Sense of Wonder: Instant Internet access offers a Golden Age of Gods and Monsters

golden age of horror on in copy

While visiting a Los Angles courthouse last month to testify at the murder trial of Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter, I had a strangely irrelevant epiphany: Those of us with a Sense of Wonder are living in the Golden Age of Gods and Monsters. This revelation had nothing to do with our legal system and everything to do with the location: with Chinatown and Little Tokyo within walking distance of the courthouse, a trip like this would, once upon a time, have been an opportunity to stock up on items difficult if not impossible to obtain elsewhere. There used to be – and, to some extent, still is – an almost literal cornucopia of videotapes, laserdiscs, DVDs, and action figures related to Fant-Asia, Anime, and Kaiju cinema in the family-owned shops downtown. If you wanted to see POKEMON with its Japanese dialogue or check out the SUPER SENTAI series in its original form (before being cannibalized for POWER RANGERS), or if you wanted VHS tapes of the 1990s-era Godzilla films (which went unreleased in the U.S for nearly a decade), this was the place to go: such an opportunity was not to be missed; leaving empty-handed was not an option. However, on this occasion, when searching my memory banks for hard-to-find horror, fantasy, fiction science fiction films and memorabilia that I should seek out in the nearby stores, I came up blank. Because, you see, fewer and fewer cult movies are hard to find these days; almost anything we want is available at the push of a button.
Heading home, I registered a certain disappointment, much as many people mourn the passing of their favorite local video stores. But unlike the doom-sayers who think this as something akin to a huge chunk of our cultural heritage disappearing down a black hole, I realized that just the opposite is true: we now have instant access to even the most obscure elements of our cinematic heritage. The search for little-seen films no longer forces us to search through dusty shops like Allan Quatermain delving into King Solomon’s Mines; we need no longer wait for the occasional airing on late-night television or – even more rarely – a screening at a revival house.
Anyone old enough to remember the early days of Cinefantastique magazine should appreciate this. Those old back issues are loaded with capsule reviews of foreign fantasy films and cult exploitation horror that never received nationwide release. Some odd-ball opus would open at a single theatre in New York City or at a mid-west drive-in, never to be seen again. You would read the review of the latest Mario Bava film or of TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD and wonder, “When will I ever have a chance to see this?” And the answer usually seemed to be: Never.
Beginning in the 1980s, the home video revolution changed that, making hundreds of unreleased or barely released titles available. However, beneath the deluge of cinematic sea creatures, Aztec mummies, and grind-house gore, there lay buried an unfortunate truth: it cost money to manufacture tapes and discs, and not every lost title was potentially profitable enough to justify a release.
To a great extent, our current era of ,video on demand, digital downloads, and streaming video has changed that, by eliminating the costs of manufacturing and distribution. Yes, most of the titles on Netflix or Amazon Instant View have been restored and remastered for DVD and/or Blu-ray; nevertheless, the streaming options offer an additional source of revenue and little additional cost. Moreover, with public domain options such as and Pub-D-Hub, many older titles that have gone out of copyright are now available for free viewing. Fans can even post these films, in their entirety, on YouTube.
This overload of obscure cinefantastique may mean little to viewers interested only in the latest box office blockbusters. However, a Sense of Wonder can find expression in many strange ways ways, not all of them likely to appeal to a wide swath of the ticket-buying populace. Fans eager to revisit old favorites or to seek out previously unavailable films for the first time are benefiting from 21st Century technology in ways almost unimaginable even a few years ago. To wit:

  • You want J-Horror? JU-ON 2 is currently available on Netflix, along with SHOCK CORRIDOR and dozens of other Asian scare shows. If that is not enough, head over to Asian Crush.
  • You want Kaiju? Check out the Godzilla titles on Sony Pictures’ Also, Gamera is flying all over Pub-D-Hub.
  • You want anime? Check out or Starz’ Manga channel.
  • You want obscure Hammer horror? SHADOW OF THE CAT (1961) – a film long available only in bootleg DVDs – is up on YouTube.
  • click to view instantly
    click to view instantly

    You want Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters? IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955) and 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957) are up on YouTube. You can watch the colorized version of the latter on Amazon Instant View. THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969) and THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953) are available in high-definition at the Warner Archives instant viewing service.
  • You want Euro-horror? ZOMBIE LAKE (1981) and OASIS OF THE ZOMBIES (1982) are on Netflix. Fans of Paul Naschy’s doomed werewolf Waldemar Daninsky can catch ASSIGNMENT TERROR (1970) on’s Drive-In Classics; even better is LA NOCHE DE WALPURGIS (a.k.a. THE WEREWOLF VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMAN, 1971) is on YouTube – uncut, widescreen, in Spanish with subtitles. (You can buy this one on Amazon Instant View, but it’s the shorter, English-dubbed version.)
  • You want an eclectic mix of vampires, aliens, and giant monsters? has a little bit of everything: COUNT DRACULA AND HIS VAMPIRE BRIDE (1973), ALIEN CONTAMINATION (1980), GORGO (1960). One particularly obscure item is HORROR CASTLE (a.k.a. THE VIRGIN OF NUREMBERG, 1963), with Christopher Lee, which combines Gothic horror with a post-WWII murder-mystery.
  • You want classics? THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) is on Netflix and several public domain sources; so is WHITE ZOMBIE (1932). THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) and SVENGALI (1931) are on Pub-D-Hub. The brilliant, silent docu-drama HAXEN (“Witchcraft,” 1922) is available on Warner Archives offers such titles as FREAKS (1932), CAT PEOPLE (1942), THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957), SOYLENT GREEN (1973),  THE WITCHES (1990), UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD (1991), and many others.
  • You want something new? New theatrical films from Magnet Releasing and other independent outfits frequently show up on Amazon Instant View and iTunes downloads weeks before they reach the big screen. An excellent film like THE SORCERER AND THE WHITE SNAKE (2012) – which once you would have had to track down on import disc in some specialty store – made its U.S. debut that way; now it is available on Netflix.

I could go on, but you get the idea. If some of these titles are not familiar to you, that is the point: these are low-profile films long buried in obscurity that, zombie-like, have been revived by the modern wizardry of the Internet. And now, like vampires who can cross the threshold only when invited, they are waiting for you to open your video portals and let them in. Some of these outlets are available only on the Internet; others are accessible through your Roku box, PlayStation, or XBox. All of them allow you to watch movies instantly – movies that you once would have waited months – even years – to see. Why not take advantage of this new virtual world of Gods and Monsters?
You can find many of these titles available for instant viewing in the Cinefantastique Online Store, powered by Amazon.

Laserblast 4-18.2: Netflix Purge, Star Trek and The Awakening on Blu-ray

star trek the motion pictureAlso:  THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY and more HELMLOCK GROVE

Take another tour of horror, fantasy, and science fiction on home video with this week’s edition of the Cinefantastique Laserblast Podcast. Lawrence French, Dan Persons, and Steve Biodrowski explore the over-hyped “purge” of classic titles from Netflix; review the new Blu-ray releases of STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, STAR TREK: THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, and STAR TREK GENERATIONS; analyze THE FRANKENSTEIN THEORY; and explore the ghostly goodies on THE AWAKENING’s Blu-ray disc. And of course, there is the usual weekly rundown of all that is new on store shelves and on demand.

Tuesday, May 7 Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Home Video Releases

click to purchase
click to purchase

MAMA on DVD and on Blu-ray plus DVD plus UltraViolet from Universal Studios. Bonus features:

  • In-depth look at effects – BD Exclusive
  • Deleted scenes with commentary from Andy and Barbara Muschietti
  • Original short subject with intro by Guillermo Del Toro
  • Birth of Mama – featurette about expanding short subject
  • Commentary by Andy and Barbara Muschietti

FRINGE: THE COMPLETE FIFTH SEASON on DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Home Video.

click to purchase
click to purchase

Hollywood Hits 4-Movie Collection on DVD from Mill Creek Entertianment, including four classic/cult titles from Columbia Pictures (that is, distributed by Columbia, not necessarily produced – resulting in an eclectic mix from the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s):

  • RETURN OF THE VAMPIRE with Bela Lugosi
  • REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN with Peter Cushing
  • MR. SARDOICUS with Guy Rolfe
  • THE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN with Strother Martin

Blu-ray Steelbooks (new steel collectible casing for previously available discs):

  • THE MATRIX 10TH ANNIVERSARY (obvious anachronism)
  • LORDS OF THE RINGS trilogy

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click to purchase



All titles available in the Cinefantastique Online Store, powered by Amazon.

Sense of Wonder: Evil of Frankenstein, Suspiria and the Blu-ray Experience

The Baron prepares to create life in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN
The Baron prepares to create life in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN
Should horror, fantasy and science fiction fans with large DVD collections upgrade to Blu-ray? Read on for the experience of one DVD hold-out who finally made the change.

Last week I finally broke down and brought a Blu-ray player. Being a late adopter of new technology, I had put off this purchase as long as possible. I was happy with the DVD format and with the Roku box that allows me to stream Netflix movies instantly onto my 50-inch high-definition television. I knew that Blu-ray offered improved picture quality, and that it would even upgrade the look of my old DVDs, but I wasn’t sure the improvement was worth the money, especially when product reviews suggested that low-end, affordable players were not reliable; for the money, an upgrade DVD player sounded like a more reasonable alternative.  And so I sat, poised on the cusp of indecision, until the home video industry forced my hand.
Why do I say forced? Because, with increasing frequency, DVDs are being released without bonus features that are available on Blu-ray. I’m not talking about features that are possible only with the Blu-ray format, such as picture-in-picture and BD Live; I’m talking about material that once would have been a no-brainer for inclusion on a DVD, such as the alternate endings and behind-the-scenes featurettes that were included on Universal Pictures’ Blu-ray release of THE WOLF MAN but not on the DVD (unless you purchased the two-disc DVD available only as an in-store offer at Best Buy).
Even worse, we are seeing more and more examples of DVDs being released without any bonus features at all, a move that seems deliberately designed to drive the format out of existence. Why purchase a bare-bones DVD of SHERLOCK HOLMES or SHUTTER ISLAND when you could get the Blu-ray with all the extras? (Perhaps these DVDs still appeal to casual viewers who want only to rent, but without bonus features there is no advantage to opting for the disc instead of watching the films via Video on Demand.)
So, when I had an opportunity to get an advance review copy of the new Blu-ray disc for JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH, I decided it was time to leave the past behind and boldly embrace the future. After checking out prices and reading some reviews, I opted for the new Insignia Blu-ray Disc Player (model NS-WBRDVD), which offers built-in Wi-Fi connectability to the Internet.
Insignia is the in-store brand for Best Buy; its purpose is to offer good value for customers who do not want – or cannot afford – to go top of the line. My high-def television is Insignia, and it has provided extremely satisfying results for a price that no other brand could match, so I felt confident in selecting their Blu-ray player. Although many reviews warn against going economical when choosing this particular piece of technology, the previous Insignia Blu-ray player (model NS-2BRDVD) had a good reputation; the newer model added wireless capability and, on sale, was available for almost the same price ($129, marked down from $179).
Now, at last we get to the point of this little rumination, answering the question that all you other DVD hold-outs are asking: Was the purchase worth the price? Yes, with one caveat, related not to the disc functionality but to the alleged wireless capability. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
When I popped the Blu-ray disc of JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH into the machine, I saw graphics and images that looked every bit as clear and beautiful as the displays you see in the electronics sections of stores eager to lure you into adopting the Blu-ray format. That was more or less expected, but it’s always good to see expectation met and even exceeded.

Peter Cushing throws the switch, bringing life to his creation
Peter Cushing throws the switch, bringing life to his creation

Since I was not planning to run out and buy a casket-full of Blu-ray discs, the  factor that would immediately determine whether the new player was worth the money was whether or not it would improve the look of my old DVDs. To answer this, I selected my standard test subject: Hammer Films’ THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1963), available on the Hammer Horror Series DVD box set. One of many colorful horror films starring the late Peter Cushing as the brilliant Baron, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN is far from the best in the series, but it has at least one stand-out sequence: a lengthy flashback, almost totally without dialogue, in which we see Frankenstein bring his creature to life.
The highly visual sequence, filled with impressive sets, props, and special effects (all carefully captured by the graceful camera of director Freddie Francis), is the one I use to judge any new piece of home video equipment; I previously played it on my first large screen television and again when that technological dinosaur was replaced by the current high-def widescreen set. Would the EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN DVD look even better with its standard-definition signal upgraded by the Blu-ray player to suit the high-definition monitor?
Unless my eyes deceive me, the answer is an unqualified yes. This DVD release was roundly criticized when it came out, from compressing two movies per side onto a double-sided disc, yet I have always found the results pleasing to watch, probably because the films themselves looked so good, with that slightly artificial sheen to the color and sets that leaves “realism” somewhat beside the point. On the new Blu-ray player, THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN looked slightly better than before – a rich, beautiful experience that does not leave one unsatisfied. (And a good thing, too – because the film is not available on Blu-ray, so this is the best the movie is going to look for the foreseeable future.)
Suzy (Jessica Harper) at the climax of SUSPIRIA.
Suzy (Jessica Harper) at the climax of SUSPIRIA.

After THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN, I next tried out the final chapter stop from the limited edition THX-Mastered DVD of SUSPIRIA. I chose this particular disc because Dario Argento’s 1977 film has long been noted for its striking visuals; even more important, the disc itself includes a series of tests to calibrate your television set to recreate the colors and tones of the theatrical version. With this kind of exactitude, the SUSPIRIA DVD seemed like another perfect test for the capacity of the Blu-ray player to upgrade the signal for a high-def television.
Again, the results were extremely satisfying. The widescreen image (slightly letterboxed, even on a widescreen monitor) betrayed traces of film grain – about the only detail marring an otherwise splendid image. The highly artificial colors came through loud and clear, practically popping off the screen, with a clarity beyond what had previously been delivered by the old DVD player. Even my wife, no fan of the film’s over-the-top violence, volunteered that the picture quality was “beautiful.”
Of course, the DVD is still no match for a Blu-ray disc, and I”m sure a SUSPRIRIA Blu-ray would look even better; nevertheless, the improvement in the DVD image is noticeable, and I think anyone sitting on the fencepost about whether to upgrade really should consider this. If you’re like me, you hesitate, thinking you don’t want to replace all your old DVDs with new Blu-ray discs – but even if you hold onto those old discs, they will look better, especially on a plasma TV, whose deep blacks are suited for cinematic visuals (as opposed to LCD TVs, which reportedly are better suited to sports broadcasts).
Sci-Fi films like AVATAR showcase the beauties of Blu-ray high-def.
Sci-Fi films like AVATAR showcase the beauties of Blu-ray high-def.

This consideration is especially important for Cinefantastique readers. Horror, fantasy, and science fiction films offer opportunities for visual extravagance far beyond the levels seen in most non-genre films. Does it really make much difference whether you see THE BLIND SIDE or 12 ANGRY MEN in high-def – maybe, but not as much as seeing AVATAR, STAR TREK, BLADE RUNNER, or LORD OF THE RINGS.
The next big question is whether or not you will eventually opt to replace your DVD collection. My first impression is that I’m in no hurry. Although Blu-ray has the capacity to deliver a much better image, you do have to contend with the picture quality of the original source: I’m sure that old movies shot in formats like 70mm or Super Panavision (such as 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY) will look much improved on Blu-ray, but I’m not sure that some old exploitation opus with grainy cinematography will benefit from a Blu-ray transfer – short of a complete digital restoration. For the time being I am content to hold onto the DVDs, but I will finally get around to replacing the still lingering laserdisc collection.
So, would I recommend the Insignia Blu-ray player? Well, that depends on the one caveat I mentioned earlier: although I purchased the unit to replace both my DVD player and the Roku box, I have not yet been able to get the wireless functionality to function, which means I cannot use the Insignia player to stream Netflix Instant Movies (or any other video on demand service). Judging from a search around the Internet, I am far from the only one to suffer this problem. I have no doubt that there is a way to overcome this obstacle (if worse came to worse, I could hook the Blu-ray player to the Internet by an Ethernet cable); but frankly, overcoming an obstacle should not even be a consideration when paying $129 for a brand-new piece of technology. My old Roku box cost $99, and it worked the first time I fired it up. If Roku wireless connection to the Internet easy, then Insignia should be able to do the same, without putting their customers to unnecessary trouble.
insignia blu-ray
click to purchase

My conclusion is that, had I paid full price for the Insignia player, I would feel that the extra $50 (for the new wireless model) would have been wasted; however, since I got the player for the same price as the old, pre-wireless model, I am not inclined to take the unit back to the store and demand a refund. Since I still have my Roku box, I can use that for instant streaming of movies. But customers seeking both a Blu-ray player and a movie-streamer in a single device should be aware of the potential problem; you may be better off spending a little bit more for a player whose wireless capacity works without resorting to customer service.

NOTE: This article has been expanded since its initial posting.