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The ghouls are unleashed

Warner Home Video has released a batch of goofy-to-great horror films on DVD, leaving plenty of time to stock up for Halloween.

August 15, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

It may seem a bit out of season that several vintage horror films have just made their DVD debuts on Warner Home Video, a good two months before All Hallow's Eve. But let's face it: Horror knows no season. Ghosts, ghouls and goblins go about haunting homes, castles and graveyards no matter the time of year.

The Warner crop of terrifying tales ($20 each) runs the gamut from futuristic sci-fi allegories to ghost stories, thrillers and alien-invasion chillers.

The best of the lot is the 1963 ghost story "The Haunting," directed with remarkable visual flair by Robert Wise.

Those who know Wise for his musicals, such as "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," may be in for a bit of a shock with the eerie black-and-white adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel "The Haunting of Hill House." Wise cut his directing teeth in the 1940s at RKO, working with horror producer Val Lewton, who stressed atmosphere and mood. One of Wise's best early films was the Lewton-produced 1945 thriller "The Body Snatcher."

Shot in England but set in New England, "The Haunting" is a truly terrifying ghost story, without one ghost appearing on screen. It's all done with clever camera angles, scary sounds and dead-on performances from Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson and Russ Tamblyn, who play guests determined to investigate and perhaps debunk the legacy of a deadly mansion.

The digital edition features the wide-screen version of the film, an essay on ghost stories, a still gallery and commentary from Wise, screenwriter Nelson Gidding and the four stars.

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A few years before he became a TV superstar as Marshal Matt Dillon on CBS' "Gunsmoke," James Arness played a gargantuan, violent alien in the taut 1951 production "The Thing From Another World."

Produced by Howard Hawks and directed by Christian Nyby (although debate has continued over the last five decades over whether it was really Hawks at the helm), "The Thing" is set in a remote Arctic research station where the scientists have detected the crash of a spacecraft. They recover a frozen body from the wreckage, but when the body thaws, he's quite literally out for blood. It's up to the scientists and crew, led by Kenneth Tobey, to save themselves and the world.

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Movie producers tried everything to get audiences back to the movies in the early 1950s as television started to take hold. One of the biggest gimmicks was the 3-D format, for which patrons would sit in the theaters wearing special glasses.

Most of these 3-D films were forgettable, but a few were great fun, most especially 1953's "House of Wax," directed by Andre De Toth and starring Vincent Price in one of his best roles, as a mad sculptor of wax figures who commits murder to get "models" for his lifelike depictions of historical figures. Phyllis Kirk, Carolyn Jones, Frank Lovejoy and a young Charles Bronson also star.

The "House of Wax" DVD also features the 1933 "Mystery of the Wax Museum," starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray of "King Kong" fame and shot in an early version of Technicolor. The disc also features footage from the West Coast premiere of "House of Wax."

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Audrey Hepburn had her last great role -- for which she received her final Oscar nomination -- in the stagy but effective 1967 suspense chiller "Wait Until Dark." Based on the hit play by Frederick Knott ("Dial M for Murder"), the thriller finds Hepburn, a blind woman, trapped in her basement apartment and trying to defend herself against three thugs who are looking for a doll filled with drugs. Richard Crenna and Jack Weston are effective as two of the bad guys, but it is Alan Arkin who nearly steals the film from Hepburn as the murderous psychopath who will stop at nothing to get that doll.

Included on the disc is an interview with Arkin and Mel Ferrer, Hepburn's ex-husband, who was the film's producer.

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Also being released are two of Charlton Heston's futuristic thrillers from the early 1970s in which he is not above showing a little skin.

In the dreadfully silly 1971 film "The Omega Man," Heston is shirtless one too many times. He plays a government researcher who was involved in developing a biological weapon that destroyed most of humanity. Those left on Earth are an ever-dwindling supply of humans and infected vampires who have become psychopaths and are bent on wiping out what's left of the civilization that brought on the plague.

The digital edition features the trailer, an original featurette, an essay about Heston as a "science-fiction legend" and an introduction to the film by screenwriter Joyce H. Carrington and actors Paul Koslo and Eric Laneuville.

The 1973 sci-fi thriller "Soylent Green" is a pretty goofy apocalyptic tale set in 2022. Heston plays a cop who is trying to solve the murder of a rich older man (Joseph Cotten) in an overcrowded, overheated Manhattan where the main food source is something called "Soylent Green." Heston shares his meager digs with Edward G. Robinson, in his final role.

The DVD features a behind-the-scenes documentary from 1973, a tribute to Robinson's 101st film and informative commentary from veteran director Richard Fleischer and co-star Leigh Taylor-Young. One trivia note: This is the last MGM production filmed on the studio's old back lot.

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Rounding out the collection is 1983's offbeat "Of Unknown Origin," which gives new meaning to the phrase "rat race." Peter Weller stars as an ambitious Wall Street executive who is justly proud of his fancy Manhattan brownstone. When a rat invades the premises, the executive ends up battling for his home and his sanity. George P. Cosmatos ("Rambo: First Blood Part II" and "Tombstone") directed the film.

The digital edition includes amusing commentary from Weller and the director, who talks about what it was like working with 40 rats.

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