Jul 10, 2023

VHS Fest Rewind

VHS Fest 7
Show Poster by Hayden Hall
Mahoning Drive-In Theater - Lehighton, PA

There are few experiences that have given me the same amount of joy as an adult as they did when I was a child, and one of those things was going out to rent movies.  When I was a kid, my grandfather would bring me to National Video in the Church Hill Mall to pick out a movie.  When I was a teenager, I'd walk down to the Pantry Quik on North Broad Street to pick up movies from PQ Video, or ride out to places like Blockbuster Video, West Coast Video, Premier Video or Movie Gallery to pick up a stack of tapes for the weekend.  When I got a little older, I discovered Heights Terrace Video and their catalog of hard-to-find movies, as well as the unlimited rental pass at Hollywood Video that helped me to discover hundreds of films over the years.

It's hard to describe if you weren't there, but this is an experience that streaming services cannot replicate.  Walking around the store, seeing the giant cardboard displays, picking up a VHS tape that had an interesting cover and reading the description on the back.  The thrill of finding that you just got the last copy of the new release that you came for.  The frustration when that new release was out of stock that turned into joy because it opened the door for you to rent something else that you may have never heard of, but ended up being one of your all time favorites.  Picking out snacks at the counter.  Finding a previously-viewed copy of an all-time classic on sale.  The weight of the sack of tapes in your hand as you walk back to the car.  Popping the tape in the machine and seeing trailers for things that you're going to want to rent next time.  The occasional grinding sound that made you worry if your VCR was about to eat the tape.  These were such ordinary experiences for me that I never thought about them at all until they weren't around anymore.

Show banner designed by Andrew Kern

VHS Fest is a mashup of the video rental store experience of the 80's and 90's and the drive-in culture.  It captures the time in the life of just about every Gen-X and elder Millennial kid of going to your local video shop with your friends and finding a bunch of weird movies that you've probably never heard of before because they skipped the theaters and went straight to video.  Six bizarre movies over two nights, all shown on the big screen at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater projected from a VCR in the digital booth.

This is an experience that I am not alone in wanting to recapture.  VHS Fest is always one of the most well-attended shows of the year at the Mahoning and both nights of VHS Fest VII have sold out.  Between the vendors and the fans in attendance, I haven't seen the lot this packed since Joe Bob's Jamboree in 2021.

The photo staging area was set up as a video rental shop, complete with tapes, posters, cardboard standups, and a display box of Bill & Ted trading cards.

There was also a very cool demon set up, and the Free Blockbuster box was modified in a spooky way for the event.  I apologize for not crediting whoever set these up, but I'm not sure who did it and I don't want to assume and accidentally credit the wrong folks.  Once I get an answer to this, I'll update this paragraph to give credit to the folks whose hard work helped add to the incredible atmosphere of VHS Fest.

There were over 60 different vendors on the lot with tents set up to sell movies and movie-related books, shirts, posters, and other collectibles.  As the name of the event suggests, every tent had a good selection of vintage VHS tapes that ranged in price from under a dollar to over a hundred bucks.  There were a lot of extremely rare tapes that were well out of my price range, but it was still very cool to see that there are still copies of the movies that I saw at rental stores back in the 80's still available.

I kept to a pretty strict budget and still managed to come out of the weekend with a huge pile of fun new additions to my collection, but I'll have to talk more about that tomorrow or else I'll never get to the triple features that were shown on the big screen.

There was some pretty awesome merch that was given away for free to everyone at the front gate.  The first was a VHS Fest bumper sticker from Lunchbox VHS that is absolutely going on my car if and when it is ever clean enough for a sticker to be stuck to it.

Another incredible free giveaway was this Mr. Nasty trading card, which was done in the style of the 1991 Impel Marvel Universe Series II trading cards that I collected when I was a kid.  This is one of my favorite pieces of merchandise that I've ever seen on the lot.  It was designed by James Dufendach with scans courtesy of Kyle Cummings.  The card has the exact look and feel of a trading card from the early 90's, and it's such an incredible idea that I'm shocked that it hasn't happened before.  There are so many vintage trading card designs from the 70's, 80's and 90's and so many different characters that can be included that have a connection to the Mahoning Drive-In Theater that this is an idea that could go on for years!

If you've never been to VHS Fest, you may be asking yourself a question right about now: "Who the hell is Mr. Nasty?"  Don't worry... I'll get to that in due time.


Joe Pickett and Nick Prueher of the Found Footage Festival were the MCs of the night, and if you haven't seen their show before, I strongly recommend that you check them out as soon as possible.  There aren't many things that make me laugh harder than their show.  They buy VHS tapes from anywhere that they can find them in search of material that is "strange, outrageous and profoundly stupid", and the collection that they've put together and shown to audiences over the past two decades has been truly amazing.  Some of that footage was shown to us before each of the features, including video dating, videos meant to keep children away from drugs and alcohol, speeches from a doctor who gets very excited about taking a crap, and an instructional video from the days of dial-up called "How To Have Cybersex On The Internet".

Laura Wimbels (aka: Lenora) was also on hand throughout the weekend.  She was the host of The Big Bad B-Movie Show on Channel 43 in Cleveland, which was a horror host program dedicated to the direct-to-cable and direct-to-video B-movies of the 80's and 90's.  Today, she hosts a similar program on YouTube called Lenora's Midnight Rental.  I haven't had the opportunity to watch it before, but I'm definitely setting some time aside to binge her show later tonight.

Lenora and actress Patty Mullen kicked off the triple features on both Friday and Saturday with a segment that was part interview and part introduction of the film that we were about to see.  Ms. Mullen starred in both Doom Asylum (the first film shown on Friday) and Frankenhooker (the first film shown on Saturday), and she was on the lot all day dressed as Elizabeth Shelley (the titular Frankenhooker) to meet fans, sign autographs and take pictures.

I hadn't watched or even heard of any of the movies that were shown on Friday night, the first of which was the 1987 slasher flick Doom Asylum.  It's a bizarre slasher comedy flick that was briefly shown in theaters in Italy, but went straight to video in the United States.  It's the story of a palimony attorney named Mitch Hansen who was in a car accident that caused the death of his fiance.  Hansen survived, but was severely disfigured and thought to be dead.  He killed the medical examiners who were performing an autopsy on his body, and in the years that followed, he lived in an abandoned insane asylum where he killed his victims with autopsy tools.  Ten years later, a conflict develops at the asylum between a group of college-aged kids who are having a picnic and an all-female punk rock band who are practicing at the building.  Hansen starts picking them off, one by one, with each side believing that the other is responsible for the disappearances.

This was without a doubt one of the cheesiest movies I have ever seen.  The acting is so over-the-top that you can't help but to laugh your ass off at just about every line, and it's exactly what VHS Fest is all about.  If you want to watch it at home, you'll find it available to stream for free with ads on Tubi.

The guys from the Found Footage Festival were back during the first intermission with actor Larry Pines, who is better known to fans of VHS Fest as Mr. Nasty.

Some things catch on at the Mahoning and become a part of the folklore of this place and its events, such as Rico and Pepe, the Puppies & Kitties intermission reel, and Evening Tides Waterbeds.  The character that has become synonymous with VHS Fest is Mr. Nasty.  It's a character from a VHS tape released by Video Treasures in the mid 80's.  I'm not really sure what the point of this tape was supposed to be.  It contains a segment where Mr. Nasty acts as sort of an insult hitman.  I'm guessing that the idea here was that you'd send a tape of this segment to people you don't like, and they would pop it in the VCR so that Mr. Nasty could insult them.  The same tape includes a workout video and a segment titled Love Sentiments.  To say that it's an oddity would be a gross understatement.

From the tone in each of these videos, it seems as if they were meant to be three separate tapes that you would buy and immediately mail to somebody else.  The fact that each of these segments begins with a title card that says "Volume 1" suggests  that the idea here would be that you could choose from a catalog of insults, gross proposals of romantic interest, and other videograms.  My guess is that this idea fell through, and so they just compiled everything they had already recorded onto a single tape to sell off in drug stores and bargain bins.  I can't say that I ever remember seeing one of these back in the 80's, but there were thousands of strange tapes like this that were sold in the early days of home video, so its existence doesn't come as too much of a shock.

The Mr. Nasty Insult Video segment has been shown during intermission of VHS Fest for years, but this is the first time that Larry Pines (Mr. Nasty himself) ever came out to the lot.  I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it was a wild ride that took the audience through the issue of VHS residuals, his work on pizza commercials and in being one of the gangsters that shot OJ Simpson's character in The Naked Gun, and a story about his ten minute death experience that concluded with his singing of the Protestant hymn Softly and Tenderly.

I've heard it said before that just about everything that you could be doing at any given time has probably been done by somebody else at some point.  However, I think it's a pretty safe bet to that this was the first time that an audience at a drive-in movie theater has ever listened to a man called Mr. Nasty sing a song about Jesus minutes before the screening of a movie in which stop-motion animated monsters devour topless women.

Winterbeast is a bizarre movie from the early 90's that I can't even begin to put the right words to, so I'm going to go ahead and borrow part of a review written by Justin Burning, editor of Confluence of Cult:
"Winterbeast is a collection of scenes that were filmed over the course of most of a decade. They’ve technically been edited together, but there was no concern for continuity of any kind. Characters have a full, glorious mustache in the first half a scene, then a mere 5 o’clock shadow to close it out. Sometimes people have hats on and then they don’t. Sometimes people have ties on and then they don’t. Scenes flip between day and night and day-for-night. People show up, gather, and look terrified or astounded by something, but the camera never cuts to what’s terrifying or astounding them. The score, which is actually good (by Michael Perilstein, who did the music for The Deadly Spawn), cuts in and out like a stereo panning between blown speakers. A generator near-constantly whirs just off screen. There is no set-up for anything that happens in this flick, but that’s okay because there wouldn’t be any payoff, either. Winterbeast is an always-churning, sometimes acrid, sometimes delectable chum of horror movie things. Monsters. Zombies. Chest-bursting skull-caterpillars. Towering stilt-devils. Totems. The undead picking at their gooey flesh like it’s a charcuterie board. Spooky Indian legends. Desiccated corpses used as dance routine props for sassy-ass lodge proprietors wearing creepy clown masks. Boobs for some or perhaps no reason. Totems. But absolutely no winter."
See... now that's a movie review!  The best you're likely to get out of me on most nights is only slightly more insightful than "movie good", "movie weird", and the occasional poorly written synopsis with grammatical errors that I may, or may not correct at some point in the future.

Winterbeast is not a good movie, but it's a hell of a lot of fun.  It doesn't quite reach the absurdity of The Room, but it's enjoyable for the same reasons.  You can stream it with a subscription to Shudder.

The third and final movie on Night One of VHS Fest VII is an independent revenge slasher flick from 1991 called Killer Nerd.  If I'm being perfectly honest, I really couldn't get into this one too much.  It is impressive for a movie that only cost $12k to film, and Toby Radloff gave a good performance as Harold Kunkle (the titular Killer Nerd), but there was far too much time spent on establishing the fact that he's a nerd who gets bullied by the people in his life.  You could have told that backstory in five or ten minutes.  Instead, they spend more than half of the movie moving this character through different settings in which he gets abused.  I lost interest by the time the killing started.

In fairness, some of my negativity towards this movie could have been because it was over 80 degrees and I had been on the lot for about 14 hours before the opening credits rolled, but I enjoyed the first two movies of the night very much.  At any rate, I think that this is exactly the kind of movie that should get a remake.  Far too often, the movies that get remade are already great and don't benefit very much, if at all, from having a new version.  Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is the example that immediately comes to mind.  It's a movie that has no reason to exist.  No one in their right mind would choose to watch it over the original.  In contrast, Killer Nerd is a bad movie, but there's a good idea in there and I'd like to see it done better.

We headed home after Friday night's triple feature, but the show went on for folks who were staying on the lot overnight.  They were playing a cheesy anti-drug video from the early 90's when we were driving off the lot.

The folks from the Found Footage Festival started us off on Saturday night.  This was followed by a return of Lenora and Patty Mullen to introduce the first movie on Night Two of VHS Fest VII: Frankenhooker.

My wife introduced me to Frankenhooker when we found a copy on VHS at the Hometown Farmers Market sixteen years ago.  She saw for the first time when she was nine years old.  It's not a movie that I'd recommend showing to a child, but it's something that I'd recommend to anyone who loves horror comedy.

This was actually our second time seeing this movie at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater.  It was shown on a rare Thursday night screening back in August 2021, but this is one of those movies that I'll go to see as many times as they decide to screen it.  It's totally absurd and a hell of a lot of fun.  If you've never had the pleasure, it's the story of a young man from New Jersey whose fiancée is accidentally killed by a remote control lawnmower.  As luck would have it, the young man is also a mad scientist who has developed an estrogen-based liquid that can keep body parts alive.  He only managed to recover his fiancée's head and one of her hands, so he needs to find parts if he's going to build a body that can be used to bring her back to life.  He comes up with the idea (aided by a power drill and a bag of Super Crack) to find the parts that he needs from sex workers in New York City.

The story might be upsetting if it was played with any degree of seriousness, but it's presented in such an absurd and comical manner that you really have to go out of your way to be offended.  It's pure silliness and a must-see for anyone who can enjoy a movie that is wacky for the sake of being wacky.  You can stream it for free with ads on Tubi and Pluto, and without ads on Shudder.

After the first feature last night, the guys from Found Footage Festival came back with one of the special guests for the weekend, Larry Pines (aka: Mr. Nasty), and if you thought that his interview from Friday night was bizarre, you ain't seen nothing yet.  The three men were joined by artist Kristen Kircher, who crocheted a Mr. Nasty doll to give to the actor as a present for coming all the way out to Northeast Pennsylvania to join us at the Mahoning.  Also, the Found Footage Festival research team managed to track down his commercial for Tony's Frozen Pizza.

Before the interview was over, Ms. Kircher found herself joining Mr. Nasty in a duet of Softly and Tenderly before he closed out his appearance at VHS Fest with a prayer.  Now, as you might have guessed, this is not exactly a religious event, but we're a polite group.  After all, Jeff closes out the nights that he's running the projector with "goodnight and god bless you", and despite the fact that I am not a religious man, I don't think I'm alone in finding it to be heartfelt and endearing.  The crowd sat in quiet observation while our special guest offered a prayer.  It started off well, but it somehow got off track and turned into an observation on the closure of Bethlehem Steel and the fact that some Hershey's Chocolate is manufactured in Mexico.  He then began to tiptoe right up to the line of Trump propaganda without crossing the line to where you could be 100% sure that he was going in that direction, but thankfully the guys from Found Footage Festival swooped in to bring the interview to as graceful of a conclusion as the moment allowed, and before anyone in the crowd had a moment to process what had just nearly happened, they were ready for a snippet from the opening credits of their favorite German adult film:

Brilliant save, gentlemen!

And as soon as that clip was over, we were right into our second feature film of the night.

The second movie of Saturday night was a 2000 movie called At Dawn They Sleep.  It was written and directed by Brian Paulin, who also starred in the film as a drug dealer named Stephen who, with his partner, gets turned into a vampire-like creature by two angels.  He soon learns that the angels are not what they seem when he's confronted by a demon who reveals the truth about their predicament.

This movie was a very pleasant surprise.  In fact, it may be the best low budget horror film that I've ever seen.  This movie was made for $6,000 and while the gunfights had a few unintentionally funny moments (the most obvious of which is that everyone in the film has unlimited ammunition that never has to be loaded into the weapon), there is a pretty damn creative story being told here.  The acting performances aren't bad, and the dialogue reminds me at times of Clerks and Reservoir Dogs.

The part of the movie that really popped the crowd was the sex scene in the woods at the end, but our happiness had nothing to do with the nudity.  There are several lingering shots of a possum sitting in a tree looking down at the action taking place below.  Every time this little marsupial appeared on screen, the crowd loudly cheered, and there was a smattering of boos every time it went back to the sex.    Bear in mind that this was after 1:00 am on the second day when we were all pretty tired.  I think that VHS Fest has just found its new mascot.

At Dawn They Sleep doesn't seem to be available on any streaming services that I'm aware of, but you can find the DVD on sale on Amazon.

The last feature of VHS Fest VII was the 1988 Canadian sci-fi/horror movie The Brain.  This and Frankenhooker were the only two movies of the weekend that I had seen before, but the last time I watched The Brain was not at a drive-in theater - it was at the Kirby Center in Wilkes Barre where it was screened as a part of the MST3K Live tour.

It wouldn't surprise me if the folks who made Disturbing Behavior ten years later took some inspiration from The Brain.  They're not so similar that anyone would say that the 1998 film is a ripoff or a remake, but they share in common the fact that they're about a teenager with behavior problems who a sinister force is attempting to bring under control.  Both movies are entertaining, but I prefer the approach taken in The Brain of an alien who uses mind control through a self-help guru played by David Gale (Dr. Carl Hill in Re-Animator and Bride Of Re-Animator).

Artwork by Ray (ToonLab)

And that's a wrap on VHS Fest VII.  I realize that I left a lot of things out, but I hope that this captured at least some of what made this weekend at the Mahoning Drive-In Theater as awesome as it was.