Vinegar Syndrome pairs a brand new transfer of the PD oddball THE DUNGEON OF HARROW with the obscure 1970s witchcraft pic DEATH BY INVITATION (originally part of their first cancelled Drive-in Collection double feature) for a double feature of scratches, pops, crackles, faded colors and drive-in weirdness.
Texas comic illustrator Pat Boyette made the debut of his brief low budget film career with THE DUNGEON OF HARROW, a low-rent oddity that seems at least partially inspired by Roger Corman’s AIP Poe films – particularly THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM – as well as perhaps not the Universal horrors of the 1930s or 1940s but the more melodramatic ones of the early 1950s like THE BLACK CASTLE and THE STRANGE DOOR (with a smidge of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME). Aaron Fallon (producer Russ Harvey) washes up on the shore of an island when one of his father’s sailing vessels runs into stormy weather and is dashed to pieces on the rocks (the model kit toy actually holds up better in the soapy dishwater waves than the rickety walls of the ship interior). The only other survivor is the ship’s captain (oater actor Lee Morgan, RIO GRANDE), who also manages to rescue a sail bearing the Fallon crest which they interpret to be a good omen. Little do they know that the castle on the island belongs to the Count de Sade (William McNulty), who is desperately staving off madness. The count is being tormented by his own particular delusion that takes the form of a corpulent alter ego that – in addition to conjuring up rubber bats and Muppet spiders – voices his repressed violent thoughts; which does not bode well for anyone who happens by (including a female survivor of the wreck who is torn apart in the night by dogs). De Sade has his bleach-blonde black manservant Mantis (Maurice Harris) retrieve Fallon and the captain (who is gravely wounded during capture). Fallon becomes a guest to the count’s unnerving and unpredictable hospitality and sees and hears the usual gothic horror conventions – screams in the night, terrorized women, the count wandering the halls by night – and learns from servant Cassandra (Helen Hogan) of the circumstances of the count’s exile and his increasing paranoia that might make Fallon a permanent guest of the castle’s titular dungeon (into which the captain has already disappeared).
On the level of technique, DUNGEON OF HARROW is only slightly better than MANOS, HANDS OF FATE; however the cramped castle sets are somewhat ambitious and cloaked in Roger Corman/AIP/Poe blue fog, and there’s a nice twist of an ending. McNulty’s count seems to be molded in the style of Vincent Price’s Roderick Usher and his Don Medina from THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, but he also anticipates Boris Karloff’s baron in THE TERROR (1963). Vinegar Syndrome’s cover synopsis also describes THE DUNGEON OF HARROW as being “in the vein of” the aforementioned Corman film. Like the other characters, McNulty’s level of performance isn’t always up to the level of the mannered dialogue, but he’s at least more entertaining with his alternating ranting/raving and introspective musings. Harvey – who also produced – makes for a dull hero, with Hogan’s exposition-spouting servant being the more interesting (as is Eunice Grey as the count’s leprous wife under threadbare make-up, and the simply fetching servant girl played by Michele Buquor). Co-producer Don Russell also edited and handled the modest period art direction (costumes are a bit more iffy with Harvey looking more like a waiter than a nobleman). Besides directing, co-writing (with make-up artist/actor Henry Garcia), and composing the score, Boyette also narrates as Fallon even though not that much time has passed between the flashback body of the film and the wraparounds. Boyette’s brief film career also included the regional war film NO MAN’S LAND (also with Morgan and Harvey), the lost sexploitation film THE WEIRD ONES, and the script for David L. Hewitt’s biker film THE GIRLS FROM THUNDER STRIP.
Vinegar Syndrome’s 2K scan of a 35mm film print is faded, occasionally scratched, and at its grainiest in the dark scenes; yet, it presents a more sharply defined image than the Something Weird Video or Sinister Cinema VHS-sourced transfer that has made the rounds on the various PD DVD labels like Alpha Video. Colors are more stable than the PD versions and actually get richer as the film progresses (note the red material of the count’s chair at the dinner table, and Fallon’s red tie and blue jacket in the same scene compared to the earlier ones); in fact, as the colors improve, elements of style are more evident in the cinematography (particularly the amber and blue color gels, as well as the green ones that follow the countess around in the dungeon) but the 1.85:1 matting doesn’t always enhance the compositions (in fact, the top matte often clips hairlines). The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio is at the mercy of the original recording, but it seems cleaner than the PD versions. The roughly 86 minute running time appears to be complete (Films Around the World appear to have streaming rights and their fullscreen transfer – which like the Vinegar Syndrome one restores the “A Russell Production” where others start with just the title – runs only 79 minutes but I have no idea what’s missing). There are no associated extras.
“The brutal climax is just the beginning” in DEATH BY INVITATION in which lovely “proto-Goth” Lise (Shelby Leverington, CLOAK & DAGGER) befriends the well-heeled Vroot family in the interests of wreaking bloody vengeance since their Puritan ancestors executed her ancestor (or maybe herself) for witchcraft. Domineering Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips) has his wife Naomi (Sarnell Ogus) and five kids cowed and takes petty delight in explaining how he can beat his prospective son-in-law at chess. He’s a bit weary of Lise’s influence and her “wild friends” (who we never see); and it is perhaps that very strict attitude that leaves his family vulnerable. Weak-willed Roger (Denver John Collins) is the first to disappear, after Naomi whittles away several minutes of screen time telling him about a tribe of literal man-eating women. Comic relieve detective (Tom Mahoney) dismisses the disappearance as another kid likely to turn up later on in the city as a dope fiend(!), while Lise continues to provide the family much-needed support as their numbers start to further dwindle. Peter doesn’t start to take notice of anything suspicious until his dull daughter Coral’s (Rhonda Russell) hook-nosed fiancé Jake (Norman Paige) starts taking a greater sexual interest in Lise (who seems to burn hot and cold at the prospect).
Lensed in Staten Island locations (the occasional stomping grounds of Andy Milligan, who might have made more of the dysfunctional family dynamic) by writer/director Ken Friedman (screenwriter of JOHNNY HANDSOME), DEATH BY INVITATION is cheap yet it has a bit more polish in both its script and production values than your average regional horror fare. Although the film’s producer was Leonard Kirtman (CARNIVAL OF BLOOD) – who would graduate from producing softcore to some rough hardcore porn features like THE AFFAIRS OF JANICE, THE DEVIL INSIDE HER and SEX WISH – DEATH BY INVITATION is not really an erotic horror hybrid. Skin is very infrequently displayed, with the film relying more on Leverington’s stare and voice to generate heat (and she is the best performer in the film). To the film’s credit, Lise believably portrays the concerned family friend without the knowing winks and disingenuous line deliveries (smirking only when none of the other characters can see her). Friedman injects a modicum of style with the usual 1970s wide angle close-ups and punctuating freeze frames during the opening flashback of the witch’s persecution: a sequence simultaneously silly and unsettling in its Society of Creative Anachronism-reject period extras and heartbeat-thud score as the only audio accompaniment. Snippets from the flashback pop up again usually triggered by an action in the present; however, once or twice it seems that they pop up as a transition from an unfinished scene to the next scene. In one increasingly meant-to-be-surreal hilarious scene, Jake visits Vroot’s office building which is a maze of deadened businessmen, prying secretaries, and figures darting back and forth between rooms and down hallways in the background. The “classical” music Vroot has playing in his office sounds more like mall muzak; so much so that it feels more like inappropriate library music track scoring and gives the impression that the actors are having to shout over incidental music. The climax, however, deftly moves back and forth between the present and the past; to little effect, however, since it really offers us nothing more revelatory to the witch’s reasons for revenge. The film would make a better double-bill with the more straightforward Texas-lensed MARK OF THE WITCH (1970) – which had R-rated elements on about the same level before it was trimmed for a wider GP release (the uncut version of that feature is on Code Red’s “Exploitation Cinema” double bill with DEVIL TIMES FIVE) – than the Texas-lensed DUNGEON OF HARROW.
Vinegar Syndrome initially released DEATH BY INVITATION in a “Drive-in Collection” double bill with SAVAGE WATER, but that was pulled when it was discovered that the company that licensed the former film did not have (or no longer held) the rights to it (director Paul Kener has since come forth and revealed that he has the negatives and has plans for the title). DEATH BY INVITATION comes to DVD from a 2K master of a mostly clean 35mm print with the usual green and black lines and reel change marks, but there are also a couple strange white flashes. Ultimately, the flaws aren’t distracting given the film’s age and obscurity (they mention that Something Weird Video released it on tape from a black and white print source). Unlike the previous recalled version, the transfer on this disc is progressively-encoded. The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track has a layer of hiss and is occasionally crackly but the dialogue is always clear while the music and effects are rather flat (probably true to the original mix).
Once again, the podcasters The Hysteria Continues provide another commentary track. Background information is scarce about the film, other than its original title being THE WITCH STORY. Like the reviewer, they resort to IMDb early on, highlighting producer Kirtman’s other credits. They also point out that Denver John Collins is the brother of singer Judy Collins, and had served as camera operator on a couple pre-FRIDAY THE 13TH Sean S. Cunningham films, and reveal some of D.P. Alec Hirschfield’s – son of cinematographer Gerald Hirschfield (THE CAR, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN) other genre credits (including SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE and MAUSOLEUM as camera operator). In light of Kirtman’s other credits, they suggest DEATH BY INVITATION patterned itself off of ROSEMARY’S BABY (there’s even a la-la theme heard late in the film) and LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (which was released the same year). Despite poking a lot of fun at the fashions, décor, and performances, the commentators do appear to be on their way to warming up to it. Taken apart, neither film might be your cup of tea (although DEATH BY INVITATION is marginally better), but together they make a nifty afternoon’s viewing (you’ll want something creepier for the evening) at an irresistible retail price. (Eric Cotenas)
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