Sunday, October 6, 2013

Blu-ray Review: HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (1976)

3-Disc Limited Edition Blu-ray + DVD Combo 

Label: Severin Films
Region Code: Region-FREE
Rating: Unrated 
Duration: 84 Minutes 
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
Video: 1080p Widescreen (1.77:1) 
Director: James Kenelm Clarke
Cast: Udo Kier, Linda Hayden, Fiona Richmond
Tagline: Nothing, but nothing, is left to the imagination!

The Brit revenge-shocker and Video Nasty HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (1976) features the always creepy Udo Kier (Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA) as paranoid novelist Paul Martin, the writer is holed-up at a secluded English cottage working on his second novel coming off a super successful debut novel. Paul's  but having a bit of difficulty putting pen to paper on his sophomore effort, it's the standard issue sophomore slump with a twist of plagiarism, that's when we catch up with him. we start off nice n' sleazy as Peter dons latex gloves and does the nasty with his girlfriend Suzanne (Fiona Richmond, LET'S GET LAID), and this is the most overwrought and exaggerated fucking I've seen on screen in a good long while - and I've seen Halle Berry's Oscar-winning orgasm in Monster's Ball (2001) - it's quite a sight, truly some campy cult cinema goodness right here - and this is just the first of three sex scenes with her so prepare yourself for sum hilarious gyrating and caterwauling!

The overwrought sex with the vixen proves to be an unwanted distraction for Peter, he sends Suzanne away and brings in the super-cute blond secretary Linda (Linda Hayden, BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW) to take dictation ..if you know what I mean. It a decent arrangement and the two get right to work on the book, it's not until Linda situates herself in her room that things get a bit weird, or at least weirder. During the earlier sex scene we see that Peter is haunted by nightmares of death, and it's Udo Kier so he just seems unnaturally creepy in every movie, he's a lot like Klaus Kinski in that respect, always a bit suspect and a lot weird.

Anyway, as Linda unpacks in her room she lays on the bed and masturbates for a bit, let the lurid voyeurism wash over you, Hayden's soft features and nubile flesh are very easy on the eyes. Satisfied with the accommodations and a quick wank she's back at work but it's not very long before she takes a stroll into the fields nearby for yet another exploration of her softer bits and before you can say take it off she's being raped at gunpoint by two youths, one rapes her she starts seductively stroking the barrel of the shotgun the other has pointed at her face, very weird, somehow she gets the upper hand and the two rapists have the gun turned on them, presumably dead. It's a very odd scenario and honestly the film is not overly concerned with making a ton of sense, but the main story itself is a pretty decent revenge-shocker cum erotic-thriller with some great atmosphere, and a lot of sleazy sex!

Steve Gray's minimalist score accentuates the slow burning atmosphere, at only 84 minutes the film does not drag in the least, the weirdness, sex and bloody deaths come at a steady clip once Linda arrives at the house, the deaths themselves are not gory but decently executed with an abundance of blood. Even if the wounds themselves amount to little more than what appear to be paper cuts the Kensington gore flows deep and red! Suzanne's death appears to be a bit of a nod to Hitchcock's most famous of deaths but what shower scene post-Psycho (1960) isn't.

The shocker finale worked for me, when things erupts into a pandemonium of violence and certain truths are revealed I was quite satisfied. The high and lows of the movie, on the high end we have a very simple and effective revenge plot, plus decent atmosphere and visuals. Add to that the super-cute Linda Hayden and 70's softcore vamp Fiona Richardson in ample scenes of nudity, which is fantastic, on the downside Fiona Richardson speaks from time to time and her sex scenes are dementedly campy and overwrought. Not sure if it was the rural setting or the rape scene but I was reminded a bit of Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dog (1971) in a good way while watching this, I really enjoyed it. 

Blu-ray: Severin Films present the Video Nasty HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (176) totally uncut and uncensored and uncensored for the first time-ever with an AVC encode in 1080p widescreen (1.77:1) on region-FREE Blu-ray. This HD master has a few serious issues which Severin have addressees on a pre-feature text screen, apparently the master was created using three separate film elements, the original negative which suffered water damage and two privately owned 35mm prints which were worn from years of projection, but they managed to stitch together a complete and full uncut presentation, so while the elements have been afforded some restoration they are in rather poor shape, but in the name of film preservation we have the film in it's complete state and on Blu-ray for the first ever, that's no small accomplishment. 

There's no escaping the dirt, numerous vertical scratches, fading, and discoloration - it's pretty easy to spot.  Additionally, the hodgepodge of film elements, which vary greatly in quality, draw attention to themselves. Contrast is off, the darker scenes are murky and color grading and quality of film elements fluctuates oftentimes during the same scene. Occasionally, when the film elements cooperate we get a decent 1080p image with a fair amount of fine detail but overall this is not an ideal 1080p image, but I applaud Severin for bringing this notorious Video Nasty to Blu-ray/DVD uncut, we've seen a similar presentation from 'em with their fantastic release of Eugenio Martin's 70's fright classic HORROR EXPRESS (1972), these cats are a dedicated bunch of cult enthusiasts, love 'em for it.

We have an English language DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural presentation with no 
subtitle options, like the visual elements the audio's not in great shape but fares better. Dialogue is consistently clear and the effects and Steven Grey's score sound quite nice with th exception of some minor some hiss and distortion. So severe were the elements that Severin considered cancelling the title, deciding eventually to sweeten the deal with the inclusion of a 2-part Video Nasty documentary never released in the US. 

On top of that they've done a decent job with standard issue extras beginning with an Audio Commentary with Director James Kenelm Clarke and Producer Brian Smedley-Aston, the commentary is moderated by by UK horror producer Jonathan Sothcott (DEVIL'S PLAYGROUND, DEAD CERT) and it's loaded with trivia bits and anecdotes beginning with the start-up of Clarke's Norfolk International Pictures and straight into production of the film, and anecdotes about he cast, sets and locations. During the infamous rape scene they're pretty mum and avoid commenting altogether, otherwise it's an entertaining listen, love it when they crack wise during the Kier/Richmond blow job scene, they all seem to be having quite a bit of fun.

Additionally we have a fourteen minute video interview with star Linda Hadyen who positively speaks about her breakthrough role in BABY LOVE (1968), Hammer's TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA (1970) and THE BLOOD ON SATAN'S CLAW (1971), with fond remembrances of the charismatic Christopher Lee, Patrick Wymark and working with Vincent Price on the Amicus film MADHOUSE (1974). Surprisingly, she has quite a distaste for HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (1970) which she seems to regret making even to this day, she has very little nice to say about her softcore co-star Fiona Richmond and Udo Kier, the latter of whom she at least mentions had a very "filmable face".

Depending on which edition you buy there are a few limited edition extras, the first 3,000 units sold will include a bonus DVD disc which includes the Gregory Daft directed Video Nasty 2-part documentary BAN THE SADIST VIDEOS (2005) which sees it's first ever release here in the US. The informative doc delves into the Mary Whitehouse's moral crusade to ban and censor violent videos that eventually led to the modern version BBFC and decades of ridiculous censorship in the UK. Part 2 of the doc delves into the shocking and heinous 1993 murder of a 2-year old child named James Bulger in Liverpool, whom was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by two demented 10 year old boys. Opportunistic officials blamed the deaths in part on a viewing of CHILD'S PLAY 3 which re-igniting the flames of the moral crusaders, it's a great watch. There's also a 10 minute featurette examining censorship in the UK in the 2000's, apparently despite the end of James Furman's draconian reign at the BBFC the Brits are still a pretty uptight bunch who continue to censor and ban extreme cinema.

A special incentive for you VHS collector's out there, if you order this edition directly from the Severin Film site you will will receive a strictly limited edition (250) VHS replica of the UK Video Nasty era Intervision release of the film under it's original title EXPOSE. Maybe we're not getting a stunning 1080p edition, but we are getting the best possible version currently available of this sleazy shocker. The feature films and extras are mirrored on the standard-def DVD.

Special Features: 
- Audio Commentary with Director James Kenelm Clarke and Producer Brian Smedley-Aston.
- An Angel for Satan - An Interview with Star Linda Hayden (14:44) 
- Theatrical Trailer (1:27)
- Ban the Sadist Videos Pt. 1 (51:25) *
- Ban the Sadist Videos Pt. 2 Pt. 2 (42:24)*
- Censors Working Overtime - The BBFC in the 21st Century (10:46)*
* Limited Edition Bonus DVD Only available in the first 3,000 Units

Verdict: The notorious HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (1976) is the only Brit-filmed shocker to land on the infamous final 39 Video Nasty list, to this day it remains censored in the UK but Severin have stitched together a fully uncut and uncensored version of the film, this is a fantastic edition and a labor of love for the distributor. Fans of sleazy euro-cult cinema are in for quite a treat with this erotic-shocker, star Linda Hayden is something quite special and this deviant slice of sinful cinema is sure to satisfy your depraved cravings. 4 Outta 5 


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