Thursday, June 28, 2007

Movie studios tease fans with Halloween DVDs

Summer has just begun, but, right on schedule, I’m getting my annual, premature bout of Halloween anticipation.

It’s not my fault. It’s simply that this is the time of year that movie studios announce release dates for the horror movies they plan to release on DVD in time for the Halloween season. Halloween is big business, and Americans spend more money celebrating it than on any other holiday except Christmas. Hollywood isn’t about to be left out of the cash bonanza.

In years past, I could count on MGM raiding its vaults and releasing at least half a dozen chillers from the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Then Sony Pictures purchased a stake in MGM, and MGM’s “Midnite Movies” line went dormant.

Sony’s co-investors were not pleased. Not only did Sony fail to exploit MGM’s catalog of horror titles, Sony didn’t get anywhere with most of MGM’s movie library. So, the other investors took charge and sold the DVD rights to MGM’s films to Fox.

It’s taken a while, but that move is finally paying off for fans of vintage horror. Fox has more than a dozen releases planned for Sept. 11. The list includes MGM-owned films plus several of Fox’s own. Most retailers are already accepting pre-orders.

The bulk of Fox’s announced releases are two-disc double features:

  • “The Beast with a Million Eyes” and “Phantom From 10,000 Leagues”
  • “The Beast Within” and “The Bat People”
  • “Blueprint for Murder” and “Man in the Attic”
  • “Chosen Survivors” and “The Earth Dies Screaming”
  • “Devils of Darkness” and “Witchcraft”
  • “Gorilla at Large” and “Mystery at Monster Island”
  • “The House on Skull Mountain” and “The Mephisto Waltz”
  • “Konga” and “Yongary, Monster From the Deep”
  • “Pharaoh’s Curse” and “Curse of the Faceless Man”
  • “Return of Dracula” and “The Vampire”
  • “Tales From the Crypt” and “Vault of Horror”

The best of the double features is “Tales from the Crypt”/“Vault of Horror.” Produced by Amicus Productions and released in 1972 and ’73, respectively, both films are anthologies based on EC Comics stories. Amicus specialized in horror anthologies, and these are two of the studio’s best.

Like all Amicus films of the period, both boast casts filled with well-known British character actors, including Joan Collins (“Dynasty”), Peter Cushing (“Star Wars”), Denholm Elliott (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”) and Tom Baker (“Doctor Who”).

Also on Sept. 11, Fox will release a three-movie set featuring the 1958 version of “The Fly” and it’s two sequels, “Return of the Fly” and “Curse of the Fly.” Horror icon Vincent Price takes a bow in the long-awaited DVD release of “The Witchfinder General” (aka “The Conqueror Worm”). And giant animals terrorize mankind in the 1976 schlockfest “Food of the Gods,” loosely based on an equally silly H.G. Wells story.

But I’ve saved the best for last: director Stuart Gordon’s second foray into the bloodcurdling tales of H.P. Lovecraft — “From Beyond.”

“From Beyond” reunites Gordon with “Re-Animator” stars Jeffery Combs (“Star Trek: Enterprise”) and Barbara Crampton (“The Young and the Restless”) for a tale of blood, guts and otherworldly monsters.

The “special edition” Fox/MGM DVD brings Gordon’s original version to America for the first time. The theatrical version released in 1986 omitted some gore and part of Crampton’s infamous “S&M” scene in order to get an R rating. The new disc restores the film to its intended glory.

That’s enough horror on DVD to frighten almost anyone, not the least of which is my bank account.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fans take possession of their favorite fictional characters

Officially, George Lucas decides who gets to tell “Star Wars” stories and Paramount Pictures controls the “Star Trek” franchise. But fans of those and other fictional worlds have their own ideas.

Lots of them.

While big media companies can sometimes go overboard when enforcing their copyrights and trademarks, most have gotten the message that it isn’t wise to irritate their fans. So, they increasingly pretend not to notice when those fans play around with the companies’ intellectual property. As a result, fan-made films are popping up all over the Internet.

Only true “Star Wars” fans like filmmakers Matt Sloan and Aaron Yonda, for example, could turn Darth Vader into a comedian.

Well, technically it’s not Darth Vader. It’s Chad Vader, Darth Vader’s hapless brother. But they wear the same costume, and they both sound like James Earl Jones.

Chad Vader, however, isn’t a dark lord of the Sith. He’s the day-shift manager at a supermarket. He has an overbearing boss and an unrequited crush on one of his co-workers. But occasionally he does threaten the stock boys with his lightsaber, not that they’re all that impressed.

Chad is also the star of “Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager,” a popular series of short films online at and Sloan and Yonda’s Web site,

Another comedic take on the “Star Wars” saga is the “Pink Five” series (, which follows a clueless, fast-talking Valley Girl named Stacey, who is always one step behind the story’s heroes and refers to Han Solo has her “boyfriend,” although they’re keeping things quiet so “Princess Hairstyle doesn’t freak out.”

While he is usually overprotective of the “Star Wars” name, Lucas has embraced the community of amateur filmmakers that has grown up around “Star Wars.” He sponsors the annual Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards, and both “Chad Vader” and “Pink Five” are winners of the contest’s highest honor, the George Lucas Selects Award.

Fan fiction, stories fans write featuring their favorite fictional characters, has been a staple of the Internet almost since there was an Internet. You can find fan-written stories about almost anything, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to comic-book superheroes to 1980s cartoon characters. And that’s not counting the stories that mix and match characters from different works. I’m sure someone has written a story about Hannibal Lecter somehow ending up in Victorian London where he is chased by Sherlock Holmes.

And if no one has written that story, someone soon will now that I’ve given them the idea. I could Google it to be sure, but I don’t necessarily want to know.

Some of these stories are funny. Some are serious. And an awful lot are erotic — or pornographic, the difference usually being how well written they are. There is an entire sub-genre of “Star Trek” fan fiction in which Kirk and Spock are more than just friends. The now ubiquitous online term “slash,” used for erotic fan fiction, came from writers labeling their stories as, for example, “Kirk/Spock.”

Fan films are the inevitable next step up from fan fiction. Although, so far, there are no “slash” fan films I know of. If they exist, don’t tell me.

With the cost of digital video cameras and editing equipment going down, almost anyone can make a short film — even one heavy on special effects.

The results can be lame, but they can also be amazing. The best “Star Wars” fan film I’ve seen is “Troops,” a hilarious mash-up of “Star Wars” and the Fox TV show “Cops.” In this case, the “cops” are Imperial Stormtroopers. The suspects in this parody are definitely not presumed innocent.

Some Hollywood filmmakers have long admitted that their works really belong to their fans. Now, however, that’s actually true.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

’80s nostalgia grips Hollywood, storms theaters

Either I’m imagining things, or Hollywood is in the grip of nostalgia for the decade of President Reagan and hair bands.

On July 3, “Transformers” opens in theaters across North America. This big-budget sci-fi/action movie from executive producer Steven Spielberg and director Michael Bay is one of this summer’s most anticipated films — and not because everyone suddenly thinks Bay has learned how to direct.

No, it’s because “Transformers” has a built-in audience of twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who grew up playing with Transformers toys, reading Transformers comic books and watching Transformers cartoons during the mid-1980s.

But the Transformers franchise is only the first ’80s pop-culture touchstone Hollywood has decided to resurrect in hopes of cashing in on Generation X nostalgia.

Warner Bros. has two projects in the pipeline. The first is a live-action movie based on “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe,” with Joel Silver (“Lethal Weapon,” “The Matrix”) producing. The second is a computer-animated revival of “Thundercats,” with a script (for now) by newcomer Paul Sopocy.

Silver is already producing another nostalgia piece, “Speed Racer,” based on the 1960s Japanese cartoon, and he’ll be the second producer to take a stab at a live-action “He-Man” movie. The first attempt, starring Dolph Lundgren, staggered into theaters in 1987 and stumbled out about a week later.

Why the upcoming “Thundercats” movie rates only animation instead of live action is a mystery to me. There are at least as many aging “Thundercats” fans as there are “He-Man” fans. I guess it’ll save the actors from suffering through the hours of makeup needed to transform them into cat people. But it’ll also deprive me of seeing a suitable actress, say, Rebecca Romijn, made up as a cat person.

I’d pay good money to see that, and so would a lot of other guys my age, whether or not they’ll admit to thinking Cheetara was hot in the ’80s “Thundercats” cartoon series.

Don’t look so shocked. Teenage boys know sexually attractive cartoon characters when they see them. And according to at least one female friend of mine who had a thing for He-Man, girls are no different. Now that I think about it, maybe that’s one reason why Hollywood is pitching revamped versions of ’80s children’s shows to people who are now adults.

Speaking of sexy cartoon characters, my favorite, the Baroness, is set to appear in a live-action movie based on yet another 1980s property, “G.I. Joe.” Paramount has picked up the rights to the toy/cartoon/comic-book franchise about an elite, top-secret military unit and its fight against Cobra, the ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.

Of course, since the Baroness is a member of Cobra, this is one instance when I’m on the side of the terrorists. Sorry, but I can’t resist a woman in leather.

Assuming there are no delays, however, the “G.I. Joe” movie may not be out until at least 2010, the date currently listed online at the Internet Movie Database.

Even then, it may be called something other than “G.I. Joe,” at least overseas. According to one early report, the film’s producer doesn’t think foreign audiences will flock to a movie named “G.I. Joe.” Apparently this has something to do with President Bush having ruined America’s reputation abroad, where U.S. action movies typically make a hefty portion of their earnings.

Funny. Back in the ’80s, foreign audiences had no trouble with the “Rambo” movies. I guess some things really do change.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Good TV knows when to call it quits

Sometimes a great performance is all about knowing when to leave the stage.

With that in mind, I was actually pleased to read last week that one of my favorite TV series will end after its next season.

The producers of “Battlestar Galactica” announced last week that the show’s fourth season will be its last. In a statement on the Sci-Fi Channel’s Web site, producers Ronald Moore and David Eick said, “The show was always meant to have a beginning, a middle and, finally, an end. Over the course of the last year, the story and characters have been moving strongly toward that end, and we’re decided to listen to those internal voices and conclude the show on our own terms.”

As much as I’ll miss “Battlestar Galactica,” I agree that it’s time for the final act. Given the third season’s cliffhanger, I doubt Moore and Eick could squeeze out a fifth season.

The producers of ABC’s “Lost” had the same idea, and they plan to end “Lost” following its sixth season. Unfortunately, that means “Lost” has three seasons left before the curtain drops, which is probably too long to drag out the story. But at least the next three seasons will be only 16 episodes each, rather than the standard 22 to 26 of U.S. network television.

The idea that TV shows should have thought-out beginnings, middles and endings — like movies or novels — is relatively new, at least in the U.S. But some have tried it before, with mixed results. Producer/creator J. Michael Straczynski conceived his sci-fi series “Babylon 5” as a five-year-long “novel” for television. But the constant treat of cancellation led to Straczynski rushing to wrap things up during the fourth season. Then, when the fifth season received the go-ahead, he was forced to pad about half of it with filler. A couple of ill-conceived spin-offs didn’t help, either.

Obviously, not every TV show lends itself to the beginning-middle-end format. Episodic shows (police and legal dramas, soap operas and comedies) can go on forever. Each episode is either a self-contained story or a jumble of overlapping plots so that when one plays out there are always half a dozen others to follow.

Episodic television is great so long as the show’s creators can keep things interesting. After seven seasons, I’m still hooked on the original “CSI.” And with a few unavoidable ups and downs, the original “Doctor Who” sped along for 26 seasons, until a shortsighted BBC bureaucrat killed it just as it was on a creative upswing. Now a revived “Doctor Who,” currently at three seasons and counting, has picked up where the original left off.

But how many shows overstay their welcome, phoning it in well past their prime? While some networks strangle new shows in their cribs (I’m looking at you, Fox), NBC seems intent on keeping its flagging franchises on life support. Remember when “ER” was must-see TV? Yeah, me neither.

NBC is also taking heroic measures with its three “Law & Order” series, the youngest of which just wrapped up its sixth year. The network is loaning out “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” to its corporate cousin, USA. Meanwhile, the original “Law & Order” is about to enter its 18th season of “ripped from the headlines” plots.

As someone who used to be addicted to “Law & Order” marathons on TNT, I can now say I just don’t care anymore.

Not every TV show should follow the beginning-middle-end path “Battlestar Galactica” and “Lost” are paving. But certainly they all can learn from the example of knowing when it’s time to stop.