Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Freaks Come Out At Night - VHS, video nasties and Trash Humpers

I remember watching The Exorcist for the first time decades ago on a murky VHS copy that must have been copied from tape-to-tape many times over before it got to me. It was virtually, but not quite, unwatchable. It was that borderline can’t-quite-see-it-properly feeling that made it so terrifying. In the wake of the Video Recordings Act 1984, Warner Brothers had decided not to submit The Exorcist to the BBFC for classification, and it remained legally unavailable in the UK until the theatrical re-release in 1998. If you weren’t lucky enough to own a pre-certification copy, the only way to see it was on copied tapes passed around amongst friends. It scared the shit out of me, and I wouldn’t watch it again until the sparkling new prints appeared in cinemas again.

When I saw if for the second time, it felt like a totally different film. On VHS, I was horrified by the staticy indistinct images on the degraded tape. By what I couldn’t see just as much as what I could. On a cinema screen, my fear was superseded with utter exhilaration at watching William Friedkin’s perfectly-realised vision of The Devil Comes To Georgetown. The Exorcist remains one of my favourite films of all time, but it has never scared me once since that first viewing. The horrors remained on that videocassette, as if it were only the moulded black plastic shell and magnetic tape themselves that contained the real terrors.

And now along comes Harmony Korine, putting the nasty back into video.

There is a moment relatively early on in Trash Humpers which shows a fat kid in a suit bludgeoning a toy baby doll’s head repeatedly with a hammer, laughing and saying “I told ya I’d kill her!” over and over again, the dull thwack of the hammer’s weight bouncing off the hard plastic, causing the doll to jump off the ground in a grotesque dance. Watching Trash Humpers feels a little bit like being the plastic doll, with Korine wielding the indiscriminate hammer straight at your head.

The title of the film is the only synopsis you need. It’s not an evocative metaphor like Reservoir Dogs or Chinatown. It really is about people who hump trash. If I’d hated it, this would be my opportunity to skewer the film by twisting the title into a two-word review: Fucking Rubbish.

There are two stock phrases that a depressingly large number of unimaginative writers wheel out to describe Harmony Korine: “enfant terrible” (which should really be retired now that he’s 37) and “agent provocateur”. But both of those phrases are just lazy critical shorthand that ultimately say nothing. It would be more accurate to say that Korine is Loki, the trickster of cinema, or maybe a carnival barker ready to parade his latest succession of freaks.

Presented as found footage (a discarded VHS cassette that plays like the home movies of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Leatherface and family) Trash Humpers is divorced from any kind of coherent narrative or context. And without either to hold on to as an anchor, it’s an unsettling succession of unconnected scenes that are stretched past the point where they become boring, and yet it is that very interminable repetition that makes it so disturbing, until the cumulative effect takes on a seductive, compelling quality. Some of the most interesting bits in Trash Humpers comes from the limitations of VHS, random unavoidable moments of picture distortion, colour saturation, static and screen-roll.

With a running time of only 78 minutes, Trash Humpers feels much longer, and I wriggled restlessly watching it all in one sitting. No matter how much you may dislike it whilst it plays out in front of your eyes, it has a way of getting under your skin and haunting you until you want to sit through it again. It’s a film that manages to repulse you whilst hypnotising you at the same time. I’m already toying with a second viewing just writing about it here.

Trash Humpers is available on DVD via Warp Films from 20th September and, this is the bit I really like, you can also pick it up on individually customised VHS tapes or even, if you have £7,500 to spare, on a 35mm film print. Click here for further details.

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