House of Death 1981
aka Death Screams
Directed by: David Nelson
Starring: Susan Kiger, Martin Tucker, William T. Hicks
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
If you had to choose a year to release a slasher during the peak period, you’d have gone with1981. The cinemas were packed with horror hungry youngsters who still had the taste for an alternative to Halloween and Friday the 13th and there were only very few attempts that weren’t profitable during those twelve-months. I think any production team with a plan would’ve aimed to have their title get a run at the drive-in market then if possible, but that’s where House of Death was a bit unlucky. Finished and ready for release by April ’81, the film sat on the shelf for a while and only spent a month at the theaters the following year before being pulled yet again. It eventually snuck out on VHS under a different title in 1987.
Directed by David Nelson (former teen idol Ricky’s younger brother), House is a little-seen sleeper that has grown on me since I first saw it many years back. The title brings to mind a plot setting similar to Evil Laugh or House by the Cemetery, but funnily enough the actual ‘house of death’ isn’t featured until the last fifteen minutes. It was initially released as Death Screams, which is a far more suitable name and I think that the people responsible for the latter video distribution chose anything just to get it out on the market. In fact, calling it, ‘Carnival of Death’, would have been far more suitable, but we’ll get to that later on…
A group of youngsters are all preparing for the annual carnival that’s coming to town. After they attend, the fun loving gang decide that a night of telling ghost stories in the cemetery is in order and they make plans to meet there later that night. However as darkness shrouds the peaceful town it becomes apparent that they will not be alone. A psychopathic killer with a very large machete seems like he has his own idea for a party…
I really liked the local community environment that hosts the plot for House of Death. It’s rural filmmaking from a celebrity director and it does well to portray the close-knit relationships of its personnel. Our final girl’s grandmother is a cranky elder who judges potential boyfriends for said heroine by the previous antics of their parents, or sometimes grandparents, whom she knows so well from the gossip of her neighbors. Such a small town setting seems alien nowadays and it is used to good effect to develop the story. The heroine in question is played by ex-Playboy playmate and porn star Susan Kiger and she shows some real charm with her portrayal. Obviously borrowing the virginal innocence from a certain Laurie Strode, she delivers the ‘babe in the woods’ routine very well and was the cream of a group of extremely beautiful female members. The lovely Jennifer Chase as Ramona also ups the eye candy factor.
David Nelson delivers a spooky atmosphere at times and shows some innovative flourishes with his direction. The scenes in the forest, which were beautifully captured with skilful cinematography from Darrell Cathcart (who also worked on Final Exam), were superb and helped to set an ominous tone. Most of the energy is unleashed during the final ten minutes in the ‘horror house’ and a frantic score, a few chaotic slaughters and some genuine tension combine surprisingly well. We were also treated to one or two tacky gore effects that were memorable, if not technically much better than bargain bucket fun. One guy gets both of his hands cut off by the machete-wielding maniac and there’s a brief shot of an exploding head. All the other clichés are present and correct, including the fat big mac sheriff, jovial teens, the notorious ‘false cat scare’ and plenty of nudity (even full frontal) from the cast. There’s a role reversal on the classic shower scene with a guy getting stalked instead of the traditional naked chica.
In terms of cheese, we get a jaw-droopingly OTT credit sequence, which sees an epic, overwhelming and emotional operatic piece played over a collage of two corpses floating down a stream. You really have to see/hear it to believe it’s true. The screenwriter has a knack for hilarious dialogue, with most of it coming courtesy of Grandma Carpenter (the final girl is Lilly Carpenter – an obvious tribute to John), whose grouchy negativity leads to lines like, “If brains were TNT he couldn’t muster a good fart!”
Indeed there is a lot here to like, but the movie never touches on being one of the better period slasher flicks, due to some serious plot and momentum issues. There’s a double murder in the first five minutes and then it takes nearly an hour for the killer to reappear. In between, everything is padded out with leisurely paced festival footage, which is made up of poorly structured character building and nonsensical chatter. It’s not as bad as what we saw in Blood Lake, because the actors here are likeable, but I think there was maybe fifteen to twenty-minutes too much talky stuff and they should’ve added a bit more action. It is also badly cropped and pathetically edited to the point that most of the good stuff is barely visible. For example, during the pre credits sequence, two teens get killed whilst they’re trying to achieve a joint orgasm at the same time as a milk train passes above them (!) The problem is, after three viewings, I still cannot make out how they died. Were they stabbed? Strangled? You tell me. It’s not just that murder that’s badly framed either. The majority of them seem too dark or unfocused, which makes no sense because the lighting and especially photography in other places is brilliant.
There’s also one hell of a mix-up during the unmasking scene. Now it is pretty obvious who the unseen killer turns out to be, but it’s a bit of a muddle in the way it’s conveyed. I mean, it’s inadequately delivered, with only a minimal explanation and it could have done with more clarification. It doesn’t help that the actor is dressed in a hat when finally shown on screen, which makes it extremely hard to recognise him as someone that we have even seen previously. I counted a number of sub plots that sprouted, but never really went anywhere and were left unresolved. We find out that the lard ass law enforcer’s son was killed, but we never learn the full details of his demise. There’s also the building of a possible suspect with Lilly’s unknown father, but that’s never followed through to a satisfactory conclusion. Chuck on top of that the fact that House of Death plays host to the dumbest ever slasher murder that I can recollect. It involves an injured young girl fleeing a people-packed carnival to an abandoned carousel, where she’s killed by the unknown figure placing a plastic bag over her head…???
It’s a shame that they couldn’t have ironed out those minor problems, but it’s still quite enjoyable for a SLASH above readers. The final few minutes are no less than outstanding and as I alluded to earlier there are some gorgeous shots and a lovely leading lady. Give us a director’s cut with less carnival chatter and longer and clearer shots of the murders and I’ll add it to my top 25, but as is, it just about makes the final 50.
Final Girl: √√√