Sarcophilous Films (USA). All Regions, NTSC. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. 95 minutes
Director: Michael J. Murphy Starring: Becky Simpson, Joseph Sheahan, Colin Efford, Steve Longhurst, Russell Hall, Catherine Rowlands, Tina Barnett, David Bruhl, Antony Peyton Screenplay: Carl Humphrey Country: UK
Nascent UK outfit Sarcophilous Films have certainly done a bang-up marketing job on this one. I'd been looking forward to seeing the '25th Anniversary Special Edition' of this obscure double feature ever since discovering the SF website devoted entirely to it a few weeks back. I hadn't heard of either film, but the box cover and stills on display gave off an awesome video nasty/slasher vibe, and the promise of 'an orgy of sex, violence, depravity and carnage' seemed almost too good to be true.
Not to be confused with Wes Craven's 1984 made-for-TV effort of the same name, Invitation to Hell concerns a young woman who attends a fancy dress party at her friend's country estate. She soon discovers that a mysterious but supremely malevolent entity controls the house and its inhabitants, and has called for her life to be sacrificed. The films owes much to Evil Dead and Rosemary's Baby and its premise isn't entirely without promise, however its 43-minute running time means that characters and plot simply don't have chance to develop in any meaningful way. The fact that most of the cast members appear to be amateur dramatists, production assistants or acquaintances of the director also does little to lend an air of weight to the proceedings. By the end one is left feeling that the claims made by the work's current distributors are somewhat misleading. Sex? No. Violence? Some. Depravity? Meh. Carnage? Nay.
The Last Night, filmed in short bursts on evenings and weekends as most of its cast had day jobs, features a pair of escaped convicts who break into a community centre and make the unlikely decision to hold hostage an amateur theatre troupe in the midst of rehearsals. The only problem is the budding thespians have a performance to put on that very eve. The show indeed goes on regardless as the delinquent duo, one of whom is hilariously clad in a moustache, waistcoat and neckerchief, gradually murder their way through the cast for no discernable reason. There's a lot of knife-to-throat action, several stranglings and a rape scene, though this is mostly implied and certainly isn't of the graphic Last House on the Left variety. In fact, director Michael J. Murphy appears to have a curiously moralistic aversion to nakedness – in his bedroom scenes for instance either the bedclothes or the camera angle prudishly obscure all but a hint of womanly flesh from view – but evidently has few qualms showing female characters being dragged down staircases by their hair or dispatched in a variety of unfriendly ways. I'm not sure what he intended to achieve by taking this stance on nudity; the films were going to have an R/18 rating regardless and he's hardly Martin Scorsese. But viewers expecting an endless cavalcade of topless screaming women will not find anything of the sort on offer here. The play-within-a-play device is interesting, but as in the case of its predecessor the patchy performances and short (50 min) runtime mean that, again, the tension never really builds as it was intended.
Both of these short features are very much a product of the home video boom of the early eighties, that brief but heady period following the mass production of the trusty VCR that allowed consumers to own their own copies of movies for the first time. Provided they kept costs to a minimum producers and filmmakers could cobble together any old rubbish and be assured of distribution and, in most cases, modest profitability. In this regard, if no other, both Invitation to Hell and The Last Night can be considered unqualified successes. Shot in around five days on a budget of some £1000 apiece, each of the films stretches the concept of cost-cutting to bursting point. The only problem is that it's noticeable in every rushed take, in the unconvincing performances of the amateurish cast, in the third rate special effects and awkward editing. The lighting is inconsistent, characters personalities seem to change from scene to scene and certain shots are off-centre or captured from extremely irregular angles. Many give the impression of having been filmed by a drunken dwarf. Does Murphy care? Probably not. Obscure almost to the point of invisibility, this is a man who once quipped his tombstone would read 'A crap filmmaker, but the cheapest of the crap filmmakers.'
He may well get his wish. If nothing else, Murphy is slavishly dedicated to his craft. Brad Pitt once said his advice to aspiring actors was 'Take classes, work your ass off, and if you haven't made it by age 35, give up.' If this advice applies equally to directors, no one bothered to tell Murphy. Now aged in his late fifties and with several dozen features under his belt, his filmmaking career has proven so unprofitable that for the last decade he's worked part-time in a bottle shop. For his part he says he's perfectly content to have little else to show for his decades of hard work than a bunch of happy memories. Which is perfectly admirable, but when a director finds his own films so inferior they make him cringe (as he said of The Last Night) then what hope is there that the viewing public will get on board?
Murphy's story isn't without its share of pathos. He rarely sees more than a few hundred pounds profit from his films, and what little funds he can scrape together are quickly channelled into another almost universally-ignored production. A few years ago he sank £10,000 (raised predominantly from family and friends) into a film called Skare, only to have the print get lost in the mail on its way to being developed. Let's hope this inaugural release from Sarcophilous Films signals a change in his fortunes. Limited to 1000 hand-numbered copies worldwide, the double feature has been released in full collaboration with the filmmaker, and the marketing, packaging, presentation and extra features are first rate. The content of the films themselves... well, that's another story.
Sourced from a master that's spent the past 25 years gathering dust in Murphy's attic, Invitation to Hell has reportedly been extensively cleaned up (frame-by-frame, to take his word for it) by the director. It still looks a little tired and the colours aren't particularly vibrant in places, but overall the picture quality of this 1.77:1 anamorphic transfer is reasonably good. The film appears here for the first time in its original theatrical framing, with 39 seconds of censored material also having been restored.
In order to save on film stock Murphy shot The Last Night at a lower frame rate, which has resulted in an extremely jittery picture throughout. As he later recorded over the master tape the film has also been transferred to DVD from a VHS dub, which doesn't do a great deal to enhance its appearance. Basically it's a blurry, shuddery mess.
Invitation to Hell was shot a camera capable of syncing sound, but one that was so noisy Murphy says it needed to be encased in lead in order to cut down on the buzz. Despite his valiant efforts the noise of the machine bleeds through quite noticeably at regular intervals, and proves more than a little distracting. For this reason The Last Night was mostly dubbed, though as it wasn't shot at the requisite speed the voices often don't mesh particularly well with the footage of the actors. The sound quality on both films is thus far from flawless, but is evidently a considerable improvement on previously available versions.
The set contains a 'Making of Invitation to Hell' featurette, which is actually a 15 minute interview with Murphy conducted by his current assistant Sally Duncan and frequent collaborator Phil Lyndon. The footage proves a lively, enlightening glimpse into the working life of the world's most overlooked cinematographer. Murphy displays stills and posters, an example of the lead 'balloon' he constructed for the camera used on the film's photography, and a collection of the numerous VHS and DVD reissues of Invitation for which he has received absolutely no recompense. He also discusses how the film's makeup and special effects were achieved - pastry, red paint and macaroni for a shot in which one of the characters has his heart torn out, a crew member fanning a bonfire with a blanket in lieu of a smoke machine etc – and other aspects of his directorial career. To his credit Murphy doesn't seem overly bitter at the various ways in which he's been ripped off over the years, and the interview is a really interesting insight into his no-frills brand of horror filmmaking. The trio also conduct audio commentaries for both movies which prove equally illuminating. Overall it is, dare I say it, infinitely more entertaining learning how the films were made than actually watching them. Also on offer are a rare stills gallery and trailers for these and two other of Murphy's efforts, Atlantis and a revamped version of Skare. This latter appears set for DVD release by Sarcophilous in late 2009.
In recent interviews, Murphy had all but disowned these two mid-length efforts from 1983. A wave of the Sarcophilous chequebook seems to have reignited his vigour, but can't disguise the fact that neither film could be considered anything approaching essential viewing. Completists and collectors of hard-to-find horror oddities will doubtless appreciate the obscurity of the material, not to mention the cache of the 'ultra-limited' release. The interviews and commentaries are also a nice touch, and provide an intriguing glimpse into the world of no-budget independent filmmaking.
Both constituents of this cult double feature are, however, undeniably bad. Whether or not they fall into the 'so-bad-they're-good' category is a matter of personal taste. For my money the films still seem to drag in spite of their truncated running times, and the picture and audio quality of ill-fated The Last Night are so poor as to render it almost unwatchable.
It is tempting to paint Murphy as the Ed Wood of his generation; an underappreciated auteur defiantly plying his craft in the face of obscurity and a bare minimum of financial reward. Unlike Ed Wood however, who for the most part seems to have taken great pride in his idiosyncratic output, Murphy routinely employs adjectives such as 'pointless', 'self-indulgent' and 'cringe-worthy' to describe his own body of work. This does of course beg the question – if after several decades he hasn't got two brass razoos to rub together and doesn't seem overly fond of his films anyway, why does he keep on making them? Another puzzlement of this 25th anniversary edition is why Sarcophilous bothered including The Last Night at all. Sure the two films were originally intended to be a double feature, but there's no continuity or connection between them aside from a slight overlap in cast members, and Murphy didn't even think enough of The Last Night to bother keeping the master copy. Why not include one of his other films in its stead? There are something like 25 of them in existence, and he can't have signed away the rights to them all.
At any rate, as a collector's piece this is great, and as mentioned the presentation and special features are excellent. Unfortunately however I can only really see this one appealing to the few. The films each have their charms, but are blighted by an absolute preponderance of deficits at almost every conceivable juncture. I do hope Murphy manages to turn a few bucks from this release though. God knows at this point in his career he's earned it.
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Originally born unto this world as Terror Australis.net back in March 2002, Digital Retribution is a proudly Australian website devoted to all things horror, cult, and exploitation that strives to promote Australian films and filmmakers while sharing its questionable taste in ultra-violent smut-laden local and international offerings with the rest of the world.