Winter viewing 2: Vinegar Syndrome partners

Misanthropic scientist Herbert Von Krantz (Daniel Emilfork) invents an anti-nuclear device in Jean-Louis Roy's The Unknown Man of Shandigor (1967)

Recent releases from various Vinegar Syndrome partner labels offer a wide range of styles, from low-budget direct-to-video horror (Ronnie Sortor’s Sinistre [1995], Charles Pinion’s Red Spirit Lake [1993] and We Await [1996]) to a rediscovered slice of Cold War sci-fi/espionage from Switzerland (Jean-Louis Roy’s The Unknown Man of Shandigor [1967]).

Winter viewing 1: Vinegar Syndrome

Detective Linda Masterson (Cynthia Rothrock) investigates a killer martial artist in Kelly Makin's Tiger Claws (1991)

A long cold winter, a working-from-home schedule and pandemic-induced malaise means I’ve been watching a lot of undemanding genre movies over the past few months. One of my primary sources in the past couple of years has been Vinegar Syndrome, a company whose dedication to unearthing obscure, often forgotten genre movies equals my own passion for watching them. Although by no means a complete account of my VS viewing, here are brief notes on two dozen titles.

Clive Rees’ The Blockhouse (1973) and other recent Indicator releases

Father Roche (Donald Pleasence) confronts an ancient religion on a remote Greek island in Kostas Karagiannis’ The Devil’s Men (1976)

Recent releases from Indicator have seemed oddly random – from an unexceptional genre movie (Kostas Karagiorgis’ The Devil’s Men [1076]) to an arthouse war film (Clive Rees’ The Blockhouse [1973]), a ghost story that comes across like a television play (Kevin Billington’s Voices [1973]) to an interesting if unsuccessful literary adaptation (Anthony Friedmann’s Bartleby [1970]) and a revisionist detective story which plays with the tropes of the English country house mystery (Chris Petit’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman [1982]).

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge (1970): Criterion Blu-ray review

Three unlikely partners come together to rob a Paris jewellery store in Jean-Pierre Melville's masterful Le cercle rouge (1970)

Criterion have re-released Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterful heist movie Le cercle rouge (1970) in a new dual-format 4K UHD/Blu-ray edition based on a 4K restoration by StudioCanal. Although there are no new extras (supplements adding up to almost two hours date back to the company’s original 2003 DVD release), the film looks better than ever, its narrative stripped to essentials as a meditation on professionalism, fate and the moral ambiguity of characters on both sides of the law.

Tobe Hooper’s mangled career

Bill Gartley (Robert Englund), consumed by evil, is now barely human in Tobe Hooper's The Mangler (1995)

As a filmmaker, Tobe Hooper’s creative interests were not always in sync with audiences and critics. His mixture of theatrical performance and constructed-in-studio settings are on full display in the generally disdained Stephen King adaptation The Mangler (1995), whose uneven dramatic execution undermines an often impressively menacing horror-fantasy about the bloody appetite of capitalism, an inhuman force which devours those doomed to serve it. Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion (1990), on the other hand, is a half-baked mess which mostly lacks any visual interest to make up for its many narrative inadequacies.

Recent disks from England, part two: Arrow

A young woman's psychic powers make her a target of nefarious forces in Nico Mastorakis' Death Has Blue Eyes (1976)

Arrow’s big pre-Christmas sale brought a wide range of titles, some old, some new: Juan Simon Piquer’s Spanish slasher Pieces (1982), Chelsea Stardust’s horror comedy Satanic Panic (2019), Giancarlo Santi’s spaghetti western The Grand Duel (1972), Lee Min-jae’s horror comedy Zombie for Sale (2019), Jill Gevargizian’s psycho horror The Stylist (2020),Nico Mastorakis incoherent first feature Death Has Blue Eyes (1976), a Japanese double bill of sci-fi crime movies, Nobuo Adachi’s The Invisible Man Appears (1949) and Mitsuo Murayama’s The Invisible Man vs the Human Fly (1957), Riccardo Freda’s mix of melodrama and giallo Double Face (1969), Jacques Tourneur’s late film noir Nightfall (1956), and Giorgio Ferroni’s atmospheric Gothic horror Mill of the Stone Women (1960).

The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990):
Criterion Blu-ray review

Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) becomes a dangerous doppelgänger for Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) in the Coen Brothers' Miller's Crossing (1990)

With their new Blu-ray release, Criterion add the Coen Brothers’ third feature, Miller’s Crossing (1990), to the Collection. One of the darkest, most sombre films in the Coen canon, this moody gangster story updates hardboiled noir as a complex meditation on male fragility and violence. Sumptuously shot by Barry Sonnenfeld, it features a superb cast of great character actors.

Gerry O’Hara’s The Brute (1977)

Diane (Sarah Douglas) is on edge the morning after a vicious beating from her husband in Gerry O'Hara's The Brute (1977)

Filmmaker Gerry O’Hara tackled the difficult subject of marital violence in the mid-’70s, at a time when such things weren’t discussed in polite company. His use of exploitation tropes offended critics at the time for “trivializing” a serious subject which almost no one else was examining in popular media. Actually, O’Hara’s treatment is quite intelligent and well-crafted.

Recent disks from England, part one

The climactic battle between Cyclops and Dragon in Nathan Juran's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Recent disks from England include Franco Parolini’s late spaghetti western Sabata Trilogy (1969-71), the classic Ray Harryhausen Sinbad fantasies (1958-77), Carl Franklin’s revisionist neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), Tsui Hark’s influential martial arts fantasy Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983), and David Greene’s tense submarine disaster movie Gray Lady Down (1978).

Blasts from the past

Law, disorder and cynicism in the ’70s

DVD of the Week: The World, the Flesh & the Devil (1959)

Sex in Movies: narrative interruptus

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995): Criterion Blu-ray review

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