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Halloween Edition
Criterion's ISLAND OF LOST SOULS Reviewed
Plus: VAMP, POLTERGEIST II and More Spooky Treats!
Plenty of tantalizing cinematic treats are available this season for your Halloween viewing pleasure, including several noteworthy new titles making their debuts on Blu-Ray. A full-length rundown on the latest genre titles follows below!
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS Blu-Ray (***½, 71 mins., 1933; Criterion). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Paramount’s pre-Code production of H.G. Wells’ “The Island of Dr. Moreau” is a genuine horror classic, with Charles Laughton giving a memorable performance as the demented Moureau, who plays God with crossing animals and humans on a mysterious South Seas island where dashing Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) finds himself stranded. The make-up effects by Wally Westmore were groundbreaking for their time and give the movie a still creepy feel; director Earle C. Kenton, meanwhile, worked with cinematographer Karl Strauss in achieving a moody, atmospheric look that rivaled the best Universal pictures of its time – as John Landis points out in one of Criterion’s supplements, “Island” was no B-picture in terms of its production design. Add in an unforgettable finale (with some of Bela Lugosi’s finest work), and you’ve got a perfect recipe for Halloween viewing. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Criterion’s Blu-Ray edition of “Island of Lost Souls” has been eagerly awaited by horror fans and does not disappoint. The AVC encoded transfer preserves all the details of this early ‘30s production with as much detail and little processing as can be expected, while abundant extras include a commentary from historian Gregory Mank; an excellent conversation with Landis, make-up guru Rick Baker and genre authority Bob Burns; interviews with horror historian David J. Skal, Gerald Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh of the band Devo, and filmmaker Richard Stanley, who wrote the 1996 “Island of Dr. Moreau” and was on-board to direct until New Line pulled the plug on his movie days before shooting was to begin. While the studio ended up hiring John Frankenheimer to re-tool the picture seeing as the cast was hired and the sets already constructed, Stanley ended up bemoaning why his vision wasn’t made – and even returned to the set to see how badly the filming was going, dressed up as one of Moreau’s unfortunates! The trailer, a stills gallery, and a 1976 Devo short film are also on-tap. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: I’m not much of a Devo devotee so I can’t speak for the content related to the musical group that’s on-hand here. Fortunately the rest of Criterion’s supplements are insightful and the transfer of “Island of Lost Souls” extremely satisfying. This is one of the best ‘30s horror films with a striking ending that’s unforgettably staged. Highly recommended!

PHANTOM OF THE OPERA Blu-Ray (1925, Image). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Lon Chaney’s unforgettable performance as Erik, aka the “Phantom,” is the highlight of this 1925 Universal silent production of Gaston Leroux’s famous novel. Image’s superlative Blu-Ray package brings Carl Laemmle’s expensive production for its time to high-def in no less than three different versions, mastered from 35mm film material markedly crisp for its age and with three newly commissioned musical scores. Two different HD versions of the (shortened, partially re-shot) 1929 Universal re-issue version are on-hand here with color tint and the “Bal Masque” sequence in two-strip Technicolor, with musical accompaniment provided by the Alloy Orchestra and Canadian composer Gabriel Thibaudeau, as well as a vintage theater-organ score by Gaylord Carter heard here in stereo for the first time. The full, almost two-hour 1925 original edit is also included in standard-def accompanied by Frederick Hodges’ piano score. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: David Shepard and Bret Hampton produced this outstanding hi-def package, with silent film aficionados sure to appreciate the improved transfers and soundtracks. A commentary with Dr. Jon Mirsalis is included on one of the 1929 versions, which discusses the differences between it and the 1925 release, as well as divulges insights into the production. Other extras include a 2004 PBS interview with Thibaudeau, a reproduction of the original souvenir program, the script and a stills gallery. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Although Chaney’s make-up makes for one of the unforgettable images of early motion picture horror, the actual “Phantom of the Opera” movie is a bit of a slog to sit through. That said, silent movie buffs and old-school horror fans are sure to appreciate the deluxe treatment Image has given to this chestnut, with superior transfers and extras to match. 
VAMP Blu-Ray (**, 90 mins., 1985, R; Arrow). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Grace Jones might not have had a lengthy career in the cinema, but she made a mark on a trio of mid ‘80s genre excursions: “Conan the Destroyer,” Roger Moore’s final sojourn as James Bond, “A View to a Kill,” and Richard Wenk’s low-budget New World Pictures offering “Vamp.” This murky, fang-in-cheek affair finds college students Chris “Meatballs” Makepeace and Robert Russler running afoul of undead stripper Jones and her friends in a movie that has a few laughs and a fairly amusing set-up. Alas, the movie sags the longer it drags on, draining what fun and goodwill it establishes in its early stages. That said, “Vamp” has its share of backers, and Arrow’s UK Blu-Ray disc is exceptionally good in terms of its overall package. BLU-RAY SPECS: While Image has released a no-frills U.S. Blu-Ray of “Vamp,” Arrow’s Special Edition Blu-Ray is packed with terrific extras: new HD interviews with Wenk, Russler, and DeeDee Pfeiffer (Michelle’s cute younger sister, whose sunny presence is one of the few good things about “Vamp”) are on-hand, along with rehearsal footage of Jones at work, a commentary with Russler, the trailer, and Wenk’s short movie “Dracula Bites the Big Apple.” This 1979 short was an NYU project Wenk sold to HBO, which aired it during the cable outlet’s early days, and still offers more laughs in its 22 minutes than “Vamp” itself. Technically the disc looks and sounds great, the AVC encoded 1080p transfer freed of DNR and the uncompressed mono sound as satisfying as one can expect given the source materials. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: I’ve never been crazy about “Vamp,” but Arrow’s marvelous Blu-Ray package is still worth owning if you’re a fan of ‘80s horror, mainly for its great behind-the-scenes anecdotes and wide range of extras.

RARE EXPORTS Blu-Ray/DVD (***, 82 mins., 2010, R; Oscilloscope). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Looking for something a little different this Halloween? This Finnish import – a feature expansion of a pair of short movies by writer-director Jalmari Helander that generated internet buzz several years ago – finds a young boy named Pietari wondering what’s going on in an excavation on the top of a neighboring mountain. It turns out that none other than the original Santa Claus and his elves are buried deep in the ice, but this assortment of would-be jolly holiday characters is anything but – after thawing out, the group abduct the local children and generally exhibit abhorrent behavior! At only 83 minutes, “Rare Exports” comes across as a group of interesting ideas that don’t entirely live up to their potential. The film slowly builds up to its ultimate revelations about “Claus” and more than half of the running time is gone by the point in which Helander kicks the film into gear. From that point, “Rare Exports” offers some amusing moments and set-pieces even though most of the special effects are minor and Helander uses the power of suggestion in depicting the true, real Santa Claus, who we (alas) never see thaw out from the big block of ice he’s imprisoned in. Individual moments, however, do shine through, and the picture is well-made and surprisingly sincere – it’s just a bit of a disappointment that “Rare Exports” isn’t nearly as mischievous and developed as it could have been. Perhaps an Americanized remake might follow through on that end of things (of course it could also be worse!). CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Oscilloscope’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack offers a strong, well detailed AVC encoded 1080p transfer with DTS MA audio. The music score is atmospheric though the total lack of any holiday tunes is a bit of a surprise. For extras, the original two, 10-minute shorts are included plus a 30-minute subtitled Making Of, concept art, a stills gallery, effects animation/animatic reels, and as a bonus, a poor-looking standard-def transfer of the infamous bomb “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Although some critics drew comparisons between “Rare Exports” and “Gremlins,” as well as the early films of Spielberg, Joe Dante and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the movie isn’t really as whimsical or funny as its premise suggests. It is, however, an intriguing and memorable film that, while it doesn’t entirely come together, ought to enchant horror – and even holiday movie – fans with its offbeat sensibilities.

FRIDAY THE 13th: LIMITED EDITION COLLECTION DVD (Paramount). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Complete with a replica of Jason’s mask, Paramount has delivered a limited-edition DVD box set offering all eight of the original “Friday the 13th” films. The original FRIDAY set the standard for many a slasher to follow, with 1981's FRIDAY THE 13th PART II coming off as a fairly hackneyed retread of its predecessor from producer-director Steve Miner, with former “Powers of Matthew Star” heroine Amy Steel taking over for Adrienne King, who’s offed in the early-going of this first sequel. The series made the move into the third dimension with 1982's release of FRIDAY THE 13th PART 3, complete here in both 2-D and 3-D with two pairs of glasses. (Granted, the the old red/blue analygraph 3-D format doesn’t favorably compare to the “field sequential” version initially seen in theaters, yet the 3-D effects are still fairly good here – especially when viewed on an HDTV). 1984's FRIDAY THE 13th: THE FINAL CHAPTER dumps the numerical title for a sequel that some series fans claim is one of its better entries (perhaps it’s because of its casting, including Peter Barton, Crispin Glover and Corey Feldman). Of course, “The Final Chapter” was anything but the end for our hockey masked villain, with FRIDAY THE 13th PART V: A NEW BEGINNING quickly put into production and released hot on the heels of its predecessor. Not only do you get Corey Feldman again here but also Shavar Ross (Dudley from “Dif’frent Strokes”) co-starring in Danny Steinmann’s gory sequel. “A New Beginning” ushered in what a good deal of fans consider to be two of the better “Friday” sequels, lead off by FRIDAY THE 13th PART VI: JASON LIVES, a decent effort on the part of writer-director Tom McLaughlin that finds the now-grown Tommy Jarvis trying to off Jason once and for all. Sporting a high body count and a fair degree of action, “Jason Lives” is a superior ‘80s hack ‘n slash, as is FRIDAY THE 13th PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD, which tries adding some “Carrie”-like thrills into the formula. Rob Hedden, meanwhile, attempted to finish the series off in FRIDAY THE 13th PART VIII: JASON TAKES MANHATTAN, adding in a climax that provides a conclusion to the entire run of the “original” series. CHILLING DVD SPECS: Limited reportedly to 50,000 copies, Paramount’s DVD set includes all the Special Editions of Parts 1-8 in excellent 16:9 transfers and with extensive extras, from featurettes to deleted footage. All of this has been released before but the neat packaging and low price ought to be make it appealing to both fans and first-time buyers. Regrettably the way the discs are housed in the cardboard casing here, there’s a good chance you’ll find some adhesive on the surface, so make sure you check the discs when you open the package. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: The fetching low price makes this a good bet for Friday fanatics, though even Amazon has pulled the package from its main selling page due to buyer complaints about the glue-disc issue.

POLTERGEIST II: THE OTHER SIDE Blu-Ray (***, 90 mins., 1986, PG-13; MGM/Fox). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Sequel to Steven Spielberg’s 1982 horror hit didn’t include the participation of its predecessor’s producer, yet did reunite its original surviving cast members (Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robbins, Zelda Rubinstein) in a film written and produced by Spielberg’s original co-writers (Michael Grais and Mark Victor). While a decided step down from the first “Poltergeist,” “The Other Side” still boasts a number of effective set-pieces as “The Beast” tracks down little Carol Anne in the form of creepy preacher Julian Beck, who’s scarier than any of Richard Edlund’s special effects. The cast is still likable and Will Sampson a nice addition as Taylor, a medicine man sent by Rubenstein’s physic Tangina to help the Freleng family. Even though the picture was reportedly shortened in the editing room (eliminating most of Geraldine Fitzgerald’s scenes as Williams’ mother) and went through its share of production difficulties (including H.R. Giger’s creature designs being cut down due to budgetary issues), this is a slick follow-up with another fine Jerry Goldsmith score. BLU-RAY SPECS: Available exclusively at Best Buy since last January, MGM and Fox finally roll out “Poltergeist II” nationally in the form of a very good-looking AVC encoded 1080p, natural-looking transfer that benefits from no apparent use of DNR or external processing. The 5.1 DTS MA track seems to lean too heavily on the effects but otherwise is nicely done, and the trailer is included as the sole extra. For whatever reason, MGM’s marketing dept. dropped the film’s actual on-screen subtitle “The Other Side” from all of the picture’s artwork some time ago (Varese’s expanded CD didn’t include it, the DVD didn’t and neither does the Blu-Ray). AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Not nearly as satisfying as the original yet infinitely better than the putrid “Poltergeist III” (which is likely to haunt Blu-Ray in 2012 seeing as it’s already available overseas), “Poltergeist II” is a mix of silly ‘80s horror-fantasy with some legitimately effective scares and good performances. The sequence in which Beck confronts a befuddled Nelson is powerful and well-handled by director Brian Gibson, and helps to off-set some routine, cliched elements that pop up through its brief 90-minute running time.

MANHUNTER Blu-Ray (***½, 120 mins., 1986, R; MGM/Fox). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Michael Mann’s 1986 film “Manhunter” is both the best of all the different screen adaptations of Thomas Harris’ books and a more realistic take on the Hannibal Lector character, here disturbingly rendered by Brian Cox. Mann’s film finds determined cop William (L.) Petersen out to stop a serial killer named the “Tooth Fairy” (Tom Noonan), and from the performances (Petersen, Cox, Joan Allen, Stephen Lang, Dennis Farina) down to Dante Spinotti’s slick cinematography, the film works on most all levels. BLU-RAY SPECS: Previously available as part of the “Hannibal Lector” Blu-Ray box-set alongside “Silence of the Lambs” and “Hannibal,” ‘Manhunter” receives its own standalone release in the form of a superb AVC encoded 1080p transfer. This brilliantly encoded presentation is just divine, capturing Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti’s visuals perfectly (Spinotti, oddly enough, later shot Brett Ratner’s inferior take on “Red Dragon” as well), while the disc’s DTS Master Audio sound is also satisfying given its two-channel stereo origins. Don’t be expecting any extras here – no surprise since Anchor Bay issued the prior, long-out-of-print Director’s Cut DVD – but fans of the movie (and its superior theatrical edit) ought to be thrilled by this no-frills HD release of the picture. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Fans of “Manhunter” who balked at purchasing the prior BD compilation just to get their hands on one of Mann’s best will find their patience rewarded with this low-cost (under $10 in many outlets) MGM/Fox release. Strongly recommended!

HANNIBAL Blu-Ray (*, 131 mins., 2001, R; MGM/Fox). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Ridley Scott’s godawful, just-for-the-money filming of Thomas Harris’ likewise just-for-the-money book follow-up to “Silence of the Lambs” hasn’t aged well, but then again, it was pretty sleazy in the first place. God knows how the MPAA gave this picture an R rating, but shame on director Scott, writers David Mamet and Steven Zaillian, and stars Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, and Ray Liotta for taking part in what may be the lowest common denominator-slumming slice of so-called "mainstream" entertainment to come out of a major studio since the turn of the millennium – a film that enables us to see such incredible sights as a man being consumed by wild pigs and Liotta's brain being fried while he sits and talks about running for Congress. BLU-RAY SPECS: “Hannibal” makes its way to Blu-Ray in the form of an older MPEG-2 high-def transfer that’s a definite step down from “Manhunter.” Some noise is apparent in the 1080p presentation, which is also (tellingly) housed on a 25gb single-layer BD disc, dating it as the type of older, first-gen BD presentation we’d routinely see from MGM. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: “Hannibal”’s tiresome, disgusting ending puts an all-too appropriate cap on a movie that never answers the question "why bother?" except for the big fat check which reportedly went out to all involved. Skip it.

THE BAD SEED Blu-Ray (***, 129 mins., 1956; Warner). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Warner’s 1956 filming of the Maxwell Anderson stage play (itself based on William March’s book) makes for a compelling if unsurprisingly “stagy” film starring Patty McCormack as Rhonda, the eight-year-old serial killer who manipulates her mother (Nancy Kelly) as she offs a group of victims. John Lee Mahin’s script reportedly adhered close to its source material and veteran director Mervyn LeRoy was helped by strong performances from a cast that mostly returned from the Broadway stage. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: With deep blacks and contrasts “The Bad Seed” looks quite good for a 1956 B&W studio film, with the mono sound rendered as well as it can be in a DTS MA mono track. Extras include a quite enlightening commentary with McCormack and Charles Busch, plus an interview with McCormack and the trailer. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Even with its compromised ending (changed to fit with the movie code of the era), “The Bad Seed” is a sturdy and disturbing film that’s received a satisfying high-def package from Warners. Recommended.

FACES IN THE CROWD Blu-Ray (**½, 102 mins., 2011, R; Millennium). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Fairly well-crafted, Canadian-lensed chiller with Milla Jovovich as a woman, nearly murdered by a serial killer dubbed Tearjerk Jack, who survives his attack but can no longer process facial recognition – including her own. Julien Magnat wrote and directed “Faces in the Crowd,” which for a direct-to-video effort is both efficiently executed and capably performed by Jovovich, giving one of her more emotive performances. Julian McMahon co-stars in a film that ultimately plays out its principal premise by the time it reaches its final third, but has some effective moments along the way (including a bit where Jovovich sees the face of one boy and girl repeated on her classroom students). CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Millennium’s Blu-Ray includes a perfect 1080p AVC encoded transfer with Dolby TrueHD audio. Extras include a Making Of featurette. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: “Faces in the Crowd” could fit the bill as a decent offering for thriller fans, and mostly especially Jovovich aficionados.

KURONEKO [Black Cat] Blu-Ray (99 mins., 1968; Criterion). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Japanese cinephiles have their own Halloween treat to celebrate this month from Criterion. Kaneto Shindo’s beautifully layered, black-and-white 1968 favorite is set in feudal Japan where a mother and her daughter-in-law are both attacked and violated by samurai. Seeking vengeance, the two strike a deal to return to the living world as spirits who tear the throats out of other samurai – at least until “Gintoki of the Grove” is dispatched to deal with them...not knowing that the ghosts who resemble his mother and wife actually are his family members. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Criterion has brought “Kuroneko” to Blu-Ray in a most impressive package. The 1080p, fully restored transfer is exceptionally well defined, with extras including an interview with Shindo from the Directors Guild of Japan; a video interview with critic Tadao Sato; the trailer; and essays about the picture. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Unbelievably wacky at times, poetic at others, “Kuroneko” is a unique late ‘60s Japanese chiller that looks great in full Tohoscope. Fans of the genre ought to be sufficiently enchanted with Criterion’s excellent high-def mastering and insightful extras.

GAMERA TRILOGY Blu-Ray (1995-99, Mill Creek). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Low-priced Blu-Ray anthology from Mill Creek offers Kadokawa’s acclaimed 1995 resurrection of “Gamera,” the flying turtle who once served as a cut-rate Godzilla wannabe back in the ‘60s. This polished and exciting remake ends up besting all of Toho’s modern Godzilla films with fine effects and a compelling story, one that was continued in 1996's “Gamera 2: Attack of the Legion” and the 1999 sequel “Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris,” which many fans feel is one of the best “kaiju” films ever made. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Mill Creek’s two-disc Blu-Ray set includes all three “Gamera” films in satisfying 1080p transfers with 5.1 DTS-HD Japanese audio, English subtitles as well as a 5.1 English dubbed track and loads of extras, from deleted scenes to special effects tests, trailers and more. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Under $15 in most outlets, this is a must-purchase for Gamera fans and Japanese monster lovers of all persuasions. The transfers are superb, the supplements bountiful and all of it wrapped inside a pleasingly low-cost package. (Note that Gamera 1 & 2 were released in a double-feature BD set last spring; “Gamera 3" is also available in its own standalone edition).

THE BLOOD TRILOGY Blu-Ray (66/83/79 mins., 1963-65; Something Weird/Image). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: The first three features from legendary exploitation producers Herschell Gordon Lewis and David F. Friedman are housed in one satisfying, affordable Blu-Ray platter from Image. Included here are “Blood Beast,” the original “Two Thousand Maniacs” and “Color Me Blood Red,” three mid ‘60s programmers with more buckets of blood than any horror fan of that era had seen on-screen before. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: With brief running times there’s plenty of room on one Blu-Ray platter for three high-def transfers and supplements, and Image’s transfers are as satisfying as one would anticipate given the age and low budget elements they were working with. Extras include trailers, outtakes, commentaries from Lewis and Friedman, a gallery of exploitation art, a gore short “Follow That Skirt!’ from 1964, a trailer for a Gordon Lewis documentary and another short, “Carving Magic!” AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Fans of vintage exploitation fare should be more than satisfied with this low-cost, high-quality BD release from Image and the fine folks at Something Weird.

BASKET CASE Blu-Ray (91 mins., 1983; Something Weird/Image). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Duane Bradley heads to New York City along with a wicker basket carrying his Siamese twin brother Belia in one of the more memorable cult-horror indie efforts of the early ‘80s. Director-writer Frank Henenlotter’s subsequent career may have never lived up to the potential of this quirky, gory and occasionally very amusing effort – with some memorable stop-motion animation – but “Basket Case” stands alongside “The Evil Dead” as one of the decade’s more unique low-budget horror outings. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Image and Something Weird have served up another winner with a fetchingly low-cost Blu-Ray disc. The 1080p (1.33) transfer and mono soundtrack are superior to any DVD release I’ve seen of “Basket Case” by a wide margin, and countless extras are also on-tap (video intro from the director, commentary, rare outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage, trailers, a video short, two radio spots and exploitation art). AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: “Basket Case” is odd, somewhat disturbing but filled with energy and gallows humor. Its fans ought to be excited with this top-notch new high-def package courtesy of Image and Something Weird.    

GHOST HUNTERS: Season 6, Part 2 Blu-Ray (aprx. 10 hours, 2010; Image). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: 13 more episodes from the back end of “Ghost Hunters”’s sixth season include Uninvited Guests, A Shot in the Dark, Signals from the Past, Lemp Mansion, Grammar School Ghosts, Time to Get Touched, The Chopping Block, The Oldest House in Georgia, Home Is Where the Haunt Is, Empire State Haunts, Sloss Furnaces, Ghost of Christmas Past and a tie-in with the “Real Housewives of Atlanta.” By this point the TAPS gang has moved on from mostly investigating claims made by everyday folks and turned their attention to “famous haunts” that simply aren’t as interesting, or frankly believable, as their early seasons – though this Syfy Channel series continues to be one of its top performers. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Image’s three-disc set includes 1080i transfers and 2.0 stereo soundtracks. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Fans of the series will find plenty to enjoy in this compilation, even if the skeptics among us will remain unconvinced (as for myself, I’m still a believer – but not in the “evidence” TAPS routinely gives us on a weekly basis these days).

THE HOWLING REBORN Blu-Ray (*½, 92 mins., 2011, R; Anchor Bay). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Even fans of the “Howling” franchise stopped counting sequels years ago, making this “reboot” a good idea – at least in theory – given all the horrible installments that followed Joe Dante’s 1981 hit. Unfortunately, in execution, director/co-writer Joe Nimziki’s weak film plays like an “ABC Family” original movie of the week with R-rated elements. Here, in this credited adaptation of Gary Bradner’s “Howling II,” Landon Liborion plays a high school senior who finds out from mysterious Ivana Milicevic that he’s part of a line of werewolves plotting to take over the world. Much brooding a la “Twilight” follows with Liborion trying to save his girlfriend (Lindsey Shaw, who starred in the ABC Family “10 Things I Hate About You” series) from Milicevic and her clan. Bad special effects, threadbare production values, and a limp story make this a howler indeed. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Anchor Bay’s Blu-Ray includes commentary, a featurette and storyboard gallery. The 1.78 1080p transfer is spotless but with the color having been drained from the cinematography, “Howling Reborn” isn’t a good looking film. The Dolby TrueHD score includes, get this, a soundtrack by “executive composer” Klaus Badelt with a pair of his minions likewise receiving on-screen credit. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Trying to reposition “The Howling” franchise in the wake of the “Twilight” craze is understandable, but there’s little to recommend in this uninteresting and pedestrian production that, like nearly all of the “Howling” sequels, has nothing to do with the original film or its source material other than the title.    

THE WALKING DEAD: Season 1 Special Edition Blu-Ray (292 mins., 2010; Anchor Bay). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: Frank Darabont co-produced this AMC cable adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s graphic novel that depicts yet another zombie apocalypse and the efforts of one small-town sheriff’s deputy to find his wife and son in rural Georgia. Bolstered by big ratings, “The Walking Dead” garnered a fair share of attention upon its initial broadcast last year, though as well-crafted as the series is, I found it both slow-going and not particularly involving. All the old “zombie” stand-bys are here, with various sequences having been borrowed from other chronicles of the walking dead, and the characters aren’t especially interesting either. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Now available as a Blu-Ray Special Edition following its original BD release last spring, Anchor Bay’s three-disc set includes a new, extensive documentary on the Making of the series and exclusive commentary tracks. Several other new featurettes also profile the series along with all the other extras from the first BD release. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Not nearly as interesting as the hype might lead you to believe, genre fans are still likely to groove on “The Walking Dead” in spite of its familiarity, and the make-up effects by Greg Nicotero and crew are quite gory, especially for basic cable. Anchor Bay’s Special Edition BD is aimed at series fans who will likely appreciate the new supplemental content, though casual viewers would do just as well in picking up the initial Blu-Ray release which is likely a few bucks cheaper at this point.

DARKNESS FALLS Blu-Ray (**½, 86 mins., 2003, PG-13; Image). FRIGHTFUL PLOT SUMMARY: The first ten minutes of "Darkness Falls" are so damn creepy that it almost makes up for the more routine 76 minutes that follow it (65 if you take out the end credits). Comic book writer Joe Harris' story ruminates on what would happen if the Tooth Fairy were really a scarred, psychotic old ghost who shows up to take revenge on the children who live in a sleepy coastal town that unjustly took her life decades before. It's a creepy idea that Harris turned into a short movie (regrettably not included here), and then soon after expanded into the re-titled 2003 film “Darkness Falls,” a stylish and fun B-flick that has its share of effective moments -- but none more than its first ten minutes, when a young boy has his first run-in with the Tooth Fairy. CHILLING BLU-RAY SPECS: Image’s Blu-Ray includes a good looking 1080p transfer and brilliantly detailed DTS MA soundtrack (this is one of those phenomenally-designed soundtracks that takes full advantage of your surround system, with ghostly moans and whispers popping out of the rear speakers at every turn), though regrettably none of the extras have been carried over from the DVD. AISLE SEAT SCARE-TASTIC BOTTOM LINE: Shot in Australia by first-time director Jonathan Liebesman (aside from the two leads, you'll be able to pick out the Aussie accents pretty easily), “Darkness Falls” falls a little flat after its tense, suspenseful opening. Characters are poorly developed, with a lot of back story apparently left on the cutting room floor. Still, what's there makes for an entertaining creature feature flick. Liebesman shows some promise behind the lens (he’s since gone onto direct the awful “Battle: Los Angeles” and the forthcoming “Clash of the Titans” sequel), Stan Winston's effects are quite good, and there's an inherent creepiness in the material as a whole that makes it compelling. Minor, but not half-bad.

ZOMBIE Blu-Ray (92 mins., 1979; Blue Underground)
THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY Blu-Ray (86 mins., 1981; Blue Underground): A pair of Italian gore-meister Lucio Fulci’s films get the high-def treatment from Blue Underground this month.

“Zombie,” in fact, receives a deluxe, two-disc edition chock full of extras for this memorable 1979 gore-fest. In addition to a new 2K HD transfer supervised by cinematographer Sergio Salvati, the disc includes commentary with star Ian McCulloch and Jason J. Slater; trailers in HD; still galleries; a new intro from Guillermo Del Toro; “Zombie Wasteland” and “Deadtime Stories” interviews with writers, actors and other crew members; an interview with co-producer Fabio DeAngelis; conversations with Salvati and production designer Walter Patriarca; a full look at the make-up and special effects; composer Fabio Frizzi discussing his score; and a conversation with Guillermo Del Toro who considers the film to be one of his favorites.

Fulci followed “Zombie” with the 1981 shocker “The House by the Cemetery,” about a family who move from NYC to a new home in New England, unaware of its sordid past. Once again Blue Underground offers a brand-new HD transfer of the movie from its original uncut negative with extensive, fresh extras, including interviews with stars Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Giovanni Frezza, Silvia Collatine, Dagmar Lassander and Carlo de Mejo, plus writers Dardano Sacchetti and Elisa Birganti; a deleted scene; trailers in HD; a TV spot; and a poster and stills gallery.

FRANKENHOOKER Blu-Ray (85 mins., 1990, Not Rated; Synapse)
MANIAC COP Blu-Ray (85 mins., 1988, R; Synapse): Synapse’s latest offerings, just in time for Halloween viewing, include a pair of late ‘80s productions with strong cult followings.

William Lustig’s MANIAC COP was the first of several B-movies from writer-producer Larry Cohen chronicling a deranged cop (Robert Z’Dar) on the loose in New York City with Tom Atkins hot on his trail. Bruce Campbell, Richard Roundtree, “Conan”’s William Smith, Laurene Landon and Sheree North star in an entertaining, shlockly camp-horror outing that Synapse has brilliantly brought to Blu-Ray with numerous extras. Among the supplements are new interviews with Z’Dar, Atkins, “Three Minutes with Danny Hicks,” a promo art gallery (all in HD), plus additional scenes shot for Japanese TV, trailers and TV spots, along with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer and a multitude of audio options (6.1 and 4.0 DTS-MA and 2.0 stereo). Dated but entertaining stuff.

Less satisfying is “Basket Case” director Frank Henenlotter’s 1990 “Frankenhooker” about a man’s deranged attempts to bring his dead fiancee back to life by assembling body parts from NYC hookers. Naturally, it turns out even worse than anticipated once “Elizabeth” ends up taking to the streets and causing all kinds of trouble. Not particularly funny (though a favorite of Joe Bob Briggs), “Frankenhooker” hits Blu-Ray with extras including a crew commentary, featurettes on star Patty Mullen and Jennifer Delora, Delora’s photo scrapbook and the trailer. The low-budget production looks as solid in its 1080p transfer as can be expected with a 5.1 DTS-MA track offering a typically mediocre Joe Renzetti score.

WRONG TURN 4: BLOODY BEGINNINGS Blu-Ray/DVD (93 mins., Unrated, 2011; Fox): Yet another direct-to-video sequel to the Eliza Dushku starrer “Wrong Turn” attempts to show the origins of those inbred hillbilly cannibals, who here escape from a West Virginia sanatorium and, decades later, still cause problems for a group of unsuspecting college students. Fairly well made for what it is, Fox brings this fourth go-round in the series to Blu-Ray this week in an Unrated version sporting plenty of extras, including commentary, deleted scenes and several featurettes, along with a DVD. The AVC encoded 1080p transfer and DTS MA soundtrack are both just fine.

MOTHMAN DVD (88 mins., 2010; Lionsgate): Or, “The Mothman Knows What You Did Last Summer.” Dopey Syfy Channel original movie stars Jewel Staite as a Washington journalist who finds out the Mothman wants revenge for an accident her friends covered up years before. In no way related to the superior and underrated “Mothman Prophecies” film with Richard Gere, even “Mothman” enthusiasts are urged to avoid this one. Lionsgate’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.

Aisle Seat Bookshelf

Several interesting new books have hit store shelves in time for Halloween.

One of my favorites is John Landis’ wonderful MONSTERS IN THE MOVIES, a coffee-table sized DK book filled with large color photos from the Kobal Collection, saluting movie monsters from all eras and across the horror/sci-fi/fantasy genres. However, what really distinguishes the book is Landis’ commentary – quips in all of the captions that lend a critical eye to the hundreds of movie monsters that populate its 300-plus pages. Whether it’s praising “Lifeforce” for Henry Mancini’s score and the picture’s outrageously entertaining (and often unintentionally funny) story, or divulging trivia like the name of Michael Moriarty’s character in “Troll” (Harry Potter!), Landis brings his vast cinematic knowledge to a beautifully designed book that’s a must for all genre aficionados.

Also newly available is ALIEN VAULT, a smaller-sized hardcover tome from author Ian Nathan and Voyageur Press.

This 176-page behind-the-scenes chronicle of the making of Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic offers plenty of candid photos, including Scott’s own storyboards; lots of H.R. Giger’s unforgettable conceptual artwork; costume designs by Moebius; construction blueprints, and text that re-examines the picture’s production with cast and crew comments. Along the way there are also 10 reproduced “artifacts” (artwork reproductions, etc.) in cellophane envelopes that can be removed and put back, much like the “Star Wars Vault” from a few years ago.

The intent is clearly ahead of the execution, however, since at 176 pages the book doesn’t feel exhaustive – the text portions include some inexplicable misspellings (like Veronica Cartwright’s name continuously spelled without the “w”) while the material itself, albeit interesting, doesn’t feel fresh or particularly insightful. If you’ve watched the countless documentaries that have been made about “Alien” over the years, you’ll likely feel that the topic has been covered in greater detail elsewhere. Even a discussion of the “Alien” sequels is limited to a few short paragraphs!

That said, die-hard “Alien” fans still might like to add this to their libraries, and the book is well designed with good looking photos, along with a reasonable, sub-$30 price at Amazon and other retailers.

NEXT TIME: The first discs of November! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards and direct any emails to our email address. Cheers everyone!

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