I Ain't Afraid Of No Ghosts

Halloween may be just over two short months away, but Scream Factory and the Criterion Collection have already pierced the late-summer heat with two of the creepiest, chilliest ghost stories ever— John Carpenter’s low-budget supernatural yarn The Fog and Guillermo Del Toro’s art-house fable The Devil’s Backbone, both recently released on Blu-Ray with strong video/audio quality and myriad special features.

 2001’s The Devil’s Backbone came at a tough time for Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim), a director who tempers even the broadest subjects — ranging from cigar-chomping demons to skyscraper-sized robots battling equally large monsters — with great humanity. Del Toro had just seen his latest project, 1997’s Mimic, cut to shreds by Dimension Films (a recent Blu-Ray release from Lionsgate has reinstated something closer to his vision) and turned to a story he could tell without any interference or compromise. With the help of Spanish filmmaking legend Pedro Almodóvar (and his brother Agustín), he found himself insulated from interference and was able to craft a moody tale of an young orphan confronted by the ghost of a child, rumored to have been killed by an unexploded bomb, at the tail end of the Spanish Civil War. The story emphasizes mood over terror and, despite its wartime setting, it is surprisingly calm, the better to play up the quiet fear Carlos (Fernando Tielve) feels when experiencing the sad ghost of Santí (Junio Valverde), whose cracked, porcelain visage is, in typical Del Toro fashion, an indelible and original image.


The Devil’s Backbone has been released on DVD and Blu-Ray as part of The Criterion Collection (joining Del Toro’s first film, 1993’s vampire tale Cronos) in a gorgeous special edition with a 2K digital film restoration emphasizing the film’s blue-and-gold color palette. Extras include an audio commentary with Del Toro — who claims this is by far his most personal film — deleted scenes, new and archival interviews with Del Toro, an interactive director’s notebook which contains his sketches and drawings, the 2004 making-of documentary ¿Que es un fantasma?, and an interview with scholar Sebastiaan Faber talking about the film’s depiction of the Spanish Civil War.


Equally eerie but more conventionally frightening, John Carpenter’s 1980 town-with-a-secret tale The Fog was the director’s follow-up to the incredible success of 1978’s Halloween. But, as Carpenter says in his commentary (recycled from the Image laserdisc and MGM DVD) with his late producing partner, Debra Hill, he found that, after cutting the film together, it just wasn’t scary and, with a month to go before its release, reshot scenes, added some gorier moments, recut the whole thing and redid the entire soundtrack. The last minute result? A classic exercise in atmospheric horror suffused with the sort of palpable dread completely missing from the unnecessary 2005 remake.


In the isolated coastal Northern California town of Antonio Bay crusty old sea salt John Houseman (whose cameo was added in the reshoots) tells a group of children a haunted story of betrayal. As Antonio Bay is about to celebrate its centennial, odd phenomena plagues the town. Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) finds an old journal which belonged to his grandfather and learns that his family was complicit with the five other founders of the town to turn against one Captain Blake, a leper seeking shelter whose clipper ship was deliberately sunk and his gold stolen. As a group of travelers (ranging from genre stalwart Tom Atkins to Jamie Lee Curtis and her mother, Janet Leigh) enter the town, a terrible fog sneaks in— and it’s up to DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau, later Carpenter’s wife), isolated in a lighthouse, to try and alert the residents of Antonio Bay before Blake and his undead crew come after them. It’s a simple story, but one rich in mood and texture, thanks in part to Dean Cundey’s cinematography, which makes the luminous fog itself into a character, and Carpenter’s relentless synthesizer score.


Scream Factory’s Blu-Ray showcases a new hi-def transfer struck under the supervision of Dean Cundey which looks the best the film ever has. A solid DTS-HD MA audio track is included along with the original mono mix and is appropriately thunderous when necessary. The film is jam-packed with special features, including the previously-released audio commentary with John Carpenter and Debra Hill; a new commentary featuring Adrienne Barbeau, Tom Atkins and production designer (and Halloween III: Season Of The Witch director) Tommy Lee Wallace; archival featurettes from the old MGM DVD; a new interview with Dean Cundey; a “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” segment detailing the Northern California locations where the film was shot; and, best of all, a new twenty-minute interview with Jamie Lee Curtis where she candidly details her past career as a “scream queen” and her relationship with one-time couple Carpenter and Hill. Don’t forget to look for an “Easter Egg” on the Special Features screen— a minute-long promo for the film’s television premiere on ABC — which is just the icing on the cake for this stellar release.


Two years later, Adrienne Barbeau — a one-time sitcom actress (TV’s “Maude”) settling into a career in genre films — co-stared in Swamp Thing, Wes Craven’s adaptation of the Len Wein DC comic book. It’s obvious that there wasn’t nearly the budget required to bring the effective but small-scale story to bombastic life; the fact that Craven was able to bring as much as he did to the screen is a testament to his skills, craftiness and perseverance. A young Ray Wise plays Dr. Alec Holland who, after being attacked by unscrupulous rival Arcane (a hammy Louis Jourdan), is doused with the regenerative formula he’s developed and set ablaze— only to emerge from the marshes as the half-man, half-plant Swamp Thing (stuntman Dick Durock, who’d later reprise the role in the dreadful Return Of The Swamp Thing and subsequent early ‘90s TV series). The story is a simple “Beauty And The Beast” tale and Craven, while emphasizing the romantic angle between Barbeau and Holland/Swamp Thing, still hearkens back to his horror roots with the monster-mash finale and the use of grindhouse character actors David (Last House On The Left) Hess and Nicholas (Don’t Answer The Phone, Darkman) Worth as Arcane’s goons. It’s certain that we’ll see a Swamp Thing remake at some point in the future, but it’s unlikely to be as scrappy and fun as this one.


Scream Factory’s Blu-Ray/DVD combo release of Swamp Thing improves upon the old MGM DVD immeasurably, with a good high-def transfer (the MGM disc was non-anamorphic widescreen) that, while far from demo material, reproduces the grainy, low-budget look of the original prints. Note that Scream/Shout Factory has rights to only the American theatrical release of the film; a European cut containing a few minutes of superfluous nudity (which, despite being titillating, seems out of place in this youth-oriented film) was accidentally used in early pressings of the MGM disc. Special features include an audio commentary with the always-genial Wes Craven, who doesn’t pull any punches about the difficulty of the South Carolina shoot, a commentary with makeup effects artist William Munn and on-camera interviews with Adrienne Barbeau, former kid actor Reggie Batts and Swamp Thing creator Len Wein, along with a photo gallery and the theatrical trailer.

You can purchase The Devil’s Backbone from Amazon.

You can purchase The Fog directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

You can purchase Swamp Thing directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

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