Movies Till Dawn: The World is a Monster (Halloween 2020, Part 2)

Spree” (2020, RLJE Films) No one is more surprised than desperate rideshare driver Joe Keery (“Stranger Things”) to discover that livestreaming the murders of his passengers can do wonders for his sagging social media account. Vicious and dark horror-satire takes broad swings at individuals who record appalling behavior for online approval (and those who “like” it), and if his central thesis doesn’t amount to more than “social media can make you crazy,” co-writer/director Eugene Kotlyarenko – who has made a career of addressing the axis of toxic behavior and technology (see “0s & 1s“) in inventive ways – at least has the benefit of a solid cast, led by Keery and Sasheer Zamata (“Saturday Night Live”) as two sides of the same social media coin, and David Arquette in Pearl Harbor mode as Keery’s disastrous dad. RLJE’s Blu-ray includes Kotlyarenko’s commentary and the (deliberately) awful content produced by Keery’s character.

The World is Full of Secrets” (2020, Kino Lorber) Ambitious, arthouse-minded supernatural drama anchored around a slumber party circa 1996, where the teenaged girls in attendance attempt to unsettle each other by recounting the most disturbing story they know. Writer-director Graham Swon lets these stories unfold as monologues with the camera tightly framing each actress’s face. The decision works as subtext by suggesting a shared history of pain and suffering between women across the ages (the girls’ stories all focus on female protagonists), but may also try some viewers’ patience, since some tales clock in at 20 minutes, and much of the film, while quietly creepy, is also frustratingly ambiguous. Still, as a female-centric horror film (still a rarity) and a reminder of the pleasure of hearing a scary story (any story, really) told aloud, is “Secrets” is worth a look. Kino’s Blu-ray includes commentary by Swon, a deleted scene, and liner notes by critic Boris Nelepo.

Cruel Jaws” (1995, Severin Films) Stop me if you’ve heard this one: an enormous shark chews its way through the population of a small coastal town, but efforts by a trio of self-appointed shark hunters (town sheriff/scientist/old salt) are thwarted by money-hungry businessmen. Add some mobsters, a cute kid in a wheelchair, and a surprising amount of disco references, and you get “Cruel Jaws,” one of several bald-faced carbons of “Jaws” that emerged from Italy in the ’80s and ’90s. All the hallmarks of the super squalo subgenre are present here – amateur acting, hamfisted suspense, gloppy gore – but “Cruel Jaws” sets itself apart by stealing from not only the Spielberg film but also its two immediate sequels, as evidenced by its horny teens, doomed sailing race, and an ocean park location. The presence of prolific exploitation filmmaker Bruno Mattei behind the camera is also a distinguishing (?) mark: Mattei, whose c.v. is filled with titles that steal shamelessly from popular international features (see: “Hell of the Living Dead“), adds a unique blend of technical carelessness and curious creative choices (all that disco talk) that, when added to its existing deficiencies, produce an almost hallucinatory effect. Delirious fun for Eurocult fans and bad/junkfilm devotees; Severin’s Blu-ray includes an unreleased Japanese edit of the entire film, as well as an interview with actor Jay Colligan  (one of the teens) and a sharksploitation essay by filmmaker/historian Rebekah McKendry.

Little Monsters” (1989, Lionsgate Home Entertainment) Precocious pre-teen Fred Savage discovers that there really are monsters under his bed, but his particular boogeyman, a hyperactive creature named Maurice (Howie Mandel), is more interested in pranks than night terrors. Essentially “Beetlejuice”-lite for the middle school crowd, “Little Monsters” does have its moments that exceed the endless rounds of mischief-making – a visit to the monster’s home dimension, a sort of underworld as designed by Parker Brothers that’s ruled by a former child (Frank Whaley) who, like Savage, dove too deeply into hijinks – which seems to have earned it a cult following (and justified this release on Lionsgate’s retro-minded Vestron Video Collector’s Series label). It’s noisy and PG-gross and acted with sugar-fueled enthusiasm by all involved (including Savage’s brother, Ben, and Rick Ducommun), which should endear it to the current crop of younger viewers (those that aren’t turned off by the dated SPFX, that is). Lionsgate’s Blu-ray includes new interviews with Mandel, producer Andrew Licht and makeup FX creator Robert Short, as well as numerous vintage cast and crew interviews, behind-the-scenes footage and promos, and footage of Mandel’s extensive monster makeup.

Tower of London” (1939, Shout! Factory) Universal Pictures and director Rowland V. Lee (“Son of Frankenstein”) play to the Sadean side of Shakespeare by retooling “Richard III” as one of the studio’s horror pictures, with Basil Rathbone in Mephistopheles drag butchering his way through the court of English king Edward IV to usurp the throne with the help of bald-pated, club-footed executioner Boris Karloff. You do have to sit through much court intrigue involving various lords and ladies (including Barbara O’Neil‘s Queen Elizabeth), and a wan romance between Nan Grey and John Sutton, but Rathbone’s homicidal spree – which at one point, involves drowning a young Vincent Price in a barrel of wine – and Karloff mooning over his torture devices to intended victim Sutton have a heady smack of Gothic gruesomeness with a dash of kink. With Walter Tetley, the voice of Sherman in the “Mr. Peabody and Sherman” shorts; Shout’s Blu-ray, part of its Universal Horror Collection Vol. 3 set, features a new 2K scan and informative commentary by historian Steve Haberman.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and Merry Jane, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for from 1998 to 2014. He has also interviewed countless entertainment figures, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and George Newall, who created both "Schoolhouse Rock" and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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