It’s been almost exactly two years since Mark Spangler contributed to this site with his illuminating expose of The Ninth Gate. Today, he’s putting the spotlight on an old physical media release worth revisiting. Welcome back, Mark! – Dave
Back in 2001, Brentwood Home Video released a ten-film set of genre films entitled “Vault of Horror”. You may have seen this collection lying in wait, like the proverbial evil monkey’s paw, amidst other compilation releases of questionable origin. Brentwood is noted for its bootleg DVD and Blu Ray releases, but don’t let that stop you from picking up this nifty little package if you get the chance. As is to be expected, the transfers on these discs aren’t the best… audio is uneven at times and the “extras” are laughable, but the stories, acting, and directing in some of these movies more than makes up for these deficiencies, provided one can overlook the fade-to-black annoyances that scream “movie of the week” on some of the selections. The early-to-mid ’70s saw the production of some notable TV movie horror (“Night Stalker”, “Trilogy of Terror”) and while the TV fare in this set isn’t that good, there is stuff here you may have overlooked that’s worth seeing.
For starters, 1972’s “Moon of the Wolf” features an impressive cast. It is always a plus to see actors of note dipping their toes in the genre and this one has some biggies. David Janssen is Aaron Whitaker, a haggard bayou sheriff with a mutilated corpse on his hands and very few clues to go by while trying to find out whodunit. It’s becoming increasingly clear to the townsfolk, however, that the victim just might have fallen prey to the fangs of a beast they call loup-garou. Is a pack of wild dogs the culprits here? Is a family medical curse to blame? Maybe a deranged madman? And what, exactly, is a loup-garou? Joining the always-solid Janssen is a crack supporting team. Geoffrey Lewis (“The Devil’s Brigade”, “Salem’s Lot”) pops up here because he pops up everywhere, genre be damned. IMDb informs us he had over 200 screen credits in his impressive resume. As usual, he performs well as the quirky brother of the victim who becomes a victim himself. Harry Beradino of “General Hospital” fame is the local, embittered physician with secrets of his own to hide. Barbara Rush is fine as a southern belle, newly returned to the gothic manor house from New York while TV-movie veteran Bradford Dillman stars as her smarmy, old-monied brother. It’s always good to see Royal Dano onscreen no matter what the vehicle – and here he lends authenticity to the telefilm in his role as a backwoods cajun, as do the shooting locations of Burnside and Clinton, Louisiana.
Based on the Les Whitten novel, the movie’s climax is a bit underwhelming. It’s an early 70s TV movie after all, so, accordingly, the gore is at a minimum. Janssen is not above this material and thus, he gives the story all he’s got with his trademark restrained, world-weary angst. He doesn’t phone it in nor does he look like he’s doing the film under duress like some “name” actors do when slipping over to the dark side for a low-budget quickie. Director Daniel Petrie takes a serious approach to the screenplay and his POV shots are somewhat compelling – within the limited scope that network television would allow (it originally aired on ABC in September of ‘72). There is a definite “Night Stalker” vibe going on here and if the flick can’t quite climb the mountain to Stalker standards, it should be remembered very few ever could. “Moon of the Wolf” is worth a second look.
Ditto for a Dan Curtis production, “Scream of the Wolf”. This one’s a tall order since the co-stars combined height reaches over 13 feet. Peter Graves, (”The Thing”, “It Conquered the World ”)‘ fresh off of his “Mission Impossible” stint on CBS. starred in this effort in January of ‘74. He’s a writer who enlists a very reluctant and wonderfully sinister Clint Walker (Night of the Grizzly”,”Killdozer”) to track down and kill a wolf that possesses extraordinary, and bloodthirsty, skills. The beastie seems to maul a new victim before each commercial break and when we’re back, the crusty and baffled Sheriff played by TV veteran Phillip Carey is a day late and, well… he’s just a day late. You’ll recognize the eerie soundtrack immediately as it appears to have been taken from Curtis’ stock library, the one he returned to again and again so effectively on “Dark Shadows”, his underrated ‘68 telefilm “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde” and many of his other projects. Be prepared to squint as the light of day contrasts sharply with the dark – and I mean dark – of night in this one. It’s a good thing Graves had that silver mane; all the better to keep track of him in the foggy woods late at night. Alas, our hero is outshined by the offbeat casting of Walker as a lone-wolf hunter for whom life is just a game. Big Clint no doubt relished the opportunity to portray an odd duck character who is infuriatingly indifferent to the death all around him.
This one, like the previously mentioned flick, is essentially bloodless, but the scares come from Walker’s icy persona and cool, calculating demeanor. Jo Ann Pflug plays the love interest quite well, even if the role is not allowed much development. The music and dark cinematography work well together in this made-for-television horror piece. Pop this disc in on Halloween night when you’re handing out Jolly Ranchers and you’ll have a jolly ole experience. Plus, with all the backtracking you’ll have to do between candy runs, you might be able to stretch this one out for about two hours, its original run time on network TV.
Walker shows up again as a “special guest star” in “Snowbeast” a telefilm from 1977, along with Bo Svenson and Yvette Mimeux. It’s difficult to believe that Joseph Stefano wrote the screenplay for this clinker given the fact that he was the writer behind Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. Not a whole lot new to see here, except for the unusual setting. We’re supposed to assume there’s a Yeti-type creature causing carnage on the slopes – bad for business – complains lodge owner Carrie Rill played by Sylvia Sidney (“Mars Attacks”, “Beetlejuice”). She insists, of course, the resort must stay open at all costs. It’s a “Jaws” on-the-slopes meets “Love Boat” kinda thing. The monster shows up just in time to spoil the annual cash cow… the winter carnival. For such a big wing-ding it looks a little dodgy, although when panic sets in at the school gymnasium, it is kind of a hoot as it channels (poorly) the movie theatre run from “The Blob”. There’s way too much POV in this Douglas Cramer production for this reviewer’s tastes, and when we finally see our creature it is laughably disappointing. The beast itself resembles a giant, white gorilla with big, scary claws; think snow monster from “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. This mess suffers from a lot of things but most sinful is a script littered with inane directional dialogue. There’s a dreadful amount of “I’m telling you what I’m doing as I’m doing it” banter – always an annoying screenplay trait. For heaven’s sake, just show us what’s going on! It’s as if the actors are reading from a radio script. When was the last time you said something like… “Well lookie here, it’s my son Vick and my daughter-in-law, Lulu, here on Christmas from Vancouver where Vick is an up-and-coming oil exec whose tremendous workload is causing stress in their marriage, here for the holidays, where we always enjoy spaghetti instead of turkey because it’s Vick’s favorite food. Quirky, no? By the way, I have throat cancer but we’re keeping it a secret from Lulu even though I am sneezing blood every five seconds… mum’s the word! I’m going to open the door now.” Well… at least the skiing looks fun.
What more can be said about the three, older, classic flicks included in this set? “House on Haunted Hill” is great exploitative fun from gimmick master William Castle. The Castle –Vincent Price collaboration is a match made in hell. The film unfolds as a campy sort of horror/mystery with a few jump scares and the “rolling old hag” scene that every monster kid remembers so fondly. Who can stay alive in the house and win the $10,000? We’re not telling…
Hammer rebounded nicely from the groovy yet bungled “Dracula AD 1972” with “The Satanic Rites of Dracula ”, a sequel of sorts that meshes horror, espionage, and police crime drama. It sounds like a mess, but it’s not. Christopher Lee’s Dracula swan song is a modern take on the bloodsucker with a fiendish and believable plot to destroy humanity. While it’s always great to see Peter Cushing and Lee together, the results were sometimes spotty. It worked well here, however. Director Alan Gibson filmed an interesting Don Houghton script with a cool efficiency reminiscent of the James Bond series… Romero’s “Night…” is the stuff of legend and somehow, although it’s unfair to the late director, it’s appropriate that the film is in the public domain. A movie this good, this groundbreaking, and this influential belongs to the ages. It weaves itself into the very fabric of every horror fan’s existence in ways very few movies can. You’ll find it in many compilation DVD sets, and it’s great to see it included here.Spanish exploitation director Jesus Franco’s frank and graphic “Jack the Ripper” was the last collaborative effort between him and star Klaus Kinski. The film would have been better served to have included subtitles rather than endure a rather poor dubbing process, but this Swiss-German production is nonetheless an effective take on the well-known story of the 19th-century murderer. Kinski (“Nosferatu”) is his usual, bizarre self in the title role, as a man with ah, women issues shall we say. Jack is a physician in this version who heals by day and kills by night. Scotland Yard is on this trail, though, with the help of a blind man with an acute sense of smell and hearing, fishing buddies who catch body parts and new, innovative techniques like artist renderings, corroborating witness statements and a decoy played by Josephine Chaplin. The sets, while stylish, look far too clean for 1880s London. A little more grit and grime would’ve gone a long way toward more authenticity, but Franco, as usual, was working with no budget, so he did the best he could. Kinski’s performance is what we really want to see and he doesn’t disappoint. There’s nudity and gore plus plenty of 1976 hairstyles to enjoy.
“Don’t Look in the Basement” rang in the new year in theatres on Jan. 1, 1973 and made quite a stir. Not exactly sure why though, there just isn’t much to recommend here. Shot on an ultra low budget, this S.F. Brownrigg effort tries, but it is just too slow to generate any real scares. Nurse Beale (Rosie Holotik) shows up for her gig at a small town nuthouse where patients have the run of the sanitarium and mayhem ensues. For some reason, most of the movie looks like a rehearsal for the real thing, rather than an actual film. This thing does have a cult following, however, so fans will be delighted.
Same for Earl Owensby produced “Wolf Man”. A beastie is on the loose and some rednecks dressed in period costumes (sometimes) are gonna go git ‘em! The outdoor scenes are very dark and the POV shots are all jingle-jangly. Some atmosphere is generated, but not enough to support life. Maybe if they’d have used real weaponry instead of cap guns they’d have had better results. One thing’s for sure, these boys sure do like to shoot! More lead was expended as they hunted this thing down than in the battle of the bulge.
“Silent Night, Deadly Night” works well and is a good addition to the lineup of mid-80’s slasher flicks. There’s plenty of inventive kills to enjoy and most are pretty well-staged. Billy (Robert Brian Wilson) is a traumatized boy whose parents are killed by a guy dressed like Kris Kringle so he, quite obviously, has some Santa issues. He grows up, after years in an abusive orphanage, to be a twisted mo-fo with a variety of weaponry to wreak destruction during the yuletide season, all while dressed as the man himself, shouting “punish!” over and over. Like similarly themed films of the era, it’s the inventiveness of the kills that fans crave and this controversial movie delivers. The sledding-beheading was worth the price of admission alone. Considerable time is spent on Billy’s backstory, which makes this feature – pulled from theatres after only one week – a bit unique. Filmgoers felt at least a twinge of sympathy for the villian, a technique also used in Rob Zombie’s “Halloween” features many years later. Genre fans may have seen all, or at least most of these flicks before, but it’s nice to have them all in one spot for easy viewing and although there are no real extras, the set is attractively packaged. There are most certainly copies still circulating around out there – I bought mine in 2015 retail so dig around in some bargain bins and you might find it. It’s worth it, especially if you’ve missed a couple of the entries over the years. For a ten-dollar investment or even less for a good used copy on Amazon, you really cannot go wrong.
- Mark Spangler