The title itself reminds us of bygone days when friends would come over, a trip to the local Mom & Pop Video Store was in order, with the results of said visit spilling out onto the floor with a combination of disappointment (they never had the new releases you wanted) and determination. How many of us horror fans discovered a new classic or a personal favorite via this VHS equivalent of dumpster diving? So when Scream Factory promises and All Night fright film marathon, we are instantly whisked back to those days of wine coolers, crappy frozen snacks, and some dread-dominant schlock. Not all of the four film offered here - What's the Matter with Helen? , The Vagrant, The Godsend, and The Outing - warrant such found recollection, but each have their limited joys, with a couple guaranteeing a decent return on your terror tendencies. Let's deal with each one individually:
What's the Matter with Helen? - **1/2
(Plot: Two women - Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters - whose sons are found guilty of murder move away from their small town in the Midwest and head out to Hollywood. There, one starts a dance academy for girls and is wooed by the handsome dad - Dennis Weaver - of a student. The other slowly starts to unravel over the guilt of what happened back home).
Henry Farrell was probably the "King" of name horror. You know the films - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? ...Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte...How Awful about Alan...and What's the Matter with Helen? The famed author either wrote the original material from which these movies were made, or adapted his own work for the big screen. Helen comes from a short story outline of his. The production on this film was almost as legendary as the actresses in the movie itself. Debbie Reynolds was supposedly tormented by a mentally unstable Shelley Winters, and the two friends had a tough time onset (there was even talk of replacing the blousy two time Oscar winner with Geraldine Page). Then United Artists released an ad campaign that gave away the ending. Blatantly. Critics complained and the film was more or less forgotten. Today, it plays like a Baby Jane rip-off (which is odd, when you consider Farrell created both) and thanks to Curtis Harrington's rather pedestrian direction, the end result is more curiosity than creepshow.
The Vagrant - ***1/2
(Plot: An upwardly mobile urban professional - Bill Paxton - is finally realizing his dream of home ownership. Even the over-sexed real estate agent - Colleen Camp - wants to be his gal pal. Only problem is, there's this homeless man who seems to be terrorizing our hero. When dead bodies start showing up, an obsessive cop - Michael Ironside - tries to figure out what's going on).
Chris Walas, the FX wizard responsible for such memorable '80s makeup jobs as Scanners, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Fly, and Gremlins, only has two feature film directing credits to his name - the dismal sequel to David Cronenberg's stunning monster movie masterpiece, and this little dark comedy gem. Considering how crappy The Fly II really is, The Vagrant comes across as both a satisfying horror satire and a meaningful mea culpa. Horror fans will love the scenery chewing presence of Paxton and Ironside, neither actor using subtlety or suggestion to realize their characters. Instead, it's all blood and bugnuts, a couple of excellent performers adding layers of lunatic obsession to their otherwise standard sinister whodunit. The homeless man makes for an interesting angle and Paxton's Yuppie character is laughable as well as completely identifiable, as a man worried about money and position. The denouement is a bit forced, but for the most part, this is a fun, frightening, and freakish little film.
The Godsend - **
(Plot: After picking up a pregnant young woman along the road, a couple if forced to let her stay in their guest room when she suddenly goes into labor. The next day, she has disappeared, leaving behind her baby girl. The couple adopt the child and call her Bonnie. All seems well until, later on, one by one, the duo see their existing biological children die off).
Children in danger is one of horror's last taboos. You really can't get away with having wee ones in peril without facing some sort of parental backlash, or worse, social stridence. Luckily, we aren't talking about a movie made in 2013, but a decent little British thriller made several decades before. Still, it's quite shocking to see how threatened these kids really are, and how lax their UK guardians are in protecting their vulnerability. Granted, some of this is the direction's fault. We are constantly cutting away from the crimes, coming back to the characters later when any emotion or expression of same is long past. In addition, the narrative makes little sense. We learn what is happening, but it doesn't have the impact we expect. The look and feel of the film is wonderful. It has the great chilled British air about it. But when dealing with the death of children, things shouldn't be so sullen. The Godsend needs a massive jolt of energy to be anything but ordinary.
The Outing - ***1/2
(Plot: A woman from the Middle East - Deborah Winters - is mysteriously murdered and the police discover her apartment is filled with interesting ancient artifacts. One of them, a magical lamp, ends up in a museum and when a high school student - Andra St. Ivanyi - rubs it, an evil genie possesses her soul. Soon, she convinces her friends to spend the night in the antiquity-filled locale, and the bodies start piling up).
Infused with a kind of exploitation approach that legitimizes suspect subject matter like abuse and rape, The Outing (known as The Lamp in other territories) is also the kind of movie that finally lives up to Scream Factory's obvious intent. This was the kind of movie '80s horror fans grew up loving, a goofball romp filled with sex, violence, and no viable artistic value. A step above Troma, but barely, this oddity has a stop motion jinn, ample nudity, and a nasty streak a mile or two wide. There are some distracting elements here, especially for a 2013 mindset, but you have to forgive this film for "going for the throat," so to speak. Clearly, we have an attempt by eager moviemakers to mimic a dying subgenre - the slasher - while infusing it with some much needed creative spark. The genie is supposed to provide that, but even if the killer wasn't a possessed high school kid, but some maniac in a hockey mask, the result would be the same. It's all blood, boobs, and a high body count.
Visually, this collection is all over the map. Three of the four films are offered in anamorphic widescreen prints. The fourth is full screen. Well, The Godsend is actually 1.66:1, while The Outing is 1.33:1. The other two are 1.78:1 (Helen) and 1.85:1 (The Vagrant). All are decent, yet very dated. Scream Factory has clearly not given these fright flicks the full remaster, and it shows. Still, for those who only know these films from previous VHS releases, the offerings here are decent. There's good color, a lack of legitimate issues (scratches, flaws) and some solid contrasts. Sonically, everything seems to be pimped out in standard Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 (The Vagrant is in Stereo). None of the aural elements are outstanding. Instead, they offer up their cheesy dialogue and scare tactics via a respectable audio approach. Finally, there are no added features here. No bonus material. No entertaining extras.
Remember what we said about a Saturday Night at Video View? The same thing applies to this release. It's a realistic Rent It, nothing more. Helen is half-decent, The Vagrant is fun, as is The Outing (give or take a few fetid examples of sexual abuse) and The Godsend is just inert. For anyone who grew up bringing the latest scary movie to their analog home theater, this will be a wonderful throwback. For anyone looking for legitimate fright classics, your search needs to continue. This is just a cobbled together collection that will delight as often as it disappoints, showcasing a wide variety of approaches, subject matter, and in the end, entertainment values.
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