Digi-Schlock: THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (Severin Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack)

House On Straw Hill is a classic example of a beloved exploitation title dogged by home video release issues. It’s been available several times on VHS and DVD over the years but they’ve all been marred by incomplete prints and variable image quality. Severin recently stepped into the fray to take on this challenging title and their results work small miracles with a film whose issues would seem to preclude any sort of video remaster. Better yet, the first 3000 copies of this set have a bonus disc that is worth the admission price alone (more on that in a moment…).

Severin created a new transfer of the uncut version of the film for this set, a laborious process that took several months working with less-than-optimal elements like a water-damaged negative and some old theatrical prints (click here to read an account of the process from Severin honcho David Gregory). The results aren’t home theater demo material quality – even with a lot of cleanup, there are pale colors and visible print damage – but it’s a miracle that an uncut transfer was put together at all for this problematic title.

The blu-ray is the best option of the two, bringing some depth to the often shadowy interiors and providing a bump in clarity. The mono audio sounds quite good for this vintage. Simply put, it’s hard to imagine anyone putting together a better or more complete transfer for this title given its many element issues and Severin’s hard work deserves a kind eye from the film’s fans.

The extras begin with a commentary featuring writer/director James Kenelm Clarke and producer/2nd unit director Brian Smedley-Aston, moderated by journalist Jonathan Sothcott. The two subjects offer a genial, relaxed stream of chat as they discuss their approach to the film as a commercial venture (using the success of Pete Walker’s films as a model), the challenges of shooting a stylish film on a tiny budget and the film’s controversial status as a “video nasty.”

Clarke and Smedley-Aston don’t shy away from difficult topics – like star Linda Hayden’s disapproval of how the finished product was marketed as a Fiona Richmond sex film – and have no problem criticizing their own work. Sothcott gets the duo to discuss the legends that have sprung up around the film and does a good job of gently cycling them through different topics. All in all, a solid track that the film’s fans will enjoy listening to.

Also included is “An Angel For Satan,” a short 2003 interview with Hayden about her career as a U.K. starlet in frequently controversial fare. She talks about a number of her roles, including Baby Love and Madhouse, with a special amount of attention devoted to her work as the demonic nymphet in Blood On Satan’s Claw. She also airs her very negative thoughts on House On Straw Hill, which is a shame as she’s quite good in it. The extras are rounded out by the trailer for House On Straw Hill, under its British release title Exposé, which is a short, incredibly lurid burst of sex and violence that doesn’t even bother with narration or dialogue.

And there’s an additional, extra-special bonus for those who buy one of the first 3000 copies of this set: an additional DVD that features Ban The Sadist Videos, a documentary made by David Gregory about the Video Nasties hysteria that afflicted the U.K. during the early ’80s. This two-part documentary was originally spread across both volumes of Anchor Bay UK’s Box Of The Banned box set series and it makes its first appearance on U.S home video here.

Part 1 covers the basic history of the “Video Nasties” furor, starting with how a loophole in English law allowed enterprising video store distributors to release a flood of shocking material onto the market. This prompted a “what about the children”-style backlash in the media and the halls of government, led by the fearsome morals-in-media crusader Mary Whitehouse. Home video distributors and video stores soon found themselves subject to seizures of their merchandise, trumped-up court cases and ultimately a draconian set of censorship laws for home video rushed into passage by Margaret Thatcher herself.

This gruesome tale of censorship is told in an oral history format that incorporates interviews from both home video distributors and U.K. government figures. Both get an equal amount of time but the grim facts of the situation make it easier to side with the distributors, who had their rights violated more than once by people who allowed their emotions (or political interests) to sway their judgment. The events recounted show how dangerous it is to legislate morality and to invite the law to rule over what is and isn’t acceptable art.

Gregory and his editors give the tale a swift pace, making effective use of vintage news reports that show off the “burn the witches” tone the media took on the issue as well as clips from a variety of films that ended up on the Video Nasties list, including everything from Cannibal Ferox to I Spit On Your Grave. Fans of horror films will be happy to hear it incorporates interview snippets with filmmakers like Ruggero Deodato, Jesus Franco and Wes Craven. They all have intelligent, insightful things to say but the surprise scene-stealer is Sergio Garrone, who comes up with a pretty damning take on Thatcher and the morality behind her legislation.

Ban The Sadist Videos Part 2 explores what happened after the Video Classification Act became a law in the U.K. The BBFC went from just censoring films to censoring home videos for films new and old, making the once-flagging office a profit center and giving unprecedented power to domineering BBFC head James Ferman. Part 2 also explores how the whole video nasties scandal made home video an easy target for politicians and the media whenever a violent tragedy occurred, complete with the relatively innocuous Child’s Play 3 being blamed for a murder.

A particularly scary segment deals with a politician who attempted to pass a law even more draconian than the Video Classification Act (and ironically found himself fighting Ferman, who sought to defend the BBFC’s standards). Like its predecessor, Ban The Sadist Videos Part 2 is smartly-edited and full of thought-provoking interviews. Fans of extreme cinema will find it both illuminating and more horrifying that many of their favorite films.

The limited edition bonus disc has one final inclusion which functions as a sort of epilogue to Ban The Sadist Videos: it’s called Censors Working Overtime and features David Flint presenting his overview of the BBFC’s video censorship in the early part of the 21st century. Though their standards are more enlightened than they were under Ferman’s reign, the BBFC still prone to moments of hypocrisy and inconsistency as well as some serious flaws in their censorship methodology. Flint backs up his assertions with specific examples, painting a portrait of a still-flawed censorship system that shows the dangers of mixing art with governance.

In summation, Severin has done fine work with a difficult title here – and the value increases exponentially if you get the limited edition with the excellent bonus documentary disc. Schlockmania advises horror and exploitation collectors to make a point of snapping up one of the early copies to get the maximum enjoyment from this set.

House Straw Hill Trailer from Severin Films on Vimeo.

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