Vinegar Syndrome’s Runaway Nightmare Blu-ray Release
A low budget piece of bizarro art about Death Valley worm ranchers, a young blonde in a box, and more.
Published on June 29, 2014 | Filed under Review
Runaway Nightmare

A couple guys working as insect/worm farmers. A group of buxom young women. Death Valley. It may sound like the set-up to a Russ Meyer film, but after the first ten minutes, you couldn’t get further from that. This is as odd as oddities get.

Runaway Nightmare has developed something of a cult following – a very small yet devoted one – on VHS and I think that it’s pretty safe to say that no fan ever expected to see the day where it would get a lovingly restored Blu-ray release. But here we are. Thanks, Vinegar Syndrome! Before getting into the nitty gritty of this release, do note that this Blu-ray edition is very limited and is still in stock at VS’s website as of this writing. There is a standard DVD release as well which should be available for quite a while.

If you haven’t been a diehard VHS collector or a consumer of all things weird, Runaway Nightmare may have passed you by until now. As far as strange cult items go, this isn’t even as high on the list as something like Tales from the Quadead Zone which makes this release all the more surprising. Runaway Nightmare is the product of Michael Cartel who directs, writes, edits and stars in the picture and even has his wife as the production manager! And it’s this level of control that Cartel has that allows the film to not only go off the deep end in the way that it does, but stay there.

The story is as simple as they come but welcomes so much inspired insanity that it comes off as more convoluted than it really is. Basically, two guys in the desert who run the Desert Valley Worm Ranch witness some guys burying an unmarked box and then leaving. Naturally, they go and open it and what’s inside? Why, a beautiful young blonde lady, of course!

Runaway Nightmare

They take the girl back to their place and then become abducted by a gang of rag-tag women that look like they escaped from a AIP picture that went wrong. And they have a suitcase full of platinum! And that girl was buried by the mob! Our two excuses for heroes end up getting inducted into this seemingly all lady cult and then spend the rest of the movie attempting to escape or just acting dumb. Honestly, not a lot happens in this one and that’s probably for the best. But it does have a few surprises and you’ll know them when they come.

This is clearly – and perhaps decidedly – a very cheaply made production, but whatever budget Cartel had at least allowed for it to be somewhat technically sound. This, perhaps most surprisingly, was shot on 35mm and it actually looks it. The blacks are solid and the interiors look good (for what they are) but, most importantly, it looks like film. The sound is a bit scattered at times and the production design could have been thought up as they were shooting, but for what it is, this looks like Cartel took advantage of every penny he had.

On the other money side of things, anyone who remembers watching this on VHS will recall some random topless bits that don’t (at least all) appear in the feature here. Those were added into the VHS release without Cartel’s input in order to capitalize on the target demographic that would buy/rent something called Runaway Nightmare. They are all included as a special feature, however, with some text prior to the 3 minutes they run explaining their reason for existing. This may sound like a throwaway piece of trivia that would concern only the most purist of collectors, but it is really a testament to Vinegar Syndrome’s work not only as a distributor putting out a quality product, but as a film preservation company. This, as much as scanning this film from its original negatives, is an act of preservation rather than a merely tacked on supplement.

Runaway Nightmare

Which brings us to the quality of the presentation here. As mentioned above, this was shot on 35mm and this transfer is from the original negatives. Either time has been really kind to the OCN here or Cartel was keeping it in good shape. Whatever the case may be, VS’s transfer is damned nice and far and away the best that Runaway Nightmare has ever looked at home. Some of the interior shots and darker scenes can get quite grainy, but that all seems organic to the print rather than an excessive case of digital noise. Damage and wear on the source is minimal and the blacks and colors really shine here. This is the type of work that I expect for titles coming out of major studios and/or ultra high end distributors like Criterion. This is demonstration caliber work on how to properly – if not exceptionally – bring a low budget, shot on film feature to HD. Sound is DTS-HD mono and it gets the job done as well as to be expected. No bells and whistles here, and they aren’t needed, just a (mostly) clear reproduction of what the sound would likely have been when projected. Like the video, a huge step up from anything previously available.

Outside of the aforementioned nude inserts, we also get a commentary track with Cartel, his wife Mari Cartel, and a couple of other surprise guests. It’s a lively track with the history of the film discussed and a lot of information shared about the cast and crew. If you’re already a fan of the film, you may as well dig into this right away.

Runaway Nightmare has never been destined to find a bigger audience than it has, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s an honestly made, low budget piece of bizarro art from a singular source. Its eccentricities are by the dozen and it mixes hypnotic slow stretches with blunt moments of strangeness as well as something like Death Bed, but it never feels disingenuous. Runaway Nightmare may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s here looking better than ever and it deserves your attention.

Justin LaLiberty holds degrees in film preservation from the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and film studies from Keene State College. He is the Creative Manager at Alamo Drafthouse Yonkers and is an itinerant projectionist, ready to run reels if you've got 'em.
Justin LaLiberty