Each week on Terror Cult, we introduce and explore a single, obscure subcategory of the horror genre, from early European silents to contemporary gore-soaked schlockfests. This week, we focus our attention on the world of pre-digital shot-on-VHS horror, the first truly homegrown, DIY batch of genre films made by budget-strapped amateur directors to hit the worldwide market en masse.
One of the most special things about the early VHS market was that pretty much any person anywhere could suddenly shoot and distribute a feature film and expect to at least have a shot, for the first time ever, at achieving large-scale distribution, and making their money back.
We live in an age currently where snazzy pro-level editing software and cheap HD digital video make it possible for even clueless neophytes to produce a film that looks and feels at least pseudo-professional. While early VHS camcorders might not have been equipped to birth the same degree of sparkle and polish as modern low-cost digital technologies, the scarcity of product available to fledgling rental outlets, and the easy availability of home video recorders, distinguished the early 1980s and early ‘90s as a time of profound and anarchic confusion and chaos for movies in general, and for the horror genre in particular.
Suddenly, boatloads of inexperienced and clueless human beings all over the entire country (and indeed, the world) began blithely knocking out and self-distributing their very own Z-grade gore films, shot in people’s parents’ basements and richly embossed with badly-hewn latex appliances, pig guts, Karo slime, and cornfed amateur boob shots. Most of the resulting films were irredeemably rank piles of steaming garbage, but a few of them were watchable, and a couple of those are actually so navel-gazingly bugnuts, they ascend to a gloriously perplexing, singular realm of strangeness that makes them worthy of special attention. Shot-on-video pretty much died out with the advent of DV cameras and corporate domination of the rental market, but its short-lived legacy of pukey, homegrown, grainy weirdness lives on.
Boardinghouse is the first widely distributed SOV horror film ever produced, and it kicks off the subgenre with a bang. Featuring a bizarro plot fraught with oddly-deployed telekinetic hijinks and bone-jangling acid trip hallucinations, most of which involve people running around wearing bloody detached pig heads for some reason, plus a twist ending that comes pretty much squarely out of left field. Boardinghouse also boasts an aggressively repetitive but weirdly catchy electronic synth soundtrack, lots of semi-nude hot tub sequences, and several inexplicable and gratuitous supernatural flying food attacks.
Blood Cult (1985)
Blood Cult is known for being the most widely available and commercially successful of the prominent early SOV releases. It’s less weird than Boardinghouse and Sledgehammer, but it makes up for its relatively standard whodunit slasher plotline with some extra-classy set pieces – severed limbs, cleaved skulls, and puddles of grue abound. Blood Cult’s premise, which involves a mysterious ancient cult collecting body parts as an elaborate ritual offering to their God, is basically identical to H.G. Lewis’s Blood Feast with just a few minor revisions. Its main character is an aging small-town Sheriff who looks a lot like Paul Williams, if Paul Williams was 90 years old. This movie will also probably make you permanently averse to eating salad.
Like Burning Moon, Sledgehammer went straight-to-video upon its initial release and sank into obscurity for many moons before being triumphantly salvaged by our favorite vintage schlock distributors of all time, Intervision. The film concerns a masked killer shaking up a drunken gathering of standardized roustabouts, apparently with some buried link to a brutal double murder by a child that took place in the same location decades earlier. Sledgehammer’s director, David Prior, was lucky enough to direct some features later in his career that were actually shot on celluloid, including the legendary Killer Workout. In addition to gore and general revelry, Sledgehammer offers lots of audio-distorted slo-mo weirdness and unexplained, vaguely psychedelic Satanic imagery.
Redneck Zombies (1989)
One of the first outside acquisitions by legendary gore/sleaze/comedy distributors Troma Entertainment, Redneck Zombies is more self-consciously tongue-in-cheek than most movies of its ilk, merging backwoods hixploitation with flesheating zombies. Troma is responsible for such gems in the crown of no-budget ‘80s DIY grunge cinema as Class of Nuke ‘Em High, The Toxic Avenger, and Surf Nazis Must Die, and Redneck Zombies remains one of their most treasured and beloved nostalgia bombs, even rating a recent 20th Anniversary Reissue DVD complete with a never-before-released digital soundtrack disc.
Woodchipper Massacre (1988)
One surefire way to add production value to a no-budget production is to figure out a way of incorporating a giant, stupid piece of expensive machinery into it (helicopters, bulldozers, tractors, refrigerators, etc.) and then struggle to make it appear somehow ominous, aggressive, or dangerous. Woodchipper Massacre has this technique in spades, featuring many loving, fetishistic pans over the surface of its titular hulking, bright yellow makeshift corpse disposal unit. The movie is rated PG, so there’s a comparative lack of gore, but the dearth is compensated for with a wealth of horrifically ugly sweaters and haircuts, tragically bad sound, cheesy video editing effects, and shrill overacting. Watching this movie will absolutely make you feel like you are on drugs.
The Burning Moon (1997)
Buried for years and finally lovingly unearthed a little over a year ago by our friends and personal saviors at Intervision Picture Corp, Burning Moon is a product of the 1980s DIY German underground horror subcult, and the brainchild of unrepentant sleazehound Olaf Ittenbach. Burning Moon is no-holds-barred the most jacked up, whacked-out entry on this or virtually any other SOV list, featuring a brain-numbing parade of decapitations, dismemberments, evisceration, corpse-burning, unnecessary dental work, daemonic sacrifices, and an epic climactic sequence set in the putrid bowels of actual Hell. Burning Moon is a slightly later entry than most films associated with the SOV movement proper, but it’s still very much in the spirit of things, and its late arrival and balls-out lack of regard for proper decorum makes it a more than fitting swan song.
Devon Ashby is a featured contributor on CraveOnline. Follow her on Twitter at @DevAshby