Halloween DVD Roundup: Looking for Horror in the 1980s

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...Horror is often grounded in hard times. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, and Universal's other golden-age franchise monsters were, in a way, creatures of the Great Depression. With '70s stagflation we got a new wave of malaise-era serial killers. But skip forward to Reagan's sunny '80s, and where's a poor ghoul to hide? Yet that was the decade John Carpenter was doing some of his best work. The Thing (1982) and They Live (1988) are both included in the John Carpenter: Master of Fear Collection ($19.98), 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. The beast could be inside any of them, so you have to shoot your pal—or incinerate him with a flame thrower—without hesitation to save your own skin. The Thing is a reverse guys-on-a-mission flick, where 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 now taken over the planet and conspired with yuppies to keep the working man—championed by wrestler Roddy Piper—in his place. Mind control is achieved through coded TV and advertising that Piper can discern, along with the aliens, thanks to magical eyeglasses. But it's also the economic structure that has him living in a crowded Hooverville. And the film's bleak end, like that of The Thing, implies the system will prevail.But the '80s were very good to John Landis, whose 1981 An American Werewolf in London has been reissued with many extras in a "Full Moon Edition" ($26.98). A new companion doc makes clear how Landis, both a student of the Lon Chaney Jr. originals and a wiseacre about horror conventions, always meant to mix yucks and gore. (He wrote the first draft at 19.) Rick Baker's Oscar-winning effects, lovingly detailed in the extras, give the film part of its visceral, pre-CGI charm. The werewolf transformations and gore are more palpable, not just applied with a mouse click. 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.)Wes Craven: less talented than Landis or Carpenter, but probably the biggest moneymaker of the three gore-teurs. Yet the trio of titles in The Wes Craven Horror Collection ($19.98) weren't hits on the level of his 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, then squirts in and out of televisions, 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 starts 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's like a weird cross between Videodrome and The Purple Rose of Cairo. The escaped killer (Mitch Pileggi) is ultimately less frightening than TV itself.Considerably more humorous in his approach to horror is Sam Raimi, who's peddling a "Screwhead Edition" of both his 1992 classic Army of Darkness ($19.98) and May's Drag Me to Hell ($29.98). 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 may be a victim of sexism and subject to class anxiety, but her hands aren't clean. Filthier 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 suggests the real torture is enduring a dinner party with the smug, rich parents of her fiancé (Justin Long, incapable of masculine reassurance). Gypsy magic is bad, but money is the real curse.bmiller@seattleweekly.com

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