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Fun (and scary) movies for the Halloween weekend

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

It's getting closer to Halloween and a set of creaky but fun scary movies is in this week's DVD column.


Unlike members of my staff who grew up watching the original animated adventures of benevolent robots from another world who could change into looking like a truck, I held no sentiment for "The Transformers," and the characters' live-action feature film debut didn't really appeal to me much.

Intrigued, though, about the use of computer animation, I spent two and a half hours of my life to watch this mega-budget film directed by mega-budget hack Michael Bay. I was surprised to see just how much I enjoyed the film, despite my initial reservations.

The story of a race of evil robots coming to earth to try to find the artifact that would restore their race was told on several different levels with a fair amount of skill by Bay. He set up several on-going human storylines and effectively set up the good robot versus bad robot back-story.

The look of the film was impressive with the animation flawlessly executed.

Where I had some problems is with the shifting of the tone of the film from straightforward adventure to silly with the introduction of John Turturro's "X-File-ish" character. It was way over the top.

There were also problems with the length of the film of 144 minutes. There was at least 20 minutes to a half-hour of non-essential scenes that simply slowed down the film. A movie such as this one needs to keep going forward.

All in all, though, this film was a big surprise. The two-disc DVD set has a second disc full of extras on how the film was made. If you're a fan, you'd probably want to get that one.

Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive

Well, let's be truthful. None of these five films are "classics," and several of them aren't even horror films.

That didn't stop me from enjoying all of them, though, as I'm a sucker for the kind of horror movies Universal made in the 1930s and '40s.

It was a far more innocent time when a menacing hand coming from behind a curtain, a gorilla with an agenda and a mad scientist with a plan to create a race of electrically driven supermen were elements that could make up a fun time at the movies.

This new set features "The Black Cat," "Man Made Monster," "Horror Island," "Night Monster" and "Captive Wild Woman." The stars include Bela Lugosi, Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney, Jr. and Lionel Atwill, among others.

"The Black Cat" and "Horror Island" are both thrillers. "Cat" features a venal family waiting for the matriarch to die, while "Island" has a shifty entrepreneur finding out his once-worthless island is worth enough to kill over.

"Man Made Monster" has nutty Lionel Atwill turning everyday guy Lon Chaney, Jr. into a human battery. A traditional mad scientist film, this is actually an over-looked little gem in the Universal pantheon of horror films.

"Night Monster" is a curious little film that starts off as a mystery, but winds up as a horror film. While not totally successful, it's very engaging.

Lovely actress Acquanetta is the main attraction in "Captive Wild Woman," in which doctor John Carradine transplants human glands into a gorilla and the result is a stunning young woman! This film is a bit difficult to watch as it is set largely in a circus with tons of footage dedicated to a lion and tiger act. Watching people snap whips and shoot at animals that should be in a jungle somewhere is not my idea of fun.

For people who like their horror films involving lots of on-screen torture and brutality, these films will seem tamer than tame. However, some horror fans can still appreciate a sip of the old stuff, even though it may not be the best vintage.

Planet Terror: Extended and Unrated

Okay, so can a guy who sits through a hokey film like "Horror Island" actually liked the zombie-laden, blood-dripping action of Robert Rodriguez's half of "Grindhouse?"

Sure enough. What can I say; I'm a film fan of many tastes.

This two-disc DVD celebrates the best part of the collaboration between Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, an over-the-top homage to the wacky science fiction/horror films that used to be seen at drive-ins and urban theaters 30 years ago.

What has always attracted me to these films is their underground nature. While critics and historians looked at the standard Hollywood movies and foreign imports, there was a whole group of films and filmmakers flying under the radar.

They made outrageous films some just silly and some audacious. Out of that experience came directors such as Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, Allan Arkush and Paul Bartel, among others.

What Rodriguez has effectively captured is that gonzo spirit of those films and amped it up to his style of filmmaking.

If exploding zombies and a heroine who has an automatic weapon as a prosthesis aren't your cup of tea, that's fine. But if your taste in film is a little broader and you can appreciate the tongue-in-cheek approach to this end-of-the-world scenario, then "Planet Terror" is someplace at which you'll want to spend some time.

The extras are great as they truly go behind the scenes to show how an independent filmmaker such as Rodriguez makes his films.

This one is highly recommended with some reservations.