Color, 2001, 100 mins. 47 secs.
Directed by Gary Griffith
Starring Wendi Winburn, Arthur Cwik, Tom Powers, Alexia Kouros, Peter Papageorgiou, Andy Zeffer, Chuck Szatkowski
VHShitfest (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
Scraped together with any financial means at hand at the end of the '90s, the wildly ambitious and thoroughly stuffed monsterama Satan's Menagerie from one-shot filmmaker Gary Griffith has been nearly impossible to see unless you snagged one of the self-distributed copies being sold at horror conventions years ago. Anyone with a fondness for the shot-on-video horror heyday will find that spirit alive and well here with lots of monster masks and zany plot twists in evidence, here sprinkled with some awful early CGI to help pinpoint when it was actually made. The passion for classic monsters shines through here with some modern twists on several easy-to-identify inspirations from the Universal era,
Obsessed with the paranormal, conniving Dr. Craymoor (Powers) hawks his theories on a show called Truths Behind the Myths and has come up with a unique method of bending his patients to his will and either turning them into or summoning any monsters in the vicinity. His interests overlap with the nearby Pinewood Cemetery whose foul-tempered owner uses the monster and vandalism-plagued grounds for his own personal treasure hunt. One of Craymoor's patients is amnesiac Gustav Markov (Cwik), whose intense nightmares are keys to his inner identity as a pacifist warlock able to sniff out creatures around him -- including a flesh-eating ghoul (played by onetime Fangoria editor Tony Timpone in a cameo appearance). Meanwhile a prehistoric supernatural blood sect called the Sons of Jeramin, whose dark priests are the source for all modern monsters and whose current disciples, powerful mummy-like Arcon (Zeffer) and physician Veronica Maitland (Kouros), the reincarnation of the priestess Lenora, want to align with the doctor for their own means. It all boils down to attempts to manipulate the reluctant and disaffected monsters including wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet werewolf Stavros (Papageorgiou), blood-bathing vampire Elektra (Winburn), and environmentally conscious amphibian-human hybrid Brax (Szatkowski), who escapes from a sideshow. How far will the sect go to bring back its leader from another realm?
With its sympathetic view of monsters (despite their tendency to occasionally kill people), Satan's Menagerie makes plenty of room to showcase its various creatures with some sort of mayhem wedged in every few minutes. That approach doesn't quite sustain the 100-minute running time, which could have sheared its nightmare/flashback scenes down quite a bit, but its heart is in the right place and some of the characters (especially the disabled, foul-mouthed werewolf vet) are a nice twist on the old formulas. It also has a bit of a romantic streak at heart as well, which leads to an amusing twist ending setting up a potential sequel that never happened.
For its third release as part of the OCN Distribution partnership via Vinegar Syndrome, VHShifest has decked this one out on Blu-ray with a very extensive special edition including a limited 1,000-unit slipcover option. The image quality is about on par with the usual upscaled direct-to-video horror titles originally constructed in HD; obviously this is about as good as it can possibly get, and it's watchable enough given the nature of the project. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 audio is actually pretty impressive at times with some nice moments of stereo separation throughout and thunderous surround activity during the finale. Optional English SDH subtitles are also provided. The history behind the film is covered extensively in the two biggest extras: an audio commentary with director-writer-composer Gary Griffith, editor John Tanzosh, and co-writer and actor Thomas V. Powers, and a making-of doc, "All Hell Breaks Loose" (51m45s), featuring Griffith, Timpone and his wife Marguerite, Powers, Tanzosh, and actor Fernando Kuper. There's a lot of ground covered here about how Griffith financed the film by selling his valuable comic book collection and dipping into his savings account, the love of classic "monster rally" films behind the concept, the various shooting locales (including Queens), the trickery used to create the cemetery set, the construction of the masks with a lot of greasepaint augmentation, the creation of the score (which would feel right at home next to something by Richard Band), and plenty more. "Dr. Craymoor Returns" (1m13s) is a quick, hammy bit with Powers reviving his character, followed by separate interviews with set designer Leonard Boss (9m55s), actor Pete Papgeorgeiou a.k.a. Stavros the Werewolf (10m29s), and Charles Szatkowski a.k.a. Brax the Amphibian (11m58s), all done via choppy cell phone recordings. Also included are the original trailer, a 1m38s stills gallery, a "War on Peace" music video by Nightwing, and The Art of Murder (25m1s), a Super 8 short film by Griffith featuring some of the greatest New Yawk accents you'll ever hear. (Nice 007 and Black Sabbath music choices, too!) Oh, wait -- there's also an entire bonus feature film here, Tales of the Undead (90m13s), which has been around on his Vimeo channel for a couple of years. Initially shot on Super 8, it feels like a student film all the way with mostly inaudible dialogue, lots of snow, dark lighting, and funny quasi-European accents. It's obviously a horror anthology cobbled together from a bunch of horror-related short films from the same gang like "Phantom on the Pier," "German Roulette," and "Return of the Ripper" (some of which are covered in the documentary), so if you don't like one story just fast forward a little to the next one. Nice closing music choice on this one, too, for all you Circus of Horrors fans.
Reviewed on December 12, 2022.