Curse of the Blue Lights (1988)

Editor’s Note: Starting in 2021, we’ve since reviewed several more regional Colorado-shot films. We’ll get to those films, later, in this review.

Okay. I know I’m stretching the “Vampire Week” theme with this SOV ghoul bash, but after reviewing the fellow SOV, “legit” vampire flicks Jugular Wine (1994) and Tainted (1998) . . . for me, these three films just go together, as result of them appearing alongside each other on the shelves of my local 10,001 Monster Video—the one regional mini-chain brave enough to carry Larry Buchanan’s Doors boondoggle Down on Us, the GG Allin document Hated, and the entire line of ’80s mail-order SOVs.

Other SOVs to Enjoy

Say what you will about the production values and thespin’ skills of those shot-on and edited-on 3/4-inch video ditties of the ’80s, but dear lord, my analog nostalgia for those lo-res n’ audio-buzzing, Big Box/SOV celluloid tragedies—from Boardinghouse (1982) to Sledgehammer (1983), from Truth or Dare and Spine (1986) to 555 (1988), from Things (1989) to Gorgasm (1990)—and the granddaddy of the first SOV distributed exclusively via home video shelves (in lieu of mail order, as were the other SOVs noted), Blood Cult (1985)—is unbound. Oh, and we can’t forget Blődaren (1983), Copperhead (1983), and Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984). What’s that? Yeah, we have reviews coming up in October for Evil in the Woods (1986), Dead Girls (1989) and Snuff Kill (1997). Yeah, one day we’ll get to Addicted to Murder (1995), Bloodletting (1997), and The Vicious Sweet (1997). No, we already did Spookies (1986), as you will read, below. The twist to SOV films: Not all were shot-on-video. Some that are critically lumped in the SOV category were shot on 16 mm and released on video, and if it’s released in a direct-to-video format for exclusive, off-the-beaten Blockbuster Video distribution at mom ‘n pop video stores, then it’s an SOV. Got it?

I love them! So, yeah. We are throwin’ the B&S About Movies management binder into the office alley dumpster out back. Screw you, Sam, and your Sheldon Cooper-clauses and subsections tomfoolery. I hear ye dub these graveyard ghouls—vampires! And this an SOV!

Loadin’ Up Curse of the Blue Lights

Over the years SOV fans have dropped the word “Lovecraftian,” and there’s surely a Cthulhuian vibe in these analog proceedings. But don’t mistake this third and final directing effort by John Henry Johnson and the lone writing effort for Bryan Sisson for the premier H.P. Lovecraft “adaptations” by Stewart Gordon of Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). And, more accurately, in relation to Curse of the Blue Lights, Gordon’s Dagon (2001)—if you know your Lovecraft flicks, you’ll pick up on that critical analogy.

I’ve had discussions with fellow VHS-heads who draw a throughline from Blue Lights to Eugenie Joseph’s 1986 tale about a sorcerer sacrificing young travels to sustain his dead wife, (in the aforementioned-linked) Spookies. In a past discussion with Sam about this movie, he mentioned, more timely-accurate, one of his personal favs, Neon Maniacs (1986). And while I don’t totally disagree with either assessment: I still say that Spookies, while a weaker (but a fun film), is of a higher quality—and Neon Maniacs even higher than Spookies. (Others mention the even-harder-to-find The Vineyard, but that actually dates two years later, from 1989.)

Me? In terms of filmmaking quality, I liken Blue Lights to Ed Wood’s surreal Orgy of the Dead (1965), with its horror-erotica tale about a young couple stranded-trapped in a ghoul-infected cemetery after a car accident. My analog cortex also loads up VHS-cells of León Klimovsky’s dripping-with-atmosphere The Vampires Night Orgy (1972), concerned with a busload of Spanish tourists stranded in an off-the-map, churchless town. But again, Paul Naschy protégé Klimovsky is by far the superior film.

Now, the Lovecraft is certainly there, but did Ed Wood’s or Klimovsky’s tales inspire John Henry Johnson and Bryan Sisson, as well? I’ll say yes, because, it’s obvious team Johnson-Sisson is cut from the same spindle of 3/4-inch tape as you and I: they known their horror films. I see traces of One Dark Night (1982) in the living dead-zoms, and Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead courtesy of all the face n’ head meltings. And there’s a definite attempt at a some Dan O’Bannon celluloid stank of the Return of the Living Dead variety.

But something is missing. It doesn’t have that Raimi spark or Don Coscarelli charm. Why did Phantasm, itself a self-financed film employing amateurs and aspiring professionals, rage across the duplexs in the summer of 1979 to gross $12 million on a $300,000 budget, while Curse of the Blue Lights, with the same self-financing and employment ethics, floundered into home video obscurity? If Coscarelli helmed it . . . if Clu Gulager and James Karen were there to help The Mystery Machine gang . . . would this story—complete with Michael Spatola’s snazzy SFXs still in place. . . .

What if, indeed.

Instead we have a higher-budgeted Al Adamson flick, think 1967’s Blood of Dracula’s Castle, crossed with Bob Clark’s pre-Porky’s, pretty fun Romero-knockoff, Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. And that’s not a bad thing. . . .

The Review

So . . . the glow of “blue light” is discovered in the wooded distance near the “Blue Light” necking point on the outskirts of podunk Dudley (not another road sign with a cow skull, ugh) by a group of (annoying) teens (who deserve to be squeezed into ghoul juice for being pains in my VHS-viewing ass). Oh, and the lights and something called the Muldoon Man are part of the town’s local color, because, well, all towns in Hicksville, U.S.A. need to have a local legend for adolescent scoffing.

The lights lead our Ed Woodian 90210-brats to a (shot in Pueblo) Colorado cemetery where underground-dwelling ghouls are pullin’ a Tall Man and Phantasm-robbing the graves above in a plot to create a serum (see, they need “fluids” like vampires!) that will resurrect the Muldoon Man: a giant lizard-man missing link (a very impressive, full-suited in-camera effect). Resurrected scarecrows (the best part of film, as if it was spliced in from another film), disappearing body-statues, disembodied-petrified hands, hysterical-histrionic thespin’, cursed trinket medallions, sheriffs that don’t act like proper law enforcement officers, overacting-folklore Blair witches, time-lasped melting candles, Al Adamson-chained-to-wall crypt chickee-dees, sword vs. axe battles, lots of backgroud-zoms tearin’ up the joint, and (lots) of melting ghouls, ensues.

Are the Gothic sets of the Spirit Halloween variety? Would Konstantin Stanislavski pull a Karl Raymarseivich Raymar (know your acting history and One Dark Night trivia, buddy) and slaughter the cast for soiling the art form he invented? Are the up-against-the-budget special effects (by Michael Spatola; his later credits include HBO’s Tales from the Crypt, Stargate, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day; his earlier work was featured in Hunter’s Blood) impressive? Is the film too long at an hour and a half? An 80-minute home-video appropriate cut would have helped making this a bit more zippy and palpable?

Yes, to all questions.

But, as long as you keep in mind this is a self-financed backyarder of the fun Don Dohler variety (Nightbeast) (well, actully better than a Dohler flick) and appreciate that everyone behind and, especially, in front of the camera is trying, you’ll have fun with this lesser-known baller in the SOV-’80s canons. (Yeah, we know it was shot on 16 mm, but it feels oh-so-SOV . . . and we love it. But, if it was shot on 35 mm . . . oh, shut the hell up, Devil’s Advocate.)

Yes! The Legends are Real!

As it turns out, Curse of the Blue Lights isn’t just the goofy, screenwriting imaginations of regional filmmaker John Henry Johnson. For his freshman and sophomore projects, Johnson mined Colorado/Southwestern history: Damon’s Runyon’s Pueblo (1981), a semi-documentary based on the famed writer’s life in Colorado, while Burgess Meredith narrated the same with Zebulon Pike and the Blue Mountain (1984) about the army Lieutenant known for his Southwest expeditions: it’s how Pike’s Peak got its name.

Yes. Johnson’s horror opus is also based upon Colorado rural folklore: In Pueblo, there really is, well, we’ll let John Henry Johnson tell you (from his website):

“I know quite a lot about Colorado history and Southern Colorado lore in particular. I used two elements as [the film’s] basis: In the late 1800s, the so called ‘missing link’ [of man] was said to have been found and was pitched as such by P.T Barnum. Found near Muldoon Hill, southwest of Pueblo, it was the so called ‘Muldoon Man.’ Secondly, west of Pueblo, [there] was a teenage parking area known as ‘Blue Lights’ where kids parking would supposedly see mysterious, unexplained blue lights in the nearby river bottom.

“[So], I combined these elements into what would become a feature film [first and only]. Teenagers as they are bound to do in such films, accidentally become involved with the underworld when they interrupt the ghoul king Loath and his henchmen as he attempts to bring Muldoon Man back to life.”

As for the Muldoon Man: The legend is real. The “man” is a hoax. The creature was said to be a prehistoric petrified human body—a “missing link”—discovered in 1877 by skilled huckster William Conant at a spot now known as Muldoon Hill, near Beulah, Colorado. Cotant successfully toured his find across the United States before it was revealed to be a hoax: an early SFX amalgam of clay, plaster, mortar, and rock dust, along with animal bones, blood and meat. You’d think that after Conant duped everyone with his “Cardiff Giant” hoax from several years earlier, carnival goers would have known better.

Beware! The Curse of the Digital Caveats:

Those who want this in their physical media collection, take note. The original VHS tapes are the uncut R-version. The Magnum-Code Red DVDs, while a HiDef master created from the original 16mm film elements (that includes an audio commentary track with director John Henry Johnson and actor Brett Ritter), the DVD is not the “original uncensored version.” The DVD is the cut R-rated version missing about three-minutes (a graphic scene where the Muldoon betrays and crushes the demon-snake lord’s face, in particular). The overall quality is grainy (that’s how the original film was shot-processed), but the digital transfer is clearer than the VHS original. (Besides, the occasional emulsion scratch lends to the film’s early ’70s drive-in charm). So, to see the uncut film: you’ll need to watch the VHS. Got it?

However, in any form, do watch this: it’s a nostalgic-retro monster mash.

So, You Wanna Join the Analog “Mile High” Club?

There’s more Colorado-shot films to enjoy with The Jar, Manchurian Avenger, Mind Killer, Night Vision, and The Spirits of Jupiter.

You can catch up with John Henry Johnson at his official website. Yes, as with Russell Kern, who reached out to us regarding our review of The Spirits of Jupiter: Johnson is still in the business as an academic in art and film in Colorado. In May 2022, he sat down with James Bartolo of The Pueblo Chieftain to discuss his career. There’s also more local legends to be had—the Lights of the Sliver Cliff Cemetery, in particular—at Colorado Urban

You can watch the trailer on You Tube, then watch a pretty clean rip of Curse of the Blue Lights on You Tube . . . and not a VHS rip, but a DVD one. Bonus: We found the Polish-Hungarian version on You Tube—which retains some of the Muldoon head squeezing. Geeze. In the midst of all the head meltings . . . what’s the problem with the head crushing and cutting that particular scene from the film, Mr. Distributors?

We be-bopped through the rural blue lights, again, with a new take in June 2022 as part of our annual “Junesploitation Month” of reviews. Yes. By hook, crook, or Muldoon Man: we will make YOU watch this F-in movie!

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.