Aptly named for the acidic smell of deteriorating film, Vinegar Syndrome made an auspicious debut in 2013 with its inaugural release, The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis. In the decade since, they have unearthed, restored, and distributed hundreds of cult, exploitation, horror, action, and adult films.
Popping in a new Vinegar Syndrome disc is a bit like cinematic Russian roulette. It’s always interesting, but you never know if you’re going to get an obscure masterpiece, a campy B-movie, a so-bad-it’s-good slice of fun, or a dud. The unknown is half the fun, and discovering those diamonds in the rough makes it worthwhile.
In celebration of their anniversary, I’m highlighting 10 hidden gems from Vinegar Syndrome’s first 10 years.
To narrow the choices, I’m ignoring the heavy hitters like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 and The Amityville Horror, box sets like Forgotten Gialli and Home Grown Horrors, and the cult classics that have already found an audience, such as Spookies, Miami Connection, and Tammy and the T-Rex.
1. Raw Force
A definite product of its time in both concept and execution, 1982’s Raw Force (also known by the more straightforward title Kung Fu Cannibals) may not be a crowning achievement on a technical level — the script, acting, blocking, effects, and ADR all leave plenty to be desired — but I’ll be damned if it’s not wildly entertaining throughout.
The film packs a smorgasbord of grindhouse tropes into 86 minutes, including martial arts action, cannibalistic monks, kung fu zombies, killer piranhas, and a group of Neo-Nazis lead by a guy with a Hitler mustache. All that, plus the gratuitous nudity, violence, blood, and explosions you’d expect from the genre. Did I mention I Spit on Your Grave‘s Camille Keaton appears as “Girl on Toilet?”
A giallo by way of Gothic horror, Terror is Britain’s answer to Suspiria. Director Norman J. Warren (Inseminoid) and writer David McGillivray (Frightmare) openly admit to be inspired by Dario Argento’s 1977 horror classic, although its influence on their 1978 effort would be apparent without any confirmation.
The plot is messy — a scattershot collection of visceral horror set pieces that include a witch’s curse, a film production, a black-gloved killer, and a one-line cameo from Chewbacca himself, Peter Mayhew — but that’s all secondary to the stylish aesthetic: opulent production design and set décor, elaborate costumes, occasional neon lighting, and a bold score.
3. The Suckling
1990 direct-to-video oddity The Suckling (also known as Sewage Baby) is a hilariously misguided attempt at social commentary through horror. A second-trimester fetus is flushed down the toilet of a seedy brothel/abortion clinic and then comes in contact with toxic waste in the sewer, causing it to grow and mutate, as if Troma made the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The creature begins attacking people through the drains with tendrils reminiscent of The Thing, then it encases the house in womb-like growths to prohibit escape, resulting in a Night of the Living Dead-esque struggle for power among the inhabitants. It’s finally realized as a full-body creature suit (donned in part by future Fangoria editor-in-chief Michael Gingold) that appears more lifelike than most rubber monsters of the era despite being made on a fraction of the budget.
Deadline (also known as Anatomy of a Horror) is a 1980 Canadian sleeper worthy of permeating viewers much like its subject matter does to the main character. Comparable to a self-referential Stephen King novel, Stephen Young (Soylent Green) stars as a famed horror writer whose pursuit to achieve “ultimate terror” comes at the expense of his domestic life and, ultimately, his sanity.
The downward spiral lasts all the way through its bleak ending, delicately balancing drama and horror throughout the tightly-edited 90 minutes. The lines between fiction and reality blur as the author’s latest works turn into striking horror set pieces, lending itself to one of the film’s greatest strengths: its metatextual angle.
Nightbeast is perhaps most notable for having a score co-composed by J.J. Abrams when he was 16. It was also featured in Mandy as the eccentric movie that Nicolas Cage’s character watches. But beyond all that, the 1982 creature feature epitomizes a lost era of regional genre filmmaking for the home video market.
Cult writer-director Don Dohler coined the “blood, boobs, and beast” mantra as the elements necessary to sell a film. With the help of a revolving door of friends and family, he practices what he preaches, as Nightbeast delivers all three in spades… and little else. It bustles with unintentional camp, yet there’s an incontrovertible charm to its do-it-yourself ethics and homegrown aesthetic. It succeeds because — like Plan 9 from Outer Space, The Room, Troll 2, et al. — every frame is genuine.
If you thought Sleepwalkers was the weirdest cat horror movie, wait until you get a load of 1987’s Uninvited from writer-director Greydon Clark (Without Warning). As the result of a science experiment gone wrong, a feline-like monster emerges from an ostensibly normal orange tabby to kill its prey before returning to its unassuming cat shell. Aided by senseless logic and inconsistent scale, the film is every bit as ridiculous — and entertaining — as it sounds.
Equipped with a poisonous bite, the ferocious feline finds its way aboard a yacht. George Kennedy (Creepshow 2) chews the scenery big-time as the heavy, Clu Gulager (The Return of the Living Dead) sports ridiculous fake teeth as a bumbling buffoon, Toni Hudson (Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III) inexplicably wears wardrobe several sizes too big, and Austin Stoker (Assault on Precinct 13) makes a brief cameo in the epilogue.
7. There’s Nothing Out There
If Jamie Kennedy’s movie-nerd Randy was the main character of Scream, it would be a lot like There’s Nothing Out There. From writer-director Rolfe Kanefsky (Nightmare Man), the meta horror-comedy made horror references and critiqued genre tropes in 1991 — five years before Scream reinvented the genre as we knew it.
The film follows a group of friends to a secluded vacation home in the woods for spring break. While most of its commentary pertains to slashers, the antagonist in There’s Nothing Out There is a small alien that looks like the rubber offspring of a Gremlin and Belial from Basket Case. Similar to Alien‘s Xenomorph, the creature reveals new, increasingly dangerous traits over time, with a deadly arsenal that includes suctioned tentacles, flesh-melting slime, razor-sharp teeth, laser vision, and mind control.
If you’re excited by the recent news that David Fincher is reteaming with Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker, Resurrection is a good way to tide you over. Director Russell Mulcahy (Resident Evil: Extinction, Highlander) and writer Brad Mirman (Body of Evidence) shamelessly rip off the film to the point where the 1999 movie feels like they asked AI to write Se7en.
Highlander star Christopher Lambert and reliable character actor Leland Orser (who had a small but memorable part in Se7en) play a pair of detectives being taunted by a self-righteous serial killer with a religious motive. The cast also includes Robert Joy (Land of the Dead) and David Cronenberg. It lacks both the style and the substance of Se7en but still manages to entertain. It’s charmingly contrived, melodramatic, gruesome, dated, and so void of humor that it becomes unintentionally hilarious.
9. Liquid Sky
Grossing $1.7 million on a $500,000 budget, Liquid Sky was the most successful independent film of 1983. Not bad for a movie about invisible aliens that claim victims during sex in search of a drug released at the point of orgasm. The execution is as wild as the concept, but not in the way you might expect. Director Slava Tsukerman takes an avant-garde approach that’s as much arthouse as it is science fiction.
New Wave in style but punk rock in ethic, the film is set in the neon-drenched, drug-fueled underground New York club scene of the early ’80s. Anne Carlisle stars in a dual role as rival fashion models who unknowingly find themselves in the middle of the unseen alien invasion. The Man Who Fell to Earth is the best point of reference, but parallels can also be drawn to The Holy Mountain, Brain Damage, and I Come in Peace, albeit with radically different approaches.
10. Grave Robbers
There’s no shortage of notable slashers in the Vinegar Syndrome catalogue — Madman, Jack Frost, Graduation Day, Slaughterhouse, Splatter University, Blood Hook, and Don’t Go in the Woods, to name a few — but Grave Robbers (Ladrones de Tumbas in its native Spanish) deserves a spotlight. Based on the too-long first act of the 1989 Mexican horror film, you’re more likely to mistake it for Gothic horror, religious horror, or exploitation than correctly identify it as a slasher. But once the killer is resurrected via ancient curse, it essentially becomes a Friday the 13th sequel.
The killer is essentially a hulking, undead monk, akin to the resurrected Jason seen in Friday the 13th Parts VI and VII, and the plot itself shares commonalities with Part VI. Early scenes are reminiscent of Tombs of the Blind Dead, and there’s a sequence that was clearly inspired by A Nightmare on Elm Street for good measure. The killer’s signature weapon is an axe, which — despite looking like a Halloween prop — lends itself to some gory kills and yields a respectable body count.
Here’s to another 10 years of rediscovery from Vinegar Syndrome!