Camp Motion Pictures add some fuel to the current fire of VHS nostalgia with the five-film “retro ‘80s horror collection” The Basement. Packaged in a gloriously oversized VHS box that won’t fit on your shelves, the five films in the set are spread out across three DVDs (packaged in a traditional DVD case with the discs strangely stacked on top of each other) with The Basement included on both disc and a VHS tape (mine was blank, but they said they’re sending a replacement). The set’s titular shot-on-Super 8 film is easily its highlight, but the other four shot-on-video DIY horror outings from the late ‘80s are all worth a look. If you’re unfamiliar with the style of this uniquely charming brand of cinema, imagine a feature-length commercial for a local car dealership complete with low production qualities and awkward non-actors (or, if you’re in the know, simply see Boardinghouse or Black Devil Doll from Hell). A high degree of tolerance for ineptitude is required to fully enjoy these films though they’re so firmly rooted in their era that it shouldn’t be long before someone approaches the genre from a scholarly perspective. Here’s what’s in store for those brave explorers of DIY horror cinema…
The Basement (1989) opens with four professionals wandering through the titular locale. A hooded figure named The Sentinel appears and informs them that they have “released the evil”. Director Tim O’Rawe felt that this was enough of a setup to launch into a Tales from the Crypt-styled anthology film. In the first segment, a foul-mouthed woman from NJ barely moves from her poolside lawn chair as she lures visitors to their deaths-by-unseen-pool-creature. There’s really no rhyme nor reason to both her actions and the twist ending, but it’s a fun outing that includes a great fistfight between two middle aged house marms. The film’s second segment is many things: a love letter to Halloween, a strange critique of the educational system, and the most retarded take on A Christmas Carol that you’ll ever see. A high school teacher who hates both children and Halloween is visited by a series of local haunted house-like monsters that teach him the true meaning of the holiday (kinda). There’s a jaw-dropping, memorably bloody sequence in the segment’s beginning that I won’t spoil for you, but is easily the film’s highlight. The third segment concerns the filming of a zombie movie and has some neat shots, a rocking soundtrack, and a few meta statements concerning the horror genre (“Fuck George Romero”). Look for a cameo from J.R. Bookwalter, future director of similarly low budget horror films such as The Dead Next Door (1989) and The Sandman (1995), in the role of a Production Assistant. The final segment is the artiest of the quartet with some interesting (or grating, depending on your ears) experiments in sound and a rather impressive sequence in which a creature burrows into a guy’s head and removes his brain. Back in the titular Basement, the four professionals, now armed with the knowledge of their future actions (?), are escorted to Hell by the mysterious Sentinel. The end.
Captives (1988) is a nasty piece of pointless exploitation that certainly has its moments of brilliance. Director Gary P. Cohen (Video Violence 1 + 2, see below, also keep an eye out for a t-shirt tie-in) has serious issues with both pacing (the first ten minutes of the film feature people simply getting ready for work) and the 180 degree rule while his “actors” struggle to improvise during long sequences of nothing. A kindly housewife and her baby are held captive in their home by her husband’s secret trashy ex-wife and her two redneck brothers (one of who is mentally handicapped). It turns out that the housewife’s lecherous husband burned down his ex-wife’s house with their baby inside and pinned it on her. Thus she’s back for revenge. What results are drawn out scenes of threats of violence, a bit of blood, and a ten minute segment in which everyone gathers around the television to watch a home movie that is worth the price of this set on its own. Its not often that you get to watch people watch television in a film, at least for this length of time, it’s rather modern in a way. There’s some unexpected incest and some fun dancing, but you’ll be glad when it’s all over.
Cannibal Campout (1988) opens with the statement:
WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO SEE IS BASED UPON TRUE ACCOUNTS AND CONJECTURE AND IS A DELINEATION OF ACTUAL EVENTS WHICH TRANSPIRED AT AN INDETERMINATE TIME TO PERSONS OF LESS THAN GENUINELY EQUIVOCAL AUTHENTICITY.
You’d expect the resulting film to be a comedy, but it’s not, thus doubling the hilarity of the opening words. It’s all downhill from there though. Two unattractive high school couples head to the boondocks for a weekend retreat only to be plagued by a threesome of hillbilly cannibals, one of who wears a fighter pilot helmet. The The Room-level acting provides endless laughs and the bloody, Herschell Gordon Lewis-like death scenes occur at somewhat surprising times, but all of its positive attributes are quickly countered by some truly mean-spirited dialogue (“How’d you like me to staple your tits to the roof?”) and occurrences (the film’s ending is A Serbian Film-level nasty). Set all that to the soundtrack of a synthesizer’s “sample” key and you’ve got what ultimately feels like a high school video production assignment that any teacher would find impossible to accurately grade.
If nothing else, the Bayonne, NJ-shot Video Violence… When Renting Is Not Enough (1987) serves as one of the great time capsules of the mom and pop video rental shop. Customers browse display boxes and announce their account numbers, videocassettes are stored behind the counter in sturdy brown cases, a Runaway Train poster hangs in the store window. The plot concerns a film snob from the big city that moves to a small town and opens a video store. He soon notices that business is brisk, maybe a little too brisk. As it turns out, the townspeople are sizing him up for inclusion in their underground video trading network, I won’t spoil the wacky details, but what results is an excessive amount of blood, some rather cruel torture, and a fun dismemberment that ends with the line “Soup’s on!” Director Gary P. Cohen even has time for some metatextual musings on amateur horror, “Hollywood vampire movies”, and the superiority of movie theaters over video stores. Out of all of the films in the set, this one feels the most like a low budget regional commercial, much different than its sequel…
Video Violence 2 (also 1987) concerns a pirate satellite television program that features viewer-submitted snuff films. The show and its homicidal hosts, killers Howard and Eli from the first film, are a big hit and you get to experience the goofiness first hand. The format lends itself to some pretty lazy filmmaking as the viewer submissions allow returning director Cohen to shoot scenes of random violence with little to no plots (three girls in lingerie order a pizza, get the pizzaboy high, and kill him…done and done). The majority of the rest of the film is padded out by the on-camera antics of the show’s hosts, goofy parody commercials, and faux station IDs, though things get interesting towards the end when the format changes and the viewer is treated to a quadruple “gotcha” ending (FOUR twist endings…that has to be a record). It’s a long road, but it’s worth the walk.
The set is rounded out with an impressive array of extra features including commentaries, trailers, short films, and other archival material (there’s a vintage news segment for The Basement that’s simply priceless).
Easily the most impressive DVD/VHS release of the year.
Author: Eric Bresler
Eric is the Founder/Site Editor of Cinedelphia.com whose additional activities are numerous: Director/Curator of the Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art (PhilaMOCA), founder of Tokyo No Records, the brain behind Video Pirates, and active local film programmer including the Unknown Japan screening series. He’s served as a TLA Video Manager, Philadelphia Film Society Managing Director, and Adjunct Professor in Cinema Studies at Drexel University. He is shy and modest. Email Eric.