Release Date(s)1993 (May 31, 2022)
Studio(s)Falcon Video (Saturn’s Core/Vinegar Syndrome)
- Film/Program Grade: D+
- Video Grade: C-
- Audio Grade: C-
- Extras Grade: B+
In the streaming era, where the lines between theatrical features and made-for-streaming titles have blurred to the point where there’s often little difference between the two, it’s easy to forget that home video didn’t always have that kind of respectability. There were hard lines between theatrical features and direct-to-video titles, with the latter being the Rodney Dangerfield of the film world. While the earliest DTV titles primarily consisted of films that failed to get a theatrical release, the genre increasingly became dominated by titles that were made specifically for the home video market. Most of those were shot on film, as videotape technology still hadn’t gotten past the standard definition stage. Yet that didn’t stop enthusiastic young creators from shooting no-budget films on VHS, and marketing everything themselves, often by mail order. There was direct-to-video, and then there was direct-to-video.
One such company was Falcon Video, and one such filmmaker was Phil “Chip” Herman, whose 1993 magnum opus Burglar from Hell is an affectionate homage to the supernatural horror films of the Eighties. Frank the Tank (Bryant Sohl) is a burglar who breaks into an old woman’s house, only to be shot in the chest by her. She buries him in her garden, but has a fatal heart attack in the process. Twenty years later, a group of friends end up renting her house, and when they foolishly decide to hold a seance, Frank the Tank rises from the dead to go on a murderous rampage. Burglar from Hell also stars Matt O’Connor, Ben Stanski, Barry Gaines, Angela Jackson, and Debbie D.
Everyone throws themselves into the proceedings with reckless abandon, both in front of the camera and behind it. Sohl has a field day as Frank the Tank, and whatever he lacks in actual acting skills, he makes up for it with undeniably manic energy. Burglar from Hell may have been produced in the Nineties, but it’s filled with Eighties one-liners, many of them delivered with relish by Sohl. There’s plenty of gore, and while the effects are hardly convincing, they have a certain do-it-yourself charm. Herman even added some weirdly out of left field social commentary, delivered with unexpected earnestness in a scene that’s actually pretty thoughtful (if a bit didactic). Burglar from Hell is many things, but it’s hardly forgettable. Herman and his friends clearly had fun making the film, and it shows.
As a shot-on-video production using consumer cameras, there was no real cinematographer for Burglar from Hell—Herman just pointed the camera and shot. (Ben Stanski is credited with the lighting, but that’s it.) This presentation of the movie was derived from the S-VHS master tape, framed at its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Since the master tape was interlaced, it’s been upscaled to 1080i here instead of 1080p. Saturn’s Core has included the following disclaimer on the packaging: “This feature was shot on video. Please be advised that the transfer quality is confined by the limitations of the format.” Those limitations are obvious from the opening shot, as the results are soft and lacking in detail, with frequent aliasing, shimmering, and smearing. The CCD image sensers of the day weren’t particularly sensitive, so there’s little to no detail in shadow areas, and the blacks are washed out. Does it look good? Of course it doesn’t. Does it look as good as it can, given how Burglar from Hell was produced? Yes, it does, and it has to be viewed in the same spirit with which the film was made.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles. Aside from some background music that was dubbed in later, everything is synchronized production audio, with no mixing. Even the sound effects were likely recorded on set while being performed off-camera. That means that the background noise and dialogue levels change from shot to shot, every single time that there’s an edit, with no continuity between shots. At least the music helps tie some of the shots together, but when there isn’t any, each cut sounds jarring. (There are also issues with the wind threatening to overwhelm some of the exterior audio.) At least the dialogue is generally clear, and the library music from Umbrasound works pretty well. Like the video, all of the problems with the audio are inherent to the source, so they need to be accepted as they are.
Saturn’s Core is a New Jersey based home video label devoted to releasing shot-on-video underground films. They’re represented by OCN Distribution, which is a sister company to Vinegar Syndrome. Their Blu-ray release of Burglar from Hell includes a reversible insert with alternate artwork on each side. There’s also an embossed slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 2,000 units, that was designed by Hayden Hall of Sick Slice Studios. The following extras are included:
- Introduction by Phil Herman (HD – :55)
- Audio Commentary with Phil “Chip” Herman
- A Chip Off the Old Block (HD – 11:16)
- From Pop Scene to Scream Queen (HD – 9:56)
- Rockaway Beach Memoirs (HD – 12:13)
- Frank the Tank Speaks (HD – 3:46)
- The Wrong Side of Town (Upscaled HD – 63:45)
- Mercenary (Upscaled HD – 19:24)
- Original Burglar from Hell Trailer (Upscaled HD – 1:10)
- Wrong Side of Town Trailer (Upscaled HD – 4:16)
- Other Saturn's Core Releases (HD – 18:19)
The brief introduction by Herman can only be accessed when selecting “Play,” not via the extras menu. He encourages people to share their feelings about the film, good or bad, so feel free to do so! In his freewheeling, colloquial commentary track, he shares plenty of stories about the production, the actors, and the locations. Since they had such limited means, they had to shoot everything on the fly, and keep moving no matter what. For example, during the opening scene featuring Herman’s mother as the old lady, she was really doing her laundry while they filmed her. (The reason that there’s a towel under Frank the Tank after she shoots him is that she didn’t want the fake blood ruining her carpet.) They also went ahead and shot all of the exterior scenes at a neighborhood house without bothering to get permission from the owners. Herman obviously loves Burglar from Hell—he describes it as being close to his heart, and says that he regularly watches it over and over again. Regardless of how anyone else may feel about the film, Herman is a good storyteller, and his enthusiasm is infectious.
A Chip off the old Block is an interview with Herman, who explains how he got into making his own films. He started making shorts with his brother on Super 8 mm film, but when he got his first videotape camera, everything changed. He also briefly discusses the making of Burglar from Hell. From Pop Scene to Scream Queen is an interview with Debbie D, who talks about her singing career, how she made the move into acting, her experiences making Burglar from Hell, and being a scream queen in the Nineties. Rockaway Beach Memories is an interview with Barry Gaines, who relates how he parlayed his own experiences on the set into founding his own home video company, Gaines Entertainment. Frank the Tank Speaks is an interview with Bryant Sohl, who describes their efforts making movies as “a bunch of teenagers having fun.” He says that if it wasn’t for Herman taking the process seriously, they never would have finished anything.
The Wrong Side of Town was Herman’s unreleased shot-on-video feature debut from 1989, presented here for the first time. It’s also been upscaled to 1080i from the S-VHS master tape, with 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, and no subtitles. Like Burglar from Hell, the image is soft, lacking in detail, and has color bleeding, aliasing, and other video artifacts. Unlike Burglar, the VHS edits are visible in this film, with their telltale color banding. It looks rough, but that’s how it was made. Mercenary is an early short subject from Herman, also in 1080i, with 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. (Amusingly, the opening titles blatantly borrow the introduction from Alan Howarth’s Halloween II theme). These both look especially rough, but they still provide an interesting look at how Herman’s filmmaking skills developed—and also how they didn’t.
Your mileage may vary with Burglar from Hell—frankly, everyone’s mileage will vary with Burglar from Hell—but Phil “Chip” Herman probably wouldn’t have it any other way. There’s some truth to the fact that it was made for a limited audience, but in reality, Herman and his cohorts made it for themselves, and they had a ton of fun doing so. If you watch it in the same spirit in which it was made, there’s plenty of entertainment value to be had here, and it’s hard not to admire their chutzpah. A solid set of extras never hurts, and this Blu-ray release from Saturn’s Core and Vinegar Syndrome delivers in that regard.
- Stephen Bjork