Color, 1974, 83 mins. 47 secs.
Directed by Larry N. Stouffer
Starring Pat Cardi, Austin Stoker, Rosie Holotik, John Niland, Joy Hash, Jeff Alexander, Mike McHenry, Nick Felix
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Rhino (US R1 NTSC)
Color, 1972, 109m.
Directed by William Grefé
Starring Chris Robinson, Alex Rocco, Steve Alaimo, Susan Carroll, Mark Harris
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Code Red, BCI (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Rhino (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
During its run of drive-in dominance in the '70s and (to a lesser extent) the '80s, Crown International churned out several horror films all over the genre spectrum. Not surprisingly, all of them have built up at least a little bit of a cult following, and two of its regional acquisitions have often popped up at the top of the list: the Texas-shot Horror High and the Florida-shot Stanley. After several previous video editions, both have finally been issued on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome in 2022 as a two-disc, double feature package that delivers a double dose of underdogs getting violent revenge.
Geeky chemistry student Vernon Potts (Cardi) has a lot of problems. His fellow students at Horror High are all bullying jocks; his English teacher (Hash) gives him an F and hacks up his massive science report when he hands in the wrong paper; the coach (Dallas Cowboys pro Niland) is blackmailing him into letting a meathead named Roger (McHenry) cheat off of his test papers; and worst of all, the creepy janitor (Felix) threatens bodily harm when Vernon's lab guinea pig, Mr. Mumps, gets the handyman's pesky cat in trouble. Only pretty Robin (Holotik), Roger's girlfriend, shows any sympathy at all, but Vernon's mostly on his own with his mother dead and his father often away on business. One night Vernon comes in to do some after hours work to find that his new formula, designed to effect physical changes rather than emotional ones, has turned Mr. Mumps from a cute white rodent into a snarling, snapping, coal-black beast with a taste for feline blood. The janitor shows up just in time to overreact violently, forcing Vernon to chug down Mr. Mumps' secret formula and turn the nerd into a wild, murderous beast who plunges the bully's head into a vat of sulphuric acid. The investigating police, led by Lieutenant Bozeman (Assault on Precinct 13's Stoker, complete with a super-funky music theme), find their work cut out for them when two more brutal murders swiftly follow, and Vernon finds himself unable to control his unpredictable transformations into a savage predator.
A popular TV staple during the late '70s and early '80s (often under the title Twisted Brain), Horror High was shot very cheaply on 16mm (complete with inexplicable supporting appearances by more Dallas Cowboys players!) and picked up by Crown who milked it for every penny on a string of double bills. It's not hard to see the film's appeal as it exploits the same basic high school revenge fantasy perfected one year later in Carrie, and the basic plot here would go on to be reused more or less in the next decade with Fear No Evil and Evilspeak. The film itself is shot with little technical prowess, but the actors (especially TV regular and Let's Kill Uncle star Cardi in his last role to date) are all better than the material requires. The energetic execution makes all the difference here, as does the wonderfully prog-rock-ish music score and theme song including contributions from none other than Euel "Benji" Box.
For some bizarre reason, the only video master for Horror High kept in circulation for many years by Crown was the drastically altered TV version. Many fans were upset by the softening of two murder scenes (namely a quick shot of fingers being snipped off and some gory shots of cleats stomping on a bloody abdomen), but even worse, the film was padded by over five minutes with newly-shot scenes of Vernon's absentee dad romping around with his girlfriend and talking on the phone. These excruciating additions completely killed the pace of the film and made it feel half an hour longer, pretty much killing any sense of momentum at the halfway point. This practice was fairly common at the time, with Curtis Harrington's Ruby representing the most extreme example of TV tampering. When Rhino licensed the Crown library for DVD, they were again forced to use this same TV version (under the Twisted Brain title) for their Horrible Horrors multi-disc set, which certainly didn't do anything to improve the film's reputation.
When this version went out of circulation, rumors abounded for years about a definitive Horror High release from several companies including BCI; however, the possibility seemed more liked when it surfaced from Code Red on DVD in 2010 with their cherry-picked set of releases from Crown's heyday. As advertised, this is indeed the original theatrical version with all the bloody mayhem intact (and an R rating on the sleeve, though it seems this cut is likely the one that ran with a PG). The anamorphic transfer definitely reflects the appearance of a cheap 16mm film blown up to 35 and reflects all the many shades of beige available on the color palette. It's still an ugly, grainy film, but the new transfer is at least sharper and better realized than the dupey, open matte TV print, which was also slightly crooked to boot. Occasional colors like pink and purple pop through nicely, but overall, it's a dark, grungy film from start to finish. The added TV scenes (9m2s) are included as a bonus most people will only watch once, along with the alternate main titles, the theatrical trailer (which includes numerous interesting alternate takes), and a 26m5s interview with the amiable Stoker, who talks about working on Abby, Zebra Killer, Assault on Precinct 13, and this particular film, which he assumed had been completely forgotten. The film also features a "Failed Students" audio commentary by Beat the Geeks' J. Keith Van Straaten, Marc Edward Heuck, and Paul Goebele, who essentially give it the Rifftrax treatment from start to finish if you're in the mood for that. Finally you get the original trailer and bonus "Pointless Code Red Trailers" for This Is a Hijack!, Slithis, The Night Child, Exterminators of the Year 3000, Light Blast, Terminal Island, The Visitor, The Black Klansman, Stigma, Mean Johnny Barrows, Alice Goodbody, and The Statue.
The 2022 Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray is a big surprise, featuring a new 2K scan from the "only known and fully-uncut 16mm lab print." This presentation is actually significantly more violent than any other release out there, most notably during the cleat stomping which now features up close and very bloody shots that were once substituted with (repeated) wide shots of the bleacher action instead before. The finger chopping is also very slightly extended; it's also worth noting that this new transfer runs seven seconds longer, though the difference is bigger than that might indicate. The film looks better here than it ever has before, but this is still Horror High we're talking about so of course it's still pretty grainy and gritty. Fans should certainly be very happy all around, and the DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track also sounds quite good (with optional English SDH subtitles). Cardi turns up for a new audio commentary, a new "Cheerleaders on Tap" interview featurette (18m37s), and a 2017 "Looking Back" (14m3s) featurette. There's some overlap between the three, obviously, with the commentary coming in the least of them (he's quiet for the most part and has subdued reactions to the film). The 2022 featurette is the best, with tons of chatting about his career at the time (and desire to give up acting after that), the shoot in the Dallas area, and memories of his fellow actors, as well as the fan response he still gets to this day. In "Still Amazed” (6m47s), screenwriter J.D. Feigelson (Dark Night of the Scarecrow) talks about the Jekyll and Hyde inspiration for the story and his thoughts on the film's popularity today. "Gossip" (8m16s) features an interview with actress Michelle Falerne about getting her start acting in Scum of the Earth right before this one (thanks to her dad), the fact that she never read the full script, the baffling nature of her hairstyle, and the filming of her big scream scene. Finally "I Would Do It Again" (10m5s) has Niland covering the camp nature of the film from his perspective, the audition process, comparisons between filmmaking and football, and his memories of shooting at a real high school. Also included are the theatrical trailer and two TV spots.
Few exploitation filmmakers knew their way around Florida like William Grefé, the director/writer/producer behind such films as Death Curse of Tartu (mummified witch doctor attacks Florida), Sting of Death (jellyfish man and Neil Sedaka music attack Florida), and The Hooked Generation (drug dealers attack Florida). However, one of his most successful and accomplished films was 1972's Stanley, an early entry in both the nature amuck and telekinetic mayhem cycle of the '70s. Preceded by Willard but followed by films like Jennifer and Food of the Gods, it's very low budget of course but quite entertaining if you're in the right frame of mind and willing to go along with its lazy southern charms.
Seminole war vet Tim Ochopee (Revenge Is My Destiny's Robinson) lives deep in the swamp where he harvests medical venom from his pet snakes, whom he regards as friends and even dresses up for commitment ceremonies. On the side he also leases them out for burlesque shows, but a local shady businessman named Thomkins (Rocco) kicks off a chain of scaly retribution when he decides to poach snakes from Tim's property to make his sleek like of snake-skin belts. There's also the fact that Thomkins and his lackeys were responsible for the death of Tim's brother under very suspicious circumstances. Then a stripper gets in on the snake abuse act by biting Tim's pals onstage, which puts further fuel on the fire. Soon locals are dropping dead left and right from snake-induced causes with Tim controlling the male leader of his pack, the obedient and very lethal Stanley.
Like most of the director's films, this will never be mistaken as great art. Really it's all about the atmosphere and the death scenes, with enough breathing time in between to let drive-in patrons run out to get a refill on their soda and popcorn. Whether it's two guys drowning in quicksand (with a fun POV shot underneath) or another getting a nasty surprise in his swimming pool, it's a disreputable little number with some wholly unnecessary animal violence that would thankfully never fly today (but is at least restrained compared to the reptile apocalypse found in multiple Hong Kong films).
Stanley first appeared as part of the Crown International titles licensed through BCI (followed an awful TV print in Rhino's Horrible Horrors series we'll just pretend never happened), who was rapidly winding down at the time when its 2008 special edition hit the shelves. Few retailers stocked it at all, and even online outlets had trouble getting it out to customers. The Code Red reissue (sold directly from the company) brought it back into circulation with the same extras (and fun menu design) intact, with Grefé offering a quick video intro (1m39s) and turning up for many of the supplements. He guides an audio commentary from start to finish solo and covers everything from the initial story inception to scouting locations and finding cast members, along with the obligatory stories about snake wrangling. Screenwriter Gary Crutcher turns up for a second commentary and has some hilarious anecdotes about the film, especially his small appearance as a doctor that resulted in numerous retakes until his prescription pad almost ran out. Both of them return with Robinson and actor Steve Alaimo for the lengthy "Dark Side of Eden" retrospective (44m44s), which mixes (oddly 4:3) clips from the film and making-of footage with new interviews about the more memorable scenes including a description of how Grefé himself had to step in with the camera for that big quicksand shot when no one else would do it. Robinson, Crutcher, and Grefé appear for a much rougher "Stanley Goes Hollywood" Q&A at the New Beverly (24m30s) following a screening of the film, which basically recaps much of the material from elsewhere on the disc but has a few interesting (and sometimes awkward) moments with the audience's input. Finally you get a stills gallery and a quick tour with Grefé called "Stanley: Revisited" (3m17s) in which he shows off the current state of the Miami studio and swamp locations where it was originally shot. As for the transfer itself, it's about on par with the rest of Grefé's work on DVD; it's certainly way better than it was treated on VHS with pleasing (slightly opened up) 1.78:1 framing and those gaudy South Florida color schemes, along with the sometimes soft and murky texture found in film stock of the time.
The 2022 Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray represents a tremendous leap in image quality over any of its predecessors thanks to a fresh 2K scan and restoration from the 35mm original camera negative. Textures are incredibly tactile here with the outdoor scenes now far more impressive in their atmosphere, while the brighter appearance brings out some stylized lighting scenes that were completely obscured in murk before. (See the comparison below for a good example.) The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is pristine as well and features optional English SDH subtitles. The majority of extras from the BCI release have been ported over here, namely the Crutcher commentary, "Dark Side of Eden," "Stanley Goes Hollywood," and "Stanley: Revisited." If you're a fan of '70s animal attack films, this one's an easy recommendation.
HORROR HIGH: Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray
HORROR HIGH: Code Red DVD
STANLEY: Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray
STANLEY: Code Red DVD
Updated review on June 15, 2022.