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Everything You Need to Know About Horror on DVD

The blog raises from the dead and other Halloween treats
It's almost Halloween...

...well, maybe it's not that close but the department stores would certainly have you believe that based on all the costumes and candy taking up space in the aisles. But who wants to spend time at the stores anyway, especially with so many killer releases either out now or on their way soon. Things have been picking up here at DVD Stalk central lately. Don't believe me? Check out the DVD Stalk blog which has been revived from the dead. This month we'll be featuring input every weekday from the fine folks over at Troma! If that doesn't tickle your fancy, well, maybe your fancy isn't tickleish enough - regardless, some good stuff has hit the shelves the last few weeks, so without further ado, let's get right in to the...

Recent Horror DVD Review Highlights!

Last month we covered the Syanpse release of The Stepfather II, a fine disc in its own right, but let's face it, the original is still the best and Shout! Factory have rolled out the red carpet with their special edion release of the finest thing that Terry O'Quinn has ever done (and yeah, that includes LOST). The always enjoyable Glenn 'DVD Savant' Erickson took a look at Shout!'s efforts and found that "The original The Stepfather from 1987 need not claim Cult status to defend itself; it was recognized from the get-go as a superior horror thriller. The elements all click, and not because of blind chance. The intelligent script relies on an interesting character hook with universal appeal. The late 1980s was a time when the notion of family values had a loud voice in the cultural debate; I think that's when I first became aware of the term "dysfunctional family". Although the film's means are modest it gets a real grip on the audience; more money wouldn't make it better. The picture is almost perfect just as it is. Shout! Factory's DVD of The Stepfather is a good-looking enhanced transfer that restores cameraman John Lindley's beautiful images of the fall season in the great Northwest -- the colorful red and orange leaves add to the aura of domestic peace. Lindley would later DP the fascinating Pleasantville , a movie even more directly concerned with the illusions of the traditional family as propagated in mass media culture. Director Joseph Rubin is on hand for an okay commentary. He assigns actual credit to the various writers, after acknowledging the WGA's virtual tyranny over the subject (tyranny is my word, not Ruben's). The interview docu The Stepfather Chronicles is a bit overlong but uncovers a goodly number of interesting facts. The exteriors were filmed in near-freezing conditions, something well disguised by both the camerawork and the actors. To shoot the happy-neighbor backyard picnic scene, the crew first had to break up frozen ice. Why nobody's breath is visible is a mystery. Director Ruben, actor Jill Schoelen, the producer and screenwriter contribute. Along the way we see some of the glowing reviews garnered by the film on its first release. Word of mouth was excellent, but as The Stepfather wasn't picked up by a major distributor, most of us caught up with it on cable TV." Our, depending on your age, VHS. Regardless, it's a very solid release of a criminally underrated movie now the subject of a glossy PG-13 remake. Sigh.


While the Stepfather franchise may have been around for a while, Warner Premiere unleashes a new stalk and slash killer with Babyface, the freakish antagonist of their latest direct to DVD horror offering, The Hills Run Red (not to be confused with the Spaghetti Western of the same name). Tyler Foster got an early look at the disc and says " In the 1980's, during the heyday of Friday the 13th , watching people get splattered was kinda funny, and I don't just mean when Jason punches someone's head off in Jason Takes Manhattan or when Freddy fires up his Nintendo Power Glove in Freddy's Dead . When Kevin Bacon gets an arrow jabbed through his neck, it's ridiculous and amusing, because all he does is pull a shocked expression and gurgle a little bit. These days, "torture porn" has turned the violence realistic, but the real problem with these movies is excess. It's not that I'm offended or disgusted by the intensely violent sights the movie has in store, but it's that it's so protracted that the pained screams of innocent victims becomes tiring white noise. Director David Parker has mentioned online that a whole 10 minutes got cut out, but this is still one of the more graphic films I've seen in a long time, and I don't know how 10 minutes of unrated footage would noticeably add to the film's already-high on-screen atrocity content. The film has a doozy of an R-rating: strong bloody horror violence and torture, grisly images, sexual content, nudity, language and some drug use. There's even a sticker on the front of the plastic wrap as a secondary reminder, in case someone with a vision problem glimpses the axe-wielding killer Babyface on the front and thinks this is good for the grandkids. It's a shame, then, that it feels like a front, a pre-emptive strike against PG-13 horror. Some of the most visceral moments in The Hills Run Red are the shortest and least-graphic ones. Once again, The Hills Have Red is indeed a cut above most of what passes for horror these days. It's fun in spurts and contains plenty of bloodletting and exposed skin to please the genre faithful. In fact, watching the making-of featurette after the movie even went a ways towards improving my mild reaction to the movie. It's just not that great in the bigger picture -- the "film critic" picture, if you will. Rent it if you've heard good things, but keep your expectations in check." If Tyler sounds amazingly so-so on this one, you can't blame him. The movie has its moments but it's not the instant horror classic that marketing campaign behind it would have you believe.

A little more interesting is the recent Dark Sky films DVD debut of Deadgirl. Let's cut right to the chase with this one and take a look at Thomas Spurlin's review where he wrote "Let's make this clear: Deadgirl has an abundance of imaginative force riding behind it, something thoroughly appreciated in the drooping sector of American horror. It cooks up a crazy yet believable story, offers an impressive array of refined makeup work, and consistently dabbles in thoughtfulness about the mentality of forlorn teenage men. All these facts, as well as a promising trailer reflecting on coming-of-age elements within its creepy premise, make it all the more infuriating to see the potential behind Marcel Sarmiento and Gadi Harel's curious zombie flick fall flat due to stilted dialogue and broken logic -- creating a horror film about a pretty, well, disturbing topic that's not quite as chilling or as highbrow as it could've been. First-rate makeup for our zombie sex-slave and surprising musical scoring from Joseph Bauer dress it up nicely, along with photography by way of the same model of camera (or one exceedingly similar) used in Cloverfield , but it doesn't make up for haphazard attention to thematic and situational detail -- leaving a gruesome slab of all-too-annoying questions and doubts amid atmosphere-driven horror. Don't even get me started on this film's horrendous grasp on tire irons and their effect on the cranial cavity, where a blow to the gut with a baseball bat knocks a guy out while a human head can take a blood-letting shot to the back of the scalp without even a flicker of lost consciousness. Creativity and cleverness can only go so far in masking gaps in logic.It really doesn't help that we care so little for the characters in Deadgirl , an important factor for this horror / tense drama hybrid. We question Ricky's presupposed "good guy" convictions after he plainly surrenders to J.T.'s whims and offers a pinky-swear to keep this their special little secret -- something we as an audience quickly cry foul on. See, his somewhat pure heart has a soft spot for a popular red-haired girl named Johanna, so the prospect of fooling around with a chained-up piece of rotting meat locked away in an insane asylum doesn't make sense to him. But he certainly won't make an effort to stand up for how wrong it is. He's an undeniably weak character in a vile cesspool of ignorant wackjobs, crippling any attempts at dramatic poise amid this macabre erotic fixation -- and the cascade of perverted, bleak, and macabre answers to Deadgirl 's provocative questioning simply isn't convincing. Taboo and interesting, sure, but not convincing."

Remakes always cause a stir in horror fandom - we know most of them stink. Continuing that grand tradition is the recent straight to video remake of Larry Cohen's seventies classic, It's Alive!, argueably the coolest killer baby movie ever made. Brian Orndorf took one for the team when he sat down with the DVD, recently issued by First Look Pictures. Here's what Brian had to say: "Let's be clear here: "It's Alive" wasn't some precious genre classic that needs a great deal of defending. In fact, its potency has already been thoroughly drained by creator Cohen, who pulled together two sequels to his original picture, cashing in while the gettin' was good. Oddly, Cohen takes a co-screenwriting credit on the new picture, but the end product isn't his doing. Instead the remake is funneled through director Josef Rusnak, a filmmaker with a questionable track record in the industry, previously helming pictures such as "The Thirteenth Floor" and "The Art of War II." Cohen is more of a bleak exploitation master, while Rusnak is a forgettable technician of mediocrity, and his ineffective touch ruins the delicious highs of absurdity that could've made this remake shine. The new "It's Alive" is an anti-abortion parable, pitting Lenore against her worst fears as reluctant mother. It's a juicy concept, ripe for a profound psychological exploration, but in the Rusnak's hands, the concept is only half-heartedly executed. The director is bending the material back to more conventional ground, leaning on gore and tepid suspense sequences to deliver a basic horror experience, not an exceptional one. "It's Alive" isn't scary or weird, failing to create any impression besides boredom, and the cast is left out in the cold trying to convey a sense of panic with little cinematic energy to back up their efforts. They also suffer a specific humiliation with the film's looping overdose, breaking the moment with every kung-fu matinee moment of thickly dubbed coverage. "It's Alive," running just under 80 minutes, doesn't enjoy much in the way of momentum. The emotions have also been trimmed from the film, with Lenore facing imaginable terror and motherly revelation, only to convey a slight sense of dismay, as if she burnt bake sale cookies. Daniel's flesh-tearing antics are equally as off-putting, mostly because the CGI here is terrible. It's hard to encourage mind-bending terror when the infant looks no better than the Dancing Baby from "Ally McBeal." Ouch.

Proving that some classics are always worth revisiting, Jamie S. Rich dove deep into the treasure trove that is the Lionsgate DVD reissue of the ultra-cool Mad Monster Party. "Mad Monster Party is a silly musical comedy brought to life by the signature Rankin-Bass Animagic style, a combination of puppets and stop-motion that is probably best known from the various Christmas specials the studio put together and that still get annual airings on the networks. This theatrical feature was co-written by Mad Magazine -pioneer Harvey Kurtzman, and it features character designs by his Mad cohort Jack Davis. Boris Karloff stars as the lead vocal talent, playing Baron von Frankenstein, a scientist on the Island of Evil who has just discovered the secret of anti-matter, the destructive counterpart to the reanimation tech that allowed him to bring a man back to life as a monster. That creature still lives on the island with the Baron, alongside its mate, a character voiced by and physically modeled after comedienne Phyllis Diller. Full of goofball gags and all kinds of horror movie puns, Mad Monster Party is an antiquated but still very fun kid's picture that, though mostly tame, also has a few winks at the grown-ups in the audience. Francesca is clearly a character designed to appeal to the fathers doing their matinee duty. She delivers the occasional double entendre and even ends up getting stripped down to her underthings in one cat fight with the Monster's Mate (complete with cat sounds). Certain caricatures are also likely to only mean anything to film buffs, with the Baron's toady Tetch having been modeled after Peter Lorre and the Invisible Man having a little Sydney Greenstreet in him. There is also a parody of longhaired rock bands and the dance crazes they manufactured, with the bony Little Tibia and the Fibias performing "Do the Mummy." This and all the other songs, which are mostly in a more easy-listening pop style, hold up surprisingly well, though it's interesting to note that most of them have nothing to do with the fright flick theme. Highly Recommended. Yes, there is some nostalgia at play in my adoration of Mad Monster Party , so apply whatever grains of salt you will, but I think there is an appeal to this wonderfully odd animated comedy that shines even brighter than the glow of memory. Rankin-Bass' stop-motion gathering of the famous monsters from cinema past is a fun and kooky flick, blessed with the off-kilter talents of Mad Magazine alumni Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis, memorable songs by Maury Laws, and the groovy 1960s vibe of the character designs, now considered retro but just as classically cool as they ever were. If you already own this movie on DVD, it's up to you whether you think the different extras are enough to replace or supplement your older discs (it's really an even split, I'd say), but on its own, this new "Special Edition" is very good and quite essential."

High Def Horror Highlights

Blue Underground has done the Lord's work and released the first ever Lucio Fulci film on Blu-ray with their excellent offering of his still controversial slasher picture, The New York Ripper. Quite possibly the only giallo to feature a killer who talks like a duck, it's a picture that holds up well in terms of suspense and shock value but which also serves as a great time capsule to the New York City that used to be. Stuart Galbraith IV was keen on this release, writing "Whether you're a native New Yorker or not, the film offers endlessly fascinating, unblinking glimpses of the city as it was nearly 30 years ago, especially its views of pre-gentrified Times Square and 42nd Street, thoroughfares awash in sex shops and grindhouse movie theaters. You may want to linger as I did, studying the posters and marquees promoting such films as 5 Fingers of Death , 60-Second Assassin , and Revenge of the Bushido Blade . The film also spends a lot of time on the Staten Island Ferry, and in New York's subway system at a time when every square inch of every subway car seemed covered in graffiti. Few American movies offered such an unvarnished look at the city as this does. Directed by Lucio Fulci, The New York Ripper relies on a lot of hand-held and probing zoom shots, but these never get in the way of the story as they do with the prolific Jess Franco, who was shooting like-minded films under similar circumstances. The film tries hard to stay one step ahead of the viewer; it doesn't really succeed, but deserves points for sincerely trying. Though presented on a 25GB single-layer disc, the all-region , uncut Blu-ray of The New York Ripper looks outstanding nonetheless. Mastered from its original camera negative (with English-language title elements), the image is damage and dirt-free and razor sharp with a pleasing level of film grain and good color. The IMDb lists the 2.35:1 release as Techniscope and that may account for the level of grain and lack of anamorphic distortion/softness, though if so this would have to have been one of the last features shot in this format. In any case, it looks just great throughout. If you're a fan of this kind of sleazy horror-thriller, you'll agree that Blue Underground's The New York Ripper is one of the year's major genre releases, but you'll also be forgiven if the its subject matter and extreme graphic violence keeps you away. For fans though, this comes Highly Recommended." The New York Ripper special edition has also been released on standard def DVD from Blue Underground as well, containing the same extra features as this Blu-ray release.

Fox has also ponied up the HD horror this month, throwing a few MGM catalogue titles out on Blu-ray that fans have been waiting for. The most impressive of the lot is The Hannibal Lecter Collection featuring Manhunter, The Silence Of The Lambs and Hannibal. Thomas once again check this release out writing " Thomas Harris' creation, the conniving yet brilliant killer Hannibal Lecter, has lived a full cinematic life. Though he made his first appearance in 1986 with an entrancing turn from Brian Cox, he only reached iconic status when Anthony Hopkins' garnered an Academy Award for his performance as the cannibalistic doctor -- as well as the label for the shortest stretch of time that an actor has performed to win a Best Actor Oscar. Essentially, Hannibal Lecter is, quite possibly, the most illustrious and captivating supporting character to date. Though he's oftentimes far beyond arm's reach and rarely in our direct eyesight at the cinema, his presence can almost collectively be felt from start to finish in a film with barely a mention of his name. MGM have put together a collection of the character's first three films -- Manhunter , The Silence of the Lambs , and Hannibal -- in a rich Blu-ray package that presents each one in the best visual and aural offerings to date. What we've got here are two exquisite films ( Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs ) and one mediocre one ( Hannibal ), all three encompassing Thomas Harris' morbid Hannibal Lecter universe. However, we've already got one of these on Blu-ray, which leaves those who have already snagged the superior film out of the bunch a little high and dry. With that in mind, it'll all depend on how much the other two will be worth, especially since the best of these films can be readily found as a standalone release for $10-15. Either way, this set comes firmly Recommended for those who don't already own The Silence of the Lambs -- ratcheting the praise a little lower for those that already do.

Other Horror DVD's You Might Have Missed

Another excellent release from Shout! Factory to hit shelves soon is their new two disc release of Takashi Miike's still frightening Audition. Available on DVD and Blu-ray, they've rolled out the red carpet for this title and rightly so. Thomas Spurlin wrote " Japanese director Takashi Miike has been branded one of the genre's most gripping auteurs for many reasons, but the primary one comes packaged in a blood-soaked, barbed-wire little firecracker entitled Audition (Odishon) . Yet, you'd be very hard-pressed to believe such a statement by watching the first half of the film. Cleverly disguised as a family story with little more than a dark secret lying underneath, though Takashi Miike fans know better, it finally explodes after impatiently watching the fuse inch closer and closer to the conclusion. But the explosion, in all its frightening morbidity, likely won't leave your thoughts for many days afterward -- showcasing that Audition 's seemingly deflated character work was merely the framework for a masterful slow-burning nightmare. As Audition quickly begins to unspool at its spellbinding third act, the look of chaotic disbelief on fresh watchers' faces is the stuff horror legends are made of. It builds into something utterly terrifying and grisly within a whirlwind barrage of abrasive surreality, swelling with near-unbearable tension as its climax -- heralded by many as one of the most frightening and grotesque scenes in all of horror -- works its masochistic magic. Time after time in front of this arresting little horror masterwork, it has yet to fail in causing my head to spin in a lightheaded stupor at its pinnacle of exploitative, grindhouse-style monstrosity. Superb acting and taut, shiver-inducing production values make its improbable constriction in narrative seem much more viable than we'd ever really want it to, while brandishing returners to its guttural intensity as near-masochists. A thought arises before each screening of Audition , something to the tune of "Why on earth should this be watched again ?" The answer lies in Takashi Miike's excellence in manipulating our perception of the normal into anything but, mounting into a shocking horror classic that endures because of its ability to lure us into a nightmare -- then tear our senses to shreds. Audition has had a bit of a sordid history in releases in the United States, all of which comes answered from Shout Factory with a thoroughly satisfying Blu-ray presentation. Sporting a flawed yet fluidly natural visual treatment and a great duo of lossless tracks, the film certainly looks leaps and bounds better than its previous presentations -- while also comes equipped with a few strong extras, including a new commentary with Miike and several enlightening new interviews with the cast. Though it has a few source print issues and lacks one or two extras from the previous edition (scene-specific commentary from Miike, Ryu Murakami interview), this bolstered high-definition presentation of Audition comes Highly Recommended -- both for its drastically improved quality in visuals and for the simple fact that it's one of the more nerve-rattling horror films ever created." 

John Carpenter may not have released too much over the last few years but Universal knows his back catalogue is still popular with horror fans and for good reason. He's made some of the best American horror pictures in the history of the genre, and now three of them are available alongside one of his lesser efforts in the four film collection John Carpenter: The Master Of Fear. Here's what Tyler Foster had to say: "The power of a John Carpenter film is its twisted sense of objectivity. In Halloween, there's nothing about the way the characters are shot or the action is filmed that gives you any hint about what Carpenter himself thinks or feels about the events he's showcasing. It's so impersonal (in a good way) that the film plays like a hidden-camera documentary, standing back from the action and just watching. Even when some of Carpenter's work lets in a bit of dark humor, it reaches the audience through the characters and their outlook on the situation. Carpenter was in his prime in the late 70's and early 80's, directing a veritable string of classics that include Assault on Precinct 13, the aforementioned Halloween and Escape From New York. It's a shame that it's been nearly a decade since the man's made a feature film, and that his last one, 2001's Ghosts of Mars, was atrocious. Luckily, John Carpenter is, as I write this, in production on a new movie (The Ward, out in 2010), and I've heard good things about his "Masters of Horror" episodes. After quietly canceling a previously-planned triple feature, Universal (perhaps in preparation for The Ward, or in response to remakes of pretty much all of the guy's movies) has bundled all four of their Carpenter pictures into a single 2-disc set titled John Carpenter: Master of Fear. The Thing opened to low box-office in 1982. It was released against E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial , and the PG-rated, happy alien story raked in the dough. Almost 30 years later, the film has rightfully taken its place as a science fiction and horror classic, with that palpable paranoia as potent as ever every time I see it. Despite its deadly title creature, The Thing is a prime example of man vs. man, a film as chilling and unforgiving as its setting. I really like Prince of Darkness . So far, I've only seen it twice, and I can already feel it growing on me. By the time I watch it again I may rank it up against Carpenter's best pictures. A set like Master of Fear is the perfect place for the movie; viewers will likely buy the set for The Thing , but perhaps Prince of Darkness will surprise them, and over time it will stand on its own amongst the director's memorable catalog. They Live , even when it's making a point, is extremely entertaining; despite the satire, this is an unpretentious blast of anti-alien mayhem, shot with style and containing more attitude than acting. The movie wears its infamous one-liner like a badge of honor: They Live has come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and it's all out of bubblegum." But what baout Village of the Damned? " By the time the movie ends, there's no more horror to be had in the demon kids and their fiery eyes, and the best thing Village of the Damned does past the halfway mark is end on a fairly solid note. It's not the worst film in Carpenter's oeuvre -- in fact, it's mildly fascinating to try to figure out what exactly went wrong -- but it's the easily the weakest one in this collection." All in all, a pretty solid offering from Universal, though the extras aren't particularly exciting. Bring this one home, Tyler! " I feel both ways about this collection. A casual movie lover or a new inductee into the John Carpenter fan club should also enjoy the set for what it is: two classics, one excellent film and an extra Carpenter for free in an attractive, affordable package, and anyone who's been hanging onto the original DVD of The Thing all this time doesn't have the others should pick this set up for not one but two leaps forward in picture quality, but to get the other three Carpenter films in a bundle. On that level, it is highly recommended -- I love extras, but even without The Thing 's classic documentary or audio commentary, the cost coupled with such great movies really makes this a steal. For hardcore fans, though, there's nothing new here...we can hope by the time Blu-Rays roll around, Universal will wise up and finally license the extras available in the UK for our consumption."

.


Cineplex Scares: Current And Upcoming Theatrical Horror



Other Horror DVDs & Blu-ray's Released in the Past Month

   

 


Spotlight On Scary TV!

A lot of horror fans sell TV horror short, but there's some good stuff out there if you're willing to invest the time. Obviously getting into a long running series takes more effort than sitting down with a ninety minute feature. DVD Stalk has whittled down a few worthy releases for your humble consideration this fine fall, so without further ado...

Castle The Complete First Season - Jamie S. Rich

I enter any piece of entertainment that uses a writer as a character with a healthy skepticism. I suppose it's a little like being an emergency room doctor watching ER . Everything wrong with the portrayal and just how much of the inherent drama has been cranked to 11 to make it more exciting is going to be glaringly obvious to the expert. The latter is going to be doubly so for a story about a writer, as most of our lives are rather dull and solitary. Have you ever noticed how many of us joke about not wearing pants when we work? It's because it's not a joke, we generally sit around our homes all day typing, so why get dressed? (Though, I have my trousers on now. I had to go to the library earlier. Thrilling!) The fact that writers get their own profession wrong is a crazy irony, given that if there is one thing every scribe should know, it's the life of a writer. I guess even guys who invent fiction for a living need some wish fulfillment. Still, it's also kind of a lazy choice. What do you write about when you have nothing to write about? Hmmm, I know, a guy with nothing to write about! In the first scene of author Jonathan Ames' new HBO show, Bored to Death , the character he has seemingly based on himself (he didn't even change the name) laments how hard the second novel is to write and how it's screwing up his relationships. I almost right then wrote iTunes to see if they'd take their free download back.

That said, I think every writer should be allowed at least one piece of work about a writer. One and no more. I've taken mine, and thank goodness that Andrew W. Marlowe took his. His charming little detective show Castle was my surprise hit of the 2008-2009 television season, arriving midway through to replace something cancelled early and probably best forgotten.

Castle 's basic premise is that best-selling author Richard Castle has killed off his longstanding P.I. character, Derek Storm, and is seeking inspiration for a new series of thrillers. Played with manly charisma by Nathan Fillion ( Serenity , Waitress ), Castle is a bit of devil-may-care rake in public, but a loving single father in private, a balance that actually rings fairly true. Writers generally have inner worlds and outer worlds. A different guy stares into the laptop than the one that gives readings in crowded bookstores.

To figure out what to do next with his career, Castle steps out into public in a big way. In the pilot episode, "Flowers for Your Grave," a series of murders based on the killings in Castle's novels puts him in contact with police detective Kate Beckett (Stana Katic, The Spirit ). Impressed by Beckett's fierce dedication and the way she doesn't take any of his nonsense, Castle decides that she would be the perfect model for his new heroine, Nikki Heat. He pulls some strings, and the series then follows the pair as Castle shadows the officer on her cases. Their two worlds often clash--Marlowe and his writers use the disparity between a private citizen's resources and what the public servants have available as both comedy and commentary--but a mutual respect and friendship develops, as they regularly do in buddy-cop stories. There is also the requisite romantic tension, but that thankfully never feels forced or contrived. Both Castle and Beckett are written well enough that they actually would make a very believable couple.

In terms of the current state of television, Castle: The Complete First Season doesn't really rate up there with some of the better known and highly lauded cable shows, but in terms of the kind of fun week-to-week entertainment that the networks used to provide us, this series is at the top of the heap. Relying less on continued story lines and refreshingly free of annoying gimmicks ("ooooh, he gets in your head!" "ooooh, he's a super math genius!"), it sticks to the old-fashioned basics of good characters and solid writing. As I said, I didn't expect much when I tuned in last year. Actually, I expected to hate it, but gave it a try because I like Nathan Fillion. It was my pleasant surprise that I became a fan, and now that I've gone back through The Complete First Season , I'm totally excited to watch the season-two premiere I taped the other night.

Highly Recommended. Castle: The Complete First Season was a wonderful surprise when it showed up on TV last year. The old-school cop show about a homicide detective and the mystery novelist that drives her crazy, played with irresistible panache by Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion, relies on the two old standbys of classic detective stories: good characters and straight-up sleuthing. The balance between the professional and the personal works well, making Castle a fantastically good time.

FEAR Itself The Complete First Season - Kurt Dahlke

Clearly, TV on DVD just works better for some projects, as the unfairly maligned horror anthology Fear Itself proves. As originally broadcast, Fear Itself unfortunately started with one of its weakest episodes, ( The Sacrifice ) making semi-apathetic TV viewers such as myself give up before the series had even truly begun. Quite effectively reordered for DVD, these episodes mark this four-double-sided disc collection of thirteen 42-minute stand-alone stories as a worthy addition to the Network TV Horror Derby. Sure, commercial reality means these mini-movies don't flow as well as Masters Of Horror - jarring commercial breaks often start and end with the same footage (to keep you bathroom break freaks on track) - and the theme song prefacing each episode is to die for, (like I want to die each time I hear it) but ultimately this collection of mostly solid stories and serious directors represents seriously satisfying satisfaction for those who just can't get enough horror.

Disc One
Stuart Gordon's director's cut of Eater starts things off in high style, as a super-tall cannibalistic maniac is set to be held overnight at a snowy small-town police precinct. Loads of dim, gritty atmosphere, and a truly freaky villain ramp up to real fear before the first commercial break. Horrific suggested violence - more than was suggested during the original broadcast - presages a delirious cat-and-mouse game in the almost-deserted station, pitting a rookie cop against the maniac and her twisted co-workers. Occasional misused CGI effects cheapen Gordon's efforts a bit, which ultimately (though hampered by the network format) render some of the best straight-ahead horror seen on network TV in who knows how long.

The Machinist director Brad Anderson helms Spooked , in which a disgraced rogue cop (played by the ever-more-interesting Eric Roberts) can't seem to shake some of the perpetrators who fell victim to his brand of rough justice. Roberts' grimly laconic performance brings nuanced interiority to TV, while a suitably spooky set-up (a stakeout in a deserted house) sadly degenerates a bit as goofy CGI and television formula begins to take over.

Community finds American Psycho director Mary Harron playing a tired tune, conducting a newlywed pair as they move into a disturbingly conformist planned-community. Even though the place is so great residents will lie and mutilate to stay there, the draconian environment and threat of capital punishment actually makes some community members a bit edgy. Setting up a few nicely unhinged performances, our boilerplate plot otherwise goes mostly nowhere on a sea of predictability, with only slight variations in circumstance to lend much interest.

Remake helmer Breck Eisner (Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Crazies) prepares for The Sacrifice by throwing gritty urban crime into a The Village -style isolated-from-modern-times fortress. Loads of evocative atmosphere make for engaging viewing, as our anti-heroes find the hot frontier chicks running the fort may not be all they seem to be. Then, as every cop show in the '70s needed to sport a gratuitous weekly car chase, The Sacrifice throws out a wasteful buzz-kill monster-mash fight/chase ending, obliterating tension with 'explosions'. Unfortunately, this below average effort was used as the series' premier episode.

Disc Two
The Bad News Bears of horror (director John Landis and screenwriter Victor Salva) deliver an effective, disturbing chiller despite a twist ending that makes garden-variety predictability look obtuse. While an unready-to-wed couple does the aisle-walk, one of them gets some unwelcome news: "the person you are marrying is a serial killer." Creepy settings and unsettling weather blow through a bunch of eerily ambiguous performances and tense set pieces, making In Sickness and In Health a worthy addition to the network horror anthology realm.

Family Man allows Freddy Vs. Jason director Ronny Yu to show he can do more than turn Freddy Kruger into a pinball. An enthralling character study, which imparts invaluable legal advice - "involuntary spiritual transmigration is a lousy murder defense" - this episode features two great performances from Clifton Collins Jr. and Colin Ferguson. Intrigue, knife-swinging violence, exacting pacing and one of the best jump scares on TV mark another standout for the series.

Something With Bite parlays an interesting collusion of real life and fantasy - a piece of almost-road-kill that seems to be a werewolf is brought to a veterinarian - into a relatively silly, comedic tale of liberation through animal instincts. It's probably mostly of note for being written by John Landis' son Max.

New Year's Day is mega-Saw director Darren Lynn Bousman's director's cut of an episode that should have been cut from the series. While I'm more than enthusiastic about zombies, Bousman's Cloverfield -style take on the subject - lots of real-time video aesthetics - quickly becomes nothing but a series of stylistic tics. These zombies, possibly afflicted with TMJ, (a nasty jaw-lock disorder) strut around like cocky bastards while cracking their necks and jaws to the accompaniment of ridiculously loud bone-snaps, over and over. It's a pointless gimmick overused to the point of aggravation.

Disc Three
Larry Fessenden arrives to save us with Skin and Bones , his maturing take on the Wendigo concept, something that's been a spooky muse for him for a while now. Something like a modern version of the overlooked Ravenous , this episode finds a ranch embroiled in familial trauma and worse, when the patriarch emerges from the snowy mountains after ten days of isolation. Trouble is, he's oddly skeletal, and seems to have developed a taste for unusual meat. After a freaky start, Fessenden's complex tale full of realistic characters and intelligently constructed alleyways (all leading to the same dead end) comes up with many delightful moments of frisson, not the least of which is a line reading wherein the word 'undoing' clearly means 'disemboweled'. Only Fessenden's reliance on flashy, gimmicky editing tricks during shock sequences betrays this otherwise masterful effort.

Chance is a John Dahl-directed offering skewing heavily towards his sensibilities. As a noir piece of suspense with possible supernatural elements it's captivating and well acted throughout. The tale of an under-the-table antiques deal gone very sour has a few shock elements, but mostly takes the not-so-innocent-idiot-in-way-over-his-head to pleasantly murderous extremes.

Spirit Box busts out the teen-beat EC Comics vibe, as a couple of very hot high school girls conduct a séance. Instead of contacting a lost relative, they get the standard voice from beyond the grave, one looking for revenge. Creepy teachers and a girl whose eyes have been eaten by turtles keep this fun, light effort - hung on a framework of four methodically spaced jump scares - queasy enough for hardened horror fans.

Echoes is Rupert Wainwright's director's cut, a (by one-hour TV standards) sprawling past-life regression tale - or is it? - of a man tormented by visions of a true lothario who used to live in his new house. Back and forth dynamics, psychiatric sessions, too many people's stories and more create a story that's hard to hold onto, and not as engaging as it thinks it is.

Disc Four
The Circle lives all by itself on this disc, as well it should, as possibly the weakest episode in the series. Director Eduardo Rodriguez doesn't have much to go on with this dorky script in which a best-selling horror author is subtly pressured into trying to repeat the successful formula. On a scary Halloween night it seems like his stories are coming to life, to tell him he will never escape. Decent characters are sacrificed to 'get-stupid' fear and a plot barely worthy of an EC Comics horror knock-off.

Overall, Fear Itself touts a pretty high success rate, at least notching up plenty of entertaining episodes. If the made-for-TV format (commercial breaks - minus actual commercials - are still terrifically obtrusive) doesn't sit well with DVD viewing, the fact that you can down these things when you want, as many as you want, probably makes the series seem better than it did when millions of viewers originally began tuning out. That's a good thing for lovers of televised horror anthologies - in this format, Fear Itself appreciably lives up to its name.


Upcoming DVD Scares For October 2009

   


                                       


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DVD Stalk Editor: Ian Jane.
Contributors to DVD Stalk: Ian Jane, Thomas Spurlin , Kurt Dahlke, Brian Orndorf , Tyler Foster, Stuart Galbraith IV , Jamie S. Rich and Glenn Erickson.


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