Wednesday, January 4, 2012
Hidden Horrors: The Warner Brothers Archives Collection
By Brian M. Sammons
This time around we’ve got a real hidden horror, something that many genre fans don’t even know exists. That’s a crying shame as it’s has some real gems hidden away in the shadows. I’m talking about a boat load of movies that are not on DVD, most have never been on DVD, and probably will never be on DVD. And yet, if you want them, Warner Brothers will put them on DVD just for you. What am I talking about? How can that be? Well the folks over at WB have a bunch back catalog movies that they feel won’t make much money should they give them a wide release to the general public. However if you would want a copy of these often long lost films for your private library, then for a fee Warner will burn a copy to DVD disc and send it to you.
Yeah, how cool is that?
But before you start dancing a jig, know that what little I had heard about the Warner Archives before contacting them wasn’t all good. Some people out there were saying that the quality of what you got from them wasn’t all that great. That all you were getting was a glorified and overpriced DVDR. So I got a few of my most wanted movies from their Archive, gave them a spin, and here’s what I thought of them.
KILLER PARTY (1986)
I love, love, love this movie. Now it’s not a great film by any stretch of the imagination. It’s not even all that great by slasher movie standards as all the groovy gore scenes fell under the censors’ knives, never to be seen again. But with that said, it is a great slice of 80s silly, horror fun. It is a prime example of what made that decade of horror movies so damn good. It has also widely been sought after by nostalgic horrorheads like me for years, but sadly it has never made the jump to DVD. Well, not until now.
As for the movie itself, as I said it is so 80s-rific that it should come packaged with a Rubik’s Cube. After a cool double, make that triple, twist at the start, including a full length music video by a glam rock band, the story begins in earnest. Three young college coeds, looking to pledge a sorority house, must pull off some pranks on April Fools day at a party. Unfortunately the party is taking place at a long abandoned fraternity house where many years before a student was beheaded in another college prank gone wrong. The ghost of that dead pledge isn’t happy about people partying in his house, and so he possesses someone to seek vengeance in classic slasher style. So KILLER PARTY is a little bit slasher flick, a little bit ghost story, a little bit silly college comedy, and a 100% fun trip down memory lane.
But what about the presentation of this movie from the Archives? Well it looked great. Not HD or anything like that, but it looked a far sight better than my old VHS. It said “Remastered Edition” on the front cover and I guess it really was. Sadly the disc is as barebones as it gets with not a single special feature to be found on it. But then I’m just happy to have this on DVD at long last. If you get one movie from the Archives, then in my opinion it should be this one. But that’s not to say that there aren’t other good movies lurking in the Archives, just waiting to be discovered again.
This was a very ambitions film, called “the STAR WARS of monster movies” by more than one magazine at the time it was coming out. Based on a novella called CABAL by Clive Barker, and directed by the same man, this was his second directorial effort after the awesome HELLRAISER. Too bad this movie was no HELLRASIER. Now to be sure, it wasn’t bad, just this tale of a man looking to join a city of monsters in northern Canada because he thinks he’s a serial killer, isn’t all that great. However it does have moments of greatness in it. Most notably is fellow horror master, David Cronenberg, taking a turn in front of the camera playing not only the main protagonist’s psychologist, but the real masked killer behind all the bloody shenanigans. Cronenberg’s creepy calmness is a perfect counterpoint to the wild, often bombastic monsters that populate this film. Another thing this movie gets so right is the creature design. There’s a porcupine lady, and guy with Cthulhu hair, the man who plays Pinhead in the HELLRAISER movies as an eight-eyed prophet, and more. Clive Barker really let his imagination run wild here and it worked out wonderfully. Too bad the same thing can’t be said of the two leads of this movie, who are supposed to be a young couple wildly in love with each other, but not only do they have zero chemistry, but are each more wooden than Pinocchio ever was.
Still, NIGHTBREED is an enjoyable monster mash, and the DVD presents a crisp, clear picture. Unlike most of the other films I received from the Archive, this movie did have a previous DVD release. This copy looks to be a direct reissue of that first disc, including a couple of minor special features like actors and creators’ bios and a theatrical trailer. If you have yet to get this into your own library, I highly recommend ordering it from the Warner Archive. It will be a far sight cheaper than ordering an out of print copy from eBay.
NIGHT SCHOOL (1981)
I love 80s slasher films, but that doesn’t matter here, since this one really isn’t a slasher at all. Well it sort of is, but it’s far more like a mystery thriller that just so happened to have been released during the slasher boom in 1981. That means it got a bit of a slasher makeover to appeal to those audiences hungry for masked murderous maniacs. So here you get a killer in a motorcycle helmet chopping off the heads off of young women with connections to a local college. It also has the excessively lovely Rachel Ward in it, and that’s almost worth the price of admission right there. The previously mentioned mystery of who is headhunting pretty young things and why is handled well, there a few good death scenes, and did I mention Rachel Wards’ naught bits on display? Yeah, how could I not love this movie?
NIGHT SCHOOL is one of those middle ground slashers, neither great nor horrible but solidly in the competent camp. Fans of these flicks have been looking to own this for ages but it has never been released on DVD before. Well now it is and in a fully remastered transfer, so it looks very good. While it has no extra features whatsoever, the fact that you can get it on disc at all should be applauded. If you’re looking to go back to NIGHT SCHOOL anytime soon, this is the only way you’ll be able to attend classes.
Yep, it’s the big pig movie from Australia, a sort of JAWS on land, with hooves and tusks instead of fins and teeth. It is also one of the early films of Russell Mulcahy who would go on to cult super stardom by directing HIGHLANDER, and then to infamy by directing the laughably bad HIGHLANDER 2. Anyway, back to RAZORBACK and the previously mentioned JAWS. This porcine predator movie was one of the many killer animal flicks to come out in that big fish’s wake. However unlike so many big bad beastie movies, this one is actually great fun. It seems almost more a comedy or a bit of a spoof on the evil animal films than a true horror movie, and that’s one of the things I like best about this flick. It’s just plain old fun. However, that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its share of scares. It’s just one of those movies, like the aforementioned KILLER PARTY, that has a great blend of horror and humor. It also has that Aussie charm that we Americans seem to like so much. There really isn’t much more to say about this movie that that. There’s an almost comically huge wild pig running around Australia, smashing completely through houses, eating kids and dogs alike. One day it eats an American TV reporter, so the journalist’s husband, a tough Aussie hunter, and a local female farmer join him in his quest to bring the big pig down.
Now it must be said that this DVD didn’t look all that amazing. It didn’t have the “Remastered Edition” banner on its cover that all the other movies that I got from the Archive did. The reason for that is because it looks like a direct rip from an old VHS master. It’s not horrible looking, but it’s grainy, a but dull, and a far sight from being good. I mention this here, not to pick on the old RAZORBACK movie, that once again I’m just happy to have on DVD in any form, but to illuminate potential purchasers form the Archives to keep an eye out for that “Remastered Edition” header, as it really does make a difference.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)
Hey, remember that movie that came out last year, the one produced by fear master Guillermo del Toro? You know, the one that was supposedly made for kids, but was so damn scary (again; supposedly) that it got an R rating? But then when it came out it actually turned out to be a boring, tepid film that was about as frightening as rearranging your sock drawer? Yeah, thankfully this is not that movie. Nope, it’s the made for TV original movie that the del Toro produced remake ripped off. Also, this one is actually good.
But it’s also not as good as you remember. Don’t get me wrong it’s still a very fine film and ranks up there with DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW (1981) as one of the best, most effective made for TV horror movies ever put on the small screen. There’s just no way in hell it can live up to the rose colored nostalgia haze you remember it (if you’re old enough to remember it at all) from your childhood. So just keep that in mind if you go tripping down this particular memory lane.
The story is, appropriately enough, basically the same from the remake; a family moves into a creepy old house where strange creatures live in the dark and do spooky things. Except here it actually works. Maybe that’s because the focus of this story is on the very capable adult actress playing the mother of the family, instead of the barely tolerable child actress playing the daughter in the remake? Yeah, Hollywood, child actors are in fact children who, by and large, aren’t great actors. Yes there are exceptions to every rule (see Haley Joel Osment) but even they usually can only pull that off once (again see Haley Joel Osment in anything other than THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)). So if you are going to make a child the star of your supposedly serious horror movie, make sure that they’re up to the task.
Ok, rant over, let’s talk about this DVD. First, it’s another remastered release, so the film looks pretty good. Also, unlike all the other DVDs on this list, it has an honest to goodness special feature on it in the way of an informative, and entertaining audio commentary. There’s a guy who runs a horror website, a screenwriter, and someone who work for FANGORIA magazine. So sadly no one actually involved with the film is on here, but these three fans loved this flick as kids and were a joy to hear rapping about the movie as they watched it again. So that gets a big thumbs up from me.
Individual movie synopses aside, I must discuss the physical discs themselves. They are not the professional looking, silver-backed DVDs that you normally buy. They are the same kind of purple-plastic DVDRs that you can buy for yourself at Walmart, only with glossy art on their faces. Now I’m not a tech guy, so when some tech guys say that this is bad and that these DVDs may wear out (somehow) I guess I must listen to them. So you might want to keep that in mind if you’re interested in ordering anything from the Warner Archives. But then if you have some burnt DVDs of your own, ask yourself if any of them stopped working for you? None of my homemade discs have. You must also add to the mix how much you want the movie(s) in question and if they’re ever likely to get a “real” release any time soon. Speaking only for myself, as a huge horrorhead and an avid movie collector, the Warner Archives is far more boon than bust.
Well, there you have it, just a tiny example of what’s hidden away inside the Warner Archives. As a horror guy, that’s naturally what I gravitated to, but they have a ton of great, old, and sadly forgotten movies just waiting to be rediscovered. You can find the Warner Archives at (aptly enough) www.warnerarchive.com Go there and give their extensive catalog a search and I’m sure you’ll find a little something you’ve been wanting.