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The 1999 Fright Film Festival: 
A Baker’s Dozen Horror Treats 
for Halloween on 
VHS, DVD and LaserDisc

Posted 8 October 1999

by Eddie Cockrell

As the DVD market heats up, many of the best examples of contemporary and classic horror are getting the “Special Edition” treatment, with remastered prints, added footage, director’s commentary and more. Thus, while all of the offerings below are or will be available on tape, the emphasis is on the newer format and the abundance of backstage riches it promises. As with the 1998 line-up, these current favorites are presented in alphabetical order to deflect charges of favoritism and the inevitable squabbles over exclusions. When known, release dates follow country and original year of theatrical premiere; no date means either the film is already available or the exact debut could not be determined at presstime.


The Blair Witch Project (USA, 1999, October 22)

This decade’s shining example of art by accident, this bonafide cultural phenomena is, of course, a low-budget psychological horror film about three student filmmakers who are lost in the woods of Maryland as they search for the title entity. But it is also very much about the stubborn sense of entitlement and deep self absorption endemic to today’s young people, traits instilled via contemporary child-rearing that doom these fledgling filmmakers as surely as the most determined ax-wielding maniac. Credit young directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez for having the discipline to jettison all the extraneous mockumentary material and focus on the real drama of poor, dumb, bratty Heather (“this can’t happen to us,” she wails, “we’re in America!”) and her two increasingly petulant crew members, Joshua and Michael, as they flail around the forest in search of something they clearly have no idea what to do with should they ever find it. Much of that unused material is set to be included on the DVD release (“newly discovered footage,” it’s being called), along with directors’ audio track, production notes, TV spots, exclusive web content for DVD ROM users and the 44 minute TV documentary “The Curse of the Blair Witch” (available as a separate tape in that format).

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Brain Damage: Special Edition (USA, 1987)

This genuinely unusual horror film stars Rick Herbst as Brian, an apartment-dwelling denizen who strikes a bizarre deal with a brain-sucking alien named Aylmer (who came, of course, from the building’s plumbing system): Aylmer injects a hallucinogenic blue fluid into Brian’s brain, and Brian takes Aylmer for “rides around the neighborhood” in search of victims. Director Frank Henenlotter’s gory parable of drug addiction and bachelor living (splatter films, they used to be called) has been given the spiffed-up restoration treatment, and the DVD includes an isolated music track as well as much of the explicit violence snipped from the initial American prints of the film. Also worth finding are two other titles by Henenlotter, Basket Case and Frankenhooker.

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The Dark Crystal (UK, 1982, October 5) 
(UK, 1986, October 12)

Admittedly more fantastic than horrific, these two 1980s features from Jim Henson predate the mythical elements of Star Wars (producer Gary Kurtz cut his teeth on Dark Crystal) by extending the innovations he pioneered on “Sesame Street” and “The Muppets.” In the Tolkienesque The Dark Crystal, a chunk of the magical title rock must be found by Gelfling Jen to thwart the evil plans of the domineering Skeksis. In Labryinth (which Henson said was inspired by the work of Maurice Sendak and was scripted by Monty Python member Terry Jones), David Bowie performs five songs as the Wizard King, who runs the City of Goblins where the little brother of young Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) has been stashed. The criticism most often levied against these films today is that they’re both paced very slowly, but rather than divert from the experience this actually aids the spellbinding nature of the movie, as the deliberate rhythms, combined with the intricate and elaborate special effects (somewhat primitive looking by today’s standards) help sustain the wondrous worlds explored in each. Even on the pan’n’scan tapes the transfers are sharp and lush, with the wide screen DVD editions featuring deleted scenes, making-of documentaries, production notes and trailers.  

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Deep Crimson (Profundo carmesi, Mexico, 1996)

In the late 1940s, a migraine-plagued, would-be lothario named Raymond Martinez Fernandez hooked up with lonely, overweight nurse Martha Beck to swindle old women out of their savings and kill them. Dubbed the “Lonely Hearts Murders” (the two were electrocuted in 1951), the story was first dramatized by Leonard Kastle in a marvelous low-budget film called The Honeymoon Killers in 1969. In 1996, esteemed Mexican director Arturo Ripstein turned his attention to the story, transferring the action to Mexico and creating a film of little actual violence but extraordinary cumulative creepiness. Opera singer Regina Orozco and Daniel Gimenez Cacho are fearlessly skanky as the two eccentric schemers, and the authentic milieu features a baseball-themed fleabag motel and lots of greasy, run-down sets. “Love is one of the major motors in human life,” Ripstein said of his troubling, memorable work. “When you’re in love, nothing else matters. [My film is about] two lovers who kill, not two killers who love.” Deep Crimson is one of the newest releases from New Yorker Video, continuing their dedication to making sure the best new foreign and documentary films are available to the American public.

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Frankenstein (USA, 1931)

On the heels of the success of Gods and Monsters, which told the speculative story of the last years of Frankenstein director James Whale, and The Mummy, which breathed new swashbuckling life into their Boris Karloff classic, Universal Pictures has cleaned up much of their vintage horror films for new tape and DVD releases. Featuring a bit of footage trimmed from the original release prints as well as a terrific commentary track recorded by film historian Rudy Behlmer, a historical documentary called “The Frankenstein Files: How Hollywood Made a Monster” by David J. Skal, a vintage spoof called Boo and other goodies, this is the definitive version of a classic film. On a related topic, Hollywood’s original version of Dracula (USA, 1931) is also newly available in a version scored by Philip Glass.

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Halloween: Restored Limited Edition (USA, 1978)

Time has been very good to John Carpenter’s seminal horror film about a crazed maniac stalking babysitters, due in large part to the director’s measured eye for space and movement and the remarkable, fluid camerawork of the great Dean Cundey. Both men are part of the engrossing documentary Halloween Unmasked 2000 (narrated by Dee Snider, of all people), which reveals such interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits as the origins of The Shape’s mask (William Shatner’s face with the eyeholes made bigger), the location of the Illinois town (Pasadena, California) and the length and cost of the shoot (four weeks and $300,000). This limited edition version is actually a two-disc set, with the wide screen and full frame presentations supplemented by the extras on disc one and the slightly edited television version on disc two—which features four additional (and terrific) scenes shot during the making of Halloween II to, uh, flesh out the running time for TV. A must for any casual horror collection and the (hopefully) final word in packaging for an important movie. 

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Idle Hands (USA, 1999)

Genial, self-absorbed stoner dude Anton (Devon Sawa) plays the first 25 minutes of this, uh, genial, slightly stoned (and very self-absorbed) horror spoof hanging around the house where his parents have been messily killed and mounted as part of the elaborate Halloween decorations his Mom so liked. Turns out he did it with a right hand possessed by something or other, and he promptly dispatches his slacker buddies Mick (Seth Green) and Pack (Eldon Henson). Stylishly gory in a goofy kind of way, the film has enough of a sense of humor to have lots of TV clips of hands but not enough confidence in its own premise to underplay anything. Vivica A. Fox is the descendant of Druid priestesses sworn to kill the evil force who tools around in a vintage silver Airstream motor home. Really. The soundtrack features music by Blink 182, Rob Zombie, Zebrahead and the Offspring as the Halloween dance band doing a cover of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” In addition to the full-frame VHS there’s a Spanish-subtitled tape and a bare bones DVD release.

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The Mummy (USA, 1999; UK, 1959; USA, 1932)

A fairly senseless but hugely entertaining update of the franchise begun by Universal in 1932, the 1999 version of The Mummy is tonally uneven but pulpy fun made much more visceral than it has any right to be by Jerry Goldsmith’s swashbuckling score and an impressive array of special effects utilized to imaginative and often witty effect. While Peter Cushing is no Brendan Fraser, Terence Young’s British entry in the franchise, the Hammer Films-produced 1959 version, features some eye-catching color cinematography as well as a soulful performance by Christopher Lee as the monster. But the best of the bunch remains the original 1932 Universal version starring Boris Karloff, white-hot from his success in Frankenstein, as the vengeful bundle of rags. Karl Freund’s atmospheric cinematography is unmatched by subsequent versions (you do know, of course, that Freund went on to pioneer the multiple camera setup for TV sitcoms with “I Love Lucy,” don’t you?), making this the real keeper of the bunch.

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The Nightmare on Elm Street Collection (USA, 1984-1994)

Having not been much of a fan of this popular franchise from writer-director Wes Craven (who went on to do Scream), it’s impossible for this writer to recommend the heavy tariff for the entire box set ($130 retail on DVD, less for the tapes). Still, Johnny Depp was the star of the innovative original, and Chuck Russell’s Dream Warriors (the third title in the series) is generally considered to be the best of the rest—closely followed by Craven’s own New Nightmare. The most promising disc in the set looks to be “The Nightmare Series Encyclopedia,” which includes copious interviews with directors, cast and crew, music videos, theatrical trailers, and specialized DVD ROM content. Of course, with each released title available as separate tapes or discs, the fan can pick and choose his or her favorites. And just because Freddy Krueger seems an awfully mannered character today doesn’t mean that he hasn’t had the same effect on a whole generation of moviegoers that Psycho’s shower scene had on an earlier group of impressionable moviegoers.

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Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Limited Edition 
    (USA, 1968)

“They’re dead, they’re all messed up,” says a local of the mysterious zombie invasion of rural Pennsylvania in George Romero’s immortal 1968 classic of the genre, and collectors may be forgiven the confusion surrounding this 30th anniversary limited edition, the description of which is pretty messed up itself. Essentially, here’s what you get: disc one has two versions of the film, the 30th anni edition with about 15 minutes of new footage integrated into it by John A. Russo (the original’s co-writer and hotheaded Harry), original producer Russ Streiner and Bill Hinzman (who played—and plays—the pasty-faced cemetery zombie in the original). It’s an interesting, if somewhat unorthodox idea, but it works, sort of, due primarily to the virtually pristine restoration of the original film, which looks so stunning that it really is difficult to sort the new scenes from the old. Yet the other version of the film on disc one is the keeper, a 1998 edition of the original 90 minute version of the film with a fine new score by one Scott Vladimir Licina, who plays a bald, raving priest in the new scenes from the other version. Confused? Wait, there’s more: disc two is a CD of Licina’s score, and the package comes with a “collector’s booklet” featuring annoyingly self-congratulatory interviews with the players mentioned above. There’s also a documentary on the filming of the new footage and the usual clutch of commentaries, stills galleries and trailers, but if you’re looking for Romero, his only appearance is in the film itself, as the turtlenecked reporter hounding the experts in a scene filmed in front of the Capitol inWashington. As with Halloween, this release comes courtesy of Anchor Bay Entertainment, one of the leaders in this kind of DVD reissue.

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Phantasm: Special Edition (USA, 1979)

“I just don’t get off on funerals, man, they give me the creeps,” says one of two brothers who band together with a blues-strumming ice cream man to fight suspicious doings at the Morningside Cemetery and the funeral parlor on it’s grounds—events that include a flying metal sphere that bores into people’s brains, an army of hooded, mutated dwarfs and an airborne bug that just won’t quit. As much of an art film as a horror movie, this dreamlike, drily funny genre exercise has a love-it-or-hate-it reputation which makes it a decided guilty pleasure. The Special Edition DVD includes a widescreen transfer of the film, 10 minutes of deleted scenes, promotional interviews, commentary by writer-director Don Coscarelli and a few of the actors, as well as an introduction by Angus “The Tall Man” Scrimm. There are two sequels, but the genuine novelty of the concept can’t really sustain itself.

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Thesis (Tesis, Spain, 1996)

You’ll have to search a bit for this one, but the effort will be worth it. Winner of a Goya (the Spanish Oscar) for Best New Actor (Fele Martinez) and the Grand Prize of European Fantasy Film in Silver from the Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, Thesis stars Ana Torrent as a student who investigates a series of strange crimes at her university and discovers a conspiracy that traffics in snuff filmmaking. Director Alejandro Amenabar’s tangibly European psychological thriller has often been compared to the work of Hitchcock, and it’d be fair to throw a bit of Roman Polanski in the mix as well. Vastly better than that strange Nicolas Cage movie 8mm at exploring the seamier side of moviemaking and possessed of an audacious, finely calibrated black humor, Thesis heralds the arrival of an exciting new talent in Amenabar and is indicative of the kind of bold genre filmmaking currently emerging from Spain.

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Young Frankenstein (USA, 1974)

Mel Brooks’ beloved spoof of Universal horror films in general and The Bride of Frankenstein in particular gets the long-overdue restoration treatment that restores the wide screen ratio of Gerald Hirschfeld’s gorgeous, velvety black and white cinematography and will only enrich the movie’s justified reputation as among the funniest movies ever made. The DVD extras include seven deleted scenes (none of which play well enough to second-guess their exclusion from the release print), funny and weird interview segments with Marty Feldman, Gene Wilder and Cloris Leachman talking to a Mexican journalist who often forgets to translate his questions into English (they all manage to answer them anyway), a 36 minute making-of documentary called “Making Frankensense of Young Frankenstein” and the usual assortment of trailers and extras. Although he spends a lot of time giving invaluable background information on the character actors in the film (and hinting at an on-set romance between Wilder and Teri Garr), Brooks’ whacked-out commentary track is often downright subdued and thus strange, almost as if he’s reluctant to admit the film’s importance. And important it is, with Wilder (who also wrote the film in collaboration with Brooks) giving a spot-on reading of Frederick Frankenstein (“that’s Frahnkensteen,” he corrects nearly everybody) and that great supporting cast adding surreal touches to the proceedings (Kenneth Mars is great as the local Burgermeister, and of course there’s Gene Hackman as the blind hermit).

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