October 26, 2005

Five good reasons to stay home on Halloween

By Glenn Abel

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - "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, October 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 documentary "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)

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

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 moved 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)

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 documentary
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).

The Hidden: New Line added the dreary sequel and lowered
the price by five dollars, 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.

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)

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 documentary chronicles the
filmmakers' battles with the Motion Picture Assn. of America,
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 documentary'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

The film looks pretty good on DVD given its guerrilla
production values. Audio is good enough.

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 adaptation 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.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter