BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Slaughter Tales — a feature-length horror movie written/directed by/starring a then-fourteen-year-old South Philly filmmaker Johnny Dickie — changed the way I look at movies. Let me explain: In the mid-1980s, during the rise of the video store, a film lover would be giddy about the freshly-bloomed reality of being able to watch films you would never see on TV or at your local theaters. I was in college studying film at the time, so it was an opportunity to see for the first time classics from Fritz Lang, Buster Keaton and Stanley Kubrick. Being a fan of cult and horror films, I now had the chance to see some of the eccentric films cataloged in Michael Weldon’s seminal book The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film, films by notorious directors like gore pioneer Herschell Gordon Lewis (Color Me Blood Red) Larry Cohen (of the killer baby thriller It’s Alive) and Jess Franco (the appeal of whose Vampyros Lesbos should be apparent).
For all the weird, low-budget horror films I consumed, I drew the line at the new breed of shot-on-video features that began cropping up at the time. With the videotape image sharing that same glossy sheen of daytime soap operas and porn films, there was something ill-fitting about the bright, popping colors and the violent mayhem on screen. I don’t think any of the blizzard of shot-on-video features that came out between 1984 & 1994 had even a C-list star or for that matter a professional actor. For me, shot-on-video “hits” like Death Row Diner and Woodchipper Massacre were definitely beneath contempt, just one step too far.
Johnny’s friends felt the same way, as he recounted watching his first shot-on-video horror film. “That was terrible,” they moaned. “Yeah, but I kind of liked it,” Dickie countered. On-line he connected with a community of aficionados who loved old shot-on-video features (SOV, to those in the know) like Cannibal Campout (1988) and Boarding House (1982). Dickie began collecting the ancient VHS tapes (he had a leg up since his mother’s store, Molly’s Books, dealt in used video) and at the age of 14 he completed his first feature film. Entitled Slaughter Tales, the 91 minute feature is a mini-horror anthology, shot mainly in Dickie’s apartment above the Philadelphia Italian Market. Dickie plays a larcenous teen who steals a demonically possessed video tape. Camped out on the futon, Dickie watches assorted shorts from the videotape with teenage disgust and finds himself pulled between perverse realities, with tragic and disgusting results. Dickie takes particular pride in the latex and karo syrup special effects that are gruesomely dissected or explode from hidden blood-filled condoms. He has since plied his effects craft on other film productions.
SOV films are notorious for their shoddy craftsmanship, their fake-looking effects and their amateur performances; they are the lo-fi punk rock of the film world. While many seem like they are made merely to amuse the filmmakers’ friends, Dickie’s magnum opus, while filled with gelatinous, oozing, bloody effects (including some stop-motion animation), has a wit and intelligence that lifts the feature above a mere goof. It’s rare that films made by someone in their early teens even make it to completion, but Slaughter Tales is invaluable as a surreal and passionate look at the worries, loves, and complaints of a fourteen-year-old. It’s a demographic of filmmaker that rarely gets a chance to howl its own song, and almost never this articulately.
Maybe I just loved Slaughter Tales because it came from my neighborhood. For an unbiased opinion I consulted Philly-based filmmaker Andrew Repasky McElhinney, who was a teenage talent and now in his early thirties has gone on to direct four features. “This reminds me of my early films, except it is entertaining,” McElhinney quipped, impressed with Slaughter Tales inventiveness. And obviously it is not just a Philly thing, with the DVD and VHS versions now distributed nationally by New York’s Briarwood Entertainment, and the feature has received kudos from assorted websites, including film geek central Aint-It-Cool News, which declared themselves “utterly endeared.” And Dickie’s not out there alone, the whole bloody genre has seen a recent resurgence.
Movies are like a time machine, they can take you back to your adolescence and beyond. Sitting down with Dickie recently, watching one of his favorite VHS tapes, 1986’s Splatter: Architects of Fear, I sensed that part of Dickie’s fascination is similar to my generation’s own youthful curiosity, that interest in the era that just predated our arrival. In college, my friends and I absorbed the counterculture music and film of the late 60s, in part to translate the world we were born into yet could not quite comprehend.
Although the gore effects of the SOV features are almost like a comedy’s punchlines, it’s that peripheral atmosphere of life in the ’80s and late ’90s (when the genre seemed to wither) that casts a spell. And not just to those that didn’t experience the era, but to me as well, marveling in fascination and astonishment at my peers from 20 years ago looking so dorky and unfashionable, in mullets and pastels and the kind of garish aesthetic that even Hollywood in the late ’80s would not stand. For me these documents of the ’80’s exerts a sense wonder as well as a bit of a sting at all the time that has past. For Johnny, this shaggiest of genres contains it own secret truths, “You get a glimpse into the people’s lives, it’s like a home movie.”
SLAUGHTER TALES, directed by 14 year-old South Philly Filmmaker Johnny Dickie screens at PhilaMOCA (The Philadelphia Mausoleum of Cultural Arts. 531 N. 12th Street
Philadelphia, PA ) Thursday April 24th,2013 as part of the Cinedelphia Film Festival. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with director/star Johnny Dickie conducted by Phawker Film Critic Dan Buskirk.