Around six hours of down and dirty independent exploitation, The Scream Pack is the newest round-up of low budget horror from the frightening folks at VCI, the same company that has given us affordable collector's editions of Bava's Blood and Black Lace and the classic psychological thriller The Black Museum. Consisting of three titles -- Kiss of the Tarantula, Don't Open the Door, and Don't Look in the Basement -- this economical gift of Seventies splatter is seeped in atmosphere, violence, and sensationalism. Good times! While none of these films are classics, lacking both the thematically rich storytelling or inventive directorial style required to be considered alongside the psychological horror films upon which they were obviously based, each is entertaining in its own shoddy manner. Lacking significant budgets or production designs, each feature relies almost exclusively on energy and mood for its effect. Making up with stylistic verve and haunting atmosphere for what stories may lack in logic/believability, these salacious salutes to Grindhouse offer genuinely chilling portrayals of average people descending into insanity. Far surpassing the 'shlock' value of VCI's previous Ripper package (whose contents were commendable only as curiosities), these three sleepers are decently crafted, with involving stories. A sense of unavoidable despair, emotional anguish, and grim violence drips from each title, particularly the grim psychological chaos evoked by the sadly unappreciated S.F. Brownrigg, whose double shock of Don't Open the Door and Don't Look in the Basement are the centerpieces of the collection. Supported by solid extras, this affordable package celebrates the dubious pleasures of lowbrow terror.

Kiss of the Tarantula is the least substantial film of the collection. Failing to capture the essential moral poverty or mean-spiritedness of the Brownrigg contribution, this simplistic story evokes primal fear with its use of spiders. Focusing too much on the effects of its little beasties and not enough on character, this average if moodily photographed tale of revenge and alienation was a spin-off of the 'animals-insects amuck' films so popular in its time. Effectively replacing the innocence of human characters so prevalent in such genre defining classics as Them and other Big Bug/Nature sci-fi films of the 50s and 60s with an examination of an emotionally disturbed young woman desiring bloody revenge, this uneven popcorn chiller focuses more on the relationship between the protagonist and the creepy crawlies than on delivering bogus scientific rationales. Susan, an unbalanced girl (and later teenager) directs her 'pet' spiders to torment classmates, family, and friends who she thinks mean her do her harm. While it would be nice to discuss Susan's resulting development or some further subtext underlying this basic premise, there really isn't anything to work with. The spiders are the end all here, making the movie a simplistic diversion for fans of this particular niche. Then again, Kiss never puts on airs, attempting to be anything more than a creepshow. The result is a proficiently made if uninspired programmer whose most interesting aspect -- and cast -- have eight legs.

A surprising range of characterization is readily discernible in Don't Look in the Basement. Directed by underground legend S. F. Brownrigg, an exploitation monger of the old school, this psycho drama combines solid storytelling with deliciously grimy visuals, as seeped in emotional tension and shadows as it is in blood. Atmosphere and characters support each other in this surprisingly intelligent, carefully paced thriller. Anxieties and desires, terror and rage -- each of these emotions, each personal history that drives characters to action -- are emphasized in shadow and light, deep dark corridors, and other psychical extensions of the emotional. Angry and terrifying, the movie is also strangely tender, looking upon the residents of a psychiatric home with passion. That it can accomplish all this without sacrificing its basic exploitative tendencies makes it even more fascinating -- particularly on such a limited budget.

The plot for this seemingly simplistic nightmare is sensationalistic without being ridiculous, encouraging belief in even the more absurd moments of its carnage by believable (if loud) performances and the aforementioned excess of mood, creating a suspension of disbelief that several recent million dollar movies lack. After the murder of a doctor and his assistant, Nurse Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik) arrives at the secluded 'experimental' psychiatric institute in Florida. Unaware of the recent crime, or the degrees of insanity with which the patients wrestle, Nurse Beale is employed by the conniving Dr. Masters (Annabelle Weenick), who desperately conceals each new successive murder. The experimental therapy used in this 'home' emphasizes personal freedom and trust, therefore doors have no locks and rules are scarce. As Charlotte takes on her duties, it becomes apparent that a conspiracy is a-foot in the morose facility, moodily predicted by Mrs. Callingham, an inmate who warns her of looming danger. A bedlam of disturbing personalities are on display, many of which are sympathetic as well as frightening. Sam is a black man whose lobotomy has reduced him to a lollipop sucking child, and Sergeant Jaffee acts as though he is still fighting a war. Allyson the panting nymphomaniac is particularly disturbing, suggesting the relationship between sex and violence, need and despair. Before we know it, Nurse Charlotte is caught in a horrible game of cat and mouse . . . One that ends with an impressive air or despair and ruin.

Mood is paramount here, and expressed by both story and visuals. Depression, rage, sexual violence, and insanity weave an atmosphere thick enough to cut. A far cry from subtle, the story is about as suggestive as the ham-fisted acting -- not at all! Inspiring such films as Alone in the Dark with its basic premise of deranged patients plotting violent revenge for imagined crimes, and pre-dating the messy axe murder scene in Friday the 13th (5): A New Beginning, Don't Look in the Basement is secured a sound reputation in the long line of 'don't films. Simply put, this is one of those few instances in the long history of low budget horror movie-making when the lack of technical polish and financing helps develop mood. Uneven lighting, poverty-row settings, off color performances, and a directing style based largely on intuition bring living color to the internal madness of inherent in the story, making for a classic of underground horror that still holds its own.

Brownrigg is also behind the camera in the third feature. A return to the gorilla filmmaking style, emotional independence, and scathing social satire of classic Drive-In fare, Don't Open The Door is a worthy addition to the psycho-among-us cycle, and compares admirably well with the previous film. As subversively intelligent as it is scathing, this cheaply shot (and looking) bruise on the arm of cinema is only aided in its psychological effect by grainy sets, morose lighting, and shoddy realism. It evokes a sense of terror, suspense, and seedy moral ambiguity that lends a somewhat clich´┐Ż if well written surface story emotional resonance. At the same time, you're never allowed to forget that cheap exploitation and base thrills are the chief aesthetic aim.

Peopled with offbeat characters who lend the story an almost surreal quality (ala a poor man's David Lynch), and invested with the director's attention to bizarre detail, this simplistic story of an emotionally scarred but dutiful grand-daughter returning home to care for her ailing grandmother is as convincing in premise as it is naturalistic in its no-frills delivery. Once home, the heroin is slowly stalked by a homicidal maniac. The story then graduates towards scenes whose very simplicity dulls you into a sense of complacency before 'getting you!' with old fashioned scare-tactics. This cat-and-mouse game, while far from unique (practiced more than any other trope in the sordid psycho-sexual history of the Thriller format), is well staged.

Don't Open the Door utilizes the murky interiors of the house as expressions of mood. A wise move, considering so much of the film's time is spent there. Just as much attention is lent to living characters; while they lack the intimate emotional geography of truly well written personas, they are able to emit a sense of symbolic caricature that saves them from appearing simply ridiculous. When the young women receives obscene calls, the ambiguity of the situation are mirrored by the director's choice of shadowy lighting, which symbolizes the unknown, dark path she is following. While the acting isn't by any means great, it is believable. Amusingly, the heroine herself is rather snotty -- a bold move as many films of this ilk try to make you like their central character! One almost gets the impression that the actors are similar in their function to the disturbingly captured porcelain dolls employed throughout the film, victims and victimizers whose characteristics and fates are already inscribed in their sordid plastic souls.

Visual and audio quality are generally sound for each disc. Kiss of the Tarantula appears in widescreen, and suffers from soft imagery. Audio in Dolby Digital gets the job done with a minimum of fuss. The only extras are theatrical trailers. Don't Look in the Basement is presented in Full Screen. Far from sterling, the print sports strong colors and is generally clear. Audio is acceptable in Dolby Digital 2.0. Again, the only extra here is trailers. Don't Open the Door is perhaps the best looking of the lot. This minimal piece of atmospheric horror is presented in a 1.85.1 transfer. While budget constraints are evident, the picture is satisfying, lending the story nostalgia. Audio is slightly marred by background muffling but generally satisfying. Extras are entertaining if minimal. First is a bio on Brownrigg, a true pioneer of do-it-yourself exploitation who instilled his film threats with mood. A theatrical trailer and trailers for other VCI titles round out the package. A celebration of raw, cheaply achieved shocks, this collection is recommended for lovers of grim exploitation.

Review by William P. Simmons

Released by VCI
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review