‘THE DISMEMBERED’: THE LOST PENNSYLVANIA HORROR THAT PRE-DATES ROMERO

There are numerous horror films from the mid-century era that I could have chosen to discuss. In fact, many of them are far better films than the one I chose. You see, 1962’s regional horror film The Dismembered isn’t taking home any awards for its brilliant script or stellar acting, but the story of a lost film that gets found is always an interesting one to me as a film nerd. Filmed in 1962 in the Philadelphia area, released that same yet to regional audiences, and lost not too long after – the film all but disappeared. That is until Harry Guerro and Garagehouse Pictures entered the fray.

Anyone in the film community from the Northeast, especially the greater Philadelphia and South Jersey areas, should probably know at least a thing or two about Harry. Harry is one of the founders of Exhumed Films, an organization hell-bent on making sure great theatrical genre films of various eras, styles, and budgets remain on the big screen. He also launched his boutique blu-ray releasing company Garagehouse Pictures several years ago. He’s affiliated with the folks who run Diabolik DVD and has friends all over the film community. His collection of films is the stuff of legends. However, those outside of the region may not be as familiar with him, and it’s important you know one major thing: he loves finding films he’s never seen and loves sharing them with others.

It is with this in mind that Garagehouse Pictures even exists. Harry’s penchant for unearthing lesser-known gems and lost films resulted in the label’s formation and its releasing of titles that scarce few of us had ever heard of and likely never would if not for these releases. Today’s selection, The Dismembered, for example, did not exist in any public form in over 50 years and never once was released on a home video format. Now, it’s not only available for home viewing but in a pristinely restored edition on Blu-ray with several special features and great new artwork. In other words, Harry is doing the Lord’s work for cinephiles like us.

The film itself, as noted above, isn’t the Citizen Kane of regional horror – but, it is a charming, if not a bit slow and underdeveloped, ghost story that’s easily worth the mere 65 minutes it’ll take anyone to watch it.

The film begins with a disclaimer:

Clearly, The Dismembered has a sense of humor with an opening card as such. In fact, it’s this sense of humor that most defines the best moments of this film. Good-natured goofiness creates a good bit of the film’s charm – as well as the charm of the director’s only other noted work, the comedic 12-minute short The End of Summer, which appears on the Garagehouse release as a bonus feature. To call it a comedy hour would be most accurate, albeit the laughs are typically light chuckles and the scares are very mild. Which is to say, its allure is certainly its charm.

The story of The Dismembered begins with a trio of criminals, jewel thieves to be exact. In their attempt to hide while the chase dies down, they decide to make a spooky, dreary old home theirs for the night. Of course, the house has other inhabitants… of the ghastly kind. The ghosts are more of a collection of sometimes bumbling, certainly annoying, and somewhat funny spirits than a terrifying bunch; a troupe of misfit ghosts as it were.

Of course, these uncoordinated and ineffective ghouls are attempting to off their new guests and force them to join their cast of formerly living souls, which means that hijinks ensue. The three thieves are pitted against not only the house’s trapped souls but also the “dismembered” souls approaching from a nearby graveyard. Living through the night is not an easy task.

Amateurish, playful, and endearing, the film had an extremely modest budget of under $5,000 and despite that, still looks far better than its budget should allow. The humor in the film is both the elevated kind you may expect in a Samuel Beckett play, as well as a Hogan’s Heroes type of physical humor that emphasizes single oversized character traits in each of the ghosts. The cast features primarily local actors who have very few credits to their name, with only a couple who had some Hollywood experience under their cap – a few episodes of TV, primarily. It is an exercise in how to stretch a budget into a fun experience that would likely have been quite entreating to local audiences and was surely a fun time to make.

The truest insight of this film to a cinephile is as an example of what small budget regional horror looked like pre-Romero. In fact, the film even predates the explosion of Herschel Gordon Lewis, so it certainly has the feel of something more akin to a 1950s feel than that of the later part of the ’60s. The film can accurately be described as quaint or charming without being overtly cutesy or hokey. It’s a capsule into a specific kind of film at a specific time that exists despite the deletion of most films of its kind.

The horror genre may not be known for many films of the mid-century, but there’s a foundation in films like The Dismembered that would later build out to the modern horror-comedy that cannot be denied. For a fun double feature that takes some of what makes The Dismembered work and takes a modern bigger-budget approach to the fun, pair it with Beetlejuice or The Frighteners. Just make sure this one is the opening act, because it could easily be a bit overshadowed. And this little gem deserves its time to shine.

Those interested in spending an hour with the dismembered souls and foolish thieves need not purchase the Blu-ray today, however. The film also finds itself available to rent or buy via Alamo On Demand.

MID-CENTURY MACABRE: BECAUSE HORROR DIDN’T START IN THE ’80S