Last week, things got a little out of hand. It all started with the rise of the camcorder trash-auteur—but soon there were woodchipper massacres, black devil dolls from hell, and the carnal delights of an invisible ghost son sexily blowing at his mother’s hair.
You’ll be begging to go back there soon enough.
What you’re about to read will churn the bile that rests deep within your guts, and make you feel a putrid sensation in your very bones—and those behind the following video-lensed aberrations wouldn’t have it any other way. Because this wasn’t an evolution, but a devolution, and you’re about to go plunging back into primordial muck.
OVERSEAS A/V CLUB ATROCITIES
It’s 1991 and Charlie Sheen has just witnessed a murder. Much to his shock, it’s nothing like the time he and Emilio Estevez played garbagemen who witnessed a murder in the film Men at Work. This was real. It was sickening. And it was unfurling inside his VCR, no less.
The vile act played out on a tape handed to him by a journalist friend—I guess he thought it would be Charlie’s thing. Instead, believing it to be a genuine snuff film, Sheen spiraled into paranoia, and desperately sought help from the MPAA. They’re the ones who decide how long a penis can remain on screen before a movie is no longer eligible for an R-rating. They were probably the only agency of authority he knew.
The offending footage was passed on to the FBI, who undertook an immediate investigation—an investigation that unearthed something far worse than any snuff reel. What they’d been handed was a tape of a Japanese horror movie entitled Flower of Flesh and Blood, the second installment in what’s collectively known as The Guinea Pig series.
It debuted in 1985 with Devil’s Experiment, in which a trio of youths kidnap, torture, and dismember a woman on video—exactly the sort of thing that demands a sequel. Enter acclaimed mangaka Hideshi Hino, who was approached by producers to helm the follow-up, where he flipped the entire concept on its head and delivered an entry in which a florist in samurai cosplay kidnaps, tortures, and dismembers a woman on video.
What Charlie mistook for reality that fateful evening in his Los Angeles home was 45 minutes of rubbery body parts and cartoon splatooey sound FX. I don’t wish to say anything that could sully Mr. Sheen’s reputation, but narcotics may have been involved. Although, there is some truth buried beneath the mounds of white powder.
Hino himself presented Flower of Flesh and Blood as a dramatic reenactment of sorts, claiming it to be a recreation of an 8mm snuff reel he received from a deranged fan. Much like the first entry, it’s strictly for basement-dwelling teens in Cannibal Corpse shirts. Yet, in its final moments, it does nearly achieve the poetic rot of Hino’s work on the printed page. Here the feudal-garbed sadist arranges his victim’s remains in a floral display of decaying flesh as he eerily recites what he calls the “lullaby of hell.”
More entries would follow, none eliciting the panic of Flower of Flesh and Blood, but Hino would return for the sixth installment, called Mermaid in a Manhole. He even told a story this time—and a sensitive one at that—about an artist who uses the bodily secretions of a diseased sewer mermaid to paint her portrait before she succumbs to death.
The Germans, however, weren’t interested in any such poetry. This may come as a shock to you all, but they really took to this whole being vile on video thing—and that’s not even taking into account the stuff that involved bathtubs, enemas, and chocolate cake. First, in 1989, came Andreas Schnaas’s Violent Shit series, which followed the exploits of Karl the Butcher Shitter, who at one point carves open and then climbs inside the crucified body of Jesus Christ himself. But even that image casts itself dimly in the mind’s eye compared to that of a fiery, heroin-induced moon blazing in the night sky.
I thought I had put The Burning Moon behind me. Long ago, I promised myself I’d never watch it again—I certainly never planned on writing about it—and yet, here I am. An endurance test for the soul, The Burning Moon is an anthology film in the vein of, well, nothing that’s come before or since. There’s no Crypt Keeper to host these tales; the wraparound segment instead features a street punk—played by writer/producer/director/FX artist Olaf Ittenbach—who punches his mother in the face, fiddles with a Slinky, shoots smack, and then settles in to tell his little sister a pair of bedtime stories.
Things begin light with “Julia’s Love,” about a lonely young woman who goes on a date with an escaped serial killer who suffers from sudden murderous grandpa flashbacks. Her main takeaway from this is that she’ll “never meet the right one, only crazies.” She should have been more concerned with said killer following her home, slaughtering her entire family, and forcing her to eat her mother’s eyeball—shot from the POV of her esophagus, as is customary in German cinema.
After this, our lowlife raconteur’s baby sister begs for no more stories—we would’ve been wise to do the same.
Because it’s with “The Purity”—our second and final tale—that The Burning Moon truly cements itself as The Burning Moon. I’m not sure how to describe “The Purity.” I’m not sure I even want to. It’s 1957, and a small village is plagued by a priest raping, killing, and rubbing blood on his nipples. Like every single other man in the story, he’s bloated, balding, mustached, has yellow teeth, and looks like he sweats boiled cabbage. It’s impossible to tell any of them apart.
Except for one man, only because his mustache disappears and reappears from scene to scene. He’s framed by the priest for the raping, killing, and nipple rubbing, resulting in an identical man curb-stomping him and goring him with a pitchfork. The priest, meanwhile, burns alive in a black magic ritual. I think.
There’s also a revolving musical ashtray.
And then, as if we weren’t there already, we descend to hell. Like the lost pages of some Teutonic religious text, there’s fat naked German men in loincloths, fat half-naked German men in cages, a single fat, naked, and legless German man on crutches, and a German—but not fat or naked—man in a studded leather thong. The soundtrack is a torturous cacophony of guttural chanting and wailing infants. It’s the most German hellscape imaginable—it’s the most German anything imaginable.
And it’s not even over yet, as there’s still a return to the heroin addict and his little sister, where things manage to get even more bleak, miserable, and German. It’s an overall terrible experience that will find you coming out a worse human being than you were going in. Highly recommended.
AND A VHS PARTY DON’T STOP (UNTIL IT DID)
The only thing bleaker than a German splatter film was the home video scene back in North America. By the mid-90s, the Blockbusters and the Hollywood Videos had swallowed up the mom and pop operations, and with this corporate takeover came things like morals and standards. Mainstream products cluttered the shelves, leaving little to no room for the lunatic fringe that was once proudly on display. No longer the video store era’s own exploitation cinema, SOV movies shifted toward the world of conventions—adopting a more direct-to-consumer model. One could argue that they eventually evolved into the dreaded fan film, but I don’t wish to speak ill of the dead.
The preferred formats changed—VHS turned into DVD, which turned into Blu-ray, which became streaming. The video stores were swallowed by Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. The analog crash had occurred, the survivors staggering from the wreckage in a daze.
Gary Cohen of Video Violence fame became the head producer for Middlesex County, New Jersey’s Plays in the Park; the distributor behind another SOV sensation confessed to me that he had transitioned into the mail-order yaoi business. Their foreign Hi-8 compatriots didn’t fare much better, with Olaf Ittenbach—allegedly—directing FOX’s Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction?, before moving on to performing FX duties on Uwe Boll video game adaptations.
And as with any crash, we’re still sorting through the smoldering remains long after impact. Lost titles—with nary an IMDB page—are still being found, like Cards of Death: a neon-soaked nightmare with Hefty bag lined walls and menacing Nazi cheese plates. I don’t want to romanticize it all too much, because the truth is that VHS was a garbage format and most of these SOV flicks were tedium on tape—a magnetic strip minefield. Yet in many ways it was the last cry of the true blue weirdo, unencumbered by self-awareness. These folks didn’t tell you how weird they were, or how weird their work was—they made Boardinghouse, and you just knew it.
Sure, nostalgia is a poison, but sometimes it can feel nice to go back. Back to a place where the moon burns bright, and you aren’t judged for what you do with your invisible ghost son. Where your analog dreams never end, even long after the last remaining tape has been rewound. Some call it the gutter, others the trash, but I like to call it the Midnight Void…