Regional Horrors (and other low-budget chillers)

Titles Reviewed:
Don't Look In The Basement (1973), Don't Open The Door (1974), Dracula's Last Rites (1980), Jack's Wife (1972), Keep My Grave Open (1976), Scared To Death (1981), Screams Of A Winter Night (1979), Scum Of The Earth (1974), So Sad About Gloria (1973)

See Also: the pages for Bill Rebane and Don Dohler.

Don't Look In The Basement

(USA, 1973) DIR-PROD: S.F. Brownrigg. SCR: Tim Pope. CAST: Rosie Holotik, Bill McGhee, Hugh Feagin, Betty Chandler, Gene Ross, Camilla Carr, Annabelle Weenick, Rhea MacAdams.

Brownrigg’s directorial debut was initially released as The Forgotten and did little business under that title. Hallmark Releasing changed the title to Don't Look In The Basement (perhaps ushering in the 70s trend of horror film titles with Don't) and re-released it with the famous campaign: "Keep repeating it’s only a movie! It’s only a movie!", also the tagline for their infamous release, Last House on the Left. These films often shared a profitable double bill, which kept them in rotation well into the 1980s.

While Don't Look In The Basement isn’t nearly as controversial as its co-feature, it is a strong and sometimes unpleasant film. It has no doubt remained a mini-favourite among horror aficionados for its atmosphere, colourful characters and weird violence. Seen in retrospect, one can evidence the seeds of the Brownrigg's talent that would become more assured in subsequent pictures.

Pretty Rosie Holotik (seen also in regional productions, Encounter With the Unknown and Twisted Brain), is Charlotte the new live-in nurse at the sanitarium. She was hired by Dr. Stephens, who was just killed in a bizarre behaviour modification experiment with one of his patients! The freaky head nurse Dr. Masters (Annabelle Weenick) becomes in charge, and shows Charlotte the unorthodox patient relations. As more grisly murders occur, one surmises that keeping every patient's doors unlocked isn't such a great idea.

This near plotless, character-driven movie follows the interactions between Charlotte and the patients that the staff considers to be a surrogate family: the man-child Sam (Bill McGhee, also in the great Texas-filmed comedy, Drive-In) who likes popsicles and toy boats, Harriet (Camilla Carr) who thinks her baby doll is a live human being, the pitiful tramp Allyson (Betty Chandler) who pines to be loved by everyone (including the poor telephone repairman), the judge (Gene Ross) who dropped the axe on the late doctor, as well as Sgt. Jaffee (Hugh Feagin), who still thinks a war is on. (Love the military drums on the soundtrack during his scenes.)

This picture shares with Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, in allowing one scene each where the patients are viewed as surprisingly lucid, normal human beings. It becomes increasingly hard to tell the difference between the insane and the supposedly stable characters. Likewise, Charlotte’s sanity erodes as the terror escalates.

Made in 12 days for under $100,000, this is a surprisingly good, efficient movie made with such little means. Although some scenes are rather pedestrian, the majority of this film shows a unique talent in development. In his first film as a director, S.F. Brownrigg (previously a sound man for fellow Texan Larry Buchanan), already shows his customary sense of claustrophobia (with handheld over-the-shoulder shots, canted angles, and strange close-ups), combined with Robert Alcott’s striking cinematography (especially the usage of foregrounds) for a memorable visual and visceral experience, culminating in an unsettling climax that one won’t soon forget. Don't Look In The Basement understandably remained the most popular film in Brownrigg’s canon, but for my money, his best work was to follow.

His subsequent films, Don't Open The Door, Scum Of The Earth, and Keep My Grave Open, share the unique feel that separates Brownrigg's work from his contemporaries. The intense pock-marked Gene Ross, raven-eyed Annabelle Weenick and weirdly alluring Camilla Carr (all previously seen in Buchanan's films) became Brownrigg's stock company of unique players. Don't Look In The Basement has been widely available on public domain DVDs for years. Apparently the Blu-ray by BrinkVision offers the film with a high-def transfer, in its original aspect ratio. The movie is on the same disc as the 2014 sequel (!), Don't Look In The Basement 2, directed by Brownrigg's son, Anthony.

Don't Open The Door

(USA, 1974) DIR: S.F. Brownrigg. SCR: Frank Schaefer, Kerry Newcomb. PROD: S.F. Brownrigg, Martin Jurow. CAST: Susan Bracken, Larry O'Dwyer, Gene Ross, Jim Harrell, Hugh Feagin, Annabelle Weenick, Rhea MacAdams.

A more accurate title for this picture would be Don’t Answer The Phone (which would have confused it with a 1980 exploitation film of the same name), as the heroine is constantly terrorized by her assailant on the telephone. On the other hand, this has an alternate title of Don't Hang Up, which lacks the same punch.

Judge Stemple (Gene Ross) feeds medications to old Miss Harriett (Rhea MacAdams), in a conspiracy with Dr. Crawther (Jim Harrell) and museum curator Mr. Kearn (Larry O'Dwyer), to make her so invalid that they can gain control of her estate. Brownrigg stock company regular Annabelle Weenick plays Stemple's psychologically abused wife Annie -not dissimilar from her role in It's Alive (1969), by her previous frequent collaborator Larry Buchanan- who sneakily summons Harriett’s granddaughter Amanda Post (Susan Bracken), to the town of Allerton to rightfully win back custody of her grandmother’s estate. This spunky young lady stands up to these corrupt men, but in short order she is victimized by constant phone calls, which gradually wear down her defense. Susan is already in a fragile state, as thirteen years earlier, she witnessed her mother stabbed to death in the pre-credits flashback, with a great shot of a stuffed animal hitting the ground, signifying the end of her innocence.

While this is another Brownrigg film that chronicles one’s slow progression into madness, at heart this is a southern Gothic tale. Everyone has a huge mansion with spiral staircases and skeletons in the closet. This is a ghost story where the dead don't roam the earth, but live on in people's hearts and minds. Kearn is as haunted by Susan’s mother as her daughter, as his museum is a shrine to her past. (Mannequins are a recurrent symbol: like memories, they are representations of real things.) However, there is really no supernatural horror in Brownrigg. Human monsters performing cruel acts are frightening enough.

With constant shots through keyholes and cracks in doors, and inventive camera angles (especially in the spellbinding ending on the staircase) Brownrigg and his frequent cinematographer Robert Alcott constantly give a sense of paranoia. When we think we’ve figured out who the true villain is, we’re still unnerved by the openness of the narrative, and question if our heroine was sane before the picture started. Brownrigg’s films never end satisfactorily; they simply stop before we sense that the next stage in the game will begin.

Dracula's Last Rites

(USA, 1980) DIR: Domonic Paris. SCR: Ben Donnelly, Domonic Paris. PROD: Kelly Van Horn. CAST: Patricia Lee Hammond, Gerald Fielding, Mimi Weddell, Victor Jorge, Michael Lally, Alfred Steinel.

Several years ago, I found VHS tapes of Dracula's Last Rites and three other films, all on the Paragon label, for $1.99 each. The cashier asked incredulously: “You want these?!?” His reaction was fitting, because the slipcovers were rippled with water damage. These tapes seemed rescued from the depths, much like the films Paragon distributed. Their catalogue consisted of the oddest films from around the globe, made even more odd and displaced in murky, often-greenish transfers.

Odd, alienating, and no-frills surely describes Last Rites, so named on the opening credits, and its theatrical run. This is one of several titles in Paragon’s catalogue that were released by Cannon, when they still had an identity crisis -pre Chuck Norris, pre Ninja- in their oddball selection of imports, sex comedies, and horror films.

The screenplay's attempts to update vampire lore to the twentieth century has a whisper of originality in a small-town conspiracy including the sheriff (Alfred Steinel), the doctor (Victor Jorge) and last but not least, the mortician named A. Lucard (Gerald Fielding). Ho! Ho! In the elaborate opening, a young couple suffers a car accident in the aftermath of a drag race. The young man is dead on scene, but while the girl is still alive (though barely), she is declared dead so that her body is brought to the mortuary, and the vampires can snack on her neck. After drinking her blood, they drive a stake through her heart so that she won’t resurrect as an undead vampire. Then they patch up the puncture wounds, prepare her body for burial ceremonies, and no one is any the wiser. Nice twist!

However, this enterprise goes awry as soon as we are introduced to our protagonists, the Fondas. Yes, the Fondas. Marie (Patricia Lee Hammond) and Ted (Michael Lally) are grieving at the death of her mother. Of course the doctor of this motley bunch prematurely declares her dead so that she is sent to the mortuary. (In a cut-in, we see the punctured neck of her body at the morgue.) However, once the Fondas insist that they have the funeral services at home, Lucard and his gang attempt to retrieve the body from the house because they haven’t staked her yet. (Why didn’t they do it right away, as with the girl in the car accident? Were they saving the mother-in-law for leftovers, like cold pizza for breakfast?)

Similar gaps of logic occur in the climax, as the undead mother-in-law roams upstate New York (as far as the movie can afford, anyway). The vampires attempt to destroy her by exposing her to sunlight. Then, why are these guys able to roam freely at all times of day? Instead of fleshing out these plot points, more running time is devoted to these bloodsuckers always bickering among themselves. If these scenes are intended as satire, they are too forced.

There is a cold, brooding tone throughout the film, greatly enhanced by its throbbing “John Carpenter on the brain” synth score, the sparse, remote locations, and the minimal amount of characters. Only when Ted drives past a strip plaza with a Pizza Hut, is there an indication that this takes place in a "real world". Its alienating tone is enhanced by the low budget production values, and unconventional looking actors- for many, this film was their sole acting credit.

It is too bad that a novel idea gets fumbled in the execution, and with uninspired acting and direction- those squabbling vampires! At least the film has a mood, but this too is unfortunately hampered by frequent shots of microphones, studio lights and the boom person’s arm in the frame. Was it masked improperly for exhibition, or did they just not care? As of this writing, the film was still only available on Paragon VHS, although the now-defunct (and likely not legit) EastWest label released it to DVD.

Jack's Wife

(USA, 1972) DIR-SCR-CIN: George A. Romero. PROD: Nancy Romero. CAST: Jan White, Ray Laine, Ann Muffly, Joedda McClain, Bill Thunhurst, Neil Fisher, Esther Lapidus.

George Romero followed up his breakthrough, Night of the Living Dead, with a trio of interesting pictures that were largely overlooked due to poor distribution. Of these, The Crazies had gradually found an audience over the years (thus prompting a remake). There's Always Vanilla, was Romero's first film after his classic zombie movie, and a rare non-horror effort-- a counterculture comedy which played a week and disappeared. His subsequent picture, Jack's Wife, brought Romero (obliquely) back into the horror genre. Jack Harris picked the movie up, retitled it with the unfortunate title, Hungry Wives (misleading one to think it was a softcore porn), and did no business. This film was again re-titled for re-release in 1982, with its most colloquial name, Season of the Witch. People had mistakenly thought that it was newer than Dawn of the Dead (1979), or confused it with Halloween III: The Season of the Witch that was playing in theaters at the same time.

Romero himself had few kind words for these films, largely because he lacked the finances or control to fully realize them to his vision. Well, as imperfect as these three films may be, they are each special in their own way. Jack's Wife is another of Romero social commentaries disguised as horror, yet its form is more radical than any other. It is a complex, disturbing look at middle class suburbia, with dream logic befitting an Ingmar Bergman film, frenetic editing evocative of an underground picture, and only subtle touches of horror conventions. I cannot imagine what people thought of this when it unspooled at drive-ins.

The opening dream sequence (transposing Bergman's Wild Strawberries to modern Pittsburgh) is of the most interesting passages in all of Romero's work. Our protagonist, Joan Mitchell (Jan White), walks down a country lane and sees a baby (representing her dead child), all while following her husband down the path. As he idly walks in front of her, he casually moves tree branches out of his way, which snap back and hit Joan in the face, thus beginning the film's visual motif of women being victimized. Then she is being taken out of a car by her husband (on a leash attached to a collar!), led through a stilted tour of a modern suburban home, and suddenly, Joan wakes up. It was all a dream. Or was it?

In truth, Joan Mitchell awakens from a dream into an ongoing waking nightmare. This middle-aged repressed housewife has an abusive lout for a husband, and a social circle of equally repressed women. When she accompanies a friend to visit a woman who practices witchcraft, Joan takes up the occult herself. As this narrative progresses however, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy. There are recurrent scenes where she is pursued through the house by a strange masked figure, yet they are filmed in the same visual style as the rest of the picture: a trait shared with the work of master surrealist Luis Bunuel.

In addition, Jack's Wife is a savage indictment of gender roles- if perhaps too calculatedly. Joan and her friends are portrayed as wounded, repressed creatures for whom any diversion is welcome, despite how dangerous it may be. Perhaps the most pivotal moment occurs when Joan hears her daughter Nikki (Joedda McClain) having sex in the next room, and is actually aroused by the noise. When Nikki finds out that her mother was home while she was making love, she runs away. The police later asks Joan what kind of car was outside before she disappeared, and naturally, she is unable to name the make of the vehicle. That is a man's thing.

All of the film's major male characters are abusive, possessive jerks. Joan's husband beats her, and even Gregg the hippie college professor (Ray Laine) she ends up having an affair with, turns out to be a psychotic. Early in the film, at a small gathering Gregg (who reminds me a lot of Seymour Cassel in Faces) prods one woman to smoke a joint. What at first appears to be a ploy for the woman to discover some independence, instead is revealed as a cruel joke to exploit her further. Joan consoles the woman, who in turn asks her to drive her home, because "Larry won't jump all over me if you're there." This is a startling scene, much more so than the vaguely occult moments which occur later.

Romero also injects the narrative with sly humour: Donovan's "Season of the Witch" plays in a store where she first buys occult paraphenalia; and early on, the lead females talk about the movie Rosemary's Baby (another horror film that explores the roles of women, and the occult, in modern society). A book titled "How To Be A Witch" shares shelf space with the collected works of William Shakespeare.

Joan's witchcraft practice represents her own quest for independence. The strange figure represents Joan's attempts to escape Man's clutches in general. Even this road to independence results in surprising pessimism. Joan's use of her new power to turn Gregg into a sexual plaything becomes more than she can handle. The film ends on a shockingly downbeat tone: after Jan has vindicated herself from her abusive husband, she is still nonetheless referred to at a party as "Jack's Wife". Even after a woman obtains an identity, she is still one man's property?!? What a striking, (and perhaps properly) cynical way to end a dense movie about the objectification of women.

Romero's misgivings about the movie are too self-deprecating, as this is an exceptional motion picture. Despite the "horror movie" undertones, it remains one of the truly great 1970s films (alongside Diary of a Mad Housewife or The Stepford Wives) to examine the subservient female roles of in the supposedly liberated world. This stream-of-conscious experience is exciting to watch; one is made an uncomfortable voyeur with its handheld camera, over-the-shoulder compositions and use of foregounds. Romero should also be praised for his work as an editor: his trademark quick cuts and elaborate coverage in numerous scenes, compliment the jagged visual compositions, delivering a remarkable fever dream of a movie.

In an interview on the Anchor Bay DVD, Romero confesses that Jack's Wife is the one picture of his filmography that he would like to remake. I see what he means: the film is admittedly uneven, as some scenes are tedious and overlong, and one senses that he was aiming for a much bigger canvas and statement that exceeded his tiny budget. Still, this is a little marvel of a movie that I like rewatching every few years.

At the heart of the film is an excellent performance by Jan White. She inhabits the role of Joan Mitchell, an intelligent, compassionate figure that however has little self-esteem, and tries too hard to impress. After the startling fade-out, we truly feel that we've lived with this person, and despite her transformation, we still detect her vulnerability beneath the superfluous eyeshadow. Prior to this appearance, the actress had been a model, and subsequently had only a handful of performances before leaving the business. In more ways than one, Joan Mitchell is the role of a lifetime.

This film was originally released to VHS as Season Of The Witch at 89 minutes. The Anchor Bay DVD (to which this review applies) runs 104 minutes: made from Ms. White's own 16mm print, and some additional sequences that the company had found, although this version is a little too long. Still, this fascinating experiment has so much going on under the surface that I'd still be interested to see the rumoured original 130-minute cut. The Arrow boxset, George Romero Between Night And Dawn collects these early films, including this one under the 89-minute Season Of The Witch version.

Keep My Grave Open

(USA, 1976) DIR-PROD: S.F. Brownrigg. SCR: F. Amos Powell. CAST: Camilla Carr, Stephen Tobolowsky, Ann Stafford, Gene Ross, Annabelle Weenick, Bill Thurman, Chelsea Ross.

Of all the genre films in the "regional" circuit, few were as distinctive as those of S.F. Brownrigg. The Texan's quartet of 1970s films is remarkable for the "you are there" atmosphere, unusual camerawork and melodramatic acting, in addition to the helpings of gore and violence to sell tickets. Although these pictures had different screenwriters, similar themes of madness, dysfunctional famiiles and sexual tension play into all of these scenarios, best described as macabre mélanges of Tennessee Williams and Erskine Caldwell.

Brownrigg’s films also employed a regular stock company of actors and technicians. (In true guerrilla fashion, the cast often worked behind the camera in various production roles.) Robert Alcott's cinematography, by turns claustrophobic and dreamlike, and Robert Farrar's haunting music, whose unusual instrumentations of flutes and harpsichords add a strange texture, contribute to the mise en scene of Brownrigg’s worlds.

Of these four films (including Don't Look In The Basement, Don't Open The Door, and Scum Of The Earth) Brownrigg considered Keep My Grave Open to be his personal favourite. I share this opinion, perhaps because this was the first film of his I had seen (and therefore the film where his style was first impressed on me), but it is also his most satisfying.

The opening sequence is representative of what I love about Brownrigg. For all of its onscreen savagery, his work has a leisurely, poetic side. The narratives take their time to unfold, as slowly as life would in their remote rural settings: the emphasis is more on atmosphere and quirky characters.

In the mesmerizing opening, we see a hobo on the back of a flatbed truck, as seen through the rear window of the cab. It is a shot that is so simple yet so layered. And like most compositions in this film, the sequence plays longer than one expects. A film full of murders and madness is also strangely serene. The hobo (played by Larry Buchanan regular Bill Thurman) gets off the truck and wanders onto the Fontaine estate, which boasts the sign: "Keep out- not responsible for any accidents." The tramp gets into the house, raids the refrigerator, swaps his rotgut for the good wine, and then heads back outside for a cookout. And then, he is hacked to death beside his campfire. This is nine minutes of a movie that is barely eighty minutes long!

Ultimately, this movie is a haunted love story, with most of its running time spent in the mind of Lesley Fontaine (Camilla Carr, in her most substantial role). Her obsessive, unnatural love for "Kevin" troubles her doctor (Gene Ross), suggests that she needs go back to the hospital for her mental wellbeing. The doctor even offers to speak to Kevin about her condition, and she refuses.

"Kevin" is never seen on camera. Lesley is always yelling at him offscreen, usually about her unrequited love. One shot that plays for several minutes, features Lesley in bed being seduced by Kevin, shot from his POV. The viewer is put into an awkward position of vicariously making love to Camilla Carr. Once the camera assumes the missionary position, it quickly moves away from Lesley, unfulfilling her desires.

There is a younger couple in the story with similarly unfulfilled desires. Fontaine’s stablehand Robert (Stephen Tobolowsky, in his first film) has a blossoming relationship with young Suzie (Ann Stafford), who is killed just prior to a sexual rendezvous. Later, after the POV "love scene" cited above, Lesley attempts to seduce Robert out of her frustration with Kevin, and as sexual blackmail, so that Robert can enter a horse in a championship. But before the act is committed, Robert becomes the next murder victim.

Lesley then brings home a prostitute in another effort to please Kevin, and in an elaborately shot sequence, the woman is pursued around the estate by her killer, and attempts to hide in a car, only to find that all of the previous victims have been left there.

Horror fans would would likely be guessing the surprise revelation. As the few principal characters begin to diminish, we expect things to wrap up a certain way, but the narrative gets cloudier. Our assumptions about the Lesley-Kevin relationship are subverted. Brownrigg cleverly uses the camera to represent this offscreen "Kevin" figure, and make the film a visceral experience. We vicariously live within the damaged mind of Lesley Fontaine.

As always, Brownrigg’s film is a feast of inventive visual ideas. The use of oblique angles even in such mundane scenes as making coffee, or creative ideas like shooting from inside a cupboard, make the familiar seem otherworldly and mysterious: fitting for a narrative where we constantly question what we’re seeing. Keep My Grave Open has shocking bursts of violence, but one more remembers the quiet touches, like the pastoral opening, and dissolves within the same shot showing progressions of time, adding to the narrative's dreamlike feel.

After this release, Brownrigg left the movies for a more economically stable occupation, at a time when most regional cinema was winding down. Drive-ins were closing for more profitable real estate; the movie industry was changing from interesting niche markets into products for mass consumption. S.F. Brownrigg made one return to cinema, with the teen comedy, Thinkin’ Big (1986), before his untimely death in 1996 at the age of 58.

Keep My Grave Open is arguably Brownrigg's finest picture, and one of the best examples of "regional horror". If ever a film needed a restoration and re-appraisal by a boutique company like Vinegar Syndrome or AGFA, this would be it. All current DVD and streaming releases appear to be sourced from an old VHS release. (As of this writing, the film is available to view on Tubi with the alternate title, The House Where Hell Froze Over. Check out how bad the title card insert is on this version.) David Szulkin (author of Wes Craven's Last House on the Left: The Making of a Cult Classic) had announced years earlier that he was preparing a book on S.F. Brownrigg, but little more has been said about it. In a perfect world, this book and a hopeful restoration of Keep My Grave Open would be instrumental in upholding his legacy. It is time to discover S.F. Brownrigg once more.

Scared To Death

(USA, 1981) DIR-SCR: William Malone. STY: Robert Short, William Malone. PROD: Rand Marlis.

Someone or something is going around killing the local hardhats, roller skaters, and party girls who won't go to see a Maria "Oos-pens-kya" movie, and Detective Lou Capell (Jonathan David Moses) is clueless over the identity of the culprit. He recruits the help of his ex-partner, former detective-turned-hack-novelist Ted Lonergan (John Stinson) to solve the crimes, but he steadfastly refuses... until his new girlfriend Jennifer (Diana Davidson) is jeopardized by this menace.

Scared To Death has the novelty value of being an Alien rip-off that takes place on the planet Earth. Not only is our creature earthbound, but it's man made. The Syngenor (SYNthetic GENetic ORganism) lurks around LA's sewer system, coming to ground when it needs to feast upon human spinal fluid, thus causing brain tumors in its victims, which therefore tips off brainy Sherry Carpenter (who's bespectacled, spunky and in need of an acting lesson) as to the true culprit, and accompanies the police in tracking down the monster.

Writer-director Malone's maiden effort sounds and looks quite good for a measly $74,000 production. Patrick Prince's bluish cinematography sets the mood, and the creature (designed by the director, admittedly inspired by Giger's Alien creation) is well done. Although the movie is derivative of the clichés that one found in slasher films of the time (where cars don't start, and women undress in front of open windows), it is however an old-fashioned movie at heart, with a minimum of gore or onscreen violence. Even though the monster looks really cool, Malone wisely shows little of it until the climax, to sustain our quest for the unknown. For all of these reasons, this movie likely stood apart from most of the slashers and the gashers of its day, which is likely why it has become a mini-favourite among genre fans. With the one exception of the lady who plays Sherry (Toni Jannotta), the performances are quite good for such an inexpensive monster movie. In fact, the budding romance between Ted and Jennifer is quite cute and touching. (Trivia note: the hero was originally going to be played by Rick Springfield, who dropped out at the last minute. Based on the evidence of Springfield's lead role in Hard To Hold, this may not have been a bad thing.)

In spite of the interesting human relationships, this film has less to offer as it veers towards a standard cat-and-mouse climax. Still, it is an entertaining flick all the same, and one wouldn't have gone wrong picking this up as a 99 cent rental back in the days of the mom and pop video stores. As such, it is a pleasant throwback to when CSI's didn't wear disposable gloves while touching the mysterious ooze around the victims.

(In 1990, a sequel, Syngenor was released. Retromedia released Scared to Death to DVD with the subtitle Syngenor to tie it with that film.)

Screams Of A Winter Night

(USA, 1979) DIR: James L. Wilson. SCR: Richard H. Wadsack. PROD: James L. Wilson, Richard H. Wadsack.

"Listen to the wind...."

Five college-aged couples go to a cabin for a weekend getaway, and in the dead of the wintry night, they tell each other tales of horror: a couple whose car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere are stalked by a furry creature; people spend a night in an abandoned hotel as a fraternity initiation and meet their doom; a young woman goes on a killing spree after a lovers lane rendezvous goes bad. The "urban legend" stories that these kids tell, however, become superficial once they physically experience a legendary horror that the local yokels at the gas station warned them about...

This regional horror anthology, shot in a spooky backwoods of Louisiana, is fondly remembered by genre fans who saw it in its initial theatrical run, or back in the glory days of home video. (For years, it was never available on DVD or Blu-ray, which is why the old VHS from VCI Entertainment fetched a pretty penny on eBay. Probably still does.) One sees the appeal, as the film is unique for its old-fashioned reliance upon setting and atmosphere to deliver the scares. The mood is set immediately, as the opening credits roll over a black screen, while we hear sounds of carnage, screaming and indecipherable dialogue. This is a brilliant touch, as (like the days of radio) movie audiences are given to imagine sights possibly more horrific than what a two-dimensional piece of film could muster. Because this chatter is of audio bits taken from the climax, the film begins where it ended: these kids are on a destined path. (In another clever touch, the same actors playing the college students also portray the characters in the stories they tell, thus vicariously living the tales that are told.)

Their stories however don't really have a third act- there is a lack of motive or resolution in any of them, save perhaps for the vengeful woman episode. That segment is prefaced with the observation that the human monster is the scariest of all. The other tales of terror are founded upon an unknown, offscreen evil. And finally, the wraparound tale of the horror that the students face is similarly rooted in the unknowable. In this ingenious climax, the standard "dark and stormy night" setting is itself the menace, as the elements revolt against the hapless teens. Nice touch! Seeing this at a drive-in around a similarly wooded area must've been quite effective.

In this regard, Screams Of A Winter Night succeeds in what the overrated Blair Witch Project attempted: scaring us with the unseen, the unknowable, which exists just outside of frame, but within our minds. Rather than frighten us out of our wits with rubber monsters or mad slashers, the filmmakers cannily use those long moments of hesitation for the viewers to imagine their own monsters for what exists behind the door, or outside the cabin. The gnarled forest provides an ominous sense of isolation and helplessness.

This clever premise doesn't completely work, as the acting and dialogue are pedestrian, and we don't really care the characters. Because these ten people are unappealing, cackling, cruel sociopaths, it is difficult for us to be completely absorbed in their plight of being stranded in this creepy cabin while an evil presence lurks outside. Nonetheless, the final ten minutes make this amateur night worth seeking out, as all hell breaks loose, and the kids are besieged by the juggernaut of natural elements. On the surface, this is a unique movie that sustains a mood with making the surroundings as the monster, but with better writing and character development, this could have been great. (Look for future Fright Night star William Ragsdale as a gas station attendant.)

Code Red recently released this to Blu-ray, with a fourth anthology story added, which was excised from the film before release, thus bringing the film's running time up to two hours. In typical Code Red fashion however, this release was "sold out" in about ten minutes, as they typically only pressed about twelve copies, in order to fetch astronomical prices.

Scum Of The Earth

(USA, 1974) DIR-PROD: S.F. Brownrigg. SCR: Mary Davis, Gene Ross. CAST: Gene Ross, Ann Stafford, Norma Moore, Camilla Carr, Charlie Dell, Hugh Feagin, Joel Colodner.

The film opens with its one moment of beauty, a bright panoramic view of a riverside, before the scenario ventures deeper into the woods where the sun doesn’t shine. Helen Fraser (Norma Moore) and her new husband Paul (Joel Colodner) come to a log cabin for a getaway. Paul goes back to his car to retrieve something, and he is killed by an axe murderer. Helen runs through the woods for help, and is intercepted by Odis Pickett (played by Gene Ross, who co-wrote the film with Mary Davis), who is out possum hunting. He lures her to his house to call the authorities. (Of course, after one look at Odis, any viewer would have kept on running.)

There she encounters the rest of his demented brood: his wife Emmy (Ann Stafford), daughter Sarah (Camilla Carr, exhibiting trashy appeal simply by lounging around in a cheap flowery Woolworths dress), and halfwit son Bo (Charlie Dell). Naturally, there is no phone at the Pickett household (one is amazed they even have power), but with one look at the murky outdoor surroundings, Helen reasons that staying here for the night is the better option.

Emmy, who is actually about the same age as Sarah, begins to bond with Helen, telling her of how Odis "won her" because Emmy’s father owed him money, and alludes to how her husband gets when he gets drinking. After consuming jar after jar of moonshine, Otis attempts to assault Helen, only to be fended off by the women. When Odis says that he just wanted to talk "private like", Sarah retorts "like the ones you’ve been sticking in me since I was 12."

This melodrama of incest, rape and abuse becomes more intense as people get killed off by this mysterious murderer from the film’s opening. Helen and the Picketts defend themselves from this assailant, yet the killer is also the catalyst for the Pickett clan to unleash their suppressed hatred for each other.

Scum Of The Earth is a better film to have watched than to have sat through, which is testament to the strong viewing experience. In hindsight, one wonders if this movie was meant as a black comedy. Brownrigg’s films always have diverting musical scores, with jazz-like or exotic tones. In addition to Robert Farrar’s flute and harpsichord soundtrack, there is a hilarious song from Peyton Park, scored by a jangly guitar and sax: "Death is a family affair / So share it with someone you care".

Before the scenario gets even more depraved, we witness a long sequence of Pickett Family Values. Odis barks at Bo to fetch him jar after jar of moonshine, and similarly hollers at Sarah to make dinner. Thirty minutes into this movie, dinner still hasn’t been made. This entire sequence, perhaps best described as Edward Albee Meets The Clampetts, is a catalogue of every hicksploitation cliché, from moonshine to mumblings of white slavery. After one murder, the Pickett clan spends the next half-hour of running time by attempting to go to the neighbours to borrow their phone and call the preacher! Samuel Beckett would be proud.

Where Russ Meyer might have made a grotesque Al Capp comic strip out of the same script, the acting here is surprisingly matter-of-fact, making this film too uncomfortably real, despite its outlandishness. Brownrigg’s customary anamorphic close-ups and striking use of foreground compliment the swirling dementia and claustrophobia.

This sordid melodrama climaxes with a hilarious "surprise" (which still seems preposterous, even if you follow the characters’ stories very closely), but makes for a fitting conclusion where Helen becomes a surrogate member of what remains of the dysfunctional family. Brownrigg’s films never wrap up tidily: even after the villain dies, the struggle between good and evil ends (at best) in a draw. Psychologically, evil has forever scarred the protagonists.

Scum Of The Earth is less a horror film than outlandish hicksploitation, but has enough mayhem to interest genre fans. While its title is accurate, it was re-released as Poor White Trash II, in one of cinema’s more bizarre attempts to cash in on a hit property, prompting people to think that this was a sequel to the 1957 Peter Graves movie! That's the exploitation business for you! Poor White Trash II was also the title of the Magnum Entertainment VHS, which to date remains its only (legitimate) home video release. As with Brownrigg's subsequent Keep My Grave Open, this is long overdue for a DVD or Blu-ray restoration.

So Sad About Gloria

(USA, 1973) DIR-PROD: Harry Thomason. SCR: Marshall Riggan. STY: Joe Glass, Harry Thomason, Mike Varner. CAST: Lori Saunders, Robert Ginnaven, Dean Jagger, Lou Hoffman, Linda Wyse.

One of the most interesting "where are they now" stories from the days of regional films involves director-producer Harry Thomason, who would produce such successful TV series as Designing Women and Evening Shade, and contribute to Bill Clinton's election campaign. He paid his dues with a quartet of 1970s drive-in pictures in his native Arkansas, including the horror anthology Encounter With The Unknown (1973); the 1975 rural comedy The Great Lester Boggs (of which I may be its one admirer); and the delightful 1950s sci-fi homage The Day It Came To Earth (1977). Of these, perhaps So Sad About Gloria is the most sentimental, character-driven and competently acted (if because it features some Hollywood talent... not to take away from the busy local players who appear in many of these films).

Like a piece of classic Southern Gothic fiction, So Sad About Gloria explores the themes of insanity and longing, as our heroine Gloria Wellman (Lori Saunders) is released from a sanitarium, previously traumatized by her brother's death, into the care of her uncle Fredrick (Dean Jagger). ("I don't feel much like The Madwoman of Chaillot".) Back into the real world, Gloria yearns to settle down and have a happy, normal, simple life, contrary to the wealth that her estate provides. ("She sees wealth as an intruder on her self.") However, Gloria still has visions of a mysterious man dressed in a black cape, who hacks away at a coffin in a train station. (What Bunuel would've done with this!) Still, Gloria meets and marries writer Chris Kenner, played by Robert Ginnaven, who appeared in all four of Thomason's regional films. They move into their new home: the location where a young woman was murdered (seen earlier in the film, in a scene that is quite bloody for a PG rating) and whose death remains unsolved. Of course, strange things occur: the house resonates with chimes from a musical box; chains are heard rattling; and Gloria's apparitions return.

The second act takes 45 minutes of its 90-minute running time to begin, as much time is spent in the courtship of Gloria and Chris, and even in moments between our protagonist and her friend Janie (Linda Wyse). Before the terror truly kicks in, Marshall Riggan's screenplay wisely lets us get to know Gloria as a person before the trauma re-occurs, but the film tries our patience with its leisurely pace and a quickly repetitive cinematic device. There are two montages featuring Gloria and Chris spending time together, playing on swings, canoeing, and visiting the zoo before tying the knot. (Thomason must have a thing for romantic montages to fill running time: evidenced by the four-minute interlude late in Encounter With The Unknown.) Yet still, there is a hint of melancholy even during these moments, accented by James Roberson's autumnal cinematography and Hank Levine's odd piano-trombone score.

But even when this turns into a mid-Western Gaslight, the film doesn't generate much excitement. As Gloria becomes in greater danger, there is more flash cutting to the mysterious man with the coffin, which soon becomes a tiresome gimmick.

Admittedly, the conclusion is rather astonishing, but most may not decide to stick through this leisurely melodrama to get there. At best, this is a good movie vehicle for Lori Saunders. (Her scant feature film credits include the 1966 cult favourite Blood Bath.) The dark-eyed beauty (best known as Bobbie Jo on TV's Petticoat Junction) shows her natural, seldom-used dramatic talent. Amidst the many romantic montages, the camera simply records the actress being herself, thus giving this woman-in-peril a three-dimensional persona. It's too bad that she concluded her acting career while still relatively young with, of all things, a Bob Emenegger cheapo sci-fi epic (1980's Captive). As Gloria Wellman, one senses that she had the potential to break through into meatier roles.

So Sad About Gloria was featured on Elvira's Movie Macabre TV show (as was The Day It Came To Earth) before appearing on a Prism Entertainment VHS tape with the less-interesting video title Visions Of Evil. Code Red subsequently released it to DVD in a combo with the UHF chestnut The Severed Arm as part of its Maria's B-Movie Mayhem series. Dark Force Entertainment has just recently released it to Blu-ray, paired with the hicksploitation classic, God's Bloody Acre.