When I first read that Vinegar Syndrome were putting out a Blu-ray of Frightmare, I was bewildered as I immediately thought of the Pete Walker flick from ’74 that bears the same name and was recently put out by Kino. But, naturally, Vinegar Syndrome have dug deep and found a genre gem in obvious need of re-discovery. Or just plain old discovery if, like me, you hadn’t seen this one until now. And, boy, am I happy that I have.
This Frightmare, from 1983, is fairly indescribable in a horror sub-genre manner. It’s clearly inspired by, and at times emulating, a stridently old school, gothic horror along the lines of what we’d expect from Hammer. But it’s the 80s and it doesn’t waste much time before adopting a style and structure similar to that of its slasher contemporaries. This could have been an erratic and unsuccessful attempt at melding sub-genres, but it works and impressively so. The set-up here concerns an aging horror film star – the film’s alternate title is The Horror Star, after all – who dies early on in the feature only to have his body naturally stolen by a bunch of obsessed fans (one of whom is played by a very young Jeffrey Combs). And then he comes back to life and starts killing them in various fun ways.
I really had no idea what to expect from this going in and I’m rather surprised at how much I loved it. The lead here is Ferdy Mane, playing the “horror star” Conrad Radzoff. Some may know Mane from titles like Barry Lyndon and The Fearless Vampire Killers, but he rarely got a leading role of this caliber and he’s a delight, channeling the all-too-apparent energy of the likes of Christopher Lee and Vincent Price. His performance really stands out and saves Frightmare from falling into high-camp territory, which it also skirts past thanks to the impressively high gore quotient. The kills here are really solid and are obviously all practical, with some really fun and nasty treats scattered throughout. But I’m not going to spoil any of them. There are some deaths here that belong in the 80s slasher cannon, for sure. Hopefully now they – and the movie as a whole – will get due notice.
Vinegar Syndrome have brought Frightmare to Blu-ray in a new 2K scan from the 35mm camera negative and the results look really good. Colors are sharp, film grain is present, and organic and the source is relatively clean though some minor damage is apparent at times. I have never seen any other home video release of the film – it was put out on DVD over ten years ago by Troma – but I think it’s safe to say that this is the best it has looked since its initial release. Audio is mono DTS HD MA and it doesn’t fare quite as well but its imperfections didn’t detract from my experience. There’s some hissing and popping and I had to bump the volume up a couple of times in order to make out dialogue but, for the most part, it’s a solid track and it really kicks in when it needs to.
When I went to see what supplements would be included here, I certainly didn’t expect to find three (!) commentary tracks. The first one that I listened to is with writer/director Norman Thaddeus Vane. This is actually an archival audio interview as Vane passed away earlier this year. It’s a tough listen unfortunately, with the audio quality being mediocre at best. Though likely having a lot more to do with how it was initially recorded than the presentation here. Still, it’s filled with information that will please fans and is intriguing in its own right. Next up is another track by The Hysteria Continues, who prove again to be knowledgeable about their given topic. They spend most of the time here discussing the history of Frightmare and where it belongs in the cannon. The last one features genre historian David Del Valle and filmmaker and friend of Mane’s, David DeCoteau. The two have a lively talk and a lot of information is shared, especially about Mane. For full disclosure, I didn’t finish the last track but I’ll certainly go back to it in the near future. There’s also a twenty minute interview with cinematographer Joel King which is a lot more fascinating than I expected it to be, with King detailing his career as well as involvement with Frightmare. I would’ve loved a full commentary with him. Lastly, we get a trailer and a gallery of artwork for the film.
Frightmare is a great surprise. I’m really loving what Vinegar Syndrome are doing for genre titles, giving them the same loving care that they have been doing with adult cinema for a couple of years now and not skimping at all on the supplements. I thought that I had exhausted both the Troma catalog and 80s slashers by this point, but I’m always happy to be proven wrong when the result is another piece of sincere, esoteric cinema to share. Highly recommended.