Color, 1982, 88 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by David Nelson
Starring Susan Kiger, Martin Tucker, William T. Hicks, Jennifer Chase, Jody Kay, John Kohler, Andrea Savio
Arrow Video (Blu-ray) (US/UK RA/RB HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Vipco (DVD) (UK R2 PAL)
Better known to VHS junkies as House of Death from its big box Video Gems release that seemed to be everywhere in the '80s, this regional slasher film (partially shot as Earl Owensby's studios in North Carolina) is part of a handful of cinematic oddities taking advantage of the natural setting of Shelby, North Carolina, alongside Final Exam and Carnival Magic. Like that latter film, this one takes full advantage of a local fair as the backdrop for some of its mayhem, as well as a convenient excuse to pad out the running time with lots and lots of footage of actors soaking up the Southern atmosphere.
In a shocking break from slasher tradition, the film opens in the middle of the night as a frisky couple making out by some train tracks and a river suddenly get killed off (very obliquely) and tossed into the water. Sheriff Avery (Hicks) is moderately concerned about the disappearance, but mostly the populace is distracted by preparations for the festivities in town with a large cast of characters worthy of a soap opera circling around as potential victims (and one surefire murderer). After a lengthy stretch of hijinks involving pot smoking and romantic baseball coaches, several young-ish friends including presumed final girl Lily (Playboy model and H.O.T.S. star Kiger) head out to the cemetery after the nighttime bonfire to tell spooky stories and explore an abandoned old house. Of course, that's when the blood really starts to fly (along with multiple heads and fingers) as the killer goes to work on the isolated group with any implements lying around.
Completed and barely released in 1981 as Death Screams during the heaviest glut of slasher films in movie history, this one doesn't really do anything innovative with its premise but makes up for it in local charm and the insanely large array of characters and subplots, which gives it an odd soap opera feel at times. The cast is fine given their fairly limited roles, with Hicks (A Day of Judgement) getting the best bits as a very colorful, Hustler-loving lawman. There's also some amusing dark comedy here, particularly with the pre-credits victims' bodies just floating around for the entirety of the film all the way to... well, you'll see. If you're a slasher fanatic, you'll find plenty to enjoy in the mayhem-loaded final half hour along with a few macabre bits sprinkled along the way, like a fun daylight murder involving an arrow, a carousel, and a plastic bag. Though most people didn't see this until years later, it's also a great '81 time capsule in terms of fashions and hairstyles (and some fleeting slurs that definitely wouldn't fly today).
After the initial VHS copies faded into the sunset, this one turned up in the U.K. with a famously rotten DVD from Vipco that was impenetrably dark and had two reels out of order. Some questionable budget pack releases have also slipped this one in as House of Death yanked from the VHS tape, but avoid those at all costs. After a very long absence from legit home video, Arrow Video released this film on Blu-ray in 2021 in both the U.S. and U.K. with a transfer listed as a new 2K restoration from an archival 35mm print (apparently the best source in existence now). The element is clean and in good shape, though it's obviously limited by being taken from less than a first-generation source (similar in appearance to Twisted Nightmare, for example). It's definitely miles ahead of anything we've had before though, so the upgrade value here is considerable. The LPCM 2.0 English mono audio is fine what it is, with optional English SDH subtitles.
A new audio commentary with producer Charles Ison and special effects artist Worth Keeter in conversation with filmmaker Phil Smoot is quite enjoyable and packed with stories for the trio, who also offer observations like "I have no idea what's happening here," "He's one of the worst sheriffs ever," and "If you ever get shot in the neck with an arrow, don't run -- especially onto a merry-go-round." Along the way they talk a lot about Earl Owensby, Al Adamson, and other related projects like Doctor Gore, as well as director David Nelson, brother of Ricky Nelson and a regular on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. A second commentary by the slasher-happy foursome from The Hysteria Continues is packed with info as well including some fun trivia about the cast (including the apropos cast member who became a weatherman) and the film's place in the '81 slasher sweepstakes. The featurette "All the Fun of the Scare: The Making of Death Screams" (32m53s) is a thorough overview of the film's creation with Ison, Keeter, writer Paul Elliott, actors Hanns Manship and Curt Rector, actor/producer’s assistant/assistant supervising editor Sharon Alley, and actor/talent wrangler Robert “Billy Bob” Melton sharing tales from the production including more about Owensby's studio space, the perils of volunteering to watch over the female cast members, the audition process, some alternate bits from the shoot that didn't get used, some clarification on the killer's motive, and memories from the real carnival setting. Also included are the alternate VHS House of Death main titles, four TV spots (#3 with Ison narrating from the graveyard set is a keeper!), a radio spot reel, and separate image galleries production stills, and behind the scenes shots (some very NSFW) from the production itself and that third TV spot. The first pressing also comes with a booklet featuring an essay by Brian Albright, while the disc contains as a BD-Rom extra two drafts of the screenplay (as Night Screams). It's entertaining reading, shedding light on a few murky plot issues while also delivering some amusingly overwritten moments right from this opening bit describing the moon: "Metallic in its brightness, making black silhouettes of the startkly [sic] bare limbs of late autumn trees look like gnarled fingers trying to grasp a ball of white gold."
Reviewed on September 10, 2021