by Bill Hawk

In the spirit of Halloween, here are some picks that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

Columbia, 2004, Color, 122 mins.- Columbia DVD

John Hurt: "There are things that go bump in the night, agent Myers, make no mistake about that. And we are the ones who bump back."

And when you're doing your bumping, it helps to have somebody like Ron Perlman's Hellboy character on your side- a big, powerful guy who has a sweet tooth and a soft spot for cats……and who has bright red skin, a set of horns and a tail. This demonic fellow winds up in our dimension due to a Nazi plot which isn't in the history books- an attempt to use the dreaded Seven Gods Of Chaos as a doomsday weapon. The baddies, led by that infamous no-goodnik Rasputin, his Aryan girlfriend, and a supernatural assassin with a face that not even a mother could love, are foiled by the U.S. Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. But six decades later, the bad guys are back for another try, and the BPRD team- which includes Perlman, occult expert Hurt, rookie FBI agent Rupert Evans, troubled pyrokinetic Selma Blair, and an amphibious humanoid psychic voiced by David Hyde Pierce- have to prevent some heavy apocalyptic partying by the Lovecraftian horrors from beyond.

This adaptation of Mike Mignola's popular comic character was co-written and directed by genre craftsman Guillermo Del Toro, and his enthusiasm for the material shines through every frame of this quirky and humorous picture. While it doesn't stint on action, the focus is on the characters, which is why Perlman- an old hand at playing under heavy makeups- is such a good choice for the lead. His Hellboy is believable in the (admittedly wacky) context of the film, a loner-by-necessity who wisecracks his way through his monster-bashing job, pining for his old pal Blair- who is conflicted about the big red guy, to say the least. Ultimately, Perlman faces one of your classic comic book-style Destiny Versus Free Will decisions, and while it's not terribly original, it is entertaining. The direction and performances are augmented by some nice production values, and if you'd like to see a different take on a comic book superhero, you should check this one out. Extras on the two-disc set include audio commentaries and a more-than-generous amount of documentary material.

Touchstone, 1993, Color, 76 mins.- Touchstone Special Edition DVD

Chris Sarandon: "There's got to be a logical way to explain this Christmas thing."

Maybe, but it's problematic when you're dealing with the inhabitants of Halloween Town, one of the magical Holiday Worlds whose dedicated residents work for yearly shots at Earthly glory. When master Halloween planner Jack Skellington- a rather bony chap (voiced by Sarandon) who's feeling burned-out in his job- accidentally stumbles onto Christmas Town, he decides to hijack that little holiday for himself. And he enlists the aid of his ghoulish cohorts, who kidnap Santa Claus, make presents, fashion a coffin-based sleigh and some skeletal flying reindeer, and generally whip up some Christmas spirit which is……well, let's just say that it's a bit off. Jack's rag doll-ish pal Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Hara) sees the potential for disaster, but she is unable to prevent the ersatz Santa from taking to the skies. And when he does, he makes a holiday that no one will ever forget……

This weird and wonderful film is truly unique, as it was created via the painstaking process of stop-motion animation on a studio-sized budget- something which had never been done before and most likely will never be done again. Utilizing puppet characters and miniature sets, the movie presents a meticulously-designed, impeccably-crafted world of its own, with a macabre but light sensibility that can be enjoyed by young and old alike. Fans will recognize the touch of creator Tim Burton in the story and characters, but director Henry Selick really brings the story to life with an unprecedented amount of camera movement and some striking compositions and effects. It's also a musical, courtesy of Burton's frequent collaborator Danny Elfman, who provides Jack's singing voice. The songs are a mixed bag, but there are so many other things to hold your attention that it doesn't matter. Simply put, this is a fun picture and a genuine work of art- highly recommended for All Hallow's Eve or any other time that you want to tickle your sense of wonder. There are a wealth of extras on the disc, including a documentary, audio commentary by Selick, animation tests, concept art, and two early short films from Burton.

MGM, 1985, Color, 91 mins.- MGM DVD

Clu Gallagher: "Get me the bone saw."

Well, when that's the solution, you don't even want to know what the problem is……unless you're a fan of gory horror comedies, that is. You see, it turns out that "Night Of The Living Dead" was loosely based on a true event, and now some missing samples of the chemical that caused the re-animating mischief are in a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, just waiting for some fools to poke at them and cause a leak. The fools in question, old hand James Karen and new kid Thom Matthews, get a dose of the stuff- as does a cadaver in their freezer, with the expected results. Their boss Gallagher decides to enlist the aid of his old embalmer pal Don Calfa, who has access to a crematorium that can destroy the zombified evidence- but nobody thinks about the emissions from the smokestack, which get into some rain clouds, which soak the nearby cemetery and- well, you can guess what happens then. The hapless guys in the mortuary are joined by some of Matthews' pals in a desperate struggle against the undead, who are after one thing- nice, fresh, living brains……

This low-budget favorite spawned two sequels (with more in the works) and spurred countless quotations of the zombies' calls for "Brains!" Unlike the shambling zombies in "Night," the living dead in this picture can move quickly, and are capable of reasoning and speaking- which makes things a lot worse for the humans facing them, who aren't exactly the sharpest tools in the shed. Seeing the (living) characters freak out as things go from bad to worse is probably the funniest thing in the movie, but writer/director Dan O'Bannon keeps your sympathies with them- not an easy task, considering that the kids in this film sport a scary "Eighties look" that might have you rooting for the zombies. It's all part of the fun, of course, along with the goofy music and the gratuitous nudity and the gruesome makeup effects. If you're looking for discs to run during your Halloween party, this is a good candidate. Extras include audio commentary by O'Bannon and production designer William Stout, and a making-of featurette.

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© Melt Magazine 2004