Directors: Paul Kener/Ken Friedman
Vinegar Syndrome

Vinegar Syndrome follows up their impressive debut THE LOST FILMS OF HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS with two “drive-in collection” double features. The first combines Paul Kener’s regional proto-slasher SAVAGE WATER (a follow-up to his equally rare WENDIGO) with Ken Friedman’s supernatural “body count” pic DEATH BY INVITATION.

In SAVAGE WATER, six young people – aptly-named boss Dave Savage (Gil Van Waggoner), “Zen master” Mike (Clayton King), sensible JoAnne (Bridget Agnew), blend-into-the-background Fry (Mike Wackor) and put-upon Darrell (Pat Comer) – lead three rafts full of dysfunctional tourists down the Colorado River for about forty minutes before someone decides to start picking them off one-by-one. Suspects from the “disaster movie”-ready cross-section of humanity include (before some of them are snuffed out) Doc Rogers (Ron Berger) – who has pondered aloud about what it would be like to go off the deep end – sexually-frustrated young sheik Mahomad (Rashad Javeri), bimbo Suzy (Dewa DeAnne), dippy hippie Rhonda (Valerie Kittel) – who thinks there is no place more beautiful than the Grand Canyon to meet “the Creator” – coke-snorting “black guy” Ivy (So Mickelson), racist housewife Irma and her vigilante husband Leo (Doug Warr) and interchangeable twin daughters (apparently one’s more boisterous), prank-playing brat Dean (Doug Jones) – who I would have no qualms drop-kicking him into the river without a life-vest – and his ineffectual father Doug (Gene Eubanks), as well as a retired German couple with broad accents. Cut off from civilization with no radio and the additional threat of snakes, scorpions, hypothermia, poisonous plants, and the threat of more singing from Joanne (her rendition of the song “Sherry” – while strumming a guitar even though we hear piano accompaniment and dubbed over by the director’s wife – manages to trigger at least one traumatic memory among the group), the group have no choice but to continue their trip in between killings – cut to dissolve-heavy montages of smiling rafters – until they finally start to turn on each other (and not a moment too soon for the viewer).

The acting is so amateurish that a lot of prescient that foreshadowing in the dialogue – musings on karma, living in the moment, if the world ended tomorrow – will probably go unnoticed, and the reveal of the killer – which could have been an effective jolt – and their “motivation” will likely have the viewer going “wha…” even if they did notice the earlier flashback image (couched as it is in another padding montage). There are some potentially interesting threads in SAVAGE WATER, but the “cast” is too large (and insufficiently delineated), the acting too bad, and the script too unpolished (well, thrown together) to make this an effectively downbeat 1970s horror film rather than a car wreck. That said, boredom doesn’t set in during that first forty-odd minutes of “development” for viewers appreciative of the deficits of low budget genre films made by people with more enthusiasm than experience (lame attempts at humor and intellectualism, an obvious affection for the cast that is bewildering to viewers based on the talent displayed, uneven mix of live and overdubbed dialogue, flubbed line readings left in, as well as under- and over-exposed photography [the latter sometimes appropriate given the sunbaked setting]); it is only when the film has developed something like momentum in the latter half that one will be hoping it all manages to come together in a half-way interesting fashion. The score is mainly comprised of Capitol Music library tracks – some funk-ily inappropriate – but actor Warr provides a not-bad main title theme (“…some of us will not return, but none of us can retreat”). The French poster used to illustrate the film on the Vinegar Syndrome DVD release under review compares the film to DELIVERANCE, but SAVAGE WATER would probably make a good – well, relatively – double bill with Byron Quisenberry’s less ambitious though more polished SCREAM/THE OUTING (1981) with all of the “standing around” group shots.

SAVAGE WATER comes to DVD in an anamorphic widescreen (matted 1.85:1) transfer of a fairly clean but cheaply-processed 35mm theatrical print of what was likely a cheaply-processed negative – possibly a blow-up from 16mm (although it at times looks like it could be a Super 8 film), or perhaps the digitally unmanipulated heavy grain is the result of long lenses and poor exposure – mastered in 2K high definition. I’d blame the sometimes shrill high ends of the Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio on the original mix, but there’s also an underlining hiss throughout. The film is accompanied on a second track by a “transatlantic” (recorded on Skype with participants in England, Ireland, and Tennessee) commentary with slasher movie podcasters “The Hysteria Continues” (Justin Kerswell of the slasher website and author of “The Slasher Movie Book”, Joseph Hinton of the site “The Bodycount Continues”, and Erik and Nathan [surnames undisclosed]) ruminating on what they feel this “anti-thriller” is “close to the worst slasher film ever made” (but they come up with duller horror films along the way like BLOODSTALKERS). Although the film never had a US theatrical release, they tell us of an overseas release campaign (related to one of them by Joe Bob Briggs). The commentators did attempt to contact cast and crew, and were successful in one or two instances (Pat Cromer – who was an animal handler and stunt man – was the most forthcoming, while others were less enthused to recall the experience). Kerswell also comes up with a vintage newspaper clipping quoting Kener’s hopes for the film’s box office prospects. The DVD box describes the film as a “proto-giallo” and that seems to stem from the commentators’ comparison of the film to Umberto Lenzi’s EYEBALL (in which the characters press on with their tour despite their dwindling numbers). In between relating shooting anecdotes, the four commentators find things to make fun of – not off-puttingly so – and rag on each other when they reach too far for significance (including the comparison of a character’s wardrobe to Jamie Lee Curtis in HALLOWEEN, which was shot around the same time). They all describe how they’ve warmed to the film “like a fungus that creeps up on you”, and fans of SCALPS and THE OUTING can probably relate.

“The brutal climax is just the beginning” in DEATH BY INVITATION in which lovely “proto-Goth” Lise (Shelby Leverington, CLOAK & DAGGER) befriends the well-heeled Vroot family in the interests of wreaking bloody vengeance since their Puritan ancestors executed her ancestor (or maybe herself) for witchcraft. Domineering Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips) has his wife Naomi (Sarnell Ogus) and five kids cowed and takes petty delight in explaining how he can beat his prospective son-in-law at chess. He’s a bit weary of Lise’s influence and her “wild friends” (who we never see); and it is perhaps that very strict attitude that leaves his family vulnerable. Weak-willed Roger (Denver John Collins) is the first to disappear, after Naomi whittles away several minutes of screen time telling him about a tribe of literal man-eating women. Comic relieve detective (Tom Mahoney) dismisses the disappearance as another kid likely to turn up later on in the city as a dope fiend(!), while Lise continues to provide the family much-needed support as their numbers start to further dwindle. Peter doesn’t start to take notice of anything suspicious until his dull daughter Coral’s (Rhonda Russell) hook-nosed fiancé Jake (Norman Paige) starts taking a greater sexual interest in Lise (who seems to burn hot and cold at the prospect).

Lensed in Staten Island locations (the occasional stomping grounds of Andy Milligan, who might have made more of the dysfunctional family dynamic) by writer/director Ken Friedman (screenwriter of JOHNNY HANDSOME), DEATH BY INVITATION is cheap yet it has a bit more polish in both its script and production values than your average regional horror fare.

Although the film’s producer was Leonard Kirtman (CARNIVAL OF BLOOD) – who would graduate from producing softcore to some rough hardcore porn features like THE AFFAIRS OF JANICE, THE DEVIL INSIDE HER and SEX WISH – DEATH BY INVITATION is not really an erotic horror hybrid. Skin is very infrequently displayed, with the film relying more on Leverington’s stare and voice to generate heat (and she is the best performer in the film). To the film’s credit, Lise believably portrays the concerned family friend without the knowing winks and disingenuous line deliveries (smirking only when none of the other characters can see her). Friedman injects a modicum of style with the usual 1970s wide angle close-ups and punctuating freeze frames during the opening flashback of the witch’s persecution: a sequence simultaneously silly and unsettling in its Society of Creative Anachronism-reject period extras and heartbeat-thud score as the only audio accompaniment. Snippets from the flashback pop up again usually triggered by an action in the present; however, once or twice it seems that they pop up as a transition from an unfinished scene to the next scene. In one increasingly meant-to-be-surreal hilarious scene, Jake visits Vroot’s office building which is a maze of deadened businessmen, prying secretaries, and figures darting back and forth between rooms and down hallways in the background. The “classical” music Vroot has playing in his office sounds more like mall muzak; so much so that it feels more like inappropriate library music track scoring and gives the impression that the actors are having to shout over incidental music. The climax, however, deftly moves back and forth between the present and the past; to little effect, however, since it really offers us nothing more revelatory to the witch’s reasons for revenge. The film would make a better double-bill with the more straightforward Texas-lensed MARK OF THE WITCH (1970) – which had R-rated elements on about the same level before it was trimmed for a wider GP release (the uncut version of that feature is on Code Red’s “Exploitation Cinema” double bill with DEVIL TIMES FIVE) – than with SAVAGE WATER.

DEATH BY INVITATION comes to DVD from a 2K master of a mostly clean 35mm print with the usual green and black lines and reel change marks, but there are also a couple strange white flashes. Ultimately, the flaws aren’t distracting given the film’s age and obscurity (they mention that Something Weird Video released it on tape from a black and white print source). The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track has a layer of hiss and is occasionally crackly but the dialogue is always clear while the music and effects are rather flat (probably true to the original mix). Once again, the podcasters The Hysteria Continues provide another commentary track. Background information is scarce about the film, other than its original title being THE WITCH STORY. Like the reviewer, they resort to IMDb early on, highlighting producer Kirtman’s other credits. They also point out that Denver John Collins is the brother of singer Judy Collins, and had served as camera operator on a couple pre-FRIDAY THE 13TH Sean S. Cunningham films, and reveal some of D.P. Alec Hirschfield’s – son of cinematographer Gerald Hirschfield (THE CAR, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN) other genre credits (including SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE and MAUSOLEUM as camera operator). In light of Kirtman’s other credits, they suggest DEATH BY INVITATION patterned itself off of ROSEMARY’S BABY (there’s even a la-la theme heard late in the film) and LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (which was released the same year). Despite poking a lot of fun at the fashions, décor, and performances, the commentators do appear to be on their way to warming up to it. Taken apart, neither film might be your cup of tea (although DEATH BY INVITATION is marginally better), but together they make a nifty afternoon’s viewing (you’ll want something creepier for the evening) at an irresistible retail price. (Eric Cotenas)