My Totally ’80s Halloween Watch List

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Like many of you in the GeekDad community, I came of age during an era of basic cable, back when there was a (cheesy, over-produced) song in our hearts and a video store on every corner. This doubtlessly shaped my media appetites, most specifically with regard to horror cinema. Because of those requisite holiday weekend movie marathons and the practice of choosing rentals based solely on their grisly cover art, the only thing I like better than a good-good monster flick is a bad-good monster flick.

Over the past few months, I’ve kept my ear to the ground regarding new home media releases in the horror vein, in anticipation of the month-long movie binge that is my Halloween. As luck would have it, a bevy of fine selections was made available, and, coincidentally, they all originally came into our homes and/or theaters in 1986-1987, during the formative years of my own horror movie awakening.

So gather your cannibal kinfolk, your malicious robots, your xenomorph regents, and a few cursed artifacts; it’s time to explore my totally ’80s Halloween watch list.

chopping-mall

Vestron Video Collector’s Series: Chopping Mall 

Originally released: March 21, 1986
Starring: Soap opera regulars Kelli Maroney and Russell Todd, John “DeathStalker” Terlesky, ultra-preppy Alan from Head of the Class
Rating: This film is rated R for violence, gore, nudity, strong language, and booze-fueled mall rat sex parties. This one should be considered mature viewing.
What it’s about: Mall security robots malfunction and disturb after-hours department store teenage hook-ups with murderous intent.
What it’s really about: Think less Dawn of the Dead meets Robocop, more Paul Blart: Mall Cop meets Short Circuit.
Price: MSRP $39.97 / Current Amazon Price $30.34

If you regularly perused a Blockbuster or loitered at your local mom and pop video shop during the 1980s and ’90s, you’re surely familiar with Vestron Video, the name behind such beloved b-movie fare as Waxwork and C.H.U.D. II. Someone at Lionsgate recently decided to resurrect the Vestron name and give these classics of schlock cinema a 21st-century makeover, and I salute you, sir or madam, whoever you are!

The first of Lionsgate’s hi-def reissues is Chopping Mall, the 1986 sci-fi horror feature directed by Jim Wynorski and produced by Julie Corman. While you may not recall the plot to this film—killer robot security guards go wild and hunt down randy teenagers during a late-night mall romp—you definitely remember the cover art. That chilling severed cybernetic hand is on full display on this new packaging, as is the iconic Vestron Video placard, reimagined for the digital age, before the film’s opening.

This Blu-ray’s 1080P transfer looks spectacular, with only some minor noise/artifacting during its tighter interior shots, and its audio, though still monaural, is just as polished. While the film itself is easily a relic of our lost past—mall culture isn’t really a thing for millennials, and the revelation that a young woman is the crack shot in this group of terrified teens is far less surprising in a modern context—the presentation on this disc is genuinely impressive.

With three supplementary audio commentary tracks plus an isolated track of the score, the film’s one genuine saving grace, there are lots of new ways to experience the film itself. Add to this bonus featurettes with the cast (“Back to the Mall”), composer (“Scoring Chopping Mall”), and editor (“Chopping Chopping Mall”); three separate featurettes focused on the infamous Killbots; an examination of the original script’s “lost scene”; and much, much more and you begin to see this as a true labor of love for a deserving cult classic.

As dated as it is, there was obviously so much care taken to create this definitive Vestron Video collector’s edition that it gives you a newfound sense of respect and admiration for the filmmakers and the fans that have helped keep a decades-old b-movie relevant. If you’re a horror aficionado, an ’80s movie maniac, or simply a die-hard Chopping Mall fan, this Blu-ray is definitely worth your while.

aliens-30th

Aliens 30th Anniversary Edition 

Originally released: July 18, 1986
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton
Rating: This one is R for language, non-stop suspense, and what IMDB aptly describes as “monster violence.” The most objectionable material here is the near-constant barrage of death and destruction. It can get intense, so consider this before sharing it with your younger geeklings.
What it’s about: Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, at her very Ellen Ripley-est, overcomes sexism, grief, and a largely inept squad of Colonial Marines to fistfight an Alien Queen and save the life of a foundling child.
What it’s really about: Paul Reiser is the absolute worst.
Price: MSRP $24.99 / Current Amazon Price $9.96

Whenever talk in my pop culture-obsessed circle of friends turns to the long-held belief that a sequel can never be as good as the series original, Aliens is always my obvious counterpoint. While Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece set the stage in a world full of deep space exploration, sinister symbiotic species, and corrupt corporate machines that will do anything to monetize this “perfect organism,” Aliens builds on all these plot points with a healthy dose of military sci-fi swagger.

Upon waking from a 57-year stasis, Ellen Ripley is visited by no small amount of additional misfortune thanks to the skepticism of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation regarding her harrowing experiences on the Nostromo and (in the included extended version) the news that her elderly daughter died during her years in hypersleep. From there it’s a whirlwind trip back to LV-426 with space marines and Reiser’s cowardly but ambitious Carter Burke in tow.

Along the way, Ripley grapples with her own xenomorph-related PTSD, finds a new daughter, and fights another heartbroken mother in one of the greatest battles in cinematic history.

As I alluded to previously, this 30th-anniversary edition includes both the theatrical cut and the extended edition, the latter of which begins with a word from director James Cameron, but that’s not all. While the on-disc bonuses are largely restricted things like audio commentary and the isolated score, the physical pack-ins inside this handsome slipcase are where this edition really shines. The bonus art booklet and pre-production concept prints are a true treat for Aliens‘ hardiest devotees.

Unlike most of my other selections, Aliens doesn’t feel so dated. Sure, the fact that all this world’s computer tech still relies on monochrome, Pip Boy-esque monitors now seems a tad silly and some of the compositing is a little worse for wear, but the film looks gorgeous in HD and the Dolby TrueHD treatment makes it sound as good as it looks.

blood-diner

Vestron Video Collector’s Series: Blood Diner 

Originally released: July 10, 1987
Starring: No one you’ll recognize
Rating: This edition is unrated, but consider it a hard R for everything from profanity and multiple decapitations to topless aerobics and naked lady kung fu. Seriously, folks, this one is for grown-ups only.
What it’s about: Two misfit brother restaurateurs and the preserved brain of their occultist uncle summon a Lumerian goddess by assembling the first cannibal buffet since 5 million years BC. (That final point is stressed—heavily.)
What it’s really about: Violence against women
Price: MSRP $39.97 / Current Amazon Price $27.99

Look, I’m not about to debate with you the artistic merits of Blood Diner, a film conceived as a sequel (of sorts) to 1963 splatterfest Blood Feast. Nor will I say that the non-stop massacre of nubile young women in various states of undress is intended as anything more than the adolescent titillation of a bygone era. What I will say, however, is that Blood Diner has long been a cult favorite for its laughable plot and b-movie excess. Further, I’ll admit that this Vestron Video collector’s edition gave me a new appreciation for the story behind the story.

Motivated by the sinister urges of their late Uncle Anwar, whose still-conscious brain is exhumed in the film’s first act, brothers Michael and George Tutman carry out an elaborate murder spree from their popular vegetarian restaurant, which culminates in a grisly Lumerian feast designed to resurrect the demon goddess Sheetar. From the slaughter of an entire squad of cheerleaders to a spontaneous cannibal attack at a punk club (that seems to have an oddly high number of doo-wop nights) to a featured wrestling match against a heel known as Little Jimmy Hitler, Blood Diner is a veritable monument to bad taste and the grossest of gross-out humor.

All that said, this Blu-ray really helps to spotlight much of the hard work that went into making this bad movie better than it rightly should’ve been, specifically its deliberate approach to lighting design, oddly rich soundtrack, and the overall DIY aesthetic of its barebones cast and crew. This attention to detail is highlighted in a five-part featurette that gives viewers a long look behind the scenes.

Therein, much praise is heaped upon director Jackie Kong, who, at the time, was an oddity thrice over; being a young woman of color directing horror films made her the consummate Hollywood outsider, but everyone who mentions her name does so in a sort of warm reverence, placing the enduring cult status of Blood Diner squarely on her shoulders.

On the surface, Blood Diner represents some of the worst offenses of ’80s cinema. Its marble-mouthed foreign accents, predominantly nude female cast members, and homophobic jabs at younger brother George Tutman speak volumes about the haughty intolerance of the era. Yet, for all its faults, it’s easy to see why this weird, wild ride of a slasher film has managed to garner so much acclaim in horror circles. Further, just as it’s hard to deny the dedication of Kong and her crew, it’s equally difficult not to marvel at all the work done to restore and supplement the Vestron Video Collector’s Series: Blood Diner Blu-ray.

friday-the-13th-the-series

Friday the 13th: The Series – The Complete Series

Originally aired: October 3, 1987 – May 26, 1990
Starring: Canadian actor/singer/model Robey, John D. LeMay (who was in an actual Friday the 13th film… the worst one), the old man from Children of the Corn as not-so-lovable Uncle Lewis
Rated: Television shows weren’t typically rated in the 1980s, but this series is more thematically creepy than grim or graphic. If your kids are already watching The Walking Dead, this will seem like a cakewalk.
What it’s about: With the help of an elderly magician, two cousins must recover cursed antiques sold as a part of their late Uncle Lewis’ Faustian deal.
What it’s really about: It’s more like Needful Things: The Series.
Price: MSRP $49.98 / Current Amazon Price $25.99

If there were two things that we were positively mad for in the 1980s, it was Odd Couple-style pairings and the Devil. Friday the 13th: The Series managed to combine both—think of it as Perfect Strangers but with creepy dolls, fortune-telling rings, and resurrection pendants—with what were, at the time, fairly decent visual effects for a network television program. This all translated into a perfectly respectable three-season, 72-episode run.

The central conceit of the show, that antique dealer Lewis Vendredi attempted to welsh on his deal with the Devil, only to forfeit his life in the process, made for a great hook. Further, it made the pairing of Robey’s Micki Foster and John D. LeMay’s Ryan Dallion as distant cousins and unknown heirs tasked with recovering Vendredi’s accursed tchotchkes at least somewhat plausible.

Their chief asset in this quest—aside from their stylish ’80s haircuts and youthful pluck—was Jack Marshak, a fellow occult dabbler and former associate of their late uncle. Inevitably, he’s the one with the arcane know-how to locate and/or incapacitate the hoodoo du jour. And sure, Ryan’s exit in the third season seems a little hackneyed, but this is a show in which Adolf Hitler’s boutonnière once turned a dummy into a vengeful killing machine, so clearly we are grading on a curve!

The bottom line, though, is that Friday the 13th: The Series – The Complete Series is still a fun watch, and while this boxed set is a little barebones—it offers the episodes (and some television promos) in their original aspect ratio with no real effort made to gussy them up or pad them with more extravagant extras—it still boasts nearly 55 hours of content. That’s pretty damn impressive in its own right.

In fact, the only thing not to like about this collection is the name. Originally conceived as The 13th Hour, it was rebranded as a ploy to draw in audience members who would mistakenly assume it was somehow related to the popular film franchise of the same name. This was an especially cruel trick to the youth of the day who, like me, often saw it paired in syndication with Freddy’s Nightmares, a legitimate television spin-off that at least included Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger in a Crypt-Keeper-like capacity.

The great tragedy of this? The show could have easily stood on its own merits. Even now, all these years later, it’s enjoyable supernatural hijinks are in no way tarnished by the lack of a certain hulking masked killer.

Review materials provided by: Lionsgate, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, and Paramount Home Entertainment

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