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7/31/07

Welcome back to the Late Show, kids!

This week, I’ve tried to be a little more detailed with my reviews, and focus on discs that are more-or-less current; some of these discs are streeting today and others have hit the shelves in the past few weeks. In fact, several of these titles have been eagerly awaited by cult film fans since the advent of the DVD format. We also have some good news about MGM’s revived “Midnite Movie” line, and a preview of some of the titles that will be hitting stores this fall for Halloween.

Let’s get started, shall we?

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“It is going to get wet in here tonight. Lace your boots up, kiddies…”

I recently watched the Starz Media DVD of BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON (2006). This unique take on the slasher subgenre had been garnering a lot of positive reviews in recent months, and although I haven’t really been in a horror movie mood of late, I was curious.

I persuaded my wife – who grew up on 80’s slasher franchises like FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET – to join me, and we gave the disc a spin.

The premise and plot of the film is that a small group of college journalists are offered the opportunity to accompany and interview an 80’s-styled psycho killer as he goes about his preparations for a full-blooded killing spree. From selecting the right female victim to terrorize – a virgin, of course – to planting the seeds of an appropriately spooky “legend,” to setting the scene for the final slaughter, the “mockumentary” portion of the film is both amusing and occasionally chilling, with plenty of dark humor and thought-provoking insights into the conventions of the genre.

Now, if that was the entire film, it would probably be fine and fun, but in the final reels, BEHIND THE MASK metamorphoses into a genuine slasher film, complete with last minute twists and – despite the fact that the whole formula has just been deconstructed in front of you – a suspenseful and frightening edge-of-your-seat climax.

Virtually everything about this film works. Lead Nathan Baesel is excellent, sliding startlingly from charming and amusing to terrifying with no apparent effort. Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund, is well cast in his small role, as is POLTERGEIST’s Zelda Rubinstein, who delivers a long expository speech in one perfect take. Especially good is veteran character actor Scott Wilson, from 1967’s IN COLD BLOOD, as Leslie’s “mentor” and confidante.

The screenplay by Scott Glosserman and David J. Stieve shows not only a deep understanding for the genre, but a genuine affection for it as well. Glosserman’s direction is brisk and breezy during the mockumentary sequences yet taut, atmospheric and chilling once things get bloody. It’s great stuff.

Starz Media gives BEHIND THE MASK a sterling, 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, with Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Stereo audio. There’s a fun and informative commentary by the main cast members, two “making of” featurettes, deleted and extended scenes, and some nicely edited trailers. As usual, Starz has included the screenplay as a DVD-ROM downloadable bonus.

For fans of the slasher film subgenre, BEHIND THE MASK: THE RISE OF LESLIE VERNON is strongly and enthusiastically recommended. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s one of the best horror films I’ve seen in the last two years.

Check it out.

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“Sergeant Butterman, the little hand says it’s time to rock and roll! “

What I really dug about Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s SHAUN OF THE DEAD was how they were able to so effectively parody and satirize a genre while never being mean-spirited or cynical about it. Their affection for George Romero’s “Living Dead” films was palpable and refreshing. I was also impressed at how well they could parody a particular genre of film while simultaneously making a perfect example of that genre.

Well, they’ve done it again, and this time they’ve set their sights on the overblown cops n’ robbers genre, with the delightful HOT FUZZ (2007).

Simon Pegg (”Shaun” of SHAUN) is Nicholas Angel, a London supercop, with the most impressive arrest record on the force. He lives, breathes, eats and sleeps his job and while that’s hell on his love life, it’s also making the rest of the department look bad. So he’s reassigned to the seemingly crime-free village of Sandford, where he’s befriended by fellow officer Danny Butterman (Nick Frost, “Ed” from SHAUN), who sees in Nick all of the Hollywood cops he idolizes. Soon Nick begins to suspect that the small town’s many fatal accidents are less accidental than they seem, and begins to investigate despite the derision of his colleagues. What is Sandford’s dark and deadly secret?

HOTT FUZZ is a great comedy and a pretty damned decent cop flick, too. The cast is filled with talented and familiar British stars, including Jim Broadbent (MOULIN ROUGE), Paul Freeman (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK), Bill Nighy (UNDERWORLD: EVOLUTION), and former Bond, Timothy Dalton (in a particularly devilish role). The script is sharp, smart and funny, and even when the plot gets ludicrous, it’s still completely logical within the framework of the story being told. There’s some high-octane action in the last act, as well as some surprisingly gruesome gore effects. But mostly, it’s just a hell of a lot of fun.

Universal’s DVD gives HOT FUZZ a first-class treatment, beginning with a reference-quality 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is absolutely flawless. The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX audio is vibrant and appropriately explosive.

There’s not a whole lot of extras, but what there are, are swell. There’re outtakes, deleted scenes, a trivia game, a commentary with Pegg and director Wright, as well as a few cute bits like “Danny’s Notebook,” “Hot Funk,” and “The Man Who Would Be Fuzz.” Intrigued? Check out the disc.

HOT FUZZ is one of the best comedies I’ve seen in along time. Buy it, rent it… just see it.

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“You can’t escape/From the kiss and rape of the Glove…”

Two Seventies revenge thrillers share the bill in Dark Sky Films’ most recent DRIVE-IN DOUBLE FEATURE: SEARCH AND DESTROY / THE GLOVE (1979).

In SEARCH AND DESTROY, ten years after a jungle combat mission goes sour, a group of Vietnam veterans including Perry King (CLASS OF 1984) and Don Stroud (HELL’S ANGELS UNCHAINED), find themselves being hunted down and executed by the understandably disgruntled ARVN officer they left behind.

Shot in and around Niagara Falls, with George Kennedy (THE NAKED GUN) playing yet another cop, SEARCH & DESTROY is a moderately entertaining low-budget actioner, with some decent chase and fight sequences, ably directed by William Fruet (DEATH WEEKEND, SPASMS).

In THE GLOVE, former football star Rosey Grier (THE THING WITH TWO HEADS) plays an ex-con who dresses up in black riot gear, dons a lethal lead and steel glove, and sets out to brutally beat the hell out of a bunch of prison guards. Exploitation vet John Saxon (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) plays the down-on-his-luck bounty hunter who is out to bring him in.

Not as exploitative as it’s sold, devoting most of its screen time to dialogue and character development over the expected violence, THE GLOVE is nonetheless a fairly decent little flick. Saxon is particularly good here, giving his L.A. bounty hunter a lot of depth and providing a noir-esque voice-over narration. Grier is physically intimidating and, despite his limited thespian skills, still manages to make his killer sympathetic and his motives understandable. The cast includes a bunch of familiar B-movie faces, including Aldo Ray, Joanna Cassidy, Keenan Wynn and Joan Blondell, all competently put through their paces by director Ross Hagen, who has acted in more than a few B-movies himself. It also has a funky theme song that must be heard to be believed.

Dark Sky’s double-layer DVD presents both films in remarkably clean 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers, and Dolby 2.0 Stereo sound. The disc is set up to play both features with vintage drive-in intermission programming (doesn’t that concession food look gross? Who looked at those ads and thought, “Yeah, I could go for that?”) and some awesome exploitation trailers from the proper era (THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, EATEN ALIVE, THE LAST HUNTER, THE DEVIL’S RAIN and ONE-ARMED EXECUTIONER). While the default drive-in program is the preferred way to enjoy this fun double bill, both films can also be played individually, if you’re so inclined.

Overall, it’s a great evening’s worth of Carter-era drive-in thrills, nicely assembled by the folks over at Dark Sky. I preferred THE GLOVE to SEARCH AND DESTROY, but then, I’m a John Saxon fan (isn’t everyone?). Check it out.

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“Guess who?”

I was never a big fan of the red-plumed, cackling cartoon bird created by Walter Lantz, but I even I have to admit that the new WOODY WOODPECKER & FRIENDS CLASSIC CARTOON COLLECTION is an amazing anthology of theatrical animated films, many of which have never appeared on home video before in any format.

The collection includes digitally remastered toons from the Thirties, Forties and Fifties, as well as a handful of rare, vintage shorts and featurettes. The cartoons are uncut, complete with politically incorrect gags and artwork. Universal has even labeled the packaging (albeit in small print) as for adult collectors – nothing here has been sanitized for the protection of today’s small minds (and I don’t mean kids).

Aside from superstar Woody – who undergoes an amazing series of dramatic physical transformations over the years – Andy Panda and penguin Chilly Willy (a personal favorite) are well represented, along with some very early Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts. Among the earliest cartoons in the collection is a great parody of KING KONG, “King Klunk,” as well as a bunch of musical “Swing Symphonies,” like “Abou Ben Boogie,” “The Pied Piper of Basin Street,” and the politically incorrect “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.”

The cartoons are presented full-frame, with eye-popping colors and rock solid transfers. There’s a fair amount of wear and scattered dirt and debris, but it’s not overly distracting; generally speaking, the clean-up and restoration efforts are outstanding. A lot of work went into this set, and it ranks right up there with Warner Brothers’ exemplary LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTIONS.

Most of the bonus features are, unfortunately, previously-existing promotional material, and somewhat dated, although the single episode from the later Woody Woodpecker TV series, a Halloween special called “Spook-A-Nanny,” is really bizarre. I might wish there had been at least one new historical featurette or maybe some commentary tracks by contemporary animation experts, but it’s a minor complaint.

For fans of classic, hand-drawn theatrical animation, the WOODY WOODPECKER AND FRIENDS CLASSIC CARTOON COLLECTION is highly recommended.

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“Wolfman’s got nards!”

After two decades of grotesquely panned and scanned, grainy VHS dupes and late night/early morning pay cable airings, Fred Dekker’s heartfelt valentine to the Universal monster films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, THE MONSTER SQUAD (1987), finally makes its way to the digital format with a beautiful, 2-disc 20th Anniversary Edition from Lions Gate.

Best described as “The Little Rascals (or The Goonies) meet The Universal Monsters,” THE MONSTER SQUAD tells of a group of 80’s kids who must save the world when Count Dracula, The Frankenstein Monster, a werewolf, a mummy and the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s clone show up in their small Southern bayou town in search of a magic amulet. The amulet is the key to keeping Good & Evil in cosmic balance, and Drac wants to tip the scales.

A charming, somewhat Spielbergian family film, SQUAD features a top-notch cast of talented young and veteran actors, fantastic monster make-ups by Stan Winston (PREDATOR) and his crew, a superior musical score by the underrated Bruce Broughton (SILVERADO), and a funny, yet suspenseful script by director Dekker and a young Shane Black (LETHAL WEAPON, LAST BOY SCOUT), filled with quotable dialogue and memorable moments.

For fans of classic horror, the movie is a treasure trove of references and homage – armadillos inexplicably haunt Dracula’s castle, just as they did in the 1931 Tod Browning DRACULA, the Monster first encounters little Phoebe (Ashley Bank) at the side of a pond, evoking strong memories of Boris Karloff and his doomed playmate in the original FRANKENSTEIN – but more than that, the film treats the classic creatures with respect and allows them to be scary. Most notable, perhaps, is Duncan Regehr’s Dracula, who combines Christopher Lee’s imperiousness with Lugosi’s reptilian menace, in a portrayal that ranks among the undead Count’s finest.

Lions Gate new 20th Anniversary Edition DVD is a 2-disc package. Disc 1 contains a gorgeous, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer from pristine source material, and a new, 5.1 Dolby Surround mix. This disc also includes two commentary tracks. On the first, Dekker sits with cast members Andre Gower (”Sean”), Ryan Lambert (”Rudy”) and Ashley Bank (”Phoebe”) for an anecdote-filled trip down memory lane. On the second, Director of Photography Bradford May joins Dekker for a more technically informative audio commentary.

The second disc is dominated by “Monster Squad Forever,” a five-part documentary that recounts the making of the film and its slow rise to cult status, with extensive interviews with crew and cast. A lot is covered here, including the studio’s concerns over the kids’ occasional use of expletives, the difficulty in marketing the film back in ’87, and the disappointing downward arc of writer/director Fred Dekker’s filmmaking career. It’s a great, nostalgic documentary, filled with fascinating stories. Disc 2 also includes a few deleted scenes, the original theatrical trailer and TV Spots, a still gallery, and a “Conversation with Frankenstein” – an amusing interview with actor Tom Noonan in the Frankenstein Monster make-up, conducted during the original filming. It’s cute, but runs a little too long.

I’ve been a dedicated fan of this flick for years, and I’m grateful to Lions Gate for finally bringing it to DVD in a well-produced, thoughtful special edition. They’ve really treated the film well, and I cannot recommend this set – and this movie – more highly.

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“Flash, Flash, I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!”

I make no apologies or excuses for this: Mike Hodge’s FLASH GORDON – SAVIOUR OF THE UNIVERSE EDITION (1980) is one of my all-time favorite movies. Based on the classic newspaper strip by Alex Raymond, the film is a gleefully silly, joyously tongue-in-cheek interplanetary fantasy that never fails to bring a dopey grin to my face. And now, finally, there’s a home video edition that does the movie justice.

When an unknown force from space threatens the Earth, a pro football quarterback named Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones. ONE MAN FORCE, THE HIGHWAYMAN) and a pretty travel agent by the name of Dale Arden (Melody Anderson, FIREWALKER), find themselves kidnapped by slightly mad ex-NASA scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol, FOR YOUR EYES ONLY), and taken to the alien world of Mongo. There they meet merciless dictator Ming (Max Von Sydow, NEEDFULL THINGS), who rules the fantastic world with an iron fist, keeping its various kingdoms constantly warring and thus unable to unite against him. Faced with Earth’s imminent destruction, Flash must find a way to bring the tyrant’s enemies together in rebellion and save his home world.

The film story follows the original strip continuity fairly closely, although screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. (1976 KING KONG) obviously can’t take the material very seriously. But that’s all right, because this is one film where a tongue-in-cheek approach actually works. Under the guiding hand of versatile British director Mike Hodges (the original GET CARTER, CROUPIER), the colorful, fetishistic fantasy embraces its campy nature and plays out with infectious good humor.

For FLASH, the producers assembled a prestigious supporting cast of Brit and Euro thespians that includes a pre-Bond Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Richard O’Brien, and the gorgeous Ornella Muti, but it’s really Danilo Donati’s set designs and costumes that are the stars of the picture. Blindingly colorful, overly elaborate and utterly decadent, the movie looks exactly like an Alex Raymond or Al Williamson Flash Gordon comic strip come to life. Even the odd choice to get rock gods QUEEN to provide the film’s score works surprisingly well, with their pounding beat giving the film its pulse, electric guitars underlying the excitement of the movie’s various chases and battles.

I saw this film in the theater several times and owned it on VHS, laserdisc, and the previously-issued Image DVD, and this 27-year-old production has never, ever looked as good as it does here, on Universal’s new “Saviour of the Universe Edition.” The studio has given this release an incredibly sharp, perfectly color calibrated, 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, newly remastered and restored. The film’s colors have never been so vibrant. Special effects scenes have been cleaned up, removing virtually all of the era’s telltale matte lines and compositing artifacts. Detail is astounding: I’ve seen this movie dozens of times, and yet, there were a number of background elements, objects and sight gags that I had never before noticed until watching this new transfer. The audio has been pumped up, too, with a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that finally does justice to QUEEN’s triumphant score and the flick’s innovative sound design.

The extra features are a bit disappointing. One would have hoped for a nice, comprehensive retrospective documentary with cast & crew interviews and behind-the-scenes anecdotes, but the closest we get to that is a brief interview with screenwriter Semple, who admits that he never really read the comic strip before writing the script, and thought the whole enterprise was a lark. Fortunately, this is counterbalanced by an interview with acclaimed comics artist Alex Ross (Marvels, Kingdom Come, etc.), who is, quite possibly, the world’s biggest FLASH GORDON fan. He speaks with adult eloquence and adolescent enthusiasm about the film, its impact on him and his art, and the pure joy he derives from it. Ross also provides the new cover art for this edition, and a collectible art card by Ross is included in the package. The disc also includes the original theatrical trailer, the first complete chapter of the 1936 FLASH movie serial with Buster Crabbe, and an amazingly lame promo for the new SciFi Channel FLASH television series.

Aside from the (only slightly) underwhelming extras, this is the definitive DVD edition of the beloved cult classic. Highly recommended.

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“I don’t know anything about saints, but I have an uncanny instinct for sniffing out a son of a bitch.”

Pretty much every thing you’re gonna read about the new adult animated film RENAISSANCE (2007) is going to name-check SIN CITY and BLADE RUNNER… so I figured I ought to get it out of the way as early in this review as possible.

Paris, 2054: A young female researcher for the powerful Avalon Corporation has been abducted and maverick cop Karas (voice by Daniel Craig) is assigned to the case. With the help of the missing woman’s sister, Karas finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy and targeted by Avalon’s high-tech stealth assassins. In the end, Karas unravels the mystery and discovers the earthshaking secret at its core.

A visually stunning combination of hand-drawn/created elements, CGI and motion-capture technologies, Christian Volckman’s RENAISSANCE is a unique, computer animated movie for grown-ups, one that successfully attempts to mimic the harsh, high-contrast B&W imagery of the Sin City comics or the early Brian Bendis written-and-drawn graphic novels Jinx and A.KA. Goldfish. Backgrounds are gorgeously executed with endless little details, and the characters are generally distinctive and fairly easy to tell apart.

In terms of story, it’s yet another sci-fi noir with an overcomplicated plot and plenty of ‘40’s crime fiction tropes and iconic tough-guy characters transplanted into a dystopian futurescape, where the only real difference between it and a vintage detective film is a sci-fi MacGuffin. That’s not to say it isn’t involving or interesting – because it is – but it’s funny how filmmakers keep looking back narratively, while the technology to make the films keeps accelerating forward.

Miramax’s DVD sports a solid 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer and a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. Bonus features are lean – there’s a single “Making Of” featurette and a handful of other Miramax trailers, and that’s it.

While the story is literally nothing new, the visuals are innovative and unique. If you like BLADE RUNNER and similar films, you’ll probably enjoy this one, too. I thought it was pretty good, and would definitely recommend at least a rental.

DVD LATE SHOW CAPSULE REVIEWS!

In my continuing efforts to catch up with some of the older discs of interest that piled up during the last few months while I was ill, here’s some more “Capsule Reviews” of DVDs that are long overdue for some Late Show attention:

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SUBURBAN SECRETS (2006). Seventies sexploitation director Joe Sarno (INGA, LAURA’S TOYS, MOONLIGHTING WIVES) teams up with the Seduction Cinema starlets to craft a modern version of one of his acclaimed erotic soap operas – which means lots of sweaty softcore sex, stilted line delivery and an actual, if sordid plot. Chelsea Mundae (SIN SISTERS), AJ Khan (SHOCK-O-RAMA) and other familiar bodies from the studio’s stable are joined by hardcore star Tina Tyler in this Michael Raso production. The sex scenes are pretty hot, if repetitive, and the performances are incredibly uneven, but there’s a lot worse out there. The 2-disc set from Pop Cinema includes a “Director’s Cut” and a “Hot TV Cut,” a couple of “Making Of” documentaries, a collection of Sarno trailers, and a booklet with liner notes by film historian Ed Grant.

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KING KUNG FU (1976). An utterly unfunny but endearingly awful comedy made in Wichita, Kansas and starring a guy in a bad gorilla suit, KING KUNG FU chronicles the misadventures of a talking simian martial artist and the John Wayne-impersonating police captain who’s out to get him. This Image/Retromedia DVD presents the rare, regionally produced low budget spoof in a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and includes the original theatrical trailer.

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BLIND WOMAN’S CURSE (1970). A disturbing blend of historical Yakuza drama and graphic horror, this chiller features 70’s Japanese cult actress Meiko Kaji (LADY SNOWBLOOD, FEMALE CONVICT SCORPION) in her first starring role. Filled with macabre imagery, savage action and grotesque horror, Teru Ishi’s filmic head-trip is not for the faint-hearted. Diskotek’s special edition includes a good 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, audio commentary by Japanese film expert Chris D., a theatrical trailer and photo gallery. Challenging stuff, and worth a look.

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DARKMAN TRILOGY (1990/1994/1995). Universal has just repackaged Sam Raimi’s (EVIL DEAD) pre-SPIDER-MAN superhero effort with its two direct-to-video sequels in one, handy, low-priced, 2-disc “Franchise Collection.” The first film stars Liam Neeson (KRULL) as a hideously scarred scientist who can create temporary new faces with which to fight crime, while Arnold Vosloo (THE MUMMY) takes over the role in sequels. As to those sequels, they’re not so hot; shot in Canada on tight, TV budgets, but then, the original feature wasn’t the greatest, either. Supporting actors include Larry Drake (DR. GIGGLES), Renee O’Connor (XENA), Kim Delaney (PROJECT: METALBEAST), Roxanne Dawson (ST: VOYAGER) and Jeff Fahey (SCORPIUS GIGANTUS)

The first disc contains DARKMAN and DARKMAN II: THE RETURN OF DURANT, and includes trailers for both films. The second disc contains only DARKMAN III: DIE DARKMAN DIE, and doesn’t even have a menu screen. All three films are presented in 1.85: anamorphic widescreen and look fine. For fans of the series, it’s an inexpensive, convenient package.

DVD LATE SHOW NEWS!

One or two of you may remember back in the early days of this column, when I championed MGM’s “Midnite Movie” line of cult and exploitation titles. Well, after a several year drought will the management of the MGM library shifted between several companies, a new batch of “Midnite Movies” titles have been announced by MGM and their new distributor, Fox Home Entertainment. In fact, the forthcoming “Midnite Movie” discs will include titles from both studios, and will be hitting shelves beginning in September.

Among the titles announced: THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL, FOOD OF THE GODS, RETURN OF DRACULA/THE VAMPIRE, THE BEAST WITH A MILLION EYES/PHANTOM FROM 10,000, PHARAOH’S CURSE/CURSE OF THE FACELESS MAN, THE BEAST WITHIN/THE BAT PEOPLE, KONGA/YONGARY, MONSTER FROM THE DEEP, TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972)/VAULT OF HORROR (1973), CHOSEN SURVIVORS/THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING, DEVILS OF DARKNESS/WITCHCRAFT, BLUEPRINT FOR MURDER/MAN IN THE ATTIC, GORILLA AT LARGE/MYSTERY AT MONSTER ISLAND, THE HOUSE ON SKULL MOUNTAIN/THE MEPHISTO WALTZ.

In addition, there will be a new VINCENT PRICE COLLECTION (THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES, DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN, TALES OF TERROR, TWICE-TOLD TALES, THEATER OF BLOOD, MADHOUSE and WITCHFINDER GENERAL) a new ROGER CORMAN COLLECTION (BLOODY MAMA, THE YOUNG RACERS, A BUCKET OF BLOOD, GAS-S-S, THE TRIP, THE PREMATURE BURIAL, X: THE MAN WITH X-RAY EYES and THE WILD ANGELS.), a three-disc special edition of THE FLY, RETURN OF THE FLY and (the never before on video) CURSE OF THE FLY, a new special edition of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and a lot more.

Hopefully, I’ll get the opportunity to review much of this Halloween bounty here at the Late Show. For more information on these titles and scans of the cover art, check out George Reis’ DVD Drive-In website.

Thanks for spending some time with me today. Look for my next column soon.

For older Late Show columns (adding up to well over 200 reviews!), visit the newly updated-and-revamped DVD Late Show website and archive. For additional pop culture musings, occasional DVD previews and lots of shameless self-promotion, you might try checking out my blog.

Comments, DVD questions, review requests and offers of money can be sent to: dvdlateshow@atomicpulp.com

 

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