[2 August 2006]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It is safe to say that Chris Seaver marches to his own, unique motion picture beat. As a matter of fact, he’s personally handcrafted the obscure drums that create his close knit, clever cacophony. Thanks to an indulgent mother who poisoned his impressionable mind with scary movies at the age of seven, the future Indie rebel was hooked on horror and needed a way to indulge his fright flick fantasies. A video camera later, and the pre-teen wonder was making his own backyard Freddy vs. Jason films, luring friends and family to go along for the homemade macabre ride. By 1991, when he was 14 years old, Seaver had started Low Budget Pictures. It was a way of legitimizing his rapidly growing obsession, as well as financially capitalizing (hopefully) on his burgeoning talent.
Now, 15 years and several films later, the near 30 Seaver is still going strong. With the July release of Destruction Kings (from longtime distributor Tempe Entertainment) the tireless quadruple threat he writes, shoots, directs, and even acts in his films Seaver is purposely shelving the first phase of his career. Retiring two of the ‘classic’ characters the African American badass Mr. Bonejack, and a scatological simian obsessed with sex, a.k.a. Teen Ape that made him an outsider icon, he hopes to stylistically shift gears and become a more mainstream filmmaker. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. Truth be told, Seaver wants the stale, staid Hollywood way of doing things to embrace his whacked out, pop culture laden way of thinking.
Seaver’s steady rise from film aficionado to production company chief is every fanboy’s waking daydream. Hoping to open up his audience beyond the typical tight circle of pals and well-wishers, Seaver started going to horror/sci-fi conventions in the early ‘90s. Soon, he was pimping his own product at the gatherings, most significantly, a parody of From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. That title got him a lot of attention and established his spoof-rich style. Then, around 1999, he pitched a new script he had written a teens in the woods tale entitled Anal Paprika to Cannibal: The Musical and Orgazmo producer Jason McHugh. Finding the material very funny, McHugh put Seaver in touch with Troma chief Lloyd Kaufman. Thus began a kind of mutual appreciation society that lead to greater exposure of the filmmaker’s initial efforts, as well as an introduction to sexy scream queen Debbie Rochon.
It wasn’t long before Paprika and its sequels were certified cult classics. But the first film that got Seaver some much-needed general exposure was Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker. Tempe head J.R. Bookwalter had become aware of the movie (and Seaver) thanks to Rochon (who had a small cameo role in the film), and was taken with the sensationally silly story of a chocoholic battling legions of the undead on Halloween. He initially added Mulva to a limited edition DVD presentation of a Full Moon film called Hell Asylum. When another Seaver sensation, the Satanic sleazoid sex epic Filthy McNasty found its way onto another Tempe DVD, Bookwalter had a brainstorm. He would pair up the tale of two coed misfits who sell their soul to a libidinous imp for the ability to be smokin’ hot with the sugarcoated fright flick, and create one single disc of Chris Seaver surreality.
The strategy paid off. On the heels of some incredibly positive reviews, the Mulva/McNasty set went on to be one of the company’s biggest sellers, giving Bookwalter the wherewithal to purchase Seaver’s Lord of the Rings rip-off, Quest for the Egg Salad, sight unseen. Though not nearly as successful as those first two Tempe’s titles, Quest continued the writer/director’s determined homages to the kind of films he loved, both presently, and as a child. From direct lifts of classic zombie movies made decades before, to the unbridled vulgarity of the manic mid-‘90s movies of the brothers Farrelly, Seaver saw everything and anything as fodder for his fear-based funny business. Add in a horny demon named Phil (thus the ‘Fil’ part of the McNasty title) various teen archetypes (wimp, nerd, jerk, stoner) and healthy doses of rising LBP heroes Bonejack and Teen Ape and this filmmaker found himself becoming a known name in the realm of camcorder creativity.
And he did it with something many first timers usually forget well-crafted scripts. When asked what his favorite part of the production process is, or equally, what he views as his best cinematic attribute, Seaver always says it’s his writing and indeed, his screenplays are often works of preposterously perverted pop art. Not so much dialogue driven as overloaded with kitschy conversations peppered with every known media reference known to man, a Seaver script will incorporate material from Star Wars and South Park, lift directly from hip-hop and rap while tossing in a non sequitur nod to Ren and Stimpy. He regularly meshes the cartoonish with the coarse, using as much foul language and straight sexual innuendo as he can to underscore his formulaic horror facets. For his often perplexing personalities, Seaver will exaggerate characteristics to the point of implausibility, then pull them back just enough to make us laugh with, not at, the individual’s idiosyncrasy.
Indeed, the creation of such unique entities such as mismatched sisters Heather and Pugly, arrogant adolescent playboy Choach, fantasy metal head Sebastian, or the redneck royalty know as “The Maestro” clearly argues for Seaver’s understanding of his arrested adolescent audience. Few filmmakers today manage to capture the slang-spewing, media mutated mindset of the determined geek set, yet Seaver’s movies are loaded with such authentically drawn personalities. Even when he’s creating near flawless parodies of far more famous films (efforts include a Mulva sequel copying Kill Bill, and a note for note remake riff on The Karate Kid, this time focusing on Karaoke) Seaver’s desire for his humor to be more character driven than situational stays front and center.
This doesn’t mean that he stays neat and clean doing it. As an anarchic auteur, Seaver loves the scatological, the pornographic, and the sexual. As with his mainstream movie references, he is keenly aware of XXX icons like Peter North, works in frequent foul language (some of it very inventive and highly humorous) and will often use fornication and fellatio as the basis for some truly “physical” comedy. As with his entire canon, Seaver seems stuck in permanent puberty mode, snickering at suggestions of the male member and female fannies. But there is an equally intelligent foundation to all this foulness. Seaver understands the role sexuality plays in the minds and the mingling of young people. He gives Teen Ape (and demon Phil before that) a near predatory streak, converting their oversized lust into something satiric. It’s a reflection of the society he grew up in, a mindset that argued for condoms in classrooms over the actual teaching of sex education.
Seaver is indeed a true product of the post-modern media, a child of the VCR and the culturally important video revolution of the ‘80s. Glued to the tube like most of the decade’s underage denizens, he lived on a steady latchkey diet of Full House, Thundercats and Charles in Charge. Unlike film school, where acknowledged classics are crammed down the throats of wannabe artists in hopes of creating a solid cinematic foundation, this receptive youth was educated in living room lectures that featured Back to the Future, Friday the 13th and Porky’s, not Seven Samurai or Citizen Kane. For Seaver, each direct to video release was another elective, each significant filmmaker a mentor to be admired and appreciated. Sure, he found his deepest connections with the legends George Romero, Toby Hooper, Sam Raimi but there was a common aesthetic kinship with less recognizable forces like schlock masters Albert Band (and his son Charles), Tom Holland and Stuart Gordon.
It makes sense, then, that horror and comedy are the two areas he frequents with his filmmaking. Amplifying the wicked wit of a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel with the brazen bawdiness of a typical teen sex farce, Seaver is out to create his own signature style out of the remnants of commercial cinema’s past. If he could manufacture a mega-buck blockbuster with strong special effects and an epic narrative, there is sure to be some overdone gore and titty jokes, just to be on the safe Seaver side. In fact, in recent interviews, the filmmaker has stated that he wants to branch out while staying within the tenets of the LBP universe he so carefully created. Sure, he will dump Teen Ape and Bonejack, but he’s not about to abandon the folks who followed him up until now.
And this is the final element that makes his movies so intriguing. Backed by a band of players who truly believe in his vision, the same faces turning up in movie after movie, Seaver has his own repertory company; a recognizable bunch of amateurs and actors who fit faultlessly into his bizarre-world wackiness. Capable of playing it straight or silly, with just the right amount of tongue tucked inside their own individual cheek, these in-sync entities instantly enliven Seaver’s words with the perfect combination of homage and hilarity. Whether it’s Blood Trim‘s menses loving undead Rasta zombie, or a black haired Asian ghost with anxiety issues, this is one director who casts as carefully as he composes characters.
Certainly, Seaver has limits. His movies often run no longer than an hour, and he still believes that ska and on occasion, fantasy metal can form the proper atmospheric backdrop for his actions. He also isn’t much of a visionary. His cinematic style could easily be called point and click, but on occasion, he can forge a little filmic iconography when he has to (like a scene in Destruction Kings when our retiring heroes triumphantly strut down an office corridor). All throughout his career, Seaver has been thwarted by technical curses, relying on outdated equipment and the manual manipulation of elements to achieve his frequently flawed ends. But buried inside all the bad edits, ineffectual lighting, and skank underscoring, is the soul of a true moviemaker.
Sure, some can argue that celebrating someone who basically sits around and makes movies with his friends is like taking the concept of YouTube to ridiculous extremes, but there truly is more to Chris Seaver’s motion picture acumen than outsider ideals rendered exclusively through a homemade happenstance. In essence, this is one of the few filmmakers brave enough to expose the effect that three decades of media drivel have had on the individual aesthetic. He’s not a hack, but a filterless mirror of the demographically determined and marketing micromanaged mentality of today’s entertainment ideal. As a result, he farts on the focus groups while staying true to his own creative ethic. He has even refused jobs behind the camera because of his desire to stay close to his own firm moviemaking mannerisms.
It will be interesting to see where this newly announced direction takes him. Until the final 15 minutes, The Karaoke Kid is a wonderfully effective teen farce. The instantly recognizable moments from the Ralph Macchio mess-terpiece are expertly accented by Seaver’s standard slights aimed at the kind of culture that celebrates such a kooky kung fu film. His actors are all excellent and the final sing-off is a hilariously off-key affair. Yet there is also reverence here, a bow to what came before and how it influenced this artistically daring dreamer. Many will still see Chris Seaver as a fringe dweller dining on his own ready recipe of filmic freakishness. But in an arena that sees more copycats than originals, he has made his mark by carefully walking the line between both. He may never break into the mainstream, but that may not matter. Seaver’s already established his own crackpot canon. Where he goes from here will be another entertaining journey worth following.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/gibron060802/