by Ira W. Marine, @Fulltimehorrorjunkie
The Shot on Video (or SOV) movement is a weird thing to return to. It’s bizarre to look at what is, essentially, a homemade film as a motion picture experience, but that’s what any SOV film expects you to do. In the 80’s, when distribution was becoming increasingly easy, the market was booming with independent, foreign, and niche films. Production companies like Full Moon and Troma were making most of their money by focusing a lot of attention on video rental stores, knowing that sometimes all it took to get some money in their hands was a cool cover on a cheap movie.
It’s because of this movement that a lot of artists began to crawl out of the shadows to take advantage of a less expensive format of filmmaking. Call it innovation or desperation, but they started recording movies directly onto video cassette tapes and distributed the copies to as many video stores as they could. Essentially, they were making student films and mass producing them.
These tapes are now treasures to fans, especially of horror films. They have the appeal of b-movie schlock, with a look that radiates nostalgia, and a lot of them were smarter and meaner than they deserved to be. I’ll be discussing only two SOV horror titles, and I’ve chosen them based on accessibility and influence.
When I say “accessibility”, I mean you don’t have to dig too deep at thrift stores or on the web to find these films. InterVision has lovingly given them DVD releases packed with special features –including featurettes, retrospectives, interviews, and trailers. Even though they are on DVD, they still look, sound, and feel like VHS tapes. Since they were filmed directly onto the cassette, every nick, bump, and scratch is there to stay. It’s honestly like listening to your favorite record and knowing when it’s going to crackle.
As far as influence goes, I think these two films embody everything that makes SOV horror such an entertaining subgenre. They can be goofy, gory, amateur, and entertaining all at once. Really, if you want to get into this corner of horror, these are the two you should probably start with in order to prepare yourself for the rest.
First up, Sledgehammer (1983). Sledgehammer follows a few beats that horror fans should be excessively familiar with by now. A group of rowdy college-students – played by actors too old to be in college - arrive at a farmhouse for a weekend of boozin’ and smoochin’ only to find themselves struck down by a sledgehammer wielding slasher. Supernatural elements are introduced, with the slasher shapeshifting from a child to a hulking man. He appears and disappears in some cheap fade-outs, hinting at some ghostly subtexts that the movie never feels like exploring too deeply. The gore is nice, straightforward, and can sometimes feel a little mean, even if it’s super easy to tell how the practical effects were accomplished.
Directed by David A. Prior, the film was made out of a want and desire to just make a movie… no matter what. The cast were friends and family – including future Playgirl centerfold Ted Prior - and the crew was light. It was the first slasher film to be made in the SOV format, and was marketed pretty heavily, even if it remained obscure.
Sledgehammer is not an easy movie to take seriously. It’s padded by repeating flashbacks and unnecessarily long slow motion sequences., but…it has a lot of down-to-earth heart and provides ample laughs and cheers! It kind of embodies the cheapest available side of the SOV spectrum.
But, in Germany, in 1997 – more than a decade later and people are still making SOV horror films! - we got something a little less campy. Olaf Ittenbach is a name gorehounds should be familiar with, and he made that name for himself by showing what he could do with a budget in movies like Premutos, Black Past…and…The Burning Moon (1997). Using the anthology-film format, Olaf Ittenbach directs, writes, stars, and handles the special effects in this nightmarish descent into hell. Ittenbach plays a delinquent who tells sick stories to his kid-sister while babysitting. The first is a slasher story about a blind date gone horribly wrong. It may be the hokiest thing in the whole movie, but it includes some gruesome kills, including a scene where a man force-feeds a woman her own mother’s eyeball!
It’s really the second story that shines. In a small village, no one suspects the local priest is responsible for several ritualistic rape/murders…instead, they blame, and ultimately kill, a simple farmhand, damning their souls to hell. The hell sequence was all shot in what appears to be a basement, and shows just how innovative low budget filmmakers can be. The corpses that litter the floor are all painfully life-like…there are people in cages, amputees wandering aimlessly, demons encouraging violence, and none of the silly “fire and pitchforks” that consistently appear in cartoons and Sunday school lessons. Hell is a mean, nasty, and explicit den of torture and torment. It’s a ten minute sequence that makes you feel gross and cold after it’s finished.
The fact that an SOV horror film can create real and palpable dread is an accomplishment; it’s an accomplishment Ittenbach revels in.
If you love the look and texture of VHS tapes, you’ll be happy to know that SOV Horror films are like time capsules. Because they were shot directly on tape, what you see is what you get, no matter the format or transfer. InterVision’s releases of the above mentioned films are things of beauty and should be seen by anyone who wants to be involved in the genre.