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Twice Dead (1988)



With the boom of the Beta/VHS industry in the early 80's, there was a need for lots of film product to fill video rental store shelves. Video distributors filled the quota with cinema that either had a limited theatrical release or were made straight-to-video. While this meant a lot of titles for consumers to choose from, it was often a dice roll as to level of quality. For every gem, there were ten films that were such mis-fires they were best left collecting dust bunnies on the shelf. One such dirt magnet is Twice Dead, a film replete with a two dollar budget, amateurish direction and even worse acting.

The story opens in the 1930s, where stage actor Tyler Walker goes nuts when his lover, Myrna, dumps him and marries another guy. The ever-obsessed actor keeps company in his crumbling mansion with a mannequin made to look like Myrna. One night, a depressed Tyler hangs himself. The action then flashes forward to present-day, where the money-strapped Cates family is all-too happy to find they've inherited the Walker place. It seems parents Harry and Sylvia Cates are neck-deep in bankruptcy and need anything with a roof over the heads of themselves as well as son Scott and daughter Robin. The Walker mansion is now even more decayed and serves as hideout for a sadistic punk street gang led by the rage-prone Silk. As the Cates clan deals with Silk and friends, Tyler's ghost shows up for more murder and mayhem.

Twice Dead is directed and edited by Bert L. Dragin in strictly by-the-numbers haunted house chiller fashion. Rather than taking the ghost story formula and mixing the sequence of events up, Dragin stays rigidly to form, presenting the scenes in an order that's almost telegraphed: House owner hangs self over spurned love, new family moves in years later, ghost takes interest in family member and causes mayhem etc. To make matters even worse, the death scenes, often a main thrust of a horror film, are staged with an unnecessarily long build-up to the payoff. Setting the sequence with some preamble is necessary but Twice Dead features too many lingering camera shots and an over-reliance on deliberate stage-blocking in setting the scenario. One example, the murder of one of Silk's cronies via ghost-controlled motorcycle, seems to focus more on shots of riding in circles and engine-revving than anything else. These elongated setups deaden the pace of the film and removes any energy that might otherwise be generated.

Further hindering any attempt to bring quality to the proceedings is the predictable, bare bones script by Dragin and Robert McDonnell. There's very little in the way of any subtext or even anything resembling deep meaning here. Granted, a high level of these factors isn't necessarily critical to making a good horror film but having at least a minimum of exposition and depth is important. Adding explanatory detail helps lure the audience in, keep them involved, and get them behind the protagonists. Other than bits of dialogue matter-of-factly stating Walker's fixation with Myrna,there's nothing that expounds on the reasons for it. Has he loved her since childhood? Does she represent a certain woman or type of woman for him? Does she resemble his mother? In fact, there is a distinct lack of detail as to the motivations of each of the main characters. Why does Scott have a strong fascination for Walker? Why are Silk and his co-horts solely targeting the Cates family? The script for Twice Dead is peppered with questions but offers few answers.

Even if Twice Dead had the strong story and characters, it is doubtful that the cast, as assembled here, could do anything with them. As the siblings Scott and Robin, Tom Bresnahan and Jill Whitlow oddly play things 80's tv-movie lite in spite of the grim theme surrounding them, blocking any potential for mood the film might generate. It's more than a bit disconcerting to see smiles on the faces of the pair during some of the most tense moments in the film. Chapin is no better as Walker, turning in a one-dimensional, doe-eyed fanatic/lover performance. Acting vets Sam Melville, Brooke Bundy, and Todd Bridges (Willis of Diff'rent Strokes fame) are here for nominal marquee value only and offer little.

Adding to the mound of problems Twice Dead has is the flashy, yet bland, cinematography of Zoran Hochstatter. Hochstatter's camera style seems to draw inspiration from all those Alice Cooper/MTV videos of the time, with varying speed cuts, zooms, odd angles, a few slow pans,and a bad mix of day, night, and soundstage lighting. All that was missing was having a fog machine in a couple of the shots. Yet, with all of the effects and camera movement, there's nothing substantial or striking with the imagery. Where the images caught by the camera should be stimulating the viewer and possibly luring them into the events on-screen with the awe feeling, Hochstatter keeps the moviegoer on the surface and holds them at a distance with a feeling of disconnect.

If you do have some desire to sit through Twice Dead, get the nicely-produced double feature dvd package from the folks at the Shout! Factory as part of their Roger Corman Cult Classics Double Feature line. It's paired with the much more fun The Evil from 1978, and has some high fun bonus features like The Roger Corman Experience, trailers for Kingdom of the Spiders, Death Race 2000, Not of This Earth, and The Terror Within, commentaries for both films, and an entertaining featurette on Jill Whitlow called The Girl Next Door...

Twice Dead is a prime example of a film that was made with an emphasis on earning a few quick bucks and becoming good video shelf filler material rather than being anything critically substantive. To that end, with all of its failures in just about every area of production, it certainly fills the bill. All it took for me to figure this out was a measly 85 minutes of my precious time. Heck, that was just a fraction of the time it took me to go through all the titles in the horror section at the corner mom-and-pop shop!