Here's how EW's critics rate ''Saw II,'' ''Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Ultimate Edition,'' ''Slither,'' and more, starting with a few tricks and leading to the ultimate fright-night treats

By EW Staff
October 25, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

Halloween’s coming! Plan your DVD-viewing party now

A trip through the horror aisle of your DVD store or Netflix library can be pretty scary. For every legitimately spine-tingling title, there are probably ten that rightfully should be filed under ho-hum. But like the zombies in the Living Dead movies, the DVDs just keep coming, especially as Oct. 31 draws near. EW’s critics grabbed their torches and shed some light on 10 recent releases from the darkside, ranked here in order from a couple of tricky titles declared dead on arrival to the treats that will scare the life out of you — and leave you smiling about it later.

Image credit: Saw II: Steve Wilkie

Another day, another herd of victims to torture in a dank house rigged with booby traps. So it goes for Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), the serial killer from 2004’s Saw who preys on those he thinks short on morals. In Saw II, he’s after a corrupt cop (Donnie Wahlberg).

EXTRAS include an excruciating faux doc about the killings. In a making-of, Wahlberg explains, ”It’s got to make you go, ‘Oh, s—!”’ We’re guessing he means the twist ending, not the realization that you forked over cash for a two-disc set that’s no better than last winter’s original release.

In Stay Alive, young gamers initiate a killer videogame by chanting its creepy opening ”Prayer of Elizabeth,” which dooms them all: When you die virtually, you die for real, too. The game/real-life melding is inventive but has holes, as one character survives ”Game Over.” Some special effects resonate (that crippled zombie spider crawling across a wall is très freaky), but the bloody shears-and-chains horror is nothing new.

EXTRAS A commentary from the filmmakers reveals standard behind-the-scenes tidbits.

Image credit: Rest Stop: Doug Hyun

Rest Stop, the first release from Warner Bros. horror specialty division Raw Feed, hits almost all the genre staples: lingerie-clad girl in peril (Jaimie Alexander, pictured); faceless psycho; backwoods locale; Bible-thumping zealots; even a creepy dwarf. But Rest Stop moves beyond simple slasher flick when director John Shiban (Supernatural) indulges in what appears to be a red-hot resentment of Joey Lawrence — we assume for his crimes against the sitcom in Blossom. (It should be for those show-offy moves on Dancing With the Stars. Or maybe for his Telly Savalas/Prison Break no-hair look.) Lawrence — who plays a highway patrolman — is run down three times by a truck, shot twice, and actually set on fire. (Granted, he offers little help to an aspiring-actress killer who loiters around a public-toilet stop.)

The hillbilly murderer may be forgettable and the wafer-thin plot drags, but Lawrence’s glorified cameo is schlock-full of poor-taste goodness, such as his line about a soldier’s death on the battlefield: ”A lot of guys eat the s— sandwich, ya know?” Between the bloody tongue dismemberment and (among the extras) a trio of lame alternate endings, it won’t just be watching Lawrence emote that’ll make you hide your eyes and say, ”Whoa!”

Image credit: A Nightmare On Elm Street: New Line Cinema/Photofest

Are there really people in Hollywood who have sold their souls to Satan in exchange for fame, fortune, and an unlined forehead? Who knows? But there is a group of movie bigwigs who definitely find themselves in deep debt to one devilish character: nightmare haunter, child killer, and Burn Victims Quarterly subscriber Freddy Krueger. Those who should daily kiss their head-shaped ”Freddy Fright Squirter” water pistol (an actual piece of spin-off merchandise) with gratitude include Wes Craven and Johnny Depp, whose cinematic careers were, respectively, in the dumper and completely nonexistent prior to 1984’s original Nightmare on Elm Street film. The success of this tale about a supernatural maniac who slays teens in their dreams helped transform New Line from a small distribution company into a major production force. It was thanks to Craven’s film — and its numerous sequels (seven and counting) — that the studio was ultimately capable of financing not only a string of other horror franchises (Blade, Final Destination) but also more respectable fare including the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Yes, it’s hard to underestimate the importance of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the extras on this two-disc special edition make no attempt to do so. The ”House That Freddy Built” featurette illuminates just how vital the Elm Street series was to New Line (”We didn’t have much else,” admits company chief Robert Shaye), while the documentary ”Never Sleep Again” traces the film’s gestation and eruption into the American teenage psyche. With two commentaries — one old, one new — also present among the bonus materials, there’s a fair amount of repetition. The absence of any contribution from Depp is disappointing. But you’re never that far away from an entertaining nugget of information (Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy was partly based on James Cagney; Peter Jackson wrote a script for the fifth sequel).

Alas, if the amount of Elm Street info here is almost frightening, the film itself is not nearly so. True, some of the effects remain nicely repulsive; Freddy himself comes across as a genuinely nasty piece of work, far removed from his later incarnation as what a film historian describes elsewhere on the DVD as ”the Henny Youngman of horror.” But the movie now seems dated and slow, with a script whose most memorable moments can be comically awful, as when Depp declaims, ”Look, we have reason to believe that there might be something very strange going on here!” At the end of ”Never Sleep Again,” costar Heather Langenkamp reveals that she still dreams of Freddy. But it’s hard to imagine this film being responsible for too many fresh nightmares.

More Scary Movies

Image credit: Masters of Horror: Anchor Bay Entertainment

The decision by Showtime in January not to broadcast Imprint, the episode of its Masters of Horror anthology directed by Japanese auteur Takashi Miike initially gave off the distinct smell of publicity ploy. (Indeed, this DVD features a prominently displayed ”Banned” banner.) After all, the cable network had already screened a number of gruesome MoH entries from such horror veterans as John Carpenter and Dario Argento. How much worse could Miike’s episode be? The answer, it transpires, is ”very.” A period whodunit set in an otherworldly Japanese brothel, Imprint is every bit as disturbing as the director’s infamous 2000 film Audition. Torture, aborted fetuses, and bizarre physical aberrations are all depicted in a film whose principal purpose appears to be to test the viewer’s appetite for cinematic transgression. In one of the featurettes, the genre-hopping Miike, who sees himself as an eclectic artist, claims that the success of Audition has led to him being ”misunderstood” as primarily a horror director. It is a misunderstanding the harrowing Imprint will greatly, bloodily reinforce.

Image credit: Slither: Chris Helcermanas-Benge

Slither, an inexplicable theatrical flop that deserves a second chance, is a gleefully gross throwback to ’50s sci-fi invasion flicks that concerns a small suburb invaded by otherworldly beasties. Occasionally incoherent, Slither will please fans of, say, early Evil Dead-era Sam Raimi.

EXTRAS A ton, including deleted and extended scenes, multiple featurettes, a video diary, commentary with actor Nathan Fillion and director James Gunn, a tutorial on making your own horror blood, and a wonderfully vulgar gag reel that’s replete with flatulence.

Image credit: The Addams Family: Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, they’re altogether ooky…but the thing that truly made The Addams Family great is that while they may have been freaks, they were the nicest, most welcoming freaks around. Which explains why — despite their extreme fear of normalcy — Gomez (John Astin) and Morticia (Carolyn Jones) were constantly inviting people into their home and trying to make a good impression (as odd as these regular folk may have seemed to the family of misfits). It doesn’t sound like a big thing, but therein lay the key to the 1960s sitcom: Sure, it was irreverent and off-the-wall, but unlike pretty much all the comedies on the air today, these characters genuinely loved and cared for one another. This tenderness is perhaps best illustrated in the ”Mother Lurch Visits the Addams Family” episode — one of 22 on this three-disc set — in which Gomez and Morticia act as servants for their faithful butler so he can impress his mom. (It’s also interesting because, as we learn in one of the short but sweet featurettes, Astin — whose manic energy and geniality set the tone for the entire affair — was originally considered for the butler’s role.) ”There will never be another Addams Family better than this one,” says Felix Silla (Cousin Itt) on a commentary regarding all the attempts to remake the show. We can only assume that includes ones with MC Hammer theme songs.

Image credit: Seed of Chucky: Rolf Konow

Four Child’s Play sequels follow Chucky, a two-foot-tall doll with the literal soul of a serial killer, in Chucky: The Killer DVD Collection. He goes through multiple homicides, one sex scene, and fatherhood. Even with lines like ”Don’t f— with the Chuck,” the first two can’t compete with the humor- and Jennifer Tilly-enhanced Bride and Seed of Chucky.

EXTRAS Commentaries and making-ofs paint Tilly as someone who knows her place in the world: ”This day I realized how ridiculous my career was,” she says. ”Lying on my back all day, being artificially inseminated by a doll.” And we respect her for that.

Image credit: The Old Dark House: Everett Collection

This Halloween, instead of hanging with old pals like Freddy, Leatherface, and Jason, why not carve out (so to speak) a bit of time for the Femms of The Old Dark House? Ah, you’ve never heard of them? Not surprising. James Whale’s sophisticated, pre-Scream mix of goosebumps and giggles has always been the cobwebbed cousin of his more renowned Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man. Too bad: It’s an exquisite goof.

On a very dark and stormy night, five travelers (including Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, and Titanic‘s Gloria Stuart) take refuge with the eccentric Femm family. There’s Horace (Ernest Thesiger), who warns, ”You will have to stay here — the misfortune is yours”; his deaf, religious sister Rebecca (Eva Moore); and Morgan the butler (Boris Karloff, pictured with Stuart), a scarred, hairy brute given to cryptic grunts (and who, according to author James Curtis’ splendid commentary, was the model for Addams family manservant Lurch). Upstairs resides Roderick, the 102-year-old bedridden patriarch (played by actress Elspeth Dudgeon). And tucked away in a locked room lurks fire-obsessed Saul (Brember Wills).

The fun is in how adroitly Whale tightropes between droll nonsense — via the effete Thesiger, who injects ticklish humor into lines like ”Have a potato” — and the macabre. A close-up in which the escaped Saul morphs from frailty to full-blown insanity is hair-raising, and it’s topped by a pyromaniacal reverie that would make Hannibal Lecter jealous. Pay a visit. You won’t regret it.

Image credit: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Everett Collection

”How do I get a PG rating,” Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper once asked the MPAA, ”and hang someone on a meat hook?” His ”Gone With the Wind of meat movies” — about five friends terrorized by a chain-saw-wielding cannibal — gets the epic treatment on this EXTRAS-laden double-disc set. Two docs cover the production from choosing roadkill (art director Robert Burns on the lily-livered crew’s refusal to shoot a decaying horse found near the set: ”God had given them the most wonderful gift…covered with flies”) to battling shady investors (the Mafia).