Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ten DVD's To Die For

Around the time that Blue Underground released Gary Sherman's 1981 Dead and Buried to disc, I was speculating with a friend over how long it would be before the very finite list of all the great cult movies and TV shows that we wanted to see brought to DVD were burned through and there'd be no more big releases to anticipate.

Well, that had to be probably six or seven years ago and while some titles I never thought would make it eventually arrived in fine form (Hello, Monster Squad!) there's a handful of must-haves that I'm still waiting to put in my collection.

Here's ten titles that I'd love to see make to DVD in 2008:

1. Friday the 13th: The Series (TV, 1987-1990)

This was a late night staple for me during its three year run from '87 to '90 and it was far and away the highlight of the glut of late-'80s horror programs that ran in syndication back then. While I have a huge soft spot for other shows of that time like Tales from the Darkside and Monsters, they were always far too whimsical for my taste whereas Friday the 13th: The Series frequently got downright grim.

A host of notable genre talent both in front of (actors like Fritz Weaver, Ray Walston and Robert A. Silverman) and behind the camera (directors like David Cronenberg, William Fruet, Armand Mastroianni, Tom McLoughlin, and Rob Hedden) all contributed to the series and strong episodes (like the Texas Chainsaw-esque turn towards the "backwoods horror" genre, "The Long Road Home") could be found right up to the end of its run.

With so much genre TV already represented on disc (hell, Swamp Thing is being released this January!), it's long past time for seasons of Friday the 13th: The Series to start appearing as well.

Read more of my thoughts on Friday the 13th: The Series here:

2. Deadly Blessing (1981)

My favorite Wes Craven film. This often loopy but always atmospheric tale of a widowed woman dealing with an unknown prescene that may or may not be supernatural stalking her in her rural home coupled with her tense relationship with her Hittite neighbors (an Amish-like religious order led by a fearsome Ernest Borgnine) is a jolting ride with several of the best shock scenes that Craven has ever put on film (including a snake joining one unsuspecting character in a bathtub and a memorable dream sequence involving Sharon Stone - in her first film - and a large spider).

Read more of my thoughts on Deadly Blessing here:

3. Dark Night of the Scarecrow (TV, 1981)

This TV movie left a lasting mark on me as a kid. Not just because it was eerie but because it told a very humane and touching tale as well. Larry Drake stars as a mentally hanicapped man who is caught in a misunderstanding and pays a final price for it at the hands of a make-shift mob (played by a round of fine character actors including Charles Durning and Lane Smith) who kill Drake's character as he hides within a scarecrow's clothes. When the men who did the deed hide their crime and subsequently start to meet with grisly ends themselves, panic and paranoia set in among them. This is a perfect morality tale that should be part of everyone's DVD library.

Read more of my thoughts on Dark Night of the Scarecrow here:

4. The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)

I've never seen this movie so I can't comment on it but I've always wanted to see it as it was shot in my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. This tale of paranormal phenonmenon was never the object of much acclaim but I'd love to see it for myself one day. It has some genre credentials in that Margot Kidder (Sisters, Black Christmas) and Jennifer O'Neil (The Psychic, Scanners) play major roles, famed composer Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen) created the score and J. Lee Thompson (who helmed the original Cape Fear as well as the slasher fave Happy Birthday to Me) directed. I think this only had one VHS release way back at the inception of the video age so this is a film long in need of some attention.

5. Werewolf (TV, 1987-1988)

This slice of late '80s cheese which ran from '87 to '88 was a fun horror show. Lasting only one season, this cribbed the format of the popular Incredible Hulk TV show but with its protagonist cursed to turn into a werewolf rather than into a gamma-spawned beast. Whatever faults it might have had, any show with Chuck Conners cast as an evil werewolf really deserves its due.

6. The Sender (1983)

A wild story of psychic phenonmenon concerning an amnesiac who's able to project vividly real hallucinations into the minds of others got a lot of positive reviews when it was released, despite some jumbled storytelling. This was a mainstay of HBO's programming when I was a kid and The Sender's unusual melancholy mood always sucked me in. Sadly, this ambitious film only saw one pan and scan VHS release.

7. Resurrection (1980)

I saw this supernatural drama on TV in the early '80s and it's stayed with me ever since. Ellen Burstyn stars as a woman who survives a car accident that kills her husband. She soon discovers that she's come out of the experience with the power to heal people. This sensitively written and acted film deserves far more attention that it's ever recieved from fans and critics. Burstyn gives one of the great forgotten performances of genre cinema here as a woman gifted with a power that ultimately forces her away from everyone she loves.

In its depiction of a woman struggling to understand whether her abilities are a blessing or a curse makes this an excellent companion piece to Cronenberg's The Dead Zone. The performances (Sam Shepard, Richard Farnsworth and genre fave Robert Blossoms all join Burstyn in delivering heartfelt work) along with Daniel Petrie's direction keep Resurrection from becoming the stuff of cheap melodrama.

8. Paperhouse (1988)

This has been released overseas on DVD (although it may be out of print) but we're still waiting for a Region 1 disc. Directed by Bernard Rose (Candyman), this story of a young girl who retreats into a fantasy world expressed through her drawings was a canny mix of kid's film and surreal horror. Described by one critic at the time as being "the thinking person's Nightmare on Elm Street".

8. Vampire (TV, 1979)

I watched this TV movie about a vampire whose sleep is disturbed by the construction of a new church over his resting grounds way back when it was originally aired and sadly I've long since forgotten all but snippets of it. But the fact that it stars the great Richard Lynch as the eponymous bloodsucker and E.G. Marhsall as the Van Helsing type looking to stake him out of existence with The Exorcist's Jason Miller and Kathryn Harrold (The Sender) also starring is all I need to know that this needs to be available on disc as soon as possible. And to further recommend it, Vampire's script was penned by future Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law and NYPD Blue producer Steven Bochco.

10. The Horror Show (1989)

Come on - Max Jenke needs to be on DVD, damn it! Late character actor Brion James will always be best known for his replicant role in Blade Runner ("Wake up, time to die!") but I wish his star turn as "Meat Cleaver Max" had spawned a sequel or two.

James was clearly giving his all to this character and the fact that he's facing off against Lance Henriksen as a cop out to put Jenke down for good gives him a worthy foil to pit his performance against. To see these two great character actors spar with each other elevates an otherwise mediocre film to must-see proportions.

There you have it - ten DVD's that I'll be watching for next year. If even half of these make it to disc, this horror geek will have to call 2008 a very fulfilling year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Best/Worst Of The Year

Man, the holiday season sure kept me busy this year - leaving me little time to do any sort of extracurricular writing. But now that I'm emerging from my Christmas coma, hopefully I'll be a little more active at the keyboard. Until then, I'd like to point you towards my Best/Worst list for 2007 - posted for your pleasure at Shock Till You Drop:

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

All The Right Notes

When it comes to horror films, critics and audiences have come to prefer their B-movies to really be A-budget studio movies, showing little patience for appreciating the virtues of the former. If it's not the cream of the crop, it's just garbage.

Now I understand that movies are an expensive habit to keep up with and at today's prices it's hard to justify spending hard-earned cash on second rate entertainment but personally I've always liked second rate entertainment. I've known a lot of people over the years who were second rate human beings and they were just fine to talk to - so why should I be such a snob when it comes to movies?

All of which brings me to director Dwight H. Little's much-slighted 1989 version Phantom of the Opera. While Tim Burton is currently being hailed for the efforts of he and scripter John Logan to create a film that evokes Hammer-era Gothic horror with Sweeny Todd, Little attempted to do the same almost twenty years ago with his Phantom. Even if the results weren't entirely stellar, well, that isn't a reason not to give the guy some credit. As I like to say, second rate doesn't mean worthless. Period horror wasn't really what the kids were into back in the late '80s but Little made a valiant effort to make Gaston Leroux's tale appeal to the Jason and Freddy generation.

To that end, Little cast Freddy himself, Robert Englund, in the titular role. The biggest horror star of the '80s by a wide margin (can it even be said that he had competition?), Englund seized the opportunity to play a "classic" monster by giving a performance that left nothing on the table. The hammy gusto that Englund displays in this film is an awesome spectacle, making his work with Freddy look like a study in minimalism. But to anyone who might criticize Englund's approach as being over-the-top, I can only ask: why would an actor play a role like this if they're not going to play it larger than life?

And this being an '80s horror movie, Englund's Phantom is given a ruined face - courtesy of his character's Faustian pact (and Kevin Yagher's notable FX work) - that only FANGORIA could love (as the text on the back of the VHS release proudly announced - "He's Back And He's Uglier Than Ever!"). Little and scripter Duke Sandefur also work in a Freddy-style witticism or two - which Englund dutifully does his best to sell.

As the Phantom's love interest, actress Jill Schoelen was in the middle of her too-brief run as a Scream Queen - having already starred in 1987's The Stepfather and 1989's Cutting Class (and with 1991's Popcorn and 1993's made-for-cable sequel When A Stranger Calls Back yet to come). In Phantom, she plays Juliard student Christine Day, who arrives at a Broadway audition armed with a long-lost piece of music to sing (discovered by her bookish best friend Meg, played by a pre-SNL Molly Shannon) only to be knocked unconscious mid-song by a falling sandbag (which is not as unintentionally funny as it sounds - sorry).

What follows is a lengthy flashback to Christine's past life in nineteenth century London where she was the understudy to the lead in a production of Faust. Here she was also being secretly coached by the Phantom, a figure who never stepped out of the shadows but who was driven to make Christine a star. This process involves not just singing lessons but many slasher movie-style deaths - including one skinned victim that bears the influence of Clive Barker's then-recent Hellraiser and its first sequel, Hellbound. The MPAA may have been cracking down on graphic violence in the late '80s but Little and co. managed to make this a satisfyingly grisly picture.

Dispensing with much - if not quite all - of the romanticism that has been applied to the character in other versions, including most famously in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical, Little and Englund's Phantom is a much more vicious beast, making this the most lurid version of the story to date. But there's some poetic moments to appreciate, too - such as when the Phantom uses a violin to serenade Christine in a cemetery during a light snow fall. There's also a nod to Lon Chaney Sr.'s classic 1925 Phantom of the Opera as Englund appears at a masquerade ball in the guise of Poe's Red Death - just as Chaney Sr. did. And Little stages an exciting climatic pursuit of the Phantom through his sewer lair.

Does it all add up to a great film? No, but it's a handsomely produced effort (with Budapest serving as an effective double for 18th century London) that has its heart in the right place, even if it doesn't hit all the right notes.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Join The Mist Militia

With hindsight, fans can look at the box office failure of a classic like John Carpenter's The Thing and shake their collective heads over how such a great movie was left out to dry. But while the hope would be that were such a movie to be released today a more alert generation of horror fans would give it the reception it deserves, to look at the so-so box office take of Frank Darabont's superlative The Mist is to see that horror fans are either just as unmotivated as ever or else they're just too small a group to make a real difference at the box office.

If fans feel that the genre is being undermined by the success of remakes and sequels and PG-13 horror movies, why are those films continuing to thrive yet a picture like The Mist gets a shoulder shrug? I just don't get it. Horror fans love to bitch about how Hollywood caters to the mainstream but if fans take a wait-until-DVD attitude whenever something promising comes along they shouldn't be shocked if the kind of horror films they're looking for aren't around.

Thanks to the internet, it's easier than it's ever been to market to the horror community. And with months of advance hype preceding their releases, it's not as though films like The Mist or Grindhouse flew in below the radar. So either horror fans are just that apathetic or we're just that small of a community. Personally, my gut says it's more a case of the later.

Even though the fan press likes to foster the idea that horror fans are just waiting to be mobilized in service of the right film, I don't think we have the numbers to make a movie into a hit on our own.

We can bring as much grassroots support as possible (Hatchet writer/director Adam Green recently invited fans to "join the Hatchet Army") but ultimately, the future of horror is for mainstream audiences to decide. As much as we may resent it, fans are just along for the ride.