The Ring (the American version, anyway) taught a young generation of mainstream-junkie moviegoers to hold experimental cinema in suspect, mistrust, even outright terror. (Can’t imagine how the same audiences would react to Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, though I’d be willing to orchestrate such an experiment in the name of academic research.) Granted, the string of disparate, monochromatic images Naomi Watts and her blasé avant garde geek boyfriend try to decipher shed their “experimental” mysteries as each image crosses over into an abstruse narrative (i.e. Watts as a dour Nancy Drew for the End Times). Which latently reinforces the fear audiences hold when approaching avant garde cinema, though not so much a fear of being strangled through the fourth wall by stringy-haired banshee waifs but rather a fear of being asked to interact with films at a more refined, intuitive level.
Which is not to say that some experimental films don’t explicitly aim for horrific overtures. Other Cinema DVD’s Experiments in Terror release presents six short avant garde works that could be comfortably programmed alongside Michael Snow or a midnight Sleepaway Camp marathon. First, and arguably foremost, is Peter Tscherkassky’s 1999 masterpiece Outer Space. The 10-minute scherzo of terror uses jagged shards of redeveloped footage from the 1982 Barbara Hershey ghost-rape potboiler The Entity and organizes them into what could be described as the nightmares of an adolescent woman who just saw Poltergeist for the first time and was most disturbed by the rude moment when JoBeth Williams is caught alone in her bedroom and humped violently by unseen spirits. It’s a rape fantasy through and through, suggested with a catalog of cinematic kinks. Tscherkassky’s unnerving tempest of toys include canted projection (calling to mind Angie Dickenson’s swooning taxicab P.O.V. in Dressed to Kill), processed blurs of nitrate (could be ghosts, could be luminescent lipstick smeared by an unforgiving maw), and a submerged soundtrack as heard from the underside of a smothering pillow. The violence restrains Hershey within both a haunted house and a haunted film, unable to escape and, by the end, doomed to relive her haunted memory. Last night, she dreamed someone or something came inside her at Manderley, again and again.
Outer Space is the pack-leading, blue ribbon-winning, unquestionably the most “essential” piece of cinema on the DVD, in addition to being the flat-out scariest, but the remaining five pull their weight as conversation pieces. Both David Sherman’s Tuning the Sleep Machine and Kerry Laitala’s Journey Into the Unknown conjure up hazy, half-remembered images of panic in a fever dream approximation of musique concrete, using samples of thrillers as disparate as gothic Hammer horror, the shocking vehicular homicide from Wait Until Dark, and noir-tinged, neon-colored midnight matinee marquees. Lloyd M. William’s NYU student film Ursula (the oldest film of the set, shot in 1961) is a moldy little kid’s fable of psychological domestic abuse that actually won a prize at Cannes, not to mention predicted the string of gothic diva terror-tantrums that Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? would inaugurate the following year. (Watching Ursula and Outer Space, reminiscing on the late career of Bette Davis and recalling Alice, Sweet Alice, one can’t help but ask, “Does no one enjoy being a girl?”)
To be honest, J.X. Williams’s The Virgin Sacrifice, at least the nine-minute fragment that still remains following a disastrous lab fire, isn’t anywhere near as scary as Williams’s claim that his mod look at occult happenings was a cursed production, as printed in the disc’s liner notes. All that remains are the very Something Weird title cards, a whiplash quick expositional scene sketch in which a mute girl arrives at a shag-carpeted apartment to sublet a room and discovers her new roomies are Satanists (“Worshipping the Devil: it’s the in thing to do!” one exclaims), and then an extended freak-out montage with trippy effects shots and found footage. And finally, and just as loaded with bizarre effects, is Damon Packard’s Dawn of an Evil Millennium, an epic, 20-minute, completely fabricated theatrical trailer for a crypto-Vestron Video cheapie (by way of Willow-era Ron Howard)—a supposedly 18-hour movie about a Jeff Daniels lookalike demon sent to destroy the planet (and possibly the universe) with his “Turbo-power!” Olds dragster. There are shades of John Carpenter’s They Live, caffeinated Evil Dead speed-freakery, a cameo by Miles O’Keeffe, and uncanny movie preview clichés, such as sentence prepositions that never reach a resolution: “On an alien planet…the beauty and wisdom of a sorceress….” (It’s nearly as funny as that fake preview for The Shining that’s been making the blog rounds.) But sometimes the liner note blurbs speak for themselves (this courtesy of J.X. Williams): “Damon Packard is to Stephen Spielberg what George Kuchar is to Douglas Sirk.”
Everything is presented full frame, which is appropriate for all of the films except for the 'Scope aspect ratio of Outer Space. Thankfully, it zooms on 16:9 televisions without any problems, since filmic degeneration is part of the film's power. Most of the films were D.I.Y., and the transfers keep all the imperfections intact. The sound isn't quite as forgiving, but both Evil Millennium and, especially, Outer Space feature a surprising and unnerving bass kick.
Nearly as bizarre and random as some of the films in the main program, the disc's "Archive" section skews radically towards the campy end of the spectrum, with a vintage demonstration of subliminal messages being tucked into a humdrum western fight scene. (For the record, I frame-by-framed the supposedly subversive scene in question, and didn't once see the skull and crossbones that were supposed to be inserted. I did, however, find that I'd accidentally killed my roommates in the interim.) There's also The Haunted Mouth, gold for campy educational film junkies. This one is a bizarre look at mouth hygiene involving Cesar Romero. Finally there are two sets of theatrical trailers, one a collection of campy ads for low-budget horror flicks of yesteryear (Blackula is one), the other a rundown of other releases from Other Cinema.
Between this anthology and the upcoming Val Lewton box set, your esoteric Halloween movie marathon is already set.