Editor’s Note: This review ran on October 17, 2019. We’re bringing it back for our “Hikmet ‘Howard’ Avedis Week” of reviews.
Hikmet (or Howard) Avedis studied at the University of Southern California and won the George Cukor Award, which totally prepared him for a lifetime of working in exploitation fare. With titles like The Stepmother, The Teacher (consider it the grindhouse version of The Graduate), The Specialist (where Adam West fights against the water company), the Connie Stevens’ classic Scorchy and the utterly baffling sex comedy/giallo They’re Playing With Fire, Avedis may not have made Oscar-worthy pictures, but he certainly knew how to entertain. He also wrote this movie along with his wife Marlene Schmidt, who also acted in this movie (as she did in nearly every movie he made).
Known internationally as Embalmed and Hall of Death, this film has shown up on a few of the top ten slasher lists that we’re putting together for later this month. It’s a great example of what happens when a slasher strays from the form somewhat and you get the idea that this movie is kind of like a carny haunted house, ready to scare you at every turn.
Wealthy psychiatrist Dr. Parson has died and only his daughter Christie (Mary Elizabeth McDonough, Erin Walton from The Waltons and one of the stars of the abysmal Funland) believes that there was foul play. The official word is that he drowned and that’s good enough for her mother Eve (Lynda Day George!), who doesn’t believe the dream her daughter had where dad was bludgeoned with a baseball bat. Oh yeah — she also sleepwalks all the time.
But let’s forget about all that. Let’s get to the mortuary, where Christie’s boyfriend Greg Stevens (David Wallace, who was also in Humongous) is stealing tires with his friend Josh. After all, if Hank Andrews (Christopher George, never far from his wife, in one of his last roles) isn’t going to pay Josh fairly, they may as well take what they want.
While they’re in the midst of this larceny, an occult ritual just happens to happen, with Hank leading a bevy of gorgeous women in what is called a seance. Josh is unfazed, as he claims that this kind of thing happens all the time. He goes off to get the tires and gets stabbed for his efforts. Greg can only watch as someone drives off in his van.
Greg and Christie search everywhere for Josh, including the local roller skating rink because it’s 1983. There’s some insanely great roller skating footage here, if you like that kind of thing. You know that I do.
As Christie drives to her family’s mansion the next day, a car starts to follow her. Soon after her arrival, a hooded figure begins to follow her around the pool where her father died. Her mother claims its all a dream.
The next day, Greg tells Christie that her mother was one of the women in the ritual he watched. That makes sense to her, because now Eve and Hank are shacking up and her dad’s corpse is barely cold. If things couldn’t get weirder for our heroes, Paul (Bill Paxton, who shows up in so many great films of this era), the son of Hank, begins getting hot and bothered for his soon-to-be stepsister. He’s even weirder than his dad, but that’s probably because his mom killed herself.
Greg and Christie try to hook up, but her entire house goes wild, with lights flashing on and off, music playing by itself and even the film seeming to stop and start. It’s a great sequence and really sets up the gaslighting — or supernatural attacks — that Christie is forced to endure.
Greg and Christie decide to follow her mother, who heads right to the mortuary. Stranger and stranger? It gets even more so, as a cloaked figure who looks like Paul attacks Christie that night and in a shot that looks similar to Suspiria, almost pulls her out of a glass window.
While Eve again says it was all a dream, she does have one oddball theory: Paul used to be a patient of her dead husband and he was obsessed with Christie, talking about her the entire time. This is soon followed by Paul, clad in a latex mask, appearing and stabbing Eve in her bed. He attacks Christie and brings her to the mortuary, claiming that he intends to embalm her alive.
Hank arrives to stop him and we get the villain moment where he explains his actions: he had to punish everyone, like Eve for telling Christie he was insane and Dr. Parson for putting him in jail. He then goes one step beyond by stabbing his father just in time for Greg to try to save her. A battle leads to Greg getting locked in the embalming chamber while Paul arranges all the bodies of his victims for a wedding ceremony.
You know how weddings go — you spend much of the the time conducting a symphony. Paul does exactly that while we see all of his victims, including his mother who was in a coma and not dead. What follows is a battle between Paul and his scalpel and Greg with an axe, ending with Christie sleepwalking her way into killing the villain with one hack of the axe into his back. Our heroes embrace, just in time for Paul’s mom to awaken from her coma and attack them with a knife, probably because she saw the end of Carrie and knew this needed one more jump scare.
We’ve talked about Gary Graver and his work for Orson Welles, in the adult film industry and within films like Texas Lightning, Sorceress and Trick or Treats, amongst other films. His cinematography makes this movie a cut above ordinary slasher fare.