31 Days of Hell: A Lost Horror Anthology And A Bizarre Release Saga – Screams Of A Winter Night (1979)

Screams of a Winter Night won't end up being one of 2019's biggest cult blu-ray releases, but it certainly will end up being one of the strangest and most notorious. In the hands of basically any other niche film distributor, the rediscovery and restoration of a seldom-seen, long-unavailable 1979 horror anthology – in a thought-to-be-lost director's cut, no less – would be cause for celebration that would have loads of cult movie fans opening up their wallets. But in the hands of Code Red and Dark Force, lead by the erratic, unpredictable, and hot-tempered Bill Olsen and Dave DeFalco, the release quickly turned into a surreal mess that became the stuff of blu-ray legends – at least until Code Red and Dark Force one-upped themselves with an even worse fiasco. That Olsen spent several years (and presumably a large sum of money) on the exhaustive restoration of the once-lost film only to release it as (he claimed) a 1,000-copy limited edition was strange enough, and sounded like a mind-bogglingly bad business decision. But then, after several bizarre Facebook Live meltdowns filled with incoherent ranting about how no one wants his blu-rays anyway, joking-but-probably-not-entirely-joking threats of violence against trolls (or just critical customers) in the comments section, and repeated use of homophobic slurs, Olsen decided to clamp down on the release and trickle it out in tiny batches of 200 or less at a time, with threats that each batch would be the last.

The first couple of small batches each sold out in well under an hour at their sole distributor, the Dark Force Entertainment store, prompting would-be buyers to think that the whole thing was just a bizarre marketing gimmick, which it indeed turned out to probably be: when it was all said and done, Olsen and DeFalco didn't stick to the 1,000-copy limited run, and turned it into a non-limited blu-ray after all, leaving some feeling like they'd been had, and others feeling totally unsurprised. But the obscenity-filled, intoxicated-seeming meltdowns were certainly real, and if it was a gimmick it was a terrible one, as it became clear that the fiasco was rapidly melting away whatever amount of good will fans still had towards Olsen and the once-well-liked Code Red after a long pattern of increasingly erratic, offensive, and generally very unprofessional behavior. The general consensus seems to be that Screams of a Winter Night may have suffered the worst launch of any blu-ray in the history of the medium. That is, until Code Red and Dark Force had an even more insane, bizarre, offensive, and bridge-burning blu-ray roll-out in late-summer with their release of Ator: The Fighting Eagle, which featured more crazy meltowns and threats of violence against fans, the self-destruction of their social media presence, and at the center of it all, the flippant, wildly-insensitive use of a real-life mass-shooting as a marketing gimmick. Again it was unclear how much was a stunt to drive sales and how much was an honest meltdown on the part of the two labels' increasingly unhinged creators, but it was likely a mix of both. And at any rate, while the joint labels could have just kept their heads down and waited for the PR disaster of the Screams of a Winter Night release to fade away, they instead doubled down and secured their reputation as an insane asylum run by the inmates, who happen to sometimes put out some solid blu-rays of really cool cult films.

It's a shame that
Screams of a Winter Night had to get caught up in all of this, because from the first time I heard about Code Red's initial announcement (at least a couple years before its eventual release, because of the long and difficult restoration process), I knew I had to see it. A basically un-findable horror anthology that I have never heard of? Sign me up! I can only imagine that plenty of other genre fans felt the same, and I can only imagine that if a less-unstable company (say, Arrow or Scream Factory or Vinegar Syndrome or Severin) had gotten their hands on the film instead, and simply marketed it as the obscure relic of horror cinema's past that it is, it would have sold just as well without all the theatrics and bad feelings. But now, for better or for worse, I have Code Red's disc in hand, and those two bizarre characters have my money, so the time has come to answer the question... was Screams of a Winter Night actually worth all the fuss?

While that answer will vary from viewer to viewer depending on your particular taste in cheesy vintage horror, for me the answer is definitely yes. Are there better low-budget horror movies from the late-70s or early-80s? Yes, without a doubt; from a reasonably objective standpoint, this is a very middle-of-the-road film by most metrics. Is it overlong, and does it contain some cheesy acting and pretty terrible effects? Yes to all of the above. But if you're the kind of viewer who is into weird, obscure, off-the-beaten-path genre films that may not be conventionally good, but that have plenty of heart and ambition and some things about them that really work, you will have a lot of fun with it. Screams of a Winter Night is very likable in its B-movie ways, with some solid atmosphere, cool story ideas, and a type of cheesiness which usually just adds to the fun. Plus, given its obscurity, watching it feels like digging up some lost treasure, which makes the experience all the more enjoyable.

A horror anthology in the old-school Trilogy of Terror vein, which feels much more '70s than '80s despite being made right on the cusp of the decades, Screams follows a group of college-age friends who go for the weekend to one of their families' secluded cabins on a lake in the middle of the woods. Following genre formula to a T, they stop off at the requisite creepy gas station where the strange attendants (including a young William Ragsdale of Fright Night) warn them that everyone knows not to go to that lake in the dead of winter, but of course they go anyway, and settle in for a night of telling each other horror stories and trying to scare themselves. This serves as the wraparound for four tales (including the one newly restored by Code Red to the director's cut), all of which have a certain old-school urban legend flavor to them, before eventually turning into a horror story in its own right. The actors in the wraparound story play all the roles in each of the four vignettes, which ends up being a cool and unique little conceit, as well as fitting nicely with the theme of the stories being told among a group of friends.

The first and third stories are both monster-related. In the first one a teenage couple looking for a post-prom makeout spot run out of gas in the middle of the woods, and get stalked by a bigfoot-type creature. In the third story two more teenagers sneak into an old, abandoned graveyard at night, and are terrorized by the vengeful ghost of a witch whose grave has been desecrated. Both segments share the same scrappy DIY camp appeal: obviously day-for-night photography that isn't fooling anyone, atmospheric locations that boost the production values as much as they can, and creatures that can be best described as lovably cheesy. The bigfoot never looks like anything other than an actor in a cheap, furry body suit, and the witch is clearly an inanimate prop: a paper-mache head in a cloak on a string that looks more than a bit like Milky Joe, the Sartre-loving coconut from The Mighty Boosh. Both creatures are more likely to provoke chuckles than terror, but in both cases that's exactly the charm. The whole thing is endearingly kitsch, a relic of a simpler era of horror filmmaking, and the way that it is clearly all assembled on a shoestring budget makes it a lot of fun for fans of old-school drive-in horror. Thanks largely to the good locations, especially the creepy cemetery where the third story was shot, both segments do manage some genuinely atmospheric moments. Some of the images of the ghost witch flitting in and out between crumbing old tombstones have a downright dreamlike and surreal feel to them, and feel very eerie and effective in spite of (or maybe even because of) the inertness of the prop itself. And as silly as the witch prop is, there is something effective and spooky about its far-from-human design.

The second story is also oddly effective, despite also showing its shoestring budget on its sleeve. That one is a haunted house tale, about three fraternity pledges whose initiation is to spend the night in a notoriously haunted, abandoned hotel. Not a whole lot actually happens, and in the end the story doesn't make much sense, but the slow-burn build-up is done well, and once again the found location definitely saves the day. The actual abandoned building in which they shot it is downright creepy, and actually shooting in the dark makes the visuals much more effective than the obviously fake day-for-night in the stories that surround it. The segment also provides one of the film's couple of genuinely creepy visuals, even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

It might be overly generous to say that any of these three segments fully work as intended, but at least parts of them work well, and those who enjoy the film's cheesy appeal will have a lot of fun even with the parts that don't. The fourth story, on the other hand, is the least effective of the bunch (for me, anyway) because it has a very different vibe that is altogether less fun than the others. This story involves a young woman who escapes an attempted rape by killing her would-be rapist, but is so traumatized by the experience that she snaps and becomes a serial killer. The film is only rated PG (though the kind of PG that would have been PG-13 if that rating existed), so nothing particularly graphic occurs in the story, but it still has a sleazier, meaner vibe to it that feels totally out of step with the fun, relatively innocent nostalgic feel of the rest of the film. It also falls right into the ugly trope of using rape as a horror plot device, and a reason to turn the victim into a slasher villain, which leaves a bad taste. It just doesn't feel like it fits with the tone of the rest of the movie, which is otherwise very consistent; indeed, it's strange that when the distributor realized that they needed to cut the film down from an overlong two hours to a more drive-in-friendly 90 minutes, this was not the segment they chose to cut. The graveyard witch story was the one that wound up on the cutting room floor instead, even though it makes a great fit with the first two tales, and this is the movie's unfortunate “one of these things is not like the others” segment.

Fortunately the film turns back around quickly, as the wraparound story takes front and center and delivers its own horror payoff. Throughout the whole film, between each story, the member of the group of friends who owns the cabin keeps dropping hints about the lake's dark past, involving unsolved murders and disasters, and the local myth of a vengeful Native American wind demon who is responsible for them. He's just trying to lay the groundwork for a grand finale story, but the foreshadowing is strong that there's more to it than just a campfire tale. The wraparound story works for most part: the actors are a mix of genuinely pretty good for a low-budget indie and endearingly cheesy and over-the-top, the characters evoke the actual dynamics of a large group of friends getting together pretty well (albeit with a couple jerks crashing the party), and once again the atmosphere of the cabin is strong. But it has a tendency to get overlong, and too wordy: the conversations can drag and get repetitive, and the gaps between stories sometimes derail the film's pacing. There is definitely quite a bit of fat that could have been trimmed, and these parts of the film are probably a good ten minutes too long in total, though the strong points keep it fun enough if you like this type of lo-fi horror atmosphere. However, the payoff to the story is very strong, with some genuinely good horror moments towards the end. Indeed, once the wraparound segment turns into a horror story in its own right, it is executed better and more skillfully than most of the stories themselves, with good atmosphere, chills, and some solid effects. Overall the movie is definitely uneven, as anthology films tend to be, but it successfully ends on a high note.

Screams of a Winter Night is no masterpiece, but those with a soft spot for low-budget horror from the drive-in circuit of the genre's past will find much to enjoy here. It certainly deserved better than to spend most of 40 years in nearly-impossible-to-find obscurity, though the sense of it being a rare and elusive artifact from the genre's past undeniably adds to the charm. Despite the drama of the disc's release, Code Red did a very good job of resurrecting and restoring the film; and they clearly did it none too soon, as the negative shows signs of having been in very rough condition when rediscovered, possibly very close to the point of having been lost forever to decay. There are unavoidable traces of print damage throughout: some minor discoloration at the edges, more-than-occasional warping of the image, traces of where the restoration team tried to clean up especially bad scratches or bits of damage, and portions where blotches on the picture are discolored where it looks as though the negative had actually started to rot. But it must be emphasized: it never looks like these things are there for lack of trying. The folks at Code Red clearly did everything possible to restore this negative as well as could be done, and they did an admirable job, but there are occasional points where the print was just too damaged for them to get rid of all issues completely using whatever technology and funds were available to them. Particularly in the case of the discolored blotches that presumably came from the heaviest damage to the negative, it is clear that they tried to color-correct to compensate for it, and the spots match as well as could be expected without a lot more money, but the steep uphill battle they faced leaves the results far from seamless. Still, for the most part this looks beautiful, with sharp detail, a pleasantly filmic quality, and well-restored colors. It is shocking that this film looks this good, and any residual damage inherent to the image serves largely as a reminder of the film's age and obscure indie nature, reminding the viewer that it's pretty miraculous that it could be restored as much as it was from a clearly imperfect source.

Screams of a Winter Night won't be for everyone, but the right type of old-school horror fan will really get a kick out of it. The spooky/cheesy graveyard ghost-witch story actually wound up being my favorite of the four, so I am very happy that Code Red managed to find and restore this director's cut before it was lost to time. Code Red may be a mess of a company right now, and it is really a shame that their bizarre, crazy drama cast such a shadow on this disc's release and perpetuated its continued obscurity, but the disc itself is quite a good one, and worthy of recommendation. If you think this slice of late-'70s nostalgia will be your cup of tea, then put in the blu-ray and gather around the fire.

- Christopher S. Jordan

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