Box full of blood

Halloween is here—time to let the gory DVD box sets flow

As we enter the season of the witch and gird up for the holiest of unholy for fans of the darker side of cinema, the darker than noir, now is the best time—even for those for whom everyday is Halloween—to finally indulge in kicking down for some celluloid treats. Of course, with DVD titles crowding retailer shelves like nattering little brats on the doorstep, the expedient way to approach this indulgence is to start thinking within the box. The past month or so, there have been several notable box sets released that will most definitely do the trick for your treat.

The cheapest way to go about this is to pick up that 50 Movie Pack set of public domain horror films that is floating about for twenty bucks, but with that you get what you pay for: grainy, scratched and truncated versions of films that generally feature the worst of Bela Lugosi. In a way, you gotta feel sorry for the guy; back in 1931 he was riding high with the success of Dracula and was being groomed by Universal to be the next Lon Chaney. Then the man had to go and pull a diva stunt and turn down the lead in Frankenstein because it didn’t have any lines. Boris Karloff stepped into the clunky shoes and the rest is history, with Lugosi ultimately remaining most notable in the pop-culture consciousness as the vampire dude in Plan 9 from Outer Space.

But in the interim, Lugosi managed a handful of notable titles in the ’30s before being condemned to virtual obscurity in the poverty-row releases of Republic Pictures. The Bela Lugosi Collection serves as a very nifty companion piece to the Universal Legacy Series (featuring box sets of its classic monster features from the ’30s and ’40s, nicely restored and packaged by theme). Included in this set are formerly elusive on DVD gems such as The Raven, Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Black Cat, The Invisible Ray and Black Friday (often costarring Karloff). The set is mandatory if for no other reason than The Black Cat, a stylish expressionistic that is especially deranged considering that it was released at the onset of the restrictive Hays Code (Hollywood’s self-imposed censorship wing that ran the studio output until the late ’60s).

With the onset of the Code, Hollywood had to find a way to indulge in questionable themes, which gave rise to the rampant innuendo of the screwball comedy and thinly veiled dark themes of film noir. One producer with an eye for the visual trappings of noir was the legendary Val Lewton, who with director Jacques Tourneur (of the milepost Out of the Past) released the first of several notable noir horrors in the ’40s, The Cat People. Several more titles followed with such gaudy titles as Curse of the Cat People (an in-name-only sequel), the Jane Eyre-inspired I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man. Warner has included these titles and The Seventh Victim, along with the Karloff vehicles The Body Snatchers, Bedlam and Isle of the Dead. A Lewton documentary is also included.

While Hollywood remained increasingly closeted through the ’50s while enduring the Hays Code, the British film Industry felt no such restrictions, the Hammer studio in particular unleashing upon American shores period pieces featuring such horror stalwarts as Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy. These films featured increasingly copious amounts of free-flowing blood and heaving, barely-concealed bosoms, a gambit that could arguably be seen as the shot that led to the eventual surrender of self-censorship in Hollywood as the domestic studios followed suit. Ironically, the studio that Hammer displaced as the source for horror goodness is the contemporary distributor for The Hammer Horror Series, a compilation of eight titles from the heyday of that studio. Included here are the straightforward horrors of Brides of Dracula, Curse of the Werewolf (featuring Oliver Reed in his glowering prime) and Evil of Frankenstein among the titles.

With the collapse of the Hays Code, the bloodgates were opened. And in 1968 indie maverick George Romero and a bunch of his Pittsburgh cronies got together and unleashed Night of the Living Dead, a film that not only changed the face of horror, but along with the simultaneous release of Easy Rider, arguably changed the course of American film itself (there is an Anchor Bay box set of his trilogy, but for some reason is only available in the UK, and is unplayable in American DVD players, being a Region 2 release). Soon zombie flicks became de rigor for the upstart filmmaker, and knockoffs flooded the drive-ins. One of the more elusive of these for collectors has been the Blind Dead series, four Spanish films from the early ’70s by director Amando de Ossorio featuring the very creepy resurrected ghouls of the Knights Templar, burned alive centuries ago for crimes against the Church, and for some odd reason rising from their graves to gnaw on the perplexed tourists of contemporary villages and tour boats. Blue Underground has tracked down these titles and has recently released them in a very nifty package called The Blind Dead Collection, featuring Tombs of the Blind Dead, Return of the Evil Dead, Night of the Seagulls and The Ghost Galleon. The upstart distributor has also scored the best available prints of these memorably atmospheric creepfests, and in a couple of cases include the uncut Spanish language versions, re-mastered and in high definition.

While the early ‘70s saw a deluge of horror titles stretching across the drive-in screens, the small screen was slow to respond. That is, until the phenomenal response to the Richard Matheson-scripted ABC Movie of the Week, The Night Stalker. The most-viewed made-for-television movie of its time, this Darren McGavin vehicle spawned an entire decades’ worth of cheaply crafted TV horror movies that tried to replicate the lightning in the bottle. It also spawned its own short-lived television series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. While it only lasted a season and the writing was well below the movie that inspired it, McGavin returned to create one of the most memorable characters of the genre, if not television itself. Carl Kolchak was a wise-cracking reporter of the old school, who each week found himself battling all sorts of supernatural entities, much to the disbelief and dismissal of both authorities and his long-suffering editor. Finally, after years of muttering, Universal has finally felt compelled to release the 20 episodes of the series on a three-disc set as a tie-in to their new Night Stalker series, which is more X-Files than Kolchak.

The irony of course is that after the success of The X-Files, creator Chris Carter finally copped that he had been inspired by the adventures of Carl Kolchak while creating his own mythos. While box sets of the entire series run have been available for a while, Fox Home Entertainment has been quietly releasing The X-Files Mythology in four multi-disc volumes. Thinning out the stand-alone episodes of the series, Mythology focuses on the mythos created to carry Scully and Mulder through several seasons. The third volume, Colonization, has just hit the shelves with the fourth (Super Soldiers) due in late November.

There you have it. Lock the door and feel free to retreat into the flickering shadows of the home theatre dark harbor. Bone appetit.