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November 14, 2006

Here’s the first half of my ever-timely Halloween horror DVD reviews. (Okay, I know it’s mid-November, but have mercy – I’m pedalling as fast as I can!)

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A few years ago, my pal Jim and I were hanging out one boring evening when we decided – as we often did – to rent a movie. On the way to the video store, I asked him what kind of movie he was in the mood for. “Something funny,” he said. “And scary. With naked girls. And explosions.”

I said, “Have I got the movie for you.”

Now, that film, Frank Henenlotter’s delightfully twisted horror comedy, FRANKENHOOKER (1990), has finally received a decent DVD release with a new special edition from Unearthed Films.

When the fiancée of suburban New Jersey native Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz) is dismembered and killed in a freak lawn mower accident, the aspiring mad scientist saves her head and conceives a bizarre plan to bring his beloved Elizabeth (pretty Patty Mullen) back to life. After a visit to New York City and a pre-Guliani Times Square, he decides to use the body parts of prostitutes to build a new body for Elizabeth. Securing the necessary raw materials (in a hilariously grotesque manner), he successfully resurrects his girlfriend, only to have her head straight for 42nd Street to turn some (deadly) tricks!

Cult fave director Henenlotter’s (BASKET CASE) last film to date is a deliriously funny flick that pays respectful homage to the Frankenstein movies of the past while simultaneously wallowing in crude, lowbrow humor and unabashedly exploitative sex and gore. The special effects are decidedly rubbery and cartoonish, but that doesn’t make them any less fun; in fact, the unreality of the effects adds to the overall loony tunes feel of the film. Hell, what other movie offers the visual spectacle of exploding prostitutes?

Previously released by budget label Simitar in a full-frame, slightly edited version, FRANKENHOOKER has now been given the full fledged special edition treatment by Unearthed Films, beginning with a flawless, uncut, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. In addition, the unrated disc includes a great audio commentary track from director Henenlotter and Gabe Bartalos, and on-screen interviews with Patty Mullen (who looks even more beautiful today than she did in ’90) and actress Jennifer Delora, who played one of the hookers in the film. Delora also contributes her scrapbook photos to the package. Rounding it off, there’s also a behind-the-scenes featurette on the film’s special effects, the theatrical trailer, and a production still gallery.

FRANKENHOOKER is one of the best horror comedies, and well worth your time and money. Highly recommended.

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Here’s what I liked about James Gunn’s directorial debut, SLITHER (2006):

It wasn’t a remake of a 70’s horror film. The majority of the cast members were over 21 years old. It was rated R. It was fast-paced, funny, gory, and even grossed me out a few times.

When a meteor crashes to Earth near a small, rural community, releasing a swarm of fast-moving slug-like creatures which can enter and take over human hosts, Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion, SERENITY) and his Barney Fife-esque deputies must stop the alien parasites from taking over the world.

Borrowing heavily from such films as THE THING, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, and especially, the underrated 80’s gem, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS, writer-director James Gunn (screenwriter of the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake and the SCOOBY DOO movies), has managed to pull together a fright flick that works extremely well, despite it’s lack of originality. The cast is top-notch, with great, darkly humorous performances by Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, and especially, genre vet Michael Rooker (HENRY-PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER) in a particularly challenging role. Worth mentioning are the special effects, which are particularly well done, nicely combining on-set animatronics and prosthetic make-ups with deftly executed CGI.

Gunn manages to keep the pace brisk, wringing some genuine suspense out of the escalating alien slug invasion, and mining some choice black comedy nuggets from his characters and situations. And if the jokes are occasionally a bit too broad or lowbrow, we must remember that Mr. Gunn got his start at Troma, working with Lloyd Kaufman on such cinematic wonders as TROMEO AND JULIET. (A clip from Troma’s TOXIC AVENGER is briefly glimpsed on a TV screen in one scene. It’s a nice touch.)

Universal has done a fine job on the DVD, too. The film is given a startlingly sharp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a booming Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix. The plentiful extras include several deleted scenes (including Lloyd Kaufman’s cut cameo), some extended scenes, a hilarious gag reel, the “Who’s Bill Pardy” featurette, a video set tour with Nathan Fillion, a “Making Of” documentary, a high-spirited audio commentary with Gunn and Fillion… and a few surprises.

It may not be a great flick, but even with its faults, it’s probably the best new horror film I’ve seen this year. Check it out.

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Back in 2002, director Lucky McKee’s first feature, MAY, generated some good reviews and strong word of mouth, and even got him invited into Showtime’s MASTERS OF HORROR directorial talent pool. Unfortunately, his second feature film, THE WOODS (2005), became embroiled in arcane studio politics and was shelved for over a year before finally making it’s belated debut on DVD.

And that’s a real shame, because while the movie isn’t a classic, it’s a lot better than most of the direct-to-disc horror movies out there, and probably would have been very well received if it had gotten a theatrical release.

Set in 1965 New England, a troubled girl, Heather Fasulo (Agnes Bruckner, VENOM), experiences mysterious occurrences in the forest surrounding the prestigious but isolated Falburn Academy, an exclusive girl’s school run by the somewhat sinister headmistress, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson, THE DEAD POOL). First she seems to hear voices in the trees, then her classmates begin disappearing in the night, leaving only dry, dead leaves in their beds, and Heather suspects that she may be the next to go missing. Unfortunately, it looks like escaping that terrifying fate may be impossible, even when her estranged parents (Bruce Campbell, THE EVIL DEAD, and Emma Campbell, FEARDOTCOM) come to take her home…

Beautifully shot by John R. Leonetti, and sensitively directed by McKee, THE WOODS is an atmospheric, low key horror film that eschews gory shocks in favor of strong performances and a steadily building sense of dread. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Bruckner’s shining performance as Heather giving the weird events a solid anchor. Bruce Campbell atypically and effectively underplays his role as her concerned father, and Clarkson projects both authority and menace in equal measure.

Sony has unceremoniously tossed the movie onto the marketplace with no support or extra effort whatsoever. The bare-bones disc features a gorgeous 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer (along with a disgraceful full-frame pan-and-scan option), and a robust Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. That’s it.

While Sony may not recognize it, THE WOODS is a superior supernatural chiller and deserves to be seen. Recommended.

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For several years now, I’ve been hearing how the makers of the no-budget indie hit, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT “ripped off” THE LAST BROADCAST (1998). Well, now Heretic Films has re-released the film as a special edition, and I’ve finally been able to check it out for myself.

According to the film, on December 15th, 1995, a four-man team from a cable access program called “Fact or Fiction” headed out into the New Jersey Pine Barrens to shoot a live broadcast about the legendary Jersey Devil. Only one returned. State police later found the bodies of two of the missing three and the lone survivor was convicted of their murders and sentenced to life in prison. But is he truly guilty?

Presented as a documentary investigation of the case, comprised of interviews with “experts and “found video footage” supposedly shot by the victims, the movie does bear a superficial resemblance to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, which came out a year later. But the devil’s in the details, as they say, and ultimately the two movies are quite different. While THE LAST BROADCAST starts out promisingly, the premise doesn’t really pay off in any satisfactory manner. The “surprise” ending makes no sense at all, and thus, has little impact.

Heretic’s new special edition is quite nice, though, presenting the movie in its original full-frame format, with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. The supplemental features include two commentary tracks with co-directors Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler, behind-the-scenes documentaries on the production, post production and distribution of the film, and several video interviews with the makers of THE LAST BROADCAST. Heretic has also included an extensive still gallery and trailers for some of their other releases.

It’s not a bad film, and it does deliver a few chills and surprises, but overall, I didn’t think it quite matched its reputation. You might disagree. I can say, though, that if you’re a fan of the film or just curious, Heretic Films’ DVD is a superior package.

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Based on a popular video game, Christopher Gans’ SILENT HILL (2006) is an atmospheric, visually striking film, that nonetheless feels a bit hollow.

In fact, it feels very much like watching someone else play a video game.

The story (secreenplay by Roger Avery), which I’m told is quite faithful to the game, goes something like this: Rose (Radha Mitchell, MAN ON FIRE) is a mother who takes her adopted daughter to the ghost town of Silent Hill, in a desperate attempt to cure the young girl’s strange emotional and mental problems. But Silent Hill is not like any other town on Earth. Seemingly abandoned and constantly shrouded in smoke and drifting ash from underground fires, the town may or may not exist in another reality altogether. When Rose and her child are separated, she must search the eerie town and attempt to unravel its secrets.

In the course of the film, Rose must solve riddles, decipher clues and avoid terrifying creatures – creatures which never seem to have any plot purpose but to be avoided. There’s fiery baby demons, disfigured wanderers, an armored stalking knightmare, and scary nurses (yeah, I said nurses) – all well rendered with state-of-the-art CGI, but rarely relevant to the story. Of course, the town’s dark secrets are eventually revealed, but the backstory is so elaborate and convoluted that while I think I understand it, I’m not entirely sure.

On the plus side, the performances are quite good, and the movie does succeed in creating an unearthly “reality” that is genuinely unsettling. On every technical level, the film shines, with astounding visuals and a decidedly effective use of sound effects and music. But it still feels empty.

Sony/TriStar’s DVD presents the movie in a perfect 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, accompanied by a haunting Dolby 5.1 sound mix. It’s not overloaded with supplements, but there’s an informative and engaging 6-part “making of” documentary and trailers for other Sony releases.

If you’re a fan of the game, you’re probably going to enjoy the film more than I did, but I can still recommend the film to horror fans for its overall creepiness and memorable visuals. Check it out.

Next time, we’ll be looking at some recent “classic horror” releases: THE INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES starring Lon Chaney Jr., two BORIS KARLOFF collections, FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY, and THE GROOVIE GOOLIES: SATURDAY MOURNING COLLECTION. In the weeks ahead, I’ve got some great drive-in action fare on tap, as well as a whole slew of dirty movies. Stay tuned.

Comments about this column or DVD-related questions? Feel free to contact me at dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com.

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