DVD Times Favourite... Horror DVDs

Michael Mackenzie: Suspiria
Dario Argento, 1977

Suspiria represents a remarkable achievement in cinema whether you approach it from the perspective of horror or art. Released at a time when most horror movies followed the paradigm of gradually introducing terror into familiar domestic environments (as in Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist), Suspiria breaks with convention by immediately thrusting the viewer into a nightmarish cacophony of gaudy colours, baroque architecture and pounding progressive rock music, resulting in 98 minutes of stunning imagery, violence that is both brutal and beautiful at once, and a thin narrative that is merely an excuse for writer/co-composer/director Dario Argento to put his worst nightmares on to celluloid. A modern-day fairytale in the manner of Hansel and Gretel and Snow White, Suspiria is a remarkable piece of work that belongs in the library of every discerning horror fanatic.

Suspiria is backed up by an excellent 3-disc set from Anchor Bay (US version - a 2-disc set with some differences in bonus material is available in the UK), featuring a stunning transfer and a pounding DTS-ES 6.1 audio track, as well as a plentiful array of bonus features and the original soundtrack by Goblin and Dario Argento on CD.

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Region 0 Review

Rik Booth: The Blair Witch Project
Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999

Emerging from the depths of student obsession and love for horror, The Blair Witch Project is not only ingenious and original but it also takes the main concept of the genre - fear - and multiplies it by a thousand. Conceived and directed by two young-faced filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, the film was shot on a miniscule budget (around $30,000) yet still manages to better almost every other Hollywood stab at the genre ever. Due to a mixture of fantastic mythology, empathetic characters and note-perfect direction (which is ironic considering the very nature of the footage), I find that The Blair Witch Project still dazzles, even after the hype and furore has died down. There is no blood or gore, nothing for conventional horror fans to sink their (vampire) teeth into. Instead, the two inexperienced directors in terms of filmography have made a very mature and intense film, something that is so original yet also so engaging it will leave a palpable sense of fear in your mouth for days to come.

Pathé have released an excellent R2 package, featuring extras that actually better the film - 'The Curse of the Blair Witch' is superb - and the best possible presentation for a film that was intentionally shot on below-par equipment.

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Region 2 Review

Daniel Stephens: Near Dark
Kathryn Bigelow 1987

Like Ridley Scott stripping sci-fi of the tin-foil space suits and gleaming, white corridors of perfectly preserved space vehicles, Kathryn Bigelow hollowed out the mythos of the classic vampire tale and produced this 1987 gem. Melding together a tale of star-crossed lovers divided by their thirst for blood, Near Dark subverts every aspect of the Vampire genre, yet remains one of the most fascinating and ultimately frightening films made about these mystical creatures. Bill Paxton and Lance Henrikson excel in their respective roles, one a short-fused rogue, the other the crazed leader of the gang. In the film's shining moment, a showdown in a middle-American trucker's bar, Paxton quips, '‘There’s two ways you’re leaving this bar…on your feet or on your back..’ Like the calm before the storm, Paxton's throwaway kick starts a superbly staged massacre heaped in Western genre stylistics whilst maintaining a very unique, raw gothic tone, forcing the heart to skip a couple of beats. Director Bigelow's most obvious achievement remains her ability to create a hybrid of genre's that make Near Dark every bit a Western Vampire horror, but perhaps the fact a Romeo and Juliet undercurrent sits at the film's heart is what makes it so endearing. Near Dark remains a cult classic, a brilliantly made film that is as original today as it was in the eighties.

Anchor Bay released an excellent region 1 2-disc set that boasts both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS soundtracks. While the film receives a good commentary from director Kathryn Bigelow, it's Blue Underground's excellent 50 minute retrospective documentary that stands out.

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Region 1 Review

Michael Sunda: Audition
Takashi Miike, 2000

Takashi Miike does "girl power" in this entirely unforgettable psychological horror film. Audition is almost an oddity for Miike, especially considering how it came out between the first two of his extreme Dead or Alive films, it starts off very slowly, resembling a romantic comedy more than anything as it follows the lonely Aoyama, who holds a mock audition hoping to find a possible wife. Although there are several hints that all is not right, it’s towards the end when Miike really injects his trademark twisted streak, culminating in a joyfully surreal, disconcerting torture scene that’ll leave you unable to look inside a piano again, let alone consider acupuncture. “Kiri” indeed….

The transfer on Tartan’s relatively recent “Collector’s Edition” release still leaves a little to be desired, but the DTS track does a great job recreating the haunting sound effects that contrast so profoundly with the extended periods of silence. There's also an interview with the enigmatic saviour of V-Cinema himself.

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Region 1 Review
Region 0 (German) Review
Region 0 (UK Tartan) Review

Kevin O'Reilly: The Fog
John Carpenter, 1980

This spine-chilling ghost story was John Carpenter's follow-up to Halloween and for my money, it's the better and scarier film. It's set in the Californian coastal town of Antonio Bay, which is preparing for its centenary celebrations when a spectral fog descends, containing a shipful of vengeful ghosts. Right from John Houseman's opening monologue (an ingenious way of handling plot exposition), Carpenter builds a tremendously eerie atmosphere. Even in the quietest scenes, something frightening always seems to be about to happen. He also finds time to develop a very sympathetic cast (including Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother Janet Leigh) who you don't want to see come to any harm. Any half-decent director can make you jump and many can give you the willies but when the fog rolls in and there's no place to run, John Carpenter makes you feel something more like panic.

The excellent region 1 special edition from MGM/UA has a nice 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer and both a remastered 5.1 soundtrack and the original mono. Extras include a commentary by John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, a new 30 minute documentary, a vintage making-of featurette, out-takes and behind the scenes footage.

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Region 2 Review

Mark Boydell: Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock, 1960

Maybe an easy or rather uninventive choice but could I really forget the sleepless nights I spent as a child imagining the frenzied murderer lurking behind the curtains.

On the theatrical poster, the stern-faced Englishman eyes up the audience pointing tellingly at his watch - No one...but no one.. will be admitted to the theatre after the start of each performance of Psycho fulminates the director. Hitchcock obviously took his films seriously but with a certain playfulness that made him appear more passionate than arrogant. He also knew how far to push the envelope in the realm of films, and forty years later, we may be able to arch our eyebrows in post-modern irony at some aspects of the film but secretly admire it. Even with full knowledge of the plot, the film loses nothing of it's sublime - the inafmous shower scene and its long disputed authorship between Bass and Hitch, the cheek of shifting heroes throughout the film, Bernard Herrman's acerate score that still frays your nerves on each hearing, the untrendy black and white stock...

The R1 DVD despite being non-anamorphic offers better image than the R2 and also includes a good 90 minute documentary and is the obvious choice for film fans.

Natski: The Haunting
Robert Wise, 1963

Three years after audiences were permanently traumatised by a certain cross-dressing hotelier, another movie arrived on cinema screens to ravage whatever was left of the collective cinemagoing psyche. Taking as its source Shirley Jackson’s novel, the plot is simplicity itself: a paranormal researcher, accompanied by a mixed trio of volunteers, moves into a haunted house to determine whether ghosts really exist. The four of them are subjected to a range of horrors that threaten to drive them completely insane.

‘The Haunting’ remains one of the most profoundly disturbing ‘ghost’ stories ever filmed, as it perfects the over-used truism that what one doesn’t see is scarier than what one does. Doors bend horribly, eerie knocking resounds and the continually inventive camera work seems to represent the POV of a malignant spirit. Perhaps no greater recommendation for the film’s poo-generating credentials can be made but to describe the following scene: two friends lie in a darkened room talking. At the end of the conversation one says gratefully ‘Thanks for holding my hand’. Her friend replies: ‘I didn’t…’

The R2 Warner DVD offers a fine 2.40.1 anamorphic transfer, stills gallery, original trailer and an excellent commentary track featuring director Wise, screenplay writer Nelson Gidding and the cast of Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Russ Tamblyn, and Richard Johnson.

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Region 2 Review

Noel Megahey: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
David Lynch, 1992

Horror? Maybe not in the traditional sense of a horror movie based on vampires, zombies or monsters, but the films of David Lynch (Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr.) shake me to the core in a way that no amount of prosthetics and screen gore ever could. Right from the opening scene, scored to unsettling effect by Angelo Badalamenti, ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’ assaults the viewer with senseless and shocking violence, depicting the dramatic decline of Laura Palmer, the innocent all-American schoolgirl beauty caught up in a sordid world of drugs, alcohol, sex-abuse and prostitution. The true nature of the film’s horror and its killer is all the more terrifying for being unexpected, unexplained and surreal. Welcome to the bizarre, unsettling world of David Lynch.

The Region 0 DVD release of Twin Peaks Fire Walk With Me is generally unsatisfactory and the long-anticipated French release with legendary deleted scenes has never materialised, but the Region 1 New Line release comes with a good DTS soundtrack, an anamorphic picture and a documentary.

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Region 0 (UK) Review

Tiffany Bradford: The Eye
The Pang Brothers, 2002

In a genre over saturated with inferior remakes and copycat slashers it's a breath of fresh air when something new and original makes an appearance - it also helps if it can scare the hell out of you and the Pang Brothers' did just that with their brilliant horror film The Eye. A young blind woman (Angelica Lee) is given a corneal transplant and new lease on life when the operation succeeds and she is able to see, but that gift of sight comes with a terrifying price. The film starts off slowly lulling you into a false sense of security, but grows steadily creepier as it builds to its spectacular finale. Boosted by an excellent performance from Lee, a great soundtrack and some eerie imagery and sound effects (two chilling scenes in particular found me sleeping with the lights on and I now avoid elevators like the plague) The Eye is one of the better entries on offer from the increasingly-popular Asian horror film market and my favourite scary movie at the moment.

The film has received multiple DVD treatments of varying quality, but I'm happy with both my Tartan R2 CE (excellent DTS sound and 1.85:1 Anamorphic transfer) and Lions Gate R1 ( Dolby Digital 5.1, optional English subtitles and nice extras including a 15 minute "Making of The Eye" featurette).

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Gary Couzens: Carrie
Brian De Palma, 1976

Carrie was Stephen King's first published novel back in 1974, and it remains to my mind one of his best - though that may have had something to do with the time of my life when I read it. It's also one of his shortest, being basically a long novella interspersed with reports, witness transcripts, newspaper items. Lawrence D. Cohen's screenplay is very faithful to the story, with many changes being simply due to budgeting reasons.

Horror movies don't tend to pick up Oscar nominations for acting, but Carrie had two. Sissy Spacek has to take much of the credit for making the film as moving as it is - her performance as the shy, put-upon teenager (she was 26 at the time) remains one of the finest of her career. The process by which Carrie is brought out of her shell, only for a cruel trick to be paid on her resulting in her violent revenge, is utterly convincing. As her religious fanatic mother, Piper Laurie (in her first screen role since The Hustler fifteen years before) is equally good, injecting considerable subtlety into a role which could easily have been wildly overplayed. There is good work from Nancy Allen, Amy Irving and in an early role John Travolta.

This film was a commercial breakthrough for Brian De Palma, whose command of pacing is first-rate — start watching this film and you'll still be there 94 minutes later. Some of his directorial flourishes don't quite work (a fast-motion scene and most notably the split-screen sequence towards the end). But at the very end of the film, he pulls off a shock that still works today, despite countless imitations. Cinematographer Mario Tosi and composer Pino Donaggio's contributions are also first-class.

MGM's special edition features an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer and a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. (The Region 1 edition also includes the original mono soundtrack, but this is missing from the British release, which is encoded for Regions 2 and 4.) Extras: "Acting Carrie" and "Visualising Carrie" documentaries, "Singing Carrie" (a featurette on the ill-fated stage musical), a stills gallery, the theatrical trailer and a text feature, "Stephen King and the Evolution of Carrie".

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D.J. Nock: Night of the Living Dead: Millennium Edition
George Romero, 1968

Some things just won't die! I'm not talking about the fiends of the title either; I'm talking about George A. Romero's uber-classic "Night of the Living Dead". It started it all - the bad make-up, silly walk, and excessive gore. Too many horror films have been influenced by this landmark, and it even spawned a remake in 1990. But, the original is the real deal; accept no substitute.

It was dubbed "revolutionary" in 1968, and its impact on the genre is still in evidence. Creepy black and white photography, mixed with a low-tech and simplified plot, provided a boost of adrenaline to the horror film. For too long had the genre relied on the classic horror villains like Dracula and the Wolf Man. In "Night", the enemy was us. And Romero brought a sense of realism along for the ride, creating mockumentary footage that felt oddly authentic. Yes, it's dated, not very scary anymore, and the acting can slip below Ashton Kutcher, but it's still the zombie knackers. Horror film-making doesn't get any more important than this...

Elite's "Millennium Edition" is still the finest release this film has to offer - and it was released 2 years ago. The film looks the best it ever has (according to Romero, better than the theatrical prints). It comes complete with two commentaries with the cast and crew, the last interview with Duane Jones ("Ben"), footage from Romero's early work and commercials, and a fine collection of trailers. Stephen King also gets in on the action with some liner notes. Sheer class. And the best element? The disc will work on any player. Purchase required.

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Region 0 (Millenium Edition) Review
Region 0 (Elite Edition) Review

Kevin Gilvear: Re-animator
Stuart Gordon, 1985

Dan Cain gets more than he bargained for when he takes in his new lodger - Herbert West, a fellow student whose experiments grab the attention of Dr. Carl Hill in this madcap, horror classic.

There have been countless film adaptations based upon the works of Howard Phillips Lovecraft but nothing has come close to matching Stuart Gordon’s comedy/horror masterpiece that features the ever reliable Jeffrey Combs as Dr. Herbert West, famed for his experiments on re-animating dead tissue.

The transition from short story to feature length film is remarkable here and it’s with great thanks going to Stuart Gordon and his collaborative producer, Brian Yuzna that this film works as well as it does. Featuring some genial effects works, plenty of hilarity and class A performances from Combs, Bruce Abbot, Barbara Cramton and David Gale, who all look like they’re having the time of their lives, Re-animator is a bonafied cult classic that deserves to be in any horror purist’s collection.

Elite Entertainment’s 2002 “Millennium Edition” is the best way to experience the film fully uncut and with the added bonus of a newly mixed DTS track. This two disc edition also features a brilliant and often hilarious audio commentary from cast and crew, along with two extensive interview pieces, behind the scenes footage, deleted scenes and much more….

Mike Sutton: Videodrome
David Cronenberg, 1982

David Cronenberg is a poet of the perverse, the greatest explorer into the dark side of the human soul in the history of film. His unique perception of the world is cruel, downbeat and frequently shot through with black humour that relieves the otherwise all-pervasive sense of despair and hopeless sadness. "Videodrome" is not quite his best work but it's a film which no other director could have made. James Woods is one of Cronenberg's best heroes, Max Renn, a sleazy TV executive whose investigations into the source of a pornographic television show named 'Videodrome' leads him to an experience after which he will, literally, never be the same. Add some spectacularly gruesome make-up effects - one of which brings a whole new meaning to the term 'handgun' - a spare, chilly visual style and the kind of metaphysical inquiry that so few horror films bother to pursue, and you a definitive love-it or hate-it piece of filmmaking.

Although Cronenberg has made better films, "Videodrome" gets the best presentation on DVD thanks to a stunning package from Criterion. The first disc features a transfer to die for and two insightful audio commentaries. The second is packed with the kind of extra features that enhance the film without coming across as unnecessary filler. It's even packaged with a sense of irony. The DVD case is designed to resemble a video cassette; naturally, it's Betamax - Max Renn would hardly consider anything else.

James Gray: Scream
Wes Craven, 1996

Wes Craven's multi-layered labour of love to the field that made his name, the first twelve minutes of Scream single-handedly revived a genre many had considered dead and buried. If you remember nothing else about the movie you remember those opening moments, Casey Becker's plight both conforming to traditional slasher-film conventions while also remembering that horror is as much about screwing with your mind as it is ripping your guts out. The remainder of the film is both an affectionate look at films past (there are enough references crammed in to shame an episode of The Simpsons) and a stern telling-off to other filmmakers from Craven and writer Kevin Williamson, mercilessly deconstructing the cliches that had consigned horror for the past decade to be consigned to DTV hell. It is also a stylish, witty and genuinely surprising film in its own right - one generally overlooked aspect is that the film is a slyly clever whodunnit, one of which Agatha Christie herself would have been proud. Although not particularly scary - the opening and unnervingly psychotic climax aside - its impact can not be underestimated: without Scream, we wouldn't have had The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project, or pretty much any mainstream "scary movie" released since 1996. Bloody brilliant.

Scream is available on its own or in a boxset with its two far inferior sequels from Buena Vista Home Entertainment. It comes with a perfectly fine (although non-anamorphic) 2.35:1 print with a reasonable range of extras, including an informative commentary from Wes Craven and a Q&A session with the cast. The R4 version has an extra DTS track, as well as an anamorphic transfer.

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Region 4 Review

Colin Polonowski: Shaun of the Dead
Edgar Wright, 2004

Who can fail to like Shaun of the Dead? Primarily a comedy from the team behind the excellent series Spaced, Shaun of the Dead still manages to shock in equal measure - and when you least expect it. Written by Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg, Shaun of the Dead is crammed with homages to dozens of horror classics and shows a real reverence to it's influences, and unlike the recent Dawn of the Dead remake the film features the same kinds of zombies that appeared in Romero's classic films.

Some argue that the last act of the film is too serious and out of touch with the comedy that has come before, but I think it works rather well on a horror level and manages to shock in terms of scares and gore. In addition to laughs and jumps, the film also has an emotional core and despite others misgivings about the wide range of genres covered I feel Shaun of the Dead manages to hold it all together and will eventually end up being considered one of the great British films of this decade.

The Region 2 DVD is packed to the brim with extra features - more than I think I've seen on a single disc release. However, this comes at a price and the disc's picture quality isn't all that it could be, especially on larger displays with frequent signs of shimmering and aliasing maring what should be an excellent transfer. Still, in terms of value for money this release has it all - a great film, tons of extras and reasonable presentation.

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Region 2 Review

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