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Horror Business (2005)

Die-hards, Drive-Ins and Knives

When a motion picture is made that excludes the audience from the mix, it's an ego piece, not entertainment.

This line from Herschell Gordon Lewis appears early in Christopher P. Garetano's documentary about independent horror filmmakers, Horror Business, and would have made an excellent thesis statement. A dapper, elderly man whom one wouldn't automatically associate with splatterific masterpieces like Blood Feast and The Wizard of Gore, Lewis delivers a passionate diatribe about the need for talent and populist vision in the indie scene. Watching him speak, I elatedly thought I was about to watch a movie full of struggling, undiscovered visionaries.

I didn't expect his statement to be a warning to the audience regarding the clowns Garetano was about to profile.

Okay, maybe "clowns" is a bit harsh. There are a couple of interesting directors featured here but, for the most part, Horror Business is a fascinating time capsule set in the middle of the "torture porn" era of mainstream horror, which spotlights a handful of angry, underground men raging against a machine that no one can quite define. Much like his subjects, Garetano has trouble figuring out what his own film is all about.

Is it, for instance, an ode to the horror genre itself? Many of the filmmakers interviewed here harken back to the movies of their youth, namely the golden age of 1970s and 80s slashers and Italian zombie pictures. Their work is mostly low-budget, tits-and-gore depravity inspired by raw classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Evil Dead--the key difference being, from what I could tell by watching the clips in the documentary, a distinct lack of purpose beyond shocking the audience. Whereas Tobe Hooper and Sam Raimi told inherently violent stories, filmmakers Ron Atkins and Brian Singleton appear to be acting out their personal aggressions on film and--maybe--slipping a story into the background.

Atkins admits that making horror movies is an outlet for his uncontrollable rage, as evidenced by the way he treats everyone from his wife/producer, Jennifer, to the cashier at a Burger King drive-thru ("How's about a better motherfucking attitude?"). What is less evident is that he has the talent to back up such behavior. Like most of the artists featured in Horror Business, Atkins seems to believe that his tortured, misunderstood genius is on par with greats like Stanely Kubrick (who Atkins sites as a direct influence) or Orson Welles, and thusly affords him plenty of leeway with his end of the social contract. He swears a lot, throws tantrums, and constantly brags about not caring about what anyone thinks--exactly as, I'm sure, the eight-year-old version of himself did when first discovering horror movies.

Is Horror Business, on the other hand, about making independent horror films? We meet David Gebroe and Mark Borchardt, two indie auteurs who take us behind the scenes of their latest productions. We meet Gebroe as he films Zombie Honeymoon on location, in a house that is currently occupied. His crew talks excitedly about the thrill and rigors of mostly unpaid, eighteen-hour days, all in the service of a film they hope will, if not launch their careers, then at least afford them another passion project. Actress Tracy Coogan, seemingly one of the few people involved who was hired and not just recruited from among Gebroe's friends, speaks well of her role and enthusiasm for the project--until one of the candid closing scenes, where she complains that she and her co-star were treated "like animals".

Borchardt is the documentary's bona fide celebrity, having also been the subject of 1999s wildly successful American Movie. That film followed the Wisconsin filmmaker on his years-long journey to make a horror film called Coven (pronounced, "Coe-ven"). We meet him again in 2003, as he preps his first movie in six years, Scare Me, a slice-of-life tale about writing, alcoholism, and vampires. The director is still the stone-cold-serious weirdo who loves to talk about the creative process in the same mystical, mixed-metaphor terms of a high school sophomore writing extra-credit poetry. And he still enlists the help of a motley crew of locals to help with everything from lighting to acting to camerawork (he picks a random guy out of a living-room lineup to be his DP on the first day of shooting). The only major difference is that he's married now, and values his wife as the emotional punching bag that permits him to vent frustrations with the production while being outwardly pleasant towards his team (his assessment, not mine).

Horror Business's bright spot comes about halfway through, when New York filmmaker David Stagnari takes us on a tour of old drive-in movie theatres--some lay vacant, while another has been converted into a Babies 'R Us. Stagnari's personal tales of growing up with the movies, beginning with seeing his dad's 8mm records of his birth and leading to a fascination with drive-in horror triple features, are touching and interesting, and would make a great documentary on their own.

Sadly, we move on to more sad tales of wannabe artists who spend much of their largely unemployed, parents'-basement-dwelling lives (again, a fact, not a judgment) making movies that, if they're lucky, will be just profitable enough to throw together another grisly, uninspired production. It's bold criticism, especially coming from someone who hasn't watched the movies individually. But most of the filmmakers' attitudes are so repellent that I had to wonder if there was any love to be poured into the work they claim to live for. There's only so much talk about how awful all Hollywood movies are and how the majority of the population are just too scared to handle the "extreme" subject matter of these unrecognized masters before you start to wonder if maybe the protesters protest too much.

It doesn't help that Garetano refuses to take a side. His cutesy, interstitial movies and annoying sound-effect transitions suggest that he's on board with his DIY subjects. He, in fact, appears to be in league with them, creating a documentary that poorly copies elements from successful documentarians (i.e. Michael Moore), while not understanding that polemics should be entertaining and targeted. However, by including interjections from industry professionals such as Lewis, Sid Haig, and Joe Bob Briggs--all of whom tout the virtues of solid ideas, skillful and artful direction, and originality--Garetano seems to say, "You know these guys we've been following for the last hour? Yeah, they don't have what it takes to make it."

But I guess "making it" is subjective. And it's not my place to say what does or does not signify success for an independent horror filmmaker. For Atkins, it's being able to distribute his movies worldwide. For Borchardt, it's the ability to keep making movies (or should I say, "movie"--nine years on, Save Me is still in production). While for Stagnari, making horror movies is about the cathartic experience of seeing something through, from start to finish. His story alone, even in this fragmented form, makes Horror Business worth checking out. Just cover your eyes during the rest of it.

Note: I would love to see Garetano--or someone else--follow up his documentary with a look at how the independent horror scene has changed since he started rolling in 2003. Based on some of the stuff I've seen recently, I'd be surprised to see the same attitudes and lack of sophistication, as the Internet has opened up not only competition but also the frequency and resources with which young filmmakers are able to realize their dreams.

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