Theater Thoughts



Reviewer: John Carpenter

Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
DVD Release date: 5/7/2013
Region Free
“The Dungeon of Harrow” 87 Mins/Not Rated; “Death by Invitation” 81 Mins/Not Rated
“The Dungeon of Harrow” Widescreen 1.85:1; “Death by Invitation” Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16×9: Yes

Oh what a difference a decade can make.  The 1960s may have a lot of great movies, but there is a reason the 1970s are considered the golden age of film.  The two movies from Vinegar Syndrome’s latest Drive-In Collection may not be the best two films to make the argument, but they certainly help drive home the point.  Kicking things off is “The Dungeon of Harrow,” the 1962 directorial debut from San Antonio, Texas native Pat Boyette.  The story, written by Boyette and Henry Garcia, kicks off with some effects that would make Ed Wood smile.  A boat shipwrecks on an island that seems to be uninhabited.  As survivors Count Aaron Fallon (Russ Harvey) and The Captain (Lee Morgan) explore, they stumble across Count Lorente de Sade’s (William McNulty) castle.  It quickly becomes evident that de Sade isn’t fond of visitors.  While Fallon ends up meeting Cassandra (Helen Hogan) and dealing with de Sade’s odd quips and quirks, The Captain is taken down to the dungeon and tortured by Lorente and his assistant/slave Mantis (Maurice Harris).  Both castaways are prisoners, but Fallon’s extra slack allows him to learn more about the island and gives him plenty of incentive to try and escape.

“The Dungeon of Harrow” is slow.  Really slow.  Even though it hails from the 1960s, it has more in common with a 1950s type of action/pirate movie.  There are plenty of moments where banter between the characters seems to drift away from the horror aspect and into more of a melodrama.  Since this tends to dominate the runtime, the finer points of “The Dungeon of Harrow” get lost in the shuffle.  Perhaps the most criminally underused character is Mantis.  He looks like he is dressed up as Santa Claus on a 1960s summer vacation.  Maurice Harris also brings a personal touch to his role, which is welcome due to the theatrical nature of the other players onscreen.  “The Dungeon of Harrow” starts out with a fun, cheap horror vibe and ends strong, but the stretches of conversation in between these moments are going to have genre fans looking at the clock in anticipation of the second feature on this DVD.

Moving on to the lunacy of “Death by Invitation” was a welcome change.  “The Dungeon of Harrow” ended with just enough of a spark to embrace Ken Friedman’s 1971 feature with open arms and a hunger for some horror.  After a credit sequence with a witch being persecuted by the townsfolk, the story jumps to present day.  The focus is on an odd family that looks very similar to some of the witch hunters in the opening scene.  Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips) is a heavy drinking, pious father whose poor chess playing skills may or may not be a result of his lazy eye.  The wife of this successful businessman is Naomi (Sarnell Ogus).  They host a dinner with their children Roger (Denver John Collins), Michael (Bruce Brentlinger), Sara (Sylvia Pressler) and Coral (Rhonda Russell).  Coral’s fiancé Jake (Norman Paige) and family friend Lise (Shelby Leverington) also join in.  The dinner is a bit odd, but things take a crazy turn when Roger goes to visit Lise at her place.  This strange woman tells him a story about lesbianesque hunters who provided for the men before killing Roger.  With Roger ‘missing’ and the police convinced he is simply on some drug binge, Lise has a bone to pick with the Vroot family and nothing will get in her way.

“Death by Invitation” isn’t the type of horror movie that will find a constant rotation with other classics in the genre.  Infused with a heavy hand of exploitation, watching this feature for the characters is just as fun as keeping fingers crossed for some fun kills.  The film is odd enough to keep viewers entertained for the fairly short eighty-one minute runtime.  “Death by Invitation” is filled with flaws and plot holes, but most will forgive the shortcomings as they provide some unintended laughs.  If it isn’t the horrible police work or a general lack of social skills, it is Jake and Peter trying to have a conversation in an office while music is playing WAY too loudly.  This ‘witch’ movie also manages to cram a little love triangle into the plot.  “Death by Invitation” is a bit vague with its intentions, but manages to dangle a carrot close enough to keep viewer interest.  It is a crazy flick that would play well as a double feature with Vinegar Syndrome’s “Massage Parlor Murders.” (Review HERE).

Vinegar Syndrome scanned each feature in 2k from the archival film elements for their respective 1.85.1 anamorphic transfers.  Those who watched “Dungeon of Harrow” on previous full frame DVDs will love how Vinegar Syndrome treated the feature.  It still has its fair share of flaws, but colors have more pop and the overall picture quality is much sharper.  Anyone who is familiar with the transition from an old, beat up VHS tape to the clarity DVD provides for the same movie will find this release almost as revelatory.  The look of “Death by Invitation” has just as much stank as Lise gives with her ‘piss off’ attitude.  I mean that in a good way of course.  With some occasional specs and debris popping up on the earthy tones, the feature is filled with detail while still retaining the character of film.  Things look great up front, but background images do get a touch washed out and lose some clarity.  Fans of trashy 1970s cinema will find little to dislike with the overall look of “Death by Invitation.”

Each movie comes with a Dolby Digital Mono track.  Vinegar Syndrome picks out some really obscure movies and even with all of their efforts some features are still going to show their age and have flaws that can’t be overcome.  As with the video quality, “The Dungeon of Harrow” is in worse shape than “Death by Invitation.”  The audio, while always understandable, does come across a bit stifled.  Music is balanced well in both features and they each have some minor sound flaws (pops, hisses, etc.) that are noticeable but not overly distracting.

‘The Hysteria Continues’ Commentary Track is available for “Death by Invitation’ and conducted via a teleconference from three different countries.  Justin Kerswell, author of “The Slasher Movie Book” moderates from the U.K., Eric chimes in from Ireland while Joseph and Nathan join from Tennessee.  This track is a riot and should be listened to regardless of how much/little you enjoyed “Death by Invitation.”  The camaraderie is evident as the guys poke fun at the feature while adding little quips and factoids along the way.  They are honest with their assessments and deliver a true ‘fan’ commentary.  Here’s hoping they pop up more often in future Vinegar Syndrome releases.

Four DVDs into the ‘Drive-In Collection’ and Vinegar Syndrome continues to pluck obscure titles out of film history.  While “The Dungeon of Harrow” may not be the greatest film in the collection, it has some highlights that are worth experiencing.  “Death by Invitation” is an odd, exploitation kissed horror flick that is filled with fun characters and strange situations.  The addition of ‘The Hysteria Continues’ commentary track is an excellent bonus for the DVD.  These guys are filled with laughs and really love genre cinema.  Grab this disc now from Diabolik DVD (LINK) and give it a spin.  It is recommended for fans who like their movies a little rough around the edges.

2 Comments for this entry

  • Linda Harris says:

    I agree with your comment regarding Mantis. Boyette should have unleashed his character a little more… maybe I’m just bias because Mantis is my father. Thanks for your blog!

    Linda Harris

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