Not that long ago the video store was a mundane and sometimes obnoxious part of life; driving over to some lonesome strip mall with your friends or family to comb through the all-too-often disorganized shelves of your local shop, argue over a selection, and then be stuck with it, for good or ill. Yet, it was also sublime. And for those who lived during the true video boom, video stores also equate to another bygone commodity: VHS. When JVC’s Video Home System won the early-80’s format war, the motion picture market changed forever. The genre and B-movies that had previously filled drive-ins across the country now often went straight to VHS. Then DVD took the world by storm in the late-90’s. It was a brave new world, and sadly, many films never made the leap, trapped now on a dead format. These often aren’t “good” films, but goddammit, they were what made video stores great. For we here at CHUD are the kind of people who tended to skip over the main stream titles, our eyes settling on some bizarre, tantalizing cover for a film we’d never even heard of, entranced. These films are what VHS was all about.
Some people are still keeping the VHS flame burning. People like my buddy Michael Monterastelli, whose Facebook page Collecting VHS is a glorious showcase for the lost charms of VHS box artwork. His passion for VHS is such that I thought it would be fun to talk him into sharing his vast collection with us. My only rule for him? The movies can’t be available on DVD.
Take it away, Mike!
Title: House of Death (aka Death Screams)
Tagline: He wants their bodies… in pieces.
Released by: Virgin Vision
Director: David Nelson
Plot: A group of teenagers in a small town decide to celebrate the end of their summer together by hanging out at the carnival, building a bonfire by the lake and partying in an abandoned house by the cemetery.
Unfortunately, a mysterious machete-wielding killer is on the loose and starts picking them all off one-by-one. But, who could be doing this and why?
Thoughts: I consider myself to be quite the connoisseur of slasher films from the eighties. I’ve seen almost every single one that I can think of, but every so often I’ll run across a title that even I have never heard of before. I bought House of Death for two bucks a few months back at a video store in the Valley that was selling off all of its VHS stock. It was released in 1982 along with a million other slashers and somehow this one got lost in the shuffle for me. But, the beautiful thing about dusting off one of these old exploitation flicks in the present is that, much like a vintage wine, it sometimes gets better with age.
The opening scene features a teenage couple having sex on a motorcycle parked underneath a set of train tracks. The guy wants to make the girl climax right as the train passes overhead, but instead both teens are choked to death with barbed wire and thrown into the nearby lake by a mysterious unseen killer.
The next hour of the film is spent introducing a group of four teenaged couples (that are played by actors in their thirties), whom all want to celebrate their last summer together with a night of wild partying. They hang out at a carnival for the day and then decide to make a bonfire by the lake at night. They even invite their old high school coach, Neil Marshall to join in on the fun. Not much happens for a long while until a girl gets shot with an arrow while wandering off alone and then she has her throat slit on a merry-go-round.
The kids party hard at the campfire by drinking, smoking pot and having sex. A hot blonde wanders off to go skinny-dipping and ends up with her throat slit, but nobody notices. Soon, they wander into the old cemetery to tell ghost stories. An amazing tale is told by one of the female characters concluding with the quote, “Maniacs lick hands, too!” Then it starts to rain and the group must seek shelter inside an old abandoned building.
At this point there’s about twenty minutes left in the movie and there’s only been a couple murders so far. So, this is where the filmmakers kick it into high gear and start murdering off one useless character after another. In a matter of minutes, a guy and a girl are beheaded, another guy gets his hands chopped off and the town slut gets split in two.
Throughout the entire film a red herring is bandied about as the possible killer being a retarded man-child named Casey. It turns out the killer is actually Coach Neil Marshall and it’s all because of a childhood trauma involving his stripper/mother. We are provided this info with a very brief flashback. The Coach’s murder spree is finally stopped when he is pushed through a window and gets his head blown off by the fat red neck sheriff waiting for him down below. When asked by the survivor girl, “Why?” the answer is a flat, “I don’t know.”
This movie is not great, but it has its moments. The acting is across the board bad, but the girls are really attractive and there’s quite a bit of nudity. Also, the music by Dee Barton is actually very good for a cheap horror movie and accentuates a lot of tense moments. There’s also some nice misty atmospheric stuff happening at the cemetery in the woods where the final showdown happens.
The film works almost like a self-parody of the genre now, kind of like Eli Roth’s brilliant Thanksgiving trailer, only House of Death is from the actual era and it’s played totally straight. This is a great one to pop in the old VCR on a late and stormy night with your significant other pressed closely to you or even with a group of drunken friends. Either way, it’s good, dumb old-fashioned fun.