On Halloween, do let this happen to you..
As the recent box office phenomenon Paranormal Activity ably demonstrates, great horror movies can be made very cheaply. And yet, if you just pay attention to the theatrically released U.S. movies that rotate onto home video, you might get the impression that only a handful of decent horror DVDs come out in any given year.
Well, there's a reason for that. For the most part, these days, the best horror on DVD can be found in reissues, compilations, independent movies and foreign films.
Now, I watch a lot of horror films. Sometimes I tell myself this pastime springs from intellectual curiosity regarding the sublimation of cultural anxieties, etc. etc. But actually, I think I just like scary movies.
So in anticipation of Halloween movie parties, here's a rundown of some of the best off-the-beaten-rental-shelf horror I've come across this year on DVD.
The Twilight Zone pretty much perfected the most reliable TV horror template: anthology shows featuring self-contained stories by various writers and directors. But late-night TV viewers of a certain generation will also remember Tales from the Darkside, the George Romero-produced anthology show which ran in syndication from 1983-1988. The second season of Darkside is now on DVD, and while individual episodes vary in quality, Darkside overall maintains a nice balance of inventive ideas and black comedy. This is a good DVD set to keep by the TV — pop in an episode or two before you go to sleep, and enjoy your subsequent dreams.
More TV, plus reissues, director compilations, foreign films, and how to freak yourself right out, after the jump.
One Step Beyond is another great anthology series, originally broadcast in 1959 by ABC and actually still in syndication, due to some arcane copyright issues. Unlike the competition (The Twilight Zone premiered a few weeks after), One Step Beyond featured 30-minute docudramas that were breathlessly promoted as "based on true events" and solely concerned with supernatural activity — ghosts, premonitions, psychic phenomena, and so forth.
From a purely pop-cultural point of view, this stuff is fascinating. Here, you can observe the notional DNA of future programs like the The X-Files.
Fear Itself, an aborted NBC effort from last year, was the latest variation on the theme. The four-disc, 13 episode Season One set features some good scares from directors including John Landis and Darren Lynn Bousman (of the Saw franchise).
The Wes Craven Horror Collection is one of many inexpensive director compilation packages hitting shelves this month. Craven made his bones in the industry with 1984's A Nightmare on Elm Street, and this collection features three subsequent films: The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), Shocker (1989) and The People Under the Stairs (1991).
Serpent is a criminally underappreciated zombie movie, starring Bill Pullman as an anthropologist researching Haitian voodoo. Set during the final days of the Duvalier regime, and shot on location in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the movie is loosely based on the actual experiences of a Harvard researcher. Craven gets the most out of his location shooting and his terrifying villain, a sorcerer and zombie master who also happens to be head of the dictator's brutal secret police force.
From the camp camp, as it were, The William Castle Film Collection collects eight B-movie horror films from the celebrated master of the gimmick. (Castle was famous for promotional stunts like installing electronic buzzers in theater seats and dropping skeletons from the ceiling.) The movies themselves are, of course, ridonkulous — House on Haunted Hill (1959) and 13Ghosts (1960) are the best, and were subsequently remade. Film history buffs will enjoy the feature-length 2007 doc Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.
John Carpenter: Master of Fear Collection is another bargain, combining two Carpenter masterpieces — The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988) — with the lesser Prince of Darkness (1987) and the relatively disposable Village of the Damned. (1995). The Thing is one of Carpenter's best movies, as Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley (!) battle a shapeshifting alien in the icy bowels of an Antarctic research station.
Army of Darkness (1992), the final chapter of director Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, has been remastered and reissued in the "Screwhead Edition" (DVD or Blu-ray), with some behind-the-scenes extras and an alternate ending. Reluctant hero Ash (Bruce Campbell) returns to fight Deadites in the Dark Ages, via shotgun, chainsaw and ironic dialogue. Superfans may want to also check out 2007's My Name is Bruce, a metafiction horror goof starring Campbell as himself, with a ton of extras (DVD and Blu-ray).
Director John Landis pretty much perfected the horror-comedy with An American Werewolf in London (1981), now back in circulation with the digitally remastered "Full Moon" edition. Tons of extras here, including a feature-length making-of doc, outtakes, storyboards and commentary track by lead actors David Naughton and Griffin Dunne.
Double feature possibility: Craven's original Last House on the Left (1972) is back in a Collector's Edition with a full slate of extras, as is the recent 2009 remake — or "reimagining," as the marketing department prefers. Observe how the 1972 version, brutal and artfully suspenseful, compares to the 2009 movie, which is simply brutal.
Speaking of remakes, the original The Stepfather (1987) is back on DVD to coincide with the new remake in theaters now. Very '80s, and not in a good way, the original is still a worthwhile rental just to see the fierce performance of Terry O'Quinn (Locke from ABC's Lost) in the title role. With hair!
Newly reissued on Blu-ray, Roman Polanski's The Ninth Gate (1999) never found the audience it deserved, which is too bad, because this is a subtle and effective thriller. As a shady rare book dealer, Johnny Depp slums through a decadent world of European cultists and wealthy Satanists. Extras include a short featurette, a helpful primer on Satanic engravings and a commentary track by the director. (Though if you want to boycott Polanski on principle, I won't argue.)
Independent and Foreign Films
Ghost House Underground, the DVD arm of Sam Raimi's Ghost House Pictures (Drag Me to Hell, 30 Days of Night), recently released another wave of indie horror titles. Gotta give it up to Raimi — he's staying true to his roots by promoting these titles which otherwise would probably never see decent distribution.
The Children is the best of this new bunch. An extended family vacation turns terrifying when the kids catch a virus that makes them all sneezy, wheezy — and murder-y! British director Tom Shankland tackles some very real parental and viral anxieties in this terrific thriller, which is a great example of how indie horror can trump the gore porn the studios are cynically peddling to the kids.
Also in the latest Ghost House batch: Seventh Moon (Chinese ghosts), Offspring (New England cannibals), and The Thaw (prehistoric parasites) (and, weirdly, Val Kilmer). None are at the level of The Children, but all are pleasantly exuberant in that indie-horror way.
Finally, if you're looking for a sure shot in the indie/foreign horror genre, pick up Let The Right One In, a Swedish vampire story that's equal parts horror, drama and prepubescent gothic romance. The tagline rather says it all: "Eli is 12 years old. She's been 12 for over 200 years and, she just moved in next door."
The DVD extras reveal an inspired collaboration between director Tomas Alfredson and writer John Ajvide Lindqvist (adapting from his own novel), plus some fascinating technical details on several key scenes. Watch for the swimming pool sequence, which goes into the pantheon of great horror moments, and the pivotal scene in which a key piece of vampire mythology is addressed. We all know vampires can't enter a room unless they're invited, right? Well, what happens if they come in anyway?
This is the first movie in years that's inspired me enough to hunt down the poster online and order it up for framing. It's perfect for home decor — a creepy 12-year-old girl bleeding from the eyes. Won't the missus be surprised!