Monday, July 20, 2015

CELLAR DWELLER (1988) / CATACOMBS (1988) Blu-ray Reviews

Cellar Dweller (1988) d. John Carl Buechler (USA)
Catacombs (1988) d. David Schmoeller (USA)

Yet another double pack from Shout! Factory, although unlike their recent, head-scratching pairing of The Outing and The Godsend, at least the two films in question bear the common thread of having been produced by Charles Band’s Empire Pictures during its twilight (aka bankruptcy) era. An amiable monster movie and a convoluted possession tale make for unlikely bedfellows, especially with the muddled and occasionally slapdash storylines and characters that mark both pictures, and the results are as decidedly mixed as one might imagine.

With an attractive cast and a decent-looking Buechler-designed monster, although not much in the way of true inspiration, the nonsensically scripted but energetic creature feature Cellar Dweller introduces a werewolf-like beast, drawn into existence by comic book artist Colin Childress (Jeffrey Combs, who only appears in a pre-credits sequence, so don’t get your hopes up).

Following Combs’ cameo, the slim story shoots forward 30 years to focus on aspiring horror art pen ‘n’ inker Whitney Taylor (Debrah Mullowney) going to Childress’ former residence – now known as Throckmorton Institute, an artists’ colony run by Mrs. Briggs (Yvonne De Carlo) – for inspiration and experience. She and her fellow artists have their usual roomie squabbles, so she sets up camp downstairs in the basement, where her artistic muse creates terrifying and bloody imagery on the page... gruesome scenarios that are subsequently brought to life.

Cellar Dweller’s clear raison d’etre is for Buechler to showcase his ample skills with latex and gore, with his assorted “wacky” ensemble members lined up as fodder to be dutifully mutilated onscreen. But, in fact, the highlight of the enterprise, outside of a few naked nipples (courtesy of Miranda/Cheryl Ann Wilson and the anonymous unbilled starlet who plays the beast’s pre-credits victim), is the exquisite graphic artwork by Frank Brunner, with able assistance by painted comic cover artists Keith and Laina Turner, and cartoonist John Foster.

Trivia: Cellar Dweller was the first produced feature script from Don Mancini, released the same year as his (much) more successful Child’s Play.

We then move onto the considerably less cheesy but unfortunately more convoluted and inert Catacombs, which for many years Schmoeller considered his “lost film,” being that it was so tied up with Empire’s bankruptcy that the director couldn’t get access to it even to show future employers. (Tri-Star eventually acquired it, releasing direct-to-video as the fourth installment in the wildly uneven The Curse series as Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice.)

The anemic plot kicks off 400 years prior with a possessed and leprous albino (Brett Porter), the subject of a failed exorcism, walled up in the bowels of the monastery. Flashing forward, the evil spirit’s reawakening is (somehow) related to the arrival of an attractive redheaded American schoolteacher Elizabeth (former model Laura Schaefer, spelled “Shaeffer” in the end credits), and it’s up to conflicted young Father John (Timothy Van Patten), and his band of Brothers to stop the Satanic forces from being unleashed. The more kindly and benevolent monks Orsini (Ian Abercrombie) and Timothy (Vernon Dobtcheff) welcome Elizabeth into their home, but her presence disturbs the stern Brother Marinus (Jeremy West), upset at the presence of “a wretched female.”

Using much of the same crew and design team from his previous Empire production Crawlspace, the film was shot partially on Dino De Laurentiis’ studio and partially on location at a real Italian monastery. But as good as the film looks and sounds – thanks to production designer Giovanni Natalucci, cinematographer Sergio Salvati, and composer Pino Donaggio – the screenwriting flaws are severe with hardly any compensatory (read as: gratuitous) flesh and/or blood.

On the audio commentary track (recorded for S!F’s “All Night Horror Marathon, Vol. 2” DVD release in 2013), Schmoeller is forthcoming about the film’s flaws, blaming many of them on a lack of time to develop the script properly.As the director tells it, Empire newcomer R. Barker Price, being unfamiliar with the company’s low budget modus operandi, wrote a script that was beyond realization. Faced with a looming deadline, Schmoeller was forced to rewrite nearly the entire script on set (under his pseudonym Giovanni Di Marco), sometimes hammering out pages mere minutes before the next shooting day.

While he gives deserved credit to his capable crew and several of the performances, he’s also unduly critical of Schaefer, who does fine for what she has to work with. (The director openly admits to the fact that he did not choose the actress, that she was foisted upon him at the last second by Band; in a production memo he reads on-mike, he states that he “hates every scene with Elizabeth.”) For my money, she’s an attractive and welcome presence amidst an oft-dour male ensemble. If there were someone to be given the boot, it would have been the dull and oft-at-sea Van Patten (so memorable as the psycho high school student in Mark L. Lester's Class of 1984).

Both films have been given "new" high-def transfers which are a slight improvement over their DVD issue, but being as there are no new supplements, it's difficult to endorse the upgrade. If you've just gotta have it on Blu-ray, so be it, but you're probably better off just picking up a used DVD four-pack off Amazon.

Cellar Dweller and Catacombs are available now on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory and can be ordered HERE:


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