For movie theater patrons, Halloween in the 21st century typically means another “Saw” sequel, filled with images of gore, torture and sadism. Or, as Julius Caesar said last week, after the premiere of “Saw V”: Veni, vidi, vomit.
Home viewers have many more options when it comes to fright. Those who prefer “classic” horror may be glad to know that Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price and “Dorian Gray” are on new DVDs, released to coincide with All Hallow’s Eve. But even gorehounds don’t have to settle for the routine, thanks to such speciality labels as Grindhouse Releasing.
* The three-disc set “Fox Horror Classics, Vol. 2” pairs three obscurities from the days when even a drop of onscreen blood might incur the censor’s wrath. Bela Lugosi is at his most eccentrically Lugosi-esque as a mad would-be world conqueror named Roxor in “Chandu the Magician” (1932), inspired by a hit radio serial. “London — New York — imperial Rome — I can blast them all into a heap of smoking ruins!” declares Roxor, wielding his death ray from within the stylized sets of genius production designer and co-director William Cameron Menzies. “All that lives shall know me as master, and tremble at my word!”
About the only actor who could rival Lugosi as a screen madman was George Zucco, star of “Dr. Renault’s Secret” (1942), a beautifully lensed sleeper in which Zucco uses “experimental humanization” techniques to transform a gorilla into lonely and pathetic J. Carrol Naish. No wonder Zucco’s niece comments: “Scientists are such problems!”
The third film in the set was produced by the great Ernst Lubitsch as a vehicle for Fox’s reigning starlet, Gene Tierney, but today “Dragonwyck” (1946), based on the best-seller by Anya Seton, is better remembered as the first film to cast Vincent Price as the type of cultured, sinister and progressively demented aristocrat/aesthete that would be his specialty in the Edgar Allan Poe films of the 1960s. This Gothic romance — which barely qualifies as a horror story, despite the debatable presence of a ghost — also marks the directorial debut of Joseph L. Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”).
* Another classy horror film is director Albert Lewin’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945), a glossy MGM production that cast newcomer Hurd Hatfield as a Mayfair dandy who maintains his angelic appearance through the years while his hidden portrait shows the evidence of a life of sin and corruption; meanwhile, pal George Sanders drops such Wildean drolleries as: “The only thing one never regrets is one’s mistakes.” One good old-fashioned family-friendly knife murder aside, Dorian apparently is mostly guilty of unspecified (and offscreen) acts of sexual depravity and immorality — a don’t ask, don’t tell approach to horror that seems particularly apropos. The cast includes young Angela Lansbury, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as a lower-class songbird who falls for the catlike Dorian.
* “The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll” (1962), director Terence Fisher’s revisionist approach to Robert Louis Stevenson, is the highlight of the “Icons of Horror: Hammer Films,” a two-disc, four-movie set from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment devoted to the great English horror studio of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The collection includes Fisher’s atmospheric “The Gorgon” (1964), in which Hammer icons Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing find themselves battling the snake-headed sister of Medusa; “The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb” (1964); Seth Holt’s eerie pyshcological thriller, “Scream of Fear” (1961), with Lee as a possibly sinister doctor and Susan Strasberg as a pretty young girl confined to a wheelchair and a weird household; and the 1960 “Jekyll” film, in which the doctor (Paul Massie) is a bearded dullard who becomes a sexy, immoral rogue after he drinks his potion and falls under the wayward mentorship of the amoral Lee. The plot is twisted in more ways than one, especially when Hyde tries to turn himself into a cuckold by seducing his, er, I mean, Jekyll’s wife.
* Those who want to hoot and holler while the blood spurts and the limbs fly are advised to check out Grindhouse Releasing’s new definitive two-disc edition of Spanish director Juan Piquar’s “Pieces” (1982), an irresistibly nonsensical splatter (plus gratuitous nudity) film that lives up to its vintage ad slogans: “You don’t have to go to Texas for a chainsaw massacre”; and, “It’s exactly what you think it is.” Grindhouse also has reissued Lucio Fulci’s surreal “The Beyond” (1981), in which a gateway to hell is discovered in the cellar of a Louisiana mansion. One of the first victims is literally Joe the plumber, who gets his eyes gouged out. Unfortunately, Joe Sixpack stays away.
For more on these films and others, visit thebloodshoteye.com, where John Beifuss is counting down “The 13 Days of Halloween.”
—John Beifuss: 529-2394