Monday, October 11, 2010

The Evil / Twice Dead

Shout Factory's latest in its way cool series of Roger Corman Cult Classics...well, neither film is a cult classic nor did Corman have a lot to do with them. But you could do a lot worse for a night of entertainment than watch THE EVIL and TWICE DEAD, both haunted house thrillers made a decade apart.

THE EVIL was one of director Gus Trikonis’ (THE SWINGING BARMAIDS) last feature films before entering a busy career in television. Released by Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in 1978 with an R rating, THE EVIL is a somewhat hokey haunted-house movie with ethereal spirits, floating people and objects, a thunderstorm, shutters that rattle in the night, a demonic dog, an invisible rapist, and other tried-and-true ghost-story gimmicks. It also piles up a decent body count using a cast of performers who should be quite familiar to fans of Crappy Movies.

The late Richard Crenna, a dependable leading man who bounced back and forth between television and features with aplomb and who starred in the laugh-tastic DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL the same year as THE EVIL, toplines as C.J. Arnold, a professor of psychology who rents a spooky old mansion as the site for his new drug rehabilitation center. In reality, Trikonis and producer Ed Carlin secured as their prime location a gorgeous 19th-century structure near Las Vegas, New Mexico called Montezuma Castle. It’s gigantic, dark, and creepy, giving Trikonis plenty of atmosphere to work with.

The place needs to be cleaned up, so C.J., along with his gorgeous wife Caroline (Joanna Pettet), recruits a small group of friends and students to spend the summer getting the place ready for business: physicist Raymond Guy (Andrew Prine) and his student/girlfriend Laurie (Mary Louise Weller, ANIMAL HOUSE); ex-junkie Felicia (Lynne Moody, one of the innocents sent to Robert Reed’s corrupt prison in NIGHTMARE IN BADHAM COUNTY); pet lover Mary (Cassie Yates, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND); joker Pete (George O’Hanlon Jr., whose father was the voice of George Jetson); and handyman Dwight (Robert Viharo, star of BARE KNUCKLES).

Danger erupts almost immediately. Well, even before that, as a drunken handyman is incinerated by the furnace during the opening titles. After Crenna’s group arrives, all Hell—literally—breaks loose after C.J. accidentally unlocks a Doorway to Hell (where’s Lin Ye Tang when you need him?) hidden in the basement. The doors and shutters lock, the window glass becomes unbreakable, and there’s no way out of the house.

While agnostic C.J. tries to figure out a logical explanation for everything, various characters are murdered in creative ways—dog attack, electrocution, power saw, mud. Felicia is stripped to her underwear and battered about by an unseen force. Only Caroline has something resembling a clue, since she’s the only one who can see the ghost of the house’s previous resident as he shambles about.

Eventually, the survivors end up in the fog-filled basement pit, where they encounter none other than Satan himself (!), dressed in white and sitting atop a white throne in a white room (no black curtains) brimming with dry ice. You may be surprised to learn the Devil is fat and looks a lot like Victor Buono. Reportedly, some prints of THE EVIL are missing all Buono’s scenes, meaning, I guess, that Crenna and Pettet are able to slam the door to Hell and lock it without much of a hitch.

It’s true that the climax is a little silly, with Crenna forced to his knees in pain and Pettet leaping out of the fog to jam a pointy iron cross into the chest of a horned Buono, but, gee, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

Ten years later, Corman released TWICE DEAD under his Concorde label. Whereas most low-budget horror was going directly to videocassette in 1988, Corman managed to squeeze TWICE DEAD--and his other films--into theaters, albeit regionally and rarely for more than a week or two.

The Cates family—dad Harry (Sam Melville from THE ROOKIES), mom Sylvia (Brooke Bundy from A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels), son Scott (Tom Breznahan of THE BRAIN), and daughter Robin (NIGHT OF THE CREEPS’ lovely Jill Whitlow)—move into a spooky old house where an actor named Tyler Walker (HALLOWEEN 5’s Jonathan Chapin) committed suicide fifty years earlier.

Now, director Bert Dragin (SUMMER CAMP NIGHTMARE) and his co-writer Robert McDonnell could have taken this premise in fifty different directions, but I didn’t predict this one. Because Robin is the spitting image of Walker’s former lover, whose marriage to Harry’s uncle inspired the actor’s suicide, Walker’s spirit comes to life to kill a gang of extremely unmenacing punks who invade the Cates house one night while the parents are away.

This is a very slight thriller with some decent stunts and gore effects, though the plot doesn’t kick in until very late in the film. Chapin also plays one of the punks, which is an interesting idea. The script isn’t very good, and the intentional humor is lame. What’s unintentionally amusing is the flirty relationship between siblings Scott and Robin, probably because the cute performers were attracted to each other in real life.

I recognize the Cates’ house exterior from other low-budget movies, including Fred Olen Ray’s EVIL TOONS. Melville was a handsome, rugged guy similar to James Stacy (LANCER). He was occasionally playing the ex-husband of his ROOKIES co-star Kate Jackson in her SCARECROW AND MRS. KING series at the time TWICE DEAD was made, but died the year after its release at age 53.

Shout Factory produced the DVD with its usual aplomb, including a commentary track for each film. Walt Olsen moderates the tracks with his typical inanity, but the filmmakers involved do a decent job of providing information in an entertaining style. Trikonis, writer Donald Thompson, and cinematographer Mario DiLeo do the trick on THE EVIL; Trikonis knows his staff, but surprisingly knows little about THE EVIL's post-production and release. For TWICE DEAD, it's Dragin and Breznahan, both nice, smart guys, on the track, which is more entertaining than the film itself.

Other extras include theatrical and TV trailers for THE EVIL, trailers for other drive-in flicks (including THE TERROR WITHIN, an upcoming Roger Corman Cult Classic), and a new interview with Jill Whitlow, still dreamy in her 40s.

1 comment:

Chuck said...

I did a video review for The Evil last year. I agree that the conclusion is silly, but overall it's a decent little haunted house movie.