‘Twice Dead’ (1988): VHS-era cheapie has a good sense of humor

Round 2 for the obvious appeal to Shout! Factory to get wise and start sending us product…or we won’t be responsible for ourselves.

By Paul Mavis

In my previous review for The Evil, I mentioned that Shout!’s Scream Factory label will release a (very) limited edition Blu-ray of Twice Dead, splitting up two older Shout! DVD releases from their fondly-remembered Roger Corman’s Cult Classic Double Feature sets: The Evil / Twice Dead, and The Terror Within / Dead Space. So let’s look at 1988’s Twice Dead, starring Tom Bresnahan, Jill Whitlow (I feel faint…), Jonathan Chapin, Christopher Burgard, Sam Melville, Brooke Bundy, Todd Bridges (duck!), Shawn Player, Joleen Lutz, Travis McKenna, Charlie Spradling (I feel more faint…), and Bob Mclean.

Click to order Twice Dead from Shout! Factory (if it’s in stock!)

Twice Dead (SOLD OUT) - - Blu-ray | Shout! Factory

“I built this room for you. This house. You do love me, don’t you? Don’t you? Good. Then fulfill that love…or we both die.”

Prologue: 1930s Los Angeles. Screen actor Tyler Walker (Jonathan Chapin) is at the end of his rope—literally. His lover,
Myrna (Jill Whitlow), no longer wants him, even though he signed over his mansion to her in a spontaneous moment of supplication. With the police at the door, ready to evict him from the premises, Tyler stabs Myrna and hangs himself…only…it’s not Myrna. It’s a mannequin.

Flash-forward to 1988. The Cates family, having inherited the Tyler mansion from their Uncle Harry and his wife, Myrna,
come west from Colorado where Harry Cates (Sam Melville) lost his business and home to bankruptcy. Wife Sylvia (Brooke Bundy) is supportive of the move, but son Scott (Tom Bresnahan) and daughter Robin (Jill Whitlow again), are leery, especially when they see what a rundown neighborhood they’re moving into, and the dilapidated state of the mansion. Oh…and drug-running punks live on their porch.

80s punk Silk (Christopher Burgard) and co-conspirator Crip (Johnathan Chapin again) want to throw-down with the
Cates immediately, something Harry would like, too, especially since he’s sporting a shotgun. But the cops shoo away our snazzily-dressed dregs of society, and all’s right in the Cates world. Except…the ghost of Tyler Walker appears to be haunting the mansion, and Silk’s gang isn’t going anywhere without a fight.

I’m fairly certain I never saw Twice Dead show up at a local theater back in ’88 (star Tom Bresnahan, on the
disc’s commentary track, mentions this Corman Concorde release played in a few theaters in L.A. and New York, and then went to video). However, the poster art looked familiar, so I’m guessing it was one of hundreds of such similar titles I perused in the bulky VHS “Horror” section of my neighborhood video rental store, way, way back in the day (remember how exciting it was to see those seemingly endless rows of movies you never heard of before, trying to decipher from the cover art alone, which one had the most gore and nudity?).

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Watching Twice Dead now, the look and feel of the movie instantly brought me back to the days of zero-budget
80s horror flicks. Leaving the nostalgia factor aside, though, Twice Dead manages to hold up quite well on its own. Combining the urban/gang actioner subgenre of vigilante flicks like Death Wish and The Warriors, with the hoary-old haunted house framework from countless other outings, Twice Dead stays true to both conventions of these genres, and manages to do so with surprising integrity.

Working from a script by Robert McDonnell (Postmortum, MTV Perfect Prey) and director Bert L.
Dragin (Summer Camp Nightmare), Twice Dead, like The Evil, keeps to more conservative scares—at least during the first two acts of the movie, going for conventional chills as characters walk down dark, shadowy hallways with candles, as bumps and groans emanate from the house. As well, the “Fort Apache” tone of the two young teens gradually getting squeezed by the punk gang (aren’t they well-dressed? Like fugitives from a Michael Jackson video) is competently developed, with director Dragin eschewing any flashy violence or gore at first (so as to increase their impact during the final show-down).

McDonnell’s and Dragin’s script has a nice symmetry to it, SPOILER ALERTS AHEAD… opening and closing with the obsession and death of romantically doomed Tyler, linked with the romantically-obsessed Crip’s decent into madness and finally possession (obviously having the same actor play both parts helps here). The script is also unusually nimble in misleading the audience to believe that Scott will be the host body for Tyler’s ghost (Scott spending increasing time up in the attic; addressing Tyler’s mannequin as real; donning his attire when we think he’s killing off the gang), instead of Crip, with McDonnell and Dragin also tricking the audience by coming up with the clever ruse of having Scott and Robin seemingly “killing” the gang in a complicated scam meant merely to scare them off.

Once the killings do come, they’re dispatched with healthy brio (and critically, a sense of humor). Travis McKenna’s big-
boy Melvin is rammed over and over again by his possessed motorcycle until he’s a bloody pulp; Shawn Player’s Stoney gets his head realistically squished by a dumb waiter (the results are shot to look eerily real, like a crime photo); Raymond Garcia’s Cheeta gets electrocuted (with his arm turned into a crispy claw) by a short-circuiting electric blanket, while Charlie Spradling—who very possibly had the most perfect breasts in 80s exploitation cinema—convincingly rides him to earth-shattering orgasm…and death; and the gang’s leader involuntarily sprays his brains all over the walls with a possessed shotgun. All very nicely done. With better-than-expected cinematography by Zoran Hochstätter, and a competent cast (Porky’s and Night of the Creeps icon Jill Whitlow is frustratingly a “good girl” again—sorry: no nudity, guys), Twice Dead hits what it aims at with a level head, a good sense of humor, and no money.

A quick note about the extras on Shout!’s earlier DVD release (which hopefully are ported over to the Blu-ray…the one Shout! is going to send to us when they see how many hundreds of units we move, baby, with our reviews). You can view both movies on the disc with “The Roger Corman Experience,” which threads up the two movies with trailers, coming attraction bumpers and a concession stand reel inbetween the two (as God intended:  at the drive-in). Or…you can watch it all separately. Trailers for Kingdom of the Spiders, Death Race 2000, The Terror Within, and Not of This Earth, with Traci Lords (oh god yes!) are included.

Additional bonuses for Twice Dead include a solid commentary track with co-writer and director Bert Dragin and lead actor Tom Bresnahan, where they give some good info on the movie’s production. Bresnahan mentions frequently how it was difficult to separate his personal feelings for Jill Whitlow on the set, since he was playing her brother (that poor bastard…), but interestingly…she doesn’t mention him at all (or that they dated, as he states), in her own special little featurette, The Girl Next Door…with Jill Whitlow (I smell a good story in that discrepancy…). Running a little over 10 minutes, Whitlow talks about her career and her decision to leave movies (God and kids), and bonus: she still looks fantastic here. Good for her!

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.

Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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