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Awful delivery and ineffable brilliance: the strange pull of SOV horror

Vincent Albarano discusses underground horror films and the background to his book, Aesthetic Deviations

AESTHETIC DEVIATIONS: A Critical View of American Shot-on-Video Horror, 1984-1994 has been a dream project of mine in various forms for nearly a decade. Had you asked about it at any point along the way, I’d never have guessed that it would finally arrive in the manner it ultimately did. Raised by a very permissive single mother who’s a massive horror fan herself, I’ve been immersed in the genre for the better part of my life. After assuming I’d seen all the classics and standards I needed to catch (a ridiculous assumption as I still play catch-up to this day), I looked to new outlets for my strange film fix. At the time, I started exploring the stranger permutations of underground horror and video culture, largely influenced by fanzines of the 1980s-1990s. Influenced by the more transgressive films of Jörg Buttgereit and Hong Kong’s Category III cycle, I was constantly on the hunt for something stronger, something more bizarre and affecting. One subset of generic refuse that always lingered as a potential diversion was shot-on-video (SOV) horror of the 1980s (my adoration of the films from the 1990s came later). I’d had plenty of bad experiences with the mid-2000s wave of direct-to-video DV horror, and that was enough to sufficiently sour me on analog SOV for years. Still, there was something alluring about the terrible screenshots and incoherent plot summaries I’d seen and read that made me finally look to the first wave of horror on VHS.

Aesthetic Deviations: Cross section of films featured (VHS).
Aesthetic Deviations: Cross section of films featured (VHS).

Prying into the mundanity of daily life

The natural starting point was Chester N. Turner’s eternally bewildering Black Devil Doll from Hell, which I specifically remember turning off during my first viewing. Something about it was too illicit, too uncomfortable and yet too boring to even make it through. By the end of that month, I’d returned and finished the film, finding that my initial assumptions were correct, but that there was so much more as well. In short order I followed Turner’s debut up with other standard bearers of SOV horror—Mark and John Polonia’s Splatter Farm, Wally Koz’s 555, Gary Cohen’s Video Violence. Here was an ostensibly working-class cinema, one made by teenagers and what appeared to be emotionally stunted adults with nothing but their unabashed enthusiasm and family camcorders in hand. At the same time, there was an invasive quality, a prying into the very mundanity of daily life that was not only revealing in its intimacy, but also genuinely captivating for its near-documentary value. And sometimes they could be effectively unsettling. Between the lines of the awful delivery and execution, there was a genuine, ineffable brilliance that I just couldn’t shake. Most of my free time in the latter years of undergrad were spent scanning eBay for issues of Happyland, The Gore Gazette, or Sleazoid Express and catching up on SOV treasures I’d ignored for years. Often this was assisted by scanning the pages of the BLEEDING SKULL! website and book to pick the next title.

Cross section of films featured (DVD).
Cross section of films featured (DVD).

The underground and the academic

In the years that followed, my SOV enthusiasm hardly died down, and countless friends and loved ones were subjected to films they’d rather pretend never even existed. I was expanding not only my palette as far as the breadth of SOV horror, but also discovering more about the fanzines and outlets that provided their most visible coverage. At one point I even started an unstructured, rambling essay on a handful of SOV films and directors that stood out, which stretched to fifty-some pages before being abandoned. I still lacked the ability to define their appeal in more concrete terms, thus in 2018, after several meandering years of underemployment, I finally returned to college to pursue my master’s degree. In between diving into the transgressive super 8 underground, my focus at this time was almost solely devoted to figuring out how to use the various resources and readings I was encountering or revisiting to elucidate the strange pull of SOV horror. If nobody else would bring some sort of critical attention to these films, then I was the one who had to do it. There’s no lack of material written by fans of SOV horror films, which comprises an essential body of work and certainly informed my own immersion in the cycle. But I always found myself wanting something more substantial, something closer to the articulation that Film Studies proper affords. My influences had always been split between the underground and the academic, and writers like Jack Sargeant and Stephen Thrower proved that you could take trash very seriously. Thus I found myself in the unlikely position of arguing the similarities between Stan Brakhage and Carl Sukenick, and stating the case of Chester Turner and Todd Cook as bona fide realist film auteurs.

Print references (fanzines).
Print references (fanzines).

Allegiance to video horror

Tasked with completing my Master’s Thesis for my final year of Graduate School, I knew that it was time to make my SOV horror project a reality. Consulting various scholars and theorists, scouring fanzines and genre-oriented texts, as well as numerous SOV titles themselves, I dove into a long research project. I spent hours writing and researching nearly every day for a year, enjoying the application of these ideas to a topic I thoroughly loved. It made me realize clearly and distinctly for the first time that this is exactly what I want to do with my life. Of course, the rigors of the academic process and writing style soon began to wear and I often questioned my allegiance to video horror (which I alleviated by undertaking the no less exhaustive zine project, Pinhead Music: The Underground Sights and Sounds of Keyser, WV). By the end of the writing process and prior to my thesis defense, I was informed that I had written more than twice the number of pages required for the project. I had written an entire book. Encouraged by feedback on the abbreviated version assessed in my defense, I decided to pursue publication just as I planned to take a long break from SOV horror.

More print references (fanzines and books).
More print references (fanzines and books).

Slimy aberrations

Countless Headpress titles including Killing For Culture, Xeroxferox, and BLEEDING SKULL!: A 1980s Trash Horror Odyssey have been extremely influential on my own writing, providing a blueprint for how to write seriously about marginal culture for a wider audience. They were my dream publisher for Aesthetic Deviations, and the very first (and ultimately, only) place I submitted a proposal for my book. Much to my surprise, David Kerekes responded quickly with interest in the project, provided that the academic edges were sanded off a bit to make it more generally accessible. Luckily, this was the exact approach I’d hoped to take myself should it see publication, so I was more than happy to oblige. The version of Aesthetic Deviations being published is the book that I’d always envisioned writing but never figured I actually could. The films and fanzines cited are ones that I hold dearly, and by the end of the writing process can probably quote in full, from memory. The various film theories that form the backbone of my arguments may be unfamiliar to some readers but are likewise works that have shaped my writing and passion for all walks of cinema. In bringing these high and low cultures together for the first time, I hope that a new acceptance of SOV horror can be forged, and they finally receive their due in the fabric of American independent and underground film history. That’s not to say it’s my final word on SOV horror, because there are always obscurities and slimy aberrations waiting under rocks, but I can’t picture a better debut than the book to be published shortly.

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