’80s cult classic Nightmare Sisters now on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome
It’s said that legendary French New Wave film auteur Jean-Luc Godard once declared that all one needs to make a movie is a girl and a gun. When astonishingly-prolific director David De Couteau (Creepozoids, Puppet Master III, and a hundred other credits) put together shoestring genre anti-epics in the eighties, he occasionally brought the guns, but he always had the girls. Three of said starlets, De Couteau’s marketable muses and frequent collaborators to this day, were beloved ’80s Scream Queens Linnea Quigley (Return of the Living Dead), Michelle Bauer (Evil Toons), and Brinke Stevens (Slumber Party Massacre). The eighties was an era when the title of Scream Queen meant quasi-stardom through bringing ample nudity to brief victim roles in an endless array of direct-to-video horror features, and the title also came with blue collar connotations often forgotten today; genuine Scream Queens were less apt to be seen posing on red carpets in designer gowns, and more likely spotted driving themselves to set after sewing their own costumes and packing their own sack lunches. The three actresses mentioned above—their Scream Queen statuses cemented through frequent and adoring coverage in publications like CINEFANTASTIQUE-offshoot FEMME FATALES and Jim Steranko’s PREVUE—commanded the largest cult followings and thus bore the highest profile. The trio of T&A titans only worked all together onscreen twice, the first being DeCouteau’s lunatic horror comedy Sorority Babes in the Slimeball BowlaRama. The second occasion is the lesser-known feature Nightmare Sisters, recently tidied up and re-released on Blu-ray by the Vinegar Syndrome label.
Nightmare Sisters begins with a turban-wearing medium (punk rock frontman Dukey Flyswatter, the voice of the Imp in Bowlarama and here essaying a tone-deaf comedy Indian accent) awakening some sort of evil force in the middle of a séance. Cut to three sorority sisters (Quigley, Bauer, and Stevens), ostensibly done up to seem plain and unattractive. These unpopular ladies are anticipating a visit from three generic frat imbeciles later that the evening, and have scrounged up some party favors to amuse their upcoming guests. One of the items is the crystal ball used in the opening sequence, and it promptly possesses the dowdy sisters and transforms them into gorgeous, bloodthirsty sexual succubi. The frat guys have to rely on their wits and the services of a rumpled, elderly exorcist in order to rescue the girls’ souls, all while ensuring their own manhood remains attached and intact.
Nightmare Sisters was, as De Couteau admits on the commentary, shot over four days and with short ends of thirty-five millimeter film stock left over from his other shoots. Thus, viewers judging this tiny movie on conventional criteria are going to be sorely disappointed. The action takes place entirely in a couple of rooms, redressed for different scenes, and a darkened front lawn. The effects consist of cheap optical light flashes and one shaky skeleton puppet built by Sisters screenwriter Kenneth J. Hall and intended for another movie. De Couteau is no amateur, and thus the film is lit and blocked well (though one scene does go noticeably out of focus) considering the budget with which he was given to work—however, the amount and density of filler here in the form of static dialogue scenes is unconscionable (despite the Blu-ray back cover blurb assuring us of a “non-stop thrill ride” to come). The good news is that when Sisters does finally bestow its exploitative goodies upon the patient audience, it does so in spades: witness the prolonged bathtub scene during which the three sisters do little more than bathe each other and giggle. Sisters is also a gift for Scream Queen fans in that it allows Quigley, Bauer, and Stevens to flex their underused comedic muscles; this is done in a very broad, very endearing way as the ladies milk easy laughs through working awkward nerd characterizations to the hilt, complete with frumpy hair, buck teeth, and unconvincing fat suits. While the sell is overlong, it’s nice to see these actresses get their chance to try something akin to sketch comedy and to demonstrate a depth of talent other than their obvious physicality.
Boutique labels like Scream Factory and Arrow soak up the plaudits for resurrecting Hollywood and European trash obscurities, but Vinegar Syndrome deserve the real cheerleading for treating the utter gutter of cinema, those titles we all remember as having sat on the very bottom shelf of the video store, with respect (witness their remaster scan of 1982’s cult slasher Madman that restores the vaunted ‘blue glow’ tint lost in prior releases for a fine example of Vinegar’s care and diligence). Nightmare Sisters does benefit from having been shot on thirty-five, and this new Vinegar restoration has the modest production looking sharp and clear. Included is the aforementioned commentary track with De Couteau and Quigley swapping tales of permit-ducking and nailing pages of dialogue in record time (this “one take” mentality permeates into the commentary itself, as De Couteau up and answers his phone halfway through recording.) There’s a brief interview with screenwriter and effects man Hall, a video intro from De Couteau along with some crummy bloopers, but the real prize here is the television edit of Sisters. In order to sell the film to late-night T.V., De Couteau and his three stars reconvened a year later to shoot footage of the ladies cavorting around the bedroom in their underwear, and that mismatched footage was then edited in, poorly, to replace the scenes of actual nudity despite keeping those scenes’ original audio. The cut is a bizarre, disorienting curio and good for a laugh.
The Nightmare Sisters package is more comprehensive than the film probably deserves, but its admirers are definitely out there. Your average horror fan may find their patience tested during Sisters, though those of us with an appetite for high camp and soft core will find more than enough to pique our attention. For serious fans of Quigley, Bauer, and Stevens, Sisters is unmissable: the unpretentious lovelies are in their prime here, providing comedy and nudity in equal measure and enthusiasm. Really, your level of enjoyment in watching Nightmare Sisters will match your level of adoration in regard to the three Queens. If you’re not into them, you won’t be into this—but for their sizeable fanbase either experiencing Sisters for the first time or reminiscing on their heyday, these sisters are no nightmare at all.