Color, 1987, 87 mins. 51 secs.
Directed by Ken Meyer
Starring Stacey Logan, Michelle Merchant, Michael Shamus Wiles, Kevin Meyer
Vinegar Syndrome (UHD & Blu-ray) (US 4K/HD), VCI (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)
Though the slasher craze was fading quickly in the theatrical market by the mid-'80s, you wouldn't know it based on the number of regional titles still getting pumped out for VHS consumption through the end of the decade. Though many of these were shot very cheaply on video (spawning the SOV resurgence in recent years), a substantial number were still being shot on film by intrepid filmmakers hoping for a calling card to bigger things. One of these, the Oklahoma-filmed Terror at Tenkiller, has since gone on to infamy as part of that peculiar wave of '80s "slow slashers" more concerned with hanging out with potential victims and soaking up local atmosphere; in fact, this may be the most representative example of a batch that also includes titles like The Prey and Scream. This one went straight to VHS back in the day from United, who also acquired and released other slashers shot around the Tulsa area like Blood Cult, Revenge, and The Ripper; it's fascinating to watch Tenkiller today as a prototype for mumblecore horror, spending much of its time on the friendship between two women while a killer occasionally goes about his business in the background.
A serial killer named Tor (Wiles) is stalking the grounds around Tenkiller Ferry Lake, most recently slaying a waitress late at night and depositing her body into the water. Anxious to get away from her abusive jerk boyfriend Josh (Kevin Meyer, son of director Ken Meyer), college student Leslie (Logan) agrees to a summer getaway with friend Janna (Merchant) at the latter's family cabin. They end up crossing paths with Tor, who gets close to them while continuing to rack up a body count. Meanwhile Josh is persistent in his attempts to get back with Leslie, setting the stage for a fatal final showdown.
Still a divisive film to this day (including a Rifftrax version that makes sport of its peculiar plotting and dialogue), Terror at Tenkiller does have a certain hypnotic charm to it if you're in the right frame of mind. That also makes the occasional bursts of violence even more disorienting, particularly a nasty, prolonged arm slicing that delivers a shockingly good gore gag. Despite being dubbed after the fact due to the noisy shooting conditions, Logan and Merchant are an appealing pair of buddies with a bond that's more developed than usual for the period.
Whatever merits this film may have were virtually imposable to appreciate on VHS, with the entire finale looking so dark you could barely tell what was going on. In fact, most of this film's release history is pretty sorry including a 2014 DVD release from VCI as the second installment in its Cinema Pops Presents Scream Theater series, paired up with The Last Slumber Party for a bare bones double feature pulled from ancient tape masters. That was still the best option for a long time until the welcome but utterly perverse decision by Vinegar Syndrome to release a two-disc 4K UHD and Blu-ray set featuring a pristine 4K scan from the 16mm original camera negative. Presented at 1.33:1 as originally shot with the original English mono audio sounding crisp here in its DTS-HD MA 2.0 presentation (with optional English SDH subs), it's a massive upgrade all around and looks especially strong on the UHD with HDR bringing out some nuances in the photography like the range of blues and reds during the finale. Kevin Meyer and Wiles provide a 1m6s video intro and a lively audio commentary covering the many hats worn on the film, the story behind how Ken Meyer ended up directing the film, the production tales behind the making of this "extravaganza," the identities of some of the bit players, and tons more including fun observations like the preponderance of "old school phone scenes." It's a bit surprising they didn't commission a second commentary here with the gang from The Hysteria Continues, given this film has been a long-running and frequent topic of discussion since the podcast's early days.
The Blu-ray features a slew of new video extras including the featurette "Two Weeks of Terror! The Making of Terror at Tenkiller" (30m11s) with Merchant, director of photography Steven Wacks, Kevin Meyer, and Wiles going into detail about the conception of the idea, the short two-week turnaround schedule mandated by United, the influence of other slasher movies, and their reactions to the script before some gory bits got wedged in late in the game. Some generous making-of footage is dropped in here as well, though you can get a standalone reel of that VHS-sourced material (27m7s) with optional commentary by Meyer and Wiles. It's a real treat to see the cast and crew hanging around the set, including some impromptu Q&A sessions about topics like catfish dinner. Then you get two home video trailers (60 and 30-second options) and a 1982 USC short film, Divided We Fall (26m29s), co-directed and co-written by Kevin Meyer with Jeff Burr (The Offspring, Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III), with the same duo appearing for a commentary. It's a pretty impressive B&W Civil War-themed student film (with the elder Meyer supplying narration), with cast members including John Agar and Nicholas Guest; this one also gets its own making-of featurette, "Brothers in Arms" (13m39s), with Burr and actor R.A. Mihailoff recalling their film school days, the evolution of the script through separate drafts, and the fortune of having the "cinema gods" smiling down on this one. Also included is a batch of really high quality color making-of footage (11m7s) from the short film's production with more Meyer and Wiles commentary, plus a 13m20s gallery.
VINEGAR SYNDROME (Blu-ray)
Reviewed on August 17, 2023.