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Chris Hicks: Scary tales, wartime drama among new DVDs

Kate Hudson, left, uncovers a dark secret working for Gena Rowlands and John Hurt in "The Skeleton Key."
Kate Hudson, left, uncovers a dark secret working for Gena Rowlands and John Hurt in "The Skeleton Key."
Merrick Morton, Universal Studios

Here's a variety of films that are new to DVD this week.

"The Skeleton Key" (Universal, 2005, PG-13, $29.98). Kate Hudson stars in this voodoo-horror thriller as a nurse who takes a position in an antiquated home in the Louisiana swamps. She is hired to care for an aging stroke victim (John Hurt), but it isn't long before his wife (Gena Rowlands) seems spooky, the house seems spooky, even those in the surrounding area seem spooky. And then, at the end, there's a twist.

This is pretty standard stuff, and even the ending makes it seem more like an episode of Rod Serling's "Night Gallery" than a feature. But it has its moments, Hudson works hard and even in an evil role, Rowlands is a pleasure, as usual.

Extras: Separate widescreen and full-frame editions, audio commentary, deleted scenes, making-of featurettes, language options (English, Spanish, French), subtitle options (English, Spanish, French), chapters.

"Scary True Stories: Ten Haunting Tales From the Japanese Underground" (DarkSky, 1991-92, not rated, $19.98). This is actually a collection of three horror-anthology shows from Japan — "Scary True Stories," "Scary True Stories: Night Two" and "Scary True Stories: Realm of the Specters."

All the episodes were shot on videotape, and they're actually more creepy than scary. Most of them focus on children and teens. "The Hospital at Midnight" in "Night Two" is pretty good, and the three stories in "Specters" — "My Friend in the Stairwell," "Paralysis" and "The Black Hair in the Abandoned Building" — are even better.

Extras: Full frame, 10 short films, in Japanese with English subtitles, storyboards, trailers, chapters.

"The Last Days of Pompeii" (Warner, 1935, not rated, b/w, $19.95). This creaky but enjoyable drama, about a blacksmith who becomes a gladiator in ancient Rome and his love for his young son, was created by the team that gave us the original "King Kong." Earnest performances (led by Preston Foster and Basil Rathbone, with some great character actors in support) help, and, in the end when Mt. Vesuvius explodes, there are some darn good special effects for the time.

Extras: Full frame, trailers, subtitle options (English, French, Spanish), chapters.

"Goodnight Mr. Tom" (WGBH, 1998, not rated, $19.95). This "Masterpiece Theatre" presentation is a typically stirring British TV movie, the story of a troubled but talented young boy who, during World War II, is evacuated from London to a small English village where he bonds with a cranky old gent — played to perfection by John Thaw. Tragic situations follow, and the drama is thick but never false.

Extras: Full frame, optional English subtitles, chapters. (If you can't find this title in a local store, it can be ordered by phone at 800-949-8670, or on the Web at shop.wgbh.org.)

"The True Stories Collection: Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story" (MPI, 1995, not rated, $9.98).

"The True Stories Collection: Guilt By Association" (MPI, 2002, not rated, $9.98).

"The True Stories Collection: Her Desperate Choice" (a k a "Desperate Justice," MPI, 1996, not rated, $9.98).

"The True Stories Collection: My Breast" (MPI, 1994, not rated, $9.98). These four films are all pretty good examples of what TV movies do to convey messages as well as tell sad true stories.

"Choices" (a Lifetime Channel movie) is set in 1914 New York, where nurse Margaret Sanger (Dana Delaney) tries to preach safe sex and family planning. Rod Steiger co-stars.

"Guilt" (a Court TV film) has Mercedes Ruehl as a single mother whose boyfriend is a drug dealer, and when her home is raided she is sentenced to 20 years in jail.

"Desperate" is more typical, with Faith Ford as a woman trying to keep her daughter out of the hands of an abusive husband.

"Breast" (a CBS film) is based on the best-seller "My Breast: One Woman's Cancer Story," with a great performance by Meredith Baxter as a woman who discovers she has breast cancer.

Extras: Full frame, chapters.

"Second Best" (TH!NKFilm, 2005; R for language; $29.99). Joe Pantoliano and a cast of familiar faces star in this dark comedy that isn't nearly as funny as it thinks it is. He's a failed publisher, and he sits around with other characters who talk about what it means to be a loser and make vulgar jokes at the expense of women.

Extras: Full frame, audio commentary (Pantoliano, writer/director Eric Weber), photo gallery, chapters.

"The Honeymooners" (Paramount, 2005, PG (edited and re-rated from original PG-13), $29.95). A bad idea that receives even worse execution, this alleged remake of the great 1950s sitcom starring Jackie Gleason and Art Carney has Cedric the Entertainer as Ralph, Mike Epps as Norton, Garbrielle Union as Alice and Regina Hall as Trixie. Making the family black is fine, but making the film unfunny is unforgivable.

Extras: Full frame, audio commentary (Cedric, Epps, director John Schultz), deleted/extended scenes, making-of featurette, trailers, language options (English, French), subtitle options (English, Spanish), chapters.

"Citizen Verdict" (Visual, 2002; R for violence, language, sex, nudity; $24.99). This thriller exploits what might happen if a reality-TV-viewing audience could vote on a trial and impose the death penalty. An interesting idea but the movie's trash. Then again, what do you expect when it stars Jerry Springer (who gets billing above bored-looking Armand Assante and Roy Scheider)?

Extras: Full frame, making-of featurette, optional English subtitles, chapters.


E-mail: hicks@desnews.com