Flicks That Go Bump in the Night

So now that we're all living in the shadow of Sept. 11, what happens to America's insatiable appetite for horror movies? Will we still be quite so eager to manufacture our own make-believe monsters, now that we've encountered real-life monsters falling from the sky?

My best guess is yes. And not just for the obvious, dime store-psychology response that these movies offer a sort of cathartic release for stressed-out viewers (although that's true as well).

The bottom line is that these films are fun. They scare us and occasionally shock and threaten us, but not too much. In other words, they offer the sublime thrill of fear without danger. We've always loved our monsters, at least in the movies, and the darker and more uncertain the times, the more we seem to need them.

Small wonder, then, that now that the real monsters have come to call, bombs strapped to their waists and vials of anthrax at the ready, we're likely to find more comfort than ever in the other kind of monsters — the ones that can't hurt us, the ones safely tucked away on the silver screen or cathode ray tube.

In any event, for all of us in need of these kinder and gentler monsters, here are some of the best, all available in sparkly new DVD editions, and just in time for Halloween.

Haxan — Outside of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas, the best movie I can think of to play over and over during this season is the legendary 1922 witchcraft "documentary" Haxan, a one-of-a-kind blend of medieval lore, eerie vignettes and haunting, hallucinatory images that made it a top fave with the original surrealists. The film manages fluid leaps from fact to fiction, while placing us squarely in a 15th Century mindset where sorcery and the existence of demons is a universally understood fact. The result is something unlike anything other movie made up to that point or since. There are two versions of Haxan out there in the world, and both are available on the incredible new Criterion Collection DVD. The first version is the original 104 minute Haxan, complete with red and blue tinted scenes and a lush but occasionally generic-sounding score performed by the Czech Film Orchestra.

The second and more commonly seen version is a radically mutated but still endlessly fascinating 1968 edit, retitled Witchcraft Through the Ages. It's highlighted by William S. Burroughs' deadpan narration and a starkly atonal soundtrack featuring Jean-Luc Ponty. Both versions have been painstakingly restored and look absolutely breathtaking on the DVD, which, in true Criterion form, also includes a number of wonderful supplements. There's an extensive segment on the historical sources used by director Benjamin Christensen; an intriguing, feature-length commentary by Danish silent film scholar Casper Tybjerg; a suitable-for-framing still gallery; and a selection of outtakes that includes the priceless sight of a young actress playing a possessed nun practicing a perverse titter over and over.

13 Ghosts — With the big budget, state-of-the-art remake opening this week, what better time to check out the original 13 Ghosts? By today's standards, this 1960 spook yarn looks quaintly dated (and that's putting it charitably) but that's half the fun of it. The characters (a typical '50s/'60s TV sitcom nuclear family) are all laughable cardboard cut-outs, and the story's basically just an excuse for the special effects, which look cheesy even by 1960 standards. The big hook in 13 Ghosts, though, is that those special effects are all delivered in a process that director/master showman William Castle called "Illusion-O" — a variation on 3-D whereby audience members are given a red and blue lensed "ghost viewer" that, depending on which lens you choose to look through, either enhances the images of the titular poltergeists or makes them disappear. The Columbia TriStar DVD comes packaged with your very own ghost viewer, a special feature on Illusion-O, and two separate versions of 13 Ghosts — one with the blue and red-tinged Illusion-O effects (which some viewers find irritating) and one without. Both versions feature incredibly sharp anamorphic widescreen pictures that really bring the movie to life.

Basket Case — When Frank Henenlotter saw the early rushes featuring the crudely animated lead creature of his ultra-low budget production Basket Case, the director wisely went back to the drawing board and rewrote the movie with a new emphasis on humor rather than horror. Henenlotter eventually got the mix just about perfect, which devotees of the director's 1981 cult classic have long appreciated. The rest of the world can now get in on the Basket Case bandwagon thanks to a 20th Anniversary Special Edition DVD (Something Weird/Image Entertainment) that presents Henenlotter's opus in all its gleefully deranged glory.

From its main monster (a junk-food craving, panty-sniffing blob of protoplasm who lives in a hamper) to its colorful cast of Manhattan lowlifes and its outrageous storyline, Basket Case is a gory, good-natured hoot. It's now an even more repeatable experience thanks to this beautifully produced DVD. The movie's gritty, poverty-row roots will always show through, but the DVD's presentation is by far the best Basket Case has ever looked.

Beyond that, we get a full immersion experience here, from the cheerfully gossipy commentary by Henenlotter and company, to the extremely amusing guided tour of the movie's original locations, to the outtakes of the cast and crew mugging (all set to a Superfly-styled wah-wah guitar soundtrack). One caveat: There were a few sequels made to Basket Case, but avoid them at all costs. Stick with the original, and seek out this version.

The Penalty — Although he's conveniently redeemed in the end by a last-minute twist of fate, there are few portraits of evil as memorable as the one offered up by Lon Chaney in the 1920 silent The Penalty. Chaney is grotesquely mesmerizing as Blizzard, a criminal genius whose dementia stems from his legs being needlessly amputated as a child. The movie is a still resonant tour-de-force of bad behavior and deviant psychology, highlighted by the unforgettable sequence where the legless Blizzard leaps onto a table in a frenzy, grabs a female factory worker by her hair and proceeds to slap her silly.

The film abounds with similarly powerful images of weirdness and sexual dread, and the marvelous Special Edition DVD of The Penalty by Kino on Video brings all the kinks right to the surface. Michael Polher's eerily reverbed, percussion-driven soundtrack underscores the film's creepy psychological dimensions, while a thorough and thought-provoking essay by Chaney biographer Michael F. Blake adds additional insight. On top of that, the special edition gives us a mother lode of Chaneymania: a look inside Chaney's actual makeup kit; a rare glimpse at surviving footage from Chaney's The Miracle Man; a complete one-reel western from 1914; trailers from two other Chaney films; another essay on adapting the film; novel-to-film scene comparisons; photo and artwork galleries; and even an original production budget sheet from The Penalty.

The Wicker Man — And finally, what would Halloween be without at least one ode to the pagan way? The 1973 British gem The Wicker Man is positively crawling with pagans and earthy, pre-Christian sexuality. The investigation of a schoolgirl's disappearance leads an uptight English constable to the discovery of a mysterious cult on a remote Scottish island. This offbeat thriller has generated a well-deserved cult reputation over the years for its uniquely unsettling atmosphere, literate script and fine performances by the likes of Edward Woodward, Britt Ekland and Hammer Films staples Christopher Lee and Ingrid Pitt.

Anchor Bay Entertainment has done an amazing job restoring The Wicker Man, presenting the nearly 30-year-old film in a spotless anamorphic widescreen picture with deep, solid colors and smooth, crisp contrasts. The DVD also features a number of welcome extras, most notably a fascinating look-back at the film titled The Wicker Man Enigma — but hardcore fans won't want to stop there. Anchor Bay has also released The Wicker Man as a 2-DVD Limited Edition that includes an extended version of the film containing an additional 10 minutes of footage. That may not sound like a lot, but, believe it or not, those 10 minutes significantly enhance the film's cohesiveness and convey an even stronger sense of the uniquely ominous mystery that makes The Wicker Man such a treat.

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