Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
To casual horror movie fans, John Carpenter's name is synonymous with one broadly recognized classic: Halloween, the seminal 1978 slasher movie that brought the white-masked killer Michael Myers and Carpenter's self-composed, and now-ubiquitous, score. Action film heads, meanwhile, should know Carpenter for 1981's Escape from New York, and science fiction junkies undoubtedly hold the writer-director on a high pedestal for The Thing, Carpenter's gory practical effects showcase from 1982 starring his Escape from New York leading man Kurt Russell. But how many cinema buffs harbor a strong appreciation for Carpenter thanks to They Live, his 1988 dark sci-fi satire of Reagan-era societal practices and fears led by WWF star turned unlikely action hero "Rowdy" Roddy Piper?
For many in-the-know folks, They Live ranks as Carpenter's most underrated film, if not his all-time best. The affinity can be largely credited to Piper's spot-on performance as blue-collar drifter John Nada, who discovers a box full of special sunglasses that expose aliens living amongst Earthlings, as well as their many subliminal messages, when worn. The film has plenty of action, gunplay, and even a seemingly endless, but nonetheless amazing, hand-to-hand fight sequence between Piper and co-star Keith David, yet They Live's magic really comes from Piper's hilarious, truly unique one-liners, which he directs toward flesh-concealed aliens he sees through the glasses. There's the immortal line, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… And I'm all out of bubblegum," said while holding a shotgun in a crowded bank. Or, "Your face looks like it fell in cheese dip back in 1957." Both singularly funny, as well as equally brilliant.
Of all the films in Carpenter's catalog, They Live isn't the most obvious candidate for a loaded special edition DVD/Blu-ray re-release—that is, unless you're talking about the tastes of Scream Factory, the new 1970s/1980s horror and science fiction offshoot from home video company Shout Factory. Since the label's initial announcement in June, Scream Factory has released five jam-packed discs, all in collector's edition forms received with loud enthusiasm by genre movie lovers: Halloween II (1981), Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), Terror Train (1980), The Funhouse (1981, from The Texas Chainsaw Masssacre director Tobe Hooper), and the aforementioned They Live (which hits retail outlets and online vendors today). And Scream Factory's tireless hustle shows no signs of slowing down. If all goes as planned, the company will start releasing two to three products a month starting in February.
Which, of course, is great news for the insatiable horror community, a tightly knit and intensely passionate sect of collectors and feverish fanatics who regularly flock to conventions to find rare, obscure movies either in VHS import or DVD forms. Scream Factory, however, is all about making those collecting needs much easier to satisfy. The idea to segment horror and sci-fi flicks into one hub happened organically. "Shout Factory had put out other horror films before, like Kingdom of the Spiders and The Stepfather," says Jeff Nelson, the company's director of marketing, "but when it came time to get the Halloween's and the Terror Train's, Cliff and I worked together, discussed it, and thought that it would be much more of an advantage for us and for consumers to put it into one brand, as opposed to just releasing them separately without something to connect them. The horror and sci-fi world is really a tight community, and they're very focused online. So putting something in one Scream Factory brand, we thought that would be great for them to come together. We're already seeing on forums and message boards a bunch of Scream Factory posts and Scream Factory threads.
It's easy to see why. In addition to re-packaging older genre flicks like Wes Craven's overlooked 1981 supernatural oddity Deadly Blessing in newly restored high-definition transfers, the Scream Factory team is pulling out all the stops in order to cram as many appealing special features onto each release as possible. They Live, for example, features an all-new sit-down interview with the usually elusive John Carpenter, whose frank, no-bullshit candor makes for a very entertaining and informative dissection of the film. Seeing Carpenter casually respond to a question about whether he wishes he would have shortened that nearly 10-minute smack-down between Piper and David with, simply, "Fuck, no"? Priceless stuff.
Getting Carpenter to discuss They Live came after failed efforts to get the now-64-year-old filmmaker to participate in preceding Scream Factory releases. "It was unfortunate that on Halloween II and Halloween III John Carpenter didn't want to talk about them," says Cliff MacMillan, Scream Factory's main DVD/Blu-ray producer and acquisitions guy, who's chiefly responsible for tracking down movies and assembling the special features. "He said, 'I didn't direct those movies, so I don't want to talk about them.' You wish you could include him, and you hear the fans talking about, 'Why isn't John Carpenter talking about it anywhere in the special features?' He just didn't want to talk about it, and we had respect his wishes. With They Live, though, he directed it, and it's one of his personal favorite movies, so it was much easier to get him on board for that."
Rejection of that kind is nothing new for MacMillan. As the brains behind Shout Factory's first foray into genre cinema restoration, the company's popular Roger Corman's Cult Classics line (which re-issued niche classics like the original Piranha and the nicely titled Humanoids from the Deep), MacMillan—a lifelong horror movie aficionado—has developed a very thick skin. "The job, in a lot of cases, may seem like it's fun, and, in a lot of ways, it is fun, but it's also a lot of pressure," he says. "Working on the Roger Corman collection was enough to give me a heart attack, just because the films hadn't been taken care of over the years, so we were scrounging and trying to find movies where we wouldn't run into the problem of the audio not syncing to the film. You spend ridiculous amounts of time in a studio trying to fix those problems. It's exciting, at the end of the day, to finally see these cool movies get re-released, but you remember all of the problems you had to maneuver to make that happen."
In terms of Scream Factory's efforts, specifically, they've been met with both straightforward resistance and roadblocks beyond their control. When putting together the features for Halloween II, for example, the film's star, and the franchise's iconic heroine, Jamie Lee Curtis flatly refused to give an interview. "People don't understand why she didn't participate in our release of Halloween II, but she just didn't want to talk about it," says MacMillan. "In a lot of ways, she doesn't really want to look at her horror career anymore. She's talked about it a million times, and you just have to respect her wishes and move on and get the people that you can."
On the flipside, there's The Island, a dark, fascinating 1980 thriller, adapted from Jaws author Peter Benchley's 1979 novel of the same name, about a journalist (played by Michael Caine) investigating an isolated Caribbean land mass on which a legion of homicidal, primitive pirates conduct their evil business. MacMillan and company hoped to create a collector's edition for the film, but both its director (Michael Ritchie) and screenwriter (Benchley) are deceased. "That's always one of the hardest things," says MacMillan. "You want to create a big special edition, but if you don't have any of the people around to talk or you have people who don't want to talk about the film, that really affects whether it's going to be a collector's edition or not."
"It really comes down to those studios that are willing to sub-license content," says MacMillan. "There are a lot of titles that you can find from independent producers, but on the whole, you have to work with the major studios. Shout Factory has worked with all the studios, but some just don't want to sub-license titles out of their library. We know that if it's a Warner Bros. or a New Line film, there's no way that we're getting it, because they won't sub-license content because they have their web sites and platforms they want to continue to feed. So then you find the studios that will be willing to work with you and sub-license content, and from there you make your list and present it to the studio and cross your fingers. You just make your list up and hope and pray that you come away with some winners."
And that's before Shout Factory's own higher-ups have to approve each proposed release, leaving the most important part of the decision-making process up to far less devoted and learned folks who've probably never even heard of films like The Nest (1988) or The Video Dead (1987)—both of which are coming from Scream Factory in 2013. "Sometimes you're pitching a title to the group and they're staring at you like you're speaking a foreign language," says MacMillan. "They're not movies that people know unless you're a big horror fan or you're somebody who was a hardcore VHS rental person in the '80s. Some are more challenging, but you just have to prove that there is a following. That's why you see a bunch of bigger titles and then some smaller titles, like The Nest. We want to try some of those titles and see if they connect, but fiscally sometimes it's difficult to get them approved and released."
As a huge fan of the genre himself, it's not easy for MacMillan to ignore beloved movies with small yet loyal fan-bases. "There are a lot of fans who say, Why aren't you releasing this?' or, 'Why aren't you releasing that?,'" he says. "A lot of the smaller films are tough to release because it's such a small audience that is fans of it. We put out titles all the time and expect that there are going to be audiences for them, but they just don't click. So the smaller films are much harder to not only get internally approved, but they just don't make much financial sense. If you're going to sell 200 copies and the fans are expecting a brand high-definition transfer and tons of extras, then if you sell 200 units of that release, you're going to be in the hole and you won't stay in business very long."
With They Live, however, MacMillan and Nelson feel an immense sense of pride. "They Live seems like it's going to be a very successful release for us," says Nelson. "But aside from myself, Cliff, and a sprinkling of Shout Factory co-workers who know the film but aren't on that higher internal level, it wasn't the most recognized movie we've ever presented. It's been getting a lot of buzz, and we're having some really strong pre-orders. So that one feels like a victory. It took a lot to get it approved internally, but the response so far has justified our efforts in pushing for it. There are lots of films that Cliff has brought in and I've gotten excited for, but he'll bring them up in acquisitions meetings and by the end of the meeting, we're looking at each other and saying, 'OK, well, we didn't win that one.'"
So far, the genre community has been vocally and monetarily appreciative of MacMillan's and Nelson's fan-motivated efforts. Scream Factory's core demographic consists of males from ages 25 through 44, which covers the range of adults who spent their childhoods either sneakily finding ways to watch movies like The Nest and The Funhouse or spending hours inside the local VHS rental shops staring at the box covers and wishing they could circumvent age restrictions and partake.
"I run our Facebook page where we're making a lot of our announcements, and, naturally, I go back to when I was 10 years old in the early '80s," says Nelson. "That's when these films were coming out, and I was just fascinated by the VHS covers, or, in some cases, the video disc covers. I'm not even talking laser-discs, I'm talking the early record kind that you'd put into the machine. From a marketing perspective, I try to tap into that, to say, 'Hey, we're in retro land here.'"
Although, even younger consumers whose idea of "throwback horror" is, say, The Ring are being addressed. Adds, Nelson, "Somebody who's into horror films and goes online a lot, even if they're not in that nostalgic sweet-spot target area, they're able to see the good reviews and the buzz and people talking about it. When I was younger, I was looking up movies like Psycho, House of Wax, and The Blob, things that were 'older' than the movies of that time, so there's definitely an audience that likes to go retro and see how these movies were done before."
Scream Factory's slate of films set for 2013 re-releases promises to both please seasoned experts and school curious newcomers. Amongst the already announced lineup's inclusions are the impossible to find but critically adored faux documentary-styled slasher flick The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1976); a never-before-released-on-DVD slice-and-dice pic starring a former Playboy Playmate (X-Ray, 1982, with Barbi Benton); a then-unknown Viggo Mortensen's haunted jail shocker Prison (1988); and the sexy, Hammer Films-backed parade of gorgeous British lady bloodsuckers The Vampire Lovers.
And Scream Factory is just getting warmed up. "There's a lot to be said for nostalgia," says Nelson. "The movies we're putting out, focusing on the '70s and '80s, were, at the time, really shocking and forbidden for people during their childhoods. These movies came out at the time when you couldn't get into a rated-R movie and it was a big deal to sneak a VHS into your house, so we're definitely tapping into that. When we do these releases, we try to be very respectful, but at the same time we know that we can't please everybody. We're trying our best, and it seems that 95% of the hardcore horror fans are responding really well. Whatever the horror genre taps into for them, I'm glad that we're striking that chord."
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)