Groovy & Wild Films from Around the World

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Issue #69 - The Absolute Underground Papers

(Original text from Absolute Underground Issue #69 - originally published April, 2016)
It was the summer of 1994 that I walked into the little corner store – an independent retailer – at Richards & Pender Street in Vancouver. It was primarily music, a used and collectible record store; the proprietor also had a lot of CDs – but in the far back corner of the store, as far away from the summer sun streaming in through the large glass windows as physically possible, was a small wooden thrift-store bookshelf that held, in no discernible order whatsoever, used VHS tapes of all genres. Interestingly, there were no mainstream Hollywood movies there on that shelf. There were a couple of 80s horror films that starred a very young Bill Paxton, and a weird-looking horror-thriller that starred Sting and was directed by celebrated filmmaker Robert Altman with I title I have never again come across since that day (and can no longer remember what it was). Attempts to find this film on the internet have been fruitless, as well, and possibly the VHS cover was using an alternate title; this happened quite a bit in those days. I still remember Uumberto Lenzi's Nightmare City and its Canadian-release VHS cover from the early 80s – a naked woman hanging upside-down with her nipple torn off, and the alternative title “City of the Walking Dead” partially obscuring said ripped-off nipple. Also long forgotten was the name of this little corner used-record shop, the shop itself has been gone for decades now, replacing by an ever-increasingly dilapidated convenience store that is somehow, inexplicably, still in operation to this day. I do remember, however, having a lively conversation with the proprietor when I brought the used VHS tape of Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator up to his counter to purchase. He was a tall, young-ish man with a sore-looking condition of skin psoriasis all over his otherwise pale face. I was about to pay $9.95 plus tax for this used Re-Animator tape that had be re-packed in a black Amaray clamshell by some unknown video store long before it ever wound up at this guy's shop, and he proceeded to explain to me why the VHS videotape in my hands would never become valuable to any collector.

“Look at this,” he said, removing the videotape from inside the clamshell case and pressing the tiny black release button that allowed the back of the tape to swing up, exposing the magnetic tape and all of the thin silver and white reels the tape had to wind around in order to get from the right side to the left while playing through a VCR. “All these moving parts. Records don't have moving parts, and that's why they can become collectible. Something like this, all these parts and components – it will never become collectible. These tapes won't ever be worth anything to any collector”. I paid for my Re-Animator tape and left. 
I still have that tape to this day, almost 22 years later.

Funnily, I was not the only one to hold onto a couple of my old VHS horror tapes. In fact, I literally only held onto a couple of them when the DVD revolution hit. Now, though, it's astoundingly clear that VHS tapes have indeed become highly coveted collectors items, some going for hundreds of dollars on eBay and Amazon, in a time where we've gone even further beyond the original DVD revolution of the new millennium into HD and 4K Blu-ray disc media, creating something of a treasure trove for collectors of all types of media from magnetic standard definition to digital hi-def picture quality; and often, fans of niche and genre film fare are the ones benefiting; many genre (horror) titles have survived the advances in film media technology, and it's not unusual to see titles that have made it across all the home video formats: Betamax, VHS, Laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray (and I'll include digital streaming in this sentiment, as well). Of course the biggest impacts were made by the VHS, DVD and Blu-ray formats specifically, clearly defining the technological generations in home video history. And with these defined generations, we see that there are also titles that had skipped a generation, and it's amusing to me when I happen to come across a horror or cult film title that had run out its print in the VHS days only to make a surprise comeback on a hi-def 1080p Blu-ray disc, while missing out on the entire DVD generation altogether. 
Most recently, Slasher//Video (through an output/imprint deal with the Blu-ray distribution company Olive Films) has begun to release niche and sought-after horror and slasher videos on Blu-ray while incorporating the nostalgic aspects of the VHS days. These Slasher//Video releases were not entirely imagined by design – often, Slasher//Video (Olive Films) could only track down a Betacam SP tape master to provide us with the digital transfer to their Blu-ray discs – Betacam SP is a large videotape master, in standard definition (or Standard Play, SP), that was the standard delivery master to broadcast television and often to direct-to-video distribution in the eighties and nineties. In the case of the direct-to-video films, while they were nearly all originally shot on film, they were cut together and mastered only onto standard definition Betacam SP tapes in that bygone era of film and video production. The very name of these tapes – Standard Play – signified the maximum video quality that the technology had produced at that time. So now, mixing these distant generations of video technology, Slasher//Video has given us niche horror and genre fans a bit of an unusual and offbeat treat – we can see these wonderfully strange, gory, exciting, and low-budget originally direct-to-home-video horror movies in their original video/VHS anesthetic, but on a Blu-ray disc that will never wear down, no matter how many times the film is played at home. In the VHS days, god forbid you would fast-forward to your favourite part of the tape (an explosion of blood, a couple of boobs, a kickass werewolf transformation and subsequent gory slaughter) more than a couple of times; the tape would soon develop tracking issues and interruptive glitches, constantly changing the way you could see your favourite scenes. Admittedly, this is one of the charming aspects about VHS to some collectors. But for those who are keen on reliving the nostalgia of the VHS aesthetics with their 1980s horror obscurities, Slasher//Video and Olive Films have fallen on something very unique for horror fans, by delivering that VHS aesthetic on their Blu-ray and DVD releases. I'm curious to see how Slasher//Video's new mixed-technology retro-releases will be received by fans down the road. For me, it gives me the chance to see some of these films that I missed before the VHS tape went extinct, and I'm personally loving it. 


Sunday, September 09, 2018

RE-POST SERIES: Last House on Dead End Street... The Last Enigma

(This "Re-Post Series" is a re-introduction of older writings created for a now-defunct blog from 2011. Still some interesting stuff, though! Beware, some of the old links may or may not still work).

Roger Watkins' 1977 indie arthouse horror film has left behind a seared imprint on my mind since I first borrowed the Barrel release/double DVD from a good friend of mine back in 2004. I think the DVD itself had been released a year or two earlier... Since then, with Barrel's DVD having become woefully long out-of-print, I was able to find a different DVD copy quite easily (and cheaply) in the UK. Watching that film again, I was no less impressed than on the first viewing. There was something so rebellious, so fucking art, so bloody horrific in its low-budgetness... It was actually kind of profound in a way. Having been reminded of this flick in 2009, I began to wonder about the man behind the film. Roger Watkins. So I did what any slave to the kind of immediate self-satisfaction the internet generation has produced would do... I Googled him. And discovered forthwith that he'd died in 2007. Shame. But this was just the beginning of my curiosity, as it quickly piqued higher.

In Barrel's double-DVD there was also a booklet included where Roger Watkins (then going by the name Victor Janos) spoke about how the distribution company had literally - and physically - stolen the film (yes, the actual reels of film and negatives) from him back in '73. The film never appeared again until it's release by the shady distribution company in '77. Victor/Roger never even knew his film had been released (and re-titled) at all.

Also on this DVD is a special feature - the original episode of Joe Frankiln's talk show (originally aired on February 6, 1975) where Watkins speaks intelligently (though you get the sense he's high as a kite) along with his NY film prof about his movie, then titled "The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell". All of this had intrigued me back in 2004, but what I unearthed five years later only added to the mystique of Roger Watkins. I went looking for something, some films perhaps, or anything he'd done since the drug-addled Last House on Dead End Street. Well, here is a sample of what I found... Ultimately raising more questions than solving them, during the course of a day-long internet search that went from mysterious to enigmatically creepy. Judge for yourself.

From Wikipedia:
Last House on Dead End Street is a horror film released in 1977...
Few knew who actually directed the film, until Roger Watkins, who died in March 2007, posted on Internet message boards three decades after it was made saying he was behind it. The film was made in 1973, but was not released until four years later.
Watkins said he was high on amphetamines while making the film. He also said only about $800 was spent making the film, while the remaining $3,000 budgeted was used to buy drugs.
The film was virtually unavailable until Barrel Entertainment released a double-disc DVD in 2002. In the 1970s, its release was limited to grindhouse and drive-in theaters. The [original] version entitled The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell ran some 175 minutes in length - though the only remaining print of it in that form is thought to be stored in a New York film lab.
Also From Wikipedia:
Roger Michael Watkins was a film director best known for the notorious 1970s movie Last House on Dead End Street He also directed several porn films. He worked with famous porn actors like Jamie Gillis and Vanessa del Rio.
And from
"I was greatly distressed to hear of the passing of Roger Watkins, the director of the infamous cult classic Last House On Dead End Street on March 6 in Apalachin, N.Y. I saw that movie on 42nd Street and it really freaked me out at the time. The director’s name listed was “Victor Janos” (which was just a pseudonym for Watkins). Watkins was a director, author, editor and starred in the film as Terry Hawkins, just released from prison after a one year drug bust. Pissed off at the world, he rounds up a few friends and they decide to direct some films aimed at a “specialized” audience of degenerates. Actual snuff films, which they can make money from and get back at society with.
Watkins shot the movie after getting out of SUNY Oneonto college in 1972. In an interview he said there was $3,000 for the shoot but only $800 was used on the movie. The rest “I think it was to buy drugs,” he said. “I didn’t spend anything on that film.” It’s original title was The Cuckoo Clocks Of Hell (a reference from Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night). After it was finished it went through many shady distributors and didn’t hit theaters until 1977 as: The Fun House and later: Last House On Dead End Street, tying it into the Last House On The Left popularity. But as a film it still manages to unsettle -- it’s a nihilistic dark little horror masterpiece."

Some of the feedback from the Papermag obituary went as follows:

Elizabeth Watkins: "I am Roger's oldest daughter and I want to thank you for posting this article and paying tribute to him. I really miss him. He was the smartest guy I've ever met..."
Jo C. Schwarz: "Elizabeth, I am an old friend of your dad. I am sadden by the news of his passing. Roger was the smartest man I have ever met myself. His wit and charm will sorely be missed. He often talk about how smart you were as well."
Bob Arturi: "Elizabeth I had the pleasure of working with your dad at Bill Kolb Ford in Blauvelt, New York. He was one of the wittiest, smartest people I ever met. I lost contact with him for a while after he left the busines, but found him a little later at another dealership. He then totally left the business to move upstate and I didn't have the opportunity to speak with him before he passed away. I can't say enough good things about him, his sense of humor, our long conversations about his life in the cinema world, and of course his tales of his family. He will always be in my thoughts."
Barry Koch: "Elizabeth, Your Dad roomed at my house for a while back in the late 1980s. He was a brilliant, creative, and maddeningly mercurial human being... and remains unforgettable to those who knew him in to any degree. Despite the tempests that seemed to swirl about his restless mind, he always spoke lovingly of "his girls", you and your sister.
pedobear: "I loved roger too we hung out together looking for young girls. i will miss you. Pedophilia died with you. R.I.H"
ananymous: "Pedobear,  It is very important that I speak with you. You hold the key to a very important puzzle.  Please, please, please email me at this address. I will make it worth your while."
You can read the entire string of messages left behind at Papermag's obit here.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

3 Books a Month – August (Summer Reading)

At first, I thought I wasn't going to meet the challenge this month! (For those new to this, my wife Nicki and have currently have a three-books-a-month challenge taking place – indefinitely. It started in June). However, I actually passed the goal quite literally (ha!) in the eleventh hour on the 31st – of course, if you were to ask Nicki about it, she;d tell you that my last book didn't count. More on that later. So, the reason I almost didn't make the goal this August was actually in part the fault of the first book I'd read – Joe R. Lansdale's “The Thicket”. I've always loved Lansdale's work, though he's one of my favourite authors whose books I seem to only get around to every couple of years (I've really gotta change that, there are still a few of his early ones I haven't gotten to yet) – but hands-down, “The Thicket” is now my favourite Lansdale book. It's a Western-type of seek-and-revenge tale, with a Southern existential weirdness that really only Lansdale can do justice to (especially as he practically invented this style). This one is definitely the pick of the month. Following this, I absolutely devoured Stephen King's latest, “The Outsider”. And as much as I loved this book and the insane plot turns it took following the arrest of a child-killer who may or may not be innocent, and who was widely adored in his own community, I have to admit I was slightly annoyed (only slightly, mind you) as I was getting to the finale of the novel only to realize that there was a reliance on characters introduced earlier in King's “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy, which I had/have not read yet. Minor thing, though, but I'm a little OCD (just ask Nicki) and so I would've liked to have known that beforehand, and I might've read Mr. Mercedes first. At any rate, “The Outsider” is still very much recommend.
Finishing this novel was where the trouble began – I was dying to go back to something Lansdale-esque. But instead of reading another book, I launched into the Preacher television series on Amazon Prime and binge-watched the first two seasons. (I would've done three, but the third season wasn't available yet. Which might've been a good thing). As I ran out of Preacher episodes to gorge myself on, I remembered that back when I was experimenting with getting into graphic novels, I had actually purchased a Preacher book – Volume 4, “Ancient History”. I honestly couldn't tell you how long I'd held onto that graphic novel for, having purchased it years ago from Golden Age Comics on Granville Street. I can tell you that it had been stuffed to the back of the top shelf of the bedroom closet, and at one in the morning it wasn't going to go over really well if I woke Nicki up digging through my back-issues of The Walking Dead and Marvel Zombies to find this fucking thing, so I gave up after a cursory glance. Instead, I went for a trade paperback that my friend Vincent Ternida had given us a few days earlier – it was, in fact, his
first published novel. “The Seven Muses of Harry Salcedo” regards the trials and tribulations of singles-dating in Vancouver, told from Vincent's keen eye on Vancouver living and getting through a daily grind in what is often a schizophrenic city, even for people who were born here. His observations on the city are humorously perfect (the description of his “Java Mausoleum” in the first chapter instantly reminded me of the time I saw two young women carrying a new espresso machine to the cashier in the downtown Best Buy while both of them were carrying Venti Starbucks coffee beverages); and the description of Harry's dating life are colorfully painted with his uncannily acute sardonic/loving descriptions of culture in the city. As I actually managed to finish my friend's first novel before the
end of August, I found myself with one day to spare, so I did dig out the Preacher graphic novel (in the daytime, as to not find myself in the same predicament as two nights earlier), and finished it off on the 31
st. Although Nicki will maintain that “comics don't count” (okay, I might be paraphrasing there), I disagree when said comic is over 200 pages and boasts a lot of text and the stylized writing of Garth Ennis. “Ancient History” was mostly filmed in the first two seasons of Preacher, but I have to say that it temporarily satisfied my newfound addiction and gave me a new-found appreciation for the original graphic novels. Now all I have to do is track down the other eight books from the original saga... 



(This "Re-Post Series" is a re-introduction of older writings created for a now-defunct blog from 2011. Still some interesting stuff, though! Beware, some of the old links may or may not still work).

So I was at my pal and co-producer Peter Speers’ place yesterday picking up the final video exports of our recent double-feature, when I’m snooping across his bookshelves and I come across a DVD titled “The Severed Arm” from 1973. Now, this DVD wasn’t exactly out in the open. It had been packaged in the cheapest of cheapest slip-covers (actually it was more of a Photoshopped envelope) and had been squeezed in between “Dawn of the Dead” and “Matchstick Men” and I assume completely forgotten about. It was still shrink-wrapped! According to Peter and his girlfriend Jen, neither of them had any clue as to how that DVD had gotten there on their bookshelf. The package promised gory cannibalism and some kick-ass revenge, while on the front of the envelope there was a picture of a hand that likely had no part in the actual film whatsoever with the tagline: “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing!”. So of course, we watched it.

Turns out this DVD was distributed by some company called “Dollar DVD”. I assume it had cost a dollar, but there was no price tag on it, even though it was still wrapped. So we throw it into the DVD player, and The Severed Arm starts off in a dimly-lit morgue, where some disguised antagonist saws the arm off of a corpse and then sends it out “Special Delivery” (not kidding – that’s what the package actually said) through the US postal service to our protagonist. From there, it’s pretty much a tedious 85 minutes showing us a complete lack of gore, horror, suspense, competent acting, and for the most part even a heavy lack of exploitation, until we (finally) get to the end, where there’s a lame-ass twist (the killer isn’t who we thought it was, it was somebody you never even knew existed!) coupled with a pretty good revenge twist… if only we got to see it, that is, instead of simply listening to the characters talk about it.

Well, the beer helped, that was for sure. The only fun part was watching it with a couple of friends, and I suppose that’s what these flicks are all about, anyway (although back in ’73 I assume we would’ve been watching it at the drive-in). Still, I wondered who was responsible for this schlock? Some of the credits at the end of the film seemed made-up, but I can’t be certain. Apparently the director also made a movie called “Coed Dorm”. Not much else to go on.

Till the next one, then…