With their earlier intended release of Savage Water/Death by Invitation having been canceled, worthy startup “boutique” label and film restoration company Vinegar Syndrome have performed something of a salvage operation, making sure the worthier of the two films gets a proper street date by tagging on a new, and in fact more appropriate companion piece.
As the earlier release had been previously reviewed here, our discussion today will limit itself to the new arrival, a strange little public domain obscurity known as Dungeon of Harrow (1962).
Written, directed, edited and narrated by comic book artist and writer Pat Boyette (of long running second tier comics company Charlton fame, and who also handled soundtrack composition on the film), this Texas oddity bears none of the feel, tropes, or even regional accents of fellow lone star auteurs Whit Boyd, Dale Berry or Ron Scott. Despite being of both the same vintage and area of origin, Boyette eschews the anything goes bizarro take on sexploitation those men are known for to deliver a more archaic, backwards looking scenario that lends its gaze towards contemporaneous productions from Europe (or at least faux European domestic product similarly so inclined).
Boyette, who wrote and helmed three films between 1962 and 1964 – a sexploiter, a war picture (of all things) and the piece under consideration, delivers an odd piece of celluloid falling somewhere between a classic Italian gothic and a Corman Poe film, but lacking a Barbara Steele or Hazel Court to lend it any real air of class or panache (much less eye candy).
Dungeon of Harrow bears a strong similarity to Jack H. Harris’ Equinox in many respects, both in filmic style and creative use of no-budget special effects and awful, overemoting nonactors to build a surprisingly admirable and truly oneiric atmosphere the likes of which has been lost since the last true heyday of horror in the early 80s.
Count Aaron Fallon (Russ Harvey, whose sole subsequent credit is in Boyette’s aforementioned war film, No Man’s Land) is taking a voyage on one of his family owned ships, when they run aground during a bout of foul weather marked by cheap and amateurish but sufficiently atmospheric effects such as a wildly rocking cabin set (one wonders how the men involved didn’t become nauseous), a brief scene outside the cabin with a few extras trampling a fat barechested ship’s mate and a model boat in a fishtank (similar if superior to the Vasquez Brothers’ prop from Amando de Ossorio’s El Buque Maldito aka Horror of the Zombies, doubtless familiar to fans of Commander USA for his apt skewering of same).
With Fallon and ship’s captain (Lee Morgan, the only established actor in the film and veteran of numerous westerns, including one for Lash LaRue) the only apparent survivors, the remainder of the film takes place on an apparently deserted island occupied (quite unbelievably) by a crumbling old castle.
This unlikely island domicile is occupied by an extremely fey Count Lorenzi (imdb notes as “Lorente”) de Sade (oddly mispronounced as SAYd throughout, a role essayed by the atrociously overacting William McNulty (whose only other credit came 20 years on, in an early 80’s Afterschool Special!), a scrawny old man in a farmer style longjohns top and smoking jacket whose eyes continually dart to cue cards offscreen for the next line, and his servant “Matches” (Maurice Harris, whose lone credit this film represents and who imdb lists as “Mantis” – I know the soundtrack isn’t the best, but I think their published renamings of these characters presents just a bit of a stretch over what’s being said in the film…), a cross between Brother Voodoo and Dennis Rodman marked by a close cropped platinum toned afro and shirtless vest/sash with Santa Claus style fur lined skirt ensemble (!)
I dare viewers not to walk around quoting this ridiculous exchange, which in print fails to approach the delirious lows of its actual onscreen execution and the bizarre inflections of its actors:
Matches: “Dey killed a woman last night.”
de Sade, with increasing excitement, shoulders jerking about with each movement: “A woman? How could there be woman? There is no woman. Where did she come from? Who is she? A woman? Den (sic) there may be others. There may be other people here. Matches. You find them. You bring them here!”
de Sade gets into a weird conversation with the devil (likely co-scriptwriter Henry Garcia, who gets no character credit), an overweight guy with a huge forehead in stage magician getup who first appears in negative (another nicely evocative yet low budget touch ), and who overacts his cackling evilness on a level beyond even that of the cheesiest Bugs Bunny cartoon:
“oh…who I am…is not important. It’s…what…I am…you…see, your highness..I am simply…a product…of your…evil…reflection…of your…madness. Surely…you must recognize…me.”
He makes a knife appear, a cheap rubber bat straight out of a K. Gordon Murray Mexican horror import, and finally a giant spider on a clearly visible string, which coaxes an amusingly girlish scream out of McNulty.
Taking a ridiculous, overstated pratfall seconds before a net appears to trap his companion, Fallon proceeds to display his stuntman background by delivering yet another wild slapstick fall for no reason whatsoever and an exaggerated reaction to a slap from Matches (who renders his outfit even more ridiculous by adding a cossack style fur pillbox hat for outdoors scenes).
Fallon awakens to a montage of third person shots of himself being carried away, dogs, a lock in place of Matches’ medallion, de Sade’s head, and the rather homely Cassandra (Helen Hogan, in her only credited performance), none of whom he would logically have been able to see, whether unconscious or no, from his point of view.
Getting a snotty browbeating by Hogan, he hauls the captain into bed (worried about his catching pneumonia, apparently) and heads off to meet the Count, who sits in a wooden lawn chair with a red tablecloth strewn over it in place of actual prop furniture (!). “It’s our guest,” intones Cassandra helpfully. Attempting to express his gratitude, Fallon discovers that “the count will not tolerate conversation during repast”, before delivering the witty redundancy of a riposte “you can tell the count he can damn well go to hell”.
Fallon follows that choice bon mot with an audible thought balloon straight out of left field:
“And Cassandra…her haunted face revealed only a portion of the wracking torture…of her inner torment! This observation of unhappiness and despair was verified by the event that was soon to follow,” which apparently refers to her statement that “I feel ill” (a sentiment doubtless shared by fans of actual acting and screenwriting) and a light browbeating by de Sade that refers to her usual conversation as “babbling”. Ooh, the horrors! The awful torment!
The count seems to have an inordinate terror of pirates, which leads him to rig the island with traps and (apparently) torture the captain to death (though there’s a bit of a twist that delays the unfortunate man’s demise until the final reel).
Fallon, as can probably be gleaned from the last bit of dialogue noted, has quite an active imagination, building little histories around people with little or no justification and marked by some truly odd projection and fantasies. When a servant girl (Michele Buqour, another single-credit actress) enters to pour some tea, he delivers this bizarre internal monologue, despite her blemish free skin and utterly calm demeanor :
“Ann could have been a beautiful girl. But it was difficult to see beyond the swelling of bruises and scars of the Count’s mistreatment. It was obvious the child bordered on screaming hysterics.” Freud would have had a field day.
Buquor later appears in Fallon’s room, delivering a surprising if quick flash of aureole for audience delectation – but hell, at least he thanks her for it.
Ultimately turning into a fall of the House of Usher cum Tomb of Ligeia pastiche with the leper wife rotting away in a dungeon (though strangely, she lets herself out with little difficulty) and a very predictable “surprise ending”, Boyette manages to approximate a dash of Cormanesque Poe obsession for all his zero budget, comic book pulpishness.
While bearing few of the more celebrated elements of AIP’s Hammeresque run, he still pulls off enough of the style to be credible, offering further touches and a level of bluntness that Arkoff’s more mainstream films could not deliver by the very dint of their marketability, leaving the film in something of a unique corner of its own.
While it is a shame that director Paul Kener surfaced to scupper the previously intended release of Savage Water with Death by Invitation, the resulting reissue of the latter worthy with Boyette’s oddball no-budget gothic proves a more fitting pairing of like unto like.
While spanning nearly a decade and a gulf of aesthetic style and temperament (the remove separating a backwards looking early 60s gothic and a very contemporary 70’s exploration of feminist concerns and witchcraft is far wider than the less than a decade between the two films would suggest), they are at least each representative of a similar school of horror subsequently lost with the advent of the bluntness and characterization-eschewing cipherism and strict adherence to template ushered in by the era of the slasher film, of which Savage Water was an early part.
Unlike fellow comic scribe cum one time only director/screenwriter Arnold Drake (whose quirky but quite milquetoast Doom Patrol left viewers wholly unprepared for the for the time rather gruesome and well-written effort The Flesh Eaters), Boyette’s sole notable foray into cinema proves atmospheric and unusual in the sense of a Something Weird style curio of the drive in era, but poorly acted and even worse scripted, with stilted dialogue and uneven direction driven to unexpected depths by some hard to believe, truly out there awkward delivery by a cast of unknowns, locals and nonactors.
If you’re looking for dreamlike visuals and clever use of zero budget special effects, Dungeon of Harrow proves quite entertaining, and the film should appeal equally to devotees of camp curios marked by terrible dialogue and stiff performance who should find this a nonstop stinkbomb of pure MST3K style riffing material.
Those looking for an undiscovered gem of gothic horror akin to, say, Masque of the Red Death or Terror Creatures from Beyond the Grave, however, will find themselves horribly disappointed – Boyette and his cast of amateurs are no Ricardo Freda or Antonio Margheriti, much less the likes of Steele, Walter Brandi or the Corman regulars.
By comparison to an earlier release from public domain specialists Alpha Video, Vinegar Syndrome’s restoration of Dungeon of Harrow comes as something of a revelation – what was formerly quite unwatchable has become a relatively quite clear, vibrantly colored and well lit piece more or less on par with HD Cinema Classics’ recent Blu-ray remastering of The Terror, whose elements appear to have fallen into similar levels of murkiness over the years. While still fairly soft and marked by a Milliganesque muddiness in audio, such concerns are likely part and parcel of the original filming and failures of the director and crew than related to any attempts at restoration half a century on.
All told, this replacement double bill from Vinegar Syndrome comes highly recommended, if more for the quite enjoyable Death by Invitation than its quirky, somewhat archaic if unintentionally amusing companion piece.