VCI Entertainment is no stranger to the world of home video. In fact, it's (quite possibly) the only label in the US to have survived all of these years without a parental company in the active motion picture business (Universal, Paramount, et al). And while their current library of classic films and forgotten flicks is anything less than impressive, certain "niche" enthusiasts such as myself will always associate the outfit with cult movies.
This Fall, VCI has returned to its roots (replete with retro logo) by releasing several cult classics to Blu-ray. Both originally gracing flickering silver screens in 1977, Curtis (Night Tide) Harrington's possession-horror oddity Ruby and Greydon Clark's ultra-goofy horror/comedy Satan's Cheerleaders are quintessential examples of the long-gone era of the drive-in movie theater. In the first outing ‒ which is quite literally a drive-in movie, as the story is set on the grounds of an outdoor cinema ‒ we are treated to one of the better "clones" which roamed screens in the wake of The Exorcist and various other movies depicting the possessive antics of some horribly possessed young women.
Sure, the similarities to Carrie are noticeable, starting with the casting of the aforementioned movie's evil matriarch, Piper Laurie as the eponymous Ruby. But even while the movie may technically fall into the "rip-off" category for most viewers, Ruby managed to elevate itself (ha-ha) above the rest thanks to Harrington's skilled directorial capabilities. Set in the 1950s (if nothing else, the art direction here is perfect), the story here find Ms. Laurie as the former gun-moll of a gangster whom we see shot down in the flashback beginning. Though dead, Ruby's beloved is hardly forgotten ‒ especially as his vengeful spirit begins to pick off his former associates through their deaf-mute daughter!
Also featuring Stuart Whitman (which officially makes it a keeper), Dark Shadows regular Roger Davis, Janit Baldwin (who had previously appeared as one of Paul Williams' groupies in Brian De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise), and generous clips from a genuine drive-in classic ‒ Attack of the 50 Foot Woman ‒ Ruby's history has been just as horrific as its story. Harrington's original (and purportedly, supernaturally classier) ending was unceremoniously altered by producer Steven Krantz, a veteran animator who produced several old-school Marvel series. (The following year, he would crank-out yet another Carrie clone, a slithering 1978 snake-oriented marvel known as Jennifer).
Were that not bad enough, its initial home video release featured an entirely different edit: a bloodlessly dull TV version which replaced nearly every shot of violence with newly-shot footage featuring mostly new characters. While credited to Alan Smithee, many cult movie historians believe the TV version to have been the work of Stephanie Rothman, who had previously turned Roger Corman's Blood Bath into something wholly other ‒ twice over. Fortunately, VCI's original DVD release of Ruby gave home video audiences the original theatrical cut of the film. Granted, all improvements aside, the film still retains Krantz's ending; sadly, Harrington's less-formulaic finale remains buried in the deep to this day.
Even today, Ruby still unpleasantries to deal with. In this instance, it's VCI's transfer. Erroneously touted as being mastered from the original camera negative (which, it should be noted, was ‒ and still is ‒ lost), the presentation here actually hails from a 35MM print of the film. And it wouldn't surprise me one bit if this 1080p encode was nothing more than an upscaling of the same print VCI used for their earlier DVD releases. The end-result is a somewhat fuzzy and murky affair (but then, when that's all you're used to…) which had some encoding issues VCI said they would address and send out replacement discs for. From a soundtrack perspective, the LPCM 2.0 audio is definitely an improvement.
Most of the special features for this Blu-ray/DVD Combo have been ported over from VCI's previous DVD releases, beginning with a newly-added audio commentary by horror historian David Del Valle and Harrington expert Nathaniel Bell. The late Harrington himself (who passed away in 2007) joins Del Valle in an audio commentary from the VCI DVD; the first of several recycled extras. Next up is a trailer (in 1080p), a Del Valle interview with Harrington from the DVD, and ‒ wait for it ‒ two more (even older!) on-screen interviews betwixt the pairing, as culled from Del Valle's late '80s public-access television series, Sinister Image. The latter analog extras have been (slightly) upscaled for this release.
Whereas Ruby was crafted to be genuinely suspenseful ‒ only to garner a few unintentional chuckles from certain audiences ‒ Greydon Clark's low-budget T&A comedy-horror outing Satan's Cheerleaders is practically a polar opposite: an intentional comedy that only succeeds in scaring you on account of how truly unfunny it is. If you've ever tuned in to any of Clark's other comedies ‒ one of which, 1979's Angels' Brigade, made its way to the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 (as did one of Clark's "serious" films, Final Justice) ‒ you may already be soiling yourself in terror. And though I couldn't blame you, I must confess there was something buried in this stale old hell which I found appealing.
OK, so it's the cheerleader nudity. There. You got me dead to rights.
But that's (almost) not all Satan's Cheerleaders has going for it. We also get to see a venerable selection of waning former B-list stars phoning it in while their up-and-coming younger Z-grade counterparts strive to achieve that whole acting thing. At the tip of the melting iceberg is none other than John Ireland, who plays the sinister sheriff of a small rural community which is really a secret sect of Satanists. Yvonne De Carlo, another one-time contender to A-list stardom who found herself as a "marquee value" name throughout the late '70s (and whom we also saw in a recently unearthed treasure releasd to Blu-ray from Garagehouse Pictures, The Intruder) plays Ireland's (satanic) wife.
Of course, no '70s B-grade horror movie would be complete without the proverbial appearance of John Carradine. Sure enough, Satan's Cheerleaders doesn't disappoint in that respect, so we get to see the B-horror legend playing a bum in one of his typical, prominately-billed cameo appearances we have all come to expect from this point in his career. Also on display here (although to a somewhat limited degree, naturally) are the lesser-known talents of Jack Kruschen ‒ a veteran Canadian performer who appeared in just about everything throughout his prolific six-decade career. Here, he plays a disgruntled high school janitor who makes a pact with the local Devil worshippers so kids will stop abusing him.
Alas, it doesn't go as planned once our "titular" hotties start strutting their stuff. Represented by Kerry Sherman, Hillary Horan, Alisa Powell, and Sherry Marks ‒ most of whom had what you could call a "passing grade" in film at best ‒ Satan's Cheerleaders are led by Greydon Clark regular Jacqulin Cole, the bubbly beauty who later took our auteur's surname. Also appearing in this hilariously unfunny mess are Sydney Chaplin (the son of the legendary Charles Chaplin himself, in what would prove to be his final film role) and Robin Greer. Interestingly, cinematographer Dean Cundey and script girl Debra Hill worked together a year later on a tiny little horror film Hill co-wrote entitled Halloween.
If the behind-the-scenes aspects of Satan's Cheerleaders seem more intriguing than the actual film itself, there's a silver lining to be had here in the form of an audio commentary by Greydon Clark himself. Remembering every detail as though it were yesterday, Clark's very somber solo track is full of behind-the-scenes information (including the sad revelation of his wife Jacqulin's passing away some years ago, something which has never been updated on the IMDb). A second audio commentary includes direct-to-video filmmaker David DeCoteau and David Del Valle. A gallery wraps up the special features section, including a tantalizing shot of the Cheerleaders which is never seen in the film (damn it all!).
Regarding the A/V qualities of this VCI Blu-ray/DVD Combo release, I wouldn't get your hopes up too terribly high. Once again, VCI throws the "new 2K scan from the original camera negative" line around, but it's clear this one was taken from a 35MM print. The film is presented via two options here for some reason: "Restored" and "Original Transfer." Essentially, the former is just the latter after a few video filters, which only darkened the already slightly murky image even further. Personally, I preferred the Original Transfer, as the reel change markings, scratches, and various imperfections only go to compliment a title such as this. An LPCM 2.0 Mono audio track is included with both versions.
It isn't perfect, but then again, neither are either of these two VCI releases.
That said, however, these are the best we're likely to see for these two B-grade gems, so take a lick of salt and enjoy Ruby and Satan's Cheerleaders to the best of your abilities.