Release Date(s)1982 (September 28, 2021)
Studio(s)United Film Distribution Company (Arrow Video)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A-
Released during the slasher boom of the early 1980s, Death Screams (originally released on home video as House of Death) is one of those homespun horror films with the potential to either be interesting or exactly what you think it will be. In this case, it’s one of the stranger titles from that era. It fails to follow traditional slasher formula with a kill every ten minutes or so, ala Friday the 13th. In fact, there are very few murders, and the killer doesn’t start dispatching the main cast until the final ten minutes. Prior to that, we’re given an enormous amount of characterization, including a young woman who lives with her overbearing but loving grandmother, holding out for the right man to come along. As such, it’s inexplicably layered at times. We get to know these people in a way that gives them far more dimension than one would expect. The killings seem almost like an afterthought. On the other hand, when the kills finally happen, the majority of them are not that satisfying or just plain confusing. It’s also clear that certain elements of the script were left out of the final film, including the killer’s motivation. Add to that a ridiculously over-the-top musical score that belongs in a 70s cop show or a James Bond film, as well as a couple of Playboy Playmates who are primarily clothed, and you have an oddly put together horror film.
In a small Southern town, someone is slaughtering young adults under the nose of the local law enforcement. Among them are a couple of college students home on vacation who meet up with their friends at a local carnival, agreeing to get together later that night for a lakeside bonfire. Lily (Susan Kiger) is devoted to her invalid grandmother, who wants her to settle for nothing less than the best, especially when it comes to the opposite sex. Lily is initially reluctant to go with her friends, but decides to take a chance when she learns that the handsome and good-natured local coach Neil (Martin Tucker), whom she met at the carnival earlier that day, might possibly turn up as well. They enjoy their evening on the beach before going to a local cemetery to tell each other ghost stories, later taking shelter in an old abandoned house when it starts raining. Little do they know that the killer is nearby and will soon be paying them a murderous visit.
Death Screams was shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Arriflex cameras, and framed at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio for its theatrical release. Arrow Video debuts the film on Blu-ray for the first time—its first appearance on any disc-based media. Unfortunately, pre-print materials for the film are either lost or no longer exist. As such, Arrow was forced to scan a badly-faded 35 mm release print in 2K resolution—likely the only element of the film in existence. According to them, every effort was made to make it as presentable as possible. With expectations properly tempered, the new transfer looks shockingly good. Grain is heavy but refined. Detail is limited due to the source, but many scenes offer pleasant textures on skin and clothing, particularly during daytime scenes at the carnival, which are surprisingly vibrant. The color palette is varied and has nice swathes of green and red, with nice flesh tones as well. Inherent crush, black and white speckling, scratches running through the frame, and other examples of print damage are present, but the picture has been cleaned up as much as possible without compromising the integrity of the original element. Shadow detail is often absent while blacks range from deep to bright, which is due in part to the low lighting levels of the original cinematography. Despite its deficiencies, this presentation of the film organic to its source, and is miles beyond its nearly unwatchable VHS counterpart.
The audio is included in English Mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. It’s straight down the middle in terms of spatial presence. Yet even with its one channel limitations, dialogue exchanges tend to be clear and discernible. Sound effects have decent impact and the inappropriately wacky score by Dee Barton often chokes the other elements when its in play, which is more of a mixing issue than a problem with the quality of the track. There are no dropouts or thumps, or even major instances of crackle. As it’s sourced from the optical soundtrack of the 35 mm print, it doesn’t go far with fidelity, but it’s never distracting or overwrought outside of the score.
The following extras are also included:
- Audio Commentary with Phil Smoot, Charles Ison, and Worth Keeter
- Audio Commentary with The Hysteria Continues
- All the Fun of the Scare: The Making of Death Screams (HD – 32:53)
- House of Death Alternate VHS Opening Titles (Upscaled SD – 5:55)
- TV Spot #1 (HD – :32)
- TV Spot #2 (HD – :32)
- TV Spot #3 (HD – :32)
- TV Spot #4 (HD – :32)
- Radio Spot Reel (HD – 11 in all – 3:47)
- Production Stills Gallery (HD – 114 in all)
- Behind the Scenes Gallery (HD – 108 in all)
- Promotional Gallery (HD – 22 in all)
- TV Spot Behind the Scenes Gallery (HD – 38 in all)
- Easter Egg (HD – :57)
The first audio commentary features filmmaker Phil Smoot acting as moderator for producer Charles Ison and special effects artist (now director) Worth Keeter. The three men jump from subject to subject pretty sporadically as they watch the film together, delving into the making of it, as well as its cast and crew. It’s an interesting listen as they also discuss their backgrounds and their parts to play on the production. The second audio commentary features members of the podcast The Hysteria Continues, including Justin Kerswell, Eric Threlfall, Nathan Johnson, and Joseph Henson. They delve pretty deeply into the film and its place within the slasher boom of the early 1980s. All the Fun of the Scare is a new documentary about the film by Ewan Cant, featuring interviews with producer Charles Ison; writer Paul Elliott; actor Curt Rector; actor, producer’s assistant, and assistant supervising editor Sharon Alley; special effects creator Worth Keeter; actor Hanns Manship; and actor, talent wrangler, and transportation driver Robert “Billy Bob” Melton. Also included are the alternate opening titles from the film’s VHS release—presented here upscaled—with the film’s home video title House of Death. Next are a series of TV spots, including one shot specifically with producer Charles Ison doing an Alfred Hitchcock by introducing the film, and a radio spot reel. The image galleries feature a total of 282 images of production stills, behind-the-scenes stills, posters, promotional materials, newspaper clippings, VHS covers, and behind-the-scenes stills of the Charles Ison TV spot. The Easter egg is a little tricky to locate. In the All the Fun of the Scare submenu, press up, then right, and then down. This will take you to Not Martin Tucker featuring documentary interviewer Nathan Wheeler, who sits in for the actor and reads a kind email about the film from him since he was unavailable to be interviewed.
Also included is a 24-page insert booklet featuring cast and crew information, the essay Tar Heel Terror: Death Screams and the Rise of the North Carolina Film Industry by Brian Albright, restoration information, and various stills and photos. Included on the disc via BD-ROM are .PDF copies of two versions of the film’s screenplay under its original title Night Screams. The disc sits inside a clear amaray case with double-sided artwork, featuring a recreation of the cover of the Video Gems VHS release of the film by Sadist Art Designs on the front, and the original theatrical poster art on the reverse. Everything is housed within a die-cut slipcover featuring the same recreated artwork on the front and back.
Death Screams is one of the more obscure slasher titles due to its unavailability on home video for many years. Though the elements for it are missing in action, Arrow Video makes the most of it with a nice presentation of the film and a great extras package to go along with it. The film is certainly an acquired taste, but if you’re in the market for a horror film with characters that venture into three dimensional territory and don’t mind waiting for the carnage, Death Screams might be up your alley.
- Tim Salmons