Savage Water / Death by Invitation
When a movie gets labeled as “worst slasher ever” or “worst movie ever” what drives someone to lose the ability to reason and they must in-turn seek out the films with such labels? You would expect the logic to follow as such: it's been tagged as the “worst” therefore I should probably avoid it at all costs. But nearly the opposite always happens when such distinction is bestowed, and like rabid dogs we seek out to find the best of the worst. Why do we submit ourselves to such joyful tortures? Well, probably because a train wreck, or in the following case a couple of overturned rafts or family curse, can be even more entertaining then just watching the train drive by, unaffected, in its natural state. Sometimes you just need that extra zing, crash, or bang to spice things up. So throw on a life preserver, grab an axe, and let's derail Vinegar Syndrome's Drive-In Collection double-feature of Savage Water and Death by Invitation.
Dave Savage (Gil Van Waggoner) and his team run a white water rafting company that takes its clients down into the Grand Canyon on a river trip filled with educational tidbits, camaraderie, and a sense of connecting again with nature. On this specific outing, Dave and company take more than just a handful of varying people from all over the world on this adventurous expedition; from a German couple who drive a Volkswagen, to a wealthy Arab (played by an East Indian) who's never kissed a girl before, to a father and his mischievous son, to a man who eats too many Twinkies, and on and on and on. They'll be lucky if they can squeeze everyone into the rafts they've supplied and not have them sink like the Titanic.
After the single greatest movie explanation of what a life jacket is and how to properly put one on, “This is the back, it's got lots of straps and hooks,” the gang pile into the rafts and sail off down the muddy waters that carve out the canyons and after learning about the dangers of hypothermia stop at different scenic spots to eat, shit in a tent, and sleep. With this many characters in a confined and secluded location you'd expect drama and conflict to erupt and so when Ivy (So Mickelson), a drug dealer high on cocaine, is mysteriously pushed off a cliff and falls to his death into the shallow body of water below, the pot finally boils over. At first it's passed off as just an accident, he was high on cocaine after all, but soon pranks are being pulled and a member of the crew tumbles to his death after a brief rock climbing session. It's still just an accident, right?
After a stabbing and a poisoned salad claim another two victims, tensions heat up and suspicions mount that these may no longer just be accidents. The slowly dwindling unit begin to become more divided and the rapids become even more white-knuckled. Dave announces, in one of his many speeches, that one of them must be the murderer and he tries to keep everyone together so as to keep safety and order, and try to weed out who amongst them is the killer. Despite the deflating number of suspects there are still too many amongst them and so it's not going to be the easiest task. Down amongst the canyons on this river of fear can the conflicting personalities remain rational, or will he killer use their weakness to further turn the waters a deep muddy red?
Savage Water, a film that never got a release in its own country until now, is a disastrous attempt at Deliverance-style thrills with a whodunit plot. Kipp Boden, the film's screenwriter, piles the film with a cast of characters that would easily fill a city bus but here in the film actually fill out the oversized carriage on the back of a pick-up truck. Every character is either a one-dimensional cliché or a racial stereotype, for example the German couple who hold bratwurst while they drive. No one can act or remember their lines and the film's use of dialogue and exposition does nothing to advance the plot but rather leaves the film with no room to breathe. Characters just randomly spout off whatever is on their minds. The entire opening scene with the cast piled in the back of the truck has every single character describe themselves and provide the audience with as much useless history as possible, so hopefully you've brought a pen and paper to keep track of who's who as it's a long ride and good luck remembering their names.
Paul W. Kener's direction keeps the tone of the film bouncing around and doesn't seem to know whether he wants to make a thriller or a slapstick comedy, and as a proto-slasher film Savage Water doesn't even have its first death and moment of suspense until the 43 minute mark. Savage Water seems more like a low-budget home movie than anything else, with its grainy 16mm photography, blown out highlights, and the fact the entire film takes place in broad daylight. There is not one night shot but that could be attributed to the fact they they probably didn't have any lights as it appears to have been shot under natural light. And Utah, clearly on display via the clothing of Dave Savage himself, subs in for Arizona. But this disaster of a film isn't all just a deflated dingy as the white water ride is a unintentional laugh-filled riot of inept filmmaking, philosophical waxing, and too many (or not enough) men wearing short shorts with a Johnny Cash-esque theme song. It's terribly entertaining, if you're in the right frame of mind, and worth the paddle upstream.
Death by Invitation
In the late 1600's in Holland, a young woman is accused of being a witch by the entire village and is tied to a stake and has her head chopped off. But before her untimely demise she is able to cast a curse on the family of the man responsible for taking her block off. Now in the present, or 1971 in this case, the Vroot family is gearing up for a wedding. The father, Peter (Aaron Phillips), who sports a lazy eye and a snaggletooth, is damn proud of his daughter Coral (Rhonda Russell) and her fiancé Jake (Norman Paige), and he hopes he's able to convince his future son-in-law to take up a position in the family business.
At the diner held for the engaged couple, Lise (Shelby Leverington, Cloak & Dagger), a friend of the family, is also present. Lise, who resembles the witch from the opening set-piece, begins to try to loosen up the fairly strict religious family with a speech about the cab driver who's number she was given, but Peter doesn't want his kids, especially his son Roger (Denver John Collins, Watched!), going out with any “way-out people.” Later on in the evening Roger, intrigued by Lise's early speech, cabs it to her apartment where she's waiting for him with a story about a tribe of women who were hunters and their men who were domesticated. After mentioning the men had to kneel before the women and oil them up for the hunt, Roger is turned on and proceeds to do just as he's told. But instead of getting lucky, young Roger has his throat punctured by Lise's nails.
The Vroot family is now having to deal with the disappearance of Roger instead of attending to the joyful union of the future wedded couple and Lise firmly cements herself as a pillar of support, as to misdirect suspicion that she may possibly be involved in the tragedy. No clues or evidence are available to aide in the investigation by a couple of keystone cops, who suspect their son is probably just out pushing dope somewhere, and so Peter and his family try their best to continue on with some hope for Roger's return. But tragedy strikes again after another family dinner when middle sister Sara (Sylvia Pressler) and the youngest Elly (Lesley Knight) are found murdered within the family home! Still no suspects, no clues, and no clear motives but somehow Lise seems to be up to something under the lazy eye of Peter as she begins to seduce Jake who's own fiancé Coral seems to pay absolutely no attention to him. Can the Vroot's discover Lise isn't who she says she is before more family members lose their heads or will a 300-year curse fulfill its very purpose?
Death by Invitation is unfortunately a train wreck that isn't all that exciting, such as a trolley at a kids theme park that's stopped because of an animal that won't move off the rails. Written and directed by Ken Friedman (White Line Fever), Death by Invitation is a slow-burn horror film with little payoff, and retribution can be seen from the film's opening 17th Century witch's curse set-up. The main reason the film falls flat is its characters are given no background and the understanding of relationships seems grossly misinterpreted and misunderstood. For instance, you would expect the engaged couple to interact, or for at least the fiancé or the family to intervene when Jake is hitting on Lise within their own home, directly in front of them. But nope, Coral just sits in the background of her scenes camouflaged in a dress that appears to be made out of floral drapes. Or when Jake gets lost in the maze that is Peter's workplace where he thinks he's getting his job orientation but instead gets to look out the window to a view we, the audience, don't even get a peak at and is asked if the cop's called. There are so many lapses in logic and characterization you're often wondering if this family is cursed because they seem to not be able to communicate.
However, just like the stalled trolley ride, at least there is five minutes worth of entertainment when it is up and running. Shelby Leverington is actually really good in her debut role as Lise, and conveys an emotional complexity in the few scenes she's able to flex her acting skills. Death by Invitation also features some extremely effective moments of creepiness, such as the skillfully shot and unexpected death of the two sisters and the unveiling of a hidden room in Lise's apartment. But by the end credits those few sights and sounds weren't all worth it and you'll wish that this invitation to death was given to someone else. And what does the title Death by Invitation really apply to? Is it the wedding? Is it the curse? Is it striking up friendships with people you really don't know? I don't think we'll ever know...
Vinegar Syndrome's double-feature has both films scanned in 2K from theatrical release prints, so scratches, splices, and emulsion lines are present and are both shown in their 1.85:1 aspect ratios. Due to being compressed slightly more to fit two features on one dual layer DVD, there is the occasional digital artifacting present when there is a lot of motion or action in a scene and the image appears “blocky.” Savage Water has plenty of grain present, seeing as it was originally shot on 16mm, and is actually the cleaner of the two prints as far as screening-wear goes but can appear soft due to the shooting format. It also has some terrible optical overlays during a few montage sequences. Death by Invitation is clearer being shot on 35mm, featuring plenty of moody lighting, but again suffers from more print damage. But it's not distracting at all. Both films are fairly pale with little contrast as far as their colour goes, but this is due to the age of the prints as well as lack of proper colour timing. At least Vinegar Syndrome is presenting these films as is and isn't tinkering with them in post to create an unauthentic “remastered look.”
Both Savage Water and Death by Invitation are presented in Dolby Digital stereo. Savage Water's audio is surprisingly clean, and considering how much dialogue is spouted off it can all be heard without straining one's ears. The film's score, which bounces around from home grown country to funky grooves to ethnic sounds, is as awkward as the 'sketches' that make up the film and the two featured songs are hilariously terrible, especially the campfire tune “Sherri” which is a piano-led tune “played” by someone on guitar in the film. Death by Invitation's audio is a little worse for wear which has a few inconsistencies in levels throughout. The location audio isn't as sound as Savage Water's, which is saying something, and you can actually hear the camera whir in a few scenes. But none of the issues are at fault because of the compression or authoring, but inherent in the source material. Also included are two audio commentaries, which we'll get into next.
Vinegar Syndrome provides a commentary track for each film by The Hysteria Continues, a slasher movie podcast headed by Justin Kerswell, author of The Slasher Movie Book. Their commentary for Savage Water provides information behind the history of the film's disappearance to obscurity and its limited release in the UK on VHS and how they came about seeing it. Because of the scarcity of information available about the story behind the film and lack of making contact with those willing to talk about the film, most of the behind-the-scenes information of the commentary runs out a half hour in and the remainder isn't the most entertaining as they just comment on what's currently happening on screen. Death by Invitation's commentary is even less entertaining since it is not a slasher film, which is their expertise, and even less production information is available. Justin Kerswell is good at leading the conversations but things get a little tedious and boring as the commentary goes on and you'd likely enjoy it more if you were just watching this with a bunch of your own friends featuring your own commentary.
Vinegar Syndrome's release of their first Drive-In Collection double-bill was unfortunately cancelled due to an issue with the rights clearance of Savage Water, which their source didn't actually own the rights to. Out of this bad luck though an even better good has emerged as they've gotten in contact with Paul W. Kener himself and they will be re-releasing Savage Water in the future, but this time featuring a new transfer from the film's original camera negative and possibly some new bonus features! No word on release yet, or what it will be paired up with, but Death by Invitation will be re-released soon paired up with Pat Boyette's Dungeon of Harrow. But back to this release itself, Vinegar Syndrome is unearthing long forgotten films, whether gems or not, and is breathing new life into lost cinema. Savage Water is indeed one of the worst slasher films, if you can even call it that, but it's a terribly entertaining ride into sheer absurdity with an overflowing cast of crazy stereotypes that is worth the accident. Death by Invitation on the other hand is a dull mess involving witchcraft and family disconnect. But if either of these sound like they'll float your boat, be sure to check them out when they do get released in the near future.
I had the same experience you did. Despite its flaws SAVAGE WATER is oddly compelling and DEATH BY INVITATION "is a train wreck that isn't all that exciting".
So glad I was able to snag one of these!
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