Color, 1989, 92 mins. 18 secs.
Directed by Michael S. O'Rourke
Starring Blake Gibbons, Ingrid Vold, John Marzilli, Tom Hamil, Jill Foors, Joe Balogh, Ann McFadden, Alex Wexler, Pamela Ross, Joseph Christopher, Kelly Mullis, Joleen Mullins
Color, 1990, 105 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by Dennis Devine
Starring Diana Karanikas, Angela Eads, Kay Schaber, Angela Scaglione, Steven Kyle, Deirdre West, Jeff Herbick, Brian Chin, David Chatfield, Ilene B. Singer, David Williams
Color, 1989, 103 mins. 1 sec.
Starring Barry Wyatt, Jake Henry, Francine Lapensée, John Stevens, Debra Robinson, Lea Dedrick, Dan Zukovic, Michael James, Ingrid Vold, William Derr
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
One of Vinegar Syndrome's most consistently entertaining sets to date, Home Grown Horrors Volume 1was a real godsend for fans of scrappy regional horror features shot on film by enterprising filmmakers who often didn't go on to much beyond a title or two on the VHS racks. That philosophy more or less continues in Home Grown Horrors Volume 2, which features another trio of films stacked with features explaining how and why they came to be. Comprised entirely of slasher films (more or less) with some minor supernatural elements at times, this one shakes things up a little since one title is actually a fairly slick Los Angeles production. However, they all have their own offbeat charms that make this box a worthy successor.
First up is the biggest winner of the set and a major treat for regional slasher fans: Moonstalker, a 1989 romp in the woods around Reno, Nevada that hits the ground running with a high-velocity opening half hour you won't believe. Originally shot under the title Camper Stamper and intended to be a parody of stalk and slash films, it's a ridiculous take on the usual formula with a family of four heading out for a forest camping trip... in the dead of snowy winter. They run across a camper inhabited by an old guy named Pops, who regales them over a campfire in hopes of getting his mitts on their fancy microwave. He aims to achieve that with a big surprise: his deranged, straitjacketed son, Bernie, who's just escaped from a mental institution and is now hiding inside the camper. Unfortunately Pops drops dead of a heart attack, leaving Bernie to disguise himself with a swanky pair of sunglasses so he can go stalk a bunch of nearby, horny camp counselors.
Given a very scarce VHS release when the demand for these kind of films had completely dried up, Moonstalker gained a modest word of mouth following as much for its scarcity as for its crazy-quilt approach to the slasher template including a unforgettable seesaw finale that really has to be seen to be believed. It's turned up over the years in a couple of legally dubious editions (including a brief BD-R), but the Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray is definitely the way to go complete with a ridiculously crisp and impressive a/v presentation from a 4K restoration of the 16mm original camera negative. Anyone who suffered through the old VHS version will be gobsmacked at how fresh it looks here, with the DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles, like the other two films here) now crystal clear as well. Cinematographer Michael Goi (who went on to a successful Hollywood career -- as well as Hellmaster), producer Sally O'Rourke, production manager John Strysik, and actresses Kelly Mullis and Joleen Mullins appear for a new commentary track and also turn up in a feature-length documentary, "Camper Stamper Lives: Resurrecting Moonstalker" (95m47s), in which they talk about the initial aborted financing through an Irish brewery, the freezing shooting conditions, and the personnel from Tales from the Darkside, Surf II, and the obscure VHS horror Deadly Love. Unfortunately many of the participants are unidentified on screen, but there's a lot of solid material here with some of the best provided by Goi and Strysik. There's also a nice appearance near the end from composer Douglas Pipes, who went on to the far more widely seen Trick 'r Treat, Krampus, and Monster House. A second audio commentary features the slasher-crazy gang from The Hysteria Continues, who are more than up to the task here talking about the film's video history, its place in the weird twilight period of the original slasher era, the shooting conditions, and the genre connections from many of the talent in front of and behind the camera. Also included are a 2m1s still gallery and the very lo-fi archival "Camper Stamper Caper" (70m5s) documentary showcasing the late director Michael O'Rourke and loaded with VHS coverage of the making of the film itself.
Film number two, Dead Girls, is a very, very early '90s effort sporting an spectacular concept that the filmmakers inexplicably refuse to carry through at every step. Just imagine: it's a slasher film about an a mostly female rock band with members like Bertha Beirut and Nancy Napalm who end up getting stalked by a killer inspired by their lyrics. For some reason we're deprived of any actual song performances, and the film shuffles around aimlessly for half an hour before finally getting down to business during its protracted 105-minute running time. Luckily there is a payoff for gore fans though once the killings start including a justly celebrate axe slaying, while the decision to pack most of the suspense scenes in broad daylight is an interesting one. The band Dead Girls is on the rise with its lead singer, Lucy Lethal, more or less speaking for them. Other members include Bertha Beirut a.k.a. Gina Varelli (Karanikias), Lucy's drummer brother Randy Rot (Kyle), and Nancy Napalm who uses ammo and a gun guitar. Their songs focusing on death and pain are being old hat for manager Artie (Chin), who wants them to break out to a more mainstream audience. However, their next gigs are thrown into disarray when Gina, who's prone to prophetic nightmares, gets a letter about her sister Brooke's attempted wrist-slashing suicide that's left her in a coma. A trip back home to some very unpleasant parents sends Gina and company on a two-week sabbatical to a remote cabin where a killer wearing a skull mask and a fedora starts to hunt them all down.
Very heavy on the chitchat (but not character development), Dead Girls has its heart in the right place and would have probably been a hidden little cult gem had it lasted around 80 minutes (and featured a few band performances). Unfortunately the atrocious sound recording and mixing (which even prompted a disclaimer in front of the transfer) is worse than most student films, and the acting and pacing are so off you might forget you're even watching a horror film for long stretches. The barrage of sudden, ridiculous twists and turns in the climax is bound to earn a smile though, and if you're a slasher completest, its minor charms should still be appreciated especially with potential red herrings around like a suspicious doctor and a gang of Brooke's obsessed teen pals with a suicide pact. This marked the second horror feature (and the first one shot on film, 16mm in this case) for director Dennis Devine and writing and producing partner Steve Jarvis, who debuted with Fatal Images and went on to tons of later low-budget titles like the Things anthology films, Alice in Murderland, and some of the Axegrinder and Camp Blood films. Both of them are present for an audio commentary on the Vinegar Syndrome disc and take part in a lengthy new making-of documentary, "Dead Girls Rock: Looking Back at Dead Girls" (92m44s), joined by actors Angela Scaglione, Jeff Herbick, Brian Chin, Ilene Singer, Robert Harden, and Kay Wolf, plus composer Erik Ekstrand, which covers pretty much every imaginable detail about the production and their respective backgrounds that you could possibly want to know. Not surprisingly, Devine and Jarvis cite their viewings of gialli as a big influence with Blood and Black Lace clearly inspiring the look of the killer here. Even less surprising is the revelation that Devine usually just went along with a single take of each scene, which explains the nature of most of the performances. A second commentary track features The Hysteria Continues again, and as usual they're great guides to this one as they parse out some of the more inexplicable creative decisions while noting the highlights of rock-themed slasher films and the rapidly declining state of the subgenre by the early '90s. A pretty gory 58s still gallery is also included. As for the film itself, it looks great with a 1.33:1 presentation from a 4K scan of the 16mm original camera negative; no complaints in that area at all, while the DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono track (with English SDH subtitles) does what it can given that aforementioned terrible sound mix.
Finally we go completely off the deep end on disc three with Hanging Heart, an incredibly obscure but glossy erotic thriller that also tips its hat to gialli and slashers -- albeit here with so much homeroticism it zooms past subtext and primary text to a level so crazed it defies description. This one was initially picked up for U.S. distribution by Nico Mastorakis' Omega Entertainment, but instead the film only ended up getting a very marginal VHS release in a handful of European territories like Poland and Hungary. Though it runs almost as long as Dead Girls, Hanging Heart packs its running time with a lot more "WTF?" moments and is bound to build up some sort of cult reputation, even if it's also going to unavoidably be the most divisive title in this set.
Currently appearing in an experimental play where he has to roll around shirtless surrounded by guys in tighty whities, young actor Denny (Wyatt, who got even more more unabashed later in indie films like The Natural History of Parking Lots and Skin and Bone) gets fingered (ahem) for murder when his actress girlfriend ends up dead in his presence after a late-night rehearsal. His very weird, very rich lawyer Elliot (Henry) has the hots for Denny, who ends up going through the arrest and incarceration process (including a jail cell scene you'll never believe). More murders and a weirdly swift trial soon complicate things further as his shrink and law enforcement can't seem to decide whether he's the one behind the slayings. Though fairly low on blood, Hanging Heart is the sort of technically lacking but insanely committed title that can make you feel like someone dosed your dinner when you weren't looking. None of the characters or plot developments really line up with reality, but since the whole thing has a woozy dreamlike sensibility anyway, it hardly matters. Director Jimmy Lee, a Korean filmmaker who studied at the AFI, packs this with style to burn even if things don't make a ton of sense, and it's interesting to see Wyatt in his debut here before he started turning up in plenty of films over the next decade.
A seemingly unlikely candidate for Blu-ray, this one also looks superb here with an immaculate 4K scan from the 35mm original camera negative producing sterling results here; the DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also spotless. Lee turns up in "Directing from the Heart" (23m6s) to explain his early film training, his move to the U.S., and his attraction to the source material, including a read on the ending that directly contrasts with some of the homophobic accusations against the film. "The Many Hats of Mr. White (11m30s) features producer Michael J. White chatting about his own career and the process of getting this off the ground (as well as its swift burial at the time), while actor Dan Zukovic appears in "A Hero Who Kicks" (17m18s) to chat about his salad days in acting and his enjoyment of getting to play an official who gets to do some physical action scenes. "Hanging with Ingrid" (6m47s) features actress Ingrid Vold (who also appeared in Moonstalker and its doc) about her role here as a psychiatrist, her affinity for medical roles, and her acting career around that time. Finally in "Music Is Where the Heart Is” (8m57s), composer Erik Ekstrand (from the same session as his Dead Girls interview) explains his electronic-heavy approach to scoring the film and his thoughts on how he approached the peculiar atmosphere of the final product. Also included are the original video trailer, a 2015 trailer, and a 1m11s still gallery.
Reviewed on February 2, 2023.