Review Date: April 30, 2013
Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
Release date: May 7, 2013
Codec: MPEG-1/2, 480p
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
After the original release of Savage Water
and Death by Invitation
was pulled just before release due to some rights issues, Vinegar Syndrome is quick to the draw to get Death by Invitation
back to the market only a few short weeks after its original cancellation. Continuing the Drive-In Collection line-up of double-features this time Ken Friedman's Death by Invitation
gets paired up with Pat Boyette's The Dungeon of Harrow
, a low-budget Texas-shot affair that tries to emulate the Roger Corman model at the time. If you've already read the previous review of the recalled release, you can jump ship and may only want to read the Dungeon of Harrow
review, but if not continue to sail on – although the seas may get a little rough.
The Dungeon of Harrow
Aaron Fallon (Russ Harvey
) has been keeping tally of his days as he writes in his journal. It's become clearer to him that his days appear to be numbered as his only remaining link to the outside world, a family crest, “are dying together.” As he narrates his woes he begins the tale that brought him to this isolation; a ship wreck in 1870 that left him and the ship's Captain (Lee Morgan
) stranded on an island with a mysterious and sinister castle and the howls of dogs in the night. After roasting some fish over an open fire, much to Aaron's displeasure, he and the Captain embark on a journey towards the castle but are soon entangled in the snare of nets set up as a trap and are met and subdued by Mantis (Maurice Harris
), an assistant to the current occupant of the castle.
The Captain gets the worst of the ordeal as he's still knocked out cold, but Aaron finds himself invited to supper with his new host, Count Lorente de Sade (William McNulty
), who happens to exude an air of contempt for Aaron's sudden arrival. Also joining the dinner is a previously shipwrecked tenant by the name of Cassandra (Helen Hogan
). Immediately taking great distaste in his host's lack of generosity, Aaron retreats back to his room but discovers a trail of blood and the disappearance of his friend the Captain. After questioning Cassandra, it is revealed that no ships ever come to this island and all who are currently occupying the island might be going mad. Not willing to give up hope, Aaron makes it his mission to find his friend and discover the dark secret the Count is keeping.
Unbeknownst to Aaron however is that beneath these castle floors lie hidden dungeons, and here the Captain remains barely alive as he is kept in constant agony on a medieval rack. It appears the Count is deathly afraid of pirates and so falsely judges the Captain as being a filthy criminal of the sea. But no amount of torture can make the Captain confess to such claims and the Count continues his denial into madness, blaming his other tenants and the demon drink that is wine for his troubles. Meanwhile, Aaron begins to uncover small clues and inaccurate facts in the Count's story, but will he uncover what lies beneath a certain sarcophagus before it's too late or will the madness of the Count ensnare all to inhabit this treacherous island?
The Dungeon of Harrow
is a tale of descending into madness to free what is being held captive, and for such a cheaply made low-budget film contains a tale that is much too ambitious for its budget. Pat Boyette somehow happens to poses skills with plotting a well-told story but lacks any ounce of real direction or vision to execute anything other than an even poorer Herschell Gordon Lewis-esque production of bad acting, cheap sets, hilariously obvious miniatures and matte paintings, and ham-fisted pacing. What transpires is 87 minutes of terribly amateur filmmaking featuring a cast who can't deliver dialogue or appear menacing, including Mantis who just so happens to look like Dennis Rodman playing the role of Shaquille O'Neal's Kazaam
, that somehow manages to rise out of its own dungeon of ineptitude by successfully balancing plot points and small anecdotes from the writings of the Marquis de Sade without the sexual context. But only if the viewer can make it through to the very end.
What if Pat Boyette, who also happens to voice the narrator in the film, had an actual budget to make the Dungeon of Harrow
? We might actually have had a tale of madness worthy of remembering, and a film that very well could have fit within the cannon of Roger Corman and Vincent Price's early collaborations. Only if Boyette stuck to strictly a screenwriter credit, along with co-writer Henry Garcia, and had hired people who knew how to make a movie then maybe this could have been a '60s horror classic. But as it stands, the Dungeon of Harrow
is a shoddily made time capsule that proves that not every storyteller can actually make a movie. As a viewer, you can only hope that being rescued from this island is not as the Count says otherwise prepare to distress the mind.
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, warts and all, so scratches, splices, and emulsion lines are present and both films are 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.” The Dungeon of Harrow
fares the worse of the two transfers, originating from an Ektachrome print, its grainy image is rather soft and often blurry with no real definition or proper focus. There is some pretty constant warp and wobble throughout as well. However it is a revelation, although very small, to be able to witness the film in its true colours for the first time. Death by Invitation
is much clearer, featuring plenty of moody lighting, but again suffers from print damage although it's not distracting at all. 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 The Dungeon of Harrow
and Death by Invitation
are presented in Dolby Digital stereo. The Dungeon of Harrow
's audio track isn't exactly clean and clear as the on-location audio is often muffled and hard to hear, complete with hiss and crackle. You may have to strain a bit to correctly hear the proper dialogue without misinterpreting what is being said, but it's probably the best Vinegar Syndrome had to work with. Death by Invitation
's audio is also not crystal clear which contains a few inconsistencies in levels throughout. The location audio is at least a little better than Harrow
's, which is saying something, even if 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 is an audio commentary track for Death by Invitation
which we'll jump into next.
Vinegar Syndrome provides a commentary track for Death by Invitation
by The Hysteria Continues, a slasher movie podcast headed by Justin Kerswell, author of The Slasher Movie Book. The commentary isn't the most entertaining or informative since Death by Invitation
is not a slasher film, which happens to be their expertise, and may run a little dry for most viewers. 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 running commentary. No supplements whatsoever for The Dungeon of Harrow
Quick to the draw to appease the fans, this release of The Dungeon of Harrow
and Death by Invitation
is at its best an adequate apology for having to pull the original first Drive-In Collection double-bill, and a smart move for Vinegar Syndrome to react and rectify a situation so quickly. While the films themselves are nothing to get too excited over, and quite possibly to most will be a watch 'em and forget 'em scenario, they are at least being given a second chance. Regardless of how dull each experience might be, both Harrow
still manage to have a few merits worthy of entertaining its potential audiences and although A/V quality is less than stellar this is still the best both of these films will likely ever look on DVD. The pairing here seems to be a bit better suited even, as both films manage to blend the horrors of the past with the isolation of the present, and so if you don't mind being shipwrecked or tied to a stake please travel at your own leisure into The Dungeon of Harrow
or accept Death by Invitation
Movie - C- [The Dungeon of Harrow], D+ [Death by Invitation]
Image Quality - C+
Sound - B-
Supplements - C
- Running time – The Dungeon of Harrow - 87 minutes / Death by Invitation - 81 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc (DVD)
- English Dolby Stereo
- Death by Invitation commentary by The Hysteria Continues