In the days before the analog extinction, a most prominent purveyor of physical media emerged. Now a fetishized monument, it was at the time considered by many to be a scourge upon the once proud institutions of the drive-in and the grindhouse. Tumbleweeds rolled across vacant lots once lined with cars—their windows steamed, the vans a-rockin’ while the fleapit movie houses of New York’s 42nd Street were on the docket for Disneyfication. Overtaking their spot atop the movie watching world was the video rental shop. Or, as it was known by the ancients, the video store.
Beginning as mom n’ pop operations in the mid-70s, they offered—for a nominal fee—the lending of highly cost prohibitive VHS and Betamax tapes. The pickings were slim at the start, with only a few studios—notably FOX—licensing out select titles to this burgeoning format. Not unlike the streaming services of today, these video stores were desperate for content to line the shelves. Also not unlike the streaming services of today, they’d buy just about any old piece of crap to do it (VRV excluded, of course). For every copy of Hello, Dolly! there were half a dozen sex comedies from Troma, or Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery with the reels in the wrong order (nobody noticed), and dubbed Indonesian actioners that all seemed to star this guy named Barry.
And then along came The Original Trilogy.
You Never Forget Your First Blood Cult
I hesitate to even mention this triumvirate, as it seems to only dredge up the most toxic of fandoms. Believe me, I don’t look forward to the inevitable controversy, debate, and savage infighting that merely uttering the titles of these three films will no doubt conjure. But they are a vital piece of the history at hand. As you’ve probably already guessed, I’m talking about Blood Cult, Boardinghouse, and Sledgehammer.
In 1985, Variety declared Blood Cult to be “The first movie made for the video market.” With the arrival of JVC and Sony’s consumer grade camcorders, shooting on video was no longer restricted to your local TV stations, and pretty much any yahoo could now kinda of, sort of make a movie. And that’s exactly what Blood Cult is, kind of sort of a movie. A languorous, fog machine-abusing slasher whose only real significance was—as Variety claimed—being the first SOV (shot-on-video) flick made directly for the shelves at your neighborhood rental shop.
Only what if it wasn’t? What if Variety was wrong, what if there was Sledgehammer?
From future Killer Workout and Deadly Prey director David A. Prior— conveniently starring brother Ted Prior—Sledgehammer is the oft-told tale of a supernatural killer who bludgeons teens to death with a sledgehammer, while a ghost child roams the halls. It was also, in all its camcorder-captured anti-glory, available to rent a full year before Blood Cult. Surely then this cements Sledgehammer as the first. Surely there isn’t some movie featuring a woman who calls herself Kalassu that could possibly stake claim to this great honor.
Oh, but there is. One directed by John Wintergate, written by John Wintergate, and starring John Wintergate as a speedo-wearing psychic with plans to form a harem in LA—plans undone by a malevolent sprit that sometimes manifests in the form of bad video graphics, and other times as a naked mouse-eating pigwoman. Yes, it’s Boardinghouse. You know, for the longest time everyone thought they had this one figured out. Boardinghouse was the first movie to be shot on tape, they’d say, but received a theatrical release in 1984, and didn’t even hit home video until after Sledgehammer and Blood Cult in 1985.
Or so they said. Because—brace yourselves kids—it appeared on video under the title House Geist back in 1982. Thus officially making Boardinghouse…something. Confused? Dizzy? Good, it’ll prepare you for what’s yet to come.
Lo-Fi Free Market Enterprise
I’ll give Blood Cult credit for one thing. Well, two things. It was—as the ads stated—“Banned from two midwestern campuses.” It also made money—enough to inspire others to give in to the lure of the seductive magnetic strip. With a sudden demand for the creep around the corner’s home movies, a wretched new avenue for revenue was born. The shelves were soon infested with scuzzy flicks like Woodchipper Massacre and Redneck Zombies, released by one-off labels such as Slaughterhouse Video and possible carcinogen Raedon Home Entertainment.
And while the grindhouses and drive-ins may have been dying out, a glimmer of their spirit was kept alive within this blossoming SOV scene. The 42nd Street, anything-to-get-you-in-the-door ballyhoo was reborn in the form of the video box cover. Here some deceptively professional artwork could fool renters into believing an actual movie was contained within. And the regional filmmaking—with its wacko community theater vibe—that was once the pulsating heart of the drive-in, was transplanted into the gaping chest cavity of the SOV abomination.
In Tennessee there was Donald Farmer, delivering cornpone sex n’ splatter in Demon Queen and Cannibal Hookers. New Jersey video store owner Gary Cohen produced the be kind, please rewind revolution’s biggest financial smash after Blood Cult with Video Violence. And while 555 remains hands down the finest numerically titled horror movie to be shot in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, it’s another Chi-town native that cut and polished what are perhaps the Crown Jewels of the SOV kingdom.
Welcome to the QuadDead Zone
Until a few years ago, many thought Chester Novell Turner was dead. Others theorized he might be a Los Angeles-based serial murderer. We now know that neither is true. What they also didn’t know was that back in 1994, he sent a child—a mere boy—lunging toward the eject button on his VCR. That child was me. I had just rented Black Devil Doll from Hell.
The cover reminded of this movie I’d once seen on TV. The one where Karen Black is terrorized by a Zuni fetish doll in her swank apartment. In fact, I thought it was that movie. Within minutes of putting it on, I knew I’d made a mistake. When I reached the first puppet rape, I knew I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.
It’s a Baptist morality tale about a woman who dares to desire the pleasures of the flesh, and is therefore sexually punished by an evil, dreadlocked ventriloquist dummy that’s occasionally played by a four year-old. Every degrading, humiliating second is set to the same three notes repeated on a Casio—sometimes drowning out the dialogue, but mostly just whittling away at any faith we still have left in humankind.
Black Devil Doll from Hell is vile, exhausting, and most exemplary of the medium. It shocked me as a child, it disgusts, exhilarates and kind of bores me as an adult.
Turner then followed with the less repulsive, but possibly even more deranged Tales from the QuadDead Zone—an anthology film where a woman reads stories from the beloved book of the same name to her invisible ghost son Billy, who communicates by erotically blowing in her face. Each tale ending in the traditional “just desserts” fashion of the classic EC Comics, with the characters’ fates ranging from murdered by a basement clown to “living high on the hog in witness protection program.” Further Tales from the QuadDead Zone have long been promised, but are as of yet to be delivered.
Yet it was far, far away from Chicago—unbeknownst to even Chester Novell Turner—where Emilio’s brother took a sniff and thought he saw a snuff, the moon burned over Germany, and the cards of death were calling. Stroll on by the New Release section next week, when Midnight Void brings you the thrilling, depressing, and soul-crushing conclusion to this sordid tale of shot-on-tape delirium.