This double-bill of early-80s Michael J Murphy shorts is the maiden offering from Sarcophilous Films, who may be worth keeping an eye out for over the next year or two.

INVITATION TO HELL opens with attractive Jackie (Becky Simpson) driving down a country lane, on her way to attend a school reunion at her friend Laura's new farmhouse. On the way there, Jackie's car is bizarrely stopped in its tracks by a log lying in the road. From out of nowhere, a man in a Hulk mask jumps out and removes the tree from her path

Upon reaching the farmhouse, Jackie is warmly greeted by her old friend Laura and welcomed into what turns out to be a fancy dress party. Laura takes Jackie upstairs where she helps her change into a 'Bride Of Frankenstein' costume. Now she fits in with the others - Dr Jeckyl, Vampirella, etc.

Later in the night, Jackie is led outside by torch-bearing revellers who say they have a surprise for her. Before she knows it she's injected with some unknown drug and awakes the following afternoon in one of Laura's guest rooms.

Discovering large scratches on her thigh, Jackie attempts to leave the farmhouse but is held back by a group of partygoers who speak fearfully of "him". "He", they say, will not let Jackie leave their 'commune': he needs her virgin soul for a sacrifice

As the group prepare to sacrifice Jackie to him, she pleads to old mate Laura's better nature. But, even when assistance does offer itself, Jackie discovers that anyone who harbours thoughts of escape is likely to meet a gory death

Very, very cheap in execution, INVITATION TO HELL is a rough-looking 16mm home-movie-type offering with stilted performances and risible dialogue. The gore scenes are spirited but extremely primitive (think: Andy Milligan), while the plot is virtually non-existent after the initial 10 minutes of exposition.

And yet, there is a curious charm that attaches itself to this bargain-basement proposition. Director Murphy clearly loves the genre and fills the early scenes with horror motifs and iconography that look great in any medium (the various horror characters at the party; the wonderful torchlit ritual scene). And, at only 43 minutes in length, it's nothing if never slow.

The gore on offer is relatively tame, save for a great (albeit brief) heart-ripping. Elsewhere, we get amateur stabs at knives through throats, pitchfork-impalement and demonic strangling. When the demon finally reveals itself in full, you may titter. But that's half the fun - this is no-budget filmmaking of considerable spirit if not talent.

THE LAST NIGHT is slightly longer, at 51 minutes in length, and follows the exploits of a couple of warped killers making their mark during the final evening presentation of a stage play.

Whatever thoughts that may be in your head - that this may be an astute examination of life-vs.-art, an exploration of the effects of fantasy violence, or simply a merging of exploitation content with arthouse aesthetics - clear them. It's a rather crude and ugly (though not overly nasty) video-quality production with more hammy acting and FX work that makes the Polonia Brothers look sophisticated.

But again, it's all curiously watchable. This has less of INVITATION's feel of a (very) cut-rate episode of HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR - it lacks that Gothic presence - but at least focuses on script dynamics more than many gore shorts from the 80s did.

Both films show more flair for the cinematic and a better grasp of short storytelling than, say, Alex Chandon's BAD KARMA did. But that's not saying much!

But the charm is there, and a certain impact is undeniable.

Both films are presented in anamorphic 1.77:1 transfers. INVITATION looks to be correctly framed, while THE LAST NIGHT seemed to be inaccurate? Either way, Murphy's involvement suggests this is how he wants us to see the films.

While neither looks particularly great, they are at least sourced from original 16mm negatives and have been approved by Murphy himself. In both cases, the grainy, washed-out look helps lend authentic sleaze to the films. The presentations are colourful and bright enough to always see what's going on, but some may have issues with the grain and ghosting. Think VHS quality (or, perhaps, slightly below the standard of Barrel's NEKROMANTIK presentation) and you won't be far off.

On both cases, the films are presented in English mono audio. Both tracks offer clear, clean playback - although THE LAST NIGHT sounds a little echoey, suggesting some remastering tomfoolery in the mixing stage.

Static menus include scene-selection menus for each film (10 chapters for INVITATION; 9 for THE LAST NIGHT).

Extras include very enjoyable audio commentary tracks from Murphy on each film. He's joined, I think, by Phil Lyndon and Sally Duncan. They're not formally introduced on the tracks, but they do feature elsewhere on this disc.

These are Murphy's tracks, and he holds two fluent commentaries, needing only occasional prompts from his guests. He speaks of the low budgets, the settings, the shoot schedules (4 days in May 1982 for INVITATION), the actors' limitations, and his own failings with regard to these films. They're both agreeable, informative and candid chats.

Next up is a 14-minute documentary filmed in Murphy's own back garden on a very sunny day. As he chats affably about both films (but mostly INVITATION), Murphy's garden shed stands behind him. He points it out at one point, highlighting it as his "studio" where he post-produces a lot of his very personal films. Lyndon and Duncan - Murphy's friends and collaborators - are on hand to ask him questions here, although neither had any involvement in the two films on this disc.

Following this is an excellent stills gallery of dozen of photos from Murphy's own private collection, take from the shoots of each film. These are played as a single featurette, in silence, over the course of 8 minutes.

Finally, there are trailers for INVITATION TO HELL, THE LAST NIGHT, plus forthcoming Murphy features SKARE and ATLANTIS. The latter in particular looks superb - a hybrid of camp colours, video FX and cheap gore. It looks like a porno directed by Nick Zedd.

INVITATION TO HELL and THE LAST NIGHT were originally released in the UK on VHS in 1983, and will be remembered by the pre-cert video brigade. It was a fairly uncommon release at the time, and these films have become something of rarities since then.

I never thought they'd see the light of day on legitimate DVD, let alone on such a Special Edition as this. For those brimming with nostalgia, no matter how misplaced at times, for the halcyon days of pre-cert horror videos (that includes me!), this is an unexpected gem of a release. Quite what anyone else will make of it, who knows?

But Sarcophilous promise more from Murphy in the near future and, despite the no-budget trappings of both films offered here, the salvo and creativity that sometimes shine through are enough to make me want to explore further. I look forward to the forthcoming releases.

For more info, visit here. But be quick - this Special Edition is limited strictly to 1,000 individually numbered copies!

Review by Stu Willis

Released by Sarcophilous Films
Region 1 - NTSC
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review