M.I.A.: The Best Unreleased Horror Anthology, The Willies

To be clear, I'm not saying The Willies is the best horror anthology ever.  I'm not saying it's a greater artistic achievement than Tales From the Crypt, Black Sabbath or Creepshow.  But I am saying it's the best horror anthology yet to be released (and no, the Echo Bridge DVD doesn't count, for reasons you're about to see); and even more than that, I'd say it's better than a lot of the amusing but weaker anthology flicks we've been enjoying from labels like Scream Factory and Code Red lately, i.e. After Midnight, Nightmares, Encounter With the Unknown or Screams of a Winter Night.  Those are all fun, but The Willies is more fun.  I think some people are put off by the fact that it's PG-13.  It's even been packaged with children's films.  But that is just flat out wrong.  The Willies is actually the darkest and most twisted of all the films I've mentioned so far.  Its low budget does show, but apart from that, it's a kick.
The Willies is written and directed by none other than Scuz of Return Of the Living Dead fame, Brian Peck (and for those of you whose hands just shot up in the air, I know, and I'll come back to that).  And it's pure EC Comics: entertaining and gross stories of human weakness culminating in twist endings, poetic justice and monsters.  It's got a simple but effective wrap-around where a bunch of kids - including Samwise himself, Sean Astin - out camping at night telling each other spooky stories.  Then the structure gets a little unusual.  Instead of an film evenly divided into three or four stories, they build up in length.  So we start with little short vignettes: i.e. an old lady's poodle gets wet and she decides to dry it off by putting it in the microwave.  That's it; runs about two minutes, but it does set a more honest tone of the kind of stories kids would tell each other.  Then you've got a standard-length story about a kid who finds a monster in the school bathroom, reminiscent of Stephen King's tiger story in Skeleton Crew.  Then, finally there's a surprisingly long story that takes up more than half the film's running time.  Fortunately, it's pretty great; about a maladjusted kid who makes dioramas out of flies.
One thing that helps set this 80s anthology apart from many of its peers, besides its writing, is it's excellent cast.  The kids give surprisingly strong performances for unknown child actors, and some dependable veterans show up in supporting roles, including fellow Return Of the Living Dead alums James Karen and Clu Gulager, Twin Peaks' Kimmy Robertson and Dana Ashbrook, Kathleen Freeman and a whole bevy of television sitcom and character actors, including Kirk Cameron and Tracey Gold in one of the most surprising, how-were-they-able-to-clear-that? cameos in horror history.  Every minor role has an extensive resume, though you'd have to have been watching television in the 80s to recognize most of them.  But even if you don't, it still gives the production a solid, professional air that's only countered a bit by the film's special effects.  And it just has some weird vibes.  For example, you've got a farmer dressed up like something out of Hee-Haw, suggesting they're trying to make a safer Goosebumps-like "entry horror" film for younger audiences, but then it's mixed with more adult sensibilities.  I actually kind of like this unusual mix-match of tones, but then it's genuinely disturbing when you let yourself consider who made it.
Alright, ugh.  I guess let's just address this now and get it over with.  I'm a big believer in separating the art from the artist and have zero interest in celebrity gossip or the filmmakers' personal lives.  But whenever I see fans on forums wondering why we haven't gotten a decent special edition of The Willies yet, it's hard not to assume at least part of the reason is that the film's writer/ director is a convicted child abuser.  Now, admittedly, we still get plenty of quality Polanski discs, and nobody seems to be boycotting the X-Men movies, but Scream got some blow back recently with their Jeepers Creepers editions, and frankly, I can't exactly say those reactions are unwarranted.  So I would still like to see this film get a quality release.  After all, it represents the work of a whole ton of talented artists who never did anything to anyone, and again, if we can get fancy blus of everything from Chinatown to Dark House, and Scuz can host the More Brains documentary, there's no reason to single The Willies out.  But you can certainly understand why DVD artisans don't rush to this one as opposed to any catalog title.
So The Willies isn't technically unreleased, but as you've been seeing in the screenshots, what we've got looks like a fuzzy, old VHS tape.  It's an old barebones DVD from Echo Bridge, and they've reissued it many times, but it's always just a repackaging of the same product.  There's the standard solo disc, the aforementioned Kid-Approved Collector's Set, a version paired up with a film called Under Wraps, and a version that comes with a CD of scary sounds.  I kind of regret not going for the one with the CD.  But as far as The Willies itself, there's really only one option, and it's not pretty.
2008 Echo Bridge DVD
So yeah, it's a boxy ol' 1.31:1 fullscreen transfer.  It doesn't look terribly well shot, with lots of flat, boring close-ups; but maybe seeing the film restored would fix that to some degree.  It wouldn't be the firts horror film people assumed was shot poorly due to a terrible transfer.  But for now, it's just ugly on top of ugly.  And let's see, what else can we throw at it to make it be worse?  Interlacing?  Yes, it's got that, too.  But hey, the picture's so soft, it almost smudges that out.  Um, yay?  Also the colors are faded with plenty of grey blacks.  The audio's not as fuzzy as you might expect looking at the screenshots, but it's not exactly high fidelity.  And of course there are no subtitle options, alternate audio mixes or special features of any kind.  No trailers, no nothin'.  This is as no frills as it gets.
On the upside, these discs aren't exactly rare.  They're all over the place, plentiful and cheap as dirt.  Unfortunately, that's not all they have in common with dirt.  These are nothing more than place holders and they've been holding this film's place long enough.  Somebody's got to come around and restore this film already; it's killin' me!

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