Experiments in Terror

By Chris Hyde

December 17, 2003

Ooh, look, she's in a funhouse!

Five years into the DVD era, experimental filmmakers have been somewhat slow in getting their 16 mm and Super 8 works into digital form. Now, Other Cinema helps remedy that situation a bit with a brand new disc chock full of decidedly un-mainstream horror shorts.

Other Cinema DVD is an offshoot of a San Francisco group that specializes in programs of films from beyond the beaten track, be they a traveling exhibition of US war propaganda shorts from B-film impresario Jack Stevenson, a 16 mm print of Mario Bava's Planet of Vampires, James Hong's The Spear of Destiny or various and sundry assemblages of handmade movies, new artistic works or neo-benshi experimentation. For their first foray into the land of 1's and 0's, this outfit chose to issue a disc of Craig Baldwin's brilliantly over the top Spectres of the Spectrum, and they have since also submitted copies of Bill Morrison's celluloid entropy ode Decasia into the versatile format for the public's perusal. Their newest release, Experiments in Terror, is a combination of four fairly recent experimentally inclined short works of horror with a pair of older hallucinatory shorts from the '60s. But that's not nearly all -- in addition to the six films that make up the body of this disc, also included here are some vintage trailers, a tooth decay movie narrated by Cesar Romero and a promo for a film made in subliminal Psychorama.

But though these nice extras certainly help flesh out the package, it's the more avant-garde entries that truly make this unique release a worthwhile one. While the pair of films from the swinging '60s (Lloyd M. Williams' Ursula and J.X. Williams' The Virgin Sacrifice) are undoubtedly period pieces, both have an amazing visual flair that may make you feel like you've gone and eaten the brown acid from Woodstock. Lloyd Williams' 1961 film is a lurid and fog-shrouded tale of a young girl's torment at the hands of her cruel mother, and this 16 mm gem was even lucky enough to garner a Gold Medallion at Cannes for its script and special effects at the time of its release. Publicity shunning filmmaker J.X. Williams' entry, on the other hand, is actually a fragment from what was supposedly once a full-length feature. What remains is a kaleidoscopic fever dream of devil worship and human sacrifice, with many minutes of pure psychedelic imagery following a brief and amateurishly acted intro. Given a taste of this project from this nine minute excerpt it seems a shame that the original has been lost, but as the director points out in the included liner notes, it doesn't seem unfitting for a film of this ilk to have been ultimately destroyed. Apparently the production's cast suffered multiple overdoses during the shooting, a real life Satanist helped bankroll the film, and Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate showed up at the premiere all before the film's master negative eventually went up in smoke when the lab where it was being processed burned to the ground. Luckily, this short segment has at least survived to leave history with a smattering of what this exceptional artist was up to at the end of that drug-drenched decade.

Moving away from the 1960s, the other four movies that form the main portion of this release all come from after the year 1988. Taking the most recent film first, Kerry Laitala's 2002 Journey into the Unknown is a phantasmagoric, optically printed cinematic rumination that amply demonstrates the artists' fantastic visual technique. Aswirl in colorful abstraction, this five-minute piece is a delirious clash of flickering images and sonic bits, with many seemingly culled from extant films (the auditory track has an unmistakably Morricone-ish feel to it) and refashioned for her own use into something completely new. Laitala's imaginative approach to the medium is fascinating in execution, and as the underground director has made many other somewhat similar movies here's hoping that some more of them find their way into the digital format. The same could easily be said for David Sherman, yet another filmmaker who utilizes found footage in the creation of his wildly artistic motion pictures. Sherman's films are often very much about a lost mystical history of celluloid, and the 1996 piece that's seen here (Tuning the Sleeping Machine) is a riotously irrational exposition on the horror film, a pastiche of picture that wanders recklessly through a sprawling landscape of the unconscious and makes profligate allusion to the strata of early cinema.

There's only one film on the Experiments in Terror DVD that comes from the decade of the 1980s, and it's also the only inclusion that was shot in the Super 8 format. The movie is Dawn of the Evil Millennium, and it's a 21 minute cinematic spasm by the semi-legendary Damon Packard. If you've never previously heard of this director, rest assured that his bizarre iconoclastic vision has resulted in some of the most originally fantastic film work of the last 15 years. Packard's epic masterwork, the 2002 Reflections of Evil, was the full-length result of a mysterious $100,000 score that the filmmaker then poured into making an 82-minute creation that he later put onto 29,000 DVD's -- most of which were then given away for free in an extremely ill-advised attempt at guerilla marketing. This financial fiasco has seemingly almost ruined the unique artist, with the film's Web site claiming that he is at this point "carless, jobless and broke". He has at least resurfaced of late with The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary, a hilarious sounding send-up of fathead George Lucas' bloated space opera, so perhaps with a little better luck the director can get back on his feet. All that aside, the Packard piece issued here on this Other Cinema release is a prime example of the filmmaker's singular vision -- it's a gory lampoon of the Hollywood machine that amply dribbles fake blood while hilariously skewering conventional narratives. Though sometimes too frenetic for its own good, this film's cutting view on the traditional tropes of Tinseltown is both fresh and hysterical, with its parodic burlesque of the standard trailer format being especially amusing.

While the five experimental films already covered here are all valuable inclusions in their own right, the last film to be discussed is undoubtedly the shiniest jewel to be found here. A work by Austrian Peter Tscherkassky, Outer Space lifts some scenes of Barbara Hershey from Sidney J. Furie's 1981 Cinemascope horror flick The Entity and turns them into a black-and-white tone poem on dissolution and rupture. Throughout this ten-minute treasure, shaky images double, shatter and combine, wildly piling one atop the other all the while accompanied by a fractured soundtrack filled with ominous hissing and creaky dissonance. It's a visually arresting trip into avant-garde eye candy that's made all the more exciting by the film's apparent theoretical underpinnings; far more than a mere frivolous abstraction, this one is in reality a brilliant cut-and-paste exposition on the cinema whose dazzling form is just perfectly wedded to its inquisitive content. Personally, I've waited years to see anything by this renowned director and though I'd certainly have preferred to see the work in its original 35 mm format, it's a great boon just to be able to see it in any way. Maybe with a little encouragement we can convince the crew at Other Cinema to package together a whole selection of films by this neglected cinematic illusionist -- he's got another 15 or so films out there that seem pretty ripe for digital release.

The six main films that comprise the Experiments in Terror DVD are all startling individual visions, and each makes for stunningly riveting viewing on its own. However, when combining them all along with some enjoyable extras -- and especially of note there is the Homicidal trailer in the previews segment wherein William Castle himself interviews patrons who seemingly didn't take him up on his "coward's money back guarantee" -- this entire release makes for a compelling statement and thus marks Other Cinema as an operation whose output must be monitored closely in the future. As underground experimental filmmakers still for the most part remain woefully underrepresented in this digital medium that has otherwise become utterly commonplace, fans of non-mainstream narrative can perhaps take heart that this exceptional disc indicates that this unwarranted neglect is finally coming to an end. In any case, regardless of what the future disposition of outsider cinema for home viewing on your DVD player may be, we have presently been gifted with this fine selection of art from beyond the usual celluloid channels. For now, at least, that seems like plenty to chew on.



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