Thursday, February 11, 2010

In short: Death House (1987)

aka Zombie Death House

Vietnam vet Derek Keillor (Dennis Cole), chauffeur of gangster boss Vic Moretti (Anthony Franciosa), is double-crossed by his boss for sleeping with Moretti's girlfriend, and put on death row for a murder he didn't commit. Even without the electric chair business, Keillor's new home leaves much to be desired.

The prison doctor does viral behaviour modification experiments on volunteers for the pleasure of a Colonel Burgess (John Saxon) of the CIA. The doctor protests when the good Colonel wants to test out a very different virus on them, but of course Burgess gets his will in another way. It's just too bad that this virus is quite contagious and turns its victims into rotting, inhumanly strong psychos. Things in the prison deteriorate fast. Before taking the final step of cleaning his mess up by blowing it to hell, the Colonel sends the ex-CIA scientist turned journalist Tanya Karrington (Tane McClure) in to do, well, I don't have the faintest idea to do what.

While all this is going on, Keillor starts a big prison riot. His plan seems to be to get his enemy Moretti delivered into the prison to do who knows what to achieve some goal I'm not privy too.

Oh boy, there is a good reason why beloved cult movie actor John Saxon directed only one movie. His directorial effort lets Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski look like genius artists, and demonstrates neatly and painfully that having lots of experience before the camera does not necessarily give one any insights into directing a film nor does it make one able to be a better director than a trained monkey.

In its way, Death House is quite an ambitious movie. It tries to mix the genres of the crap 80s action film, the crap 80s horror film and the crap 80s prison film, and I'll admit at once that it is very successful at being crap.

As the plot synopsis should make clear, the story here makes less sense than anything Bruno Mattei ever cooked up, but unlike the Italian masters, Saxon manages to make the pile of nonsense exceedingly boring. Scenes go on and on and on, and what should be the simple set-up of a cliché situation (guy gets set up by mafia boss; bad things happen in prison) is developed as awkwardly and slowly as possible. You could cut about half of the film and still have the same amount of plot, mood and character development.

The less said about Saxon's actual direction the better. Let's just call it drab and seemingly made by someone who does not care his film is going to be inflicted on actual human beings at all.

The editing is even worse. The film jumps randomly from scene to scene and back to the scene before, dialogue is cut off while the actors are still moving their mouths, and so on and so on. Calling it "amateurish" would be an insult to each and every backyard filmmaker who ever scratched money together to make a film.

On the acting side, Saxon and Franciosa are cheesing it up quite enthusiastically, but drown in the blandness and utter boredom the former cooked up in his role behind the camera. I don't want to remember the other actors.

The worst thing about Death House, though, is that it has robbed me of a lot of respect for one of my favourite cult movie actors. It's one thing to make a bad, even a very bad, film but it is quite another to make one so bad that it amounts to giving your audience the finger.


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