Color, 1980, 99 mins. 36 secs.
Directed by George Bowers
Starring Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux, Donald Petrie, Christopher MacDonald, Perry Lang
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Scorpion (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), BCI/Rhino (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.70:1) (16:9)
Drive-in specialists Crown International scored a major cable TV hit in the early '80s with The Hearse, a PG-rated spook show designed to cash in on star Trish Van Devere's recent role in The Changeling. The widow of George C. Scott, Van Devere stars as a recently-divorced teacher named Jane Hardy who decides to take advantage of the remote house she inherited from her late aunt. The summer in solitude turns out to be an uneasy one as she's repeatedly stalked by a mysterious hearse, and the hostile locals and her aunt's nasty past involving the occult don't really help matters either. The local attorney (Cotten) isn't much help unraveling the mystery as he wanted the house all to himself, and she tries to find some solace by striking up a tentative romance with a younger suitor named Tom (Gautreaux). It all ends, as such things must, on a dark and spooky night when the secret of the hearse finally comes to light and puts Jane's life in dire jeopardy.
Thanks to its family-friendly rating and classy veneer, this supernatural potboiler from director George Bowers (a regular editor who also directed My Tutor for Crown) enjoyed more widespread exposure than most of the studio's other efforts. It's blatantly obvious the plot was dreamed up after someone saw the recent spate of late '70s horror films like Burnt Offerings, as this script is basically what would happen if you tossed the two into a blender. It's all a tad muddled and ultimately leads to a puzzling dead end of a final scene, but some of the spookier visuals involving the hearse manage to make an impression and the evocative score by Webster Lewis manages to nearly pull it all together. There's also a fairly nifty little twist just before the climax, too; for viewing on a dark and stormy night, it definitely fits the bill. Be sure to keep an eye out for future director Perry Lang (who also appeared in Alligator the same year and suffered a much bloodier fate) and a very young Christopher MacDonald in his theatrical debut, which he followed up with the immortal Grease 2 before moving on to films like Thelma & Louise.
The Hearse first appeared on DVD as a standalone release from Rhino back in the early '00s, with a decent anamorphic transfer and the theatrical trailer. The same transfer was later rehashed for Rhino's smugly-titled Horrible Horrors Vol. 1 collection alongside other films like Lurkers and Fleshburn, then again from BCI in an updated, superior anamorphic version as part of their eight-film Drive-In Cult Classics Vol. 2 set, later reissued verbatim by Mill Creek-- who then trotted it out yet again compressed too much for comfort for a 12-movie collection called Cult Terror Cinema. The Scorpion release from 2012 (paired up with Blood of Dracula's Castle) looks close to the BCI in terms of framing and compression, but the quality's a few notches better thanks to a fresh transfer from the original negative. Not surprisingly, this is packaged as a "Katarina's Nightmare Theater" release with hostess Katarina Leigh Waters gamely getting plowed down by runaway hearse before she appears to cover some trivia about the film including little tidbits about the major cast members. Plus you get to see her with a fake mustache, which has to be a first. Extras include the trailer and a phone interview with screenwriter William Bleich, who talks about getting his first writing gig here, the inspiration for the story, and his thoughts on writing horror including some of his future work for the small screen.
In 2017, Vinegar Syndrome took another digital stab at the film with its inevitable move to Blu-ray, packaged as a dual-format release with a remastered DVD to boot. The new transfer, evidently the first ever from the original negative, is the most impressive yet with dead-on skin tones and a significant boost in detail with the fabrics of our heroine's outfits in particular looking a lot more tactile than before. It's much brighter than the Scorpion with less of a blue tint, adding a substantial amount of extra image info and correcting some vertical squish as well. It's a pretty flawless presentation, and the DTS-HD MA English track also sounds pristine; optional English SDH subtitles are provided. Extras include the theatrical trailer, a TV spot, a gallery of promotional artwork and photos, and most substantially, "Satan Get Behind Thee" (20m39s), a new interview with Gautreaux. He chats about how screen testing for the lead in The Final Conflict (or Omen III as he calls it) played a major role in his part in this film, the frequent industry confusion about his age, the character instructions he was given by his director, the difference of the script's original ending, his original script notes (which he shows off for the camera), the "epic fornication" he anticipated from his love scene, and a great George C. Scott anecdote tied to, of all things, Galaxina and Marlon Brando. Needless to say, it's nearly worth the price of the disc all by itself. A limited 1,000-unit edition version with an exclusive O-card designed by Chris Garofolo is also available directly from Vinegar Syndrome.
SCORPION RELEASING FRAME GRABS
BCI FRAME GRABS
Reviewed on May 17, 2017