Halloween isn't just for scares -- it's for fun. With that in mind, here are four recently released DVDs that deliver laughs as well as screams:
●Cannibal Girls (Shout! Factory, $22.97, rated R): This schlocky, funny and minimally budgeted Canadian horror spoof from 1973 arrived with the "Warning Bell" -- in which theatergoers would hear a bell sound just before a particularly violent and bloody scene, the better to close one's eyes. (The bell is an optional feature on the DVD.) It also introduced director Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, Stripes, Ghost Busters) and future SCTV comedy troupe members Eugene Levy (a familiar face from the American Pie movies and many films directed by Christopher Guest) and Andrea Martin. Levy and Martin play a couple seeking a romantic getaway at a cute, little bed-and-breakfast run by three women. How could they know that the sweet-looking proprietors are providing the bed so that their guests can become their breakfast?
This DVD marks the first time Cannibal Girls has been available on home video in the United States. It includes recent interviews with Reitman, Levy, and producer Daniel Goldberg.
●Piranha (Shout! Factory, $19.93/$26.97 Blu-ray, rated R): In 1978 Roger Corman's New World Pictures delivered this low-budget rip-off/homage/spoof of Steven Spielberg's Jaws -- in which lots of sharp little teeth produce even more blood from innocent human swimmers than the huge teeth of a single great white shark. Released on DVD and Blu-ray as part of the Roger Corman's Cult Classics series, Piranha marked some of the earliest screen work by director Joe Dante (The Howling, Gremlins) and screenwriter John Sayles, who wrote three films for Corman before using his earnings to launch a notable career as an independent filmmaker (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Eight Men Out, Lone Star). Sayles provided the clever scenario in which the piranhas in question were developed by the U.S. military as a biological weapon for use in the Vietnam War, a project that was abandoned and later covered-up. But as we all learned from Watergate and other scandals, cover-ups often go astray. This time, the deadly little munchers are accidently released from their top-secret military compound and swim upstream, where they conveniently discover a children's summer camp and a brand new swanky water resort. Yum.
Other new DVDs in Roger Corman's Cult Classics series include Humanoids from the Deep, The Evil, Twice Dead and The Slumber Party Massacre Collection.
●Lake Placid 3 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, $24.96, not rated): In case your memory fails you, the original Lake Placid (1999) placed the blame for the giant species of Crocodylia appearing in peaceful Black Lake in Maine on little old Betty White, who had been feeding them from her lake front cottage. In Lake Placid 2 (2007), Cloris Leachman played Betty's sister, another giant croc lover. This time around, it's the son of a forest ranger/biologist who initially feeds a bunch of young reptiles -- and yes, that's plural. Soon the crocs grow really big and commence feeding on an assortment of attractive backpackers who obligingly take off all their clothes before jumping into the seemingly calm lake water. Not only are these crocs huge -- 30-40 footers, I'd estimate -- but they also 1) hunt in packs, like the Velociraptors in the Jurassic Park movies, and 2) move as quickly on land as they do in water. It's all silly, gruesome, campy stuff, with all that full frontal nudity pushing the DVD into unrated territory.
●Psycho (Universal Studios Home Entertainment, $26.98 Blu-ray, rated R): What is a genuine cinematic classic from Alfred Hitchcock doing on a list with three schlocky/funny gore-fests? Well, in 1960, when the film was released, the Master of Suspense was delivering droll and macabre introductions for his hit TV series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a style he continued with the trailers and advertisements (included here) for Psycho. According to Stephen Rebello, who supplies the audio commentary here and is the author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, the legendary director was impressed with the box-office success of the cheap horror films being turned out by American-International (where Roger Corman worked at the time) and other small studios, and wanted to see what he could do with similar material. Though he cast some genuine Hollywood stars, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, in his movie, Hitchcock filmed Psycho at a relatively low budget and primarily used his TV crew.
The director sprinkled his film with inside jokes, such as having Norman Bates (Perkins) tell Marion Crane (Leigh), "A boy's best friend is his mother" and "[Mother] isn't quite herself today." And he tried to keep Hollywood in the dark about the real nature of Norman's mother by actually issuing a casting call for actresses to play Mrs. Bates.
Unlike the other three films discussed here, where the terror teeters over the edge into parody, in Psycho the scares are both real and unforgettable. It doesn't matter how often you've seen the film, every time Marion Crane sits in her room at the Bates Motel and starts to disrobe, you want to yell out, "Don't take a shower!" Whenever private detective Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam) starts snooping around the Bates' house, you feel compelled to warn him, "Don't go up the stairs!" And at the point when Lila Crane (Vera Miles) decides to find out who's really living in the Bates house, you implore her, "Don't go into the basement!"
This new Blu-ray edition of Psycho marks the film's debut in high definition, with remastered sound that brings out Bernard Herrmann's remarkably frightening score -- especially in the notorious shower scene. It also includes an excellent, feature-length documentary on The Making of Psycho by Laurent Bouzereau, author of Hitchcock: Piece by Piece, the first authorized biography of the great director, plus a bunch of additional special features.