August 09, 1991 at 04:00 AM EDT

Fatal Pulse. Dead Women in Lingerie. The Life and Times of the Chocolate Killer. You’ve probably met them in the video store: movies you never heard of, movies nobody you know has watched, movies that have never even seen the inside of a theater. What are those things?

Some, maybe most, are so bad no theatrical distributor would touch them. Others are the victims of bankrupt producers or of the stranglehold the major studios have on the nation’s multiplexes. Still others are oddities: film-festival winners too quirky for the mainstream, vanity productions too quirky for anybody, or horror-erotic thrillers just quirky enough for a $2 rental. They have a life, of sorts, all their own.

”To shoot a movie directly for video is kind of weird,” admits low-budget-thriller producer Andy Ruben, who with his wife and partner, director Katt Shea Ruben, made the direct-to-video Dance of the Damned (1988). ”Video stores have needed so much product that the market is flooded with horrible made-for-video releases. People in prison wouldn’t watch them.”

But not all direct-to-video fare is that bad: Los Angeles Times reviewer Kevin Thomas called Ruben’s own Dance of the Damned an ”elegant, poignant, and distinctive vampire film.” So there. As cult-film fans have long known, Z-grade movies can have hidden strengths, including unusual stars such as Wings Hauser and Cynthia Rothrock, as well as non-mainstream points of view that big-budget producers are often hesitant to handle. Here are the major forms of this curious subgenre:

So Bad They’re Unreleasable

This is the quintessential category of direct-to-video. Of the several hundred movies made in the U.S. each year, many, inevitably, are rotten. If the movie has been backed by a major studio, it’s almost always released to theaters anyway — witness Hudson Hawk. But if it’s made by a small independent at the mercy of outside distributors, it’s video bait — even if it stars a cinematic legend.

Orson Welles in his later years had pretty much become a parody of himself, starring in TV commercials and even narrating a heavy-metal album. It helped if the proffered work could be done close to his home in Las Vegas, and such was the case with 1979’s Canadian-made Hot Money, a.k.a. Never Trust an Honest Thief, The Great Madison County Robbery, and Going for Broke — all one and the same film. In this barely acknowledged action-comedy caper (virtually always left out of Welles filmographies and even the most authoritative film reference texts), Welles roundly emoted as a Smokey and the Bandit-style sheriff chasing free-spirited bank robber Michael Murphy. Also starring has-been singer Bobby ”Boris” Pickett (”The Monster Mash”), the movie was so awful that it went unreleased for nine years before Vidmark let it loose in 1988.

”It just didn’t work,” admits producer Zale Magder, who finished directing the movie under the pseudonym Selig Usher when the original director walked off and insisted his name be removed. ”The picture had to be recut several times, about 50 percent had to be reshot, and the director just sort of bowed out.” Hot Money was a comedy, but, Magder says with a sigh, ”it turned out to be a horror to make.” And to watch.

Casualties of Bum Luck

Lorimar Television produces about a dozen TV series every year, among them highly successful shows such as Dallas, Knots Landing, Full House, and Perfect Strangers. Not surprisingly, the company expanded into movies in the mid-’80s, turning out such forgettables as Orphans and Made in Heaven. Yet Lorimar Motion Pictures made one movie that held promise. The director, Richard Marquand, had just come off the hits Return of the Jedi and Jagged Edge. The initial script was by now-pricey screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. The inspired casting had Bob Dylan playing a retired, reclusive rock star, with then hot pop singer Fiona as his rising young protégée. Initially titled Rocker and eventually called Hearts of Fire, it looked like it couldn’t miss, but the film had problems. A second writer, Scott Richardson, was brought in. Producer-director Marquand died during postproduction. Then Lorimar Motion Pictures closed down and in 1989 was bought out by Warner Bros., which finally released Hearts of Fire on video last year to the delight of Dylan devotees and hardly anybody else.

Almost Foreign Movies

These are not the ”foreign films” they show on PBS, they’re English-language movies with American stars that just happen to have been shot abroad. So for action-movie fans wondering how they missed Jurgen Prochnow in 1985’s Killing Cars when it played in theaters, the answer’s easy: It played in German theaters.

So did Red Heat — not the James Belushi-Arnold Schwarzenegger one but the Linda Blair-Sylvia Kristel one. It’s another of the indefatigable Blair’s women-in-prison epics. This time she’s an American student who goes to Europe to be with her fiancé, a U.S. soldier. She witnesses the abduction of a defector, is nabbed herself, and — oh, never mind. Filmed in West Germany in 1984, it came to video in 1988, the same year the other Red Heat played theatrically. As if that weren’t confusing enough, both are distributed on video by LIVE. The resemblances, however, end there. The Schwarzenegger movie’s merely bad.

Victims of Failed Producers

Major studios don’t usually have this problem, Heaven’s Gate notwithstanding. But when financing dries up for an independent producer, works in progress can be abandoned at any stage. This leaves the prints, negatives, soundtrack, and other tangibles up for grabs by investors, banks, completion-bond companies, or even film-storage warehouses. Sometimes another producer will swoop in to buy whatever’s left, add narration and some new or stock footage, and release it to video, as Roger Corman did with Let It Rock, starring Dennis Hopper. Sometimes a developing lab will just hold onto it for a quarter-century.

In 1959, low-budget schlock auteur Edward D. Wood Jr. made the horror film Night of the Ghouls. A sequel of sorts to his Bride of the Monster (1955) and the immortal Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), it starred Criswell, Kenne Duncan, and Swedish wrestler Tor Johnson in a tale of a phony medium who claims he can contact the dead and accidentally manages to wake a grouchy few, to his regret. But Wood ran out of money. ”Ed Wood would scrape together enough to make a film,” explains distributor Wade Williams, ”but not enough to pay the lab for developing and printing, so there was a ‘lab lien’ against (the negative), plus storage charges.” Wood reportedly had at least two prints struck for Southern California test screenings, but they were lost. In the early ’80s Williams managed to find the film lab, paid off the back charges — ”discounted,” he notes — and bought the rights from Wood’s heirs. Ghouls went straight to video on the Nostalgia Merchant label in 1984 — 25 years after Wood made it and six years after he died. Wood had unwittingly lived up to the movie’s alternate title: Revenge of the Dead.

Meant for Video All Along

Drive-ins and double features spawned a boom in B movies and exploitation flicks in the ’50s. But they’re gone, and with major studios releasing big-budget B’s like Terminator 2 and sweeping up 2,000-plus theater screens at a time, budget-movie makers have found themselves a new venue: the video store.

Blood Cult, a sludgy slasher film shot in 1985, is generally considered the first such made-for-video feature. Movies had gone straight to video before, but against their will. This one went gleefully. It came about when Bill Blair, the affable head of the Tulsa, Okla.-based United Home Video, asked himself, ”Why pay an advance of thousands of dollars for a film, when we can just about make one ourselves for the same amount of money?” He dusted off an old script he’d cowritten with a doctor friend and raised $75,000. The movie was shot on video with Sony Betacams, an early type of camcorder, and directed by Christopher Lewis (son of Loretta Young), then the host of an afternoon talk show at the local CBS affiliate. ”We just met one time and talked very briefly about it,” says Blair, ”and the next thing we knew we were making movies.”

United itself has gone on to produce about a dozen made-for-video movies, all but the first two shot on film; one, Revenge (1986), features John Carradine in what United dubiously bills as his 500th movie. Since then, other video companies have begun acquiring made-for-video fare from independent studios such as Full Moon Entertainment (Puppet Master) and Roger Corman’s Concorde Pictures (Dance of the Damned). The B movie, it seems, has now become the V movie.

Theater of the Damned
Some 18 times a year, Billy Joe’s Pitcher Show in West Des Moines, Iowa (owned by Billy Bryant), has a screening for Commtron, the video distributor down the road. About a third of the movies were really made for VCRs; these screenings are their only moments of theatrical glory, justifying the ”recent theatrical release” boast often on cassette boxes. Says Jim Slater of the Imperial video label, ”Video companies would book one theater, so when distributors asked, ‘Did it see a theatrical release?’ they could say, ‘Sure, it played your city on October 4.”’

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