And now on this screen, a repeat engagement by popular demand!
One undercurrent of the DVD era which I’ve never really understood is the incessant run of rereleases and remasters, whether from one company to another or from the same company, over and over and over again (hello, Mr. Lustig of Anchor Bay and Blue Underground…).
I mean, how many frigging versions of Dawn of the Dead, Evil Dead 2 and Zombie do you really need? I’m sure it’s great for latecomers, but for those of us who were in on this from the start, the neverending stream of double, triple and quadruple dips start to become somewhat annoying to say the least, while directorial runs from such fan favorites as Paul Naschy, Ruggero Deodato and the ubiquitous Jess Franco (just to name a few) remain tantalizingly incomplete.
But I know there’s an entire segment of the DVD aficionado community who eats this stuff up, apparently never quite satisfied with the quality of the print they already have, and chomping at the bit for labels to regurgitate what’s already on their shelves, in the hopes of “getting it right this time”. And hey, if you’re going to look to someone to go the extra mile to clean up a preexisting release, Vinegar Syndrome is certainly my choice to do the job and do it right.
And so we come to the better portion of Vinegar Syndrome’s latest batch of releases: 4 Filipino efforts and 2 from exploitation fave Ted V. Mikels. While one of these films appears to be brand new to the medium, the others represent remasters and upgrades (in some cases, quite significant ones) to preexisting release versions from other labels that have since gone out of print.
As I don’t normally get to do this sort of side by side comparison, I’ll keep the story details to a dull roar this time around, and just point out what’s changed since the last time we’ve seen these particular films:
First up, we have a double feature of Cirio S. Santiago films. We’ve already discussed the enjoyable Death Force here, so we’ll address the second part of the bill, Vampire Hookers.
The film features one of John Carradine’s near-deathbed perfomances (like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney Jr., Carradine became almost a given in exploitation and drive in horror pictures throughout the 60’s and 70’s until his death in 1988 – like Chaney, many of these were “quickies” done primarily to keep him well stocked in the liquor cabinet), but for the guys out there, the real attraction is Karen Stride, a suitably exotic brunette who’s one hell of a head turner, as one of the titular ladies of the evening (in more ways than one).
Like the David Niven/Teresa Graves blaxploitation horror/comedy Old Dracula, the emphasis here is on the humor, which can get a bit broad, but never quite as over the top as, say, the George Hamilton/Arte Johnson tour de force Love at First Bite.
Vinegar Syndrome’s remaster bears a running time of 1:19:32, as opposed to the previous BCI/Deimos release, which came in at 1:19:25. There’s no major change to the film or its running time here, but the Vinegar Syndrome version is noticeably cleaned up – the sound is better and more pronounced, and most importantly, the slight blurriness of the BCI master has been tweaked to a true level of crispness – lighting is a bit brighter, the picture is more colorful and the focus has been fine tuned. Print damage is slight, particularly by comparison with its aforementioned companion piece, which appears to have suffered an undue level of deterioration over the years, and still manages to look good despite it.
Next we come to what is certainly my favorite of the current batch of remasters, Newt Arnold’s neo-gothic Filipino horror Blood Thirst.
With a cast of no names (bar the ubiquitous Vic Diaz, without whose corpulent presence it simply isn’t a Filipino exploitation picture), the film is a cross between Emilio Vieyra’s Curious Dr. Humpp (La Venganza de Sexo) and an early Jess Franco film (think Dr. Orloff’s Monster or Diabolical Dr. Z here), revolving around a seedy, steamy nightclub atmosphere lit very much in the classic chiaroscuro film noir style and a monster kidnapping and killing the sexy young things (well, some of them, anyway) who work there.
Vinegar Syndrome’s version runs 1:13:50, where the previous Something Weird release (paired with the Peter Cushing Grecian-set oddity Bloodsuckers) comes in at 1:13:31, their print being a crisp black and white with no issues. The Vinegar Syndrome version one ups them by restoring the Chevron Films title card and pulling an already strong print into hi-def clarity.
Paired with it is one of my least favorite Filipino horrors of the 60’s and 70’s, the often excruciatingly slow The Thirsty Dead, previously released on a double bill with Swamp of the Ravens by Something Weird.
In 3 sentences or less, girls are getting kidnapped by some weird cult hiding off in the jungle who claims that “virgin” blood (or the more than slightly used variants presented here) gives them eternal life. It’s a dash Eaten Alive (the Lenzi cannibal picture, not the Tobe Hooper hicksploitation alligator film) and a pinch of Lost Horizon, but all dullsville. I remember the only girl that made me pay attention was a random Filipina extra who got killed off trying to escape – I really didn’t want to sit through this one again, to be honest, so I limited this particular review to a straight comparison between the two releases.
Vinegar Syndrome’s print runs 1:27:48 where Something Weird’s is only 1:27:39, in what was a colorful but somewhat washed out print. Vinegar Syndrome’s version is again more crisp and colorful, with a more dynamic palette and soundtrack, albeit with a dash more print damage showing up, in particular at reel changes.
Finally we come to the Blu-ray of Ted V. Mikels’ entertaining proto-Charlie’s Angels (really – the main character is even named Sabrina!), The Doll Squad (which would have made a great bill with Doris Wishman’s take on more or less the same material, The Immoral Three).
All of Mikels’ films were in pretty good shape by comparison to other drive in/exploitation auteurs of the same era, so it’s particularly impressive that Vinegar Syndrome once again manages to up the ante.
The new master runs 1:31:32, where Image’s version ran 1:31:15. Vinegar Syndrome restores the Geneni Film Distributing title card and is a noticeable upgrade to what was an already very good looking and sounding print – there’s a reason this went to Blu-ray.
The lovely Tura Satana makes the second of her film appearances for Mikels here, as does Herb (the Worm Eater himself) Robins; and we also get Francine York (yep, Queen Medusa from Filmation live action kiddie show Jason of Star Command herself), Anthony Isley of Al Adamson’s Dracula vs Frankenstein and noted character actor Michael Ansara showing up for a bit of screentime. The plot is some spy type nonsense about rats infected with bubonic plague, but as with most exploitation, the particulars are pretty forgettable; it’s the aesthetics, the bric a brac and the fallen and cult star appearances that make the package.
There are certainly instances of grain and speckling at reel changes and during some night sequences, but overall the film is so vibrant you’d think it was filmed yesterday. Well, OK, if it was filmed yesterday, it’d be soulless paint by numbers shit like everything else they put out nowadays, but you get the general idea here.
I thought Ted hung up the mustachio wax in the late 70’s, but apparently he kept going with the occasional effort, like 1982’s WIP Ten Violent Women (available from Alpha Video) and 1991’s Mission Killfast – released in the early 90’s but feeling like (at best) a 1984 vintage (there’s an extra with Mikels explaining that it was partially filmed way back in 1980, and completed nearly a decade later in 1989!).
With a cast of unknowns, this minor programmer is easily overlooked, and apparently even snuck out on Media Blasters’ Guilty Pleasures label (more notable as the home of the Ray Dennis Steckler film catalogue) a decade back. I can’t compare to that earlier release for you, but for a low rent TV movie (or at best, Cinemax effort), things are certainly more than presentable, with colors that pop and an often quite crisp image throughout (though night and certain indoor scenes can get pretty damn snowy, it must be said: there’s a few instances in Tiger’s dojo that just scream blizzard conditions).
Hey, is that Blondi (aka Blondie Bee) at the 40m mark? Certainly looks like a cross between that 80’s porn star (and Kiss Exposed partygoer) and Miley Cyrus…
The plot is fairly negligible: a Korean martial arts master named “Tiger Yang” takes on some arms traders dealing in nuclear weapons, though it’s not quite clear as to why except “an obligation to his country”…look, it’s an action film. Is there ever really a plot to these? Just kick back, disengage brain, crack open a beer and enjoy the pretty girls…well, some of them, the rest are kind of so so…and thrill to all the fights and explosions. Hey, you know what? That sounds suspiciously like Hollywood these days…
The bottom line is, Doll Squad looks a hell of a lot better here than it did on DVD, and mind you that earlier release looked pretty damn good – this is just that much of an improvement. Whether you consider Mission Killfast a pleasant if extraneous bonus or something of a swing towards purchase depends on how mcuh you enjoy this sort of thing – while it’s a bit talky for this type of film, there’s a whole lot of really giant underwear on display (albeit fashionable giant underwear), and even one creepy trannie doing a fashion shoot by an outdoor pool (which abuts a golf course that looks like a graveyard, yet!), so it certainly has oddity value.
The outcome here is never in question for newbies – Vinegar Syndrome’s remasters are definitely the way to go. What is a bit of a conundrum is whether they’re worth the double dip for those who already own the earlier released versions – and that’s a concern I leave to the reader and their personal finances. In general, I almost indubitably err on the side of prudence – why get the same thing with a bit of a paintjob touchup, or if you prefer, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.
But certainly in the case of Vampire Hookers, it’s like fine tuning the microscope – you never realized what a blurry mush BCI put out until you put it side by side with a proper remaster like Vinegar Syndrome provides here – plus you get the new film, which is plenty of fun, so it’s kind of a no brainer in the end.