The Forgotten Horror Treasures That Never Made It To UK DVD Or Blu-ray…
A farmer finds a mutilated kitty on his land. His scarecrow then comes to life, foaming at the mouth with yellow bile, and kills him with a shovel. Teens bicker in a car. A trio of overweight ghouls plot in the shadows. The teens track a pair of mysterious blue lights in the woods. They find a frozen creature in the ground called the ‘Maldoon Man.’ The creature disappears and the cop doesn’t believe their story.
The brief description above covers the opening scenes of Curse of the Blue Lights (1988), a fun little monster-mash movie from the late 80s that garnered a rabid cult following. It was released on VHS in 1990, dazzling all manner of monster fans and stoners alike before disappearing, never to be seen again.
Of the hundreds of horror movies released on DVD and Blu-ray in the last couple of decades, Curse of the Blue Lights – along with dozens of other morbid curios – have been unfairly overlooked. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the most glaring omissions on the shiny disc front. But first let’s take a closer look at Curse…
The teens enter a graveyard mausoleum and discover that a human corpse is being dissolved with acid by the overweight ghouls seen earlier. They’re trying to resurrect the Maldoon creature. The kids are spotted and chased out of the graveyard. Things then become even weirder when a coin taken from the creature’s chest begins to affect the environment, causing objects to levitate. Meanwhile, back in the mausoleum chamber, one of the captured teens is transformed into a snake. The kids take the coin to a witch. She crumbles to her knees at the sight of it. She tells them that the coin is very dangerous as it contains an evil from a dark netherworld. The kids are then picked off, one by one, by the ghouls and their spectral minions while the witch concocts a magic potion in her cauldron which the remaining kids use to battle against a horde of zombies, the Maldoon Man and the fat ghouls…
Heavily inspired by Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) and EC comics, Curse of the Blue Lights is a low-budget horror weirdy which – despite its obvious flaws – is a fun little movie to watch on a dark evening. It has enough green-headed ghouls, macabre reanimated corpses and mystical weirdness to keep viewers enthralled for 95 minutes. Things fall apart a little in the third act as the narrative sort of tumbles out of control, but it remains far more engaging than the usual 80s video trash. And as for the significance of the mysterious blue lights and the killer scarecrow? Who the fuck knows.
When it comes to re-issuing films on DVD, there can be many obstacles to clear before the discs can see the light of day. If it’s a studio film, the executives may feel that the market isn’t strong enough to warrant the hassle of re-mastering the print transfer and assembling the bonus feature content. For small independent films, sometimes the copyright holders are very difficult to track down. Many video classics were only ever released on DVD when the disc companies themselves put their obsessions to the test, searching hell and high water to locate uncut prints and the rights owners. If it wasn’t for the efforts of people like Barrel Entertainment’s John Szpunar, Something Weird Video’s Frank Henenlotter and Blue Underground’s William Lustig, many of today’s easily-accessible classics – such as Last House on Dead End Street (1977) – would still be shrouded in mystery and considered lost.
The problems of rescuing obscure gems from the VHS dungeon can also be down to legal wrangling, copyright disputes, damaged or lost source prints, the unavailability of definitive, uncut materials, and black market bootleg copies lifted from murky VHS tapes or battered old theatre prints cornering what is left of the slim market.
Another problem is bad marketing, which caused the death knell of Surf II (1984). Promoted as a typical beach party movie, Surf II is actually a superb little zombie flick which more or less bypassed its rightful audience thanks to a dreadful trailer which placed all emphasis on the bikinis and surf bums while completely ignoring the film’s strongest asset: Zombie punks!
The plot of Surf II sees the zombie punk infection spreading through a beach party after a vengeful chemistry nerd (Grease’s Eddie Deezen) contaminates the Buzz cola drinks. Before you know it, the revellers are scoffing down garbage, rioting, and have somehow grown multi-coloured mohawks and are suddenly clad in spikes and pins and leather. It’s the kind of film that defies all synopsis’ and criticism, but if you enjoyed Street Trash (1987), then chances are you’ll enjoy this, too. The video cover sums it up best: “Menlo Schwartzer – the geekiest mad scientist of all – wants to rid the world of surfers by transforming them into garbage-ingesting zombie punks! But no way dude can he stop their most awesome party!”
Another timeless classic shamefully absent on DVD is The Rejuvenator (1988), about a scientist in the closing stages of perfecting a youth-preserving agent. This meticulous man of medicine is pressured by his financial backer – an ageing actress desperate to get back into the limelight – to rush through his research and bring immediate results… The serum is administered intravenously and seems to be a success at first. However, there is also the undesired side-effect of an acceleration of the ageing process once the dosage has worn off. Thus, the user must be continuously dosed up like a junky to avoid becoming an ugly, putrefied Andrew Lloyd Webber lookalike… The Rejuvinator has its roots in the ‘mad scientist’ movie, but here the doctor is the sanest, most level-headed character in the film. Instead, it’s the madness of our youth-obsessed, brain dead vanity culture that hijacks scientific research for a short, sharp fix, with disastrous results. An underrated curio.
With Headhunter (1988), the monster movie reverts to more conventional territory. In this routine police procedural creature feature, a detective whose wife has become a “muff diver” investigates a series of brutal voodoo beheadings among the Nigerian community of Miami. The detective (Wayne Crawford) and his colleague Katherine (Kay Lenz) put their own heads on the line in their attempts to track down the culprit, which turns out to be an overgrown, hideous-sun-demon-with-a-
In the Australian shocker, Cassandra (1986), Tessa Humphries plays the title character, a girl plagued by recurring dreams of a shotgun suicide of someone she knew. She suspects the dreams are actually repressed childhood memories of some atrocity she witnessed, but she just can’t remember exactly what it was. Her parents aren’t very helpful, and they suspiciously do all they can to convince her that her experiences are nothing more than random nightmares. However, when a killer shows up bloodily dispatching a few locals, Cassandra is convinced that she shares psychic links with the maniac… This tense, atmospheric oddity is part mystery, part supernatural chiller, and part slasher movie that boasts superb roving, Sam Raimi-esque camera work that glides menacingly over the hills, and an outstanding, creepy-as-hell synth score. The film owes a debt to other psychic link killer movies, such as Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), Mind Over Murder (1979), and the bloody awful Blood Song (1982). Tessa Humphries is actually Dame Edna’s daughter! Luckily for her, there’s no family resemblance.
Humphries returned again for another Eyes of Laura Mars-inspired psychic killer movie, Out of the Body (1989). This one was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, who also co-wrote Cassandra. After a spate of killings in which the victim’s eyeballs are removed, musician David Gaze believes he may share psychic links with the lunatic who commits his deadly deeds via astral projection. His attempts to inform the police of the killer’s plans and his warnings to future victims leaves him labelled as both a weirdo and prime suspect. However, as the killings continue and Gaze’s ‘predictions’ are proven correct, he feels he has no alternative but to track down the killer himself. Out of the Body is a decently made film, but anyone familiar with the titles mentioned above will know exactly how the narrative will pan out within the first ten minutes. On the plus side, the film does have a nice giallo feel to it, sharing links with Dario Argento’s Deep Red (1975) and Lamberto Bava’s A Blade in the Dark (1983), films in which musicians are drawn into solving murder mysteries.
For an even stranger twist on a similar theme, check out Spasms (1983), in which Oliver Reed shares psychic links with a demonic killer snake. Western anthropologists argue over whether or not to destroy a demonic serpent that was summoned by African tribesmen. Millionaire Reed wants to keep it alive for research purposes, while Reed’s wife and psychologist Peter Fonda set out to destroy it before any more people are killed. Of course, Satanic forces are also at work, and after a spate of Omen-inspired fatal ‘accidents,’ the demon escapes and rampages through the city. Meanwhile, a group of Satanists also want to be in possession of ‘the great serpent’ for their own sinister purposes. Spasms is an enjoyable, if disastrous, production which ran out of money before many of the key sequences were shot. The filmmakers had to make do with padding things out with extraneous footage and outtakes. Had the film been completed in its intended form we may have had a minor gem on our hands. But as it stands, it often gets branded with ‘worst movie ever’ stigma on IMDb. It certainly isn’t the worst. Nowhere near the worst. Only today I watched Slash Dance, and that’s a hell of a lot worse than this, believe me.
One of the most sorely missed titles on DVD/Blu-Ray is Marc B. Ray’s Scream Bloody Murder (1972). The film starts with a prologue in which a young boy, Matthew, runs a bulldozer over his father, killing him. He then falls from the seat and has his hand crushed beyond repair in the vehicle treads. Ten years later, and Matthew returns home from a mental institution with a hook in place of his mashed up hand. But his Oedipal rage starts anew when he discovers that his mother is now remarried.
Matthew murders his mamma’s new hubby with an axe, and when mother intervenes, he throws her to the ground, and she bashes her head on a rock and dies (presumably). Matthew flees home and hits the road accepting a lift from a young couple. He hallucinates that the girl is his mother – hallucinations which continue to torment him throughout the film – and of course, he ends up killing them too. The movie continues to follow Matthew on his murderous journey; an artist/prostitute, a sailor, housemaid, a pet dog, an elderly woman, a house caller – Everybody gets it. The plot steers into other areas in the second half, exploring kidnap, mental abuse, and sexual intimidation.
Scream Bloody Murder is a pleasingly nasty and violent little film considering it was made in 1972, and I’m surprised it doesn’t have a much larger cult following. There’s lots of gruesome death scenes filmed with trippy wide-angle lenses and hosts a tense, downbeat ending, making it top-of-the-range exploitation. Matthew isn’t a glamorised and unstoppable killing-machine like Freddy, Michael, or Jason; he’s a pathetic, single-minded mamma’s boy who deflects all of his own problems onto others (like many real life killers). And it’s these lurid qualities that make the film all the more interesting to watch, as far as I’m concerned.
The UK video version loses a small cut during the axe murder scene, and is also trimmed of the aftermath of the pet dog getting butchered with a meat cleaver. The American video version is fully uncut. Scream Bloody Murder has been bootlegged on disc, and you can find it on cheap horror movie box sets in an awful-looking, murky transfer. This film is in desperate need of a proper DVD release, so until then, happy hunting.
In Deadly Game (1991), we get a maniac of a more cunning variety, as a vengeful millionaire by the name of Cyrus invites a disparate group of characters to his private island – a Japanese yakuza, a businessman, a Vietnam veteran, etc – and lets them loose on his land while hunting them down with armed henchmen and a pack of bloodhounds. The victims try to work out why they are being targeted this way, and gradually piece together the things they have in common. Turns out that each character committed a deadly act against Cyrus in their pasts; Jack stole a car and crashed it, killing his reluctant passengers; Peterson committed atrocities in Vietnam, and left a fellow soldier burning to death; and Dr. Harrand (Fright Night’s Roddy McDowell) failed to restore Cyrus’ burnt face. Deadly Game is a little seen but excellent TV movie which is basically a modern-day update of the RKO classic, The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Fans of Dr. Phibes and Battle Royale should lap it up.
Another neglected TV movie is Ted Post’s Night Slaves (1970), in which James Franciscus deals with sinister body snatchers. After recovering from a near-fatal car accident, Franciscus moves with his wife to a – literally – sleepy town where the locals are constantly yawning and nodding off. After a bit of sleuthing, he discovers that the town is surrounded by an invisible force field, a solid shell that makes it impossible for anyone to leave. Turns out that a ‘psychokinetic’ race of space aliens, disguised in human form, have colonised the town, enslaving the locals in nocturnal hard labour. To make matters worse, the populace don’t seem to mind their exploitation, and they walk around espousing their mindless, stupidly proud, self-congratulatory work ethic of being unthinking drones (Jeez, sound familiar?). Night Slaves is an interesting little TV movie which is perfect for watching in bed while in a drowsy state of mind. There seems to be a conservative stance here about the perceived dangers of trade unions and organised labour, in keeping with the commie witch-hunt subtext of this film’s biggest inspiration, Don Siegels’ classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955).
By Bert I. Gordon’s usual shoddy standards, Burned at the Stake (aka The Coming, 1981) is not a bad movie at all, despite the fact that no witches were ever burned at Salem. After a prologue set during the height of the witch trials in 1692, we cut to modern-day Salem where a morbid teenage girl – who looks a lot like one of the accusers in the prologue – is harassed by the ghostly father of an accused woman. And the girl, who could be the reincarnation of the accuser, is captured and somehow hypnotised into committing evil deeds…
Burned At the Stake is different from the usual witch-themed movies of its time due its twisted psychological angle. According to this film, it wasn’t necessarily superstition that was to blame for the tortures and executions of those times, but rather malicious accusations that got out of hand. The bureaucracy of the Church-sanctioned laws were exploited by deviant folks with petty grievances, and the authorities had no choice but to act on the accusations as instructed in the law books. That’s not to say that those holding the trials were entirely reasonable or logical; while one man pleads his innocence while heavy boulders are crushing his chest, the man conducting the torture says, “If you were innocent, why would God allow you to be treated in this way?” Chilling. How can you argue with such lop-sided thinking? Such twisted ‘logic’ runs through many witch-themed movies, such as Witchfinder General (1968), Mark of the Devil (1969), The Bloody Judge (1970) and Superstition (1980). Bert I. Gordon, known affectionately as the ‘Notorious B.I.G.’ to his fans, may not have been the greatest filmmaker around, but when he had interesting material to work with, the results were often quite enjoyable.
Now here’s a weird one, Demon Wind (1990), a visually interesting demon movie with lacklustre performances, scant dialogue and wonky character interactions. A young man, Corey, and his girlfriend visit a house in the middle of nowhere to look for clues concerning his parent’s mysterious deaths. They are accompanied by their friends, a bunch of self-regarding piss-weasels. They arrive at the desecrated house, despite being warned not to go there by the local cafe owner, and immediately stumble upon the skeletal remains of murder victims. And, before you can say ‘Evil Dead,’ a character reads aloud an incantation scrawled on the wall, and the place erupts into chaos as a demonic force sends the clutter flying across the room. And as they try to flee, a sinister mist pursues them and drops off demonic little girls to terrorise them. And then things just get weirder…
Demon Wind is a little-seen effort that was released directly to VHS and has never seen the light of day on DVD. It includes possessions, deadite-like creatures and other allusions to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1983). From the outside, the house the characters visit looks like a single-storey, free-standing wall with a doorway surrounded by desecrated ruins. However, inside it looks like a full-sized house with an upstairs and bedrooms and everything. The main protagonist, Corey, is a dull, humourless oaf, but this is an entertaining and bloody little flick that really ought to be picked up and released on DVD some day. Also, there is a magician character called Chuck who takes out deadites by decapitating them with spinning roundhouse kicks – It was driving me nuts trying to think of where I had seen him before, and of course, he’s the ‘Fight Professor’ himself, Stephen Quadros, perhaps best known for his entertaining commentaries for the Pride Fighting Championship!
Haunts of the Very Rich (1972) – based on a story by T.K. Brown – sees wealthy passengers on a luxury airliner travelling to a mysterious destination called Portals of Eden. They arrive at the tropical paradise and are greeted by Seacrist (Moses Gunn), a white-suited black man who serves as their tour guide. The passengers argue about where they are; some reckon Central America, others the Caribbean. They stay in a grand, opulent hotel, where they’re free to pamper themselves and enjoy their luxurious surroundings. However, the characters soon begin to question the reality of their environment while the lecherous millionaire, David Woodrough (Lloyd Bridges) tries to sleaze his dick into every female he meets, even when he knows they’re married. A thunderstorm cuts off the electricity, which means no phones, no TV, and no air conditioning. Food supplies are also running low. And their tropical paradise slowly darkens into a hellish nightmare as they realise they could all be dead…
It’s a real shame that this film is only available nowadays in horrid-looking bootleg copies that were obviously recorded from television and ripped from an old, worn-out video cassette. It’s one of the best ABC ‘movies of the week,’ from a series of TV movies which ran from 1969 to 1976, delivering such classics as Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Death At Love House (1976) and Trilogy of Terror (1975). Frustratingly, ABC seem very reluctant to delve into their archives as only a very few of their titles have ever made it onto disc.
Eyes of Fire (1983) is set near the American frontier in 1750. A preacher is persecuted from his town for polygamy and witchcraft, so he escapes with his children to a remote forest deep in French colonial territory. After surviving out in the wilderness for months, they find themselves at battle with an evil spirit that dwells among the trees. Eyes of Fire is a beautiful, absorbing period fantasy that has been unfairly overlooked for years. It isn’t a particularly scary movie, but it balances wonderful flights of fancy with grim period details, producing magic and menace at every turn. Highly recommended. Apparently, the film was issued on DVD in Brazil in 2005 from a company called Works Editora, but is impossible to find.
Seven in Darkness (1969) is another rip-roaring ABC movie of the week. A group of blind folks on a plane heading for a convention crash land in a stormy wilderness and have to make their way back to civilization. Not only do they have to navigate the hostile terrain, but they are also being picked off by a pack of wolves. This film is absolutely riveting for all the wrong reasons; we have blind people tapping around with their sticks, slipping and rolling down hills, walking into trees and falling through the gaps on railroad bridges. It’s played completely straight but feels like a politically incorrect slapstick comedy. I’m surprised it doesn’t have more of a cult following among fans of wrong-headed cinema. Maybe it would have if more people actually saw it.
Trapped (1973) is a TV movie by Universal, starring James Brolin as an innocent man who is mugged and beaten unconscious by two men in the toilets of a department store. When he awakens in the middle of the night, he discovers that the security guards have unleashed a pack of killer dogs to roam free throughout the store. So Brolin spends the rest of the night trying to keep the feeding frenzy away from his protein-packed genitals. Trapped is a fun but little-seen movie that would make for a great double-bill with Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall (1986). As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t been released on DVD, but catch it if you can. Also check out another TV movie of the same name, Fred Walton’s Trapped (1989), in which Kathleen Quinlan is locked overnight in her work place, and is pursued through 40 floors of bland office space by a knife – and bat – wielding nut job.
TV movies like Trilogy of Terror (1975), Bad Ronald (1974) and the eerie Crawlspace (1972) have all been issued on disc and snapped up by fans eager to re-live their childhood nightmares. Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell (1978) was even issued as a double-disc special edition. However, the more obscure titles – many of which are just as good, if not better than the ones mentioned above – are left to rot in television vaults. Wheels of Terror (1990) is a great example of a neglected film, an open love letter to terror and suspense as a filthy black Sudan is driven around the desert roads of Arizona, and its driver is abducting and murdering young girls. And when school bus driver, Joanna Cassidy, witnesses her own daughter taken, she pursues the vehicle along a lonely stretch of road. Like the villain in Duel, viewers never get to see the driver. He enjoys toying with his victims, and the car is seemingly indestructible and demonic, just like the sinister vehicle in The Car (1977). This is miles ahead of other similarly-themed TV movies like Road Rage (1999) and Death Car on the Freeway (1979).
Last up is The Tower (1993), a gripping ‘technology-run-amok’ movie which pits an innocent man against the might of a deadly artificial intelligence. The Intercorp Tower is a hi-tech building with a Hal-9000-like central computer in charge of everything from making the coffee, watering the plants and ‘deleting’ those who breach the security parameters. And when new employee, Paul Reiser, makes a few fuck-ups on his first day on the job, the system deems him eligible for termination. The Tower is a remake of the 1985 Canadian movie of the same title. This film addresses the dangers of faceless corporate monstrosities (and shares ideas with similarly-themed movies like Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and Cube (1997)). The film has much to say on the ant-like humans who contribute to the development of ice-cold, inhuman technologies that have a monopoly on life and death, creating a runaway menace in which no one is in control. Fun little film. Ironically, the age of the digital disc has left this gem stranded in early 90s video hell.
Words: Phil Russell