Psychos, Witches, Lotsa Creepy Things: A Decade of Horror on Blu-ray
In just a few short months, a new restoration of Dario Argento’s surreal, witchy masterwork Suspiria will be hitting Blu-ray from boutique label Synapse Films, and both devotees to the film and general horror-movie lovers alike have generated a lot of anticipation around it. There are a few different components involved in building up this enthusiasm: on top of the film’s stature in the genre, this Blu-ray marks the fruition of hints, rights’ ownership discussions, frustration over iffy foreign-region releases, and several years of restoration efforts. There’s another overarching reason for this that might not be openly discussed, though, and it comes down to the fact that after over a decade of high-definition physical media and the careful, refined attention poured into most of those presentations, there simply aren’t nearly as many gasp-worthy new releases (or re-releases) to get worked up over.
Perhaps that comes across on a grim note, but with all that time spent with the Blu-ray format, the movie-lovin’ community also has easy access to a trove of films both old and new that not only look and sound vastly superior, but also have plentiful special features to dissect. Below, you’ll find a collection of some of the very best overall horror-film packages — film quality, audiovisual refinement, extra content — that the format has produced over its revolutionary life cycle, ranging from beloved slasher flicks to contemporary arthouse successes and noteworthy classics everyone should probably own. And if you play your cards right, just about all of ’em can be had for less than $20 a pop.
Alien: 35th Anniversary Edition
Seven crew members aboard the commercial spaceship Nostromo are awakened from their stasis-sleep return voyage to Earth, so that they can respond — as stipulated in their employment contracts — to a warning beacon on a nearby planet. Reluctantly, they arrive on the planet and trace the signal, only to discover the corpse of an alien being. Further exploration and less-than-intelligent investigation creates chaos that leads the crew back to their ship, bringing back some of the alien remnants with them aboard the ship. With renowned sci-fi heroine Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) frantically calling the shots, Alien morphs into a relentless and faultlessly-paced exercise in dread, meticulously crafted by director Ridley Scott to immerse the audience in stylized claustrophobia and the nastiness of H.R. Giger’s creature design. Debates may emerge over preferred cuts and the accuracy of the color timing, but the Blu-ray that Fox produced — pictured: the standalone re-release for the 35th anniversary; the same disc can be found in the many iterations of the Alien Anthology — includes both cuts, a fierce 4K remaster, impeccable hi-def sound, and heaps of substantive extras.
Black Christmas: Collector’s Edition
Directed by the same guy responsible for A Christmas Story and arriving several years before Michael Myers took a stab at ruining Halloween, this one takes place mostly in the space of a sorority house, where a warped individual routinely pesters the sisters with obscene phone calls. Amid getting ready for Christmas and a relationship rift between sorority member Jess (Olivia Hussey) and her boyfriend Peter (Kier Dullea), a creepy individual — who isn’t shown to the audience, depicted through eerie first-person photography — makes their way into the sorority house and begins knocking off the sisters one by one from the shadows. Bob Clark’s shrewd execution of oscillating sights and abrasive sounds clashes with the vibrant atmosphere of Christmas in the best of ways, building to a phenomenally chaotic scramble to discover the deviant’s identity before he gets to Jess and the other sisters. Shout Factory took a second stab at a Blu-ray for Black Christmas (and then a third to fix an audio issue), and the result is a delightful treatment that captures the film’s intended look, while occupying space with plenty of old and new extras to unwrap.
Black Sunday: Remastered Edition
Two centuries after a beautiful, yet ominous witch (Barbara Steele) gets burned at the stake and violently buried in a graveyard, an accident involving a doctor and his assistant leads her body to be again exposed to the world, and even further happenstance causes her to be revived. Those responsible for her awakening soon encounter Katia, the spitting image of the centuries-old witch, whose radiance leads the medical professionals to follow her back to her family household. What transpires in Black Sunday gravitates around mysteries unknown to those visiting the house and only half-known by the audience, full of red herrings, ominous tension, and the uniqueness of the centuries-old undead woman as a hybrid of a demonic witch and a type of vampire. An ode to Russian folklore and gloomy monster movies of the ‘30s, Mario Bava’s first accredited effort as a director adeptly blends shadowy expressionist cinematography with enigmatic, macabre suspense. Black Sunday looks striking on Blu-ray from Kino, and arrives with a commentary track that’s held its prestige over the years.
Black Swan: Blu-ray + Digital HD
The versatility of Darren Aronofsky’s directorial style left people somewhat uncertain of where he’d go with Black Swan, his glimpse into the world of ballet framed as a form of psychological thriller. As the tale of Nina’s (Natalie Portman) preparation to play the lead role(s) in “Swan Lake” being to take shape, evoking Dario Argento’s stylized ornateness within the natural flow of verite-like cinematography, it transforms into a glimpse at the strained mentality of artists as they push themselves for their craft. Metaphor swirls together with paranoia and supernatural ambiguity during the film’s gradual descent into a determination of what’s real and not around Nina, and the suspense generated around her approach to the performance becomes a breathtaking piece of filmmaking. Fox’s Blu-ray stays en pointe in capturing the subtleties of the cinematography and sound design, and presents an in-depth, 45-minute extra that explores the conceptualization and creation of Aronofsky’s award-winning project.
Halloween: 35th Anniversary Edition
Legendary serial killer Michael Myers escapes from his mental institution fifteen years after being committed as a child, returning to his hometown of Haddonfield to unleash a decade-and-a-half of bottled-up violence upon the young townspeople. Naturally, after some daytime stalking and a mounting bodycount, the events of John Carpenter’s seminal slasher film culminate in the late darkness of Halloween, placing Jamie Lee Curtis front-and-center as the now-archetypal horror heroine evading the masked murderer on a psychosis-driven mission. Halloween was one of the central horror films that Anchor Bay took stab after stab at over the years in pursuit of a correct home-video presentation, and they finally landed that blow with their 35th Anniversary release, with a transfer supervised by the cinematographer and extras that include a fine director-actress commentary and a nearly hour-long portrait of Jamie Lee Curtis’ reattachment to the franchise.
Pan’s Labyrinth: The Criterion Collection
Set in the mid-‘40s after the Spanish Civil War, this dark fantasy from Guillermo del Toro becomes a character portrait of young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), who travels with her pregnant mother to the residence of the military captain, Vidal (Sergi Lopez), who will become her step-father. As Vidal unleashes brutality upon rebels to the state and her mother’s condition worsens, Ofelia discovers a labyrinth on her new home’s grounds, where she discovers and abides by the demands of a mythical faun to prove that she’s the reincarnation of a fabled princess. As the story’s twists and turns parallel with the events and characterizations of an ancient fairytale, Pan’s Labyrinth toes the line between horror and fantasy storytelling, where subtle morbidities and the evils of humanity delve into unsettlingly meaningful, gorgeously realized sequences. After a lackluster initial release plagued with noise reduction, The Criterion Collection eventually scooped up del Toro’s monumental accomplishment and dropped it in their collection, sporting exceptionally natural audiovisual merits and the label’s signature array of interview-heavy extras.
Psycho: UK’s 50th Anniversary Blu-ray
A woman (Janet Leigh) on the run with a trunk full of cash rolls up to a shadowy motel in the middle of the night, after which she meets Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), the operator of the establishment. An eerie sort of insistent kindness comes from the manager’s mannerisms around his beautiful guest, to which the mood slowly drains toward one of cinema’s most strategically-executed murder sequences, iconic in both visual and sonic presentation. Gloomy character studies move from one subject to another in Alfred Hitchcock’s meticulous hands, playing with madness in different degrees alongside the mounting suspense both before and after this scene that’s become a pop-culture staple. Even with all those monsters tucked underneath Universal’s belt, Psycho remains arguably the most iconic horror film to come out of the studio, and it received the treatment it deserved upon its 50th anniversary with an astounding black-and-white Blu-ray restoration and a tremendous collection of legacy extras, including a feature-length making-of doc. Purists will want to obtain Universal’s region-free UK Blu-ray, which, unlike the US release, contains the original 2-channel soundtrack in full HD glory.
Rosemary’s Baby: The Criterion Collection
Having a child can be a terrifying experience for a potential mother, both on physical and mental levels, but that’s taken to an entirely different level with the turmoil endured by Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow). Loneliness, paranoia, and physical degradation seem intentionally thrust upon the young mother as she adjusts to a new apartment, to which the truth of her new home gradually emerges from the woodwork as Roman Polanski’s tense, atmospheric psychological thriller takes shape. A brilliant horror film both due to its unyielding mood and its shrewd allegory tied to the complications of pregnancy, it’s no wonder that Rosemary’s Baby was adopted by the fine folks at The Criterion Collection, nor is it a surprise that the Blu-ray comes equipped with a bewitching remaster and a phenomenal 45-minute documentary on the film’s conception.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining
To get a little peace, quiet, and solitude so he can concentrate on writing, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as an off-season caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, bringing his wife (Shelley Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd) to live there in the absence of guests. Warnings that he might develop cabin fever, similarly to another employee who went crazy and killed his family there, don’t faze Jack as they get settled into their echoic lodgings. Before long, the impacts of living in such seclusion — along with Jack’s latent alcoholism and Danny’s issues with an imaginary friend — slowly encroach on their psychological integrity, descending into haunting occurrences in the building’s spaces that blur the line between hallucination and the paranormal. Polarizing at release, disliked by the original story’s author (Stephen King) and even receiving a Razzie nomination as the worst film of its year, a reevaluation of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has, of course, led to its foreboding atmosphere and Nicholson’s embodiment of mania to be regarded as a genre masterwork. WB’s Blu-ray finally presents the film in its theatrically-screened aspect ratio (essentially, at 1.78:1) and in fine form, too, along with divine extras that pedal the viewer into Kubrick’s mind.
The Thing: Collector’s Edition
Really didn’t want to include two films from the same director on this list, just for variety’s sake, but the compulsion to include Shout Factory’s package of John Carpenter’s The Thing overwhelmed that desire. Isolation at a Norwegian arctic research station leads to the discovery of an alien being that can perfectly copy other humans, sending it on a rampage while continuously replicating person after person, inciting paranoia about whether one of the remaining occupants might actually be the monster. The claustrophobic setting ripe for chaos, the splendid practical effects involving the twisted monster, and the rough-hewn nature of Kurt Russell’s MacReady crystallize into relentless, convincing sci-fi suspense with personality and gusto. The Thing has endured countless home-video releases over the years with consistent objections to quality, which made the 2K scan presented on Blu-ray from Shout Factory such an eye-opening delight, breathing new and accurate life into the film alongside a frightening amount of supplemental material.
Honorable Mention: Universal’s Monsters
Lugosi as The Dark Prince. Karloff as The Gentle Monster and Imhotep. Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man. From the early ‘30s to the early ‘40s, Universal embraced the transition from silent films to talkies with a slew of horror adaptations of classic novels and familiar folklore, embracing slow-building eeriness amid the heavy shadows, wispy fog, and windswept landscapes created on the studio’s stages. Each of these productions spawned franchises full of sequels and spinoffs, yet it’s the original collection of films that established the consistent tonality and distinctive personalities that would influence countless horror films for decades … and still impacts them to this day. Most of the original crop still holds up to this day as genuine exercises of horror, yet they all sink their teeth into a daring sort of thrilling entertainment value that lends itself brilliantly to audiences of all ages, especially over Halloween. There are several options available to those who want to get their mitts on Universal’s dazzling restorations of the films on Blu-ray, but perhaps the most cost-efficient comes in obtaining the studio’s UK release, if accordion-style packaging and age rating labels aren’t a bother.