by Guest Dungeonmaster
Howard Paul Burgess
Video Violence is a mixed bag of a film. The premise holds a lot of potential. A couple moves from New York City to Frenchtown , New Jersey , a village on the banks of the Delaware River . They move expecting life to be slower and less complicated but find that they’re involved with mass murders and conspiracies.
The opening titles combine what’s good and not so good about the film. In one continuous shot we follow the progress of a car driving across the bridge into town. The film was shot on video, and this was before the day of high definition digital video. We’re aware of every bump the camera car rolls over. Points for the whole thing being one unedited shot; points lost for the image not being steadier.
The owner of the car stops in a shopping center and gets out to return a cassette to an independently owned video store. All this for someone returning a tape? It turns out that this cassette is the hinge the plot turns on.
Steven Emory (Art Neill) has given up his job managing a movie theater in New York City to run the video store in this seemingly perfect little town. His wife Rachel (Jackie Neill) left a position with a Manhattan law firm to work at the local courthouse.
This fateful morning Steven finds that a tape in the drop box isn’t store property. He and his assistant watch it and discover that it’s a gory slasher film that looks to be homemade. The assistant swears that he recognizes the bound man being sacrificed: it’s the town’s recently retired postmaster who had supposedly moved to Florida after retiring. Howard and Eli, two good natured homicidal maniacs, have hogtied the unfortunate man and proceed to slice and dice him.
Steven puts the Closed sign in the window, tells the assistant to hide, locks the door and walks/runs through town to the police station.
Why does Steven not call the police instead of heading off on foot? Why does he not take the cassette with him? Why does he go to the local law enforcement instead of getting in his car with the tape and heading out to contact the state police?
Common sense is not what we want in movies like this. If characters did smart things we would have shelves of movies that are fifteen, maybe twenty minutes long. Let’s remember that this is Gary Cohen’s Video Violence, not Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
The police chief (a ripe scenery chewing performance by William Toddie, clearly having the time of his life) is skeptical, but agrees to go to the store with Steven. They find the store unlocked and both the cassette and assistant missing, but the money is still there.
That night Steven and Rachel share meatloaf and exposition. Ever since arriving he’s found the townspeople to be a strange lot. The video store is stocked with a variety of films but all that people rent is gory horror films and the occasional triple-X. What could be going on? Was the whole thing with the tape and the vanishing assistant part of a practical joke?
A key scene reenacts an incident that actually happened to Gary Cohen when he worked in a video store. A young mother carrying a baby comes in, browses a bit, and picks up Blood Cult and takes it to the counter. She asks what it’s rated and the reason for the rating: if the R rating is for nudity. She’s comfortable with her children watching violent movies but wants to protect them from undraped human bodies.
Rachel finds out that the snuff tapes are real when someone slips a cassette into her purse when she leaves it on the counter at the local deli. Sure, we believe that an adult who’s lived in New York City for many years would leave her purse on the counter... But I digress.
She and Steven watch the tape: a very bloody short film called The Vampire Takes a Bride. Steven recognizes the leading lady: the young woman who had come into the store with the baby. The bride is slaughtered by the very goofy looking vampire- who casts a reflection- and now Rachel knows that the threat is real.
The next day she goes to the store with Steven. Johanna, a perky young woman from out of town played by Lisa Cohen (who at that time was married to Gary Cohen- he does not speak well of her on the commentary track) comes in to get a movie and deliver some more exposition. When she walks out the door Howard and Eli grab her in broad daylight and stuff her into their vehicle and speed away. Actually, speed isn’t the word. The Emorys lock up the store and follow for what must be the slowest chase in history.
All parties obey the speed limits and turn signals are used in accordance with traffic law. This is definitely not the slam-bang chases we’ve seen in The French Connection or To Live and Die in L.A. - for a very good reason. They’re shot on the street and the characters’ cars have to share the road with people going about their business. There are no stunt drivers here, no streets blocked off.
The maniacs take their prey to the basement of a house with the Emorys in hot -or at least lukewarm - pursuit. Well, well, well. The ‘victim’ was just bait to get the new couple in town to the basement. Sweet Johanna is actually a ringleader for the whole murderous conspiracy. Johanna delivers exposition explaining the murderous project and then Steven and Rachel are slaughtered: most of this takes place offscreen so we’re spared the gory details.
The rationale used for picking people to be sacrificed is an easy one. The postmaster retired and wanted to move to Florida. The blonde from the video store spoke of wanting to move to Hollywood to be in the movies; she got half of her wish.
The ending was more than a slight surprise. In James Bond films it’s a sacred tradition that the villain takes several minutes to explain his plan to take over and/or destroy the planet: this gives Bond time to get loose from the ropes holding him and kill the bad guy and deliver a witty one-liner. Johanna just shouts, “Lights, camera, action,”and then stands aside as the dismemberments begins.
In an Epilog we see The Video Studio under new management. It now features snuff movies and is doing a booming business renting to only “lifers”: people who have been in the town long enough to have bought into the cult’s values. Johanna has taken over as manager and is doing a thriving business.
Video Violence, as stated earlier, a mixed bag. The screenplay is, at best, serviceable. The director’s commentary makes it clear that they weren’t aiming to do high drama and when you consider the almost nonexistent budget- some performers were paid a whole dollar for their participation- you’ve got to admit that the fact that the dramatic structure exists at all is a blessing.
Let’s remember that this was made twenty years ago. This was before digital high definition video was available. For something made with consumer grade VHS it looks pretty good. The sound works less well. It has a flat quality that tells us that the microphone built into the camcorder got a lot of use. Worse yet, there’s an overly insistent musical score that is often obtrusive.
The direction is competent and then some. Gary Cohen knows what a real movie looks like and stages the scenes capably. Again, you have to remember the short shooting schedule he had. It would have been very interesting if he’d been able to go on to bigger and better things.
Overall, the acting is competent and often more than. These people seem to have a lengthy background doing stage work. There are frequent references to what this actor did in The Sunshine Boys and how that person was stage manager for Follies. The leads are professional and their good rapport off-screen carries over nicely. And it was nice to hear on the commentary track that twenty years later Mr. And Mrs. Neill are still together.
Howard and Eli are, as my mother would say, a hoot. Eli is played by Uke (pronounced you-key with the accent on the first syllable): the Internet Movie Database gives his last name as Kowaluk. If you can imagine Larry the Cable Guy doing Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd you’ll get an idea of the manic energy he brings to the part. He’d be better cast as Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls or Harold Hill in The Music Man, but he’s professional enough to take what’s written on the page and make the most of it. His cameraman- henchman Howard is played with wide-eyed, baby faced innocence by the always cheerful Bart Sumner who actually went on to act in other films and tv shows and to write.
Video Violence predates Wes Craven’s Scream trilogy in exploring similar territory. Scream was about horror films, Scream 2 was about people who watch them, and Scream 3 was about people who make them. Cohen does all three in one film, which is ambitious.
Of course there is a sequel. The same people got back together to bring us the inevitable Video Violence 2, this time using somewhat more sophisticated technology.
Howard and Eli are still in the basement, now using satellite technology to jam other cable stations’ signal to find a worldwide audience: think Wayne and Garth broadcasting live from the ninth circle of hell.
The Video Studio is still doing a booming business. Johanna greets a newcomer to the store, a college student getting videos for a school party using daddy’s credit card. Johanna tells her they need to make a “faceprint”- a fatal process involving shrink-wrap and a hot air blower.
Most of the film is Howard and Eli’s show with commercials that tap into the same vein (sorry, I couldn’t resist that) as the first film. There’s a nasty looking toy that expands the range of potential victims to show us a small child’s throat being ripped out as his mother passively watches.
People send in amateur videos to be broadcast. As if answering critics of the first film’s repetitive pattern of undressing young ladies and torturing them to death we see a group of perky coeds slaughter a pizza delivery boy after coaxing him to strip down to his undershorts. They manage this despite Congress’s having failed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Right on, sisters.
The sketch format eliminates such laborious tasks as continuity and story arc. Something happens. Something else happens.
But because the film goes on too long the faulty logic begins to catch up with it. Howard and Eli obviously keep the location of their "studio” the deepest and darkest of secrets because they regularly commit felonies. But if nobody knows where they are, how do people send them their amateur snuff videos? How do they communicate with sponsors? Since they seem to sacrifice people on a regular basis does nobody ever notice that these people are missing?
On this episode of the Howard and Eli Show a young actress brought in to audition is bound and tortured on camera. When the program ends we find that they haven’t actually killed her: it’s all just clever stagecraft. She’s furious at having been put through all this. Howard and Eli clean her up, wipe off the stage blood, and then actually kill her.
When Howard and Eli finish the show they settle back to enjoy pizza with the crew when a mysterious cassette arrives. Watching it, they’re startled to find Steven and Rebecca still alive and hot for revenge. The door flies open and Steven and Rebecca rush in, guns blazing. Surprise! When the “avengers” take off their masks we find that it’s really Johanna and one of her minions, there to bring the good news that they’ve gotten Howard and Eli a contract that will let them reach a larger audience and go to Hollywood to make Howard and Eli: The Movie!.
The first film gave us Steven and Rebecca as normal folk the viewer can identify with. Here there’s no good character to root for, no real chance of the order of the universe being restored.
There are some good points here. Cohen has a fine time satirizing the smarmy flattery of talk shows. At best this reminded me of Bobby Bitterman and Lola Heatherton oozing sincerity in the Second City TV satires of talk shows many years ago. There are a few good jokes in the titles of gory snuff videos offered for sale and a sick part of my mind found the killer doll sketch funny despite my better nature. And Cohen seems to have been an observant viewer when he screened Cronenberg’s Videodrome, which dealt with similar themes and was even weirder.
At least in this case you can take comfort in the fact that the budget for this was less that the bottled water budget on most studio films. Think how many movies you’ve seen on cable, usually with one or more Saturday Night Live alumni, that are five minute sketches stretched to ninety minutes. Don’t lie about not having seen It’s Pat!: you still haven’t erased it from your TiVo.
Video Violence gets five out of ten severed thumbs up.
Video Violence 2 gets three out of ten gouged eyes.
Parents’ note: These were released unrated. They would probably have gotten R ratings had they been submitted. They have violence, gore, nudity and occasional profanity. There’s nothing of merit here for anyone under high school age.