Collins’ Crypt: Let’s Show Some Love For Herb Freed
I've often sung the praises of Mill Creek's "Chilling Classics" DVD set, because it brought Cathy's Curse into my life, but that foul mouthed brat wasn't my first experience with the set. In fact, I managed to look through its contents (50 films spread across 12 discs) at least five times before she caught my eye and changed my life (or at least, changed my go-to answer about my favorite bad movie), nearly six months after buying it in the first place. No, upon picking up the set at Best Buy sometime in late 2006, the first movie I watched was Haunts, a 1976 film that was written up as a slasher but turned out to be more of a melodramatic thriller that would pair better with The Witch Who Came From The Sea than Halloween.
Since I sat down for a slasher, I didn't like it all that much at first, but I've come to appreciate it over the years, and in turn its director, Herb Freed. A commercial vet who only made one other film prior to Haunts (a crime drama called AWOL), he'd go on to make two other genre films before jumping into comedies and the like, and as he hasn't directed since 1999 we can assume those three will be it. The others are Graduation Day, a "Class of 1981" slasher (yes, a real one this time) that I also came to appreciate after a second viewing, and Beyond Evil, a supernatural thriller that just got released on Blu-ray courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome - which might be the best of the lot, since I kind of loved it right away.
The film stars John Saxon (yay!) and Lynda Day George (also yay!) as Larry and Barbara, a newly married couple who have arrived at an island in the Philippines in order for Larry to work on a big project there. Barbara's old flame, Del (Michael Dante) - who is also Larry's business partner - has done the weirdest thing a friend can do and mortgaged a house for them, covering the first payment but telling them they're on their own for the rest. Even if the place was perfect it'd be kind of an annoying gesture, but he doubles down by telling them 30 seconds after they've walked into it for the first time that it's apparently haunted, and no one on the "island" will go near it.
Oh yeah, the "island" is ... Los Angeles, clearly. I mean there are a few shots of The Philippines to sell the idea, and they hired a few Filipino extras for scenes at Saxon's construction project or the hospital, but I have to admit some of my enjoyment of the movie stemmed from their half-hearted attempts to claim that they were on an island, despite all of the easily recognizable LA locations whenever someone went for a drive or whatever. But I swear, it's part of the movie's charm, and if I saw it as a kid I might not even have questioned it. That said, if I was a kid I probably wouldn't have watched it, because it's the rare "people move into a house that's haunted by a vengeful spirit" movie with no children (or even teens) whatsoever. George is probably the youngest person in the movie at 36, and it's kind of novel to watch people go through the usual motions with nary a child in danger.
Presumably, if a child WAS harmed, Saxon or the other actors might have seemed more concerned - when it comes to their peers being knocked off, they rarely seem too worked up about it. In a move that would later appear in Witchboard, Larry is nearly killed at his construction site when the spirit makes some equipment malfunction and drop a load of heavy material over him, though Del knocks him out of the way just in time. A coworker is killed instead, and despite the tragedy, Del is seemingly baffled when, 30 seconds or so later, Larry seems kind of unnerved about it - but then he gets over it a few seconds later as well. There's also a great scene where he gets angry at the hospital regarding his wife's injury, and when a few orderlies try to get him to calm down, he punches one of them - and then walks out without anyone retaliating or even really caring! Folks just deal with violence differently on this island, I guess.
Basically it's a pretty wacky movie; there are some dull spots but you're never more than five minutes or so away from another howler (there's a car explosion that I'd kill to see with an appreciative (i.e. drunk) crowd someday. And it has a great Pino Donaggio score, which is about the only other common trait it has with Freed's Haunts - though given its tragic narrative, that's probably for the best. May Britt stars as Ingrid, a woman who is living/working on her uncle's farm and trying to keep to herself, as a serial killer preys on women around town. Naturally, he eventually sets his sights on her, and there are plenty of suspects, particularly Frankie, a local "bad boy" type who assaults her more than once, with each attack forcing some of her painful childhood memories to surface.
It's a standard Repulsion-y kind of film, with the "slasher" elements only about as prominent they need to be in order to get included in the trailer (maybe the misleading marketing prompted that above VHS box description that summarizes/spoils the entire movie?). However, once the killer is revealed, Freed (who wrote the script with his wife, Anne Marisse) decides to lay on the big twists, with Cameron Mitchell's uncle character coming back into the narrative to more or less serve the same function as the psychiatrist at the end of Psycho. And by that I mean the last ten minutes (more?) of the movie are essentially a long conversation between Mitchell and Aldo Ray's sheriff, as the latter asks "Well then what about [this character or previously seen plot point]?" and the former explains how it really happened. It's an oddly handled reveal to be sure, but overall it's a pretty good entry in the "Is she crazy or not?" movies that sprung up like weeds in the 1970s.
As for Graduation Day, I'd only recommend it to slasher aficionadoes; if you don't enjoy body count flicks anyway this one certainly won't change your mind. Freed and his producer freely admit they made the film quickly, snatching up the title because all of the more traditional holidays were taken and didn't want anyone else to get this one, too - not exactly a labor of love. It shows a bit in the pacing, the film runs longer than the average slasher of the era but has fewer deaths (a plot necessity since the killer is only after a track team), but it's still got enough of what you watch these films for, and I have fun when I revisit it every couple years (my first viewing was also the first time I used Netflix "Instant", back in 2008). The deaths are pretty elaborate (one by football!) and the final chase has a pretty great spin on the "find the dead friends" tradition, where the killer's insistence on stringing up bodies actually impedes his pursuit at one point. It's also got the great Christopher George (Linda's husband) as the coach, two years and only a handful of movies prior to his death in 1983.
One of my favorite things about Horror Movie A Day was discovering these filmmakers, who made their mark in only a handful of films and then either switched gears or disappeared entirely. No one's ever going to put Mr. Freed up there with the likes of Carpenter and Craven, but his three horror films are memorable in their own offbeat ways and are worth seeing, which gives him a 100% track record in my book. Beyond Evil is easily the best of the three thanks to its nuttier plot and always entertaining leads (though George lacks an outburst on par with her iconic "Bastardsssssssss!!!" from Pieces), and I thank Vinegar Syndrome for bringing it into my life at the time of the year when I can appreciate its mix of goofy nonsense and total lack of pretension the most. I know folks love watching the movies that scare them the most around this time of year, but I tend to gravitate toward the ones that put a goofy smile on my face. And John Saxon yelling at "islanders" did just that.