Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: September 20th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
Some movies immediately announce their greatness with daring displays of bravura or profound insight into human existence; others, like Death Screams, announce it by having a guy get his dick stuck in his zipper before he and his date are garroted mid-coitus atop a motorcycle that plunges into a river when a train rumbles by. Say what you want about David Nelson’s 1982 slasher cash-in, but you pretty much know what you’re in for following this overture. You’re not just in usual slasher territory either: between the southern drawls and the good old boy chicanery, it’s abundantly clear that you’ve wandered into the weeds of regional, outsider filmmaking, where anything goes. You want to open your slasher movie with an especially confounding riff on the obligatory murder prologue? You can do that. You want a weird, incongruously bombastic homemade Casio score over the opening credits? You can do that. You want to spend over an hour of your slasher movie engaging in minimal slashing and hanging out with small town locals instead? Hell, this kind of recklessness is practically encouraged.
The long and short of Death Screams is that it's about a bunch of kids (the actors are obviously twentysomething, which doesn’t help in determining if they’re in high school or college) winding down the last days of summer. Some of them are helping to coach a little league baseball team; others are having awkward conversations with their grandmother about their love life. You get the entire gamut of the human experience here. For their last big blow-out, everyone decides to go to the carnival before heading out near an abandoned house in the woods to drink, skinny dip, and tell campfire stories. Now, most reasonable slashers would probably dedicate more time to the latter, especially since the rotting house is adjacent to a cemetery and very much looks like the type of place that could be improved by splattering teenagers over its grounds. But director David Nelson (son of Ozzie and Harriet!) boldly opts to dedicate just as much time to the minutiae of small town life: the idle gossip, the incompetant police, a kid trying to swipe copies of Hustler, the saga of an intellectually disabled guy who killed the sheriff in a car accident, and the type of drama that can only be caused by baked goods at the town fair.
If, for some reason, you need to know what it’s like to hang out at a travelling carnival in the Carolinas, Death Screams is essential. Not only is there ample footage of these kids enjoying the low-rent rides and dirtbag attractions, but there’s also plenty of downtime at the picnic table, where they chow down, swap gossip, and ruthlessly slut-shame one of their friends (who takes it in stride and is eventually very naked). At one point, they even invite their coach along to drink with them later that night in the hopes that one of the lovelorn girls among the group will hook up with him. It wouldn’t be professional behavior in my opinion, but nothing about Death Screams is professional. If not for the opening murders, you’d be hard pressed to know it’s even supposed to be a slasher. Some occasional, eerily-lit, prowling camerawork hints at potential carnage but largely ends with fake-outs.
Still, it’s just enough to help you keep the faith that something gnarly will happen. It also helps that the film frequently cuts back to the prologue’s doomed couple, whose corpses float downriver, an elaborate setup to an incredible punchline that finally heralds the unrepentant slasher movie nonsense that consumes the film’s final 20 minutes. Gore spills in ridiculous fashion as the unseen killer terrorizes the group, scattering their heads and limbs around the fog-shrouded woods. Not even the outhouse is safe, and one of the kids’ dumb John Wayne impression isn’t enough to save them. Even if it takes its sweet time in doing so, Death Screams embraces its slasher trappings, blending gallows humor (a guy claims he’ll be constipated forever after a cat emerges from the outhouse toilet while he’s on the can) with nonsensical gore gags (heads roll quite impossibly, as the killer somehow manages to decapitate people without being seen) before repressed trauma wells to the surface for the killer’s dramatic reveal. On its face, it’s nothing you haven’t seen from several other slashers, but the little embellishments (like the crude gore, or the sheriff’s point-blank brand of justice) distinguish it well enough.
It’s not the only time someone accomplished such a feat in North Carolina. Death Screams hails from Earl Owensby Studios, the same madhouse that spawned Final Exam, one of the all-time great southern-fried slashers. This one isn’t anywhere near that echelon, yet it’s interesting for many of the same reasons: its offbeat sense of humor, its lo-fi charms, its willingness to simply laze about before the slashing begins in earnest. Anyone with conventional tastes will likely be especially frustrated by that last point since Death Screams really embraces its southern roots, unfolding with all the urgency of a lazy Sunday spent lounging on a porch swing as the neighbors stroll by. I have to imagine anyone who’s reached this far into the barrel of 80s slashers doesn’t have conventional tastes, though, and will instead be pretty delighted by a movie where an old granny shit-talks her granddaughter’s beau. “If brains were TNT, he couldn’t muster a fart,” she insists, her colorful colloquialism aptly summing up the movie she’s in.
Death Screams is another one of those long-awaited slasher holdouts that never made it to DVD and is now making the leap straight to Blu-ray. Arrow has specialized in this niche lately, and this release is another nice notch on the label’s belt. Considering the source material, the presentation is quite solid: the print looks a little faded and worn, but is in otherwise fine condition. Per the information in Arrow’s insert, the source comes from a lone 35mm print from a private collection, so it’s remarkable that it exists at all. Regardless, it looks much better than the murky, VHS-quality versions that have been floating around, and the mono soundtrack is likewise solid, boasting clear dialogue and some nice ambiance from the score.
For special features, Arrow has produced a pair of commentary tracks: one from the always terrific bunch at Hysteria Lives and another that joins producer Charles Ison with effects artist Worth Keeter and moderator Phil Smoot. Ison and Keeter also appear alongside other cast and crew members (including actors Hans Manship, Curt Rector, and Robert Melton, writer Paul Elliot, and actor/producer’s assistant/assistant supervising editor Sharon Alley) in “All the Fun of the Scare,” a 30-minute retrospective that charts the film’s conception and production. A collection of TV and radio spots, a slew of image galleries, and the alternate House of Death VHS opening credits complete a solid release that also sports reversible cover art, a die-cut slipcover, and a collectible booklet with writing from Brian Albright. I find myself saying this a lot lately, but it’s truly incredible that we’re living in a world where this kind of thing is possible for Death Screams, a movie that’s obscure even by this sub-genre’s standards. Once upon a time, it would have been enough for something like this to be released with a solid DVD presentation and minimal extra features; now, the bar has been raised to such a degree that even regional slashers are lavished with lovingly curated special editions. As they say around the parts where Death Screams was hatched, “I’ll be doggone.”
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