Super Effective Horror Microshorts; or: How to Scare Audiences in the Age of Short Attention Spans

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Ugh.

So, as of recent, I’ve been really interested in creating Microshort films.

I’d define a Microshort as any film that is, basically, less than 5 minutes long. That’s a lot of story to cram into such a short amount of time.

The ironic thing is that when I started making films, I was inspired by Michaelangelo Antonioni. Agnes Varda. Andrei Tarkovsky. Michael Haneke. In other words, long takes. Long, drawn out shots without cutting or intersplicing, sometimes going as long as five minutes. Or more. Michael Haneke has one steady shot in Funny Games that lasts ten minutes. Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark is one, continuous moving shot that lasts 96 minutes (the entirety of the film). Point is, I like long takes.

That is until Wes Craven put a call out for filmmakers to make a 30 second horror short.

It wasn’t something I’d ever done before, but I accepted the challenge. Plus, Wes Craven was contracted to watch it. Why wouldn’t I do this? It’s a win-win situation.

You can watch the short below. Shameless plug, I know.

It takes me a while to latch on to new innovations. When Napster came out, I immediately snubbed it for the sole purpose they didn’t have any tracks by this surf band I liked called The Dead Barons (SUCH A STUPID REASON.) I didn’t own a cell phone until all my friends finally forced me to in the mid-2000s. So, the thought of milennials like myself dismissing media because they didn’t want to take the time to read/view/listen to these things in all its entirety was hard for me to swallow. Instead of moving with the rapidly changing times, I’d sit here reminiscing about the “good ol’ days”; I didn’t fight, I flew away.

I’m fast-forwarding a bit, but the summer after I shot Selfie, I met a man named Len Cella at a Film Fest called Severed, where he was promoting the re-release of a compilation of his short films, and also, coincidentally, where Selfie screened. You may not know him (unfortunately not many do), but I was familiar with his efforts.

A little bit of history: Back in the 80s, when the VHS boom exploded, filmmakers utilized straight-to-video as a means to get their films visibility. Amateur and poor filmmakers used tape back then to distribute their films to video stores because obtaining a theatrical release just wasn’t in the cards. Nowadays, you can do it with YouTube or Vine or Facebook. They also used tapes by way of the “camcorder” to actually make their movies since the price of buying and developing film – the only way to make movies then – was just hella expensive.

Len Cella was a lonely man with a video camera. Much of his personal life has been kept hidden, but if you watch his short films, it appears either his wife or partner is never at the house and he takes this as opportunity to express his art or… he is alone and left to his own devices. He was the sole writer/director/actor/producer. He was a Jack of all trades.

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The one and only, Len Cella.

When I was in high school in the late 90s/early 2000s, I went to the video store one day and found a tape called Moron Movies. There were no pictures on the box, just the description “Over 100 Short Comedy Films” and several names of films like “Another Use for Tough Meat” and “The Advantage of Having Warts”. Johnny Carson apparently caught wind and showed a multitude of these shorts on The Tonight Show.

Needless to say, I rented it that day. When I popped it in my VCR, I was taken aback.

I didn’t know it then, but this guy was ahead of his time. His “short films” were each, on average, probably 10 seconds long. This undoubtedly was a precursor to Vines – which, if you are not aware, gives users only 6 seconds of video on their iPhones to work with. His films were silly and stupid, and packed a hell of a punch.

Horror and comedy work very similar in that way, just that they illicit different reactions. A short set-up, and then the punchline. And that’s exactly how I approached the making of this film. I guess you could say that Len Cella sort of inspired Selfie. It opened up my eyes to a whole new world of filmmaking and I love it. I’m not entirely sure if this is where horror filmmaking or just filmmaking in general is headed, but I am most definitely along for the ride.

But I also drew in some other inspirations. The horror microshort can also trace its roots back to storytelling in general – more specifically, the “two sentence horror story“. The most famous of these goes something like this:

“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”

This duo of statements is a complete story on its own; however, it is actually the opening of a larger story entitled “Knock” by Fredric Brown. Most don’t know this, nor do they care, because the passage is already evocatively spooky. The two-sentence horror story’s comedic counterpart is the one-liner – a favorite of mine is this one by Groucho Marx: “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas, how he got into my pajamas I’ll never know.” Both give you a setup/fakeout and then a punch. This is key in the horror microshort.

I’d like to now morph this article into LIST FORM and just recommend some of my favorite Microshorts of the horror genre.

1. BEDFELLOWS (Drew Daywalt, 2008)

The first “horror microshort” I ever saw is a film called Bedfellows by Drew Daywalt. I have no idea how I even stumbled upon it. I’m sure I was in some YouTube vortex, and it popped up in my queue. Drew Daywalt started FEWDIO  around the time of the writer’s strike as a way to make his own films without duress from studios. The film clocks in at just over a minute long, company logo and credits excluded. It is simple and fucking TERRIFYING. It’s amazing that all he needs to set up the story is a quick pan of framed pictures on nightstands of a couple and a shot of two people in bed. Then, boom. Scary stuff.

2. LIGHTS OUT (David F. Sandberg, 2013)

Lights Out is actually due out as a feature film this summer. But the reason Sandberg could do that is due in part by how quickly his original short film went viral and scared the pants off of everyone who clicked the shared link on their Facebook pages. Sandberg is actually, and I’m not even joking, the undisputed King of the horror Microshort. If you go to his YouTube channel, ponysmasher, you’ll see that he has a plethora of less-than 3 minute horror shorts. And if you haven’t seen the above film yet, do yourself a favor and indulge. PLEASE.

3. STAY DEAD (Danny Donahue, 2015)

Much like David F. Sandberg, Danny Donahue is another up-and-coming Microshort filmmaker. His YouTube and Vimeo pages are riddled with shorts that terrify in seconds. Stay Dead was made for an Eli Roth 17 Second Horror Film contest, and what I love about it is how quickly you understand the character’s background. Weathered-looking woman with a knife. Scary creature behind her. Her first and only line: “Stay dead”. It’s obvious she’s dealt with this creature before. Is it a figment of her imagination? Who knows. But what we do know is that it’s very real to her. And I’d reckon she’s been reliving this in a sort of Groundhog Day loop. With that in mind, it’s an added terror that weighs on you after a quarter of a minute.

4. DUMPED (Mattia Querci, 2015)

Dumped was made for a a film festival called, befittingly, The 15 Second Horror Film Challenge. One of the judges happens to be Lloyd Kaufman of Troma Entertainment fame, and although it came in 2nd place, it was my favorite. This, probably more than the others, works most like a joke. Not that the film is funny, but that the structure presents itself in a way that really turns your initial expectation on its head. You start to think one thing, and the inverse happens. Much like that crass joke Rodney Dangerfield told: “I tell ya, my wife was never nice. On our first date, I asked her if I could give her a goodnight kiss on the cheek – she bent over!” Obviously, you presume that when he says “cheek” he means the side of her face. The one bit of dialogue in Dumped works similarly with a morbid outcome.

source: http://www.jokes4us.com/peoplejokes/comedianjokes/rodneydangerfieldjokes.html

5. BLOODY MARY (Corey Norman, 2014)

I have had the pleasure of working with Corey on the awesome Maine horror showcase, Damnationland: The Way life Should Bleed, as producers, and also, Corey put me in touch with Vestra Pictures to shoot a microshort for an anthology series called 60 Seconds to Die, on which we both have films. Corey and I knew of each other because we had both submitted films to The ABCs of Death 2 and were the only two Maine filmmakers to do so. I gladly take partial credit for Corey’s making of Bloody Mary. I asked him to shoot a minute-long short for a project I was working on called Howleenies! that fell through for different reasons. Silver lining: He made this masterpiece.

6. MASS (Matthew Ragsdale, 2013)

In 2014, I made a film for a compilation called Magnetic Mixtape Madness Volume 2, distributed by Briarwood Entertainment, the same company to re-release Len Cella’s Moron Movies. On it, lies a short called Mass. The film takes much inspiration from equal parts Grindhouse and Satanic panic. It’s quick, gory, and takes no prisoners.

7. TEA TIME (Erik Deutschman, 2009)

Much like Stay Dead, it is unclear whether or not the visions of the main character are real or of the mind. Tea Time uses its 3-minute time frame to unfold the happenings of a woman who is plagued by the aftermath of a bath-related incident. She is seemingly nice on the outset (the drinking of tea, the floral dress), but there is an animated force that lurchces toward her. It is shot on film – the only one on this list! – and disturbs rather than jump-scares.

8. GREY MATTER (Timothy Nelson Thomas, 2014)

Maybe it’s the deterioration of the film itself, presumably transferred to tape for effect. Maybe it’s the ending that comes out of nowhere much like Gregg Araki’s Kaboom. Either way, Thomas’ ode to Reagan-era films about the contention of television, a la They Live, Poltergeist, Scrooged and Videodrome was my favorite contribution to Wes Craven’s Terror in 30 Seconds or Less. The inclusion of Ronnie giving a speech on the TV over a helpless woman limping toward her doom is assuredly a jab toward Americana.

9. HE DIES AT THE END (Damian McCarthy, 2008)

One man. One computer. Perhaps this is based on our anxieties of Big Brother? What do we do about knowing the outcome of the movie in the title? Is it because we’re masochistic? Does it terrify us even more knowing the inevitable is about to happen? What do you see in that dark room behind you?

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LaVeyan Satanism and the Spaghetti Western, Part One: An Introduction

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Preparati la bara! aka Django, Prepare a Coffin (Ferdinando Baldi, 1968)

In the sixties, a group of progressive westerns rose in the wake of the nuclear familial and overtly conservative 40’s and 50’s that were significantly dissimilar to that of the John Ford western, the Howard Hawks western, or even the John Wayne western (all three cross-pollinated in some way mostly due in part by John Wayne, who starred in a slew of both the former directors’ films). Colloquially and pejoratively, they were, and still are, referred to as “Spaghetti Westerns” as a result of Italian producers, directors and/or actors having a role in these films. While early American Westerns dealt with the lone and attractive cowboy on a quest of good vs. evil, the Spaghetti Western utilized grungy misanthropic delinquents as their main protagonists who based their existence solely out of self-interest and nihilism. Congruently, around the same time Sergio Leone released A Fistful of Dollars, now known as the “path-breaking Spaghetti Western that ‘made’ the genre”[1], a man by the name of Anton Szandor LaVey founded the Church of Satan and released a book of his writings, The Satanic Bible, in 1966. The point of LaVeyan Satanism was not to partake in “bloody sacrifices” or commit “unspeakable crimes against children”[2] (which were common accusations amongst Christian fundamentalists), but, in fact, it was to free one’s self from the stranglehold of organized religion which demanded followers to conform to a set of rules. In the case of Anton LaVey’s preachings, the sole existence of The Satanic Bible was to lead society into a life of Fundamental individualism. While Christians believed that setting yourself apart from God’s teachings will take you straight to Hell, LaVeyan Satanism actually celebrated sin like indulgence and hedonism (and it should be of some prevalence to note that the official Satanic holiday is one’s own birthday as “[e]very man is a god if he chooses to recognize himself as one”.)[3] In this paper, I will not only try to make an argument that Spaghetti Westerns and LaVeyan Satanism share a link, but, also, that Spaghetti Westerns are, in fact, ideologically Satanic. Through this comparative analysis, we will better understand not only their own modes of existing, but understand them conjointly as one distinct system of thought. In addition, I will try to bring to the foreground the contextual historicalities in which they arose and why this particular time period was grounds for breeding such ideologies.

For those that lived during the 1950s may remember life as a maturing period, a time full of discipline and order, but at the same time it was racist, sexist, “fatuously complacent”, materialistic and ripe for conformity.[4] For those who were born after the years of the “Packaged Society”, have films, which were inherently reflective of the times, especially Westerns, and they “increasingly questioned the quality of community life in terms similar to contemporary social criticisms of postwar America’s placid and conformist character.”[5] Therefore, these early Westerns criticized the very society from which they were born. Let’s take for example a film like The Last Frontier (1956) starring Victor Mature: the film placates the “Indian as a savage” theme by isolating the hero’s conscience from the conformist society to show that the racism comes from within that very society which is fed by its misguided placidity, but a film like The Searchers (1956), which sets out to examine and comment on racism, only digs itself into a deeper hole as John Wayne, playing an “Indian hater”, justifies genocide by revealing the opposing force as cruel hunters of the white man. According to New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael, “John Ford […] has turned the Western into an almost static pictorial genre, a devitalized, dehydrated form which is ‘enriched’ with pastoral beauty and evocative nostalgia for a simple, basic way of life.”[6] Along with the unnecessary racism that plagued society in those days (black children were not integrated into all-white schools until 1957), the fifties also saw a re-instatement of religion into the United States. In reaction to Communist enemies, Congress used “In God We Trust” as the country’s motto in 1956, and, two years prior, Eisenhower added “one nation under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, thereby asserting, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is.”[7]

It’s almost fitting that after the 1950s ended, young men and women everywhere who opposed the war underwent “alternative lifestyles” by experimenting with drugs and sex, and, to quote then Governor Ronald Regan, these were the same troubled kids who dressed “like Tarzan”, had “hair like Jane”, and smelled “like Cheetah”.[8] This is what we now know as the “Counterculture period of the 1960s”, a social movement that flourished for an entire decade— and did so around the world, hitting most, if not all, continents. During this time in Italy, running water was almost non-existent, and a revolution of indoor plumbing—Xeroxing the American consumerist model—found its way into most homes by the 1960s.[9] The Christian Democracy was falling apart, losing support from the population, and the Communist Party began infiltrating certain regions. But the Christian Democracy, still supported by the Vatican, believed it was a sin for anyone who was Catholic to vote Communist.[10] In context to the American western, by the end of 1959, the cowboy became “a vanishing symbol of individualism in an age of togetherness and conformity.”[11] The social revolution not only happened in the “real world”, but also within American mythologies, thereby recontextualizing and modifying pre-conceptualized stories for situations outside the fictional world.

Let us go back even further, all the way to April 11th, 1930, when Anton LaVey came into the world. Born in Chicago, Illinois to a Jewish father, Joseph Levey, and a half-Russian half-Ukrainian mother, Augusta Coultron, LaVey was not a typical youth—but also not the kind of youth you would expect a future Satanist to be, either. Almost instantly, LaVey became disillusioned by sports and instead grew up with a fond admiration for the occult and ghost stories (which were supplied to him by his grandmother, Luba Kolton, and via Weird Tales magazine) and educated himself outside of school by reading books by writers of “rational self- interest”, and Nietzsche’s Übermensch. In the middle of his junior year of high school, he dropped out, pursuing a career at local carnivals as a roustabout, then a cage boy, then a player of the calliope. It was at this point that LaVey spied one of his Sunday school teachers with his pants down amongst topless cowgirls in a circus tent one fateful Saturday night, only to show up to Church the next morning—this time, with his pants up. This was the moment LaVey “claims […] as his Christian disillusionment and Satanic epiphany.”[12]

Almost exactly one year before the birth of LaVey and all the way across the globe, on June 3rd, 1929, Sergio Leone was born to artistic parents, Vincenzo Leone, a film director, and Edvige Valcarenghi (stage-named “Bice Walerian”), an actress who gave up her career when her son came into the world. As a child, Leone would gather up his friends to form a cinephilic gang of sorts, and, often times, found themselves staring at the screen of American films featuring icons as Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper—not Italian telefoni bianci (“white telephone comedies”) which he loathed at the time.[13] While a young Leone consciously or subconsciously took “notes” for future films, the Second World War just broke out, and Mussolini brought in Italian forces when Sergio was just ten. As he grew older, and under the regime of the Christian Democracy of Italy, Leone states that he was “a disillusioned Socialist [to] the point of becoming an anarchist.”[14] This attitude laid the groundwork for what is now known as the cowboy’s ideology in most of Leone’s westerns. He continues, “Ford was full of optimism while I, on the other hand, am full of pessimism.”[15] Ford’s movies and others of the like were intended to show that “violence was the fault of evil and corrupt men,”[16] but Leone represented the cowboy in his modified western, A Fistful of Dollars, as a crook who infiltrates two families in order to profit for himself—a far cry from the moralistic values of his predecessors.

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High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973)

This is precisely the type of attitude that excited Anton LaVey, and one for which he fought tooth and nail: those who inhabit radical, independent values, abiding by rules of “might is right” and an “eye for an eye”, and finding solace in their alienation. Whereas the American Western oozes classicism, the spaghetti Western, on the other hand, is a romantic entity.[17] If the former is marked by John Ford’s quick dolly in to John Wayne’s face, racking focus as he shouts his first words in Stagecoach, representing a perfect symbol of the patriarchy, then surely the scene in which The Stranger shoots and kills four townsmen in the first ten minutes of the A Fistful of Dollars for antagonizing him and not letting him pass through town alone exemplifies the latter. According to Blanche Barton, LaVey’s biographer, she claims that “LaVey was impressed by […] outlaws who survived outside the system by exploiting men’s natural foibles and vices. He considered them rough-hewn versions of [Sir Basil] Zaharoff, with philosophy and conviction behind their actions.”[18] The “outlaws” to which Barton is referring, of course, are not actual “oulaws from the west”, but people who worked outside the society. Though it is uncertain whether or not LaVey actually watched Spaghetti Westerns, those select few he adored in his life were bandits by trade. Zaharoff was known for his crafty—and very much corrupt—way of dealing with business financiers during World War I. He often times would sell arms to both sides of the conflict, allowing them to fight fire with fire.

Before moving on, I would like to quickly reiterate the distinctions between the two camps of Satanism by stating that the films I plan to discuss in the forthcoming chapters will not deal wholly with the popular worldviews of Satanism, most notably theistic Satanism, due in part by LaVey and his followers not believing in God, the Devil, or any specific deity. For instance, because Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter takes place in “Hell”, or some sort of limbo as it were, these religious undertones sway from the ideological standpoints I wish to examine (not to mention it was distributed by Universal Studios, and the only Italian handiwork that remains prevalent are in the obvious homages to Sergio Leone’s style); Drifter will unfortunately be omitted. Furthermore, on the surface, Edward Dein’s Curse of the Undead and Alejandro Jodowrosky’s El Topo fall under the westerns that incorporate the occult/paranormality in their stories, and although LaVey integrated magic into some of his writings, it is not conducive to being a Satanist, nor does it seek to recognize the supernatural as fact. The films throughout the next chapters have been carefully selected and represent LaVey’s teachings to the best of my ability. Using scenes, lines of dialogue, and stillframe images, I will demonstrate that these Italianized cowboys abide by their own volition, thereby sticking with the countercultural view of outside citizens, and, in a nutshell, The Church of Satan.

[1] Bert Fridlund, The Spaghetti Western: A Thematic Analysis, p. 4

[2] Blanche Barton, The Secret Life of a Satanist, p. 14

[3] Anton Szandor LaVey, The Satanic Bible, p. 96

[4] Bruce Bawer, “The Other Sixties”, published in the October issue of The Wilson Quarterly

[5] John H. Lenihan, Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film, p. 115-116

[6] As quoted in Christopher Frayling’s Sergio Leone: Something to do with Death, p. 122

[7] James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States 1945-1974, p. 329.

[8] As quoted in P. Braunstein’s and Michael William Doyle’s Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960’s and 70’s, p. 6

[9] Richard Drake, “Italy in the 1960s: A Legacy of Terrorism and Liberation”

[10] Andrea Nicolia and Paolo Nascimbeni, “Life in Italy 1950s to the 1960s: The Era of La Dolce Vita”,

[11] As quoted by Martin Nussbaum in John G. Calwelti’s chapter “Analyzing the Western”, The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel, p. 128

[12] Blanche Barton, The Secret Life of a Satanist, p. 20

[13] Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to do with Death, p. 25

[14] Sarah Hill, “Sergio Leone and the Myth of the American West: Once Upon a Time in the West

[15] Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to do with Death

[16] John Cawelti, The Sixgun Mystique

[17] Bert Fridlund, The Spaghetti Western: A Thematic Analysis, p. 8-9

[18] Blanche Barton, The Secret Life of a Satanist, p. 27

Hell is Other People: Camp, Video Culture and Literally Going Insane in Andrew Jordan’s ‘Things’

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Ross Morin, whom I’ve known since we were 14 years of age, is a professor of Film Studies at Connecticut College, and the person who coined the phrase “the Citizen Kane of bad movies” when referring to The Room. He’s the go-to person when talking about Tommy Wiseau’s tour-de-folly. You’ve got a question, he’s got an answer. He first presented the film to me—as the “worst movie ever”—in either 2006 or 2007 when his friend and creative collaborator, Evan Clar, came back from Los Angeles after being confronted by Wiseau’s giant mug on a billboard hanging above the L.A. freeway. This was before the movie was available to stream on Netflix. They had to actually, gulp, buy the DVD to watch it. When Ross sat me down, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. We’ve all seen bad movies. How could this one be any worse?

I don’t know why, but I pictured a bunch of dude-bros with a shitty mini-DV camera who desperately wanted to film a Wedding Crashers Xerox. This was not the case. Instead, I got a crockpot of overzealous and solipsistic filmmaking with lines of dialogue that had to have been written by the Zucker Brothers. Surely, this had to be the case. It wasn’t… and don’t call me Shirley. The whole kit and caboodle was corralled by a creature known as Tommy Wiseau, who looks a lot like Peter Steele’s burn-victim brother and has the strangest of accents that, even to this day, not one person can pinpoint its origin. I can assure you that never in a million years would my brain have ever created the image of this man, let alone his naked body, which will be burned into my retinas for eternity.

But calling it the worst movie ever made is a sort of injustice to the film. I sometimes think people are overly sensational with their words for my taste when talking about this or Plan 9 from Outer Space. They’re both so welcoming of an active spectatorship (that in most public appearances of Wiseau’s film, spoons are literally hurled at the screen), reminiscent of Rocky Horror screenings, and the rifftrax we all came to love in Mystery Science Theater 3000 play a major role in its popularity, too. What I mean to say is, it’s camp. It’s the reason we’re able to watch reality shows like Jersey Shore or any number of the “Real Housewives” incarnations. And with the advent of the internet, we can now watch and appreciate camp at will with things like Tay Zonday’s “Chocolate Rain” and Rebecca Black’s “Friday”, and, most recently, that darn blue/black/white/gold dress debacle. And, yes, that’s camp—the viral phenomenon as well as the dress itself. The Room is no different. The cast of characters’ blunders are infectious. We love to revel in their next-level irrationality.

In Susan Sontag’s wonderful piece, “Notes on Camp”, she defines such things as “the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience”. There’s a loudness, obnoxiousness, a sort of “hey, look at me” aspect to camp that separates it from A) those items we love because they are competent, honest, well-revered; they affect us on deeper levels, both intellectually and emotionally, and B) those we do not love because they are subpar; we detach any sort of emotional affiliation we would have with it and save it for something more deserving. If we don’t love something, either ironically or truthfully, we banish it from our minds. There’s no need for it anymore. It is the “love of the unnatural”, “of artifice and exaggeration”, Sontag explains further, that comes when watching William Hung sing “She Bangs” for the umpteenth time.

There’s another level to all this, something I’d describe as “Hollywood Babylon-ian intrigue”. People—us normal citizens, or “muggles”, if I were to borrow the term from Ms. Rowling—love to hear about celebs’ “private lives”. Kenneth Anger (who knows a little sumthin-sumthin’ about camp, I might add) had his hand in what we now know today as the “gossip magazine”. His historical bible on the scandals of Tinseltown has become somewhat modernized, though completely déclassé, in the form of US Weekly and People magazine, and, vomit, TMZ. At any rate, this is the sort of thing that fuels us at our 9-5 jobs when swarming around the water cooler. “Did you hear about so-and-so?” “Drug rehab!” “Again?” “You guessed it.” The Room is such an instance. Because Tommy Wiseau is so, how do I put it, bonkers, both visually and audibly, his “Oh hai, Mark” was the potshot heard ‘round the world. “Who is this person?” we all thought. “What would compel them to make this mess?” It is a mystery, and the theories we create to fill these voids bind our love for the esoteric. The fact that Wiseau could possibly be an extra-terrestrial, or YIKES! that he’s actually been self-aware this whole time, give The Room new meaning, and new fans.

This brings me to the film that started this essay altogether, a film that I really can’t say I want to view in its entirety ever again. And for good reason, too, because unlike The Room, this is a film that serves you better if you don’t watch it. It’s kind of like that tape in Ringu: watching it would prompt immediate death or insanity. Even my buddy Justin Rice at Briarwood Entertainment (who has released some so-bad-it’s-good treasures via his distro company) said to me, “I hope you didn’t watch it alone. If you did you’re more of a man than I.” Well, I didn’t. And I’m glad. The notorious film in question is Things from 1989, directed by Andrew Jordan, written and produced by Jordan and Barry J. Gillis with a modest budget of about $400,000, and starring Gillis and Doug Bunston.

To say this film is an endurance test is putting it lightly. Upon initial viewing, it would be hard to synopsize the film as I’m not entirely sure what happened, but I’ll give it a go. Jordan and Gillis work within a very bare-bones structure, leaving much to be desired; even the title’s use of the word ‘things’ is vague, as it simply refuses to identify anything about the story or its conflict. Basically, though, Doug Bunston plays a husband who desperately wants to have children, but cannot, and becomes so consumed with his own infertility that he hires a doctor to experiment with helping to impregnate his wife. This all goes awry quite fast as large cockroach-like monsters explode from her womb. Surprisingly, though, this is the least of their worries.

Things is its own personal hell: characters confined to one space for the entirety of the film (lit by a non-diegetic red light) seemingly walk in and out of the same doorway and in circles for no reason, and speak nonsequitors; they were for the most part going insane and so was I. Even at face value, if you want to assign Things any bit of subtext, you might say that the film embodies anxieties about Doug’s virility, or that it’s depicting the pangs of child birth as an aberration. But I’m going to totally dispute those theories and say it actually has nothing to do with that, that the film is doing something completely and utterly different.

I first encountered the volatile Canuxploitation film because I fancy myself a collector of VHS paracinema, and it kept popping up in my travels. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of Z-grade movies (like the sordid Nail Gun Massacre, Mausoleum, or The Last Slumber Party, to name a few), but Things flat-out nauseated me. I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic when I say this because I intend, in the literal sense of the word, that it made me sick. This has less to do with the gore, which is pretty tame by lo-fi standards of the late 80s, and more to do with the fact that I felt like I was watching the visual representation of listening to a broken record.

For Halloween one year, I asked my friend Wayne if he wanted to give Things a shot. We pressed play, sat back and attempted to have a relaxing evening together. This fell short, unfortunately, because the entire time we were watching the movie, there was a strange beeping sound in his apartment that seemed to be coming from an undisclosed place, inside the walls. We were racking our brains trying to figure out what it was and where it was coming from, to no avail. His dog whimpered and barked at the damn thing and wouldn’t stop until he found out what it was. At first, we’d pause the movie, get up, search for about ten minutes, come back to the couch and press play. But once the beeping started up again, and consistently without fail throughout the night, we ceased ever pressing the pause button again. So, as the movie played on, our own lives began to mimic the characters in the film: we were walking in and out of doorways, in circles, mindlessly, like zombies, meandering about while an unknown entity drove us to the brinks of our sanity. It was hellish, indeed.

This event is something of a postmodern spectacle, one that Fredric Jameson calls “schizophrenic”[1]. The spectators’ domestic environments, needs, and distractions begin to bleed into their own movie-going experience. Home viewing is still a new tradition, believe it or not, as I write this in 2015, considering, in the grand scheme of things, VCRs started to infiltrate our homes in the mid-to-late 1970s, while the first commercial film ever to screen in a theater occurred in 1895. The concept of a fragmented and unengaged spectator is nothing new, however. In the 1950s, surrealists André Breton and Jacques Vaché would make a point to jump from theater to theater, neither showing up on time nor staying until the end of a film, thus refusing to be passive viewers, as described in the former’s essay, Comme dans un bois. They created their own movie, based on the disjointed segments of their impromptu itinerary.

In her essay, “Medium Cool: Video Culture, Video Asthetics”, Joan Hawkins posits that each spectator may have wholly different experiences with the same film, just based on the individual’s surroundings.

“Armed with a remote control, the viewer can replay selected bits of a film, fast-forward through unsettling sequences, watch the film in installments, watch parts of it frame by frame, or stop it altogether. She can also create composite cinematic texts by alternately viewing two films or by crosscutting between a movie on the VCR and the six o’clock news. That is, she can become a truly active viewer, one who creates her own texts, one who feels free to disrupt the narrative flow.”[2]

This was also an act of defiance that many cinephiles deemed sacrilegious and antithetical to the very definition of cinema. Home viewing was disrespectful to the medium, a medium which now diverged into two separate modes of categorization. One was “high art”, which meant that we are to look at Picasso’s painting by way of museums, in person, whereas “low art”, or “lowbrow”/popular culture, “kitsch”, produces replicas of his paintings on poster paper for your bedroom walls. Sontag touches upon this in a separate essay, “The Decay of Cinema”: “You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie — and to be kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image. The experience of ‘going to the movies’ was part of it. To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film. […] To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theater, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.”

The fact that Things never made it to the theaters (not that it was ever intended to) and invited you to watch it within your home with the understanding that you may fast-forward through scenes out of sheer boredom is the ultimate blasphemy of cinema. This was a film that could never have found theater time. It can only exist on a medium that allows for a person to enact their own diegesis into the film, to substitute its meaning with their own, to edit the film to their liking. This is not cinema. This is an experience. The video boom of the 80s allowed filmmakers instant visibility without having to ever set foot in multiplexes, giving them much leeway with movie-going consumers. It is something Joan Hawkins identifies as “[…] a spectatorial mode that presupposes not an informed, engaged viewer but a fragmented and distracted one.”[3]

Home viewing is an avant-garde occurrence, and sometimes what you brought home from the video store guided that particular practice. For instance, in the 1990s, the only copy of the “Weird Al” Yankovic film, UHF, that I could get my grubby little hands on within a 50 mile radius was a VHS at a video store called First Choice Video. The tape was completely worn out, causing multiple sections of lines on the screen—“scramble vision”, as we used to call it growing up. This was the first time I had ever watched the film, and subsequent screenings of it were always on this specific tape. When I finally watched the film in college on DVD, I found myself disconnected, as I had not seen the actors with such clarity before.

For me, Things was a harrowing experience. It might seem laughable, but I feel as though its origins lie in the Theater of the Absurd. I am certainly far from thinking that Andrew Jordan and Barry Gillis were inspired by Edward Albee, but the way in which these characters were so distantly removed from the “real world” broke down any simple communication they tried to have with each other. Most of what they did in the film was meaningless; even when the horror starts they didn’t seem to be all that frightened (this might be due in part by the fact that neither Gillis nor Bunston  have much acting experience outside of this excursion). Things also shares some similarity with Sartre’s No Exit—it is my belief that these characters are dead, in Hell, and being punished for not understanding themselves as an object in the universe; after all, “Hell is other people”. The difference is that No Exit, of course, triggers its audience to question and investigate their existence, whereas Things forces you to watch a very unfounded narrative, leading to a psychological breakdown or sorts.

This “breakdown” is not one of clinical diagnosis but rather a discombobulation of the mind; in fact, its severity will vary with each passing audience member. What Things does, though, is transport you to a figurative “other dimension”, similar to the scene in which Fred, played by Bruce Roach, gets lost in a portal inside the TV he’s watching. The insanity displayed in the film will begin to, in some lesser ways, create such a mindset for the spectator. It’s kind of like trying to sleep when there’s a jackhammer chiseling right outside your bedroom window; the good news is that you can actually put a stop to it, or accelerate to the end.

And though it might be tricky to reference Barbara Hammer in context with this film, I do like her sentiments about participating in an “active cinema”, which she describes as “a cinema where the audience is engaged physically, involved with a sense of their bodies as they watch the screen.”[4] Passive cinema is just the opposite: it’s letting the director take you on a journey while you recline and let it happen “by drugging the sense of self.”[5] In some ways, the ability to challenge the director’s vision makes your own personal engagement with it worthwhile. And though it won’t always pan out the way you want it to, the flexibility to tailor it to your liking is freeing.

And that’s why I can say that Things is the worst film I’ve ever seen.

[1] Jameson, Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991

[2] Hawkins, Cutting Edge: Art-Horror and the Horrific Avant-Garde, 2000, p. 35

[3] Hawkins, Cutting Edge, p. 39

[4] Hammer, HAMMER! Making Movies Out of Sex and Life, p. 128

[5] Hammmer, HAMMER!, p. 128