A slew of new horror movies has been released on DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray disc over the past few weeks, just in time for Halloween. Some are well worth renting, while others provide more tricks than treats. In this column, we’ll focus on the newer releases, but the obvious tip is that when it comes to renting a horror movie, it’s difficult to go wrong with the classics.
AN AMERICAN HAUNTING
Scary for all the wrong reasons. The film should have been called “An American Hanging” – it slips a big noose of banality around its audience’s necks and then tightens the rope until unconsciousness sets in. There is no reason to care about this movie, which stars Sissy Spacek and Donald Sutherland as common folk from 19th century Tennessee dealing with a possessed daughter (Rachel Hurd-Wood). The lameness of its execution, the absolute absence of any kind of horror, the constant screeching of sound effects, the jittery use of handheld cameras, and how it sandbags his supremely talented cast are bewildering. Rated PG-13.
ARMY OF DARKNESS: HD DVD
From Sam Raimi, this third film in the “Evil Dead” series, now available on HD DVD, is a cult classic for good reason. Bruce Campbell is Ash, an amputee with a chain saw for an arm (robust – and helpful) who finds himself in 14th century England, where he is ushered into Duke Henry’s army and rises up against the Deadites, a ravaged group of zombies filled with just enough blood and entrails to make for a rather substantial mess. Camp isn’t just an undercurrent here – it’s the force that drives the movie. Rated R.
CHUCKY: THE KILLER DVD COLLECTION
This four-disc set doesn’t include the first movie in the Chucky-the-crazed-slasher-doll franchise, 1988’s “Child’s Play,” to which Universal couldn’t get the rights. Instead, it offers its sequels – “Child’s Play 2,” “Child’s Play 3,” “Bride of Chucky” and the memorable “Seed of Chucky,” which begins with scores of white, angry-looking mini-Chuckies racing through an undulating tube and finding their mark in a gelatinous egg. Cells split, a baby’s screech rings through the theater, a child is born and with it, presumably another movie. Amid all the inevitable slaughtering, beheadings and stabbings this enjoyably ridiculous series favors, the movies aren’t scary, though moments can be very funny.
DRACULA: 75TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
Tod Browning’s chilling adaptation of Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, just released on a comprehensive, two-disc 75th anniversary edition, is one of the chief blueprints for the horror genre. If you can get past the armadillos posing as large rats and Bela Lugosi’s sometimes comic performance as Dracula, the film remains a visual wonder, with the sort of ghostly atmosphere that has been lost in today’s contemporary horror movies.
THE EXORCIST: THE COMPLETE ANTHOLOGY
It all began so well. In 1973, smack in the middle of a tumultuous political environment that saw the fall of a U.S. president and our country caught in the throes of war, came William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist,” a horror film like none other that would go on to be denounced by Billy Graham, championed by the Catholic church, embraced by film critics and finally by the Academy Awards, where it won two of 10 nominations. This “Complete Anthology” from Warner starts with that classic movie – one of the best horror films ever made – and then rapidly dissolves in quality with the onslaught of its many sequels and recent prequel. Those can be skipped, but when it comes to Halloween, “The Exorcist” is a mainstay that can’t be missed.
“The Exorcist”: A
FRANKENSTEIN: 75TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
From director James Whale, who understood the monster’s isolation on levels that were revealed in 1998’s superb “Gods and Monsters,” this outstanding 1931 film features Boris Karloff in a terrific, legendary performance as the monster, and Colin Clive shrieking one of cinema’s most infamous lines as Dr. Frankenstein – “It’s alive!” “Frankenstein” joins “Dracula” in that it is indeed still alive after 75 years, an electrifying film that tampers with life before it sets the screen ablaze with horror. Based on Mary Shelley’s novel, this two-disc anniversary edition is filled with satisfying extras, but it’s the movie itself, with its lingering air of sadness, that is unshakable.
HOLLYWOOD’S LEGENDS OF HORROR COLLECTION
An excellent, creepy collection from Warner. Includes six films – 1932’s “Doctor X” with Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill, and “The Mask of Fu Manchu” with Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy. Director Tod Browning has two films featured – 1935’s “Mark of the Vampire” with Bela Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore, and 1936’s “The Devil Doll,” with poor John Barrymore stranded on Devil Island. In 1935’s “Mad Love,” it’s Peter Lorre and Pauline Keal mixing it up within the macabre, while in 1939’s “The Return of Doctor X,” Humphrey Bogart proves that even in the worst role ever handed to him, he had the goods to turn a bad movie into a reasonably enjoyable spectacle.
HOUSE OF WAX: HD DVD
The house in question is attired with the sort of unremarkable rooms perfect for the debut of Paris Hilton’s professional acting career. A broad update of the 1953 version starring Vincent Price, this new version features your typical screen twentysomethings (beautiful, obnoxious, deserving of everything that fells them) trying to outrun a couple of madmen on the loose. It’s a bloody, messy little throwback to such classics as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” unintentionally brushing against fetish since it eventually dips so many of its hotties in hot wax. Whatever. When a horror movie fails to induce fear or even a few beneficial jolts, as this movie does, the effect is grim. Rated R.
LAND OF THE DEAD: HD DVD
Moves the franchise forward with ease, giving new purpose to the zombies George A. Romero conceived in his 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead,” while offering fans plenty of high-definition gore in the process. What the film proves is that there still are fresh ideas to be found in the familiar rot of Romero’s world. The director remains firm in his belief that it takes more than just ropes of dripping entrails and severed heads to make a horror movie satisfying. While those elements certainly are welcome and they do flourish here, the film has other targets to explore, starting with society. John Leguizamo and Robert Joy are just right, as is lead zombie Big Daddy (Eugene Clark), a hulking beast who steamrolls into the film’s fiery climax. Rated R.
SAW II: SPECIAL EDITION
An ugly, joyless horror movie that deserves to be tossed into the business end of 1988’s “Woodchipper Massacre.” Is there fun to be had in a horror movie composed of base elements of degradation, amputation, humiliation and murder? Maybe for the sadist, or perhaps for those unaware of how effective a great horror movie can be. But really, the “special edition” of “Saw II,” which is here only to capitalize on the recent “Saw III,” is no different from its predecessor, “Saw” – it ever was designed to be gore for the sake of gore, with the increasingly hysterical performances clanging throughout. Rated R.
Visit www.weekinrewind.com, the archive of Bangor Daily News film critic Christopher Smith’s reviews, which appear Mondays in Discovering, Fridays in Happening, and weekends in Television. He may be reached at Christopher@weekinrewind.com.