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Directed by David Nelson (brother of Ricky Nelson and the child star of The Adventures Of Ozzie And Harriet!), 1982's Death Screams (which had a pretty wide VHS release under the alternate title of House Of Death opens with a scene where a young couple are fooling around out in the woods. Shortly after, they're killed and their bodies tossed by an unseen killer into a river close by. The movie starts off with some nudity and a kill scene in the opening minutes? Great! Except then there's the next seventy-minutes to contend with.
In those seventy-minutes, we meet a few townsfolk as the jerk Sheriff Avery (William T. Hicks) inquires as to the whereabouts of the missing couple. Lily Carpenter (Playboy Playmate Susan Kiger) lives with her cranky grandmother Edna (Helen Tryon) who is friends with Agnes (Mary Fran Lyman) whose son Casey (Hanns Manship) is... a simpleton who likes to steal baseball equipment from Couch Neil (Martin Tucker). Neil's into Lily and asks her to go to a party with some of the local kids: Sandy (Jody Kay), Kathy (Andria Savio) and Romana (Jennifer chase), the most promiscuous gal in town and their friends Bob (Curt Rector), Tom (Josh Gamble) and the most obnoxious man in down, Diddle (John Kohler). After hanging out at a carnival for a while, the unseen assailant from earlier shoots a woman with an error. After running onto a merry-go-round, she winds up in a field and dies.
Anyway, then a bunch more nothing happens until the group finally gets to the river where they have a bonfire, then the cemetery where they tell ghost stories, and then eventually an old abandoned house where, for the last ten minutes of the movie, things are actually enjoyable.
Almost entirely devoid of anything approaching actual tension or scares, Death Screams is a bit of a chore to get through. The fairly frequent nudity spices things up in the exploitation department, but there isn't nearly enough ‘horror' in this horror movie to hold our attention until the last chunk where, admittedly, the movie wakes up and comes close to redeeming itself. There is some quirky local charm to the massive hour-long stretch where nothing really happens that might amuse those who can appreciate such things (if you want to know what a local carnival was like in North Carolina back in the early eighties, this fits that bill perfectly!), but realistically there's only about fifteen minutes worth of ‘good stuff' in this eighty-eight minute clunker.
With the exception of John Kohler, who should be locked away for his performance as Diddle (you will want to punch your TV whenever he's doing his shtick), this isn't the cast's fault. They handle their vapid, uninteresting characters well enough to make it work, but again, these are mostly vapid, uninteresting characters. At one point it seems like we might get to dig into Ramona's head a bit and find out why she's the town sex maniac, but nope, it never quite goes there. The relationship that forms between Neil and Lily looks like it might have promise early on, but nope, it never quite goes there either. What about things with Agnes and Casey? The movie hints at ‘bad things' in Casey's past indicating that there could be an interesting backstory here as well, but nope, it never goes there. The script is seriously lacking in the character development department, and the movie doesn't wind up giving us enough craziness on a regular basis to make up for that fact, or for the fact that the story itself is completely by the numbers and lacking any originality at all.
This is one where you might have trouble not reaching for the remote and hitting that fast forward button…
Death Screams arrives on Blu-ray from Arrow Video in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer taken from a 2k restoration of a 35mm print framed in its original 1.85.1 aspect ratio on a 50GB disc. This doesn't look nearly as sharp as a transfer taken from pre-print elements could have, but it's certainly very watchable. Expect some mild, and occasionally moderate, print damage throughout the presentation and some color fading but the image is reasonably detailed and free of any noise reduction, compression problems or edge enhancement. To summarize, this looks like you're watching a less than pristine 35mm print, because that's basically what's happening here.
The only audio option on the disc is a DTS-HD 2.0 Mono track in English with optional subtitles provided in English only. The audio is fine, if a little flat at times. The dialogue is mostly clean and clear and the levels are balanced properly. There aren't any problems with any hiss or distortion. The limitations of the source are noticeable, but overall this sounds fine.
The disc includes two audio commentary tracks, the first of which is with producer Charles Ison and special effects artist Worth Keeter moderated by filmmaker Phil Smoot. It's a very worthwhile conversation, and while they don't specifically make fun of the film, it's clear that they're woefully aware of its shortcomings. They talk a good bit about director David Nelson and his background, discuss how they came to be involved with the film, share some stories about the set and working with the cast and crew and more. The second track is with the cast of the slasher podcast The Hysteria Continues. This track is more observational in nature with the guys giving their thoughts on what works here and what doesn't. It's occasionally humorous but also pretty informative as they've clearly done some research into the film's history and have no problem relaying that information in a fun and conversational nature.
As far as featurettes go, Arrow has put together a good one with All the Fun Of The Scare: The Making Of Death Screams which is made up of newly shot interviews with Ison and Keeter as well as writer Paul Elliott, actors Hanns Manship and Curt Rector, actor/producer's assistant/assistant supervising editor Sharon Alley and actor/talent wrangler Robert "Billy Bob" Melton. Here, over the course of thirty-three minutes, we're treated to some fun stories from the shoot, notes on how the script was put together for commercial reasons and written in a week, notes on the location, Earl Owensby's involvement in the film, casting, effects and thoughts on the picture overall.
The disc also includes the alternate House Of The Dead opening sequence, four TV Spots, a few radio spots, a still gallery, menus and chapter selection options as well as a slipcover, a reversible cover sleeve and a color insert book containing cast and crew info, technical notes on the presentation and an essay on the history of the film penned by Brian Albright. For the BD-Rom enabled out there, you can access two different versions of the script in PDF format when you slap the disc into your computer.
Death Screams is a terrible movie that's been given a strong release. While the movie itself is a bit of a chore until the last ten minutes or so, Arrow's done a nice job bringing it to Blu-ray with a presentation that's probably as strong as the existing elements will allow for and a nice selection of extra features that do a great job documenting the film's history. Fans of the film should consider this highly recommended, but anyone not already enamored with the movie might want to try a rental first.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.