Halloween is a holiday that practically demands that at least at some point during the lead-up to the actual night, you stay in and watch some of your favorite horror movies. Not only has the weather just changed, facilitating an urge to stay indoors, but there always seems to be old school classics that are finally released from their vault to reign terror anew. That’s certainly the case this year, with a whole host of scary movies making their way to the high definition Blu-ray, so that every frame of horror can terrify you with additional clarity. We’ve decided to run down a list of ten horror movies worth trick-or-treating for. Beware! It’s spooky!
A shout out has to be given to both the major studios and the boutique labels, like Criterion and Scream Factory, for giving these movies the time of day. With the home video market dwindling, thanks to streaming options, it takes a lot to actually put in the work and release these movies, especially with the fine assortment of special features they’ve assembled. These companies go above and beyond. And it’s nice to see some of the studios getting behind these releases too, with both Warner Bros. and Universal responsible for two beautiful box sets on this list.
And now, without further ado, start a crackling fire, turn down the lights, and prepare to be scared silly…
“Prince of Darkness” (Shout Factory/Scream Factory)
Scream Factory, the exploitation-centered imprint of Shout Factory, has brought a number of John Carpenter classics to deluxe DVD and Blu-ray packages in the last year (including, but not limited to, “The Fog,” “They Live,” and “Assault on Precinct 13“), but for some reason their release of “Prince of Darkness” feels the most like a genuine revelation: this movie is scary. Previously available in a pair of iffy, extras-free DVD versions, “Prince of Darkness” is in many ways Carpenter’s bleakest, most philosophical film (and also his weirdest), about a group of grad students and religious types who hunker down in an old church to observe and document a vial of goo that might just be the swirling embodiment of the Antichrist. Amongst other things “Prince of Darkness” predicts the “found footage” craze that has recently swept horror cinema (except this footage, recorded on grainy camcorders, is actually terrifying) and features a supporting performance by Alice Cooper as a murderous vagabond. (Cooper’s best moment is when he stabs a grad student with a long metal pole, which produces this great arching spray of blood. Supposedly it was based on a gag Cooper used in his stage show which Carpenter appropriated for the movie.)
The new Blu-ray is chock full of nifty features, in addition to that aforementioned transfer in which the movie’s deep blacks and glowing greens have never looked better. Amongst the goodies included on the disc are interviews with Carpenter, Cooper, Visual Effects supervisor Robert Grasmere, co-composer Alan Howarth, a commentary with Carpenter, and a bunch of essential little features, including a fascinating alternate opening from the TV version of the movie that suggests the whole thing could be a dream, or er, nightmare. Hopefully this is one more step in the film becoming accepted as top tier Carpenter canon.
“Chucky: The Complete Collection” (Universal)
Yes, the “Child’s Play” franchise has had its ups and downs over its 30 year run, although this is probably to be expected for a series built around the exploits of a foul-mouthed children’s doll that’s possessed by the spirit of a serial killer (voiced, eternally, by Brad Dourif). While the original films, especially the first (co-written and directed by genre great Tom Holland) were purely interested in scares, later movies tinkered with meta-textual dimensionality, particularly the unexpectedly brilliant fourth entry, “Bride of Chucky,” directed with a wink and strong visual flair by Hong Kong filmmaker Ronny Yu, which might be the best post-“Scream” smart ass horror movie (Chucky, looking at John Ritter, his face riddled with nails to the point that he resembles “Hellraiser” baddie Pinhead: “This looks oddly familiar”). This somewhat pricey box set includes every movie in the franchise, including the delightful new entry “Curse of Chucky.” It’s almost been included as an afterthought, but it’s the set’s most special special feature. Elegantly written and directed by Don Mancini, who like Dourif has been there from the beginning, “Curse of Chucky” both serves as an elegant reboot and, shockingly, a part of the continuity of the series (sort of like 2009’s “Star Trek“). It’s a single-location haunted house take on the “Child’s Play” mythos, and as a fresh start to the franchise, it’s totally awesome, stripping away much of the humor in the last couple of movies and restoring the series to its bone-rattling roots. The other movies are great, particularly the first and fourth, but “Curse of Chucky” is a wonderfully wicked cherry on top.
“I Married A Witch” (Criterion)
This 1942 Rene Clair confection might not be the scariest option this Halloween but it’s plenty bewitching just the same. In “I Married A Witch,” a super foxy, insanely funny Veronica Lake plays a witch named Jennifer who seduces the descendent of a Puritan who burned her at the stake hundreds of years before (they’re all played by Fredric March). Some of the jokes are occasionally dusty and the visual effects are rudimentary (especially during the section where Jennifer and her father, played by the velvety-voiced Cecil Kellaway, appear only as columns of white smoke), but the zippy humor is nothing short of infectious. You’ll know what kind of movie it is when, in an early sequence, a witch trial is halted for an intermission, at which point a vendor sells confections to the bloodthirsty crowd. Combining elements of the fish-out-of-water comedy and supernatural romance, “I Married a Witch” is a breezy delight (interestingly, Preston Sturges was involved as a producer but left after clashes with Clair, with Joel McCrea originally tapped to play the lead before he decided he couldn’t work with Lake again). There’s not much in the way of special features on this newly minted Criterion edition, although an archival, 20-minute interview of Rene from the late ’50s is incredibly interesting. In this interview, he describes “I Married a Witch” merely as one of the Hollywood movies he made “during the war,” and discusses the differences between his purely artistic, avant-garde work and the more product-driven world of the studio. He comes off as incredibly smart and knowledgeable; he’ll cast a spell on you.
“The Uninvited” (Criterion)
Described in the supplemental materials as one of the first Hollywood movies to “take ghosts seriously,” this 1944 Universal chiller (directed by Lewis Allen and nominated for an Academy Award for Best Black and White Cinematography) concerns a brother and sister (Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey) who, in prewar England, fall under the spell of an abandoned seaside mansion. Milland falls in love with the former owner’s young granddaughter (Gail Russell), who seems to have a direct line to the house’s spectral occupants. In “The Uninvited,” the past is the biggest ghost of all and both supernatural spirits and the heartache of history haunt the film’s cavernous Windward House (the post-war psychology was a huge influence on the film’s deathly outlook). Even when the movie doesn’t make a whole lot of sense it’s hard not to drink in the lush black-and-white cinematography, which has an almost velveteen lusciousness (served wonderfully on the new Blu-ray transfer, with blacks so deep they appear bottomless). There’s a great, 30-minute visual essay about the importance of the movie’s visuals, its enviable tonal peculiarities and the deep personal histories of the film’s stars (particularly Russell’s, a studio player plucked from high school). The essay is wonderfully detailed but never overtly dry or academic. Even if you don’t find the occasionally creaky “The Uninvited” all that scary, it’s easy to see the effect it could have on people (Guillermo del Toro and Martin Scorsese are counted amongst its many fans). The disc also includes two radio adaptations of the film, one released the year of the film’s theatrical bow and another in 1949, both of which starred Ray Milland. Now that sort of commitment is downright scary.
The Vincent Price Collection (Shout Factory/Scream Factory)
If there’s one person that embodies the spooky-fun nature of Halloween, it’s Vincent Price, and this collection of six of the master of the macabre’s most memorable efforts is perfect for both the die hard Price-head and the newcomers to his twisted, cobwebby world. Included here are three of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations Price starred in for producer/director Roger Corman and drive-in factory American International Pictures (we were kind of hoping for divine horror-comedy “The Raven” to be included, but alas, it is not); “The Haunted Palace,” notable for utilizing the title of a Poe poem but in fact being the first cinematic adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story; and cult favorites “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (but not “Dr. Phibes Rides Again,” sadly) and the bleakly violent “Witchfinder General.” It’s a wonderful smorgasbord of ghoulish delights, with an equally impressive array of supplemental features, some of which were housed on previous DVD editions of the movies (like a terrific interview with Corman where he reassesses their Poe collaborations) and others which are new to this set (and completely amazing). When you watch a making of documentary about the regional film series that Vincent Price filmed the introductions to (also available in the set), then you know that you’re through the looking glass; the dark and campy and devilish looking glass.
“Friday the 13th: The Complete Collection” (Warner Bros)/”Crystal Lake Chronicles” (1428 Films)
Up until now, only the first three “Friday the 13th” movies have been available in the high definition Blu-ray format (plus the shitty 2009 reboot and the still way-more-entertaining-than-it-has-any-right-to-be “Freddy vs. Jason“); thankfully we now have this astounding collection, which includes all twelve (!) films in the extended franchise (the remake and the team-up movie are included). This has got to be at least the third time that the films have been released since the advent of DVD, and it’s by far the most comprehensive and complete. (Even as a triple-dip, it’s worth the 100 bucks it will set you back.) The movies have never looked better and are presented in their uncut, blood-splattered glory and it’s fun to watch them together, seeing how the fairly straightforward murder mystery format was twisted, first to reflect the slasher movie trends of the time and then continuing into loopy, supernatural dimensions, with murderous madman Jason becoming the iconic “hero” of his own franchise. (This is exemplified by the intro to “Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives,” which riffs on the opening of the James Bond movies.) What’s amazing, too, is that the set compiles all of the special features from the previous editions, with additional features. But if you want an exhaustive look behind the scenes of the franchise, then pick up the stand alone release “Crystal Lake Chronicles,” a 400-minute-long documentary spread over two discs and narrated by Corey Feldman (who appeared in “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter” and “Friday the 13th: A New Beginning“). Every bit of “Friday the 13th” minutiae is engaged with, no matter how big or small. That means that the same amount of time is given to the evolution of the unforgettable hockey mask and why there was a disco version of the movie’s theme music in “Friday the 13th Part III” even though it was released in 1982, well past disco’s sell by date. It gets a little tiresome, but it’s also an indispensable asset. It’s like the greatest, most all-star horror convention… in your living room. Yes.
“Tam Lin” (Olive)
Ever wonder why Roddy McDowall sat out “Beneath the Planet of the Apes” when he appeared in all of the other sequels, even the really crummy ones? Well, it was because he was directing “Tam Lin” (aka “The Ballad of Tam Lin” aka “The Devil’s Widow”) instead. A shagadelic ’60s retelling of a classic Irish folk tale (that is oddly recited towards the beginning of the film), “Tam Lin” starred an older (but still reasonably foxy) Ava Gardner and a younger (but still reasonably foxy) Ian McShane. What’s odd is that many of the beats from the original poem (including a very unwanted pregnancy), about a witchy woman who may or may not be requiring a human sacrifice to maintain her beauty, are translated to the new “mod” version, with the “magic” of the original replaced by the use of psychotropic drugs, which allows McShane, rightfully convinced that Gardner is going to murder him, to transform into a number of different forms. (The last act is very literally a trip.) Supposedly McDowall was unhappy with the way that American International Pictures re-cut the film, emphasizing the “big star slumming it” surge of the late ’60s and early ’70s over the more nuanced film that he was trying to tell, and for years the film was incredibly hard to locate or view. Thankfully, the good folks at Olive have rescued it from obscurity. And while it might not be everyone’s cup of LSD-laced tea, it’s hard not to be impressed by the candy-colored cinematography of Billy Williams and the shaggy score by Stanley Myers. Plus, the vampy performance of Ava Gardner has enough depth that it isn’t just showy scenery chewing. McDowall knows when to take the material seriously and when to give it up to camp, which is very groovy indeed.
“Room 237” (IFC)
This knotty documentary from last year (one of our very favorites) was nothing short of revelatory: it featured five dedicated theorists who laid out their views on Stanley Kubrick‘s immortal horror classic “The Shining” in increasingly labyrinthine and involving ways. Now that Rodney Ascher‘s “Room 237” is on home video, it can act as the perfect double feature with “The Shining” (to be watched afterwards, possibly while high) and this presentation adds a wealth of fascinating new elements: a nearly hour-long roundtable discussion of the film from the Stanley Film Festival, a film festival that takes place inside the hotel from “The Shining” (especially good is the inclusion of Kubrick confederate Leon Vitali, who flatly refutes many of the outlandish theories presented by the other panelists), a number of deleted interviews which could have pushed the movie into trippy new territory, and, best of all, an audio commentary by Kevin McLeod, a videogame designer and Kubrick scholar who goes by the handle MSTRMND (and who refused to be interviewed for the actual film). This commentary is just as essential as the film itself, with McLeod laying out a lucid (if somewhat overtly “um”-infused) tapestry of ideas, focusing on how Kubrick was attempting to make films in the realm in between art and science. He references a number of scientific terms and texts and talks about how the film attempts to access the part of the brain that fills in information for itself, particularly when it comes to the sharp switches in tone and story and the geographic layout of the Overlook Hotel itself. Just when you thought “Room 237” couldn’t suck you deeper into its obsessive wormhole, this commentary comes along.
“Dracula: Prince of Darkness” (Millennium)
The Hammer horror movies always ran parallel to their stateside Universal counterparts (produced, for the most part, many years earlier). Many of the Hammer movies featured the same Gothic monsters (at one point Hammer brokered a deal to appropriate some of the creatures’ designs) but had a considerably higher amount of sex and blood, two things that the classier, more highbrow Universal movies tended to shy away from. Also, since they were more contemporary, they were also in color, something that made the blood and boobs pop even more. One of the most well known of these Hammer horror movies was 1966’s “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” which starred the immortal (seriously, how is this guy still alive?) Christopher Lee as the legendary bloodsucker. On one of the supplemental documentaries, Marcus Hearn, a Hammer historian, calls the film the “quintessential Hammer horror because the film contains a veritable checklist” of all the things people remember about Hammer movies—English characters in a central European characters, a foreboding castle, a loyal manservant, a “hint of lesbianism and sexual perversion” (yes!) and, of course, Christopher Lee as Dracula. A sequel of sorts to Hammer’s 1958 chiller “Dracula,” the film was produced, in part, to satisfy a new coterie of distribution partners (including Fox in the United States), lushly shot in “Techniscope” by cinematographer Michael Reed. “Sherlock” co-conspirator, Mark Gatiss, was heavily influenced by the film but acknowledges (in the same documentary), that the film isn’t perfect, remarking that the arc of Dracula is “up and down like a bride’s nightie.” Still, there are a number of thrills to be had with “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” and the Blu-ray gives you a fine presentation of the film in addition to a number of ace extras including a “World of Hammer” episode dedicated to Lee, the aforementioned documentary “Back to Black,” a comparison of the new restoration, a new restored version of the trailer, and cast commentary featuring Lee, Suzan Farmer, Francis Matthews and Barbara Shelley (whose foxiness in this movie can’t be overstated).
“The Fly” (Fox)
While David Cronenberg‘s metaphorically rich 1986 remake has somewhat cast a shadow over the original 1958 original, that still doesn’t mean that the OG “Fly” isn’t well worth a watch, especially in this glorious new high definition transfer. The original isn’t as sophisticated or sexy as Cronenberg’s take on the material, but it’s still a nifty little movie, told in flashback after Helene (Patricia Owens) murders her scientist husband (David Hedison). As it turns out, the scientist is working on a teleportation device that will seamlessly move matter from one location to another, but a mix-up had his DNA getting scrambled with that of a fly. Even if you’ve never seen the film, chances are you know about the shocking moment when Owens takes off the shroud that is covering Hedison’s face, revealing a hideous fly head (it’s damn good). While the movie is somewhat creaky today, at 94 minutes it flies by and has a number of charmingly oddball flourishes, like Vincent Price wearing some kind of shiny smoking jacket as the scientist’s concerned brother, well before he became the reigning king of horror, or the fact that the entire movie is vaguely French-Canadian (with names like Delambre). The special features on the disc are even more delightful, the best of which being a commentary track with actor Hedison and film historian David Del Valle. Hedison talks openly about how producer/director Kurt Neumann was “workmanlike” and how his ideas for the fly transformation, incrementally instead of all at once, were outright rejected by the studio. Elsewhere on the disc is an episode of “Biography” dedicated to Price, plus a retrospective documentary called “Catching a Fly,” a Fox Movietone News reel about the film’s premiere (hilariously showing rubbery-looking monsters descending on San Francisco). While the original “Fly” doesn’t quite live up to the remake, this is still a lot of fun, with a disc that is even more impressive.
Additionally, there are a number of other recent releases well worth a spooky stay-in. Among them are a new, wholly restored edition of obscure 1961 Dennis Hopper mystery “Night Tide” (Kino), a new-to-Blu-ray edition of Robert Wise‘s great “The Haunting” (no, not the one with Liam Neeson and Owen Wilson), and, if we’re talking about “Prince of Darkness” being a great film from John Carpenter’s heyday, we might as well talk about his last truly great movie, 1995’s “In the Mouth of Madness,” now finally on Blu-ray (with a commentary track held over from the laserdisc). Additionally, just because it came out this year doesn’t mean that it’s not a new classic, and the Blu-ray presentation of “The Conjuring” is simply jaw dropping. That will be a movie that is trotted out at slumber parties for years to come. And oh how they’ll jump.