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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Bay of the Living Dead: DVDs & Blu-Rays Worth Checking Out

Posted By on Wed, May 27, 2015 at 4:00 PM

Blu Ray Box Cover - KINO LORBER
  • Kino Lorber
  • Blu Ray Box Cover
Welcome to Bay of the Living Dead, a twice a month column about the horror genre.

Here are a few Blu-Rays we watched recently. Two of them are bona-fide cinema classics. The other two are proof that a good old-fashioned spook show can still draw a crowd and make a buck.

Kino Lorber, purveyors of classic cinema, brought The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), the silent film masterpiece to Blu-Ray in a fully restored print.

Caligari is often credited as the first feature length horror film, but it is not. The great D.W. Griffith, often called "The Father of Film" by cinema historians, made The Avenging Conscience, an adaptation of several Edgar Allan Poe tales, as early as 1914. 

However, Caligari is the first great horror film — the first chiller which influenced the films that followed. The film was produced in Germany during the Weimar era, that brief period in between the World Wars when creativity and freedom flourished in that country. 

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a simple tale. As the story begins a young man named Francis is telling an older man a strange story. As the young man recounts, Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss) comes to a small town fair to perform with a sleepwalking young man (Conrad Veidt) whom he controls through hypnosis. After Cesare, the sleepwalker, tells an audience member that he'll die by dawn, a series of murders begin. Are Caligari and Cesare responsible, or is the real killer Francis, who's trying to solve the killings? Os is Francis mad, imagining it all?

The film was shot on surreal, hand-painted sets which are meant to "represent" the settings — the sets are large boards upon which backdrops are painted. Rooms are oddly shaped triangles. Set pieces, such as beds, chairs, etc, are disproportionately large. The story is set in a dreamlike world — it's a bizarre universe that sets the perfect tone for a story that might be real, or might be the mad ravings of a lunatic.

The now-95-year-old film looks surprisingly well-preserved. As always, Kino Lorber pulled out all the stops in order to ensure that the best possible print is made available to viewers. Kino Lorber includes a 53-minute documentary, in German with English subtitles, about the history of German Expressionist cinema. 

  • The Criterion Collection
  • Blu Ray box cover

Don't Look Now

Stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland were big names, and a real-life couple, when Don't Look Now opened in cinemas in 1974. At the time it was virtually unheard of to see major stars in any project that could be considered a horror film, but the reputation of director Nicolas Roeg, a particular favorite among critics, no doubt helped convince them to participate.

Based on a story by Daphne DuMaurier (Rebecca, The Birds), Christie and Sutherland play John and Laura, who are grieving the death of their young daughter in a drowning accident. They're now in Venice, Italy, the City of Canals, where architect John is restoring an old church. While dining at a restaurant the meet elderly sisters Heather and Wendy (Hilary Mason, Clelia Matania). Heather is blind, but she possesses "second sight," assureing the bereaved couple that their daughter is happy and still with them.

From the beginning, the auteur Roeg draws his audience into John and Laura's sad, haunted world with the use of water: The film opens over a shot of pouring rain, the little girl sinks slowly into the pond, the waterways of Venice are constantly in the background as John and Laura walk through the drizzling streets of the beautiful Italian city. The wetness that surrounds them underscores their tragedy, and pulls the viewer into an eerie, supernatural mystery. 

Don't Look Now succeeds as a horror film and as a serious work of art. Few chillers are as emotionally gripping, or as beautiful to behold, as this. The Criterion Collection offers a pristine print of this unforgettable voyage to the other side.

click to enlarge Blu Ray/DVD box cover - UNIVERSAL
  • Universal
  • Blu Ray/DVD box cover

Ouija (2014)

This recent release is an old-fashioned horror about a group of teens who play with a Ouija board in order to say their final goodbyes to a friend they think committed suicide. What they unleash in the process is unthinkable.

Set in suburbia, the film's ingenious art direction makes seemingly ordinary homes appear dark and foreboding. Character actress Lin Shaye is marvelous as a mental patient who might just hold the key to what's happening to our young heroes. 

The film is slow moving, talkym and highly atmospheric—it builds a sense of ever encroaching dread the way horror movies used to. Produced for a paltry $5 million, Ouija took in an impressive $99 million at the box office. People like to be scared — and Ouija delivers.

Blu Ray/DVD box cover - WARNER BROTHERS
  • Warner Brothers
  • Blu Ray/DVD box cover
Annabelle (2014)

Like Ouija, Annabelle is character-driven and dialogue-heavy, which makes it a better film. This prequel to The Conjuring was produced by Australian wunderkind James Wan, who directed the earlier film as well as new classics Insidious and Saw

The scary-as-hell Annabelle is another example of what audiences might be hungry for: some good old-fashioned scares. Set in 1969, Annabelle tells the backstory of that creepy doll from the first film.

You'll feel for the young couple who find themselves battling demonic forces shortly after the birth of their little girl. But it's Alfre Woodard who gives Annabelle its heart: She's subdued yet sensational as Evelyn, a kindly bookstore owner with more than a passing knowledge of the supernatural. "I've had ... experiences" she says, revealing the accidental role she played in the death of her own daughter.

As with Ouija, Annabelle was produced for peanuts. It took in $256 million on a $6.5 million budget. Hollywood, please take note. 

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