Following a lengthy hibernation from the home video market, James L. Wilson’s PG-rated horror anthology SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT (1979) has finally resurfaced on Blu-ray thanks to Code Red, and not only does CR’s restoration look terrific, it also features the long-unseen director’s cut too.
Exceedingly simple in its set-up, SOAWN serves as an interesting bridge between the more innocent horrors of yesteryear and the splashier, gorier ingredients found in the slasher films of the ’80s. Although far from a polished production, the film is also refreshingly ambitious (the director’s cut runs just over 118m!) and atmospheric, highlighted by a palpable air of impending doom.
Five college couples led by John (Matt Borel) are heading to his parents’ long-abandoned woodland cabin for a winter weekend getaway. Located on Lake Durand, which is better-known under the more colourful name of Coyote Lake (quote) “because of the weird noise the wind makes”, and according to an ancient Indian legend, this remote area is also supposedly home to ‘Shabata’, a (quote) “very evil, very powerful spirit”, which allegedly wreaked havoc in the past—a legend which Matt sneakily plans on exploiting for one of his (quote) “great stories”.
Settling-in for the night, everyone sits around the fire drinking beer, and, thanks to Matt’s persistence, ‘entertain’ each other with a number of scary stories. These begin with Matt’s ‘The Moss Point Man’, an undemanding tale about a young couple who are terrorized by a strange sasquatch-type beast after their car breaks-down on a desolate woodland road. Next up, Matt’s friend Steve (Gil Glasgow) gets in on the act, telling a tale about an old—and supposedly haunted, natch—hotel, which is used for a fraternity initiation when three pledges are ordered to spend the night there, with uniquely disastrous results. In the third story (the one that was missing from Dimension Pictures’ original theatrical prints), Lauri (Jan Norton) reminiscences about an old Catholic cemetery in her hometown, which is haunted by the spirit of an old witch named Lorraine. “I think everyone is letting their imagination run away with them!” exclaims Elaine (Mary Agen Cox), the lone cynic amongst the group, who relates a far different tale about a young woman who, following an attempted rape, suddenly snaps and becomes a knife-wielding killer. So engrossed are they in their storytelling that the group fail to notice the howling and increasingly violent wind outside the cabin…
One of the more unique anthology films, SOAWN’s rudimentary premise is well-anchored by the film’s overall uncanny atmosphere, which commences in terrifying style. Simple, non-distracting white credits on a black screen unfold over the sounds of what seems to be a family besieged by screeching howls, deafening winds and their subsequent screams of terror (“John, it’s back! Don’t go out there!”); it’s an imposing and gripping opener, which sets the ominous tone wonderfully. In yet another cleverly novel concept, the four stories (which do build the film’s dramatic tension nicely) are also cast with the same actors from the wraparound story, which takes up quite a sizable portion of the film’s running time and actually turns out to be far more riveting than some of the story segments themselves.
Shot in and around Natchitoches, Louisiana, the isolated wooded locales, heavy with Spanish moss-covered, cypress swamp trees that are so prevalent to the area, add immeasurably to the film, especially during some of the cost-effective day-for-night photography. In an early scene at an out-of-the-way gas station (a typical horror movie trope), local colour is provided by William Ragsdale in an early role (the actor would go on to star in Tom Holland’s essential ’80s horror classic, FRIGHT NIGHT ), and, according to an interview with actor Gil Glasgow (found elsewhere on this disc), the rather striking ‘giant’ seen lumbering around the gas station was actually the local real-life sheriff.
Prior to Code Red’s Region A Blu-ray, the only game in town—outside of shoddy bootlegs—was VCI’s long out-of-print VHS videocassette of the theatrical version, which was issued in both a standard slipcase edition and in a large clamshell box, both of which commanded large sums of money within the collector’s market, but whose dark and murky panned-and-scanned transfers left a lot to be desired. Released earlier this year, Code Red’s long-awaited Blu-ray of this oft-requested title is taken from a (quote) “brand new 2K scan of the original 16mm A/B roll camera negative of the never-before-seen uncut 124-minute director’s edition”, which is presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and, despite some inherent damage here and there, it’s miles better than its videotape predecessor and far easier on the eyes especially during many of the aforementioned day-for-night scenes. It should also be noted that, despite the “124-minute” running time listed on the packaging, this director’s cut actually only runs 118m44s. In terms of audio, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track also sounds quite good, which not only enhances the various and—all-important—sound effects, but Don Zimmers' effective score as well.
The BD’s extras kick-off with an on-camera interview with actor Gil Glasgow (21m33s), during which he discusses how he initially became involved in the project, as well as discussing the film’s locations and the rest of the cast, plus the multiple characters they played and how James L. Wilson and writer / producer Richard H. Wadsack (quote) “were very hands-on, and learning as they went.” As an extra bonus, Code Red have also seen fit to include the truncated original theatrical version (91m29s), which was mastered from a worn print with duller colours and lots more print damage. It nevertheless makes for a terrific and welcome addition to the package. A rough-looking TV spot for the film finishes off the extras, along with a number of TV spots and trailers for some of Code Red’s other available and/or upcoming titles, including Eddy Matalon’s BLACKOUT (1978) and Lucio Fulci’s CONQUEST (1983).
Although not out-of-print, Code Red’s SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT is only intermittently available through the Dark Force Superstore, so keep trying!