The longer Scream Factory has been in business, the more high profile and “classic” titles they have released, the more they have begun to dig a little deeper for the kinds of catalogue titles and semi-obscurities for which devoted horror fans have been clamoring for years. (Seriously, show me any horror movie and I’ll show you someone who desperately wants it on Blu-ray.) New licensing deals have made new titles possible, including three new releases that have been among the most highly requested movies in Scream Factory’s history. As if there was any doubt, the fact that these three films now have special edition Blu-rays are proof positive that we are living in a golden age of home video.
First up is Brainscan, a 1994 effort in the tradition of Evilspeak, Trick or Treat, and 976-Evil in which a lonely, depressed kid named Michael (Edward Furlong) unlocks the door into a world of horror when a computer game called Brainscan puts him in the body of a serial killer and invites Trickster (T. Ryder Smith) into his life. It doesn’t take long for Michael to figure out that the murders he’s acting out in the game are happening in real life, putting him in the crosshairs of a detective (Frank Langella) and threatening those close to him, including his super ’90s best friend and the neighbor girl on whom he’s crushing. This is why my parents never let us have video games.
Here’s the thing: I want to love Brainscan. I do. It’s exactly the kind of lesser-known offering from an unfairly dismissed period—in this case, the mid-’90s—that I love to champion. It’s directed by the great John Flynn (Rolling Thunder) and written by Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en). It has a lot going for it. At the same time, I’m only every able to enjoy it as a curiosity: an attempt to launch a new horror icon in Trickster and one of a number of ’90s movies to preach the “dangers” of new computer technologies (see also: The Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity, The Net, Disclosure, etc.). There’s nothing about the film that I find especially satisfying, except as a time capsule. Trickster never quite gels as an antagonist, in part because he has no clear connection to the actual game of Brainscan (and wasn’t a part of Walker’s original script, which never featured more than a voice on a telephone) and in part because of his overall design, which is part Sammi Curr, part Star Trek: The Next Generation villain, and part Prince.
The movie doesn’t ever seem sure what it wants to say, as it’s neither a portrait of the “average American teen” playing video games, nor are the events tied into a portrait of loneliness and isolation the way they are in similar movies like Trick or Treat and 976-Evil. Most of all, though, Brainscan always feels small to me, but not in a way that’s intimate or deliberate. Watching Trickster dance around to Primus in a suburban bedroom is never able to be cinematic. It feels more like an episode of Blossom. There are a lot of ideas and a lot of potential in Brainscan, nearly all of it well-intentioned (the character of Trickster, though acted well by T. Ryder Smith, feels somewhat cynical), but it’s not a package that ever comes together for me.
I know the movie has fans who love it, though, and I’m excited that Scream Factory has put it out on Blu-ray. It’s not just for their sake, either; I’m excited to own it even if I don’t love it because of what it represents for ’90s horror and the fact that now we have movies like Brainscan on Blu-ray. The HD transfer of the movie is decent, but where it excels is in the special features. There’s a commentary by Assistant to the Director Tara Georges Flynn, which, while it may seem unusual to have a solo commentary from a director’s assistant, makes a lot of sense because Tara is the late director John Flynn’s son. Not only does he offer insight into the making of Brainscan, but into his father’s life and career as well. Brand new interviews have been conducted with writer Andrew Kevin Walker, composer George S. Clinton (who points out that the filmmakers must have liked his very cool main theme, as it can be heard in the movie a lot), T. Ryder Smith (aka Trickster), and makeup effects artists Steve Johnson, (who is incapable of giving a dull interview), Andy Schoneberg, and Mike Smithson. There’s also a vintage featurette shot during the movie’s production, a single deleted scene, and the usual gallery of promotional materials, including trailers, TV spots, and a still gallery. We can now know more about the production of Brainscan than we ever dreamed possible.
Movie Score: 2.5/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5
Also new to Blu-ray is Rodman Flender’s pregnancy horror movie The Unborn, a 1991 effort from Roger Corman’s Concorde/New Horizons days. Brooke Adams stars as Virginia Marshall, a woman trying to get pregnant, so she and her husband undergo some experimental fertility treatments under the care of a Dr. Meyerling (James Karen). Well, wouldn’t you know the treatments aren’t exactly on the up and up, and though she does get pregnant, there’s something… unusual… about Virginia’s baby and the babies of all the women Meyerling has treated.
A film I’ve been trying to see for a number of years but which has been difficult to come by since the DVD went out of print, The Unborn’s arrival on Blu-ray is a welcome one. More It’s Alive than Rosemary’s Baby (and really it’s more It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive than it is It’s Alive), the movie is wild in the way that only a low-budget Roger Corman production could be. It steadily cranks up the outrageousness until it reaches a climax so insane, so gooey, that the only rationale response is to laugh at the excess of it all. Sure, it’s rooted in the same reproductive anxieties as similar horror films of the late 1960s and ’70s, but with the exploitation elements cranked up to 11.
Rodman Flender, who got his start working for Corman before graduating to studio horror movies like Idle Hands, knows his way around this kind of material; he elevates it with assuredness but never shies away from the crazier elements, resulting in a movie that knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be. Nowadays, a movie like this would be made super independently for under $500,000; if nothing else, The Unborn is a fond reminder of a time when this kind of horror film could be made with stars and enough of a budget—even a Roger Corman budget—to realize the crazier aspects of the script.
Unlike Brainscan, The Unborn has been given a new 2K scan from the original elements, meaning it looks better than it ever has on this Blu-ray. Also unlike Brainscan, though, it hasn’t been given many special features. The only supplemental inclusion is a commentary from Rodman Flender and filmmaker Adam Simon, who came up through the Corman ranks with Flender, and their conversation is as good if not better than the movie. Their shared history, their love of the genre, their stories about the Corman days, and their abilities as conversationalists all make this an incredibly enjoyable and informative commentary, one I can easily see revisiting.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 3/5
Finally, and another in a long line of home video miracles Scream Factory has worked in recent years, is an official Blu-ray release of 1988’s Return of the Living Dead Part II. The previous commercially available DVD version of the movie was plagued by incorrect cropping and music that was either changed or removed altogether, so Scream Factory has seen to it that these issues have been corrected and the movie restored to its original theatrical presentation. This is great news, even if the movie remains my least favorite of the first three Return of the Living Dead titles (and, to be fair, the only three I’ve seen). Return of the Living Dead Part II isn't so much a sequel as it is a remake of Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead, which itself wasn't really a sequel to George A. Romero's “Living Dead trilogy,” but rather an ’80s-era offshoot of those zombie classics. The Return of the Living Dead was anarchic and subversive, infused with O'Bannon's devilish spirit and an infectious sense of fun. The sequel plays like the work of someone who saw O'Bannon's film and wanted to recreate it without having the first clue as to how to go about doing it.
The movie provides business as usual for the series, giving us a couple of canisters of green gas that somehow wind up busted, releasing the toxin over a cemetery and resurrecting the dead, who then go about seeking the brains of the living for sustenance. Thom Matthews and James Karen are back playing totally different characters, this time portraying grave robbers who are once again dosed with Trioxin and spend the rest of the movie turning into the living dead (and who, in one of the film’s ideas of a clever meta joke, reference the “same thing happening to the same guys twice” of their casting). The only real change to Part II is that it takes place in suburbia, which you would think would provide the film with endless opportunities for both comedy and satire. That’s not exactly accurate.
There's a deliberate attempt in Part II to go much broader with the humor, which means we get dismembered heads talking in funny voices and zombies (who, as a result of the film's lack of imagination, owe a great deal to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video) pausing to watch an exercise tape. Don't confuse the latter sequence with the kind of savage satire found in Romero's Dawn of the Dead; Return of the Living Dead Part II is less interested in social statements than it is in lame gags. This comes despite the fact that the movie's director, Ken Weiderhorn (Shock Waves), makes mention on the disc's commentary that he believes audiences find the mixing of comedy and horror to be the kiss of death for a film. He's quite wrong, of course, as the genre is full of beloved horror comedies with rabid fanbases. Weiderhorn's problem isn't that he mixes comedy and horror, it's that, for me, he does both unsuccessfully.
While I find the film frustrating but somewhat endearing in its goofiness, I’m thrilled to have a proper Blu-ray of it—in particular one as fully loaded as this one. Scream Factory has created a new 2K HD scan and included not one, not two, but three commentary tracks: the first featuring star Suzanne Snyder, the second with filmmaker Christopher Griffiths and author Gary Smart (who contributed a commentary to Scream Factory’s release of the original RotLD as well), and the third ported over from the original DVD featuring a fairly grouchy Weiderhorn and co-star Thor Van Lingen all grown up. The differences in the way both men view the movie are very illuminating and paint an interesting picture of where Return of the Living Dead Part II succeeds and comes up short. Weiderhorn also sits down for a new interview on the disc where he seems a little warmer overall, talking about his career and the challenges of making the film, but still trying to suggest that the movie’s mix of horror and comedy is what doomed its legacy, apparently discounting the fact that the original Return of the Living Dead is also a horror comedy and is beloved. Also interviewed are composer J. Peter Robinson, actor Troy Fromin (who has a tiny role in the film and is probably better known for his recurring role as Ox on Saved by the Bell), whose interview is very brief and possibly unnecessary, and make-up effects creators Kenny Myers, Andy Schoneberg, and Mike Smithson. There’s way more, too: archival behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, the retrospective documentary featurette “They Won’t Stay Dead,” trailers, TV spots, production stills, and a gallery of promotional stills used to sell the film. Scream Factory went all out for this one.
The care that went into bringing RotLD Part II to Blu-ray has actually increased my affection for the movie because it puts a human face on the production: these were all people who tried and struggled to make a good movie, and though it’s not among my favorites of ’80s horror, it’s not for lack of trying. Besides, it’s a movie with a huge fanbase, all of whom deserve a special edition disc as loaded with cool stuff as this one is. What could have become a forgotten ’80s sequel has been rescued and promoted to cult classic status courtesy of Scream Factory—just one of many reasons we’re lucky to have them.
Movie Score: 2.5/5, Disc Score: 4/5