Apart from the stray slasher flick, Halloween is traditionally a dead spot on the Hollywood calendar. This week's big release? The Michael Jackson tribute film This Is It — creepy in its own right. But Universal Studios has been raiding its catacombs for DVD reissues. Let's brush the cobwebs aside.
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Conventional wisdom says horror often springs from hard times. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and Universal's other golden-age franchise monsters were creatures of the Great Depression, and '70s stagflation brought a new wave of malaise-era serial killers. But skip forward to Reagan's sunny '80s, and you'll find John Carpenter doing some of his best work. The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988) are included in the John Carpenter: Master of Fear Collection, and both are parables for a social contract breaking down. Stalked by a shape-shifting, DNA-infiltrating alien on their Antarctic base, Kurt Russell and company dissolve into mutual suspicion and distrust in The Thing. The beast could be inside any of them, so you have to shoot your pal — or incinerate him with a flamethrower — to save your own skin. It's a reverse guys-on-a-mission flick, in which unit cohesion falters and leader turns against crew. It's morning in America, and utter darkness at the South Pole. In the more satirical horror of They Live, aliens have taken over the planet and conspired with yuppies to keep the workingman — championed by wrestler Roddy Piper — down. Mind control is achieved through coded television and advertisements, and the film's bleak end, like that of The Thing, implies the system will prevail.
The '80s were also very good to John Landis, whose 1981 An American Werewolf in London has been reissued with many extras for a "Full Moon Edition." A new companion doc makes clear how Landis always meant to mix yuks and gore, and how he was both a student of the Lon Chaney Jr. originals and a wiseacre about horror conventions. (He wrote the first draft of the film at the age of 19.) Rick Baker's Oscar-winning effects, lovingly detailed in the extras, give the film some of its visceral, pre-CGI charm. Not simply applied with a mouse click, the werewolf transformations and gore feel more substantial. And young leads David Naughton and Griffin Dunne don't have the stiffness that can come from acting in front of a green screen. (When fighting for his life, Dunne explains, he was very physically flailing against Baker's puppet-operated wolf's head.)
Less talented than Landis or Carpenter, Wes Craven was always a profitable gore-teur. Yet the three titles on the Wes Craven Horror Collection weren't hits on the level of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Scream. Instead, packaged between The People Under the Stairs and The Serpent and the Rainbow, the weird standout is Shocker (1989), which seems to straddle both decades and technologies. A death-row killer inserts himself into the electrical grid to avoid the chair and then squirts in and out of TV sets, wall sockets, and other AC devices. This allows him to terrorize the citizenry and taunt a high school jock (a young Peter Berg, now director of The Kingdom and other action fare). It's a wonderfully nutty premise, particularly when Berg begins controlling his tormenter with a TV remote (what else?), and they fight through various television and movie scenes on the idiot box. Melodramatic at its core, the movie is like a weird cross between Videodrome and The Purple Rose of Cairo. The escaped killer (Mitch Pileggi) is ultimately less frightening than television itself.
Even more humorous in his approach to horror is Sam Raimi, who's peddling a "Screwhead Edition" of his 1992 classic Army of Darkness as well as this past May's Drag Me to Hell. The latter is a welcome departure from the "final girl" formula, because its heroine (Alison Lohman) has unquestionably done something wrong. More socially grounded than it needs to be, Drag Me makes her a mortgage banker — the horror of subprime lending! — who orders a repo to advance her career. Lohman might be victim to sexism, and subject to class anxiety, but her hands aren't clean. Filthier still is the old gypsy woman she evicts, and Raimi delights in the grime, drool, effluvia, and vermin that muss our tidy economy. Everything's going so well! Listen to Alan Greenspan! Who is this hag to resist? Lohman deserves the gypsy hex and the PG-13 plague of humiliation visited upon her. But Raimi implies the real torture is enduring a dinner party with the smug, rich parents of her fiancé. Gypsy magic is bad, but money is the real curse.