Start out 2018 with some of the latest releases from Scream Factory! Though they’re probably best known for releasing definitive Blu-ray editions of many of our most treasured horror movies, one of the things I like best about Scream Factory is their willingness to use their brand to put out smaller films and oddball curiosities that would probably not otherwise see the light of day on the format. Let’s take a look at three such titles, all recently released on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
First up is American Gothic, a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy from 1988 starring Yvonne De Carlo and Rod Steiger as the parents of a family of backwoods misfits living on a secluded island where a group of young people suddenly appear after their prop plane breaks down and forces them to land. Before you can say “this family is probably a bunch of murderous maniacs,” the murderous maniacs begin killing off the stranded friends. This is a horror movie, after all.
American Gothic is a movie I remember from my childhood because of its VHS cover art, featuring Steiger and De Carlo in a recreation of the famous painting that inspired the film’s title. Truthfully, though, I had never actually seen the movie until this Blu-ray release. It’s a harmless little riff on the likes of The Hills Have Eyes or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (more accurately The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, in term of its tone) that’s not especially funny or scary, but can often be eccentric enough to make for a passable time waster.
Director John Hough obviously knows his way around the horror genre, having previously helmed both The Legend of Hell House and The Incubus (one of these things is not like the other). He seems to have less of a flair for horror comedy, meaning American Gothic lurches back and forth between elements that are legitimately upsetting and broad, goofy nonsense. The main character’s motivation involves a dead baby, and each time we are reminded of this fact it grinds the otherwise silly movie to a halt; once her past begins to factor into the proceedings in a more organic, thematic way, it’s easier to take (it helps that Hough stops flashing back to it after a while, too), and by then American Gothic has totally given itself over to weirdness. Michael J. Pollard, Janet Wright, and William Hootkins show up as Steiger and De Carlo’s strange children and totally take over the movie, turning it into what feels like Texas Chainsaw 2’s “dinner scene” extended to almost feature length.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray represents the first time that American Gothic has been available on home video in its proper 1.85:1 widescreen format, with a pleasant 1080p HD transfer that appears to have been taken from an existing source. The only bonus features included are the original theatrical trailer and an interview with Alan Parker, the film’s composer.
American Gothic Movie Score: 2/5, Disc Score: 2.5/5
A little-seen curiosity from legendary exploitation filmmaker Greydon Clark (Black Shampoo, Satan’s Cheerleaders, Joysticks), 1992’s Dance Macabre casts Robert Englund as a dance instructor working at a very prestigious ballet academy in Russia. His star dancer (Michelle Zeitlin) is unorthodox and doesn’t want to do ballet, earning the disapproval of the mysterious Madame who runs the school. When students start getting killed off, it’s a race to see who will survive and who has danced her last dance.
In every conceivable way, Dance Macabre is Greydon Clark’s stab at writing and directing an American giallo film, albeit one shot entirely in Russia. From its ballet school setting to its murder set pieces to some of the psychosexual ramifications of the killer’s identity, Clark is clearly riffing on the European gialli of the 1970s, and while he’s neither technically proficient nor stylistically inclined enough to do true justice to the genre, watching him attempt to execute an “artier” type of schlock (artier for him, anyway) is fascinating. I’m always interested in movies that emphasize the tension between a director’s intentions and his or her limitations, and that tension pretty well describes Dance Macabre.
Clark can’t even be held entirely responsible for the film’s shortcomings, either. It was a difficult shoot, with the director working alongside a Russian crew and leaning on a translator as a go-between, meaning things could often be, for lack of a better expression, lost in the translation. The finished film bears that out, too: it feels like something that’s been cobbled together somewhat, with inconsistent dubbing (another staple of gialli), occasionally messy editing, makeup effects that telegraph the ending from the first moment they’re on screen, and actors who sometimes seem like they’re in different movies. Holding everything together at the center is Robert Englund, who is incapable of giving a bad performance even when he indulges his hammier tendencies as he does here.
An interview with Englund is the disc’s sole extra, but it’s a good one because he’s such a gifted raconteur and storyteller. He gives some information about the background of the production, tells some stories about making the film, and, as is his way, assigns levels of meaning to the film that may not be evident upon a single viewing. Or all of the viewings. But that’s what makes him so great. Scream Factory’s 1080 HD transfer of the film appears to have been taken from an existing master, meaning it’s just okay. At the same time, this is a movie that wasn’t even on my radar, so as a fan of Greydon Clark, of Robert Englund, and especially of giallo films, I’m thrilled to have seen it and include it as part of my collection.
Dance Macabre Movie Score: 2.5/5, Disc Score: 3/5
NSFW VHS trailer:
Finally, there’s Hell Night, one of the most-requested titles in Scream Factory’s five-year history finally making its highly anticipated Blu-ray debut. A group of fraternity and sorority pledges—among them Linda Blair (The Exorcist), Peter Barton (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), and Vincent Van Patten—must spend the night in an old abandoned mansion as part of their membership initiation, but what begins as a series of harmless hazing pranks eventually gives way to murder when a deformed monster starts killing off the pledges one at a time.
As one of the world’s biggest fans of Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, I can understand the affection that horror fans have for Hell Night even if I don’t share it: both films distinguish themselves from other slashers through the use of atmosphere and location, both films feature a slasher that has more in common with an old-school monster than with a mask-wearing psycho, both films attempt to develop their core group of characters beyond just being fodder for a body count, both films have the ability to surprise. Director Tom De Simone (who started his career making adult films before graduating to raunchy sexploitation comedies like Chatter Box) clearly aspires to elevate the slasher with his entry, and that’s an admirable goal. Whether or not he achieves that goal is up for debate.
The movie has garnered quite the following over the years, which I suspect has a lot to do with the casting of Linda Blair in her most substantial horror role outside of the Exorcist movies and Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear. Seeing her play the Final Girl carries a good deal of novelty, and though her character isn’t especially well-developed, Blair certainly gives the part her all. Her co-stars attempt to flesh out what might otherwise be generic supporting roles, too, imbuing them with enough life and personality to leave us in genuine suspense as to whether they will make it to the end of the film. These touches don’t always offset the movie’s lumbering pace or fairly uninspired kill scenes, but they do make for a slasher movie that’s different enough to justify its fandom.
Fans of Hell Night should be happy with Scream Factory’s “Collector’s Edition” release, which offers a brand new 4K scan of the film and a host of bonus features. While there are a number of flaws still visible in this new 1080p transfer—including a sizable green scratch that appears from time to time and the occasional standard def insert where the original elements couldn’t be located—this is likely to be the definitive home video version of the film and looks as good as we’re going to get.
There are a whole bunch of extras, too, starting with an audio commentary that features director De Simone, star Linda Blair, and producers Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis. Blair sits down for a new 30-minute interview in which she gives an overview of her entire career before getting into making Hell Night; same goes for De Simone, who is interviewed outside the mansion where the film was shot. Also included in new interviews are stars Peter Barton, Vincent Van Patten, Suki Goodwin, Kevin Brophy, and Jenny Neumann, as well as screenwriter Randy Feldman, producer Bruce Cohn Curtis, art director Steve Legler, and makeup/special effects designers Pam Peitzman and John Eggett. A tour of the locations is offered, as is a collection of trailers, TV and radio spots, and production stills. A standard definition DVD of the film is also included. This is about as comprehensive as any of Scream Factory’s releases, with most of the major participants represented and speaking at length about the making of the film. It’s an altogether impressive package, and easily the best of the three discs covered here.
Hell Night Movie Score: 2.5/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5