Monday, October 01, 2007

The October Ordeal Day 1: Video Violence

October 1st: Video Violence: When Renting is Not Enough (1987)

The fuzz audio that begins Video Violence cannot have been a choice. Rather than being a decision made in editing, the noise in Video Violence that stands in for silence is the result of cheap tech. This suggestion of affordable equipment continues when the score enters over the opening credits. You guessed it: one guy with a synth. Yet: the simple-dumb notes that cycle over the opening scene (cars driving us to suburban Frenchtown, NJ) are actually quite pleasurable. Although overbearing and goofy, the budget sounds of the opening theme are somehow mildly unsettling. Much about Video Violence feels voyeuristic in that its anonymity borders on an aura of violated privacy. The sub-verite aspects of the film make it feel like an all-warts home movie. So, the film’s music fits because it sounds like a private-press synth-pop obscurity.

I can’t stress how cheap Video Violence is. While the director reveals that it was actually shot on film and mastered to video in the editing, its almost hard to believe him. The sequel is authentic video, and it looks exactly the same. This is perhaps the cheapest horror film I’ve ever seen that isn’t something my friends and I made in eighth grade. It’s cheaper than Blood Cult. It’s cheaper than Troma. The film has a graininess to it that’s deeper than the mere quality of the image. This isn’t so much like watching a horror film from the 80s; its like watching local television commercials from the 80s.

I’m not one to seek out a film merely for its low-rent obscurity; the premise of Video Violence is actually what attracted me. How can a genre-fan resist a horror film about horror films set in a video store in 1987? Nearly every scene in the store had me pausing and zooming to verify each film on the shelves. We catch glimpses of big boxes and posters galore: Pieces, Ghostbusters, Critters, The Hunger, Dreamscape, Brainstorm, April Fool’s Day and loads more. A customer even rents the aforementioned Blood Cult, which (as the legend goes) is the first SOV (shot on video) horror flick ever produced.

Video Violence isn’t the only horror film set in a video store or about video tapes; in fact, films like Terrorvision, Remote Control, Video Dead and Night Vision practically constitute a micro-genre (see also: Videodrome. See also: The Ring). And although the plot parallels 2000 Maniacs in many ways (the director, Gary Cohen, claims he hadn’t seen the H.G. Lewis film), its still quite novel and a great set-up. Steven Emory (Art Neill) and his wife Rachel (Jackie Neill, his real-life partner) move to Frenchtown from the big city to open up an independent rental store. Rachel works at the court house, Steven works the store counter, and hires a local kid to help him. The Emorys settle in, and business is surprisingly brisk for such a small town. The really strange part: customers only seem interested in horror and porn. But since the store is a success, Steven tries not to think too much about it. One morning, however, he becomes nervous when someone leaves a blank tape in the store’s drop box. His employee convinces him to watch the tape, which the two play on the video store TV. What they witness looks surprisingly real, and Steven wonders if what he’s seen is what it looks like: a snuff film. The kid who works for him even thinks he recognizes the victim. More tapes arrive, and eventually Steven and Rachel decide to investigate what appears to be a small-town snuff conspiracy.

The snuff tapes actually take up quite a bit of the running time. These scenes are unsettling in that they look like home movies within one long home movie. While the gore in the film isn’t frightening (although I must say it isn’t incompetent), the pace of these scenes is. The violence in films like Henry: Portrait of a serial Killer is often called “unflinching” or “unrelenting.” The operative phrase here is meandering. Or tedious. There is something stomach turning about watching prolonged scenes of extras rolling in buckets of fake blood, their screams peaking the audio.

While the plot is entirely sensational, Cohen explains that the film is meant as social commentary. This is only really evident in an early scene taken from Cohen’s own experience as a mom-and-pop video store owner. A mother with a young child rents Blood Cult and asks “is there any nudity?” When Steven tells her he doesn’t think there is she responds “Oh good, then the kids can watch it,” oblivious to the film’s violence (although I must say those watching Blood Cult face more bores than scares). This scene casts the rest of the film in at least a slightly different light than most SOV gore-fests.

Camp’s new series of DVDs celebrating 80s SOV no-budget horror, the “Retro 80s Horror Collection”, is surprisingly high-profile. I noticed their gory full-page ads for Video Violence 1 & 2 (“The awesome 80s are back!”) in several magazines, and read reviews for these lost and tossed little cheapos in various corners of the web. Its strange that Camp has managed to market these films so well, considering the seemingly unanimous agreement (even among fans) that they are not, well, good. There must be something else going on here. The director even warns in a DVD extra: “It’s not good…” I don’t know if I can explain the appeal of trash SOV. Sites like Critical Condition and Bleeding Skull have done a great job of cataloging and celebrating these historical curiosities, and Camp DVD, to its credit, has made no effort to pose these films as anything more than what they are.

I haven’t yet seen a great 80s SOV horror film, and I’m not sure one is out there. That said, there is something likable about Video Violence. There’s something appealing to me about no-budget flicks that read like enthusiastic community productions. I think the draw is that these films play like something other than cinema. If the filmmakers had more money and resources, Video Violence could easily have been a traditionally fun horror flick. They didn’t; they made the film anyway. There’s something admirable about that. I find that the language of criticism even breaks down here, as calling Video Violence a bad film is patently redundant. We all agree on this point. Most of the time, this ends the discussion. Interestingly, this is exactly where the discussion begins with a film such as Video Violence. We’ll see how the sequel fares.

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