The cinematic horror anthology has a long history. From the German silent Waxworks (1924), to British standouts Dead of Night (1945) and The House that Dripped Blood (1971), to the American Creepshow series, films featuring a series of scary tales tied together with a frame narrative have turned theaters and living rooms into cinematic campfires for a session of ghost stories. Chillerama channels this tradition as well as the golden age of the drive-in theater to offer shorts that pay homage to, even as they send up, subgenres in the B-movie horror canon.
But Chillerama does something else. It turns these familiar plots inside out, revealing the themes that have always lurked beneath the surface of such films, the taboo subjects that give horror its vitality. Director Tim Sullivan says it best, when discussing the origins of his segment, I Was a Teenage Werebear: “Let’s take these gay clichés, and what has been subtext, let’s make it text” (interview, Fangoria blog Gay of the Dead).
Chillerama offends and disgusts, and along the way also proves that horror, even or especially low-budget horror, has always pushed the borders of acceptability, and that horror’s transgressive potential has a social utility. In other words, it’s a movie full of sophomoric semen, sodomy, fellatio, and poop jokes that both celebrates and also enacts the subversive potential of horror film.
A story documenting the last night of a drive-in slated for demolition frames four “forgotten” featurettes chosen by the owner as the line-up of the theater’s final screening. The frame itself becomes a fifth short, with a twist ending that reveals yet another frame.
In Wadzilla, mild-mannered Miles (episode director Adam Rifkin), after taking an experimental fertility drug, painfully ejaculates, then tries to kill, successively larger sperm, until one escapes, grows to gigantic proportions, then cuts a gooey swath of destruction in Manhattan.
Retro beach musical I Was A Teenage Werebear captures the sexual awakening of young Ricky (Sean Paul Lockhart) as he comes to terms with his inner beast, thanks to leather boy Talon (Anton Troy) and his gang, who transform into middle-aged, hairy, horny, and homicidal gays when aroused.
In The Diary of Anne Frankenstein Adolph Hitler carries out experiments detailed in the notebook of Anne’s more notorious ancestor, confiscated when the Nazis raid the Franks’ attic hiding place. His creature—Meshugannah—proves difficult to control.
Deathication is a compilation of the excremental equivalent of porn’s “money shot”. Mercifully short, it consists mostly of director Fernando Phagabeefy explaining the film’s gimmick—a la filmmaker impresario William Castle. In this case: how Deathication will “rape you with your own feces”.
Zom-B-Movie, the frame narrative, follows the progressive zombification of drive-in patrons, after the projectionist—turned into one of the undead after digging up his dead wife and forcing her to perform oral sex—contaminates the popcorn butter by masturbating with it. Those who consume any of the stuff turn into flesh- and sex-hungry zombies.
All the episodes faithfully recreate the production values of their inspiration genres. Rifkin gives Wadzilla the look and sound of a ‘50s science-gone-bad cautionary film, with super-saturated colors, cheap effects, stagey sets, the ubiquitous cigarette smoking of the period, and a Theremin-dominated sound track. Werebear has the Crayola palette, teenage character types, and idyllic beach setting of a Frankie and Annette vehicle, plus catchy musical numbers like “Love Bit Me on the Ass” and “Purge This Urge”.
Diary, directed by Adam Green and shot in black and white, looks like a classic Universal monster movie and a ‘40s WWII drama. Deathication... well, if John Waters had ever made a horror film it would probably have looked a little like this. Joe Lynch, who also made Deathication, imbues Zom-B-Movie with the trademark gore and sharp characterization of a George Romero picture, plus the film-savvy repartee of a post-Scream slasher.
Then there are the value-adds. Pools-full of semen in Wadzilla, every sperm joke the crew could think of (“It’s coming!” cries one reporter; “At least it’s good for the skin” admits the heroine after being covered in goo), and a scene in which Miles trashes his date’s bathroom trying to catch one of the rogue spermatozoa. Ricky crushing his coach’s head between his thighs in Werebears, Meshugannah choking a Nazi soldier with a dradle. An artist spewing feces on a canvas in Deathication, the newly undead copulating with body parts in Zom-B-Movie.
Chillerama engenders a bad case of cognitive dissonance. You recognize the exaggeration of the transgressive kernel that appeals when safely contained by traditional horror plots (“say, the Blob does kind of look like a bodily excretion…”), and recoil as it becomes the focus of the film, even as your inner 13-year-old revels in the shameless abandon of the excess.
Still, what makes Chillerama work as catharsis or psychoanalysis causes the episodes to falter as drive-in fare. Finally, a little repression can be a good thing; some elements are better left to the imagination.
DVD extras include interviews with all four directors that provide good background on the film’s genesis, and entertaining making-of featurettes for Werebears and Diary serve as primers on the joys and travails of independent filmmaking. Sullivan explains the difficulty he had casting gay adult film performer Lockhart due to the objections of talent managers and other actors, and contrasts the more enlightened perspective of the independent horror industry with the timidity of mainstream Hollywood. Watching Green and crew creating Diary makes you want to run away and join his production company.