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New DVDs show how to mix horror with laughs

John DeFore

Halloween always means a ghoulish gold rush in video stores, with film companies eager to repromote horror classics and make a buck off obscurities.

This year, Blu-ray presents a fresh excuse to dig up the bodies of favorite films — including three (all from Universal, whose 1930s /'40s landmarks remain the Halloween gold standard) that could be the syllabus for a seminar in the intersection of horror and comedy.

John Landis happily takes credit for this peanut-butter/chocolate blend in the bonus interviews packaged with his 1981 "An American Werewolf in London." He recalls the years in which he showed the script around to producers, all of whom told him it was too funny to be scary, too scary to be funny.

But a strange thing happens when you direct such hits as "Animal House" and "The Blues Brothers" back-to-back: People start financing your nutty little projects. A couple of generations of horror fans are glad they did.

Almost 30 years later, the movie holds up fairly well — even for those not given to geeky adoration of its Rick Baker-designed special effects, which are analyzed in the Blu-ray's bonus features.

The spookiness of the opening chapter, in which a pair of college-age hitchhikers learn what horrors lurk in the mist-shrouded British countryside, isn't at all diminished by Landis' cheeky use of "Blue Moon" on the soundtrack. (The song choices remain lunar-themed throughout.) Later, when our newly minted lycanthrope starts getting visits from his dead best friend, Griffin Dunne's progressively extreme state of decomposition gets laughs — but the hallucinatory nature of these scenes walls them off from the straightforward scary material surrounding them.

Just over a decade after "Werewolf," Sam Raimi was well into a career of ignoring the distinction between horror and comedy. The new Blu-ray edition of "Army of Darkness" finds him at his peak of devil-may-care, having succeeded at scaring us in the first two "Evil Dead" movies and now letting his smart-aleck hero Ash (cult icon Bruce Campbell) chew the scenery while traveling through time to battle Harryhausen-like skeletons.

More a remix of fantasy/adventure tropes than a horror film, "Darkness" shows just how irrelevant genre definitions had become for filmmakers talented enough to entertain on their own terms.

It and its trilogy-mates earned an audience so devoted that they rank among the most-reissued films in DVD history, with seemingly innumerable special editions available.

Unfortunately, Universal's Blu-ray offers practically nothing to make it "special" beyond the format's enhanced resolution: one special effects demo, one alternate ending, zero content that fans don't already know by heart.

Today's champion of funny horror/scary comedy, indisputably, is "Shaun of the Dead," the astoundingly entertaining 2004 import that introduced Americans to actor/writer Simon Pegg and writer/director Edgar Wright.

The amazing thing about "Shaun," which entertains even after many viewings, is how effortlessly and effectively it moves from one mode to another: full-on lampooning of zombie conventions in the first act, engrossing and genuinely tense action in the second, and moments of actual tenderness (even among the entrails and self-conscious humor) toward the end.

Seeing movies like "Shaun," it's easy to understand why John Landis is so proud of himself — even if others might argue he was hardly the first to follow a "boo!" with a punch line.