In recent years, shot-on-video (SOV) films have devel­oped a cult rep­u­ta­tion amongst fans of eccen­tric film fare.  Usually, it doesn’t have much to do with any kind of qual­i­ty in con­ven­tion­al crit­i­cal terms: SOV films appeal to this new demo­graph­ic because of their untu­tored, fre­quent­ly insane approach to deliv­er­ing enter­tain­ment to the AmerDHV-poshor­ror and exploita­tion crowd.  The peo­ple mak­ing the­se films often had lit­tle or no film­mak­ing expe­ri­ence and it’s the way they broke all the rules of film­mak­ing that made their work inter­est­ing to their new fans.

America’s Deadliest Home Video is a relic from the SOV era that bucks the afore­men­tioned trend.  It’s an ances­tor to today’s “found footage” sub­gen­re of hor­ror, tak­ing the form of a cam­corder diary gone awry.  Said diary belongs to Dougie (Danny Bonaduce), a video-obsessed schlub who goes on an impromp­tu road trip when he dis­cov­ers his sig­nif­i­cant oth­er is cheat­ing on him.

Unfortunately, Dougie cross­es paths with a trio of crooks: casu­al­ly socio­pathic lead­er Clint (Mick Wynhoff), angry and vio­lent Vezna (Mollena Williams) and the baby doll-ish moll Gloria (Melora Walters).  Dougie is forced to become the group’s video­g­ra­pher as Clint becomes addict­ed to the idea of being a famous crim­i­nal, begin­ning a spi­ral as the pres­sure to per­form for the cam­era dri­ves the peo­ple on both sides of the cam­era to the lim­its of san­i­ty.

The results turn the inher­ent lim­i­ta­tions of shoot­ing on stan­dard-def­i­n­i­tion video — an acute appear­ance of cheap­ness, a lack of cin­e­mat­ic visu­al tex­ture, a real­is­tic imme­di­a­cy that hurts the abil­i­ty to cre­ate fan­ta­sy — into strengths.  America’s Deadliest Home Video uses the­se raw, anti-cin­e­mat­ic ele­ments as tools to fool the audi­ence with the illu­sion of real­i­ty.  Perez builds ten­sion sub­tly by hold­ing uncom­fort­ably on moments and allow­ing the unpre­dictable, socio­pathic nature of the crooks to sink in.  He spar­ing­ly doles out the vio­lence and sex so they real­ly pack a punch when they arrive — and the queasy real­ism they are cap­tured with forces the view­er to con­front their own voyeurism.

BettAmerDHV-02er yet, the per­for­mances have a nat­u­ral­is­tic qual­i­ty that is dif­fer­ent from the non-act­ing usu­al­ly seen in SOV films.  Bonaduce, who was shift­ing towards his sec­ond career when this was made, shows a nice knack for improv and uses his Partridge Family-honed sense of comic tim­ing to give the audi­ence the occa­sion­al moment of relief from the ten­sion.  Wynhoff, who also pro­duced, is shock­ing­ly good as a casu­al­ly vicious type who uses his bland charm to obscure his psy­chotic ten­den­cies.  Williams is more demon­stra­bly vicious and com­mu­ni­cates that well while a pre–Boogie Nights Walters is win­ning in a dam­aged yet seduc­tive way as the one semi-redeemable mem­ber of the crim­i­nal gang.

America’s Deadliest Home Video has one more trick up its sleeve, one that might only become appar­ent after a sec­ond view­ing: beneath its deglam­or­ized “video diary” appear­ance, there is a kind of stealth-cin­e­mat­ic touch at play.  Perez main­tains the illu­sion of video verite while giv­ing much thought to cam­era place­ment and move­ment that selec­tive­ly reveals things while still main­tain­ing a sense of real­i­ty.  He shows his chops with han­dling actors by pulling off a hand­ful of lengthy sce­nes in single-take/one-camera setups that involve com­plex, well-timed ensem­ble act­ing.  Best of all, there are a cou­ple of real­ly inspired shoot out sce­nes that use clev­er cam­era move­ment and stag­ing to con­vince you that you’re see­ing more may­hem than is actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing.

AmerDHV-01In short, America’s Deadliest Home Video is one of the rare jew­els you’ll come across in the pile of SOV films from the ‘80s and ‘90s.  You don’t have to be a post-iron­ic trash cultist to enjoy this — it’s legit­i­mate­ly good and all the more impres­sive for using uncin­e­mat­ic means to achieve cin­e­mat­ic ends.

 

DVD Notes: After a few decades in post-VHS lim­bo, America’s Deadliest Home Video has been revived on DVD by Camp Motion Pictures.  The trans­fer comes from the orig­i­nal video mas­ter so it’s the best this shot-on-con­sumer-gear opus could pos­si­bly look and free of any video-based glitch­es.  The 2.0 stereo sound offers an accu­rate rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the usu­al­ly cam­era mic-record­ed audio.

Camp has also added a few note­wor­thy extras.  There are two dif­fer­ent and equal­ly worth­while com­men­tary tracks here.  The first fea­tures Perez, who offers a thought­ful look back that cov­ers how the oppor­tu­ni­ty and con­cept came togeth­er,  how it was designed to stay true to that con­cept, shoot­ing and edit­ing tricks to cre­ate a doc­u­men­tary illu­sion and how mak­ing the film in Wisconsin worked to their ben­e­fit.  His com­ments often has a philo­soph­i­cal bent, often weav­ing in com­men­tary about the chal­lenges of build­ing and main­tain­ing a career in the film busi­ness as well as how cre­at­ing your own shoe­string projects is often a nec­es­sary alter­na­tive to the Hollywood route.

The oth­er com­men­tary comes from producer/star Wynhoff.  It’s a low-key but infor­ma­tion-dense track that pro­vides lots of details on loca­tions, cameos by crew mem­bers and friends/family, the chal­lenges of act­ing in long takes and even an amaz­ing tale about a near-the­atri­cal release that also involves George Lucas. There’s also some inter­est­ing obser­va­tions about work­ing with Bonaduce.

The pack­age is round­ed out by a smart­ly-edit­ed trail­er for America’s Deadliest Home Video and a whole reel of trail­ers for var­i­ous Camp releas­es.