As Scream Factory continues to release pared-down catalogue titles on their now five-year-old label, the brand keeps expanding to include all different kinds of movies. Once known for releasing deluxe special editions of horror fan favorites, the company has diversified over the last half decade and begun releasing new films (as part of their deal with IFC midnight), unknown (and sometimes previously unavailable) cult films, a handful of classics, and even their own in-house productions. This last batch of catalogue titles, the majority of which have been released with only minimum bonus features but new HD scans, continues to broaden the reach of the Scream Factory brand to include a range of titles from secretly successful ’70s sexploitation sci-fi to well-intentioned failures of the 1990s.
First up is the 1958 cult classic I Bury the Living, directed by Albert Band (father of low-budget horror legend Charles Band, who would go on to found Empire Pictures and Full Moon Features). Richard Boone plays a man recently hired to run a large cemetery, laid out on a large map in his office and covered in push pins, black to represent plots that have been filled and white to represent those that are sold but vacant. What Boone begins to discover is that if he replaces a white pin with a black one, the owners of that plot will mysteriously die. As the bodies begin to pile up, Boone stars to lose his mind and struggle with his newly granted powers of life and death — if that’s even what’s really happening.
While it feels a bit padded out to fill its feature length, even at a trim 76 minutes, I Bury the Living plays out like a really good episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s got the high concept, the questionable involvement of the supernatural, and a specific moral code that plays out by the story’s end. Though this is only his second feature as director, Albert Band shows a great deal of style; he clearly tries to find a way to make every sequence stand out and feel different from the others.
The film is never especially scary and the resolution is a bit too pat—in keeping with the style of the times, the supernatural is too often explainable with real-world actions and motives—but it’s a cool little cinematic version of an E.C. Comics story (not literally, but it feels like one) that’s willing to go in some unexpected directions. That’s a rare thing for a movie made these days, much less one that’s close to 60 years old.
For this new Blu-ray release of I Bury the Living, Scream Factory has a new 1080p HD transfer of the film (taken from what they’re calling a “fine grain print”) presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, plus a photo gallery and the movie’s original theatrical trailer. It’s a simple but effective package, much like the film itself.
An apparent rip-off of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, the 1971 psychological drama What’s the Matter With Helen? also casts two somewhat older Hollywood legends—in this case, Shelly Winters and Debbie Reynolds—and pits them against one another in a tale of madness and murder. When their sons are found guilty of killing a woman, Reynolds and Winters change their names and move to Hollywood to start a new life for themselves. Reynolds succeeds, opening a dance studio and beginning a romance with a handsome suitor (Dennis Weaver), while Winters slips further and further into insanity. When a new man appears with information about Winters’ past, things go from bad to worse.
Though the performances of the two lead actors are characteristically strong, there’s not much about What’s the Matter With Helen? that classifies as horror. Aside from the film’s climactic final scene—which is literally spoiled in the movie’s poster art that's used on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray cover—the movie is more drama than anything else, and not a terribly distinguished one at that. It’s quite serviceable but not much more, at its best when director Curtis Harrington (a filmmaker with a decent résumé of genre movies to his credit, including Queen of Blood and Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell) embraces the heightened sense of melodrama.
The film is clearly modeled after Baby Jane but is rarely willing to get as dark or as eccentric as that film, which is what it really needs. There’s enough going on to make it worth a single viewing, but it’s not exactly the type of movie that demands to be part of one’s collection. Scream Factory struck a new high-def transfer for their Blu-ray release, and have included a small collection of standard bonus features, including a trailer, a radio spot, and a gallery of production and marketing stills.
Next there’s 1973's Invasion of the Bee Girls—aka Graveyard Tramps—a sci-fi satire that’s loaded with sex and nudity and all kinds of weirdness. Scripted by the great Nicholas Meyer (who would later write and direct Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), the movie plays like a sleazier, raunchier version of The Stepford Wives in that it’s a film about feminism made at a time when the movement was finding its footing. It tells the story of a female scientist (Anitra Ford of Messiah of Evil) who designs a program to mutate women into killers who seduce men and then murder them. That’s basically all there is to the movie, which is constantly finding ways to show skin—albeit in a tame, early ’70s way—and gets progressively more weird and goofy as it goes along.
While The Stepford Wives made the men the clear “villains” in that they were recreating women in the image that best served them (literally), Invasion of the Bee Girls flips the script and makes the women the monsters… only not really. Yes, they’re the ones doing the seducing and the killing, but that doesn’t absolve the men in the film of any wrongdoing. The Bee Girls’ predatory nature is, in fact, only possible—and actually is in response to—the weakness of men, who are all too willing to abandon their families, cheat on their wives, and shirk their responsibilities at the chance of sleeping with a beautiful woman who shows them some attention.
Invasion of the Bee Girls is like a revenge picture masquerading as campy sci-fi horror, empowering its female characters as predators while reducing the men to helpless, horny prey. Lost to dozens of lousy public domain releases for years (though previously available in decent DVD packages from both MGM and Shout! Factory), Invasion of the Bee Girls makes its high-def debut with a brand new 1080p HD transfer struck from the internegative. It looks better than it ever has. The same obligatory bonus features—trailer, radio spot, still gallery—have been included, and nothing more. We can’t expect a whole lot more from this recent slate of catalogue releases.
Finally, we have the most contemporary film of the bunch with 1999’s Virus, a movie that reminds us why the 1990s are so often considered a weak decade for horror. Based on the Dark Horse comic book, the movie is an uneasy combination of The Terminator and Alien that wastes an okay premise and a strong cast with flat execution and genre elements that feel perfunctory at best. Donald Sutherland plays a desperate, drunken tugboat captain leading a crew that includes William Baldwin, Cliff Curtis, Marshall Bell, and the great Jamie Lee Curtis. In the wake of a typhoon, they discover a sunken Russian ship that they theorize could be worth millions; instead, what they find there is an alien organism that sees human beings as a virus (get it??) and wants to assimilate them into cyborgs. Resistance is futile or something like that.
Like Supernova, another mostly-forgotten sci-fi horror of the same period available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory (and one that I think is a better movie), Virus simply lacks anything to distinguish itself from other entries in the genre. The aquatic photography is mostly uninspired; the effects solid but ugly and overly busy. Despite the talent in the cast, no one seems especially enthusiastic to be involved, delivering performances that range from perfunctory (Curtis) to downright bored (Sutherland). The characters are thinly sketched, their fates easily determined by their placement in the credits. It’s a real clunker.
As is the case with several Universal titles licensed to Scream Factory, the 1080p transfer looks like it was taken from an old master and used for the disc; it’s okay, but only slightly better than a DVD. A few new extra features have been produced, however, including a new interview with visual effects artist-turned-director John Bruno, who seems very kind and earnest and clearly wanted to make a good movie even if he came up way short. Bruno and writer Dennis Feldman also sit down for a new commentary track, while the old commentary featuring Bruno and co-star Marshall Bell has been carried over from the original DVD.
There are new interviews with Bell, Feldman and the crew responsible for creating the special effects and makeup effects (including Scream Factory regular Steve Johnson), plus deleted scenes, a stills gallery, a trailer, and two vintage featurettes ported from the existing DVD. That’s a whole lot of bonus content for a movie that flopped both critically and commercially, so hopefully fans of Virus feel vindicated after all these years and are finally getting the special edition they’ve been waiting for. To those people, I say congratulations. Everyone else has been warned.
I Bury the Living Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 5/5
What’s the Matter With Helen? Movie Score: 2.5/5, Disc Score: 3/5
Invasion of the Bee Girls Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 3/5
Virus Movie Score: 1.5/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5