Color, 1992, 96 mins. / 91 mins. 23 secs.
Directed by Douglas Schulze
Starring John Saxon, David Emge, Amy Raasch, Edward Stevens, Robert Dole, Jeff Rector
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Mackinac Media (DVD) (US R0 NTSC)

One Hellmasterof the many early '90s horror films consigned to the direct-to-VHS Hellmasterworld at the height of the video store age, Hellmaster (originally entitled Them and also shown as Soulstealer but written as Carnage on Campus) boasted a very striking cover shot with a villain clearly trying to lure in the same fans who made Hellraiser such a success. What customers actually got was a gory, senseless oddity about monstrous doings on a college campus with a bunch of students somehow getting tangled up with experiments that produce monsters in search of new zombie minions. Clearly indebted in structure to The Legend of Hell House (though not in any other way), it produced enough head scratches for director Douglas Schulze to overhaul the film for a director's cut on home video, albeit assembled in SD video which would make an upgrade of any kind extremely prohibitive. Particularly hacking down and simplifying the entire opening, the recut is definitely more coherent as it takes a comparatively linear approach but also pares away some of the random "WTF?"-ness of the theatrical cut in the process.

When a batch of dead or crazed, semi-clad college students turned up in a basement with the word "REWARD" scrawled in blood on the wall, a dogged researcher named Robert (Dawn of the Dead's Emge) goes hot on the trailer of the nefarious experiments that claimed the life of his wife. That leads him to Kant University where a batch of students Hellmasterunder the Hellmastertutelage of Damon (Dole) end up spending time after hours on the campus where they become the targets of Professor Jones (Black Christmas' Saxon), whose experiments in mutation and the control of the human will back in the '60s are about to come roaring back with a vengeance.

Cluttered with many character, back stories, and baffling editing choices, this film is best approached without any attempt to follow the plot at all. The colorful Argento-inspired lighting is pretty, the gore and makeup effects look great in HD, and the atrocious acting provides more than its share of amusement. In keeping with the era it also has its share of nudge-nudge genre moments ("Poe Hall," anyone?) and manages to get a fun, fiery performance out of Saxon in his limited screen time, apparently channeling a little Michael Ironside in the process. Plus you get to see Emge running around a lot with a crossbow.

Though it's disposable junk food of course and never really all that coherent, Hellmaster has enough of a following that it started commanding insane amounts of money online for the 2006 HellmasterDVD edition (of the recut version) complete with a commentary featuring writer-director Douglas Schulze and producer Kurt Eli Mayry. That track is ported over for the 2019 Vinegar Syndrome dual-format Blu-ray and DVD release, which is also available as a limited slipcover edition. Both versions are presented here, Hellmasterwith the rarely seen theatrical Them cut now looking utterly gorgeous thanks to a new 4K scan of the 35mm original negative. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 stereo track is also in great shape, with optional English subtitles provided. The Hellmaster recut is also included in SD (as good as it'll get), looking drastically inferior but good to have here for posterity (and with the older commentary ported over). The theatrical cut also includes a new solo Schulze commentary in which he's a bit more candid about the film having "a lot of subplots and mini-plots in here" and notes "We probably should've brought in a seasoned editor," which... yeah. It's quite informative and entertaining, not to mention a good companion piece to the more production-oriented earlier track, with lots of anecdotes about the shoot around the Detroit area and the location scouting achieved by promoting the film as a serious drama(!). "Creating Reality" (25m59s) is a new featurette with cinematographer Michael Goi about his own path to getting involved in movies and the methods of wrangling equipment and locales in Michigan, with thoughts on the rich "gothic Hammer" look they were aiming for in the film. Finally you get a conceptual art gallery, a behind-the-scenes still gallery, and an archival VHS-sourced chunk of coverage (3m55s) of the real insane asylum used as the primarily location.

Reviewed on August 19, 2019.