On DVD: Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window -- The Master Remastered

It's possible that autumn would still be my favorite season of the year even without Halloween. But my hot fave of all the big holidays sure does put this time of year over the top in the "Now I get to decorate the house my way" department. My home theater chamber now has the skull on the fireplace mantle, the "Hemlock" drinkware set on the bar, and the severed arm grasping its way out from between the couch cushions. The original Night of the Living Dead movie poster hangs alongside the Young Frankenstein one-sheet. And I've started pulling my favorite theme-appropriate flicks from the DVD shelves and stacking them up on the table next to the remote, the Frankenstein popcorn bowl, and the highball glass.

And, as always this time of year, I'm adding new discs to the collection. Every year starting in September, the studios hitch their DVD release schedules to the Halloween season. The bad-good news is that we get a glut of generic slasher-stalker-tortureporn-bored-now sequels and knockoffs. The good-good news is that we also get new or upgraded editions of the quality stuff. We're talking titles from our top picks among the Fright Night classics that no movie lover worth his Film.com trick-or-treat bag should be without.

I bought my latest three acquisitions this past Tuesday as soon as they hit the shelves at my local video store. Released individually as matching two-disc DVD sets, the Universal Legacy Series are fully loaded Special Editions so good that they've replaced my previous DVD editions of these three movies -- Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Vertigo, and Rear Window.

(And, yes, I know, only Psycho really qualifies as "a Halloween movie." But I love them all, and their new cases, which are handsomely constructed like hardback books, made getting the entire set irresistible. The video store's attractive get-all-three discount didn't hurt either.)

Not only do we get better-than-ever transfers, including the latest incarnations of Vertigo's and Rear Window's beautiful restorations. The Universal Legacy Series also adds plenty of extras for us hardcores. Those extras, as you would expect, generally gush about each film's classic status, its outstanding cast and direction, and the effort that went into the production. Some of this material -- interviews with cast, crew, and family members, etc. -- has been ported over from the earlier editions. But some of it's new, such as the input from Hitchcock admirers Martin Scorsese, John Carpenter, William Friedkin, and Guillermo del Toro. What a relief that it's all gold, with hardly any fluff or filler packed in to inflate the menu list.

The Universal Legacy Series gives these films -- among Hollywood's most deservedly famous masterpieces of atmosphere and suspense, bearing the unmistakable hand of Hitchcock during the peak years of his genius -- a full-on upgrade that offers more than just a change of their fancy packaging.

Topping the AFI's "100 Years ... 100 Thrills" list, Psycho is, of course, the now-iconic original slasher-suspense-nailbiter that smacked Hollywood -- and the original audiences -- across the face with the realization that being scared in a movie could be not only a fun experience, it could be really, really profitable. Those first audiences in 1960 had been conditioned to expect a movie that stuck to the rules of conventional storytelling. So when the movie's apparent protagonist Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) stepped into that motel shower she never stepped out of, that sound you heard wasn't just the kitchen knife of "Mother Bates" slicing into Marion's pretty skin, it was the snap of those "rules" being broken over Hitchcock's knee. What happened afterward made Norman Bates (Tony Perkins) a household name ("a boy's best friend is his mother") and a whole new sort of movie-making was born. And how many times have you made that screeching violin ree-ree-ree sound to someone in the shower? You know you have. Much imitated, even unnecessarily sequeled, but never bettered.

The Universal Legacy Series edition of Psycho comes with excellent image clarity and sound. Seriously, the picture and audio are clean, vivid, and like new.

Among the new bonus features is an informative and enjoyable expert commentary track from Stephen Rebello, author of Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho. His commentary pairs well with the 94-minute 1997 documentary, The Making of Psycho, that's highlighted by first-hand accounts from people who knew Hitchcock and who worked on the film with him.

We also get pre-production info on the Shower Scene (including the original storyboards by Saul Bass); The Psycho Archives (slideshows of advertising, lobby cards, and production stills used to promote the movie); In the Master's Shadow - Hitchcock's Legacy (discussing Hitchcock's influence with Guillermo del Toro, Eli Roth, writers, sound editors, and others); Newsreel Footage: The Release of Psycho, which shows us Hitch's brilliant and witty mastery of selling a picture to an audience; a 14-minute 1962 audio recording of François Truffaut interviewing Hitchcock (set to music and images from Psycho); Production Notes, and more.

The mint on the pillow here is one of the most memorable episodes from TV's Alfred Hitchcock Presents -- Season 3's "Lamb to the Slaughter," starring Barbara Bel Geddes and based on Roald Dahl's great short story. Originally broadcast on April 13, 1958, it was one of the 17 Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes directed by Hitchcock himself.

Holding the No. 9 spot in the current AFI "100 Years ... 100 Movies" list, the perverse and unsettling Vertigo pretty much defines the psychological thriller genre. James Stewart stars as a retired policeman who falls -- obsessively and creepily -- in love with a mysterious icy blonde (Kim Novak, a revelation) that he's been hired to follow. Other major characters here are played to perfection by Barbara Bel Geddes and the city of San Francisco. Bernard Herrmann's moody score is one of the greats.

The bonus materials include the half-hour American Movie Classics documentary Obsessed with Vertigo: New Life for Alfred Hitchcock's Masterpiece, narrated by Roddy McDowall and featuring interviews with Kim Novak, Barbara Bel Geddes, Hitchcock's daughter Patricia Hitchcock, producer Herbert Coleman, restoration team Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, and others involved in the movie's production and recent revivification. Also here is the alternate ending Hitchcock shot to satisfy censors in countries where a character just can't get away with murder. The audio commentary comes from Vertigo participants, associate producer Herbert Coleman, restoration team Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, and Steven Smith, author of A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann.

New here is a second audio commentary track by William Friedkin (director of The Exorcist), and the exemplary four-part Partners in Crime: Hitchcock's Collaborators, about the contributions of costume designer Edith Head, composer Bernard Herrmann, title creator Saul Bass, and Hitchcock's "muse," his wife Alma. Another portion of the 1962 Truffaut-Hitchcock interview is here too, as is the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "The Case of Mr. Pelham," starring Tom Ewell.

Gary W. Tooze at the invaluable DVD Beaver compares this Universal Legacy Series edition -- with detailed screenshots and specs -- alongside previous DVD editions.

Now, my personal favorite of the three, Rear Window, is a pitch-perfectly entertaining blend of suspense, murder, romance, and humor, blending all of Hitch's gifts into a classic of what the director called "pure cinema." James Stewart is the daredevil photographer confined, thanks to a broken leg, to his Greenwich Village apartment. There he observes the various mini-dramas playing out in the apartments visible from his window. At the same time, he's wrestling with his own personal drama involving the socialite girlfriend who wants to marry him (Grace Kelly, the only woman who challenges Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca at the pinnacle of my Most Beautiful Women in the Movies list). But what's Raymond Burr up to across the way, with those knives and saws and his missing wife?

This new edition brings over all the extras from older DVD versions, including Laurent Bouzereau's fine 2000 documentary Rear Window Ethics: Remembering and Restoring a Hitchcock Classic (with Peter Bogdanovich, Curtis Hanson, and archive footage of Hitchcock, Kelly, and Stewart), as well as the 13-minute Conversation with Screenwriter John Michael Hayes.

New for this edition is the terrific commentary track from John Fawell, author of Hitchcock's Rear Window: The Well-Made Film. Also here is Pure Cinema: Through the Eyes of the Master, with Scorsese and others exploring the director's concept of letting movies do what movies do best, Breaking Barriers: The Sound of Hitchcock (how he used sound as a dynamic source of style and effect), and more from the Truffaut-Hitchcock interview. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode is "Mr. Blanchard's Secret."

Again, those eagle-eyed obsessives at DVD Beaver give us a thorough comparison of this edition alongside previous DVDs of Rear Window. And again I raise my highball glass to them for it.