Blu-Ray Review: Haunting Fear (1990)

Matty gives the thumbs up to a damn fine disc of a damn fine Fred Olen Ray movie.

Let’s be completely clear: in a career spanning over forty years and over one-hundred and fifty projects, 1990’s HAUNTING FEAR nestles at the top — nay, the elite — end of Fred Olen Ray’s sprawling resume. Built from the ruins of an aborted creature feature called ‘Empire of the Rats’, and launched amidst the brief resurgence of Edgar Allan Poe flicks at the fag end of the ‘80s/start of the ‘90s (think Jim Wynorski’s Corman homage The Haunting of Morella (1990), and the Harry Alan Towers-produced likes of The House of Usher (1989), The Masque of the Red Death (1989) and Buried Alive (1989)), Ray’s creepy psychodrama owes more to Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987) than Poe’s The Premature Burial, on which it’s air-quotedly based.

A ghoulish chamber piece, Haunting Fear tells the story of troubled housewife Vicky (Brinke Stevens, submitting a fantastic performance). Already plagued by visions of death and disarray, and adamant that she’s going to wind up on a mortician’s slab, Vicky is pushed further into madness by her philandering husband, Terry (Ray stalwart Jay Richardson), and his mistress, Lisa (Delia Sheppard), who’ve concocted a suitably wicked scheme to diddle her out of her family fortune. But is Vicky’s breakdown circumstantial? Or does she have something even more diabolical than a murderous spouse to worry about? Jan-Michael Vincent and Karen Black guest star (despite their top-billing), and a swathe of Ray’s stock players and semi-regulars — Hoke Howell, Robert Quarry, Michael Berryman, and Robert Clarke — also appear. 

Augmented by some deliciously atmospheric photography by long-time collaborator Gary Graver, and heightened by Chuck Cirino’s splendidly spooky score, Ray relishes this early excursion into dark and distinctively adult territory. Working from his own compact screenplay (credited to his ‘Sherman Scott’ pseudonym), Ray sinks his teeth into Haunting Fear’s weighty and compelling themes of mental illness, gaslighting, spousal abuse, and reincarnation, debuting the same visual and dramatic licks that he’d go on to use in such subsequent similarly poised productions as the equally frightening and excellent Spirits (1990); distinguished erotic thrillers Inner Sanctum (1991) and Inner Sanctum II (1994); and sturdy Lifetime caper Deadly Shores (2018)

Of course, for as upsetting and grimly effective as Haunting Fear is a serious ‘grown-up’ horror movie, Ray’s plucky, low-budget wonder still delivers the kind of giddy B-movie thrills associated with his jokier and better known epics, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988) and Evil Toons (1992). The striking Sheppard fills the requisite T&A quota with her kinky tomfoolery, and once the blood begins to squirt in the film’s dizzying, supernaturally-tinged climax, it’s all gorgeously nutty and macabre. Indeed, the sight of a homicidal Vicky sitting cross-legged, slathered in grue, tapping a knife on the kitchen floor (a deliberate nod to the Black-starring Trilogy of Terror (1975)) during Haunting Fear’s evocative closing moments is an unforgettable image. However, as stated, it’s the mighty Stevens who’s the film’s greatest asset. Correctly believing her powerhouse turn to be her best work to date, the beloved scream queen is, quite simply, magnificent; a relatable, tragic, and ultimately terrifying presence who captures the ambiguous crux of Ray’s Poe-tipping premise perfectly.

Acquired for domestic distribution by Troma alongside Ray’s swords n’ sorcery cheapie Wizards of the Demon Sword (1991), a truly decent home video release of Haunting Fear has been a long time coming. Issued by Rhino in 1992, Haunting Fear’s old U.S. VHS rendered the film watchable if a tad fuzzy and washed-out; traits that extended to here, the U.K., via High Fliers’ original rental cassette and a DVD c. 2000 from Digital Entertainment that was seemingly sourced from High Fliers’ tape master. Ye Gods, then, for Ray and his boutique outfit Retromedia. 

Currently available exclusively through fellow cult icon J.R. Bookwalter’s MakeFlix, Retromedia’s region free Blu-ray is a humdinger well worth scooping up — though completists should note that it is a slightly different cut of the film than what was previously available. As with his 2015 disc of Biohazard (1985), Ray has tweaked and tightened Haunting Fear in a handful of places. It’s nothing major or to the film’s detriment (and I certainly wouldn’t have noticed had Ray not mentioned it in his commentary), but it ought to be considered ahead of junking your Rhino/High Fliers/Digital Entertainment copies if you’re a Haunting Fear purist. 

Presentation-wise, Haunting Fear looks luminous. Scanned in 4K from the film’s 35mm camera negative, Retromedia’s sharp and colourful transfer is a revelation — a point Ray himself proudly draws attention to in his yatter, whereupon he confesses to never realising just how sumptuous Graver’s lighting was before. In fact, the disc’s 1.78:1 showcase of Haunting Fear is so good — so crisp, so detailed — that a couple of charming yet hitherto unseen goofs masked by the limitations of video come to the fore — specifically, a shot of someone breathing when they really shouldn’t be (Ray does, mind, offer a tongue-in-cheek defence of the flub’s dramatic merit in his narration). Supporting the aesthetic side is a solid, nicely balanced LPCM 2.0 sound mix.

True to form, Retromedia’s extra features favour quality rather than quantity. Naturally, Ray’s aforementioned gab-track is the highlight. Incisive and entertaining, the ultra-prolific maven covers everything you’d want to know about Haunting Fear, explaining the practicalities of making a film in six days for $140,000, and unloading a wealth of fascinating and often very funny titbits and anecdotes — from the spot where his office used to be, to being promised a signed photo of Sylvester Stallone in exchange for providing Sly with a dupe of Haunting Fear so he could ogle Sheppard prior to casting her in Rocky V (1990). Elsewhere, there’s a short n’ sweet blooper reel (Black and Clarke corpsing), and an archival featurette devoted to Ray and Stevens’ unmade witch shocker, The Coven. Ported from Retromedia’s Mark of the Witch (1970)/Brides Wore Blood (1972) DVD and running for nine minutes, the featurette is comprised of footage Ray lensed of Stevens, Godard-style, on the streets of San Francisco and in the wilds of Salem as the two holidayed, the plan being to build a movie around it upon their return to L.A. Alas, it didn’t happen, and Ray dishes the dirt in the featurette’s insightful built-in commentary. Rounding out Retromedia’s highly recommended package are a pair of cool physical touches: the inclusion of a nifty collectible trading card (a practice Ray pioneered on Retromedia’s recent Evil Spawn (1987) release) and an autograph from Stevens on the back cover, exclusive to the Blu’s first pressing.

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