Zoe Graham in Scare Package (Photo: RLJE Films & Shudder)
(View From The Couch is a weekly column that reviews what’s new on Blu-ray and DVD. Ratings are on a four-star scale. To see the 2019 Halloween Edition, go here.)
THE APE (1940). This effort from Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures was just one of many films from the period to feature Boris Karloff as a doctor meddling in matters best left alone — in 1940 alone, he played doctors in four of his eight releases. The Ape, unfortunately, is a lesser effort in this cycle, with Karloff cast as Dr. Bernard Adrian, whose secrecy and eccentricity stir fear and loathing in most of the other residents in his small town. The one significant exception is Frances (Maris Wrixon), a wheelchair-bound young woman who appreciates that he’s seeking a way to cure her. The doctor discovers that spinal fluid extractions are the key to his success, so once he kills an ape that escaped from a traveling circus, he decides to wear its outer layer like a costume as he goes around murdering townspeople and extracting their precious bodily fluids. Hey, it’s a living.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historian Tom Weaver; audio commentary by film historian Richard Harland Smith; and trailers for other horror films available via Kino.
CARMILLA (2020). Under normal circumstances, a cinematic adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Gothic novella would be a no-brainer for a Halloween piece, what with its focus on a teenage girl who contends with an equally young vampire with lesbian tendencies. But what writer-director Emily Harris has done with her version is remove the vampire from the story; while a couple of the adults — specifically, a governess (Jessica Raine) and a doctor (Tobias Menzies) — suspect that Carmilla (Devrim Lingnau), the friend of their charge Lara (Hannah Rae), might be a bloodsucker, that’s more the result of their puritanical streak than any actual evidence. Thus, a horror story gets transformed into a mood piece about sexual awakening being thwarted by religious hypocrisy, and while the movie is occasionally let down by its muted approach as well as a tendency to dawdle, it’s nevertheless an interesting interpretation punctuated by a disturbing finale.
DVD extras consist of a behind-the-scenes featurette and the 2006 short film Three Towers, co-directed by Harris and Jonathan Bentovim.
DEEPSTAR SIX (1989). In water, no one can hear you scream. Yes, it’s yet another Alien retread, albeit one set under the sea. It was also the first in a rash of ’89 releases with a nautical bent, emerging before James Cameron’s The Abyss, Roger Corman’s Lords of the Deep, Leviathan, and two others that were seen only by their producers’ mothers. In this one, a motley crew is assembled to help construct a missile base on the ocean floor; instead, their mucking about leads to close encounters with a prehistoric sea creature that looks like a Dune (or Tremors) worm with appendages. DeepStar Six isn’t as bad as its reputation: While there are minimal surprises and even less scares, the cast members — among them Greg Evigan (TV’s BJ and the Bear) as the submarine pilot, Taurean Blacque (TV’s Hill Street Blues) as the captain, and, best of all, Miguel Ferrer as a jittery techie — bring a sizable amount of personality to their stock characters.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by director Sean S. Cunningham and visual effects supervisor James Isaac; an interview with Evigan; and behind-the-scenes footage.
THE HAUNTING (1999). Shirley Jackson’s classic novel The Haunting of Hill House was the basis for 1963’s The Haunting, which has long been hailed as one of the best “haunted house” films ever made. Jackson’s book also served as the source for this silly 1999 adaptation, a movie that was doubtless made with the best intentions but yielded the worst results. A drowsy Liam Neeson plays the psychologist who recruits three test subjects — a sensitive introvert (Lili Taylor), a bisexual artist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and an amiable goofball (Owen Wilson) — for an experiment on fear; they shack up in a sprawling mansion with a tragic history, and it isn’t long before ghostly apparitions come a-calling. From the specifics of the experiment (presented to the participants as a study on insomnia!) to the ethereal cherubs that emerge from wall panelings to the banal dialogue given to Zeta-Jones’ on-the-prowl sexpot, there’s little about this film that isn’t daft in the extreme. Yet its greatest sin is the FX overkill that numbs the senses to a startling degree.
Blu-ray extras consist of an interview with director Jan de Bont; a behind-the-scenes featurette; and theatrical trailers.
KILLDOZER (1974). This made-for-TV movie may have been adapted from a 1944 story by Theodore Sturgeon, but it’s a safe bet that its arrival on the scene was due to the success of 1971’s Duel, the TV-movie that largely jump-started Steven Spielberg’s career. In Duel, it’s man vs. machine, as Dennis Weaver’s traveling salesman is forced to contend with a menacing fuel truck that, because the driver is never seen, almost mythically seems to be driving itself. In Killdozer, the roaring behemoth is a bulldozer that’s been possessed by an alien entity and starts picking off construction workers. A complete suspension of disbelief is required to find any entertainment value in Killdozer; if you can sidestep such questions as “Why doesn’t he just step behind the ‘dozer rather than remain directly in its path?,” then you’re good to go. The six-man cast is headed by barrel-chested Clint Walker as the crew foreman, with reliable character actor Neville Brand and a pre-S.W.A.T. / pre-Vega$ / pre-everything Robert Urich among the ill-fated laborers.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by film historian Lee Gambin and an audio interview with director Jerry London.
PICTURE MOMMY DEAD (1966). Writer-director Bert I. Gordon holds the record for the most movies featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (eight total), but this offbeat chiller isn’t one of them. Certainly, there are enough awkward or amateurish moments to allow for plenty of ripe riffing, but there are also enough offbeat moments to make this film impossible to dismiss out of hand. Teenager Susan Shelley (Susan Gordon) has just been released from a mental institution, her home since her mother (Zsa Zsa Gabor) died in a fire a few years earlier. Her ineffectual father (Don Ameche) and scheming stepmother (Martha Hyer) take her back to the house where it all happened, triggering hazy memories that suggest her mom may have been murdered. Gordon cast his own daughter Susan in the pivotal role — think Sofia Coppola in her dad’s The Godfather: Part III to get an idea of Susan’s wretchedness, another cautionary tale of Hollywood nepotism. The adult actors are fine, and the twist ending is efficient enough.
Blu-ray extras consist of audio commentary by film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson, and trailers.
SCARE PACKAGE (2020). It took eight directors and 12 writers to piece together Scare Package, an enjoyable anthology flick with a strong sense of humor, a gleeful approach to the gore, and meta musings that are smart rather than smarmy. The connective tissue takes place at a video store named Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium (Jeremy King plays Chad); woven throughout are seven terror tales, with the best ones arguably being “One Time in the Woods,” where campers have to contend with both a serial killer and an incredible melting man, “The Night He Came Back Again! Part IV: The Final Kill,” in which college kids discover there’s no easy way to slay a masked slasher, and the concluding pièce de résistance, “Horror Hypothesis,” wherein the usual stereotypes (the virgin, the jock, the slut, the token black guy, etc.) team up with Joe Bob Briggs (as himself) to stop the Devil’s Lake Impaler. Occasional missteps in both style and substance do little to quell the good vibes provided by this imaginative undertaking.
Blu-ray extras include audio commentary by creators Aaron B. Koontz and Cameron Burns; the episode of The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs that features Scare Package; a bonus segment, the zombie tale “Locker Room Z”; and a blooper reel.