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Scaring up some Halloween movies

Angry scorpions, a houseful of rats and people who eat people are among the delights.

October 29, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

This year's crop of creature features, horror flicks and chillers available on DVD for Halloween runs the gamut from an offbeat western to a tale of a beloved little ghost to a shocker about a group of feral cannibals living outside of Victorville. The only question is -- are you brave enough to watch?

Warner Home Video's offerings ($20 each) highlight the seminal stop-motion special effects of Willis O'Brien ("King Kong") and Ray Harryhausen.

Harryhausen came into his own with the low-budget 1953 monster movie "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" starring Paul Hubschmid, Ken Tobey and Paula Raymond. The story revolves around a huge, carnivorous dino awakening from a deep, centuries-old sleep in the northern polar ice cap after the U.S. government stages a secret atomic bomb test. Faster than you can say T. rex, this "Rhedosaurus" goes on a rampage that culminates in confrontation with the military on Coney Island. Harryhausen's beastie is a remarkable creation. The DVD also features a mini-documentary on the making of the film and a wonderful interview with Harryhausen and his lifelong friend, Ray Bradbury, whose story "The Fog Horn" inspired this film.

Veteran special effects wizard O'Brien was near the end of his long career when he created the mammoth insects for the cheesy but entertaining 1957 thriller "The Black Scorpion." Richard Denning and Mara Corday are among the human stars in this tale about a volcano eruption in Mexico that causes the unleashing of thousands of big, angry scorpions.

Harryhausen also supplied the dinosaurs for 1969's "The Valley of Gwangi," a truly offbeat western/horror film that stars James Franciscus and Richard Carlson. Members of a struggling Wild West show on tour in Mexico and a group of cowboys find themselves confronting dinosaurs in the Mexican desert. The creatures are among Harryhausen's best, especially the miniature horse. The DVD also includes the featurette "Return to the Valley," which finds numerous special effects artists at Industrial Light and Magic paying tribute to Harryhausen and the movie.

Strictly for the kiddies is the special edition of the 1995 live-action/animated "Casper" (Universal, $20). Steven Spielberg is one of the producers of the film, which relies too much on special effects and not enough on story.

The DVD includes a lot of goodies for kids, including "Casper's Treasure Game," "Casper's Spooky Safety Tips" and "Casper's Scary Kitchen," a deleted musical sequence, a ho-hum "making of" documentary and low-key commentary from director Brad Silberling.

Paramount has unleashed two horror films ($20 each) from 1974 produced by Hammer Films, the famed British studio that specialized in creature features and made Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee stars. Both of the films, "Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell" and "Captain Kronos -- Vampire Hunter," were made during the studio's waning years and neither is on par with Hammer's best films produced in the late '50s and early '60s.

"Frankenstein" finds Cushing playing Dr. F for his sixth and last time. In this outing, he basically has taken over the insane asylum to which he had been sentenced. And he's still up to no good, killing off various inmates for body parts so he can make a new monster. His latest creation (David Prowse, who later became Darth Vader) is angry and violent -- possibly because of his bad makeup job.

Enter a young doctor (Shane Briant, who eerily resembles Clay Aiken) who was sentenced to the asylum for performing Dr. Frankenstein's old experiments. The DVD features very entertaining commentary from Prowse, co-star Madeline Smith and horror scholar Jonathan Sothcott.

"Captain Kronos -- Vampire Hunter" was written and directed by Brian Clemens of "The Avengers" fame but doesn't have the wit or panache of that classic spy series. Sort of a swashbuckler-meets-"Dracula," the film stars Horst Janson in the title role -- a cigar-smoking, samurai-sword-wielding, swaggering vampire hunter who travels the countryside with his hunchback assistant (John Cater) and an oversexed peasant girl (Caroline Munro). The digital edition features commentary from Sothcott, Clemens and Munro.

Along with Tobe Hooper's "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" and John Carpenter's "Halloween," Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes" is one of the seminal horror films of the 1970s. Shot on a shoestring budget in 1977 outside of Victorville, "Hills" revolves around a white-bread American family driving from the Midwest to California who decide to stray off the main road and get more than they bargained for once they encounter a feral family of cannibals. Susan Lanier, Robert Houston and Dee Wallace star in this taut, unsettling tale.

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