The Vengeance Of Fall

Labor Day is over, school is back in session and the days are getting shorter— and the nights longer. Autumn is here and, with it, we slowly inch toward October, it’s time to put the chill in the air with three horror titles that couldn’t be any more different, but center around the same subject— revenge!


While Pumpkinhead and The Legend Of Hell House are both largely straightforward horror movies, Brian DePalma’s Phantom Of The Paradise (1974) is the odd man out, a Faustian love story that melds the classic Phantom Of The Opera with ‘70’s glam-rock, playing up the tragic element while undercutting the pathos with sly dark humor. Winslow Leach (William Finley) is a sad-sack singer-songwriter whose compositions reach the ear of sinister, charismatic music impresario Swan (a perfect Paul Williams), who not only steals Winslow’s songs, but also the girl of his dreams, singer Phoenix (Jessica Harper) frames him for drug dealing and sends him to prison. After Winslow escapes, he tries to destroy Swan’s record plant, only to have his face crushed in the presses, turning him into a masked monster hell-bent on sabotaging the opening of Swan’s concert palace, the Paradise, only to find himself once again caught up in Swan’s machinations.


DePalma, fresh off the horror/thriller Sisters, establishes himself as a virtuoso filmmaker here, with his flashy style (split-screens, sped-up shutter speeds, irising in and out of scenes) serving the broad material perfectly, particularly in the scenes involving an unforgettable Gerrit Graham as the goofy glam-rocker known only as “Beef.” But unlike the texturally similar The Rocky Horror Picture Show, released a year later, DePalma wisely plays up the emotional element, focusing on Winslow’s tortured psyche, particularly in terms of his longing for Phoenix, and using Williams’ songs to underscore the pain and longing of the characters.


Phantom Of The Paradise has been available in Blu-Ray as imports from both the UK and France, but this new Scream Factory edition bests them with a vibrant transfer and a terrific DTS-HD master Audio 5.1 track that effectively turns any home theater into the Paradise itself. This version is crammed tight with two discs (one Blu-Ray, one DVD) of supplemental material, including a cast commentary featuring Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham and others; new interviews with Brian DePalma (still frustrated that the poorly-marketed film never reached a commercial audience outside the cities of Paris and, uh, Winnipeg), Paul Williams, and makeup FX creator Tom Burman; extended and deleted scenes; an hour-plus conversation between Williams and super-fan Guillermo Del Toro (!); and the previously-released “Paradise Regained” documentary featuring the late, underappreciated William Finley, whose career this should have made. Best of all is a series of outtakes involving how the production was forced to optically replace all of the “Swan Song Records” signage throughout the film with “Death Records” after producer Ed Pressman was sued by Led Zeppelin’s management— who had just formed a real-life Swan Song label of their own.


1973’s The Legend Of Hell House could not be more dissimilar from Phantom Of The Paradise— it’s a slow-burning Old Dark House story that plays as a less-flashy precursor to Poltergeist, with a group of researchers (including physicist Clive Revill, medium Roddy McDowall, and “spiritualist minister” Pamela Franklin) investigating the Belasco House, “the Mount Everest of haunted houses,” whose previous owner (an uncredited Michael Gough) disappeared after a bloody massacre at the house years earlier. Director John Hough (Escape To Witch Mountain) maintains an eerie vibe throughout, revealing the most Gothic of mist-shrouded British manors imaginable. Written by the great Richard Matheson (from his book of the same name), the piece is broken down into hour-by-hour chunks which emphasize the tightening of the characters’ situations as they realize a malevolent force is inside the house— one which goes after each of them as the motivations of the late (or is he?) Belasco are revealed. Despite a few intense sequences, the pace of the film is deliberate as the terror gradually mounts—the lurid one-sheet and title hints at more than we ever see, despite the fact that the some of the overt sexuality of the novel pokes its way through from time to time. This, however, doesn’t mean that the piece isn’t effective or genuinely scary. Along with the original Haunting and The Innocents, this is one of the best haunted house movies of all time.


Scream Factory’s new Blu-Ray is, like the film, far from being bright and flashy— the transfer captures the muted color palette accurately and the original two-channel mono soundtrack showcases the electronic score  by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson, which helps keep the audience off-balance throughout. Extras include a lengthy interview with John Hough, who talks about his career and dealing with the locations and practical effects of the film, a commentary with Pamela Franklin, the film’s theatrical trailer, photo gallery and radio spots.


A more straightforward revenge piece is Pumpkinhead, a 1988 backwoods horror story which marks the directorial debut of make-up legend Stan Winston. As expected, the eponymous demon is fantastic, but the story — about shopkeeper Ed Harley (a grizzled Lance Henriksen) who has a witch summon a monster to avenge the death of his young son at the hands of biker Josh (John Di’Aquino) — is fairly familiar. Needless to say, when the demon Pumpkinhead arises from a corpse Harley has brought the witch, it becomes an unstoppable force, one which begins killing not just Josh, but everyone who gets in its way— and one Harley can’t stop. Winston bathes the piece in atmosphere and fog (which we later learn was used not just as a means to light the forest exteriors but as a means to cover up the wires holding up FX creator/creature performer Tom Woodruff Jr.) and the spindly, menacing creature is a sight to behold, truly one of the iconic monsters of the ‘80s.


Well, it would have been iconic had the film been given anything but a token release from distributor MGM/UA, who dumped it in early 1989 after acquiring it in a fire sale following the bankruptcy of original studio DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group. Pupkinhead finally got a “Collector’s Edition” DVD from MGM back in 2008, but the new Scream Factory Blu-Ray improves upon this in every way. The film has been given a solid transfer which retains incredible detail in the night sequences, with rich blues and blacks and two separate audio mixes, an dynamic DTS 5.1 track and a serviceable 2.0 one. All of the special features from the MGM disc (including a commentary by writer Gary Gerani and FX creators Alex Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. and the six-part “Pumpkinhead Unearthed” documentary) have been carried over, along with new interviews with producer Richard Weinman, actors John Di’Aquino and Matthew Hurley, and “Remembering The Monster Kid,” a fantastic, hour-long tribute to the late Stan Winston (who passed away in 2008), featuring interviews with Gillis, Woodruff and most of his crew from films such as The Terminator and Aliens. It’s a fantastic package. Three direct-to-video Winston-free Pumpkinhead sequels (the first installment, Blood Wings, co-stars ex-Presidential brother Roger Clinton!), and, like most knock-offs, are best avoided. 

You can purchase Phantom Of The Paradise directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon

You can purchase The Legend Of Hell House directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

You can purchase Pumpkinhead directly from Shout Factory or from Amazon.

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