Color, 1978, 92 mins. 23 secs.
Directed by James Wood
Starring James Mathers, John F. Kearney, Dawn Carver Kelly, Nadine Kalmes
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Given a marginal theatrical release in the late '70s by New York-based outfit Rochelle Films (who also handled Abel Ferrara's Driller Killer and Ms. 45), this perplexing freak out on film seemed to populate VHS shelves for years without anyone actually seeing it. That may be because the transfers were so terrible you couldn't tell what was going on, but in any case it's a film whose cover art has still been seared in the brains of an entire generation. More or less a horror film, this is the handiwork of the enigmatic James Wood in his third and final writing-directing credit following two obscure adults-only features, A Game of Love and The $50,000 Climax Show. What we have here feels like at least two different scripts somehow grafted together with some narrator Scotch tape, which will make this highly appealing for fans of crackpot cinema that has no interest in staying within any kind of narrative guardrails.
In a dark basement laboratory in San Francisco, seemingly random people are being forced to combat each other and engage in other violent tests. All of this is the handiwork of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Mathers), a grandson of the famous horror character who has developed a new serum based on his predecessor's work. Having cut his teeth working on psychological warfare tactics for the military and incorporated the findings of Nazi scientists, he's now experimenting on human subjects and forcibly roped in help from Professor Atkinson (Kearney) by kidnapping his daughter, Julia (Kelly). To the accompaniment of a constantly droning electronic soundtrack, Jekyll amuses himself with more martial arts showdowns, long monologues, brandy sipping, and various macabre misdeeds with his brain-damaged servants.
Imagine a more serious redo of Bloodsucking Freaks with kickboxing instead of nudity and torture, and that's pretty much what you get with this one. That comparison even extends to the similar visual scheme with bright spotlights framing the characters against vast expanses of pure darkness, a tactic common to that period in other films as well like Last House on Dead End Street and Cafe Flesh among others. This one has suffered a lot of nay-saying over the years, though a good chunk of that can be attributed to those horrific video transfers that made everything so murky you couldn't tell what the heck was happening most of the time.
Fortunately this film gets a new lease on life courtesy of its Blu-ray bow in 2020 as part of the limited Vinegar Syndrome Archive line (complete with the usual insert poster). The new 2K scan from the 35mm original camera negative is a whole different ball game than what we've seen before, to put it mildly, revealing some actual visual style and nice use of color including some striking splashes of scarlet in the costumes and set decoration. The clarity also allows you to truly appreciate the, ahem, handiwork of the "Black Belt Karate Holders Trained in San Francisco." The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also much better than before with all that muddiness and hiss swept away at least; optional English SDH subtitles are also included. The double-sided packaging features the original poster art (which flagrantly apes the design created for Jean Rollin's Lips of Blood), and a promotional still gallery is included along with a standard def theatrical trailer that manages to cram in every single moment of violence from the actual feature.
Reviewed on May 21, 2020