy animated variation on “Laugh In” with blackout sketches and bouncy musical numbers -- first as a companion for “The Archies” and “Sabrina” in the early ‘70s, then later in a solo show all their own.

Launched to capitalize on the resurgence in movie monsters during the ‘70s, the “Goolies” were a big fad in their day, and BCI’s “Ink and Paint” label has embraced the phenomenon with a truly special edition, offering 16 episodes of the series and terrific supplements.

Included in the special features are two commentary tracks and a fitfully amusing documentary, “Goolians: A Docu-Comedy,” hosted by “Family Guy” voice artist Wally Wingert and character actor Daniel Roebuck, who interview Forrest J. Ackerman, Lou Scheimer, Alice Cooper and other “Goolie” experts in a mockumentary that’s nearly as much fun as the shows themselves, and includes a new original rock song (performed by the real Sacramento punk band The Groovie Ghoulies) in the series’ style.

Visually the package sports excellent, remastered transfers, informative booklet notes, a Goolie sing-along, and the show’s entire script bible in DVD-ROM format.

A similarly satisfying presentation is on-hand in BCI’s release of DEFENDERS OF THE EARTH, a 1986 Hearst Entertainment/Marvel Productions syndicated series that curiously brought together three King Features comic strip heroes: Flash Gordon, The Phantom, and Mandrake the Magician. Though one might have thought that these three characters would’ve had little connection with one other, this fan-favorite series is well-scripted and actually serves as a sequel of sorts to Filmation’s earlier “Flash” series: the opening episode features the death of Dale Arden and brings Flash together with The Phantom and Mandrake as he returns to Earth in time to combat the advances of Ming the Merciless, who’s as nefarious as ever.

Though several juvenile protagonists were added to the action, “Defenders” is a nifty series that BCI has collected in a five-disc, 33 episode anthology representing half of the complete series. The transfers look spiffy; the packaging, collectible art cards and liner notes are informative, and extras include one commentary track, storyboards, creator interviews, DVD-ROM features, and a fascinating presentation pilot featuring alternate characters and animation.

Both sets come highly recommended for all animation enthusiasts, who should savor the contents until BCI’s upcoming releases of “She-Ra” (Nov.) and the complete “Dungeons and Dragons” (Dec.) arrive in forthcoming weeks.

JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED: Season One (Warner, 4 Discs, 26 Episodes, 595 mins.).
BATMAN BEYOND: Season Two (Warner, 4 Discs, 26 Episodes, 544 mins.)

Two of the best recent animated super-hero series are new to DVD from Warner Home Video.

After a pair of seasons the “Justice League of America” morphed into JL “Unlimited,” with the core group of DC heroes (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern and Martian Manhunter) here augmented by the arrival of colorful newcomers from the Green Arrow to Supergirl.

These half-hour new episodes are more self-contained than Bruce Timm and Co.’s previous animated series, but the additional characters bring freshness to the action, while the animation and dialogue are on the same level as the creators’ previous efforts (the “Batman” and “Superman” Animated Series as well as the former “Justice League”).

Even better, the widescreen (16:9, 1.85) transfers give a more cinematic appearance to the 26 episodes contained in Warner’s four-disc set, even if they do seem a bit dark at times. Extras include an interactive musical theme feature, several commentaries, and a Making Of segment sporting interviews with the producers.

Also new from Warner is the Complete Second Season of BATMAN BEYOND, the terrific, futuristic sequel to “Batman: The Animated Series,” which continues here with all 26 episodes from its second season.

Sporting full-screen transfers, Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtracks, and two special features (commentary on two episodes and a panel discussion with Bruce Timm and others), this is another must-have release for all “Batman Beyond” buffs!

THE ADDAMS FAMILY: Volume One (MGM/Fox). 1964-65, 561 mins.
SPOOKY SUMMARY: Fans will love this long-awaited official compilation of the initial 22 episodes from the fondly-remembered -- though somewhat short-lived (two seasons) -- ABC comedy. The three-disc Fox/MGM box set includes good-looking transfers, four commentary tracks, featurettes and more. Visually the set is above and beyond any syndicated re-run of the series I’ve laid my eyes on, so I’m guessing fans will be thrilled. Here’s hoping more “Addams” sets follow in the not-too distant future.

NEXT TIME: New Criterion Titles, The Latest From Buena Vista, and More! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to the link above . Cheers!

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