Oooh, does it make you feel good
Knowing that you could
Have power on me?
In the late eighties, when independent horror movies shot on videotape began appearing in video rental stores, our country was treated to a major unsung filmmaking event.
The full democratic potential of the medium could finally dance, in enormous boxy covers fulfilling inventory and the need for countless product. Amateurs were elected on the shelves that hold dream after dream; they had actually made a film that shared space with VHS copies of “real” movies.
Gary Cohen, the director of the SOV classics Video Violence 1 and 2, gives the editing credit to “Gary De Palma.” Of course! He could now be Brian De Palma with almost nothing, his work sure to reach the very mom-and-pop stores he so lovingly bottles in the film.
Friends, relatives and neighbors could now be movie stars. Collectives formed to excavate immortality from the quotidian. These analog auteurs could decide for themselves how to enter a scene, block a scene, tell a visual story. Makeup effects were created in kitchens. Shooting schedules were created at day jobs. Being in a blooper or a third take was now a part of people’s lives.
Every SOV horror film is an extra verse of Walt Whitman’s Song Of Myself.
Viewing them now, SOV horrors become unofficial documentaries of people playing Movie. Video isn’t precious like celluloid; it doesn’t have to be shot on a specifically mapped-out grid. Anyone who felt “ripped off” after renting one of those kitten-proportioned boxes released by sketchy companies like Magnum and Paragon missed the muscles waiting to be flexed. What video looses in aesthetics it gains in spontaneous radar waves.
The crude, rough image should be used to sponge birthday parties, public access stories, pornography, but when shoehorned into a narrative feature it doesn’t matter if the acting/story/effects/directing is “bad.” We need to watch SOV Horror with the same eyes we bring to Jacques Rivette and Ken Jacobs films. They revolutionize our idea of what a movie can be.
With Rivette, the inimitable French director, it is deep space, weight and time. Films like L’amour Fou, Celine And Julie Go Boating, Le Pont Du Nord, Up! Down! Fragile!, and the ultimate Out 1 are seeking the creative dimensions that meet us at the farthest point of durational content. If we stay with Out 1’s 12 hours we unlock the secrets of art so consciousness-expanding they remain embedded and hidden unless Rivette probes, and we follow.
Ken Jacobs locates narrative in the sheen grist that most wouldn’t even think of as content. In the experimental master-classes Tom Tom, The Piper’s Son and Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World, Jacobs magnifies the original film frame to alchemize a new one. Bits of grain and the architectural forgotten become characters finally spotlit like extras in an action movie given the leading reigns to the whole queer thing.
It’s the same journey to the center of the earth Neil Young and Crazy Horse make with their longest jam sessions in albums like Broken Arrow, where a song like “Loose Change” is disengaged from traditional structure and manhandled towards infinity, and as we sink into the album, into the film, the way back is sealed up tight, and the unveiled territory before us is why we make art, absorb art, why we live.
SOV Horror-with undisciplined sequences of pleasantries and entrances and exits, communication of the foremost sincerity, walking from here to there in microbes that professionals would excise-understands the mystique of movies as well as Rivette and Jacobs. Even if the filmmakers didn’t intend this, the Videotape did, and it coiled with the amateur methods to expose new folds and crevices of an art form we can never tell ourselves we understand.
Camp Motion Pictures has done this layer of cinema history a great justice by rereleasing titles like the Video Violence films, Cohen’s Captives, Jon McBride’s Cannibal Campout, and others on DVD. They’ve just produced a box set of these movies using the Super 8-shot The Basement as a wraparound title. The package itself is a throwback to the size and feel of old SOV cases, outsized enough to attract the eye of weekend renters who didn’t know they could theoretically make the picture themselves.
NOTES ON VHS
Hide my face, hide my face/don’t let them see me crying…-Frank Ocean
There’s something magical, even heartening, about this format that is entirely removed from the movies themselves, and that magic is only clear to those of us who grew up hypnotized by ethereal fuzz-glow.
On my desk, inches from this keyboard, lies the box for Monte Hellman’s 1989 horror film Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out! First thing I notice are the stickers on the plastic seal covering the box. These stickers must have been applied in its year of release, or as soon as North Star Video opened shop. ONE DAY ONLY reads the first sticker, placed right below an icicle that is part of the cover art’s design. The other, stuck annoyingly on the credit block, close to bold white letters advertising “Robert Culp As Lt. Connolly,” is an orange square with the bold brand HORROR.
The face of a young woman stares out of this box, her features-besides two bright blue eyes-drained of color like one of the characters in Bob Fosse’s Lenny. The left side of her face around that probing eye is darkened. She looks less scared and more lost, apprehensive.
Is it because we can only take her home for one day?
Did this face, with pouty monochrome lips and half-moon features, resolve to look up, where those dazzling blue eyes might catch the sentence “When your nightmare ends, the real terror begins?” Those words have been placed right below what appears to be the beginning of a roof, clogged with snow. The icicles hanging from the roof are illuminated lime green and blood red by Christmas lights.
The only difference between this incongruent image on a cardboard box and a poster hanging in the lobby is that I can pick this up and walk away, and the movie would come with me. Better Watch Out! is portable. The advertisement is also the movie, made physical, made ours.
The size and breadth of VHS tapes showcase the excitement of possessing a film in a way superior to DVDs and Blu-Ray. A movie, formerly just an abstract notion, light on a wall, now has weight and a personality. Hellman’s film is in the room with me, more than just a promotional coffin and a JCV-designed storage unit. This must have been a revelation to those in 1977, during the format’s launch, who had before been forced to wait for their favorite movie’s rerelease in theaters or time a viewing on television. Born a decade later, I took for granted the physicality of movies. They were transcendent pieces of furniture.
If I can’t reconcile this early, endearing democratization of movies with the insulting way it first trained us to lower our quality standards and think of movies as removed from grandeur, I unabashedly love the VHS format for its allowance of independent video stores. Unburdened by corporate influence (including an emphasis on Blockbusters), with as much movie glut as there are clumps of snow on the Better Watch Out! roof, establishments like the late North Star and the still-going Impoco’s humble me. Because these stores needed inventory, the costumer, you, could wade through a swamp of choice and compile the gutter and the stars.
At North Star the relentlessly bleak Men Behind The Sun was in close proximity to Pretty Woman. Efforts like The Mutilator and Video Violence, made exclusively for the video market, now had a secure and, for a time, before the massive VHS sale, a permanent home. Starved enough for shelf-filler to laugh in the face of pathetic xenophobia, my hometown stores offered comprehensive foreign releases from Janus films and the stuffily named Connoisseur Video.
Based on my upbringing, homegrown video stores will always carry the residue of grade school birthday parties, Pizza nights, the weekend’s promise on a Friday afternoon, karate classes that didn’t last very long, confused pre-pubescent erections, and sending a begrudging father out into the night to rent…maybe Home Alone, Jurassic Park, but perhaps he’d come back with something else, something new and unseen. Once that tape was swallowed by the rectangular mouth of the VCR, it became a movie print we could activate at will.
I suppose you could label the time before the ubiquity of Netflix Streaming, online downloads, red rental boxes and Demand services as the Golden Age of video palaces. We certainly don’t need them today. Every time a tape of Impoco’s old inventory is sold, a piece of its soul is taken away. The establishment isn’t called Impoco’s Discs, after all. On a recent visit to Lee Video, sandwiched between a Chinese restaurant and a regional grocery store, I was greatly saddened by the lack of customers and the dutiful boredom of the teenage employee, chuckling with a visiting friend about things and people unrelated to the racks of tapes, decades old, surrounding them.
Is it possible to feel a kinship to objects? If they possess a history, if they gave you joy, and if a jaded public has no use for them, then yes, despite my reservations. I hate VHS. I love it. My movie love began with them, and so did the movie love of my friends who buy them still. We need grimy cast-off prints for our basement theaters.
VIDEO VIOLENCE (1987)
“Can I lick your ice cream?”-Blaqstarr
In Frank Ocean’s wrenching mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra, released as a free download last year (joining other great free albums like The Weeknd’s Trilogy, Has-Lo’s In Case I Don’t Make It, The-Dream’s 1977, and much to the chagrin of record companies, pretty much anything else) an early track called “Strawberry Swing” samples the Coldplay single as Ocean recalls his pastoral salad days. Ocean concludes, in the middle of the song, that his perfect past is impossible to reclaim. Spaceships are lifting off, from the dying world/millions are left behind, as the sky burns/there wasn’t room for you and I, only you, goodbye.
Those lyrics tumble through me as I watch Gary Cohen’s Video Violence and feel like one of those lucky few peering through glass at Ocean’s land, barely discernable through the molten sky.
Mom-and-Pop movie rental stores are nearly obsolete, along with the technology used to make Video Violence and every other film in the Camp set. I was lucky enough to be reared in a town with two m&p’s, and the first time I saw Video Violence I rented it from one of those stores, in a weather-beaten case resembling the Camp issue I would purchase from Newbury Comics a decade later. We can’t watch it for what it is, not anymore. The plot revolves around The Video Studio, under new management from a NYC couple who’ve just moved to the sticks. Lumps catch in your throat if you grew up renting and hanging out in these businesses. People even a few years younger than me can’t know the emotion’s full-stop thunderclap.
Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not wishing for the return of these places as I remember them. Ocean’s yearning comes from idealizing people and landscapes that glow simply because time has run from them like a baseball player rounding home, and the screwy impact of the song-as well as the entirety of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, where Win Butler goes back to the eponymous sprawl and instead finds “The loneliest day of my life”-is the understanding that that winsomeness is only available to us in memory. Nostalgia is a dangerous drug, waiting to sap relevancy and clear-eyed reasoning. The emotion needs to be properly compartmentalized to draw out its healing effect and resist the siren call of invitation to a greater utopia. As everyone from Butler to Rod Serling has discovered, get too close to the oasis and you stumble through a mirage.
VHS tapes are a second-rate storage facility. The quality offers no justice to the cinematographer’s work. The pan and scan murders composition. I don’t want those tapes to come back. I want instead for the community they’ve inspired to return. Only ghosts of this community remain. We’re still picking at the bones, and our numbers aren’t strong.
Watching Video Violence demands this articulation of the nostalgia cling, our need to indulge and resist it. The strip-mall store in the film is where I used to eat strawberries on a swing, before the world I knew began rotting.
Titles are displayed upright, standing like hopeful soldiers. Movie posters-promises of the dream-hang nobly in an age when they still counted for drumming up the take-home fervor. Another early SOV effort, Blood Cult, is rented by one of the members of the snuff-hungry town whose thirst for visually recorded violence perplexes the new owner Steve Emory (Art Neil). Back in the city, customers used to seek out Spielberg and Woody Allen films; here, they just rent bloody slashers. In a bit of satire, a mother rents Blood Cult, telling Emory how the violence will be fine for her son, unlike the sex, which she doesn’t approve of. (Cohen says this real-life incident is what inspired his movie.) Emory soon discovers that snuff films are being returned to the store, and the local bumbling sheriff who “accidentally” erases the tapes isn’t as bumbling as he first appears.
Cohen’s film chronicles the unnatural extension of malignant video production, as chaos and sinister as the tape shot by McNaughton’s Henry and Otis, and desired by the worshipful renters of Henry, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Blood Feast, Blood Cult.
This hamlet is drunk with tracking-adjusted evil. Two degenerates, Eli (the scarily pseudonymed Uke) and Howard (Bart Summer), shoot cheeky home movies where they kill women for fun. Intercutting between the laffs of Embry’s naïve quest for the truth and the ruthless female slayings of our two small-town videographers, Cohen establishes a kind of mission statement for SOV horror, as fulfilled a year later in Jon McBride’s Cannibal Campout, the best of the Camp unearthings. What we’re experiencing firsthand is a Tone Gumbo, where video allows a portal of anything to gleefully transpire. Within minutes we swing from hilarity to the genuinely upsetting, all in the heartening environment of the vintage, unsullied video store, where aquaintences of mine used to retreat when they were trapped in their minds, souls, and country, and where they came forlorn, to buy old tape releases on sale and depressurize their minds.
I couldn’t join them in those great strip-mall slivers where they bought alone. Fate kept us away from each other. I’ve built legends of their browsing.
I can’t use Video Violence as a way back, but I can dream, just like Frank Ocean at the strawberry swing. I can only watch it and dream. But isn’t that one of the vital attractions of movies? To dream of a situation, a private dance, you could possibly enter and alter?
Embry experiences the videotaped death of folks in the variant of media merchant that no longer haunts Americana ground. Almost thirty years later I make final trips to the remaining stores, months before they close. I’ve only missed company by a few minutes. I am only capable of purchasing other winged rewinded cassettes they might have looked over and rejected.
Those they partner with cannot know what they’re saying. But I can, and we aren’t meant for each other. Why not? Because of those damn stores. We’ve given them too much when they stand for so little. By placing these devotees at the center of a small-town thriller, Cohen perfectly encapsulates their obsession’s fleeting power. Theirs matches ours. They just want it real. We only want the most genuine simulated, as a Way Station before we touch and embrace the ones who don’t understand them but want to understand us, because they want us, and we might want them because they want us.
Video Violence implicates the entire town, which is local, which is ourselves and our desire to see so much more of the video market than the masses ever thought could possibly exist. The film’s villains are the side of us that thought video could take us anywhere, the side of us that rented Men Behind The Sun in North Star’s seedy back horror section (it’s a fitness studio now), the side that commiserated with the like minded later, after all of the tapes had been jacked. The gathering of folksy evil at the film’s climax is the orgy we, as too-smart college wanderers, never had. Video Violence is cathartic prophecy for our canceled meetings. Fidelio.
It concludes in the basement. A final, hopeless ending. The whole town has cornered Emory and his wife and told them the truth of their deathlust. Their hopes have evaporated into the townsfolk’s bloodthirsty grimace. Playacting has lured them here. When the store reopens, it will traffic in white, hand-labeled tapes with names of the deceased as previews to what renters grind their teeth to see.
Once, we stood together in the wilderness of the final equations of millions of hours of writing, planning, pitching, shooting, hating, screaming, editing, fighting, unleashing. I saw you in the foreground of all those talismans of human endeavor. You told me which of these talismans might be worth it, and I told you the same. We shared a laugh over the ones that were maybe quite a bit silly. We spoke of the days and barren evenings we ventured here alone. I kept secret the knowledge that for all of my time spent in the place, these caught minutes were the most important. It wasn’t a calamitous whatever between us, not yet. It was a pre-abstracted low-warmth that barely made it through the door. We rented movies to experience second hand the presence of other people. Now here we were, actual. The characters trapped within the tape and boxes knew that, for this moment, we didn’t need them anymore. If only they were imbued with sensations, then we wouldn’t need each other. Of course, we couldn’t stay for long, eating strawberries on a swing. I don’t remember if this came from a novel I had written in a dorm room sloshed with potato chip bags and empty soda bottles. No. Paper predicted you, and you defied that paper as it should always be defied.
Video slices a layer of skin from the movies, leaving them vulnerable, pink, objects of greater verisimilitude. Everything becomes, could be, is local. My long-ago friends, lost in the depleted stores, almost understood this, and it led to their depression and drive to relocate. They are safe from Eli and Howard. They aren’t safe from themselves. I won’t give their names. But they remain inside the minds they shared themselves with. And they will be safe here. They will be safe in Cohen’s film.
If we’ve seen Video Violence in a small town, from a store that is avatar to the one in the movie, we can’t help but suppose the film was shot right there, months before our own crowning birth. When my friends and I were gestating, in the town itself or a few short or long miles away, our unborn selves could have brushed against one of Cohen’s deliberate car chase set-pieces or an exterior scene wherein a sweet female townie decoy is shoved into Eli and Howard’s car, waiting to trap her ostensible city slicker rescue team like flies in the web of pixilated gore joy.
Video Violence has no room for me. Only you, friend, watching on the store TV as the Emory’s lie dead for the non-sexual amusement of children and their parents. It beams me to hundreds of bonding passages with young clerk dudes I revered. I wrote in a trunk novel once of an encounter, a first meeting, between two strange young people in the mom-and-pop racks, close to the space that used to cradle Video Violence, before the tape was purchased for use in one communal Bad Movie Night. That fictional connection soon joined the cassette in a melancholy dungeon somewhere off the map.
The prologue of Cohen’s film perfectly evinces the skinlessness of video, when a young female tourist enters the town clothing hut to try things on. The proprietors switch on a hidden dressing room camera and take her out minutes later. With video, the cruel sleaze of this random act is vulnerable and pink. Film wouldn’t leave us feeling so unwashed. With video, the barbaric actions seem eerily preordained, ordered by the whims of true basement tape.
Cohen is helpless against the demands, screaming, “feed me!” like a funkier Audrey II. This is artistic inevitability as irreversible as the opaque characters speaking a Martian backwards dialect in the final chapters of Out 1, or steriopticon strobe dictating the timeless dance of an early twentieth century roller coaster in Razzle Dazzle.
Rivette uses duration; Jacobs recovered, inconsequential footage. Gary Cohen makes videotape his lightening rod. After viewing the work of all three, we can’t go back. The familiar ground has been plowed. We can’t stop the arrival of industrial progress to our childhood playground, when movies were posters, when movies were movies were movies in the dead world.
Three Gary Cohen films are collected. Camp is doing the work Criterion imprint Eclipse will never take on. We’re able to view the progress of someone who decided he wanted to direct movies and simply directed them.
In watching multiple films by an SOV director the knowledge of his stock company is just as illuminating and important as the movies themselves. There’s an aura of specialness and community theater. We see names in the credits, names like Art Neill, his wife Jackie, members of Cohen’s family, and strangely enough, we find ourselves looking forward to meeting these people again. The tall, tanned Art Neil is an interesting face, and he makes a good team with his focused wife. Their characters are married in Video Violence, and they make a miraculous cameo appearance in the sequel. The Neil’s play a sinister brother and sister team in Cohen’s home invasion thriller Captives, which appeared a year after his first feature.
Just as Cohen is feeling his way around a thriller, the Neil’s are applying different masks. Jackie Neil clearly relishes the chance to play a disgruntled woman storming the house of her ex-husband and taking his wife, mother and child hostage. Cohen shoots in masters and effectively abuses the zoom lens. Jackie Neil brings a tarnished grit to her role, especially in a sequence where she shows her captive (Lisa Cohen) home video footage from the seventies, when she was still with her husband Barry. If the vintage clothes don’t wash, the pain and compromise do. This is horror as daytime soap. While his attempt at a “serious” film causes Cohen to restrain himself, making this less gripping than his amazing twofer, Captives is valuable for sheer likeable metaness. I want everybody involved to succeed, in life and in Captives.
THOUGHTS BEFORE WATCHING THE BASEMENT
They’re trying to take you away from me
Only, over my dead body.
–Thank Me Later
Jim O’Rawe’s The Basement comes in a VHS tape, colored orange like old Nickelodeon videos and clinically labeled with title and studio like elite porn. I don’t remember the last VHS I actually bought. I didn’t spring for the retro-format release of Ti West’s beautiful House Of The Devil, but I try to fondle it every time I visit my super-collector friend.
Do Not Touch The Tape Inside. Never, my darling.
I can’t believe I’m here again. This is my childhood. This is the childhood of my friends, and of the millions I won’t ever know. A late addition to my Home Video Library. A flood of shameless, selfish memories come swooning.
Why can’t I write about movies without also writing about human connection? Why can’t I keep the past out of it? If I was older I might not be so afflicted. I’m still unsure if I feel life is cyclical, but here I am, handling a recently purchased VHS tape from a company mired in ultra nostalgia. According to Camp, this Amicus-inspired anthology was lost for years and only recently rediscovered. They have honored it with a belated release for those of us willing to dig up our old VCRs. There is only one working VCR in my house. When you stop the tape it becomes automatic time to chill out with antique valuing shows on PBS.
This will likely be the final addition to my Home Video Library. VHS is Van Morrison’s Madame George. Say goodbye. Dry your eye, your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye your eye. Wonder why. Get on the train.
I could never rent it in the cramped, defunct Patrick’s Video, formerly neighboring the Big-Y and operated by brittle, Dickensian crones. (When they closed in 2003, titles like Rush Hour 3 and Hannibal were still prominently displayed in the “New Releases” section.) I could never rent The Basement at North Star’s first incarnation as a multi-story Xanadu. That area is our Price Chopper now. Walk through the Sushi isle and squint and you can still make out box covers for Radioland Murders and the Super Mario Bros movie. In some parallel universe, I would reach between two different brands of Shampoo and yank out Jim O’Rawe’s The Basement.
THE BASEMENT (1989)
If I ventured in the slipstream
Between the viaducts of your dreams
Where the mobile steel rims crack
And the ditch and the backroads stop
Since this kooky anthology was shot in Super 8, it doesn’t really serve my purposes in this article, though its title could also be the title of every other movie featured here. They all take place in The Basement, even if they don’t. The barebones plot, lifted pretty much wholesale from the original Tales From The Crypt, involves a group of conceited richies summoned to the titular basement to meet a robed daemon called “The Sentinel.” The cloaked, deformed figure shows the four assholes a vision of their future, where each will commit the very bad deeds that have landed them in this Basement. An unpleasant golddiger will eventually feed a list of undesireables to a cursed pool, crossing their names off a copy of Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew. (She tells her paunchy husband, “I want to finish this chapter,” even though she’s reading stories. A first hint.) A man who hates Halloween with a Scrooge-esque vitriol will be visited by spirits pimping the holiday and causing him great (hallucinated) pain. Another guy is fated to direct a schlocky zombie movie and ignore the pleas of quality from the Fangoria employees on his staff, only to engage the wrath of real life zombies who rise up and slink towards his trailer orgy with two crack skanks. (After his last two zombie movies, I would submit that the real G. Romero deserves this.) The last inductee will proceed to use his father’s inheritance to buy a house burdened with the torturous crimes of its previous owner. The house is indeed haunted by a demon who takes the life of his best friend and his girl, finally morphing his hand into a hairy claw before he takes the bullet train out of this life he once called his own. Suicide is painless. Especially if you have a reason.
I live in a basement, but my cave is so tidied and well-rugged that it stands as just a mere apartment, not a frame of mind. Most basements are loaded with significance. They are phobias, dungeons, aesthetically questionable places with scary monsters. (Sort of like VHS.) Films of dust, murky cobwebs, untold secrets in the pitch: the image of Basement everybody gets when the word is chucked are the midnight rites of passage for middle-schoolers unable to admit how terrified they really are. The basement in The Basement is the apotheosis of all basements, though we see very little of it, only wet wood and the creaky, Bomb shelter door behind The Sentinel. We aren’t even privy to how these guests were invited, or why they came. American basements are the new Crypt. I can say to my non-fans, “I know you won’t stop reading this because you know as well as I know that few people write about the shit you’re obsessed with as well as me,” just as basements can vow in sleep, “those you want may live on the third floor, but you’ll never truly escape us.”
Watching it on VHS, with the timecode ticking along the VCR, is a trip to the moon, to the stars. North Star, along with Patrick’s and the Impoco’s where I formerly lived are inhabitable planets. They transfused my current black blood. The image flickers like a bad bulb in a theater on the no-more Times Square Deuce. Dig why I give it space?
As a corner of our brains, The Basement is where we get horny for movies like this, and the Roughies with George Payne and the Mighty Pan King Jamie Gillis. The Basement Brain wets us for the wild rantings of our Lost Boys and Lost Girls. Even if we try to force ourselves to resist, even if those we’ve relationship’d compel us to resist, we can’t, because there’s a basement in our brains, and we can nuke that as well as we can nuke real basements anchoring our pithy homes. The relationship’d say, “no! Our programs are on.” The basement, which can speak, says, “Please. This is where you belong, Wild Air.”
According to The Sentinel, nobody is going aboveground again.
My VCR is here, in this new basement where we blister ourselves walking on white stones. The screen is blue and moist and so expectant. There’s a tape already inside.
CANNIBAL CAMPOUT (1988)
Like a fool, I fell in love with you
You turned my whole world upside down
Cannibal Campout is a visual metaphor, threadbare and sustained for eighty minutes. This is what our relationship to SOV Horror looks like: pretty young men and women, some decked out in spandex jogging clothes with their walkman in tow, others splash-faced, coupled after the credits of a happily ended romcom (let’s call them The Movies), entering the vastness of the woods, where the gonzo Tone Gumbo has been waiting all along. The woods are SOV, even in real life.
Second by second, this camcorder palette resembles compost, or a human asshole. Even if Campout weren’t about inbred, human eating hicks-if it were, say, a comedy or one of Lonnie Donaho’s “Horse Movies,”-McBride’s film would still hit us like ozone toxicity.
Movie production needs the woods as much as upstart home video companies need Night Of The Living Dead, being Public Domain’d, and an audience, accepting one so small as to mirror a Rivettian cult. Go deep enough, and nature doesn’t require a permit. Every branch is a blinking red “record” symbol. The gnarled girthy trees are free for the sucking. Once McBride and The Movies arrive, they find themselves marooned on the SOV island. The remoteness of Cannibal Campout, the shacks, the same dozen acres, the dopey jokes told in cars as erstwhile actors push out lines and their camera tolerates potholes and bumps, don’t signify the makers’ barely safe exploration of their own evil, like in the August Underground films. Throughout this tightly paced, audacious grub underneath America’s cultural rock, we’re met with a sensibility of trying things out, of Let’s Put On A Show, far from the discerning eye of backers, far from the last outpost of safety. We get a sense of, “Only a few dozen people are every going to watch this, if we’re lucky. What do we want to do out in these woods? What are we capable of doing with the few props we have?”
The director James VanBebber, being interviewed on the DVD to his great The Manson Family, speaks of how it was liberating to be working on a film so independent he could experiment with esoteric homage. VanBebber was able to employ techniques he’d seen in Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and Roman Polanski’s Macbeth. VanBebber had total freedom to replicate, and claim, Hopper’s manic montage and Polanski’s mirror-to-reality space travel. Jon McBride knows that freedom too, in a different way.
This brings us to the Tone Gumbo. One minute a frazzled cannibal hick wonderfully played by Richard Marcus is unintentionally screaming the lyrics of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” into the ear of a victim. The next, Marcus and his partners-in-crime flashback to a murder of a woman who strayed too far from civilization. The former scene is cartoonishly funny. The latter, despite the overly-gushy blood effects, is unnerving.
You don’t find a lot of movies with the Tone Gumbo. They don’t get produced often, and the ones that do have trouble reaching a public. Any genre-blasting deviations from what we commonly expect from a movie we’ve chosen to watch aren’t welcome if those fragments become too individually affecting.
This explains the continued marginalization of cult director Lloyd Kaufman and cult mainstreams Mark Nevaldine and Brian Taylor. Kaufman and Nevaldine/Taylor don’t make thematically confused films, far from it: Tromeo And Juliet, Crank 2: High Voltage and the deeply groovy Gamer are so bold and confident they have the interior makeup to brave and plunge without veering off course.
Gamer has a bracing passage where convict and futuristic video game piece Kable (Gerard Butler) enters the real-life simulation Society to reclaim his wife (Amber Valletta), an actress controlled by a pervy, obese player. Kable bumps heads with grotesques like the swarthy, braying Rick Rape (Milo Ventimiglia). Our reaction to Rick is keeled between laughter and shock, and once Kable tragically attempts to break his wife free of her mental chains, the eccentric creation has proved an enhancement, not a reduction. As viewers, we’re swept up in a cyclone break of pure feeling.
Cannibal Campout dispenses with the padding of other SOV titles. Nobody walks to one corner of the room from the other when they don’t have to. As soon as the lead college students drive into the woods, they meet our three flesh eaters on a dirt road, who rudely hit on the women and bark wild threats (“I’m gonna staple yer tits to the roof ‘a this car!”). The showered, lovesick youths ignore them and continue on. Why don’t they just drive back to their old town? Because the SOV woods are too tempting. The promise of the Tone Gumbo is too delicious to reject for life.
The first victim, the jogging girl who runs into one of the cannibals (a mutant disguised in a pilot’s outfit, the Top Gun 180) could be a sister, or the director’s wife, or a local girl he’d flirted with, maybe a girl who works at the nail salon, a girl he’d promised a part in his movie to on one of the trips to the salon that his day job requires. The jogging girl realized that she enjoyed dying in front of a camera more than she thought she would. When you’re Playing Movie, the stakes are high. You learn things about yourself. Splatter is your makeup. This jogging girl is, like the casualties down the road, another human representation of The Movies, 35mm, scripted, normal, boy-struck. She runs towards the entrance to The Woods. She is helpless against the onslaught of Shot On Video. The Movies are killed by crudity. Shot On Video equals Imperial Delete.
Cannibal Campout is less reminiscent of movies like Cannibal’s Holocaust and Ferox than the hardcore fiction of Edward Lee. Novels like The Bighead and the No Man’s Land of his novella Ever Nat limn (or is it limb?) the reverse progress of humanity through horrors wrought by the feral. Cannibal Campout is, like Lee’s fiction, possessed by the demon of itself. Necks are sliced, faces cut, bellies thwacked into. It climaxes with one of the most disturbing, offensive sequences I think I’ve ever seen. (What does it say about me that I predicted it beforehand?) It becomes clear that nothing is going to be wasted, which lends establishing shots of the gently blowing trees a formal precision. Nature becomes a cage because it becomes the SOV expanse.
There are only three movies I’ve seen that qualify as nominees for the official Last Movie Ever Made-and none of them are Dennis Hopper’s. The top spot belongs to Roger Watkins’ Last House On Dead Street, one of the great statistics of my filmwatching life. The other is Fred Vogel’s 2007 masterpiece August Underground’s Penance, possibly the McCabe & Mrs. Miller of horror movies. Cannibal Campout ranks just after that. Each are so final in their misanthropy, so sure of their cancellation of all good things, that any following movie becomes instantly irrelevant, because they can’t possibly portray our best as forwardly as these three have portrayed our worst. When the cannibals pull a fetus from inside a dying pregnant woman and chirp, “It’s a womb with a view!” the medium is capped. Campers try to hide in broken down, bug-infested cabins, but the maniacs are everywhere. The whole thing takes place during the day, probably because the filmmakers had nothing to light with after their sun was gone. That’s ok, though. No other movie makes daytime feel so much like night.
There’s a habit in even the lightest SOV to feature scenes of harsh violence against women. They aren’t suspenseful, because the women have already been captured. The grungy camera spies their taunting, torture, their final moments. In the midst of the Tone Gumbo monolith Redneck Zombies-moonshine zombies, tomfoolery, joyous overacting-a hapless character wonders into a butcher shop and finds a bound, gagged, bleeding woman tied to a chair. For another five minutes, we’re subjected to the butcher and his sidekick leering over her. The film moves on. We never hear from them again. Why?
The heinous flashback in Cannibal Campout is the most detailed, fussed over, lovingly mounted bit. At some point, every fan and follower of extreme genre fare has to ask why they subject themselves to the severe mistreatment of the female mind and body. Well, we could say that it's simulated and we get a thrill from darkness and transgression. But a rebuttal could be, “would violence against men be as darkly thrilling to watch?” The immediate answer would scare those who come to it honestly. It’s worth suppressing.
I do think there are adventurous viewers, and I count myself as one of them, who like watching material they know they shouldn’t be watching. There are things I won’t see, like Pinky Violence films and modern, plotless pornography where men with a camera slap, humiliate and choke barely tolerant starlets. Us enthusiasts of transgressive movies need to question our limits, and stop ourselves from seeking out true misogyny. I find art in SOV horror and vintage pornographic roughies, and I don’t think McBride, Cohen, and Redneck Zombies helmer Pericles Lewnes hate women. I just think they get carried away. Cohen, appearing to realize this, has a trio of sorority sisters comment on chauvanist bloodshed in Video Violence 2, deciding to seduce and murder the pizza boy in a measure of alt-feminist protest.
Roughie directors like Zebedy Colt and Phil Prince hate humanity more than women; the SOV directors aren’t misanthropes, but enthusiastic horror movie fans who finally have the technology to make them on their own. I genuinely believe that video imposes its own influence, dredging malignancy from even the most frivolous genre exorcise.
Cannibal Campout was made for people who need to stew in The Last Movie Ever Made because the life beyond the boarders of the screen has let them down. It validates their hatred, when the worst has been revealed: that the gifts packaged within their souls can’t win desired things back from the hands of others who have never heard of Cannibal Campout.
What else was there for us remainders to do in the little town where Video Violence took place? Drive the nocturnes and listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? Read in detail the adverts for professional Psychics taped on the doors of New Age Crystal shops after hours? Refresh the Internet in hopes that someone across the spectrum would save us? Walk those streets and cry, or at least attempt to cry with the help of whatever springs from the earbuds? Who knows? Watch a dying blond girl’s slack face in Cannibal Campout and the empty roads stay empty, the fog-capped mountains stay unobserved, the unanswered messages in a faraway inbox don’t keep accumulating with sickly menace.
The individual meets itself in the cul-de-sac where I hold a VHS tape that hasn’t yet been watched.
The road away from the movies, any movie, is long and traitorous. The all-encroaching name of this set is The Basement; the three discs all have that one title. SOV transforms the outside world into a single endless basement. In a life that so often feels like a hopeless little cellar, these DIYs draw us farther into reflection of what we want, and what we might be able to achieve.
A more inspiring group of movies were never made. They prove the worthless is more than capable of disruption. The worthless triumphs. The worthless made it onto the beaches of video store shelves nationwide. The worthless compels. The worthless wins.
To Be Continued…