Color, 1985, 87m.
Directed by Richard Casey
Starring Phil Therrien, Max Manthey, Irene F., Michael Castagnola, Susan Leslie
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.78:1)

Color, 1988, 88m.
Directed by Richard Casey
Starring Phil Ward, Lyn Levand, David Marciano, Steve DeVorkin, Darcy Nichols, Brad Slaight, Cheryl Slean
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1)

Horror House on Highway 5Horror House on Highway 5Shot before the slasher boom really kicked off with Halloween but not picked up or distributed until well after during the VHS boom in 1985, Horror House on Highway 5 is the kind of lunatic regional horror fare that makes a certain kind of tape junkie dizzy with joy. It's only a traditional horror film in fits and starts, with a disjointed narrative involving a Nazi rocket plan, a psycho slasher in a Nixon mask swiped from his first victim, and a bunch of kids providing fresh meat for some small town psychos.

When their college professor tells them about a V2 rocket developed by a late Third Reich scientist, three students - Louise (Leslie), Sally (Irene F.), and "the pothead" (Castagnola)- are sent to the town where he died, Littletown, to do some research and build mini replicas of his work for some reason. There they stumble upon Dr. Marbuse (Therrien), who claims to have known the late Dr. Bartholomew, and his addle-brained brother, Gary (Manthey), who kidnaps the wrong girl and develops a highly unusual crush in the process. Other random characters turn up, the Nixon killer (credited to "Ronald Reagan") strikes now and then, and rock music blasts occasionally on the soundtrack as a sign of director Richard Casey's background in music videos.Horror House on Highway 5

Sometimes gory, sometimes hilarious, and always very, very odd, this isn't really any good in a traditional cinematic sense, but it's a tough one to forget. It's even genuinely creepy at times, especially the oddly haunting closing scenes that manage to be poignant at first and then swerve into an unusual take on the obligatory slasher shock ending. Somehow it makes a strange kind of sense that Vinegar Syndrome would snap this one up for Blu-ray and DVD, bringing it back to the public with its first fresh video transfer since the mid-'80s (following a pretty dire DVD release from Timeless and a worse bootleg from Jef Films). The new transfer "in 2K from 16mm archival elements" looks like a cheap '70s horror film all the way, but it's a big improvement over the fuzzy VHS copies by a long shot. (For some reason the Blu-ray refuses to load on computer drives, so frame grabs seen here are from the DVD; however, they should give you an idea of how it looks.)

Extras include an audio commentary with Casey, who point out an allusion to Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless and talks about the film's inception soon after the influential Last House on the Left and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. His horror knowledge is shaky at times (he cites that great Filipino classic, Dr. Sadism M.D.), but he's fun company and seems to be proud of his cracked anti-masterpiece. HellbentA making-of featurette (18 mins., "The Return to Horror House on Highway 5," goes into more background detail about Casey including his early rock star aspirations, his education at NYU, his friendship with the iconoclastic singer Vom Hellbent(whose music video was the impetus for this film), and much more. (That music video is included separately, too.) Also on hand are executive producer John Marsh (in front of a Nixon mask), actor Michael "The Pothead" Castignola (who's real last name is Castignolia but they misspelled it in the credits), and Steve DeVorkin (the van driver), explaining why the film took so long to get made and released and the "bold statement" it was trying to make. Castignola is definitely the highlight here with a story about how the process of creating a mold of his face had some dire consequences. Best quote: "It's part very clever, part train wreck."

After Horror House finally hit home video, Casey struck again in 1988 with Hellbent, a rock 'n' roll indie oddity that manages to look a thousand times slicker than his debut film while making about 5% as much sense. It all has something to do with a band called Lemmy & the Mynde Paracytes, fronted by Lemmy (Streamers' Ward), who's frustrated with the difficulty of making it in the late '80s punk scene in L.A. A strange promoter named Mr. Tanas (Marciano) shows up and offers to give him his big shot at a neon-colored, devil-themed club (guess what the name is), which he sees as a big chance for himself and his often lacking band mates. Naturally it all goes south pretty quickly, with child abduction and manslaughter soon complicating things. Cough syrup and vodka get chugged to improve stage performance, guys smash their heads into watermelons, a Christmas Santa Claus display gets violent vandalized, and no one wears less than twenty layers of hairspray. Also, Darcy Nychols from Cafe Flesh (aka Tantala Ray) pops up behind a bar.

HellbentHellbentQuite funny if you take it in the right frame of mind (think Hal Hartley making a movie with art direction by the Dark Brothers), this is a valuable artifact of the L.A. music scene even if it barely even tries to cohere into a linear narrative. It somehow seems appropriate that this one was issued on VHS by the infamous Raedon Video, perhaps the weirdest bottom-of-the-barrel video label of all time, and that might also account why so few people have actually seen it over the years.

Casey returns for another audio commentary in which he sort of sifts through the reasons the film was made and what it all means ("if anything"), pointing out the many rock music references throughout and pointing out how he integrated various horror and Faustian elements into the story while shooting largely without permits. And yes, there are more Godard references. The 15-minute featurette "A Little Bit of Chaos" features Casey, Ward, Marciano, De Vorkin, Levand, Brad Slaight, art director Frederick Wasser, and more recalling how the project came together and often had no idea what context their scenes would go in or whether the film was supposed to be anti-violence. Casey also goes into the three layers he intended audiences to read the film, and they all recall their impressions on seeing the "campy" final result on the big screen and how distributors turned it down because it "made light of suffering." Both releases are limited 3,000-unit editions sold exclusively through Vinegar Syndrome and Diabolik DVD.

Reviewed on October 3, 2016.