A Sword with silver and gold inlay from Langeid in Norway, dating to the 10th century. The sword is decorated with an unreadable inscription as well as a small hand holding a cross, a symbol of God’s blessing. The sword (C58882) was found during an archaeological excavation of a heathen grave mound in 2011. Photo: Ellen C. Holte, Museum of Cultural History, UiO.

    BLOGTOBER 10/17/2020: SPOOKIES

    What do we watch, when we watch movies? This question was sparked by my SOV experience with the very different, and differently interesting BLOODY MUSCLE BODYBUILDER FROM HELL and HORROR HOUSE ON HIGHWAY 5. Within the Shot On Video category, one can find inventive homemade features that are driven entirely by blood, sweat, and the creators’ feeling of personal satisfaction. The results are sometimes fascinating, in their total alienation from the conventions and techniques of mainstream filmmaking, and after all, one rarely sees anything whose primary motivation is passion, here in the late stages of capitalism. But, all this talk about what goes on behind the camera points to a discrepancy in how we consume different kinds of production. The typical mode of consumption is internal to the movie: What happens in it? Do you relate to the characters? Are you able to suspend your disbelief, to experience the story on a vicarious level? One hardly needs to come up with examples of films that invite this style of viewing. Alternatively, we can experience the movie as a record of a time and place in which real people defied conventions and sometimes broke laws in order to produce a work of art. SOV production is usually viewed through this lens, where the primary interest is not the illusory content, but the filmmakers’ sheer determination to create. We find some overlap in movies like EVIL DEAD, which simultaneously presents a terrifying narrative, and evidence of what a truly driven team can create without the aid of a studio, or any real money to speak of. See also, Larry Cohen’s New York City-based horror films, in which a compelling drama with great acting can exist side by side with phony but beautiful effects, and exciting stories of stolen footage that would be dangerous or impossible to attempt today. I’m thinking about these different modes of consumption now because I just watched SPOOKIES, a legitimately cursed-seeming film whose harrowing production history has superseded whatever people think about what it shows on the screen. The lovingly composed blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome includes a feature-length documentary that attempts to explain the making of the film–which is accompanied by its own feature length commentary track by documentarists Michael Gingold and Glen Baisley. The very existence of this artifact suggests a lot about the nature of this movie, in and of itself. The truth behind its existence is as funny as it is tragic.

    I’m not going to do a whole breakdown of the tortured origins of SPOOKIES, which is much better told by the aforementioned documentary. To summarize: Once upon a time in the mid 1980s, filmmakers Brendan Faulkner, Thomas Doran and Frank Farel conspired to make a fun, flamboyant rubber monsterpiece called TWISTED SOULS. It was wild, ridiculous, and transparently fake-looking, but it was loved by its hard-working creators; as a viewer, that soulful sense of joy can rescue many a “bad” movie from its various foibles. Then, inevitably, sleazoid producer Michael Lee stepped in–a man who thought you could cut random frames out of the middle of scenes to improve a movie’s pace–and ruined it with extreme prejudice. Carefully crafted special effects sequences were cut, relatively functional scenes were re-edited into oblivion, and the seeds of hatred were sown between the filmmakers and the producer. Ultimately, everyone who once cared for TWISTED SOULS was forced to abandon ship, and first time director Eugenie Joseph stepped in to help mutilate the picture beyond all recognition. Thus SPOOKIES was born, a mangled, unloved mutation that would curse many of its original parents to unemployability. For the audience, it is intriguingly insane, often insulting, and hard to tear your eyes off of–but in spite of whatever actually wound up on the screen, it’s impossible to forget its horrifying origin story as it unspools.

    As far as what’s on the screen goes: A group of “friends”, including a middle-aged businessman and his wife, a vinyl-clad punk rock bully and his moll, two new wave-y in-betweeners, and…a guy with a hand puppet are somehow all leaving the same party, and all ready to break into a vacant funeral home for their afterparty. Well, this happens after a 13 year old runaway inexplicably wanders in to a “birthday party” in there, that looks like it was thrown for him by Pennywise, and he has the nerve to act surprised when he is attacked by a severed head and a piratey-looking cat-man who straight up purrs and meows throughout the picture. Anyway, separately of that, which is unrelated to anything, the island of misfit friends finds a nearly unrecognizable “ouija board” in the old dark house. Actually this thing is kind of fun-looking, having been made by one of the fun-havers on the production before the day that fun died, and I wonder if anyone has considered trying to make a real board game out of it…but I digress. Naturally, the board unleashes evil forces, including a zombie uprising in the cemetery outside, a plague of Ghoulie-like ankle-biters, an evil asian spider-lady (accompanied by kyoto flutes), muck-men that fart prodigiously until they melt in a puddle of wine (?), and uh…I know I’m forgetting stuff. One of the reasons I’m forgetting is because of this whole side story about a tuxedo-wearing vampire in the basement (or somewhere?) who has entrapped a beautiful young bride by cursing her with immortality. That part is a little confusing, not only because it doesn’t intersect with the rest of the movie, but because sometimes it seems contemporary–as the bride struggles to survive the zombie plague–and sometimes it seems like a flashback, as our heroes find what looks like the mummified corpse of the dracula guy, complete with his signet ring. So, I don’t know what to tell you really. Those are just some of the things that happen in the movie.

    Some people like this a lot, and have supported its ascendance to cult status, which is a huge relief when you know what everyone went through to make this movie, only to have it ripped away from them and used against them. I found SPOOKIES a little hard to take, for all the reasons that the cast and crew express in the documentary. It holds a certain amount of visual fascination, whatever you think of it; something of its original creativity remains evident in the movie’s colorful, exaggerated look, and its steady parade of unconvincing but inventive creature effects. But then, you have to deal with the farting muck-men. What was once a scene of terror starring REGULAR muck-men, that sounded incredibly laborious to pull off, became a scene of confusing “comedy” when producer Michael Lee insisted that the creatures be accompanied by a barrage of scatalogical noises. Apparently this was Lee’s dream come true, as a guy who insisted everyone pull his finger all the time, and who once tried to call the movie “BOWEL ERUPTOR”. But, of all the deformations SPOOKIES endured, the fart sounds dealt a mortal injury to the filmmakers’ feelings, and even without knowing that, it’s hard to enjoy yourself while that’s happening.

    Actually, all the farts forced me to ask myself: Is this…a comedy? Like for real, as its main thing? As the movie slogged on, I had to decide that it wasn’t, but I was distracted by the notion for around 40 minutes. I was only released from this nagging suspicion when the bride makes her long marathon run through throngs of slavering zombies who swarm her, grope her, and tear off her clothes, before she narrowly escapes to an even worse fate. The lengthy scene is strangely gripping, and sleazy for a movie that sometimes feels like low rent children’s entertainment. Part of the sequence’s success lies in its simplicity; it is unburdened by the convoluted complications of the rest of the movie, whose esoteric parts never fall together, so it seems to take on a sustained, intensifying focus. The action itself is unnerving, as the delicate and frankly gorgeous Maria Pechuka is molested and stripped nearly-bare by her undead bachelors, running from one drooling mob to another as the horde nearly engulfs her time and again. Actually, it feels a lot like a certain genre of SOV production in which, for the right price, any old creepy nerd can pay a small crew-for-hire to tape a version of his private fantasy, whether it’s women being consumed by slime, or women being consumed by quicksand, or…generally, women being consumed by something. I wish I could describe this form of production in more specific or official terms, because I genuinely think it’s wonderful that people do this. Anyway, Pechuka's interminable zombie run feels a little like that, and a little like a grim italian gutmuncher, and a little like an actual nightmare. Perhaps it only stands out against its dubious surroundings, but I kind of love it–and I’m happy to love it, because apparently the late Ms. Pechuka truly loved making SPOOKIES, and wanted other people to love it, too.

    Which brings me to the uncomfortable place where I land with this movie. On the one hand…I think it’s bad. It’s so incoherent, and so insists on its impoverished form of comedy, that it’s hard to be as charmed by it as I am by plenty of FX-heavy, no-budget oddities. Perhaps the lingering odor of misery drowns out the sweet joy that the crew once felt in the early days of creation–which is still evident, somehow, in its zany special effects, created by the likes of Gabe Bartalos and other folks whose work you definitely already know and love. But I feel ambivalent, about all of this. On the one hand, I can be a snob, and shit on people for failing to make a movie that meets conventional standards of success. On the other hand, I can be a DIFFERENT kind of snob–a more voyeuristic or even sadistic one–and celebrate the painful failures that produced a movie that is most interesting for its tormented history and its amusing ineptitude. I’m not really sure where I would prefer to settle with SPOOKIES, and movies like it. (As if anything is really “like” SPOOKIES) With all that said, I was left with one soothing thought by castmember Anthony Valbiro in the documentary. At some point, he tells us how ROSEMARY’S BABY is his personal cinematic comfort food; he can put it on at night, after an exhausting day, and drift to sleep, enveloped in its warm, glowing aura. He then says that he hopes there are people out there for whom his movie serves that same purpose, that some of us can have our “milk and cookies moment” with SPOOKIES. Honestly, I choke up just thinking about that.