With the second of their limited edition Blu-ray/DVD combos, Vinegar Syndrome takes us on a RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE with a 4K restoration of little seen but unforgettable effort.
Ralph (Mike Cartel, PETS) and Jason (Al Valletta, SOLE SURVIVOR) are a pair of Los Angelinos running a worm and snail farm in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Jason is content while Ralph is hungry for company and adventure, which he gets when he witnesses two men burying a casket in the sand. Jason and Ralph dig it up and discover the living body of Fate (Seeska Vandenberg). They take her back to their ranch, but their heroic act is rewarded by them being captured by a commune of a pot-smoking, gunrunning, pistol-dueling, mostly man-hating women lead by rich girl Hesperia (Cindy Donlan, SCHIZOID). The group decides to initiate the pair of men – consisting of a few feats of strength and a lot of sex for Jason – not because they save Fate, but because they need decoys to exact their revenge on the mob who double-crossed them, burying Fate alive and stealing a cache of Platinum. Even if they manage to survive taking on the mob and their retaliation, they might still end up as the centerpieces of the commune's celebration since they usually sacrifice the men they encounter.
Started in 1978 and finished in 1982, RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE looks very much like a 1970s regional film in cinematography, mostly flat lighting, set decoration and costumes, but is noticeably lacking in actual nudity despite many opportunities for it. Evidently, someone else felt the same way since – without Cartel's knowledge – a handful of nude scenes with unidentified female doubles appeared as video inserts when the film was released on VHS in the late 1980s by All Seasons Entertainment. There's nothing quite like RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE so it must be appreciated – not necessarily revered since it may be too boring for some (especially given Vinegar Syndrome's online buildup) – on grounds other than the usual "so bad it's good" criteria. Even with the disc's audio commentary, it is hard to determine just how much of the film's cockeyed "dreamlike" illogical atmosphere is intentional and how much is due to the post-synching, the pick-up shots – the film was started by Enzo Giobbe (who reportedly did good but slow work) before second unit DP G.W. 'Dink' Read took over – the insertion of outtakes footage virtually anywhere where there is insufficient coverage (from missing angles to insufficient funds to realize larger sequences, including the explosion of a small wooden shack in place of a large ranch house), the substitution of different actresses when some dropped out or didn't show up, to the intentionally trippy sequences. It is also difficult to determine how much of the acting is genuinely deadpan and how much is just wooden, although some of the women are less characters than fetish figures solely embodying specific traits (like Debbie Poropat as sadist Sadie and VICE ACADEMY's Alexis Alexander as "Vampiria"). Some of this is of course certainly intended as it may indeed be a nightmare (or a wet dream for Jason) as sleep-deprived Ralph wanders around the ranch's disorienting floorplan and is the butt of much of the commune's aggression for "molesting the girls" (Cartel did his own stunts including being hit in the face with a breakaway bottle and being shot while wearing a bullet-proof vest) – even though happy-go-lucky Gary is the one getting laid repeatedly – with his destiny seemingly literally in the arms of Fate. Ralph's admonition to Jason early on that "You shouldn't open up something you're not familiar with" resonates twice at the end. I compared George Barry's DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS to Jean Rollin's REQUIEM FOR A VAMPIRE, and RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE might be more aptly compared to it - substituting the two guys as initiates into a quasi-supernatural group and unable to escape the labyrinthine commune and the space trap of a desert without the accompaniment of the women - even if its doubtful that Cartel had the same kind of grindhouse "education" as Barry.
Scanned and restored in 4K from the original camera negatives, Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is almost spotless and seems true to the film's uneven cinematography – shot by two DPs, with additional reshoots matching or clashing with earlier footage – with the more carefully lit shots and the overlit ones looking clean, crisp, and colorful while the night exteriors and shots that make use of total darkness in the background for creative effects evincing heavier grain. No complaints about the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which faithfully represents the sound mix with the fully post-synched dialogue and electronic score often sounding bolder than the sound effects or the source music.
The film can be viewed with an audio commentary by star/director Cartel accompanied by his wife Mari – who plays one of the girls in addition to serving as script supervisor, special make-up effects artist, and production manager over the course of the film's four year shooting schedule – moderated by Joel Rudin and film historian Howard S. Berger. Cartel discusses the project's origins in 1978 when he took over directing of the unfinished mob picture BITTER HERITAGE (which he scripted for director Gary Troy), and only having three quarters of the script finished when he had the opportunity to direct it. He discusses shooting without permits or insurance, getting chased off locations (including a biker bar where he had permission but the annoyed bikers wouldn't stop throwing things into the cordoned off area) and having to rewrite scenes. He discusses the climax's debt to KISS ME DEADLY (which at that point had not played on television so he only had a memory of seeing it in the theater decades before), as well as attempting to market it to distributors (Troy's connections didn't pan out and MGM found it pretty but boring). He also mentions the contributions of future PHANTASM alums Roberto Quezada and Daryn Okada as, respectively, gaffer and key grip (they would also work on PUNK VACATION, also released on Blu-ray/DVD combo by Vinegar Syndrome). The film's credited producer Eldon Short was Cartel's father who owned the circus Crafts 20 Big Shows, the midway of which appeared in the climax of Alfred Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN.
Mari Cartel discusses the film's "pot mentality", the songs (penned by her sister and brother-in-law), and fills us in on the background of the cast including Jody Lee Olhava who went onto a television and soap opera career in the 1980s, Georgia Durante (SHATTERED) who was a driver for the mob and later a stunt driver (whose autobiography "The Company She Keeps" was published in 1998), and Roselyn Royce (MALIBU HOT SUMMER) who created the women's wrestling video company Golden Girls, as well as others that she had recruited while working at Jack LaLane's fitness club. Rudin mainly prompts the talkative filmmakers while Berger offers up some appreciation of the film's atmosphere and styles (which he suggests anticipates TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME), and compares the deadpan comic style of the film to Abbott and Costello. The aforementioned nude insert scenes for the VHS are included in context as the disc's only other extras (3:35) in expectedly inferior quality. RUNAWAY NIGHTMARE Blu-ray/DVD combo is the second of Vinegar Syndrome's limited editions – following THE JEKYLL & HYDE PORTFOLIO/A CLOCKWORK BLUE (which featured a hardcore cut of the latter feature while the standard edition featured the softcore version) – and only one thousand copies have been pressed. A non-limited DVD edition with the same extras will be available in July, and that more conveniently accessible edition may be perfectly suitable for viewers who do not wish to find the limited edition through the usual venues but the retail price for the limited is not that much more than the standard (unless the format is more important than the film). (Eric Cotenas)
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