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Elite Entertainment presents
Drive-In Discs Volume One: The Giant Leeches/The Screaming Skull (1958/1960)

"The Screaming Skull is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror. Its impact isso terrifying that it may have an unforseen effect. It may kill YOU!."
- Narrator, The Screaming Skull

Review By: Dan Lopez   
Published: January 10, 2001

Stars: John Hudson, Peggy Webber, Ken Clark, Yvette Vickers
Other Stars: Bruno VeSota, Russ Conway, Michael Emmet
Director: Alex Nicol, Bernard Kowalski

Manufacturer: Henninger Interactive Media
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild violence)
Run Time: 02h:15m:28s
Release Date: January 02, 2001
UPC: 790594374822
Genre: horror

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
C CD+B- B+

DVD Review

Unfortunately, the drive-in theatre is pretty much a dead institution. In fact, I'll admit, I've never seen a drive-in movie. I guess I was just born past their days, and the only local one closed well before I was of movie-going age. It's too bad this is the case, though, because they once were so important to the evolution of movie entertainment, their death is almost like a piece of film history dying off. In an attempt to resurrect some of that history here, Elite's first in a series (hopefully) of Drive-In Discs hopes to capture even the smallest aspect of charm these places once held.

Drive-In Discs: Volume One isn't simply a double feature of classic B-movies. The presentation is the central gimmick, including all of the trailers, clips, and advertisements you might have normally seen if you attended a drive-in in the late 50s/early 60s. When played from beginning to end, it faithfully delivers an imitation double feature, drive-in experience of two really bad, but undeniably fun, movies.

Feature One: The Giant Leeches
Better known as Attack of the Giant Leeches, this is a fairly average Roger Corman production. The plot centers around a small community that happens to live in the middle of a swamp. The swamp is actually a nature preserve, but constant intrusions by hunters and poachers is a regular thing. The poachers tell stories of mysterious, large animals who are almost impossible to kill (the leeches), but the ranger of the park has a hard time believing this. The pace picks up when a local store owner (Bruno VeSota) is accused of killing his wife and her lover. He claims it was the giant leeches that killed them, but no one believes him except for a scientist and his daughter, who just happens to be the girlfriend of the swamp ranger. Eventually, people start dropping dynamite and all sorts of other stuff into the swamp in an attempt to oust the evil creatures. Will it work? Stay tuned and find out!

Giant Leeches isn't quite as bad as many 50's Roger Corman productions. The fact that it mostly takes place outdoors means that the painfully cheap sets we usually see aren't quite as prominently featured. The story is obviously a bit dim and everything moves slowly, but it's still a by-the-numbers monster movie in the classic mold. For a cheap popcorn flick, it serves well.
Style Grade: C-
Substance Grade: D

Feature Two: The Screaming Skull
Although Screaming Skull has something of a reputation for being pretty laughable and awful, I've never found it quite as lame as that reputation. Sure, it's a little dumb and has some bad overacting, but the story is actually something of a cut above the typical early 60's horror film. In the movie, a couple moves into a large mansion set on some rather creepy property. The property, which seems to be part forest, part swamp, includes a mentally unbalanced caretaker who does just about everything. Before the couple can get settled, the woman begins experiencing hallucinations and negative experiences in the house. She slowly becomes more terrified of what she thinks is the ghost of her husband's previous (now deceased) wife.

The plot is slightly more complex than the average "haunted house" film, and the setting gives it a genuinely creepy feel. It moves a bit slowly, though, making the middle portion a tad bit boring. Despite all this, I still found it to be fairly superior for the time. If anything ruins the movie, it's the desperate attempt at showmanship the director tries out. The movie is preceded with a William Castle-style gimmick: if you die of fright during Screaming Skull, the theater will pay your burial expenses. This cheapens the film into some kind of roadshow spectacle, and I seriously doubt Screaming Skull ever actually came with real burial policies, whereas Castle's movies would really go all-out for the effect. So, there's a lot of badly forced scares and jumps. Ironically, some of the best horror movies from the 50s and 60s had these kinds of gimmicks attached to them. So, Screaming Skull is fairly good as a psychological thriller, but it moves so slow that I think it would result in more "steamed windows" at the drive-in than Giant Leeches.
Style Grade: B-
Substance Grade: C+

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Despite anamorphic enhancement, the features don't look too swell. Both films suffer from what seems to be edge enhancement and video-transfer-style blurriness. Brightness and contrast balance seems to be off as well, with whites being heavily bloomed while darker shades are almost impossible to see, with no real black level to speak of. This doesn't make the movies awful to watch, but it certainly isn't too impressive. Presumably, the source material was just not that great. Interestingly, I was never aware that these films were 1:85:1 aspect ratio. At first, I assumed the transfer simply matted them to give a theatrical look, but if that is the case, no image is lost. Nothing is cut off or cropped improperly, so it looks like these films were made for 1:85:1 projection. The drive-in material (advertisements, etc.) all looks spectacular, obviously from very good sources. The cartoon features both look pretty good with no digital artifacts (especially the Betty Boop toon) and are also windowboxed into the 1:85:1 frame.

Image Transfer Grade: D+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
English (Distorto version)yes

Audio Transfer Review: The standard mono soundtrack (Pro Logic Mono) is about what you'd expect. It sounds good and is fairly clean overall, even managing some good, broad sound effect management. It never distorts or breaks up and, if anything, only minor source damage effects the quality in certain spots.
The more interesting audio track on the disc is the so-called "Distorto" audio track. The Distorto track mimics the ambience of the drive-in experience by placing the film's audio into the left front speaker only (imitating the mono speakers placed in car windows, common in most old drive-ins). The sound is also purposefully distorted and lower quality than normal to re-create that old feel. Added to this is a 5.0 array of ambient sound effects. You are placed inside of a car, with some viewing companions. Oddly enough, the people you're "with" never say too much or emote much of anything. Surround channels carry crickets chirping and the sounds of people walking the past the "car" you're supposed to be inside. The channels correspond to the general action of the theater setting, where you'll hear people running around, or cars coming and going, or the members of your fictional party leaving and entering the car.

This drive-in recreation is fairly entertaining and impressive, but it lacks some significant features. First, the audience is a little too subdued. While brilliant touches are made (like the crowds cheering when the stereotypical "loose woman" enters the picture in Giant Leeches), some things are totally absent. As I said, the people in the car don't really do much of anything. I expected something sort of "MST3K"-ish with lots of comments or something similar. Also, the imitation car speaker never carries any announcements, like the speakers did in those days. Another problem that cannot be overlooked is the fact that this ambience suddenly goes away through most of Screaming Skulls, where not even the crickets chirping are present. I applaud the effort on this disc—the "Distorto" soundtrack is much more impressive than I thought it would be—but Elite needs to improve these flaws if they plan on doing a similar track for future volumes of Drive-In Discs.
In any case, be aware that the entire disc can be watched WITHOUT the Distorto audio mix. If there's a real downside to this audio, it's that only people with Dolby Digital 5.1 home setups will really be able to fully enjoy it.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 8 cues and remote access
2 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Wasp Woman, The Giant Gila Monster
Packaging: Alpha
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Original Filmack Studio animations (advertisements, intermission sequence)
  2. Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons
Extras Review: While the disc has nothing that would quite approach "normal" extras, the presentation is the central extra feature. While the movies can be watched without any particular flair, it is the "ticket booth" feature that begins the drive-in mode in which you watch the films in the imitation drive-in setting. Prior to the first movie, you will be treated to a few classic advertisements, a trailer, some staunch warnings about your behavior, and a Betty Boop cartoon. After Giant Leeches is over, you get a classic intermission timer (complete with dancing snack food) and Screaming Skull is preceded by a Popeye cartoon and some more advertisements. This is a pretty cool concept, overall, even if you do ignore the whole Distorto audio track. Everything on the disc can be accessed via a special menu for "Clips and advertisements" and the movies themselves have their own chapter indexes. The menus are nicely made to look like old marquee signs, and the general style of the packaging and presentation is very appropriate for the concept.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

Using the drive-in-style presentation really adds a lot of life to these old horror films. I can only hope this catches on and continues with an impressive series of discs. I also understand that Image Entertainment has gotten in on the act, and will be releasing their own stylized drive-in discs. Recommended.


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