Director/Writer: Norman Thadeus Vane
Cast: Ferdy Mayne, Jeffrey Combs, Luca Bercovici and Leon Askin,
Length: 86 min
Label: Vinegar Syndrome
Release Date: October 20, 2015
Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English: DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0
Subtitles: English SDH
- Audio Commentary with The Hysteria Continues
- Audio Commentary with historian David Del Valle and filmmaker David DeCoteau
- Audio Commentary featuring archival audio interview with Norman Thadeus Vane
- Interview with Joel King
- Art Gallery
- Original Theatrical Trailer
The film opens on what appears to be a typical Hammer-esque vampire story. The credits are a perfect match to the style of Hammer, and, complete with the moody Gothic architecture, it sets the atmosphere in perfect tone. Entering the estate, the camera sees a Count, British character actor Ferdy mayne channeling his best Christopher Lee, burst throuhg a set of doors towards an unassuming female victim. Just as the Count opens his mouth to reveal a set of comically large fangs, the film suddenly cuts to reveal the whole setup as a ruse. The scene is not from our film, or any film at all, but from a commercial being shot. Following the cut, the commercial’s blowhard director, proceeds to lament about everything that has gone wrong, while Ferdy’s character, a famed horror star from the past named Conrad Radzoff, remains stoic and cold-faced as he politely cleans his fangs. Eventually the director calls for a set break and storms off set the set. Angered by his mistreatment, Radzoff follows the director and when he is unsuspecting, pushes him off a ledge to his death, thus beginning a killing spree that will last the film’s run.
The pulling back of the camera to reveal the set of the commercial is the film’s first clue that all is not what it seems. Frightmare is, in a sense, a pulling back of the curtain to reveal/lampoon the aspects of horror. It’s a humorous romp that tackles elements of Gothic — especially of the Hammer and Amicus variety — and even the Slasher genre, which by 1983 was increasingly popular.The open of the film mostly exists to set up Radzoff’s character as the tragic fallen star, who is now resorting to reprising his famous role only to shill products while being berated by undeserving directors; a walking hyperbole of diminished film royalty. The film will continue into what will be the main thrust of the story, when a University’s horror society invites Radzoff to their function as the guest of honor. Finally, Radzoff has found the respect he feels that he deserves. However, the reunion is bittersweet when Radzoff dies amidst his reception speech. But, the story doesn’t end there. The students decide that the next logical way to the pay the star honor is to steal his body from the mortuary in order to spend the night partying with it in their vicinity. Big mistake. Their plans sour when Radzoff famous role becomes a reality, returning to life to wreak vengeance on all in his path.
What is refreshing about Frightmare is that it never falls into outright parody. It takes the horror elements nearly as serious as the satirical ones, giving the film a great balance of tone. With the addition of the film, with a few expectations, not trying to be overtly humorous, there is a genuine feeling that permeates through its run.Ferdy Mayne as Conrad Radzoff is one of the film’s strongest assets. A veteran of Gothic — and Hammer — Horror himself, Mayne is able to lend the film a certain gravitas that it needs to evoke the roles/personalities of the likes of Lee and Price, something that the film is clearly interested in portraying. Lee was actually originally offered the role but — according to David Del Valle and David DeCoteau — turned it down over disagreements on his salary. However, it seems doubtful that Lee would accept the role even had he been given whatever salary he desired, due to many reasons. First, there was his infamous distaste with his connection to not only his role as Dracula but also with his earlier attempts to lampoon the role in other non-Hammer films. Because of this, it would seem doubtful that the arguably paltry script would even attract Lee, despite being a far better than something like the Howling II (no disrespect, it’s a perfectly entertaining film), which Lee would accept two years after. It’s for the best that Maybe was given the role because someone like Lee or Vincent Price would most certainly shine in the role — especially the latter — but may push the film too far into the self-parody category. Mayne heightens the film by adding that British grandeur while remaining anonymous enough to give the film’s balance between parody and satire levity.
Director of Photography Joel King does a beautiful job lighting the film, and it’s very clear (not only through the included interview with King but also through the visuals) that King had a blast giving the film its look. The only minor complaint is that the lighting is extremely soft, to the point where the highlights have a slight blooming effect that can, at times, be a bit distracting to the overall look. Other than this, the visual makeup sets the Gothic-by-way-of-Hammer vibe brilliantly. Every shot has this beautiful dramatic, almost melodramatic, tone to it. On the supplementary features, King discusses how the producers were ready to fire him on the first week for taking too long with lighting, citing their small budget as a concern. He states, however, that once they saw his dailies, they immediately refinanced in order to raise the additional funds needed to keep King’s technique. Whether this is a tall tale warped via King over the years or reality, it’s hard to argue with the end result because Frightmare does look stunning. A less capable DP could have easily sunk the film. King originally planned to shoot the film completely in black and white, only using color for the blood. While in theory this sounds like it could produce a marvelous effect, it is probably for the best that they never went through with this idea, especially given the film’s rather small budget.In addition to having one of the best names for show business, the film’s writer and director, Norman Thadeus Vane (who sadly passed away earlier this year), had only directed two films prior to Frightmare — one only sixty minutes in length, and the second, The Black Room, shot in 1981 but released nearly simultaneously with Frightmare in the states. Before that, he worked in theater and had written a few screenplays, including Richard Donner’s Lola and Shadow of the Hawk. Given King’s take, it seems that Vane left a lot of the visual decisions to his DP, so it’s most likely that — given his theatrical past — he was really focusing on performances. In this regard, Vane is quite proficient as a director. However, overall, Vane’s work doesn’t resonate quite loud enough to call into question his rather short (in terms of output) career.
Vane’s script is genuinely funny when it wants to be but the problem for many people comes in terms of its characterizations, or lack thereof. With the exception of Radzoff, nearly all of the characters in the film are plain unlikeable or undeveloped. While some have viewed this as problematic, it should also be noted that this is somewhat necessary for the film’s own aping of the Slasher film, which was the popular horror sub-genre at the time of the film’s production. The college kids, here, are mere hyperboles of the characters iconic to Slashers, however, perhaps Vane was more prophetic than reflective, as the character more seem to be calling ahead to what the genre would become than to what it was at the time. Really the largest issue in the script is how little there is to the story. It feels a bit fragmented. It could also use a little bit more fleshing out of Radzoff’s character, in fact, perhaps the film would do better to be focused more on him as the principle figure than have him fall into more of the Slasher villain territory in the back half of the film.
Once the killing begins, however, the film is more than entertaining. There are a few absurd, great deaths that are very fun (Jeffrey Comb’s character’s decapitation, and the ripping out of another cast member’s tongue are two that stick in this reviewer’s mind). The film is similar to Demonoid in that it is somewhat tame for what may be expected of Vinegar Syndrome’s output. But, as mentioned in the Demonoid review, we more than welcome the expansion of VinSyn’s catalog (and given their connection to Troma, it more than makes sense here).
The 1.78:1, 1080P presentation of Frightmare is yet another reminder of why Vinegar Syndrome remains one of the top companies for cult and exploitation Blu-ray releases. The film doesn’t quite look as crisp as their recent release of Demonoid or other titles in VinSyn’s catalog do but this is certainly due to King’s stylistic photography and not because of any errors in the transfer. The soft focus cinematography just doesn’t allow for a HD image that we are normally accustomed to from films of the era but there’s nothing wrong with that. Some of De Palma’s work has had similar problems due to his penchants for diffusion filters and foggy images. However, the colors, especially the lush reds, are stunningly represented. There are some issues in the highlights that cause a blooming effect, but, again, this is something that would exist in the original elements and result from King’s style. There is an understandable amount of damage and dust on the print but nothing distracting. Finally, there is a hefty amount of natural film grain, especially in the film’s darker scene. All in all, this is a fantastic representation by Vinegar Syndrome of a film that is far underrepresented.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mix does a great job at presenting the elements in proper form. Dialogue is clear and not muddled by either distortion or poor eq. Both the sound effects and the (rather forgettable) score by Jerry Mosely are given enough levity to impact. The mono mix can be somewhat limiting but, overall, is free from problems and damage.
Vinegar Syndrome have always been up front about their placing the highest concern in presenting the best looking and sounding discs they can. This has led to some packages somewhat lacking in features. It does seem that they are doing their best to continue their growth by adding more features when available (some discs having a great deal). While the prime concern should always lie with the visual and aural representation, it’s always great to get a bit more bang for your buck, and this disc does deliver some nice bonus material. We get a lengthy interview — purportedly his last — with Vane that is featured as a commentary track, a good move considering how tedious archival audio interviews can often be. The interview covers Vane quite well, including his proclamation that he was once called the greatest writer in Hollywood. The audio quality is a bit rough, as it was most likely intended to be transcribed for print and not listened to by others, but it is still a welcomed addition. The second commentary track is by a house favorite, The Hysteria Continues clan. The British podcast always do fantastic work, offering a brilliant balance between historical contextualization and riveting and fun discussion. This time around Nathan does not join them but still offer a fantastic piece for the set. Frightmare is not a film that is deeply known by the entire group, but still they do a great job bringing a sense of life to it. The third commentary track is, however, brought to us in expert form from Historian David Del Valle, joined by filmmaker David DeCoteau. Del Valle’s work has been featured in many different places for good reason. He has, what seems like, an encyclopedic knowledge of the films he talks about. He speaks effortlessly about them, culling forth anecdote after anecdote, and leaving little doubt as to his expertise. Del Valle and DeCoteau’s track really helps to open the film up, giving us a rich history of its production and relative importance. If you are on the fence about whether or not you liked the film, be sure to give this track a listen, as it just may change your tune. Also included, as prior mentioned, is an extraordinary interview with DP Joel King. King is a great story teller, and he is quick to deliver on the juicy goods, including numerous mentions of the amount of coke consumed during not only Frightmare’s production but also in Hollywood. King discusses his own problems and the reasons why he left the industry, giving a 20-plus minute talk that never tires or becomes boring. It’s a highly recommended look at a very skilled DP that sadly no longer really works in the business (it’s also shot quite beautifully, which is fitting). The package is rounded out with reversible artwork, an artwork gallery, and the original theatrical trailer.
Frightmare may be for some the find of the year, but, for most, it will probably fall comfortably in your favor without really having a major impact. It’s a great film and one that we are happy to see VinSyn working on, as undoubtably there will be many people who have not had the chance to see it yet. While it’s not a film that will probably immediately burrow its way under your skin, it will stick with you, that is for sure. There are definitely flaws, especially at the script stage, but King’s photography matched with a great performance by Radzoff goes a long way in making this a worthwhile watch. Additionally, there is Jeffrey Combs off-type performance, which is an added little treat for Combs’ fans. With hope, VinSyn will continue working on titles like this and expanding their brand. Its high time that some of these more anonymous but still worthwhile films were given the chance for rediscovery, and no one seems better at that exposure than VinSyn is. Their collaboration with Troma have given us some great pieces already, and hopefully more are to come (Luther the Geek is already on the way). This release is really great work from an always impressive company. Head over to their site and check it out, it’s worth it’s admission price…and, while your at it, head over to IMDB and rate the movie favorably, because its current 4/10 is rating is quite baffling.