DVD Review: Halloween Treats
By Glenn Abel
"Death is good," producer Val Lewton said when asked what he was trying to say with one of his classy but creepy B-movies. Like a busted clock, he's right once in a while -- notably on that darkest of nights, Oct. 31.
Halloween 2005 brings an especially fine crop of chilling DVD entertainments. Let's unearth the best:
The Val Lewton Horror Collection: Nine B-movie wonders Lewton produced for RKO in the 1940s. Lewton's best-known works -- the stylish and sexy "Cat People" and the voodoo excursion "I Walked With a Zombie" -- staked out the psychological horror genre. Both were done with director Jacques Tourneur, who gave Lewton's works a sophisticated noirish look. The men "were like Lennon and McCartney," horror director Guillermo del Toro says.
This DVD set, which includes a trio of Boris Karloff thrillers, has the same titles as Image's 1995 laserdisc box. All but two of the films have commentaries by Lewton enthusiasts, which are uniformly good. The docu "Shadows in the Dark" tracks the producer from his youth in Russia to his stint with David O. Selznick to his successful run at RKO. Del Toro, George A. Romero and Neil Gaiman are among the horror elite who pay tribute to Lewton.
RKO stole Lewton from Selznick, hungry for monster movies that could duplicate Universal's success. But, film historian Steve Haberman says, Lewton "was thinking about what in reality frightens people: the dark, the unknown, madness, death."
"Cat People" (1942) startled audiences with its brazen marriage of sex and suspense. "Twilight Zone" director John Landis says he's still amazed at "how sexually sophisticated it is." "Cat People" tells of a dark-haired beauty whose belief in "mad legends" makes her refuse to sleep with her new husband, fearing she will morph into a predator cat. Marketed as "stark shockery and killing chillery," the film gave Lewton a hit the first time out.
RKO ordered Lewton to use prefab titles, including the goofy "I Walked With a Zombie" (1943). Like "Cat People," "Zombie" made good use of RKO sets left over from the Orson Welles era, showcasing them in silky black and white. Borrowing from "Jane Eyre" and "Rebecca," Lewton and Tourneur delivered another 70-minute marvel, about a nurse who comes to the Caribbean to care for a woman who appears possessed by voodoo priests. Fast-talking British commentators Kim Newman and Steve Jones are spot on ("The dominant element of this film is Venetian blinds," one observes, deadpan).
Other gems include "The Seventh Victim" (directed by Mark Robson), "The Leopard Man" (Tourneur) and the night-and-fog Karloff starrer "The Body Snatcher" (Robert Wise).
All of these films show their age; they're damaged in varying degrees. (Warner Bros., retail $59.92) Buy "The Val Lewton Horror Collection" at 30% off.
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: One of the year's great DVD bargains -- all 39 episodes from Hitch's first season on TV, working out to a buck a pop.
Already a master film director, Hitchcock let his pal and agent Lew Wasserman persuade him to try his hand at U.S. television. This series, which began in 1955 and ran for about a decade, turned Hitch into a star, mostly on the strength of his one-man skits that opened and closed the shows. The black-comedy bits were "the vessel in which to promulgate (his) mad ideas," said actor Norman Lloyd, who worked as an associate producer.
Hitchcock approved all of the scripts for "tonight's play," some based on short stories, others originals from such top writers as Ray Bradbury, Roald Dahl and Robert Bloch. Hitch directed his share of episodes (famously, 1958's "Lamb to the Slaughter"). Lloyd said every creative decision was about, "Are we reflecting the Hitchcock persona?"
Producer Joan Harrison, who immigrated to Hollywood with the Hitchcocks, roped in some of the best actors of the day. Season 1 stars included Joseph Cotton, Claude Rains, John Cassavetes, Cloris Leachman, Gene Barry, Charles Bronson and John Forsythe. These are fine shows -- varied, literate and sometimes way dark for '50s TV.
The sole extra of note is an over-easy documentary directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Hitchcock's actress daughter Pat (who appears in some of the episodes), assistant director Hilton A. Green and Lloyd do the recollecting.
It's great that Universal put the season out as a piece, given the series' crazy-quilt DVD releases in the past. Unfortunately, there are a few problems. The menu's episode summaries are sometimes dead wrong and give away key plot points. A review-copy DVD froze and refused to play one of the episodes. Video and audio are OK. (Universal, $39.98) Buy "Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season One" at 30% off.
The Fly: There's a fascinating film on this DVD, and it's not necessarily the popular David Cronenberg gross-out pic from the mid-'80s. David Pryor's smart and emotional DVD docu takes almost three hours to cover the story of a "horrible mess" of a project that resulted in one of the decade's top films. Pryor had plenty to work with: the tangled tale of the script; Mel Brooks' role as horror producer; the sudden death of the original director's daughter; the wooing of Cronenberg; the real-life romance of stars Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis; and Goldblum's miseries inside the rotting human-fly getup.
Cronenberg provides thoughtful and easygoing commentary. Revisiting the film, he was "really struck by how disturbing and emotional" it remains.
"The Fly" DVD really takes off on disc 2, packed with imaginative and interactive extras. Among the many highlights is the reconstruction of the notorious cat-monkey fusion scene, deleted as too sickening. Cronenberg's script and the original "Fly" short story are included.
The video is first-rate despite a few dropouts: Colors on the blood and guts look nicely saturated. Images are 1.85:1, as shot. The sound gets an upgrade from the previous DVD with the addition of DTS. Audio is mostly solid but stressed at peaks. (Fox, $19.98). Buy "The Fly Collector's Edition" at 30% off.
The Hidden: New Line added the dreary sequel and lowered the price by five bucks, but this is essentially the same "Hidden" DVD that came out in 2000. Still, horror/sci-fi fans shouldn't miss an opportunity to revisit Jack Sholder's fast, funny and furious tale of an alien lawman in pursuit of a body-snatching serial killer. Angelenos will love the street-level looks at punk-era L.A. as the action careens around Silver Lake, Melrose and Hollywood. Sholder's commentary, which dates back to the laserdisc, seems aimed at young filmmakers. He recalls how Kyle MacLachlan looked too puny to play the lawman but turned into an action hero when viewed through a lens: "That's why (some) people are movie stars." The 1.85:1 images from the 1987 film look outstanding, as they did on the old DVD. ($13.46) Buy "The Hidden" at 10% off.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: MPI kept this low-budget slasher film out of theaters for several years because of its snuff-film slant but now celebrates the work in a 20th anniversary DVD. Good call. "Henry" rocks and shocks, even though it's since been trumped by sicker (and lesser) fare.
For those who can stomach it, "Henry" proves to be a fascinating documentary-style feature that first-time director John McNaughton spun as a commentary on violence as entertainment. Loosely based on a real-life case, it examines the mostly mundane lives of a couple of Chicago-based sleazeballs who kill for sport and sex.
The DVD's new 52-minute docu chronicles the filmmakers' battles with the MPAA, which mandated an X for "overall moral tone." The version that finally escaped under the newly minted NC-17 was the director's cut. "We did not have to compromise. ... That's part of what made it what it is," producer Steven A. Jones says. Critics who sang the praises of "Henry" included Siskel & Ebert.
The talented trio of lead actors look back on the project with affection and some awe. They have a good grip on the experience and discuss how they coped with the physical and emotional demands. The docu's breakdown of the infamous home-invasion scene includes, quite smartly, testimony from the naive young woman who played the doomed housewife.
The DVD also includes a cheaply made but effective piece on Henry Lee Lucas, the Texas killer whose sorry story inspired the film. Like "Henry," it's hard to watch -- harder to stop watching.
The film looks pretty good on DVD given its guerrilla production values. Audio is good enough. ($24.98) Buy "Henry -- Portrait of a Serial Killer (20th Anniversary)" at 10% off.
Also recommended: "The Flesh Eaters," ludicrous fun in the sun with a Nazi scientist and a drunken film star ... "Dracula A.D. 1972," in which Hammer Studios unleashes Christopher Lee on London's hipsters ... "The Innocents" with Deborah Kerr in a fine 1961 adaption of "The Turn of the Screw" that brings to mind "The Haunting" ... and "The Fog" (Dhund), a high-spirited stalker story from Bollywood -- lots of singing and dancing to cut the suspense.
Buy DVDs mentioned in this review at discount prices:
Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Season One
Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter
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