GRANDMOTHER'S HOUSE
Color, 1988, 89 mins. 40 secs.
Directed by Peter Rader
Starring Eric Foster, Kim Valentine, Brinke Stevens, Len Lesser, Ida Lee, Michael Robinson
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Simitar (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)

DARKROOM
Color, 1989, 85 mins. 27 secs.
Directed by Terrence O'Hara
Starring Aarin Teich, Jill Pierce, Jeff Arbaugh, Sara Lee Wade, Elizabeth Ince
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

IN THE COLD OF THE NIGHT
Color, 1990, 112 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by Nico Mastorakis
Starring Jeff Lester, Adrianne Sachs, Shannon Tweed, Tippi Hedren, Marc Singer, Brian Thompson, David Soul
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)


Greece's Grandma's Housemost famous one-man exploitation machine, Grandma's HouseNico Mastorakis, is a name most VHS junkies will recognize right away thanks to a slew of profitable films he made on his home turf with American stars like Blind Date, with a swift move to California keeping his formula intact with oddball programmers like The Zero Boys, Glitch!, and Nightmare at Noon. By the end of the '80s he was spreading his wings a bit by dabbling in different genres and doing producer duties on films geared for the video market helmed by young up-and-coming filmmakers starting off with Dwight H. Little's entertaining Bloodstone in 1988. That was immediately followed by Mastorakis' first full-fledged horror production in several years, Grandmother's House, which had originated as a story turned into a demo reel by college students Peter Rader (future co-writer of Waterworld) and Gayle Jensen. With Mastorakis aboard, Rader was good to go as director of the film and Hollywood steadicam operator Peter Jensen coming aboard to work on the final script. The story revolves around the sinister adventures of siblings David (Foster) and Lynn (Valentine), who have been recently orphaned and get packed off to live with their aggressively welcoming and upbeat grandparents, Sally (Lee) and Spike (Lesser). On their first night, David creeps downstairs and sees his grandparents in the kitchen disposing of what appears to be a body wrapped in a sheet. That turns out to be a nightmare-- or was it? While Lynn gets distracted by an aggressive wannabe boyfriend and former childhood acquaintance named Kenny (Robinson) she met at the public swimming pool, David becomes alarmed when he sees his grandparents what appears to be the attempted murder of a young woman they stash in a refrigerator. Meanwhile the kids are also being followed by a nameless woman (scream queen Stevens) whose motivations only become clear later during a frantic, chase-filled finale.

One of the stronger films to bear Mastorakis' name, Grandmother's House is a modest but mostly effective example of daylight horror with an off-kilter atmosphere that helps keep the potentially thin story bouncing along. (Viewers of M. Night Shyamalan's The Visit might feel a bit of deja vu at times, too.) The Mastorakis stamp can be felt here in the sometimes Grandma's Housepokey pacing and droning electronic score, but the young stars do a good job of anchoring the story (the grandparents, not so much) and the film delivers some solid suspense sequences in the second half where it counts. The shock ending doesn't quite land but also gets points for sheer perversity as well, and anything with Stevens going way outside of her usual vamp zone has something going for it. Grandma's HouseThis film first popped up on VHS from Academy Entertainment around the end of the decade without a formal theatrical release, with simultaneous laserdisc from Image Entertainment who later issued a DVD in 2003 via Mastorakis' Omega Entertainment, who did all the actual disc authoring. (A hideous budget DVD was also briefly released by Simitar and is best avoided.) In 2019, Vinegar Syndrome managed to revive the film with a drastically improved dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition featuring a new 4k scan from the original camera negative, and it's impressive across the board with pin-sharp detail and superior color timing with much more consistent skin tones and legibility in the darker scenes in the basement. DTS-HD MA English 5.1 and 2.0 options are also included (with optional English SDH subtitles), both fine for what amounts to a limited sound mix mostly emphasizing the innocuous but very, very loud score. Extras here include the trailer, a still gallery, and (carried over from the DVD) that original promo reel (5m51s) augmented with Mastorakis narration and a comparison with the same scenes in the final film. The always enjoyable Stevens appears for a new interview, "The Mysterious Woman" (13m4s), discussing how she got the part through a string of auditions with increasingly gray hair and pulled off one of her favorite roles, while "Back to Grandmother's House" (16m11s) features Rader explaining how the project evolved with its three writers and became a reality when he was referred over to Mastorakis. Finally, Jensen (who also served as Darkroomcinematographer and co-producer) turns up in "Slow N' Steady" (9m17s) to explain how he fell in love with the steadicam in its heyday and started wearing multiple hats on film productions like this. As usual, you get reversible cover options as well and the first pressing comes in a limited slipcase edition. Darkroom

Mastorakis' third go at producing a film for a fledgling director arrived one year later with 1989's Darkroom, the debut released feature for prolific TV director Terrence O'Hara. The film has frequently been compared to both gialli and slasher films, though it's far more indebted to the latter for most of the running time as it chronicles a string of murders in a seemingly wholesome American family. After an opening ax murder we're dropped into a family get together thanks to the recent return of Janet (Pierce), who's in the middle of an escalating relationship with marriage-happy Steve (Arbaugh). Among the other attendees are her perky younger sister Cindy (Wade) and mom Nora (Ince), though a third sister doesn't show up for reasons no one can figure out. As the body count quickly escalates thanks to a serial killer with a fetish for photographing the victims and developing photos in a basement darkroom, it becomes clear that someone there is not all they appear to be.

Though barely functional as a horror film thanks to its soap opera-level acting and surprisingly restrained kill scenes, Darkroom at least works as a late '80s time capsule par Darkroomexcellence with a nonstop barrage of enormous hairstyles and iffy fashion choices. It also works pretty well as a cat and mouse thriller once the psycho Darkroomis revealed early on (just a bit past the halfway point), and the motive is twisted enough to make this a bit off the beaten path (as well as not dissimilar to a revelation at the end of Grandmother's House). This one followed a similar trajectory as the earlier film including Simitar and Image DVDs, with the Vinegar Syndrome release punching it up with a vastly superior new transfer that really brings out the saturated colors especially some intense shades of red during the big showdown. DTS-HD MA 5.1 and 2.0 English options are included with optional English SDH subtitles, again reliant on a simplistic Casio-style music score. The trailer (which reveals both the killer's identity and the climax) and an image gallery are included, while actor Aarin Teich appears for "Developing Fear" (10m53s) to recall how he knew several of the participants from acting classes and earlier auditions (including earlier Mastorakis films) and worked long, hard days throughout that were nevertheless enjoyable for everyone involved. Then "Exposing the Truth" (14m8s) with Arbaugh (who doesn't have his prodigious mullet anymore) has a similar positive attitude about the shoot and the newcomers who gave their all to the production. This one also comes in a limited slipcase edition.

In the Cold of the NightThe Vinegar Syndrome roster also features a film actually directed by Mastorakis and one of his biggest titles back in the VHS days, In the Cold of the Night, a return to the upscale but still amusingly trashy erotic thriller format that had put him on the map. Republic Pictures got this one onto store shelves everywhere in NC-17 or R-rated incarnations (in keeping with the sexy thriller demands on the time), the latter cut featuring In the Cold of the Nighta lot less thrusting and bare breasts in the love scenes. The opening montage of bikini-clad models getting photographed in front of a foggy light display while "Fever" grooves on the soundtrack sets the tone for this tale of that photographer, Scott Bruin (Lester), who likes to make feminism cracks at the height of passion and keeps waking up with his hands around the throat of his latest model conquest, Lena (Tweed, of course). That's because he keeps having Blind Date-esque dreams about a young woman getting strangled in the shower at a strange house, something he decides to share with his iron-pumping buddy, Phil (Cobra's Thompson). A random T-shirt sighting of the dream girl leads him to Kimberly (Sachs), so he starts an affair with her while mingling with random guest stars like David Soul (as his shrink), Tippi Hedren, and Marc Singer (with a ridiculous haircut), all of whom happened to be available in L.A. around that time. Of course it turns out there's something more sinister going on here involving modern technology, with an explanation you won't believe (and it even involves snippets from Mastorakis's prior thriller, The Wind).

Complete with wailing sax music, billowing curtains, and absurd dialogue, this one is about as perfect a representation of pre-Basic Instinct mainstream erotic thrillers as you can get. In the Cold of the NightEverything gets amped up here and sexualized right down to a simple dinner, a dish of marbles, and of course showering, with heavy blue lighting In the Cold of the Nightblasting the screen when things get especially heated. The extra NC-17 material is pretty brief but obvious when it hits, though you have to wonder why the far more capable and appealing Tweed wasn't given the lead here instead of Sachs. (Tweed of course went on to become the direct-to-video erotic thriller queen, so she had the last laugh.) This one made the same video rounds as those above, though the Image/Omega DVD was the R-rated version for no good reason. Thankfully the Vinegar Syndrome dual-format release (yep, also in a limited edition slipcase) is the full-strength cut in all its bumping and grinding glory, transfered from the original camera negative and looking way fresher than you would ever guess from the earlier editions. Again there are DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 English audio options with English SDH subtitles, with the music and those whooshing hi-tech nightmare sound effects getting most of the support here. In addition to the trailer and an image gallery, the release contains the making-of featurette (4m24s) from the DVD with Mastorakis briefly chatting about the production's most challenging scenes and his wrangling with the MPAA over material that seems quite tame now compared to what you see on prime time basic cable.

Reviewed on April 24, 2019