Color, 1977, 81m.
Directed by Michael A. DeGaetano
Starring Aldo Ray, Virginia Mayo, Ann Michelle, Jim Negele, Brad Rearden, Fred Carroll
Code Red (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Color, 1977, 81m.
In one of the more infamous mishaps in exploitation movie history, director Doris Wishman lost about half of the footage she shot for her zero budget horror film, A Night to Dismember, under shady circumstances while it was in the hands of a development lab. Undaunted, she decided to salvage the surviving shreds and released one of the most disjointed, incoherent features in 1983. Incredibly, a similar but far more obscure example of the same scenario occurred a few years earlier with another horror film, Haunted. Due to a faulty camera whose unusable footage wasn’t spotted by the person checking the daily shoots on anything larger than a Moviola, large chunks of the film were irretrievably lost and the ensuing film had to be cobbling together without the benefit of a complete narrative. Incredibly, the Wishman film still turned out better.
Taking a page from that hoary “executed witch comes back from the dead to avenge herself on the people who wronged her” formula, Haunted at least begins with a novel twist by making its doomed avenger a Native American woman, Abanaki (played by Virgin Witch’s Michelle). The only witness to a gold-stealing scheme by an influential Civil War officer and priest in town, she’s convicted of trumped-up charges and sent off topless and bound at the wrists atop a horse into the wilderness to die (presumably). However, as the opening text crawl, the yowling Billy Vera theme song (“Indian Woman”), and numerous slabs of exposition repeatedly inform us, she somehow lingers in the territory centuries later to… uh… well, supposedly possess someone and maybe uncover the gold or kill a few people, though none of those things actually happen. Instead we’re embroiled in the incredibly mundane family troubles at a dying tourist trap ranch where brothers Patrick (Death Car on the Freeway’s Negele) and Russ (Silent Scream’s Reardon) have to deal with their oddly glamorous, blind, and widowed mother (Mayo) and her sullen property manager and sometimes lover, Andrew (Ray). Another bone of contention is a telephone booth installed in the graveyard(!) on their property, which seems like an odd cash-grab scheme for a place no one visits anyway. Then a pretty British actress named Jennifer (Michelle again) on her way to Hollywood stops by and starts a fling with Patrick, but her resemblance to the legendary Abanaki kicks off an incredibly muted chain of events with Andrew starting to go off the deep end.
At this point you’d probably expect a lot of mayhem involving possession and ghosts terrorizing everyone through that graveyard phone booth, but Haunted only dips its toes into horror territory very briefly with a climactic showdown involving Michelle, Ray, and a prolonged fire gag; nothing particularly supernatural actually happens, and apart from another brief strangulation scene and Michelle’s occasional topless shots, there’s almost no attempt to appeal to usual sex and violence necessary to satisfy paying audiences. The whole experience is actually fascinating in a perverse way as the story doggedly refuses to justify itself in any way, eventually petering out with a bittersweet ending that has answers no questions at all and has little bearing on the narrative basis formed at the beginning of the film. On top of that, the soundtrack is a bizarre pastiche of hoary spooky music by Lor Crane and wildly inappropriate songs, including the non-smash ballad “How Can I Tell Judy” and, of course, “A Distant Time: Love Theme from Haunted.” Unbelievably, a soundtrack LP was released and littered bargain bins for years, confusing avid horror score fans lured in by the grisly cover sleeve.
Like many of its fellow ‘70s horror brethren outside the studio system, Haunted made the rounds on VHS first as a reasonable official release from VCII and then on a string of budget releases with rampant tracking problems. The Code Red DVD is a huge upgrade in quality, as expected; the film is still a jabbering mess from start to finish, but at least it finally looks pretty. No complaints on that front. The film is bookended with new video routines featuring host Maria Kanellis, who gets to wave a tomahawk around and make fun of the main feature. While a horror hostess mocking her film can sometimes come off as patronizing, it’s entirely appropriate in this case. (Her theme song “Fantasy” is also repeated as a music video with her playing a sexy store mannequin.) The most substantial addition here is a 10-minute interview with Negele, who explains why he quit the acting biz, explains how the production exploited Ray’s well-known alcoholism, and recalls bonding with Michelle when almost everyone else on the set turned out to be gay (which probably explains why he’s shirtless for most of the film’s first act). The disc rounds out with the usual batch of Code Red trailers including Love Me Deadly, The Black Gestapo, The Babysitter, Scream, The Hearse, and Blood Mania. Proceed at your own peril, but if you want to count how many times people say the word “Abanaki,” this movie would make for one hell of a drinking game.