Director: David Nelson
Notable Cast: Susan Kiger, Martin Tucker, William T. Hicks, Jennifer Chase, Jody Kay, Andrea Savio, Helene Tryon, Hanns Manship, Larry Sprinkle
As the boutique label wars continue to happen within the realms of genre cinema, more and more fans clamor for the next “long lost classic” from the slasher genre. Whether it’s Vinegar Syndrome, Severin, 88 Films, or Arrow Video, the labels are all happy to dig into the deep, dark caverns of horror to unearth what could possibly be the next classic. These forgotten films occasionally do reach that echelon, but more often than not, it’s a stretch. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m happy these labels are rescuing films from oblivion, but after watching Death Screams last night - just know that it can be a chore to get through some of them.
Arrow Video’s track record has usually been fantastic in finding those lost classics. They’ve unleashed The Mutilator and Blood Rage. As of late, the label has been scraping some questionable pieces of cinema though and a handful of their latest stuff (sans The Slayer which is a film that I weirdly liked when no one else did) and Death Screams can be added to that list. Although this 1982 slasher has its moments, it’s a relatively meandering slog to work through and the overall story and characters are undercooked in a way that’s not nearly as fun as it might have been with more gimmicks or charisma.
To go over a plot synopsis might be a stretch, seeing as Death Screams has fairly little plot to run through. A group of “teens” (well, young..ish people?) are celebrating the last day of the fair and decide to head to the river to celebrate. A couple of their friends went missing the night before, but no biggie. Can’t stop the fun, right? That is until a killer shows up to ruin all of the fun.
Truthfully, most of Death Screams is spent developing the characters. By developing, I sincerely mean that the film just haphazardly follows them around in their lives and through their interactions. This would normally take up the first 20, perhaps 30 minutes of a 90-minute flick, but the group doesn’t even get to the river or cabin until the LAST 20 minutes. The pacing is downright perplexing in this approach and its odd choices leech into the rest of the film too.
Unfortunately, none of the characters are very interesting outside of the secondary stock characters and the leads that feel more stock than human. The audience is privy to a subplot with the sheriff that goes approximately three feet from nowhere, a handful of obvious red herrings, and a strange amount of time spent watching them ride carnival rides. There is only one moment that felt like it was a bit refreshing in its deviance and it was the fact that the audience is treated to a jump scare shower sequence...with a man in the shower instead of a woman. That’s something I suppose, as little as it is.
The slasher portion of Death Screams isn’t wholly memorable either. Like most early films of the genre, it regularly toys with a whodunnit structure, keeping the killer’s identity a secret until the final reveal, but it’s rarely as tantalizing as it might have been with stronger writing. The kills are initially sporadic with a cold open that may have been slick if it wasn’t so poorly shot in the dark. There is a rather intriguing kill in the second act that features a strong visual of the victim on a carousel, but most of the kills are saved for the finale - of which most are off-screen and never as tense as they might have been.
It’s the tension that is the biggest missing component of Death Screams. If the mystery isn’t the big hook within the film, then there needs to be a tension that carries the film and director David Nelson, outside of spending far too much time just shooting people hanging out, doesn’t handle that very well. There’s a jump scare that uses a train going by that’s one of the silliest jump scares I’ve seen in quite some time.
For slasher fans, Death Screams is another one for the collection. While disappointing, it’s not the worst slasher from the era. It’s just one that was forgotten for a reason. It’s meandering, paced poorly, and never capitalizes on its scares or kills in a way that’s even fun. For the collectors out there, this Arrow Video release is the best that this film will ever look, and quite frankly, it’s a film that will play well for those eager to devour every morsel from this corner of the horror-verse. However, my suggestion is that it’s for the slasher fans and only the die-hards at that.