Posts tagged Donald G. Thompson
The two-fer discs in Shout! Factory’s line of “Roger Corman Cult Classics” releases have mostly fallen into a comfortable pattern of linking two of the lesser-known titles in Corman archive together via similar elements. Their pairing of The Evil and Twice Dead maintains this trend. It brings together two haunted house films from two different eras of Corman’s career, with The Evil representing the New World Pictures glory days of the 1970’s and Twice Dead representing the more home video-oriented 1980’s output of Concorde Pictures. Between the two, one gets a nice glimpse into how the same subject matter was given different approaches in different decades.
Both films have been given new anamorphic transfers, which is a first for both titles. There’s a bit of speckling/scratching at the very beginning of each and sometimes around reel changes but both look impressive overall, offering a quantum leap in color and detail over the old, fuzzy VHS versions most fans are accustomed to. The sonic portion of these transfers sticks to the original theatrical mixes and each sounds fine.
Care is also taken with the presentation of the films on the discs. Producer Cliff MacMillan plays up the inherent double-feature feel of pairing these films together by providing animated menus that replicate the look of an old-fashioned movie theater (a technique he devised when producing double-feature discs for BCI). Better yet, the viewer is given the option of watching the films separately or as “The Roger Corman Experience,” which provides two period-specific bonus trailers to precede each film as well as vintage “previews” and ” feature presentation” cards with the Keith Mansfield-derived music that every exploitation fan knows by heart. Fittingly, all the bonus trailers represent other Shout! Factory titles (said trailers can also be viewed separately).
If that’s not enough, there are plenty of additional extras. Each film features a commentary track moderated by Code Red Films honcho Walter Olsen: director Gus Trikonis, cinematographer Mario DiLeo and writer Donald G. Thompson are the participants on The Evil‘s track while Twice Dead‘s track features director/co-writer Bert Dragin and star Tom Breznahan.
The Evil commentary track is a solid one, with each of the collaborators offering decent insights into their particular line of work on the film. Surprisingly, DiLeo has the most interesting material: he reveals how the film’s visual effects were mostly pulled off via practical, in-camera means and reveals how he accomplished some tricky moving shots without the benefit of a Steadicam. Olson peppers the track with periodic questions, which unfortunately sometimes distract the other participants while they are in the middle of a thought (he also pokes fun at/criticizes a few parts of the film in a rather un-moderator-like way). That said, the trio of filmmakers’ comments are enough to hold the listener’s interest.
Unfortunately, the Twice Dead commentary track doesn’t fare as well. Breznahan and Dragin are willing participants but neither has strong enough memories to fill the entire track. Also, Dragin seems to not understand that most people who listen to a commentary track on a DVD have already watched the film so he keeps refusing to talk about effects or plot twists until they appear on screen. Olsen tries to prop the track up with plenty of questions but they stick at a fanboy-ish level of trivia that don’t really open the film for discussion in an interesting or ambitious way. The end result feels like a missed opportunity.
There is also a featurette for Twice Dead, an interview with Jill Whitlow that was produced by Michael Felsher. It’s a short but sweet piece that has Whitlow discussing her career, her memories of Twice Dead and the reasons she left the film business. She’s got a charming personality and tells her tales well so the piece is easy to enjoy. Elsewhere, the package is rounded out with theatrical and t.v. trailers for The Evil.
In short, Shout! Factory and producer MacMillan have gone beyond the call of duty to beef up this double feature with plenty of extras and a savvy presentation. Your Humble Reviewer appreciates the level of work put into what could have been a simple two-movies-on-one-disc release.
Haunted house movies are always a smart bet for low budget filmmakers. They need not have tricky opticals or a huge budget to make one: all it takes is a good narrative hook, some convincing actors, a convincing location and the do-it-yourself knack to pull off a few homespun special effects. The only real limit is the talent of the participants.
The filmmakers behind The Evil clearly took the above concepts to heart. This 1978 low-budget horror film tells the tale of a group of people who unwittingly choose a haunted house when searching out a suitable location to start a rehab clinic. Psychologist C.J. Arnold (Richard Crenna) and his wife Dr. Caroline Arnold (Joanna Pettet) pick the house out. Their science professor friend Raymond (Andrew Prine) meets them at their new location to help fix it, along with a group of past patients and friends that include familiar t.v. faces like Lynne Moody and Cassie Yates.
However, troubling things begin to happen once the group settles in to work. A pet dog suddenly turns vicious and Caroline sees a hazy white apparition that guides her toward an ages-old diary that has a coded warning about the house’s dark secrets. When the house claims a casualty, the group tries to leave – only to discover that the house has locked them in. They struggle to find a way out using rational methods as the house’s entity picks away at their ranks. The survivors ultimately realize that their enemy must be fought with methods beyond the realms of science and reason.
The results aren’t the most unique or original variant on the haunted house subgenre – but they are undeniably effective. Donald Thompson’s script is a no-nonsense affair that gets everyone in the haunted house and gets the scares rolling with speed while also giving the characterizations enough dimension for the audience to get invested. C.J. is the requisite ‘doubting Thomas’ who struggles to be rational while Caroline is his open-minded opposite, creating an interesting tension to support the main narrative. Raymond adds another shading to the storyline with his attempts to use science to combat the house’s unseen forces.
However, an even bigger part of making a haunted house flick work is having skilled actors who can sell the audience on the scares. The Evil comes up aces in this department thanks to a well-chosen cast: the always-solid Crenna convincingly summons up the intellectual weight and forceful personality necessary to make C.J. convincing while the willowy, ethereal Pettet is an ideal choice for the member of the group who “feels” the spirits. Prine is amusingly cocky in the early stages of the film before suffering a slide into ghost-induced madness that he pulls off with a pro’s skill. There’s also a memorable turn by the actor who portrays the titular force but viewers should discover that surprise for themselves.
Finally, The Evil benefits from vigorous direction by Gus Trikonis. This future t.v. director built his reputation on a string of energetic, well-directed b-movies during the 1970’s and The Evil is perhaps his best. He effectively deploys Mario DiLeo’s stylish camerawork and an appropriately creepy/bombastic score by Johnny Harris to create a good, old-fashioned “blood and thunder” atmosphere guaranteed to pull fans of vintage horror right in. The effects can be bit rough around the edges at times (particularly the ones that require an optical component, like an electrocution) but the combination of strong performances and savvy direction gets the viewer past such bumpy spots.
Trikonis is also smart enough to know that the audience needs a handful of shocks to keep them focused on the story so he works up some memorable setpieces along the way, like Moody being thrown around the room by an unseen attacker that tears away at her clothes and a spooky scene where Pettet discovers her companions are possessed and enacting some unholy ritual over the body of one of the dead. The fact that Trikonis makes these scenes work with only rudimentary special effects makes his work all the more impressive.
To sum up, The Evil is a solid addition to the haunted house subgenre and a nice object lesson in how filmmaking and acting skills are the best special effects.