No company had a stranger run of horror movies than drive-in supplier Crown International, and this double feature from opposite ends of their most productive period proves it. Presented in reverse chronological order on Scorpion's double-feature DVD, these have been trotted out in various editions over the years but have a few new bells and whistles here to justify another visit.
First up is The Hearse, an afternoon cable mainstay from the '80s with Trish Van Devere (the widow of George C. Scott) as a recently-divorced teacher named Jane Hardy who decides to take advantage of the remote house she inherited from her late aunt. The summer in solitude turns out to be an uneasy one as she's repeatedly stalked by a mysterious hearse, and the hostile locals and her aunt's nasty past involving the occult don't really help matters either. The local attorney (Cotten) isn't much help unraveling the mystery as he wanted the house all to himself, and she tries to find some solace by striking up a tentative romance with a younger suitor named Tom (Gautreaux). It all ends, as such things must, on a dark and spooky night when the secret of the hearse finally comes to light and puts Jane's life in dire jeopardy.
Thanks to its PG rating and classy veneer, this supernatural potboiler from director George Bowers (a regular editor who also directed My Tutor for Crown) enjoyed more widespread exposure than most of the studio's other efforts. It's blatantly obvious this was dreamed up after someone saw two horror films that opened right before this, The Changeling (also featuring Van Devere) and Burnt Offerings, as this script is basically what would happen if you tossed the two into a blender. It's all a bit muddled and ultimately leads to a puzzling dead end of a final scene, but some of the spookier visuals involving the hearse manage to make an impression and the evocative score by Webster Lewis manages to nearly pull it all together. Be sure to keep an eye out for future director Perry Lang (who also appeared in Alligator the same year and suffered a much bloodier fate) and a very young Christopher MacDonald in his theatrical debut, which he followed up with the immortal Grease 2 before moving on to films like Thelma & Louise.
The Hearse first appeared on DVD as a standalone release from Rhino back in the early '00s, with a decent anamorphic transfer (1.66:1) and the theatrical trailer. The same transfer was later rehashed for Rhino's smugly-titled Horrible Horrors Vol. 1 collection alongside other films like Lurkers and Fleshburn, then again from BCI in an updated, superior anamorphic version (1.78:1 with more aesthetic framing) as part of their eight-film Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 2 set, later reissued verbatim by Mill Creek-- who then trotted it out yet again compressed too much for comfort for a 12-movie collection called Cult Terror Cinema. The Scorpion release looks closest to the BCI in terms of aspect ratio with 1.78:1 framing and more spacious compression, but quality's a few notches better thanks to a fresh transfer from the original negative. It's tough to imagine this looking any better in SD. Not surprisingly, this is packaged as a "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" release with hostess Katarina Leigh Waters gamely getting plowed down by runaway hearse before she appears to cover some trivia about the film including little tidbits about the major cast members. Plus you get to see her with a fake mustache, which has to be a first. Extras include the trailer and a phone interview with screenwriter William Bleich, who talks about getting his first writing gig here, the inspiration for the story, and his thoughts on writing horror including some of his future work for the small screen.
However, the real draw for psychotronic fans here will be the co-feature, Blood of Dracula's Castle, which has also been around the DVD block a few times before. This Al Adamson cheapie features a memorable title and the can't-miss proposition of horror vet John Carradine in a vampire film, but as usual Adamson can't do it the way you'd expect. Instead Carradine plays George, the butler for the stuck-up Count Dracula (Horrors of Spider Island's D'Arcy) and his wife (Hand of Death's Raymond), who like to keep random kidnapped women chained up in their California castle dungeon for their blood supply. A jailbird named Johnny (Dix) clobbers the prison guard who helped him escape (a cameo by production manager John "Bud" Cardos, future director of Kingdom of the Spiders) and eventually crashes the castle along with unfortunate photographer Glen (O'Shane) and his girlfriend Liz (The Mad Room's Bishop), who think they've inherited the castle but have a big surprise waiting for them. Then there's the Count's drooling, misshapen manservant Mango (Blue Sunshine's Young), who does the aforementioned kidnapping and bloodletting when he isn't stumbling around scaring people in the dark.
If you've seen any Al Adamson films, you already know that this one isn't "good" in anything resembling the traditional sense of the word. Al can't seem to pace a story to save his life, so he resorts to padding. Lots and lots and lots and lots of padding. The opening with the first victim, a hapless female driver (Volonte), spends a silly amount of time sharing her radio-listening and driving habits with the audience, and there's an early trip to a marine animal park for good measure, too. That said, there's something hypnotically weird about the whole thing, especially with Mr. and Mrs. Drac sitting around talking like a couple of elitist country club members.
Not surprisingly, this one proved exploitable enough to live on for many years after its first release (when it was usually paired up with another Crown title, Nightmare in Wax, also with Cardos). In its theatrical form the film ran 84 minutes, but when it needed to be lengthened for TV, an additional five minutes were added expanding upon Dix's odd relationship with the full moon. In this expanded cut, Dix actually turns into a werewolf and rampages through the sagebrush at random intervals through the first half of the film, all accompanied by some pretty wild psychedelic rock guitar music. The shorter theatrical version made its DVD debut as part of Rhino's Horrible Horrors Vol. 2 set (paired up on the same disc side with Nightmare in Wax, appropriately enough), in a mediocre transfer with several intervals of severe print damage. BCI announced a reissue of the two films as a remastered double feature but closed shop before the DVD could be released, but they eventually made it out of the gate from Mill Creek in the budget-priced Gorehouse Greats Collection, which smushes 12 movies into three discs with the usual substandard compression. The Scorpion release not only features a fresh transfer (finally framed at 1.78:1 without those huge open expanses of dead space at the top) but the expanded cut as well, with those daffy werewolf scenes finally back in for the first time on DVD. They're actually the most lively and entertaining part of the movie, so it's nice to finally have them back even if they just barely connect with the rest of the movie. Image quality is also cleaner and better, relatively speaking; this will never be a particular stunner of a film in any kind of aesthetic sense as even the film stock seems to change depending on the scene, but as far as Adamson films on DVD go this is definitely in the upper tier, presentation-wise. Rather than the traditional hosting bits, Waters returns here for "Kat's Eyes," a 28-minute interview with Cardos in which the two sit down to chat about his start in show business, his arbitrary duties on a few of Adamson's films, and his various memories of working in different capacities on cult films well through the 1980s. It's a fun piece that goes well with his commentary tracks elsewhere and a welcome addition to one of Adamson's strangest but most widely-seen monster outings as few have seen it before.