Tuesday, January 29, 2019

An SOV Manifesto by Matt Watts


Differing sub genres of film are a slippery slope to fall down. For example, saying you are a fan of “horror movies” is a pretty broad statement. To some folks, horror begins and ends with the Universal classics. Others would think of sixties Roger Corman or William Castle type thrillers. A good majority of horror fans would think of the seventies and eighties explosion of slasher flicks. And somewhere waaaaaay at the bottom of that slippery genre slope, rest the enthusiastic fanatics of SOV horror.

I say “fanatics” because there are not many people who are on the fence about appreciating shot on video movies. In fact, a vast, vast majority of filmgoers are outright repulsed by movies shot on video. I’ve heard such creative colloquialisms as “shot on shit-eo” or the more appropriate “shit on video” spouted out on any number of film message boards. To some, there seems to be no greater affront on cinematic existence than to dare to make a movie on anything other than film or whatever the current level of unnecessarily high definition digital format is. But for those of us crammed down at the bottom of the barrel of cinematic taste, there is no greater joy than witnessing a movie shot on consumer grade VHS.

Sure, it’s an acquired taste. When I first started stumbling onto SOV horror movies, it was in the early 2000’s, when I was dedicated to renting every horror movie at my local rental place. I wasn’t a very discriminating renter, so anything with a halfway decent cover ended up coming home with me. Inevitably with a practice like that, I would occasionally end up with a movie that would reveal itself to be shot on video. I would typically let out a bit of a groan, but I must say, seeing that home video look never made me outright stop the tape. I was a gorehound goddammit, and as long as the flick delivered on the red stuff, I was forgiving of the quality.

After awhile, I began to develop an affinity for these SOV affairs. Around this time, discovering the movie was a trashy SOV picture usually meant I was going to see not only a fair amount of bloodshed, but also a fair amount of clothing shed. The holy trinity of blood, boobs, and beasts were ever present in these kinds of movies, much to my enjoyment. This was right around the time of the advent of digital video, which at the time seemed like a big jump in quality for low budget movies, while still not breaking the budget of the flick.

But it wasn’t until I finally got around to getting a DVD player that I really discovered the prime, original, eighties shot on video movies. While a lot of these flicks eventually got special edition treatments by many fine speciality labels, once DVD’s caught on with the mainstream purchasing audience, it wasn’t long before a glut of budget priced multi movie packs hit the shelves. I was in trash heaven. Suddenly, movies I’d only read or heard about were within reach. Splatter Farm? Blood Cult? Zombie Bloodbath? Video Violence? No longer only available though “convention edition” copies of copies of copies, here there were, transferred in high quality! You could actually make out night scenes! You could revel in the slowly congealing puddles of Karo Syrup blood! Thrill to tracking issues present in the masters! Just the fact that movies once thought to to swept under the rug by a generation of video renters were back, and back with a vengeance, was cause for celebration to a fan of schlock such as myself.

Another crucial advantage of these movies being available on DVD was a perk of the format; special features. Making of documentaries, interviews, and the all important director commentary tracks proved to be often just as entertaining as the movies themselves. These were not big budget, or even small budget studio affairs. Hearing the tales of what the makers of these movies did to get their flicks finished was always inspiring. The details of renting video equipment or borrowing dad’s camcorder in order to unleash on onslaught of homemade gore was invaluable to an aspiring trash filmmaker. What did Jon McBride and company use to make those awesome entrails in Cannibal Campout? How did Gary Cohen manage to shoot in that sweet video store in Video Violence? How did the Polonia Brothers feel about the sick implications of the teenaged sexual violence of Splatter Farm? And just what the fuck was anyone involved with Boardinghouse thinking?! Most of these questions, answered. And those that weren’t, well, maybe the mystery was part of the enjoyment anyway.

Maybe that was part of the appeal of SOV movies. Wether you went into the viewing of the movie with aspirations of making your own or not, by the time an open minded horror fan got through, how could you not want to make a movie? What these filmmakers explained sure seemed a lot more attainable than what someone involved in a giant Hollywood epic would offer. If all else failed, grab some friends, stir up some fake blood, jot down an idea, head off into the woods and BAM! You’ve got a movie! And was this really much different than what filmmakers a generation before the SOV pioneers did? Sam Raimi and company did essentially what I just described to make the seminal Evil Dead, only they were fortunate enough to find a way to finance a film production. Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Night of the Living Dead? Same difference right? A different time and place allowed these filmmakers access to more traditional filmmaking methods. The advent of video in the eighties allowed for a cheaper, easier format in which an aspiring filmmaker could learn their craft. Most of the early SOV directors, Todd Sheets, Donald Farmer, the Polonia Brothers etc, started out making shorts on 8MM film. But the format was costly, finicky, and time consuming. With VHS camcorders becoming more affordable, the new format gave these young, creative people a way to craft not only shorts, but actual features for a mere fraction of the cost of film.

SOV filmmaking is filmmaking in its most democratic form. There’s no excuses. Far fewer technical limitations to wrestle. If you had an idea, access to a camera and a blank tape were all you needed. So is this something that should be held against those who made their movies on video? Is a movie automatically less interesting or valid because of its shooting format? Now, I understand that to someone who has only had a diet of strictly mainstream film, an SOV movie is probably pretty jarring. But horror fans by and large are much more forgiving of quality for something that includes the previously mentioned three b’s (blood, boobs, beast). That is surely a reason that a staggering majority of shot on video movies are in fact in the horror genre. But really, when it comes down to it, what kind of camera used to shoot a movie is a pretty asinine reason to disavow it, don’t you think?

I think that’s where the appeal lies for the majority of us SOV horror fanatics. It’s bare bones filmmaking. It’s pure, sick trash, in the most beautiful way possible. Once I fell down the shot on video rabbit hole, it was pretty hard to come back out. These movies, and their makers, were my film school and teachers. For most, the decision to shoot on video was one of necessity. The look and feel of their movies were shaped by the format. And while it may have been seen as a nuisance or hinderance to some, others were inspired by video, viewing its shortcomings as positives. SOV movies are unique and unmistakable.

I’ve directed two features and a handful of shorts that I shot on VHS. I was careful to try to convey that I was not doing this to do a period piece or a “retro throwback”. Rather, I wanted to try my hardest to put myself in the same situation that the filmmakers that inspired me were in, hoping I could capture some of the same feeling found in those SOV classics. I have a saying in regards to effects in my movies; “it doesn’t have to look real, just real gross”. Even though most of my gore gags were accomplished with bare bones things like liquid latex soaked paper towels doused liberally in fake blood, they seem to elicit a sense of revulsion in most viewers. I think this has to do with the fact that most people of a certain age are predominantly familiar with VHS quality footage through their own home movies. Having mostly seen that kind of look from an old tape of their 8th birthday party that their uncle shot, seeing explicit, if not amateurish, gore spilling out of the screen seems to trigger a reaction more akin to watching a snuff film than just another low budget horror movie.

I guess that’s it. There’s a certain, unmistakable reality to be found in SOV horror. The serial killers seem more vicious, the zombies more hungry, and the sleaze that much sleazier. What kind of crazy person shoots a movie on video?
-Matt Watts

Trailer for Matt Watts FATAL PREMONITIONS