Heartland of Darkness Blu-ray Review
Blu-ray Release: November 22, 2022
Video: 1.33:1/1080p (SD master)/Color
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo
Run Time: 101:30
Directors: Eric Swelstad
In the small town of Copperton, Ohio, Paul Henson, a former big-city journalist, buys a small local newspaper. He quickly falls into a wide-reaching conspiracy of ritualistic murder and cult mind control when he discovers that the entire town may be under the spell of a Satanic reverend and his flock. As the clues and corpses pile up, Henson and his family are thrust into a life-or-death struggle to expose the truth and stop the demonic cabal’s reign of evil. (From Visual Vengeance’s official synopsis)
The boutique label home video industry has existed since at least 1984, when Janus Films and The Voyager Company released the first two Criterion Collection Laserdiscs: Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933). That’s very nearly 40 years of Laserdiscs, VHS tapes, DVDs, Blu-rays, and 4K UHDs. Even accounting for a couple dozen versions of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), that’s a lot of releases, so it’s pretty incredible that there are even any retro cult films left to discover. The biggest money-makers are the fan favorites, but the real holy grails of the industry are supposedly lost films with legendary reputations – movies like James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932), John Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959), Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright (1971), and George A. Romero’s The Amusement Park (1975). Eric Swelstad’s Heartland of Darkness doesn’t quite fit the ‘legendary’ part of the equation, but it is a lost Linnea Quigley movie and that makes it more important than Citizen Kane in a lot of cult circles.
Heartland of Darkness is a very likable effort that gets by on its plucky “Let’s make a movie” attitude. Swelstad’s script has jokes and a satirical edge, but isn't overloaded with the kind of awkward irony that sinks a lot of cheap horror comedies of the era. No matter how silly it gets, the sincerity of the drama surrounding the horror is preferable to meta smugness or too much bug-eyed mugging. The plot is more of a mixed blessing in that it's overloaded with exposition, conspiracy, and twists, which is respectable (I really like the bit where the heroes discover that all the books on the mayor’s shelf are blank), but also pushes the runtime to an ungainly hour and forty minutes – at least twenty minutes longer than it should be. The cast has that specific performance texture found only in low budget movies that are forced to combine professionals, local character types, and non-actors who look the part. Quigley, who, naturally, takes her top off during her first scene, classes everything up with genuine charisma and a perfect understanding of precisely what kind of movie she’s appearing in. The infrequent gore is plenty graphic, though in that charmingly cheap way that gives away the tricks and manages to be more gross than convincing. Most of the violence is discovered after the fact, but there is one fantastic shotgun-to-the-face effect at the beginning of the third act.
Heartland of Darkness makes its world debut (on any format) via Wild Eye Releasing’s Visual Vengeance line and they have done the best they can with less than ideal material. Originally, Swelstad and director of photography Scott Spears shot the movie on 16mm, but the negatives and print sources are apparently spotty, so they’ve produced a SD transfer using both film and tape elements (I believe this was also due to them editing the assembly cut on video, rather than film). The whole process was supervised by Swelstad and the final results are a (technically) high-definition, 1080i, 1.33:1 image that won’t blow your mind, but gets the job done. Spears really pushes saturation during certain scenes and, as a result of that and the lack of additional compression in HD, color quality is the transfer’s strongest element. The basic shape of everything is neatly separated enough to make up for the lack of fine detail and the fuzziness of the edges. As often happens on standard definition DVDs, textures look best in close-up and fade in wide shots. Analogue and digital artifacts are minimized without resorting to overly DNRing the image.
Heartland of Darkness is presented in compressed Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The mix is textbook late ‘80s stuff with all the overcranked foley work, floaty dialogue that is sometimes inaudible, depending on how far away the boom mic is from the actors, and a synth score that drowns out everything else in an effort to engage the stereo channels. In other words: perfectly sloppy and exactly what we’d expect from a zero budget ‘lost’ film made for the VHS market. Assuming you don’t resent it for overwhelming all other audio elements, Jay Woelfel’s moody music is a highlight.
Commentary with director Eric Swelstad, star Nick Baldasare, cinematographer Scott Spears, and composer Jay Woelfel – The first of two commentaries is an informative and surprisingly focused reunion in which the filmmakers discuss Heartland of Darkness’ inception as an Ohio State student film, the logistics of raising money and shooting on a low budget, the regional locations, working with Quigley, the cast & crew’s other work, and the long process of finally completing the movie.
Commentary with Tony Strauss – The Weng’s Chop magazine writer/editor digs into the careers of the cast & crew, fills in some of the factoids the filmmakers glaze over, and briefly explores the ‘80s Satanic Panic.
Deeper into the Darkness (38:39, HD) – An extensive making-of documentary that includes interviews with Swelstad, Spears, Baldasare, and production manager/associate producer Tom Baumann. The subject matter sometimes overlaps with the first commentary, but it’s well edited with plenty of unique anecdotes, behind-the-scenes home videos, and clips from the other movies and stageplays the cast & crew worked on over the years.
Deeper into the Darkness promo trailer
Linnea Quigley Remembers (5:52, HD) – A quick interview with the star about Heartland of Darkness shot in 2021.
Archival Linnea Quigley TV interview (19:43, SD) – In this shockingly good interview, Columbus Close Up’s Jane Isachs talks with Quigley about her career. This was taken from a VHS recording and, in a cute touch, it includes local ads from 1988 or ‘89.
Fallen Angels 1990 workprint with optional commentary from director Eric Swelstad (36:59, SD) – This early assembly of everything they’d shot at the time was created to entice investors and edited on video. It has no additional sound effects, a temp score, and a time code, as well as clapper board shots.
The Making of Fallen Angels (21:21, SD) – Vintage local Columbus news interviews with Quigley, Swelstad, and script supervisor & production manager Marc Edwar Heuck. This is another VHS recording and it degrades hardcore towards the end.
Behind-the-scenes: Reverend Donovan’s death (2:37, SD)
Blood Church promo video (13:01, SD)
Two Heartland of Darkness trailers
Fallen Angels TV spot
Fantasm Magazine magazine article gallery
Behind-the-scenes image gallery
Visual Vengeance trailers
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