It’s the most horrible time of the year, so let’s get right to the gory goods on DVD and Blu-ray this season, starting with the latest Thomas the Tank Engine adventure, King of the Railway, and The Little Mermaid.
Thomas…wait, whoa, huh? Well, your Halloween may be filled with ghosts and goblins, but I’ve got kids ages two and five, and they’re not quite ready for the hard stuff. I tried, but, to Dad’s disappointment, they didn’t want to dress up as monsters this year. Inspired by the latest “feature-length” (62 minutes) adventure of Thomas, I’ve got a train to catch to preschool with Ryan in the am. The film, which has grown on me now that I’ve adjusted to the absence of Michael Brandon’s familiar narrating voice, has been in active rotation for a few weeks now, and I have to say that Thomas in Blu-ray clarity is pretty much a hallucinogenic experience. Oh, and that I’m resigned to buying my boy Thomas tracks for Christmas, thanks to those front-loaded commercials.
Sorry, Ariel, but at the 11th hour Larissa kicked you to the curb in favor of a generic pink princess costume, with wings (the deal-sealer). But we’re loving The Little Mermaid, the movie that returned Disney to the animated musical map, finally in ship-shape form after a water-logged DVD release or two. Strong colors, bright songs, good laughs, a tear or two…you don’t mind watching it 200 times a week, and if you haven’t seen it since its original theatrical run in 1989 you haven’t seen it looking or sounding so robust.
I’m hoping the Scholastic Storybook Treasures Halloween Stories Collection (Vol. 2) will serve as a gateway drug for my kids. The three-DVD set has 14 tales, some of them sing-along, that have delighted my kids for weeks, and keep me amused, too. (I’m good at singing “Dem Bones” now.) There’s painless educational content amidst the mild mayhem, and I appreciate the “read along” feature, good for my kids as they take their first steps toward literacy. I’m not sure what “The Erie Canal” and “Hush Little Baby” have to do with the day at hand, other than a little play on words with “Eerie,” but, hey, they’re classics that every kid should know, and all of the selections (a multiethnic bunch, some all the way from New Zealand) are attractively and inventively designed, with narration from the likes of Joan Allen, Rita Moreno, and Maria Conchita Alonso. I should add while my children have been unaffected, those seemingly disembodied live-action hands that open “Teeny-Tiny and the Witch Woman” have haunted me for weeks. Shudder.
Moving rigbt along…definitely not for kids is Curse of Chucky, a roots revival for the beloved 25-year-old character, who’d gotten a bit tatty with the woozily comic sequels. In an October rather bereft of Halloween product at the movies you’d think this would’ve been a contender, but instead it’s gone straight to video, a shame as it’s pretty good. Here the devil doll is let loose among a family already riven by dysfunction, with a new paraplegic playmate played by Fiona Dourif, the daughter of Chucky chatter Brad Dourif. There are more screams than laughs this time, restoring a balance of terror to a six-film series that seemed to have petered out in 2004, and the ending neatly brings matters full circle. Some good supplements, too, for a disc that could easily have been a throwaway.
The Criterion Collection is certainly flying its freak flag higher these past few weeks. We’ve seen special editions of Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, plus the disc debut of The Uninvited (1944), that rare spooky movie during the war years, and a welcome rediscovery. It’s also upgraded to Blu one of my very favorites, Georges Franju’s stylized, influential, and still unnerving Eyes Without a Face (1960), face-graft horror that is way more than just the title of a Billy Idol song from your youth. My pick hit for Halloween, the fine DVD supplements have expanded to include an interview with star Edith Scob, who delighted cinephiles the world over when she once more put on that legendary mask in last year’s Holy Motors.
The horripilating hits just keep coming from Scream Factory, which is working its way through the back catalog of John Carpenter, resurrecting 80s favorites like Lifeforce and The Howling, and putting together good extras to supplement more questionable titles like 1982’s Swamp Thing, which does have its charms. Underrated in 1985 was George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, which never got the love of its predecessors but stands taller today, even as The Walking Dead has shifted the goalposts for zombie mayhem in an entirely unexpected televised direction. (I recall watching a cut print of Night of the Living Dead on a late-night broadcast in 1979 and being scared to death; kids today have it so easy.) The acting and writing are uneven yet the ideas are solid, the gore is plentiful and still outrageous, and Bub the zombie is a likable fellow. A welcome addition to the Scream stable, which keeps exhuming half-forgotten gems from the Golden Era of my misspent multiplex youth.
I can’t get with the new stuff. Directors who have done good work on their own come to grief in the found footage shockers V/H/S and V/H/S/2, which with their intentionally crude, distressed aesthetic I find hard to watch. (VHS, which is partly how we got our Golden Era kicks, didn’t look that cruddy.) But “Safe Haven,” a satanic story that’s part of the sequel, is given a lift by hellzapoppin Raid: Redemption helmer Gareth Evans, and on the whole the sequel is easier to take. A third helping I’m not so sure about.
Satan rears his ugly head, humorously, in This is the End, an It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World of contemporary comics that proves my theory that every filmmaker, even Seth Rogen, eventually makes his or her own apocalypse story. The inbred life-in-the-LA-fishbowl shenanigans, R-rated and unapologetic, are a little wearying in that school-of-Judd-Apatow way, where everyone tries to outhip and outlip one another, yet I laughed a lot anyway, mostly at a riot grrl Emma Watson. Of James Franco’s 537 credits this year this is definitely a keeper.
Go old wave with the Warner Archive, which has brought us another chestnut from the WWII era, The Beast with Five Fingers (1946), which has a disembodied hand and an unhinged Peter Lorre for jolts. I’m happy that the Archive has hauled up two 60s credits that somehow escaped me all these years, Tormented (1960) and The Frozen Dead (1966). In the former, director Bert I. Gordon (“Mr. B.I.G”) gives the colossal men that were his stock in trade a break for a morbid ghost story centered on guilt and a few clumsy but well-meant shocks. It’s most interesting as a study in acting styles, with the stalwart Richard Carlson, of many 50s creature features, kept on his toes by insinuating Stanley Kubrick favorite Joe Turkel (The Shining). Long available only in black and white but restored to its original color, The Frozen Dead is a titillating concoction of curiosities, including undead Nazi soldiers prepped for a Fourth Reich by a German-accented Dana Andrews and an unhappy talking girl head in a box, who moans “Bury me!” in queasy scenes that stick to your ribs. Future star Edward Fox, cast as one of the soldiers, must have wondered why well-established brother James couldn’t scrounge up better jobs for him.
I close my survey with more of the night he came home, as Carpenter’s beloved Halloween gets a 35th (!) anniversary edition that cynics say will be definitive until a 40th birthday transfer. But this one, supervised (not for the first time, but the first time on Blu-ray) by DP Dean Cundey, looks a fright, and I mean that in the best possible way. Seeming to solve the “Haddonfield problem” (the IL-set movie was shot in Pasadena, CA, something the endless summer foliage betrays) by dialing down the skies to a grayer, fall-like cast, Cundey brings out unseen textures colorwise, making furniture and household knickknacks pop in unobtrusive, unfamiliar ways. It’s quietly revelatory, and some new extras spotlighting Jamie Lee Curtis (including a fannish doc and a commentary with her and Carpenter) join some quite old ones. Is this how Halloween should look? I’m satisfied–but I’ll always have a soft spot for the low-res, panned/scanned presentation I watched with my mom when the movie debuted on HBO in early 1980.