TOWER OF EVIL (1972) (Blu-ray)
Director: Jim O'Connolly
Scorpion Releasing

When ace British producer Richard Gordon allied with American executive producer Joe Solomon (recognized for drive-in sleaze like WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS and SIMON KING OF THE WITCHES), they set out to make a lucrative British horror film for the increasingly growing exploitative film market. Packed with blood, bare breasts, a cast of familiar faces and an enticingly gloomy set, TOWER OF EVIL succeeds on this level and has now been given an HD reboot courtesy of Scorpion Releasing.

The story commences with two fishermen, John Gurney (George Coulouris, THE WOMAN EATER) and his son, Hamp (Jack Watson, THE GORGON) who are docking their boat on the fog-bound Snape Island, home to an abandoned lighthouse. Their inspection leads them to discover the mutilated body of three mostly naked young adults: a boy (John Hamill, NO BLADE OF GRASS) lying among the rocks, a girl (Seretta Wilson, PSYCHOMANIA) whose severed head bounces down a flight of stairs, and another boy (Robin Askwith, HORROR HOSPITAL) impaled by a massive lance. When the elderly Gurney unsuspectingly opens up a shack door, he unleashes the hysterical Penny (Candace Glendenning, SATAN’S SLAVE). Nude, blood-soaked and crazed, she charges Gurney, repeatedly stabbing the poor old chap to death. Running away frantically, she is knocked unconscious by Hamp.

Penny is brought to a London hospital and is placed under the care of Dr. Simpson (Anthony Valentine, TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER). It turns out that these teenagers were vacationing Americans and the police believe that Penny — in a state of madness — viciously murdered her companions. In a series of cleverly edited maniacal scenes, the doctor helps Penny recount the events, giving us an ample dose of skin and slayings. The audience is now convinced of the girl's innocence and that another being is the culprit. Learning that an ancient Phoenician spear was used in one of the murders, a museum curator (Dennis Price, HORROR HOUSE) sets up an expedition, believing that a Phoenician king was buried along with his treasure on Snape Island. He rounds up four archeologists (Mark Edwards, Jill Haworth, Anna Palk and Derek Fowlds) who are joined by a determined private investigator Evan Brent (Bryant Haliday, DEVIL DOLL) hired by Penny's parents to prove her innocence. Taking them to the island is Hamp and his young, longhaired nephew Brom (Gary Hamilton).

Bestowing us with a large enough troupe to set up a series of brutal killings, it is discovered that the last inhabitants of the island were Hamp's insane brother and his wife, who were lost at sea months before. The archeologists (who look and act more like jet-setters than historians or scientists) waste time conversing about their various extra-marital affairs with each other, while Brent searches nonstop for answers at the hands of Hamp and Brown, who seem to be hiding some kind of secret about the island, but I won't reveal any more of the plot.

Directed by veteran Jim O'Connolly (BERSERK, VALLEY OF GWANGI), TOWER OF EVIL remains his most visually satisfying genre film. Shot at the famed Shepperton Studios, the lighthouse set is effectively spooky (even though a very obvious model is used in the opening shot and thereafter), allowing the tense scenes of isolation amongst rotted corpses, strange whistle noises, secret caverns, goo-dripping claws and other clichés to somehow feel fresh when employed in this very wild U.K. monster/slasher movie (and the vile “monster”reveal is a something else, to say the least). Aside from agreeable leading man Byant Haliday (an American actor who appeared in four Gordon productions and here in his final film role), the cast is a mixed blessing of reliable stock veterans (Coulouris, Watson, Price), recognizable actors from past Brit genre horrors — Palk (THE FROZEN DEAD), Haworth (IT!), Edwards (Hammer’s BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB), Fowlds (FRANKENSTEIN CREATED WOMAN) — as well as fresh-faced newcomers (Askwith, Hamilton, Glendenning).

Some of the great, very early 1970s dialog includes Askwith (playing an American, but about as American as Al Pacino is British) spurting out lines like, "We got sounds, food and some great grass. This place is really far out!" When Hamilton is deemed a "rolling stone" by Haliday due to his leisurely lifestyle, he replies, "I wish I was, now that's the game; plenty of bread, and the chicks." With it's innovative depictions of graphic violence, TOWER OF EVIL is unquestionably an archetype — alongside Mario Bava's BAY OF BLOOD (produced around the same period) — of the "body count" slasher films that would become a Hollywood staple a decade later. Most of them are inferior, and the early 1980s Canadian slasher pic HUMONGOUS has a very similar plot to TOWER. At any rate, those British horror fans breast-fed on the comparably inoffensive efforts from Hammer and Amicus will surely want to investigate, especially given this awesome new transfer.

Joe Solomon's Fanfare Corporation released the film in the U.S. as HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND, trimming some of the more sensational scenes, including the turbulent love making between Palk (sporting hip-hugging, suede bell-bottoms) and Hamilton. It later played again as TOWER OF EVIL (usually on a double bill with Antony Balch's BIZARRE/TALES OF THE BIZARRE/SECRETS OF SEX), and in the early 1980s, Sam Sherman's Independent International Pictures re-released it as BEYOND THE FOG to cash in on the success of John Carpenter's THE FOG. It then played on television, usually edited down to fit in a 90 minute time slot with commercials, and by the mid 1980s, the film was released on VHS by several different companies (including Gorgon). In the late 1990s, Elite Entertainment released the film uncut on DVD, and they later included it as part of “The British Horror Collection” box set (which also contained Gordon’s CURSE OF THE VOODOO, HORROR HOSPITAL and INSEMINOID).

Scorpion’s new Blu-ray (the company is also offering the same transfer as a separate DVD) is culled from MGM’s newish HD master (MGM still has television rights to the film, as it was quickly sold to TV after its theatrical release through American International Pictures). As expected, the new Blu-ray is a considerable upgrade over Elite’s previous non-anamorphic DVD. Although the misty outdoor opening scenes look rather ordinary, as soon as the characters relocate indoors, you can witness how breathtaking the quality is compared to previous home video transfers. The 1080p MPEG-4 AVC-encoded transfer renders the film in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and it appears virtually flawless. Detail is sharp, colors are bold and grain is minimal. Any speckling attributed to the original source elements are minor and hardly worth squabbling about. The English audio is presented in a DTS-HD Master 2.0 mix, and is robust enough to deliver the film's eerily superb score (by Kenneth V. Jones) and the haunting sound effects and numerous screams to their full potential.

If producer Gordon hadn’t passed away in 2011, he would have surely been involved in commentary for this release, but in lieu of the impossible, there are still some nice extras included. Film historian David Del Valle sits down for an informative interview (13:14) conducted by the disc’s host Katarina Leigh Waters. Del Valle, who first saw the film at a drive-in theater upon its original release, points out that TOWER not only is a frontrunner of the later slasher pics, but that it tends to objectify men on screen just as much as women, and that it's one of first horror films to show male nudity (a lot of bare back sides). Del Valle not only shares some information about the cast, but he describes his run-in and conversation with George Coulouris backstage when he was performing in “King Lear”. Waters hosts the wraparound segments in another edition of "Katrina's Nightmare Theatre" and even gets to spoof one of the memorable scenes in the movie (Del Valle can also be seen in the skit). Two trailers for the film are included (one a non-anamorphic British trailer, and another an anamorphic U.S. trailer under the HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND title) as well as trailers for other Scorpion titles (THE HOUSE ON SORORITY ROW, DAY OF THE ANIMALS, THE POM POM GIRLS, DEATH SHIP, GRIZZLY, TOMBOY). With the cover art showcasing the original one-sheet U.S. poster, the reverse of the jacket has a collage of various posters, ad mats and even an old TV Guide ad! (George R. Reis)