Color, 1991, 69 mins. 52 secs. / 70 mins. 14 secs.
Directed by Mike Conway
Starring Mike Conway, Lilly Brown, Mark Lang, Russell Fowler, David Lamb
AGFA (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
An enjoyable, cockeyed straight-to-VHS supernatural oddity shot in the wilder areas around Tucson, Arizona, The Black Crystal is one of those crazy little gems from Raedon Video that populated the dustier corners of mom and pop video stores. This was the debut feature for filmmaker Mike Conway, who not only starred here but also directed, wrote the script, edited the film (which was shot on Super 8), and composed the surprisingly great electronic score. Fans of regional horror with a bit of an action bent will find a lot to savor here thanks to the atmospheric locales (which seem to be disconnected from anywhere recognizable) and a plot worthy of a pulp paperback.
While cruising through the desert in his yellow '78 Trans Am (which is almost the main star of the film), Will (Conway) stops to pick up a jittery hitchhiker, Justin (Lamb). As it turns out, his passenger's fears are justified when they're chased down by a truck of rednecks who gouge out Justin's eyes and send Will off on a frantic race for his life. Eventually Will finds refuge at the forest cabin owned by his brother, Peter (Fowler), and decides to hunt down the one clue from the murder victim: a reference to Daphne (Brown), a woman living nearby with a "bad reputation." He manages to find the very hostile Daphne but gets her attention after a couple of visits by showing her a weird miniature black crystal pyramid he belatedly discovers in his car. Over a roast beef sandwich picnic, she reveals that she's a witch and that both she and Justin once belonged to a dangerous cult run by a powerful leader, Justin (Lang), whose powers are magnified by the mystical triangle. After tragedy strikes, Will ends up sticking around longer than planned and finds himself and Daphne matching wits against the flannel-clad worshipers of darkness.
Actually entitled The Black Triangle on the film itself before the distributor changed it, this one doesn't make much use of that magical trinket but does deliver everything else you'd want including shoot outs, a blood-smeared devil shed, lots of bad guys in sunglasses, very deep French kissing, a gas station attendant who really likes scrubbing blood off of Trans Ams, and dialogue like "I hate men, and men hate me." Either you find this kind of thing charming or you don't, but it has that endearing shot-on-video attitude (even if it's technically shot on film) and makes great use of its austere visuals to create an effective mood on very limited means.
Presented from the director's 1-inch tape master, The Black Crystal comes with the usual disclaimer on the 2022 Blu-ray from AGFA about watching with empathy given the limitations of the source material. (Also, bonus points for the amusing cover font clearly inspired by a certain beloved Jim Henson fantasy film with a similar title.) The main presentation is the version Conway completed before it was picked up for VHS and is apparently the best material there is, so keep your expectations in check; it's standard def, gritty, and a long way from demo material of any kind, but the film's rarity and charm should more than compensate. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is true to the source, which means the music sounds good and the dialogue recording fluctuates in clarity from scene to scene (largely thanks to some occasional wind noise). The English SDH subtitles come in very handy at times deciphering some of the more muffled lines.
A commentary by Conway is lots of fun as he talks about being inspired by other Super 8 epics released on VHS (like A Polish Vampire in Burbank and Game of Survival), the local casting process, the execution of the various stunts, the many hats he wore during and after principal photography, and the ins and outs of the home video business (including plenty of Raedon background). He also references Bleeding Skull several times as the releasing company for this disc, though the final product is just branded as AGFA. A video interview with Conway and Lang covers more about the making of the film, such as paying the actors $50 and turkey bologna sandwiches every day. Also included are the original Raedon VHS master of the film (which runs slightly longer with the extra logo and original credits), the home video trailer, and four Conway short films, all more recent and shot on digital video: Bug Complex (7m10s), about a woman with a really big cockroach problem; Contingency Plan (4m4s), with Conway having a very bullet-riddled domestic dispute while watching The Black Crystal on TV; Roadkill (13m8s), a three-character crime chamber piece with some fun car stunt gags; and Tequila (6m33s), in which Conway and a drinking buddy play a trivia drinking game that gets monstrously out of hand.
Reviewed on December 11, 2022.