Madmen, Murderous Tykes, and a ‘Fast Times’ Reunion

A 4K UHD upgrade and two lesser known genre films from the late 80s are new from Vinegar Syndrome.
Jennifer Jason Leigh in Sister Sister
Vinegar Syndrome
By  · Published on March 2nd, 2022

Vinegar Syndrome remains one of the best indie labels thanks as much to the titles they release as to the care they put into each and every one of them. Their February slate is no exception, so keep reading for a look at Madman (1981) on 4K UHD, Beware! Children at Play (1989), and Sister, Sister (1987). (1991’s Drop Dead Fred was not provided for coverage.)

Sister, Sister (1987)

A large home on the edge of a Louisiana swamp is home to two sisters, Charlotte (Judith Ivey) and Lucy Bonnard (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and a whole lot of ghosts. They’re not literal phantoms, of course, but the dark memories and questions of madness that haunt the sisters’ past and threatens their future. They operate the home as a bed & breakfast, but the arrival of a young man (Eric Stoltz) sends their lives into disarray. It seems a death from their past, one connected to them in a very direct way, has led them all to a stormy, violent night on the bayou.

Bill Condon would go on to direct higher profile films like Candyman (1992) and Gods and Monsters (1998), but his debut is every bit as worthy of your time. Part Southern gothic, part erotic thriller, and maybe a little bit of a giallo, Sister, Sister is an engrossing mystery smothered in swamp water, rain, and bodily fluids. Leigh plays the kind of soft, slightly “off” young woman she made a habit of in the 80s and leaves viewers rooting for her even as we don’t fully trust her. Stoltz and Benjamin Moulton, meanwhile, both bring a deceptive menace to their roles as the men in her life. It’s something of an odd reunion for Leigh and Stoltz, both having starred in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) just five years earlier, but there’s nothing funny or nostalgic going on here.

Sister SisterCondon, who also co-wrote the film, crafts a world where secrets and lies sit around every corner and a layered mystery slowly unfolds in the night. The house’s walls stand as a monument against the encroaching dangers of the outside world, from the battering of a storm and snap of an alligator to the devious desires of men, but it’s soon made clear that the threat may already be inside. We hear the creaking floorboards and the buzz of insects, and we can feel the humidity wrapped around everyone with a deathly tight grip.

The film maintains a dreamy feel at times due as much to Lucy’s potential madness as to the atmosphere captured by Condon and cinematographer Stephen Katz. The swamp eats people alive and promises to leave no trace behind, and while the immediate threat is only human the film teases the possibility of something far more unnatural hidden among the Spanish Moss and bullfrog croaks. It’s an attractive film and a tight mystery, and it’s a shame the film disappeared on release back in 1987 — but it’s fantastic seeing it given new life here.

Vinegar Syndrome’s new Blu-ray features a new 2K scan of the original film but retains the at times hazy grain as intended.

Beware! Children at Play (1989)

Glenn and his father are enjoying a fun camping trip in the woods when tragedy strikes — the adult steps into a bear trap and is stuck miles from home. Seemingly unaware that such traps are built by humans and can easily be opened with two hands, the man decides they’ll wait for a passerby to come help. Fool. A few days pass, as does Glenn’s dad, and the boy is left with no other option but to eat his old man. Ten years later local kids are disappearing into the woods never to be seen again, and you just know that people-eating Glenn is behind both the disappearances and the impending slaughter.

Beware! Children at Play bears the Troma imprint, but it should be noted that this was an acquisition for the studio and not an in-house production. That’s typically a relevant distinction as movies from the latter group are often goofily amateurish to the point of being not worth the effort, but we won’t be pretending this isn’t a silly as hell little kiddie-killer flick. For some of us, though, killer kids/kids getting killed is a subgenre that can often rise above subpar acting, writing, and/or directing.

Beware Children At PlayThe bulk of the film follows the town sheriff and his tabloid-writer buddy investigating the disappearances, and while we get a handful of kills throughout it’s mostly talking. The chatter involves comments on Southern hicks, women’s “cleavages,” and even a local reporter making jokes about the disappearance of yet another child. It works, though, as there are laughs to be had as the story unfolds, and the practical effects show both enthusiasm and creativity.

This was the first and last film for both director Mik Cribben and writer Fred Scharkey, and neither detail should surprise viewers. That said, the final ten minutes feature one of the finest set-pieces ever put to film as the cannibal tykes get their comeuppance in glorious fashion. You will be shocked what parents allowed their own kids to participate in — some of them even play the adults killing their own kiddies! — as the little ones are stabbed, shot, and slaughtered in an onslaught that left me cackling.

Vinegar Syndrome’s new Blu-ray is the disc debut for Beware! Children at Play, and its 2K restoration of the original 35mm negative is a gory delight taking full advantage of the film’s colors (which are often red-focused).

Madman [4K UHD] (1981)

Summer camp season is winding down, and one of the final nights kicks off with a campfire tale about the abandoned house just outside the forest. It was home to ‘Madman’ Marz who killed his wife and children with an ax before being hung by angry townspeople — only to disappear from the noose by morning. One of the campers taunts the legend, and soon Marz is stalking the counselors and racking up quite the body count. Heads are lopped off, axes are buried in flesh, and at least one character gets tossed onto a meathook. Can anyone stop the madman?!

While the initial concept behind Madman was to make it a riff on the real-life legend of Cropsey, that plan folded after The Burning beat them to the punch. It went ahead with its own creation instead, and while the details are fairly limited — a crazy guy murdered his family, was killed by a mob, and then escaped into the night where he haunts those who dare say his name above a whisper — it’s effective enough for a slasher setup. Less effective, though, and I know I’m in the minority on this one, is the execution of most of what follows.

MadmanSlashers typically have very straightforward plots, but Madman‘s is as one-note as they come with characters leaving to explore on their own, one after the next after the next. One couple is killed within arm’s reach of each other, but everyone else is offed while wandering alone, and that’s the entirety of the film. The kills are okay but far from memorable or gory, and it all ends rather abruptly in unexpected but somewhat uninteresting fashion.

Of course, while the slasher elements stumble Madman itself is memorable for a few other reasons. For one, the eponymous killer has his own theme song that plays over the end credits. Is “Song of Madman Marz” Top 40 material? No, but it’s catchy and creepy in its own way. We also get a hot tub scene that’s meant to be sexy? Funny? Weird? It’s unclear, but stars Gaylen Ross and Tony Fish display zero chemistry as they slowly circle each other in the hot tub — already an odd thing as this is a summer camp for kids — before mashing together for an unconvincing hook-up.

Madman is a rarity among the Vinegar Syndrome catalog as its initial release to Blu-ray back in 2016 has now received an upgrade to 4K UHD. This release features a brand new 4K restoration of the 35mm negative, and while the Blu-ray looks good the UHD finds even more depth and clarity in the darkness without sacrificing grain. Both the 4K UHD and Blu-ray are included here with all of the initial release’s extras ported over alongside a brand new interview with star Gaylen Ross.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.