There used to be a thing called regional cinema in the U.S. Hell, there used to be a thing called independent cinema. And independent theaters, which would play these regional independent movies. So for a time between the ’50s and the mid-’80s, self-made moguls throughout the country would set-up their own little production companies, and actually crank out movies.
Since these were generally commercial rather than artistic endeavors, exploitation genres were the primary output, particularly horror films. Some of these became famous and lead to cinematic legacies: Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Evil Dead. But there were a lot more Death Screams than Evil Deads: competently shot but unexciting horror programmers aping the horror trends of the day.
Death Screams was shot in the early ’80s, so it is, of course, a slasher movie. The slasher template was a God-send to the low-budget filmmaker. There’s nothing supernatural about it, and unless you’re hiring Tom Savini, you’re probably not going to get too elaborate with the special effects needs. Just big knives, blood, and breasts, and you’ve got yourself a movie.
Death Screams opens with one of those, as a couple is rather uncomfortably making out on the back of a motorcycle. They get strangled. Both at the same time, which is improbable but shot so confusingly that it doesn’t matter. Then their bodies are thrown in the river, and float down away from town. This missing couple form the crux of a very thin plot, where the corpulent local sheriff is trying to find them.
While that goes on, local teens (all in their mid-20s at the youngest) are engaged in teenage shenanigans, since the carnival has come into town, and they’re all leaving for college. Death Screams doesn’t reach the 90-minute mark, and nearly 25 of them are spent at this damned carnival. This is where we get to spend time with our characters, such as they are. In the group of kids, we have the clown, the slut… and four other “characters” who probably have names. They all really want to impress the high school baseball coach, who is somehow the most eligible bachelor in town. But he only has eyes for Lily, who takes care of her ailing grandmother. She’s played by Playboy Centerfold Susan Kiger. You’ll know that because the movie poster calls her “Playboy Centerfold Susan Kiger.” She’s also one of the girls who doesn’t strip down for the camera.
It’s a large cast since the killer needs a lot of victims, and because the film is also halfheartedly attempting a spin on Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians, where everyone is a suspect as well as potential victim. I know that more from watching an interview with the writer than the film itself. The story is never quite coherent enough, and none of the character motivations clear enough to work as a mystery. There are no clues, just red herrings, and even those don’t feel like misdirects so much as wastes of time.
The last half hour of the film contains most of the killing, and some of it is okay. Dismemberment is the major M.O. here. A woman being chopped in half after falling down a rotting staircase is the most effective, while a guy losing both hands in a single chop is unintentionally hilarious. And even when the killing in the film is ludicrous, it’s often shot in an effective manner. One woman is strangled by a plastic bag while riding on a merry-go-round after having been shot with an arrow (yes, this occurs.) It’s shot in an oddly dream-like fashion so that it takes on a kind of surreal frisson. And there is the floating corpses down the river, which get discovered in a truly creepy fashion by an unsuspecting skinny dipper, who soon joins them bobbing on the water.
Death Screams is not a good film. It’s mostly in focus, lit well enough to see what’s going on and has some atmosphere. The soundtrack is mostly wrong-headed, but the fun of the movie beyond the horror parts is the regional aspect. The film was made in North Carolina in the early ’80s and it looks like a different world. The way people are dressed, the carnival rides, and the outdoor locations genuinely don’t look like Southern California or Vancouver, where way too much of modern movie-making takes place. It gives the film a special flavor that a “shot on sound stages” horror movie might lack.
Death Screams is for aficionados only. It’s obscure (I have a few horror movie encyclopedias, even one just on slasher movies, and it doesn’t have an entry in any of them) and for long stretches quite dull. But there’s a few fun parts for fans of the little movies.
Death Screams has been released by Arrow Video on Blu-ray. Extras include a pair of commentaries on the disc, one by producer Charles Ison and special effects artist Worth Keeter moderated by filmmaker Phil Smoot, and another by The Hysteria Continues. Video extras include “All the Fun of the Scare: The Making of Death Screams” (33 min) a newly-produced making-of documentary, and “House of Death Alternate VHS Opening Titles” (6 min), opening titles for an alternatively titled release of the film. There’s also TV and radio spots and image galleries. Two versions of the screenplay are available on the disc as BD-rom content. The included booklet contains an informative essay about the studio that produced the film by Brian Albright.