The Basement: Camp Retro ’80s Collection 

Grisly photos, garish coloring — they called out to me like forbidden fruit.

Camp Motion Pictures’ five-film set, “The Basement: Retro 80s Horror Collection,” celebrates those best of times, rounding up four flicks from the 1980s whose giant cases you may have held in your hands as your eyes snuck peeks at the pictures. The fifth flick is even more special: an abandoned, Super 8 effort that never saw the light of day until now. As if to make up for the wait, the package gives you the movie not only on DVD, but also on its own, red-shelled VHS tape. (I’ll never watch the cassette, but nevertheless, the move is cool!)

It, too, is called “The Basement,” an anthology feature in the same vein as “Creepshow” and “Tales from the Crypt,” minus the money and talent. Its framing story even apes that of the 1972 “Crypt” film, with cast members gathered in the mysterious titular spot and shown their sin-filled futures by a being calling himself The Sentinel. “You must confess,” he warns, in dubbed dialogue.

Its first story, “Swimming Pool,” opens with a middle-aged busty blonde reading Stephen King’s “Skeleton Crew” paperback poolside. Said body of water contains a killer creature, so she keeps inviting over people she considers enemies and pushing them into it. Next up is “Trick or Treat,” about a guy who hates Halloween so much, he pours coffee into kids’ loot bags. (I wonder if this 1989 film found inspiration in a similar episode from the 1985 season of “Tales from the Darkside.”) The highlight of this segment is when a co-worker  reminds our sourpuss that it’s Halloween and is whipped with this barbed retort: "What are you, a calendar? I know what bloody day it is!"

The third story is the weakest, about a “Zombie Movie” being directed by a real jerk, and the corpses actually come alive to feed him just desserts. But “Home Sweet Home” makes up for any drag, as a guy demands to buy a house, despite it being no longer on the market and, as his Victoria Jackson-esque Realtor informs him, was used as a torture chamber by a previous occupant who disappeared and never was caught. But life is good for the horror writer ("Excellent, I just sold a story to Slaughterhouse magazine!”) and he takes his chances, only to discover it’s a literal living hell.

Being shot on Super 8, “The Basement” is by no means movie magic. It’s messy and underexposed — and was difficult to restore into a workable print, according to the extras — but is a blast to watch. Same goes for a rather lengthy local news piece about the shoot with director Timothy O’Rawe (“Ghoul School”), which sits amid the bonus features.

Having four more movies to digest is icing on the cake, especially since they’re a relative step up technology-wise, all being shot on video. Enjoyment differs wildly.

For example, 1987’s “Captives” (aka “Mama’s Home”), one of three Gary Cohen works in the collection,” is an overlong, boring story of a family home-invasion/hostage situation that includes the cast members being forced to watch home videos that are themselves overlong and boring. The music is absolutely aggravating. There’s nudity courtesy of that one woman from your paper route that you thought looked kind of hot because you were 12 and didn’t know any better. The high point is a laughable line of matter-of-fact dialogue toward the end: "Police? There's been an accident. … Yes, I think there are several dead people here."

A little better but still quite bad is Jon McBride’s “Cannibal Campout” from 1988. Naturally, the exploitative title is the best thing about it, despite the hope instilled by its goofy opening title card: "What you are about to see is based upon true accounts and conjecture and is a delineation of actual events which transpired at an indeterminate time to persons of less than genuinely equivocal authenticity."

Actually, what follows is sheer splatter-film insanity, with dead-baby jokes, a really uncomfortable rape committed by a guy in a flight helmet complete with oxygen mask, monologues from a sex maniac that must be heard to be believed, and our antagonist making rather unique post-kill quips. To wit: "Just like Mom used to make" and "Soup's on."

Cohen returns with a one-two gut punch of 1987’s “Video Violence” and the following year’s sequel, “Video Violence 2.” The first one concerns an old-school video store — the posters of "Gung Ho" and "Runaway Train" are a giveaway, as is Oklahoma's own trailblazin’ "Blood Cult" featured prominently on the shelf — where homemade snuff films become the hot ticket. Get set for some extended torture scenes, an extended vampire sex scene (in slow motion, no less!) and several scenes containing exchanges of rental charges and membership card numbers.

It takes itself seriously, whereas “Video Violence 2” somehow realized there was a joke at stake, and it was past time to get into it. Thus, it’s surprisingly self-parodic, making for quite an oddball experience. Rather than rehashing the plot, “VV2” takes a page from the likes of “Kentucky Fried Movie,” turning into a semi-sketch comedy.

The story has it that the first film’s snuff filmmakers now host their own pirate cable series, “The Howard and Eli Show,” which they broadcast by hacking into the WGOR (get it?) signal. In between commercials for a killer kids’ doll ("so soft, so cuddly, so deadly") and homemade electric chairs, Howard and Eli — complete with band! — host a talk show and crack jokes. Oh, and graphically mutilate a poor woman who sports a fabulous naked body, even if her hairstyle screams “PTA treasurer.”

Somehow, the proceedings veer into a pizza boy strip show. It’s best not to question these things; just enjoy lines like, "This is the best thing on cable since 'Fraggle Rock.'" And how! (I admit, however, feeling terrible for Elizabeth Lee Miller, the actress to whom terrible things happen as he sits in nothing but a pair of panties, especially since the commentary reveals she did the movie for $1.

Needless to say, “The Basement: Camp Retro ’80s Collection” is the very definition of niche-audience product. The average Joe and Jill would hate these movies. However, horror hounds who delight in the search for the obscure will get it and have fun with hit, even while recognizing these films’ faults, and believe me, there are plenty: terrible acting, terrible scripts, terrible direction. Yet these add up to a terribly amusing seven-hour stretch of VHS nostalgia.

These DIY movies never were about making a quality, polished product; they were simply about creating something with friends in the hopes of making a buck. By striking while the iron was hot, they actually saw shelf space all over the country, despite a complete absence of stars and scratch. Their covers and concepts moved many units, and likely influenced the Eli Roths and Alexandre Ajas of today.

Love ’em or hate ’em, there’s no denying “The Basement: Camp Retro ’80s Collection” is one of the most interesting home-video releases of the year, and — fingers crossed — will attract enough buyers to merit a follow-up set. In the meantime, the big box will sit proudly on (but waaay high atop) my shelf, perhaps to be eyeballed curiously from below by my son for a decade or more. And so the infection slowly spreads ... —Rod Lott

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Rod Lott

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