Color, 1973, 91 mins. 53 secs. / 83 mins. 48 secs.
Directed by Thomas S. Alderman
Starring Deborah Walley, David G. Cannon, Paul Carr, Marvin Kaplan, John Crawford, Vince Martorano, Ray Dennis
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Code Red (US R0 NTSC) / (1.75:1) (16:9)
A familiar staple from countless public domain releases over the years, The Severed Arm is the kind of covert little creepy gem that die hard horror fans have quietly championed over the years -- at least if they ever had the chance to see it uncut. Moody, spooky, and strangely haunting, it's a modest but effective little precursor to the slasher craze with a few nasty surprises up its sleeve.
When suburban doctor Jeff Ashton (Cannon) gets a cadaver's arm in the mail, he goes running to his doctor buddy, Ray (The Enforcer's Crawford). As it turns out, they and four other men had gone exploring an abandoned mine five years earlier only to cause it to collapse. Trapped for two weeks, they drew straws and wound up chopping off the arm of the loser, Ted, only to have a rescue party arrive moments later. While being hauled away, Ted promised to never forget... and now Jeff thinks he's come to collect. That seems to be the case when Ray is attacked in his home and loses his arm to an axe-wielding attacker, leaving Jeff and the other conspirators to turn to Ted's daughter, Teddy (AIP star and Gidget actress Walley), to stop him before he continues his limb-chopping spree.
From the opening moments involving an arm getting hacked off by a burglar in a mortuary, it's clear that this won't be a happy ride for anyone involved. The Severed Arm piles on the atmosphere by taking place mostly at night, with lots of shadowy lighting and isolated characters suffering from paranoia; furthermore, the eerie synthesizer score seethes almost nonstop for the entire running time, creating a constant sense of doom and unease similar to Messiah of Evil. On top of that, this is probably the first film to pull the old "the killer's calling you from inside the house!" gag, which turned up again later in Black Christmas and When a Stranger Calls. The exposition scenes are indisputably a bit monotonous and pokey at times, but the suspense set pieces are actually quite effective including two standout bits involving a disc jockey (comedic actor Marvin Kaplan, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World) attacked in his radio station and a pre-Dressed to Kill blood-spattered murder in an elevator. Also, the creepy and claustrophobic twist ending is just fantastic.
The complete, uncut version of The Severed Arm has been virtually impossible to see for ages outside of a first-run print, at least until the 2020 Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray as part of its Halfway to Black Friday sale. The longest version for decades was the early '80s VHS release from Video Gems, which became a hot collector's item. It's essentially the full version, just missing a few frames here and there at some reel changes (mainly part of a shot of a car pulling up to the camera at night, which most viewers can probably overlook very easily). For some reason the other public domain versions released on VHS and then on budget DVDs contain a shorter TV print, which excises 30 seconds of gory footage involving, of course, severed arms. Despite rumors, the mining flashback didn't suffer any cuts; the transfer was just so dark you couldn't see the actual arm removal, and the soundtrack was toned down a bit. Instead the cut scenes were a shot during the first axe attack showing the victim immobile by the stairs with a bloody severed arm by his side, a significantly longer version of the radio station sequence including a close up of a bloody arm on top of the victim sprawled against the wall, and a slightly longer look at the cliff-diving gag during the beach ambush.
The Code Red DVD in 2012 (which was quickly discontinued) came as a double feature with So Sad About Gloria, with the packaging touting it as uncut. That's true as far as violence goes (which made this a hot item automatically), though it's taken from a British print (complete with a BBFC certificate at the beginning) which drops almost eight minutes of other footage, most of it padding. For the record, here's what's missing: additional shots of the men going down to the mine during the flashback; several lines of dialogue before and after the pivotal decision to remove Ted's arm including Herman's protest (which becomes pivotal later on); lots and lots of driving footage; extra dialogue at the bar between Cannon and Walley; a comic relief scene at the radio station involving a janitor; another humorous bit just before the elevator murder featuring a big St. Bernard and an old woman in curlers as well as extra stalking footage; a couple of extra establishing shots at the beginning of the beach sequence; and four arbitrary reaction shots and single lines of dialogue during the final scene, for some reason. There's a noticeable splice mark just before each of these cuts, so apparently the British distributor just decided to move the film along faster and decided to take out some of the fat. On the positive side, the transfer easily trampled its video predecessors; colors look more vivid and accurate (and at last the color red is present again), and the widescreen framing adds some welcome information to the right and left sides while trimming off extra head room from the top, resulting in much more balanced compositions. The mono audio is also a significant improvement without the aggressive hiss present in other editions. Since this is part of the "Maria's B Movie Mayhem" line, you can play this with the horror hostess/WWE wrestler/cover model camping it up in miner's gear.
Not surprisingly, the version to have though is easily the Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome which is the first home video release in any format to be truly, 100% uncut, clocking in at 91m53s. (The 89-minute running time on the sleeve is incorrect, thankfully.) The new transfer is a 4K scan from the 35mm original negative (licensed via MGM, believe it or not), and as you'd expect, it wipes the floor with every version before it and looks remarkable from start to finish (especially if you're familiar with how this used to look). The reds in particular are vivid (those opening titles!) and really pack a punch, and the film as a whole is even more enjoyable now that you can really make out everything in the darkest scenes. Some minor white speckling pops up in a few shots, but it's minimal and just adds to the tactile feel of the film itself. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also in excellent shape and comes with optional English SDH subtitles. In "A Cut Above the Rest" (9m4s), producer Gary Adelman explains how the film was chosen due to the modest budget requirements, how he lost track of its distribution status, what was easiest about using actors accustomed to soap operas, and what he thought of the finished result. He also claims this film had the first all-digital music score, which may be true. In "Severing the Past" (7m59s) with actor Vince Martorano (The Candy Snatchers), he chats about how he got hired on the film, did the best with the very low budget, and ended up going into California real estate while still working as an actor.
VINEGAR SYNDROME (Blu-ray)
CODE RED (DVD)
Updated review on May 21, 2020