Movies Till Dawn: Spook-a-Rama (Halloween 2022)

Night Gallery: Season 2” (1971-72, Kino Lorber) Sophomore season of the Rod Serling-hosted horror anthology series essentially follows the same template as its predecessor, with a respectable number of effective episodes and a sizable number of out-and-out duds. That ratio reflects the breakdown of most TV anthology series, save perhaps Serling’s “Twilight Zone,” to which this series couldn’t help but be compared. But “Night Gallery” wasn’t “Twilight Zone,” largely because Serling’s hand was off the reins: he wrote and hosted while Jack Laird, a capable but eccentric TV vet, oversaw the production and was responsible for the majority of its “humorous” vignettes, which are represented in this set by such dire efforts as “Professor Peabody’s Last Lecture” (Lovecraftian riffing with Carl Reiner) and blackout bits like “Phantom of What Opera?” with Leslie Nielsen.

However, S2 also boasts some of the best episodes of the entire series run, including the Serling-penned “The Caterpillar,” about a cad (Laurence Harvey) whose scheme to steal another man’s wife goes horribly wrong, and two Lovecraft adaptations, the Emmy-nominated “Pickman’s Model” and “Cool Air.” Other standouts: “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” and “Brenda,” both of which look at the real and imagined horrors of childhood, with the former benefiting from narration by Orson Welles; “Green Fingers,” a pulpy chiller with a knockout conclusion; and “The Messiah on Mott Street,” one of Serling’s finest late-inning scripts, with Edward G. Robinson as an old man facing a crisis of faith on his death bed. Kino’s Blu-ray for Season 2 is, like its predecessor, loaded with extras that make it invaluable to fans of the series and small screen horror in general. Each episode features a 2K restoration and commentary by experts ranging from Guillermo del Toro and Kim Newman to “Night Gallery” historians Scott Skelton and Jim Benson. Vintage TV spots and NBC promos are included throughout, while three featurettes address various aspects of production, including Tom Wright’s paintings and the series’ atrocious syndicated run. A third (and final) season set is already slated for November 2022.

Hell High” (1989, Arrow Video) A mixed bag of high school malcontents and hangers-on decide to harass their unpopular biology teacher (Maureen Mooney), which reawakens long-buried mental trauma that pushes her into psychotic behavior. Regionally made teen slaughter film released at the tail end of the slasher cycle puts a disturbing spin on established stalk-and-slash tropes, offering a deeply damaged and even sympathetic killer and truly loathsome victims who die in ugly ways; whether intentional or accidental, the inversion makes for an unsettling watch, something that can’t be said for the majority of ’80s slasher titles. Arrow’s Blu-ray features a 2K restoration and a wealth of extras, including commentaries by director Douglas Grossman and Joe Bob Briggs, new and vintage interviews with the cast and crew, and a visit to the film’s Westchester County, NY locations.

Mark of the Vampire” (1935, Warner Archives Collection) Director Tod Browning (“Dracula”) remakes his lost Lon Chaney thriller, “London After Midnight,” with a dotty Lionel Barrymore as an occult expert investigating a fatal case of vampirism and Bela Lugosi as its most likely candidate. Plot logic is at a minimum here, and a twist ending is likely to provoke more ire than surprise, but “Mark” is also steeped in Gothic atmosphere that surpasses even Browning’s work on “Dracula,” with James Wong Howe’s cinematography and UC Berkeley student Carroll Borland as Lugosi’s proto-Morticia daughter as its highlights. Warner Archives’ Blu-ray ports over the informative commentary by Kim Newman and Steven Jones from its “Hollywood Legends of Horror” box set and adds “A Thrill for Thelma,” a short from MGM’s deeply paranoid and judgmental “Crime Does Not Pay” series, about a high schooler falling under the thrall of crook Bob Livingston (who imitates Lugosi’s hypnotic eye routine) and “The Calico Dragon,” an imaginative, Oscar-nominated cartoon, both from 1935.

El Vampiro Negro” (1953, Flicker Alley) Exceptional remake/revision of Fritz Lang’s “M” moves the film’s action to Buenos Aires, where its monster – a pathetic wretch played by Nathan Pinson – preys on the city’s children. The change in location is less important to director/co-writer Roman Vinoly Barretto than a shift in perspective, which places the responsibility of finding the killer on the city’s undesirables – embodied by a cabaret singer and single mother played by Olga Zubarry – rather than its criminal underworld when the police and grasping chief prosecutor (Roberto Escalada) fail to bring him down. The realignment gives “Negro” a great deal of additional emotional weight and urgency, while cinematographer Anibal Gonzalez Paz streaks the images of the city – steeped in a seeming perpetual night – with probing light in startling patterned arrangements. Long unavailable to English-language audience, Flicker Alley’s restored Blu-ray/DVD set includes a featurette that compares “Negro” to Lang’s “M” and a 1951 American version and includes interviews with Barretto’s son, archivist Fernando Martin Pena, an intro by noir historian Eddie Mueller, and liner note by Imogen Sara Smith.

Voyage into Space” (1970, Scorpion Releasing/RoninFlix) TV feature built from five episodes of the well-loved Japanese children’s science fiction series “Giant Robo,” which aired in the States during the ’70s and ’80s as “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot.” American International Television, which released the Stateside version, produced a coherent (if atrociously dubbed) condensation that details the origin story of the Pharaoh-styled Giant Robot, who’s found on a remote island by the precocious pre-teen Johnny and pressed into service by the Unicorn spy agency. The bulk of “Voyage” details Johnny and GR’s fight against the Gargoyle Gang, an army of outré monsters, soldiers in beatnik shades and berets, and weirdo sub-commanders led by the Lovecraftian Emperor Guillotine. The action is briskly paced (and remarkably violent for kids’ TV) but as with “Ultraman” and other live-action Japanese series of the period, the chief selling point is the parade of monsters – which include a giant eyeball with trailing lashes, a walking land mine, and an enormous dog with cornrows – wrecking miniature landscapes before meeting their end at the hands of Giant Robot and his arsenal of weapons. Amusing, nostalgic fun for the Saturday morning faithful; Scorpion and Ronin’s Blu-ray offers a very clean-looking remaster and a smattering of ’50s-era US sci-fi trailers.

Halloween Adjacent:

Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces – Volume 2” (1914-17, Undercrank Productions) Five more films, all preserved by the Library of Congress, which showcase silent film star Lon Chaney outside of his best-known, horor-themed work in the 1920s, such as “Phantom of the Opera.” Chaney’s talents as a character player are in sharp focus here: his brooding presence adds dramatic heft to the titles, even those that survive in fragmentary form, like “The Millionaire Paupers,” a romance-drama with Chaney as a underhanded tenement owner. The longest film in the collection, 1917’s “The Scarlet Car,” is also the best in the bunch, and gives Chaney a chance to play outside his usual heel persona as a bank cashier (and descendant of Paul Revere!) who suffers a mental collapse in the midst of a money scandal. The role also requires Chaney to don considerable makeup, yet as with his later, more macabre roles, his ability to mine humanity in the character is fully evident. The Undercrank Blu-ray features new scores by Jon Mirsalis, textual information for missing scenes, and detailed information on each film’s production and preservation history.

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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