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DVD Reviews For 10/16: Psycho Killers--Qu’est-ce que?!

by Peter Sobczynski

Don’t run run away from this week’s column--it includes thoughts on one of the greatest slasher movies ever made, one of the greatest concert movies ever made and what could well be the greatest Halloween-themed film that you have probably never seen.

When one thinks back of the slasher movie fad that dominated horror cinema in the 1980’s, one usually thinks of threadbare plots, lackluster acting, cheesy gore and endings designed solely to set up sequels that no same person would ever want to subject themselves to under any circumstance. However, there were a few examples of the genre that at least tried to give viewers a little more than the usual nonsense and two of those films are hitting DVD--one for the very first time--this week. One is merely okay while the other is a flat-out masterpiece but both are still worth checking out whether you are a stone-cold horror buff or just someone looking for something on the scary side to watch this Halloween season.

Released during the height of the craze in 1981, “Happy Birthday to Me” was unusual in the sense that it had a somewhat higher pedigree than most of its peers--the cast included such familiar faces as venerable stalwart Glenn Ford and Melissa Sue Anderson of “Little House on the Prairie” fame and was directed by J. Lee Thompson, the man who helmed such classics as “The Guns of Navarone” and the original “Cape Fear.” Beyond that, however, the film is the usual nonsense in which a mysterious killer is bumping off the members of Crawford Academy’s most exclusive clique in especially grotesque ways and troubled new student Anderson tries to figure out if she is the next target or the killer before all is revealed in a finale so deranged that it makes the climax of “April Fool’s Day” seem staid by comparison. That said, Anderson and Ford bring a certain level of professionalism to the proceedings, Thompson keeps things humming along and the kills (including the infamous shish-kebab murder that became the centerpiece of the promotional campaign) are certainly unusual enough to satisfy gorehounds. When this film was previously released on DVD a few years ago, its fans were outraged that the original score was replaced with new music as a cost-cutting measure and the original poster design was replaced for the cover with some anonymous graphic--for this new version from Anchor Bay, both of those flaws have been corrected and while there may not be any other extras to speak of, this is probably as definitive a version of the film as is ever likely to emerge.

When “The Stepfather” was released in 1987, it failed at the box-office and it isn’t hard to see why--it was distributed by a company that was on its last legs, it had an ad campaign that made it look like just another cheesy slasher movie and it opened in many places on the same day as “Nightmare on Elm Street 3.” However, those who were brave enough to seek it out in theaters at that time or later on home video quickly realized that this wasn’t just another anonymous piece of genre junk--it was, in fact, one of the very best horror films of the entire decade. Inspired by actual events, the film stars future “Lost” denizen Terry O’Quinn as a seemingly pleasant man who marries women with children in the hopes of forging the perfect “Father Knows Best”-style unit--when that idealized dream inevitably falls apart in the face of messy reality, he slaughters his family, changes his identity and moves on to the next one. Written by Donald E. Westlake and directed by Joseph Ruben, the film works both as a sly satire on the illusion of family values and as an uncommonly tense thriller that effectively plays off the fears that crop up when a new person is installed into a previously existing family unit. Aiding immeasurably to the success of the film is the one-of-a-kind performance from O’Quinn that is one of the niftiest portrayals of evil at its blandest ever seen and Jill Schoelen (whatever happened to her?) is equally impressive as the spunky-but-troubled teen girl desperately trying to convince her mother (Shelly Hack) that something is not quite right with her new husband. Long unavailable on home video because of rights questions, it is finally appearing on DVD (tying in with the new and presumably superfluous remake) and also includes a retrospective documentary on the making of the film and a commentary track from Ruben.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME: Written by John Saxton, Peter Jobin and Timothy Bond. Directed by J. Lee Thompson. Starring Melissa Sue Anderson. Glenn Ford, Laurence Dane, Sharon Acker, Tracy Bregman and Lisa Langlois. 1981 Rated R. 111 minutes. An Anchor Bay Home Entertainment release. $14.98

THE STEPFATHER: Written by Donald E. Westlake. Directed by Joseph Ruben. Starring Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen and Shelly Hack. 1987. Rated R. 89 minutes. A Shout! Factory release. $19.98


ADORATION (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.96): The latest work from renowned Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan tells the story of Simon (Devon Bostick), a teenager who, as part of a classroom assignment, informs his classmates that his father was a terrorist who tried to use his unwitting mother as part of a plot to blow up an airplane while she was pregnant with him--a revelation that turns out not to be 100% accurate. At this point in the story, the film is a fairly fascinating meditation on the notions of family, loss, the cultural fascination with victimization in the post-9/11 era and the ways in which technology can both expose and muddy certain truths in equal measure (a conceit that Egoyan has been toying with as far back as 1989’s “Speaking Parts”) and I couldn’t wait to see where he was going with this story. Unfortunately, it is at precisely this point that the film begins to completely fall apart in a mess of muddled storytelling and implausible character behavior that feels more like someone trying and failing to approximate Egoyan’s elliptical narrative style than an example of the real thing.

DRAG ME TO HELL (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): After spending the last few years working on the blockbuster “Spider Man” trilogy, director Sam Raimi returned to his low-budget horror roots with this timely tale of an ambitious bank officer (Allison Lohman) who is socked with a powerful curse after turning down an ancient Gypsy woman’s loan application and who must race against time to break it before. . .well, read the title. Although it may not be the equal of his landmark “Evil Dead” films, Raimi gives viewers a giggly gross-out that is so filled with energy, humor and icky parts that most viewers will be willing to forgive the fact that it does drag on a little too long at times. It may be junk but it is junk of such a high degree that most horror fans should love it.

ECLIPSE 18: DUSAN MAKAVEJEV--FREE RADICAL (The Criterion Collection. $44.98): I was once at a soiree that included Roger Ebert and this controversial Yugoslavian filmmaker (best known for such films as “Sweet Movie” and “WR: Mysteries of the Organism”) and when the former introduced me to the latter, he told him that I was one of the few critics that he knew of who was actually qualified to review his strange, sexy and defiantly outrageous works. Unfortunately, I have to prove Ebert to be a bit of a liar in this case since I haven’t seen any of the three early works--1965’s “Man Is Not A Bird” (his debut work following the romantic lives of two losers working in a copper factor), 1967’s “Love Affair, or The Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator” (which deals with the doomed relationship that develops between a young telephone operator and an older exterminator) and 1968’s “Innocence Unprotected” (which purports to consist of the lost footage of the first talkie produced in Serbia after the Nazi occupation)--and therefore am incredibly unqualified to review them here. However, considering how impressive Makavejev’s later works are, my guess is that these early efforts should be intriguing as well.

GNAW (Dark Sky Films. $24.98): Proving that films about cannibalistic hillbilly psychos are not strictly an American phenomenon, this British horror film gives us an all-too-familiar tale of a group of horny young people off for a weekend in the country who run afoul of a family of lunatics who have developed an unusual filling for their meat pies, if you know what I mean and I think you do. I guess there is a little novelty at first in the fact that it is from England but for the most part, there is nothing much on display here that the typical horror fan hasn’t seen done before and done better.

HARDWARE (Severin Films. $29.95): In this bloody 1990 sci-fi thriller from cult director Richard Stanley, Dylan McDermott stars as a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic world who stumbles across the banged-up mechanical skull of a cyborg and brings it home to girlfriend Stacy Travis to use as part of her latest metal-sculpture project. Alas, it turns out that the piece comes from a highly developed combat droid with the ability to reassemble itself and wage brutal warfare on anyone that it deems to be a threat to its existence and I think you can fill in the blanks from there. Heavily cut before its U.S. theatrical release, this DVD includes the uncut version, along with a slew of bonus features, and while it isn’t the unsung classic that its fans might have you think, it does have a certain grisly energy to it that makes it at least worth a look.

THE HAUNTED AIRMAN (E1 Entertainment. $24.98): It is only a few more weeks until the release of that “New Moon” nonsense but if you don’t think that you can make it that long without basking in the cinematic presence of non-threatening pretty boy Robert Pattinson, you might want to pick up a copy of this 2006 supernatural drama in which he plays a wounded WW II pilot who arrives at a remote mansion in Wales to recuperate after being wounded in action. Before long, he is plagued by strange nightmares and is convinced that his doctor (Julian Sands) does not exactly have his best interests in heart and even begins to suspect the motives of his beloved aunt (Rachel Stirling). You can pretty much guess what happens from this point, which could explain why this is only now seeing the light of day.

THE HUNGER:SEASON 2 (E1 Entertainment. $39.98): Once upon a time, there was an ultra-stylish vampire movie called “The Hunger” that achieved a certain cult following thanks to its heady mix of sex, violence and a to-die-for cast that included Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon and David Bowie. About a decade or so later, Tony Scott, the film’s director, teamed up with brother Ridley to executive-produce an anthology show of the same name that otherwise had nothing to do with the movie other than offering stories that included a similar mix of sex and violence. For the first season, the show was hosted by Terrence Stamp but when the second season came around, those duties were turned over to. . .David Bowie. Confused? Well, in all fairness, I suspect that the Scott’s were hoping that most viewers would be too distracted by the boobs and blood to notice and just in case you think I am overselling the sex aspect, you should bear in mind that the bonus feature accompanying the 22 episodes seen here is a retrospective of the Top 10 nude scenes from the show compiled by none other than celebrity nudity enthusiast Mr. Skin. Other TV-related DVDs appearing this week include “Flashpoint--The First Season” (CBS DVD. $45.98), “Futurama: The Complete Collection” (Fox Home Entertainment. $199.98), “Genesis II” (Warner Archives. $19.95), “Girlfriends: The Complete Seventh Season” (CBS DVD. $36.98), “Jackass--The Lost Tapes” (Paramount Home Video. $19.98) and “Married With Children--Season 11” (Sony Home Entertainment. $39.95).

iMURDERS (Anchor Bay Home Entertainment. $19.97):In this direct-to-video horror item, the members of an Internet social networking chat room find themselves being mysteriously picked off one by one and the survivors desperately try to figure out which one among them is the killer before it is too late. Yeah, it sounds like a typical piece of disposable psycho-killer crapola but since one of the potential targets/killers is played by longtime column crush object Gabrielle Anwar, I may actually have to give it a look at some point.

LAND OF THE LOST (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): After a string of increasingly tiresome films, Will Ferrell finally came up with the full-on “Little Nicky”-sized disaster we all suspected he had in him with this ridiculously expensive and painfully unfunny adaptation of the half-forgotten Saturday morning TV show about a trio of goofs (Danny McBride and the utterly wasted Anna Friel are along for the ride) who accidentally travel to a parallel dimension where dinosaurs still roam. Although there are a few moments of strikingly bizarre imagery on display here and there, this is mostly a massive miscalculation from start to finish that is way too smutty for little kids and far too juvenile for adults looking for a nostalgic fix.

NEW WORLD ORDER (Disinformation Films. $19.98): From the people who brought you the cult documentary favorite “Darkon” comes this film that takes an inside look at the world of conspiracy theorists and how they are beginning to form a movement dedicated to exposing massive plots by a few so-called “global elitists” designed to destroy society as we know it and put things in their hands for good. I could tell you that it is a reasonably interesting thing, provided that you take it with several grains of salt but then again, that is exactly what they would want me to do, isn’t it?

THE OBJECTIVE (IFC Films. $19.98): Daniel Myrick, one of the co-creators of a little thing called “The Blair Witch Project” a decade ago (for you kids out there, it was kind of like the “Paranormal Activity” of its day, only good), returns to co-write and direct this unusual horror tale, set two months after 9/11, in which a Special Forces squad sneaks into Taliban country in search of a man who may know the location of a large cache of WMDs--inevitably, they winds up stumbling upon something strangers, scarier and much more difficult to fight off.

PETS (Code Red. $19.98): In this decidedly weird and incredibly sleazy exploitation item from 1974, B-movie goddess Candice Rialson (whom you will recall from such classics as “Chatterbox” and “Hollywood Boulevard”) plays a nubile runaway who turns up in L.A. and makes the acquaintance of a suave collector of things who wants to add her to his collection--one look at the DVD cover and you should be able to figure it out from there. It is pretty trashy, to be sure, but it is a little smarter and better made than the usual grindhouse crap, so if you are in the mood for something a little kinkier than normal, this should do the trick.

THE PROPOSAL (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $29.99): In this depressingly successful hymn to the wacky joys of interoffice sexual harassment (which I am certain would have seemed just as appealing to its core female audience if the roles were reversed), cold-hearted Canadian book editor Sandra Bullock forces hapless underling Ryan Reynolds to marry her in order to prevent her deportation, a decision that results in unexpected romance, whimsy and salty behavior from Betty White as (wait for it) the tart-tongued granny. Amazingly, this is neither the worst romantic comedy of the year nor is it the worst Sandra Bullock vehicle--alas, this says more about the foundering fortunes of those particular subgenres of late than it does about the intrinsic quality of this fairly appalling effort.

STOP MAKING SENSE (Palm Pictures. $34.99): Catchy tunes, gorgeous visuals, intricate choreography, incredible energy and one very big suit--Jonathan Demme’s concert film featuring the classic New Wave band Talking Heads has it all and even after 25 years, it remains one of the greatest concert movies ever made. This edition (which marks its debut in the glory of Blu-ray) includes all of the features from the previous version (including commentary from the band and Demme, bonus songs and storyboards showing just how precise all the on-stage activity really was) and a hour-long press conference done with the band (which had long been acrimoniously defunct) on the occasion of its 1999 theatrical reissue.

THE SUNCHASER (Warner Home Video. $19.97): The last feature film to date from the infamous auteur Michael Cimino, the man whose expensive flop “Heaven’s Gate” helped to destroy both his career and the studio that financed it (though its artistic reputation has increased over the years), was this odd 1997 quasi-road movie in which a rich oncologist (Woody Harrelson) is kidnapped by a dying young convict (Jon Seda) who wants him to come along on a trip to a Navajo reservation with a lake that allegedly contains mystical healing powers. For the most part, this is pretty standard stuff, though the performances are pretty good (even if Harrelson isn’t the most convincing doctor in cinema history) and Cimino crafts the material into something reasonably gripping even if it never manages to hit the awesome heights of his more audacious works.

TRICK ‘R TREAT(Warner Home Video. $26.98): After more than two years of languishing on a studio shelf for reasons that have never been adequately explained, Michael Dougherty’s Halloween-themed anthology film, featuring a quartet of intertwining “Tales from the Crypt”-style horror tales (imagine a cross between “Pulp Fiction” and “Creepshow”) set in a small town that takes the holiday very seriously, is finally seeing the light of day and in a twist as shocking as any featured in the movie itself, it turns out to totally deserve all the fanboy hype that it has developed over the time that it was unavailable. Without going into specifics right now--I think I am probably going to write long on this one when I get a chance--I will tell you that it is frequently hilarious, creatively gory, intelligently written and even kind of genuinely creepy here and there. Simply put, this is one of the more ingenious American horror films to come along in a while and it is one that is sure to become a holiday perennial amongst genre fans from this year on.


THE CRAFT (Sony Home Entertainment. $28.95)

DR. SEUSS’ HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.99)


SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT (Paramount Home Video. $29.99)

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originally posted: 10/16/09 07:29:58
last updated: 10/16/09 07:47:01
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