Did you used to watch USA’s Up All Night in the ’90s? Were you born in the ’90s? If you were born or had a bedtime at 9 p.m. in ’90s, here’s a little primer. On Fridays and Saturdays USA Network would run three movies from 11 p.m. to 6 am. These were independent films that weren’t created to become Sundance darlings. They were made to be rented at mom and pop video stores by people who wanted something more than the glossy Big Hollywood Studio productions. They wanted an edge and grit to their movie experience. Although a lot of people were intrigued by the salacious boxes on the shelves, back then it was three bucks to take a chance on a two nights which was three beers at the Five-O. Up All Night freed these films from the VHS shelves and let them roam across America’s cable for all to absorb. If you were up, Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear host on their respective nights for the first two films. The last film would run with bumpers letting you know it was part of Up All Night. The films themselves were a grab bag of weirdness. They were comedies, mysteries, science fiction epics and monster flicks. What did they have in common? They were made on the cheap. The first film wasn’t amazingly better than the third entry. They were all beautifully seedy. Six Blu-rays recently released by Vinegar Syndrome seem like they were hyped by Rhonda in her sizzling toned voice.
Party Line (1988) takes us back to the original chatroom with massive stars. A party line was a 976 number that you could call and talk to random people. A lot of times it was the hopes of hooking up with someone for a steamy evening. That’s exactly what happens when Angelina (48 Hours’ Greta Blackburn) lures a guy back to her house. Little does the guest know that her brother Seth (Walking Tall‘s Leif Garrett) is lurking. He fears the siblings are going to blackmail him, but they’re not into that crime. Seth opens up his straight razor and slits the guy’s throat. The duo go out to party. Turns out they’re serial killers. Dan (Battlestar Galatica‘s Richard Hatch) is a rather violent vice cop who stumbles over one of the victims. He gets assigned to the case by Captain Barnes (Shaft‘s Richard Roundtree), but he’s not happy having to go from vice to homicide and have to work with Stacy (J.J. Starbuck‘s Shawn Weatherly) from the D.A.’s office. His anger issues aren’t appreciated by the guys in legal. But the duo figure out how to track a killer who is only a mysterious voice in a party line. Party Line really did play on Up All Night. Who wouldn’t tune in to see Shaft teaming up with the guy from the last season of The Streets of San Francisco? Leif Garrett is rather sedate in his role of the creepy brother. Judging from Leif’s Behind the Music special, he was probably extremely sedated when making the film. The film is a newly struck 4K transfer from the 35mm camera negative so you get a great view of ’80s cheesiness in the fashions of the folks at the disco. Bonus features include writer Richard Brandes explaining how the script was created and the party line craze and the trailer.
Wacko (1981) is a spoof of the teen slasher flicks that is more star studded than a massacre on The Love Boat. If you’re a fan of Joe Don Baker’s cop in Mitchell, you’re going to get more of the messy end of the law in this film. He fears the Lawnmower Killer is going to rise up 13 years after he slaughtered teens outside the Halloween Pumpkin Prom. Everybody thinks he’s just crazy and nasty, but there does seem to be someone running around with a pumpkin on their head killing people around town before the dance. Among the suspects is Dr. Graves (Cool Hand Luke‘s George Kennedy). He’s a pervy kinda dad who keeps trying to spy on his own daughters. First it was Pam (Knotts Landings‘ Claudia Lonow) who was mowed down and now it’s Mary (Newhart‘s Julia Duffy). Their mother (The Silencers‘ Stella Stevens) is oblivious to it all. Is there a chance the killer will come back for another chance to trim up the grass and bodies that are going to the party? The film is over the topic with jokes flying all over the place like Airplane!. Some get laughs like how Joe Don carries his coffee to crime scenes and his family dinner. Others are just clang when they hit the ground. The biggest part of the film is an amazing cast that includes an extremely young Andrew “Dice” Clay before he became the Diceman. He’s doing a goofy riff on John Travolta as Duffy’s rough and stupid friend. E.G. Daily (Rugrats) is the goofy girlfriend who has trouble with boys. Sonny Carl Davis proves he can be more than just the jerk who gets Brad fired in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Charles Napier (Squidbillies) gets to order around Joe Don Baker as the captain. Even Jeff Altman gets to strip down as the strange Vice Principal who has unusual punishment for the kids at the school. Spoiler alert: the best movie joke is the kids go to Hitchcock High and their rival is De Palma High. It’s truly a blissful mess that can keep you up until 4 a.m. with familiar faces in outrageous roles. Bonus features include a commentary from Greydon Clark, an interview with the cinematographer and the original trailer. You might not want to watch this film if the landscapers are working next door.
Splatter University (1984) brings a touch of Troma to education. Splatter University was distributed by Troma which found many of its films getting aired on Up All Night. Director Richard W. Haines, his crew and a cast of unknowns do their best with a slasher tale at St. Trinian’s College. The action opens up at an insane asylum where one of the patients have disappeared with the only “clue” left behind being a dead orderly. Around the same time, a teacher at the nearby college has turned up dead. Months later a new teacher (Forbes Riley) arrives to take over. She seems taken back at how her position opened up and it gets worse when students and teachers begin turning up dead. The film is a spoof of the teen slasher flicks that were becoming hits at the end of the ’70s and early ’80s. The students do come off as normal with their disinterest in studying and doing classwork. They’re really not motivated in their education. And they don’t seem to upset at classmates getting killed. The priest angle that seemed risky in the ’80s, but making them the suspects with deep vices is pretty normal now. This film has a lot of goofiness as the mysterious stranger goes around slicing throats so it’s not the most tense of body count films. Star Forbes Riley ended up appearing in a sketch on Up All Night with Rhonda Shear. The bonus features include commentary tracks from director Haines and the Hysteria Continues! crew. The composer sat down for an audio interview. Finally there’s script, photos, trailer, TV spots and radio ads.
Battle For the Planets (1985) and Mutant War (1988) is a double feature of science fiction from Brett Piper. He’s the kinda director who didn’t merely idolize special effects genius Ray Harryhausen, but went out of his way to make his own Harryhausen-ian movies. These two show his love of in-camera and stop motion effects that nowadays would be farmed off to a CGI effects house. The two films deal with Harry Trent (Matt Mitler) who has to escape into space after stealing a pile of government secrets. When he gets back to Earth, he discovers that gangs have now taken over as the ruling parties. And they’re not just any type of gangs, they’re mutant alien gangs. Mutant Wars continues the saga with Harry trying to stop aliens from kidnapping Earth women to give birth to mutant babies. Mutant War has the bonus of Hollywood legend Cameron Mitchell (Blood and Black Lace). There’s a lot of post-apocalyptic effects on the screen. The bonus features include director introductions and an interview with Piper.
Bloody New Year (1986) can be enjoyed any day of the year. Why? Because it’s always New Year’s Eve at the abandoned hotel. A group of young adults on a sailing voyage end up wrecking on an English island. That’s where they stumble upon a hotel that hasn’t seemed to be open since 1959. They still have the decorations up for the Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties. The kids slowly realize there’s something extra weird about the hotel including the theater that is projecting a film about the previous guest. The former guests begin to reappear along with zombies that aren’t enjoying new folks taking their reservations. This goes up there with director Norman J. Warren’s Prey and Terror that were previously released by Vinegar Syndrome.
Body Melt (1993) is a prime piece of later Ozploitation about consumer products gone wrong in the land down under. People keep finding freebie samples of a new vitamin in their mail. They trust that the stuff is good and begin to add it to their diet to get into better shape. Turns out that stuff is a bit more experimental than advertised and really bad things begin to happen to the people. Body Melt does more than make the pounds melt away. The body oozes, expands and explodes for quite a few people on the program. This is a gross and grotesque film that brings out the best of an Australian drive-in culture where they push the boundaries on the screen.
Watching these films from Vinegar Syndrome will push you back to a time when you could binge all night. So what happened to Up All Night? Turns out Barry Diller bought the USA Network in the late ’90s and decided he wanted to spruce up the place. Around this time the major studios decided to drop the licensing fee for their older blockbuster titles. Diller ordered an upgrade in the Up All Night movies and let go Gilbert and Rhonda. The magic was truly gone as major studios killed the last 12 hours of cable time for indie films. The good news is that Vinegar Syndrome is making sure the films that once roamed Up All Night don’t vanish. And for those curious about Up All Night, Rhonda Shear has put many of her segments on YouTube so you can see her magic when you’re wide awake.
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.