Color, 1973, 95 mins. 12 secs.
Directed by Georg Fanady
Starring Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester, Farley Granger, Shani Wallis, Bernard Fox, Jamie Farr, Victor Buono
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Despite being named after and founded by one of America's most beloved and seemingly wholesome crooners, Bing Crosby Productions (or BCP) released some very unexpected and very dark entertainment in the 1970s including a string of horror movies. Due to various rights issues and general confusion, all of them fell into oblivion for decades after their theatrical runs and initial VHS releases, even including bona fide hits like Willard and Ben (as well as cult favorites like The Reincarnation of Peter Proud and You'll Like My Mother). All of those eventually got straightened out and have seen the light of day again, but one of the longest holdouts used to turn up on home video wish lists all the time: Arnold, a 1973 black comedy body count mystery with spooky overtones. Now with its 2023 Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome, we almost have the entire BCP horror library in our hands in HD except for one more straggler, 1973's Terror in the Wax Museum. But hope springs eternal.
During a most unusual wedding ceremony originating at the graveyard beside a sprawling estate, Karen (Stevens) is married to her beloved Arnold -- despite the fact that he's lying dead in a coffin and has left behind a widow, Jocelyn (Wallis, who also croons the crazy theme song). As it turns out, the wealthy and eccentric Arnold left very specific instructions about actions to be taken after his demise including the eternal fidelity of his beloved Karen, who stands to inherit the huge stash of money secreted away somewhere on the premises. Also present and in contention are others like Arnold's younger brother Robert (McDowall), sister Hester (Lanchester), and attorney Evan Lyons (Granger). Soon the attendees are getting bumped off in elaborate deathtraps seemingly engineered by Arnold himself, somehow predicting how everyone will behave in order to get their hands on his inheritance.
Deliberately arch and old-fashioned at a time horror was going through dramatic growth spurts with films like The Exorcist, Arnold feels more akin to the macabre, lightweight William Castle comedies from the previous decade, with its game show-ready cast and artificial sets giving a cozy feeling throughout. The deaths are bizarre and amusing without ever getting graphic (this is rated PG after all), and the plot twists and turns enough to keep you engaged with a few surprises in the order of who gets eliminated by Arnold (or whoever might be helping him). It's exactly the kind of film that dwell warmly in the minds of young viewers who stumbled across it at the drive-in or on TV when it was released by Cinerama, or its eventual VHS appearance in 1985 from Vestron sublabel Lightning Video (in a pretty poor transfer).
It took almost four decades for Arnold to show up again, but the Blu-ray looks marvelous thanks to a colorful and immaculate 4K scan from the 35mm interpositive. The very desaturated VHS is now a thing of the past as the film's gaudy color scheme is now restored to its original intensity, and the DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track is also a massive improvement all around. (Optional English SDH subtitles are provided as usual.) A welcome new commentary by The Projection Booth Podcast's Mike White touches on the history of BCP (including its success with Walking Tall), the trope of "corpse marriage," background on director Georg Fenady (who mostly directed TV episodes and was childhood friends with Jamie Farr, seen in the film in a wild Indian getup), and lots about the various actors and other players. The sole video extra, "The Gothic Horror Comedy in Hollywood" (21m2s), is a thorough video essay by Samm Deighan exploring how this film lies in a long, storied tradition of "spend the night in a spooky house for cash" films dating back to Seven Keys to Baldpate and various other silents before weaving through classics like The Bat, The Cat and the Canary, House on Haunted Hill, The Trouble with Harry, and many more.
Reviewed on October 10, 2023.