I WAS A TEENAGE STRANGLER
*/**** Image D Sound D
starring Josh Miller, David Alan Interior, Daisy DeWright, Lil' Erin DeWright
written and directed by The People of Severed Lips
*½/**** Image D Sound D Extras C-
starring Misty Mundae, William Hellfire, Ben the Stain
written and directed by William Hellfire
by Ian Pugh Some ten years after the fact, the filmmakers behind the ultra-cheap Factory 2000 brand refer to their super-VHS fetish videos I Was a Teenage Strangler and Vampire Strangler as amateur tributes to Andy Warhol, John Waters, and Dario Argento, though in actuality these are best described as generic paeans to depraved cinema as a whole. Operating in the vein of Gary P. Cohen's do-it-yourself VHS snuff series Video Violence, the F2K crew have a preternatural understanding for how these kinds of movies work and furthermore how they're marketed--and they aren't about to let a complete lack of talent or sophisticated editing equipment discourage them. It's far, far removed from the amateur passion and promise offered by a film like The Equinox ...A Journey into the Supernatural, but realize that even pornography shot in scummy basements without the aid of a script can make a bid for cinematic legitimacy and soon you're forced to look at these films with a serious critical eye and maybe a little diseased admiration. Don't misunderstand: they're unforgivably terrible, too often forgetting their own reasoning halfway through. But the circumstances of their genesis should at least count for something.
Although the trailers included on both discs imply that Factory 2000 was no stranger to scenarios involving rape and bondage, I Was a Teenage Stranger nevertheless manages to be an odd, disgusting duck in its own right. The film purposely employs a scorched-earth policy across the bizarro-erotica market by presenting so many conflicting sequences in such quick succession that it's impossible to imagine anyone becoming aroused. First there's a violent catfight, then some guy eating a girl's shit straight from the source, then a girl-scout rape fantasy punctuated by a bloody blowjob, and then a coat-hanger abortion that ends with the devouring of an undeveloped fetus. The liner notes inform me that the shit is a melted candy bar and that the fetus is a collection of gummy worms (!), but the gritty, no-budget standards are just believable enough to cast an ever-present shadow of doubt on whether it was really all a work of down-home special-effects ingenuity. I was rather surprised by how often I Was a Teenage Strangler poked at my gag reflex, leaving me to beg that it would not cross certain lines that are, of course, immediately crossed.
The fact that I Was a Teenage Strangler's murder sequences are relatively self-serious in its second half--the film turns into a slasher schlockfest after a half-hour of strict depravity, with antisocial weirdo Winston Strange (Josh Miller) inviting various geeks from the community to a dance party and a masked strangler bumping them off one by one as they separate from the crowd to engage in their own freaky business--might qualify as a challenge to those who braved the first: Can you still see this film as viable whack material? But though there is an undeniably fevered madness behind its creation, I Was a Teenage Strangler also follows the pornographer's ethic in the sense that it needed to be produced more than it needed to be made, if you catch my drift. Even a vomitorium like Pink Flamingos is aching to say something about the diversity of the horrifying shit that goes on behind the plastic-fantastic façades we construct. I Was a Teenage Strangler is merely combative to the point of being a bully, less a movie than a strict endurance test--an unholy object popped into your VCR at your own risk.
"Lil' Erin DeWright," who plays the part of the virginal Last Girl in I Was a Teenage Strangler, would eventually find dubious fame under another moniker. Since I'm not much of a porn aficionado, I was completely oblivious to this "Misty Mundae" before stumbling onto Factory 2000 (I hadn't even seen her episode of "Masters of Horror"), but I soon learned from After Hours Cinema's two-disc edition that Vampire Strangler is the stuff of minor scandal because it represents her sole hardcore effort, filmed shortly before she became a softcore star and, later, a B-movie scream queen-in-the-making. It's apparently a moment of such importance that the two-disc set is sold on After Hours' website as a standalone item or bundled with the single-disc 2002 edition as a "Collector's Only" package--which should let you know right off the bat that the film is probably strictly of interest to the die-hardest of Misty Mundae die-hards.
In a prologue composed of several dream sequences now directed unironically at the asphyxiation-fetish crowd that would appear to be Factory 2000's bread and butter, rarely-clothed Transylvanian Lydia (Mundae) writhes in unconvincing pain for five minutes or so while her mysterious caped assailant sort of gently caresses her neck. The idea of a vampire strangling his victims is hilarious for its brazen contradictoriness and honestly the reason I wanted to watch this film in the first place--it reminds me of that "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" episode about a werewolf who killed people with a kitchen knife. Where I Was a Teenage Strangler arguably attempted to shame its target audience for its fetishes, however, Vampire Strangler merely asks you to contemplate fetishism as a concept; in wringing necks instead of biting them, the titular character actively calls attention to the whole enterprise as faux-erotica, a poor man's penetration that gets your rocks off without accomplishing much of anything else. This feeling is bolstered by a generally jokey tone that pays better homage to the studio's mondo-trasho forebears: When Johnny (director William Hellfire) claps his hands over his mouth in mock-surprise as Lydia (Johnny's cousin) topples over to show her bare ass to the world, it's a moment of immense silliness that could coax a smile out of the most prudish viewer. Not incidentally, such treatment also renders the (soon-realized) incestuous overtones into a funny, self-conscious afterthought as opposed to something just fucking disgusting. Already cousins, Johnny and Lydia pretend to be siblings as a means of foreplay in a playful yet undeniably confrontational sequence that asks, very simply: How much incest do you need to get off, you pervert?
Unfortunately, once Johnny and Lydia get down to extremely repetitive business, any interest (intellectual or otherwise) we might have in the film slowly evaporates: on "Day One," they rollerskate and have sex; on "Day Two," they strum a guitar and have sex; and by "Day Three," they drop the charade altogether and go right to the sex. Despite what the presence of a nearby voyeur (Lilly Tiger) humping a door frame may tell you, this entire hour of footage is entirely bereft of eroticism--the occasional thrust of the camera wasn't enough to draw my eyes away from the Taxi Driver poster tacked to the offensively bland wall that serves as the background in all three scenarios.* Eventually, Mundae drops her piss-poor accent to dole out some dirty talk; I want to say that Lydia's transformation from a Romanian naïf into an Americanized sex maniac in that brief timespan speaks to a uniquely western egotism concerning the worldwide impact of our own sexual revolution, but ultimately it only speaks to how readily Vampire Strangler abandons its outrageous premise. Maybe it's asking too much of a porno to maintain its formal composition during "action scenes" when it so clearly establishes an aggressive ignorance for anything beyond its parameters--after all, Vampire Strangler's epilogue, set in England, is accompanied by "Figaro" from The Barber of Seville, presumably to act as a stand-in for the very idea of culture itself.
Yet although porno is often a target of satire for its facile attempts at plot ("But I don't have a pool!"), Vampire Strangler exemplifies the importance of maintaining some illusion of narrative once it's introduced. I Was a Teenage Strangler is plagued with too much self-regard, but Vampire Strangler doesn't have enough of it. Forget being a curious fan of Mundae: she and Hellfire essentially "play" themselves, a conceit that thankfully distracts from the whole incest thing but fails to transcend a straightforward sex tape (perhaps the very apotheosis of private filmmaking) and can't be expected to hold the interest of anyone but the parties involved. I suspect that the problem lies in how it treats the function of a porno film like an on/off switch: I don't think it's necessarily wrong to regard the whole concept as one big joke, but you can't then expect everyone to buckle down and take you seriously when you finally decide to fuck on camera. The comedy returns after the film has blown its load several times over, as a wailing voodoo shaman hits Johnny up for a donation to assure that the Apocalypse occurs on time, only to spike the poor boy's tea and turn him into a vampire in boxers. Though it's paltry compensation for the tedium of the film's bloated second act, Johnny's final line when he gets around to biting his victim--"I must find my pants!"--makes you wonder if Vampire Strangler could've been more successful in a broader sense had it integrated its sense of humour into its raison d'être.
I Was a Teenage Strangler and Vampire Strangler come to DVD courtesy of Factory 2000 and After Hours Cinema. My eyes, ears, and sound system probably hate me for subjecting them to these VHS nightmares. The Teenage Strangler booklet implies that the film has undergone restoration and re-editing to some degree, and I assume the same applies to Vampire Strangler (aided in part by sidesplitting stock footage of Eastern Europe, a few scenes therein are almost palatable)--but no, sir, you can't polish such a thoroughly washed-out turd. Teenage Strangler is easily the worse- looking and sounding film, simply because the audio cuts out periodically and the image reveals many more tracking errors than its strangle-riffic counterpart.
The "DVD Extras" menu on I Was a Teenage Strangler is really just a collection of trailers: The "Factory 2000 Trailer Vault" houses previews for I Was a Teenage Strangler, Nude Strangle, Masked Strangler, Infamous Bondage Murders, Infamous Bondage Murders 2, Snuff Perversions: Bizarre Cases of Death, Shock 2000: Snuff Perversions Part 2 (Faces of Death by way of Cannibal Holocaust?), and the possibly-not-entirely-in-bad-taste Duck! The Carbine High Massacre (mislabelled The Colombine (sic) High Massacre on the menu itself for those too stupid to get the parallel, I guess). Meanwhile, the "Seduction Cinema Trailer Vault" highlights Sin Sisters (generic lesbian something-or-other), The Vampire's Seduction (a nebbishy Van Helsing in search of lesbians), Bikini Girls on Dinosaur Planet (featuring a static warthog puppet more convincing than anything in 10,000 BC... also lesbians), and an ad for the Alternative Cinema catalogue.
On the bright side, After Hours' "2 DVD Edition" of Vampire Strangler sports lovely, giallo-esque cover art of Ms. Mundae. Again the misleadingly-titled "DVD Extras" brings you to the ten trailers on Disc One: "New Features" spotlights Darian Caine Exposed and Sexual Delirium, along with a commercial for the Vampire Strangler DVD--here advertised as a "Millennium Edition," which I can only hope was an early name for this release. "Coming Soon" tackles the era of porno chic with vintage previews for Sexual Freedom in Denmark, Sexual Liberty Now, The Starlets, and stray '80s entry (read: contains amazing synthesizer music and special effects) Chastity and the Starlets. Wrapping up the disc, an ad for the Alternative Cinema catalogue and a "Previews Vault"--a block of trailers for The Erotic Diary of Misty Mundae, Flesh for Olivia, and Chantal--that also cues up on startup. "Bonus Clips" on Disc Two begin with the "Vampire Strangler Lost Opening" (15 mins.), in which the film's original title is revealed to be The Erotic Adventures of Countess Lydia, A.K.A. The Vampire is a Sex Maniac. (The title cards are printouts from Microsoft Word.) It was apparently first conceived as a porno version of Dracula with analogs for Van Helsing, Mina Harker, and Renfield. I'm pretty sure, anyway--the obnoxious soundtrack swallows up most of the dialogue. If nothing else, it proves that the finished film's A/V specs could've been much, much worse.
Next up are a few softcore Mundae shorts: My Property (8 mins.) is a scene from an unfinished opus entitled Hotel Asphyxia that puts Hellfire on the other side of the strangulation. He's a much better actor to this end, not that it requires a lot of effort. The Vibrating Maid (25 mins.), meantime, is a half-assed chamber drama without any of the pretension--the title essentially is the film. There are a few great bits peppered here and there, particularly when the stereotypically French maid cries out "holy merde!" in ecstasy; and it's good to know that Hellfire eventually learned how to keep the action scenes active. My Date with Misty (18 mins.) is an excerpt from a longer film called From the Depths of Depravity--fairly misleading, as it's a travelogue through the relationship between Misty and her onscreen beau (Mike Stefano) as it slowly degenerates from sex to phone sex to the inevitable break-up. Although billed as a deleted scene, "Incest or Something" (5 mins.) is an irrelevant scenario that sees Mundae and Hellfire, out of character, asking the latter's film-student cousin to help shoot a porno. (It's just stagey enough to let on that it was probably based on a real event.) Five "Isolated Sex Scenes" are bafflingly unnecessary, considering how unfiltered the sex in the film already is--besides, I thought that's what the chapter stops were for. Another "Trailer Vault" recycles most of the same Factory 2000 trailers contained on the Teenage Strangler disc along with one final bid for the Alternative Cinema catalogue. Each title is packaged with a pricelessly informative foldout essay from film historian Ed Grant specific to the individual film in question--confirming that the tall, gangly kid who is hanged with a belt in I Was a Teenage Strangler is, indeed, Austin Scarlett (then known as "Dallas Scarlett") from the first season of "Project Runway". Originally published: May 14, 2008.
*This is the second time a Taxi Driver poster has distracted me from what was happening onscreen--the first time being 13 Going on 30. I don't know if that means that I'm putting Mark Ruffalo's tired milquetoast act on the same level of interest as boring porno, but there you have it. return