’Tis the season

Our creepy critic stays in for Halloween with Midnite Movies series of re-released horror classics on DVD

Chico’s midnight hour—the bane of all those decent-minded folks who want the streets of Chico to look like the Halloween edition of Mayberry, RFD. Call in the Mounties! Personally, I have better things to do than play shag-ass with some fringe-area deputy who volunteered to come down our way on the off chance that a red-diapered doper baby would give him the stink-eye so as to afford himself a chance to make himself a creep-sickle with his riot baton. No thanks.

Halloween isn’t what it used to be, and it just isn’t worth it anymore. Me, I’m curling up in front of the tube with some DVDs and a celebratory Bloody Mary. For all you other like-minded black cats (and party animals who want some spooky entertainment as background), I’ve been having fun with a recent series of budget-minded DVDs from MGM, under the Midnite Movies moniker. They’ve released about 20 titles so far, all restored and presented with such loving care that you think that they really like these little gems. That, or Ted Turner is trying to atone to the Cinematic Gawd for colorizing Night of the Living Dead back in the ’80s. Let’s see if we can find what suits your ghoulish needs for this fine autumn weekend.

Enjoy the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre?
Did you hope to rent the original? Yeah, as if. You have about as much a chance of finding that on the shelves of the video store as spotting a jack-o-lantern on Rick Keene’s porch. But then, if you’re still in the mood for “hellbilly” horror, MGM has a double feature for you.

Remember that Chainsaw claimed to be “Based on a true story"? Well, surprisingly enough, it was. Sort of. Like Hitchcock’s Psycho, it drew as its inspiration from the sick and sordid case of Wisconsin farmer Ed Gein: recluse, cannibal and necrophiliac. Here they present Deranged, a sicko little gem that adheres a bit more strictly to the real-life case. Even better, it’s on a double-feature disc that includes that early-'80s drive-in cannibal comedy, Motel Hell, featuring Farley Granger as a meat-packer who puts a li’l something extra in his product, if you get what I mean.

Following that theme comes the first U.S. release of Raw Meat, a British take on Chainsaw concerning a bunch of cannibals (descendents of railway workers trapped in a tunnel collapse 75 years before) feeding off of passengers on the London tube. Very dark comedy, featuring Donald Pleasance at his snarkiest best.

Cannibalism not to your taste?
Well, how about Vincent Price? Everyone likes Uncle Vinnie! At least, MGM seems to; almost half of the Midnite Movies series seems to feature the man in some aspect. From the Roger Corman period pieces of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations (Fall of the House of Usher, Pit and the Pendulum, Cry of the Banshee, Masque of the Red Death) to the self-parody of The Abominable Dr. Phibes, its sequel Dr. Phibes Rises Again and semi-sequel Theatre of Blood, to the deranged and barely lucid nonsense of the mid-'70s sci-fi slasher Scream and Scream Again.

Out of the bunch, I particularly recommend Theatre of Blood. Before, Dr. Phibes was a physician disfigured in the auto accident that killed his wife, knocking off the doctors who failed to save her on the operating table … in unique and grimly amusing ways. Theatre of Blood picks up on the same premise, but with Vinnie as a critically hectored Shakespearean thespian knocking off the nay-sayers in scenes recreating bloody classics from the Bard.

Speaking of doomed thespians, formerly well-respected Ray Milland is represented here in the downward spiral of his career, starting with X, the Man with the X-Ray Eyes (brilliant scientist discovers a serum that gives him the ability to see through things—like women’s dresses—and is slowly driven mad), going to the oddball The Thing with Two Heads (racist millionaire finds his head grafted alongside former football star Rosie Greer’s—race-baiting hilarity ensues), and finally sinking into the bog that was his shame in Frogs (eco-thriller in which frogs lead the scaly denizens of a swamp to attack a bayou plantation full of eco-terrorists).

More Roger Corman
When Roger Corman ran out of Poe stories to adapt, he leaped on the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Well, a few of them; that proposed series didn’t exactly deliver critically or at the box office. Taking the short story, “The Colour out of Space,” and whipping it out under the more marquee friendly title Die, Monster, Die!, it offered up a creaky Boris Karloff as a scientist who brings an odd meteorite into the familial plantation. Unfortunately, anyone who comes into contact with it begins to mutate.

Another stab at Lovecraft included The Dunwich Horror, worth the price of admission if for no other reason than to indulge in the sight of professional virgin Sandra Dee strapped to an altar as a pan-dimensional being tries to do the nasty with her.

Of course, even slightly more respected writers didn’t escape unscathed from Corman’s glinty-eyed gaze. The late ‘70s saw a cycle of AIP films based on (suddenly public domain) novels of H. G. Wells. Represented here is the perfectly silly Empire of the Ants, featuring a pre-prime-time Joan Collins trying to act as if she is truly, really being crushed by the mandibles of a giant ant.

From earlier in the prior decade is Village of the Giants (very, very loosely based on “Food of the Gods"), featuring aging child stars such as Tommy Kirk trying to make the cinematic transition to adulthood. I suppose some of them run auto dealerships or sell real estate now. Kirk at least went on to make such memorable movies such as … um, well. Wait! Another MGM title: Mars Needs Woman! Tommy plays the Martian, and he wants women.

Speaking of aliens…
With the current re-release of Ridley Scott’s Alien, wouldn’t it be a kick to watch a double feature of It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires? Why? Well, because between these films you pretty much have Alien (minus the budget). The former plays out the same as Alien, only with that cheesy late-'50s space opera attitude (alien stowaway menaces intrepid spacemen while female ship’s doctor cheerfully washes the dishes and cleans up after the men). The latter is only obliquely related to Alien but features a certain visual that’ll make you go, “Hey!”

This oddball Italian flick is also well worth checking out if you plan on by-passing the booze this weekend for say, some other form of recreation. Director Mario Bava—despite working with a miniscule budget—delivers with the strangely surreal and atmospheric (read: foggy) visuals. And dig those fetishistic leather space uniforms. Oh, and hot Italian babes … Zowie!

On a related note: The writer of Alien, Dan O’Bannon, went on to direct Return of the Living Dead, easily one of the better zombie films ever made. A handful of various ‘80s teen clichés get trapped in a graveyard full of the living dead. Funny. Scary. With a great old-school punk soundtrack.Also, another Midnite Movie title.

Another random Midnite Movie of note: Reptilicus, a seriously deranged bit of wannabe giant lizard knockoff that holds the dubious distinction of being the only genre film made in Copenhagen. Watching this silly puppet-beastie flop around behind cutouts of the Copenhagen skyline, it becomes pretty self-evident why that is.

Granted, while none of these films could ever be considered high art, they do evoke a certain nostalgia that is certainly welcome. What was that? Screams from down the street? They must have set off the fire hoses on the sorority girls, as promised. I’m almost tempted … Naw, I’ve got A Bucket of Blood (beatnik horror) waiting.