It’s not often that I feel compelled to turn down the volume on a movie that I’m watching during the day, but when I do it’s most likely because I’m watching a Vinegar Syndrome release. They’re typically films I’ve never seen and that don’t always fit the narrative norms, and the odds are quite good that at some point they’re going to cut quick to a noisy sex scene. It’s a price I’m willing to pay. January saw a trio of titles debut on Blu-ray from the label, and we gave each of them for a spin.
Wrong place wrong time is the story of Martel’s (Leon Isaac Kennedy) life, and when he steps in to help a prostitute in need he also discovers that no good deed goes unpunished. He’s convicted and sent to prison amid a motley group of inmates both violent and occasionally insane. His only hope for an early release is victory in the prison’s underground boxing competition, but fighting his way out won’t be as easy as it was getting in.
The setup to writer/director Jamaa Fanaka’s franchise starter isn’t as traditional as it seems. The bones are there for a sub-genre that would later produce films as varied as Undisputed and Brawl In Cell Block 99, but it’s as much a character study of the place and culture itself. It’s a whole new world inside, and the inmates have grown into roles both familial and adversarial.
It’s far from a full-blown commentary on the prison system and the social realities that land a high rate of African Americans within its walls, but themes and ideas are present all the same. Perhaps fittingly, the action is more ugly than stylized giving each blow more of a painful impact than an “oh cool!” response. It’s a solid slice of prison exploitation teasing violence, sex, corruption, and the sad hope of release.
Vinegar Syndrome brings this classic franchise-starter to Blu-ray with a 4K restoration that retains the grit while zeroing in with sharp colors. The disc comes with a trailer, a reversible cover, and the following extras:
- Commentary with writer/producer/director Jamaa Fanaka
- Commentary with 2nd AD Sergio Mims
- Too Sweet for Penitentiary [40:14] – An interview with actor Leon Isaac Kennedy
- Filming Penitentiary [21:37] – An interview with cinematographer Marty Ollstein
- Producing Penitentiary [28:14] – An interview with producer Alicia Dhanifu
Fugitive Girls (1974)
Who knew a stiff post-coital drink could be so dangerous? Dee finds out the hard way when a visit to the liqueur store with her current crush sees him kill the clerk and her take the fall as an accomplice. Convicted and sent to a women’s work camp, Dee soon finds herself in trouble again when four of the prisoners escape and take her with them. As rough as things were in the joint, it’s a hell of a lot dirtier and deadlier on the outside.
Director AC Stephen and writer Ed Wood teamed up multiple times from 1965 through 1976 on films like Orgy of the Dead and The Snow Bunnies, and the movies shared more than an appreciation for softcore sex antics. They’re also exactly what their titles imply. Here we get a mix of girl on girl prison sex, criminal shenanigans, sex-starved hippies, and everything else you’d expect fugitive girls to encounter.
The film’s played straight, but as is often the case with Wood-scripted movies the dialogue lends it more than a few laughs — “Good Christ… a lesbian!” is a keeper — which ups the entertainment value beyond the merely salacious. “Fun” may not quite be accurate as the fugitive gals terrorize a married couple, one of whom is in a wheelchair, but if you can accept the over the top exploitative nature of it there’s a good time to be had.
This new 2K restoration brings the film to home video uncut and good as new, and in addition to a pair of trailers the disc includes the following:
- Commentary with Ed Wood biographer Rudolph Grey and Frank Henenlotter – Grey offers plenty of insight into Wood’s involvement, but any commentary featuring Henenlotter (director of Frankenhooker, Basket Case, and others) is automatically worth a listen as his knowledge and humor are endlessly entertaining.
- Archival interview with actress Tallie Cochrane, moderated by Casey Scott – An audio interview that runs the length of the film like a commentary.
Lucifer’s Women (1974)
John Wainwright is the self-proclaimed reincarnation of a powerful mystic named Svengali, but while he’s content wowing audiences with mental tricks his publisher has grander, darker plans. Stephen Phillips sees the next step as one guaranteeing both men a major extension on life, and the only thing they need to do is sacrifice a sweet young lady.
Recognizable character actor Larry Hankin breathes an odd life into Wainwright, and while he never feels the least bit threatening he does make for an engaging oddball. Normal Pierce, meanwhile, ensure Phillips comes across as a dangerous deviant, and in addition to being a bad influence on the Svengali he also has disturbing designs on the film’s various female characters. Front and center is Jane Brunel-Cohen as Trilby, and she succeeds at holding viewer attention as in addition to trying to survive becoming a human sacrifice she’s also exploring her sexual interests in creative ways.
Director Paul Aratow’s film is something of a methodically-paced thriller as it builds towards an ending not everyone will survive, but the journey is peppered with sex scenes, nudity, and promises of a hellish fate. It’s all played straight too, and while some blackly comic beats are visible they’re exceptions to an otherwise serious tone. Church of Satan head Anton LaVey reportedly oversaw the film’s “satanic” ritual scenes, and while that seems at odds with the church’s disbelief in Satan the effect feels suitably inspired by flesh and sin.
Vinegar Syndrome brings the film to home video for the very first time with a strong 2K restoration from newly discovered negatives and, for they’ve also included a second feature, Doctor Dracula, which is actually a re-working of the first with scenes removed and additional ones added by Al Adamson. This second film is the one that found an actual release as its goofy tone was apparently deemed more appealing for audiences, and Vinegar Syndrome has given it the same quality restoration. They’re different beasts built on the same bones, and the comparison is an interesting education in 70s indie filmmaking. The disc also includes a trailer and the following:
- Commentary with producer Sam Sherman on Doctor Dracula
- Paul Thomas: His Career and Lucifer’s Women [20:04] – The actor recalls his career in film, both traditional and porn, including the various names he’s used over the years (only one of which was meant to avoid the law).
- “The Second Coming of Svengali: The Spirit of the Beast in Lucifer’s Women [2:42] – Samm Deighan’s essay on the film is presented in digital form.
Related Topics: Home Video