Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019)

I remember when the news of Marion Stokes’s death made headlines because of her massive home-recorded VHS collection. At least, I recall the news of that self-produced library being absorbed by the Internet Archive in San Francisco years later, where its unparalleled immensity first became evident. For three consecutive decades, the seemingly anonymous, obsessive woman simultaneously recorded multiple television news networks on 70,000 VHS cassettes. In the hands of a media watchdog organization or an avant-garde digital artist, this project might have been contextualized as a radical act of persevering history. From a non-publicized, self-funded effort from an unknown, private citizen, however, it was treated more as a sign of mental illness. The inherent value of Marion Stokes’s D.I.Y. archive is instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing interest in pop culture preservation – especially given the scope & consistency of her efforts – but the discussion around what she accomplished was initially framed as an unintended byproduct in the life of a hoarder & a crackpot. Recorder, a new documentary that attempts to clarify who Stokes was and why she created such a labor-intensive archive, is an essential corrective to those misinformed assumptions. This movie vindicates Marion Stokes as an absolute fucking genius who know exactly what she was doing, even when those closest to her didn’t have a clue.

I don’t mean to suggest that Stokes’s characterizations as a reclusive eccentric and a hoarder are entirely inaccurate. Her obsessive collection of television news broadcasts extended to other, less uniquely valuable “archives” of furniture she liked, Apple computer products, books, and the tell-tale Achilles heel of many hoarders: newspapers & magazines. It’s just entirely unfair & disingenuous to suggest that Stokes did not understand the full value of her D.I.Y. television news broadcast archive, which was very much a deliberately political & academic project of her own design. At one time in her early life as an ideologically combative idealist, Stokes worked as a legitimate, professional librarian in NYC. Her political associations with Socialist and Communist organizations in the 1950s eventually locked her out of that work, as she was effectively backlisted for her leftist ideals. Her interest in broadcast television as a powerful ideological communication tool began with later appearances on a local roundtable panel discussion show called Input, where she was a regular pundit as a political organizer in the 60s & 70s. Recording & preserving a physical archive of TV news broadcasts became a personal interest to her since even the primordial days of Betamax, but it was the news coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis in the late 70s that really kicked her diligent recording into high gear. As coverage of the event evolved from news to propaganda, she became fascinated by the way TV news was reshaping & repackaging facts in real time – something that would extend to how American crises like police brutality, the War on Terror, and the AIDS epidemic would be covered in the future. This was not some unplanned hoarder’s tic that blindly stumbled into cultural relevance; it was a purposefully political act from the start.

You could easily assemble a hundred distinctly fascinating documentaries out of this one rogue librarian’s archive. Stokes’s tapes are a bottomless treasure trove for an editing room tinkerer, which leads to some truly stunning moments here – particularly in a sequence that demonstrates in real time how all TV news coverage was gradually consumed by the tragedy of 9/11. As this D.I.Y. archive is an extensive cultural record of American society over the past thirty years, the list of trends & topics that could be explored in their own full-length documentaries are only as limited as an editor’s imagination. Recorder does excellent work as a primer on the cultural wealth archived in those VHS tapes (which have since been digitized), as it both explores larger ideas of how media reflects society back to itself and does full justice to the rogue political activist who did dozens & dozens of people’s work by assembling it. The film doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that the project became an escapist & dissociative mechanism for the increasingly reclusive Stokes as the years went on, but it also makes it explicitly clear that she knew the full value of what she was preserving well before anyone else validated her efforts. Was Marion Stokes paranoid that America was being taken over the by the Nazi Right, that the media was systemically racist in how it contextualized police brutality, that all of this raw cultural record would be lost by television networks that claimed they were archiving their own material? Or was she an incredibly perceptive activist who’d be proven right on all those counts, given enough time? Recorder is a great film, but it’s only the first step in giving this visionary her full due.

-Brandon Ledet

The Watermelon Woman (1996)

When you hear that 1996’s The Watermelon Woman was the first feature film directed by a black lesbian, the claim sounds both impossible and impossible to prove. Considering that the recently-restored Daughters of the Dust was the first ever theatrically-released film directed by an African American woman and came only five years earlier, however, it very well may be true. Part of what makes this historical context so fascinating (besides the obvious horror of how recently those milestones arrived) is that The Watermelon Woman is self-aware of the achievement, purposefully crafting a narrative about representation of queer black female perspectives in pop media. A post-modern relic of 1990s Indie Cinema that vaguely estimates an aesthetic of Spike Lee’s Clerks, Cheryl Dunye’s debut feature is both an academic look at cinema’s historic disregard for representing black femininity onscreen and a laidback comedy about a movie nerd navigating modern queer culture while just trying to live by the Gen-X ideal of Not Getting Hassled. It’s not an impeccably crafted work, but it is a surprisingly fun one, considering the importance of its subject & historical context.

Cheryl Dunye stars as (*gasp*) Cheryl, a video store clerk who spends her free time (between shifts & social pressures to pick up women) working on a video project about a forgotten movie star from the Old Hollywood era. Cheryl’s obsession with the unnamed, uncredited actress, who was mostly relegated to playing offensive “mammy” stereotypes in the 1930s, is palpable even before the discovery that the woman was also queer. Cheryl shirks social, professional, and romantic obligations to bury herself in the video project, uncovering as much as she can about someone she knows only as “The Watermelon Woman”. The Watermelon Woman plainly states its themes; it vocalizes protests that black women’s stories are never told, onscreen or off, and it includes a boldly explicit sex scene to push the provocation of its casual, intimate queer identity. It also tempers these academic ambitions with the cool™, laidback shrug of a Gen-X era indie comedy. This is a film that features both a typical bomb-throwing rant from critic Camille Paglia and an extensive sequence of cringe humor mined from godawful karaoke at a supremely awkward lesbian bar. Dunye’s sense of craft is rough around the edges throughout, but she still manages to blend those two tones expertly, both charming & challenging her audience at every possible opportunity.

Digitally restored for its twentieth anniversary after a long period of distribution limbo, The Watermelon Woman has likely never looked better. The contrast between its sharp, vibrantly colorful celluloid photography and the fuzzy grain of its VHS footage is a great match for its high vs. low brow thematic explorations. It’s a multimedia approach that only becomes more powerful once old photographs & doctored ephemera depicting the mythical Watermelon Woman enter the mix. However, budgeted through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Dunye’s debut can often feel as if it’s barely held together. Many scenes can be abrupt, blatant and awkwardly placed, but that ramshackle, handmade quality is also a part of the film’s charm and is tied mostly to factors outside Dunye’s control, like budget & experience. I get the sense that she’s not that different from the Cheryl we see onscreen, passionately scraping together a multimedia piece on black queer female representation with limited resources while trying to stay true to her laidback, borderline slacker self. 

The Watermelon Woman is surprisingly fun, understandably uneven 90s Indie Cinema, with invaluable context as a black lesbian milestone. Its humor smartly softens what could be an alienating academic tone, forgiving much of its rough around the edges acting & craft. Its most impressive artistry is in being just as personal as it is culturally substantial, which is a difficult line to walk. I can’t believe we allowed Dunye’s work to lurk in obscurity for so long just as much as I can’t believe we allowed her historical achievement to be delayed until so recently in our pop culture history.

-Brandon Ledet

She’s Allergic to Cats (2017)

Because its Adult Swim platform reached so many television sets and the show’s aesthetic somehow informed a wave of early 2010s advertising, the frenetic surrealism of Tim & Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! might just turn out to be one of the most influential touchstones of modern media. The awkwardly non-professional acting, aggressively hacky jokes, absurdist shock value grotesqueries, .gif-like repetition, and deliberately low-fi visual palettes of mid-2000s artists like Tim & Eric and PFFR are starting to creep up in feature length cinema in a palpable way. Often, this psychedelically aggressive amateurism can be nihilistic in its dedication to irony & emotional distance, as with the recent shock value gross-outs Kuso & The Greasy Strangler. Those instances can be their own kind of ugly delight, but what’s even more exciting is when films like The Brigsby Bear imbue this modern form of low-fi psychedelia with something Tim & Eric never had: genuine pathos. The dirt cheap passion project indie She’s Allergic to Cats operates on both sides of that divide. It embraces the grotesque, ironic absurdism of “bad”-on-purpose Tim & Eric descendants to craft a VHS quality aesthetic that amounts to something like John Waters by way of Geneva Jacuzzi. More importantly, though, it allows the earnest pathos of desperate, pitch black cries for help to disrupt & subvert that all-in-good-fun absurdism with genuine (and genuinely broken) heart to strike a tone that’s as funny as it is frightening & sad.

She’s Allergic to Cats opens with the admission “I live in Hollywood. I moved here to make movies, but instead I groom dogs.” In a land where everyone dreams of being in show business, we focus on the Tailwaggers-employed pet groomer who dreams the smallest. Michael is, by most estimations, a loser. He grooms dogs by day to afford to live in a rat-infested apartment where he works on his VHS “video art” projects & watches Bad Movies in isolation by night. His greatest ambition in life is to direct an all-cat remake of De Palma’s Carrie, but he’s laughably bad at pitching the idea to anyone he can get to listen. She’s Allergic to Cats chronicles a series of minor conflicts in Michael’s hopelessly minor life: negotiating with his Tommy Wiseau-like landlord over rat extermination possibilities, struggling to balance his pet-grooming career with his passion for VHS art, attempting to orchestrate a hot date with Mickey Rourke’s daughter’s personal assistant (the titular “she”) despite his life & home being an unpresentable mess, etc. These trivial conflicts are frequently interrupted by the movie’s most substantive modes of expression: the VHS-quality stress dreams that invade Michael’s everyday thoughts. Spinning cat carriers on fire, naked human flesh, squinched rat faces, and rodent-chewed bananas mix with onscreen text cries for help like “My life is shit. My life is a mess. My mess is a mess,” and so on. Laurie Anderson-style voice modulation & Miranda July-style art project tinkering break down Michael’s comically drab life into a sex & career-anxious nightmare.

Buried somewhere under Michael’s sky high pile of dirty dishes & analog video equipment is a lonely, decaying heart. She’s Allergic to Cats does a great job of subverting the Tim & Eric-esque absurdist irony it touts on the surface by cutting open & exposing that heart at Michael’s most anxious, vulnerable moments to strike a tone halfway between campy comedy & surrealist horror. With a warped VHS look reminiscent of a mid-90s camcorder & a taste for gross-out lines of humor like .gif-style repetitions of expressed canine anal glands, She’s Allergic to Cats hides its emotions behind an impossibly thick wall of ironic detachment. It even goes out of its way to reference infamous so-bad-it’s-good properties like Congo, Howard the Duck, Cat People (’82, of course), and The Boy in the Plastic Bubble to throw the audience of the scent of the emotional nightmare at its core. When its protective walls break down, however, and the nihilistic heartbreak that eats at its soul scrolls “I need help” across the screen, there’s a genuine pathos to its post-Tim & Eric aesthetic that far surpasses its pure shock value peers. It’s a hilarious, VHS-warped mode of emotional terror.

-Brandon Ledet

Beyond the Gates (2016)

Do you remember VHS board games? What if you found one that was haunted; or worse, possessed? What if completing the game was the only way to save your father’s soul?

Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John (Chase Williamson) Hardesty are archetypically, even stereotypically, different brothers. Gordon is a buttoned-down salaryman with a dependable girlfriend (Margot, played by Brea Grant of Heroes), a mortgage, and skeletons in his closet that have driven him far from his home town. John, in contrast, is a scruffy layabout with frequent run-ins with the law. Their troubled father, the proprietor of a VHS rental outlet, has been missing for seven months, and the two come together to close down his store, sell off the merchandise, and part ways, presumably forever. Following some strange dreams and bizarre nighttime occurrences, the two brothers are finally able to enter their father’s office, where they find Beyond the Gates, an 80s-style VHS board game that contains the last tape their father watched.

Upon playing the tape, the brothers first experience lost time, but when Margot convinces them to play the game, a strange woman (Barbara Crampton, of Chopping Mall and Re-Animator) appears on screen and explains that they must play through the game and go in order to save their father and themselves. The tape is obviously interacting with them directly, not playing straight through, and even attempts to enlist the authorities in the form of their cop friend Derek (Matt Mercer) fail, as he can see nothing on the screen but static. Gradually, the trio comes to accept that they’re stuck in a Jumanji situation, and there’s no way out but to beat the game and go . . . beyond the gates.

This film is a bit of a surprise, as it doesn’t get off to a strong start. Gordon is ostensibly the lead, but Skipper is the weakest actor of the main trio, and his performance comes across as broad and unrefined. Williamson’s John is supposed to be a deadbeat, but other than his perpetual five o’clock shadow, his appearance is pretty well-maintained, and there’s no real menace to his presence. The film is also awfully cheap-looking, so much so that even visually dynamic shots, like the slow pan across seemingly endless shelves of VHS tapes, look more like they were shot for a daytime soap than a feature. Once we’re out of the starting gate, however, the ride gets weirder and gorier until you’re lost in the moment. My roommate even compared the film to those of David Lynch (although I wouldn’t personally go that far), citing that he often evokes the facade of normalcy before tearing down the curtain to show the evil that lies beneath. Here, we start with a fairly basic story about brothers in conflict that gets more cinematically complex as the narrative progresses, until you’re suddenly captivated and carried away by the film than anticipated.

The game itself has a board that’s prettily designed, even if the mechanics are unclear (and ultimately kind of irrelevant), and the gore is both hilarious in its overkill and surprisingly effective in the way that it suddenly appears in the film as a complete surprise after a long period of mostly-psychological horror. There’s also a great attempt to give the characters an interesting backstory, as we learn that Gordon and Margot are working out some relationship issues that arose from his overindulgence, and John’s elaboration of how he was the son who stayed when Gordon went out to find a new life belies the cliches that this genre convention usually relies upon. My favorite part of the film may be the scene in which the brothers visit the shop where the game was purchased and have a conversation with the creepy owner (Jesse Merlin) who’s so delightfully transparent in his evil that his name may as well be “Mr. Needful.”

It takes a little patience to get into Beyond the Gates, but it’s pretty rewarding if given half a chance. There’s a lot of love for the VHS era of horror in the movie’s DNA, but unlike other throwbacks, it’s not beholden to that aesthetic or the trappings thereof. The film is currently streaming on Netflix, and is a delightful way to keep Halloween in your heart on a hot summer night.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2016)

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threehalfstar

Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is exactly what the title says. In 1982, three boys from Mississippi decided to make Raiders of the Lost Ark. They had only their friends, their mothers’ basements, and their allowances. They spent seven years of their lives doing this. They filmed every bit of it except for the airplane scene. This documentary examines this gargantuan project framed around the ultimate goal of them going back as adults to film the one remaining scene.

It’s hard to watch Raiders! without thinking of other recent movies in this vein: Best Worst Movie and Jodorowsky’s Dune. They all explore the idea of what it means to be a cult film, how cult films spread in strange, strange ways, and the drive and obsession it takes to keep pushing yourself to complete an unconventional project. Of course, Raiders! is different from those other examples, because the film they were trying to make already existed. It’s also different because this is a group of kids who spent a good chunk of their childhood doing this, not professional filmmakers. They weren’t trying to make a movie for mass distribution. It just happened.

At it’s heart, though, this is a movie about childhood and reckless, adolescent ambition rather than filmmaking. They took risks. They almost got themselves maimed or killed multiple times and nearly burned down a house. It’s genuinely hilarious to learn about what these kids thought was a good idea and how they accomplished some of what they did.  They were these imaginative, creative kids who attached themselves to this project and never let go. Even as adults, this project still has this magical hold on them. At some points you feel some secondhand embarrassment as these grown men drag out childhood relics and memories and chase after this strange goal, but for the most part you’re rooting for them.

At the end of Raiders!, I couldn’t decide if what these kids were doing was filmmaking at its best or its worst. And I don’t really care. I’m just glad it exists, and I’m happy that there’s a documentary to show me how.

-Alli Hobbs

Chuck Norris vs. Communism (2015)

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fourstar

Don’t be fooled by its meme-minded title. Chuck Norris vs. Communism is a powerful documentary that offers a fascinating history lesson of Romanian oppression in the mid 1980s. I’d place it up there with Corman’s World & the Golan-Globus doc as a means to get excited about the potency & cultural significance of trashy 70s & 80s action cinema as a form of high art. Hell, it might be one of the best documentaries about cinema as a powerful form of storytelling & a source of comradery in an even more general sense. The film’s title recalls the proto-meme of Chuck Norris jokes that flooded the internet in the early 2000s, but it actually has very little to do with the content of this work as a whole. There’s a great deal more going on here.

Under the totalitarian rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu in the 1980s, Romanian citizens lived a very hushed, secluded life. Foreign media was severely censored & everyone under Ceaușescu’s rule feared surveillance from the government’s secret police force. Almost all entertainment available to the Romanian consumer was some form of government-sanctioned propaganda. VHS cassettes changed all that. Almost overnight a black market for foreign (mostly Hollywood) films began smuggling VHS contraband into Romanian living rooms like hard drugs or military-grade weaponry. This influx of forbidden art not only gave Romanian citizens access to free speech & expression in a way they hadn’t before experienced under Ceaușescu’s ever-tightening grip; it also opened up a world of travel, wealth, and excess they had been shut off from their country’s restrictive borders (even if it was through passive consumerism). Imagine a county-wide version of The Wolfpack & you’ll have  pretty good idea of what’s being documented here, except there’s a much less participatory/celebratory spirit at its center.

Part of the reason I’m not in love with Chuck Norris vs. Communism‘s title is that it drastically downplays the film’s true hero: Irina Nistor. Nistor risked imprisonment (or worse) by translating American films into Romanian dubs at a bewildering six to ten films a day at her peak. Nistor became the voice of American cinema for Romanian audiences. She voiced every single character in nearly every film illegally distributed. Chuck Norris and similar action stars like Van Damme, Schwarzeneger, and Stallone may have captured the imaginations of Romanian people. Norris’s Golan-Globus production Missing in Action might’ve even been a particular nexus for their dreams of escape & retribution. However, this film is really Irina Nistor’s story. She’s not a name that would do the film any commercial favors, but she is undeniably its most important facet.

As a documentary, Chuck Norris vs. Communism has an interesting way of experimenting with form. It works mostly as an oral history of the underground VHS market as told by the Romanian people who lived it, backed up by a dramatic re-enactment of Irina Nistor’s personal story. This combo recalls the high production values & word-of-mouth narrative of works like The Nightmare & Thin Blue Line, but by far the most interesting aspect of this film is its content, not its form. There’s an inspiring story at work here about the growing political unrest fueled by illegal Movie Night screenings secretly held in Romanian living rooms. The movie works best when it lets this renegade secrecy grow on its own & may over-extend a little in the back end when it claims that smuggled VHS tapes were the spark that eventually flamed into an overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime. It’s in the smaller, more intimate moments when Chuck Norris vs. Communism excels, especially when it lets Irina Nistor’s fascinating story & the nostalgic potency of the VHS-grade cinema she translated speak or themselves.

-Brandon Ledet

Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell (1987)

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threehalfstar

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Way, way back in the magical time of the 1980s, VHS cassettes opened up a new, exciting world where films could suddenly be copied & distributed among nerdy weridos looking to sidestep the interference (and profits) of the movie studios that owned them. That role has, obviously, been filled by the Internet in recent years, so it’s hard to imagine just how exciting this development was at the time. It was suddenly dirt cheap for independent producers to churn out schlock & put it directly in the hands of fans. Special interest markets like skateboarders & pro wrestling nerds all of a sudden had a way to record & distribute their favorite content among like-minded geeks. Not only was a new market of nerdom opened for media junkies that allowed them to trade & curate content once impossible to own at home, but there was an element of danger & piracy involved in the process, which afforded the underground video market the same inherently dorky cool as phrases like “the dark web”.

Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell could have only existed in this sleazily magical time when underground VHS trading was a dangerous-feeling form of nerdy fun. Less of a documentary & more of a straight-forward compilation, Prevues from Hell assembles a montage of movie trailers from horror’s drive-in, grindhouse era. It’s an endless assault of in-bad-taste horror advertising from the 1970s loosely stapled together by stale comedy bits that should feel familiar to anyone who’s ever caught a television broadcast hosted by an Elvira or Morgus-type. The film seemingly assembles every Fangoria & Rick Baker fan in Pennsylvania in an ancient cinema to serve as the audience for this cavalcade of schlock trailers & evil ventriloquist-MC’d wraparound segments. The monster make-up is fairly top notch for a straight-to-VHS horror compilation, but this connective tissue is ultimately a painfully corny diversion from the film’s main attraction: advertisements for long-gone coming attractions. That is, unless someone really, really wanted to see gags like a dummy handing his ventriloquist operator a severed finger & quipping, “Get it? I’m giving you the finger! I’m giving you the finger!”

As for the film trailers included in Prevues from Hell, there’s an interesting variety on display: cult classics with wide appeal (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Night of the Living Dead, Argento’s Deep Red, De Palma’s Sisters); grotesque films I wish I could erase from my memory (The Wizard of Gore, 2000 Maniacs, The Last House on the Left); forgotten gems I’d love to track down (The Corpse Grinders, Cannibal Girls, Flesh Feast); and nasty-looking works of depravity you’d have to pay me to watch (Africa: Blood & Guts, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, etc.). The most interesting thing the film’s endless montage of grindhouse trailers does is set up Prevues from Hell as a cultural relic from two separate eras of cult cinema. It’s not only an artifact of the underground VHS trading era of the 80s & 90s; it’s also a comprehensive tour of the carnie huckster style of advertising that defined the drive-in era of horror trailers. A lot of schlock producers at the time threw all of their weight into the advertising end of their product, promising the world in the trailers & having very little pressure to actually deliver a quality product once tickets were purchased. The claims in these ads are outrageous: “The most blood-chilling motion picture you’ve ever seen!” “The most shocking ordeal ever permitted onscreen!” “The world’s first horror movie made in hallucinogenic hypno-vision!” The spirit of larger than life hucksters like William Castle & David Friedman are alive in every ad. Any one of these producers could’ve enjoyed a second life as a self-hyped politician. And, sadly, because these trailers are primarily from horror’s nastiest era, the 1970s, they do a pretty good job representing the gleeful depictions of sexual assault that make a lot of these works much more enjoyable to digest in 90 second clips that they’d be as full-length films.

Of course, everything about Mad Ron’s Prevues from Hell is obsolete in 2016. You could most likely find each & every one of these trailers (if not the films in their entirety) uploaded to YouTube in some form and a very helpful Letterboxd user has assembled the full list of titles the film compiled so you don’t even have to bother with the corny wraparound segments to track down what made the cut. Modern documentaries like Corman’s World & Electric Boogaloo that function like similarly-minded schlock clip compilations provide enough talking head interviews & historical context to make their trips down horror advertising memory lane worthwhile in an informational sense, but Prevues from Hell provides no such context. For instance, who is Mad Ron? Although he’s shown twice in the film I honestly have no idea who he is or what he contributed to the production. Does he own the theater where this was filmed? Is that how he obtained the trailer reels on display? Does that even matter? Prevues from Hell is only an educational experience in that it’s a glimpse into two long-gone eras of horror’s past: the grindhouse drive-in 70s & the underground video swap 80s. Otherwise, you’re probably better off skimming YouTube & assembling your own Prevues from Hell off the cuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension (2015)

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three star

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I’ve happily managed to avoid seeing any of the Paranormal Activity films until now (with ease, I might add), but a convenient showtime & a free ticket recently changed that for me. My first Paranormal Activity film ended up being the sixth in the series and you know what? It was actually pretty enjoyable. A found footage ghost story set during Christmastime 2013 (a temporal detail that adds essentially nothing to the equation), The Ghost Dimension is a fairly straight-forward collection of jump scares & spooky happenings. It’s a film that never dares to stray from its basic, by-the-books formula, but I have to admit that the formula kinda worked for me. Nothing about the film’s over-reliance on the idea that children are creepy or its assumption that all Catholic priests are prepared at a moment’s notice to wage metaphysical war on demons is anything new in terms of ghostly horror movies as a genre, but those tropes exist for a reason. They’re good for a cheap, easy lark. I could see how six films into the franchise someone could tire of Paranormal Activity‘s over-simplified ghost genre formula, but since I was just looking for a pleasant slice of generic horror, I was well satiated.

I’m guessing that what most distinguishes The Ghost Dimension from its five predecessors is the attention paid to the camera that records the film’s ghostly events. An old, bulky VHS camcorder from the 1980s (yes, that decade’s aesthetic is now antiquated enough to be spooky, as evidenced by the V/H/S franchise), this special piece of recording equipment has a built-in lens that allows it to pick up the, um, paranormal activity that plagues the film’s haunted house. It’s spirit photography made easy. At first, the film’s central pair of protagonist brothers don’t’ know how seriously to take this discovery. The iconic hipster asshole of the pair jokes while filming his paranoid brother, “My camera’s picking up something! It’s a dipshit.” Tripping on psilocybin mushroom doesn’t help the paranoia factor, especially once the brothers start diving into the box of VHS tapes that arrived in tandem with the camera. Much of The Ghost Dimension works this way, like a scary version of those hopelessly useless YouTube “reaction videos” people seem to be endlessly churning out lately. At one point, the brothers end up filming themselves watching themselves watch the haunted VHS recordings. It’s quite silly. What’s much more interesting, of course, is what’s actually on the tapes themselves: the home tapes of two young girls being raised/manipulated by a cult called The Midwives. That’s right. They’re a 1980s coven of devil-worshipping child care witches. In other words,, they’re total badasses. Too bad they get a pitiful amount of screentime.

No matter. Things pick up once the non-hipster-mustache brother’s little girl gets recruited by this cult through some space-time tampering in order to do the bidding of a wicked demon named, you guessed it, Toby. Once the little girl is in cahoots with Toby she transforms into a little Satanic badass– burning Bibles, biting priests, and burying rosaries in the backyard. By the time she’s talking to ghostly beings on the other side of mirrors & opening a physical portal to the titular ghost dimension, I was totally on board with what she was selling. Too bad her pesky parents get in Toby’s way & try to muck up his plans with their “innocent” little girl. There’s a surprising amount of ghostly action to be found in the film as these modern Toby/little girl shenanigans clash with the 1980s timeline of The Midwives coven, the world crashing in around them as they join forces.

What I thought I understood about Paranormal Activity as a franchise leading up to The Ghost Dimension was that the films required a lot of patience. It seemed that to attempt a “realistic” aesthetic (and to save money) the earliest films in the series were a slow burn of security footage-style still cameras & Paris Hilton night vision. The Ghost Dimension is much more kinetic that I expected based on this assumption. It’s packed to the gills with violent jump scares & images of Toby taking form by gathering a gestalt of black spiritual particles that’re pretty much the philosophical opposite of Dust in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. The film is relentlessly dumb & resistant to reason. For instance, why would the parents move their daughter out of the house immediately instead of videotaping her & lightly suggesting that she stop talking to Toby? Why does Toby show up on the 2013 recordings, but not on the 1980s VHS tapes that were presumably captured with the same equipment? Why would someone, when fleeing from an interdimensional demon, shout to their spouse, “Stay upstairs! Lock the door!” as if it would make a difference? How could a bulky camera from thirty years ago seemingly manage to have a 24 hour battery life? These are silly questions to ask of such a silly movie. Continuity & basic logic aren’t nearly as essential to The Ghost Dimension‘s trashy charms as the simple pleasures small children acting creepy, CGI ghosts reaching for the audience in fits of 3D format gimmickry, and good, old-fashioned cheap jump scares. Perhaps after five similar films this wasn’t enough to hold the attention of returning audience members (there was a lot of iPhone scrolling & open conversation at my screening, despite it being opening night), but as a newcomer I was pretty well entertained.

-Brandon Ledet

V/H/S (2012)

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three star

Something about the traditional, pessimistic story arc of the horror genre can wear you down after overexposure. For instance, when a DVD sale sent me on a Tales from the Crypt binge a few years back, I started to get really weary of watching a horrible person suffer horrible punishment for their horrible deeds episode after episode. Although V/H/S is just one film, its anthology format allows the marathon of its segments to be equally exhausting, especially considering the kind of cretins the movie punishes in various, horrible ways. In abstract, I like the idea of a horror movie attacking bro culture archetypes as punishment for their predatory misogyny & sexual assault, but in practice I was a little worn down by the end of its too-long, two hour runtime. Besides, the movie did at times veer into the grotesque leering & sexual exploitation that it supposedly abhors. Still, there were too many enjoyable moments & interesting ideas in the film for me to brush it off completely, exhausting & compromised or not.

V/H/S‘ wraparound story sets the brotesque horror tone early. In a crude montage that faithfully recreates the blue screens & static flashes of an overused VHS cassette, a gang of reprehensible bro monsters are loosely profiled. The scumbags in question are prone to filming themselves having sex without their partners’ knowledge, forcibly stripping strangers for the camera to shouts of “Show her tits!”, casually using racist language, and mindlessly destroying private property with aluminium bats. The found footage format of the film works greatly to its advantage in the depiction of these atrocities (even if the shaky cam can be a bit tiresome), making the characters feel like real people that you really, really want to see brutally murdered. It’s a godsend, then, that they’re subjected to watching haunted VHS tapes that supernaturally end up offing them one at a time.

In the first, strongest segment a group of bro thugs are punished for attempting to film a hidden camera porno without the participants’ knowledge. They’re viciously ripped to shreds by some sort of humanoid, vampiric gargoyle for their transgression. Other segments include similar sexist pricks getting stabbed in their sleep, tormented by ghosts in the woods, and running a bizarre guantlet in a real-life, occult-themed haunted house. There’s one incongruous vigniette involving an Unfriended-esque videochat that doesn’t fit in with the film’s general Bro Culture on Trial vibe, slightly undercutting any clear message the film may be trying to get across (not to mention the lack of explanation as to why or how a Skype session would be committed to a VHS cassette in the first place), but that’s to be expected in a horror anthology that features ten different directors (including up & comers Ti West & Adam Wingard).

It’s interesting to see such a wide variety of voices fused together in a single work, which is often how the horror anthology excels as a format, but in other ways it’s that very same variety that also works to the V/H/S‘ detriment. Not only does the relentless horrible people horribly punished cycle get a little tiresome after a few segments, but some segments uncomfortably cross over from bro shaming into bro voyeurism. For instance, the awful “Show her tits!” scene from the wraparound is shown repetitiously in the end credits to a dance beat (provided by The Death Set) as if it were (worst case scenario) originally purposed for titillation & not abject terror. A compromised tone/message or not, V/H/S is a serviceable horror anthology. It’s just one that can either feel like an example of reprehensible bro culture or an indictment of the very same thing depending on exactly which minute of the film you’re watching. I’d be a liar if I said it wasn’t often fascinating stuff or that the surface pleasures of the special effects & gore didn’t overpower my occasional moral objections with a few of its individual choices. I was by no means enthusiastic about V/H/S as a whole, but as far as generic, late night horror fodder goes, it’ll do.

-Brandon Ledet