Queued Up: Holiday Gift Guide 2018 – Part 1

Before Mulder And Scully…

  There was Carl Kolchak, intrepid reporter of the supernatural and unexplained. Both of the TV films The Night Stalker (1972) and The Night Strangler (1973) were ratings monsters that led to the short-lived TV series “Kolchak: The Night Stalker” in 1974. Starring Darren McGavin (the father from A Christmas Story) and written by iconic sci-fi/horror author Richard Matheson, both movies follow his unexpected journey into weird journalism: first pursuing a vampire killer in Vegas, then a corpse-like murderer in Seattle. Combining Kolchak’s wisecracking clashes with his disbelieving editor and angry police along with some spooky scenes, these fright flicks are still fun to watch and have their orchestral scores pumped up with hyperkinetic jazz drumming. Expanded into its 90-minute European theatrical cut, The Night Strangler also features two fun cameos: Al Lewis (a.k.a. Grandpa Munster) and Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West). Kino has created these DVDs and Blu-rays from new 4K masters, and they have added on some new bonus features — including fresh cover illustrations, a chat with composer Bob Cobert, audio commentaries from Tim Lucas, and limited-edition liner notes from Simon Abrams — that dig deeper into these retro gems. It is easy to see how Kolchak’s eerie exploits were a major influence on “The X-Files.”

Fearful Delights

  Scream Factory continues to restore and reissue some fine vintage movies for horror hounds, and they have plenty of great holiday offerings for the fear fiend in your life.

  Probably the greatest horror anthology ever made, George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) has been released on Blu-ray before, but this version trumps them all, coming from a new 4K master, featuring new cover art, enhanced with a plethora of bonus features involving numerous crew members, and packaged with a 40-page booklet packed with photos, poster art, and liner notes from Michael Gingold. For fans of this movie, which was co-written by Stephen King (who also stars in one of the five main stories), this is a fantastic reissue. Essential viewing, Creepshow was an homage to the deliciously lurid, gory, and well-written EC Comics offerings of the 1950s that were essentially banned due to their shocking content. Creepshow 2 followed in 1987, and the “Tales From The Crypt” series on HBO, directly taken from EC material, emerged in 1989.

  The third part of John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” In The Mouth Of Madness (1994) stars Sam Neill as a cynical insurance fraud specialist who teams up with a book editor (Julie Carmen) to track down her missing author, best-selling horror icon Sutter Cain. The man has not turned in a finished manuscript of his latest book. His obsessed fans are getting antsy (some even homicidally violent), and the publisher wants to either find Cain or cover their losses. But the duo soon finds themselves trapped in a rural reality mirroring Cain’s own twisted writing, and they may not make it out alive. While not quite as classic as other Carpenter films, this is still a smart shocker very much inspired by the chilling prose of H.P. Lovecraft. This new reissue, taken from a 4K master, features new bonus material that includes an audio commentary from Carpenter and his producer/wife Sandy King Carpenter.

  Evil kids are a common horror trope, and writer-director Larry Cohen takes it all the way with his It’s Alive Trilogy (1971-1987), which begins with the tale of one terrifying tyke and ends up with a conglomeration of belligerent babies banished to an island as society fears their ugly looks and ferocious behavior. (But they soon grow older and want to return.) The sinister spawns that inhabit this trilogy were mutated by contraceptive pills ingested by their mothers, and they are born larger than normal, sport deadly talons (which they use when confronted by people fearful and angry at them), and come equipped with superior, quickly evolving brains. Cohen always manages to take true B-movie fare (and this one is a stretch) and do a lot with limited means. The first two films benefit from intense actor John P. Ryan, the special make-up effects work of Rick Baker, and the music of Bernard Herrmann, while the third features actors Michael Moriarty (“Law & Order”) and horror icon Karen Black, plus a larger budget. These movies are not for everyone, but if you buy into their kooky concept you might appreciate that they are really about prejudice and fear of the future. As stated in the third movie: “How would you feel if you were born into a world that looked at you and wanted you dead?”

When Han Met Chewie

  While it was frowned upon with skepticism by Star Wars fans disappointed by The Last Jedi, unhappy with the ousting of original co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller in favor of Ron Howard, and possibly some confused by Lando Calrissian’s pansexuality, Solo: A Star Wars (2018) story is a fun sci-fi romp that is better than many people would have you believe. Yes, the Han Solo of this story is not the hardened, flippant cynic we all know and love, but this origin tale shows he went from being a love smitten and somewhat green novice in the criminal underworld to the jaded smuggler he later became. Alden Ehrenreich handles the title role well, Donald Glover gets Lando down to a T, and Joonas Suotamo smoothly slips into the role of Chewbacca. While not as engaging as Rogue One, Solo lives on its own merits. The healthy dose of bonus features includes eight deleted scenes, a roundtable with Howard and the cast, and insights from father-son co-writers Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan.

Best Haunted House Movie Ever

  A film that is fairly well-known among supernatural cinema buffs but which still deserves a wider audience is director Peter Medak’s The Changeling (1980), a classic chiller about a composer (George C. Scott) who, grieving the death of his wife and daughter, moves from Manhattan to Seattle to create and teach. Naturally, he is put up in a big, old spooky house haunted by the ghost of a dead boy reaching out to him. Aided by a local realtor (Trish Van Devere) he investigates the mystery behind the house and its spectral occupant. Martin Scorsese has rightfully called The Changeling one of the scariest movies ever, and it features the creepiest séance scene ever filmed. Severin Films have not only given this a great HD transfer, but they have added in bonus features that fans such as myself have long craved, including a director and producer commentary, interviews with music arranger Kenneth Wannberg and art director Reuben Freed, and a look into the real-life story that inspired this masterpiece. Kudos.

Undercover Agitator

  Spike Lee’s latest joint BlacKkKlansman (2018) was inspired by the real-life story of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black detective in the Colorado Springs Police Department who boldly infiltrated and disrupted the activities of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan by playing an interested caucasian disciple over the phone, then convincing a white, Jewish detective (Adam Driver) to play the part in person. Talk about a double dose of irony. The film takes some creative liberties with the real events, but what makes BlacKkKlansman so compelling is the way that the serious dramatic parts are balanced out by satirical phone exchanges and Topher Grace’s cheerful, buttoned up (and its own way, tongue-in-cheek) portrayal of then-KKK grand wizard David Duke. We have to laugh at how ludicrous these backward racists were — otherwise it might be harder to watch — but Lee reminds us by the end of the film that such dangerous idiocy, which has ascended to the highest levels of society, is back in full force in America. Hopefully someone will also do a documentary on Stallworth. The bonus features here are light, and his life deserves even greater exploration, but Lee does a great job with this film.

4K Bonanza

  Now that the DVD revolution led to the Blu-ray ascension, where else is there to go for home video beyond streaming? Welcome to the world of 4K, the highest resolution on the market and one which is gradually taking over as the cost of Ultra HD TVs drop. Naturally, loads of big budget extravaganzas will look and sound great in this superior format. Among the 4K holiday offerings this year are the X-Men three-movie collection, the Die Hard 30th Anniversary Edition, and the Predator four-movie collection (due Dec. 18). The latter series, like the Alien franchise it crossed over with, has gone through a new interpretation with each chapter. I’m admittedly behind on checking out the latest one, but I thought the third installment, Predators, was quite good.