Review Date: October 10, 2011
Released by: Alpha Video
Release date: 6/24/2003
Region 0, NTSC
Being a fraternity man myself, I’ve often found myself watching movies about Greek life with a certain amount of skepticism. While every fraternity and sorority has a different culture, different traditions and different pledge programs, it is often that I have found that my experiences were similar to those of people in other organizations, but very unlike what has been shown in a great many films. Particularly disappointing is the way that many screenwriters turn hazing into a joke, downplaying the seriousness of it while completely missing the absurdities of pledging that are actually a real source of humor. Other writers treat hazing as a serious, scary and potentially dangerous experience, but miss the essence of what makes it so terrifying to the person going through it. The gut-churning, paralyzing anxiety that accompanies certain “processes” doesn’t seem to translate well to the screen. That is particularly true of this film, a short, low budget horror tale about a fraternity initiation stunt that ends up going horribly wrong...
It’s the fall semester of 1955 at a Los Angeles college, and medical student Lewis B. Moffitt (George E. Mather
) is getting ready for two big events. The first is an upcoming human dissection that he will be witnessing with his classmates, and the second is his initiation into a fraternity for medical students. Moffitt and his pledge brothers have never seen an actual human dissection before and everyone seems nervous about it. They are also nervous about the upcoming fraternity initiation, where it is rumored they will be asked to do some pretty extreme things to earn their letters. The only one of them who does not seem to be scared about either ordeal is Moffitt, who is said to have such steely nerves that he is not afraid of anything. While parked in the woods with his girlfriend Betty (Esther Furst
) the brave Moffitt doesn’t hesitate to kill a rattlesnake that menaces them, and when it comes time for his class to witness the autopsy he volunteers to assist the professor, something that few students are willing to do.
Despite his fearless heroics, it seems that Lewis B. Moffitt is indeed afraid of one thing in this world, but he has successfully kept it a secret from everyone around him. When he was eight years old his grandfather died, and the wake was held in his living room. The night before the service his grandfather’s coffin was placed in the house, and poor young Moffitt got scared and asked his mother to leave the lights on in his bedroom. When she refused he started to cry, to which she told him that if he didn’t stop crying his grandfather would get up out of his coffin and a put a stop to it. Which, quite understandably, terrified the young Moffitt as he lay awake all night in the dark. Now as an adult he has frequent nightmares, which catch the attention of his roommate, who notices him talking in his sleep. When the two men go to visit a funeral home after one of their friends is killed in a car accident, Moffitt finds himself freaking out when the candle lighting the room suddenly blows out, and he reluctantly shares the story of what happened.
The autopsy that Moffitt and his classmates witnessed was of a “John Doe”, or a man whose identity was not known. During the dissection several fraternity brothers who were present noticed that the man was wearing a ring on his hand and, deciding to test just how fearless pledge Moffitt really is, they design a truly ghoulish initiation scheme: Moffitt is to break into the mausoleum where the “John Doe” body is being stored in preparation for burial and bring back the ring that he is wearing! Poor Moffitt puts on a brave face as he drives off to the cemetery to complete his assignment, not knowing the terror and the ultimately tragic fate that awaits him…
Ring of Terror
is a minor and mediocre thriller that is mostly forgotten today. It is a film whose only claim to fame is the fact that it was featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000
. If it were not for that brief bit of notoriety it would be completely and utterly unknown instead of just mostly unknown. While MST3K was successful in putting movies like Manos, the Hands of Fate
and Hercules Against the Moon Men
on the map, this film never caught on as cult classic, and it's easy to understand why. There's no shortage of bad movies in the world; turn on the TV, go to the video store or the movie theater or pull up Hulu, and very quickly you'll find a crappy movie. Making a bad movie is a lot easier than making a good one, after all, and the majority of films circulating out there are rarely better than mediocre. But that being said, while it's easy to find a bad movie, it's really not easy to find a bad movie with that special, loony vibe that makes a true cult classic. Films like Plan 9 from Outer Space
or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
are about as rare as movies like Seven Samurai
and Bridge on the River Kwai
. In contrast to the truly so-bad-they're good movies, Ring of Terror
just sort of exists. It is not a good movie in any sense of the word, but there's nothing special about it. It has this sort of unexceptional mediocrity that makes it easy to laugh at but much easier to forget.
The film features some of the most gratuitous and obvious padding that one is likely to encounter in any movie. It's not giving too much away to reveal that poor Lewis B. Moffit doesn't survive his fraternity initiation, because it is revealed in the first five minutes that Moffitt is dead. The opening credits show a funeral procession through a cemetery, after which we meet the caretaker of the place, played by actor Joseph Conway. "Good evening friends," he says directly to the camera as he sits at his desk. "Let me invite you for a stroll down graveyard lane, where beauty and love abide, and in death we are born to eternal life." He then rises from his desk to look out the window and say, "All monuments from the simplest to the most elaborate stand erect on the closed books of the lives of our beloved departed. And each marker withholds many stories, some filled with happiness, some filled with sorrow." He babbles on for a few more lines and then steps out of his office into the cemetery, where he calls for his cat. The cat, named Puma, is nowhere to be found, and so the man wanders through the cemetery calling its name. He finally finds the cat and then "accidentally" steps on its tail, which sends it off running to another part of the cemetery. Hence the man has to search for the cat again, this time finding him sitting on Moffitt's grave (perversely, Moffitt's next of kin chose to have "I feared not" written as his epitaph, even though he quite clearly died of fright), which leads him to relate Moffitt's story to us. The opening credits and this prologue with the cemetery custodian last six minutes, and at the end of the film Joseph Conway and Puma show up again for a one-minute wrap-up. The film has a total running time of just sixty-three minutes, and the cemetery bookends were obviously added to stretch the running time past the one hour mark. And that’s not the only padding, either. When you boil it down, Ring of Terror
only has about a half hour of story, and even the flashbacks of Moffitt’s college life are riddled with extraneous material, including a beauty pageant and footage of Moffitt’s pledge brothers going about their own initiation assignments.
Director Clark L. Paylow was a busy man for a few decades before dropping out of sight at the end of the 1970's. The only major credit to his name is Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind
, which he served as a unit production manager on. He served as an assistant director on movies like I Bury the Living
and The Atomic Submarine
, as well as on a handful of the AIP beach party movies. He was also active in television, working on series like I Spy
. He was also very active on an early TV series called Sky King
, which, judging from the write-ups on the Internet Movie Database, seems to have been a cross between a western show and an aviation adventure program. Paylow produced and directed a number of Sky King
episodes, and there are a number of other connections between the show and Ring of Terror
; six members of the cast, including George E. Mather, have Sky King
credits. Producer Alfeo Bocchicchio was an art director on the show. Director of photography Brydon Baker also shot a number of Sky King
episodes. Assistant director Harry M. Slott and property master Leo Cornet also served in those same capacities on many Sky King
episodes, as did sound man Clarence Peterson.
It is the Sky King
connection, combined with the obvious nature of the wraparound padding, that makes me suspect that Ring of Terror
was originally intended as the pilot to a suspense anthology series, and not a feature film. True, the excessive amount of headroom visible throughout the entire movie hints that the director of photography was framing for 1.85:1 all along, but at the same time it’s very hard to see what anyone was trying to accomplish otherwise with making this film. Even by the standards of 1962 the horror and suspense here is extremely tame. There are a few creepy moments here and there (especially during the autopsy scene), but the one big shock – the one that causes Moffitt’s untimely death - barely registers, and audiences looking for horror product at the time were already used to getting much stronger medicine from Hammer imports and AIP Poe adaptations. Certainly there is very little here to attract drive-in audiences, and many of the viewers who did see it probably had a good laugh at the fact that almost all of these twenty-something college students are so obviously played by performers in their 30’s and 40’s. Even Moffitt’s attempts to get the darned ring off the corpse fail to develop any tension at all, and in the end Ring of Terror
just feels like a mammoth (if short) waste of time. Referring to the departed in his beginning monologue, the cemetery caretaker says “I wonder what would they do if they had the chance to re-live their lives again? What would you do?” Well for starters, I probably wouldn’t watch this movie again!
This is a good presentation by the standards of Alpha Video, which means that by objective standards it is in the range of mediocre to poor. The interlaced, 1.33:1 full-frame transfer was clearly taken from an older tape master, but the master was created from a print that was in excellent condition, with very few specks, scratches or splices to be seen. The image sports deep, dark blacks and clear whites, although the contrast seems to be turned up a tad too high and shadow detail is generally inadequate. Chroma noise and some haphazard compression artifacts pop up with regularity. Ring of Terror
looks perfectly watchable (especially considering the quality of some of Alpha’s other releases) but the quality here is average at best.
The Dolby 2.0 Mono track is perfectly adequate without being exceptional. Dialogue is almost always understandable, although some scenes sound rather tinny and others sound flat and compressed. There is some light background noise and distortion audible throughout the presentation.
Somehow Alpha has managed to dig up a spoiler-filled theatrical trailer for this title, but that’s the only thing that’s included as an extra here (unless you want to count the cover scans of other Alpha Video releases that are included).
Even by early 60’s standards, Ring of Terror
falls flat, with no scares, no suspense and very little atmosphere, and with an abundance of extraneous padding and middle-aged actors. This DVD from Alpha is adequate and no more, and despite the low price this disc is recommended only for those devoted souls who insist on seeing the non-MST3K version of every movie featured on the show. For everyone else who is interested, perhaps a few minutes of streaming this public domain obscurity from Archive.org
will be enough to sate your interest.
Movie – D+
Image Quality – C-
Sound – C
Supplements – C
- Running Time – 1 hour 3 minutes
- Not Rated
- Chapter Stops
- 1 Disc
- English 2.0 Mono