Some horror films are more than just video stills being exposed to light. Some are real experiences that can only be felt in a small theatre with a group of like-minded individuals. The type of folk that you may not know or have any desire to interact with after the film is over, but ones that you know you will always be bound with on some celestial plane simply because you participated in an cinematic abortion and paid good money for the privilege.
Such an experience is what Andrew Jordon’s 1989 Super 8-shot (though 16mm was also used)horror video classic, Things, represents.
Thankfully, I had the luck to have witnessed this very low-budget ‘Canuxploitaion’ at an Alamo Drafthouse as apart of their monthly Video Vortex VHS series, where the clip show before the beginning of the feature is more entertaining and nostalgic than the film itself. Among several other films, we were treated to snippets of star/future director Barry J. Gillis’ 2009 feature, Wicked World, which should have prepared us for the incompetent mishmash we were about to experience. Sadly, even their latest work couldn’t do that. At least the camera work has improved since the 1980s.
To describe Things is almost on the level of trying to come up with a synopsis of Eraserhead after seeing it once with no prior knowledge of David Lynch’s work. In there DVD special features, Canuxploitation create Paul Corupe says, it is “outsider art made by people who very much felt like insiders in the world of horror,” which I guess is the 1980s version of Comicon teens making a feature on their cell phones over a weekend binge (which would be an insult to the phones of today).
Things starts out with a surprisingly effective atmospheric nightmare where a sad-looking sterile man enters a basement lair where his masked wife waits to be victimized. He demands she undress to bear him a child. She obeys, but one ups him by presenting him with a strangely wooden prop baby has already been created wrapped in a blanket, which she conveniently has hidden behind a curtain in a corner, waiting for its queue. Submitting to his experiment causes her to give birth to something not-quite-human. This feels just plain wrong and, yet, compasses this whole film as a whole. It’s something you think you want to see, but when it your desired shows it to be already made, its presence feels strangely inappropriate and awkward.
What exactly is the story of Things? Well, it is better that you see it for yourself, like any experience worth its salt. It is futile to put it into words. On the surface, it is your typical two brothers venture out to a scary-looking cabin in the (Canadian) woods where mutant beings wait to destroy them mentally and physically in nearly every shadowy corner. There is mutilation to be had, stoic mutant insects that resemble science fair models, and much beer to be drunk (much like most of the audience was using to enjoy the film). Also, sluggish treks through the surrounding woods occur. Oh, and 80s porn star Amber Lynn occasionally shows up in an almost unrelated intercut b-story as a newscaster broadcasting from “hell.” She talks about issues of the day, like the George Bush administration, with all of the lyricism of a bored traffic school instructor while Night of the Living Dead plays in the background. It was not a surprise to find out that she filmed her scene in one day off of cue cards after principle photography was completed to drum up video sales. Sadly, she actually is one of the highlights of the whole film.
Here, what makes this experience special isn’t the poorly-written plot points, it’s in the presentation. Its dimly-lit and ill-conceived cinematography lulls one into a trance. The incoherent editing makes a relatively short feature feel like its lasts twice as long as it does. The earnest soundtrack has several country-centric Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou-type moments. Its surprisingly commercial aspirations, including creating an opening credit sequence in the middle of act one where the music composers are listed, affirms this was made with actual serious intentions.
For what it’s worth, their efforts were not completely in vain. It made history as the first Canadian shot-on-Super 8 horror feature commercially released on VHS (even if it isn’t exactly of the quality of, say, Black Christmas). Obviously, art houses theatre chains like Alamo Drafthouse are still having showings of it for adventurous and curious patrons and it has even been released twice (!) on DVD in 2008 and 2011. Why did the Alamo Drafthouse show it now? Apparently, Mr. Gillis didn’t quit the film business, as one would expect after viewing his work here, and is about to film a new feature, Tales from the Dead Zone (which could work as title of this article). Hope he’s learned a thing or two about filmmaking since then.
At its best, Things plays like an old forgotten obscure fusion jazz record you have to allow to wash over you. The disjointed script attempts to find a focus, but gets lost in its own enthusiasm of the thrill of realizing that it is actually making a horror film. Does that make it avant-garde? Probably not. But in the world of so-bad-its-good horror, that’s really all that you could ask for. Regardless of your tolerance for poorly produced opportunistic horror, there’s no other film quite like it, for better or worse.