Death by VHS (2013) – By Roger Carpenter

Ah, yes, our dear friend Scarlet Fry is at it again, cranking out yet another low-budget horror anthology film. This year’s production, entitled Death by VHS, is a compilation of five different stories all centered around an exploitation-peddling Jamaican who sells his violent videos to anyone with enough cash…and a working VCR! But the joke is on the violence-craving victims who can’t stop watching the vile tapes, even as they sicken the viewers, eventually causing their deaths.

So gather ’round kiddies, if you will, for a summary of crudities present on Death by VHS. In “Suburban She Freak”, a woman with a hideous facial deformity resorts to witchcraft to make herself beautiful. Unfortunately, the potion that she drinks has an unexpected side-effect that turns her into a vampire. The Dead Walk is the second story, and is an homage, complete with black-and-white picture, of Night of the Living Dead. A man, distraught at losing his family, kills himself only to become one of the walking dead. The third story, a Christmas parable, tells of an abused retard who gets revenge on his cruel parents when a Satanic Santa pays them a visit. Revenge is also served in “Regenerate”, a story of a battered cripple who exacts revenge on her abusive husband. And finally, “Lepus” is a comedic horror tale about a killer in a pink bunny costume and a sheriff who believes himself to be Jesus Christ…need I say more?

Any Rogue readers familiar with Scarlet Fry’s anthologies will know that budget constraints can be somewhat limiting for these films. For example, the sound isn’t nearly perfect and the volume must be adjusted, sometimes from scene to scene, though it isn’t so terrible that it becomes distracting. And with no budget for real costumes or special effects, the filmmakers have to become quite creative in lighting and editing to get their point across. One of my continuing problems with these anthologies is that some of the “stories” aren’t really fleshed out and are more like five-minute vignettes than full-blown scripts. Cutting a couple of stories and concentrating on the remaining ones could help, in my opinion.

However, if one looks past some flaws that are caused more by lack of budget than by anything else, one can see some real filmmaking going on. This edition of Scarlet Fry’s anthologies has the strongest acting of any I’ve seen so far. While most of the actors are comprised of friends and other amateurs, there are a few who really stand out as excellent, elevating this picture a little higher than much of the zero-budget horror fare out there in Video Land. As mentioned previously, sometimes a lack of budget stimulates creativity, and this is the case with Death by VHS. Some excellent cinematography, lighting, and editing helps to hide the limitations of the budget and keeps the viewer interested in the film instead of distracted by the limitations. And no one will complain that these filmmakers don’t know their horror. There are plenty of fun homages, both visual and auditory, for the astute viewer. None of the stories are entirely original, but most are classic horror tropes, and the filmmakers have fun with them all.

Death by VHS also has other in-jokes: filmed like a bootleg video, there are plenty of scratches like we hardcore aficionados are used to. There is even a “missing reel”, though it’s more of a missing scene. And each story begins with a different FBI warning, showing the different forms these legal threats have taken over the years. And as a bonus, the soundtrack features some rockin’ original tunes that are very catchy and are a high point of the film.

Co-directed by Scarlet Fry, Jacob O’Neal, and David Sabal, and an official selection of the 2012 Phoenix Comicon Film Festival, Death by VHS may not be the slickest film you’ll see this year, but it’s plenty of fun with a group of like-minded friends.