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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Sheets of Gore: Volume 1 (2017) [filmed mid-late 80s]

Directed by:
Todd Sheets

You've gotta hand it to Todd Sheets. Even if his audience was, is and likely will forever remain tiny, even if the best reviews he's managed to get over his nearly-four-decade career usually include a line like "Well, it's not the worst thing he's ever done... " and even if he never once makes a traditionally good film out of hundreds of tries, he keeps chugging along doing what he loves most. That kind of tenacity in the face of almost-constant ridicule is commendable. Throughout the 80s, Todd kept busy shooting one short subject after another. After he had quite a few shorts in the can, er, I mean case (most were made with a VHS camcorder, though he did also dabble with Super 8), he finally moved on to feature-length videos. This is where David DeCoteau and Cinema Home Video, and J. R. Bookwalter and Tempe Video, stepped in. As far as I can tell, these were the first outlets willing to distribute Todd's earliest efforts on home video. Not that most of these were ending up in many video stores back in the day (most of their sales likely came from mail order ads in horror rags) but at least Sheets' movies were being seen by people other than his friends and family.

After being mostly ignored for decades, there's been a tiny sliver of renewed interest in Sheets in recent years. As I've said elsewhere, if you're an extreme low budget filmmaker, the very best thing you can do for yourself and your career is crank out as many films as possible. Not only do you have a better chance to actually make something decent eventually but, even if you never do, as long as you have a large number of shitty films on your filmography, a small audience willing to acclimate themselves to your shittiness will eventually find you. And, as the volume of your output increases, the higher the likelihood that a bunch of dum dums out there will start indiscriminately throwing around the "cult" label to describe you and your work.

As I was (unsuccessfully) looking for a list of the shorts contained in this collection, it was quite eye-opening bouncing from horror website to horror website and seeing revisionist horror "critics" referring to a lot of Sheets' earlier work as "cult classics." He never made anything of the sort! A "cult classic" needs to amass a significant audience to earn that title and a few VHS-fetishists decades after the fact hardly counts as significant. No, Zombie Rampage isn't truly a cult film, let alone a cult classic. It wasn't popular when it was first released on video and still isn't popular. To now try to place it in the same category as stuff like Plan 9 From Outer Space, Pink Flamingos or The Rocky Horror Picture Show is absurd.

As for the early (mid-to-late 80s) forgotten Sheets shorts, well, they kind of just remained unseen by the world at large for decades yet were still tacked on to the tail end of his filmography as if they had been released. SOV fans drooled over enticing-sounding titles like Chainsaw Tales and Blood of the Undead for years and I suppose there were enough of these folks out there to merit a DVD. While it doesn't really harm anything to release these, I'm still surprised Sheets himself allowed it. In interviews, he's made no bones about the self-described "abominations" he made early on. He's referred to them as "godawful" and stated that "Anything I made before '93 I kind of disowned." But, hey, here they are anyway!







First up is Gone but Not Forgotten. Two guys and a girl exit a house (i.e. a shelter) because a radio broadcast tells them to seek shelter (?!) They find their town abandoned and then run across four zombies (one wearing a Mötley Crüe "Girls! Girls! Girls!" t-shirt), who proceed to chase them down and slaughter them. There's a machete murder, a guy has his guts ripped out and then the top of his head crushed, one of the zombie girls is seen smiling and laughing and a victim barely acts phased when he's being ripped apart. This 9-minute-long piece admittedly charmed my pants off, but only because it was the exact same kind of thing my friends and I were making after school, where we'd come up with one idea and then just make the rest up as we went along, as they clearly did here.

Next is Gotta Quarter?, which rips off Street Trash (1987) and manages to be even more obnoxious and grating than the entirety of ST (a very annoying film, mind you) in just a fraction of the time. In downtown Kansas City, a bunch of drunk bums who never shut up run around stealing each other's booze and cigarettes. One bumps into some kind of scientist who drops a "mutagen" that "contains radioactivity that can destroy the whole world in seconds." One guy gets strangled with a chain and one of the bums mutates and starts bleeding blue liquid. Probably one of the most useless and pointless things I've seen here recently. There's terrible adlibbing, no real ending, the sound is so muffled a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible (though when you can make it out you'll wish you hadn't) and it's lit and shot so poorly you can't even get a good look at the few gore fx. 11 (insufferable) minutes long.






Tale #3, Sanguinary Desires, carries on like the previous short in that it doesn't make a lick of sense, is poorly shot / too dark and it's difficult to hear the dialogue because it's both poorly recorded and the "actors" talk over one another or don't even bother finishing what they're saying because there was obviously no script. The plot here, if you want to call it that, has a bunch of people being offered 10,000 bucks to spend the night in some place by a vampire and his pasty-faced assistant. They wander around and get killed. After a girl is bitten by the vampire, it cuts to a scene where a guy gets his Ramen-looking innards and other organs ripped out and eaten by a zombie, which is obviously just a bunch of unedited outtakes as you can hear the crew laughing and making comments in the background the entire time. A few more people are killed, the place starts shaking and it abruptly ends with more outtakes.

Though what's seen here runs about 14 minutes, IMDb lists it as a feature with a running time of 85, so I don't know if they're wrong (probably) or if this is a condensed version of something that was originally much longer (not impossible). Either way... Huh?







We're back in downtown Kansas City at night for the 13-minute Edwin Parker, which suffers from the same exact issues as the previous two shorts. The titular cackling machete-wielding nuthouse escapee prowls around the city killing people. His brother shows up wearing a blood-spattered shirt and starts asking people if they've seen him. Sample dialogue: Brother: "Last night he's just escaped from his third mental home and he's extremely dangerous." Man (in indifferent tone): "That's kinda weird." When another woman asks why he's looking for him, he says, "Well, he's my lunatic brother. He's, uh, I gotta find him before he kills somebody. Before we find him, cause. Well if you see him around or anything, give me a holler. And, if anything happens, don't call the police cause I need to find him" (??)

After Edwin lops off the top of a guy's head (one of the few legitimately good fx in this collection), he surprises four people at a bus stop, chases three different women down and kills them. One has her throat cut, another has the top of her head cut off / brain exposed and then the killer corners the last one and uses his bare hands to pull her guts out and then rips her boobs off. The brother finally finds him, hits him over the head with a board and then the killer's brain is seen scurrying away (?!) The only real point of interest here is the bizarre decision to keep the audio of the cast and crew talking in the background during the fx scenes. I mean, is it really that difficult to drop-out the sound for a few seconds or add music over top of it? Or are the people who slapped together this DVD just that lazy?







Another zombie short called The Unwanted is next. This appears to be the third entry of a four-part series called Blood of the Undead. I'm not sure where parts 1 and 2 are at (part 4; Blood of the Undead: The Final Chapter, is at the very end), or if these are linked up in any way plot-wise. Unlike the earlier shorts, which have had the title added recently and otherwise feature no credits, this has opening production company, title, cast and director credits, which are written out on white paper with a marker.

A young kid is attacked by something. Injured and with a bloody wound on his neck, he stumbles to a house where a group of his friends are hanging out and playing ping pong and then passes out on the couch. He spits up some banana pudding, bites / infects a girl and then the two start attacking, biting and infecting everybody else. The last girl grabs a chainsaw that isn't turned on, cuts two zombies, drops it for no reason, falls over and lets the other zombies kill her. The end. 11 minutes. Next.






Though they forgot to even add the title, the 1986 version of Dead Things (which Sheets sort-of remade as a feature a decade later) is up next. Since his youngest son was killed by "city slickers," a scar-faced redneck and his mentally-impaired, hyperactive surviving son decide to get revenge on innocent people just passing through the same area. Luckily for them, Genie, a female shrink from the Miskatonic Mental Health Center, and four of her patients, who won't stop bickering, just happen to be hiking through the area. One of the patients is a pathological liar who claims his uncle was Babe Ruth and that he dated Morgan Fairchild, who "was a hooker" that "charges ten dollars."

When the redneck finally encounters the group, he threatens to shoot them and they all run off. He and his son get their hands on one of the guys, drag him back to their home, tie him up, beat him and then chop his leg off with an axe. The liar then gets mad when no one will believe his tall tales, wanders off by himself and is beaten to death with a baseball bat. There's also a throat slashed with a hatchet, a stabbing and a mummified baby. The redneck and his son turn out to be ghosts or zombies or something. Not that it really matters all that much.

While this is terrible in pretty much every way, it's a slight improvement over the other shorts because it actually attempts to have something of a structured plot, characters you can tell apart from one another (some even have - gasp! - names) and a couple of actors (namely the ones playing the redneck and son) trying to, ya know, actually act. At 24 minutes, this is also the longest. IMDb currently has incorrect info for this title up; listing the cast and crew for the 1997 version instead. Apparently they don't plan on ever correcting that either since it's been like that for years.








The final short, Blood of the Undead: The Final Chapter, does have a few credits (no cast, though), which are again written out on sheets of paper ("Story by: Everyone!"). This is one of the very early Sheets shorts where a lot of his "actors" were just little kids. I'm not sure what age Sheets himself was when he first got started but I'd assume early teen years based on the kids in this one. This runs about 11 minutes and is pretty cut-and-dry: Four young boys enter an abandoned house with blood-spattered walls, accidentally let a zombie out of the basement and then it starts killing them off; mostly with a chainsaw. Some of the dead kids return as zombies and attack the others.







SRS Cinema LLC, which is the current incarnation of Ron Bonk's Salt City Home Video, is responsible for this release. Though I was interested in some of Salt City's output back in the late 90s, SRS's crop of newer titles is mainly of the "We made our movie 'intentionally' bad cuz we're so self-aware!" school of sub-Sharknado forced-camp garbage that I avoid like the plague. And as awful as this collection was (they should have gone for a more apt title like "Pieces of Sheet"), I'd rather sit through it than, say, Sharks of the Corn, or their upcoming production, Amityville Karen. Kind of depressing just how far B horror has sunk in the past few decades since video stores went extinct, eh?

I also must add that SRS has done a pretty poor job on their website write-up and don't even list what shorts are on this compliation anywhere in the description OR even on the back cover before you buy it. There's a Volume 2 of additional early Sheets shorts and I'm not even sure which shorts it contains. Apparently they don't either since they don't bother letting us - the potential buyers - know! The two volumes were also released on Blu-ray (limited to 100 copies) as well as VHS (limited to 25 copies).

 (Dead Things and Gone But Not Forgotten only) / NO STARS! (everything else)

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Wednesday Children, The (1973)

Directed by:
Robert D. West

Meet the Miller family. They're your typical upper middle class white bread keepin'-up-appearances couple + two kids. Husband / father Brad (Donald E. Miller) is often away on business, is neglectful and unappreciative ("Spaghetti again?") of his wife, short-tempered with his kids and prefers riding around on his lawn mower to socializing with the rest of his brood. To him, being a good father is limited to bringing in money and spending five minutes a week with his son. That leaves wig-wearing wife Marian (Marji Dodrill) with a bulk of the responsibility when it comes to running the household. She has to take care of the kids, food, shopping and PTA meetings, and obsesses over insignificant things like shoes on the furniture and washing hands because she's desperate for her dreary life to have some purpose. There's additional tension in the marriage as the husband still not-so-secretly pines for his late first wife, Cindy, and even sometimes accidentally refers to Marian by her name. Ouch.

Their youngest son Douglas is pretty much too young to really care either way, but the eldest, Scotty (Tom Kelly), from Brad's previous marriage, is another story entirely. The despondent, eye-rolling Scotty is the one who primarily has to deal with the fallout from his dad and stepmother's shitty relationship. Dinners are awkward and silent whenever the TV and radio are turned off. Scotty mostly just blankly stares off into space and starts behaving strangely. He demands Marian get him milk instead of lemonade, then refuses to drink the milk. At dinner, he requests extra meatballs, then doesn't eat them and just walks away from the dinner table. This all seems like his way of exerting control in an unsure world with unstable adults as well as a means to annoy his stepmother.









At church, Reverend Haines (played by the director) gives a five minute long sermon about the generation gap, parents not being able to relate to their own children and how we're all living in "a sinful world that may be headed to a judgment day at any moment." Mercifully, the babble is cut short when he goes into an (accidental?!) coughing fit and then it immediately cuts to road sign! Temporarily heeding the reverend's advice, Brad decides to try to patch things up with his wife and spend more time with his kids. He takes Scotty out to fly their 400 dollar radio controlled model airplane and gives another lecture comparing flying to being a father. You can't be too hard or too soft on the controls, eh? When he hands over control to Scotty, he crashes the plane. Brad screams at him and grounds him for a month. So much for that.









While pouting in a barn, Scotty meets Mr. Al Fenton (Alan Miskell), whom we immediately know is evil because he has a beard and smokes. Working undercover as a janitor at the church, Fenton starts promising the children of the congregation he will grant them a special power he calls "transferring," which will give them freedom, unlimited toys and candy, money and other such perks. And since the self-absorbed adults / authority figures are all failing these children, they easily fall under Fenton's evil influence. More and more kids join the flock, they start holding secret meetings in the barn and then all of the adults in town start disappearing...

This ultra low-budget amateur film from Wadsworth, Ohio was shot over a few weekends on 16mm with a budget of 13,000 dollars and stars amateur locals (mostly friends and family of the director). Only Dodrill as the mother gives what could be considered a passable performance, followed by juvenile lead Kelly, who's merely OK. Everyone else is awful. The film premiered at John Carroll University (where the director was teaching at the time) and then a version shortened by 20 minutes played on local TV, which is the only print to still be in existence. The original, longer master print is said to have been destroyed in a fire.









Aside from working as a film professor at various colleges (including his alma mater Kent State), the director was also a WWII army veteran, a program director at WJW-Radio out of Cleveland, a commercial director for an advertising firm and an ordained minister who led a church for three decades, which certainly explains the heavy moralizing and religious content here. A self-proclaimed "disciple of Val Lewton," he opted to never show any kind of special effects, blood or violence, so everything horrific or fantastic takes place entirely off-screen. However, he failed to take into consideration that Lewton films worked so well because they had good acting, strong scripts and excellent cinematography; all of which are absent here. The title comes from the old nursery rhyme / children's song "Monday's Child."


At its best, this provides only mild interest; namely in its similarities to the later Children of the Corn (published in 1977), and its setting in disillusionment-filled, mildly-rural, middle class suburbia of the early 70s, where the hideousness of the clothing, hair, home décor and furnishings seemed to match what most Americans were feeling inside at the time.

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