Color, 1988, 87 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by Roberta Findlay
Starring William Beckwith, Christine Moore, Mavis Harris, Max Jacobs, Tim Gail
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Mill Creek, Rhino (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
Color, 1988, 93 mins. 50 secs.
Directed by Roberta Findlay
Starring Christine Moore, Gary Warner, Marina Taylor, Roy MacArthur
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9), Scorpion Releasing (DVD) (US R0 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Mill Creek, Rhino (DVD) (US R1 NTSC)
A filmmaker unlike any other in the heyday of New York exploitation filmmaking, Roberta Findlay managed to work in various capacities both in front of and behind the camera as she hopped genres from roughies to '70s porno chic to gory horror. By the second half of the 1980s, she'd settled into a comfortable niche turning out dark (both literally and figuratively) studies in low budget Big Apple horror like The Oracle, Blood Sisters, Tenement, and this pair of supernatural mood pieces from 1988 both released by Crown International Pictures and featuring gore and monster effects by now-legendary effects maestro Ed French.
First up is Prime Evil, which starts off as a medieval period film (and a brief demonic puppet show) as the plague sweeping Europe creates a perfect opportunity for some satanic bargaining. In exchange for survival -- for centuries, in fact -- some monks betray their order and pledge to kill a blood relative every thirteen years. That tradition continues to modern day New York, where Alexandra (Moore) is the latest blood sacrifice target by her grandfather (Jacobs) and the reigning head of the unholy order (Beckwith). Black mass rituals, a nun spy, a suspicious boyfriend, and mustacheoied cops all play a part in the grand finale, which involves lots of black robes, chanting, nudity, and diaphonous gowns.
A strange, rambling, but sometimes effective film, Prime Evil mainly benefits from a hammy, unrestrained turn by Beckwith and some stylish, moody photography that sadly turned to mud in most video transfers. Not surprisingly, it raised the ire of VHS-gorging horror fans at the time with its oh-so-Findlay flavor, but if you know what you're in for, there are some modest pleasures to be found and some great '80s indie horror atmosphere at times.
Sort of a cheaper, more restrained take on The Sentinel by way of After Hours, Lurkers (originally meant to be titled Home Sweet Home) is the spooky saga of Cathy (Moore again), a classical musician still traumatized by a childhood involving a killer jump rope, her abusive mother's murder, and an apartment building filled with spectral inhabitants who converged around her bed at night. (The lurkers of the title, obviously.) Now an adult, she's involved with a guy named Bob (Warner), a fashion photographer whose models like to pop their tops at random. However, things start to unwind when Bob's business partner, Monica (Taylor), throws a swanky party at the same building where Cathy grew up and the same lethal combo of murder, spirits, and psychotic behavior rears its head again.
Veering between grungy street scenes to surprisingly surreal moments of nightmarish imagery and unexpected kink (especially in the last 20 minutes), this film runs far more on style than any sort of traditional narrative. That said, it does all hold together if you go with the flow and don't get distracted by the uneven acting, a lot of which feels like it was quickly grabbed on the first take. It's not a "good" movie in the traditional sense by a long shot, but there's a compelling strangeness and commitment to the whole thing that helps it linger in the memory for quite a while after it's over.
Surprisingly, both films had a healthier home video life than virtually any other Findlay title following their nominal theatrical appearances. New World and Media issued them first respectively on VHS where they haunted video stories for many years, and since then they've popped up in various iterations including standalone DVDs from Rhino and inclusion in different combos in such box sets as Horrible Horrors Vol. 1, the 12-movie Cult Terror Collection, 32-movie(!) Drive-In Cult Classics, and 200(!!)-movie set of the same name from Mill Creek. However, the one thing all of these have in common is the fact that the transfers stunk. The Rhino versions were taken from the same master as the VHS releases and looked the worst, while the rest still suffered from an impenetrably dark appearance and smudgy detail that rendered most of the final act completely incoherent. Most annoyingly, Prime Evil has fared the worst, being heavily cut (83m4s) and missing a lot of T&A and violence, some of it actually relevant to the plot.
The first widescreen version of Lurkers appeared on DVD in a 2013 edition from Scorpion that finally presents a version that's actually respectable (and intelligible), looking several generations better with much more detail and richer colors throughout. The upgrade makes the film far more enjoyable to sit through, particularly during some stylish flourishes that show Findlay experimenting with wild colorful lighting and more ambitious, in-depth compositions than usual. Sharing space on the same disc is... well, you'd expect it to be Prime Evil, but nope, it's Die Sister, Die!, a cheapo thriller trotted around on the drive-in circuit way, way after its completion in 1972. Gorgon Video issued it with the fantastic poster art on VHS in one of their beloved big box editions, though the terror fest promised by the artwork confused horror fans who found themselves watching a suspense film with a slightly more macabre sensibility than usual. The sister of the title is Amanda (Edith Atwater), a deeply disturbed middle-aged woman who's lately taken to suicide attempts for reasons only explained much, much later. Her brother Edward (Jack Ging) brings in a new nurse fresh out of the slammer (Antoinette Bower) to take care of her, but of course, it's all part of a plot to help sis succeed where her prior attempts failed. However, the plan is bound to take an unforeseen twist or two.This one isn't a masterpiece, but it is drenched in a strange atmosphere aided by some Corman-style nightmare sequences (lots of wacky lenses, severed limbs, and a runaway pet bird) and some fun Italian-style colorful lighting during moments of high tension. Perhaps the most surprising thing here is the presence of Val Lewton star Kent Smith (Cat People) as Amanda's doc; he was appearing in a slew of made-for-TV horror movies around that time, but it's still peculiar seeing him pop up at random for what amounts to a role stuck in solely to provide exposition. Speaking of the small screen, rumor has it this was originally supposed to be a made-for-TV project (which seems believable given the limited track record of director Randall Hood), but apparently the (still mild) violent content pushed it over to the big screen instead. Not a bad time killer if you keep your expectations in check and have plenty of popcorn handy. Both films come with isolated music tracks (which should be handy if you want to drive any family members insane), their original trailers, and bonus previews for Sorceress, Dogs, and Saint Jack. Furthermore, label hostess Katarina Leigh Waters pops up for wraparounds for Lurkers, first as her insane French twin sister Antoinette (in a genie outfit) and then back to her old self again to run through various trivia points about the feature itself.
However, the definitive edition of the two Findlay films was yet to come with Vinegar Syndrome's 2017 dual-format Blu-ray and DVD package, sporting fresh new scans of the original negatives and actually making them look like skillful, nicely composed, and colorful outings. It's pretty wild to be able to see deep in the backgrounds of these films after years of murk, and anyone who bashed them in the past may want to make a return visit here under much better circumstances. Prime Evil is also fully uncut, too, which is crucial. Lurkers looks a bit different than the prior widescreen version, framed at 1.85:1 versus 1.78:1 (a minimal difference) and with far more detail and less blue visible in the lighting schemes. The DTS-HD MA English tracks for both sound great, with optional English SDH subtitles and isolated Dolby Digital score tracks for both also included. Prime Evil also features a new audio commentary by Findlay and Casey Scott, who also joined forces for A Woman's Torment, and it's a very upbeat feast of information with the director dishing on the real-life church location (which was only allowed as long as they didn't do any black masses... you can see how that turned out), the one surprising adult actor who turned into Mr. Complainypants on one of her films, the reason she stopped making movies soon after, and lots more. Also included are theatrical trailers for both films and a Lurkers teaser.
PRIME EVIL (RHINO DVD)
LURKERS (RHINO DVD)
LURKERS (SCORPION DVD)
Reviewed on October 20, 2016.