Color, 1979, 95m.
Directed by Paul Kener
Starring Gil Van Waggoner, Ron Berger, Bridget Agnew, Clayton King, Mike Wackor, Pat Comer, Rashad Javeri
DEATH BY INVITATION
Color, 1971, 81m.
Directed by Ken Friedman
Starring Shelby Leverington, Aaron Phillips, Norman Paige, Denver John Collins
Vinegar Syndrome (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
After causing a big splash in the cult film world with their release of three lost films by Herschell Gordon Lewis, indie label Vinegar Syndrome strikes again with a pair of '70s horror oddities, one of them among the most elusive of its era.
A sort of slasher film in the wilderness, Savage Water has been something of a dirty secret among the genre's most dogged excavators. Never released on any home video format in the U.S. and barely granted a VHS release back in the '80s (most notably in the U.K.), it's a cheap, scruffy puzzler of a film that doesn't seem to have any target audience in mind. Imagine the script for Rituals tackled by a bunch of people who had never seen a horror film and that might give you some idea of what to expect from this saga about some ridiculous, random stereotypes who decide go out for vacation white water rafting. However, they (and the audience) also have to contend with a strangely chipper German couple ("Adolph Hitter is dead, and someday you will be, too"), violent bow ties, obscenely skimpy denim shorts, and an Arabic businessman named Mahmood (Javeri) with very little understanding of the opposite sex. For what seems like hours they go rafting down the Colorado River, eventually stopping to whip up some chow, sing horrific campfire songs, and set up a potty tent (which figures in the film's funniest moment). Of course, there's also a killer in their midst intent on bumping them all off. Is it the weird psychiatrist? The earth-loving vegan? The obligatory black guy with an afro and huge mustache who just wants to get high? Watch and find out...
Some connoisseurs have actually cited this as the worst slasher film ever made (though it's still way more fun than, say, the Nightmare on Elm Street remake). The main problem of course is that it fritters away a huge amount of time on random bits of mundane business with the huge cast of characters, with the peril only really kicking in halfway through as people finally start getting chucked off of cliffs and stabbed, with occasional other elements like a rattlesnake loose in a sleeping bag. A completely nutty curio for those who thought they'd seen everything '70s horror had to offer, this is nowhere near a good film but certainly worth checking out if you want to see an endearingly damaged example of an indie horror project created in a universe all its own.
Sharing the dual-layered DVD with this film is the (comparatively) more familiar Death by Invitation, which popped up in far more ragged form earlier from Something Weird Video and hails from some of the same gang (mainly executive producer Leonard Kirtman) from Carnival of Blood and Curse of the Headless Horseman. Here we have the tale of Lise (future TV staple Leverington in her filmic debut), a beautiful woman who seems to be connected to a witch persecuted and burned at the stake in Holland(!) three centuries earlier. Now the descendants of her executioners are being targeted, namely the Vroot family, with member Roger (Collins, singer Judy's brother) falling prey to her clutches when he goes home with her. The particularly rude police are little help when another Vroot, Jake (Phillips), seems to be next on her list and the body count starts to climb.
The premise here is hardly original (heck, it's almost a rehash of the previous year's Mark of the Witch), but Death by Invitation has that strangely moody, dark, druggy ambience you find in many other low budget '70s horrors like Love Me Deadly and Messiah of Evil. It's not on par with those, of course, but the strange atmosphere goes a long way to helping this one stick in the memory. Leverington's performance is a major asset, too, as she's beautifully shot in shadowy, gothic settings and manages to actually make a pretty convincing angel of vengeance. Quite a bit of the film is pretty inexplicable (especially the recurring back story involving flesh eating and supernatural female dominance), but chances are it'll make quite an impression.
In an interesting but smart movie, Vinegar Syndrome is apparently alternating its pristine, Blu-Ray-worthy titles with standard DVD pairings of other films whose elements aren't really up to the demands of HD. This one's a good case in point; both are new transfers, scanned in 2K from 35mm theatrical prints according to the packaging, and while they're certainly massive leaps over what we've had before (which in Savage Water's case doesn't mean much by itself), it's nice to have them in such comparatively good shape. Neither one will ever look like a million bucks (or even a third of that amount), but all things considered, it's pretty surprising that these orphaned films would ever be treated like this.
However, in addition to the two features you also get audio commentaries for both from the four guys at The Hysteria Continues, one of the very best horror movie podcasts out there (and easily the funniest). As usual you get half of them in the U.K. and the other half in America doing the chat remotely, and while the straight-up commentary format obviously doesn't allow them to go on as many wild tangents as usual, it's always enjoyable spending time in their conversational company. (Incidentally, podcast member Justin Kerswell can also be heard separately on earlier U.K. commentaries for The Funhouse, Puppet Master, and Slaughter High.) The track for Savage Water is a bit more in their comfort zone since they usually cover slasher films anyway (and have covered the film in a lesser capacity before on the podcast), and it's filled with plenty of nifty nuggets: assessing this as "a bit like watching a gaudy, slow car crash," pointing out the recurring boom mic on the left edge of the frame, expounding on the real-life bouncy pleasures of white water rafting, and discussing some near death experiences during the shoot, just to name a few. Death by Invitation is more of a stretch for them as it's a straight-up plunge into supernatural territory, but they still do a fine job of rattling off facts about the film, riffing on each other, and deriving great amusement from the film's substandard law enforcement. Definitely recommended for the commentaries alone, but both films are also worth checking out on their own terms if you like your '70s horror cinema on the cheap, trashy, and baffling side. And who doesn't?
Buy from Diabolik DVD.