Movies Till Dawn: Seymour’s Monster Rally

*indicates that the film is also available to rent, buy, or stream on various platforms. Note: streaming presentations may differ from these home video releases.

Cobweb“* (2023, Lionsgate Home Entertainment) Young Woody Norman’s suspicions about his strict but jittery parents (Lizzie Caplan and Antony Starr) seem to be confirmed by a disembodied entity (voiced by Debra Wilson) who taps on his bedroom wall at night and insists that she is a long-lost sister locked away by his parents, who intend to do the same to him. First-time director Samuel Bodin has a creepy premise fueled by childhood anxiety and injects a good deal of atmosphere into the material, which helps when the script embraces too many lapses in logic (writer Chris Thomas Devlin also ran afoul of such problems with his script for Netflix’s atrocious “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). Caplan and Starr do what they can to keep the material on an even keel, but the heavy lifting is done by cinematography Philip Lozano’s Gothic constructions. Lionsgate’s Blu-ray/digital combo includes several making-of featurettes.

Tombs of the Blind Dead“* (1972, Synapse Films) Displeased that her friend (and former lover) has taken a shine to her male traveling companion, Maria Elena Arpon cuts the pair loose at a remote whistle stop in the Spanish countryside, unaware that it also houses a cabal of undead, blood-drinking, Satan-worshiping Knights Templar. The framework around this Spanish-Portuguese feature is silly – Sapphic fumblings and risible male behavior – but these moments are quickly backburnered once director Amando de Ossorio has the Templars mount their horses (also dead) and begin their slow but relentless pursuit of victims (through sound, a macabre touch explored to maximum effect). A foundational title (along with the films of Paul Naschy) in Spain’s graphic horror boom in the 1970s, “Blind Dead” also found favor with late-night TV and grindhouse audiences in the States, albeit in edited form; Synapse’s new Blu-ray – a standard version of their recent steelbook – offers both a restored print of the original Spanish version (with English subs) and the American cut, which are paired with three commentaries (star Lone Fleming, NaschyCast hosts Rod Barnett and Troy Guinn, and historian Troy Howarth), a feature-length doc on Spanish zombie films, an overview of Spanish horror titles, and most amusingly, the opening sequence from “Revenge of Planet Ape,” an American edit which attempted to pass off the Blind Dead as part of the “Planet of the Apes” franchise.

City of the Living Dead“* (1980, Cauldron Films) A priest’s suicide opens the gates of Hell (the film’s Stateside title) and unleashes rotting zombies on the occupants of a small town (played by Rome and Savannah, Georgia). One of several ’80s-era exercises in extreme gore from Italian director Lucio Fulci, “City” pushes even further away from the nominal plotting of “Zombie” and into freeform storytelling, in which the viewer drifts from one ghastly setpiece to another (though there are intimations that the town is paying for its sins in certain plot threads, most notably the hideous fate of Giovanni Lombaro Radice’s drifter Bob). Your preference for horror will determine whether Fulci’s approach translates as a nightmare captured on film (Fulci’s “The Beyond” serves as his ultimate effort in that regard) or haphazard exploitation for gorehounds. Cauldron’s three-disc presentation (4K restorations of UHD and Blu-ray discs and a disc of extras) is a vast improvement in visuals and audio over previous presentations and bundles four commentary tracks – vintage efforts from stars Radice and Catriona MacColl and critics Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth, and an excellent new track by critic Samm Deighan, which places “City” within Gothic, folk horror, and Lovecraftian contexts – as well as career overviews of production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng and special effects designer Gino de Rossi, multiple Q&As and interviews with cast and crew, promotional material, and a return visit via drone to the Georgia locations.

The Giant Gila Monster/The Killer Shrews“* (1959, Film Masters) Two independent monster moves lensed in Texas and funded/produced by radio/TV station owner Gordon McLendon and “Gunsmoke” star Keene Curtis, both of whom also turn up in “Killer Shrews.” I reviewed the latter here in 2015 (and its misbegotten, decades-in-the-making sequel), and it remains an enjoyable and surprisingly suspenseful creature feature that sidesteps the pitfalls of its pocket-change budget; the same can be said for “Gila Monster,” which labors with glum special effects (that’s a Mexican beaded lizard, not a Gila monster lumbering through miniature sets and rear-projection shots) and a wan, nice-guy teen Don Sullivan, whose “Laugh, Children Laugh” song will be well-remembered by “MST3K” fans. But like “Killer Shrews,” it moves quickly and at 75 minutes, doesn’t outlast its welcome, and hits enough of the posts required by vintage creature feature fans (and small children) to satisfy that Saturday afternoon mindset. Film Masters’ Blu-ray features nice-looking transfers of both films (both staples of PD releases) and adds commentary tracks (the Monster Party Podcast crew for “Gila Monster” and Jason A. Ney for “Killer Shrews) with plenty of info on both films, as well as a featurette on Ray Kellogg, who directed both films, an interview with Sullivan, radio spots for the two titles, and liner notes detailing McLendon’s busy life and the gestation of “Shrews.”

The Last House on the Left“* (2009, Arrow Video) Wes Craven co-produced this remake of his groundbreaking, nerve-rattling 1972 grindhouse shocker (itself a loose adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” which drew on a medieval Scandinavian murder ballad) about a quartet of debased killers who prey upon two teenagers before seeking shelter in the home of one girl’s parents. The savagery of Craven’s original, crafted as a reaction to sanitized violence in Hollywood products and images of real brutality from the Vietnam War, poleaxed viewers during its release (and spurred the enduring promotional refrain, “To avoid fainting, keep repeating: It’s only a movie…”), but three decades of can-you-top-this horror films made a similar response from ’09 viewers unlikely (as did the involvement of Universal as distributor). Dennis Illiadis’s remake doesn’t try to one-up Craven’s “Last House” but instead focuses its energy on the impact of the murders by removing any sense of artiness or vicarious charge from the violence: it’s ugly behavior portrayed in an ugly way, and in that sense, the remake is a success. The cast proves game to tackle gruesome material and is convincing in presenting the banality of evil (Garrett Dillahunt, Aaron Paul, and especially Rikki Lindhome as the killers) and the easy shift from respectability to aggression (Tony Goldwyn and Monica Potter as the parents of Sara Paxton); the problem is that the shift is no longer a surprise, having been depicted as horrifying, heroic, well-deserved and even one’s duty by a generation-plus of horror, action, thriller and even straight dramatic films. It’s a solid effort and delivers an impressive degree of violence and suspense to those who haven’t seen the original but lacks its searing quality. Arrow’s Limited Edition Blu-ray set offers a 4K Ultra presentation of the theatrical cut and standard Blu-ray of the unrated edition; the 4K disc also carries a wealth of extras, including commentary by David Flint and Adian Smith, interviews with cast and crew, several deleted scenes, and an appreciative essay by Zoe Rose Smith.

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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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