THE HEARSE (1980) Blu-ray/DVD combo
Director: George Bowers
Vinegar Syndrome

Crown International late night TV favorite THE HEARSE gets an HD overhaul courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray/DVD combo.

Just getting over a nervous breakdown following the one-two-punch of her divorce and the death of her mother, schoolteacher Jane Hardy (Trish Van Devere, THE LAST RUN) decides to get away from San Francisco for the summer and take possession of the house her mother inherited from her mysterious aunt who died years ago. Arriving in the town of Blackford at night, Jane’s car is nearly run off the road by a hearse. As soon as she gets in the door of her house, her aunt’s attorney Pritchard (Joseph Cotton, BARON BLOOD) is pressing her to sell it to him. Pritchard is not the only one who is less than welcoming: shops will not deliver to her house, handymen will not go near the property, and the children think Jane is the ghost of her lookalike aunt. The only friends she finds in the village are the local priest Reverend Winston (Donald Hotton, ONE DARK NIGHT) and Paul (Perry Lang, ALLIGATOR), the lovestruck son of the hardware store owner who agrees to fix up Jane’s house on his free time. Jane discovers her aunt’s diary and learns that she jilted her preacher fiancé for a mysterious man named Robert, who wanted her to join him in a pact with Satan. Jane starts seeing the apparition of her aunt, doors close by themselves, a light in the attic has a life of its own, and the hearse and its scarred driver (Dominic Barto, SHAFT) start to stalk her. When Pritchard tells her that the hearse driving her aunt’s coffin got into a fiery wreck and the body was never recovered from the wreckage, she begins to suspect that Pritchard is behind efforts to get her to leave town. After another encounter with the hearse, she makes the acquaintance of charming Tom (David Gautreaux, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE) with whom she begins the first romantic relationship following her disastrous marriage; however, the hauntings escalate with actual physical attacks from the hearse’s driver. Is Jane cracking up again, is Pritchard “gaslighting” her, or is there something more sinister going on?

Despite its loftier intentions – especially for a Crown International release – THE HEARSE is best half-remembered as a “late night TV” chiller even though it was a theatrical feature (not necessarily a bad thing given some of the memorable TV horror movies put out in the seventies and eighties). Comparisons with THE CHANGLING are inevitable in its restrained approach (and the presence of Devere), but THE HEARSE will definitely not unseat the former as one of the creepiest films of 1980. The film is rich in atmosphere thanks to some nice Griffith Park locations, Mori Kawa’s moody cinematography, and Webster Lewis’ piano-and-string-driven score (Lewis also scored director George Bowers’ MY TUTOR and BODY AND SOUL), but its elements never quite coalesce. A few scant run-ins with unfriendly townspeople fail to establish an atmosphere of superstition or hostility, and little children seem to be aware of Jane’s house being haunted while the teenage characters do not. Paul hanging around Jane’s house and hinting to his friends that he has something going with her do not culminate in anything more than a bit of awkwardness when the visiting priest is surprised at Paul’s presence. The priest also points out that Jane’s locket has a likeness of Satan on it, and that she had better not let anyone in town see it, but that also leads nowhere; in fact the whole Satanic pact subplot probably could have been left out in lieu of a more traditional cause for the haunting (or perhaps some actual ambiguity as to whether the hearse’s persecution of Jane is an embodiment of her neurosis). Although Cotton’s lawyer does pop up every once in a while to be sinister, it is pretty obvious that he’s a red herring and that Gautreaux’s “old-fashioned” suitor is not at all what he seems. The titular hearse is creepy the first time it shows up, but most of the night driving scenes are just too dark (which does work to the film’s advantage once in keeping the viewer wondering if an approaching car intends to help or harm Jane after her car is run off the road by the hearse), although Bowers does manage an effective jump scare with the driver.

Van Devere is easily the best thing about the film, and she goes through the horror motions with the utmost professionalism (both as screaming heroine and in a dual role as the apparition of her aunt, used most effectively during Jane’s nightmare). Gautreaux does his best to make his character less obvious (introducing a smirk into his musing over the opportunity to live forever when Jane reads him the passage from her aunt’s diary), but his most effective moment has him backlit and silent during the climax. Med Flory (THE BOOGENS) pops up intermittently and has little to do other than leer at Jane as the town’s sheriff, and a very young yet very recognizable Christopher McDonald (PLAYROOM) shows up as one of Paul’s friends. Bowers’ daughter plays one of Jane’s students in the opening scene. Line producer “Charles Russell” is better known as Chuck Russell, producer of HELL NIGHT and DREAMSCAPE, and director of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STEET 3: DREAM WARRIORS and THE BLOB. THE HEARSE was also available as a paperback novelization from Pinnacle Books by Henry Clement, who also novelized Blake Edwards' DARLING LILI, John Milius' DILLINGER, the 1970s TV horror movie SHE WAITS (scripted by DARK SHADOWS' Art Wallace), American International's DE SADE as well as some tie-ins for COLUMBO and PRISONER: CELL BLOCK H. The book followed the film very closely and featured a whopping seventy-two short chapters (corresponding mostly to individual scenes or sequences).

Released on home video by Media Home Entertainment in 1982 in a dark transfer that many of us became familiar with through late night TV screenings, THE HEARSE got its first DVD release in 2002 when Rhino had the Crown titles. A new "digital transfer" struck for television meant that it looked better than most of their Crown DVDs but it now looks quite sickly and over-sharpened. The same transfer turned up on multiple BCI and Mill Creek multi-film packs before Scorpion Releasing struck a new HD transfer in 2012 for their "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" double bill with Al Adamson's BLOOD OF DRACULA'S CASTLE. Scorpion's release looked less digital and revealed the earlier transfer to be zoomed-in but was also darker. Vinegar Syndrome's new 2K-mastered transfer is brighter with more naturalistic colors and reveals the Scorpion transfer to have been slightly squished. Whereas the earlier transfers made it appear as if the daylight exteriors were shot with on-camera diffusion (not an uncommon practice in 1980s low budget films), the new transfer often looks crisp enough to draw the viewer into the setting. The mono track is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 with the piano-dominated score having a more tactile presence and some sudden noises having more presence in an otherwise workmanlike mix. English SDH subtitles are also provided.

While the Scorpion release had an interesting audio interview with writer William Bleich (THE MIDNIGHT HOUR) – who reveals that he and director Bower conceived of the film as a teenage slasher film only to discover that Crown's Mark Tenser (WEEKEND PASS) wanted the opposite (Tenser's additions include the priest's anticlimactic attempt at exorcism) – Vinegar Syndrome includes "Satan Get Behind Thee" (20:38), a new interview with Gautreaux who recalls how being up for the role of the grown Damien Thorne in THE FINAL CONFLICT fueled his imagination when he got the script for THE HEARSE as well as psyching himself out for the sex scene in the film (not realizing that editor-turned-Bower director only needed a minimum of coverage to suggest what the script describes as "and then they make love"). The disc also includes the film's theatrical trailer (2:27), a TV Spot (0:30), and photo gallery (1:03) that includes a newspaper page with an ad for the film positioned above one for THE CHANGELING. The disc features a reversible cover and the first 1,000 copies purchased directly through Vinegar Syndrome come with a limited edition O-card featuring new artwork. (Eric Cotenas)