HELLMASTER Descends to Blu-ray Thanks to Vinegar Syndrome

Hellmaster AKA Soulstealer AKA Them (1992) just hit Blu-ray thanks to Vinegar Syndrome and is the regional directorial debut by Douglas Shulze, who would go on to make a lot of films with “Dark” in the title — Dark Heaven, Dark Fields, and The Dark Below. Hellmaster, which came at the end of the direct to video boom, has an amazing cast led by Dawn of the Dead’s David Emge and Enter the Dragon’s John Saxon in a film that feels like a cult movie from an alternate timeline, if that makes sense. To be honest I didn’t know anything about the film before I hit play, other than the synopsis on Blu-ray, and I was floored at how bizarre this film is, while still being as engrossing as it is.

Hellmaster’s plot is almost nonsensical at times, but in the most glorious way possible. From what I gather, about 20 years ago at a prestigious college where the CIA and FBI happen to recruit, Professor Saxon (John Saxon) was giving out drugs to help students develop psychic powers. After a fire laid waste to his research and part of the college, they thought he was dead. Until he shows up 20 years later with a crew of memorable, hideously deformed Nightbreed-esque henchman created from the homeless, who then lay siege to the school. Armed with his latest batch of drugs that promises to turn those who take it into supermen, Professor Saxon is determined to finish his research project. As he picks off the students one by one, they eventually rise up and confront the professor with the aid of a reporter (David Emge) who covered the story 20 years ago.

The first thing you notice about Hellmaster is how fantastic the film looks; both the cinematography and its practical effects are rock solid. The film even leans heavily into Suspiria for its look when things start to go crazy in the third act, and the film effectively pulls the vibe off to a certain extent. Michael Goi, who was the cinematographer here, unsurprisingly went on to have a very busy career, most recently working on American Horror Story. The other thing here is that while the film traffics in these well traveled tropes of the genre, there were definitely some “interesting” choices made. Like Jesse the jock-ish student that carries and uses a bullwhip around college!?!? I also applaud the choice to have one of the main characters not only be handicapped, but also the most terrible person in the movie.

When all this coalesces into Hellmaster’s finale, the film is just as over the top as you’d expect, with some great production and creature designs. That’s coupled with the two leads, David Emge and John Saxon, delivering solid performances and taking the material as seriously as they possibly can. I mean, I could see, if this movie had hit at the just the right moment in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, it having a massive following today, but sadly it just missed its calling. Needless to say, I really think Hellmaster deserves a reappraisal, and it may be one of Vinegar Syndrome’s more interesting recent discoveries. It’s very well made, yet still has the curated ‘WTF?’ quality of some of their more low budget releases.

Special Features Include:

• Newly scanned & restored in 4k from its 35mm original negative
• Original Theatrical Version (as “THEM”)
• Director’s recut version (as “HELLMASTER”) (SD)
• Director commentary for both versions
• “Creating Reality” — an interview with cinematographer Michael Goi
• Conceptual artwork gallery
• Behind-the-scenes stills gallery

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