In one of the most unlikely cinematic pairings of all time, David Nelson (who rose to fame as a child star playing alongside his real-life family in the wholesome TV show The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet) directs Playboy Playmate and adult star Susan Kiger in this bodycount-heavy, long overlooked slice of Southern fried hack-and-slash - 1982’s Death Screams!
Late one night, a young couple are brutally murdered at a make-out spot by an unseen assailant, their bodies tossed into the nearby river. As the lifeless lovers drift slowly downstream, the residents of the town excitedly prepare themselves for their annual carnival, unaware that a machete-wielding maniac with a twisted grudge is lurking in their midst. When a group of teen revellers plan a late-night after party down in the local cemetery, they unwittingly set the stage for a bloodbath.
Death Screams, which was released on US VHS as House of Death (and on UK DVD with the reels in the wrong order!) oozes early ’80s regional slasher charm from its every pore, boasting an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink final reel featuring slashed throats, bisected bodies and exploding heads. At long last arriving on Blu-ray and lovingly restored from the only-known existing 35mm print, this little-seen slasher classic is ready to carve its way into the bleeding hearts of horror fans everywhere!
Previously only available in hard-to-see VHS and DVD editions (the UK one apparently featuring scenes out of sequence), David Nelson’s Death Screams receives a definitive edition from the folks at Arrow Video. Arrow presents the film on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1.
All things considered (and based on the reputation of previous home video presentations) what we get here is rather remarkable, despite some inherent limitations baked into the source. Sadly, all that was available to Arrow for their new 2K restoration was a “badly faded” 35mm release print, which will offer limited definition and weak shadow details. For a film where much of the “action” occurs at night this will of course be a significant hindrance, and right off it’s a bit of a problem: the opening kill (which has also been poorly edited) is hard to see and it takes a second to realize that the victims are being garroted, but how it's all being accomplished isn't easy to discern. To be fair, based on the comments found throughout the supplements on the disc, it sounds like it wasn’t even clear how the victims were being killed in previous home video editions, so I guess that's technically an improvement.
The film’s conclusion, which takes place at night in a dimly lit setting, suffers some of the same issues, but you can make out enough. The dark backgrounds look pretty flat but it helps that the black levels aren’t a mushy mess: they end up being deep with some decent gradients where possible. The daytime sequences on the other hand come out looking pretty good, and I was impressed with the colours, which manage to deliver impressive saturation levels despite the fact the print is supposed to be severely faded. Definition isn’t great, and the image is always fuzzy around the edges, but it could be worse, and the finer details are still clear.
What helps things out is that Arrow has pulled off a solid scan and final encode; despite the source being limited this presentation at the very least has a nice film-like quality to it, rendering the fairly heavy grain in an impressive manner. And while there are still a number of small marks and tram lines littered about, it's a lot cleaner than I expected, looking as though Arrow has put in an incredible amount of work into their restoration.
In the end it’s far from perfect, and the image can still be hard to see at times, but considering what Arrow had to work with and the film’s history this looks significantly better than it probably should.
The film comes with a lossless PCM 1.0 monaural English soundtrack. It’s fine, probably better than I was expecting, but still limited. Dialogue is clear and the track is fairly clean, but it’s very flat. The music is also a bit edgy, and some brasher moments are harsh. But, again, I was expecting far worse.
Arrow pulls off an impressive little special edition for the film. They first include two audio commentaries, one featuring producer Charles Ison and special effects artist Worth Keeter (moderated by filmmaker Phil Smoot) and another featuring members of The Hysteria Continues Podcast, including (I think) Justin Kerswell, Erik Threlfall, and Nathan Johnson.
The first track, featuring producer and effects artist, is a bit disappointing. They don’t sound terribly fond of the film, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the track just ends up being a bit of a drag. It livens up when they share stories about the production, how they had to constantly adapt and deal with the loooowww budget, and the many relationships that formed on set, along with surprise mentions of Lord Buckethead and Al Adamson (who sounds to have used the same fair that appears in this film), but a lot of the times it felt like rambling. At the very least, they do point out the aspects of the film that they feel do work.
The second track is a fan track but a fun and honest one. This is where a lot about previous home video releases come to light as the three recount how they first came across the film on shoddy VHS releases, admiring how well things have turned out here, and they also talk about their initial reactions to the film, which were not very good. But from here they explain how and why the film has grown on them, taking pleasure in both pointing out the film’s “strengths,” citing influences from other films and the more character driven nature of the story, and also commenting on its missteps, like why would someone just shot by an arrow run to a merry-go-round instead of looking for help!? They also discuss the slasher films of this era and how hits like Friday the 13th and even the comedy Animal House both played into influencing the tone those films, which then leads to discussion on other films. I admittedly didn’t think there was much to be said about Death Screams, but the three manage to keep the track engaging and informative.
Arrow has also produced a decent 33-minute making-of documentary called All the Fun of the Scare, featuring Ison and Keeter again, along with writer Paul Elliott and actors Hanns Manship, Curt Rector, Sharon Alley (who also worked as both producer and editor assistants), and Robert “Billy Bob” Melton. The documentary does cover some of the same material covered in the commentaries, but there are more stories around the production from other members of the crew, while writer Elliott explains what he was trying to accomplish, with it sounding as though he was inspired by Agatha Christie. There’s also discussion around an abandoned death scene that was replaced because it was too confusing, though I can’t say what they replaced it with, that odd merry-go-round death, is any better. It's an amusing documentary because you get the sense most don’t think that highly of the film, but they seem to be touched by the idea that it still has its share of fans all these years later.
Arrow then throws in the alternate VHS opening, sourced from VHS, with the only difference being the title of the film, House of Death. You also get to see how murky the VHS actually was. The disc then includes several radio and TV spots, one of the TV spots being a play on Hitchcock’s trailers where he would make an appearance. Photos from the shoot of that TV spot are included in the collection of photo galleries that Arrow has also thrown in, which also includes galleries featuring production and behind-the-scenes photos, along with a gallery of promotional material that also shows the VHS cover that was the influence for Arrow’s limited edition with a sleeve. The production photos provide a behind-the-scenes look at some of the effects work, including that abandoned death scene. Unsurprisingly there are also probably more photos around the skinny-dipping sequence than any other moment in the film. The included booklet features a short essay by Brian Albright, who writes about the film and the North Carolina region's "film industry."
It's not packed by any means, but I was still rather impressed at the effort Arrow has put into the film. It’s one of those cases where the supplements end being more interesting than the actual film they’re talking about.
Despite the many limitations, from the quality of the materials to the quality of the film itself, Arrow has managed to put together an excellent special edition for the film with about as solid a presentation as one could hope for. An easy recommendation for fans of the film or slasher films in general.