Color, 1973, 94 mins. 43 secs.
Directed by Guerdon Trueblood
Starring Tiffany Bolling, Ben Piazza, Susan Sennett, Brad David, Vince Martorano
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Subversive (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
By the early 1970s, exploitation films had been derailed by the arrival of hardcore pornography and a far more relaxed new ratings system that allowed Hollywood to tread in waters previously explored only in grindhouses. The once-popular "roughie" style of sexploitation, which combined lashings of nudity with crime-oriented, violent storylines, had largely dissipated, leaving viewers nostalgic for the likes of The Defilers. However, the short-lived General Film Corporation was still looking for ways to deliver traditional exploitation in shiny new packages, dabbling in blaxploitation (Detroit 9000) and a variety of softcore sex films. However, in 1973 they really hit paydirt with two noir-inspired films starring actress Tiffany Bolling, whose only other major role was the lead in MGM's split-screen oddity Wicked, Wicked. First she managed to steal Arthur Marks' ambitious, sleazy, but deeply flawed Bonnie's Kids, but her real moment to shine arrived with The Candy Snatchers, a roughie-inspired kidnapping thriller that ultimately veers into full-fledged horror territory.
One sunny afternoon while riding around in their van to a ditty called "Money Is the Root of All Happiness," three inexperienced, aspiring criminals -- ice-cold ringleader Jessie (Bolling), her psycho brother Alan (David), and dense "nice guy" Eddy (Martorano) -- kidnap Catholic schoolgirl Candy (Sennett), daughter of a wealthy jeweler, and, in a move inspired by Cornell Woolrich's "Graves for the Living," bury her alive on a dusty hilltop with a metal tube providing her only source of air. However, Candy's father (Piazza) doesn't respond to the ransom demands as expected; in fact, he has some dirty plans of his own and sends the entire scheme spiralling into chaos and tragedy. Meanwhile Candy's plight is witnessed by a young mute boy ("Christophe," actually the director's son, Christopher), whose foul-tempered mother ignores his signals that something is very, very wrong in their own backyard.
Tight, nasty, and chilling, The Candy Snatchers delivers all the requisite drive-in thrills (flying bullets, tough talk, and female nudity), but its twist-packed plot and unflinching willingness to put its audience through the wringer results in a film unlike any other. Director Guerdon Trueblood (otherwise known for TV work) shoots in a compact, efficient style that maximizes the surprisingly strong performances, with everyone turning in solid work and Piazza doing wonders with a very tricky role. Of course, Bolling fans will delight in her acidic viper role, but Sennett - who had just starred in the squeaky clean Ozzie's Girls on TV - is equally impressive in a largely silent role that led to Big Bad Mama the following year. The budget-impaired film has to make do with limited locations but, thanks to clever scripting, manages to turn this challenge into an asset, becoming increasingly claustrophobic as the story nears its grim final stretch. Most critics don't strictly peg this as a horror film, but as with films like Gonin and The Vanishing, there's no doubt that the ending more than justifies the label in the best possible sense.
Due to a variety of legal entanglements, The Candy Snatchers was never legally released on any home video format for decades but still built up strong word of mouth on the gray market. The first official release via Subversive's DVD in 2005 thankfully got the job done and then some with a bounty of valuable extras and a fresh transfer from the camera negative. Though it looks modest today, the transfer was a real joy to behold back in the day and ranks as one of Subversive's stronger a/v efforts, bringing out the striking use of lime-green "money" lighting as an accent in many shots as well as the evocative, arid hilltop photography that practically forces the viewer to leap for a glass of water. The soundtrack is offered with the original mono and a slightly remixed stereo soundtrack; either one works fine, with the latter spreading out some of the ambient effects between the front speakers. Though the filmmakers and male stars weren't available, Bolling and Sennet are well-represented throughout the disc, first on an enjoyable commentary track together with Subversive's Norm Hill and Marc Edward Heuck. Since Sennett and Bolling share very little screen time together, it's interesting to hear their unique anecdotes about shooting the film during the hectic heyday of indie drive-in cinema. Both women return for a satisfying featurette, "The Women of Candy Snatchers" (31m53s), in which they focus more on their careers at the time and stories about the other actors and creators of the film. Also included are two trailers (one for general audiences, the other restricted), a lobby card gallery, cast and crew bios, and promos for other Subversive releases (The Freakmaker, The Witch Who Came from the Sea, Metalskin, and Battlefield Baseball), all tucked into amusing animated menus, which are hampered a bit by overlong transitions (e.g., a 30-second clip plays every time you want to change audio options!) and massive spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen the film. Be careful with that menu button! Unfortunately that disc went out of circulation after a couple of years when the label went under, leaving the film to drop back into obscurity for several years.
Fortunately that situation was rectified in 2019 when Vinegar Syndrome released it as a Black Friday title featuring a very striking embossed hardbox design that's one of their best packaging jobs to date. The new transfer is up to par with the label's usual standards with an appreciable leap in detail and more info visible in the frame, though the biggest improvement here is fixing the sometimes blown-out white levels that tended to blast out detail in brighter areas. The result is a more consistent and moody presentation that fits the film like a dusty glove, and the DTS-HD MA English mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also crisp and clean. Extras wise, "A Dark Film" (15m15s) features what appears to be the first video interview with the director about his production, explaining how he started writing at a young age and tackled this one after being inspired by the real-life kidnapping of Barbara Jane Mackle, the story behind the financing and the familial connections in the cast (including the secret of directing his son), and the team spirit on the set. The Martorano appears in "Snatching the Role" (10m55s) to chat about getting the role thanks to a pact years earlier with Trueblood, his other gigs in and out of his acting roles (including "majoring at Macy's"), the opportunities that opened up after this film, the bumpy first few minutes of shooting that resolved with a vote of confidence from Bolling, and the one scene that caused some understandably upset reactions. Finally producer Gary Adelman shows up for "Digging Up the Past" (9m15s) to explain how he got started by investing in an early Walter Hill film instead of opening a theater in Westwood, followed by a discussion of this title including an amusing ask for digging permission, his memories of the actors and producer Arthur Marks (whose own company, General National Corporation, handled the release and who passed away mere days before this disc's release ), the filming locations around L.A., and the rights issues that came up when creditors got involved. A gallery (1m55s) of photos, ads and posters is also included, and the main feature can be played with an audio commentary by yours truly, so that obviously can't be evaluated here. A terrific, utterly ruthless buried treasure that still packs a wallop.
VINEGAR SYNDROME (Blu-ray)
Updated review on November 28, 2019