Honestly, there is nothing more satisfying on a balmy summer's evening than a good old fashioned cheesy horror film. Nothing rejuvenates the soul, purges the brainpan or tickles the innards better than a heaping helping of misguided macabre. Certainly there are those who will champion a cold beer, a frothy chocolate milkshake or a tumbler of iced tea, but true refreshment can only be found in the illogical plotting, half-assed characterization, and unintentional laughs of a beauteous B-movie. Think about it - when you look back on those long solstice nights, air heavy with humidity and - depending on where you live - sparked with the glowing groove of fireflies, are you really remembering what brand of brew you drank, or how satisfying that melty mocha latte was? No, you're recalling the first time you saw a Creature Feature-like late show, hairs tingling on the back of your neck as the "ghost host" made hideous puns about the film he or she was going to subject you to. And you loved it, settling into the sofa, waiting for the tacky treat to wash over you.
Thanks to Anchor Bay, and that most recent decade of dumb monster movies - the 80s - we get something called the Campy Classics Fright Pack, a sixer of scary suds that prove why, at one time, the VCR ruled the media roost. One peek at the motion pictures offered in this box set and you'll immediately understand why so many teenagers spent their weekends glued to the television screen in dateless delight. Hollywood and its independent subsidiaries couldn't create enough product to fit the burgeoning home theater market, so anything and everything was released on the format. This explains the collection of cold ones offered up here: Sleepaway Camp, Transylvania 6-5000, Vamp, Return to Horror High, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and Return of the Killer Tomatoes. While not all of these B-movie brewskies can satisfy a true terror thirst, each offers enough refreshment to make the memories of those hot summer screenings seem more wistful than wanting.
Offered in a six-pack cooler case (complete with a sample of Beer Nuts in the pocket- Sweet!) the DVDs in this set are no different than the ones currently available individually. Aside from the packaging, there is nothing else very special about the presentation. The titles all come from the mid to late 80s and aside from Sleepaway Camp, seem to take a more humorous approach to horror. So while the container is slick (and practical, one assumes) the real test is whether you want to buy all six films together, or spring for them separately. To that end, let's look at each title on its own, in chronological order:
SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) Score: ****
Plot: When Ricky and his slightly off-kilter cousin Angela visit Camp Arawak for the summer, they're hoping to spend some quality time away from home. But wouldn't you know it, the place has a problem all its own - a serial killer is on the loose, one who is slicing and dicing his way through the campers.
By the time this outsider slasher film entered the movie macabre marketplace, Jason had already returned once to avenge his mother's death, and his previous superstitious outing had verified that, at least in box office terms, Friday the 13th was indeed one lucky date. Riding the crest of the splatter wave, Sleepaway Camp became notorious for its "twisted" ending, as well as its reliance on gobs of gratuitous gore. Happily, not much has changed in the 22 years since its release. This is still a gritty, sleazy Grade-Z rip-off of what Sean Cunningham and the gang more or less perfected over at Crystal Lake. But there is still a great deal of fright flick fun to be had at the hands of this crazed killer on the rampage routine.
For starters, writer/director Robert Hiltzik recognizes that this is his one and only chance at horror movie fame and pulls out all the stops to achieve his terror tenets. He creates inventive kills, offers oddball subtext, and lets a real authenticity seep into his scenarios. By today's timid standards, it's incredibly shocking to hear 10 and 12 year olds swearing like sailors, but it was all part of Hiltzik's "let kids be kids" ideal. It really makes the shocking sequences ring with a sense of reality. And as stated before, Sleepaway Camp is also unusual in that it contains a great deal of homoerotic overtones (or "foreshadowing" as the director himself refers to it). From the numerous shots of shirtless men in shorts that would make Brazilians embarrassed, to the overt sluttiness of the girls, Hiltzik is throwing the entire slasher genre into an uproar by mixing his messages on the kind of gender proclivity that gets you killed in such a scenario. While the mystery more or less boils down to whose left alive at the end of the narrative, the ending is still damn effective and well worth experiencing by even the most jaded slaughter fan.
TRANSYLVANIA 6-5000 (1985) Score: *1/2
Plot: Two reporters from a tabloid rag travel to Transylvania to see if legends about the return of Frankenstein are true. But instead of finding menace and macabre, they stumble across a budding tourist industry. Still, odd things are happening in the woods, and it's up to our intrepid journalists to find an explanation.
Writer/Director Rudy De Luca has quite the comedy pedigree. He won two Emmys as part of the writing team that made The Carol Burnett Show a variety classic. He's had a hand in several of pal Mel Brooks' films, including High Anxiety, Silent Movie and Life Stinks. He's also turned in a couple of quirky performances in said cinematic slapsticks. So it's not unreasonable to think that he could deliver the delirium in this genial horror humoresque. Sadly, whatever silliness skills he learned from his mate Mel, or any talent he showed in earning his TV awards, is blatantly missing from this mess of a movie. Transylvania 6-5000 (the age of the title's in-joke perfectly indicates the contemporary nature of the comedy) is boring and bewildering, unable to keep itself centered long enough to deliver either pith or pratfalls. On some level, this filmmaker wants to mimic Young Frankenstein, as well as pay homage to all those 40s/50s Abbott and Costello Meet... movies. But the only thing he manages to honor is the ancient level of wit expressed by most pre-War pantomimes.
De Luca has a willing cast. Ed Begley Jr, is a dependable comic presence, and Jeff Goldblum can deliver the occasional perplexed pleasantry. But aside from Carol Kane and John Byner - who create an entire oddball farce all their own during their occasional scenes together - the remaining actors are wasted. Tim Burton regular Jeffrey Jones is a foreign mayor as cipher, as is Geena Davis as a vampiress. Joseph Bologna is obviously aggravated at or by someone (maybe it's being married to Reené Taylor that does it) and he uses Transylvania 6-5000 as a chance to channel his most pathetic performance to date. Equally obnoxious is Michael 'Kramer' Richards, still stuck in his stupid Fridays physical shtick mode. Nothing he does here is fun, original or interesting. Indeed, De Luca does something rather stupid in his narrative - he creates a monster movie without any real monsters. We learn at the end that the angry townspeople are really pissed off about nothing - none of the beasts are real. While it may seem like a spoiler to reveal this information, it's no more of a ruination than having to sit through this entire film. Transylvania 6-5000 is a total piece of garbage, and there's nothing more "spoilt" than this kind of junk.
VAMP (1986) Score: **
Plot: While pledging a fraternity, AJ and Keith promise their future "brothers" a stripper for their big party. Low on cash and transportation, they strike a deal with resident geek Duncan for the use of his car. Unfortunately, they end up at the After Dark Club, where vampires, not vixens, rule the roost.
For the first ten minutes or so of the movie's running time, Vamp is a lot of fun. Director Richard Wenk creates an atmosphere of genuine comic irreverence, and invents likeable characters in our leads AJ and Keith. The dialogue is also fresh and witty, filled with excellent satirical shots at horror movies and fraternity rituals. The first warning signs that something is amiss, however, comes with the introduction of the character Duncan, a Caucasian acting Asian nerd played by Gedde Watanabe. The minute this Long Duck Dong retread shows up and starts babbling like a buffoon, we fear for the worst. Sadly, the film fulfills said prophecy. The minute we enter the After Dark club, the story goes all pathetic and pear-shaped. All the promise of the premise (terror with strip tease) and wacky, post-modern mannerisms disappear in a fog of non-fetching female flesh and some completely non-viable villains. And since the vast majority of Act II and Act III take place in and around this burlesque of the damned, Vamp just sort of peters out.
Maybe it's the fact that From Dusk 'Til Dawn reinvented this concept with more believability...and blood. Or perhaps it's the fact that Grace Jones and her carnivorous crowd are the lamest group of bump and grinders since Jennifer Beals redefined the lap dance. Whatever the case, Vamp has not aged well at all. Instead, it's the entertainment equivalent of a mineshaft. You have to really dig in and look around for some nuggets of amusement. The narrative itself is locked in a timeframe of temperamental tedium. It's hard to believe that this movie was once offered as the cutting edge of carnage. Certainly, the comic element was the main reason for the movie's existence, but back in 85, this was gore galore. Today, it's just tame and trying. While star Chris Makepeace is very good and director Wenk adds a nice amount of ancillary quirk to the plotline (the Albino gang, as well as the rabid little vampire girl are excellent) Vamp just can't avoid its Greed Decade dimensions. And unless you're up for some dull undead nostalgia, you may not find much here to savor.
RETURN TO HORROR HIGH (1987) Score: **
Plot: A movie company returns to Crippen High School, the scene of an unholy massacre a few years before. They hope to capture some of the "reality" of the setting for their film. Little do they know that the killer is still alive - and looking to add to his body count from the current cast and crew.
More spoof that scares, with the vast majority of its killings taking place off camera, there is very little about Return to Horror High to satisfy either fans of comedy or aficionados of fright. In someone's idea of a clever conceit, this mixture of Student Bodies with several other slasher film derivations provides nothing new or novel to the genre - unless you consider a perplexing over-reliance on flashbacks a motion picture innovation. The four listed screenwriters - for a killer on the loose movie, mind you - indicates the level of ludicrousness involved in this perplexing, often pointless plot. Dreams drop into the middle of memories, while recollections reverberate against alternate realities. At certain points in the nonsensical narrative, you're not quite sure what in the world is happening - or if we're supposed to laugh or scream...out of frustration.
Though he has a much bigger part in Return of the Killer Tomatoes, George Clooney can be seen here as the first "victim" of this substantially sketchy plot. Even Marcia Brady herself - Maureen McCormick - makes a surprise visit as an incredibly incompetent and kooky cop. The rest of the casting is routine, though seeing that son of the 70s Scott Jacoby and that heartthrob of the 60s Dr. Ben Casey himself Vince Edwards, is certainly a hoot. But no one is given very much to do. Return to Horror High is one of the grandest cases of bait and switch ever foisted upon filmdom. All the bloodletting is inferred - or worse, faked - and the rationale for all the ripping is never made really clear until the trite and illogical ending. While the classroom full of corpses is interesting, visually, it makes no sense in terms of reason or reality. After all, a school that was the scene of several slaughters years before would have been turned upside down, and any "secret" sanctuary of the dead discovered. This is a movie enjoyable for minor moments only. Any overall appreciation will be gone after the 11th or 12th temporal narrative warp.
ELVIRA: MISTRESS OF THE DARK (1988) Score: ****
Plot: After she loses her job at a local TV station, Elvira learns that she has inherited some property in a small New England town. Of course, the relative was a real witch, and the small town doesn't cotton to Elvira upon arrival - especially the local banker, who wants the house's contents for his own evil purposes.
Proof that with a solid humor lineage, even the lamest premise can shimmer with cornball classicism, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is one of the best comedies of the late 80s. Directed by James Signorelli (of SNL and Rodney Dangerfield's Easy Money fame) and written by John Paragon (Pee Wee's Playhouse) and Sam Egan (Northern Exposure, The Outer Limits), it takes the relatively routine idea of the big breasted horror movie host and transports her into a combination Salem Witch Trial and small town rebel set film. Cassandra Peterson (who plays the title role, and had a hand in the scripting as well) knows her character inside and out, and understands what fans expect, as well as what's funny. We get lots of self-referential put-downs, attempts to turn Elvira from stupid sex symbol to three-dimensional ditz. And it works, superbly.
Even with the occasional nods to the terror titles this stacked succubus used to offer up on late night TV, this is really a sensationally silly sex/scare farce with quotable lines aplenty ("I was just an innocent on-licker") The supporting cast really solidifies the laughs. Eddie McClure is NEVER a let down and she plays town prude Chastity Pariah perfectly. As the lead villain, Brit actor William Morgan Sheppard is the ideal exasperated heavy. Mix in some strange ancillary actors, a couple of patented musical montages and a burlesque ending that demands attention, and you've got a family film that everyone - especially the men - can enjoy. It's perhaps one of the most successful meshing of irony, satire, gross-out and just plain dumb daffiness ever envisioned. Such a mash-up should really sink under the weight of its own intentions. But Elvira succeeds where others merely muck things up. Indeed, like Lucky Stiff and Brain Donors, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark proves that lots of potential comedy classics got lost in the home theater boom of the 1980s.
RETURN OF THE KILLER TOMATOES (1988) Score: **1/2
Plot: Ten years after the first attack, the Tomatoes are back. Dr. Gangrene has found a way to change the rosy red fruits into people. When local pizza boy Chad Finletter falls for veg turned vamp Tara, he uncovers a plot to overrun with world with tomato clones. Along with his pal Matt, he must try and stop the demented doc.
As a killer condiment on the prowl kind of film, Return of the Killer Tomatoes has not aged well. What seemed wacky and irreverent 17 years ago is now dated and sort of dumb. Certainly, Return of the Killer Tomatoes doesn't take itself too seriously, and never misses an opportunity to pepper its pleasantries with all manner of gags, but most of the humor is lost in a sea of late 80s ideals. Indeed, many of the fashion and hairstyle statements are funnier now than the actual jokes in the film. Beside, the notion of making a sequel to one of the most notorious "it's so bad it's bad-ass" films ever is kind of foolish to begin with. You can't recreate camp - you just have to be born with it, cinematically.
Still, Return of the Killer Tomatoes tries. Thanks to the efforts of its talented cast, it almost works. It's hilarious to see future E/R and big screen heartthrob George Clooney goofing around like a hard-up hunk, scamming for skirt like the world's first experimental Viagra patient. John Astin is also excellent as the merry mad scientist who wants to overrun the planet with vegetable clones. He has a couple of silly soliloquies that really accentuate the anarchy. Certainly our two main leads are as interchangeable as hair gel brands, and neither is going to win the sexual chemistry award at next year's Carnal Couples Oscars. But they make a nice, nondescript pair, and as a movie, there is still enough cheek and mockery (the entire product placement subplot is VERY clever) to make this a worthy weekend rental. If you remind yourself that this is what the Scary Movie films will look like in another couple years, you'll get along with Return of the Killer Tomatoes just fine. Just don't expect to double over in profound belly laughs and you'll more or less enjoy yourself.
With two films in the set highly recommended, another two recommended and another two rating either a rental or a skip, it is easy to argue that fans of kitschy horror should pony up the pennies to purchase this package. Yet Anchor Bay is fairly well known for its non-definitive double-dipping ideals, so don't be surprised if, once you buy this box, another more desirable version hits the streets in six months or so. Still, for Elvira and Sleepaway Camp alone, this campy cooler is worth picking up. Return of the Killer Tomatoes is easily the best of the horror-comedies here, while Vamp and Horror High have their moments. Only Transylvania 6-5000 reeks like Grandma's sock drawer, and even then, fans of Seinfeld may roll in their home theater aisles at Michael Richards rambunctious routines. Indeed, anyone who grew up with these films as part of the VCR/taped from cable library will have enough found memories to give this offering a chance. Others may need more than a nifty drink carrier and some peanuts to push them toward a purchase.
Anchor Bay usually does a bang-up job with their transfers. Though they don't have major studio money to make with the remastering, they do find proper prints and clean negatives and end up offering images of quality and distinction. Five of the films here - Sleepaway Camp, Vamp, Transylvania 6-5000, Return to Horror High and Elvira: Mistress of the Dark - are offered in clean and crisp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers. A couple of the movies show their age - or their flawed low-budget filming techniques - while pixelation appears during the occasional night scene. Yes, you will find grain, infrequent debris, and other telltale signs of B-movie making. But otherwise, each film's technical facets - even Return of the Killer Tomatoes direct-to-video 1.33:1 full frame image - are perfectly acceptable.
A less than stellar aspect of each release - sans one - is the fact that the only aural option offered is Dolby Digital Mono. There has been no attempt to remaster the soundtracks to Return to Horror High, Return of the Killer Tomatoes, Sleepaway Camp, Vamp or Transylvania 6-5000. The sonic side of these DVDs is flat, lifeless and in the case of a couple of films, loaded with Casio style underscoring. The only movie here with any attempted auditory amplification is Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is a little weak when it comes to channel challenges, but the speakers do get a decent workout in a couple of the most "atmospheric" sequences.
In a rather odd juxtaposition between fleshed out and barebones, Anchor Bay basically offers up the same exact DVDs as part of a package deal that you can very easily buy separately. Instead of bolstering the empty entries with some merchandisable bonuses, it's a case of a couple of semi-special editions surrounded by trailer time only. Individually, here's what you will find:
Sleepaway Camp - On the plus side, the only bonus feature offered besides a trailer is a cool commentary track featuring writer/director Robert Hiltzik, Felicia "Angela" Rose and webmaster for the Sleepaway Camp website, Jeff Hayes. On the downside, the narrative is goofy, far too genial, and doesn't provide enough insight into how the film was made, why all the gay imagery is included, and elements missing/cut from the final film. Hayes tries to prompt Hiltzik, questioning over script changes and casting, but the director just wants to sit back and "mock" his production, MST3K style (he even says so near the end). While Rose rattles on about the different 'crushes' she had, we learn very little about the production. As a reunion of sorts, this feature is fine. As a look at a lost classic, it's wanting.
Transylvania 6-5000 - It's quite a shock to see the amount of added features offered on this DVD, since the movie hardly rates a single one of them. However, Rudy De Luca and "visual coordinator" Steve Haberman offer up the best commentary of the entire box set. Informative, self-deprecating and filled with anecdotes about shooting in the former Yugoslavia, these men understand the main concept behind an alternative narrative track - they tell us the story of the making of this movie. While they tend to wax far too poetic about their casting of Geena Davis and Michael Richards (you'd swear they were geniuses based on this fact alone) they do get down to the nitty gritty about budget, shot selection and distribution. The rest of the material, including trailers, a stills gallery and Haberman's storyboards for a couple of sequences, do a nice job of rounding out this presentation.
Vamp - While the commentary track here is far too informal to be of much value, the overall amount of added content makes Vamp the standout release in this set. Writer/Director Richard Wenk is on hand, along with stars Chris Makepeace, Dedee Pfeiffer and Gedde Watanabe to guide us through the making of this movie. But aside from constant references to Dedee's decision NOT to show skin, and Gedde's admission that he's never really "seen" the film before, we learn nothing of real value. Instead, Wenk and crew get on like a frantic house on fire, joking and cajoling each other with jabs about aging, career arcs and other ancillary issues. It's not a bad audio track, just not very contextual to the movie's creation. Better are the rest of the features. Wenk's short film, Dracula Bites the Big Apple offers more laughs and loopiness in 22 minutes than all of Vamp's 90 minute running time, while the blooper real and Behind the Scenes rehearsal footage contains some priceless stuff. Along with trailers and a photo/poster stills gallery, this feature-filled DVD helps support a rather shaky cinematic offering.
Return to Horror High - The only bonus offered here is a trailer. If any film in the box needed supplementing, explaining the how's and why's of its creation, it was this bizarre, baffling lampoon.
Elvira: Mistress of the Dark - Sadly, the best film of the bunch has a trailer only concept behind its context as well. It would have been great to hear Peterson and some of the cast/crew on a commentary track. Yet the only info on the production comes from a brief essay as part of the DVDs insert, and a few facts in a text-based bio of Peterson/Elvira.
Return of the Killer Tomatoes - Again, a film like Return of the Killer Tomatoes, considering its legacy and its newfound notoriety, just screams for a complete set of bonus features. But it's trailer only time for this release as well.
As the nation swelters under a horrible heatwave, temperatures pushing their way into the low triple digits, it truly is time for some fright film refreshment. Anchor Bay's six-pack of campy classics will instantly soothe the burning and chaffing, providing a calming and cooling sensation to even the most cynical cinematic eye. Certainly, most of the movies here aren't classics. As a matter of fact, most are failed efforts that have only the good graces of faded memories, and a rampant mid-80s home video market, to thank for their continued consideration. In reality, one can look at this offering as a series of opposites. For every successful comedy (Elvira: Mistress of the Dark) there is a total piece of pratfall crap (Transylvania 6-5000). Each healthy helping of horror (Sleepaway Camp) is marred by another, not so winning terror treat (Vamp). And then there's the Clooney couple - Return to Horror High/of the Killer Tomatoes - with the legitimate sequel stealing the scholastic spoof's otherwise lame limelight. Don't let the sweat and the stink get to you. This cooler full of camp (and crap) is recommended for all fans of kitschy creepshows. So pop the top of this sextet of summer fun. It sure beats sitting around, making your own gravy.
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