Nightmare cinema, take two
As promised, here’s another batch of new horror releases to slake fans’ Halloween bloodlust. By November 1, we’re intent on having you ready for romantic comedies and historical epics again.
The biggest news from a film-history perspective is The Val Lewton Horror Collection (Warner). Touted by big thinkers from James Agee to the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman as an uncommonly artistic producer, Lewton delivered a string of B horror films for RKO in the ’40s that turned disadvantages into a distinctive style: As David Thompson points out, he hid shoddy sets in oppressive shadows, and the lighting brought out the dark psychological obsessions that make these great films so enveloping. I Walked With a Zombie and Cat People are among the highlights of the nine-film set.
Also known for bringing a recognizable personal vision to horror cinema is Italian evildoer Dario Argento, whose The Bird with the Crystal Plumage has just been 2-disc-ified by Blue Underground (alongside Seven Deaths in the Cat’s Eye, starring Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, and Andrea Bianchi’s Strip Nude for Your Killer). Personally, I don’t think many of Argento’s films can hold a candle to his Suspiria, but you can’t watch that one every Halloween, can you?
Lions Gate offers a couple more imported fright flicks this month, though both are for hardcore, must-see-everything fans only: Undead goes Down Under for a zombie romp that’s never as funny as it wants to be; High Tension is a French bloodbath that has its admirers, but put me to sleep at Harry Knowles’ all-night marathon in 2003.
Neither of those films, however, can rival two new Warner reissues for goofiness of premise: In Night of the Lepus, meddlesome scientists accidentally transform bunny rabbits into flesh-eating monsters the size of men; in Demon Seed, a computer locks Julie Christie up in her own home, intent on, um, impregnating her with a child it hopes will someday rule the world.
The end of the world comes twice on MGM’s new double-feature disc pairing Panic in Year Zero and The Last Man on Earth, two ’60s black-and-white entries that, even when they aren’t 100 percent successful, are quirky enough to merit a peek. Ray Milland stars in and directs the first film, a cold, misanthropic yarn in which he and his family are vacationing in the hills when their home is destroyed by a nuclear attack. In the latter, Vincent Price is the sole survivor of a plague that turned humans into vampire zombies — or so he thinks, until he meets a lonesome living girl with a secret. Price, by the way, gets a doubleheader to himself on another MGM disc, with Twice Told Tales, a Nathaniel Hawthorne adaptation, and Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Terror.
Price kills a lot of zombies in Last Man on Earth, but mortals are the prey of some of this month’s other offerings: Doctor and the Devils (Fox), in which Timothy Dalton is a Frankenstein-like professor who employs some unscrupulous helpers in his pursuit of cadavers to study; Saw (Lions Gate), the torture flick being released in a (heh-heh) “uncut edition” just in time for its sequel’s theatrical release; and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (Dark Sky Films), John McNaughton’s 1986 indie that shocked audiences with Michael Rooker’s chilling performance as the title character.
The last chapter in an ugly controversy is written this month, as Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist is released on disc by Warner Bros. This, you may recall, is the film William Friedkin made, only to have his studio think it wasn’t scary enough and hire hack Renny Harlin to make his own version. When Harlin’s film tanked, Friedkin’s received its own brief theatrical spin. Neither made much noise, and now both can duke it out for eternity on video-store shelves.
The only title this Halloween that can rival the Val Lewton set for dollars-per-movie value is Universal’s Bela Lugosi Collection, which squeezes five films onto a single double-sided disc retailing for under $27. (It must be said that Warner’s release is a hair more expensive but offers much more in the way of extras.) This could almost as easily be called a Boris Karloff Collection, as Lugosi co-stars in four of the movies and often upstages Lugosi. Whatever you call it, the films (three of which are Poe stories) are more than welcome, particularly The Black Cat, an Edgar Ulmer outing in which Karloff plays a doctor with a collection of embalmed women in the basement. •
By John DeFore