The set-ups are no big whoop. With horror movies, set-ups rarely are. For instance, Feast (Weinstein, $28.95). Cheap and very wink-wink, it tells the story of a bunch of barflies holed up in a bar and surrounded by mutant thingamajigs who tear out eyeballs. Doors are barricaded. Windows boarded. But somehow eyeballs get eaten anyway. (The latest result of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck's Project Greenlight, it opened and closed in a handful of theaters just a month ago.)
Then there's Slither (Universal, $29.99), which died its own grisly box-office death last spring (unjustly). It tells the story of a town surrounded by space slugs. They slide down your throat, burrow into your brain, force you into psychic servitude to the slug king - or more specifically, to what seems to be the union of Jabba the Hutt and a week-old egg roll.
Premise aside, what these icky, delightfully slimy horror pictures share in common is an outlook.
And that outlook is:
It could be worse.
Your eyeballs could be gnawed on, your brain could be hijacked, and there could be no laughs.
It's where we are now.
We're fatalistic schmucks when it comes to the modern horror picture. Death by space slug (or serial killer) is inevitable. Or, if you believe the seemingly endless supply of Japanese horror remakes - The Grudge 2, the No. 1 film in the nation at the moment, being the latest - you will be killed by a malevolent force you will never understand.
So cheer up and consider:
For many of us, Halloween is the one holiday celebrated entirely in front of a television. This year, though, as you decide between The Exorcist (again) or Night of the Living Dead (again), take a moment to consider how the horror movie has come to this point; a raft of new releases serve as a decent rough sketch of that 100-year history. Frankenstein: 75th Anniversary Edition (Universal, $26.98) and Dracula: 75th Anniversary Edition (Universal, $26.98) are restrained and moody (and given loving treatment despite these umpteenth reissues). The Bela Lugosi Collection (Universal, $26.98), which collects five vehicles from the '30s and '40s (including the unnerving Black Cat and Raven), is a reminder horror has always served as theatrical placeholder.
It fills space.
But the few that last, we can't get enough of. A Nightmare on Elm Street (New Line, $26.98) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: Two-Disc Ultimate Edition (Dark Sky, $29.98) return with somewhat cleaner pictures for their own one-millionth DVD reissues. Taken together, these are roads diverging in the woods. Down the grim, serious Chain Saw path, we come to stone-faced retreads like the latest Omen (Fox, $29.99) and hybrids like An American Haunting (Lions Gate, $28.98) - horror flicks that aim for both the austerity of Frankenstein and the shock value of a Chain Saw Massacre.
The other path, which is clearly marked by the jokey terrors of director Wes Craven (Elm Street, the Scream pictures), reminds us we laugh when we're scared. It takes more unexpected turns. So we come to the funny, animated Monster House (Sony. $28.95), supposedly for children but eerie enough for adult shudders. As a haunted-house movie, it's very 21st century. A house eats people. But of course it does. Too bad the housing market slowed down - now they'll never sell it.
DESTROY ALL MONSTERS: It's not a Halloween movie, per se. Monsters are involved. Icky things with tentacles and yellow eyes. But what's truly frightening about Super Infra-Man (Image, $19.99) is the thought someone might take it as seriously as it takes itself - there's got to be someone out there who would, a someone you would not want to sit next to during a long bus trip.
Released in 1976 by budget-filmmaking legends the Shaw Brothers, Super Infra-Man, nevertheless, is one of my favorite movies of all. This is its first time on DVD; when it landed on my desk, my heart did a little dance. Whenever I get the desert island question ("Which five movies would you take"), it inevitably comes up. In a nutshell, here's why: A lab attacked by monster arms. (No monster in sight. Just arms.) A moth man. Squid people. A superhero (Infra-Man) dressed like a futuristic delivery boy. Volcanoes. Thrones. Asia in flames. Karate fights. Cocoons. Men in silver jumpsuits. Women dressed like chandeliers. Princess Dragon Mom. Brainwashing. Decapitations. Ascots. Robots. And my favorite line ever:
"The situation is so bad it is the worst that it has ever been!"
It's got everything! (Sigh.)
LITTLE CHILDREN: Recently, I had a revelation. To watch Too Cool for School: The John Hughes Collection (Paramount, $39.99) - in other words, to sit through Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful again (all in special editions, with the usual extras) - is to witness the seeds being sown of contemporary "adult pictures" like The Break-Up (Universal, $29.98), or even Thank You For Smoking (Fox, $29.99). If you ever wonder why adults in modern movies seem so much younger than the Bogarts and Liz Taylors of a half century ago, it's worth starting here.
Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart (and so on and so forth, cast-wise) grew up with Hughes' patented brew of crass laughs with a chaser of self-absorption. If you were a teenager during the 1980s, that was drama, and it was a partly sunny outlook older films didn't necessarily share. The result is a generation of movies that regard relationships (Break-Up) and jobs (Smoking) as stages in life. Like high school and puberty. Everyone in these new-generation dramedies are always moving on to something better. Which perhaps is why you almost never believe them.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org