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Homemade Horrors: An Evolution

Sunday, October 2, 2022 | Uncategorized

By MATT CARLIN 

Prologue: Genesis

What is it about the DIY filmmakers producing homespun horror films that inspires delight and continues to attract an audience? I trace my interest back to Charles Band’s 1992 Full Moon opus, Demonic Toys. While the demonic toy picture had a limited budget, its delightfully campy aura delighted my 10-year-old eyes. I wasn’t a passive viewer either.

A demonic toy had just viciously attacked one of the heroes in a display of gore and grue when it hit me. I paused the video cassette. Replayed the kill. Pondered a moment. I grabbed a sandwich baggie, filled it with Hawaiian Punch and tied the bag tight.

I scampered over to the bathroom and stared into the mirror. Palming the filled sandwich bag and acting as if I had just been attacked, I flung my hand to my neck and squeezed the bag: the baggie broke and the Hawaiian Punch exploded all over the bathroom as if my neck had been torn.

I had re-invented the squib! I quickly pondered how I could apply my newfound knowledge.

For many interested in low-budget and homemade fare, it was the boys from Michigan, whose deliriously camp The Evil Dead showed a generation of non-coastal filmmakers that they too could make their own damn movie (and Evil Dead II showed us what The Evil Dead could have been with a little money) while utilizing their own shortcomings almost as selling points.

What exactly is a homemade horror picture? More than anything, it is a mood. Shot locally with friends and family, there is a different vibe in these movies than that of typical Hollywood movies – you almost feel that you’re there with the folks making it. And they are having fun.

Outside Looking In

The homemade horror movie might better be dubbed the regional horror picture as the filmmakers tend to be (but not always are) far way away from Hollywood or New York. With nary a hope of breaking through, a ragtag group of locals compile their resources, funds and knowledge and travel to nearby locations to make movie magic.

Swimming outside of the pond, they need not adhere to (and often aren’t even aware of) most of the rules of the game. This provides audiences with a fresh perspective that is reminiscent of the excitement of the pioneers of cinema. While generations of later school-taught filmmakers would be taught the cinematic “laws,” to these early filmmakers there were no rules. The creation of the language of film is merely the result of successful experimentation. They did not wait around for somebody to tell them how to do it or give them permission. They just did it.

The creator of a homemade horror movie knows their shot at the big time is not coming or isn’t willing to conform their vision to a popular paradigm – those who didn’t wait for the proper budget to realize their vision, the uncompromising compromisers. The homemade filmmaker must be, if not a little crazy, at least crazily passionate. Most sensible people don’t just up and decide to make a movie.

As such, all bets are off, and we are as likely to be entertained by glorious failures as successes. This may sound like a bad thing, but to a dazed cinephile, it recalls the scene from His Kind of Woman in which Robert Mitchum states, “You see how it is. Fools get away with the impossible.” To which Jane Russell replies, “That’s because they’re the only ones who try.”

These films are not merely for the would-be filmmaker to watch on their educational odyssey from viewer to creator. The passion and daring in these films are contagious. The off-kilter viewpoints, angles, stories and agendas come unfiltered from minds that will not be silenced.

The Boys Next Door

In 1985, precocious 19-year-old Ohioan J.R. Bookwalter decided he was going to make a little zombie flick. He was going to do it for next to nothing. Early in the process, Sam Raimi got involved. He had seen some of Bookwalter’s early work and felt he should shoot a feature and shoot it on film. Four years later, the result was The Dead Next Door (also known as perhaps the most expensive movie shot on Super-8 film). Produced for “nobody really knows” (presumably around $125,000), this zombie gorefest started as the creation of a few friends and ultimately spiraled to a cast of over 1500 extras.

Much of the expense went towards shooting – and reshooting. Learning on the go, some of the scenes had to be redone so many times that the actors, crew and Bookwalter himself became frustrated. They just wanted to get the scenes in the can and move on.

However, that frustration doesn’t show in the finished project, which is a glorious love letter to horror cinema with characters named Carpenter, Savini and Raimi. The plot is simple enough: An experiment goes wrong, and the dead walk. A rag-tag team known as the Zombie Hunting Squad assembles to hunt the living dead. While tracking down zombies, they uncover a cult.

Bookwalter found inspiration everywhere.  He wrote the film as a series of shots rather than a proper screenplay. While this made editing easy, it couldn’t have been easy to create a performance out of a shooting style consisting of “Okay. Say these three words in a medium closeup. And action!” It is amazing that any usable scenes were scraped out of the footage. There are almost no master shots (except for such sequences as the truly awkward ode to Robert Altman in which the camera follows Dr. Moulsson around his lab, sometimes losing him, sometimes landing on a decent shot – sometimes not).

When the film was released on home video (Bookwalter never harbored any illusions of a theatrical release), the rough-looking, window-boxed image was matched with an entirely re-dubbed soundtrack and an eternally long credits sequence. That a film could look so large while also looking so rough helped secure its cult status. Thanks to the righteous humor clashing with audacious practical gore FX and a scale that surpasses the grain of the Super-8 image, The Dead Next Door is a classic.

Bookwalter would go on to direct many features, but for our purposes, is best known as the force behind Tempe, a small distribution company focusing on no-budget horror fare.

Ohio: A Filmmakers State

While all this undead action was going down in Akron, over in Columbus, a recent Ohio State University graduate posed a question:  “What do you do with your film degree in Columbus, Ohio?”

Recent grad Jay Woelfel was unsure of his next move. Should he move to Los Angeles and take a crack at breaking into the film scene? While talking with his friend, Dyrk Ashton, they had an inspired idea. They took their school short, a surreal horror piece titled Beyond Dream’s Door, and decided that it might make a good feature. “How little can we make this for and shoot it on film?” Woelfel recalls asking in a making-of documentary.

That expansion took some time. When they completed the film (the production of the feature served as part of a filmmaking course at OSU, making Beyond Dream’s Door the first film made in conjunction with the university) a distributor was interested. However, there were some problems. The film was too short – and there was no nudity.

They hired a model, shot some T and A and assembled a new cut. They also inserted footage from a short they had made on 35mm (truth be told, the short is better than the feature) to pad out the runtime.  Beyond Dream’s Door uses every trick in the book, including a much drawn-out four-minute credit sequence to achieve its 86 minutes runtime because the distributors told them that was the absolute minimum length a film could be to get sold by distributors.

The resulting film contains a never-on-the-ground narrative that will either delight or annoy the first-time viewer. It deals with dreams and as such, the audience never knows when some silly practical effects goo monster will reach out its claws. It’s completely silly and like many of the best silly movies, the filmmakers believed they were making an important statement.

The Eternal Film

However, coming up short was not a problem for Jack Snyder – at least not at the time he produced Fatal Exam in 1985 and ’86. He had the opposite problem. At a perplexing two-hour runtime, Fatal Exam seems to go on forever, and during most of that forever, nothing happens.

And that’s a shame because there are a lot of elements to draw the horror crowd into this one. Fatal Exam would have done well to adhere to the low-budget axiom “get in and get out.” Instead, it putters. While most homemade horror gets by on pure energy, the extended runtime saps any good in the production. 

The reward of Fatal Exam arrives in its supreme strangeness. Like Bookwalter, Snyder shot-listed the entire picture and then set about filming the shots piece by piece over several weeks. What results is truly awkward. Conversations don’t coalesce, continuity errors abound and framing is bizarre. Something about the picture is always off.

Truly Handmade Horrors

Winterbeast began production in 1985. Producer Mark Frizzell thought it would take a weekend to finish. It took longer. By 1989, Frizzell pulled the plug. In 1992, he revisited the abandoned work and completed it on half-inch tape (it was shot on a mixture of 16mm and Super-8).

The charm of Winterbeast is that it feels very handcrafted. You never know what you are going to see next, as no two creatures are alike. Much of this comes down to the film being cobbled together through various stages of falling apart and getting shelved. Originally, the filmmakers imagined the Winterbeast to be a stop-motion creature. This became a guy in a costume – of which some footage was shot. When the film fell apart, Frizzell would do little stop motion bits between gigs at his day job at Olive Jar Animation to fill in the missing monster footage.

Numerous scenes are stitched together in what barely resembles anything akin to continuity. At times, characters are shot indoors only for the scene to suddenly shift to them continuing their conversation outside “This wasn’t meant to actually go together,” Mark Frizzell laments on the film’s commentary track as the actors pass from one location to another – with constantly changing haircuts, of course.

The Rise of Technology

There is both a thematic and technical through-line to these films. Thematically, none play as straight horror. There are no chilling moments as in The Exorcist or Halloween. Certainly, some have their fear factor, but they pivot with an askew perspective, a sort of humor that is sometimes intended and sometimes not.

One reason for such sequences of unintentional hilarity is the technical similarity of these films. They were all shot on film. The video was in its early stages and resulted in an unsuitable image for any film hoping to entertain commercial prospects. Shooting on film requires a modicum of money and talent. Film costs money and runs out. It costs more money to develop it. You need to know how to light and expose film and how to focus your image. There is also the added issue of not immediately knowing the quality of the images just shot.

The inherent quirks and flaws of these films help breathe some life into the pictures. That’s part of why fans love to revisit these films. Hollywood and Hollywood-adjacent horror output of recent years is often just as goofy and dumb as these homemade oddities, but they tend to look slick and polished. And we tend to watch and forget them. Consume and dispose. Whereas the makers of  Fatal Exam had to live with numerous out-of-focus images, the modern filmmaker can instantly rewatch a take and, at no additional film cost (just a bit of extra space on their hard drive), they can redo it if they’re not satisfied.

One might then think the allure of the homemade movie has since passed on. We now have more films than ever, but they tend to either be good, merely okay or all too often, complete trash with no redeeming values because they can be done cheaply and quickly forgotten.

However, there is much more to homemade horror than inventive shortcomings. The infectious passion and visionary daring of these celluloid creatures allowed for a new type of homemade horror to be born.

Or rather, evolve. Whereas these films were mostly beholden to cheaper 16mm filmstock (as opposed to the more expensive 35mm used by most film productions), the next generation was now shooting on prosumer camcorders, dumping their footage to external hard drives and editing their movies on their home computers. While there are endless point-and-shoot movies readily available on streaming platforms these days, there are also films that still go for broke – that still have that sense of wonder and danger and “Oh, shit! Let’s just do it!” spirit. More of the shots may be in focus, but the quirks are still there. The legacy lives on.

The Adamses (John Adams, Toby Poser and their daughters, Zelda and Lulu) are a filmmaking family from the Catskills of New York that claim that the only things they need to make a feature is their Canon 5D, a tripod, and two mics. Making films entirely on their own, they share writing, producing and directing duties while also acting. The films are small, often two-handers that allow them to be nearly self-sufficient. They have made a handful of pictures but first experimented in horror with The Deeper You Dig, an ominous flick that brought them some favorable reviews and some buzz but likely didn’t prepare them for the breakthrough success of Hellbender.

What is striking about The Deeper You Dig is how complete it is. It doesn’t wear its budget on its sleeve. Upon reflection, you’ll think about how it only had three characters and took place in one location. Yet, the film doesn’t seem to lack anything. It looks professional.

Their democratic directing process is something that couldn’t exist in the earlier homemade horror heyday. If multiple Adamses have varying ideas for how a scene should be shot or acted, their current modus operandi is to shoot it every way and select the best option. The best ideas always win, not the stronger voice.

This is a brilliant (if perhaps, at times, subjectively challenging) idea. I’m sure it is an idea that the director of Beyond Dream’s Door would have welcomed, but that picture was shot on film. Often they would get just one take per scene. Three takes was a luxury. Film costs money after all.

Final Thoughts

The sheer DIY energy (often associated with camp) of homemade horror often causes fans to seek out additional low-budget horror. An illusion done seamlessly is exactly that, and often, viewers taken in by a story will hardly notice the artistry and craft of an effect. However, an illusion done in front of your face with Karo Syrup, a 16mm camera and a limited budget has its own unique charms.

As people have discovered, going to a secluded cabin with a group of friends to record utter chaos is not only fun for the campers but also fun for those who uncover the completed document. Crucially, it is not a thing of the past, a worn-out video cassette of The Evil Dead. Homemade horror lives on, and it is for the dreamers. In a time when the Marvel Cinematic Universe can blow up New York City three times a year with little more than a yawn from the audience, filmmakers with nothing but a camera and their imagination can instill awe and fright in an audience. Whether they choose to do so on an epic scale like J.R. Bookwalter, utilize dream logic as in Beyond Dream’s Door or Winterbeast or make a chilling three-hander like The Deeper You Dig, the possibilities are endless and serve as evidence of what can still be achieved with a dream. As technology advances, we await the next batch of filmmakers who will further redefine what homemade, regional horror can achieve.

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