Diary Of The Dead, The Eye, and Simon King Of The Witches
Need to beat the summer heat? Stay inside and watch movies. Scary movies! It's our time of the month again and DVD STALK once again shakes the mold and dirt out of its ears and rises from the grave to point out the last month's worth of digital horror!
One of the more dividing DVD releases of the last little while has got to be George A. Romero's return to indy horror, Diary Of The Dead. While it did find a limited theatrical release, many fans saw this film for the first time through the recent Dimension Extreme DVD release. Reviewer Cameron McGaughy had this to say "With his fifth zombie feature, George Romero starts with a clean slate and goes back to his low-budget roots. At times scary, funny and thought-provoking, this one skewers the government and the media--and has some bloody fun along the way. Romero has toyed with many of these themes before, but the master still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. Some horror fans will probably be bored with it, but in this age of uninspiring fright flicks, it's refreshing to see one that has a strong (although not-so-subtle) subtext. This embodies the spirit of independent filmmaking at its best. Highly Recommended." Thomas Spurlin took a look at the same release and while he enjoyed it, he wasn't quite as wowed as Cameron was. He summed up his thoughts when he wrote "George Romero, plain and simple, throws together some of the most thought-provoking and compelling horror films. Even a lesser effort like Diary of the Dead can still be seen as a cut above many others in its genre. Though it misfires with some thematic and script issues, the ideas and critiques lying underneath Romero's retread into independent horror give it plenty of side indulgences when blood and zombie flesh isn't being sprawled out on screen. Paired with great technical merits and a fantastic slate of extras, Diary of the Dead hits the ground running as a solidly Recommended disc."
Diary Of The Dead isn't the only George A. Romero film to see some digital respect this month, however. Dimension also released a fantastic special edition DVD release of the one that started it all, Night Of The Living Dead. The influence of this classic work of horror cinema is undeniable and thankfully the restored transfer and wealth of supplements on this release really explore the making of the film and its continuing influence on not only horror films, but cinema in general. Ian took a look at this excellent DVD and summed up his thoughts stating "The real reason to dig through the supplements on this release, is One For The Fire, a brand new and insanely comprehensive documentary on the making of and history of Night Of The Living Dead. Clocking in at almost an hour and a half long, this fascinating look back at the picture includes on-camera interviews with almost everyone associated with the film who (excluding those who have passed away, obviously). Look for input from Romero and Russo, cast members O'Dea, Hinzman, Schon, Eastman, and Ricci, crewmembers like Regis Survinski and Gary Streiner, fans like Alice Cooper, Max Brooks, Greg Nicotero, Steve Barton, Camden Toy and Bill Mosely, Billy Cardille, and many more. In addition to the interview clips we get a tour of the building that was where all the Latent Image film work was stored (which also doubled as the basement in the film!), we get modern day visits to some of the locations with cast members in tow, and we get a chance to see some of the commercials that Latent Image made before Night Of The Living Dead. It's a fascinating and sometimes sad story, particularly when we learn about the circumstances surrounding how the film fell into the public domain (which would wind up losing the filmmakers an untold amount of money). This documentary alone makes this release worth a purchase - it's that good. While completists will absolutely want to hold on to the Elite edition for the extras and because of the framing issues on the new transfer, this new fortieth anniversary edition of Night Of The Living Dead really is excellent. The new transfer is at times a revelation and the inclusion of the One For The Fire documentary really adds a lot of value to this package. Highly recommended".
Ian also took a look at the Lionsgate release of the American remake of the Pang Brothers' Thai hit, The Eye. It seems that with films like One Missed Call and Shutter cruising through theaters over the last year or so that Asian horror remakes are a trend that isn't going to go away soon, despite the fact that the remakes are rarely as inspired as the original films. Such is the case with The Eye. "As generic and mediocre as The Eye is, the film is still a fairly entertaining popcorn movie. It has almost zero replay value and the supplements aren't strong enough to add much value but the movie is worth a watch even if it's unlikely that anyone will consider this a 'must own' release. Rent it." Cameron also took a look at this release and he liked it even less, stating "In the hands of very talented directors, this remake sadly becomes a listless effort. It's not scary or original, resorting to overused devices to try and fake the fear. It's guilty of the biggest sin a thriller can make: It's just plain boring. It's a mild rental recommendation for horror lightweights who haven't seen many of the films it mimics. But if you've seen those, you'd probably do best to Skip it." Justin Felix also gave this disc a spin. His take on the picture? "While not a classic, The Eye delivers some solid PG-13 level frights. It's entertaining and surprisingly character-driven. Recommended." Three different reviewers produce three different reviews for the same film. Jessica Alba junkies will probably enjoy this one more than everyone else but as it is with most remakes, this film will work better for some people than for others and it's not a picture for everyone.
Ian also got an early look at the upcoming Dark Sky Films' DVD debut of the truly strange Simon King Of The Witches, in better stores everywhere on June 24th with a suggested retail price of only $14.98. "Simon King Of The Witches is a wild mix of seventies psychedelics and occult quirk that makes for a truly quirky watch. Andrew Prine is great in the lead and the film might work better as a cultural artifact than an actual horror picture but regardless, it remains an interesting and well made movie and Dark Sky has done a very nice job on the DVD debut." No doubt, Dark Sky has done a nice job bringing this genuine oddity to DVD for the first time. The featurettes are interesting, the transfer is quite pleasing, and the movie itself is a genuine eye opener in a lot of ways. Those who enjoy a good supernatural horror film will probably dig this more than others but fans of seventies camp cinema will find a veritable feast for the eyes with all the wonky fashions, music, and decor scattered throughout the picture. What would you expect from Bruce Kessler, the same man who directed The Gay Deceivers? The film is also a really great showcase for leading man Andrew Prine, someone who never really became as big a star as he probably should have. Best known for his work in the TV series V and for his performance in Barn Of The Naked Dead, Prine demonstrates with this film a genuine knack for carrying a picture and his performance is both enjoyable and completely believable. No small feat considering the subject matter that this picture deals with!
High Def Horror Highlights
While Tim Burton's excellent Academy Award winning Sweeney Todd - The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street hasn't hit Blu-ray in North America yet, it has been given a region free 'steelbook' release in the United Kingdom. Daniel Hirshleifer was mighty impressed with this release summing up his review by writing "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an artistic leap forward for director Tim Burton, and also happens to be one of the best film musicals yet made. Stephen Sondheim's genius music and lyrics are perfectly matched with Tim Burton's impeccable visual style, and the whole thing is performed with gusto by Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. It's an important and vital film. The image quality is such a large improvement over the DVD that it alone makes the disc worth a purchase, but the sound is also tremendous, and almost all of the special features from the two-disc set are present, with all but two extras in high definition. While some may be hesitant to shell out $40, this disc is worth it, and there's a non-Steelbook edition available for slightly less. Now, how about a shave? DVD Talk Collector Series."
And if you didn't get enough of The Eye in the standard def section above, Adam Tyner gave the Blu-ray release a spin "There's almost a decent thriller in here somewhere, but The Eye is dragged down by its lack of worthwhile scares and an earnest but stilted leading turn by Jessica Alba. The Eye is...well, watchable, pun intended, and even though this isn't a great horror flick by any stretch, I don't think it'd make for a bad rental. Rent It."
The recent Anchor Bay Dario Argento Collection boxed set (sadly not available for review just yet) may not be the picture perfect definitive release that a lot of Argento-philes were hoping for but it's certainly a great way to get a lot of the infamous Italian horror maestro's films in one handy package and at a great price to boot. What better time then now to look back at some of the releases that have come from various studios over the last few years? The likes of Anchor Bay and Blue Underground have done the bulk of the heavy lifting as far as getting Argento's body of work out to his legions of fans. For those unfamiliar with his work, maybe this trip back through DVD history will inspire them to check out some of his pictures and for those who are already schooled in his unique filmography, well, maybe this will get you to go back and revisit a beloved classic or give one of his less adored pictures a second chance.
The Stendhal Syndrome: Ian says "One of Argento's more underrated efforts, The Stendhal Syndrome is finally given a proper domestic release in North American with fantastic audio and video quality and a wealth of interesting extras that not only document the making of the film but which lend some very welcome insight into the unique condition that inspired it in the first place. Highly recommended!"
The Birth With The Crystal Plumage: Ian says "One of the most influential of the Italian giallos, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage is a very well paced and effective chiller that holds up very well to repeat viewings. Blue Underground's completely uncut high definition transfer is a true thing of beauty and the superlative audio quality and wealth of interesting and informative extra features make this release an Italian genre fan's wet dream come true. Blue Underground has raised the bar in terms of how giallos have been represented on DVD thus far in the format's history and it makes me giddy as a schoolgirl to award this one the DVD Collector's Talk medal of honor!"
Masters Of Horror: Pelts: Ian says "While Pelts is far from Argento's best, it's still an entertaining and gory little movie with a few interesting twists and a surprisingly good performance from Meat Loaf. Anchor Bay's presentation isn't as sterling as some of the releases in the series have been so far but there's still quite a bit of added value in the extra features department. Recommended."
Masters Of Horror: Jenifer: Ian says "An interesting and well made departure for Argento, Jenifer is an excellent blend of blunt, horrific imagery, dark humor, and raw sexuality. The two lead performances are quite good and the story is both eerie and thought provoking. Anchor Bay's DVD once again looks and sounds very nice, and the extras are both plentiful and interesting. Recommended."
Suspiria (Region 2, Japanese release): Ian says "If you've already got the Anchor Bay release of Supiria, this Japanese market release adds nothing save for the Japanese audio track and the subtitles which makes it rather pointless for English speaking fans of the film. That being said, for those in Japan who dig on Argento, this is a gorgeous looking transfer of a classic film complete with some fine extra features and killer (if controversial) re-mastered surround sound. It all adds up to a highly recommended release for the market it was intended to reach".
Opera: John Wallis says "Anchor Bay does a fine job and Italian horror/Dario Argento fans should be pleased. The film really is, in my opinion, one of the swan songs of Italian horror, a genre that thrived in the 70's and then slowly faded away. Die-hard fans will no doubt want the SE version, but the standard version more than delivers for your average consumer."
Trauma: Adam Tyner says "Trauma is an unremarkable suspense/thriller, much more noteworthy for the talent listed in its credits than the movie itself. Even casual Argento fans should still find this DVD worth a rental, though, even if its extras are more compelling than the movie itself. Rent It."
Sleepless (Region 3, Hong Kong release): Ian says "While this import from Hong Kong can't top the Italian R2 PAL DVD from Medusa, it's sure a whole lot better than that atrocious release from Artisan a couple of years ago. The movie looks ok, sounds very nice, and is light on extras but at least it's an anamorphic widescreen transfer and not a pan and scan deal. If you don't already have one of the European releases, then this one comes recommended."
Phantom Of The Opera: Chris Hughes says "If the merit of a movie is based on the level of enjoyment one got out of it then Phantom of the Opera is surely a fine film. I laughed non-stop from the first frame to the last and even though the director probably never intended it to be a comedy Phantom of the Opera worked on that level for me. Serious Argento fans may be disappointed by Phantom and those without a stomach for camp are going to want to avoid it but if you have a good since of humor and get a kick out of really bad films you'll want this one in your library."
With the recent release of the Hammer Icons Of Adventure collection from Sony, now seems like the perfect time to revisit another Hammer boxed set, Universal Studios' The Hammer Horror Series which compiles The Brides of Dracula, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Phantom of the Opera, Night Creatures, Nightmare, Paranoiac, The Kiss of the Vampire, and The Evil of Frankenstein. Glenn Erickson delved into this set when it came out a few years ago, so let's turn it over to him for some thoughts on this excellent collection of classic British horror done right.
With this monster collection of titles, eight in all, Universal has released its entire library of Hammer Films holdings in one go. After the breakout success of Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula in 1957 and '58, the tiny Hammer studio wasted no time making lucrative distribution and co-production deals with the Hollywood majors. Columbia was the first on board but the partnership with Universal resulted in access to copyrights and trademarks associated with the old Uni horror films that Hammer was in part re-making. The Mummy is now controlled by Warners but was initially released by Universal-International, which accounts for its close adherence to the basic storyline of the 1932 original. This batch of thrillers covers the next four years, 1960 to 1964. Relying on largely the same talent pool, Anthony Hinds becomes the dominant screenwriter, as well as taking over producing chores from initial stalwart Michael Carreras. Meanwhile home-grown screenwriter Jimmy Sangster stepped back from adapting the classics to instead grind out a succession of ever-diminishing murder thrillers inspired by Psycho.
Universal's share of the Hammer output included several of their better pictures, but after the compromised classic The Brides of Dracula the unique qualities that set Hammer apart began to show signs of age. Hammer branched out by making adventure epics, and for a time abandoned its science fiction line after shelving the superb The Damned (These Are the Damned) for two years (four in America). Still harbored in a country house, Hammer's creative team worked small miracles but eventually could not disguise their over-used sets, even when radically re-dressed. The enormous profits of the first color blockbusters must have been tapped to enrich the founders of Hammer and its forebear Exclusive films, for there is little evidence of expanded production values in the films themselves. The vanguard of England's booming film industry was shooting its productions largely in the same two manor houses up until the middle 1960s. Thus Spain and Tsarist Russia are represented by settings one might expect to see on a television show.
Yet almost all of these Universal releases have some special hook or quality to set them apart. The surprise is getting them all at once instead of spread out over three Halloweens, a couple of titles at a time. In an old 1960s advertising campaign a company called Contadina asked "How did they get all those tomatoes in one itty bitty can?" After seeing eight full features packed onto only two DVDs -- and still looking good -- we're asking the same question.
Hammer Horror makes an eight-fold comeback! Even Milton Reid's mutilated 'mulatto' ("Gwarrrr! Ungwarrrh!") could see that Universal's The Hammer Horror Series is going to jump off the DVD shelves, spinning previously ignored vault filler into home video gold. Surely this will lead to more collections of Universal's as yet- untouched horror and science fiction classics, the ones that sold well in big Laserdisc boxes just as that format was gasping its last breath.
Night Creatures and The Phantom of the Opera are transferred at the head-scratching aspect ratio (AR) of 2:1, a big surprise. Purists need note that the title blocks, often the safest way of determining an intended AR, lie comfortably within the 2:1 margins and that the framing isn't all that wider than 1:85. The truth is that the film compositions look fine; in fact, the look of Phantom is much improved over full-frame.
Savant asked about this development through a Universal connection and was told that the transfer ARs were determined by technicians from documentation found with the stored film elements; the specs for the job were neither arbitrary nor the result of video voodoo. As the films look superb on my 65" rear-projection set (and heads aren't bisected as happens several times in Warners' disc of Horror of Dracula) Savant sees no reason to complain.
The best thing about The Hammer Horror Series DVD set is that even though eight titles are packed onto just two discs, there are no visible compromises to video quality. Only once or twice did I notice busy shots that could use a slightly higher bit rate. The technicians behind this release are surely getting the maximum out of the double-sided double-density DVD format.
The packaging makes good use of Universal's clever 'window' artwork as used on earlier Monster boxed sets. Extras are non-existent, but at this price point whiners deserve to have their ears slashed and their tongues cut out ("Gwarrrr! Ungwarrrh!") The sales text gives quickie blurbs on each picture, while the package back touts the legendary performances of Peter Cushing, Oliver Reed and Janette Scott (huh?) but misses Herbert Lom entirely. Some phantoms can't get no respect.
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