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PART FOUR: VIDEO VIOLENCE AND THE SOV HORROR SHOWSA whole lotta nada has happened on this side of the trenches since my last update. There’s been plenty going on in my real world, but in the reel world, ‘tis been brutal. I set out to write an overview of (what I consider to be) the most deplorable of all things cinematic: the SOV horror film. That’s Shot-On-Video. The lowest of the low buck crapola. Garbage born in the 80s that continued to fester and seep into the following decades, thanks to the independent digital movie boom. A shit-field of titles awaits you, if you dare. And if yer really, really drunk…you might actually enjoy them.
This spring I plunked down a whopping three dollars in US change for a double disc set of the Video Violence features. After repeated viewings I found my self reminiscing of my misspent youth, watching this gunk first run instead of frolicking out in the sunshine. And yes, I was aware of it being junk, even then. But somehow, over time and after seeing hundreds of digital video and shaky-cam features since, there’s something oddly charming about these real deals of the VHS past. I miss the stupid naivete of it all. Those in-camera FX shots. The hack n’ slash editing techniques, all done without the aid of any sorta computer program. Cheap dimestore Halloween props and mail order limbs would litter the screen. All proving that a feature film could be shot, cut and sent off for duplication…for well under the costs of a studio jobs daily catering bill. And this was years before every lunkhead saw The Blair Witch Project, copied it and failed. Not long after the cheap date I had with the Video Violence series, I learned that two earlier SOVs (Sledgehammer and Boardinghouse) were also getting the digital treatment. Well, I’ll be damned. Seems like I might have me a column after all. So I did some research, watched some bootlegs, Interweb-streamed some lost turds and wrote a rough draft of what you would be reading here now… Had my computer not shit the biscuit. Sad but true, I lost most everything I’d worked on. Nope. I didn’t back it up. Don’t even get started. So here I am, starting fresh and it’s already gone stale. Some of these movies were a chore to sit through in ’85 that first time around, so the idea of doing it twice or more makes my spine go soft and my brains leak like last nights coke boogers. But I’m gonna’ sink my claws in, bite down and give’er another go. I’ve heard it’s easier to write a bad review rather than a good one…but so many of these are inadequate in all the same ways; it’d be much easier just to breeze by the stinkers. I’ll just stick to the ones that merit a gander, for some strange sick reason or another. A lot of folks (me included) believed for years that Blood Cult was the first SOV horror film. Not true. The first one made for the straight-to-video market, but not the first handy-cam epic. That honor would belong to this delirious pile of analog knots:
Boardinghouse (John Wintergate - 1982)It begins with an outdated BBS computer scroll telling the murderous history behind a large home for rent. A montage of suicides, garbage disposal mutilation and inept in-camera ghost trails send this message home. Jim, a skeletal-looking, telepathy aficionado (performed by director Wintergate) plans on renting this tenement with a troubled past, in hopes of filling it with a private harem of ‘80s Danskin© hotties. Somehow this pre-Cragslist hookup doesn’t backfire and Jimbo finds himself with a bevvy of beauties, living like a lowbrow Hefner. The girls go about their day catfighting and sunbathing while Jim works on his psychic magic skills. Things like levitating potted plants. Floating bars of soap. Breathing heavy. And so on. Soon his ladyfriends become plagued with a constant barrage of nightmares, daymares, and the realization of how goddamned creepy their new landlord truly is. Some suffer the wrath of rubber pig masks while fending off kitchen knife assaults. Others fight mental battles against terrible acne breakouts or the lecherous gaze of the hunchbacked groundskeeper (again, played by Wintergate). There’s even a demon that’ll drag you to hell through a hole in a bed mattress - ala A Nightmare on Elm Street - two years prior to Craven’s famous fright fest. Slowly (very slowly) it comes to a boil during a poolside concert as a Pat Benatar wannabe gyrates away while disco rejects are picked off, one by one. Who and/or what is behind all this psychic nastiness? Will Jim and his gal-pals build up enough telekinetic gusto to do these evil forces in? Or will they continue to breathe even heavier? Shot in 1982 (and sometimes spotted under the alternate title: Housegeist), this crippled little flick managed to squeeze off a few big screen viewings before getting shrunk down, boxed up and shipped to mom and pop video stores everywhere. I truly can’t imagine what this schlock would look like blown up on a 60 foot screen. But, even with its grocery list of flaws, it’s quite an entertaining ride…and that’s somewhat of a feat amongst these kinda things. At one point, a bimbette completely blows a take by proclaiming she has just cut her hand with “an apple...um, knife.” Did Wintergate & Co. forget this was shot on tape and not costly film? If you botch a line you can just rewind and press record again. Start anew. Instead the crew opts to power on. There’s nothing to see here. Wow. Classic. Boardinghouse has arrived to the digital realm looking, well…looking as sharp as a home movie can. That means Randy West’s Up & Cummers series sharp. The disc does offer commentary and new interviews with the filmmaker, his featured actress wife (Kalassu. Really. That’s her name.) and their teenage daughter. The whole family insists it was meant to be a cheesy parody all along. You betcha. They’ve also written a sequel and are looking for backers. Have at it trust-funders!
Hot on the heels of that gem came:
Sledgehammer (David Prior – 1983)No, not the Dirty Harry television spoof, but a poorly executed attempt at a slasher flick. As flashback has it: a cheating couple flees to a secluded “cabin” (it looks a lot like a track home) and indulge in some carnal mess-making. They wrongly decide to bring the unfaithful lass’ eight year old son along for the ride. This quickly proves to be a bad idea, so they opt to lock him in a closet. As the lovebirds head towards gentle passions (guh), a mystery guest springs forth from all the soft focus, and does them in via the titles theme weapon. Cue the TEN YEARS LATER routine. A group of twenty-nothings arrive at the same shithole location and try working out their relationship woes through beer guzzling, charades and a half-assed séance. The latter of these activities resurrects the revengeful killer from the past. Or maybe the locked up man-child in the closet. Or something else I haven’t’ quite figured out… My initial viewing of this film was through an edited down “highlights” compilation made by a friend. It was sandwiched between these weird 80s Mormon infomercials and some really out-there gay porno clips. So, yeah…my memory was a tad hazy and blurred. The bits and pieces I’d seen before added up to a mere thirty minutes of footage, and in hindsight, that was more than enough. Sledgehammer on paper sounds every bit like any other horror film of the era, but what sets this apart is the way it manages to stand still in time. It just stops. There's no foreword momentum. It becomes almost dream like. Dialogue is sparse and folks mostly just grunt and laugh away the minutes as the magnetic tape dirtys your heads. A public access nightmare that quite possibly may be stuck on never-ending repeat. Muscle bound hunks and frathouse chunks go about male bonding over warm Schlitz as their bimbettes stare blankly at the sparsely decorated walls. When there’s not a lengthy scene of couch sitting, there’s a food fight or an unsavory sex act to hobble it along. Static shots that are so static, I’m left wondering if the remote control has wedged itself between my ass cheeks and couch cushion, putting pressure on the pause button. Lots of stuff never happens. At least some people die. Sometimes twice. The filmmakers liked the opening’s splashy kill scene so much they show it again, less than twenty minutes later. This time in sepia tone. Even for being such a clunker, it’s hard to peel away. The best it has to offer is a five minute “unloading the van” sequence that dares one's eyeballs not to crumble to dust within their drying sockets. The cast just whoops it up throwing pots, pans, bedrolls and six packs at each other for so long, even Orson Welles or Terrence-fucking-Malick woulda’ yelled for a cut by now. Do I like Sledgehammer? Well, I do own it. I just keep it hid away in my lower left sock drawer. Right next to the fem-dom muscle smut and Hentai paperbacks. Gack.
So now we come to the one that got the most recognition:
Blood Cult (Christopher Lewis – 1985)Blood Cult might not have been the one that started it all, but it was the one surrounded by hype. This was the first film made for the direct-to-home-video market, and it just happened to be shot on a Beta-Cam. Blood Cult gives you a bit of topical terror for the time; the satanic cult scare that was brought on by Geraldo, Donahue and the like. The film opens with a stalker's point of view, entering the home of a showering woman. It takes a while for the madman to get beyond the Halloween homage and make its way into Psycho territory, but once it does, the red karo syrup flies. Our femme fatale screams for help but looses her best bits to a meat cleaver on the wash tub floor. Cue that mail-order severed arm. Plop. The same severed arm I owned in high school, purchased from the pages of an early Fangoria. The same one used in the retail sales ads for this very video. Cheesy props like this made sense in a silly marketing campaign, but to actually use them in the movie? A sad, sad decision. We’re told by detectives that there’s been a recent rash of mutilation in town and every corpse that’s left behind is missing some appendage. The only evidence found at the crime scenes are the killer’s calling cards: little silver coins emblazoned with a crude illustration of a dogs head. The symbol of an ancient cult, perhaps? A cult that’s collecting body parts as offerings to an underworld canine lord… It gets off to a splashy (albeit rudimentary) beginning, but after those initial kills…shit slows to a slugs pace. There’s a grizzled Art Carney look-alike investigator who struggles his way through long dialogues, seemingly gorked outta his skull on cold meds and reading his lines from nearby napkins. Scenes that even the director will tell you were padded out to hit the minimum minutes needed for this to be classified as a feature. More store bought body parts are sprinkled throughout, giving it the feel of a local March of Dimes sponsored haunted house…sans any Gremlins masks. There’s also a “twist” ending that made much more of an impact in ‘85, but like Carrie's final surprise, it’s been done to death over the past decades and at this point it’ll probably just make a jaded horror fanboy groan. At least the camera stays steady. Oh well.
After that gobblygook, it seems like time to write about something I truly honestly adore:
Video Violence(Gary Cohen – 1987) A film shot on video for the video rental market, by actual video retailers. Now we’re getting somewhere! The story goes that the director (and onetime video clerk) was shocked by how well the gory horror trash was renting at his small upstate NY store, and decided to move into the film making racket to exploit the whole damn situation. Video Violence stars Chick Kaplan as Stephen, a video shop proprietor who recently relocated to Smalltown, USA and has some serious doubts about his clientele and what they call entertainment. He’s constantly trying to sell the patrons on Hollywood classics and softer family fare, but all of them – from young tweens to the elderly – seem to only care for blood n’ guts horror. All this is profitable, though unnerving, and soon Steve starts to suspect the locals are up to some darker shenanigans. One night a customer returns a personal home videotape in the drop box (by accident?) and Stephen checks it out for clues of who left it behind. What’s on the cassette could only be considered snuff and this ain’t what this newbie manager signed up for. He tells the authorities, but no one seems too worried or even interested in helping him track down the filmmaker. Stephen even tries to contact his storefront’s previous owner (who moved away quite abruptly, I might add) to no avail. Anyone who shows a worried interest winds up chopped on the block, including a very tasty beheading at a butcher shop. The tapes keep coming and the clientele gets more and more manic, until you learn of the little burg’s underlying secret. Hitchcock it ain’t, but Video Violence is some cheap gut buster fun that trips along in a Dead and Buried gone-out-to-clunk vein that manages to pull off more competent shots and passable spook show effects than to be expected. Even more terrifying is the balding/ponytail combo of the onscreen lead. That’ll keep ya up at night with the willies. The sequel (which is also available on this double feature DVD) takes shit to an even screwier realm with a set-up featuring a local public access channel that broadcasts schlock along the lines of World’s Funniest Home Videos if hosted by the original snuff-monkeys left over from the first film. The characters take their cues from Hee-Haw or maybe even SCTV…and that’s alright in my book. Not as polished as part one and purposefully crashing headlong into cheap humor, it does offer up a few clever parodies (a highlight being a commercial for a menacing Teddy Ruxpin©-like doll that eats a toddler’s throat. Score!) Hell, there’s even some musical numbers to keep yer toes tappin’. Oh yeah: and there’s tits. Let’s not forget those.
Up to this point we’ve been running along chronologically. But it’s time for the curveball. Set the wayback machine a whole three years and let’s get down to the nitty gritty. The ugliest and most primitive thing ever unleashed onto a paying audience. The god-awful yet godly:
Black Devil Doll from Hell (Chester Turner - 1984)No, not the shitty soft-core remake that was released a couple years back... the shitty soft-core original by Chester Turner. Widely available through the bootleg market and always looking like a pigeon wiped it’s ass with it, this Black Devil Doll shows absolutely no technical skills whatsoever. In-camera editing so bad it leaves each scene finale with a garble of fuzz and a distorted rainbow of color. There’s a hum over the whole knuckle dumb synth score that buries most dialogue, and this so-called score could cause fits and/or narcolepsy to the unprepared. The actress, who looks like she might be working for crack rocks, mostly just moans, mumbles and (ugh...here we go…) masturbates her way blankly through this hour and a half clap trap. Director Turner managed to film a real church sermon and found locals willing to help put this turd together. The story is simple enough: Helen Black, a nice prudish church-goer, stops by a bric-a-brac shop one Sunday afternoon and is drawn to an antique doll (!?!). Ok it’s not really a relic. It’s one of those plastic Charlie McCarthy ventriloquist dolls like Sears use to sell, done up in black face and sporting Rick James cornrows…but hey, what ever works, bro. She’s told by the shop owner that this doll has been sold many times before but always seems to return. Curiouser and curiouser. Before you can shout “Hey! Karen Black done did this before!” she’s on the go with her new found artifact. Once home, Helen plops it into an easy chair and decides to scrub up in the shower. Now it gets gross. The doll comes alive, breathes a foul green stench and torments its new found servant…sexually. This little dread-headed devil plays mind games, forcing her to bring home victims to satisfy his cravings. Then, and only then, will it continue to molest her the way she needs it. Gruesome. Inept. Hard to watch. Hard to focus. One for the “Taste of Plaque” collection. But: SURPRISE! It’s being released on DeeVeeDee in the near future, with Chester’s follow up Tales from the Quadead Zone, a horror anthology that offers up (from what I hear) a segment dealing with a haunted coffee cup. I’m so game.
To get back on the whodunit trail, I went for:
555 (Wally Koz - 1987)A zero buck jab at Giallo from the mighty USofA, 555’s cotton candy, pink-as-punk box haunted my video youth for many a moon. I was always drawn to the cover image of that cool severed head, but never enough to drop down the cash to take it home. But now, thanks to “legal” streaming sites on these here internets, I’m givin’ it a go. A new age soundtrack gets the credit scroll off to a sour start, but stuff moves in the right direction soon after with a horny couple heading towards a beachfront boobs n’ bloodbath scenario. The only witness to this sex massacre is a kooky Nam vet who stumbles upon the leftovers. He tells the police that a hippy…a full-on sixties costumed deadhead…was spotted near the crime scene. Not being in Berkeley, the local fuzz blows their collective gasket at this statement and finger the vet as suspect number one. The next night more middle-aged teens get jiggy in a van. Along comes hippie Johnny to carve up another bare breasted vixen. We’re also told the victims lose their heads, but so far I ain’t seen evidence of it. Oh…and he fucks the corpses. Again, news to the viewer. The local reportress will do anything for a scoop, including boning the somewhat shell shocked vet. A gross hairball-like retch forms in my throat as I watch this fun-sexy time. A trip to the local microfiche machine informs the detectives that this series of murders hearkens back to some identical killings five years prior. Same scenario: A corpse fucking hippie that murders whoopee teens… for five days straight. In the fifth month of the year. Get it? Five-five-five. Clever cats. The loose cannon lead detective becomes more and more hostile towards everyone in his path, and the cast starts to fear he might be the dealer of the dirty work… How’s it all end? Hell if I can remember. And damned if I’m gonna’ go back to re-learn. 555 comes off like a sub-basement episode of Hunter (sans Dee Dee McCall) saturated with sub-par soap opera acting skills, but it does pull its head above water now and again due to the gonzo agresso-cop routine and the fact that every murdered couple features a topless gal. Blood on breasts probably got this little charmer banned outright in the UK. I do gotta’ say this in its defense: the head severing featured on the Pepto-pink box art is quite a stand out. I might boot a clip of it for a compilation tape or something.
This brings us to the snuffus maximus portion of our program…a gutbuster from overseas:
Violent Shit (Andreas Schnaas– 1989)Opening with some awful solarized slo-mo footage of a little boy playing bouncy ball, the credits appear:
And that’s about all I can give. I’m feeling the side effects of all this bunk. It’s pushing through my system like a bag of Olestra chips. This is by no means a complete history of 80s SOV dreck. There’s plenty more out there (Redneck Zombies, Cannibal Campout, Woodchipper Massacre, Dreamaniac, Spine and Splatter just to name a few) …and those might even go down better with age. I’d hate to see them be worse. Feel free to attempt them. Then write your own sad, shitty little column. Just to be hip to what the kids watch today, I thought I’d try some more modern takes on the SOV formula. By far the best was Ivan Zuccon’s The Shunned House from 2003 (the worst was Joe Castro’s Terror Toons…ugh. Stanky). A hodge-podge of loosely based HP Lovcraft stories stuck together in a haunted Italian villa. It delivers on a buncha levels: the gore, the creep factor, the lighting and camerawork. The dialog’s a tad stilted, due to non-English speaking actors being forced to speak English, but the cast seems to believe in the performances they're delivering and that’s good enough for me. Find it. It’s fun. Since I started out on the column…now over six months ago…labels like Camp Video and Intervision have been busy re-releasing this cinematic tub-scum back to its format of choice; the big box VHS tape. Who woulda’ thunk it? Hell, the NY Times even gave ‘em a shout out. So get cracking…those beers ain’t drinkin’ themselves. We all got some brain-bulbs that could use a good dulling. The time has come for you, dear readers, to dip into the sewers of forgotten shot-on video slime. Soak in it. Let it cake up a bit. Wear it with pride. I’m out. It hurts. -R
To read other installments of TV As Eyes please browse the archives here.
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