I started this blog just two weeks before Halloween and have spent most of the time reviewing Halloween films. I wanted to write about the holiday’s music, but soon the Halloween will be a memory. Count on it next year. But in the mean time I can share this one tidbit with you. Perhaps the most popular classical piece of music for the holiday is Modeste Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald (or Bare) Mountain. The music is famous outside normal circles for its use in Walt Disney’s Fantasia and as the theme song of radio’s Escape.
Mussorgsky, by all reports, was a genius but also a raging alcoholic who died young, leaving many of his manuscripts in disarray. Rimsky-Korsakov rearranged A Night on Bald Mountain, virtually recomposing it and smoothing out its harmonies. This is the version usually heard. But Mussorgsky’s wilder and woollier original has been recorded. You can get both versions on the same disc, in dynamic performances from Theodore Kuchar and the National Symphony of the Ukraine on a bargain priced Naxos disc, with a sterling performance of Pictures at an Exhibition (Ravel orchestration) and some shorter pieces thrown in. If you’re really lucky, you can find the discontinued SACD surround sound version. Its rarity has made it costly, but I it’s worth the price.
1963’s The Haunting is based on the well-known novel, The Haunting of Hill House, written by Shirley Jackson. It’s back to black and white and widescreen (Panavision 2.35:1) for this one. It seems to me to play bookends with The Innocents. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) assembles a team of three to stay in Hill House and record any spectral activities that arise. Hill House, we are told, is a house “that was born bad.” Chief among the investigators is frail, neurotic Eleanor “Nell” Lance (Julie Harris, brilliant). There are no physical ghosts, this is psychological terror, but there are sounds, sounds so powerful they will make your spine tingle. Sounds aided by a brilliant music score by avant garde classical music composer Humphrey Searle.
The MGM film has been released on Blu-ray by Warner Brothers, which has done a splendid job with both picture and sound. The bizarre house has lots of intricate furnishing that give the medium an opportunity to show how good it is at reproducing finite detail. There’s a dandy screen specific commentary with all the lead actors and screenplay writer Nelson Gidding. The movie was set in New England but filmed in Great Britain which causes a few goofs here and there. See how many you can spot, if you can take your mind off the terror at hand. Good news: Low prices can be found on line.
Released in 1981, The Howling is one of the best contemporary werewolf movies. Directed by horror specialist Joe Dante, it tells the story of a television anchor (Dee Wallace) who gets involved with a den of werewolves living at a campground called “the Colony.” This enclave is run by Dr. George Waggner (Patrick McNee), who urges his flock to stop killing people and learn to raise cattle and seek wildlife for sustenance. His motive is practical – by killing people they will attract too much attention. But alas, the best laid plans can come to ruin as lots of people (and werewolves) do get killed in this intelligent horror fest film.
Rob Bottin created the makeup and animatronic effects for The Howling and the transformation scenes are among the best ever made to this very day. The Shout Blu-ray transfer is outstanding. The detail of misty scenes in woods, crashing surf, and werewolf fur is astounding at times. The 5.1 surround places most of the sound left, center, and right, but there are occasional sounds from the rear that are effective. The disc is loaded with extras, something for fans to really howl about.
The listing before this one was also about an orphanage in Spain, but in a different historical time. The Orphange uses a contemporary setting to deliver its chills and thrills, which are plentiful. We’re given a little back story on Laura (Belen Rueda) then are transported to the present, where we find Laura and her husband running a hospice for children in the same building she roomed in as a child when it was an orphanage. At a social function, Laura’s son disappears and she frantically searches for him, only to uncover many mysteries that lead to an ambiguous conclusion.
The scares and creepy crawlies that occur all through the film are supported by spooky sounds that resonate from the front, sides, and back of the viewer. This is a magnificent use of surround sound. The New Line audio transfer captures the sound correctly. The video transfer is equal to it; all of the dark scenes are clear in their intent. There are also quite a few extras that help in understanding the film. The Orphange is the best ghost story of the 21st century so far; it can keep company with the past century’s The Innocents or The Haunting. It’s also a real bargain, you can pick one up on Amazon.com for around five bucks. Here’s a link to my review of the actual film.
Guillermo del Toro became internationally known with the release of Pan’s Labyrinth, but many of us had noticed his talent from an earlier Spanish film, The Devil’s Backbone. It is a Gothic ghost story that is both lyrical and chilling in its telling. During the Spanish Civil War a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve, excellent) is dropped off at a crumbling orphanage in the middle of nowhere. He soon learns that the place is haunted and meets the young ghost Santi (Junio Valverde). The boyish spirit proves to be catalyst to catastrophic events.
Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer of this movie catapults the film from merely excellent to “masterpiece.” The color scheme is largely comprised of earth tones, rust tones, nighttime blues and dirty whites. Red, the color of blood, is used for emphasis at key points in the action. The movie’s surround sound audio fully envelopes the viewer with subtle and spooky sounds. There are a ton of extras to enlighten one, and I am sure it is no mistake that the catalog number is Criterion 666. Easy to read English subtitles. You can catch my longer review on the Xperience site.