Curse of the Blue Lights (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stephen Bjork
  • Review Date: Aug 04, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Curse of the Blue Lights (Blu-ray Review)


John Henry Johnson

Release Date(s)

1990 (May 30, 2023)


Tamarack Productions (Vinegar Syndrome)
  • Film/Program Grade: C-
  • Video Grade: C+
  • Audio Grade: C-
  • Extras Grade: B+

Curse of the Blue Lights (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


Curse of the Blue Lights is another regional horror film that landed during the transitional period between the successful regional exploitation era of the Sixties and Seventies, and the direct-to-video boom of the Eighties and Nineties. The theatrical market for regional horror was already starting to dry up at that point, so it never really got the wide theatrical release that its creators had planned, but it did find some success on VHS thanks to one of the single most important considerations at that point in video store history: catchy cover art. While fanzines like Fangoria or Starlog were helpful in bringing obscure films to the attention of dedicated genre buffs, they didn’t have any real reach when it came to the average video store customer. The internet wasn’t a factor back then, so without the recognition that could be generated by a theatrical advertising campaign, there was nothing more valuable than an eye-catching box. Curse of the Blue Lights had just that, so plenty of horror fans ended up discovering it for that reason alone.

Curse of the Blue Lights was birthed out of a region that’s never been particularly well-known for filmmaking: Pueblo, Colorado. Writer/director John Henry Johnson had previously made two short docudramas that explored the history of the area, Damon Runyon’s Pueblo and Zebulon Pike and the Blue Mountain. Looking for something a potentially a bit more commercial, he and a few friends raised a bit of money (not much, but just enough) to make a horror film that capitalized on what the area had to offer. Johnson and his co-writer Bryan Sisson concocted a story that mashed together various local legends like the infamous nineteenth century Muldoon Man hoax, as well as the mysterious lights in the Colorado sky that seem to still crop up occasionally to this very day. It all revolves around a group of friends who investigate those lights, only to discover a coven of monsters living underground who are trying to bring a Lovecraftian elder god back to life.

None of the various pieces go together in a coherent fashion, but that was never really the point anyway. An exploitation film needs something to exploit, and the story is usually just an excuse to get to the good stuff. In the case of Curse of the Blue Lights, it was all about the monsters. The makeup effects were executed on the same shoestring budget that the rest of the film was, but the cast and crew threw themselves into everything with enthusiasm. The film includes a variety of different creatures throughout its brief running time, from the main ghouls to zombies rising from their graves, as well as a giant Muldoon Man demon for the finale. (Johnson understood principle of Chekov’s gun well enough that he didn’t promise a resurrected elder god without actually delivering one.) There’s also plenty of gore on display, including the mandatory Eighties bladder effects. It’s all good clean monster movie fun—Curse of the Blue Lights isn’t particularly ambitious, but it didn’t need to be.

Johnson served as his own cinematographer for Curse of the Blue Lights, shooting it on 16 mm film with a vintage Arriflex 16BL camera. While there’s no really hard information available regarding the equipment that he used, in various interviews, Johnson has described having a collection that consisted of a clockwork Kodak Cine Special 16 mm camera, an Arriflex 16BL, a 35BL left over from Thunderball, and a 35 IIC. This version uses a new 2K scan taken from a 16 mm answer print, so presumably the majority of the film was shot on the 16BL. The grain is coarse, the black levels are sometimes elevated, and there’s not much detail visible in the darkest portions of the frame. It’s surprisingly clean, though, with just an occasional scratch visible (including a persistent one that lasts for a while). Despite the less-than-satisfactory black levels, it’s still a dark film overall, and so the colors are generally muted. Still, it’s significantly brighter and clearer than the old VHS versions were, as those looked so muddy as to be borderline incomprehensible. Given the fact that the source was a 16 mm answer print, this isn’t necessarily the prettiest presentation of Curse of the Blue Lights, but it looks as good as it can under the circumstances.

Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English SDH subtitles. The elements weren’t in particularly good shape, and there are also limitations from the original sound recordings. There’s some noise and distortion present, with a bit of warble in the music during the opening titles. The dialogue sounds muffled, enough so that even the person who wrote the subtitles couldn’t make all of it out—at one point, a line of dialogue is rendered as “I should have sent you both to the [indistinct].” Of course, Curse of the Blue Lights is the kind of film that doesn’t suffer too much from not being able to understand the dialogue, but your own mileage may vary.

Vinegar Syndrome’s Blu-ray release of Curse of the Blue Lights includes a reversible insert that features new artwork on one side, and the original Magnum Entertainment VHS artwork on the other. There’s also a spot gloss slipcover available directly from Vinegar Syndrome, limited to the first 6,000 units, that was designed by Earl Kessler, Jr. The following extras are included:

  • Audio Commentary with John Henry Johnson and Brad Henderson
  • Audio Commentary with John Henry Johnson and Brent Ritter
  • Demons Down in Pueblo: Remembering Curse of the Blue Lights (HD – 97:13)
  • Scenes from an Alternate Version of Curse of the Blue Lights (Upscaled SD – 3:52)
  • Behind-the-Scenes Still Gallery (HD – 6:25)

The new solo commentary with John Henry Johnson is moderated by Vinegar Syndrome’s Brad Henderson. Johnson is prone to narrating what’s happening onscreen, so it was a good idea to pair him with someone else, although even Peterson struggles a bit occasionally to keep him on track. They cover Johnson’s history of filmmaking in Pueblo, the inspirations for Curse of the Blue Lights, and many practical stories about shooting it. Johnson’s memories of the production are still good, even if it takes a bit of prodding to bring some of them out. He closes by saying that he’s happy that people still enjoy the film after all these years.

The archival commentary was originally recorded for the 2014 DVD release from Code Red. This track pairs Johnson with Brent Ritter, who worked on both sides of the camera (he plays the lead ghoul Loath in the film). Their memories were ten years fresher at that point, and the two of them complement each other nicely, filling in each other’s gaps. (Although when Ritter describes how painful that the hard scleral contact lenses were, Johnson just replies “Mmm” before changing the subject.) They provide plenty of examples about how everybody wore multiple hats on the production, not just Ritter. They also delve deeper into the nitty gritty of the local elements like the crew members and the locations.

Demons Down in Pueblo is a new making-of documentary produced by Brad Henderson, featuring interviews with Johnson and Bryan Sisson, as well as makeup artists Mark Sisson, David Romero, and Joe Ore, joined by actors Tom Massmann, Kent Fritzel, Marty Bechina, and Brent Hilvitz. Johnson and Bryan Sisson give some biographical information, explaining the path that led them to producing Curse of the Blue Lights. All of Johnson’s previous work had involved Pueblo, Colorado in some form or another, so it was a natural extension from that to use various local legends as inspiration for a horror movie. They raised the money for it first, and then crafted a narrative that would fit their resources. Given the participants involved with the documentary and the nature of the film, naturally a large chunk of the running time is taken up with the makeup effects, and they provide some good information about pulling them off with very little money. They also discuss some of the other practical effects like the mirror gag. (While John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness had used the same effect the previous year, Johnson explains that he actually got the idea from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus.) Post-production was arduous, with the editorial and mixing process lasting months, but it led to a successful theatrical premiere—in Pueblo, anyway, as it eventually made its way to home video instead of a wide release. Demons Down in Pueblo is one of those documentaries that’s longer than the film that it covers, but it’s filled with fun stories for fans of the film.

Finally, there’s the Scenes from an Alternate Version of Curse of the Blue Lights, as well as an extensive Still Gallery. The Scenes from an Alternate Version were from the “Original Uncensored Version” VHS release of the film from Magnum Entertainment, which contained footage that wasn’t included in the answer print that was used for the new HD transfer. Since the original footage couldn’t be located, it’s sourced from VHS here. As a result, it looks soft and faded, but at least Its free of major artifacts (and no tracking noise, thankfully). It’s still nice to have it for archival purposes.

If you were a horror fan during the Nineties, there’s a good chance that you rented a copy of Curse of the Blue Lights at some point. The cover art was irresistible, and everything pictured on it did make an appearance in the film, even if it still inevitably promised more than it actually delivered. Anyone with fond memories of that era will enjoy revisiting it courtesy this fine new Blu-ray edition, especially since Vinegar Syndrome has lavished some real love on it. In this day and age when the major studios keep dropping the ball with home video releases, it’s nice to see that boutique companies like Vinegar Syndrome are doing the Lord’s work on behalf of physical media collectors.

- Stephen Bjork

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