7/24/07 Edition -- The AISLE SEAT BLOG Is Now Online!

Aisle Seat MONSTER Party
Fred Dekker's MONSTER SQUAD Hits DVD at Last!
Plus: ISIS Swings Back Into Action; NUMBER 23 and More

Filmmaker Fred Dekker has been involved in a number of genre favorites over the years, from penning the original story for Steve Miner’s haunted house chiller “House” to writing and directing the under-rated 1986 sci-fi homage “Night of the Creeps.”

Regrettably, the window of opportunity for some directors can open and close in a heartbeat, and as Dekker himself has noted, he “killed” his own career twice -- first with the failure of the 1987 kid-fantasy “The Monster Squad,” and later with the well-intentioned “Robocop 3,” which sat on the shelf for several years while Orion Pictures went bankrupt and the audience for the series went elsewhere.

It’s quite unfortunate as well, since Dekker seems to have a natural instinct for what makes the genre click, as evidenced by his savvy script for “Creeps” and the genuine affection shown to the Universal Monsters in THE MONSTER SQUAD (***, 1987, 82 mins., PG-13; Lionsgate), which at long last arrives on DVD this week in a splendid two-disc set courtesy of Lionsgate.

This broadly-played, entertaining kid-fantasy is sort of a cross between “The Goonies” and “Ghostbusters,” with Count Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolfman, and the Gil-Man arriving in a typical, Spielberg-like suburb and causing all sorts of havoc. To the rescue come a group of grade-schoolers with a serious knowledge of classic monster folklore -- and it’s not long before Dracula (Duncan Regehr) and his gang are pushed to their limits by a group of modern day American kids.

A box-office bust released at the tail end of the 1987 summer movie season (back when August really was “the dumping grounds” for failed theatrical prospects), “The Monster Squad” is crackling good fun for the young and the young at heart: Dekker, working from a script he co-wrote with Shane Black (soon to hit the big time with “Lethal Weapon”), employs the wide Panavision frame to great effect, punching up the action with a robust Bruce Broughton score and plenty of old-fashioned, solid visuals courtesy of F/X supervisor Richard Edlund and make-up guru Stan Winston. The movie is short, sweet, and plenty of fun, incorporating the movie monsters of the ‘30s and ‘40s in a fast-paced homage to the later Universal monster mash-ups and especially “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” which Dekker says was a direct influence on the movie (in fact, Dekker’s original idea was to make a film where the monsters met the Little Rascals!).

Due to the film’s poor financial performance and apparent rights issues between Tri-Star and Taft/Barish (which produced the film), “The Monster Squad” has never been an easy film to track down over the years. The movie was never issued on laserdisc in North America (fans have circulated bootlegs of the widescreen Japanese laserdisc for years) and has never seen a proper DVD release...until now.

Lionsgate’s double-disc set is a magnificent package that gives “Monster Squad” fans basically everything they could have hoped for. A lengthy, 90-minute documentary offers a cavalcade of new interviews with Dekker, stars Andre Gower, Duncan Regehr and Tom Noonan (who essays Frankenstein in the film), plus cinematographer Bradford May, composer Bruce Broughton and many more. Filled with anecdotes, “Monster Squad Forever!” is a detailed account of the production of the film, sporting tasty anecdotes (Liam Neeson was the first choice to play Dracula but bailed out late in the game) and an honest assessment of where the film went wrong at the box-office (Noonan says the marketing attempted to sell the film to several different niches, when just one would’ve sufficed).

Trailers, a vintage 10-minute gag interview with Noonan in make-up, animated storyboards, and deleted scenes (most of which involve Gower’s parents) round out the second disc, while the first platter offers a pair of commentaries -- one with Dekker and May, the other with Dekker and Gower plus his now-grown co-stars Ryan Lambert and Ashley Bank.

Visually, the new 16:9 (2.35) transfer is certainly far better than I’d ever seen the movie previously appear, though the print looks a little worn and the colors don’t pop quite as much as I had anticipated. The 5.1 Dolby Digital remixed sound fares better, though the dialogue seems to be mixed a bit low in comparison to the relatively overpowering score and sound effects.

On the whole, this long-overdue release will rank as one of the year’s most essential DVD purchases for sci-fi/fantasy fans. Here’s hoping Dekker’s “Night of the Creeps” gets a similar treatment in the near future, with its original ending (seen in TV prints) properly restored to the movie at last.

Another favorite of many a young viewer in the 1970s and early ‘80s, ISIS also hits DVD for the first time this week in a three-disc set from BCI.

For this two-season, live-action Filmation series (which ran in re-runs for years thereafter), JoAnna Cameron essayed both Isis and her human alter-ego -- school teacher Andrea Thomas -- who magically transforms into the Egyptian goddess whenever trouble abounds. Andrea is aided in her weekly adventures by some of her students along with teacher Rick Mason, all unaware of her secret identity, which enables our heroine to use all sorts of high-flying powers to take down criminals and evil-dooers of any persuasion.

“Isis” is good-natured family entertainment, even if the episode-tagged morals were excised from the show’s masters a decade ago (videotaped fragments of those epilogue sequences are contained in the supplements). As such, the show is dated but Cameron is so alluring (there’s a trivia tidbit on the IMDB that claims she was once considered for the Ali McGraw role in “Love Story”) that “Isis” remains one of the more enduring Saturday morning series of the ‘70s, a snapshot into a time when juvenile entertainment was more wholesome and satisfying than it is today.

BCI has compiled “Isis” (or “Secrets of Isis,” as it’s alternately called) in a DVD box-set containing every episode of the series with a number of excellent bonus features: one episode commentary, several isolated music and effects tracks, and nearly two full hours of new interviews (with pretty much everyone sans Cameron) are on-hand, along with scripts for all 22 episodes in DVD-ROM format, several still galleries, and a before-mentioned “rare footage” montage with the show’s original morals and episode introductions, culled from the best-available sources (mostly drop-out ridden video tapes). The sole disappointment is a lack of liner notes with episode descriptions and air dates, the kind that BCI has included on past Filmation releases.

In all, this is a nostalgic blast back in time that “Isis” fans ought to enjoy, and if you have children, it’s certainly more worthwhile than most of the junk circulating on the “family entertainment” circuit today.

Also New On DVD This Week

RENAISSANCE (**½, 105 mins., 2006, R; Miramax/Buena Vista): French sci-fi thriller uses striking black-and-white animation to tell its otherwise formulaic story of a Parisian cop (voiced in the English version by Daniel Craig) trying to track down a kidnapped young scientist who’s hiding a rather large secret. This elaborate production received only a token theatrical release on this side of the pond -- likely due to its muddled and uninteresting story -- but genre enthusiasts might find “Renaissance” of interest for its visuals alone; the film is set in a noir-ish, futuristic Paris where light and shadow seamlessly blend into one another. It’s a fascinating visual experience in spite of its shortcomings. Buena Vista’s DVD includes a sensational 16:9 (2.35) widescreen transfer with a Making Of segment and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, offering a subdued score by orchestrator/conductor Nicholas Dodd.

ROVING MARS (***, 40 mins., 2006, G; Disney): Imax documentary is one of the best of its kind I’ve seen recently -- an exploration of the Red Planet with amazing, actual footage from NASA rovers which transmitted incredible visuals back home. Topped with Paul Newman narration and music from Philip Glass, this 40-minute short is an enthralling visual experience that Disney has brought to DVD in a spectacular 16:9 (1.78) transfer (a full-screen version is also available on the disc) with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and two extras: a vintage 1957 Disney special, “Mars and Beyond,” along with a Making Of segment offering interviews with NASA team members and students from the “Imagine Mars” program. (HD viewers ought to note a Blu Ray version is due out shortly)

THE NUMBER 23 (**, 101 mins., 2007, Unrated; New Line): That reunion between Jim Carrey and director Joel Schumacher that fans have been clamoring for ever since the release of “Batman Forever” (ummm....right) turns out to be another woefully misbegotten “non-comedy vehicle” for Carrey.

Jim here stars as a normal, everyday dog catcher who stumbles upon a book written by its insane, psychotic writer and begins to freak out at the amount of similarities between the author’s life and his own. Virginia Madsen is Carrey’s sympathetic wife and Danny Huston a doctor trying to get to the bottom of Carrey’s predicament in this dark thriller, which isn’t completely awful (it’s watchable for the most part) but nevertheless feels like a total waste of time for most involved, Carrey especially.

New Line’s Unrated Infinifilm DVD offers both an unrated extended version as well as the R-rated theatrical cut in solid 16:9 (2.35) transfers with 5.1 Dolby Digital EX sound. Abundant extras include an amusing commentary with Schumacher, over a dozen deleted scenes, Making Of featurettes, and a documentary on the “Number 23 Enigma.” Here’s another mind-bending puzzle: take away the three and that’s how many stars this one rates!

STARTER FOR 10 (***, 96 mins., 2006, PG-13; HBO): Charming British romantic comedy -- co-produced by Tom Hanks -- stars James McAvoy (“Narnia,” “Last King of Scotland”), who’s thoroughly winning here as a young man from the working class, trying to navigate his way through university in the mid 1980s. In between wooing a pair of ladies (Rebecca Hall, Alice Eve), McAvoy’s protagonist attempts to win a TV quiz show with the help of several university cohorts. 

Writer David Nicholls (adapting his novel) and director Tom Vaughan perfectly establish a sense of time and place in this flavorful, light genre piece, filled with ‘80s pop tunes and a winning mix of comedy and character development.

HBO’s DVD, available this week, includes a fine 1.85 (16:9) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, an HBO “First Look” featurette, and a pop-up guide to the movie’s soundtrack.

BABYLON 5: THE LOST TALES (72 mins., 2007, Not Rated; Warner): Slender but compelling coupling of two original tales from creator-writer-director J. Michael Stracyznski is set after the completion of the original “Babylon 5" series and stars Bruce Boxleitner, Tracy Scoggins and several other original cast members. At 70 minutes, fans will likely be left wanting more (and indeed they may get more, provided sales are strong enough for this disc), but this is still a must for “Babylon” buffs, with copious special features including interviews with Straczynski, Boxleitner, Scoggins and Peter Woodward, featurettes, and a fitting tribute to recently deceased cast members Andreas Katsulas and Richard Briggs. The 16:9 (1.85) transfer and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound are both top-notch.

SURF SCHOOL (**, 87 mins., 2005, Unrated; Lionsgate): Not-completely-horrible surfing knock-off on today’s youth comedies (“American Pie,” etc.), with the requisite raunchy laughs, obligatory T&A, and stoned-out elder (in this case comic Harland Williams) offering advice to a group of aspiring surfing wannabes while on vacation in Costa Rica. No great shakes but pleasant enough, with Lionsgate’s DVD including a 16:9 (1.85) widescreen presentation and 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital sound.

THE LONG WEEKEND (*½, 90 mins., 2005, R; Lionsgate): Sophomoric sex comedy wastes leads Brendan Fehr (a harried advertising executive) and Chris Klein (his playboy brother) in a tedious tale of 48 hours in the life of two young lads just looking to “score.” Tad Safran’s script and Pat Holden’s direction are by-the-numbers, and both Fehr and Klein look like they just missed their train while the would-be shenanigans play out. Lionsgate’s DVD of this 2005 feature includes a 16:9 (1.78) widescreen transfer and 5.1/2.0 Dolby mixes.

LIVE FREE OR DIE (89 mins., 2007, R; ThinkFilm): No relation to “Live Free or Die HARD,” though possibly released to coincide with the popularity of the latest Bruce Willis adventure, this indie comedy from “Seinfeld” writers Gregg Kavet and Andy Robin features an ensemble cast (Zooey Deschanel, Michael Rapaport among them) in a tale of an idiotic criminal (Aaron Stanford) who tries and muscles his way into a friend’s legitimate storage business. ThinkFilm’s DVD includes a 16:9 (1.78) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, alternate ending, deleted scenes, bloopers, commentaries, and a Making Of.

New and Coming Soon From Paramount

BENEATH (*½, 2007, 82 mins., R; Paramount): Paramount/MTV Films chiller, intended for theatrical release, goes straight to video instead on August 7th, though it’s not hard to see why.

Nora Zehetner (late of TV’s “Heroes”) plays a young girl whose sister is disfigured in a car accident she caused. Her sibling later dies, and as the years pass, Zehetner is haunted by visions of the accident as well as the deaths of several others that she “sees” ahead of time.

Mercifully short and oddly paced, “Beneath” nearly plays like a TV film at times, and it’s depressing to see former “Popular” star Carly Pope’s talents squandered here in a thankless role as the mutilated older sister. On the plus side, Zehetner has a likeable charm about her and the score (credited to both John Frizzell and Frederik Wiedmann) is subdued and haunting in places.

The problem is that the film’s story is heavily recycled and scares are in short supply; neither director Dagen Merrill nor his co-writer Kevin Burke seem like they know what they’re trying to make (is it a horror film? a mystery? a combination of both?), and the picture seems curiously flat and plain in every facet of its execution.

Paramount’s no-frills DVD is available early next month and offers a decent 16:9 (1.85) transfer with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, the bland visual trappings making it the sort of thing that will likely play more effectively on the tube than it ever would have in theaters.

HAWAII FIVE-0: Season 2 (1969-70, aprx. 20 hours; Paramount): Second season box set of "Hawaii Five-0" doesn't,
as it turns out, contain a rarely-screened episode, "Bored, She Hung Herself," which aired on CBS once but never as part of the series' syndication package. (A viewer apparently hung themselves after the show aired, prompting producers to discard the program from subsequent airings).

Outside of that regrettable omission for series fans (hasn't it been long enough that fans can see the show in question again?), Paramount's DVD offers the series' second season in excellent full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital mono sound. (thanks to reader Bill Williams for the clarification).

SOUL FOOD: Season 2 (2001-02, aprx. 17 hours; Paramount): Second-season of the Emmy-winning Showtime series includes full-screen transfers, Dolby Digital soundtracks, and 20 episodes spread across five discs. Fans should note that there are disclaimers both for music having been changed and episodes “edited from their original network versions,” so interested viewers are advised to proceed with caution.

THE HILLS: Season 2 (2007, 247 mins.; Paramount): Spin-off of the hit MTV reality show “Laguna Hills” finds Lauren and friends trying to live life in the big city and balance work with play. Needless to say I’m firmly not the target demographic for this show (if I have to watch a reality series, I’ll stick with TLC’s “Little People, Big World”), but viewers who enjoy “The Hills” will certainly appreciate this three-disc set compiling the complete second season of the series with copious special features ranging from deleted scenes and interviews to featurettes and commentaries as well.

SABRINA, THE TEENAGE WITCH: Season 2 (1997-98, aprx. 6 hours; Paramount): Melissa Joan Hart hasn’t been seen or heard from recently, which is a shame because the actresses’ amiable portrayal of comic book heroine Sabrina carried this long-running network TV sitcom for many years. Paramount’s DVD edition of the series’ second year offers 26 episodes with stereo soundtracks, all of which ought to be perfectly satisfying for “Sabrina” fans.

More New TV on DVD

ROME: Complete Second Season (2007, 600 mins.; HBO): Lavishly produced, epic HBO series lasted only two seasons, but is likely to endure for some time to come as one of the network’s more memorable dramatic productions. The final season for “Rome” completes the narrative strands set in motion by the show’s inaugural year, picking up from the assassination of Julius Caesar and following a variety of characters -- from Mark Antony to soldiers Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus -- as they attempt to maneuver their way to power. HBO’s box set offers exceptional 16:9 transfers, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, 90 minutes of video featurettes, five audio commentaries, an interactive on-screen guide for every episode, and an extract from the official “Rome” book.

STARGATE SG-1: Season 10 (2006-07, 871 mins.; MGM/Fox): Tenth (!) season for the popular Showtime spin-off of the Roland Emmerich film features the final adventures of the SG-1 team, even if the final episode leaves the door well ajar for a possible spin-off into theatrical features (which have been rumored now for some time). Fox and MGM’s DVD box set features the final episodes of the long-running cable series in 1.78 (16:9) widescreen transfers and 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, plus a number of extras including behind-the-scenes featurettes, photo galleries, commentaries and much more.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT: Season 6 (1994, 370 mins.; Warner): Penultimate season for the popular HBO horror show offers 15 frightfully freaktastic (and at times formulaic) episodes with guest stars including John Lithgow, Isaac Hayes, Wayne Newton, Rita Rudner, Hank Azaria, Richard Lewis, and indeed, Humphrey Bogart himself (!) in an episode directed by series co-producer Robert Zemeckis. Warner’s Season 6 DVD package includes a virtual comic book, full-screen transfers and Dolby Digital surround sound.

NEXT TIME: DISTURBIA, SHOOTER in HD, and Warner's long-awaited POPEYE box set! Until then, don't forget to drop in on the official Aisle Seat Message Boards, check out the new Aisle Seat Blog, and direct any emails to the link above

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