Blu-ray Release: September 14, 2021
Audio: English LPCM 1.0 Mono
Run Time: 88:38
Director: David Nelson
Late one night, a young couple is brutally murdered at a make-out spot by an unseen assailant, their bodies tossed into the nearby river. As the lifeless lovers drift slowly downstream, the residents of the town excitedly prepare themselves for their annual carnival, unaware that a machete-wielding maniac with a twisted grudge is lurking in their midst. When a group of teen revellers plan a late-night after party down in the local cemetery, they unwittingly set the stage for a bloodbath. (From Arrow’s official synopsis)
Hidden among the dozens of cult horror classics and trash flicks is David Nelson’s, Death Screams (aka: House of Death and Night Screams, 1982), a mostly forgotten indie slasher that didn’t endeavor to remake the wheel, but rather to fit the mould. Fortunately for us, Nelson – the aging child star son of Ozzie & Harriet Nelson – and writer Paul C. Elliott weren’t exactly equipped to make a standard-issue, post-Friday the 13th (1980) slasher movie and their most unusual instincts and misunderstandings of the emerging formula prove surprisingly entertaining. Possibly due to Nelson’s history in the industry, the film often feels like a pilot for a small-town drama – a bit raunchy, but only a couple of minor curse words away from being appropriate for early ‘80s primetime – in which the characters want to be in a softcore porno, but accidentally wander into a horror movie, instead, when rain chases them into a spooky abandoned house.
The wholesome backdrop and hokey comedy do not undermine Death Screams’ sleaze factor; in fact, they heighten it. Like I said, it’s as if the characters of a TV-appropriate comedy are being stalked and murdered, and the sex scenes sometimes seem like inserts culled from a different movie. The production is amateurish on many levels, but certain participants are trying their hardest and eking out just enough fake-out scares to keep a grindhouse audience from revolting before the stalking and slashing starts. Nelson attempts to make up for the lack of momentum with a bevy of gross-out gore gags during the final 10 minutes. Highlights include a guy whose hands are cut off and a woman pulled partially in half while her boyfriend tries to lift her out of a hole in the staircase (this one kill was special for me personally, because I saw it as a kid and have been trying to place it for decades now).
There’s a lot of preamble here. Putting aside the truly bizarre opening sequence, where a couple copulating on a motorcycle is tied together at the neck (I think?) and thrown into a river (the credits roll over super slow motion shots of their bodies rising in the water), it’s about 40 minutes before someone is actually killed. Moreover, the first half is mostly people having a good time at the county fair in broad daylight. The lack of scares poses a challenge, especially for any viewer who isn’t particularly interested in Nelson and Elliot’s stock characters or dated humor (the standard-issue comic relief dork is audaciously obnoxious, shaming even Shelly from Friday the 13th Part III, which was released the same year). While this is almost certainly an issue of filler buying time until the admittedly wacky final act, the teams’ specific flavor of filler has its unique charms, charms that will endear themselves to a specific subset of cult movie fans.
Death Screams was released on VHS here in North America under the alternate title House of Death by Virgin Vision, Cineplex Odeon Home Video, MCA, and Video Gems (the Blu-ray art mimics the lurid cover of the Video Gems version). Budget label East West put it out on DVD with a VHS quality transfer. It was uncut as far as violence is concerned, but was missing some non-horror footage. Later, UK distributor VIPCO’s DVD version was a visual upgrade, but censored and, somehow, several scenes ended up in the wrong order. Needless to say, there was room for improvement. Arrow’s new 1080p, 1.85:1 restoration was sourced from a 2K scan of the only known 35mm print of the film. The fact that they’re working from a print source leads to natural shortcomings in the finest detail and color blending; however, these issues are only really noticeable during the earlier daylight scenes, where Darrell Cathcart’s otherwise satisfactory cinematography appears washed out. As long as spooky shadows and stylized highlights are present, the image tends to be balanced and the lack of edge fidelity isn’t a problem. Color contrast is nice, especially the differences between steely blues and warm oranges as the extended climax kicks off. Black levels are strong, despite occasional snow and low-level noise effects. Print damage consists mostly of little dots and short scratches here and there.
Death Screams is presented in its original mono in uncompressed LPCM 1.0. There are some notable limitations in the source material, namely that the audio quality is condensed, flat, and, at worst, a little muffled. Given the consistency of the sound quality, print source, and the film’s small budget, I imagine there wasn’t a lot more Arrow could do with what they had. Despite not sounding entirely dynamic, the track is clear enough to make out all pertinent dialogue, except when the music overwhelms it and the incidental effects. Assuming the credits are accurate, the score was composed by Dee Barton, known for scoring a number of Clint Eastwood movies, including Play Misty for Me (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973), and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974). This score is all over the place, including fully orchestral themes, bloopy synth tunes, and calypso interludes. Given that his score for Every Which Way but Loose (1978) went unused, is it possible he recycled old compositions for this lower budget project?
Commentary by producer Charles Ison and special effects artist Worth Keeter, moderated by filmmaker Phil Smoot – Smoot, the director of Alien Outlaw (1985), leads Ison and Keeter through this initially lethargic, but charmingly jokey, honest, and relatively informative track. Smoot and Ison tend to lead the conversation, while Keeter interrupts the discussion whenever a special effect pops up or to ask a question of his own. Amusingly, Death Screams was shot in part around producer Earl Owensby’s studio, same as the Owensby-produced zero budget slasher cash-in A Day of Judgment (1981).
Commentary by The Hysteria Continues – The slasher fan podcasters fill space with factoids and personal anecdotes, doing their best to fill us in on the careers of all major cast & crew members and history of the production without speaking over each other.
All the Fun of the Scare: The Making of Death Screams (32:53, HD) – Ison, Keeter, Elliot, talent wrangler Robert “Billy Bob” Melton, and cast members Hanns Manship, Curt Rector, and Sharon Alley (who also acted as producer’s assistant) chat about their careers and experiences behind-the-scenes in this new featurette.
Alternate House of Death VHS opening titles (5:55, HD)
4 TV spots and 11 radio spots
Image Galleries – Production stills, behind the scenes, promotional, TV spot behind the scenes
BD-ROM: Two versions of the screenplay under the original title of Night Screams (.pdf)
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be viewed by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression.