Color, 1973, 83m.
Directed by Thomas S. Alderman
Starring Deborah Walley, David G. Cannon, Paul Carr, Marvin Kaplan, John Crawford, Vince Martorano, Ray Dennis

Color, 1975, 90m.
Directed by Harry Thomason
Starring Lori Saunders, Dean Jagger, Robert Ginnaven, Lou Hoffman
Code Red (US R0 NTSC) / (1.78:1) (16:9)

The Severed ArmA double feature of "minimalist" low-budget '70s horror, this Code Red release is distinguished by its presentation of the long-sought gory version of The Severed Arm, a familiar staple from countless public domain releases over the years. Often seen in very substandard condition, the film has taken more than its share of hits from both critics and fans during its video lifetime, but it's a substantially more interesting film than its reputation might lead you to believe.

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 The Severed Armup 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. (No, it's not actually as good as that one, but the tone is similar.) 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 clocks in around 91 and a half minutes, but outside of a first-run print that's pretty much impossible to see. The longest version still available to date is 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, The Severed Armwhich 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 attack 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 presentation of The Severed Arm comes as a double feature (more on the second film in a minute), with the packaging touting it as uncut. That's true as far as violence goes (which makes 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 tramples on every prior video edition; colors look far 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. There's still some print damage, which isn't much of a surprise, but the drastic jump in quality easily compensates. The mono audio is So Sad About Gloriaalso 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. While the title is already discontinued as a direct sale from Code Red, you can still get it via third-party sellers on Amazon.

As for the co-feature, So Sad about Gloria was widely released on VHS under the title of Visions of ESo Sad About Gloriavil but receives its first DVD release here under its original title. This PG-rated thriller features a little more axe mayhem as Gloria (Petticoat Junction's Saunders) goes from a stint in an insane asylum into the care of her uncle Frederick (Alligator's Jagger). She winds up meeting a guy named Chris (White Lightning's Ginnaven), and though she keeps suffering from traumatic visions and nightmares apparently brought on by her dad's mysterious death years before, she goes ahead and marries him. Meanwhile someone's running around hacking up young women, and it all builds to a twisty double-cross climax in which the terrible truth is finally revealed.

The actual story here is familiar potboiler material (you'll be able to see the twist ending coming about 15 minutes in), but don't let the PG rating fool you. The big axe attack in the first act is a real doozy, and the whole film has a weird off-kilter ambience switching from surrealistic nightmares to soft-focus love montages straight out of Play Misty for Me (complete with tinkly pop songs). The last five minutes are a good payoff, too, including a bizarre final sequence very similar to the same year's The Bell from Hell. Visually speaking this is well below The Severed Arm as it has a gritty veneer closer to a storefront porn film, but of course that just adds to the charm and separates it a bit from the glossier psycho-shockers being cranked out by studios at the time. None of the skilled actors are called on to do much besides Saunders, who looks great and goes through the paces of acting stressed and terrified quite well. The transfer here is about as good as the original materials will allow; it'll never be a pretty film, but at least this looks a lot better than the old Prism tapes. Again you can watch this with or without Maria (still cutting up with a fake arm and pickax), while other extras include trailers for Blood Mania, Caged Men, and Devil's Express.

Reviewed on July 30, 2012.