By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 31, 2012 at 2:56PM
“Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” (dir. Various)
Why You Should Care: Speaking of classic Universal horror films, an inclusion that needs little explanation would be the “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” set. With The front of the Blu-ray box set graced with familiar faces from “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Wolfman,” and “The Mummy,” it should become incredibly clear that Universal Studios has provided unforgettable images for the sort of monsters that run down our streets or decorate our homes every Halloween. From director James Whale’s landmark achievements in “Frankenstein” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” to the studio’s underrated but worthy Claude Rains-starring adaptation of “The Phantom of the Opera,” 'The Essential Collection' lives up to its name in providing the films that helped create the essence of the Universal horror brand – even if many of the countless sequels and remakes have probably been left for further Blu-ray releases down the road. 'The Essential Collection' offers you the chance to see Lon Chaney Jr. roam the moors as “The Wolfman” and Boris Karloff stagger about Germany as Frankenstein’s monster looking for companionship – for anyone who has grown up with these cherished creations, it’s a must have.
What’s On It: While many of the documentaries, commentaries, and other supplemental materials found across the eight discs of 'The Essential Collection' can be found on past DVD releases of these films, it’s hard to complain when they’re so comprehensive and detailed oriented – giving us a look at Universal’s rich cinematic history and detailing how these creatures and characters helped build the studio’s legacy. There are commentary tracks featuring film scholars and industry professionals like Rick Baker discussing the intricacies of make-up artist Jack Pearce’s work on “The Mummy.” For a studio that’s celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, they’ve certainly put out a set worthy of their respected catalog.
Release Date: Available now from Universal Studios
"Deep Rising" (Dir. Stephen Sommers, 1998) / "The Puppet Masters" (Dir. Stuart Orme, 1994)
With a company as big as Disney, some things are going to fall through the cracks – namely two bizarre genre entries that somehow saw the light of day in the mid-to-late '90s and are, happily, being resurrected on a double-feature Blu-ray disc. "Deep Rising" is an enjoyably effective (sea) creature feature from Stephen Sommers, who would go on to resurrect the lucrative "Mummy" franchise at Universal (before bottoming out with the underrated monster mash "Van Helsing"). Sommers is an easily ignored big-budget auteur who has a very distinctive point-of-view and sense of humor, both of which shine through in the gore-splattered "Deep Rising," which concerns a group of mercenaries (led by a wise-cracking Treat Williams and including Paul Thomas Anderson favorite Kevin J. O'Connor) who board a cruise ship with the intent of robbing it, only to be faced by a virtual ghost ship (and a whole host of slippery sea monsters). It's an awesomely pulpy concept fitfully executed by Sommers. The film was plagued by production problems, including Harrison Ford bowing out of the lead role and Disney's insistence that the visual effects be handled in-house (which caused them to push the release date back almost a full year). Still: the monsters rule, it's snappily paced, and it's got a great horror movie tagline – "Full scream ahead!" Indeed. "The Puppet Masters" is equally weird and just as regularly forgotten about; an adaption of a novel by sci-fi visionary Robert Heinlein that would be adapted by screenwriters who would later be responsible for the "Pirates of the Caribbean" (Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) and Batman (David S. Goyer) franchises. Featuring a concept that is eerily similar to the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (which, incidentally, was first made five years after the Heinlein novel debuted), and a cast member from the 1978 'Snatchers' (Donald Sutherland), it concerns alien invaders (who look kind of like malevolent stingrays) who overtake their human hosts. There are a number of memorably gooey, scary moments, and Stuart Orme, a director who before and since has worked exclusively in television, injects a surprising amount of style into the proceedings. (Keep in mind that at this point 'Body Snatchers' had been remade three times before; a fourth was on the way.) "The Puppet Masters" 's cast, too, is padded with a who's-who of character actor gold, among them Yaphet Kotto, Richard Belzer, Will Patton, and Keith David.
What's On It: Nothing on either. But considering the occasionally iffy job Mill Creek has done with releasing these Disney cast-offs, we should be lucky that they're in the right aspect ratio. Are they in the right aspect ratio? Has anyone bothered to check? Aw hell.
Release date: Out now via Mill Creek
“The Funhouse” (Dir. Tobe Hooper, 1981)
Why You Should Care: If “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” director Tobe Hooper’s 1981 carvinalsploitation film “The Funhouse” isn’t the best of its ‘80s slasher peers, it’s probably the best looking – and the Shout Factory DVD and Blu-ray release of the film certainly improves the look of cinematographer Andrew Laszlo’s (“The Warriors,” “First Blood”) work on the film far and above past releases. Focused on your typical group of ‘80s stereotypes (the geek, the jock, the virgin, etc.) trapped inside a demented carnival funhouse for one outrageously wild night – Hooper gives a diabolically fresh spin to the single location horror film, employing the titular location as a literal smorgasbord of terror. The sights and sounds of the carnival permeate the opening of the film and creates a looming sense of dread, with Laszlo’s exceptional use of the entire anamorphic widescreen frame and the carnival appropriate score by John Beal lending the film an altogether ethereal beauty you certainly don’t find in something like the “Friday the 13th” films or really any of the “dead teenager” (as critic Roger Ebert so eloquently puts it) films of the ‘80s. A large part of its creepiness also stems from the use of some particularly unsavory real carnies in the film, along with appearances by “The Phantom of the Paradise” actor William Finley as a beleaguered illusionist and Wayne Doba as the “Frankenstein” mask wearing Gunther – who serves as the unforgettable hidden terror within the walls of “The Funhouse.” It’s important to remember why you’re watching, this is the film Hooper turned down the directing gig on “E.T.” for.
What’s On It: The Shout Factory release of “The Funhouse” unfortunately doesn’t come with the multiple commentary tracks and documentaries that are packed onto a region-free import release that’s been floating around for a few years – but that doesn’t mean it disappoints. There’s a decent enough commentary here with Hooper (who often sounds like he’s completely forgotten about making whole parts of the movie), and interviews with the late Finley, Conway, Beal, and B-Movie producer Mark L. Lester. They each hold some interesting insights even if there’s a pretty good chance they won’t spark any repeat viewings. In terms of features, it’s one of the less impressive showings from Shout this fall, but for the film alone it’s worth picking up.
Release Date: Available now from Shout Factory
"Pet Semetary" (Dir. Mary Lambert, 1989)
Why You Should Care: Stephen King was so sure that his longtime friend (and horror legend) George Romero would direct the eventual adaptation of "Pet Semetary," that he dedicated the novel to him. This was a novel, we have to remember, that scared King so much that he kept it locked away in a drawer, until a desperate contact negotiation required the author to quickly turn in a manuscript, and King turned to "Pet Semetary." Based on a real road that ran in front of the King house in rural Maine, "Pet Semetary," which ended up being directed by Mary Lambert (a marginal talent that would, after a subpar sequel, go on to direct things like "Mega Python vs. Gatoroid"), remains a ghastly and deeply disturbing horror trifle about the power of wishes and the finality of death. (We remember it being one of the first movies to scare the ever-loving-hell out of us; particularly freaky was a ghostly character with half his head missing.) While some of the visual effects have aged poorly and the cast (besides a terrific Fred Gwynne) are creaky no-names, the film remains a psychologically complex and emotionally compelling horror ride, thanks mostly to the peerless script by King and the central question of – "If you could bring someone you loved back from the dead, would you?" – which resonates with every mortal being on the planet. Even the ominous tagline ("Sometimes dead is better") still gives us the willies.
What's On It: The Blu-ray disc boasts improved picture and sound but the special features are all holdovers from an earlier DVD release. Thankfully, those features (a Lambert commentary and three mid-sized documentaries, the most fascinating one being about the location work on the film) are pretty compelling in their own right and definitely worth a watch/listen.
Release Date: Out now via Paramount
"Little Shop of Horrors" (dir. Frank Oz, 1986)
Why You Should Care: Back when the first DVD of Frank Oz's wonderful "Little Shop of Horrors" was released in the late '90s, it initially came with the inclusion of the infamous alternate ending, wherein our heroes (Ellen Greene and Rick Moranis) died and the world was overtaken by giant space plants, in scratchy, black-and-white work print form. David Geffen, the film's producer, was furious that such a low quality version of the famed ending was on the disc, and ordered that they be recalled. They were, and the version with the alternate ending became a hot commodity (despite the ending showing up on YouTube, in typically terrible form). For the Blu-ray release, though, they've gone back and cleaned up the ending, color-corrected it, and reinserted it into the movie so that now you have a choice – to watch the happier theatrical edition or the edgier director's cut (which hedges closer to the original stage show). For someone who has seen the original version roughly one thousand times, it's an experience that borders on revelatory. (What's even funnier is that they've included the original commentary from the unfinished version, which mostly consists of Oz apologizing for how lousy it looks). The Audrey II anamatronic still dazzles in ways that newfangled computer animation, a few months down the line, never will, and the score and songs by Alan Menken and the dearly departed Howard Ashman are as earworm-y as ever. It's a perfect storm of a movie, with unparalleled art direction and production design (the sets were so massive and impressive that they were partially reused for Tim Burton's "Batman"), a director working at the top of his game, and a cast of game bit players (among them: Steve Martin, Christopher Guest, and John Candy). As far as horror-themed musicals go, you could give "Rocky Horror Picture Show" a rest for a night and throw this bad boy on and you'd have just as much fun.
What's On It: Everything from the original deluxe DVD reissue (commentary, a 1987 promotional documentary, a commentary on the ending, trailers, outtakes and deleted scenes). This new Blu-ray includes all of that stuff, plus a new deconstruction of the visual effects for the original ending (which included Godzilla-sized Audrey IIs) and a breakdown, by Oz, of test audiences' reaction to this ending. (Spoiler alert: it wasn't great.) "Little Shop of Horrors" also get a much-needed boost in the A/V department, with a new high-def transfer and a soundtrack that, with a 6-channel mix, beautifully mimics its original theatrical presentation (it was initially released in 70 mm – can you imagine?)
Release Date: Out now via Warner Bros.
"Arachnophobia" (dir. Frank Marshall, 1990)
Why You Should Care: After years of shadowing Steven Spielberg while serving as his producing partner, Frank Marshall stepped out of the shadows and directed his own film, a winning riff on the invading insects movies of the '50s and '60s (Spielberg stuck around and executive produced). The plot concerns a doctor (played by Jeff Daniels) who leaves the hustle and bustle of San Francisco to start a new life for his family in a sleepy small town. It just so happens, of course, that his arrival also coincides with a deadly jungle spider mating with a common house spider and causing a new breed to kill a bunch of people in town. Re-watching "Arachnophobia," it's hard to not be taken by what a slick piece of pop entertainment it really is, from Trevor Jones' soaring score and Wesley Strick and Don Jakoby's surprisingly involving and smart script, to Marshall's direction, which borrows heavily from his mentor while carving out a suitable niche for himself. There's also the ace supporting cast, which includes John Goodman as an oddball exterminator and (even better) Julian Sands as a world-renowned spider scientist called in to assist the small town. The movie's climax, when spiders, dangling down on silken rope like little eight-legged ninjas, besiege Daniels' home, is a breathless and brilliantly choreographed suspense set piece and almost 100% real. If "Arachnophobia" was made today it would largely feature computer-generated spiders, and probably wouldn't be half as scary.
What's On It: Three blink-and-you-miss-them mini-documentaries on the production, Frank Marshall, and the Venezuela-set prologue, all totaling less than ten minutes, plus a trailer that labels the movie a "thrill-omedy." Um.
Release date: Out now via Disney
-- Drew Taylor, Benjamin Wright