Richard Casey's utterly odd punk-infused 1980s slasher HORROR HOUSE ON HIGHWAY 5 hits Blu-ray/DVD combo in a special edition courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome that may be better than it deserves.
Los Angeles city college students Sally (BRIDE OF REANIMATOR's Irene Cagen Forest, billed as "Irene F." for union reasons), Louise (Susan Leslie), and Mike (Michael Castagnolia, THE UNBORN) are assigned for their final project a paper and practical experiment on the V2 Rocket designed by Nazi scientist Frederick Bartholemew who came to the United States in the fifties and settled down in the small California hamlet of Little Town where he mysteriously disappeared after being suspected of a series of brutal murders in the area. While Louise and Mike head to Little Town to build and launch a scale model of the V2, Sally remains behind to interview Bartholemew's last known associate Dr. Marbuse (Phil Therrien, HELLBENT). The nutty Marbuse and his moronic assistant Gary (Max Manthey), however, have other plans for her, abducting Sally and taking her along with them to the titular "horror house" to perform a ritual of Nazi occultism for vague purposes. In the meantime, a Nixon-masked killer (billed as being played by "Ronald Reagan" in the end credits) is slaughtering the locals and turns his attentions to the new arrivals. As Marbuse becomes increasingly unhinged by the ghostly presence of Bartholemew and by maggot parasites eating his brain, Sally appeals to Gary's growing affection for her in order to survive and escape the HORROR HOUSE ON HIGHWAY 5.
As with so many other simple-seeming, no-budget horror quickies, HORROR HOUSE ON HIGHWAY 5 ended up taking several years to shoot, starting before HALLOWEEN but after the likes of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and not finished until sometime in the early 1980s (it received an actual video release in 1985). As such, it's slasher elements are pretty rudimentary (although one wonders whether a suspense gag with a locked car door later discovered unlocked was shot before or after HALLOWEEN's much more effective variation). The changes in tone wrought by staggered shooting schedule (on weekends for the equipment rental rate but sometimes with weeks or months in between) seem to have lead more to the film's air of unpredictability and dreamlike passages than any deliberate attempt at surrealism on the part of director Richard Casey, an NYU film graduate turned Los Angeles music video director whose first music video was for the punk group Vom, the lead of which Richard Meltzer (more recently a rock critic) appears here as a motorist who nearly runs over the Nixon-masked killer and makes the mistake of challenging the hulking heavy to a fight. The end result is rather unsatisfying as a horror film and as a comedy, but it does at times achieve that odd, drugged feel of some of the more atmospheric moments of the likes of FROZEN SCREAM or SLEDGEHAMMER, and the whole affair is driven by a consistently listenable soundtrack of various punk and rock styles by various L.A. musicians. Different phases of the film were shot by David Golia (THE ROSARY MURDERS) and Casey's NYU roommate Bill Pope (who moved up from DARKMAN and ARMY OF DARKNESS to THE MATRIX series), the latter also appears as the film's first victim.
Given a video release in the mid-1980s by Simitar Entertainment, HORROR HOUSE ON HIGHWAY 5 first reached the digital format through a horrendous-looking DVD from Substance. Vinegar Syndrome's 2K restoration of archival 16mm materials belonging to director Casey is likely the best the film has ever looked on home video. Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray offers up 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC transfers in both matted 1.78:1 and full-frame 1.33:1, with the latter revealing the top flap of the camera's matte box in a couple wide angle shots. Whether Casey's DPs framed for theatrical projection or not, the widescreen presentation is the better option more often than not, although the fullscreen option is more reminiscent of the way in which many of us first saw this film on videotape or the aforementioned unauthorized DVD. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono audio is clean-sounding but reveals some uneven levels in the dialogue editing and the music, with some of the eclectic cues having more presence than others regardless of the instrumentation and amount of bass. Optional English SDH subtitles are included with only one glaring typographical error.
Both transfers are accompanied by an audio commentary by Casey whose memories of the film are vague, but he has the screenplay at his disposal (from which he is able to point out where scenes have either been cut or moved up). He admits that the film's punk aesthetic of shifting tones and anti-cinematic moments came by out of necessity and making due (he also points out his overt homages to his filmic education including a bit swipe from Godard's BREATHLESS). He provides background on the cast, including Irene Forest whose acting career had slowed after a role in THX-1138 but she would later find success as a casting director (he also mentions that Meltzer showed a clip from the film at her memorial service), Castagnolia and Therrien who were part of the Groundlings improv comedy group at the time, and the actress billed as Susan Leslie whose mother was a Brechtian actress and he believes was the niece of actor Max Von Sydow. He describes the different phases of shooting and the tones they took on, and the changes he had to make to the script when both Menthay had to leave the film and Forest wanted to leave it, and the disaster when he and the film's make-up artist cast Castagnolia's head for a in plaster without a layer of Vaseline between his skin and the plaster for a decapitation scene that was ultimately dropped. He tries to justify the film's tone shifts and the offensive aspects involving Nazi and fascist paraphernalia and insignias but ultimately explains the film as just a "jumble" of stuff. He also briefly touches upon the recent sequel HORROR HOUSE ON HIGHWAY 5. Converted fans may find this commentary very informative, but newcomers may find it as unsatisfying as the film.
The “Return to HORROR HOUSE ON HIGHWAY 5” making-of featurette (18:18) includes the Casey telling several of the same stories as heard on the commentary track with additional input from executive producer John Marsh (I LOVE YOU TO DEATH) – who believes Casey gave him the credit as compensation for being underpaid on his other work at the time – who worked with Casey on several music videos and actors Castagnolia and DeVorkin. Castagnolia elaborates on the plaster cast anecdote, the misspelling of his name in the credits, and his assessment of his performance. The Casey-directed music video “Beach Party with Vom” (4:29), described as the impetus for the feature film, is also included here. The style is rather basic as far as music videos go, but this is quite a few years before MTV and was a first attempt outside of film school at a film project. A limited edition of three-thousand copies available directly from Vinegar Syndrome – on the page, they suggest that they may at some point next year reissue this film and Casey's follow-up HELLBENT in a barebones double-feature DVD – comes with a reversible cover (in this case, the front art is preferable to the reverse). (Eric Cotenas)
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