Fatal Pulse. Dead Women in Lingerie. The Life and Times of the Chocolate Killer. You’ve probably met them in the video store: movies you never heard of, movies nobody you know has watched, movies that have never even seen the inside of a theater. What are those things?
Some, maybe most, are so bad no theatrical distributor would touch them. Others are the victims of bankrupt producers or of the stranglehold the major studios have on the nation’s multiplexes. Still others are oddities: film-festival winners too quirky for the mainstream, vanity productions too quirky for anybody, or horror-erotic thrillers just quirky enough for a $2 rental. They have a life, of sorts, all their own.
”To shoot a movie directly for video is kind of weird,” admits low-budget-thriller producer Andy Ruben, who with his wife and partner, director Katt Shea Ruben, made the direct-to-video Dance of the Damned (1988). ”Video stores have needed so much product that the market is flooded with horrible made-for-video releases. People in prison wouldn’t watch them.”
But not all direct-to-video fare is that bad: Los Angeles Times reviewer Kevin Thomas called Ruben’s own Dance of the Damned an ”elegant, poignant, and distinctive vampire film.” So there. As cult-film fans have long known, Z-grade movies can have hidden strengths, including unusual stars such as Wings Hauser and Cynthia Rothrock, as well as non-mainstream points of view that big-budget producers are often hesitant to handle. Here are the major forms of this curious subgenre:
So Bad They’re Unreleasable
This is the quintessential category of direct-to-video. Of the several hundred movies made in the U.S. each year, many, inevitably, are rotten. If the movie has been backed by a major studio, it’s almost always released to theaters anyway — witness Hudson Hawk. But if it’s made by a small independent at the mercy of outside distributors, it’s video bait — even if it stars a cinematic legend.
Orson Welles in his later years had pretty much become a parody of himself, starring in TV commercials and even narrating a heavy-metal album. It helped if the proffered work could be done close to his home in Las Vegas, and such was the case with 1979’s Canadian-made Hot Money, a.k.a. Never Trust an Honest Thief, The Great Madison County Robbery, and Going for Broke — all one and the same film. In this barely acknowledged action-comedy caper (virtually always left out of Welles filmographies and even the most authoritative film reference texts), Welles roundly emoted as a Smokey and the Bandit-style sheriff chasing free-spirited bank robber Michael Murphy. Also starring has-been singer Bobby ”Boris” Pickett (”The Monster Mash”), the movie was so awful that it went unreleased for nine years before Vidmark let it loose in 1988.