Blu-ray Reviews: Vinegar Syndrome’s Play Dead, Hellmaster, Darkroom & more



When you’re producing an indie film, there’s a desire to get an actor with a notable name into the cast. Initially you dream of a superstar falling in love with the script to such an extreme passion that they slash their $25 million asking fee to SAG scale. But that’s a bigger fantasy than anything written in your script. Eventually you do your best to find an older actor that has a free weekend and able to handle a supporting role. While your money might be small in their history of paydays, the actor needs to look active on their filmography. While the initial response from distributors at the casting is “they’re still alive,” having a name actor proves you made an effort in your film. It might get you moved up the pile for having your film watched. If you’re at a film festival, people might be eager to see the star twinkle in your production. The summer releases from Vinegar Syndrome have a few films that were able to seek out a little star power to get their movies onto the screens or video racks.

Play Dead (1982) stars Yvonne de Carlo who had starred in numerous films including The Ten Commandments and is best known as Lily, the mother in The Munsters. Well she’s no mother in this movie. Play Dead could easily be a family melodrama. Something is up since Hester (de Carlo) isn’t a welcomed guest at her sister’s funeral. Turns out Hester has had a serious issue with her sister since she married Hester’s boyfriend. This was a sibling rivalry that didn’t end at the grave. Hester is furious that the husband died before her sister. She wants further revenge on the life that should have been her life. She wants to destroy her nephew and niece. Unlike a simple tale of family vengeance, Hester doesn’t merely be a gun to do her dirty work. She uses witchcraft and a Rottweiler named Greta. While posing as the caring aunt, she gives the dog to her niece (Preacher‘s Stephanie Dunnam) to keep her safe and give her company. This leads to the dog starting a body count that makes the niece either look like a mass murderer or befriending extra unlucky people. Play Dead is a compelling film as Greta takes out the people like a good doggy. Yvonne de Carlo can turn on the charm with her Lily Munster tones. But we know the black magic she conjures when the relatives aren’t around. She and the dog make a great screen pair. Play Dead is much better than Marley and Me.

Hellmaster (1992) was able to lure John Saxon out to Michigan for a tale of government funded telepathy project gone wrong. Saxon had been in films for decades and is best known around the globe for teaming up with Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. He plays Professor Jones, the scientist behind the project. When things went wrong, the experiments were shut down and a fire destroyed the evidence of what had taken place. A reporter investigating what’s been happening to the local homeless population finds himself in the middle of what happened to Jones’ experiment. At the same time, a bunch of students are taking a multimedia class from a way out professor that involves Jones’ work that supposedly was meant to bring Hell onto Earth. His recreation quickly gets tossed away as after effects of Jones’ patients return in a grizzly homecoming. Hellmaster is a fine messed up college film. While Saxon’s role is small, he’s sprinkled through out until the end to spread his cult-like charm. Hellmaster makes a fine double feature with Blue Sunshine.

The Corruption of Chris Miller (1973) starred Jean Seberg. While she has remained a cinema icon because of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, her career had hit a rock in America. The FBI went after her because she had donated to the Black Panthers. The agency went so far as to spread the rumor that she was pregnant with a member’s child and not her husband. She found herself unable to work in Hollywood and left once more for Europe. During this time she starred in The Corruption of Chris Miller, a Spanish giallo film. The movie is intense with Seberg playing a illustrator stuck in a country estate with her stepdaughter Chris Miller (Blood Wedding‘s Marisol). Chris is angry since her father has basically vanished off the face of the Earth. She has spent a bit of time institutionalized from all this chaos. Into their lives comes Barney (Prey‘s Barry Stokes). He’s a student just wandering around the continent doing odd gigs to get to the next place. He quickly gets Jean to trust him. He also gets Chris to open up in many ways. He seems like the perfect addition to the household. Except things get complicated fast as mom and stepdaughter both want more from their new friend. Also the police are looking for someone who has been killing rich women in the area. The Corruption of Chris Miller was released in the US as Behind the Shutters and never received a legit home video release until now. As a Giallo, it keeps up the suspense even if there’s so few characters to suspect. If you’re going to make this the feature of your Giallo and Gelato night, I’d recommend a few scoops of Talenti’s Alphonso Mango Gelato.

Taking Tiger Mountain (1983) is what happens when your unknown cast becomes extremely well known. Bill Paxton wanted to work in film. He worked of educational films and even Roger Corman in various off screen roles. But he wanted to be an actor. In 1974, Paxton and Kent Smith took a camera and short ends from Bob Fosse’s Lenny across the Atlantic to make an arty kinda film. They roamed around Wales filming odd things and events with a real script. When they came back to America, they really didn’t do anything with it. But Tom Huckabee didn’t want to let this footage just decay on a shelf. He wanted to make something of it. In 1983, he released the first cut of Taking Tiger Mountain. Paxton was still a few years away from being a star thanks to Weird Science and Aliens. Shooting extra film, mixing in footage from other films and with a new soundtrack, Huckabee altered the film to be an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ short novel Blade Runner. This has nothing to do with the Harrison Ford movie. Paxton is the subject of an experiment to alter his libido and gender identity. Because this is an art film, you shouldn’t let your mind demand the same sort of plot revelations you get from a movie such as Aliens. There’s a dreamy nature to action on the screen. There’s a lot of William S. Burroughs’ humor in the voice overs. Watching the young Paxton on the screen, you sense he was bound for bigger roles. It’s still a shock that he passed away two years ago. Tom Huckabee did a recut of the film in 2019 that is also included here.

Darkroom (1989) launched the career of Jill Pierce who would go on to appear in Twin Peaks, Baywatch and Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor. The film is the classic tale of a plucky photographer that develops their own pictures in a darkroom. They have a certain subject for their specialty. In this case, it’s his victims during the minutes before he kills them. Janet (Jill Pierce) goes home to her family’s remote farm with her boyfriend Steve (General Hospital‘s Jeff Arbaugh). He sneaks into her room, but it freaks her out since her folks are holy rollers. There is a killer also sneaking around the area and he wants to get rid of everyone in the film. There’s quite a few suspects including farmhand George who is creepy. This is the fun kinda bodycount film that aired on USA Network’s Up All Night. There’s plenty of serious ’80s hair on the top of the cast. Thanks to today’s digital photography, it’s a serious throwback as the killer has to develop the film and make the prints with chemicals and lights. Darkroom keeps the red light on for the action.

Video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The 2K transfer is from the 35mm interpositive. The colors and resolution are excellent. You’ll see that do attack. The audio is DTS-HD MA Mono. The movie is subtitled.

DVD has all the features of the Blu-ray.

Video Interview with Peter Wittman (5:48) has him recount how he moved to Texas to make industrial shorts until he was ready to make a feature film.

Audio Interview with actress Stephanie Dunham (25:26) gives us plenty of details about the shoot including de Carlo’s acting technique.

Theatrical Trailer (2:05) promises to show us the deadly secret inside de Carlo’s house.

Vinegar Syndrome presents Play Dead. Directed by Peter Whittman. Screenplay by: Lothrop W. Jordan. Starring: Yvonne De Carlo, Stephanie Dunnam, Ron Jackson, David Cullinane, Glenn Kezer. Rated: R. Running Time: 86 minutes. Released: July 30, 2019

Video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The 4K transfer is from the 35mm original negative. The resolution brings out details in the dark. The audio is DTS-HD MA stereo. The movie is subtitled.

DVD has all the features of the Blu-ray.

Audio Commentary with Director Douglas Schulze covers the production.

Director’s Recut Version (91:23) is in standard definition. There’s an optional commentary track so you can know why Schulze sliced it again.

Creating Reality (25:59) talks with cinematographer Michael Goi about his time with John Saxon.

Conceptual Art Gallery (1:39) are what the make up effects drawings.

Behind-The-Scenes Still Gallery (1:43) shows the make up effects and John Saxon’s time on the location.

Archival Locations Featurette (3:55) is about the Clinton Valley Center aka the Eastern Michigan Asylum for the Insane. Is a fun art project.

Vinegar Syndrome presents Hellmaster. Directed by Douglas Schulze. Screenplay by: Douglas Schulze. Starring: John Saxon, David Emge, Amy Raasch, Edward Stevens, Robert Dole. Rated: R. Running Time: 96 minutes. Released: July 30, 2019

Video is 2.35:1 anamorphic. The 4K transfer is from the 35mm original negative. The resolution makes the film have the Eurocharm. The audio is DTS-HD MA mono in both Spanish and English dubs. The movie is subtitled.

DVD with the Blu-ray features.

Archival career retrospective interview with director Juan Antonio Bardem (58:23) really gets deep into the director and his work. The TV show has optional English subtitles.

Jean Seberg: Movie Star (12:05) a short film exploring the tragic life of Jean Seberg.

Alternate Spanish ending (3:55) shouldn’t be watched until you see the film all the way through.

Alternate Spanish insert shot (0:29) and partial title sequence (1:09). The insert shot is merely the newspaper in Spanish instead of English.

Theatrical trailer (3:38) makes you see the violence will come at anytime. They promise a mad killer.

Vinegar Syndrome presents The Corruption of Chris Miller. Directed by Juan Antonio Bardem. Screenplay by: Santiago Moncada. Starring: Jean Seberg, Marisol, Barry Stokes, Perla Cristal, GĂ©rard Tichy. Rated: R. Running Time: 113 minutes. Released: April 30, 2019

DVD has all the features of the Blu-ray.

Taking Over Tiger Mountain (27:56) has Tom Huckabee talk about the original cut of the title. He says the original script was about J Paul Getty’s son being kidnapped.

Revisiting Tiger Mountain (17:46) has Huckabee discuss his recut of the original film. He talks about the subtle changes he made between the two films. He added new graphics to make things seem smoother. He talks about reconstituting old movies.

Interviews with Welshmen (16:25) were shot by Kent Smith during the original production. Some of the faces will be familiar after you see the film. You even get the full tiger story from one resident.

Vinegar Syndrome presents Taking Tiger Mountain. Directed by Tom Huckabee & Kent Smith. Screenplay by: Santiago Moncada. Starring: Bill Paxton. Rated: R. Running Time: 83 minutes. Released: July 2, 2019

Video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfer is a 4K scan from the original camera negative. You’ll see the pictures develop clearly. Audio is DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround and the original stereo mix. Take you choice how scared you want to be. The movie is subtitled.

DVD has all the features of the Blu-ray.

Developing Fear (10:53) is an interview with actor Aarin Teich. He talks about how a lot of the cast came from an acting class. He talks of how they had their own group making these low budget scares.

Exposing the Truth (14:08) sits down with actor Jeff Arbaugh. He played Steve. He went to Los Angles after graduating high school. This was his first big role. He reflects on how his producing theater prepared him for the business world.

Still gallery (2:15) includes the behind the scenes and publicity photographs.

Original trailer (2:48) has the Omega Entertainment logo.

Vinegar Syndrome presents Darkroom. Directed by Terrence O’Hara. Screenplay by: Robert W. Fisher, Brian Herskowitz & Rick Pamplin . Starring: Aarin Teich, Jill Pierce, Jeff Arbaugh, Sara Lee Wade. Rated: R. Running Time: 83 minutes. Released: April 30, 2019

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