In 1983, Screamtime limped out on video around the world, an incredibly grotty omnibus film set initially – and for no good reason – in New York, where layabout bums Ed (Vincent Russo) and Bruce (Michael Gordon) steal a pile of video cassettes from shop owner Kevin Smith (no, not that Kevin Smith) and hightail it to a friend’s apartment for an evening of illicit viewing. What they end up watching are actually three short British films made earlier in the 1980s by Michael Armstrong and Stanley Long. The films all had limited theatrical releases in supporting slots and were subsequently re-edited into this frankly rather dull omnibus film to give them a new lease of life on video.

The first film to be released, in January 1981, was Dreamhouse which actually appears second in this compilation. It follows the exploits of Tony (Ian Saynor) and Sue (Yvonne Nicholson), a newly married couple whose new house is apparently infested with mice. But when the bath starts filling with blood and the power refuses to work properly, it soon becomes clear that we’re back in Amityville Horror territory. And who’s that young boy who rides around the garden on a bike, then promptly vanishes into thin air? After much skulking about in the dark witnessing strange visions, and the intervention of a dotty medium, an answer is provided in the final moments; after Sue suffers a nervous breakdown, a new family moves in and Tony is murdered by an escaped killer, events witnessed psychically in advance by Sue.

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Though cliched and old hat, Dreamhouse is at least very watchable. Director Stanley Long (working under the Americanised pseudonym Al Beresford for the compilation version) mounts one or two quite creditable, if minor, shock scenes, but it must be said that the construction is all over the place; the vignette is far too long and leisurely to do the material justice, though the ending is a genuinely decent shock. Dreamhouse got a second theatrical release just before Screamtime was released in 1983 when it turned up supporting The Evil Dead on its initial UK release.

Chronologically, the next film to be released was That’s the Way To Do It released in November 1982 and sometimes known as Killer Punch. Born loser Jack Grimshaw (the excellent Robin Bailey from The Mouse on the Moon (1963) and Blind Terror (1971)) is at his wits end – his Punch and Judy business is failing, his wife Lena (Ann Lynn, from The Black Torment (1964)) is threatening to run off to Canada and his troubled and troublesome teenage step-son Damien (Johnathan Morris, better known to British TV viewers as sensitive Scouse poet Adrian Boswell in the inexplicably popular sitcom Bread (1986-1991)) is just being plain obnoxious and disturbing. The latter comes to a sticky end in a strange but effectively staged bit of business on a beach after he threatens to torch Jack’s beloved puppets, and Lena is battered to death in her own bed. Anyone who’s seen Dead of Night (1945) or possesses even a modicum of cognitive ability will have sussed that Jack has flipped out and assumed the identity of his Punch doll to do away with his appalling family.

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Over-familiarity with the basic premise really prevents this tale – the opening segment of Screamtime – from ever getting airborne, though there’s some sickly comic mileage to be had from scenes of a maniacal Punch doll beating a policeman to death while screeching “That’s the way to do it!” However, the material is so bland and unoriginal that it ends with Jack falling to his death while pursuing the heroine across a rooftop.

But Robin Bailey gives an excellent turn as the deranged Jack and there are some genuinely surprising jolts along the way, making it the best of the three films. Armstrong’s script offers absolutely nothing new but it does it with some panache and Long keeps things ticking along at a fair old pace.

Finally there was Do You Believe in Fairies?, released in February 1983 and by far and away the worst of the batch. David Van Day, the male half of pop duo Dollar, stars as Gavin Martin, a down-on-his-luck motocross racer who finds employment with eccentric sisters Emma and Mildred (Dora Bryan and Jean Anderson) as a gardener/handyman. Initially, Gavin dismisses the old dears’ ramblings about fairies as the result of creeping senility, but when he leads his friends on a nocturnal raid on the house to steal the women’s horde of jewels, he discovers that not only do the fairies exist, but they’re a rather nasty bunch to boot.

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A daft idea is rather blandly brought to the screen by Long who doesn’t really seem to warm to Armstrong’s script this time as much as he had in the first two films. Van Day is hopeless in the lead role (his acting career was as short-lived as his music career with Do You Believe in Fairies? being his only big screen appearance) but Bryan and Anderson are charming as the dotty old sisters whose affable senility hides a much darker secret. Its biggest liability, besides Van Day, is that the special effects just don’t cut it.

A mixed bag then, but certainly all worth watching at least once – though sadly their only official release was on the Screamtime video, so you’re lumbered with the tedious framing story. They were almost the last gasps of a once-noble art, the British horror short that vanished altogether later in the decade as patterns of cinema distribution and presentation changed forever.

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