You can't keep a good horror star down when the maligned Troma pickup FRIGHTMARE gets an HD overhaul from Vinegar Syndrome.
Conrad Ragzoff (Ferdinand Mayne, THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS) is the last of the great horror stars and, despite having millions of dollars squirreled away and sprawling Beverly Hills estate, reduced to appearing as a vampire in television commercials Christopher Lee and John Carradine would not touch. Although quite happily hellbound, he is overcome with emotion to learn that he has not been forgotten and is set to receive a lifetime achievement award from a local college horror society. When Conrad suffers a heart attack on stage, he retreats to his home and sets about producing and directing his death, including a heavily publicized and attended funeral and interment in a custom-designed solid granite mausoleum with video projection of segments of "The Ragzoff Saga" – a series of tapes before his death in which he espouses his philosophies and warns visitors of the consequences of disturbing his rest. Unfortunately, the members of the horror society – Saint (Luca Bercovici, SPACE RAIDERS), "final girl" Meg (Jennifer Starrett), Evie (Carlene Olson, FRATENRITY ROW), Stu (Jeffrey Combs, FROM BEYOND), Bobo (Scott Thomson, PARASITE), Donna (Donna McDaniel, ANGEL), and Oscar (Alan Stock, TIME WALKER) – have decided the best way to pay tribute to their idol is to steal his corpse and party with it back at the mansion where he shot a number of his films. After a night of partying, they put Conrad to bed in his coffin in the attic with plans to return him to the mausoleum the next night. When Conrad's widow (Barbara Pilavin, MANIAC COP 3) learns that his corpse has been stolen, she appeals to medium Mrs. Rohmer (Nita Talbot, NIGHT SHIFT) to discover his whereabouts. Although she appears to be a fraud, her attempt to contact the beyond wakes Conrad with an appetite for infernal vengeance.
Bearing a faint resemblance to CHILDREN SHOULDN'T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS combined with an affection for Old Hollywood rather than the stage (and Bercovici a better actor than Alan Ormsby but less entertaining), FRIGHTMARE is a novel, if imperfect, variation on the body count formula. The first half of the film is not as satisfyingly self-referential and reverential of either classic horror or low budget horror filmmaking of the period while the deaths are only fitfully creative during the second half. Combs is given little opportunity to hint at the promise he would show later in the decade as one of the next generation of horror stars (although it is rumored that he was cast because he had the same hair color as a severed head prop), and Starrett is a dull final girl (fortunately, the final section of the film focuses more on terrorizing Bercovici's ringleader). The strange, vaguely adversarial relationship between the characters played by Pilavin and Talbot is underdeveloped, although the latter arrives at a fitting end. A fixture of British film and television, Mayne is largely known to American viewers as the count in THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS, and it was the more dignified of his horror film roles which also included a small part in THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and his unfortunate opportunity to play "The Count" himself in Freddie Francis' dire THE VAMPIRE HAPPENING (in which his Drac quips "Call me Christopher, I'm sure he won't mind"). That the film eventually degenerates into a slasher body count film is a given for the era, but it's well-made and just different enough to stick out of the bunch. Talbot's fellow HOGAN'S HEROES alumnus Leon Askin appears as Conrad's not so faithful former director-turned-chauffeur. The film was produced by Patrick Wright (THE CHEERLEADERS) and his wife Tallie Cochrane (FIVE LOOSE WOMEN) who both were regulars in American softcore cinema throughout the seventies. Director Norman Thaddeus Vane also directed an intriguing take on the vampire genre the same year in THE BLACK ROOM (although it was not released until 1984). Conrad's mansion is Greystone Park, the former Doheny estate that was the headquarters of the American Film Institute at the time but had also served as a location for Bert I. Gordon's PICTURE MOMMY DEAD, Paul Henreid's DEAD RINGER, Collinwood in the 1991 revival of DARK SHADOWS, and episodes of a number of television series during the AFI tenure.
Finished in 1981 but not released until 1983 stateside by Saturn International as FRIGHTMARE and overseas by Manson International as THE HORROR STAR, FRIGHTMARE had two domestic poster artwork designs: one original and reproduced on the front cover of Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray/DVD combo, and the other repurposing Warner Bros. artwork for the Amicus anthology FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE. It was the latter that Vestron Video used for their 1983 VHS release under the FRIGHTMARE title (a move that forced Prism to title their 1985 release of Pete Walker's like-titled film FRIGHTMARE II and Monterey Video's edition as ONCE UPON A FRIGHTMARE). Troma later released the film on DVD in 2005 utilizing a darkish tape master. Bearing the original title THE HORROR STAR, Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.78:1 widescreen transfer from a 2K scan of the original negatives is quite beautiful given the stylized cinematography of Joel King (JUST BEFORE DAWN) who learned his trade working under Mario Tosi starting with HEARTS OF THE WEST and admits in the disc's interview to not only emulating the lighting of black and white horror films but also Tosi's lighting and camera movement on CARRIE (on which he also worked). The lighting is alternately high contrast portrait close-ups suggestive of old Hollywood and more eighties backlighting through fog and smoke, so the occasional haze in the image is intentional. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is in fine condition, and optional English SDH subtitles are also available.
The film is accompanied by three commentary options. The Hysteria Continues discuss how they each encountered the film on VHS, note that director Vane claimed WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S was a ripoff of his film, and that the film was released in the UK as both THE HORROR STAR and BODY SNATCHERS, and relate an intriguing anecdote about James Cameron designing an original poster for the film and then getting into a catfight with Vane upon discovering that another artist had made some alterations. Although they are aware that one shot actress Jennifer Starrett is the daughter of Jack Starrett (RACE WITH THE DEVIL), they are unaware that actor-turned-director Luca Bercovici is the son of TV producer/writer Eric Bercovici (THE NOBLE HOUSE) and grandson of blacklisted writer Leonardo Bercovici (THE BISHOP'S WIFE). Amidst quips about the film's style (likening Conrad's mausoleum to a Duran Duran video set), they also make an interesting observation about how the nihilistic young characters here compare to their preppy contemporaries in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART II as an example.
David De Coteau (SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA) and film historian David Del Valle host a second commentary that is more informative and entertaining since they both knew and worked with several of the people in front of and behind the camera. Del Valle, who has a cameo as a mourner and facilitated Forest Ackerman's contributions to the film, relates his memories of Mayne who was thrilled to be the star (and greatly honored to work with Askin) but sometimes frustrated with Vane's rushed approach. He also discusses the film's locations, including the Chinese cemetery where a real cremation was illegally shot for the climax. He and De Coteau also share recollections of Talbot who appeared in the De Coteau-produced PUPPET MASTER II, and that she spoke highly of the film's cinematographer Joel King (who had worked under Mario Tosi on THE STUNT MAN and CARRIE). They do bemoan that the film's missed opportunities, suggesting that Gale Sondergaard (SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SPIDER WOMAN) would have been a better choice for Conrad's widow. Although both tracks reference like-minded films from MADHOUSE to ONE DARK NIGHT, the film also anticipates the lesser TERROR NIGHT (1987) in which a silent film star (John Ireland, THE HOUSE OF THE SEVEN CORPSES) stalks and slashes his way through teenagers and bikers who break into his mansion (including THE TOMB's Michele Bauer, LEATHERFACE's William Butler, and adult starlet Jamie Summers). That film was begun by Andre de Toth (HOUSE OF WAX) but finished by Nick Marino and featured cameos by Alan Hale Jr. (GILLIGAN'S ISLAND), Dan Haggerty (HEX), Cameron Mitchell (HAUNTS), and Aldo Ray (EVILS OF THE NIGHT).
Much as Ragzoff speaks from beyond the grave, Norman Thaddeus Vane lends his voice here in the form of a career-spanning audio interview conducted by Sam Weisberg for his website Hidden Films. He discusses his school days, his screenplays in the gap between his directorial debut in 1960 and FRIGHTMARE (his 1970 screenplay for Richard Donner's LOLA is an autobiographic account of his marriage at thirty-eight to sixteen-year-old model Sarah Caldwell who he met on the film MRS. BROWN, YOU'VE GOT A LOVELY DAUGHTER which he scripted), his period in London running dance clubs, and his other film works. The audio quality of the phone interview may not be the best, but it is a worth supplement to the printed version at Weisberg's website as well as the extensive interview Stephen Thrower conducted with Vane for NIGHTMARE U.S.A. "Man with a Camera" (21:21) is an interview with cinematographer King who discusses coming to California to be an artist, becoming interested in photography, and the unusual manner that he first got into the movies. After he married the daughter of a studio executive, he was able to move up to the camera department as camera assistant and operator in the sixties but would learn the most under Tosi. He also reveals that his assistant cameraman on FRIGHTMARE Julio Macat (HOME ALONE) was later instrumental in getting him jobs as an operator on films like THE MIGHTY DUCKS and GRUMPIER OLD MEN. The film's theatrical trailer (1:28) – under the title THE HORROR STAR without any distributor information – and an artwork gallery round out the extras. The reverse side of the cover features THE HORROR STAR artwork. (Eric Cotenas)
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