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11/30/07

Sick of those never-ending Thanksgiving leftovers? If so, here’s a potential cure: Halloween leftovers! That’s right, a whole bunch of great (and not-so-great) monster and horror films were dug up by the studios this year for the spooky holiday, and if you missed ‘em in October, it’s not too late to catch up now… hell, they’ll make great Christmas gifts!

This year was particularly great for old school horror and monster fans, as MGM Home Entertainment, and their new distributor, 20th Century Fox, decided to resurrect the popular “Midnite Movies” line, dipping into the musty vaults of both companies for this year’s offerings of cinema macabre.

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Among the most welcome of this year’s “Midnite Movies” releases is director Michael Reeves’ final film, WITCHFINDER GENERAL (1968). Previously only available in edited form as THE CONQUEROR WORM, with the home video addition of cheesy synth music replacing Paul Ferris’ lush symphonic score; this new edition finally restores the film to the filmmakers’ original intentions.

Vincent Price plays Matthew Hopkins, who travels the English countryside, selling his services as a “witchfinder.” For a fee, he puts accused witches to sadistic ‘tests,” to determine whether they are truly in thrall to Satan. But, inevitably, he picks on the wrong victims, and finds an angry young soldier (Ian Ogilvy) on his trail.

The last film of cult director Michael Reeves, who died of a drug overdose shortly after completing the movie, WITCHFINDER GENERAL has become something of a holy grail for horror film buffs. Now that it is available in its original form, fans can determine for themselves whether it lives up to its vaunted reputation. It’s a good film, no question, with one of Vincent Price’s most layered, serious performances ever. The whole cast is solid, the production values are strong, and the climax is startling even today.

MGM has given this classic horror film a fine treatment with this new release. The gorgeous transfer is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The soundtrack is in its original mono. Unlike most of the newer “Midnite Movies” titles, WITCHFINDER includes a couple of welcome bonus features: an audio commentary by actor Ian Ogilvy and co-producer Philip Waddilove, and an informative, well-produced retrospective documentary. My only complaint is that it would have been nice to have the U.S. opening titles (as THE CONQUERER WORM) with Price’s reading of the Poe poem as another extra.

Recommended.

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For fans of giant monsters and rampaging behemoths, there’s the destructive double bill of YONGARY, MONSTER OF THE DEEP/ KONGA (1967/1961).

YONGARY was Korea’s first entry in the Asian giant monster genre, and it’s pretty awful, although MGM’s newly restored DVD helps it quite a bit. The plot is simple: a giant saurian emerges from the ground and rampages through the Korean country-and-city-side until it is defeated by a noble scientist. With the obligatory obnoxious kid in short pants and scenes of model airplanes being batted from their strings by the guy in the monster suit, the film satisfies all the requirements of the kaiju genre. It’s all just a bit ineptly done, unfortunately.

Never previously available in the U.S. in widescreen (the film was bought by AIP television in the Sixties and released to syndication only in a 16mm, horrifically cropped, full-frame version. MGM’s new, restored DVD is in 2.35 anamorphic widescreen, and looks terrific, with a sharp picture, solid colors, and virtually no visible print damage. There are no extras provided, unfortunately.

KONGA was an American-International release directed by John Lemont and produced by Herman Cohen. Michael Gough (HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM, Alfred in the first four BATMAN films) plays Doctor Charles Decker, an arrogant botanist and college professor whose experiments turn a small chimp named Konga into a rampaging giant gorilla.

It takes a while to get there, though, and the audience has to sit through more than an hour of Gough being a complete prick to everyone around him and a few Rue Morgue-styled murders before Konga shoots up to King Kong-like proportions and begins the obligatory rampage. Fortunately, Gough’s Decker is an utter bastard, so fun to watch that it keeps your attention until the monkey business begins. Plus, there’s a buxom blonde co-ed, a goofy gorilla suit and some truly ridiculous pseudo-science to keep you entertained – just don’t ask how the chimp switches species to become a gorilla. No one knows.

This “Midnite Movies” presentation is a direct port of the previously released Sony/MGM disc with a crystal clear full-screen (1.33:1) transfer. The picture quality is so sharp that it actually betrays the movie’s special effects work, making the process shots and the Barbie dolls that Konga carries around way too obvious. The sound is a clear mono, with only minimal background noise. The otherwise bare-bones disc even includes trailers for several unrelated Sony DVD releases from a few years ago, when Sony handled MGM’s distribution.

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Arguably the best of the rampaging reptile subgenre, 1980’s ALLIGATOR comes to DVD in a surprisingly nice edition from Lion’s Gate.

A little girl’s pet baby alligator is flushed down the toilet by her asshole dad. Twelve years later, the reptile has grown to tremendous size, having fed on the carcasses of illegally dumped test animals, and begins preying on errant sewer workers. Detective David Madison (the great Robert Forster, JACKIE BROWN) is assigned to investigate, and with the help of a cute herpetologist (Robin Riker), he tries to convince the authorities that they have a monster carnivore on their hands.

When screenwriter John Sayles struck out on his own as a highbrow independent filmmaker, the world of schlock cinema lost a great asset. Sayles’ B movie scripts (PIRANHA, THE HOWLING, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS) always showed rare intelligence and wit, and his sly screenplay for ALLIGATOR is no exception. His story suffers a bit at the workmanlike hands of director Lewis Teague (CUJO), but it’s still one of the best examples of its particular genre.

The best thing about the film though, is the beastie itself. Brought to life with both real alligators on detailed miniature sets, and utterly convincing animatronics, the toothsome terror is a formidable – and tangible – menace. Compare the reptile in this film to the CGI critters in recent killer lizard flicks, and tell me which one is more frightening.

Lion’s Gate graciously gives this long awaited genre gem a restored & remastered 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, and it’s the best the movie has ever looked on home video. Sharp, detailed, with solid blacks and vivid colors, the seventeen-year-old, low budget film looks brand new. Surprisingly, LG has also sprung for a couple of bonus features, including and audio commentary by director Teague and an on-screen interview with screenwriter Sayles. There are also trailers for a handful of other LG titles.

Recommended.

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This Fall, MGM revisited Dan O’Bannon’s 1984 zombie classic with a new “Collector’s Edition” of THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Taking place over the course of one evening in Louisville, Kentucky, RETURN tells the twisted tale of two employees at a medical supply warehouse who inadvertently release a toxic gas into the atmosphere. This gas, created by the Army, reanimates the dead, and turns them into fast-moving, intelligent ghouls that crave human brains. Did I mention that this warehouse was next door to a graveyard? Or that a group of teenage punks are partying among the tombstones?

One of the true horror classics of the Eighties, RETURN deftly mixes horror and humor with a steadily rising tide of hysteria that leads to an inevitable, and utterly nihilistic climax. A talented cast of veteran character actors (Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa), young faces (Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph) and scream queens (Linnea Quigley, Jewel Shepherd), remarkable zombie make-up and practical effects, and a witty, intelligent screenplay combine, under O’Bannon’s deft direction, to make a damn near perfect fright film.

Sporting a new transfer and a bunch of newly created bonus features, this new “Collector’s Edition” trumps the version released a few years ago, but it does not include quite everything from that edition. If you have the old one, you may want to hang on to it, too. First off, the movie is given a new 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, culled from a flawless source. Colors are bright and solid, details are sharp and well defined, and there are no noticeable artifacts or print damage. It looks gorgeous. The Dolby stereo sound is strong, with the film’s punk rock score coming through loud and clear… along with all the screams and zombie moans. There are two commentary tracks provided. First is an informative commentary by director Dan O’Bannon and production designer William Stout, ported over from the previous edition. New to this disc is a second commentary track by most of the film’s cast, joined once again by Stout. This track is a lot of fun, and well-worth listening to. MGM has also included a couple of silly gimmicks: “zombie subtitles” and an Easter Egg “zombie thoughts” track. I appreciate the effort, but both are really lame.

MGM has also produced two new featurettes for this edition: “The Dead Have Risen,” a making-of documentary with most of the cast and crew represented, and “The Decade of Darkness,” a retrospective of 80’s horror films, filled with clips and interviews with filmmakers like John Landis, Joe Dante and Stuart Gordon. A third featurette, “Designing the Dead,” is retained from the previous release, and includes interviews with O’Bannon and Stout. Also retained from the original DVD are a couple of trailers. Missing from this edition is the full-frame version of the film (no great loss), some TV spots and some beautiful concept art by Stout.

If you’re a fan of this film – and if you’re not, you should be – this new Collector’s Edition is a no-brainer (if you’ll pardon the expression). Even if you have the previous DVD release, it’s definitely worth buying again. This is one of the few double dips I don’t resent, as it really is an improvement over the old version.

Highly recommended.

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Another 80’s horror classic was just reissued as part of Starz Entertainment’s “Anchor Bay Collection,” in the form of Clive Barker’s original HELLRAISER (1987).

Barker’s feature directing debut is the twisted and disturbing tale of a couple (Andrew Robinson of STAR TREK: DS9, and Clare Higgins) who move into an old house and discover the undead form of the husband’s brother (who was also the wife’s lover) in the attic. His earthly body having been taken by bizarre, sadistic demons known as Cenobites, he forces his former mistress to bring him his human sacrifices so he can recreate his body…

A disturbingly graphic and highly effective horror film, the original HELLRAISER stands as one of the best true horror films of the Eighties. With a palpable sense of dread and depravity, the film still has the power to shock and horrify.

Starz gives the movie a fantastic new1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer and a Dolby 5.1 surround mix. The disc is loaded with extras – some from previous editions of the film on DVD, some new – including five featurettes, an audio commentary by Barker, TV spots, trailers, several still galleries and the first and final drafts of the screenplay on DVD-ROM. I haven’t seen the previous DVD releases of this film. But I doubt they looked this good. If you’re a fan, you might consider upgrading to this edition for the excellent transfer and new featurettes.

HELLRAISER is an important and still-effective horror classic that has been given a very solid release by Starz/Anchor Bay. Recommended.

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Remembered – and sometimes reviled – as the cheapest producer in Hollywood, the legendary “Jungle Sam” Katzman is celebrated in Columbia’s new ICONS OF HORROR COLLECTION: SAM KATZMAN boxed set. This collection includes four of the genre films that he produced for Columbia Pictures, among them the most ridiculous giant monster flick of the Fifties and a genuine low-budget lycanthropic gem.

THE GIANT CLAW (1957) features probably the most absurd giant monster of all time in the form of a gangly, apparently molting marionette representing an “antimatter bird” from another dimension. Aside from that, though, it’s not a terrible slice of 50’s sci-fi, with a fairly imaginative script, and a good cast featuring Jeff Morrow (THIS ISLAND EARTH), the lovely Mara Corday (TARANTULA) and solid direction by veteran Fred F. Sears (EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS). Shame about the puppet, though.

Scripted by Curt Siodmak (THE WOLF MAN, DONOVAN’S BRAIN), 1955’s CREATURE WITH THE ATOM BRAIN stars Richard Denning (CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON) as a police scientist embroiled in a plot involving gangsters, Nazi scientists and reanimated atomic zombies. Decent direction by Edward L. Cahn (IT! THE TERROR FROM BEYOND SPACE) and a cast full of familiar serial vets make for a fast-paced 69 minutes of vintage schlock.

Cahn also helmed ZOMBIES OF MORA TAU (1957), a sluggish tale of sunken treasure and its undead protectors somewhere on the African coast. The best part of this interminable potboiler is the presence of sexy Allison Hayes (the 50-FOOT WOMAN herself) as a spoiled bitch-turned-zombie.

The best film in the set, though, is Fred F. Sears’ THE WEREWOLF (1956), a sci-fi take on lycanthropy, featuring hapless Steven Ritch as the victim of a couple of mad scientists. Never before available on home video, this briskly paced, well-acted chiller benefits from lots of authentic snowy mountain locations and is a great atomic age twist on an old theme.

Columbia presents CLAW, ZOMBIES and WEREWOLF in beautiful new B&W transfers, correctly framed at 1:85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. ATOM BRAIN is presented full-frame. Columbia has also included the second chapter of the Katzman-produced movie serial MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1951), which purports to be based on the Jules Verne novel, but is instead a ludicrous mishmash of cliffhanger cliches. There’s also a Mr. Magoo cartoon, a somewhat tedious comedy short, MIDNIGHT BLUNDERS, and trailers for all four features, as well as for other vintage Columbia genre titles.

A fantastic package, affordably priced, and highly recommended.

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Probably the most memorable horror franchise of the Fifties is collected in Fox’s new THE FLY COLLECTION box set, featuring all three of the films in the series, including one that has never been available on home video before.

THE FLY trilogy chronicles the efforts of the scientifically-minded Delambres family, and their obsession with creating a working matter transportation device (like STAR TREK’s “transporters.”).

In the big-budget, Technicolor, Cinemascope opus, THE FLY (1958), David Hedison (THE LOST WORLD, LICENCE TO KILL) is Andre Delambres, handsome young scientist who builds a pair of teleportation chambers. After a successful test with an animal, Andre decides to try the device himself, unaware that a fly is in the transmitting chamber with him. In the test, body parts are switched, and Andre emerges with a giant fly head and limb. Keeping it a secret from his wife (Patricia Owens) and brother Francois (Vincent Price, WITCHFINDER GENERAL), Andre attempts to reverse his condition – but he needs to find that fly!

THE RETURN OF THE FLY (1959) takes place 15 years later, when Andre’s son, Phillipe (Brett Halsey, ROY COLT & WINCHESTER JACK) attempts his father’s experiment, with similar results – and an even bigger fly head! Vincent Price returns as Francois, with a larger role, as Phillipe’s reluctant assistant.

CURSE OF THE FLY (1965) is the final, belated entry in the trilogy, with Brian Donlevy as the latest teleportation-obsessed scion of the Delambres family. There are no giant fly heads in this one, but that’s not to say that the guy’s finally got that damned machine to work – on the contrary. In this particularly grim and downbeat entry, we have a whole slew of deformed, inhuman matter transporter mutations.

All three films are presented on their own discs in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. The first two films look significantly better than in their previous DVD release a few years ago. THE FLY has been given a 4.0 Dolby Surround mix, while the other two are in mono only. The extra features have been placed on a fourth disc, which includes trailers and still galleries for the three films, the Vincent Price A&E BIOGRAPHY episode from 1997, a new featurette on the series, and trailers for a bunch of other Fox horror films – most of which are currently available as part of the “Midnite Movies” line.

Overall, it’s a great package and presentation of three classic, vintage sci-fi/horrors, and is highly recommended.

CAPSULE REVIEWS

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PLANET OF DINOSAURS (1978). Uber-low budget sci-fi schlock saved solely by some stunning stop-motion animated prehistoric beasts, PLANET chronicles the adventures of a group of spaceship crash survivors on an uncharted world populated by, well, dinosaurs. The acting is terrible, with the biggest name in the cast being James Whitworth (THE HILLS HAVE EYES), and the story is paper-thin. But the stop-motion effects are great, and many of the people who worked on them went on to much bigger films.

Retromedia’s 30th Anniversary Edition (although it says “20th” on my DVD cover) presents the film in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, sourced from both 16mm and 35mm elements. Some parts of the film show serious damage, while the rest looks great. There’s a commentary track with director James Shea and effects artists Doug Beswick and Steve Czerkas, as well as a couple of vintage TV spots and two silent stop-motion shorts by KING KONG’s effects genius, Willlis O’Brien.

Recommended for fans of Ray Harryhausen-styled effects and dinosaur buffs.

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28 WEEKS LATER (2007). A superior follow-up to the pseudo-zombie hit of a few years ago, 28 DAYS LATER, this sequel ramps up the action a bit, with a plot reminiscent of George A. Romero’s THE CRAZIES. Six months after the Rage virus turned the population of England into mindless killers, the U.S. military has moved into London to clean up the starved corpses and begin repopulating the city with citizens who were abroad when the virus hit. Sure enough, it isn’t long before another outbreak occurs, and the film follows a small group of survivors as they try to escape both the Rage-infected and the American soldiers.

The Fox DVD presents the film in a nice, sharp, 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer and51. Dolby Surround sound. There’s a commentary track by director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo, a few “Making Of” featurettes, several deleted scenes, a semi-animated presentation of a 28 DAYS LATER graphic novel, and trailers or other Fox DVD titles. I liked this one a bit better than the original, but I really think these guys should be paying Romero royalties.

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PLANET TERROR (2007). Director Robert Rodriguez’ half of the GRINDHOUSE double feature is a loud, violent, and cheerfully incoherent zombie pulse-pounder, filled with gruesome gore effects, over-the-top action scenes, and a game cast comprised of such familiar faces as Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Michael Biehn, Michael Parks, Bruce Willis, Josh Brolin, Jeff Fahey and pretty much all of the director’s pals and family.

Genius Products/Dimension’s 2-platter DVD presents an extended and unrated cut of the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer that preserves all the digitally-added scratches, specks, splices and artificial print damage of the theatrical presentation. It looks like shit – but that’s part of the gag. The first disc also includes a Dolby 5.1 audio mix, a commentary track by Rodriguez, an “audience reaction” track, a poster gallery, and the MACHETE bogus trailer. Disc 2 holds four “Making Of” featurettes, including an installment of Rodriguez’ patented “10-Minute Film School.”

I liked it better than a lot of reviewers, and really enjoyed the ride. The DVD is pretty solid, and should hold over fans until the Weinsteins get around to releasing the whole GRINDHOUSE double bill together.

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FRANKENSTEIN (1973). In the Seventies, Dan Curtis was TV’s king of gothic horror. His daytime soap opera, DARK SHADOWS, ruled the ratings with its witch’s brew of vampires, werewolves and heaving breasts, while his production company churned out movies of the week based on DRACULA and DR. JECKYLL & MISTER HYDE. Somewhere in there, he cranked out this two-part, shot on videotape, mostly-faithful adaptation of Mary Shelly’s novel, with Robert Foxworth (PROPHECY) as the mad doctor and Bo Svenson (WALKING TALL PART 2) as his creation.

Dark Sky’s disc features a full-frame transfer that looks about as good as possible for a shot-on-70’s-video production to look. There’s some video noise and color bleeding, but it’s quite watchable. The disc also includes the original network TV promos and bumpers. Fans of Curtis’ DARK SHADOWS or aficionados of Shelly’s novel will want to check this out.

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THE AMICUS COLLECTION. Dark Sky Films repackages three previously-released fright films from England’s Amicus Studios – ASYLUM (1972), AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS (1973) and THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974) in one, convenient box set. (I reviewed ASYLUM and BEAST in this column when the discs were first released.) ASYLUM is a creepy horror anthology with five fiendish stories by famed author Robert Bloch, AND NOW… is a stylish, if slightly hokey, gothic thriller starring handsome Ian Ogilvy and the lovely Stephanie Beachum, and BEAST is an odd combination of murder mystery, blaxploitation actioner and horror flick, full of high-camp fun. All three films feature horror icon Peter Cushing (CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, STAR WARS), along with a plethora of outstanding British film and stage veterans. Each film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and there are some appropriate and enjoyable extras. Great spooky fun, and if you don’t already have any of the individual discs, this box is well-worth getting.

COMING SOON: Plenty of TV on DVD releases, including: WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE SEASON 3, TWIN PEAKS GOLD BOX COLLECTION, CHARLES IN CHARGE SEASON 2, MAGNUM P.I. SEASON 7, MIAMI VICE: THE COMPLETE SERIES, NORTHERN EXPOSURE: THE COMPLETE SERIES, THE ADDAMS FAMILY: THE COMPLETE SERIES as well as a handful of animation discs like MEET THE ROBINSONS, SHREK THE THIRD, THE PIXAR SHORT FILMS COLLECTION and A WISH FOR WINGS THAT WORK. And after that… we’ll be back to the best B-movies and exploitation cinema on digital disc!

For older Late Show columns (adding up to well over 200 reviews!), visit the recently 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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