Limbo (1999)

The trash angels at the American Genre Film Archive recently restored & distributed a shot-on-video horror relic from the late 90s that both transcends & typifies its era in no-budget filmmaking. Limbo is a warped-VHS headtrip that’s all disoriented disgust with the world and nothing remotely resembling coherence. It’s more of a cursed object than a Movie, so that AGFA’s restoration feels less like a standard home video release than it does a black magic spell. The Blu-ray disc includes a feature-length commentary track with director Tina Krause, which I’m hesitant to listen to even though it might help make sense of the film’s eerie, disjointed imagery. I’m worried that any context or explanation would deflate its delirious 3a.m. mystique.

The IMDb logline for Limbo is “A woman makes a descent into Hell after she kills a man she brought home as a one-night stand.” That’s a relatively accurate way of describing the final third of the one-hour runtime, but as a whole the film is far too meandering & self-distracted to support any kind of one-sentence plot description, especially one so concrete. Most of Limbo finds Krause dicking around with camcorder effects & morbid ephemera in a spooky warehouse locale. Lynchian horror imagery—complete with a Laura Palmer surrogate wheeled around in a clear-plastic body bag—is filtered through a D.I.Y. video art aesthetic in a haunted, scatterbrained haze. The only unifying sensibility on a thematic level is a disgust with the nü-metal dirtbag men who ogle & harass our traumatized lead. Parsing out anything else feels like trying to make sense of a half-remembered nightmare.

It’s tempting to dismiss Limbo as something that would be best served as a background projection at a Halloween party or raw footage for a music video re-edit. Yet, there’s something potently angry & distraught about its mood that cuts through its lost, dizzied narrative to save it from being tedious (a quality that’s majorly helped by its succinct runtime). Judging by the bonus shorts included on the disc, Krause was mostly working in sleazy SOV softcore around the time she made Limbo, and her sole feature as a director feels like a defiant protest of that genre. This is a deliberately anti-sexy, impossible-to-pin-down video art nightmare with no patience or interest in the typical genre signifiers of its era. It may not satisfy the usual metrics for A Great Horror Film, but its off-kilter details linger with you longer than with more focused, technically proficient works of well-funded mediocrity. In fact, it’s practically spitting directly in those films’ faces.

-Brandon Ledet

I Was a Teenage Serial Killer (1993) and the Collected Short Films of Sarah Jacobson

We don’t often review short films here, outside occasional film fest coverage on the podcast. That’s not a bias against the format per se, but rather a result of shorts being remarkably difficult to market. I personally love catching a well-curated slate of shorts at a film festival or being surprised by one as a programmed appetizer before a theatrically-screened feature, but outside those contexts it’s not something I actively seek out. After festival circulation, most short films are hung out to dry on their directors’ YouTube or Vimeo pages, largely unwatched by the general public (who somehow have time to binge-watch an entire Netflix dating competition show in three days, but no ten-minute blocks of free time to spare for bite-size cinema). I imagine the fate of most shorts were even worse before the days of the D.I.Y. internet distribution too; without platforms like Vimeo they’d effectively just disappear.

It makes sense, then, that someone who would declare themselves to be “Queen of the Underground Film” in the 1990s would deal mostly in shorts, perhaps the most underground film medium of all. Bay Area D.I.Y. filmmaker Sarah Jacobson did manage to pull together resources for one feature in her (tragically short) lifetime: Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore, a no-budget teen melodrama that subversively aimed to provide healthy sex education to unsuspecting 90s punx. The recent AGFA Blu-ray restoration of Mary Jane includes a small collection of shorts from Jacobson’s forgotten catalog in its bonus features, though, loosely sketching out a portrait of a truly independent filmmaker who was never afforded the resources needed to break out of the underground even if she wanted to. As a collection, these assembled works register as lost, no-budget cinema artifacts of the riot grrrl era. Individually, they serve as the diary entries of an underground filmmaker doing her best to create personal art within a system stacked against her.

The most significant short included on the AGFA disc is Jacobson’s landmark, calling-card work I Was a Teenage Serial Killer. An iconic riot grrrl time capsule from the dingiest days of 90s punk’s feminist uprising, I Was a Teenage Serial Killer is not nearly as accomplished nor as polished as Mary Jane, but it persists as Jacobson’s most recognizable work to this day. Its premise is unapologetically, confrontationally simple. A 19-year-old West Coast punk is sick of men’s rampant sexism, so she murders as many of them as she can. One man drunkenly inundates her with a misogynist rant, so she poisons his beer. Another catcalls her on the street, so she pushes him into oncoming traffic. Another removes his condom during sex without her consent, so she chokes him to death while continuing to ride his body to achieve her own orgasm. As the title suggests by calling back to 1950s B-pictures like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, there’s a playful sense of humor to this misandrist bloodbath. For instance, there’s a sickly-sweet dating montage our protagonist shares with a fellow serial killer while they cutely bond over cannibalism & genital mutilation. There’s also a seething, long-simmering sense of anger behind that playful façade, however, which mostly spills out in a final monologue where the teenage serial killer explains her motives to her last would-be victim. It’s the same anger that fueled most of the zines & records of the riot grrrl movement, a communal feminist frustration that rarely made it to the screen in any genuine form.

I Was a Teenage Serial Killer might very well be the only movie that feels fully, authentically submerged in riot grrrl aesthetics & ideology. Its black & white chocolate syrup gore and its cut & paste block text collages directly echo the visual patina of the Xeroxed zines that sparked the movement and gave it a name. Its misandrist serial killer premise that lashes back at the misogyny of its own punk community plays like a faithful adaptation of the Bikini Kill track “White Boy.” It even has bonafide riot grrrl cred on its soundtrack, which includes contributions from the seminal band Heavens to Betsy (which featured Corin Tucker, later of Sleater-Kinney). It’s not a perfect film, but it is a perfect time capsule of the exact frustrations & aesthetics that fueled the feminist punk movements of its era.

Unfortunately, none of the other shorts included on the AGFA disc are as essential nor as substantial as either Teenage Serial Killer or Mary Jane. The only one that comes close is an early-2000s documentary short about the bungled release of Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains (a movie that was highly influential on 90s feminist punks, thanks to a few scattered cable TV broadcasts). The rest of the shorts are a smattering of scraps: a student film about a road trip, a comedy sketch about disco fever, a home movie about Jacobson bra shopping with her mom, and music videos for 90s bands Man or Astro-Man? & Fluffy. Jacobson’s D.I.Y. filmmaking brand Station Wagon Productions could only do so much on its own volition without major financial support pulling the cart. I’m not sure if the films collected on this AGFA release comprise the entirety of what she managed to complete while alive (her IMDb page only lists Mary Jane, Serial Killer, and the Fabulous Stains doc), but their collective nature as discarded scraps indicate that there can’t be much left out there waiting to be recovered.

It’s undeniably sad that Jacobson wasn’t afforded more opportunities to break through with completed, long-form projects while she was alive & working (you can hear her frustration with being broke in the bra-shopping short, where she relies on her mother’s pity to get by), but that doesn’t mean her career wasn’t an overall success. Managing to fire off two subculture-defining works within one lifetime is more than most filmmakers on any financial level can hope for. I Was a Teenage Serial Killer managed to fully, authentically encapsulate the moods & aesthetics of riot grrrl punk within the span of a short, which is no small feat for a cinematic medium no audience seems to want. Her claim for the crown as the Queen of the Underground Film is questionable, but her impact of her short reign remains undeniable.

-Brandon Ledet