Color, 1978, 83m.
Directed by Constantine S. Gochis
Starring Damien Knight, Jeannette Arnette, Nick Carter, Nikki Barthen, Michael Hollingsworth, Gyr Patterson, T.G. Finkbinder
Code Red (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9)
The madness kicks off in full dreamlike mode as a creepy kid rises from a lake, and you can tell he's probably evil because he has an extra thumb. Anyway, the creepy kid goes into a church where a very intense preacher (Finkbinder), the titular Redeemer, is railing against man's sinful nature. Cut to six high school friends excited about their upcoming high school reunion (apparently at a school with very, very small graduating classes): John (Knight), Cindy (Arnette, future star of the TV show Head of the Class), Terry (Carter), Jane (Barthen), Roger (Hollingsworth), and Kirsten (Patterson). Upon arrival at the deserted school, all of the exhibit what the Redeemer views as "sinful" flaws (though most people would beg to differ) including career self-interest, lust, financial greed, or lesbianism. Hardly capital offenses there, but our loony priest is off and running as he dons a different disguise for each victim, dressing up as a clown, a skull-faced reaper, or, in the most nightmarish sequence, using a creepy puppet on a stage to do his bidding. Will anyone make it through this reunion, and does the Redeemer's ultimate agenda come to light? Well, okay, that last part never does quite get answered as the film instead veers off long after its natural climax into a trippy coda that wouldn't be out of place in a Jodorowsky film. Also noteworthy is the eerie electronic music score, which occasionally recalls Libra's moody work on Mario Bava's Shock.
Several critics over the years have twisted themselves into knots trying to decipher the agenda of the film, most coming to the conclusion that it's some sort of fractured religious conservative fantasy about punishing permissive youths for their sins. While the killings are indeed intense and vicious (especially the protracted and downright cruel bathroom murder), that reading doesn't quite hold up. The film never explicitly identifies itself with the Redeemer (who's always portrayed as unhinged and unsympathetic), the victims are generally portrayed in a positive light, and if one chooses to read the opening and closing in line with the "Son of Satan" tagline appended to most of the posters, it's obvious the filmmakers intended the whole violent crusade as some sort of covert viral plan by the multi-thumbed Lucifer. If all this doesn't really tie together coherently, that seems like more a fault of the elliptical and sometimes contradictory storytelling methods than a repugnant moral stance.
Most people stumbled on this oddity in their local video story, probably during the VHS era when Continental Video slipped it out in one of those oversized boxes under its more familiar title, Class Reunion Massacre (added to the print through the magic of a cheap video title card). That transfer was obviously no great shakes, and because that version neglected to carry over the copyright card, a lot of companies naturally assumed in must be public domain and stuck their cruddy VHS rips onto some budget bin, gray market DVD releases (including a terrible "East West Productions" double feature with Andy Milligan's Carnage). Decent film elements on this film have eluded repertory programmers for decades, so the fact that anything at all was found for the DVD is something of a minor miracle. The transfer used byCode Red for its 2010 DVD release obviously isn't their finest hour, admitted in an opening disclaimer card, but it's still a whole lot better than anything we've had before. The anamorphic transfer (interlaced, so consider yourself warned if that's a deal breaker) has its share of damage and is definitely on the faded side, but detail is much, much better with deeper blacks as well which really kicks things up a notch during the creepy theater scene. The only real extra is the original theatrical trailer "from an old 1981 3/4inch tape," plus some self-termed "pointless" trailers like Nightmare, The Visitor, Slithis, Horror High, and The Carrier.
Four years later, Code Red revisited the title for a Blu-ray edition (dropping the trailer, which is no major loss) that turns out to be a little more puzzling than expected. The general appearance is similar and it's thankfully now progressive, but the framing has been slightly adjusted to 1.78:1 compared to the DVD's 1.66:1. The adjustment means a bit less information at the top and more on the bottom, with a bit extra on the sides varying from one scene to the next. The color timing also shifts significantly on two of the reels; the first now leans more to the pinkish side, while the third is darker and looks more blue compared to the DVD. For example, here's a shot from the first reel on the DVD compared to the same image from the Blu-ray seen to the left, complete with different damage marks. It's a mystery, but given the mystique already surrounding the film, perhaps that's as it should be. In any case, having The Redeemer in HD is something of an outrageous miracle in and of itself, so prepare for the glory of '70s scratchy drive-in authenticity implausibly preserved in 1080p for generations to enjoy.