Memo to Platinum: putting “Enhanced Audio 5.1” on the cover of your DVD may be technically correct, but just because the little blue light on my amp comes on, does not make the movies in surround sound. Crank up the volume all you want on this baby, you’ll just get hiss out of the majority of your speakers. Stereo is about as good as it gets, and even that’s pushing it for some of the movies included here.
This box-set does showcase another couple of standard tricks for the genre: the “similarly named” movie, in this case, Silent Night, Deadly Night, and the “before they were famous” star, here Kim Cattrall, whose appearance in the TVM Good Against Evil – her second ever role – predates Sex and the City by more than two decades. Unfortunately, for those of us who are not Cattrall or Bela Lugosi completists, this set hasn’t got much to offer. Just Before Dawn is the sole bright(ish) spot, a serviceable teenagers-in-rural-peril movie which is no worse than modern attempts like Wrong Turn. The rest of the films will challenge your stamina more than your nerves, and instead of sleepless nights, you might find yourself unable to sustain consciousness to the closing credits.
Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972)
Dir: Theodore Gershuny
Star: Patrick O’Neal, Mary Woronov, James Patterson, Philip Bruns
Not to be confused with Silent Night, Deadly Night (a film about a killer Santa – which just begs for a slay/sleigh joke, though I’ll spare you), this may be the first Christmas slasher, though matters are clouded since this was apparently made two years before its 1974 release – in April, largely wasting the point of the whole festive theme. The reasons for the delay should be obvious to anyone watching: it’s cheap, poorly-made and badly thought-out. The idea is kinda cool – an abandoned house and a town with secrets, on (to borrow a line from Halloween) the night he came home – but it feels like they made the script up as they went along, filming scenes to cover the holes that suddenly appeared. The presence of a voice-over is normally a reliable warning sign, and here, it’s used in almost every other scene.
Having said that, the performances aren’t too bad: despite being the director’s wife, Woronov is her usual, reliable self and the presence of John Carradine as the local newspaper editor (not that he says a word – that’d have cost more money!) adds unexpected weight. There’s also a lengthy, surreal flashback sequence, shot in sepia, which resembles something from a German Expressionist film more than 70’s horror. It’s probably more memorable than anything else this has to offer, particularly the “killer-cam” shots, which are so over-used as to leave us wondering if we were going to get a POV sequence of him making a sandwich or going to the bathroom. The final explanation is, frankly, incredible, but if you remain interested that long, you’re doing better than we did.
Scared to Death (1946)
Dir: Christy Cabanne
Star: George Zucco, Bela Lugosi, Molly Lamont, Roland Varno
A country house. A loveless marriage. Bela Lugosi. And a pissed-off, deaf-mute midget. What could possibly go wrong? Well, we know right from the start, because this opens with the wife lying in the morgue. For no readily apparent reason, she then proceeds to recount her story, in a series of appallingly-abrupt flashbacks, to reveal how she was…Scared To Death! Look, it’s the title of the film, I really don’t think it counts as a significant spoiler. Often mentioned as the only appearance in colour by Lugosi (though he was also in 1930’s Viennese Nights and 1931’s Fifty Million Frenchmen), it’s clear from his very first appearance that he’s still milking the Dracula vein, cape draped elegantly over his shoulder. However, equally apparent are signs of the decline that would see Lugosi ending up in Ed Wood flicks.
Not helping matters are a cast unsure whether this is comedy or horror. Some, such as the incompetent cop (Nat Pendleton – who won a wrestling silver in the 1920 Olympics) or the bubble-headed girlfriend, seem intent on milking the script for every laugh, while Zucco, as the father-in-law/doctor plays it so straight our first guess was a secret past as a Nazi medical officer. [Given this was 1946, it’s plausible!] Apart from the morgue scenes, the film never leaves the house, and it feels like a stage play, with director Cabanne doing virtually nothing to dissuade you from this impression. Okay, I confess, we fell asleep in the middle of this, so we’re in no credible position to criticize the story. However, when everything else is so mediocre – the acting, the direction, even the scientific view of hypnosis (telepathic commands?) – plot becomes almost irrelevant. On the plus side, the midget (Angelo Rossito) went on to play the “brains” part of Master-Blaster in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. So that’s nice.
Good Against Evil (1977)
Dir: Paul Wendkos
Star: Dack Rambo, Elyssa Davalos, Kim Cattrall, Richard Lynch
Written by Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, this feels more like a pilot than a genuine, stand-alone TV-movie. It starts off playing like a sequel to Rosemary’s Baby, then kicks forward 20 years and becomes To The Devil A Daughter, which Hammer had made the previous year, even invoking the same demon, Astaroth. Jessica Gordon (Davalos) is being brought up to become Satan’s bride, but Lucifer wants the first shot at her, so when writer Andy Stuart (Rambo) starts dating her, the powers of darkness decide he must be removed. Then, a little over half-way through, the film heads for Exorcist territory, as Stuart goes to investigate the daughter of an old flame (Cattrall), who drew a pentangle while in a coma, and Gordon is all but forgotten.
The film more or less ends there, about 13 eps short of a satisfactory conclusion, and it has to be said, when it comes to getting rid of Stuart, the devil and his minions are pretty frickin’ incompetent. The big hint is the name of the main priest – Father Wheatley – and it has much the same Satanic pulp feel as the novel, though with the inevitable limitations on content imposed by the TV medium. The pauses for advert breaks are also particularly conspicuous, though the idea as a whole is not without potential. 1977 was, however, too late for The Exorcist bandwagon, and about two decades too early for the X-Files one. Now, it’s mostly remarkable for starring someone called “Rambo”, forever dating it as from a happy, innocent time before Stallone made that particular surname untenable.
Just Before Dawn (1981)
Dir: Jeff Lieberman
Star: Deborah Benson-Wald, Gregg Henry, George Kennedy, Jamie Rose
Five teens. One forest. And a homicidal killer. Ah, the simple joys of 1980’s slasher films. [Although, going by Wrong Turn, its cheap and cheerful recipe still appeals in the third millennium.] Here, they’re off on a weekend of camping and mountaineering, ignoring the dire warnings of a drunken hunter they meet on the road and the local park ranger (Kennedy), not to mention the audience, who have already seen one guy take a very large knife through the lower intestines and out the seat of his pants. Ouch. Unfortunately, this sets high expectations in the “imaginative deaths” department, to which the rest of the film has difficulties living up. One of the victims even bites the dust off-screen, a heinous cop-out hard to forgive.
On the plus side, Lieberman does a better job than usual of providing characters who do not have a number tattooed on their forehead, corresponding to their order of dispatch, though skinny-dipping remains a major cause of death, as ever. And while composer Brad Fiedel went on to score the likes of the Terminator films, the use of silence is effective and unnerving, and the location – Oregon’s Silver Falls State Park – is equally evocative. Constance (Benson-Wald) has a nice character arc, reminiscent of Ash in The Evil Dead, changing from wimp to heroine. In the end, however, the script seems to run out of sensible ideas, with the final dispatch in particular making a poor fist of things…and that’s a phrase chosen with particular care. Certainly better than I expected, but not as good as it could, and probably should, have been.