By ROCCO THOMPSON
Starring Steve Broy, Eric Carlson, El Duce
Directed by Rodney Ascher, David Lawrence, Ryan Sexton
A shock rock doc to rival Todd Phillips’ Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, and the closest any sane person may get to witnessing a real deal found footage horror film, THE EL DUCE TAPES is a captivatingly repulsive portrait of The Mentors frontman Eldon “El Duce” Hoke that, beyond its slo-mo train wreck quality, arranges its raw material just so: coming together as an ugly mosaic depicting the coursening of American culture with blaring contemporary echoes.
The story behind the camera is as fascinating as the subject. In the early ‘90s, actor and aspiring filmmaker Ryan Sexton found El Duce passed out in the bushes behind his L.A. apartment. Instantly fascinated with the man, Sexton picked him as a subject for a short, amusing documentary, but soon became obsessed – spending two full years with a camcorder strapped to his hand trailing El Duce and his controversial “rape rock” band. Details are spotty as to why (the doc itself asserts that he was “forced to stop”) but Sexton abandoned the project and his piles of VHS footage sat dormant in a storage unit for over two decades. When Rodney Ascher (Room 237) and David Lawrence (editor on Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on the Exorcist) came into possession of the material in 2015, they knew they had something special on their hands.
Hoke is a disgusting subject – a grotesque and inflammatory figure for which the term “provocateur” feels too chichi – and THE EL DUCE TAPES, to its immense credit, doesn’t bend over backwards to try to empathize with him. Detested in equal measure by politically polarized trash tv hosts Wally George and Jerry Springer, too intense for members of Gwar, and responsible for one of the most ludicrous moments in U.S. Senate history when the scatological lyrics to The Mentors’ “Golden Showers” were read aloud during the PMRC “rock porn” senate hearings, the film makes a compelling and understated case for Hoke as the precursor to contemporary professional agitators like Milo Yiannopoulous and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
Though it doesn’t mention the former Troll-In-Chief by name, Lawrence and Ascher draw a direct line to the 45th president of the United States, but THE EL DUCE TAPES isn’t a soap-box. Rather, it gently gestures toward the artistic bankruptcy of its affrontive central figure through interviews with those in his orbit, such as bassist Stephen Broy (aka Dr. Heathen Scum), the band’s female dancer, and Hoke’s own sister. These figures are quick to intellectualize El Duce’s antics or brush them aside as mere performance which Ascher and Lawrence set in potent contrast to Hoke’s own bald-faced ruminations on chauvinism, Nazism, and whiteness. As the footage unfolds, Hoke, unsurprisingly, is revealed to be a victim of childhood abuse, and, although Ascher and Lawrence are careful not to make an argument as to who or what type of speech should be censored, THE EL DUCE TAPES seems to argue that there’s a dividing line between responsible provocation and the nihilistic normalization of harmful ideas for grim, antisocial yucks.
The co-directors insist that they never expected THE EL DUCE TAPES to speak so loudly to our current cultural moment, and their restraint in not overstating the obvious is impressive. Lawrence and Ascher resist the temptation to editorialize – wisely choosing to let Sexton’s footage and those around El Duce speak for themselves. If there’s a mark against the duo, it’s the way they will occasionally intercut footage from other films (Vincente Minelli’s Lust for Life, Bava’s Black Sunday) for ironic distance or to gussy up the interview material. This is obviously a well-worn documentary tactic, but here it almost becomes an unintended pressure release valve: giving the viewer fleeting relief from the abject unpleasantness of Sexton’s original footage. For some, perhaps this may be welcome, but in terms of overall effectiveness, these temporarily interrupt the viewer’s connection with El Duce’s gutter reality.
Arrow Video presents THE EL DUCE TAPES in high definition (1080p), but the real draw of this release is the ridiculous trove of special features Arrow has assembled including a brand new audio commentary with the crew, a 34-minute illustrated audio conversation between Ryan Sexton and producer Tim Kirk about the shooting of the original VHS footage, video of horror tribute band Nilbog recording the original score for the film and a free-standing, alternate assembly of unused material, described as a “sort of a sideways sequel.” The shock rock party continues with “Tape 2: Hollywood Reservoir” (a piece of raw tape providing a peek behind the scenes of the process of shooting the footage and a candid document of El Duce and Sexton’s rapport), a “humorous cut-up” of a few of El Duce’s famously long ramblings into “endless word salad,” a new interview with Steve Broy, and Reality Check presents The Womentors, a profile of the all-female El Duce tribute band. All-in-all, this is one of the most exhaustive slates of special features for a single disc in recent memory, and each and every piece adds new facets to the story of Hoke and the making of THE EL DUCE TAPES. The disc comes with a reversible sleeve featuring newly commissioned artwork by John Pearson and reverse art by Benjamin Marra. The first pressing also includes an illustrated collectors’ booklet featuring new writing by Manish Agarwal.
Opening with the tension of an undiscovered snuff film and slowly unfurling to reveal a portrait of a pathetic individual and the America he portended, THE EL DUCE TAPES is frightening, engrossing, and surprisingly resonant. Though it’s a tough watch (and the notion of spending too much time inside the truck-stop-restroom-stall mind of Eldon Hoke is enough to turn anybody’s stomach) Arrow Video’s lavish disc sets an early high-water mark as one of this year’s top documentary physical media releases. As much about the act of assembling the titular tapes as it is about the man-shaped monster himself, Arrow’s THE EL DUCE TAPES is an analog abyss worth staring into.
THE EL DUCE TAPES is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video on February 9th, 2021. Grab the disc from Aggronautix and receive a free, exclusive enamel pin!