“The Evil Dead” (1981, Lionsgate) A quintet of Michigan college students makes the unfortunate decision to read from a book of incantations, which unleashes demonic forces determined to turn them, as the great drive-in critic Joe Bob Briggs rightly put it, into “Spam in a cabin.” Ferociously energetic no-budget horror indie launched the careers of writer/director Sam Raimi, actor Bruce Campbell and producer Robert Tapert, as well as a genre-bending franchise that includes two comedic sequels, a straight-ahead remake and a terrific, short-lived series (all of which thankfully dropped the film’s most unpleasant element, an ugly encounter between actress Ellen Sandweiss and some animated branches) ; its no-holds-barred gore and breakneck camerawork have also been echoed in countless horror films over the last three decades (see the recent “Mandy”). Lionsgate’s double-disc set includes 4K Ultra-HD and Blu-ray presentations and includes amusing commentary by Raimi, Campbell and Tapert.
“Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977, Shout Factory) Doomstruck priest Richard Burton is dispatched by the Vatican to investigate the death of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) during the events depicted in “The Exorcist,” and finds that the now-teenaged Regan (Linda Blair) is not entirely free of the demon Pazuzu. There’s no need to play the retcon card with “Exorcist II” – there are plenty of solid reasons why John (“Deliverance”) Boorman‘s film gets a bad rap, ranging from a tin-eared script and Regan’s tap-dance routine to Louise Fletcher‘s disco biofeedback machine and James Earl Jones in locust drag, though having to not only follow but try to top a cultural phenomenon like William Friedkin’s film is its biggest hurdle. Having said that, “Exorcist II” also has moments – the cast, which includes Ned Beatty and Paul Henreid in his last screen performance, maintains gravitas in the face of absurdity (Blair, in particular, does Herculean work in this regard), Ennio Morricone provides a memorable, acid-soaked score, and the exorcism set pieces (the fiery opening, flashbacks with Father Merrin in Africa, and the final showdown) are all special effects powerhouses – that suggest there’s something worth exploring under all those misfires. “Exorcist II” is probably best enjoyed as a psychedelic transmission from a reality where Friedkin’s film never existed, and for those willing to go the distance, Shout Factory’s two-disc Collector’s Edition, issued through its Scream Factory imprint, provides both the theatrical cut and a shorter (and less comprehensible) alternate cut, extremely detailed commentaries by the late Boorman and Scott Michael Bosco, interviews with Blair and editor Tom Priestley, and a barrage of trailers and promotional material.
“The Baby” (1973, Arrow Video) Social worker Anjanette Comer (“The Loved One“) is assigned to the Wadsworths, a family unit comprised of imperious mom Ruth Roman (“Strangers on a Train”), hot-and-cold sisters Marianna Hill and Suzanne Zenor, and Baby (David Manzy/Mooney), who, despite his name, is not a toddler, but rather a grown man forced into infantilism to satisfy Roman’s extreme ideas about motherhood and (more importantly) maintain a steady flow of disability payments. Though free of any graphic content, “The Baby” – directed without a whit of camp or dark humor by TV vet Ted Post – feels far more unseemly than even the grimiest exploitation, largely because of the matter-of-fact way in which the family has harmed Baby, and the queasy joke that reveals his (and Comer’s) fate. Arrow’s Blu-ray includes interviews with Hill and audio from conversations with Post and Mooney, as well as a scholarly discussion of the film by writer Rebekah McKendry.
“Boris Karloff Collection” (1968-1971, MVD Visual) Though most mainstream sources cite Peter Bogdanovich‘s “Targets” as Boris Karloff‘s last feature film, the horror icon completed four additional films for Mexican producer Luis Enrique Vergara before his death in 1969. Age and poor health prevented Karloff from traveling to Mexico, so his scenes were shot in Los Angeles by writer-director Jack Hill (“Spider Baby“) and then folded into footage filmed in Mexico. Though their premises are nonense – “Torture Zone” (aka “Fear Chamber”) concerns a living, bloodthirsty boulder, while “Dance of Death” (aka “House of Evil”) features life-sized toys dispatching Karloff’s greedy relatives – all four possess a sort of cut-rate haunted house atmosphere, bolstered considerable by Karloff’s presence, even in his wheelchair-bound state. MVD’s two-disc set also includes “Alien Terror” (aka “The Incredible Invasion” and “Cult of the Dead” (“Isle of the Snake People”).