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 horror 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.
Better 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.
In 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.