MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Halloween Gift guide: Universal Monsters, Vincent Price, Pee-wee, Nightbreed and More

Between concern over the spread of Ebola and renewed Pumpkin Festival violence — inspired by the riots at Keane State College, only a week ago — who really needs another excuse to avoid Halloween parties and trick-or-treating this weekend? Even Charlie Brown couldn’t have imagined the extent of the violence caused by pumpkin fanatics in New Hampshire and, traditionally, by students in Madison and Carbondale. I can think of several better ways to kill time while waiting for dawn to rise on All Saints Day or, if you prefer, Día de Muertos. It is in this spirit that DVD Wrapup presents the first of its annual gift guides.

The two most obvious gifts for your Halloween-obsessed friends and relatives are new collections – Universal Classic Monsters: Complete 30-Film Collection, 1931-1956 and The Vincent Price Collection II, 1959-1972 – both of which are appropriately rated for family viewing, despite the goose bumps they may have raised back in the day. What makes these compilations more compelling today than in previous video incarnations is both the superb technical rejuvenation the movies have undergone and the eclectic nature of the selections. Still great fun to watch, they look and sound as if they were finished last week for release this Friday.

While it’s fair to ask why the 21-disc “Universal Classic Monsters” wasn’t released in Blu-ray, the digital facelifts have added new sparkle to films that were superbly shot in black-and-white. The scratches and other artifacts that have cursed versions of the films in their television and VHS incarnations are gone and the sound mix is crystal clear. For easy categorization, the set is divided among the immortal characters: Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, Invisible Man, Wolf Man and the Creature From the Black Lagoon, with a separate disc reserved for the 1943 Technicolor remake of The Phantom of the Opera, starring Claude Raines, Nelson Eddy and Susanna Foster. Once such a character proved successful, Universal didn’t hesitate to exploit it with such myriad sequels as Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Dracula, The Invisible Woman, The Mummy’s Hand, Revenge of the Creature and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, as well as several in which monsters play straight men for Abbott & Costello. The rarely seen and genuinely spooky1931Spanish-language version of Drácula, starring Carlos Villarías, also is here. It was filmed on the same sets and at the same time as the Bela Lugosi version of the story, but at night. The bonus package adds 13 commentaries, several behind-the-scenes documentaries, actor profiles, archival footage, a 48-page booklet and vintage marketing material. If it had wanted to, Universal might have added another separate package devoted to its classic adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe stories, some of which have previously been released on video.

For Baby Boomer audiences, no one said horror as melodiously and with as much erudite authority as Vincent Price. And, for that matter, no single person was more responsible for bringing American school children to Poe’s works than the St. Louis-born actor, narrator and, later in life, gourmet chef. In addition to a gift for the macabre, Price had a wicked sense of humor. It can be witnessed in such movies as The Raven and The Comedy of Terrors, which both co-starred Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre and are included in “Volume II.” (Jack Nicholson appeared in the former, while Jacques Tourneur directed the latter.) The other selections are House on Haunted Hill, The Return of the Fly, The Last Man on Earth, Tomb of Ligeia and Dr. Phibes Rises Again. Among the bonus material is “Richard Matheson Storyteller: The Last Man on Earth,” in which the author of “I Am Legend,” discusses his original novel and his part in adapting it; Price’s introductions to the films; commentaries by the likes of Roger Corman and actress Elizabeth Shepherd; marketing material; still galleries; and featurettes, “Vincent Price: Renaissance Man,” “Working with Vincent Price” and “Vincent Price Trailer Collection.” The Blu-ray upgrades are good, as well. Last year’s Halloween gift to horror fans from Shout!Factory was “The Vincent Price Collection, with  Fall of the House of Usher, The Haunted Palace, The Masque of the Red Death, The Pit and the Pendulum, Witchfinder General and The Abominable Dr. Phibes.

In one of the interviews conducted for the Blu-ray edition of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series,” a former participant in the groundbreaking show for children of all ages recalled being surprised at seeing kids dressed in Halloween costumes inspired by it. When Paul Reubens created his trademark character, though, he might very well have had Halloween in mind. “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” was populated with people and props that looked as if they’d just fallen off the shelves of a toy store. Reubens created Pee-wee Herman when still a member of Los Angeles’ influential comedy troupe, the Groundlings. The master of mischief was a grown-up child, inspired, in large part, by the silly antics and garish wardrobe of vaudevillian Pinky Lee, whose TV show preceded “The Howdy Doody Show” on Saturday mornings in the mid-1950s. Pee-wee Herman, though, was developed strictly for the Groundlings’ adult audience. It spawned a stage show, HBO special, in-costume talk-show appearances and the 1985 comedy feature, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, which was directed by Tim Burton and introduced the character to kids, who immediately bought into the conceit. CBS, which needed a show to anchor its Saturday-morning lineup, offered Reubens an unusually large budget to create something specifically for children attracted to Pee-wee’s anarchic sense-of-humor and mischievous behavior. The Playhouse, itself, was an art designer’s wet dream, as it merged Dada, surrealism, psychedelia, camp and comic-book art. An immediate hit with kids, its popularity quickly spread to hipsters and other adults who’d get up early – or stay up late – to watch it. The Shout!Factory collection is wonderful. The Blu-ray easily captures the show’s brilliant color palette and crazy audio cues. It includes all 45 re-mastered episodes, plus “Pee-wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special”; more than four hours of brand-new interviews with the cast and crew; fresh behind-the-scenes footage; and appearances by such familiar faces as Laurence Fishburne (Cowboy Curtis), S. Epatha Merkerson (Reba the Mail Lady), Lynne Marie Stewart (Miss Yvonne), John Paragon (Jambi the Genie), musicians Mark Mothersbaugh and Danny Elfman, designers Gary Panter, Wayne White and Ric Heitzman, and animation supervisor Prudence Fenton (Liquid Television), as well as writers, puppeteers and makeup artists.

Until the arrival of two curious documentaries earlier this year on DVD, I thought it safe to assume that My Little Pony’s vast fandom was limited to preteen girls, closer to kindergarten than junior high. A Brony Tales or Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony relieved me of that quaint notion, however. While it’s likely that little girls will continue to trick-or-treat in costumes inspired by the 2010 “My Little Pony” reboot, “Friendship Is Magic,” I suspect that some Bronies will attempt to infiltrate Halloween parties from West Hollywood to Lower Manhattan. No one takes the “friendship is magic” credo more seriously than people who’ve have spent their lives being bullied or in search of like-minded friends. For the true target demographic, however, Equestria Girls: Rainbow Rocks fulfills the promise of last year’s feature-length My Little Pony: Equestria Girls, which re-locates the ponies-turned-teenagers from Ponyville to Canterlot High School. In the mirror universe populated by the ponies’ human counterparts, the Rainbooms are forced to confront the evil Dazzlings in a Battle of the Bands that could determine the fate of the known world. Can the good gals pull this off without the help of Twilight Sparkle, who’s laying low in the pony realm of Equestria? You tell me. The original music, yes, rocks, while the animation pops with a hot hi-def color scheme. The Blu-ray arrives with commentary, eight prequel shorts and sing-alongs.

It would be interesting to learn how sales of costumes representing various superheroes and villains wax and wane whenever a new movie is released. I wonder, as well, how many of their fans have crossed over to the motion-comic world of the Marvel Knights. Wolverine, the mutant with bones of steel, last appeared in the worldwide box-office hit, X-Men: Days of Future Past. His presence doesn’t stop there, however. Besides the various TV series, video games, comic books and who knows what else, there are the motion-comic titles included in Marvel Knights: The Wolverine Collection: “Wolverine: Origin,” “Ultimate Wolverine Versus Hulk,” “Wolverine: Weapon X: Tomorrow Dies Today,” “Wolverine Versus Sabretooth” and “Wolverine Versus Sabretooth: Reborn.” There’s a world of difference between the formats, as Marvel and its partners attempt to seduce viewers and readers of all ages. The motion-comics are distinguished by a darkly sinister quality that differentiates them from the other platforms. The DVD adds interviews with Paul Jenkins, Joe Quesada, Bill Jemas, Andy Kubert, Richard Isanove, Leinil Francis Yu, Ron Garney, Jeph Loeb and Simone Bianchi.

It isn’t often that a director is able to re-embrace a movie he disowned a quarter-century earlier and make it resemble his original vision of the work. That’s exactly what’s on view in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed: The Director’s Cut, which is 20 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, but contains over 40 minutes of new and altered footage. It’s also different than the 155-minute “Cabal Cut” that was reconstituted from missing footage located in 2009. Indeed, prior to the new “Director’s Cut,” the most authentic adaptation of Barker’s source novel came in the early 1990s with a comic-book series. As he explains in a new introduction with restoration producer Mark Alan Miller, while it contains those 40 minutes of fresh material, it is only 20 minutes longer than the theatrical version. Once the scenes were reordered and the original film footage restored, he says, the entire film received a brand new sound mix and color pass. Whatever was done to it worked magnificently. At 140 minutes, the story no longer is just another slasher movie. It more closely resembles the fantasy world of Guillermo del Toro, circa Pan’s Labyrinth, in that the freaks and monsters exist for reasons beyond serving as killing machines. The ones holed up under the Midian cemetery are as afraid of humans as we are of them. And, what an imaginative group of misfit characters they are. Craig Sheffer plays Boone, a troubled young human who can’t figure out if he’s a serial killer or he’s being set up as the fall guy in a string of slasher murders. Tipped off to Midian while stashed in a psychiatric hospital, he’s shot to pieces by cops alerted to his whereabouts by his shrink (David Cronenberg, of all people). His “death” gains him entry to the subterranean realm of the monsters. Sadly, it also leads a militia of blood-crazed rednecks to the spot. The ensuing battle is as unusual as it spectacular. Finally, too, Barker has added a “Romeo & Juliet” climax to the festivities.  It’s really quite unexpectedly special. The Blu-ray adds commentary by Barker and Miller; the fascinating 72-minute “Tribes of the Moon: The Making of Nightbreed,” featuring new interviews with Sheffer, Anne Bobby, Doug Bradley and other actors; the 42-minute “Making Monsters,” with makeup-effects artists Bob Keen, Martin Mercer and Paul Jones; and “Fire! Fights! Stunts! 2nd Unit Shooting,” a 20-minute interview with Andy Armstrong.

My sainted mother loved to garden, but absolutely dreaded the likelihood of confronting an earthworm of any size. Growing up, that was my job. Even those folks used to baiting hooks with night-crawlers should find something disconcerting in the “Collector’s Edition” of Jeff Lieberman’s icky creature feature Squirm. Released in 1976, the premise is pretty simple. During a furious storm one night in rural Georgia, the small town of Fly Creek is cut off from the rest of the world by downed electrical wires and flooded roads. At first, it doesn’t seem as if anything more than the usual amount of damage has occurred. Soon, however, people begin finding worms in their food, descending from their shower heads and scouring the remains of storm victims. Naturally, instead of an electrical surge, the good-ol’-boys immediately blame the recent arrival of the Yankee boyfriend (Don Scardino) of a local Georgia peach (Patricia Pearcy). Complicating things for the interloper even more is a handsome, if slightly demented worm farmer, who also has had his eyes on the girl. As low-budget drive-in fare goes, Squirm isn’t bad, at all. The hundreds of thousands of Glycera bloodworms deployed by Lieberman’s wranglers are several times scarier than your run-of-the-mill earthworms and the fake ones were animated in unique ways described in the bonus material. The Blu-ray adds commentary (Lieberman says he was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds), fresh interviews with cast and crew, a tour of the original locations and still gallery.

What begins as a rather typical UK gangster thriller evolves, over the course of 69 minutes, into a very different film, one that invokes the titular antagonist, himself. The Devil’s Business opens with a pair of hitmen breaking into the country cottage of their target, who’s at the opera and due home after midnight. As they wait for his arrival, the old pro coaches his young charge in the intricacies of the game and begins a story that viewers would do well to remember as Sean Hogan’s movie progresses. It is interrupted by a sharp sound outside the house, which inevitably leads to a test of wills between Satan and the assassin. No more needs be revealed here, except that Pinner (Billy Clarke) and Cully (Jack Gordon) are given a harsh lesson in the true nature of the profession. The Devil’s Business will remind more literary-minded viewers of Harold Pinter’s “The Dumb Waiter,” before it gets down to, well, the devil’s business. The Blu-ray adds production-oriented commentary, several interviews, music videos, outtakes, a behind-the-scenes piece and a really wild extended screener reel of Mondo Macabro titles.

And, what says Halloween more than coal mining and zombies? Unless they are conceived as a documentary or movie-of-the-week about an actual event – such as the astonishing rescue of the miners in Chile – movies in the mining-disaster subgenre tend to tell stories that can end one of two ways. The buried men could find themselves visited by creatures distantly related to those that escaped the caves of Japan a decade after atomic bombs rained on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or, like Beneath, the doomed miners could meet the ghosts of dearly departed forebears, whose bodies couldn’t be retrieved when rescue efforts failed. Ben Ketai’s palpably claustrophobic thriller is different only in the presence of a young woman (Kelly Noonan) back home to attend the forced retirement of her father (Jeff Fahey), due to a diagnosis of black-lung disease. Because Samantha aspires to join the EPA as an environmental lawyer, she’d be considered persona non grata on almost any other day of the year. Almost on a dare, she agrees to take a close look at the place her dad’s labored for his entire life. And, after an interesting tour of the subterranean site, guess what happens. Beneath may be a tad on the obvious side, but it holds one’s interest until the principle gag becomes clear, at least. It adds a commentary, making-of featurette and several more pieces than you’d think would be appropriate for such an iffy low-budget flick.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon