Severin Films 'House' Double Feature (US - BD RA)
Gabe has a belated review of House on Straw Hill and House of Seven Corpses...
House on Straw Hill
A disturbed novelist named Paul Martin (Udo Kier) secludes himself and his posh girlfriend, Suzanne (Fiona Richmond), in a quaint cottage on the British countryside so, that he can focus on writing his latest book. Paul hires a sultry secretary named Fiona (Linda Hayden) to type the novel for him, but gets more than he bargained for when her presence triggers a nightmare of deviant desires and bloody violence.
Like so many exploitation films, James Kenelm Clarke’s House on Straw Hill is less famous for its actual content than it is for the censors’ reaction to that content. It rose to prominence among horror fans due to its relative rarity and its place on the BBFC’s ‘video nasties’ list in the early ‘80s (the only British film on the list). The title, House on Straw Hill chosen in part by distributors to evoke Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left and Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, both pictures that stumbled into high profile controversy with their scenes of brutal sexual violence (for the record, Kier’s character does refer to the cottage as ‘the house on Straw Hill’ one time). It doesn’t fit the material as well as the alternate title, Exposé, but helped the film find its way onto the horror market, where it flourished about as much as can be expected from a cheapo UK exploitation production. The problem with the designation is that it mistakenly establishes House on Straw Hill as a horror film when it’s really more of a dark, softcore skin-flick with semi-experimental arthouse ambitions, in the vein of Jesus Franco or Just Jaeckin. In fact, the film’s UK advertising was built almost exclusively around actress and sex-symbol Fiona Richmond, who rose to fame in the ‘70s writing a sex column in Men Only Magazine.
The film begins by establishing a creepy, dark mood. Clarke shoots everyday mundanities like a haunted house movie, leading into the first weirdo sex scene between Kier and Richmond. The usual hip-gyrating and moaning is underscored with a driving piano score and the orgasm is intercut with unrelated scenes of violence that will appear later in the film. This strange mix of banality and gloom is maintained throughout Keir’s lurid dictation and Hayden’s first masturbation scene, culminating in the first truly controversial sequence – the field rape. Hayden takes the time to masturbate once again in a field behind the cottage and, without warning, is attacked by two young men, one armed with a rifle. In the middle of the cruel assault, she promptly kills the assailants, bringing the conflict to an end, and wanders home as if nothing happened. The scene encapsulates the film’s weird commitment to being a catchall exploitation vehicle by interjecting graphic violence into consistently static, psychosexual melodrama. It has no real story significance and seems to have been included for the sake of alternately marketing the film to horror audiences in other territories.
At least that’s what I’ve always told myself. Watching the film again for this review, I realized that the random brutality, though reprehensibly misogynistic, does establish Hayden as more than a garden-variety exploitation nymph – she’s unpredictable and genuinely dangerous. In post-rape scenes it becomes clear that she is the predator, and Kier, who thinks himself seductive, is the delicate flower in the situation. I also noticed that this plays into the fact that Kier’s character is a fake in every aspect of his life – from his writing to the silly S&M games he thinks he’s in charge of. House on Straw Hill is certainly daffy and long-winded, but peppered among its awkward sex scenes, passive aggressive interactions, and flashes of ultra violence is a singular tone that very nearly captures true existential dread. In the end, the film’s greatest weaknesses – its dueling tones and disparate exploitation elements – end up being its greatest strengths, setting it apart from dozens of similar near-porn thrillers. Clarke apparently thought that his script was interesting enough to sustain a more straight-forward thriller format and remade House on Straw Hill in 2010 under the title Stalker.
According to some rumours, House on Straw Hill was originally cut by about 30 minutes. This release reinstates some of the deleted footage, notably from Hayden’s masturbation scene, and takes the long-standing 82-minute runtime up to a still less than epic 84 minutes. I’m personally prepared to consider this the ideal version, but only because I can’t imagine this particular movie being an additional 28 minutes longer.
House on Straw Hill has always been an elusive item on the home video market. There are two heavily censored, very unattractive 1.33:1 UK DVDs from Village Entertainment and Odyssey, an uncut (82 minute) Italian release that is framed at 1.85:1 (in Italian with no subtitles), and, apparently, an uncut Australian DVD (I can’t find any specs on this one). For this new Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack release, Severin is working from original negatives, some of which were reportedly ‘unearthed (from) a barn in rural England and painstakingly restored.’ Overall, this is far and away the best I’ve ever seen the film look. Details are crisper, edges are more well-defined, and gradations are cleaner. The print is constantly fluttering with grain and vertical scratches (two of which never really go away), but Dennis C. Lewiston’s moody photography is finally discernable, even in its darkest moments. The colours are duller than I assume they were on the film’s initial release and there is a greenish and/or bluish tint to everything (a common effect of age and wear) that sullies some of the subtler hues, though flesh tones are relatively natural and reds have a nice punch. The print’s biggest issue is the water damage that the opening title card warns us about. This appears in the form of pulsing discolourations and is sometimes preceded by a big time stamp for a frame or two. According to Severin’s blog, their original transfer was rejected, because attempts to cover the scratches with DNR led to heavy digital artefacts. In my book, print damage is almost always preferable to excessive digital manipulation.
The only audio choice is the original English mono, presented in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 (I believe that this is Severin’s first lossless audio track). The sound matches the video in that it’s better than I’ve heard from previous versions of the film, but still a little muddy, compared to other releases from the period that had workable source material. The track is a bit flat and features some tinny high-end sound effects, but is finally distinguishable where it was previously a bit garbled. The dialogue track is plenty consistent in terms of volume, even Kier’s terribly inappropriate dubbing, with only a couple of pops and crackles during the most heavily damaged sequences. Steve Gray’s mournful keyboard and piano score has never sounded better, either, especially during the scenes where it is the key aural element.
The extras include a commentary track with Clarke and producer Brian Smedley Aston (previously available on Village Entertainment’s DVD), a new interview with Linda Hayden titled An Angel for Satan (including home movies and trailers from her other films, 14:50, SD), and a trailer. The limited edition versions of this release (the first 3,000 copies) also features a DVD copy of David Gregory’s documentary, Ban the Sadist Videos!, in two parts (part one runs 51:30, part two runs 42:20). This was originally released with Anchor Bay UK’s Box of the Banned DVD sets. It doesn’t have the highest production values, but includes a plethora of expert interviews, trailer clips, and footage from vintage news reports on the subject. Highly recommended, along with Jake West’s Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape. The DVD also has a featurette about the BBFC’s more recent activities, entitled Censors Working Overtime (10:50).
House of Seven Corpses
Eight graves. Seven bodies. One killer… and he’s already dead! A B-movie film crew is shooting an occult drama in a sinister manor with a grisly history of family bloodshed. Soon the pretend horror turns real and people start dying horribly.
Unlike House on Straw Hill, House of Seven Corpses is far from a rarity. In fact, if you’re over the age of about 25, you’ve probably already seen parts of and weren’t even aware of it. Writer/director Paul Harrison’s film is one of many copyright-lapsed horror films, including Night of the Living Dead and Horror Express (which Severin released on remastered Blu-ray at the end of 2011) that made the rounds on late night television. It’s the kind of cheesy, but occasionally entertaining genre flick that makes horror fans of viewers at an early age. Harrison was mostly known as a television writer where he found work with child-friendly shows like H.R. Pufnstuf and Doctor Dolittle. House of Seven Corpses was his only theatrical feature as writer or director. This is not a particularly well made film, but at least it doesn’t suffer from a confined, made-for-TV-type look. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t still look extremely cheap – it’s just a more palatably theatrical version of cheap. Harrison pokes fun at his budgetary limits at the beginning of the movie with an excruciatingly goofy film-within-a-film, before opening up his scope to include craning cameras and more dynamic lighting schemes. This stylistic contrast is more blurred during the rest of the run-time, but it helps set a charming, knowingly silly tone that covers for some of the awkward transitions, badly framed shots, and over-lit scenes (for a supposedly spooky movie, there are some really heavy-handed stage lights used – not to mention the dozen times Harrison messes up shooting day for night).
Its copyright-free availability kept House of Seven Corpses in the public eye over the years, but it’s most notable for its cast, specifically western tough-guy icon John Ireland ( Rawhide, Gunsmoke, John Sturges’ Gunfight at the OK Corral, and Sergio Sollima’s Run Man Run), B-Movie scream queen Faith Domergue (Joseph M. Newman’s This Island Earth and Robert Gordon’s It Came From Beneath the Sea), and the man who may have appeared in more movies than any other actor, John Carradine. Horror fans with the patience for the horror-free first hour (it probably would’ve worked better as a part of an anthology) will probably enjoy this one, even when it feels like an Italian horror flick without the requisite gore.
House of Seven Corpses was released on two ‘official’ standalone DVDs from Geneon and Image Entertainment, but I believe it was also made available on a number of super cheap multi-movie packs. These standalone releases are listed as being framed at 1.33:1, instead of the original 1.85:1. Based on the material’s age, I’m going to guess these versions were cropped, not open-matte. Severin’s new 1080p, 1.85:1 Blu-ray more or less matches the precedent set by their Horror Express release – bereft of major compression artefacts and presented in the OAR, but not heavily remastered. This print is a bit dirty with scratches, blobby chemical artefacts, and minor tears, but the only particularly distracting issue is an excess of frame jumps towards the beginning of the movie. Grain levels are even and natural, only rarely fuzzing-out the fine details. Textures and patterns are sharp without any notable haloes or jagged edges. The rich colour qualities are the transfer’s finest quality, especially the searing red carpets and Faith Domergue’s blindingly pink bathrobe. There are some typical signs of age in the less vibrant sequences, like bluing and yellowing effects, but, aside from some inconsistent flesh tones, this is barely noticeable.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 soundtrack is in rougher shape than the video, including the usual pops and crackles that accompany any older B-movie’s mono soundtrack. Dialogue alternates between hissingly sharp heights and murky, mumbly canyons and sometimes, it is all but impossible to discern what people are saying. Bob Emenegger’s score suffers some warping issues when stretched between change-overs and is generally pitched too low to even hear during sequences with heavy dialogue. The extras include an audio commentary with associate producer Gary Kent (moderated by Drafthouse's Lars Nilsen), an TV interview with John Carradine from 1983 (28:00, SD), and a trailer.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking the individual images, but due to .jpg compression, they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 8th October 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 English
Extras: Director/Producer Commentary (House on Straw Hill), An Angel For Satan – Interview With Actress Linda Hayden, Associate Producer Commentary (House of Seven Corpses), John Carradine, Trailers, DVD Copies
Easter Egg: No
Director: James Kenelm Clarke, Paul Harrison
Cast: Udo Kier, Linda Hayden, Fiona Richmond, John Ireland, Faith Domergue, John Carradine
Genre: Drama, Horror and Thriller
Length: 181 minutes
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