Review Date: January 18, 2001
Released by: Elite Entertainment
Release date: 1/2/2001
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
After over a year in development, Elite Entertainment has finally delivered their much-anticipated first volume of the Drive-In Discs series, featuring a double feature of two prime 1950's horror features. So, was this DVD worth the long wait? Let's take a look at it.
The first feature, 1959's The Giant Leeches
(or, as the on-screen title reads, Attack of the Giant Leeches
) begins in a swamp in the rural backcountry of Florida. Poacher Lem Sawyer (George Cisar
) is bringing his boat ashore when he spots a strange creature in the water. He unloads several shotgun shells into it, but the beast submerges and disappears. When Lem tells his friends about it, they laugh it off and accuse him of drinking too much moonshine. That night, however, when he goes back into the swamp to check his traps, he is mysteriously killed.
The local physician discovers that Lem died from sucker wounds similar to the kind a squid or an octopus would have inflicted, but he and game warden Steve Benton (Ken Clark
) are unable to convince Sheriff Kovis (Gene Roth
), the local lawman, to do anything. As far as he's concerned, Lem was killed by an overgrown alligator and that's the end of it. Frustrated, Steve and his girlfriend Nan (Jari Shepard
) search the swamp for several days, but turn up nothing.
Meanwhile, Dave Walker (Bruno Ve Sota
), the owner of the local general store, has discovered that his wife Liz (Yvette Vickers
) and his friend Cal (Michael Emmett
) are having an affair. Dave catches the two screwing around and chases them through the swamp with a shotgun, and forces them to wade into a nearby lake. At the last minute, Dave decides to have mercy on the two and makes Cal promise not to see Liz again, but it's too late. Two giant leeches surface behind the couple and drag them underwater, leaving Dave staring on in horror.
Sheriff Kovis refuses to believe Dave's story of "monsters" and arrests him for murdering the two lovers. Dave ends up hanging himself in his jail cell. Meanwhile, two locals who are searching for Cal and Liz's bodies in the swamp are also attacked by the leeches, who drag them to an underwater cavern where Cal and Liz are still alive. The four promptly become leech food. Meanwhile, the community is starting to become scared. What is happening in the swamps? Why are people disappearing? Someone has to stop the beasts before they take any more victims.
The second feature, The Screaming Skull
(1958), tells the story of newlyweds Eric (John Hudson
) and Jenny Whitlock (Peggy Webber
). The couple has decided to move into the isolated country house that Eric shared with his first wife Marion, who was killed in an accident. As Eric shows his new bride around the grounds, they receive a visit from two of his old friends - local pastor Reverend Snowe (Russ Conway
) and his wife (Tony Johnson
), who are thrilled to meet her. Jenny is also introduced to Mickey (Alex Nicol
), the estate's mentally-handicapped gardener. Mickey was a lifelong friend of Marion's and has never fully recovered from the shock of her death.
The Snowes end up staying for dinner, and Eric pulls Mrs. Snowe away at one point to warn her about talking to Jenny - it seems that his new wife has not had a very happy life. When she was younger she saw both of her parents killed in a drowning accident, and later she spent time in a mental institution. Eric doesn't want them talking about unhappy or unpleasant things around her, because she's very impressionable. Unfortunately, before he can give the same advice to the Reverend, he tells Jenny the details of Marion's death, of how she fell and cracked her skull open in an accident, and drowned in a small pond behind the house. The story unnerves her somewhat.
That night, Jenny is awoken from bed by the sound of screaming. She goes downstairs to investigate, but it's only noises made by the peacocks that roam the estate. Or so it seems. The next day Eric goes into town for a meeting with his lawyer, and is delayed until after dark. Jenny goes to bed without him, and is awoken later by the sound of screaming. Again she goes to investigate, but this time she's shocked when a cabinet suddenly springs open to reveal a screaming human skull staring out at her. She throws the thing out the window, but then she hears a knock at the door. She opens it to find the skull staring up at her, and she passes out.
The next morning, Eric searches the grounds to see if he can find the skull, but to no avail. Eric blames the incident on Mickey pulling a trick, and Reverend Snowe tries to convince Jenny that she was just seeing things. Jenny agrees with him - she knows she's in a fragile mental state, and could have easily have just been having a nightmare. She's also been getting a strange feeling from a portrait of Marion hanging on the wall. But is it really all in her head, or has the ghost of Marion really come to haunt her? Or is it something else?
Although both movies were released by American International Pictures (AIP), a studio renowned for it's cheap, campy films, The Giant Leeches
is clearly a much more enjoyable film than it's companion feature. Produced by schlockmeister Roger Corman and his brother Gene, and the production was so poverty-stricken that the leech costumes were constructed out of old raincoat fabric and other common materials. But the movie is extremely memorable in one respect - scream queen Yvette Vickers in her role as the slutty Liz Walker. Although it's a fairly small part, Vickers makes the most of it, tramping around in tight dresses and flimsy undergarments, and perfectly capturing the white trash atmosphere. Her performance isn't sleazy - it is sleaze. It's almost a pity to see her character killed by the leeches, even though the scene where it occurs is one of the most gruesome of any 50's films, with some truly horrific sound effects as the leeches suck their victims dry.
In fact, The Screaming Skull
is pretty dull in comparison. The acting is bland, and the script is mostly talk with little action. Director Alex Nicol, who plays Mickey in an extended cameo, paces the movie so slow and ponderously that it's hard to pay attention. In fact, the first time I watched it I nearly fell asleep. However, the real problem is the way that Nicol treats the "screaming skull" scenes - like he was directing a typical run-of-the-mill monster movie. Oooh, a screaming skull, how scary! Someone even had the audacity to add a short warning before the opening credits saying that the studio would pay for the funeral of anybody who died of fright from watching the movie. Seriously. In the end, the real opportunity for horror - the psychological type - is badly blown, and unless you're the patient type, you'll find little of interest in The Screaming Skull
Both of the films are given a "matted" presentation at 1.85:1, and both are 16x9 enhanced. Unfortunately, I can't say that I'm happy with the decision to apply a matte, especially not in such a wide ratio. I highly doubt that either of these two films were intended to be shown widescreen, and the subsequent cropping off of picture information from the top and bottom of the frame is an unpleasant and annoying effect.
The Giant Leeches
in particular is a major disappointment, and doesn't look much better than the cheap EP-mode tape that I've been watching for the past five years. The image is very soft and muddy-looking, with an unusually poor level of contrast. The print shows quite a few signs of wear, with many noticeable scratches, splices, spots of dirt and speckles. Add some noticeable compression artifacts to the mix, and you've got a transfer that looks like it came from a digitalized VHS tape. I wasn't expecting a reference-quality transfer for this film, Elite could've done a much better job.
As for The Screaming Skull
, I can't vouch for how earlier versions looked, but I can say that it's transfer here isn't much better than that of it's companion feature. Although the image is smoother and slightly more detailed, it still looks awfully darn soft, and there's noticeable damage to the print as well. The contrast has also been turned up too high, which results in many shots where most the image has been literally whited-out, destroying most of the detail. Definitely a disappointment.
The regular soundtracks for both of the features are presented in Dolby 2-channel Mono. The soundtracks are muddled, with background noise and overall poor fidelity, but they get the job done.
Also included is a "Distorto" soundtrack, which is supposed to replicate the infamously poor quality of drive-in speakers. Presented in Dolby 5.1 Surround, the Distorto track sends the film's soundtrack to the front left speaker, and uses the other channels to pipe through other sounds that are supposed to simulate the "drive-in" experience. These sounds consist of things like people talking over the movies, car doors slamming and crickets chirping. It's a cute idea, but it's never used to it's full potential, and really isn't that interesting.
Elite has included a variety of concession stand ads, trailers, two cartoons ("Popeye" and "Betty Boop") and a variety of other drive-in intermission material as extras. The viewer can either watch the two films individually, or as one big presentation, with all the other material included, just like a real drive-in double feature. I've seen this concept on VHS releases before, but this is the first time it's been done on DVD, and it's a real treat. All of the extras have been letterboxed at 1.85:1 (except the cartoons, which are windowboxed) and 16x9 enhanced, and they all look great. In fact, they look so good that they put the two movies to shame.
Although the concept of this DVD was good, the transfers for the films are sorely lacking. After such a long wait, I had high hopes for this release, and was very disappointed. Let's hope Elite does a better clean-up job on Drive-In Discs Volume 2 - trashed, worn-out prints are one part of the drive-in experience we can all live without.
The Giant Leeches
Movie - B-
Image Quality - C-
Sound - B-
The Screaming Skull
Movie - C
Image Quality - C
Sound - B-
Supplements – B+
- Running Time - The Giant Leeches - 1 hour 2 minutes
- Running Time - The Screaming Skull - 1 hour 3 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- 16 Chapter Stops (8 for each film)
- English Dolby Digital Mono 2.0
- "Distorto" Dolby Digital 5.1
- Concession stand ads
- Betty Boop cartoon
- Popeye cartoon
- Other intermission material