Catching Up With: Vinegar Syndrome

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-08-01 19:28

When Scream Factory debuted in 2012, they did so with a deserved spotlight. Here was a label looking to bestow Collector’s Edition status to everyone’s favorites, and while those titles were certainly cult favorites, I think it’s fair to say they trended towards relatively mainstream studio efforts, at least early on. However, around the same time, another startup label was looking to rummage through an entirely different level of disreputable cult films with the launch of Vinegar Syndrome, an outfit founded by archivists Joe Rubin and Ryan Emerson. During their five years of existence, this label has delivered a range of exploitation, ranging from obscure sexploitation to essential Blaxploitation staples.

In between, they’ve also curated quite a horror catalog culled from the lower depths of the grindhouse pool, and it should come as no surprise that these nefarious regions have yielded a bounty of slashers. Headlined by video store staple Madman, Vinegar Syndrome’s slasher selections make for a wonderfully eclectic mix of psycho-biddy madness, DIY nonsense, and other assorted backwoods slaughter. It’s a truly wonderful tapestry of slashers you might have never expected to see the light of day on a decent DVD release, let alone Blu-ray.

Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971)

Far from unfolding in a straight line, the slasher genre has sprouted several sprawling branches throughout the years, allowing its early predecessors to take on some rather unique forms. One of many regional riffs on the theme, Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things is one such oddity. While its hack-and-slash moments—and there are plenty—recall the stuff of typical body count movies, they’re surrounded by a wild, sordid tale involving Paul (Abe Zwick) and Stanley (Wayne Crawford), a couple of small-time crooks on the lam. Fleeing all the way to Miami from Baltimore, they’ve shacked up in a house owned by Stanley’s Aunt Martha, which sounds completely normal until you learn that Paul has murdered the poor old lady and assumed her identity.

Tension mounts as he grows increasingly paranoid about everyone: an accomplice from Baltimore that wanders back into picture, the sweet old lady across the street, and the various girls Stanley attempts to bed before his brain goes haywire. The latter provides the most intriguing dimension to this curious splatter movie-cum-hothouse melodrama from one-time director Thomas Casey, who mines this sub-genre’s psychosexual implications to create a bizarre portrait of what appears to be a homosexual relationship between two self-loathing men. You come for the splatter—which is delivered via psychedelic, negative-image outbursts—but you grow more interested in the bizarre interactions between Paul and Stanley. The former is especially captivating as he assumes more and more of Aunt Martha’s identity, chiding her “nephew” in the unnervingly childish (and possibly mentally disturbed?) Stanley.

One of the more fascinating (and strikingly competent!) efforts from the regional obscuro scene, Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things doesn’t foreshadow the more straightforward, mainstream slasher efforts. Rather, it anticipates the real psychosexual madness lurking in films such as Nightmare, Night Warning, and Sleepaway Camp. Charged with the melodramatic verve of a psycho-biddy flick, it climaxes with one of the most outrageous scenes ever glimpsed on the exploitation circuit, yet still manages to recover to highlight the sad, almost tragic trauma shared between two men whose repressed ids leave a gruesome trail of carnage.

Madman (1981)

Easily the most high profile release on Vinegar Syndrome’s slasher slate, Madman also ranks as one of the genre’s finest 88 minutes. It’s a blustery, moonlit campfire tale brought to gory, cornball life as a group of ill-fated campers learns the local lore involving an undead serial killer isn’t just the stuff of tall tales. Madman Marz (Paul Ehlers) is real, and he’s a lithe, otherworldly bastard capable of flitting through trees and severing your head with a swing of an axe. I will readily admit that Madman doesn’t feature a ton of innovation: by 1981, many of its tropes would have already felt familiar, from the isolated camp setting to its reliance on gore gags to compensate for a thin plot and even thinner characters.

However, not only does it at excel at delivering that familiarity, but it’s also full of idiosyncratic moments that belong wholly to Madman. Only Joe Giannone’s splatter opus boasts awkward hot tub trysts, a gaudy namesake belt buckle, AM gold tracks, an ill-fated victim’s hilarious attempt to hide in a refrigerator, and a decapitation via car hood. I’m not convinced that’s even possible, but I’m not about to quibble about the science of a movie that features a monstrous hillbilly. It goes without saying that Marz himself is also among the film’s specific, peculiar charms: in an era where many slashers opted for largely unseen killers hidden by masks or POV shots, Madman revels in its burly but impossibly spry psycho. Fleeting shots create a shadowy silhouette of a wild mountain man before Marz is revealed to be hideous, deformed maniac with ragged hair and animalistic features.

It’s a shame that Marz wasn’t able to make the leap to full-blown slasher icon with a long-running franchise, as Madman is among the best of the genre’s one-off efforts. While its DNA persisted in later slashers (particularly the Hatchet series) we were sadly denied a proper follow-up despite Ehlers attempts to mount one as recently as 2010 or so. Alas, it seems the only way we’ll here from Marz again is if anyone dares to speak his name above a whisper…

Frightmare (1983)

Not to be confused with the Pete Walker sleaze-fest from 1974, this Frightmare is a slasher haunted by the ghosts of horror past. Conceived over a decade before Scream, it, too, functions as a love letter to the genre, albeit without a satirical edge. Instead, it’s more of a goof that would feel like an even more fucked up take-off of Weekend at Bernie’s if it hadn’t also predated that film by several years. When legendary horror actor Conrad Razkoff (Ferdy Mayne essentially playing Christopher Lee), a group of fans (among them: Jeffrey Combs!) break into his gaudy mausoleum, swipe his body, and take it back to an old mansion that doubles as their horror society’s headquarters. But what they don’t know is that Razkoff was a total psychopath in life (we watch him off two victims in the first fifteen minutes before he kicks the bucket himself), and, in death, he’s become something much worse. Upon being revived by his widow’s black magic, he’s unleashed with new supernatural abilities, including superhuman strength and spontaneous combustion.

The results are expectedly gnarly, as these dopes are chargrilled, beheaded, and smashed to death by a floating coffin—and that’s just a sampling of the carnage here. While Frightmare is slow at times (it boasts its fair share of characters stumbling through a house as wind vaguely howls in the distance), it’s guided by the same party movie mentality that would eventually define Kevin Tenney’s work later in the decade. Frightmare is fun as hell and unfolds in the shadow of the genre’s illustrious past: famous posters and portraits of horror icons line the walls as Razkoff—decked out in full-on Dracula get-up—stalks this disposable set of jagoffs.

Furthermore, Mayne is delightful as the deliriously unhinged Razkoff. Having become so absorbed by his signature genre, he’s become a full-time performer even when the cameras stop rolling. In fact, not even his own death prevents him from hosting his own funeral with all the showmanship of a horror TV host, and the recorded messages projected on the walls of his mausoleum take on a more sinister tone as his presence becomes more obviously supernatural. His wry sense of humor, however, never fades, nor does the film’s commitment to delivering rad gore and fiendish nonsense. Any film where the villain fakes his death twice in order to take revenge against his enemies is not to be missed—especially when one instance has him suffocating someone with a wad of $100 bills.

Horror House on Highway Five (1985)

When it was finally released in 1985, Horror House on Highway Five must have looked like the same old shit to any unsuspecting video store patron expecting the latest humdrum slasher movie released in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th. However, not only did Richard Casey’s film actually predate both of these films, it’s anything but reheated slasher junk. It is now perhaps best remembered as “that slasher movie where the killer wears a Richard Nixon mask,” but let me assure you that this is just scratching the surface. In fact, that might be the least curious aspect about this thoroughly confounding jaunt through what must be its director’s unfiltered, drug-addled id.

Ostensibly, yes, Horror House on Highway Five is about a group of coeds charged with doing field research for a project, where they encounter a lunatic wearing Tricky Dick attire. But what if I told you it also involves Nazi black magic, brain parasites, and an invisible malevolent force that also terrorizes the students, much to the bewilderment of, well, everyone? You watch the actors’ exaggerated, confused reactions to these wild camera movements (accented by a cartoonish whooshing sound), and you can’t help but wonder if anyone knew what the hell was going on—Casey included.

Ironically enough, the routine stalk-and-slash stuff is the closest the film comes to approaching coherence, and even these sequences are often marked by stilted pacing and bizarre character reactions. A warbling, psychotronic madness engulfs everything here, as Horror House on Highway Five doesn’t unfold so much as it spills out with wild, reckless abandon (likely because its production stretched out over several years). Characters deliver lines that were seemingly conjured up right there on the spot, while plot developments involving a (supposedly) long dead Nazi stumble and stagger to a loopy conclusion. In between, bursts of savage gore, uncomfortable torture, and an abusive relationship between the main villain and his mentally-challenged lackey provide a grisly, disreputable dimension. When jumbled together, it makes for a brain-scrambling experience that’s unlike just about anything else from this era. It’s less Friday the 13th and more Blood Beat, right down to the regional, amateur digs and the general sense that it might be the product of a dissociative fugue that somehow got committed to celluloid.

Slaughterhouse (1987)

Arriving nearly fifteen years after a copious amount of films riffed on The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and only a year removed from its sequel), Slaughterhouse has all the makings of a late-to-the-party also-ran. This is especially true if you just consider the premise, wherein burly slaughterhouse employee Buddy lays waste to anyone who happens to wander around his workplace. Or at least it used to be: see, seven years of Reaganomics have hollowed out the old place into a husk of its former self, much to the dismay of Buddy’s dad, who sees his son as more of a blunt instrument of vengeance against the local real estate investors that bailed on him.

So, yeah, despite the pretty obvious, straightforward premise, Slaughterhouse still tends to be weird as shit at times. Certainly, you hardly expect that for the first 20 minutes or so, as it’s typical Dead Teenager stuff, with a group of kids goofing off and partying a sleepy town, only to have the festivities interrupted by Buddy, who promptly slaughters a couple of them. Those who remain blissfully unaware and just assume their missing friends are up to no good piss around town and even hatch a plan to film a music video in the titular slaughterhouse, all of which signals the usual 80s junk.

Things take an odd turn, however, when the old man’s revenge subplot kicks in and puts his enemies up on the chopping block alongside the teenage fodder. Once it does, Slaughterhouse really fires up (there’s a good 20-minute stretch in the early-going that disqualifies this one becoming certifiably great) and delivers what you expect from a movie with this title: radical gore inflicted by numerous sharp implements, some hideous meat puns, and various eccentricities (like a much-hyped town jamboree subplot that goes nowhere), all set to a raucous, rocking soundtrack and buoyed by an incongruously incisive message: the real slaughterhouse is capitalism.
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