Vinegar Syndrome remains one of the great indie home video labels, and each month they bring forgotten genre gems and old favorites back to life on Blu-ray. Their latest releases include All-American Murder with Christopher Walken, Kevin Tenney’s The Cellar, and a three-film set called Home Grown Horrors: Volume One. Keep reading for our look at all three titles!
All-American Murder (1991)
Artie Logan (Charlie Schlatter) is an anti-social young man with a taste for snakes and fire, but he’s a good guy all the same. When his latest on-campus antics land him in jail his high-profile father finagles a spot for him at a prestigious college known for taking no bullshit. Artie hits it off with a co-ed, but when she’s murdered — burned alive! — he winds up the number one suspect with just twenty-four hours to prove his innocence. If only all the other suspects would stop turning up dead.
It boggles the mind how All-American Murder could be marketed as a serious thriller — every mention on IMDB and even on this Blu-ray calls it horror, mystery, thriller, giallo — because it is hilarious. Like, legitimately funny as hell. I’m not entirely convinced it’s all intentional, but it’s difficult to argue with the end result, and you’re definitely laughing with the film not at it. The tone is a blend of tough talk and sarcasm, the dialogue is endlessly entertaining, and some of the story turns are just weird. All of that said, the film still delivers a fun, satisfying murder mystery as a gloved killer proceeds to knock off numerous supporting characters alongside gore beats, T&A, and big dollops of entertainment. They’re all potential suspects, and as the pool of possibilities grows ever more shallow the guessing game grows more intense. Again, you can’t take any of it seriously, but since when is that a requirement in cinema? Seek out All-American Murder if you enjoy good times.
The other big draw here is the great Christopher Walken as a detective investigating the murders. He’s suitably ridiculous himself as he shoots his gun while his other hand sits in his pocket, he gives the prime suspect a day to prove his innocence even as people keep ending up dead in his presence, and he drops zinger after zinger as if everyone was having a ball. His presence (he’s a supporting player only around for thirteen of the film’s twenty-two days filming) pops throughout as his every expression and utterance is pitch perfect, and he helps lift All-American Murder even higher.
Vinegar Syndrome’s new disc of All-American Murder features a 2K scan and restoration of the interpositive, a reversible cover, and the following extras.
- Commentary track with The Hysteria Continues!
- Being on a Team [15:08] – Actor Charlie Schlatter recalls the All-American Murder production and shares some fun anecdotes involving Christopher Walken.
- A Valuable Experience [14:47] – Cinematographer Geoffrey Schaaf talks about working with Anson Williams, taking the initiative to storyboard upcoming scenes, and how the entire All-American Murder shoot was structured around Christopher Walken.
The Cellar (1989)
When life in the big city gets too big, one family takes the plunge and moves to a remote house in rural Texas. It’s a fixer-upper, but unfortunately it also comes with a monster in the basement. Little Willy is the first to discover the beast, but no one believes him. Maybe the wise old Native American living nearby can shed some light on the situation…
Originally planned as a directorial debut for John Woodward, the hopeful filmmaker was fired just five days into production for already being three days over. Kevin Tenney (Night of the Demons, 1988) was brought on board to shoot the film instead, but even his version ended up being hacked up and modified by producers before release. The film’s troubled history is evident when comparing the two cuts here, but while Tenney’s is the preferred version the released one has its semi-serious charms.
Neither version of The Cellar is necessarily all that good, though. It’s a refreshing change seeing Patrick Kilpatrick as a lead protagonist, but too many of the elements feel overly basic on the horror front when they’re not being unnecessarily dramatic. The physical creature effects, limited as they are by budget, are mildly entertaining and work best as a reminder of simpler pre-CG days. It’s clear the script’s approach to the Native elements wasn’t as well thought out as it should have been as well. Ultimately, The Cellar is a simple little creature feature that never wows — making it a good thing that this new Blu-ray does a better job on that front.
Vinegar Syndrome’s new disc features a 2K scan and restoration, two versions of the film — original theatrical cut [1:25:51] and director’s cut [1:24:19] — director introduction, and the following special features.
- Commentaries on both the director’s cut and producer’s cut
- From Chicken Shit to Chicken Salad [46:12] – Director Kevin Tenney, along with members of the cast and crew, talk about how the first director was fired, how Tenney turned a train wreck into a mediocre movie, and how the leads found their way into The Cellar.
Home Grown Horrors: Volume One
This new box-set from Vinegar Syndrome brings together three regional horror efforts made with lots of love and very little money — Beyond Dream’s Door, Fatal Exam, and the glorious cult favorite that is Winterbeast. Each film comes in its own snapcase, has been lovingly restored in 2K, and is loaded with new and old special features. They’re not available individually and only come in a snug, fully-illustrated, top-loading box.
We’re tackling them in chronological order.
Beyond Dream’s Door (1989)
Sleep should be a time of rest and peace, but for Ben it’s nothing but nightmares and misery. He dreams about monsters, imaginary brothers, and some gruesome and bloody deaths. His efforts to explain and hopefully stop the nightmares leads him to seek help from his university professor and TAs (obviously), but any answers come with real world ramifications.
The first of this box-set’s three super low-budget slices of regional horror makes it immediately clear what those labels mean. Various elements can feel rough at times, from the look to the editing to the performances, but unlike the film immediately below its narrative focus is clear. Well, maybe not clear exactly, but writer/director Jay Woelfel knows what he’s aiming for here and mostly succeeds budget be damned.
The story grows to involve the forgotten truths behind the shared nature of dreams, undead women with knives, books with teeth, and more. The practical effects are low budget affairs, obviously, but there’s talent and enthusiasm on display all the same. At a fast-moving eighty minutes, Beyond Dreams Door takes a pretty fresh approach to dream-related horror ensuring you won’t find yourself bored throughout. Once you’ve seen and enjoyed the movie, the disc offers a ton of extras for you to dig into for a behind the scenes look at its production.
Vinegar Syndrome’s new disc features a 2K scan and restoration, trailers, a reversible cover, and the following special features:
- *NEW* Where Horror Lies: The Making of Beyond Dream’s Door [41:04]
- *NEW* Commentary track with director Jay Woelfel, cinematographer Scott Spears, and actors Nick Baldasare & Rick Kesler
- *NEW* Commentary track with actor Nick Baldasare, moderated by Dave Parker
- Behind Dream’s Door [34:21]
- Getting Monstered [6:23]
- Montage of unused and alternate takes [10:57]
- Unused and alternate fx footage [5:24]
- Bloopers and behind the scenes footage [5:54]
- Local news coverage [4:07]
- Deleted scenes [2:13]
- “Beyond Dream’s Door” [20:52] – The original short film complete with its own commentary track, making-of featurette [7:47], and raw footage [4:29].
- “At the Door of Darkness” [7:31] – Short film with its own commentary track.
- “Come to Me Softly” [8:10] – Short film with its own commentary track and Rick Kessler interview [1:34].
- Commentary track with director Jay Woelfel, cinematographer Scott Spears, and actors Nick Baldasare & Rick Kesler
- Commentary track with director Jay Woelfel
Fatal Exam (1990)
Look, the only thing more boring than college classes are the weekends in between, but one professor has the answer. He invites his class to join him, without the promise of extra credit, for a weekend in a supposedly haunted house. Who could say no?! Things start out a bit spooky despite no one quite buying the impending terror, but that changes when robed, scythe-carrying killers start roaming the halls. Forget a passing grade… these students will be lucky just to survive.
As should be expected with these Home Grown Horrors titles, Fatal Exam is as indie budgeted a film as you’re likely to see on Blu-ray. Director Jack Snyder gives it his all with an ensemble cast, a suitably creepy house, and an evolving mystery, but its independent roots — and a lack of self control — make for a somewhat tiring affair. There is *so much* talking here across the film’s unnecessary 114-minute running time, and while dialogue can be great it’s used here at every turn. Exposition, conversation pointing out the obvious, and details poured over the most innocuous and irrelevant topics too often slow things to a crawl.
Things pick up briefly (and too late) with some stop-motion demon shenanigans, but on the whole the film struggles to chug along. Better than the film is the included making-of doc exploring the motivations and intentions of those involved. They stole shooting time at a school, built sets in garages, made due with four of their five cameras being silent — hence the ADR that’s at times rough and flat — and yes, of course John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was an inspiration.
Vinegar Syndrome’s new disc features a 2K scan and restoration, a reversible cover, and the following special features:
- Commentary track with members of cast and crew
- Fatal Examination [47:40] – Cast and crew reflect back on the film’s 16mm production, making friends while making a “no-budget” indie, and how certain players had little to no faith that it would ever actually be completed. “Looking at the film now I realize I needed several more drafts of the script,” laughs writer/director Jack Snyder.
The woods can be a spooky place, and that’s even more of a possibility when they’re home to Native American curses, monsters, missing people, and murder. Local authorities are tasked with investigating the odd happenings, but answers aren’t easily forthcoming.
While both of the other films in this set have their own charms, it’s Winterbeast that makes this purchase a requirement for fun-loving genre fans. From its bonkers opening to everything that follows, it’s a no-budget gem comprised of energetic sequences, wild characters, stop-motion monster madness, and some pretty fascinating choices.
The story tips its hat to Jaws (1975) with an unforgettable lodge owner in a plaid jacket who refuses to acknowledge the body count for fear of hurting his tourist business, and it finds more character in the supporting cast of straight men, scared women, and absolute weirdos. It’s eminently enjoyable, and it only grows more so when stop-motion creatures appear to kill and maim and claymation human they can get their mitts on. Native American curses (always popular in horror movies), monsters, flesh-tearing zombies (maybe?), and more make for a wild time. Grab a few drinks, invite some friends, and settle in for a mesmerizing time.
Vinegar Syndrome’s new disc is newly scanned and restored in 2K and features the following special features.
- *NEW* Commentary with producer Mark Frizzell
- Commentary with director Christopher Thies, producer Mark Frizzell, and cinematographer Craig Mathieson
- *NEW* It Came from Lone Peak [1:13:22] – The unfinished early workprint is a rough blend of silent scenes and inexplicable turns, but even in its incomplete state it’s a must-watch for fans of the feature.
- *NEW* Sweat & Persistence [27:39] – An interview with producer Mark Frizzell on his introduction into filmmaking through a love for Ray Harryhausen, his work as a filmmaker, and the process of bringing this movie to the screen.
- *NEW* I Saw it in a Dream [10:35] – Actor Charles Majka recalls what brought him to the film, all while wearing a homemade Winterbeast t-shirt in front of a wicked Winterbeast movie poster.
- *NEW* My First Career [13:36] – Actor David Majka talks about meeting Mark Frizzell, his all-purpose presence on the film set, and says “you know” roughly one hundred and forty-three times.
- *NEW* So Bad It’s Good [10:19] – Actor Dori May Kelly seems surprised to be talking about the film as she gets into her early career on stage and the odd production of this movie.
- *NEW* He Wears Sunglasses at Night [14:15] – Actor Mike Magri has aged exactly as you’d expect from the film’s funniest character and still has the same grin.
- *NEW* A Movie for Filmmakers [18:44] – Fan/filmmaker Simon Barrett talks about his love for the film starting with his first rental in the 90s and how he “couldn’t understand anything about it.” Multiple rewatches would follow over the years along with conversations and attempts at understanding its plot — something he’s yet to succeed at. His breakdown of the story is delightful.
- Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be? [19:36] – An archival making-of documentary.
- Deleted scenes [13:00]
- Audio interview with composer Michael Perilstein [3:44]
- “Soap opera” footage [11:49]