BEYOND DREAM'S DOOR
Color, 1988, 80 mins. 35 secs.
Directed by Jay Woelfel
Starring Nick Baldasare, Rick Kesler, Susan Pinsky, Norm Singer
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Cinema Epoch (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
Color, 1988, 114 mins.
Directed by Jack Snyder
Starring Mike Coleman, Terry Comer, Carol Fitzgerald Carlberg, Paul Steger, Gillio Gherardini, Maureen Lampert, Greg Rhodes
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9)
Color, 1992, 76 mins. 46 secs.
Directed by Christopher Thies
Starring Tim R. Morgan, Mike Magri, Charles Majka, Bob Harlow, Dori May Kelly, David Majka
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Winterbeast Entertainment Group (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
The heyday of VHS horror in the 1980s and '90s made it a fertile period for aspiring filmmakers who didn't have a chance to strike it rich earlier at the drive-in, resulting in a flood of mostly short-lived video labels and even self-distributed titles that made each trip to the video store a bit of an adventure. Genre magazines were also filled with coverage of tantalizing little productions scattered around the U.S., some of which never materialized or proved to be impossible to track down without a great deal of effort. That period gets a chance to shine in Vinegar Syndrome's Home Grown Horrors Volume 1, a limited 7,000-unit three-disc Blu-ray set celebrating three shot-on-film horror titles that offer a peek at what was going on outside the more mainstream realm of Jason, Freddy, Pinhead, and Michael around that time.
Probably the most widely written-about film in the set is 1988's Beyond Dream's Door, which earned some extensive fanzine love and even a spotlight in GoreZone magazine. Shot on film but edited on video, it went straight to VHS back in the day and didn't get a ton of shelf space at the time; later it was given a significantly retooled DVD edition from Cinema Epoch that did some editorial snipping and other finessing along with a different 5.1 soundtrack, which also went out of circulation pretty quickly. The film originated with Columbus, Ohio-based student filmmaker Jay Woelfel as a short film that proved promising enough to retain both of its leads (albeit with their roles switched) for the indie horror scene, whose theatrical potential had essentially evaporated by the time this went into post-production and ended up being a calling card instead for a handful of Full Moon titles. However, the film itself was stylish and creative enough to earn positive rumblings in the fan community, and here it's been given a new lease on life thanks to a recut from the original 16mm camera negative that looks and sounds considerably better than anything we've had before. Apart from some scattered SD shots here and there that amount of a few minutes total due to missing elements (the longest coming for a while around the 11-minute mark), it's in great shape and makes for a much more rewarding viewing experience than you might imagine. This is also the first genuine director's cut, featuring the intended restrained sound design (here as a DTS-HD MA English 5.1 track with optional English SDH subtitles) and jettisoning the unrelated 6-minute short film, Come To Me Softly, that was wedged into the original VHS release as an extra dream sequence.
College student Benjamin Dobbs (Baldasare) is suffering from very vivid, candy-lit nightmares (including a monstrous game of hide and seek) that have him flinching at everything from sewer gratings to dinosaur toys. He seeks help from new teacher's assistants Eric Baxter (Kesler) and Julie Oxel (Pinsky) along with the very unorthodox Professor Knox (Singer) to unlock what's going on. However, when his nightmares start to overlap with his real life even during nocturnal trips to the university library and the psych department sleep studies, it's clear that something is very, very wrong indeed-- and the gory deaths he's seeing might be coming to pass in real life.
There's a strong Empire Films vibe here at times with the mixture of novice actors, Lovecraftian monsters, and shaggy plotting, but Beyond Dream's Door manages to get by on its own terms with a barrage of squishy creature designs and some fun twists on the whole "is it a dream or not?" concept popularized by A Nightmare on Elm Street a few years earlier. The college setting is nicely utilized (not surprisingly since pretty much everyone involved was either in college or fresh out of it), and horror fans will appreciate some nice nods to other writers and filmmakers including multiple flourishes obviously conceived after a reading of Stephen King's It. The Vinegar Syndrome release looks great and even manages to make the SD inserts relatively painless when they hit, and it's also stacked to the gills with bonus features telling you pretty much every single thing you could possibly want to know about this production. Ported over from the DVD are two audio commentaries (solo with Woelfel and a group one with Woelfel, cinematographer Scott Spears, Baldasare, and Kesler), while the foursome from the group track reunite again for a new track together and Baldasare also doing a separate one with superfan Dave Parker. Between the tracks you'll hear plenty about the decision to go ahead and make a feature film from what was supposed to be a thesis project, the literary figures who influenced the story, the attempts to come up with scenes that went against the grain of horror conventions at the time, and the mounting of the ambitious monster effects on very limited resources, not to mention the state of the horror genre that made this tough to use as a calling card in the late '80s. The new documentary "Where Horror Lies" (41m4s) is a really solid primer on the film with Woelfel, Kesler, Baldasare, and producer Dyrk Ashton, while the archival "Behind Dream's Door" (34m21s) is a much rougher piece of work with Woelfel guiding you through the locations as a segue to additional interviews (with Spears, Baldasare, Ashton, etc.) and a generous, fun batch of camcorder-shot production footage from the original shoot. Also ported over from the DVD edition is the makeup effects featurette "Getting Monstered" (6m23s) with Kesler essentially serving as the linchpin for some archival video footage of the monster and gore effects in action. After that you get a montage of timecoded unused and alternate takes (10m57s) included a different cut of the ending, unused and alternate effects footage (5m24s), a reel of bloopers and behind-the-scenes footage (5m54s), and a sample of local news reports (4m7s) about the first Ohio State feature film production, rather misleadingly touted here as a slasher film. Two deleted scenes (1m5s and 1m8s) are included as curios since a camera light leak rendered them unusable for the finished film, followed by the original and rerelease trailers. However, there's also a whole second extras menu screen devoted to three pertinent short films: 1988's Come To Me Softly (8m10s) in its full version with credits, 1983's At the Door of Darkness (7m31s), and the original Beyond Dream's Door short (20m52s), all featuring optional Woelfel audio commentaries about his summer video production class, the group fundraising he resorted to, the equipment he used working up to 35mm, and much more. The shorts are all worth checking out as they share ideas, cast members, his method of doing the music scores for his own films, and visual touches connected to the main feature, with Softly looking nicely transferred from film and the other two pulled from SD video sources. The Beyond short also gets a raw footage reel (4m29s) and an archival making-of featurette (7m47s) with the two leads and videographer Jose Cardenas reminiscing about their first go-round with the material, while Kesler provides an archival video interview (1m34s) from 2003 about his work on Come To Me Softly.
The next film in the set, at least going by chronological release year, is the closest thing to a bona fide slasher of the bunch: 1990's Fatal Exam, mounted by a tiny crew in St. Louis, Missouri and once again revolving around college students. That said, if you're expecting something calling back to the likes of Final Exam, well, you're in for a surprise as it takes some odd narrative swerves including a dive into the occult in the last stretch. Shot on 16mm and running an indulgent 114 minutes (if ever a movie screamed out for a fanedit, this would be it), this one is easily the most obscure entry as it was barely self-distributed and never given a bona fide general retail release.
Parapsychology instructor Stephen Hughes (current lawyer Gherardini), who's prone to handling sinister sacrificial daggers in class, pitches an unusual final exam project to his students that he promises will be "the most memorable college experience of your lives:" an extended stay in the supposedly haunted abandoned house where a man named Malcolm Nostrand butchered his family two years ago with a big sword. Presumably eager to escape the nonstop media coverage of an impending senatorial race, eight students agree to hike thirty miles away to spend the weekend conducting various experiments. Nick (Coleman), who had a bloody vision in class during the last lecture, is among the volunteers who also include yo-yo and St. Louis Cardinals fanatic Roger (Comer), sarcastic Dana (Carlberg, now Carlberg-Snyder), amateur a/v guy Dave (Steger), foul-tempered Jim (Rhodes), and cheerful Sharon (Lampert). Right away things seem off with the discovery of a freshly-painted bedroom with a creepy dollhouse as its primary decoration, but of course it's just a matter of time before a robed figure wielding a scythe starts picking them off one by one.
The amateur nature of this film will naturally be a make or break element for a lot of viewers, with the fact that the vast majority of the dialogue was looped in post-production adding to the awkward, disjointed feel. In particular, the pivotal early class lecture scene is the goofiest of its kind since Blood Feast, so take that as a recommendation if you're in the right spirit. In general the acting is highly variable, of course, and the strange attempts at raunchy buddy banter will often leave you scratching your head; however, a few manage to surprise you with Comer in particular having fun as a mixture of hero and comic relief. The can-do spirit here on a thrift store budget goes a long way towards earning goodwill here if you just sit back and go along with it, with the truly nutso finale paying off in its own way complete with some unexpected special effects that will bring a smile to your face. Vinegar Syndrome's disc looks excellent with a new 2K scan from the 16mm original camera negative, and the DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) sounds great. A new audio commentary with director-writer-producer-editor Jack Snyder, composer Carl Leta, effects artist William Crawford, and actors Coleman, Dave Mayer, and Comer is both self-deprecating ("This movie needed to be edited a little tighter!" "With a machete!") and informative with lots of stories about how the film came together over a makeshift schedule that even had single scenes broken up over different days or even weeks. In "Fatal Examination" (47m40s), Snyder, Coleman, Comer, Mayer, Crawford, and Carlberg-Snyder chat about the various films that influenced the project (The Thing, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, etc.), the existing friendships between them that bound them together, and the very DIY approach that often had something goofy happening just inches off camera.
Finally we get to the most beloved film in the set, Winterbeast, which started production before all of them but ended up being released last. Created over several years in Newbury, Massachusetts starting in 1986 on a mixture of 16mm and Super 8, it's a charming and frequently confounding creature feature originally given a scant VHS release from Tempe Video back in 1992 and later given a lavish self-distributed DVD edition in 2008. With a barrage of lo-fi monster effects and a complete disregard for traditional cinematic aesthetics, it's a thoroughly unique concoction that's managed to astound any viewer lucky enough to step into its path.
A series of disappearances and inexplicable deaths is rocking the area around the Wild Goose Lodge, a spot known for its accessibility to prime forest and skiing activities. Ranger Bill Whitman (Morgan), Ranger Stillman (Magri), and mysticism expert Charlie (Majka) end up teaming up against the resistance of lodge boss Dave Sheldon (Harlow). The discovery of an ancient Native American totem with a skeleton turns out to be a big clue the region's ancient supernatural secret, which soon unleashes a rampage involving the darker side of nature itself.
At least on paper, Winterbeast sounds like your typical monster movie about intrepid locals battling bureaucracy and a monstrous threat at the same time in the best tradition of your average '50s drive-in movie. However, in execution it's anything but as the plot can induce whiplash with the crazy turns it takes on the way to a crazed finale involving stop-motion critters that have drawn frequent comparisons to Equinox along with other adorably scrappy efforts like Flesh Gordon and The Crater Lake Monster. For many fans the inclusion of this film alone will be reason enough to snap up this set, and the new scan is a real treat for the eyes as it wrings as much detail and color as possible out of the patchwork mixture of formats and shooting periods. The film opens with a disclaimer about the technical limitations including "rudimentary" nature of the original sound recording, so it's just fair to say that the DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (which, as with most other VS titles including the ones in this set, sports a second lossy Dolby Digital track for some reason) is as good as this could possibly sound. Again, optional English SDH subtitles are provided.
Ported over from the earlier DVD is a jam-packed audio commentary with director Christopher Thies, producer Mark Frizzell and cinematographer Craig Mathieson, but you also get a brand new one here with producer Mark Frizzell; between them you get an exhaustive peek behind the scenes at the long, long process of seeing this film to completion (with production going on and off for roughly five years) and wrangling the astounding special effects with whatever resources were available. You'll also sort of find out why it's called Winterbeast when the snow hasn't started falling yet, but you can't have everything. Also included is a previously unseen workprint of the film, It Came from Lone Peak (73m22s), which dispenses with the Super 8 footage and features some really adorable hand-drawn opening and closing credits, among other substantial differences. Frizzell also turns up for a new video interview, "Sweat & Persistence" (27m39s), chatting in the darkest lighting you've ever seen about the use of stop motion, the insanely protracted post-production process, the regular day jobs that got in everyone's way, and much more. Then actor Charles Majka appears via Zoom in "I Saw It in a Dream" (10m35s) to explain how he first got involved through an encounter with Frizzell, the gradual cult following the film amassed, and the camaraderie on the shoot that allowed him to take advantage of some of his other creative skills. After that actor David Majka gets his turn in "My First Career" (13m36s) to recall working opposite "the Claymation stuff," the other projects he did with his colleagues here, and the joys of doing a DIY monster movie. (Apparently there's also another unreleased movie out there from this gang, so someone needs to get on that stat.) Actress Dori May Kelly appears in "So Bad, It's Good" (10m19s), also via Zoom, noting how this came very early in her career as she was just starting out and sharing memories of the cast members she worked with, as well as her surprise when she started hearing from friends after the film hit home video. Magri gets his spotlight in "He Wears Sunglasses at Night" (14m15s) remembering his juggling of acting jobs on screen and stage during his heyday primarily in the Boston area, as well as his "go with the flow" approach that helped him navigate this unorthodox experience. Finally in "A Movie for Filmmakers" (18m4ss), Simon Barrett (director of Seance and writer of You're Next and The Guest) goes into his own first encounter with Winterbeast, a "time capsule" type of film that threw him for a loop at first but became a fond favorite with its cheerful, goofy appeal involving irrational plotting and a childlike enthusiasm for its monster concoctions. Ported over from the DVD is the archival featurette "Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be?" (19m36s) with an avalanche of great behind-the-scenes footage and photos augmented with interview footage with the producer and director, followed by a batch of mostly superfluous archival deleted scenes (13m) with a cool bit of extra monster insanity at the end (set to a screwy music selection), a quick archival audio chat with composer Michael Perilstein (3m44s), and a reel of footage initially shot on video (11m49s) that was discarded for its "soap opera" look.
Reviewed on May 23, 2021