Like most people reading this, I equate next week’s Thanksgiving holiday with a gluttonous amount of overeating, heated round-the-table arguments with relatives, and the anticipation of Vinegar Syndrome’s Black Friday sale. Cumulatively, these things have come to define my Thanksgiving and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A few of you have asked for specific Vinegar Syndrome recommendations and since my answers are fairly consistent no matter who I’m answering, it seemed like a good time to drop a list.
Just one quick note up top: I’m deliberately passing over the label’s biggest titles. I assume when you’re hitting me up for requests, you’re already aware of classics like The Beastmaster and Fade to Black. Great films, but I want to focus on titles I feel don’t get enough love and attention.
Nothing Underneath (1985) / Too Beautiful to Die (1988)
1985’s Nothing Underneath is an incredible Italian ode to the work of Brian DePalma. Things certainly came full circle in the 80s with the genre paying tribute to a filmmaker who drew more than a little inspiration from the Italian thrillers of the 1970s.
There’s just so many terrific flourishes here: Spilled nail polish pouring down a phone book page, a bright red glob blotting out important information. An unexplained psychic connection between siblings. Donald Pleasence with an unconvincing Italian accent devouring a plate of white spaghetti (at a Wendy’s!)…
It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Packed with beautiful women, gruesome scissor murders, a random One Night in Bangkok needle drop, and a genuinely surprising final act, this late-in-the-game giallo might be one of my all-time favorites.
It helps that it’s awash in my exact aesthetic, from a Patrick Nagel painting displayed on a wall, to lots of leg warmers and sweat bands, and the hilarious Pino Donaggio score (he practically repurposes his Body Double theme ‘Telescope’). This is just bliss for the giallo lover.
1988’s Too Beautiful to Die doesn’t quite reach the same highs, but remains loads of fun. Hard angles, neon colors, Huey Lewis on the soundtrack… Lots to like.
A gorgeous murder mystery that features a psycho killer with an oversized blade slicing through fashion models in Mad Max fetish wear on a music video shoot. Grand fashion, superior interior design (including inflatable chairs), and the aforementioned Huey Lewis song Perfect World that plays over a photoshoot montage on the high seas.
It’s a shame so few gialli were produced in the mid-to-late 80s because in some ways, this is my favorite vintage. This double feature disc is a must have.
In the Cold of the Night (1990)
Is there anything Greek filmmaker Nico Mastorakis can’t do? This erotic neon noir has a tremendous vibe as it manages the most preposterous story imaginable. Glowing waterbeds, gratuitous Shannon Tweed, one of the coolest rented living spaces this side of Body Double, and Brian Thompson as a fiercely loyal gym bro for no goddamn reason at all.
A blast from start to finish, straddling the line between competent and absurd as only Mastroakis can (this is the man who once made a movie where Atari games are used to jog someone’s subconscious, after all). Why this director doesn’t have a bigger following is beyond me. He’s tackled just about every kind of exploitation picture imaginable, and I’ve never seen one that disappointed. In the Cold of the Night, however, ranks high among his best.
All-American Murder (1991)
They should’ve called this American Giallo, because that’s exactly what it is. Charlie Schlatter (from the short-lived Ferris Bueller television series) is a perpetual screw-up who witnesses the brutal murder of all-American girl Josie Bisset and is given twenty-four hours by jaded detective Christopher Walken to clear his name. Need more than that?
This is so much more stylish than it needs to be, with hard boiled dialogue and terrific character beats. Extra points for a strong supporting cast and a murderer’s identity that’s a little harder to guess than usual.
This was a premium cable movie memory in the early 90s, and I got caught up in it every time it was on. All these later, I’m happy to say this has only gotten better with age. A real blast.
Blood Hook (1986)
The very definition of regional oddity. A great slasher from MST3K producer Jim Mallon, built around a small town fishing competition in Hayward, Wisconsin where the killer quite literally hooks his prey to death with an oversized fishing lure.
Some people find this slasher’s combination of comedy and horror a bit off-putting. I, on the other hand, find it to be an absolute pleasure, stuffed to the brim with memorable characters and locales (you’ll never forget the town’s gigantic muskie statue once you see it). It transports you into its strange and fully realized universe for one of the most entertaining slashing sprees you’re likely to find.
I’d also recommend steering clear of the truncated 92 minute version. Vinegar Syndrome’s disc runs a full 111 minutes, and that’s what you want to see.
The Caller (1987)
A fantastic oddity from Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. I’d never heard of it until Vinegar Syndrome released it to disc and boy am I happy they did.
A lone woman in an isolated farm house (Madolyn Smith) is visited by a stranger (Malcolm McDowell) who seems to know more about her than he initially lets on. A very odd chamber drama where two oddballs riff off each other, one clearly disturbed, the other potentially dangerous.
This builds slowly to a truly surprising finale. Don’t read anything else about it, believe me. Just grab the disc if you’re in the mood for something completely different and plain compelling.
Beyond the Door III (1989)
While this may be a “series” only where international distributors are concerned, number three happens to be the best movie to have worn the Beyond the Door title. No small feat, either. I just really like this movie a lot.
A strange mix of satanic panic and disaster porn that finds a group of college students traveling to the Yugoslavian countryside in order to observe an ancient cultural ritual. It goes about as well as you’d expect, but it’s a total speedball of gore and nonsense. Think of it as a schlockier Midsommar and you’re pretty close.
Great fun. To be expected from Jeff Kwitny, the director of the slasher-on-the-slopes classic Iced.
Def By Temptation (1990)
There’s not nearly enough succubus horror in the world for my liking. And while this is a great one, the soul of the movie lies in the tension between a minister-in-training (James Bond III), who the demon would love to corrupt, and his movie star brother (Kadeem Hardison).
Terrific NYC locations. Beautiful cinematography (shot by the great Ernest R. Dickerson who directed Demon Knight). Fantastic music. Some of the coolest imagery in 80s horror. All of it wrapped inside a spiritually affirming message that truly grounds the material.
Probably one of the very best films in the Vinegar Syndrome archives.
Every so often you stumble across something that is so good you’re amazed it’s eluded you for so long and you’re delighted to know there are still total gems out there to discover.
Hellmaster is purely about aesthetics. Red and green gel-lit corridors, carnage staged for the surreal. Some of the imagery is among the best I’ve seen lately: a creepy prayer bus with a giant crucifix affixed to the front, an odd assortment of ghouls, Flyboy from Dawn of the Dead wreaking havoc with a crossbow that shoots syringes.
It’s all so gloriously weird and never once bothers to make a lick of sense. Instead it finds footing with a wonderful dream logic that is enhanced by its beautiful setting (an old Detroit asylum) and the presence of John Saxon as the evil ringleader to a ghastly band of undead psychos. Awesome stuff if you want to catch a vibe and ride it.
If all you’re thinking about when you see the name Ulli Lommel is the glut of shoestring budgeted serial killer movies he churned out toward the end of his life, then think again. The Fassbinder protégé has a few great movies under his belt and this is one of them.
As a child, Olivia witnessed the death of her prostitute mother at the hands of an abusive john. As an adult, she remains severely traumatized by the ordeal and lures men to her place, avenging her mom’s untimely death over and over.
An outstanding psychosexual shocker that’s fascinating from the get go, managing a few surprising twists before stumbling slightly with a fairly obvious finale. Suzanna Love is incredible here, though, and Lommel was never this confident or as interesting again.
A twisted serial killer scavenger hunt with some genuinely creepy moments and way more heart and soul than your average DTV offering.
I really like how much time this spends with its emotionally battered characters as it depicts the toll these gruesome events take on everyone. We also get David Cronenberg in a bit role as a Catholic priest (!) while visual god Russell Mulcahey manages to conjure David Fincher on a shoestring (which was almost certainly the mandate from the get go). He makes this way more attractive than the sort of movies that typically lined Blockbuster shelves in the late 90s.
I remember overhearing constant chatter about this one from the video store masses back then. People dug it.
Rush Week (1989)
I might be going out on a limb here, but this college slasher is a blast. It’s filled with all the requisite exploitation, hijinks, red herrings, and slashing (well, maybe it could’ve used a tiny bit more of that) that you could want from the genre.
And what’s more, this little Nancy Drew-in-a-slasher-movie has a pretty decent story to go with everything else. Some of the most hysterically awful college hazing, one nifty-looking killer, and a strong overall vibe.
A surprisingly solid way to close the book on this bygone era of vintage slashers.
Location is so important to a slasher movie and I genuinely believe that if you’ve got a good one, you’re literally 50% of the way there. Berserker takes full advantage of its Utah wilderness, from fog-piped forests to dilapidated cabins and trickling streams. I love everything that’s on display here.
Add to that a creepy synth score, some glorious 80s rock, a genuinely impressive bear fight, and maybe the strangest of all 1980s slasher villains and you’ve got a shining obscurity.
I think I might be this movie’s biggest fan and I’m completely fine with that.