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Trick Or Treat: Halloween DVDs & Blu-Rays Worth Scaring Up Including ‘Arachnophobia,’ ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ & More

Trick Or Treat: Halloween DVDs & Blu-Rays Worth Scaring Up Including 'Arachnophobia,' 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' & More

Attention boys and girls, it’s almost that time again. The time of year when ghosts and goblins roam the streets on All Hallow’s Eve, and the rest of us adults stay inside and watch horror films (or so we say). Well fortunately, plenty of the major studios and boutique home entertainment labels have been popping out releases of some of our favorite genre fare. So without further ado, stare directly into your television screens and tune into any one of these superb flicks just in time for Halloween, all available on home video.

Re-Animator” (Dir. Stuart Gordon, 1985)
Why You Should Care: With so many versions of Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” existing even prior to 1985, it’s a wonder that no one ever turned Shelley’s tale on its bloodied head before gore maestro Stuart Gordon. “Re-Animator” follows the dedicated medical student Dan Cain (Bruce Cabbot) and his girlfriend Megan (the lovely and bold scream queen Barbra Crampton) who become involved in bizarre experiments involving the re-animation of dead tissue when an odd new student named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) becomes Dan’s roommate. Of course, not all is as it appears in that synopsis, as West (Combs turning in one the most inspired genre performance of the ‘80s) re-animates Megan’s dad along with a whole morgue full of bodies in his quest to perfect his Victor Frankenstein-like ways in bringing the dead back to life. It’s a masterpiece of blood, guts and all kinds of colorful goo that really pop on the Blu-ray release from Anchor Bay, leading up to the final moment when Dan injects his beloved Megan with the re-animation solution and we fade to black with a bright green syringe turning into a wonderful fluorescent as the credits start to roll. For all its gallons of gore, Gordon’s loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West, Re-Animator” remains almost poetically macabre 30 years after the fact.
What’s On It: While Anchor Bay recycled most all the features from its 2007 release of “Re-Animator” on DVD, that’s not such a bad thing. Along with the film’s wonderful high-def transfer, there’s commentary from Gordon, Crampton, and Combs, along with the hour-long retrospective documentary “Re-Animator: Resurrectus,” which chronicles the beginnings of the cast and crew’s careers, along with the production of the film. There’s also a plethora of interviews and standard features like deleted scenes and various trailers for the film. For anyone looking for a complete look into the world of “Re-Animator,” you’ve found it.
Release Date: Available now from Anchor Bay

Sleepwalkers” (Dir. Mick Garris, 1992)
Why You Should Care: “Sleepwalkers” was, and remains, the only original screenplay Stephen King, the leading voice in modern horror, wrote specifically for the big screen. Why he chose to entrust that script to Mick Garris, a middling horror director who has forged a bafflingly close connection with the writer, is obviously beyond us. Anyway, the movie is a drive-in romp about a mother (Alice Krige) and son (Brian Krause), who are incestuous, shape-shifting monsters called “sleepwalkers,” whose true nature is revealed if they receive a scratch from a cat (don’t ask). The logic is fuzzy but Krause has to seduce and then steal the soul of a comely classmate (played by Madchen Amick) and then get the fuck out of the small town where they’re currently living. There are stabs at earnest horror (reminiscent of “Cat People” – both versions) that buttress uneasily against weird references like having Lynman Ward and Cindy Pickett play Amick’s parents (they played Ferris Bueller’s parents) and a succession of distracting cameos by horror heavyweights (and friends of Garris’) like Tobe Hooper, John Landis, Joe Dante, and Clive Barker. King’s own cameo, as a put upon cemetery caretaker, is at least pretty enjoyable, we must admit. “Sleepwalkers,” however, nags as a tantalizing what-if; if a more capable, stylistically inclined director had gotten a hold of the material, then it could have been a genuine horror classic. As it stands, it’s a fun, overtly cheesy romp with some truly questionable special effects (the sleepwalkers, in their natural form, look like greasy rubber Halloween costumes) and groaningly wooden performances. What stands out, too, re-watching it, is Garris’ genuinely masterful and menacing use of the Enya song “Boadicea,” a decade before David Fincher tried the same in last year’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Point, Garris.
What’s On It: A theatrical trailer, and we’re lucky to have it, although the movie looks sharper in high-definition than we would have expected (even if it does much to draw attention to its miniscule budget).
Release Date: Available now from Image

Halloween II” (Dir. Rick Rosenthal, 1981)
Why You Should Care: Shout Factory has been delivering the home entertainment goods in the form of everything from the complete “Freaks and Geeks” series to retro Nickelodeon cartoons and so much more for years, so it should have come as no surprise that their genre imprint Scream Factory would do the very same, announcing an impressive assortment of titles that are often mistreated, misrepresented, or just have flat-out never been given a proper home entertainment release since they hit theatrically. One of the first titles up was the 1981 sequel to John Carpenter’s paramount 1978 thriller “Halloween,” which follows the murderous Michael Myers’ return to Haddonfield, Illinois to stalk and kill a group of babysitters on Halloween night after 15 years spent in a sanitarium for the murder of his older sister. Scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis returned as Laurie Strode, a babysitter who stood up to Myers with the aid of his long time mental caretaker Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance), with director Rick Rosenthal serving us one of the few sequels in cinema history that picks up right where its predecessor ended. While much of Carpenter’s technical prowess and ability to deliver scares derived purely from slow burn suspense is missing here, Rosenthal does an adequate job staging a film that delivers on the horror and “Halloween” goodness filmmakers would mostly fail to replicate for six more films (and two remakes) – including Rosenthal himself with the 2002 Busta Rhymes and Tyra Banks-starring “Halloween: Resurrection.” With Carpenter and regular producing partner Debra Hill’s screenplay set mostly within the confines of a hospital (total Carpenter move), much of Myers’ actions fall into the realm of rote slasher films, but it’s great to see both Curtis and Pleasance flex their genre muscles in the last watchable pairing of the two in the series (Loomis would go on to do three more films with increasingly diminishing returns, with Curtis reappearing for two installments we’re better off forgetting altogether).
What’s On It: “Halloween” fans will remember that it was just last year that Universal Studios pimped out their own 30th Anniversary edition of “Halloween II,” which earned some praise for the inclusion of the feature-length horror clip show hosted by Pleasance and Nancy Allen entitled “Terror in the Aisles” on the disc, but lacked pretty much anything else – and even removed recently deceased and beloved “Halloween” producer Moustapha Akkad’s name from the opening titles, a move that puzzled many. Well, Akkad’s credit is back intact and there’s a variety of new offerings in terms of features for “Halloween II” fans. You may want to hang onto your Universal release for ‘Terror,’ but here we get two commentaries featuring Rosenthal, Myers actor Dick Warlock, and foul-mouthed actor Leo Rossi, along with a pretty solid documentary chronicling all the behind-the-scenes bits and a handful of deleted scenes. Here we also get the “Halloween II” TV cut, which is really for the true “Halloween” nerd and features a variety of bits that were squeezed back into the film when it aired on television, and many of the scenes Carpenter reshot to make the film gorier had to be cut. It’s no “Terror in the Aisles,” but it’s certainly a bonus.
Release Date: Available now from Shout Factory

Ed Wood” (Dir. Tim Burton, 1994)
Why You Should Care: While talented filmmaker Tim Burton has spent the better part of 2012 having the merits of his three box office duds “Dark Shadows,” “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” (which he produced), and “Frankenweenie” debated, Disney has offered us a chance to look back and see what many believe to be Burton’s masterpiece in high-def this Halloween – enter “Ed Wood.” At once a story about a man whose passion for film is unrivaled, on the other hand, this true life tale of Edward D. Wood Jr. takes a look at the man who’s often referred to as “The Worst Director of All-Time.” Throughout the film, Wood (Johnny Depp) is on a quest along with his motley crew of hired hands to create often misguided but highly ambitious films on a budget, which ultimately lands him in the hands of “Dracula” actor Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) – who is struggling with a debilitating addiction to morphine and a withdrawal from the limelight — but whom Wood sees a shot at attracting an audience by casting a recognizable face. More than a few times have Burton’s career choices been compared to that of Wood, but also it’s a deeply personal tale in that Burton has said it mirrors his close relationship with cinema icon Vincent Price prior to his death in 1993 (Burton’s 1990 film “Edward Scissorhands” would be his last feature appearance in the flesh). Landau rightfully snagged an Oscar for his performance as the heartbreaking Lugosi, along with make-up artist Rick Baker who walked away with a statue for turning Landau into the Hungarian actor, while Depp turns in his best Burton-helmed performance next to ‘Scissorhands.’ It’s also filled with all the familiar Burton trappings; a keen eye for Grand Guigonol production design (which here is grounded a bit more in reality), breathtaking black-and-white cinematography by regular collaborator Stefan Czapsky, and a rare Danny Elfman-less score by Howard Shore which is altogether surreal and haunting. It’s a suitable primer for a Halloween night full of classic Universal horror films or even Burton’s own films.
What’s On It: While the film packs a visual punch in its first outing on Blu-ray, it doesn’t exactly make up for it in the extra features. Virtually everything about the disc besides its high-def transfer is the same as the special edition DVD Disney released in 2004 – though the worthwhile commentary with Burton, Landau, co-writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, Czapsky and costume designer Colleen Atwood – most of the features ported over from the original release smell of the sort of needless extras DVDs were loaded with at the dawn of the format. Unless you don’t already own “Ed Wood” or desperately want a more vibrant, clearer transfer – stick with the DVD.
Release Date: Available now from Disney

The Nightmare on Elm Street Collection” (Dir. Various, 1984-1994)
Why You Should Care: There are few “must-buys” this Halloween season, and this is one of them. A multi-disc, seven-movie retrospective of all the “proper” entries in the Wes Craven-originated “Nightmare on Elm Street” franchise (discounting the dour remake and the gleefully absurd “Freddy vs. Jason“), in beautiful, brand-new high definition transfers (previously, only the first three films had been available), embellished with all of the special features from the overflowing late-nineties DVD set, plus a bonus disc featuring an all-new documentary and two episodes of the “Freddy’s Nightmares” TV series (yes, seriously). This is about as definitive a collection as you get, barring inclusion of the expansive, four-hour retrospective documentary “Never Sleep Again,” which, among other things, delves deep into the homosexual fantasia that is “Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge” and the reasoning behind Wes Craven‘s meta-textual return to the franchise. But with seven movies and two episodes of the television show, how could you have any time to even watch that long-ass doc? Re-watching some of the films, you get the sensation that, while the franchise was largely egged-on by financial reasons, it remains the most imaginative horror franchise of its era. The dreamscape premise and the low budget ingenuity that brought those concepts to the big screen were genuinely flabbergasting; the fact that the plot sometimes got lost in a series of never-ending gags, is understandable (if not entirely forgivable). It’s also fascinating how many big time directors got their start in the series – among them Chuck Russell (who directed the series’ best entry, part 3), Renny Harlin and Stephen Hopkins – and how the tone of the movies took on a different flavor as Freddy went from being a scary in-the-closet boogeyman to a genuine pop culture force.
What’s On It: Too much to mention. But like we said – everything from that original DVD box set plus a new disc full of special features, including a new documentary on the history of the Freddy Kruger character and two episodes of the “Freddy’s Nightmare” TV series (“It’s a Miserable Life” and “Killer Instinct”) and some bonus featurettes. “Never Sleep Again” would have been a great inclusion and is the most glaring omission. Well, that, and some kind of text reproduction of Peter Jackson‘s script for “The Dream Lover,” which would have been the sixth film and concerned a Freddy so low on his powers that kids would voluntarily go to sleep in order to torture and abuse the one-time frightener. Amazing.
Release Date: Out now via Warner Home Video, although available exclusively at Best Buy stores

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

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