Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

UnConventional (DVD)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on January 11, 2005

Directed by Michael Furno, Daniel F. Doyle/starring Tiffany Shepis, Gunnar Hansen, Bob Gonzo, 42nd Street Pete/with appearances by Sid Haig, David Carradine, Tom Savini, Candy Clark, Linda Blair, Bill Moseley, Steve Railsback, Michael Jai White, Tanya Roberts and more /Revolution Earth Productions

A documentary about the 13th Annual Chiller Theatre Horror Convention in New Jersey.

I got a free copy of this through sinister, nefarious means, and watched it knowing very little about it beforehand. Apparently it’s not available in stores to rent or buy, but if you’re interested in buying a copy, go to http://www.revearth.net/buymovies.html. I’m not getting paid to plug this movie or anything, I’m just telling you where to go if you want to see it. I contacted the people at Revolution Earth about reviewing the movie, and they were very nice about it, so check them out if you’re interested.

Basically this is a low-budget but interesting document of what’s considered one of the legendary Horror Conventions. Strangely enough, it’s executive-produced by Danny Aiello (!) of all people. Nothing wrong with that, just thought it was odd.

The movie opens with old footage from Chiller Theatre, which seems to be a local New Jersey program in the style of the old late-night horror-movie hosts. (Why don’t local TV stations do this anymore? Someone really should bring it back. It’s a lot more fun than those damn infomercials.) The convention was, of course, named after the program and its host, Zacherley, is the guest of honor every year.

I’ll be honest – based on this opening, I was expecting the movie to be rather cheesy and lame. I was pleasantly surprised to find that’s not at all the case. UnConventional can be considered the horror equivalent to Trekkies – an entertaining, eye-opening documentary about B-level icons and the rabid fanatics who love them. And the brief clips from Chiller Theatre and other sources are often used as punctuation marks to bizarrely humorous scenes. So hang in there and you’ll be rewarded.

The film covers the event from various perspectives, from the organizers and crew (our narrator, “42nd Street Pete”, is one of the main guys behind the event), to the guests of honor, to the often bizarre but fascinating people who attend to interact with their heroes. Having never been to a horror convention myself, but having attended horror-related events in the past, I thought this was generally an engaging and well-rounded look at the process of putting on one of these events, and what the experience is like for everyone involved. And of course it also serves as a pretty good advertisement for the Chiller Convention.

We spend most of the running time with one of the four main subjects: Shepis, a current B-horror “scream queen” and featured performer in such films as Bloody Murder 2, Delta Delta Die and Death Factory (I’ve never seen any of them, but apparently lots of people have); Hansen, who made his mark 30-plus years ago as Leatherface in the original classic Texas Chainsaw Massacre; Gonzo, a jovial but schlubby stand-up comic who makes extremely low-budget horror flicks on the side; and the aforementioned Pete, who observes the proceedings with a bemusement that only a veteran of the scene could provide.

Shepis is also a co-producer on the film, so she naturally gets an inordinate amount of screen time. She apparently attends the convention every year, and takes the opportunity to revel in the attention from her devoted fans and schmooze with the slightly more famous guests (even flirting with David Carradine!). As she herself says in the film, actors at her particular level of cult celebrity don’t often get this kind of appreciation, so you can definitely understand why she enjoys it so much. And it probably doesn’t hurt her reputation with her fans that she spends so much time interacting with them, and exudes a natural, playful bad-girl sexiness that commands attention even when surrounded by better-known stars. As much as she seems to exult in the “scream queen” label, one has to wonder if it won’t stifle any legitimate shot she may have as a mainstream actress. Shepis may not be the next Dame Judi Dench or anything, but she can definitely work a room. People have conquered Hollywood with far less.

Hansen, for his part, approaches the event with a more workmanlike attitude. Another convention, time to make the donuts. He seems genuinely appreciative of his fans, but he also seems a bit puzzled by the extreme lengths some of them go to express how much they worship him. You can’t really blame him when you see some of these people. I mean, I dig the movie too, but that kind of devotion is a little scary to witness. (Based on this movie, there could be a daytime talk show devoted to “Girls Who Love Leatherface” – why can’t I meet someone like that?) Yet Hansen also seems completely uninterested in furthering his career or even putting his name out there. He’s there specifically for the fans that want to meet him. He knows his place in history, and he’s satisfied with it. That’s very cool.

Bob Gonzo, on the other hand, is pretty much the exact opposite of that. He’s like an old-time carnival barker, hawking his wares shamelessly with the help of a trio of scantily clad young ladies with the collective moniker of “Gonzo’s Gorgeous Girls”. He boasts that his latest shot-on-video opus cost a total of $875, and proudly proclaims that one of his actresses will do anything for him, even put her head in a toilet. Gonzo (whose name suggests a completely different type of movie) comes off as a wanna-be working an angle, an average joe who figured out a way to use his video camera to hang out with hot chicks. The odd thing is that it seems to actually be working. More power to the guy, but after seeing a few clips from his movies here, I wouldn’t want to actually sit through one. When somebody actually steps up and buys a copy of one of his exploitation epics, you can’t help but laugh and wonder why. (An aside to “Gonzo’s Girls”, assuming they’re not tied up in the basement – you know you’re not REALLY in show business, right?)

Then of course there are the fans, and they’re a varied and fascinating lot. They seem to run the gamut of obsessed fanatics and genuinely freaky people, from a chatty “gender-switcher” to the aptly named Choker Charlie, who makes a habit of accosting the starlets and coaxing them to pretend to physically abuse him. But my favorite of these characters were the Wilburs, a seemingly “normal” middle-class couple who see the event as their opportunity to make close personal friends of Hollywood’s B-list. Or as they put it, “we’re not stalking, we’re socializing!” Even Linda Blair looks like she’s scared of being drugged by them and chained up in their personal dungeon.

If it sounds like I’m being a little harsh on these people, I really don’t mean to be. They’re just insanely funny to watch, and I think even they must be aware of that on some level. (Well, maybe not Choker Charlie.) But you have to give them credit, at least they care passionately about something. And where most mainstream people would think of hardcore horror fans as a grim, dour bunch, UnConventional proves that they can get drunk, sloppy and reckless with the best of them. There’s a long party scene here that rivals any gathering I’ve ever seen for the amount of sexy young women (where DO these horror-loving hotties come from?), alcohol consumption and general rude behavior. But there’s also a real sense of camaraderie among them, a feeling that once a year they can spend time with people who have the same interests and love the same things that they do. That’s not something I would ever dismiss easily.

Unfortunately, the one thing the movie lacks is any sense of perspective on the subject matter at hand. We’re never really given any insight as to WHY these people are so passionate about horror films, what exactly it is about them that affects their lives so deeply. If you’re already a horror fanatic, you probably already understand it, but I think a novice to the genre would be greatly served by the addition of such information. Some people will never get it, of course, no matter how much you explain it to them. But I think more interviews with the fans would have been beneficial to those with an open mind who are genuinely curious about them. I like a good horror flick as much as the next guy, but even I don’t spend every waking moment of my life thinking about them. The level of single-minded devotion on display here is pretty much foreign to me. I thought I personally knew some dedicated hardcore horror fans, but some of these folks are just…wow. (God knows I have my own bizarre obsessions, but they generally involve cute actresses whom I’ll never meet, and even if I did I wouldn’t ask any of them to choke me, that’s for damn sure. Even I’m not THAT far gone. I don’t think…)

Ultimately though, I still think UnConventional is a valuable document of a legitimate subculture that you don’t see on film too often. It’s not just funny and entertaining, but like the best documentaries, it’s informative and genuinely eye-opening. If you’re a horror fanatic, you’ll want to see it just to enjoy watching people like yourself on film. If you’re not, you should see it to get a fascinating glimpse of a world you may not have known existed. And either way, watching this will make you want to head to New Jersey for the next Chiller Convention so you can join in the fun.

The DVD contains several deleted scenes, as well as the opening of the old Chiller Theatre TV show and a couple of strangely retro computer-animated videos by the Dead Elvi, a kind of horror-surf rock band who perform in the movie. While the back of the case reads, “Tons of Extras”, I wouldn’t actually go that far. (It only took me 2 1/4 hours to watch the movie and everything on the disc.) But it’s still well worth checking out if you can get a copy. Hopefully they’ll make this more widely available at some point, because I think a lot of people would really enjoy seeing it.

*** 1/11/05

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