Movies Till Dawn: Chocolate Vampire Kisses (Halloween 2021 Edition)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker  (The Complete Series)” (1974-75, Kino Lorber) Having survived a vampire in Las Vegas and an undead strangler beneath the city of Seattle, reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, still decades away from playing the Old Man from “A Christmas Story”) discovers that all of his assignments have some kind of supernatural or monstrous element. Heavy nostalgia for ’70s-era monster kids, who recall this short-lived series fondly – chief among them Chris Carter, who cited “Kolchak” as the inspiration for “The X-Files.” Admittedly, none of the episodes rise to the same level of chills and drama as the two TV-features that preceded it, and a combination of budgetary issues, standards and practices, and the challenges of creating scary TV content on a weekly basis neuter some of the creatures (most notably the headless motorcyclist in “Chopper”). Others are exceptionally well-rendered and depicted: the voracious female vampire – a victim of Kolchak’s first monster run-in – in “Vampire” (one of eight episodes penned by “Sopranos” creator David Chase), a Hindu demon with the ability to transform into someone its victims trust in “Horror in the Heights” (written by Hammer scripter Jimmy Sangster), and Lara Parker of “Dark Shadows” as a haute couture/high camp witch in “The Trevi Collection.” These high points weren’t enough to save the show, which was already struggling with conflict between McGavin, the network, and producers, but its 20 episodes remain well-loved, despite their flaws, by fans of ’70s-era small screen horror. Kino’s Blu-ray offers 2K masters for the entire series and bundles them with commentaries for each episode from, among others, Kim Newman, David J. Schow, Tim Lucas, Gary Gerani, Amanda Reyes, and “Kolchak” historian Mark Dawidziak, who also pens informative liner notes. New interviews with Chase and Dana Gould and original TV spots round out this terrific set.

Creature with the Atom Brain” (1955, Arrow Video) Medico Richard Denning must determine how radioactive blood and a dead man’s fingerprints were left at a pair of murder scenes (played in part by the Warner Bros. Ranch). Briskly paced and totally entertaining blend of ’50s-era atomic science fiction, crime thriller, and zombie horror from the prolific Edward L. Cahn (“The Giant Claw“), who manages to shoehorn gangsters, Nazi scientists, and a cops-vs.-zombies shootout into the picture’s 70-minute running time. The script by Curt Siodmak (“Donovan’s Brain“) maintains quality traffic control over the kitchen sink elements; the end result is an appealing mix of drama and delirium for monster kids of all ages (like Roky Erickson, who drew on the film, including dialogue, for his 1980 single of the same name). “Creature” is part of Arrow’s four Blu-ray set “Cold War Creatures” (a must-have for ’50s sci-fi devotees) and includes commentary by history Russell Dyball, an intro by Kim Newman, a Super-8 version of of the film, and a lengthy and informative presentation on producer Sam Katzman (who oversaw all of the films in the “Cold War” set) by comic book legend Stephen Bissette (“Swamp Thing”).

Puzzle” (1974, VCI Films) After recovering from a car accident in London that has robbed him of his memory and identity. Luc Merenda assembles scraps of information that lead him back to Italy, where he discovers grieving wife Senta Berger and a host of unsavory types with designs on his well-being. Italian thriller from veteran action director Duccio Tessari (“A Pistol for Ringo”) and co-writer Ernesto Gastaldi is more restrained in the sadism department than the gialli that followed it, but offers a compelling mystery, considerable suspense, and enough shocks (a chainsaw figures into the mix) that should hold Eurocult devotees’ attention. VCI’s Blu-ray, struck from a long-lost English-language print, isn’t pristine, but only A/V diehards will turn up the chance to see this rare title; smart commentary by Kat Ellinger and informative liner notes by Alexander Heller-Nicholas, horror vets both, are included.

Midnight” (1982, Severin Films) Pittsburgh teenager Nancy (Melanie Verlin) flees her abusive cop stepfather (Lawrence Tierney), only to fall afoul of psychopathic Satanists who kidnap victims for sacrifices. Writer/director John Russo, who co-wrote George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” tapped several Romero veterans, including Tom Savini and “Martin” star John Amplas, for this grisly regional exploitation effort; while it suffers from the usual pitfalls inherent to low-budget filmmaking, there’s a hint of social awareness in its subplot (Nancy is rescued by Black and white pals who fall afoul of Satanists tricked out in police drag) and the sheer lunacy of its final third approaches the gross-out delirium of a ’70s-era Warren Publishing horror mag like “Creepy.” Severin’s Blu-ray is a 4K restoration of the original negative (looks great) and features interviews with Russo, Savini, producer and Al Adamson confederate Sam Sherman, and Amplas; an audio track includes both snippets of composer Mike Mazzei’s effective score and interviews with Mazzei with Michael Felsher.

Winterbeast” (1992, Vinegar Syndrome) Stupefying regional horror, shot largely on 8mm and 16mm, about two doltish park rangers who discover that demons are slaughtering tourists near a remote mountain lodge. Said monsters are rendered in ambitious if not entirely successful stop-motion animation, and include two enormous chicken monsters (props from the music video for Dokken’s “Burning Like a Flame” also factor into the terror); these elements, however, pale in comparison to the wealth of continuity issues (the film’s three-year shoot can be charted by notable changes to lead Tim R. Morgan’s mustache), nonsensical dialogue, and a third-reel shift in one character’s identity and motivation that can be charitably described as completely and utterly bewildering. Fans of unintentional surrealists like Ed Wood, Larry Buchanan, and Tommy Wiseau will be delighted to discover another film with the power to warp reality and perception like their best efforts; Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray offers a wealth of extras, including two commentaries (producer Mark Frizzell on one, and Frizzell, director Christopher Thies, and cinematographer Craig Mathieson on the other, and both amusing), interviews with many of the major cast and crew members, new and vintage making-of docs, unused footage and deleted scenes, and an early workprint version of the film.

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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