THE DUNGEON OF HARROW
Color, 1962, 87m.
Directed by Pat Boyette
Starring Russ Harvey, Helen Hogan, William McNulty, Michele Buquor, Maurice Harris, Lee Morgan, Eunice Gray
DEATH BY INVITATION
Color, 1971, 81m.
Directed by Ken Friedman
Starring Shelby Leverington, Aaron Phillips, Norman Paige, Denver John Collins
Vinegar Syndrome (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Along with establishing itself as one of the most surprising and unlikely Blu-Ray companies out there, Vinegar Syndrome has also proved to be a blessing for fans of deeply obscure cult films whose elements aren't in good enough shape to justify an HD presentation. Their resurrection of the once-lost The Suckers is one of their high points to date, for example, and thankfully their SD-only releases are double features to make the deal even sweeter. Something of a stir was created when one of their first DVD titles, a pairing of Savage Water and Death by Invitation, was pulled at the last minute, but fortunately the co-feature was allowed out the door after all on a double bill with a more thematically appropriate semi-supernatural TV favorite, The Dungeon of Harrow.
A gothic orgy of eye-popping colorful lighting with a little story thrown in for good measure, The Dungeon of Harrow is basically a Texas-shot homage to Roger Corman's color AIP films (especially the Poe/Price ones) with a few dashes of Italian-inspired style; weirdly, it often feels like a cheap cousin to some films that came out after it, especially The Horrible Dr. Hichcock, Bloody Pit of Horror, and Corman's The Terror and The Haunted Palace (not to mention Andy Milligan's slew of cheapie costume horror films). That's not to say they're comparable in quality at all, but the similarities in mood and color palette are often striking.
Told in flashback as a book being written in a castle, this is the macabre story of two survivors of a shipwreck, Aaron (Harvey) and the ship's captain (Morgan), who wind up on an island owned by the mentally declining, alcoholic Count de Sade (McNulty). They stay at the creepy nobleman's castle where he also has a peroxided manservant (Harris) who bears an odd resemblance to Dennis Rodman from some angles, not to mention a pretty nurse, Cassandra (Hogan), who might know more than she's telling. Uncanny disturbances at night hint at something nefarious going on inside the castle, and soon our hero and a few of the other cast members are doomed to head down to the titular dungeon to discover its secrets.
Despite its extremely low budget and sometimes ratty production values, The Dungeon of Harrow is strange and psychedelic enough to remain burned in the memories of many viewers who have stumbled across it at a drive-in, on late night TV, or via a string of incredibly awful public domain video editions. The undeniable highlight comes just a bit past the one-hour mark when our hero sees an arm emerging through a stone wall and finds himself confronted with a truly creepy surprise from the grave; had the entire film sustained this kind of morbid intensity, it would definitely be better known. The idea of de Sade's madness manifesting itself as a flamboyant "ghost" (Morgan) is an interesting one as well, leaving the viewer unsure exactly what's going on well into the running time. Director Pat Boyette was already established as a comic book artist, and that sensibility helps here even when the film tends to sag a bit in the midsection; he even throws in some almost swashbuckling action for the climax (in broad daylight, weirdly enough) and a chilly little sting in the tale at the end, too.
The Vinegar Syndrome release marks what is probably the first new transfer of this film since the mid-1980s at least; we've had to put up with some pretty sorry syndicated TV prints for what seems like an eternity, and the presentation here is a relative breath of fresh air as it finally restores the intense original colors. That definitely makes the film far more enjoyable to watch, as the old versions from labels like Alpha and Something Weird were a real chore to trudge through. It's also worth noting that this print contains a fleeting but surprising bit of semi-nudity from the very buxom Michele Buquor when she visits Harvey in his chambers and starts to spill out of her blouse, which must've killed matinee audiences back in the day.
On the same dual-layered DVD is the aforementioned Death by Invitation, which is the same version as the recalled earlier release. To repeat that assessment here: this film popped up in far more ragged form earlier from Something Weird Video and hails from some of the same gang (mainly executive producer Leonard Kirtman) who gave us Carnival of Blood and Curse of the Headless Horseman. Here we have the tale of Lise (future TV staple Leverington in her filmic debut), a beautiful woman who seems to be connected to a witch persecuted and burned at the stake in Holland(!) three centuries earlier. Now the descendants of her executioners are being targeted, namely the Vroot family, with member Roger (Collins, singer Judy's brother) falling prey to her clutches when he goes home with her. The particularly rude police are little help when another Vroot, Jake (Phillips), seems to be next on her list and the body count starts to climb.
The premise here is hardly original (heck, it's almost a rehash of the previous year's Mark of the Witch), but Death by Invitation has that strangely moody, dark, druggy ambience you find in many other low budget '70s horrors like Love Me Deadly and Messiah of Evil. It's not on par with those, of course, but the strange atmosphere goes a long way to helping this one stick in the memory. Leverington's performance is a major asset, too, as she's beautifully shot in shadowy, gothic settings and manages to actually make a pretty convincing angel of vengeance. Quite a bit of the film is pretty inexplicable (especially the recurring back story involving flesh eating and supernatural female dominance), but chances are it'll make quite an impression.
The transfer is definitely better than what we've had before, and it's hard to believe a title like this could actually merit a 2K HD scan for posterity. God bless 'em. You also get an entertaining audio commentary from the four guys at The Hysteria Continues, one of the finest (and funniest) horror podcasts out there. As usual you get half of them in the U.K. and the other half in America doing the chat via Skype, and while the straight-up commentary format obviously doesn't allow them to go on as many wild tangents as usual, it's always enjoyable spending time in their conversational company. (Podcast member Justin Kerswell can also be heard separately on earlier U.K. commentaries for The Funhouse, Puppet Master, and Slaughter High.) Death by Invitation is a little bit of a stretch outside their normal comfort zone of slasher films as it's more of a straight-up plunge into supernatural territory, but they still do a fine job of rattling off facts about the film, riffing on each other, and deriving great amusement from the film's substandard law enforcement.
Buy from Diabolik DVD.