or, What's Up With Those Wacky DVD Box Sets?

Normally, I just review movies, without considering the quality of the recording (be it VHS or DVD). I never considered myself particularly qualified to judge the standards of a recording, being neither an audiophile nor a videophile. I just like the movies, in whatever form I can get them. My viewing system isn't particularly sophisticated: no flat-panel 40+ inch TV with surround sound for me! I'm really very easy to please... especially since I am used to nth generation grey-market video dubs of hard-to-find films, and relic VHS tapes from the early 80s in their outsized boxes. Thank the Video Gods that these films are even available, I say, and I don't complain if they're not color-corrected and DTS encoded.

But for this review, I want to consider a particular set of DVDs, as much for the presentation as the content of the movies they feature. The sets I'm speaking of, the Brentwood/BCI-Eclipse 5 disc - 10 movie horror sets, are a strange combination of films in an even stranger combination of formats. I am at a loss to decide if these collections, which list at $20 each and frequently sell for less, are a good deal, a rip-off, or a totally unethical enterprise. I thought I would provide some details about the sets, and leave you, the reader, to decide for yourself what to make of them. I know I wish I'd been able to get some idea of what was in store for me when I bought the three (and a half) sets I now own. In the absence of this information elsewhere, here are some highly opinionated reviews, as a sort of Consumer Service...

Tales of Terror

Deep Red: The Hatchet Murders: This is the full-screen American cut of Dario Argento's best giallo. It's just like the old Thorn/EMI Video from years ago. Actually, I've always felt the American cut held its own in comparison with the original, uncut version. It doesn't go quite so far out of its way to humiliate the central charcter, Marcus Daley (David Hemmings), as he stumbles his way into the mad world of a psychotic killer. Argento's films have been heavily restructured and re-edited for release in the U.S., and it can be very instructive for fans of his work to see what American censors made of them... in this respect, Deep Red came off very well by comparison, in some places actually tightening the film's structure when Argento had a tendency to wander.

Note: There's a DVD outfit called Catcom1 which is so cheap in its productions it makes Brentwood look like MGM by comparison. In December 2002, Catcom released a double feature DVD (which I picked up new for $5) that presented Satanic Rites of Dracula (in the grainy but wide-screen edition that practically every other low-budget DVD company has issued) and Deep Red, mis-titled as The Deep Red Hatchet Murders. This version of Argento's classic is the widescreen European version, identical in every respect to the Anchor Bay restored edition. It even has the subtitled scenes which were added to replace footage that was never translated for export. I have no idea how they were allowed to do this. I'd feel mighty guilty about buying it, I suppose, if I didn't already have a copy of the Anchor Bay edition.

Christmas Evil: This has also received several recent releases by low-budget companies, and they all seem to use a dreadfully faded, sub-VHS quality print which is nearly unwatchable.

Web of the Spider: Antonio Margheriti's color remake of his classic Castle of Blood is a dreary experience. It was shot wide-screen, but this print (again taken from a grainy original) is panned-and-scanned. It's a dreadful film, one which ruins everything that made the original so much fun to watch. The transfer is appropriately awful, too. Run out and get the Synapse restored edition of the black-and-white original, by all means... but avoid Web of the Spider unless you're really in the mood for some punishment.

Circus of Fear: John Llewellyn Moxey's film is an Edgar Wallace adaptation; not a horror film at all, but a slightly silly mystery. Christopher Lee is underused as a Red Herring character. Another faded, scratched-up print that is virtually unwatchable at times.

House on the Edge of the Park: This is unbelievable: it's a pristine, uncut, wide-screen version of Ruggero Deodato's version of Last House on the Left, complete with Italian titles and end credits. I'm not sure where this print came from, but it's by far the standout in this collection. Brentwood managed to scoop the reputable Shriek Show Entertainment with a disc of this film by several months. If you're strapped for cash, and you absolutely must see Deodato's lovingly polished turd, and provided you can live without special DVD features of any kind, this set gives you an affordable option. The thing is, I can't really recommend this set over Shriek Show's single-disc version, simply because 1.) Shriek Show is a small, committed and responsible outfit that deserves our support; and 2.) Brentwood has ripped off so many other companies (see below for details) that I'm very suspicious about where they got this print.

Messiah of Evil: I really really really like this movie, so I was very hopeful to see it on somebody's -- anybody's -- DVD. Especially after seeing House on the Edge of the Park, I hoped against hope that Brentwood had dug up a restored version of Willard Huyck's small masterpiece. Alas, this was not the case: my VHS copy from the mid-80's is far better. What makes the situation even worse is that my copy of this disc ceases to play just as Joy Bang gets cornered in the movie theatre. I've checked the data: the whole last act of the movie didn't get recorded on my disc. Doubly, triply unfortunately, I've long since lost the receipt (that's the trouble with a ten movie set: you're hard-pressed to watch everything on it before your return period expires...). Since I knew Dead People/Messiah of Evil so well, I saved it for last... so when it malfunctioned, I found myself stuck with it. Oh, well.

I'd be curious to know if anybody else who has this set has had this trouble. Please let me know...

Die, Sister! Die!: Yeah. Well. Let's not go into that, shall we?

Lady Frankenstein: The opening credits started out widescreen, so I had high hopes. Unfortunately, as soon as the titles were over, the movie went back to full-frame. Sigh. This is the same dismal, scratchy print that's been circulating on public-domain video for years. Nothing special.

The Werewolf and the Vampire Women: Probably the worst transfer of the set, this is once again the old, washed-out public domain print that's been circulating just about forever. Anchor Bay has released a restored, widescreen version under the title Werewolf Shadow... buy that instead.

Sisters of Death: Don't remember. Slept straight through it.

Overall Grade: D+

An acceptable transfer of the U.S. print of Deep Red, and a startlingly perfect copy of House on the Edge of the Park. Because of technical problems, it missed a chance to provide one of my favorite movies in a more permanent format than VHS... minus a letter grade for this oversight. Otherwise, a good way of recapturing the experience of used EP mode videos, the kind of trash we used to have to suffer with in order to see the films at all.

Fright Night

Kill, Baby! Kill!: Starring Giacomo Rossi-Stuart and Erika Blanc. This is Mario Bava's last great Gothic, Operazione Paura, also known as Curse of the Living Dead. This is a must-see for anybody who likes chilling ghost tales. The spectral little girl, Melissa, with her bouncing ball, inspired Fellini for his episode in the Poe anthology Spirits of the Dead. There is no discernable difference between this print, VCI's DVD, Diamond Entertainment's DVD, and Sinister Cinema's VHS copy. Some day, someone will restore this movie, the way Bava's other films are being restored... but until then, this is as good a copy as any.

The Devil's Nightmare: Also known as Succubus, The Devil Walks at Midnight, La plus longue nuit du diable and (as it is called here) La Notte terrificante del demonio. The movie is a wonderful slice of low budget Belgian horror (!), featuring the eerie Daniel Emilfork (City of Lost Children) as the Devil, and Erika Blanc (again) as his agent, the Succubus. The lovely Erika periodically turns into a frozen-faced spectre, in scenes which terified me when I couldn't see them clearly. With the clarity of this restored version, her make-up becomes a little more obvious... sometimes it's good to see this kind of movie with a little distortion!

And thinking of restoration, that brings me to the BIG problem with this disc: it has been stolen outright from Redemption, a UK company distributed in the U.S. by Image Entertainment. The Redemption disc sells for about $25 list price, making this entire set some $5 cheaper than the single movie disc. Again, I can't possibly recommend this set in good conscience.

How do I know they stole the print from Redemption? Simple: Redemption bookended some of its earlier releases with little specially-filmed short subjects, each dealing with some fetish or kink. Leather-clad (or unclad) girls would do a sad little pantomime, while some overdressed dominatrix type waxed baroque about the subject. In the case of this film, the intro was about cannibalism. And Brentwood stole the intro as well as the program content!. So the disc has Redmption's own proprietary information all over it. As the original disc is still in print, I can't see how Brentwood obtained the rights to it legally. Somebody please reassure me if this is indeed the case; I would be happy to be able to refer viewers to this delightfully silly horror allegory without feeling guilty.

God Told Me To: This disc alone is worth the price of the set. It's a wide-screen, uncut edition, which as far as I know hasn't been ripped off of anyone else's DVD (though Anchor Bay has a VHS edition out which I have not seen). It's a creepy little Larry Cohen film, which starts as a mystery, heads off into supernatural horror, and ends up as one of the most bizarre science fiction films ever made. This superb little film was dedicated to the memory of film composer Bernard Herrmann: the score, which appropriately features the Gregorian melody "Pange, Lingua" ("Speak, Tongue"), is worthy of a film dedicated to the late Maestro. There's also a cameo by Andy Kaufman, as a homicidal policeman.

Good Against Evil: Very adequate TV thriller, the pilot for an unsold series, scripted by Jimmy Sangster. A fun curiosity.

Pieces: The same dreadful print that's been put out before by so many other cheap DVD outfits. A terrible film, a terrible transfer.

Kiss Me, Kill Me: Seems to be exactly the same panned-and-scanned print that Diamond put out a year or so earlier. The film is actually Corrado Farina's Baba Yaga, an adaptation of a famous Italian comic book. Diamond embarrassed themselves by confusing this film with Umberto Lenzi's Così dolce... così perversa, which had also starred Carroll Baker... they put out a copy with Lenzi's name and biography all over the place. Lenzi had nothing to do with it. Anyway, this is a barely acceptable print of an interesting and offbeat Italian fantasy. (If this had been the Lenzi version, Erika Blanc would have been in this one, too!)

Satan's School for Girls: I slept through this one, too. Sorry.

The Night Evelyn Came Out of the Grave: The Erika Blanc-fest continues! I hate this movie. I hate this print. It's the same butchered TV version that VCI put out on tape a few years ago, that caused me to lose my cool and write a diatribe against it. The Brentwood box says the movie lasts 103 minutes (approximately), which is the length of the uncut version. Note: 88 minutes is nowhere near approximately 103 minutes. Imagine all the nudity and violence cut out of a film whose only reason for being is nudity and violence... Gaaah.

Cathy's Curse: Eurrgggh. What is this? What did I just watch? My head hurts. My eyes hurt. Skip this one.

The Ghost: When Palmerini and Mistretta ended their epic study of Italian horror, Spaghetti Nightmares, with a comprehensive list of all the genre films made from the late 50's to 1990, they forgot one important movie. That's this one, Riccardo Freda's Lo Spettro/The Ghost. A semi-sequel to Freda's earlier ode to necrophilia, The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, this film starts Barbara Steele in the tale of a murdered husband's revenge from beyond the grave. The Ghost of the title uses surprisingly un-supernatural psychology to turn his killers against each other... until a series of shocking twists put an entirely different perspective on the story. This is the usual public domain print, with the title sequence chopped up and shown out of order... but this is one of the best Italian Gothics, and it deserves to be seen in almost any format.

Final Grade: C/F

Would have had a passing grade, for the quality and curiosity value of most of its offerings, and especially for God Told Me To. Would have passed easily, except for the inclusion of Evelyn, which is an automatic minus in my book. But cheaters earn an automatic failing grade, and the plagiarism from Redemption Films is one of the most egregious acts of piracy I've ever seen.

Ten Nights of Terror

Death at Love House: This made-for-TV movie from the early 1970's almost holds its own for its first two acts. The typically wooden Robert Wagner and an impossibly young-looking, winsome Kate Jackson move into a Hollywood mansion to document the life of a silent movie starlet. The actress's larger-than-life presence seems to reach out from beyond the tomb (which is conveniently located in the back yard) to captivate poor Wagner. It's all very silly, and made even sillier by the inability of 70's actors to portray 20's screen stars, but it almost succeeds as an amiable time-waster -- until the end, when it turns from a ghost story into... well, into the most ludicrous garbage you've ever seen. If you can hold on for about the first hour of this 74-minute flick, you'll be howling with laughter for the last fifteen. The fluid photography will sometimes make you think of Sergio Salvati at his prime, though the print has faded badly.

Snake People: Acceptable print of a disgracefully bad film, one of Boris Karloff's four last movies. Karloff remains hooded or concealed through most of the film, ostensibly to conceal his Secret Identity, but in fact to hide the fact they were using a double... Karloff was so near death at that point that he was unable to film most of his scenes. When you can see Karloff, the effect is even sadder: he looks so wasted that you expect him to pass away on camera. The indignity of it all makes it very difficult to enjoy this tale of snake-women, blind dwarfs and zombies... even though in one scene, the zombies have obviously been asked to hold their position until the director yelled "Cut!", but the editor left in a second or two of their frozen pause...

Horror Hotel: Slightly grainy, but letterboxed! Christopher Lee stars as a sinister history professor with a special interest in witchcraft. As has been noted many times, John Moxey's film bears a striking structural resemblance to Hitchcock's Psycho, made the same year. This is an often-unbelievable, but always watchable and extremely atmospheric film, which at 77 minutes doesn't even come close to outstaying its welcome. It's also fun hearing the English cast struggling to sound American; Lee is the most successful, followed by Valentine Dyalls' credible attempt at a New England accent. Anchor Bay released a widescreen version a few years ago, so I view this print with just a hint of suspicion.

The Indestructible Man: Lon Chaney, Jr. in one of his forgettable 50's sci-fi/horror melodramas. This one seems to have suffered from its lack of budget: only half the film seem to have made it through production. This not-terribly-good film gets an OK pressing. I am told there is a restored widescreen (1.66:1) DVD of this floating around somewhere, but the thought doesn't excite me.

Dominique is Dead: Yet another would-be ghost story that switches gears for some "unexpected" shocks, this tolerable (if slow) chiller looks about what you'd expect it to look like: faded, dull, like an old VHS tape.

Nightmare Castle: This is one of my favorite Italian gothics, a full-blooded ghost story that's really a ghost story, beautifully photographed, starring Barbara Steele, and with a terrific score by a young Ennio Morricone. It's a shame that this print uses the same public-domain TV print that Sinister and Madacy used for their releases (in fact, I think this copy is just a little worse). Retromedia has releasing the uncut, letterboxed version of this film, Amanti d'Oltretomba, under the title Faceless Monster in February, 2003. That's the version to buy.

The Invisible Ghost: Absurd Monogram melodrama from 1941 is notable for only a few things: Béla Lugosi's effective portrayal of a gentle man who commits murders while in a trance; Clarence Muse's portrayal of a black servant character who is dignified, intelligent and treated with respect ( a rare thing for the times); and the unexpected execution for murder of the guy we were expecting to be the film's hero. Also noteworthy is the murder of one young girl, as she listens to a sprightly tune on the radio; the next morning, the butler finds her dead, while the radio plays an exercise program. Between a few deliciously black-humored moments like this, there are long dead stretches that make 63 minutes seem interminable. Good transfer, though, and an unexpected bonus: after the movie finishes, we get to see the original trailer.

Carnival of Souls: If this isn't the Criterion remastering of the standard theatrical version (disc one of their 2-disc set), I'd be very surprised. No other print I know of is as clear. This looks as though it had been filmed yesterday. The Brentwood box lists the film as running 84 minutes, which is the length of the "director's cut" restored by Criterion (disc two of the Criterion set), but in fact the print runs 77 minutes. The incredible clarity of the image, coupled with the mis-stated running time, makes me wonder about the provenance of this edition.

Wolfman: I never even knew this film existed. Would I had never found out. The pain, the pain...! Looks like an old video, which is strangely appropriate.

Track of the Moon Beast: This was a favorite of my youth, but now I can't seem to watch it without thinking of the MST3K version. The print is faded, but acceptable, bringing to mind the feeling of being twelve and watching this on the Four Thirty Movie on Channel 7.

Final Grade: C

Most of the movies in this set are too short to be offensive. Excellent copy of Carnival of Souls, better-than-adequate copy of Horror Hotel, though I'm a little suspicious where both of them came from. The other films are a mixed bag, best for bad movie masochists like me.

NOTE: Three of the movies from this set, Horror Hotel, Nightmare Castle and The Indestructible Man, are also available on a Brentwood two-disc set called Servants of Evil. Filling out the collection is a superb pressing of Albert Band's I Bury the Living, a film which could have been one of the best of the 50's... if it weren't for that horrible ending. The version Brentwood provides is nearly as good as the MGM Midnite Movies DVD... and again I wonder. Servants of Evil rates a B+, with the usual reservations.

While I'm on the subject of Catcom, I recently picked up another cheap-o Double Feature of theirs: House on Haunted Hill and the absolutely insane Monstrosity/Atomic Brain. I was aiming for the latter, but I figured if the (apparently widescreen) copy of House... was any good, I'd get rid of my other copy of the flick, which is on a Diamond Entertainment Double Feature with Last Man on Earth. You see, I'd recently bought a cheap Triple Feature disc called Great Bloodsucking Vampire Movies, which included Satanic Rites... (again), the creaky old Lugosi vehicle Devil Bat, and the glorious Cinemascope print of Last Man.... With the Sidney Salkow/Ubaldo Ragona version of Richard Matheson's novel "I Am Legend" presented in its original format, I thought I could toss my old version. However, Catcom's print of House..., though it doesn't look like it's missing any information from the sides, has a noticeably different aspect ratio from Diamond's print (approx. 1.77:1 compared to the correct ratio of 1.85:1). Catcom's image appears to be slightly stretched.

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