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Roger Corman's Cult Classics Double Feature: The Evil and Twice Dead
Definitively for the oldsters...like me. Shout! Factory, apparently taking up where BCI left off, has released Roger Corman's Cult Classics Double Feature: The Evil and Twice Dead, featuring new anamorphic widescreen transfers of these drive-in and cable "haunted house" favorites, along with some tasty extras for fans of the titles and genre. And like the old BCI double feature discs, you have the option of either watching the movies and extras separately, or selecting "The Roger Corman Experience" mode, which plays coming attraction bumpers, trailers, and concession stand ads along with the films, one after the other--just like at the grindhouse. The thrills here are absolutely of their time, so context is everything, but both films are solid entries in the low-budget horror genre. Let's look briefly at each movie.
Psychologist C.J. Arnold (Richard Crenna) has found the perfect spot for his proposed drug rehab center: a massive mansion and hotel that has been vacant for over 100 years. To the realtor Mr. Dekker's (Milton Selzer) credit, he doesn't hide any facts about why the home has a reputation for bad juju. Built by "Old Man Vargas" (Galen Thompson) in "the Valley of the Devils," as the local Indians called the area, the sulphur pits and steam pools there seemed to be an ideal spa setting...until the waters dried up the day the hotel was completed. As well, "Old Man Vargas" wasn't all that old when he subsequently went into seclusion after the hotel failed--only 30-years-old...and already an old man overnight. None of this mumbo-jumbo bothers secular cynic C.J.; however, his wife, Dr. Caroline Arnold (Joanna Pettet), is put off by the massive place right from the start--especially when she begins to see the ghostly apparition of Vargas beckoning her to follow him around the dump. Sold on the mansion/hotel, C.J. is going to need a lot of extra hands fixing up the dilapidated structure; luckily, he has the willing help of his friends and ex-junkie employees. C.J.'s former pupil, Professor Raymond Guy (Andrew Prine), is also a psychologist; he's coming up to the mansion to get away for the summer with his hot girlfriend/pupil, Laurie (Mary Louise Weller). Former drug addicts Felicia (Lynne Moody), Pete (George O'Hanlon, Jr.), Mary (Cassie Yates), and her German Shepard Kaiser (not an addict) are convenient labor for C.J., and Dwight (Robert Viharo, billed here as "George") is the dick-swinging contractor who handles the heavy stuff. Not wasting any time, the ghost of Vargas makes contact with Caroline, while dog Kaiser takes off the first night to scratch at something in the basement of the mansion. A door of some kind. Set in the floor. With a cross jammed into the latch....
MAJOR SPOILERS' ALERT!
Released by Corman's New World Pictures; directed by Gus Trikonis (Moonshine County Express, Take This Job and Shove It, and tons of episodic TV and movies, like Elvis and the Beauty Queen), and written by Donald G. Thompson (also known as Galen Thompson: Superstition, Sidekicks), The Evil is a thoroughly familiar--yet solid--re-working of other, better "people trapped in a haunted house" films like The Haunting, The Legend of Hell House, and certainly for this 1977 film, Dan Curtis' 1976 mainstream success, Burnt Offerings. Keeping the chills old-fashioned and simple (strange sounds off-camera, lots of reaction shots from puzzled or frightened characters, shaky hand-held camerawork, and primitive but entirely credible in-camera special effects--no opticals), director Trikonis' tight, clean, efficient, anonymous style works perfectly to help build the suspense of the piece. Admirably, Thompson's script doesn't screw around with superfluous scenes, either, sticking right with the task at hand--scaring the audience--and not insulting them by having characters who deliberately act stupid (the minute everyone realizes something drastically wrong is going on in the house, they want out. And they don't stop trying to escape). Importantly, Thompson's story is grounded in solid character motivation--the main conflict comes from C.J.'s secular, scientific stubbornness in the face of the reality of the supernatural events occurring in the house, something his religious wife immediately understands--with the arc of Crenna's character development providing a bit more depth than one usually encounters in such low-budget horror outings.
Anyone soaked in today's Saw and Hostel torture-porn antics will find the action and death scenes in The Evil positively quaint (or sadly, boring), but that's part of the charm of the film. Since these scenes are played dead-seriously by the good cast, there's a feeling of tradition and old-timey horror school conventionality that's quite nostalgically attractive; The Evil is almost "comfy" in its now-squareness (something that I'd bet wasn't its goal back in 1977). And those kind of old thrills and chills still work--if you're willing to see them in that context. Director Trikonis and screenwriter Thompson come up with some eerily-effective scenes--I particularly liked the sequence where Lynne Moody, attached to wires, is violently yanked back and forth as the demon viciously swats her across the floor--while the violent deaths are simply yet forcefully staged (Prine's drowning in mud is well-staged, and Viharo's electrocution couldn't be more basic...and yet it works just fine).
Only at the very end of the film does The Evil goes disastrously, ludicrously, wrong. Right up front: in the commentary track that's included on this disc, the director, Gus Trikonis, disavows this final sequence and admits it doesn't work (screenwriter Thompson, also on the commentary track, sort-of defends it). Trikonis maintains that this finale was foisted on him by the studio (including the casting), and that he had no choice but to shoot it. Fair enough. That being said...it's terrible, ruining the entire feeling and atmosphere of the film in a lame, pathetic attempt to be at the same time "cleverly" literal and conceptual. Once Crenna and Pettet find the doorway to Hell in the mansion's basement, they drop down in and encounter...Victor Buono as Satan himself. Clad in a white 3-piece suit, in a small, blindingly all-white painted room, Buono insults Crenna with some weak jibes like "insignificant speck of vomit," and "snivel, you little scum," before he grows horns and gets stabbed with a cross by Pettet. Jesus what a miscalculation. It's bad enough that this poorly-written high-school playette about Crenna's lack of faith utterly negates the heavy, dark, serious feel so carefully established for The Evil (the screenwriter states he wanted his version of Hell to be "different," but it's so benign and non-threatening-looking in its sterile whiteness that the worst that you think might happen in that room is a proctology exam). But jolly, chortling Victor Buono??? With horns??? I can't think of more inappropriate casting for the Dark One (with the possible exception of Avery Schreiber), and sadly, I can't think of any valid reason why the filmmakers and the studio thought they could pull this seriously misguided, silly sequence off (according to something I read on the web, this scene is sometimes cut out of television prints...good). Enough of The Evil's previous 80 minutes are solid enough for the viewer to swallow hard and forget this addle-patted foray into Brechtian whimsy (as filtered through every goofy TV sitcom dream sequence ever made), but it's a shame they so thoroughly botched a credible, satisfying ending for this more-than decent genre outing.
"I built this room for you. This house. You do love me, don't you? Don't you? Good. Then fulfill that love...or we both die."
Prologue: 1930s Los Angeles. Screen actor Tyler Walker (Jonathan Chapin) is at the end of his rope--literally. His lover, Myrna (Jill Whitlow), no longer wants him, even though he signed over his mansion to her in a spontaneous moment of supplication. With the police at the door, ready to evict him from the premises, Tyler stabs Myrna and hangs himself...only...it's not Myrna, it's a mannequin. Flash-forward to 1988. The Cates family, having inherited the Tyler mansion from their Uncle Harry and his wife, Myrna, come west from Colorado where Harry Cates (Sam Melville) lost his business and home to bankruptcy. Wife Sylvia (Brooke Bundy) is supportive of the move, but son Scott (Tom Bresnahan) and daughter Robin (Jill Whitlow again), are leery, especially when they see what a rundown neighborhood they're moving into, and the dilapidated state of the mansion. Oh...and drug-running punks live on their porch. 80s punk Silk (Christopher Burgard) and co-conspirator Crip (Johnathan Chapin again) want to throw-down with the Cates immediately, something Harry would like, too, especially since he's sporting a shotgun. But the cops shoo away our snazzily-dressed dregs of society, and all's right in the Cates world. Except...the ghost of Tyler Walker appears to be haunting the mansion, and Silk's gang isn't going anywhere without a fight.
MAJOR SPOILERS' ALERT!
I'm fairly certain I never saw Twice Dead show up at a local theater back in '88 (star Tom Bresnahan, on the disc's commentary track, mentions this Corman Concorde release played in a few theaters in L.A. and New York, and then went to video), but the poster art looked familiar, so I'm guessing it was one of hundreds of such similar titles I perused in the bulky VHS "Horror" section of my neighborhood video rental store over twenty years ago. Watching Twice Dead now, the look and feel of the film instantly brought me back to the days of zero-budget 80s horror films, but leaving the nostalgia factor aside, the movie manages to hold up quite well on its own. Combining the urban/gang actioner subgenre of vigilante flicks like Death Wish and The Warriors, with the hoary-old haunted house framework from countless other films, Twice Dead stays true to both conventions of these genres, and manages to do so with surprising integrity.
Working from a script by Robert McDonnell and director Bert L. Dragin, Twice Dead, like The Evil, keeps to more traditional scares--at least during the first two acts of the film, going for conventional chills as characters walk down dark hallways with candles, as bumps and groans emanate from the house. As well, the "Fort Apache" tone of the two young teens gradually getting squeezed by the punk gang (aren't they well-dressed? Like fugitives from a Michael Jackson video) is competently developed, with director Dragin eschewing any flashy violence or gore at first (so as to increase their impact during the final show-down). McDonnell's and Dragin's script has a nice symmetry to it, opening and closing with the obsession and death of romantically doomed Tyler, linked with the romantically-obsessed Crip's decent into madness and finally possession (obviously having the same actor play both parts helps here). The script is also unusually nimble in misleading the audience to believe that Scott will be the host body for Tyler's ghost (Scott spending increasing time up in the attic; addressing Tyler's mannequin as real; donning his attire when we think he's killing off the gang), instead of Crip, with McDonnell and Dragin also tricking the audience by coming up with the clever ruse of having Scott and Robin seemingly "killing" the gang in a complicated scam meant merely to scare them off.
Once the killings do come, they're dispatched with healthy brio (and critically, a sense of humor). Travis McKenna's big-boy Melvin is rammed over and over again by his possessed motorcycle until he's a bloody pulp; Shawn Player's Stoney gets his head realistically squished by a dumb waiter (the results are shot to look eerily real, like a crime photo); Raymond Garcia's Cheeta gets electrocuted (with his arm turned into a crispy claw) by a short-circuiting electric blanket, while Charlie Spradling--who very possibly had the most perfect breasts in 80s exploitation cinema--convincingly rides him to earth-shattering orgasm...and death; and the gang's leader involuntarily sprays his brains all over the walls with a possessed shotgun--all very nicely done. With better-than-expected cinematography by Zoran Hochstätter, and a competent cast (Porky's and Night of the Creeps icon Jill Whitlow is frustratingly a "good girl" again--sorry; no nudity, boys), Twice Dead hits what it aims at with a level head, a good sense of humor, and no money.
Both The Evil and Twice Dead feature brand-new anamorphically-enhanced, 1.85:1 widescreen transfers from reasonably decent prints. Scratches are evident, but not too distracting, while the colors are acceptable (if perhaps a bit muted), and blacks fair. No compression issues.
The English 2.0 stereo audio tracks are uneventful, with minimal-to-none separation effects, and a moderate recording level. Hiss is noticeable but acceptable. No close-captions or subtitles.
As I wrote above, you can view both films with "The Roger Corman Experience," which threads up the two movies with trailers, coming attraction bumpers and a concession stand reel inbetween the two. Or...you can watch it all separately. Trailers for Kingdom of the Spiders, Death Race 2000, The Terror Within, and Not Of This Earth, with Traci Lords (yes!) are included. Additional bonuses for The Evil include a commentary track with the director, Gus Trikonis; the screenwriter Donald Thompson; and the director of photography, Mario Di Leo (moderated by Shout!'s Walter Olsen, who adds...very little). It's a fun commentary, with Trikonis getting the biggest (unintentional) laughs whenever someone asks him, "What ever happened to that actor?" Answer: a flat "I don't know." There's a fascinating discussion of how they achieved the ghost effect in-camera, but Di Leo gets it wrong when he says The Evil is the first film of its kind (huh?). Thompson also sets the record straight on whether or not a demon was actually shot for the film (it was...but it was cut), and whether or not the film's original story should be credited to David Sheldon (it shouldn't). On Twice Dead, there's an equally good commentary track with co-writer and director Bert Dragin and lead actor Tom Bresnahan, where they give some good info on the film's production. Bresnahan mentions frequently how it was difficult to separate his personal feelings for Jill Whitlow on the set, since he was playing her brother (that poor bastard), but interestingly...she doesn't mention him at all (or that they dated, as he states), in her own special little featurette, The Girl Next Door...with Jill Whitlow. Running a little over 10 minutes, Whitlow talks about her career and her decision to leave films (God and kids), and best of all: she still looks fantastic. Good for her. A great bunch of extras for these titles.
Save for that ridiculous ending to The Evil, these two old-timey horror flicks know what they're doing. The Evil and Twice Dead certainly aren't classics of the genre, and they won't make a younger horror fan bat an eyelash, but they're basically unpretentious, straight-ahead examples, and they're executed with a bit of low-budget dash and class. The extras on this fun double-feature disc help quite a bit, too. I'm highly recommending Roger Corman's Cult Classics Double Feature: The Evil and Twice Dead
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.