Movies Till Dawn: A Case of the Creeps

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” (1974, Shout! Factory) It’s true that Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has just left an asylum, but surely, her fragile mental state can’t account for all the strange things that have happened after she, her husband (Barton Heyman) and friend Kevin O’Connor left New York City for an old farmhouse. There are the voices – warnings, really – she hears, and the nearby town full of old men with wounds on their necks, and the pale young woman (Mariclaire Costello) they find living in the farmhouse, and who bears a resemblance to another woman, long-dead, and rumored to be a vampire. Director John (“Bang the Drum Slowly”) Hancock’s mix of psychological breakdown drama and supernatural chiller has long been a favorite of horror fans who prefer their chills on the ambiguous and waking-nightmare sides; its rural setting and local-legend elements may play well for devotees of the “folk horror” scene, but certain scenes – a woman emerging from beneath lake waters in a wedding gown, the final tableau between Lampert, Costello and the townspeople – are bound to rattle horror fans of all stripes. Shout Factory’s Blu-ray features a slew of new extras, including commentary by Hancock and producer Bill Badalato, interviews with historian Kim Newman and score composer Orville Stoeber, and a visit to the film’s Connecticut locations, all still lonely and foreboding; vintage trailers, radio and TV spots are also included.

When a Stranger Calls” (1979, Mill Creek Entertainment) Babysitter Carol Kane discovers, far too late, that she should have heeded the string of anonymous phone calls about the children she’s watching; years later, she finds that the responsible party (Tony Beckley) intends to finish what he started. The first 20 minutes of Fred Walton‘s debut feature are a near-flawless exercise in building unbearable suspense before a horrific payoff; the body of the film, which focuses on Beckley’s escape from a mental hospital and dogged detective Charles Durning‘s pursuit, is less compelling, though the final collision between all the major players offers some jolts. A modestly budgeted effort, initially lumped with the slasher boom, before countless TV and home video screenings elevated it to cult status – and cemented by an homage in the opening sequence of Wes Craven’s “Scream” – “Stranger” pulls off a tricky balancing act of scream-out-loud horror and psychological thriller, and as such, should please both fanbases. Mill Creek’s Retro VHS Blu-ray is widescreen with no extras.

The Boys Next Door” (1984, Severin Films) Thick-skulled Valley teenagers Maxwell Caulfield and Charlie Sheen (both alarming) head to Los Angeles in pursuit of “caveman” thrills, which quickly escalate from hassling women on Hollywood Blvd to random acts of murder. Bleak, no-future crime pic from director Penelope Spheeris and future “X-Files” writers Glen Morgan and James Wong works as both gruesome teensploitation and an alarmingly prescient look at how hopelessness breeds nihilism and mindless violence; no pat psychological explanation is offered, which only makes the pair’s kill spree more unpleasant. With Patti D’Arbanville, future Oscar winner Grant Heslov, Moon Zappa and LA Beat’s own Tequila Mockingbird, who is seen performing on Hollywood with Texacala Jones, Ted Quinn, Pinkietessa and Maggie Ehrig. Severin’s uncut, region-free Blu-ray includes commentary by and interviews with Spheeris and Caulfield; additional interviews feature co-star Christopher McDonald, Mockingbird and Jones, and there’s a visit to filming locations (including Reseda High School), an alternate opening and extended scenes.

Who Saw Her Die?” (1972, Arrow Video) When police in Venice (Italy, not CA) fail to apprehend the person responsible for the death of their daughter (Nicoletta Elmi), a grieving artist (George Lazenby, looking haggard) and his wife (Anita Strindberg) launch their own investigation and discover that her murder is just one in a string of similar killings, all with possible links to important figures. Giallo by Aldo Lado (a former assistant to Bernardo Bertolucci) has its share of suspense and murder set-pieces, but the emphasis here is more on the emotional impact of a tragic death rather than the spectacle; that element (one of several elements in the film that presage Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now), as well as the mournful/eerie child’s choir in Ennio Morricone’s score and Lazenby’s affecting performance, make this a Eurothriller for those who find the subgenre too down and dirty. Arrow’s Blu-ray offers both English- and Italian-language audio tracks for their uncut print, and features trailers and interviews with Lado, Elmi and co-writer Francesco Barilli.

Two on a Guillotine” (1965, Warner Archives Collection) In order to collect a sizable inheritance, Connie Stevens must spend a week in the Old Dark House digs (actually Benedict Castle in Riverside) of her late father (Cesar Romero), a magician with a penchant for Grand Guignol tricks and a sincere belief in life after death. Frothy suspense-horror aimed mostly at “guillotine-agers” (to quote the one-sheet) that borrows heavily from the William Castle playbook (i.e. big booga-booga scares and Addams Family-style ghoul kitsch) by actor-turned-director William Conrad; Stevens and future Disney live action hero Dean Jones are appealing leads and Romero a fine, arch madman, and Conrad and DP Sam Leavitt conjure visual polish that bolster the modest scares. There’s some great Los Angeles location footage – an impressive sequence at an empty Hollywood Bowl and visits to the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery (where Richard Kiel can be briefly glimpsed) and the old Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica, where Conrad contributes a Hitchcockian cameo – but nothing tops the nightclub sequence where George & Teddy and the Condors tear it up for a frantic go-go crowd. Warner’s remastered Blu-ray includes the original trailer.

A special thank you to Warner Archives Collection for providing a free Blu-ray of this title for review.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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2 Responses to Movies Till Dawn: A Case of the Creeps

  1. ” Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” was one of those movies I should not have watched on TV as a little kid. No one knew what I was talking about until cable and VCRs and the internet brought it back into my life. Those grave rubbings moving in the breeze!

  2. Paul Gaita says:

    It’s creepy to the bone.

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