Friday, March 30, 2012


Like I said earlier, when you’re at a large sale where you’re competing against other tape heads for titles, you’re automatically rushed to clear as much ground as possible. Inevitably, a lot of great stuff will wind up slipping through the cracks. Then there are all those titles you gloss over because you’ve never heard of them and they hold absolutely no immediate value to you. When I returned to Liberty Hill almost a year after my initial visit, I came back alone. As Ed pulled the tarping back from those VHS-packed fruit boxes, the Burgess Meredith episode of the Twilight Zone entitled “Time Enough At Last” crept into the front of my brain. At last, I would have the time and solitude to carefully comb through each box. I could examine every tape and every title, and even read the descriptions on the back of every case if it looked vaguely interesting. I could take the time to give attention to all that I did not recognize. I grabbed hundreds of tapes that day without ever crossing a single title off my wish-list. Nearly everything I walked away with that day was something I’d never even heard of. Karl Armstrong’s “Ninja Vengeance” was one of those tapes.

I absolutely lost my shit when I saw this box, which features someone in a KKK hood looming in a background, while a ninja is awkwardly poised with a sword in his hand in the foreground. To the left, we see two actors who don’t even APPEAR in the film embracing. The tagline: “you can’t fight the evil forces of power without the power of force.” What? The box layout itself actually looks one of those awful late wave Sweet Valley High paper back reissues. It’s completely terrible, and yet all the combined elements hint at potential greatness. 

As I held the box in my grubby hands, a feeling of emptiness welled up inside my chest. I mean, look at that  box? Surely there was absolutely no way it could live up to the magic of the cover. What’s more, how the FUCK did everybody somehow miss this tape during the initial raids on this place? Was it deliberately just left here to rot by more-knowing geeks than I? After all, it’s got a goddamn Ninja fighting the Klan! Hood against hood! Perhaps it had been overlooked, but there was also a chance it was just something everyone knew to avoid.

Now, unfortunately, it happens too often that someone comes up with a really righteous concept, and based on that idea alone they basically sit back on their laurels and don’t put any of the sort of effort forward to make it any good. Again, it’s like that whole "beautiful girls who just lay there during sex because they figure letting you violate their temple with your fouls genitals is gift enough" thing. Even it turned out to be absolutely god awful, it was worth fifty cents for the box alone. Because of these concerns, I was very apprehensive about destroying the mystique of this film by actually sitting down and watching it. So, it sat in my “to review” pile for months. However, I finally got around to watching it, and I can confirm that “Ninja Vengeance” is a total ripper.

Hilariously, the story begins with motorcycle riding martial artist Jesse breaking down in a small Texas town on the way to a Ninja convention. He briefly witnesses the town elders bullying several of its black residents, to which he just shakes his head like a disappointed Hugh Beaumont. Later, while out for a jog he witnesses several Klansmen beat a young black man to death. Jesse breaks up the attack, but eventually winds up being captured. The Klan members obviously turn out to be the pillars of the community, including a sheriff, who frames Jesse for the death of the black guy they killed. The rest of the film is a weird, uneventful mess with Jesse escaping and running from his captors while flashing back to Ninja training sequences which never really come into play.

 This movie is cheaper than a hobo funeral. Virtually every line of dialog was dubbed into the film likely due to horrible sound recording during filming. Nevertheless, the insanely stilted voice acting and terrible sound quality imbue the film with a cozy charm. Most of its technical problems can be easily forgiven due largely to its sincere philosophical ambitions. Sure, they got the money to produce a ninja movie, but they wanted to give it a socially poignant spin. Mountains of reviews assail "Ninja Vengeance" for its cheapness and dismiss it as plodding. Some even say it fails to transcend simple mediocrity to become so-bad-it’s good. There is ONE primary complaint that I do find valid. There simply is no moment where a man in a ninja outfit fights robed Klansmen. The fact that the director never seized the opportunity to exploit this sort of imagery within the actual film is one of the stupidest mistakes ever made by a filmmaker. I was disappointed that we didn’t actually see what the box promised us. Nevertheless, a lot of other great moments throughout the film cushion that blow rather remarkably. For instance, we get tits within the first few minutes of the movie which reoccur at an inappropriate juncture later on. But the best part of the movie has to be the actual racism. The film is loaded with really stilted attempts at racism that are cartoonishly absurd. For instance, there’s a great spilled milk moment where the town’s corrupt sheriff walks out of the station to find his car has been spray painted with the KKK letters. In response, he merely sighs and mildly exclaims, “damn niggers.” The film’s Klan rally must actually be seen to be understood and fully appreciated, for it would take pages to extract every nuance that makes it so unintentionally amazing. And of course, the film’s final fight occurs before a burning cross before being abruptly quelled by the FBI out of fucking nowhere.

Does it really live up to the greatness proposed by its own box? Sadly, no. This film still has yet to be properly made. There isn’t really a traditional ninja in a costume running around fighting grand wizards, but there’s still more than enough amazing bullshit within the movie qualify it as a valid and incredibly entertaining experience.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


It was just last year that I discovered what is perhaps the richest VHS honey hole I have yet encountered here in the state of Texas. Located just outside of Austin, in the small town of Liberty Hill, I was introduced to a man named Ed via Zack Carlson of Alamo Draft House and Destroy All Movies fame. Having relocated to Texas via the California Bay Area some undetermined number of years ago, Ed had previously been in the video rental business since 1982, and still owned most of his stock, which he kept in an 18 wheeler trailer on his rural property.

The day after Zack sent out an email to an exclusive list of VHS hounds, I made the drive out to Liberty Hill with several friends. After a forty minute drive down a winding deadwood-hemmed highway, we pulled down a dusty path and saw burly, silver-haired Ed loading fruit boxes full of tapes onto fold-out tables under his car port.

For the next six hours, my friends and I combed through each box and listened to Ed tell stories about the golden era of the video rental business, including some wild stories about Interpol’s impact on it. Over the course of two back-to-back day trips, I probably picked up 300 titles at a dollar a tape. On the first day, I also met fellow VHS junkies Judd Suarez and Blake Carlisle from End of an Ear, as well as Bryan Connolly, manager of Vulcan Video South and Destroy All Movies collaborator, who was cruising for lingerie modeling tapes. While there is competitiveness to tape combing, we also helped one another by shouting out the weirder finds and passing them off to one another if it was something we already had. This was actually how I discovered the insane drama, “Torchlight,” a drama where Pamela Sue Martin’s husband, played by Steve Railsback, is seduced and ruined by a high-end crack dealer played by Ian McShane.

The place was ripe with insane finds! There was even a large collection of weird eighties porn, but unfortunately, county law prohibited Ed from selling any of that stuff.

Almost a year later, I was tooling around at the 290 Flea Market on a leisurely Sunday when I spotted a familiar face sipping Budweiser from behind a dealer table. It was Ed, selling hundreds of DVDs, many of which he’d purchased with the money he’d gotten from selling his VHS tapes.

It had been a long time, and I had presumed that the best of the best was gone from his collection, but I was still curious. I asked Ed if he still let people out to his property to check out the tapes. Ed said, “yeah,” and handed me the business card to his car dealership, and told me to call him Tuesday night. Several days later, I dialed the number, hoping Ed would remember me. Sure enough, he did, and I made an appointment to drive out to Liberty Hill the next morning.

As I drove out, I was a little torn on whether or not I would find enough to make the trip worth it. After all, they’d been combed over for the better part of a week by mutants such as I. But then again, I also suspected that people might have rushed past some great stuff while racing against the collector on either side. Part of me suspected that if I weren’t racing to get through each box, I’d have time to peruse and possibly strike gold.

I pulled up that familiar dirt path once again, and was immediately filled with apprehension when I saw all those old fruit boxes full of tapes bundled together under Ed’s carport, covered by cinder block-anchored tarp. Ed ambled out, and I asked him, “so, have these just been out here since the last time I came out?”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, without the slightest bit of concern in his voice.
We pulled the tarp back to discover thick sheets of condensation on most of the tapes. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) most of the art had been cut to fit into plastic cases.

I was pretty worried that most of these tapes would be dog meat after enduring a particularly brutal Summer and damp winter. Nevertheless, I had driven out there, and Ed was kind enough to let me onto his property again, so hunting I would go. I wiped down most of the tapes on the top, and when I found something I wanted, I’d open the box, and pop the flap up to check out the tape to see if it looked okay.

The gamble paid off. Within the first hour, I’d found some incredible stuff, including numerous Emmanuelle titles, and some truly bizarre shot-on-video classic, “Dance or Die.”

A lot of stuff had been glossed over during the initial searches. While all the Paragon and grindhouse tapes had been looted, I found some truly strange titles still waiting for a home. Ed even dropped his price per tape to fifty cents, which meant I could be less discriminating while picking.

Close to six hours later, I had made way through every box under that car port. I was exhausted, dust-caked, and ready to go home with 250 new orphans loaded into the car. As I paid Ed, he said, “you didn’t even get to go through what’s in the trailer!”
          “There are a bunch of other boxes in the trailer that I didn’t even bring out last time.”
Tears of joy seeped from the newly formed cracks in my soul.

A few minutes later, I found myself in the back of that dark trailer packed with wall fixtures from his store and yet more boxes with tapes. I was too tired to go through them that day, but Ed promised I could climb back up in there whenever I wanted. I have yet to return.

Over the last few months, I’ve sat through a number of the films I found out at Liberty Hill, and all but one of them so far have played perfectly in spite of not only the elements, but years of cycling through dozens of renters in another state.

Hopefully, I'll be able to make a return trip to Liberty Hill sometime in April. Any of my friends in close proximity are welcome to join me.

Friday, March 2, 2012


Holy shit, "Killer Party" is meta as fuck! First off, we open on a funeral scene, where after cursing the coffin's occupant a woman is pulled inside before being delivered for cremation. From here, we pull back to reveal that this is all being watched on a Drive-In movie theater screen, where a young couple are on a date. This all morphs into a truly bizarre hair metal version of Thriller, featuring glam rockers White Sister, as they perform their song "April." As this music video concludes, we once again pull back to reveal that this video is being watched by a nerdy young lady who happens to be one of the REAL film's protagonists. It is, as my good friend Lyrch referred to it as, a cinematic Turducken. From this point on, it becomes nearly impossible to trust or take anything you're seeing seriously, as you've become acutely suspicious of anything they try to sell you on.

This film has rather interesting history, in that it was almost completed in 1978 before producers ran out of money. The film was later completed in 1984, but not released until 1986. I presume the strange opening sequences which actually lead into the film were most likely what was added onto the film, mainly because the band White Sister didn't actually exist until about 1980. However, the hodge podge beginning is truly to the film's credit. It totally clashes with everything else, but in an absolutely fun way, and it does establish an unease with the viewer on a completely different level than most other films do.

Following its hectic opening, the film falls onto a conventional track, but is still strange enough to remain grossly entertaining all the way through til its ending. Even the timeline is sort of weird. The first chunk of the story focuses on three college girls pledging a sorority. During the final initiation, which occurs on Hell Night - the night before Halloween - one of them pulls a gory prank to get back at the snotty seniors for all the hoops they've been made to go through. However, the sisters are so impressed by what she pulls off that they wave her in under the agreement that she help them get back at some frat boys who pranked them earlier.

By the way, I have to talk about this prank, which I believe is also in the trailer. So, the sorority sisters are sitting around naked in their hot tub in the back yard. One of the frat boys incognito delivers a case of champagne, which permits him to remove the back door's knob. Two other frat boys sneak around back and hurl a jar of BEES at the girls in the hot tub. As they flee while being stung repeatedly, the frat boys basically just film the ensuing nudity. While I was watching this with a couple of friends, we pretty much didn't understand why they needed to involve bees. It just seemed really mean and unnecessary. I'm pretty sure two gawky nerds showing up with a camera would have been enough to send the girls running anyway. But amazingly enough, when these same two frat boys show up to a costume party dressed as bees themselves, it almost casts a weird, fetishistic light on what their fascination with stingers.

Anyway, after the Hell Night initiation prank, we skip ahead to an April Fool's Day masquerade party. So, the gap between events is pretty wide and sort of inexplicable. The house where the party is being held is one with a dark history however, having been the site of a series of grizzly murders. But that's all part of the fun! Naturally, there are a few pranks, but there's also someone bumping the party goers off, too. In fact, once people start dying there's really no breathing room. The deaths come in rapid fire succession until the killer's reveal.


Eventually we discover that one of the pledge's, Jennifer, played by Joann Johnson, has been possessed by the spirit of the murderer occupying the dingy house. It's absolutely derivative of "The Exorcist," but the makers of this film take the Italian rout by nicking an idea and giving it an irradiated ice cream paint job. In fact, Johnson's over-the-top performance is what seals this film's victory. With such a wild opening sequence, finding a substantial book end that kept this story from becoming a mediocre down-hill slide should have been possible.

Now, I've seen this described as perhaps one of the worst horror films ever produced. I could not disagree more. In fact, for its period and all of its tribulations, it manages to be a stunning victory. It never manages to be grizzly or disgusting, but it delivers an ample number of creative deaths. I saw a lot of complaints on IMDb which disparage the film by saying it's not scary at all. What, are these people fucking twelve years old? Come on. Horror films are rarely ever a traumatizing experience. I think the most you should expect of a genre film is atmosphere. It should effectively weave a vibe that really sticks with you and creates a moment, and "Killer Party" absolutely delivers mood in spades. Absolutely worth seeking out. The film also features appearances by Paul Bartel ("Rock N' Roll Highschool") and Ralph Seymour, who also played the dude who stole Pee-Wee's bike for Francis Buxton.

Check out the video for "April" by White Sister, featured in "Killer Party." The dude on the keys fucking rules. Watch his kicks. These dudes were also featured on the soundtracks for "Fright Night" and "Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Meyers."


Problems. I know I have them. I'm sure you do, too. But I like to think problems are what define us as individuals. After all, they say to err is human. Problems are completely characteristic, as we are defined by our struggles. I completely accept this, and I think it's why I find films like "The Initiation" so absolutely lovable. This movie has several problems on every level of production, but the entire affair is executed with such gusto that you can easily forgive a few visible boom mics. Some of the wooden performances are delightfully augmented by lingering or odd shot selections that are unintentionally hilarious. And foremost, the finale delivers a so-called twist without any sort of grace or even logic, rendering it bizarre enough to be amazing. This is an absolutely human piece of film making for all of its errors. It is REAL personality personified, and a completely joyful experience due mainly to many of its fuck ups.

Shit-hot Daphne Zuniga ("The Dorm That Dripped Blood," "Spaceballs,") stars here in her first primary role as Kelly Fairchild, a stressed out college student who's pledging a sorority with a couple of friends. While the title suggests that the core of the film revolves around some ominous rite, the focus is really on Kelly's nightmares, which are later revealed to be suppressed memories of a traumatic event that spawned an early childhood bout of amnesia. Conveniently, some lunatic has escaped a sanitarium and seems and is leaving a bloody wake that's heading Kelly's way. This death merchant eventually tracks their primary target to the Dallas International Market, where an after hours initiation prank is unfolding. That's about this flick hits the nitro on the body count.

By the way, if it was made in Texas, I automatically love it.

Nudity? In the trailer? Fuck yeah!

While nowhere near as strong or well-formed, "The Initiation" reminded me of "Girls Nite Out" (also on Thorn EMI) with respect to its attempt to develop a bond between the audience and its characters. It is the exposition with Kelly and the cast of supporting characters which most regular horror fans reject - a complaint that also hangs like a millstone around the neck of "Girls Nite Out." However, it is the character development in my opinion which strengthens the actual final quarter of both of these films and puts them on a shelf that overlooks most other slasher flicks. Like I've said before, if you're not cheering for the protagonist, films of this nature become a spectacle akin to feeding Christian's to the lions, and you have to be mentally deficient to really get into that sort of thing. The frat party scene, where everyone comes dressed as a repressed desire, is particularly entertaining. It not only breathes a little depth into the people we're seeing, but it's actually pretty funny. Particularly notable is the guy dressed like a giant penis. I honestly think horror films work best when they give us strange excursions that feel ordinary or fun before driving us into the heart of terror. Like ginger for the pallet, these scenarios totally cleanse us of apprehension and really enhance the tension that follows. Good horror lowers your security before pouncing, and I think "The Initiation" scores big points by doing just that.

The righteous Clu Gulager is also a main selling point here. The poster and box art for this film are also really incredible, and really demonstrates how shitty everything has gotten. Now all you get is a photo capture and a cruddy font. Such a bummer, and probably a huge reason why VHS is making such a major comeback.