Saturday, June 22, 2013

DVD REVIEW: THE DUNGEON OF HARROW / DEATH BY INVITATION

THE DUNGEON OF HARROW (1962) / DEATH BY INVITATION (1971) 
Drive-In Collection Double Feature DVD 

Label: Vinegar Syndrome

Rating: Unrated
Duration: 87 / 81 Minutes
Audio: English Dolby Digital Mono
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (1.85:1)
Director: Pat Boyette, Ken Friedman
Cast:  Russ Harvey, Lee Morgan, William McNulty/Shelby Leverington, Denver John Collins

Vinegar Syndrome continue to unearth and spit-shine obscure exploitation and horror cheapies, this timeout it's a double feature of two gritty, low-rent schlock-fests beginning with a shabby title I've seen previously on Mill Creek's Pure Terror budget collection. Already having one drunken viewing of this one under my belt I was a little bit less than thrilled to be enduring it again. It begins with a seizure inducing title credit sequence and one of the shabbiest toy boast in a tub sequences you've ever witnessed in your life, it's just awful. Surviving this sea wreck are Count Aaron Fallon (Russ Harvey) and the doomed-ship's Captain (Lee Morgan) whom are washed ashore on what they believe to be a deserted island.  This turns out not to be the case and Count Lorente de Sade (William McNulty) lives in a creepy waterfront castle with his black man-servant Mantis (Maurice Harris) who sports a silver head of hair, passing more than a passing resemblance to NBA bad boy, and friend to North Korea's Kim Jong-Un, Dennis Rodman. 

The Baron is quite obviously insane and hates pirates with a passion for reasons never quite explained, other than perhaps he's crazy, unfortunately the Baron suspects the two shipwrecked survivors are pirates and subjects the Captain to tortures while the Count for some reason gets to mostly have his run of the Castle. Also on the island are a young woman named Cassandra (Helen Hogan) as a love interest, a servant girl and a weird, diseased woman locked away in the castle's dungeon.

There's some fun to be had here for fans of schlock-cinema, this is a z-grade cult film making at it's worst... or best, your mileage may vary. Aside from the aforementioned spectacle of the miniature boat tomfoolery we have an apparition whom taunts the Baron with rubber snakes and spiders, some unintentionally humorous melodramatic narrative and a few cool dungeon scenes which evoke Mario Bava's Gothic style by way of Roger Corman's The Terror (1963) on the shoe-string budget of someone as charmingly inept as Andy Milligan. 

An amateurish film on all levels, a sad state of cinema with the worst kind of campy overacting you can imagine, it's just awful. On one other hand you have to admire the efforts of comic artist turned first-time director Pat Boyette who worked for Warren Publications on titles like Eerie and Creepy. The guy single handedly wrote, directed, edited, scored and from what I know created the set pieces and miniatures for the film, it's a true passion project. While that passion never really shows up onscreen if you love bad cinema you will certainly enjoy The Dungeons of Harrow. 

The second feature Death by Invitation (1971) is a 20th century witchcraft revenger starring Shelby Leverington. The films opens in Holland circa 1650 as a suspected witch is being persecuted and put to death by an angry mob of pasty-faced villagers, flash ahead three hundred years and we are somehow in 1970's Staten Island, New York where a descendant of the witch seeks bloody revenge on her persecutor's descendants, the Vroot family, including pompous patriarch Peter Vroot (Aaron Philips).

The descendant of the witch, the attractive Lise (Shelby Leverington), infiltrates the Vroot family through a chance encounter at the park, it's just that easy. After a dinner party she meets up with Peter's teen son Roger Vroot (Denver John Collins) back at her place where she tells him the strange story of the 'Seven Tribes' and how women of this sect were the hunters while the men where subservient, I was never quite sure what the heck this had to do with anything, but just the same when she's done reciting her tale she kills him, and the death scene is quite a let down, and sadly there's not a decent kill to be had anywhere for the duration of the film. 

After young Roger goes missing the Vroots alert the authorities who are about as dip-shitted as you can imagine, with no thought or reasoning behind their logic they surmise he's probably just run off and will eventually show up somewhere strung out on dope. After two bodies turn up at the Vroot house the cops still are not a presence, and all the while the sympathetic Lise is there comforting the Vroot clan during their time of need all the while she secretly decimates their numbers in quick succession, well maybe not quick succession, there's a lot of dead space in this film and you feel it drag, second my second. . 

Again, not a great film but the production at least is more cohesive than The Dungeons of Harrow, this is pretty tolerable, however, there's still a metric shit-ton of head scratching weirdness to enjoy, including a befuddling detour at Peter's office as his oldest daughter's boyfriend Jake is given the runaround by secretaries while he navigates a labyrinthine maze of office hallways followed by a meeting with Peter in which their voices are drowned out by muzak, it's the strangest sort of of running time padding, it just don't make no sense. 

One of my favorite scenes has the youngest Vroot girl walking in on Lise decapitating her sister and then falling down the stairs in utter shock to her own demise, it's surprisingly effective. Later in the film as Lise attempts to seduce a very willing Jake while she spews the same Seven Tribes bullshit but he shuts her up momentarily by jamming his tongue down her throat before casually date-raping her which leads to an utterly weird and confusing post-coitus "shock" finale.

This was a weird one, definitely not a classic of 70's witchcraft cinema but it's not without it's low-rent charm either. It plugs away with a weird synth-organ score generating some accidental atmosphere from time to time but never a sense of suspense or dread. The acting, whew, what a stinker! Shelby Leverington is sorta decent in the role of the seductive murderess, she's effectively distant and odd in a Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971) sorta way.  Watching the film I was never quite sure if Lise was the reincarnation of the witch or possessed by her spirit, we're treated to some effective flashbacks but the mechanics of what was transpiring was confusing. Aaron Philips as the Vroot patriarch, now that's a special kind of acting all together, the variety usually reserved for Ed Wood films, so awful it's rather awesome. Overall, a pretty dull film with an interesting witchcraft premise, the kills are just lame but this one is infused with some accidental weirdness that makes for a fun watch. 

DVD: Vinegar Syndrome present both features in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) and are scanned in 2K from archival elements, probably not the original film negatives. This might be the first time that The Dungeons of Harrow has been given a widescreen release, it looks much nicer than I remember it appearing on previous edition, while the colors are decent the print is marred with damage, the mono audio is muffled, while it's never quite hard to decipher it's not great either. Death by invitation (1971) has a much better video presentation, there's some minor print damage throughout but the colors are more vibrant and the image is sharper with some modest fine detail and clarity, the audio is a mixed-bag, not muffled but quality varies from scene to scene and there's quite a bit of hiss, crackle and pop throughout, it's not terrible but it's noticeable. Special features are limited to a commentary track by crew from The Hysteria Continues Podcast which I highly recommend, it's a surprisingly informative track, the crew are entertaining, funny and produce an awesome slasher-centric podcast that you should subscribe to on iTunes. 

Verdict: A fun low-budget double feature from Vinegar Syndrome, The Dungeon of Harrow (1962) looks quite nice compared to previous versions but it's still a shit film with some intrinsic schlock value. Death By Invitation (1971) is a modestly entertaining witchcraft revenger punctuated by long periods of boredom and a weird synth-organ score, not a double feature for the average horror fan but definitely one form lover's of demented 70's schlock cinema. 2.5 Outta 5 

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