• Hellmaster (Vinegar Syndrome) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Vinegar Syndrome
    Released on: July 30th, 2019.
    Director: Douglas Schulze
    Cast: John Saxon, David Emge, Amy Raasch, Edward Stevens, Robert Dole
    Year: 1992
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    Hellmaster – Movie Review:

    Shot in and around Detroit, Michigan primarily on location at a neat old sanitarium, the story told by this clunky early-nineties horror picture is a bit of a mess. Still, the visuals are often times very impressive and hey, John Saxon and David Emge are both in it – so it’s got that going for it.

    At Kant University, Professor Damn (Robert Dole) welcomes the year’s new students who have been lucky enough to arrive during the school’s twentieth anniversary. It’s here that we meet the bulk of the cast members – smart girl Amy (Shelly O'Deane), womanizing jock Drae (Edward Stevens), regular guy Jesse (Jeff Rector), crippled Joel (Sean Sweeney), Dimwitted Barb (Lisa Sheldon) and a few others who basically prove to be canon fodder. Shortly after their introduction, strange things start happening and humanoid creatures with demonic faces and J-hooks branded onto their foreheads start showing up and killing them off.

    Why? Well, ten years before the school’s own Professor Jones (John Saxon) created an experimental drug during his work on the so-called Nietzsche Experiment that was meant to instill in its subjects telepathic powers. It didn’t quite work out that way and instead his test subjects into insane killers that only he can control. The school covered it up and got rid of a pesky reporter out to uncover the truth. Now, Jones is back, but so too is the reporter’s husband, Robert (David Emge), and he’s looking for revenge. Oh, and a little girl whose father and sister were killed by Jones’ minions is also running around.

    Originally shot as Them and then recut and released straight to video as Hellmaster, the film is a bit of a mess. The story is erratic at best, motivations for important characters get lost in the shuffle very easily and plot points seem to vanish right before our very eyes. The acting is also consistently atrocious, the only bright spot in the film being Saxon, who at least seems to be trying here (sorry Emge, but you’re getting lumping into the ‘awful’ category too). Maybe it’s because his scenes were clearly shot separately from the rest film’s material, something that becomes clearly obvious if you pay any attention to the way in which the picture is edited. Lisa Sheldon in particular is painful to watch, wincing and whining her way through the movie at a level that can’t even charitably be described as amateur.

    That said, the movie, for its many and various flaws, doesn’t prove to be a complete waste of time if you’re on the more forgiving side of the horror fan spectrum. The visuals are, admittedly, often times very impressive. The use of color in the film is excellent and there are plenty of genuinely striking compositions here. The makeup work is also interesting. It isn’t always completely convincing, the facial appliances look a little rubbery, but there’s definite creativity on display here and is at the very least an admirable trait in a horror film. The story has interesting ideas – it toys with some of Nietzsche’s philosophies and plays with the concept of his that could have played into the different characters’ own personal belief systems. Moments where the film goes for a more ‘high concept’ approach are intriguing and noteworthy – but then it all gets buried in strange plot shifts, messy writing and that bad, bad acting.

    Hellmaster – Blu-ray Review:

    Vinegar Syndrome brings the Them cut of the film to Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 1.85.1 widescreen touted as taken from a new 4k scan of an original 35mm negative element. This is, by anyone’s standards, a beautiful transfer. Colors really pop and the frequent use of bright, bold primary colors jumps out at you throughout the movie. Detail is very strong from start to finish and there’s no serious print damage to note. Skin tones look great, black levels are perfect and there are no problems to note with any compression problems nor are there any issues with noise reduction or edge enhancement.

    The English language DTS-HD 2.0 track is good save for some mild to moderate sibilance noticeable throughout the movie. Other than that, the track is solid. Dialogue stays easy to follow and the levels are properly balanced. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.

    In addition to the original Them cut of the film, the disc also includes a standard definition version of the director's recut version until the Hellmaster title. Presented in 1.33.1 fullframe with Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound, it obviously can’t – and doesn’t – look nearly as good as the high definition offering but as this is the version of the film most fans will be familiar with it’s important that it was included on the disc. There are some interesting changes here – the opening scene has been changed and features footage not included in Them, there are alternate clips thrown into different scenes, occasionally the dialogue has been changed and at five-minutes shorter, the pacing is stronger. Is it a better version? Maybe marginally. The changes aren’t massive, but they do manage to speed things up a little bit.

    Douglas Schulze provides commentary tracks for both versions of the movie. For Them, he talks about the scripting process, where some of the ideas came from, securing locations and how he spent far, far more time on the look of the film than he did trying to get what he should have gotten out of his cast members in terms of performances (at least he’s honest about this!). The commentary for Hellmaster is carried over from the DVD release and includes producer Kurt Eli Mayry alongside Schulze. They talk about how and why this alternate version came to exist, where they added and changed things and why, and generally just give a history of this alternate version. Both tracks cover the contributions of different cast and crew members and Saxon’s involvement in the picture as well. These should be of interest to fans as they cover enough separate ground as to make them both worthwhile.

    Additionally, the disc includes a twenty-five-minute featurette entitled Creating Reality which interviews cinematographer Michael Goi. He starts by speaking about how he got into cinematography after initially wanting to work as an editor. He then talks about some of his early projects and then how he came on board to work on the picture with Schulze, how the director had not seen Suspiria but he had (on VHS), the trickiness involved in lighting certain shots to ensure continuity, and where the Hellmaster alternate title came from.

    Also found on the disc is an interesting conceptual artwork gallery, a behind-the-scenes still gallery and a bizarre four-minute archival locations featurette that is some black and white footage of the sanitarium where the movie was shot set to ambient music.

    As this is a combo pack release, we also get a DVD version of the movie that uses the same restoration and extras. Vinegar Syndrome has packaged this release with some very cool reversible cover artwork and, for the first 2,000 copies purchased directly from Vinegar Syndrome, a glossy collectible embossed J-symbol die-cut slipcover featuring artwork from Chris Garofalo. The disc also comes packaged with some nice reversible cover sleeve art.

    Hellmaster – The Final Word:

    Hellmaster is an interesting misfire. The story is all over the place and most of the performances are fairly bad, but the visuals are very impressive throughout and there are some interesting ideas at play here. Far from a great film, it’s never-the-less been given an excellent Blu-ray release from Vinegar Syndrome. The presentations is beautiful and the extras do a great job of documenting this odd little film’s interesting history.

    Click on the images below for full sized Hellmaster Blu-ray screen caps!