Wednesday, March 30, 2005

SISTERS OF DEATH/SCREAM BLOODY MURDER

Joseph Mazzuca’s SISTERS OF DEATH (1978 – although it was reportedly shot as early as 1972), also has no direct ties with Lucifer – on screen, anyway – but it does include a vaguely Satanic ritual scene and a cast of attractive young ladies, led by the stunning B-movie starlet Claudia Jennings (GATOR BAIT, TRUCK STOP WOMEN). Jennings was a former Playmate who forged a brief but memorable career in B-movies before her tragic, accidental death in 1979 at age 29. A strikingly beautiful woman and a talented actress, Jennings had the potential to break through to the big time, but she never got her chance.

The film opens with a ritualistic sorority initiation where a new pledge is accidentally shot in the head. Seven years later, the other girls who attended the ceremony each receive an invitation to a "Sisters" reunion. Ambitious Judy (Jennings) is suspicious, but, along with the four other survivors, decides to attend. Upon reaching the hotel, the group is picked up by two young men (Paul Carr and Joe Tata) who have been hired, by a man they’ve never met, to chauffeur the girls to an isolated desert mansion.

Of course, this is a horror movie, so the girls (and the two horny guys, who despite their orders, decide to hang out with the Sisters and party) soon find themselves imprisoned by an electrified fence, and at the mercy of a creepy old man who stalks the house through secret passages, spying on them. Who is the creepy old man, what is his connection to the Sisters, and why does he seem to want them dead?

Well, it’s not much of a mystery… or a movie, for that matter. While all the girls are attractive and play their roles well enough, the film tends to drag for long stretches with nothing much happening on screen. If you can manage to stick it through until the end, the filmmakers do manage to throw in a couple of cool last minute twists, but ultimately, it’s a pretty dreary affair, lacking in suspense or titillation. To further undermine the film’s effectiveness, it’s shot in that style-less ugly Seventies manner. Combined with the hokey score, the result feels like a cheap made-for-TV movie.

VCI has brought this home-video staple to DVD as half of their first "Scream Theater Double Feature" disc in their new, budget-priced Cinema Pops line. While certainly watchable, their transfer is a soft, full-frame affair, apparently culled from a VHS source. I suspect the flick was intended to be cropped for theatrical presentations, as boom mikes dip into the frame on several occasions. Minor print damage and dirt litters the entire print, but there are no obvious jump-cuts or bad splices.

As mentioned above, SISTERS OF DEATH is just half of a double feature disc. Its companion film, SCREAM BLOODY MURDER (1973) is a decidedly unpleasant affair, directed by Marc B. Ray.

The movie begins when an unhinged tyke named Matthew causes his father’s death with some heavy farm equipment (in which the kid loses a hand) and is institutionalized for the next nineteen years. Upon his release and return to the family farm, the now hook-handed, adult nutjob (Fred Holbert) promptly murders his mother and her new husband. Then things really get nasty. Haunted by hallucinations of his dead mother and stepfather, he travels to the city (committing two more murders en route), where he meets an artistically-inclined hooker. Trying to win her maternal approval (he’s mentally confusing her with his mom, of course), he kills off her johns, steals money for her, and eventually murders the owner of a mansion, so he can live there with her. It all pretty much unravels at the end… not that it was woven too tightly in the first place.

This is one sick flick. Essentially a serial killer film without suspense, SCREAM BLOODY MURDER hurtles from one bloody death scene to the next without too much thought given to character or backstory. Matthew clearly has a major Oedipal Complex going for him, but there’s no explanation given why. He has a hook, yet kills by strangling people, hitting them with rocks, and using an axe – makes you wonder why they gave him a hook in the first place. Even gorehounds will be let down by the abundant bloodletting, as the effects are primitive, unimaginative and seem to be trimmed.

Some people think pretty highly of this film. I’m not one of them.

Like its companion feature, SCREAM BLOODY MURDER is a full-frame transfer from a soft, dirty source, probably a VHS master. The picture is dark and grainy, and there are occasional jump-cuts during the murder scenes, indicating, as I mentioned above, that the print has been trimmed of some of its gore. The only extra on the disc is a video preview of upcoming Cinema Pops titles – a truly mixed bag of obscurities, including the Sondra Locke vehicle DEATH GAME and a Jack London wilderness adventure starring Ron Ely.

Neither film on this VCI/Cinema Pops double feature disc looks all that great, but you can’t beat the price – the Cinema Pops line retails for around five bucks a disc.

BUY: Scream Theater Double Feature, Vol. 1: Sisters of Death/Scream Bloody Murder