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Which is scarier: a remorseless psycho killer -- or a non-ironic mullet?

You get both for the price of one this Halloween, thanks to a plethora of '80s chillers new to Blu-ray.

Yep, the penultimate decade of the 20th century was a scary time, when mediocre actor Ronald Reagan won the White House and acts like Rick Springfield, Michael Bolton and Milli Vanilli were routinely winning Grammys.

Retro DVD distributor Shout Factory has been especially busy packaging some of the older horror films of the era in spanking new Blu-ray editions.

Ones to seek out:

The Funhouse (1981)

INDEPENDENT filmmaker Tobe Hooper directed one of the most terrifying films ever made (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) but unfortunately for him, the film's distributors at the time were, um, Mafia types. Hooper's career, or personal wealth, did not improve.

It wasn't until 1981 when the talented Hooper won his way into the studio system, shooting The Funhouse for Universal.

By the time it was done, the studio was supposedly dissatisfied with it. But even if Hooper was obliged to go mainstream, this is a frequently unnerving movie, as a quartet of teenagers (headlined by Elizabeth Berridge of Amadeus and Cooper Huckabee of True Blood) duck out to a travelling carnival, where they encounter all manner of dark and disturbing things. (This is the raison d'etre of travelling carnivals, no?) They witness the murder of a fortune teller -- who didn't see it coming -- at the hands of a cruelly deformed carnie, and find themselves trapped in the titular attraction.

The movie actually replicates the dynamic of TTCM with its middle-class youngsters facing off against malevolent hillbillies.

Kevin Conway is superbly sinister as three different sideshow barkers. In the extras, Conway is interviewed and gets a laugh with an observation about Hooper being a coke addict, which Conway inferred when he saw the shelves of Hooper's office lined with empty cans of Coca Cola. Phantom of the Paradise fans will appreciate an audio interview with the late William Finley discussing his role as a low-rent carnival magician.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

NO one really seemed to like the third film in the original Halloween series, because it completely abandoned the Michael Myers story in favour of a weird conspiracy thriller with gratuitous horror beats.

The rule is that sequels are supposed to be the same, but different. Season of the Witch was radically different, but enjoyably so, with its story of a doctor investigating the death of a man and coming across a coven of Irish witches planning to destroy America's children via demonic masks. (This was one of the few horror films of the era with no qualms about killing juveniles.)

John Carpenter, the director of the original Halloween, produced but did not direct. (That fell to writer-director Tommy Lee Wallace.) But the film has an anti-authoritarian streak that would come out big-time in Carpenter's last film of the '80s, They Live.

They Live (1989)

JOHN Carpenter's most subversive movie could have been repackaged as the official horror movie of Occupy Wall Street.

Carpenter gives us an unemployed drifter hero (Roddy Piper) who comes to a city and notices strange doings at the local church opposite the shantytown where he has taken residence. It turns out to be a resistance headquarters where revolutionaries are attempting to expose the fact that aliens have taken over the world. Worse, the ugly humanoids occupy the very upper echelons of privilege and power. Piper comes into possession of a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the aliens -- and the world -- as it really is. (Billboards bear the blunt messages: Obey. Sleep. Consume. Marry and reproduce.)

Piper, a WWF wrestling star at the time of the film's release, is a tad too abrasive and bombastic as a sympathetic leading man. ("I have come to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I'm all out of bubblegum.") But the film still has a timely kick.

So that's what the one per cent really looks like!

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2012 E7

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