VHS Summer

VHS Summer

Friday, August 26, 2016

VHS Summer Week #9

How the Sky Will Melt
Matthew Wade

Often when a modern film invokes a retro aesthetic, there is a tendency to overstate the look of the past. Sometimes this is intentional and used satirically, and sometimes it’s simply all of the most recognizable elements of an era being thrown onto the screen at once. The trick is, that a time period with a pronounced look doesn’t feel unusual at the time, it’s just part of the milieu of then modern sensibilities. I find it a more interesting use of retro styling when it is used to create a sense of timelessness. The film may have a particularly dated look, but there are anachronisms that create a sense of distance and unfamiliarity. The strange mix of technology in It Follows (2014) is an excellent example. How the Sky will Melt uses the low resolution flavor of the late 1970s/early 1980s to place an ambiguous story in an equally ambiguous time and place.

Brought to you in Squarevision
Gwen (Sara Lynch) has returned to hometown following the death of a bandmate. Her band is popular enough that she finds herself avoiding any publicity while encountering a few jealous friends that she had left behind. In a malaise she finds herself aimless as she pilfers the hills near the beach for strange colorful eggs that have hallucinogenic qualities. As Gwen’s paranoia begins into to grow, her friend, London (Scott Alonzo) watches a figure fall to earth. The being, which is neither alive nor dead is seemingly inert, but soon it awakens, straining Gwen’s already fragile reality.

Shot on Super 8 and released on VHS, How the Sky Will Melt evokes the soft dream like nature of catching something on late night television while half-asleep. The look of it evokes the techno doom of Idaho Transfer (1973), or Where Have All the People Gone? (1974). At same time there is an early New Wave vibe that feels akin to Liquid Sky (1982). That is not to say How the Sky Will Melt is a simple pastiche, it is very much interested in telling its own wandering nightmare of a story.

"What? Do I have something on my face?"
The narrative of the film is very reluctant to straight out explain anything, it forces the viewer to try and pry each moment open and see what’s lurking between the sparse dialogue. Thankfully, the movie also plays fair, it does answer most of the questions it raises. The things it leaves open are even stranger and more terrifying because of it. I did not expect the movie to dip into horror the way it does, but it works very well as the growing knot of tension at the heart of everything.

The acting is often amateurish, but the strange line deliveries often help the weird aura of the film rather than harm it. Occasionally the low tech production is a little too rough with muddy dark scenes and strange edits, but these are small flaws in a really engrossing larger work.

Aesthetically, and narratively strange, How the Sky Will Melt is a fascinatingly odd experience and one I would definitely recommend both as a standalone film and an example of how the medium of VHS can have merit in and of itself.

Friday, August 19, 2016

VHS Summer Week #8

Dream Stalker
Christopher Mills

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) left an indelible mark on popular culture. Monsters with a spark of personality were in, and everyone was scrambling to create their own charismatic killer. The advent of home video meant that anyone with a few dollars could cobble together a movie, and the fledgling rental industry was so starved for content it didn’t take much to get your tape distributed around town, possibly even around the nation if you were persistent.  However, by 1991, both Freddy Kruger and the shot-on-video movie had more or less run their course. This makes Dream Stalker even more of curiosity than it already is.

Slightly too legible to be a black metal band logo...

Recounting the plot of Dream Stalker is, at best, very difficult. The story is series of dreams within dreams, but the gist of the it involves Brittany (Valerie Williams) and her boyfriend Ricky (Mark Dias). She’s a model and he’s a motocross superstar. He ends up dead via exploding bike (or something, it’s very unclear) and Brittany may either being bringing him back to life as Dead Ricky with her psychic powers or he’s haunting her through a cheap gift and killing her friends and potential lovers. There is also the distinct possibility that neither of those plot points is actually what's happening.

Dream Stalker is an incoherent mess. A story that employs a dream narrative with a lot of reality bending can work, but it requires a very deft touch, and masterful editing. Dream Stalker doesn’t have any of that, but it tries to fill in the gaps with gore and nudity. The sound is often drowned out by wind noise, or blaring music. The lighting ranges from surprisingly good to ‘I can’t tell what the hell is happening.’ The special effects in Dream Stalker are a delight, much better than I would expect from an SOV feature. Dead Ricky’s disfigured face is the highlight of the whole production.

"Microsoft tells me you haven't installed Windows 10, yet..."

There are dozens of quirky moments that take Dream Stalker from being just another SOV movie to something special. Whether it’s Dead Ricky kindly putting on a condom before molesting Brittany, stunts gone wrong but left in the movie anyway, tough street kids who look liked they just walked out of Sears, or the single lamest roll down a steep hill that's been put to video. Dream Stalker never makes sense, but it certainly never stops having things happen on the screen.

For a late-in-the-game, shot -on-video movie, Dream Stalker would fit right in with such films as Things (1989), Boardinghouse (1982), and Sledgehammer (1983). It can be a chore to sit through with a constant undermining of the story in way that doesn’t blow minds, it just annoys. There is, without a doubt, a lot of love put into the production and there some effective moments here and there. It can be a difficult watch, but I think it's worth it for the occasional treat that Dream Stalker delivers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

VHS Summer Week #7

On Sunday, August 7th, 2016, Outpost Zeta hosted its first VHS_Party as part of VHS SUMMER. Ever since I started looking more into VCR culture and the people who collect it, I’ve seen fun events spring up around the U.S., complete with tape trading and movie screenings. I started looking for venues that would work within the O/Z budget (i.e. free). Not much response at first, but thankfully a local venue called Vega got in touch with me. They had a date open, but it was only two weeks out, so I had to scramble to make sure we had everything we needed.

With assistance from nerdyvinyl and Soft Sandalwood, we set up a Facebook event page, did some cross posting, and bothered friends about it. I had to do  a quick tech test (I had to get a component to HDMI converter) and prep a few tapes. My goal was to run the entire event from video tape, I could have cheated and used VHS rips from a laptop, but it was my first time out and I wanted it to be authentic.

We opened the night with a fifteen minute slideshow of VHS covers ranging from beautiful to lurid and often both at the same time. I set it to music from NewRetroWave’s Crypt EP. We also screened a video by Com Truise, and finally a little Simpsonwave.

Following that, there was a short feature, Creepy Classics (1987). This is a thirty-minute tape made by Hallmark which was sold with a purchase at their stores. The video features Vincent Price introducing an assortment of horror film trailers and movie clips from the 1950s and 60s. The selection was pretty well trod ground, but Price is always a complete delight to watch on screen. He gave it his all, even with something as disposable as this tape. The strangest part of this video is the fact that it pretty much shows the entirety of Christopher Lee’s killer severed hand segment from Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).

Master arm-wrestler, Paco Queruak.
Our feature presentation was one of my favorite movies, Hands of Steel (1986). A dystopic action extravaganza that combines, cyborgs, arm-wrestling, and writing things on toilet rolls in a way that only Italian genre cinema can do it. I know that Code Red has plans to release this on Blu-ray, and I’m excited to see it cleaned up, but it does possess a low rent grungy charm that compliments VHS perfectly.

The audience (All fifteen of them) wanted more, so without much hesitation, I introduced (and re-introduced to some) the joys of Alien Warrior (1986).  This science-fiction/kung-fu/gangsploitation/religious action comedy is one hundred minutes of confounding acting, direction, and script choices. Best of all, it only exists on VHS where it belongs.

Everyone seemed to enjoy the evening. They drank and ate lots of food, which should make the venue happy. They cheered and yelled at the screen, which makes me happy. I had brought some tapes to trade, but we didn’t have any other tape traders arrive, hopefully next time.

The Wal-Mart Special makes its first public appearance.
Did I say next time? Yes, I did. I’m happy to announce that Outpost Zeta will holding its next VHS_Party on October 17th, 2016. Follow the O/Z Facebook page so that you don’t miss out on the official event.

Thanks to everyone who helped, and thanks to everyone who came down to watch.

Be kind, rewind.

Friday, August 5, 2016

VHS Summer Week #6

Rock-A-Die Baby
Bob Cook

I like anthology movies, they usually offer enough variety that even if a current story isn’t working for you, the next one is just minutes away. Since the format is essentially a series of short films, it can allow for some experimentation with image and structure. A strong wrap-around or closing story can go a long way towards salvaging a struggling collection. An anthology movie has a lot of things it can draw from to make it a worthwhile venture. Rock-A-Die Baby fails at every single turn.
How many wrap-around segments does one movie require? Rock-A-Die Baby opens with a band manager grousing at his band about making a music video. Alright, you think to yourself, this band is going to somehow introduce or have some element that weaves through the stories.


Instead we then introduced to a mom (Marilyn Hasset) and her annoying child (Lauren Woodland). The kid insists on being told stories before she will go to bed. The mom proceeds to tell some tales that are, at best, wildly inappropriate for a child:

Jazz hands!
Story 1) A bunch of army guys during the Vietnam War wander around someone’s backyard in Florida a jungle shooting people. They capture a woman and debate what to do with her (none of it pleasant). Wouldn’t you know it, she’s probably not human at all.

It’s a simple story, and it feels the most coherent out of the three. The humor falls flat, and the talk of rape sours what is otherwise a pretty silly story. Still it has one funny gore gag and that puts it above the other two in terms of quality.

Story 2) A bunch of drunk college students play strip poker and decide to put on a fake séance to trick another girl in taking her clothes off. Which is I guess a thing that could happen.

You can probably guess exactly where this one is going, but the movie strings along the story for an interminable amount time. Only the occasional bout of nudity keeps things alive and even that isn’t enough stop this story from limping to its conclusion.

"I tore Endora's throat out and I'm not ashamed."
Story 3) In a shocking turn of events, one of these stories has something to with anything else that has happened prior in the movie. The mom/storyteller explains how she met her husband. It’s sort of a meet-cute with classic monsters. In theory it could be charming. In execution, it is excruciating.

The punchline is obvious once everything is in motion, and honestly there is something unsettling about seeing Dick Sargent aka Darren from Bewitched on the make. While waiting around for the story to get around to the joke, the viewer is blindsided by the single worst werewolf in cinematic history (and yes, I’m counting the one from Silver Bullet (1985)). If there is no other reason to sit through this movie, it is to see this astoundingly bad creation in all its glory.

Rock-A-Die Baby is tough movie to come by, as far as I can tell there are no legitimate US releases in any format. There are some grey market and foreign VHS versions. Is it worth all that work to see? Depends on your addiction to anthologies, and awful werewolves.



Friday, July 29, 2016

VHS Summer Week #5

Penelope Spheris

Grant (Jon Cryer), Biscuit (Daniel Roebuck), and Milo (Flea) are punks on their way through the desert in hopes of meeting the Go-Go's. They run afoul of some locals up to no good. One of the trio is viciously killed leading the other two on a journey that takes them from an Elvis impersonator named Daredelvis (Pete Wilcox) to the spiritual landscape of the Old West. Here they realize they must embrace that spirit if they hope to get revenge for their friend.

Under the modern lens I can see some of the antics in Dudes being considered, at best, insensitive to Native Americans, what with Biscuit adopting native dress, talking in broken English, and having spirit visions. There is such a lightness to the film that it’s difficult to believe that any of it was done maliciously. Here is a film about caricatures of punks transforming into caricatures of western movie archetypes, while they are aided by a caricature of Elvis. It attempts to reach the heart of the epic west via the silliest route possible.

"Well, Blane... fancy meeting you here."
Jon Cryer is certainly trading on some of the charm and goodwill he generated in from Pretty in Pink (1986) , he’s never quite convincing as an action hero but perhaps that is supposed to be the joke.  Daniel Roebuck steals the movie as Biscuit, his journey from put-upon outcast to mystic warrior is a cartoonish joy.  Lee Ving and the rest of the bad guys are scummy enough that you look forward to them getting what they deserve.

To date, the only way to see Dudes is on VHS. Why does such a cult oddity from a notable director have only a VHS release? The answer is music rights, which will probably be concern until someone with the time and money to untangle it comes along. The worse option is releasing it with alternate music, especially a film like this where the music is so closely intertwined with the story. The music is a mish-mash of western tinged rock, metal, and surprisingly very little actual punk music. Thematically Dudes resists being any particular thing, and since it was never going to outdo Repo Man (1984) for being the seminal  punk genre movie,  why even try?

"Alright guys, who took my sleeves?"
The relative ridiculousness of Dudes works well when its operating as an oddball comedy, but that does undermine the more dramatic moments. Key deaths in the film don’t carry quite the weight they might otherwise. The movie never creates the tonal whiplash it could veering from comedy to revenge thriller, but it never feels mean enough to dive into being black comedy either. The end result is a movie that goes through its various plot points with a certain comedic detachment. Maybe that is the most punk part of the whole thing.

Friday, July 22, 2016

VHS Summer Week #4 - Video Grab Bag!

Trollies Radio Show Sing-A-Long

Greg Page

We can thank the Chipmunks for starting this odd tradition of high-pitched voices crushing the life of out once relevant pop songs (I'm more of a Happy Hamsters person myself). Trollies Radio Show Sing-A-Long is not really different in that respect, the music is usually bland, but more often excruciating.  The Trollies are puppet versions of those semi-monstrous troll dolls with wild hair that become inexplicably popular every twenty-five years or so.  The puppetry is surprisingly decent. However, no amount of passable imagery on the screen can make up for the combination of screechy music and jokes so poorly written that toddlers would get up and walk out the door.  Trollies Radio Show Sing-A-Long is only thirty-five minutes long but you are going to be living every single one of those minutes. That said, the Trollies cover of the sub-par Beach Boys song, Kokomo, is livened up by a saxophone playing crab, and that made it almost worth the $0.25 I paid for this tape. Almost.

"The forecast calls for huge mountains of Angel Dust to the north..."

Night of the Living Glitch
George Romero/Art of the Glitch

Much to George Romero’s chagrin, Night of the Living Dead (1968), as most people have seen it, exists in the public domain. Throughout the 80s, it proliferated through numerous tape releases from every conceivable production company and countless showings on television. So there is something hardwired in those people who initially saw it through a CRT screen with a less than optimal source. Night of the Living Glitch takes the original film and deliberately introduces distortions and errors that are unique to each tape and each VCR that plays it. It transforms what is an endlessly repeated film into something new, and ties it back to the personal way it was experienced by many viewers. The image might not have been corrupted to quite the extent that Night of the Living Glitch displays, but I think it  adds a special personal element that many of Night of the Living Dead’s myriad remixes, remakes, and edits seem to miss. You can watch it in its digital form here.

"They're coming to glitch you, Barbara."

Rock N Roll Wrestling Woman vs. the Aztec Ape
Rene Cardona Jr./Rhino Home Video

Rock N Roll Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Ape is an edited version of Doctor of Doom (1964). It’s a tale of female luchadors, brain transplants, and an ape monster, so it’s pretty much perfect. One of the great paradoxes of luchador films is that the wrestling is often the least interesting thing in the whole production. This movie is no exception, but the trimming down of these scenes helps immensely. What makes these particular wrestlers Rock N Roll Wrestling Women, is the fact that Rhino has placed several rock-a-billy tunes throughout the story. They have been specifically written for this film and while they lack much in the way of polish, they are quirky little numbers that that manage to get stuck in your head long after you’ve rewound the tape.  At barely over an hour, the movie throws in a heady mix of music, action, plus a little gore, and manages to be quite a bit of fun.

Yep, wrestling women. Just like it says on the cover.