It's hard to knock a company that's able to poke a little fun at itself, calling their collection of twelve low-budget, 1970's horror movies "12 Cheap Thrills." The fact is, though, that among these films viewers might find a couple they like, no matter how bad the films may be. I mean, how can you not like any company that gives the world "Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things" (regrettably, not included here), and how can you argue against getting twelve movies on four discs for essentially the price of one?
The films contained in this VCI collection are "Alice, Sweet Alice" (1976), "Beast of the Yellow Night" (1971), "Beyond Atlantis" (1973), "Death Game" (1976), "Don't Open the Door" (1975), "House of the Living Dead" (1976), "The Night Creature" (AKA, "Out of the Darkness," 1978), "Scream Bloody Murder" (1973), "Sisters of Death" (1978), "Twilight People" (1972), "The Vampire Happening" (1971), and "Young Hannah: Queen of the Vampires" (AKA, "Crypt of the Living Dead," 1972).
You can see by the list that this is not a collection of great screen classics. Not even a collection of great horror classics. It simply is what it is, a collection of cheap B-grade thrillers. If you come looking for high production values, topflight acting, imaginative direction, innovative costumes and set designs, high-tech CGI graphics, or elaborate special effects, you won't find them here. Basically, you come to this set hoping to chance upon maybe one or two films worth sitting through.
Much to my surprise in looking over the list of films on the discs, I found I had already seen a number of them, mainly on TV at one time or another and a couple on disc (I reviewed "Twilight People" years ago). Needless to say, I wasn't about to try reviewing all of them for the present article; most of them aren't worth watching once, let alone twice. So let me tell you a little something about the lead film in the set, "Alice, Sweet Alice," which is about the best of the lot.
Co-written and directed by Alfred Sole ("Pandemonium"), "Alice, Sweet Alice" (with or without the comma, which, grammatical or not, doesn't appear in the opening title) is a pretty decent horror flick, despite its meager budget. Unfairly, a lot of people know it today because it features the big-screen debut of Brooke Shields. I say "unfairly" because Ms. Shields plays only a small part in the film, which has a lot more going for it than her brief appearance.
Also known as "Communion," "Alice, Alice," "Sweet Alice," and "Holy Terror," among other things, the film gets its alternative monikers for obvious reasons. It stars Paula Sheppard as Alice Spages, a weird, troubled, mean-spirited girl in her early teens (although Ms. Sheppard was in her late teens when she made the picture; it's called "acting"). Alice lives in a city apartment with her divorced mother, Catherine (Linda Miller), and her younger sister, Karen (Shields).
Alice is troubled, obstinate, disrespectful, even insolent, her favorite sport tormenting her little sister by putting on masks and scaring her. Alice has a whole stash of creepy stuff locked up in a trunk in the basement: old photographs, dolls, veils, masks, knives, and the like. The scenes of her alone down there in the dust and shadows are among the most unsettling parts of the picture.
The fun really starts, though, when somebody murders the little sister (Shields) during her First Communion and stuffs her body in a trunk, which the murderer subsequently lights on fire. Yes, it's a disturbing episode. As a tease, the filmmakers give us a glimpse of the hidden killer, dressed in a hood and mask, the same sort of mask Alice often wears.
Could it be? Could Alice be the murderer? Sweet little Alice? Or could it be the murdered girl's divorced and remarried father, Dom (Niles McMaster)? Or the girl's domineering and wholly irritating aunt, Annie DeLorenze (Jane Lowry)? Or the girl's milquetoast uncle, Jim DeLorenze (Gary Allen)? Or the girl's peculiar cousin, Angela (Kathy Rich)? Or the kindly Catholic priest, Father Tom (Rudolph Willrich)? Or the rectory's cranky housekeeper, Mrs. Tredoni (Mildred Clinton)? Or the fat, lazy landlord, Mr. Alphonso (Alphonso DeNoble)? Or any of about 800 other suspicious characters who skulk about the story?
Another mark against Alice: Her school principal has made repeated requests for Alice to see a psychiatrist, but the mother will never have it. People remark that Alice "has a knack of making things look like accidents."
Despite its paltry budget and largely no-name cast, "Alice, Sweet Alice" develops a modicum of suspense as more people die in various grisly ways. Crucifixes, holy pictures, sacred statuary, and religious symbolism abound, making it a little spooky for those viewers who grew up around older churches and were the tiniest bit apprehensive of stained glass windows and dark, incense-filled surroundings. Alas, the Catholic Church gets more than its fair share of blame from horror-movie writers; all that ecclesiastical mysticism must truly inspire them.
"Alice, Sweet Alice" could be just another possessed-child movie. Or not. Or it could be a precursor to the whole slasher movement of a year or two later. Or not. Mostly, it's a mystery movie, a whodunnit, as a pair of homicide detectives, Brennan (Tom Signorelli) and Spina (Michael Hardstark), investigate the case.
The movie's denouement, the revelation of the killer and the final resolution of the conflict, comes much too soon, however, and it diminishes a lot of the film's tension that could have continued a while longer. Even so, an intentionally ambiguous conclusion gives the movie a proper send-off. Kind of fun, actually.
The good news: VCI present the films in something close to their native aspect ratios: 1.78:1. What's more, the colors are reasonably vivid and realistic, with decent flesh tones and at least acceptable black levels. Given the amount of compression necessary to squeeze three complete films onto one side of each disc and the number of transfer artifacts that produces, the results at least aren't completely awful.
The bad news: Only three of the widescreen films (disc three: ""Scream Bloody Murder," "Sister of Death," and "Twilight People") are anamorphic; that is, formatted to fit a 16x9 screen. The rest are non-anamorphic, meaning they show up with black bars surrounding them entirely. Also bad: The definition is often soft, fuzzy, or blurred compared to the best image quality available today; and there remain on many of the films a number of flecks, specks, and lines.
VCI preface each disc with a note saying they digitally restored the product. I'm afraid in this case that isn't saying a lot. Either it's not up to their best restoration work, or they started with some remarkably inferior prints that had little hope of rescue.
The good: The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio reproduction is always fairly quiet and listenable. The bad: Everything else. The audio sounds restricted to midrange only; and depending on the film, it's somewhat muffled, one-dimensional, strained, and nasal.
Well, you're getting twelve films for the price of one. That's the extra. Otherwise, you'll find English as the only spoken language, no subtitles or captions, no on-screen scene-selections menu, not much of anything but the films. You can, however, navigate through the movies with the "Next" or "Advance" button on your remote because each movie does have four or more chapter stops.
It's not easy to judge this set because it is, after all, a set, meaning it's a whole collection of films, some of them interesting, some of them less so, a few of them absolutely dreadful. But that's the fun of the set: It has a little something for everyone, with the emphasis on the "little." In any case, when VCI call it "cheap thrills," they mean it: The moviemakers created the films on the cheap, they mounted the thrills on the cheap, and VCI have priced set about as cheaply as possible, which may be the biggest advantage of the whole shebang.
OK, I can see I still haven't convinced you. I understand. No matter how cheaply priced the set, VCI should be paying the viewer for watching some of these flicks. Still, maybe you can think of it this way: You're buying "Alice, Sweet Alice," a horror film not without merit, and getting eleven more films free. Not a bad deal for fans of cheap, older fright films.