Color, 1988, 92 mins. 55 secs.
Directed by John Henry Johnson
Starring Brent Ritter, Bettina Julius, Clayton A. McCaw, Patrick Keller, Deborah McVencenty
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) ,Code Red (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
Released a little too late in the '80s horror flood to find much of a cult following, Curse of the Blue Lights is the kind of homegrown gory creature feature that would've sat snugly on mom 'n' pop video shelves next to Blood Suckers from Outer Space, The Deadly Spawn, and Nail Gun Massacre. Unfortunately it came out in 1988, just when the MPAA was really cracking down on horror films, slashers, and graphic Euro horror were being shoved into the margins by aggressive major studios, and Hollywood's horror output was becoming almost entirely neutered and jokey. Nevertheless, Magnum Video gave this one a good try on VHS in both unrated and R-rated versions, around the same time they were also churning out other more desirable titles like Suspiria and The Wicker Man. Those who did take a chance on this one were often pleasantly surprised, navigating through the sometimes amateurish acting and grungy 16mm photography to find an affectionate and very, very squishy homage to drive-in monster movies.
Shot in Colorado just a few miles outside of Pike's Peak (which can be spied in the distance a few times), our tale begins when a farmer is ambushed in broad daylight by his scarecrow when it discards its outfit to attack him while gurgling up what looks like vanilla pudding. Cut to a group of seven kids, a combination of college students and local slackers, who go out exploring an area on the outskirts of town called the Blue Lights. The place is rumored to be cursed, though why remains disputed (with stories ranging from an erroneous blue railway signal causing a fatal crash to a secret hideaway for stranded aliens). In any case, the mysterious blue lights make an appearance and lead the amateur explorers to a giant monstrous relic, the Muldoon Man. When they try to cart it back in a truck, the idol mysterious vanishes with tracks leading to a nearby graveyard... and a submerged crypt where a creature named Loath (Ritter) and his minions are eager to use any means at their disposal, be it corpse grinding or rampaging zombies, to reach their full power.
Clearly influenced by some of the decade's previous fan favorites (most obviously A Chinese Ghost Story and The Evil Dead), Curse of the Blue Lights exists almost entirely to showcase its monster effects and gory set pieces at the expense of any reasonable character development. That's fine in this case, however, since the film manages to work up a reasonable level of charm and enthusiasm for its subject matter while some of the cast members (notably Ritter) chomp on the scenery with abandon. No, it isn't anywhere near Bad Taste on the quality scale, but as far as ambitious local productions go, there's plenty of fun to be had here if you keep your expectations in check.
That aforementioned Magnum tape wasn't anything special in the quality department, though fans may want to hang on to the unrated tape if they have it lying around. There actually isn't much extra gore there per se (just a few frames of a monster head getting crushed and a longer look at one being bisected), but for some reason an entire innocuous scene right after the opening credits was jettisoned from the general R-rated version, which is the same source used for Code Red's 2014 DVD special edition and runs 92m35s. Director Johnson and Ritter mention the primary missing scene's absence on their audio commentary track, which also rattles through pretty much every single participant behind and in front of the camera while spinning out stories about each location, but there's really no explanation apart from the apparent fact that it wasn't necessary. Also included are two massive still galleries (mixing behind the scenes shots, promotional material, and production ephemera) and bonus trailers for Just Before Dawn, The Visitor, The Police Connection, and Death Machines. As for the transfer itself, the 1.66:1 presentation is a massive upgrade over the tape, of course, with the dark underground scenes finally legible and colorful, or at least as much as 16mm shooting under low lighting conditions could allow.
In 2023, Vinegar Syndrome upgraded the film to Blu-ray featuring a new 2K scan from the best existing element, the 16mm answer print. It's an upgrade across the board with the wider 1.85:1 framing showing off more info on the left and right sides, while colors look richer, blacks are deeper, and detail is finer with with better resolved, finer grain. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also fine given what it is, and optional English SDH subtitles are included. The prior commentary is ported over here, and Johnson returns for a new track with Brad Henderson chatting about the origins of the blue lights, the casting process through want ads, the historical aspects in his work, the backgrounds of the participants, and the ins and outs of shooting around the area with locals. The feature-length "Demons Down in Pueblo: Remembering Curse of the Blue Lights" (97m13s) is a new making-of documentary featuring Johnson, co-writer/assistant director Bryan Sisson, makeup assistant Joe Ore, special effects makeup artists David Romero and Mark Sisson, and actors Tom Massmann, Kent Fritzel, Marty Bechina, and Brent Hilvitz. Obviously the extensive makeup process gets a lot of coverage here showing how the various molds and monster teeth were created, with funny stories peppered throughout about the double (or triple) duties folks pulled in front of and behind the camera as well as what everyone's doing today around Colorado. They even name drop The Grapes of Death at one point, too. Also included is a 3m52s reel of lo-res footage sourced from the unrated VHS, including the two fleeting bits of extra monster action. A 6m25 gallery of production and cast photos is also included.
VINEGAR SYNDROME (Blu-ray)
CODE RED (DVD)
Updated review on April 22, 2023