Halloween is just around the corner. Here is some scare fare to help you celebrate the most ghoulish time of the year.

 

MOYER FOR YOUR MONEY

True Blood‘s Stephen Moyer takes a detour from his bloodsucking day job to co-star in Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Barrens. A family camping trip goes terribly wrong when a father (Moyer) takes his wife (Mia Kirshner) and two kids into New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, where the infamous Jersey Devil reportedly resides. Infected by a wound he obtained prior to the journey, he believes the Jersey Devil is out to get them. His family thinks he’s crazy, and the further into the woods they venture, the more psycho he becomes. Is the Jersey Devil real or not—and what are the ramifications either way? While Bousman cut his teeth on three SAW films, this is the kind of movie he should make more often. His recent Mother’s Day remake was a bit too sadistic, but The Barrens strikes the right balance between gory horror and psychological distress, and the cast and characters rise above your typical cookie cutter genre inhabitants. Moyer and Kirshner command their roles, and the creepy creature emerges only when necessary.

 

HI-DEF HALLOWEEN

Like any long-running horror franchise, Halloween has certainly had its share of highs and lows. John Carpenter’s unsettling original will always be a classic chiller, and Steve Miner’s Halloween H20 (number seven, if you’re counting) is certainly a worthy sequel and strong film. The rest vary radically in quality. Installments two through five recently emerged on Blu-ray with high-definition upgrades and bonus features, and fans of the franchise should generally be excited.

Shout! Factory’s new Scream Factory horror division has given Halloween II and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch the deluxe packages that Universal never did. They come loaded with all-new bonus features: stylish cover art, in-depth documentaries, commentaries, trailers, photos and the neutered, re-edited tv cut of Halloween II. This is the kind of respectful repackaging that more horror titles should receive. While it’s a decent sequel, Halloween II does not quite ratchet up the tension the way the original did, but it does provide some gruesome kills. The underrated Halloween III: The Season Of The Witch was a highly criticized failure at the time for deviating from the Michael Myers continuum, but it’s modest tale of two people trying to uncover the sinister goings-on at a children’s Halloween mask factory is foreboding and creepy. Give it a shot—it’s one of the best of the series.

Anchor Bay has reissued Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers and Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers, both of which are tied together by The Shape chasing after his 9-year-old niece, played by then-child actor Danielle Harris. (That would be so un-PC today.) The fourth installment, while a bit over-the-top, makes Myers even more superhuman. He places his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois under siege, cutting the power and inspiring rednecks to grab their rifles and hunt him down. Some narrative logic issues aside, it has its sinister moments, an impressive performance from Harris and delivers a shock ending. The emotionally overwrought fifth film, however, just gets silly as Myers’ niece develops a telepathic connection with him. The funny thing is, instead of just going directly to get her, he slays people around her that really aren’t in his way. And a mysterious man in black sets up the even more ludicrous sixth installment connecting Myers to a druidic cult. Ugh.

All four of these films look and sound great in HD. The Scream Factory extras rock, while Anchor Bay simply retains their previous DVD special features, except that part four and five each get a new commentary track but part four has had its “making of” documentary and writer commentary both inexplicably removed. That’s not cool. Still, if you’re dying to see the films sparkle in high-definition, the upgrade is worthwhile.

 

REDEEMED HORROR?

The nearly 20-year-old British company Redemption Films recently partnered with American arthouse label Kino Lorber to release numerous movies by the likes of Mario Bava, Jess Franco and Jean Rollin. The latter is a French cult director who first made his name with weird lesbian vampire films in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Watching the early, low budget films of Jean Rollin is both fascinating and frustrating. He utilized gorgeous locations, often beautifully photographed, and incorporated intriguing concepts into his vampire tales, often to do with secret societies. But his actors were rarely very good (especially the frequently nude women), and the narratives rather disjointed. His first feature film, the black and white The Rape Of The Vampire (1968), is two short films put together. The concept is intriguing: A psychoanalyst seeks to cure four sisters living in a dilapidated mansion of the notion that they are vampires. He thinks they are mentally ill; it turns out he’s wrong. He soon is turned over to the other side and from there seeks to help a doctor find an antidote to the disease lest the bloodsuckers take over the world. It’s a curious little movie that cries to be remade, but there are lots of interesting images within.

By contrast, 1982’s full color The Living Dead Girl is a beautifully rendered movie that handles the undead in a poetic way. A young woman named Catherine Valmont is revived by a toxic chemical spill accidentally created by grave robbers. She then takes up residence in her family’s gorgeous, ginormous mansion, which has yet to find a new owner. When her best friend Hélène discovers that she is alive and needs blood to survive, she is more than eager to help her. But soon Catherine realizes she is not meant to be alive, and Hélène is turning into a fiendish, monstrous accomplice. The most realized of the Rollin films I have seen so far, there is a pervasive sadness to The Living Dead Girl. While its practical effects are somewhat dated, the gory, soul-rending finale is incredibly effective and will stay imprinted on your psyche.

On the non-Rollin front, 1972’s Burke & Hare comically portrays the real-life, 19th century tale of two broke Scotsmen who, aided by their wives, kill poor and destitute people to sell their bodies to the local medical school. Humor seems like an odd approach to take, but that’s what makes director Vernon Sewell’s final film so unusual. It moves between the strange world of the titular characters, who become wealthy from their horrific practices, and that of a local brothel where one of the future victims will come. Part grotesque comedy and part bawdy sex romp (lots of boobs), the movie does not fully click, but it’s a strange little period piece that may appeal to cult movie fans.

An unusual title from Kino proper is Ganja & Hess, a movie that stood out amongst the tide of ’70s Blaxploitation flicks by not pandering to stereotypes and being more lyrical in nature. Its main character Dr. Hess Green (played by Night Of The Living Dead star Duane Jones in his only other major role), is a wealthy African-American professor who becomes addicted to blood after his crazed assistant stabs him with a ceremonial dagger. After his assistant commits suicide, Hess laps up his blood then seeks out sustenance, first by robbing a blood bank but soon after through murder. When he becomes involved with his late assistant’s wife and seeks to immortalize her, things really get messy. Shown in its original 113-minute running time (it was cut to 78 minutes back in the day), Ganja & Hess (words being slang for pot and hash, respectively) is more of a vampiric drama with erotic moments, although it possesses some disturbing psychedelic sequences. It runs a bit long but stands out among films of the time.

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