Deadly Manor Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: February 25, 2020
Audio: English and Spanish LPCM 1.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 88 minutes
Director: José Ramón Larraz
Whilst en route to a lake, a group of youngsters make an unscheduled stop-off at a remote, seemingly abandoned mansion where they plan to spend the night. But the property is full of foreboding signs – a blood-stained car wreck in the garden, coffins in the basement, scalps in the closet, and photographs of a beautiful but mysterious woman adorning every corner of the house. Before daybreak, the group will unwittingly uncover the strange and terrifying truth that lurks behind the walls of this dreadful place. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Parts of this review are taken from my review of José Ramón Larraz’ Edge of the Axe, also on Blu-ray from Arrow.
Juan Piquer Simón’s Pieces (Spanish: Mil gritos tiene la noche, 1982) is the ne plus ultra of trashy Spanish slasher cash-ins, that much is true, but it certainly wasn’t the region’s final word on the matter. By the end of the ‘80s, European horror was struggling to hold its place in the international market. As slashers became a viable option for the home video market and movies like Pieces started to sell, Spanish, Italian, British, and Dutch filmmakers began going all in on Simón’s model. In the brief period before a new guard turned Spanish horror into a full-blown “prestige” format, the arthouse exploitationeers of the ‘70s quickly switched gears, including an aging Barcelonian named José Ramón Larraz. Larraz’ work as a genre director began when he helmed a series of violent, Pete Walker-esque British thrillers, including The House That Vanished (aka: Scream... and Die! and Please! Don't Go in the Bedroom, 1973) and Symptoms (also released as The Blood Virgin, 1974). The combination of sex, violence, and artsy ambiguity he developed was exemplified by his sapphic bloodsucker opus, Vampyres (1974), which remains his signature film. Following Vampyres, he returned to Spain and broadened his genre scope with respectable melo/psychodramas, like El mirón (Spanish: The Voyeur, 1977), artful softcore, like The Coming of Sin (Spanish: La visita del vicio, 1978), and horror comedies, like The National Mummy (Spanish: La momia nacional, 1981), but, following a bit of a lull (and a TV miniseries covering the life of Goya in 1985), the market had turned towards Juan Piquer Simón’s brand of schlock, leading to two gory, direct-to-video, American co-productions: Rest in Pieces (Spanish: Descanse en piezas, 1987) and Edge of the Axe (Spanish: Al Filo del Hacha, 1988).
These films were successful enough that Larraz was hired for one more US/Spanish horror co-production, though things reportedly didn’t go as smoothly and the final film, titled Deadly Manor, sat on the shelf for a time following its completion in 1990. Unfortunately, it’s kind of obvious why distributors kept passing on it – it’s pretty dull, especially compared to the lively charms of Edge of the Axe. Both films were released well after the golden age of the slasher film and about five years before Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) revamped the genre as slick and ironic. As such, it (and, to a lesser extent, Rest in Pieces) felt like a throwback, as well as final entry in the Spanish splatter canon, alongside Simón’s Slugs (Spanish: Slugs, Muerte Viscosa, 1988) and Bigas Luna’s Anguish (Spanish: Angustia, 1987). Deadly Manor was also designed and intended as a home video only release in the states, but, perhaps because slashers were falling woefully out of fashion (the video market was being swallowed up by “family friendly” monoliths, like Blockbuster Video that banned NC-17 and unrated horror), it seems perpetually uncertain of what categorical rules it’s following or if it wants to be a horror movie at all. Larraz’ screenplay is slavishly by-the-numbers, but God only knows what numbers. Compare this to Scream, which directly satirized slasher methodology and add to it the fact that it was made by Spaniards pretending to be Americans and you may have some idea of how strangely anachronistic and uncanny Deadly Manor really is.
There are signs of Larraz’ early career artistry and stuff like gliding cameras, smokey shadows, and the occasional surrealistic flourish certainly helps keep things moving as the film crawls through its first 40+ minutes. On the one hand, I live for the whole “overqualified European artiste slums it, while pretending to be a schlocky American filmmaker” thing and the punchy imagery sets Deadly Manor apart from a very busy field. On the other hand, the cast, who appears genuinely talented, is clearly hampered by the stiff as plywood dialogue and stock situations. One of Edge of the Axe’s greatest strengths is the charm of its characters, who are fun to hang out with between the axe murders. Deadly Manor’s murder scenes here are also disappointingly low on gore, though there is a lot of nudity, so some folks will be happy. Ultimately, the biggest issue is that the filmmakers keep promising weird twists, but rarely delivers on them, leaving even an undiscerning Eurohorror audience waiting for a punchline that never really arrives (the denouement is weird, but only because it comes out of nowhere and makes no sense).
Deadly Manor was distributed by AIP Studios – that’s Action International Pictures, not to be confused with American International Pictures – under the alternate title Savage Lust, featuring cover art that’s very much in keeping with the studio’s typically generic, early digital composition techniques (the model on the cover is also not in the movie). I did a bit of research and the only official DVD version was a pan-and-scan, VHS quality PAL disc from UK company Pegasus. No widescreen, let alone anamorphic discs exist, which makes Arrow’s Blu-ray debut a particularly big deal in terms of sheer quality of the upgrade. The new 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer was created using a 2K restoration of original 35mm interpositive elements and is about as close to perfect as we can expect from a low-budget, DTV quickie. 1990 wasn’t that long ago, but I’ve still seen much worse from the period’s biggest movies. The photography is dark enough that some sequences appear a bit muddy, leading, at worst, to a few minor ghosting effects, but details remain clear and element separation clean for most of the runtime. Black levels are solid without crushing subtle tonal shifts and the color timing seems normal for a late ‘80s/early ‘90s film (a lot of movies were leaning towards blue/cool filters/gels at the time). The stronger colors (daylight forest greens, orange highlights) pop and neutral hues, like skin tones, are consistent.
Deadly Manor is presented in its original mono sound and uncompressed, 1.0 LPCM English audio (I’m sure there’s a Spanish track out there, but the actors are all speaking English, so there’s little point in including one). Given the 1990 release, I’m a little surprised the production didn’t mix in stereo. Most TVs had stereo capabilities by that time and the technology was simple enough that it couldn’t have cost that much more money. The AIP VHS release even lists Hi-Fi Stereo in its specs, though that could easily be a mistake. Either way, the audio quality doesn’t quite match the video quality. The single channel track is inconsistent, at times sounding compressed and muffled. The minimal sound effects are typically strong for a mono mix, which means that dialogue is almost always the weakest element, including some hiss during the first half. Cengiz Yaltkaya’s synth score is kind of thin – minus the credit theme, there’s usually a single keyboard bloopin’ along – but his compositions are strong enough to give the film a touch of class.
Commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan – The editors of Diabolique Magazine and cohosts of Daughters of Darkness podcast team up in a respectable effort to make us like the film as much as they do. And, I gotta admit, they’re pretty successful. Besides offering context and backstory, they do a great job celebrating Deadly Manor’s oddball atmosphere and refusal to follow the “rules.” Perhaps the film simply works better when viewed in a group setting?
House of Whacks (32:53, HD) – Actress Jennifer Delora recalls her Playboy career, being cast for Deadly Manor without an audition, and shooting the movie with a charming balance of modesty and braggadocio. Her memories are way sharper than your typical retrospective, from the condition of the house where they filmed, Larraz’ direction, the scarred facial makeup, and a planned sequel.
Making a Killing (7:03, HD) – Producer Brian Smedley-Aston chats about his work with Larraz, his responsibilities on Deadly Manor (which was bigger than that of his previous Larraz movies), imdb.com miscrediting him as a co-writer (apparently, he and American Larry Ganem did very minor dialogue stuff), finding distribution, and more.
Archival interview José Ramón Larraz (3:42, HD) – The director discusses shooting the dreamed sex scene in this interview short conducted by Cathal Tohill, Andy Starke, and Andy Hurst.
Savage Lust VHS trailer
Original promo reel (4:22, SD)
Original script and shooting schedule (BD-ROM PDF)
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