Halloween in December: A TheaterByte Horror Holiday Gift Guide

Here on the East Coast, we were long ago bombarded with ads for electronics discounter Crazy Eddie each summer, wailing about “Christmas in August.” Others adopted that same notion, transplanting the fun of the holiday season to the less-snowy dog days. So… what if we turned it sideways and moved October’s flagrant fondness for frightening fare to the gift-giving milieu of the final month? We wind up with our first-ever Halloween in December, because in our experience, horror fans believe that any time is a good time for high-quality scares. These titles have been hand-picked for perfect presenting, spanning almost a century of classic terror and all in impressive HD or the gory glory of 4K.

Universal Classic Monsters: Icons of Horror Collection Vol. 2 4K (Universal Pictures Home Entertainment)

Just because last year’s Volume 1 had an all-star lineup of vampires, lycanthropes et. al., don’t think there’s not still plenty to love about the Universal Monsters “B-Squad”: The Mummy (1932, years noted to avoid confusion), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Phantom of the Opera (1943, not sure why I was expecting the Lon Chaney-starring 1925 silent original) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Boris Karloff kicks things off as a walking ad for Ace bandages, and his Mummy Imhotep–awakened from a millennia-long slumber–is one cranky cuss before his coffee. Karloff returns as the groom to Elsa Lanchester’s Bride in this inspired, emotionally complex James Whale-directed sequel. Phantom is the only one here in color, copping a pair of Oscars for its three-strip Technicolor opulence, also nominated for its sound recording and its music, now in remixed DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Lagoon makes a splash in 4K, the only G-rated title in this bunch, and the native 3D version is generously supplied as well.

Universal has taken a lot of pride in their intellectual property and many excellent legacy extras are ported onto these new Ultra HD releases, including expert commentaries (two on The Mummy!) along with an assortment of their “100 Years of Universal” featurettes. Many videophiles/disc collectors–myself included–don’t particularly like discs packed in tight cardboard sleeves, but this hardcover book is so lovely, with a two-page spread for each movie (4K opposite HD Blu-ray) and the original artwork beautifully reproduced, I might have to reconsider.


Night of the Living Dead 4K (Criterion Collection)

Night of the Living Dead 4K Combo (Criterion Collection)

The o.g. zombie flick still works like gangbusters, and the new 4K/Dolby Vision presentation wrings every bit of tension, of claustrophobia, of foreboding out of George Romero’s genre-defining tour de force. Criterion’s wonderful tribute features a restoration supervised by Romero and others, the HDR highlighting the exquisite black-and-white contrast and shadow detail: the farmhouse besieged by the undead, the all-encompassing night, the low budget of it all. The audio too has been restored for maximum clarity, accentuating its raw impact. The movie is served up on both 4K and HD Blu-ray discs (each packing dual commentary tracks) with a bonus Blu-ray gathering extensive bonus content including a complete workprint of the film.


The Amityville Horror 4K (Vinegar Syndrome)

 

Hollywood wasted little time bringing to the screen Jay Anson’s bestselling 1977 book about the alleged experiences of the Lutz family and their unfortunate experiences in a once-quaint Long Island, New York town. Starring James Brolin and just-off-her-Superman-breakthrough Margot Kidder, and under the direction of Stuart (Cool Hand Luke) Rosenberg, this was a modern take on the haunted house trope, chilling in a way that audiences hadn’t seen in a while, spawning sequels, reboots, spin-offs, and plenty of chills along the way. The outstanding 4K image has been restored from the original camera negative, its gritty realism combined with refreshed colors throughout. Lalo Schifrin’s Oscar-nominated score has plenty of room to breathe in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and the amicable extras include new and archival making ofs and ported odds and ends from discs past.

Available for purchase on the Vinegar Syndrome website.


Poltergeist 4K (Warner)

Poltergeist 4K Ultra HD Combo (Warner Bros.)

A mere three years later, producer/co-writer Steven Spielberg and director Tobe Hooper re-reinvented the haunted house genre with this energetic tale of contemporary suburbia gone wrong. Very much of its time in terms of its analog special effects (discussed in the recent, excellent Disney+ ILM documentary) and overall style, Poltergeist flaunts humor, pacing and even scares that conjure a bygone era, albeit one that might not wow today’s audiences in quite the same way it enthralled us old-schoolers. Image quality is a welcome leap forward from the old Blu-ray (both the included 4K and HD discs benefit from the recent remaster), paired with a better-than-ever 5.1-channel remix plus the well-preserved original 2.0 audio. Extras include a long-unseen vintage behind-the-scenes featurette and more. Warner also dropped The Lost Boys day and date with Poltergeist, so let’s hope they keep the horror hits coming in 4K.


Army of Darkness Collector’s Edition 4K (Scream Factory)

The third and most ambitious installment of Sam Raimi’s big-screen Evil Dead Trilogy finally comes to 4K, a special effects extravaganza with a legion of Deadites, multiple Ashes (the more Bruce Campbells, the better) and no shortage of hideous beasts. Scream’s new Collector’s Edition is a straight-up killer, a four-disc affair (one Ultra HD and three HD Blu-rays) delivering the theatrical cut from a new director/DP/editor-approved OCN 4K scan with copious bonus content (original ending! deleted scenes! documentary!) followed by the director’s cut in HD with Raimi/Campbell commentary and vintage goodies, plus an HD presentation of the International Cut (sourced from a 4K interpositive scan) and even the TV cut, in standard definition. If this is indeed the last word in Army of Darkness disc releases, then that word would have to be, “Groovy.”


Friday the 13th 4K (Paramount)

Frequently revisited in various editions in recent years, this undeniable horror icon from the Paramount vault is now released in true 4K, in all its grainy glory. Return to Camp Crystal Lake back before Jason was the one killing the counselors (younger readers might be scratching their heads right now) in this often-copied slasher extraordinaire. The Ultra HD presentation respectfully maintains the integrity of its low-budget roots while demonstrably improving the image quality, both with the step up in resolution and the boost proffered by Dolby Vision HDR, breathing new oomph into the color palette. Both theatrical and unrated versions are combined onto a single disc (no HD Blu-ray but a digital copy code is provided), along with audio commentary from director Sean S. Cunningham joined by cast and crew, plus other fiendish delights.


La Llorona Blu-ray (Criterion Collection)

La Llorona Blu-ray (Criterion Collection)

A mix of fact and fiction about the fate of a brutal Guatemalan dictator and the appearance of a vengeful ghost, 2019’s Llorona is rendered genuinely chilling by the skillful storytelling of director/co-writer Jayro Bustamante, his style and choice of subject reminiscent of a young Guillermo del Toro. The director-approved master wonderfully captures cinematographer Nicolás Wong’s effective stylistic choices, while a substantive making-of, a lengthy new director interview and long-form trailer further enhance the experience. Just a heads-up that the disc’s one and only soundtrack combines Spanish, Ixil and Kaqchikel, but the subtitles are thankfully first-rate.


Paranormal Activity Ultimate Chills Collection Blu-ray (Paramount)

While neither Paranormal Activity nor its precursor The Blair Witch Project introduced the “found footage” genre, these are the most famous examples, and with seven feature films and counting, Oren Peli’s enduring franchise has run furthest with this faux-documentary style. Director/producer/writer Peli (also cinematographer and editor and probably caterer) did a lot with a little for his 2007 debut, a fortuitous circumstance as the choices needed to keep costs down actually heightened the intensity of the finished product. Paramount pumped extra funds into the movie to make it theater-ready and the inarguable success led to Paranormal Activity 2, Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension and Paranormal Activity: Next of Kin, which debuted on Paramount+ last year. These are interconnected tales of a relentless demon haunting–and harming–different families over multiple decades. In each visitation, the involved parties set up various recording devices to try to document the strange, hard-to-believe happenings, resulting in the disturbing scenes that make up the narratives. They’re all here (even a Blu-ray 3D companion disc for Ghost Dimension) in a handsome slipcase; most with both theatrical and unrated versions, several with alternate endings; plus a series-spanning 2021 feature-length chronicle, Unknown Dimension, on its own disc. Digital copy codes are provided for all eight titles in this collection, in addition to a wickedly clever window decal.


Night Gallery Season 3 Blu-ray (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)

KLSC’s third and final installment in their upgrade of Rod Serling’s sophomore anthology series goes out with a bang … and the occasional shriek. Directors include future big-leaguers John Badham, Leonard Nimoy and Jeannot Szwarc, with tales starring notable Twilight Zone alums Burgess Meredith, Mickey Rooney and Dean Stockwell, plus dueling Gidgets Sandra Dee and Sally Field. These wildly eclectic dozen-plus episodes are available for the first time in high definition, their brand-new masters originating from 2K scans of the IPs and looking better than they ever did in broadcast. The two-disc set is festooned with a bevy of new, updated and archival audio commentaries, some episodes with multiple tracks in fact, then stay tuned for the closing chapter of Night Gallery’s complex, fascinating “Syndication Conundrum.”

And since this is Halloween in December, we must of course recognize…


The Halloween 4K Collection (1995-2002) (Scream Factory)

Halloween 4K Collection

Scream’s intriguing boxed set picks up where their five single-movie releases left off last year, bringing together the ongoing adventures of the hulking, murderous mute in the fright mask. The fun kicks off with the sixth movie in the canon, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (picking up in real time six years after Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers), here in its original theatrical and the preferred-by-many “producer’s” cut. Halloween H20 chose to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first film by ignoring all but the original two, with Halloween: Resurrection serving as a direct sequel to H20, set three years later. (Resurrection was the last movie in the original run before Rob Zombie’s two reboot movies, which were followed by the Blumhouse Productions trilogy starring original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis and directed by David Gordon Green: Whew!)

As before, gorgeous new 4K/Dolby Vision masters are supplied by Scream Factory, the theatrical versions of all three sourced from new scans of the original negative, with the producer’s cut requiring the use of lesser-quality elements to reinstate a significant quantity of excised scenes, but great care has been taken to make this best presentation ever of both versions. In fact, Curse needs four platters to hold it all (separate discs for theatrical and producer’s cuts, and all of the movies are presented on HD Blu-ray as well), for a total of eight discs in this set. All of the previously released extras are present and accounted for, plus new interviews and audio commentary.


Train to Busan 4K (Well Go USA)

Sang-ho Yeon’s 2016 thriller is a can’t-miss combination of tried-and-true zombie action set in the inherently dramatic locale of a moving train and written/directed with the uniquely disturbing K-horror sensibility. This South Korean import is a terrifying and most welcome alternative to IQ-sapping domestic drivel (lookin’ at you, Army of the Dead) with its disparate group of uninfected characters seeking sanctuary in the country’s second most populated city, but we’re especially rooting for the guilt-ridden dad and his adorable daughter. Well Go’s 4K offering is solid, with Dolby Vision HDR and Dolby Atmos audio (and DTS:X on the supplied HD Blu-ray platter) that help it all hit even harder, plus some fun behind-the-scenes footage located on the high-def disc.

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