Catching Up With: Scream Factory

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-10-05 01:36
Note: welcome to the debut of Catching Up With, a new feature dedicated to reducing the insane, out-of-control stack of discs that’s piled up in multiple rooms around my house. Kicking things off is a look at five titles from Scream Factory, the prolific label that’s been instrumental in revitalizing the cult home video market in recent years.

Horror DVDs were dead, or at least on life support—that was the mutual diagnosis shared between myself and Brett H. about five years ago. Wistful for the days when the likes of Anchor Bay, Shriek Show, Blue Underground, and others were unleashing dozens of titles per year, we wondered if perhaps that watershed moment had passed. Truly, it would never get any better than that decade-long stretch where hundreds of cult titles finally received their due with pristine restorations adorning lovingly produced special editions. I’d almost be as nostalgic for it as I am the old VHS days—if not for the likes of Scream Factory, that is. Announced in 2012, this offshoot label of Shout! Factory soon reignited the home video scene with terrific collector’s edition releases of the usual suspects: Halloween sequels, Phantasm II, The Funhouse, etc.

But soon, something even more exciting happened: they began trawling the depths for movies that had somehow even missed DVD, and it’s been a staple of the line ever since. It’s hard to believe, but there is a lot of shit out there that never debuted on disc; what’s more, several others may have hit the format with overlooked, obligatory releases, and Scream has also done its best to rescue those films as well. There’s a reason just about everyone is excited about a film receiving the Scream treatment: since this home video renaissance, they’ve produced some of the finest, definitive editions to ever hit the market.

Nightmares (1983)

While the horror anthology never truly disappeared during the latter half of the 70s, the format went just dormant enough that its resurgence in the wake of Creepshow seems like something of a renaissance in retrospect. Not only did the anthology return to the big screen, but it also spilled over to television in unprecedented numbers throughout the decade. Nightmares is where these two worlds intersect: originally conceived as a new television series, it instead became a film production, a path that perhaps explains the loose nature of this collection of tales. Sharing neither a frame story nor much of a connection beyond their Los Angeles settings, the quartet of tales is a decent enough grab-bag of familiar genres and styles.

Appropriately enough, it kicks off with a small-scale slasher that finds Lisa (Christina Raines) venturing out into Topanga Canyon, where an escaped convict is terrorizing the hills. Playing out like a tiny sliver of a slasher movie, it’s essentially an extended stalk-and-slash sequence, albeit one that’s especially eerie since director Joseph Sargent plays up Lisa’s paranoia leading up to a twisty, violent climax.

The clear stand-out of Nightmares, “The Bishop of Battle” is like someone crafted my own personal catnip and committed it to celluloid (a few months before I was even born, but humor me). Check out these insane ingredients: Emilio Estevez as a wise-ass hustler; glorious, early-80s arcades; even more glorious, cavernous, three-story malls; a deranged quest to topple an impossible arcade game whose final level may or may not even exist (“I heard a guy in Jersey made it to level 13 twice!” Estevez exclaims, reminding us that video games once took on the level of urban legends). I don’t even care that the horror of the segment feels guided by every fuddy-duddy adult’s irrational fear of video games –this one’s an all-timer that easily justifies the existence of this particular anthology.

And it’s probably a good thing since the last two chapters play like low-rent versions of Duel and Of Unknown Origin, respectively. To be fair, each has some worthwhile wrinkles (Lance Henriksen! A “giant” rat that looks like it’s straight out of a Bert I Gordon movie!), but you can’t shake the feeling that these feel like bite-sized versions of better movies. With the exception of the “Bishop of Battle” segment, that’s indicative of Nightmares as a whole: it’s a familiar but fine omnibus that’s worthwhile only after you’ve exhausted the reservoir of films from which it pilfers.

White of the Eye (1987)

Scream Factory’s lineup in a truly killer array of movies headlined by familiar, popular titles but bolstered by more unsung, curious, and obscure efforts that have made it one of the most exciting collections in years. White of the Eye certainly belongs to the latter category since it’s been all but unheralded for nearly 30 years, plus it’s fucking strange to boot. Its logline boasts the presence of a home invader committing a rash of brutal murders, yet we’re only privy to one during the opening credits. From there, we hover around Paul White (David Keith, who feels like a more sinister Kurt Russell), a small-time sound expert who installs hi-fi systems. He lives a seemingly humdrum life with his wife (Cathy Moriarty, naturally a smoldering pistol) and daughter, though his wandering eyes hint at trouble in paradise.

Over half of the film is tangled up in the intricacies of this domestic squalor, including its history, which is delivered in a series of intercutting, hazy flashbacks that reveal a love triangle involving the wife’s former lover (Alan Rosenberg). There’s a loopy, hypnotic vibe to it all, even if it does feel a bit overlong and bloated at times—you can’t help but get sucked into the tawdry, trashy drama and the galling decisions that lead to an explosive climax, where White of the Eye earns its Cannon Films stripes. Landing with the wild, reckless energy of a frenzied sucker punch, the final thirty minutes are an incredible collection of increasingly unhinged moments. Just know that it involves the daughter warning her mom that “dad’s wearing a bunch of hot dogs” and that it somehow gets more absurd from there. Bless Scream Factory for unearthing this one for the States.

Destroyer (1988)/Edge of Sanity (1989)

What was with the late 80s preoccupation with horror movies centered on prisons and/or condemned inmates? Not that I’m complaining, mind you, since it resulted in the likes of Shocker, The Horror Show, Prison, and, um, Destroyer. Okay, so about Destroyer: certainly it isn’t the best of this wave, but it is certainly the most straightforward, no-frills effort of the bunch. It’s almost most definitely the only one that boasts Lyle Alzado as an impossibly ripped serial killer who somehow survived execution to stalk the grounds of the now-abandoned prison where he should have fried. A film crew has taken up residence in the building for a shoot under the guidance of Robert Edwards (Anthony Perkins), a veteran director who’s clearly too old for this shit, especially when his low-rent women-in-prison flick is transformed into a very real slasher movie.

It’s perhaps no surprise that a film that features a stuntwoman (Deborah Foreman) and an effects technician (Jim Turner) in prominent roles tends to focus on the schlock. If I’m being honest, it feels like Destroyer should probably feature more effective gore than it does, but it’s an adequate (if not kind of clumsy) splatter display. Sadly, it’s a reminder that so many films from this era failed to live up to their killer cover art: not only does Alzado never come close to resembling whatever the hell that is on the box, but he also never wields a drill outfitted with a sniper scope.

Thankfully, however, the film is full of other similar nonsense, including a positively deranged fire stunt that makes you wonder who would possibly put their life on the line for something like Destroyer. This person has my deepest, sincere respect—along with whoever managed to wrangle together this incredibly weird cast (that Perkins/Foreman/Alzado trio is a real doozy) that keeps an otherwise standard hack-and-slash routine afloat. An exasperated Perkins earnestly shouting “Cecil B. FUCKING DeMille!” helps too.

Speaking of bizarre 80s trends, how about the rash of Victorian-era horror films? I suppose it’s only natural that the age of excess would seek to exploit this prim, proper, and perhaps repressed period. Edge of Sanity particularly preys on the tension inherent in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, one of the Victorian era’s most obvious confrontations between libertine desires and societal expectations. A very loose adaptation of Stevenson's novel (in that it prominently features cocaine and a monkey, both of which combine for bad results), it also features Anthony Perkins, albeit in a much more substantial role than what Destroyer allowed him. In this version of the story, Perkins’s Jekyll is another riff on Norman Bates, right down to the psychosexual trauma he experiences as a child when he witnesses his dad banging another woman in a barn.

Years later, he’s repressed those memories, relegating them to nightmares that occasionally jolt him from his otherwise well-adjusted existence as a happily-married doctor. All of these repressed urges are unleashed when an experiment backfires, leaving him with a split personality. As alter-ego Hyde, he prowls London streets and brothels in search of both sex and violence in this hellacious little slasher. Hyde’s Ripper-esque rampage results in garish displays of bloodshed, creating a jarring clash between Victorian-era sensibilities and 80s splatter excess. Propelled to manic heights by Perkin’s slyly unhinged performance, Edge of Sanity’s fog-drenched, gothic overtures are accented with crimson grace notes. In the annals of 80s slashers, it’s one of the more unique efforts: it’s wry, ribald, sexy, and violent in a manner that subtly recalls Ken Russell. I almost can’t decide if its pairing with Destroyer is odd or completely appropriate. Probably a little bit of both—let’s go with oddly appropriate, though this is definitely the go-to for your Perkins fix.

I, Madman

My enduring memory of I, Madman is seeing its trailer on a frequently-rented VHS tape (possibly The Dream Child, but don’t hold me to that). For whatever reason, it’s still been on my “to watch” list pretty much ever since, despite hailing from the creative duo of writer David Chaskin (Freddy’s Revenge) and director Tibor Takacs (The Gate). It more than lives up to its pedigree, too—this is a nifty little entry in the 80s slasher cycle, one that leans into the supernatural approach that defined the sub-genre in the post-Freddy years. But it also has an eye towards the meta-leanings of the next decade, as it involves a case of art imitating life when bookstore employee Virgina (Jenny Wright) stumbles upon a couple of pulp novels from enigmatic author Malcolm Brand. Teeming with lurid, ghastly thrills, these novels become all too real when their disfigured mad doctor begins to pay visits to Virginia.

Appropriately enough, I, Madman unfolds with the same pulpy verve as Virginia’s novels—there’s something faintly old-school about it, even if it is spectacularly gruesome at times. Unlike so many slashers from this era, the film doesn’t lean too heavy on its splatter, as Takacs instead crafts a rich sense of atmosphere with shadowy photography and lingering tracking shots. When the splatter does arrive, it does so with a truly unnerving jolt: Brand’s mad doctor (played by make-up effects artist Randall William Cool) is an indelible late-80s psycho whose caustic wit is matched by his hideous, half-masked face. It’s Phantom of the Opera re-imagined as trashy pulp novel, and Takacs even tosses in a stop-motion demon that looks like it could have escaped right out of The Gate. Not to be missed if, like me, you’ve been sleeping on this one for a quarter-century.
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