The excellent recent documentary The Nightmare examines the topic of sleep paralysis, a condition which causes terrifying waking hallucinations in its victims. Many of the sufferers of sleep paralysis describe similar visions. In fact, these descriptions are often so alike, it’s uncanny. One of the typical hallucinatory images described is that of a shadowy silhouetted figure. Sometimes there are three of these figures, the leader of which is usually wearing some sort of a hat. This hat-wearing dream-stalking shadow is said to have been the original basis for the Freddy Krueger character from A Nightmare on Elm Street.
There is something very primal about this shadow figure that haunts the dreams of sleep paralysis sufferers. This dark silhouette is something ingrained into our animal brains as an anthropomorphic personification of fear itself.
I was reminded of the demons of sleep paralysis when I ran across a post from Camera Viscera collecting scads of VHS horror covers all with the thematic connection of having a silhouette figuring prominently in the artwork. You can check their site or their Facebook page for even more of these “kill-houettes.”
Below is a gallery of the finest examples of shadow terror art.
An amusing side effect of rapid technological change is nostalgia for dying and dead formats. It’s not a universal phenomenon—nobody’s misting up over DAT tapes—but it’s certainly prevalent. For my part, I abidingly LOVE vinyl records. But it ain’t 1997 anymore, and lossless digital boasts a demonstrably better frequency range and less harmonic distortion than vinyl, period—that those distortions may sound pleasing doesn’t make them not distortions. For every delusional LP junkie who holds vinyl to be a superior sound reproduction format, there’s also an even MORE delusional record-head who insists that the scratches, pops, and hiss of a beat-ass record actually sound good. That’s freakin’ NUTS—that’s just a consequence of the media’s physicality, if musicians wanted hiss and pops they’d have recorded them and baked them into the mix, and that to me is the end of the discussion unless you want to bring up Christian Marclay. But those flaws that obscure the message the medium is intended to deliver are exactly the things we seem to miss when progress obsoletes a familiar media format.
VHS tape is an apt case in point. For folks like me who are of let’s just say “a certain age,” nth-generation VHS dubs were the lingua franca of video sharing. The distortions that came with multiply dubbing that format were amazing. Colors would sometimes fade, sometimes drastically oversaturate, sound would unpredictably wobble and drop, the tape itself could stretch in spots causing playback to weirdly slow down for just a second, pausing for a long time could cause the play heads in the tape decks to rub the magnetic oxides off the mylar tape… It was kind of a shit medium, optical video media was MILES better and high def digital better still, but since those distinctive distortions were the haze through which I first saw weirdo touchstones like mondo documentaries and the oeuvre of John Waters, I kind of love them. I don’t love them to the point where a transparently exploitative contrivance like “Videotape Store Day” could ever make off with an assload of my money for movies I’ve already seen, but still, I love them.
A recent example of VHS love gone wonderfully right is videographer Zev Deans’ new ‘80s inspired infomercial for hip hop/electro pioneer The Egyptian Lover, who’s releasing a box set with the self-explanatory title 1983-1988 next month on Stone’s Throw. The video is a dead-on accurate throwback/homage to the era when ads for albums ran on TV with tremendous frequency. Typically these would be thrown-together compilations of whatever could be licensed—classics of the form include “Hey Love” and “Freedom Rock,” or best-ofs for fading fogey country singers like Boxcar Willie and Slim Whitman. The Egyptian Lover video nods to all the foregoing with lashings of degraded VHS distortion, and to boot it throws in a period-appropriate satire of psychic hotlines that features L.A. synth musician/spectacle purveyor Geneva Jacuzzi, herself no stranger to throwback video. There are other bonuses for trainspotters as well, and videographer Deans offered this:
Egyptian Lover is a legend, and for this project, I wanted it to feel like we were digging up a relic from Los Angeles in 1984. Most of this was shot in the back of Good Fred’s LaRutan Barber Shop, and legend has it that Jheri Curl was first bottled and sold at this location. Back in the day, Egyptian Lover’s Egyptian Empire Records office was on the second floor, with the entire 1st floor warehouse used as a dance floor for parties and record storage. You can still see the Giant mural of Egyptian Lover from the street on W54th street!
John Carpenters’ They Live Blu-Ray cover art (UK), 2014
In the early 80’s it was rumored that the UK had the largest number of VHS players per household, than anywhere else in the world. This interesting and perhaps plausible factoid (since the first home video recorder, The Telcan hit the UK consumer market in 1963), comes straight from the mouth of UK born illustrator, film poster designer and VHS aficionado, Tom Hodge, aka “The Dude Designs.”
King of New York DVD/Blu-Ray cover art for Arrow, 2012
Like so many of us, Hodge’s obsession with cinema began thanks to easy access to VHS (Video Home System) tapes and frequent visits to his local “video van man.” Much like the movies themselves, the glorious cover art that continues to entice VHS collectors from all over the world, was quickly burned into his psyche. In 1995 Hodge began his formal education with graphic design and visual communication before launching his career as a professional designer in 2000. Since then, Hodge has designed dozens of DVD and Blu-Ray covers as well as salacious film posters for titles put out by Arrow Films, Scream Factory, and Magnet, among others. His art is seemingly possessed by the spirit of the seedy underbelly of vintage grindhouse, horror and exploitation cinema.
Brian De Palma’s Obsession DVD/Blu-Ray cover art, 2011
If you also love all things VHS with a passion as Mr. Hodge, Yale University’s film archive would make you weep. The Ivy League school boasts a collection of almost 5,000 titles; 2,700 of them on VHS. Of particular interest in Yale’s archival is the fact that it is primarily comprised of horror films, thanks due in part to the “direct to video” marketing tactic used by fringe filmmakers in order to circumvent the Hollywood machine. What is also significant about both Yale and Hodge’s cultural curation of VHS, is that there are an endless number of VHS titles that simply cannot be found (or never will be released) on DVD or Blu-Ray. In other words, the only way to see many of the films that reside in Hodge’s or Yale’s archives requires that you pull your VCR out of storage, and view it on old-school magnetic tapes.
Jason Eisner’s Hobo with a Shotgun. Movie poster for Magnet, 2011
Recently, Hodge put together an archival of his own that is chronicled in his book, VHS Video Cover Art: 1980’s to Early 1990’s. Nearly half of the VHS films featured in the book are straight from Hodge’s own collection. Although many of the titles in Hodge’s book may be more recognizable to a UK video junkie, any child of the 80’s will undoubtedly recall many of the hundreds of images of VHS tapes (front and back mind you, squeee!) within the books covers.
From Parts Unknown (Fight Like a Girl) film poster, 2014
Chocolate, Strawberry, Vanilla (Australia) film poster, 2013
Sometimes there comes along a director, whose talent is so apparent that you wonder why they’re not more famous. Glenn McQuaid is such a director, and his first feature, I Sell the Dead, in 2008, offered everything I want from a horror film.
It was my brother who tapped me in to Mr. McQuaid’s work. My brother and I had grown-up under the spell of the horror films produced by Universal in the 1930s and 1940s (with Karloff and Lugosi, and Lon Chaney jnr.), and Hammer films (with Cushing and Lee) from the fifties and sixties. Of course there were also the Vincent Price and Roger Corman collaborations, as well as the Milton Subotsky and Max J Rosenberg anthology films of the 1960s and ‘70s.
We also had a love of stories by Dennis Wheatley (in particular his series of classic horror novels published under his Library of the Occult - Stoker, Shelley, ”Carnaki, the Ghost Finder”, and Guy Endore), and the tales of terror penned by Poe, Blackwood and Bloch.
My brother raved about I Sell the Dead, and when I saw it I had to agree. Written and directed by McQuaid, it stars Larry Fessenden, Dominic Monaghan, Ron Perlman and Angus (Phantasm) Scrimm, and is near perfect - a witty, clever and engaging story, presented in the style of the best, classic horror film. I was smitten, the same way I was when Boris Karloff as the Monster first walked backwards into the laboratory; or by Oliver Reed when he turned into a werewolf. McQuaid knows his genre and its cinematic traditions.
For his next film, McQuaid is one of the directors (alongside David Bruckner, Radio Silence, Joe Swanberg, Ti West, and Adam Wingard ) of the soon to be released anthology film, V/H/S, for which he wrote an directed the “unconventional killer-in-the-woods chiller Tuesday The 17th”. When V/H/S previewed at the Sundance Film Festival, it received the kind of exposure of which publicists dream.
At its screening two audience members fled in terror – one fainted, one puked. The last time I recall such a response was for The Exorcist in 1973, where there were reports of fainting, vomiting, and even an alleged possession.
When was shown at SXSW, V/H/S was described as ”an incredibly entertaining film that succeeds in being humorous, sexy, gross and scary as fuck.” While Dead Central gave it 5/5.
Though all the directors have been praised for the quality of their films, the reviews have singled out McQuaid for the excellence and originality of his contribution.
Before all this kicked off, I contacted Glenn McQuaid to organize an interview. Over the following weeks emails went back-and-forth, until the following arrived. The interview covers Mr McQuaid’s background, his influences, early work, The Resurrection Apprentice, working with Larry Fessenden, Ron Perlman and Dominic Monaghan on I Sell the Dead, to V/H/S.
The full interview with Glenn McQuaid, after the jump….
Electronic and text-sound music pioneer Robert Ashley‘s video opera (developed over a period of time from the mid 70’s to the early 80’s) is, in retrospect, the kind of VHS artifact you might find deconstructed at Everything is Terrible or parodied on Tim & Eric. Only thing is, this piece comes pre-deconstructed ! it’s already one of the most fragmented and inscrutable pieces of “TV” you’re ever likely to stumble upon. Following the narrative is an experience akin to being stuck inside Ashley’s mind for a long stretch. That he also happens to suffer from a mild form of Tourette’s only serves to make that mind a very interesting place.