The Game - Featured

The New Old: Tricks & Treats

 

The Game (David Fincher, 1997) – Often forgotten when listing off the films of David Fincher’s career, The Game is an underrated little 90s thriller. Though there are too many script problems and far too much Michael Douglas mumbling for it to be ranked as a masterpiece, The Game does fit comfortably into Fincher’s collection of B-movies like Alien 3, Panic Room, or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While the filmmaker is certainly more than capable of teasing out complex themes and developing characterization with actors, he’s first and foremost a stylist. The man began shooting effect shots for ILM and directing music videos after all. He’s in love with film technique and sometimes he just likes to play with his train set in a director-focused thriller. The good news is, he’s good at it. As long as you go into these movies knowing that you won’t be getting anything near the level of Fight Club or The Social Network and are prepared to dial down your brain energy, they can be a lot of fun.

The Game is one of those high concept thrillers that Hollywood used to love making in the 90s. Michael Douglas stars as the big ol’ rich jerk Nicholas Van Orton. All he cares about his money and extending the legacy of his wealthy father (who committed suicide when Douglas was a wee lad). His brother Conrad (Sean Penn) is a little different, a good old fashion ne’er do well who enjoys spending the family fortune as much as Nicholas enjoys expanding it. As a 48th birthday present, Conrad signs Nicholas up for a peculiar game by a mysterious company called CRS. Nicholas has to undergo a complex psychological and physical testing program without being told what the game is and then once it happens it could start at any time. The game is essentially a huge psychological con game with actors moving in and out of his life, creating a strange mystery that blurs reality. Nicholas is never sure if he’s being tortured by the company or if he’s involved in an expensive adventure game.  It doesn’t really make a difference either way. The paranoia and set pieces are all that matter in this type of flick.

This is very much David Fincher working in “movie movie” mode. There’s very little sense of reality here. The game that Douglas signs up for couldn’t possibly be carried out in the real world. It’s a fantasy and allows Fincher to self-consciously dump the character into the middle of a stylized movie plot. The story is a series of set pieces that Fincher executes with obvious joy, constantly forcing the audience to question whether Douglas is in a game or a con (not because there is some sort of significance to the final reveal, just because it’s fun to toy with audience expectations). Deborah Unger plays a blatant femme fatale and every frame of the movie is stylized to heighten it beyond reality. When Douglas wakes up in a coffin in Mexico or gets locked in a cab heading towards a river at top speed, you just have to go with it and enjoy the ride. Sure, there are perhaps a few too many twists and logic leaps in the final few minutes, but this isn’t a movie about careful intellectual analysis (despite what the academic essay included with the Blu-ray suggests). It’s a B-movie cinematic ride directed by a modern master and you either go along with the goofy premise or turn it off within a few minutes. I recommend taking the ride, but you do what you have to do.

Technical perfectionist David Fincher and Criterion were made for each other. Fincher loves to spend endless amounts of time obsessing over the lighting and framing of every image in his movies and Criterion likes to allow filmmakers to bring that attention to detail to their homevideo presentations. The Game looks just as pretty in HD as any of Fincher’s recent movies, with the director’s patented slickly lit, yet dark aesthetic perfectly rendered and the audio just as layered as in a theatrical presentation. The special features feel like jumping into a timewarp, with everything from the original Criterion laserdisc ported over and nothing new added. There are trailers, an alternate ending, and the psychological test reel from CRS, all with audio commentary. Then there are storyboard-to-film comparisons and 5-10min clips of raw behind the scene footage from a few major scenes, also with optional commentary. Its all old stuff not nearly as slickly produced as current special features, yet they are no less interesting (Criterion knew what they were doing back then). The best feature by far is the commentary track featuring Fincher, Douglas, and number of crew members. It’s taken from the old disc and is in the old Criterion style of a carefully edited audio documentary that links up with images on screen. These tracks were always dense and fascinating and Criterion should go back to the format more often. Even though there’s nothing new on the disc, it’s not as if it’s easy to get your hands on the old laserdisc these days and hard to imagine that there’s anything left to say about what’s ultimately just fluffy entertainment. The Game is far from Fincher’s best movie, but can be a hell of a lot of fun if you give yourself over to the thriller’s stupidity/simplicity. It’s hard to imagine a better Blu-ray package for the film is possible. So if you’re a Fincher fanatic, get thee to the nearest Blu-ray emporium.

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Eating Raoul (Paul Bartel, 1982)Eating Raoul probably shouldn’t exist. An oddly sophisticated comedy about a nice couple becoming murderers as part of a sex scam that ends with cannibalism doesn’t exactly fall into a viable genre. But, somehow the film got made thanks to the one and only Paul Bartel who starred, co-wrote the script, directed, and even financed the project thanks to his parents. Bartel is unjustly forgotten these days, but was a cult figure for years. He began in the New York underground filmmaking scene in the 60s (with contemporaries like Andy Warhol, Robert Downey Sr., and Briand DePalma), worked for Roger Corman (both directing Death Race 2000 and as the go-to actor to deliver the most ridiculous dialogue completely straight in films like Piranha or Rock n’ Roll High School), and directed cult comedies until his death. Bartel was an original, combining John Waters’ playful sense of shock value with the classic Ernst Lubitsch school of literate comedy, along healthy doses of irony and camp for good measure. Eating Raoul is Bartel’s masterpiece and a film finally getting long overdue respect from the unlikely folks at Criterion.

Bartel stars in the film alongside his regular actress Mary Woronov (a Warhol discovery) as Paul and Mary Bland, a liquor store clerk and nurse who dream of living the city to own a restaurant in the country. They never seem to be able to save up enough cash and to make matters worse some pesky swingers have started hosting orgies in their building deeply offending their, well, bland sensibilities. After one swinger barges into their apartment to make a pass at Mary, Paul kills him with a whack to the head with a frying pan. The couple calmly dispose of the body after stealing $500 from the corpse’s wallet. They quickly realize they are good at this murdering thing, so decide to turn it into a side business by having Mary pose as a prostitute so Paul can bump off the clients. They start making more money when local conman Raoul (Robert Beltran) increases their profits by selling the corpses for dog food. He also starts banging Mary, so clearly trouble is coming for the threesome. You’ve read the title. I should say no more.

Any plot description for Eating Raoul makes it sound like a Re-Animator­-style slapstick gore comedy, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s very little violence in the film, most of it cartoony (a fraying pan is the weapon of choice after all). Bartel’s primary influences for the tone were the classic Ealing Studios murder comedies Kind Hearts And Coronets and The Lady Killers. He gets that classy dark comedy tone just right and ices the cake with heaps of perverse humor from his underground filmmaking days. The result is hysterical, but more for arthouses than grindhouses. That’s not to say genre fans won’t enjoy the dark satire, it’s just a different movie than you’d expect. The production values are virtually non-existent, which only adds to the underground vibe. It feels like a movie designed to play in hidden theaters to knowing New York hipsters, yet somehow Bartel sweet talked 20th Century Fox into releasing it so that mass audiences could enjoy lines like, “Why don’t you go to bed honey, I’ll bag the Nazi and straighten up around here.” Yep, you’ve never seen a movie quite like this.

Criterion gave Eating Raoul the same deluxe treatment they would to an Igmar Bergman movie. The transfer makes the 30-year-old independent film look like it was made yesterday, but the real gold is found in the special features. This disc is a love letter to Paul Bartel, starting with the inclusion of his two rare 60s underground short films Naughty Nurse (not quite what you’d expect, but close) and The Secret Cinema (which Bartel later remade as an episode of Amazing Stories), both of which are incredible finds and just as satisfying as the main feature. Bartel gets to sneak in a few words via a vintage interview promoting the film alongside Mary Woronov that delves into his entire career (including a softcore porno he made pre-Hollywood) with typical wit and self-effacing humor. A new documentary with major cast members and a commentary with co-writer Richard Blackburn, production designer Robert Schulenberg, and editor Alan Toomayan are filled with glowing praise for Bartel and the film along with loving anecdotes from the set. It’s hard to imagine there’s ever been this much info about Bartel or Eating Raoul combined in one place before and it’s a joy to dive through for fans and newcomers. If you’ve never seen Eating Raoul before and are one of those delightfully strange people like myself who finds sex, murder, and 30s comedies equally hilarious, buy this disc and prepare for hours of glee (the emotion, not the TV show).

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Quadrophenia (Franc Roddam, 1979) – After bringing Ken Russell on board to turn Tommy into an eyeball-straining work of rock opera insanity, The Who produced another movie based on one of their albums that couldn’t be more different. While Russell cranked out a proto-music video slice of psychedelic overkill, Quadrophenia imported British television director Franc Roddam for an entry in the “angry young man” school of UK cinema. Roddam came from the same brand of TV directors like Ken Loach and Stephen Frears and his movie is a harshly realistic examination of London in 1965. A time when youth was torn in a war between mods and rockers, despite both groups facing the same future of predetermined failure and mediocrity thanks to Britain’s lovely class division. The film is rooted in Mod culture, which is forgotten now but is essentially defined by groups of dejected young men whose lives were defined by music, fashion, motorcycles, and all night speed benders. The culture is represented with an almost anthropological sense of detail, but the story, themes, and emotions are universal. It still sucks to be young sometimes.

Phil Daniels (who was never better as an actor) stars as Jimmy, a 19-year-old with a crappy job who still lives with his parents. He pops pills with his friends on the weekends, buys whatever bit of fashion is currently popular, models his behavior on local Mods like Ace Face (Sting), and chases a local lady Steph (Leslie Ash). When he isn’t getting pissed off about his lot in life, Jimmy fantasizes about the upcoming annual clash between the Mods and Rockers in Brighton, which should be a bloodbath this time since the Mods have grown substantially in popularity. Eventually he beats up a former best friend for being a rocker, attends the riot, gets kicked out of the house, finds out Ace Face is a phony, and essentially matures through disillusionment. The whole thing is backed by The Who’s music along with period-specific hits and yet despite all the rock n’ roll excitement this is a very depressing movie. There are moments of humor between Jimmy and his friends, but the hopelessness of their situation overrides the tone. Since Roddam and his cast of then unknown faces are so good at playing the material honestly, it’s a harsh film true to the most extreme brand of British misery filmmaking (and filled with all the dirty language the Brits spit out so well). That prevented Quadrophenia from matching the box office success of Tommy, but also made it a better film and over the years it’s developed a deserved cult following. Not quite a rock n’ roll flick or a kitchen sink drama, Quadrophenia has a tone entirely it’s own and stands one of the best British films of 70s.

Criterion has predictably given Quadrophenia the lavish home video treatment it deserves. The transfer is gorgeous while still true to the rough-hewn aesthetic while a new sound mix supervised by The Who ensures that speakers will bleed when appropriate. The special features include a nostalgic commentary from Roddam and cinematographer Brian Tufano delving into all the technical details of the production, a fantastic vintage BBC documentary shot on the set, a 1964 French TV program about Mods n’ Rockers (yes, for real), an insightful interview with producer Bill Curbishley, and an interview with Who sound engineer Bob Pridden about the new mix. It’s a bit odd that no members of The Who or The Cast participated in new features (especially since they are all over the British DVD), but short of that there’s really nothing more you could want out of this disc. Aside from a small n’ dedicated cult of followers (and you know England), not nearly enough people know about Quadrophenia. So go out and get this thing so that you aren’t part of the problem.

 

Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981) – If you’re a fan of this film, franchise, or genre at all, you’re probably asking yourself “hey, didn’t a Blu-ray of Halloween II come out this time last year? What’s up with that you greasy illiterate?” Well, first off, ease up on the name-calling buddy, words hurt. Last year Universal debuted their HD disc for the loved-over-time sequel to the night HE came home and it was a decent enough package with an ok transfer and the vintage horror compilation documentary Terror In The Isles. It was clearly a rushed package and the reason must have been to do with Shout Factory’s plan to pick up the rights for a handful of Universal’s old 80s horror movies to launch their new high def horror line Scream Factory. From the moment you get your hands on the packaging, you can tell Shout is going all out with these horror discs. Not only is there gorgeous freshly commissioned poster art in an old school painting style, but you also get reversible cover art with the class skull/pumpkin poster that hasn’t been seen since the VHS era. If this is the treatment Shout Factory is giving Halloween II, then we may as well just let them release blu-rays for all classic horror movies from now on.

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So, if you’ve never seen it, Halloween II picks up the second that the first film ended and plays out over the same night of terror. Jamie Lee Curtis is sent to the hospital after her stressful evening with a homicidal killer, while Donald Pleasance is out on the streets hunting down that unstoppable dink Michael Myers (following one of the greatest nonsensical opening lines in film history “You don’t know what death is!”). For the first 30 minutes the film cuts between scenes of them struggling and Micheal Myers killing folks around the neighborhood on the way to the hospital and it feels remarkably similar to the first movie. Once director Rick Rosenthal settles into the hospital setting in the second half, it turns into a fairly conventional 80s slasher movie with Curtis inexplicably revealed to be Michael ‘s sister for the sake of it and Myers now a supernaturally unstoppable killing machine who walks through doors without opening them and isn’t phased by being set on fire. At the time the movie was criticized for ditching the classic suspense scares of the original film in favor of gory schlock. That’s certainly true and no one would claim Halloween II to be a better film than the original. However, what makes it interesting in hindsight is that all of the movies problems from the cardboard characters to the excessive violence and ridiculously powerful villain actually makes it more of a genre-defining slasher movie than the original.

Halloween is commonly considered the first slasher movie and rightly so for founding so many of the genre’s conventions. However, part II took it a step father into heightened reality and with Jason having not even taken over appearance in the Friday The 13th franchise in 1981 yet, it was the first major release to do so. What makes Halloween II so interesting to watch for knowing genre fans is that the movie gradually descends into schlock slasher territory after opening very much in the style of the original. The reason for that, as explained on the fantastic Blu-ray doc is that producer John Carpenter (who also reluctantly wrote the script because he knew a sequel would be made with or without him) was so disappointed with the first cut that he went back and shot his own opening sequences for Michael Myers as well as spicing up the later kill scenes. As a result, that Carpenter style resonates throughout and the cheesier elements of the sequel only give it a dated genre charm. Halloween II is not a masterpiece, but it is a damn good early slasher movie that has been underrated for too long because of the inevitable comparisons to the original. Remains the best entry in the original cycle of sequels and for better or worse set the tone for what the franchise would become. Carpenter may have distanced himself from the sequel (and the blu-ray for that matter), but his fingerprints are all over it and it deserves to be ranked amongst his own work if only as a curiosity for Halloween fans.

The transfer that Shout Factory whipped up for their Blu-ray is re-frickin-diculous, managing to top what Universal did and makes the low budget 31 year old movie look like it was made yesterday. On the special features front, the company produced a fantastic 45-minute documentary featuring virtually everyone involved with the movie discussing the production and acknowledging the weird co-directing relationship between John Carpenter and Rick Rosenthal. It’s a refreshingly honest making of doc filled with great anecdotes. Also included is a documentary tour of the surviving locations with an extremely excited horror fan and audio commentaries with Rosenthal and stunt coordinator Dick Warlock (who also played Myers). Finally, you also get the TV movie cut of the film, which is much truer to Rosenthal’s intentions with less gore and extra scenes (it’s also proof that Carpenter really improved the movie, but don’t tell Rosenthal because he seems like a nice guy). Overall, it’s a fantastic package for fans who may as well just through that ancient 12-month-old Universal disc in the trash. Shout Factory have shown a care in bringing this disc to Blu-ray that proves they are already an HD horror company to watch. The only thing that will keep this from being one of the great Blu-ray horror releases of the 2012 Halloween season is the fact that the company did an even better job on the disc another cult favourte from the franchise. Details on that in 3, 2, 1….

 

Halloween III: Season OF The Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) – For years Halloween III has been considered the ugly redheaded stepchild of the franchise. It’s easy to see why given that it’s the only entry in the series to ditch Michael Myers in favor of a completely different Halloween-themed horror romp. The plan (as laid out in the pretty fantastic special features on Shout…sorry…Scream Factory’s new Blu-ray) was to turn the series into an annual Halloween tradition where new filmmakers could come in and have complete freedom to make whatever they wished provided that it somehow tied into the holiday. John Carpenter and Debra Hill had no clue what to do with their characters after a sequel they were forced into and assumed audiences felt the same way, so this was the only way they were willing to keep the brand name alive. Whoopsi! That didn’t quite work out as planned, now did it? After the box office receipts came in on part III, Carpenter and Hill were booted out of the franchise, Michael Myers came back and everyone just pretended this movie never existed. The thing is that it’s actually a decent enough 80s horror movie once you get past the name. Over the years a surprising cult has built up around this deeply odd a lovably cheesey Halloween horror flick that would be far better remembered without that unfortunate roman numeral in the title.

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The plot is a damn odd one, so buckle up. After a toy salesman is brutally murdered in a hospital while clutching a Halloween mask, a doctor/80s-mustache-sporting-perve played by genre actor Tom Atkins (Night Of The Creeps, Maniac Cop) is determined to figure out what the hell happened. After consoling the murdered man’s daughter (Stacey Nelkin) with his penis, Atkins heads off to investigate the company who made the mask. He arrives in a creepy town where everyone is terrified of the mask factory owner (Dan O’Herlihy) like he’s Willy Wonka. It turns out he kind of is. He’s a bit of a mad scientist who based on some odd occult theory that’s never properly explained, has hatched a scheme to sacrifice children across America on Halloween night to appease some pagan gods (Stonehenge is involved and no I’m not kidding). He’s been playing annoying TV ads for the masks non-stop that are subtly hypnotic, urging kids everywhere to by his three new masks and watch their televisions at a special time on Halloween for a “secret message.” That message will make their faces melt into a collection of bugs and snakes (like I said, weird movie). Obviously Atkins doesn’t take to kindly to this plot and even though it means he’ll have to stop sexing it up with his new 20something girlfriend, he sets up to stop the O’Herlihy’s crazy plot.

So,…yeah, it’s not a conventional movie and certainly not what audiences expected to see when they picked up a ticket for Halloween III in 1982. However, knowing what you’re getting going in and divorced from expectation, the film is far better than the viciously sour reputation suggests.  It is completely cheesy with giant plot holes, some terrible acting, and laughable dialogue (ex: Barkeep: “What’s the matter, don’t you have any Halloween spirit?” Atkins: “No!”).  However, those qualities are also what makes it such a hilarious camp oddity. Viewed with the right set of eyes (or under the influence of the right substances), the film is hilarious with Atkins’ womanizing sleazeball hero a comedy delight. Then whenever first-time director Tommy Lee Wallace decides to dole out a scare scene, it’s either harshly graphic or disturbingly surreal in a way that just doesn’t make it into mainstream Hollywood horror anymore. The other thing that gives Halloween III bonus points in the series is that much like part 2, the film feels like it was ghost directed by John Carpenter. The guy produced, co-wrote the eerie synthesizer score, worked on the screenplay uncredited, and his entire crew was responsible for the production (including Ocar-nominated cinematographer Dean Cundey, who helped define Carpenter’s signature visual style over Halloween, The Fog, Escape From New York, and The Thing). Michael Myers may have been dropped from the series (aside from the amusing inclusion of the original movie playing on television), but the Carpenter aesthetic remained as a means of tying the films together. That’s something that’ll only appeal to movie/horror geeks, but it will make them squeal with delight.

That Carpenter style in Halloween III has never been more apparent than in Shout Factory’s new Blu-ray, which helps launch their new Scream Factory horror line in style. The transfer is better than many of Carpenters actual films have received with the creepy deep focus, shadow heavy, cinemascope visuals looking absolutely incredible. His distinctive music dominates the loss-free soundtrack and it’s amazing to see such an obscure and controversial movie receive such reverential treatment on shiny movie disc. Best of all are the special features, which are refreshingly honest. The fantastic 30-minute documentary opens with writer/director Tommy Lee Wallace, cast, and crew acknowledging what a failure the film was commercially and how much it was hated before moving on from there. Carpenter’s involvement was outlined as was his longstanding relationship with Wallace (who worked in varying capacities on all of Carpenter’s early films). Wallace admits he was the first choice to direct Halloween II, but hated the script and was eventually granted the freedom to make his own batshit Halloween movie on part III. Everyone involved clearly enjoyed making the movie and the final product (well, except for the hilariously bitter producer Irwin Yabins who takes swipes at the movie while claiming he had all of the best ideas in the original film). The nice thing is that through conventions everyone involved knows how fans have embraced the oddball movie over the years and have now made peace with the failure. Wallace also pops up for a fantastic, self-effacing commentary track along with two kiddy fans prompting questions to avoid gaps. Cult actor Tom Atkins gets his own track with similar results and the package is wrapped up with some hilariously dated advertising material and a guide to the film locations. No one ever would have expected that Halloween III: Season Of The Witch could possibly get such a glorious Blu-ray package, but given all of the conflicted and amusing behind the scenes tales, the film clearly deserved the attention. Combined with the Halloween II disc Scream Factory has proven themselves to be major players in the vintage horror Blu-ray game. Hopefully they’ll keep rolling out new releases for the foreseeable future.

 

Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Charles Barton, 1948) – Sometimes blatant Hollywood commerce works. In the late forties, Abbot and Costello were cranking out several fast-talking slapstick Universal comedies per year that varied only in the location where the comedians would get up to their shenanigans. At the same time, the Universal monsters were nearing the end of their cycle via monster party mashups like House of Frankenstein. Looking to squeeze some extra dollars out of their fading commodities, some executive at Universal removed a cigar from his mouth long enough to bellow, “put em’ both together!” and a new genre was born. Aside from a few failed horror movies that drew unintentional laughter and Abbot and Costello’s Hold That Ghost, this was the first movie to discover the peanut butter and chocolate combination of horror and comedy. With Bela Legosi and Lon Chaney Jr. playing their iconic monsters straight and Abbot and Costello milking every laugh they could out of the script, the movie gently flipfloped tones to become a massive hit at the time and cross-genre classic.

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Of course, the film is dated now. The word play and shadowy monster mugging works only for kids and classic Hollywood nostalgics, but if you fall into either group it’s still an old timey blast of entertainment. Abbot and Costello start off working one of their usual menial jobs. In this case they work as freight handlers in charge of delivering Dracula’s coffin and the remains of Frankenstein’s monster to a local house of horrors attraction. The contents of the boxes are supposed to be fake, but that wouldn’t be much of a movie now would it? So, when left alone Costello inevitably discovers the monsters are real and just can’t convince that stubborn Abbot that’s true (he’s a stinker). A bunch of door shuffling, dealing with dames, and a visit from Lon Chaney Jr. (who inevitably turns into the Wolf Man) eventually leads Abbot to realize that his buddy is right for once. Unfortunately by the time that happens, they’re in the midst of Dracula’s plot to resurrect Frankenstein by giving him Costello’s brain (Don’t ask. Logic doesn’t apply). From there, zaniness and gentle monster scares ensue.

Director Charles Barton was an Abbot and Costello veteran when he took on the assignment. He knew how to get the most out of the comedians bits by staging them in wide shots proscenium shots like theater. He also proved to be surprisingly adept at monster movie rhtyms and shoots those scenes a little more dramatically with moody lighting and creeping tracking shots. The result, like An American Werewolf In London, keeps the comedy hilarious and the horror fairly scary (in an old fashioned, dignified way), with an increasing mix between the two as the film climaxes. It was oddly Legosi’s only performance as Dracula since the iconic original and he gave the old cape n’ fangs a nice swansong. Lon Chaney Jr. had done The Wolf Man too many times to screw it up, but got a chance to do some comedy for the first time (including his classic exchange with Costello “you don’t understand, every night when the moon is full, I turn into a wolf!’ ‘Yeah, you and thirty million other guys!’ Zing!). Boris Karloff sadly didn’t return as Frankenstein’s monster since he hated the make up, but by then 6 foot 6 Glenn Strange had assumed the role a few times and is a more than worthy substitute. Abbot and Costello were at the peak of their powers and delivered some of their funniest word play and physical business outside of a baseball diamond. The movie is a classic for a reason folks, and the comedy duo found themselves trying to repeat the unexpected hit with a series of comedy/monster movie for years afterwards. Fair enough, the formula worked well. During these early vaudeville-for-the-big screen comedies a B-plot was needed since most of the gags were non-sequiters. May as well give that material over to a monster plot, at least that’s more interesting that two generic lovers that Abbot Costello inadvertently bring together.

Inexplicably unavailable on DVD for years, Universal ponied up to produce a nice Blu-ray disc for the founding comedy/horror movie. The transfer is pristine, showing off all the details and seams in the sets and costume design. Of course, everyone involved in the movie is dead now (spoilers!), so the special features are limited to academics. Abbot and Costello experts (and Lou Costello’s daughter) contribute to a nice making of documentary while film historian Gregory W. Monk chimes in with an informative commentary. There are some great anecdotes to be mined from the material like Legosi showing up at a studio head’s office to beg for a role in the movie that Karloff already scoffed at and turned down. However, the info is presented in a very dry manner, like talking to your grandfather about how they don’t make them talking pictures like they used to. Still, this is a fantastic set that classic horror and comedy fans have to pick up and a movie that has slowly become recognized as the cinematic peak for the comedians and an entertaining swansong for the monsters. It’s a bit weird that this wasn’t included as an amusing final chapter for Universal’s upcoming Classic Monsters Blu-ray set (especially since they are coming out at the same time), but if you’re going to buy one you may as well by the other, right? Abbot and Costello only really works for those charmed by old movies, but for those folks it’s like crack and should be devoured just as intensely.

Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985) – Re-Animator is a good litmus test to weed out real horror fans. Sadly, most of the general public has no idea of what Stuart Gordon’s splatstick classic is beyond perhaps knowing it’s “that movie where a severed head gives head.” However, to the horror-loving community, the movie is a stone cold classic and one of the most important genre entries of the 1980s. Coming out of surreal theater productions (like a stage version of Peter Pan where Neverland was a drug trip and tinker bell was a flamboyantly gay man), director Stuart Gordon came into Re-Animator with a sweet tooth for knowing camp comedy. Having never made a horror movie before and overwhelmed by the joys of splashing fake blood onto a group of actors pitching psychotic performances to the rafters, he stumbled onto a new sub-genre. Sam Raimi openly admits the tone of Evil Dead 2 came out of watching Re-Animator, while Peter Jackson will happily attribute the first three movies of his career to it’s influence. Sure, comedy and horror had been mixed before dating all the way back to Abbot And Costello Meet Frankenstein. But, never had the genres been mixed so fluidly or ridiculously. This is about as funny and messy as horror movies get. If you’ve never seen it before, buckle the fuck up.

Loosely based on one of iconic horror author H.P. Lovecraft’s pulpiest tales, Re-Animator is a good old fashioned mad scientist story. Specifically, it’s about Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs in the role that made him a horror convention icon) a insane/brilliant scientist who has invented a neon green substance that can bring corpses back to life (or re-animated them, if you will. See what they did there?). After being booted out of his latest educational institution for turning a former professor into a squealing zombie, West finds his way to Massachusetts medical school. He shacks up with the unassuming med-student Dan (Bruce Abbot) and starts bringing dead cats to life in the basement. At the same time, West gets into a big ol’ fight with Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale wearing one of the hilariously worst wigs you’ve ever seen) about whether or not corpses can be brought back to life. Eventually West kills Hill and re-animates his head and body separately (so he wins that argument). The walking decapitated Hill doesn’t take too kindly to that treatment and is soon terrorizing Dan’s girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton), climaxing with the iconic oral sex visual pun. Cue a whole lotta re-animated corpses and even more fake blood and rubber gore bits splattered around.

The plot is effective, but standard horror stuff. What makes Re-Animator so special is the tone. This is more of a slaptick comedy than horror movie even though the script isn’t filled with a parade of one-liners and pratfalls. What Gordon recognized going into his first feature was that most audiences laugh through the silliest horror movies anyways, so a few tweaks too far in terms of performances and gore can turn it all into deliberate hilarity. And boy-oh-boy is this thing hysterical. Scenes involving flinging cats around basements, a stumbling body without a head, and a severed head hissing “Wessssst, you basssstard!” are crowd pleasing comedy gold. At the center of it all is Jeffrey Combs, who like Bruce Campbell in the Evil Dead movies anchors the humor with a hysterically manic performance. The man plays quiet dialogue scenes huge and can even turn snapping a pencil into schtick. In a normal movie it would be called over-acting. In Re-Animator, it fits the world and is one of the funniest and greatest performances in the history of the genre (somehow Combs would even top his manic turn through a twisted performance almost physically uncomfortable to watch in Peter Jackson’s vastly underrated The Frighteners). Abbot, Gale, and Crampton are all invaluable game performers as well, but this movie belongs to Combs’ mugging and Gordon slinging around gore. By the time the credits rolled on the first screening, those guys had obsessive horror devotees for life.

Re-Animator arrives on blu-ray with the marquee treatment the cult classic deserves. The transfer is grainy, but given the low budget 80s roots of the source material this is about as good as it will ever look (ditto the audio). This disc isn’t ever going to win any awards for technical specs, but it’s also unlikely that the movie even looked and sounded this good in theaters. Some of the special effects look a little extra rubbery in high definition, but given the tone of the movie, that only enhances the camp value. In terms of special features, the blu-ray packs in everything from the last Anchor Bay two disc set. You get a feature length documentary, trailers, TV spots, and long interviews with the director, producer, writer and composer. And if that isn’t enough, there’s also a commentary with Gordon and a hysterical party commentary track with the producer and cast cracking wise and swapping anecdotes. It might be a little disappointing that there’s nothing new on the disc for fans, but honestly it’s unlikely that there it would be possible to cram any more information about the film onto the disc given the info repetition that already occurs. This blu-ray instantly qualifies as the best Re-Animator package on the market for the technical presentation alone. If you’ve never seen this movie before (or even if you have) and plan on getting drunk with friends and a horror movie over Halloween, for the love of god pick this blu-ray up!

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