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                         Death Screams     1982     Arrow Video Blu ray

                                                It is easy to understand how Death Screams (released on videocassette as House of Death) flew under the radar in 1982. In that

                                    year alone over 70 horror films were released and 20 of those were slashers, including Friday the 13th Part III, The House on Sorority

                                     Row, Pieces, and The Dorm That Dripped Blood. Shot in Shelby, North Carolina, the film will never be considered a high-water mark

                                    of the genre but possesses the kind of rural charm that makes regional films so unique. What sets this slasher apart from its brethren

                                    is that it takes over half its running time setting up the characters, their relationships with each other, and to the small, unnamed

                                    town. This might sound like a prescription for a nap and for some viewers it will be. Others, however, will find the home-spun

                                  dialogue and quaint ambience to be of more interest than the so-called plot. Despite the standard stereotypes—a fat sheriff, the horny

waitress, a mentally-challenged young man, the virginal good girl who lives with her grandmother—each character is unique and memorable.

The plot is de rigueur for 1980s slasher fare: a mysterious figure kills off teens in the small town until the maniac’s identity is revealed in the final moments. The story begins with a couple making out on a motorcycle (because the production could not afford a car!) and their deaths end up being the last murders until the climax kicks into gear. The reason for the killing spree is so murky and poorly addressed that it has to be clarified in the making-of featurette. As with all slasher films there are a number of possible suspects who might be behind all the bloodletting—one reason why so much time is invested in establishing every character—although no one really stands out from anybody else as the prime candidate. All this, plus low-rent special effects and scenes that make no sense, ultimately cause Death Screams to be little more than just a footnote in slasher movie history.

          It is hard to pinpoint a lead character. Initially it seems like it will be Kathy (Andria Savio—Stryker, 1983) and her boyfriend, Bob (Curt Rector—Dogs of Hell, 1983). But the focus shifts to Lily, played by January 1977 Playboy Playmate of the Month Susan Kiger (H.O.T.S., 1979; Galaxina, 1980). She attracts the attention of Coach Neil Marshall (Martin Tucker—Maximum Overdrive, 1986) but the potential romance fails to materialize. Then the focus flips again to a group of partying high school students, all of whom are played by actors far too old for their roles. We spend an inordinate amount of time with them at the carnival, by the river, in the cemetery, and trapped in a dilapidated house. By the final reel, Kathy, Bob, and Lily have all joined the group, but the party is over when the killer returns with a vengeance. As if to make up for lost time, the body count goes through the roof in the final twenty minutes.

          A jolly and believable supporting cast surrounds all the young victims. William T. Hicks (A Day of Judgment, 1981) is corpulent Sheriff Avery, who might be an even worse law dog than Detective Lutz in Jackie Kong’s The Being (1981). There is the mentally handicapped Casey (Hanns Manship—The Fury, 1978; A Day of Judgment, 1981); Edna Sharp (Helene Tryon—Dogs of Hell, 1983) as Lily’s no-bones-about-it grandmother; and Agnes Bottomly (Mary Fran Lyman—Brainstorm, 1983), Casey’s mother.

          If you have noticed, a number of these actors also appeared in the other productions together. That is because some were regularly cast (like Michael Ripper at Hammer Studios) for work at Earl Owensby Studios in North Carolina, best known for its output of drive-in and grindhouse fare.  Between 1974 and 1988, E.O. Studios turned out thirty-three feature-length films, including a partnership with Jim Cameron for 1988’s The Abyss. Producer Charles Ison also knew a number of the actors from relationships in the regional movie business of the South. Part of the reason why Death Screams is such fun is the already-established relationships between so many of the actors. Holding all this together with a steady, if not inventive eye, is director David Nelson, the older brother on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” sitcom that ran from 1952-1966 on ABC-TV. He also directed Rare Breed (1984), filmed in part at E.O. Studios.

          Arrow Video presents the 1.85:1 aspect ratio Blu ray in the best-looking condition this film has ever seen (compare it with the House of Death alternate VHS opening title supplement). With the exception of some outdoor night shots, details emerge that most viewers will never have known were there: magazine titles, signs, extras in the background, the comic book the boy is reading in the store, and so on. Sound is clear and consistent throughout.

        Supplementing the film is a brand-new audio commentary featuring producer Charles Ison and special effects artist Worth Keeter, moderated by Phil Smoot. A little shaky at first, the trio soon hit their stride.  Ison and Keeter’s insights and remembrances of the cast, crew, and production are a nice addition to the documentary supplement, “All the Fun of the Scare: The Making of Death Screams.” This 32 m., 53 s. making-of includes new interviews with Ison, Keeter, actors Manship and Rector, writer Paul Elliott, and others. It is a half-hour well spent to discover more about the production and to feel the genuine affection the participants have for one another. A second audio commentary is handled by The Hysteria Continues, a podcast group effort that promotes itself as “slasher trash with panache.” It offers some different insights by way of its approachable enthusiasm and makes a palatable companion piece to the other material. Additional supplements include radio and TV spots and an image gallery.

                         Doomwatch     1972     Kino Lorber Blu ray / DVD

                                                 Doomwatch is a British government agency tasked with curtailing pollution and other threats to the environment. One of

                                       its scientists, Dr. Del Shaw (Ian Bannen, From Beyond the Grave, 1974; The Watcher in the Woods, 1980) goes to the island of

                                       Balfe to collect specimens of shoreline life following an oil spill. His presence on the reclusive, possibly inbred isle is as

                                       welcome as a turd in the well. People glare at him from behind curtains, kids throw rocks at him, and no one is willing to assist

                             him even in finding a place to spend the night.

                                         After getting the runaround from several locals, Shaw finally secures lodgings. There he meets local schoolteacher Victoria

                                Brown (Judy Geeson, Inseminoid, 1981; The Lords of Salem, 2012), also a resident of the guesthouse. He begins collecting samples to be sent back to London but every time he leaves the village a gun-toting local shadows his every movement. Even Shaw’s discovery of a child’s body buried in a shallow grave—and an attack on him by a disfigured man—are not enough to galvanize anyone to interest or action. Frustrated yet confident that something dangerous is going on, Shaw returns to London where the other scientists at Doomwatch have discovered some peculiarities in the samples obtained on Balfe. Shaw is dispatched to the island once more, this time to collect samples of the local fish.

          When his fishing expedition reels in a number of oversized fish, tests indicate the presence of a pituitary growth hormone. A visit to Sir Geoffrey (the always snooty George Sanders), an Admiral in the Royal Navy, secures the confession that the Navy did use the waters around Balfe to dump radioactive waste. But Geoffrey is adamant that the island’s issues aren’t caused by the Navy. And he’s partially correct.

          Doomwatch discovers a company that has illegally dumped barrels of the pituitary growth hormone into the same waters as the radioactive waste canisters. The radiation causes the inferior drums of PGH to expand and rupture, releasing the hormone into the waters and infecting the fish. Since fish is the primary staple for Balfe residents, the PGH has infected them as well, leading to violent outbursts and advanced cases of acromegaly.

          Shaw, accompanied by Victoria, calls a meeting of the islanders to explain these events. But will they listen to him? Or will their hormone-driven rage result in more serious consequences?

          Doomwatch was a big screen version of the hit BBC1 television show of the same name that aired 38 episodes from 1970-1972. The Department for the Observation and Measurement of Scientific Work--nicknamed “Doomwatch”--was an agency developed to investigate ecological and technological concerns that affected the UK and the world. Dr. Spencer Quist (John Paul, bearing a solid resemblance to then-current “Doctor Who” lead Jon Pertwee) reprises his role in the film, as do Simon Oates and Joby Blanshard (although relegated to background parts in favor of Bannen’s starring turn). The leading female scientist in the film went to Jean Trend instead of television’s Vivien Sherrard.

          “Doctor Who” alumnus Gerry Davis and Dr. Christopher “Kit” Pedler (the chaps responsible for the creation of the Cybermen) developed “Doomwatch” for television. Pedler had also served as a scientific advisor on “Who,” thus “Doomwatch” was solidly grounded in scientific and ecological reality.

          The film is at its best in the first half as Shaw tries to make friends and uncover the secret of the reticent islanders. His moral sense of justice, coupled with the reactions of the villagers, would be duplicated the following year (with equally oppressive sincerity) in Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973). There are also obvious parallels to 1967’s Island of Terror, which featured an isolated island community in danger.

          The second half of the film loses some of its edge due to the number of location changes. Scenes jump swiftly from the island to London and back again, often giving the viewer little time to make the jump as well. One transition in particular is very jarring, likely indicating material that was dropped: Shaw prepares to make a phone call from the island, then the scene cuts immediately to the Doomwatch labs where he is hard at work with his colleagues.

          The story struggles to keep up in the final third. Shaw, Quist and the other scientists visit the Royal Navy, the chemical factory responsible for the pituitary growth hormone, and the shady dumping business, in order to link all their evidence and uncover the truth about Balfe. The quick edits from one locale to another and the abbreviated dialog indicate there was still too much material to work through and too little time to do so. However, the film finishes strong with Shaw and Victoria trying to help the increasingly antagonistic villagers who turn on them.

          Veteran Hammer alum Peter Sasdy (Taste the Blood of Dracula, 1970; Countess Dracula, 1971; Hands of the Ripper, 1971) directs with workmanlike ease, showcasing the rugged beauty of the Cornwall locations and emphasizing the claustrophobic confines of the village’s warren of alleys and cramped cottages. Producer Tony Tenser is also familiar to genre fans for his production work on Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), 1968’s Witchfinder General, and The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), among others.

          Doomwatch received a Region 1 DVD release in 2001 through Image Entertainment as part of their “EuroShock Collection.” In 2016, the UK’s Simply Media released a 7-DVD boxed set of all surviving “Doomwatch” television episodes.
          Kino Lorber’s Blu ray polishes up previous video presentations. Daytime shots in the Cornwall locations are brighter and cleaner in 1080p, revealing better depth of field and enhancing the location cinematography. Interior scenes are also lustrous and skin tones maintain a consistent level throughout. A few nighttime exterior shots (including the opening scene) remain murky, with most of the lost detail a consequence of the original film stock and lighting. English is the only language option and the sole extra is an upgraded trailer.

Doomwatch, Blu ray

                          Dracula 3D / Argento's Dracula     2012     IFC Midnight DVD

                                                 Dario Argento’s nineteenth feature film (not counting 1990’s Two Evil Eyes) was an Official Selection at Cannes in the Out

                                       of Competition category--a group of films the selection committee chooses to recognize, but which do not compete for any

                                       prizes. Argento does with Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” what he did with Gaston Leroux’s “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1998: he

                                       plays fast and loose with the well-known story, investing it with his own peculiar variations, but never delivering a fully

                                       satisfying film.

                                                 In Dracula 3D (onscreen title: Dario Argento’s Dracula), Jonathan Harker is summoned to Castle Dracula to catalog the

                                       count’s library. After seeing a picture of Mina Harker, Dracula believes her to be his lost love. He lures Mina to the village of

                                       Passburg through her friend, Lucy Kisslinger (Asia Argento). Lucy dies by the Count’s fangs, and shortly thereafter Abraham Van Helsing--played by a grizzled Rutger Hauer--arrives to stake Lucy and put an end to Dracula. Van Helsing is joined by the village priest in an appreciative nod to Andrew Keir’s Father Sandor from Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966). The climactic showdown, however, is too abrupt, as if Argento grew bored with the material. This apathy permeates the whole production, causing the film to be an unsettled and emotionless affair.

           Four people authored the story and screenplay, resulting in a muddled, inconsistent plot. There’s also an oppressively artificial feel to it. This is particularly evident in the plants used for set decoration. They are blatantly fake, all of them an identical glossy green. This artificiality carries over into the acting as well. For a gothic tale of passion, there is no feeling or purpose in the performances. Asia Argento appears uninterested and Rutger Hauer sleepwalks through his meager lines. Everyone in front of the camera seems intent on merely pulling in a paycheck.

Thomas Kretschmann--whom fans may remember as the rapist/murderer “Alfredo Grossi” from Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)--portrays Dracula. He gives an underplayed interpretation of the character. Stoic and emotionless, but brutally violent at the twitch of a finger, we found ourselves thinking of Christopher Lee’s portrayal of Dracula. Calm, devious, and magnetic, Lee’s Dracula exerted a malign presence, manifested in his explosive rages. Kretschmann carries this off well.

          Argento’s eccentric interpretation of the novel gives us a Dracula bestowed with Jedi-like powers to throw people across a room or break shackles with a gesture. He appears and disappears in the blink of an eye. And his shape changing abilities include an owl, a car-sized praying mantis, and a swarm of flies (the best and most effectively fresh concept). An interesting addition to the story is a pact that exists between Dracula and the village elders (not dissimilar to the relationship Dracula has with the gypsies in Stoker’s novel). The details of the pact are never revealed, but it would seem the people provide a blood tribute in exchange for certain benevolences from the Count. The town leaders meet secretly to discuss breaking this pact, only to have Dracula interrupt them with ferocious payback in what is the film’s strongest scene.

          Relying on more computer-generated imagery than he has ever employed, Argento does himself no favors. The CGI is painfully obvious. Instead of being an element that helps advance the story, it hijacks the viewer’s attention by its conspicuousness. The two things that refuse to lend themselves to CGI—wolves and fire—are prominently featured. It’s hard not to cringe at what the director let pass into the final cut.

Argento acknowledges Dracula’s cinematic history with a few tips of the hat. In addition to the priest who tries to help Van Helsing, Dracula’s double-breasted frock coat references 1922’s Nosferatu. And composer Claudio Simonetti’s ghostly, string-heavy score weaves in gypsy music that could be straight from an old Universal Studios Dracula film.

            Since his directorial debut (1970’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), film critics have accused Argento of being misogynistic. However, it should be noted that the women here are strong characters. Tanja (Dracula’s buxom bride) displays some of the most realistic emotions in the film. Her grieving mother takes the initiative to leave Passburg and alert the authorities. And despite being mesmerized by Dracula, Mina delivers his killing blow with a garlic-laced silver bullet.

          It’s no secret that Dario Argento is no longer the filmmaker he once was. His body of work has gone downhill over the past two decades, and Dracula 3D only adds momentum to that decline. He misses the mark yet again with this disappointing, artificial effort.  We viewed the standard DVD version, but cannot imagine how any 3D enhancements would improve the overall film. Special features include a worthwhile sixty-three minute behind-the-scenes supplement, a trailer, and the unnecessary Claudio Simonetti “Kiss Me Dracula” music video.

Argento, Dracula, Blu ray
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