Scream Factory's latest double feature Blu-ray pairs two late Empire Pictures releases, the grisly yet blackly comic CELLAR DWELLER and the restrained and atmospheric CATACOMBS.
The titular CELLAR DWELLER is the creation of fifties EC Comics-esque artist Colin Childress (Jeffrey Combs, RE-ANIMATOR) who inadvertently brought it to life off of the page to slaughter when he bases it on a demon described in the Book of the Ancient Dead, a Necronomicon knockoff that posits "To contemplate evil, is to ask evil home." Attempting to destroy it by burning his drawings, he also perishes in the inferno. Thirty years later, cartoonist and Childress fan Whitney Taylor (James Farentino's daughter Deborah, MALICE) wins a fellowship to the Throckmorton Institute for the Arts, a small artist colony in the middle of the countryside with no telephone, television, and one hundred miles from civilization. Headmistress Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo, SILENT SCREAM) believes the cartoonist was chosen by the board out of a "perverse sense of nostalgia" and is displeased with Whitney's plans to create a new comic in the mold of "Cellar Dweller," forbidding her from entering Childress' burnt-out basement studio.
Among the fellow artists, who include ditzy performance artist Lisa (Miranda Wilson, TV's SANTA BARBARA), amorous abstract artist Philip (Brian Robbins, C.H.U.D. II: BUD THE CHUD), and frustrated hardboiled mystery writer Norman (Vince Edwards, THE MAD BOMBER), is Whitney's art school rival: video verité artist Amanda (Pamela Bellwood, TV's DYNASTY). Drawn to Childress' studio by strange noises and nightmarish visions (which actually stimulate her imagination), Whitney breaks into the studio and discovers the Book of the Ancient Dead and visualizes its description of a creature part vampire, part werewolf, part demon, and part ghost. When Mrs. Briggs and Amanda plot together to get Whitney kicked out of the program, Whitney unintentionally gives the cellar dweller its first victim by visualizing a gory demise for Amanda. Soon after, Whitney no longer needs to draw for the creature to kill, and the grisly fates of her fellow artists turn up on the drawing board after the fact. Can Whitney destroy the cellar dweller and keep the rest of her housemates alive without suffering the same fate as Colin Childress?
The second of Empire Pictures creature effects regular John Carl Buechler's feature-length directorial efforts before briefly moving onto the mainstream by helming FRIDAY THE 13TH VII: THE NEW BLOOD (he would also do make-up effects for HALLOWEEN 4 the same year), CELLAR DWELLER seems a rather slight effort next to TROLL; although perhaps for that reason it may have suffered less producer interference. The film could have done more with the idea of its protagonist being obsessed with Childress, believing him to have been murdered, and being a suspect in the disappearances of her housemates (as Norman believes for a brief moment); but the film moves along at a nice enough clip with a neat creature and – for those of us who first encountered the film on late night television – some nudity and splashy gore. Fulci favorite Sergio Salvati (ZOMBIE) handles the photography, atmospherically lighting the suspense sequences while over-lighting other scenes (the same was true of his work on David Schmoeller's CRAWLSPACE) while art director Angelo Santucci (MAYA) redresses and augments Giovanni Natalucci's sets (including the house exterior) for Arthur Allan Seidelman's more intriguing Empire effort THE CALLER. Buechler's company here included actor William Butler (the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake) and later KNB tech Mike S. Deak (who also wore the Cellar Dweller suit), and later close-up inserts of the monster chewing on limbs shot in Los Angeles by FEAST's Tom Callaway.
Released on home video by New World Pictures Home Video and laserdisc by Image Entertainment in 1988, CELLAR DWELLER was one of the Empire Pictures titles that became part of the Epic package that went to MGM (who recycled the video master as part of their short-lived Amazon.com exclusive VHS line that also included the uncut version of THE BURNING and A QUITE PLACE IN THE COUNTRY). Scream Factory would use this same aged master when they released the film in their second four-film volume ALL NIGHT HORROR MARATHON (which also included the Blu-ray co-feature CATACOMBS as well as the Empire release THE DUNGEONMASTER and Filmirage's CONTAMINATION POINT 7).
MGM does not appear to have the negative for CELLAR DWELLER, so the 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 transfer comes from a 35mm film print that reveals more picture information on the left side of the screen while the right is more or less the same (suggesting that the fullscreen transfer is not fully unmated but slightly zoomed in). It undeniably blows the previous releases out of the water (including the UK DVD which was an NTSC-PAL conversion of the video master), but the transfer is not without issues. Colors are bolder and detail is improved – both revealing the more subtle animatronic movements of the Cellar Dweller like blinking eyes and arching ears as well as the extreme fakeness of the axe blade in the opening sequence – but a couple of the many dark interior shots look a little streaky, contrast is harsh in a few shots, and a couple close-ups of Combs early on look a tad waxy. The opening shot and the reel changes exhibit some more scratching, two feature frame tears, and there is a mid-shot splice over a close-up of Belwood. All that said, it is still the best this film has looked on home video. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 rendering of the Ultra Stereo track nicely conveys the piercing screams, low growls, whispers, and the scoring of Carl Dante (which seems richer in orchestration that any of his subsequent work for Empire and Full Moon, which included the likes of CANNIBAL WOMEN IN THE AVOCADO JUNGLE OF DEATH to several Surrender Cinema erotica films). Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
In CATACOMBS, American parish teacher Elizabeth Magrino (model Laura Schaefer, GHOST TOWN) arrives at the Abbey of San Pietro en Valle at the invitation of Brother Orsini (Ian Abercrombie, ARMY OF DARKNESS) to see the chapel in the catacombs where the "Miracle of the Celestial Light" occurred, restoring the sight of the abbey's first Prior. Her presence is regarded as disruptive by the cold Brother Marinus (Jeremy West, HOWLING VI: THE FREAKS), and then sacrilegious as strange events begin to occur (starting with the cross that falls from the wall as she enters the dining hall). Little do they know that Brother Brandt (Italian film dubbing artist Ted Rusoff, ANTHROPHAGUS 2), excavating a chamber in the catacombs, has removed a papal seal from a doorway found behind a bricked wall and unleashed the demon that possessed an albino leper (Brett Porter, ARENA) too powerful for the church to exorcise. While Marinus stirs up the fear and superstition of the brothers (whose numbers begin to dwindle as they wander into the catacombs), Elizabeth becomes vulnerable to possession by the demon. Her only hope may be tormented Father John (Timothy Van Patten, ZONE TROOPERS) who has been experiencing a spiritual crisis over his inability to counsel the dying Brother Terrel (Feodor Chaliapin Jr., INFERNO).
Although CATACOMBS had make-up effects by Buechler crew member John Criswell (THE PLAYROOM), David Schmoeller's CATACOMBS – his third film for producer Charles Band – takes a different take from much of the company's other projects by favoring atmosphere over gore or stop-motion creations. Quite refreshing for an Empire Pictures production – and a late eighties horror film – are the genuinely warm characters and light humor (Chaliapin makes quite a contrast to his fanatical bishop in Michele Soavi's THE CHURCH). The buildup of atmosphere is greatly aided by the lighting of Sergio Salvati (HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY), the production design of Giovanni Natalucci (DOLLS), the somber score of Pino Donaggio (CARRIE), as well as the reliance on in-camera special effects, which makes the conventional possession and exorcism ending rather disappointing in spite of the audacity of having a state of a crucified Jesus Christ come to life and murder a monk. The film might have been even more effective had it held back on the supernatural as Marinus persecutes Elizabeth, but it might have then suggested he was right to do so when she was revealed to be possessed. While it probably could not have competed theatrically with much of the splashier late eighties horror films, it was a pleasant surprise when it hit home video in 1993 (especially considering how Epic tried to market it as the third sequel to THE CURSE). The cast also includes welcome turns from Vernon Dobtcheff (THE NAME OF THE ROSE) as a monk whose vice is Snickers, and Spanish actress Mapi Galan (Ruggero Deodato's THE PHANTOM OF DEATH) as a local gypsy girl who has premonitions. Schmoeller himself cameos with his back averted to camera as a monk (not for the sake of vanity, but to get paid as an actor).
CATACOMBS was announced for theatrical or video release by Trans World Entertainment but shelved until it popped up as CURSE IV: THE FINAL SACRIFICE, the third unrelated sequel to the Ovidio Assonitis/Lucio Fulci-produced THE CURSE (CURSE II being the Assonitis-produced THE BITE and CURSE III being the British/South African co-production PANGA) on RCA/Columbia VHS (who distributed releases from Epic, the Trans World successor company that also came into possession of Band's Empire Pictures assets) and Image Entertainment on laserdisc in 1993. The DVD debut on the aforementioned Scream Factory two-disc, four film set was an interlaced 1.66:1 letterboxed transfer of an older master in a 16:9 windowbox (with borders on all four sides of the frame). Since that letterboxed transfer revealed more picture information than the tape release, it was likely shot with a hard 1.66:1 matte (the UK tape was letterboxed at this ratio.
Scream's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC Blu-ray transfer is framed at 1.78:1, losing slivers on the top and bottom while revealing a little more on the right and a sliver more on the left. The transfer is certainly the superior effort on the disc, and a major improvement over the earlier editions. Salvati's lighting and use of smoke and fog is largely free of distortion while the celestial light scenes were always that bright on home video. Detail is good enough to see the hairs up Chaliapin's nose as his character lays dying while some noise lurks in the darkness of the catacomb scenes (the statue of Jesus Christ come to life looks as waxy as the life cast version, but that may be the make-up since the possessed Elizabeth also looks a bit smoothed over). Natalucci's sets largely benefit from the increased detail, although some of the catacomb walls might look a bit more artificial, while some of the props are not so fortunate. The shot of the golden cross seen in the opening flashback now betrays the seam that reveals it not to be single piece of pounded metal but four separate pieces with pointed ends joined together in the center, and the black petal of the "Devil's Touch" flower now looks like a piece of satin (the pale make-up on the inquisitor on the last shot of the opening prologue also looks particularly sloppy in HD). The increased overall brightness does seem to have sapped the blue gels of some of their saturation however warm the film's palette is overall (it also makes one sight gag a bit more obvious compared to the more shadowy version on the tape master). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 rendering of the Ultra Stereo track is full of whispers, chants, occasional misdirecting sounds, and Donaggio's wonderful score. Optional English SDH subtitles are also included, although they are not a reproduction of the Columbia tape's closed captioning file that attempted to transcribe some of the choral of Donaggio's score.
Carried over from the DVD was its sole bonus feature, an audio commentary track by director David Schmoeller, who describes CATACOMBS as his "lost film" since Empire went bankrupt and he did not have a copy of the film to show producers unless he rented out the screening room at the lab. He describes how smooth the production went – despite having to do rewrites during production since co-writer R. Barker Price was ignorant of production limitations on Empire productions – compared to CRAWLSPACE with the carried over crew relieved to be working without the threat of Klaus Kinski, and provides an overview of working with Italian crews on the Empire productions with the ingenuity of the technicians on a budget. He concedes to the horror film conventions in the script, structuring the film in terms of set-pieces like the "Christ off the cross" scene and others that are obligatory but not so organic like Elizabeth spooked in the catacombs and running around long enough to build up a false scare (which was one of the ones that was not storyboarded) comparing sequences to what he achieved with TOURIST TRAP which he had considerably more time to develop (having its origins in the short "The Spider Will Kill You"). He admits that some scenes he rewrote were too didactic but did not have the time to refine them during shooting.
He is generally complementary of the cast, although he regretted making Schaefer self-conscious about her habitual smiling whenever he called action (although it gives her character a certain beatific quality). He ended up hating the character and instructing the editor who was cutting the film during production that he could cut out as much of her as he liked (and notes the importance of having an editor not caught up in the scripting and on-set drama to look at the film, in contrast to lower budget films today where the director may also be the editor). Most amusing is his recollection that Chaliapin could not read English and rewrote his lines in Greek for a long monologue for which he needed the lines on a cue card. Of the "Christ Off the Cross" scene, he recalls that the issue with it was not concerns over blasphemy but the cost of the life cast and shipping it to Italy (he also amusingly recalls how an agent demanded he take it off his reel since she was an ex-nun). Interestingly, he mentions that Nicola Morelli who played the grand inquisitor during the prologue, was actually a professor who could speak Latin and translated the script's original English dialogue for these scenes (although Schmoeller is at a loss to explain why they did not then subtitle these exchanges in English). Of the photography, he describes Salvati's role as more of a lighting cameraman while the movements and framing were the work of camera operator Antonio Scaramuzza (who also operated for Ronnie Taylor on Dario Argento's OPERA and would work for Salvati again on Schmoeller's PUPPET MASTER). He also discusses the influence of Caravaggio on the set decoration, including a blasphemous Bosch-like painting Natalucci created to hang in Orsini's office. Although Schmoeller has continued to make films on budgets a fraction of that of the Empire productions, he does admit that he misses the luxuries of shooting on a soundstage. While CELLAR DWELLER is understandably inconsistent in image quality, this is nevertheless quite a satisfactory release of two films it seemed were destined to remain available only as digitized tape masters. (Eric Cotenas)
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