By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
From Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) to Julian Richards’s The Last Horror Movie (2003), there’s something about the very materiality of the video cassette that evokes horror. Is there something vaguely symbolic about those little black coffins of cinematic memory? Do we subconsciously read them as the perfect place to situate tales of terror? Or is it something else; a seemingly fun, shallow pop cultural artefact that almost despite itself feeds into the broader anxieties around media technologies? There might be something to this. In his 2000 book Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, Jeffrey Sconce notes that “tales of paranormal media are important … not as timeless expressions of some underlying electronic superstition, but as a permeable language in which to express a culture’s changing social relationship to a historical sequence of technologies” (10).
Of course, such thoughtful words risk falling to the wayside when addressing self-defined “meta horror-comedy anthology” Scare Package, now streaming on Shudder. But maybe not; Sconce’s emphasis on history and technology itself lies at the core of this portmanteau movie, gleefully drenched as it is with determinedly retro aesthetics and genuine love for and playful approach to experimenting with the codes and conventions of the horror genre itself. While structurally not seeking to do anything too radical with the anthology format per se, the film is, regardless, a cheeky delight in how it both as a whole and in the individual films from which it is constructed approaches its dominant horror-comedy sensibility.
Sure, on the surface at least, Scare Package isn’t exactly original, but that is in many ways precisely the point. There’s a pervasive self-mockery here delivered with a bloody yet loving hand as the filmmakers who took part in the project – Courtney and Hillary Andujar, Anthony Cousins, Emily Hagins, Aaron B. Koontz, Chris McInroy, Noah Segan and Baron Vaughn – force both their audience and themselves (clearly all horror fans) to look into the genre’s hall of mirrors and bring to life all the stupidly charming reflections they could find. Set in a genre-specialist video store called “Rad Chad’s Horror Emporium”, most of the shorts that make up Scare Package are contextually flagged from within the narrative as being tapes viewed in the shop itself. We’ve seen this “let’s watch a videotape together” horror anthology premise before, of course – most famously for cult film fans in regards to Adam Wingard’s “Tape 56”, the wrap-around narrative for the first V/H/S anthology (2012) where a group of thieves watch spooky tapes in a house they have been paid to rob. But as any self-respecting horror nerd will tell you, this itself echoed the structure of Stanley A. Long’s 1986 anthology Screamtime, where two nogoodniks steal tapes from a video store; here again the illicitly obtained tapes themselves are flagged from within the diegesis as being the source of the shorts that make up that movie as a whole.
Horror anthologies are not new, and nor are they a particularly tonally cohesive category, despite their typical structural rigidity. From the more lighthearted, comic-book and comic-toned George A. Romero/Stephen King collaboration Creepshow (1982) through to more highbrow fare like Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964) and Spirits of the Dead (Histoires extraordinaires, Federico Fellini, Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, 1968), horror anthologies span back at least to Richard Oswald’s Uncanny Tales (Unheimliche Geschichten, 1919) and Ealing Studio’s classic Dead of Night (1945). The latter sparked British genre filmmaking’s affection for the portmanteau film, typified by Amicus Studios and their outpouring of these kinds of films, the best of which were directed by Freddie Francis; Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), Torture Garden (1967), and Tales from the Crypt (1972). Horror anthologies span historical and cultural contexts, from Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (I tre volti della paura, 1963) to Tracey Moffatt’s beDevil (1993), Dan Curtis’s Karen Black-fronted Trilogy of Terror (Dan Curtis, 1975) to the monsters-of-rock showcase that was the blockbuster scifi/horror omnibus Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), whose directors included John Landis, Joe Dante, George Miller, and Steven Spielberg.
But horror anthologies have also provided space for frequently excluded directorial voices in the genre to make their stamp, be it in all-women-directed horror anthologies like 2008’s Prank (Danielle Harris, Heather Langekamp and Ellie Cornell), XX ( Jovanka Vuckovic, Annie Clark, Roxanne Benjamin and Karyn Kusama), and Dark Whispers (Angie Black, Briony Kidd, Isabel Peppard, Janine Hewitt, Jub Clerc, Kaitlin Tinker, Katrina Irawati Graham, Lucy Gouldthorpe, Madeleine Purdy, Marion Pilowsky and Megan Riakos, 2019) or anthologies with Black directors such as Rusty Cundieff’s Tales from the Hood (1995) and its 2018 sequel, co-directed by Darin Scott. The forthcoming 7 Magpies is worthy of particular note here as it seeks to combine both of these in a project which is the brainchild of filmmaker and writer L.C. Cruell, to be directed by seven Black women.
More than a crude cartographical sketch of the lay of the horror anthology land, this quick overview helps locate precisely where Scare Package sits on the video shop shelves of genre film history. An aggressively nostalgic pastiche of the tropes, cliches and aesthetics of yore, Scare Package finds itself both moving back and – by keeping the genre’s codes and conventions at arm’s length through its unifying spirit of mockery – simultaneously moves away from it. Framed by Aaron B. Koontz’s tale about lonely yet bumptious video store owner Chad (Jeremy King), the functional framing story of the film consists of his attempting to ‘train’ his newest staff member Hawn (Hawn Tran) in not only how the video store works, but how the genre itself functions. Accordingly, each short brings a fun and sometimes fresh twist to familiar horror tropes, the highlights of which include Chris McInroy’s splatsick werewolf short “One Time in the Woods”, Noah Segan’s “M.I.S.T.E.R” which is brings an unexpected twist to the malignant horror active within the MRA brotherhood, the Andujar Sisters’ delicious reimagining of the demonic possession story in “Girls’ Night Out of Body”, and Baron Vaughn’s “So Much to Do”, a hilarious take-down of puritanical anti-spoilerism. But there’s more: adding to the playful postmodernism of Scare Package, even Chad’s own story that would traditionally be the obvious wrap-around narrative is here nestled Russian doll-style into Emily Hagins’ “Cold Open” which tackles the unfortunate plight of a typecast horror bit player.
If you somehow miss Scare Package’s sledgehammer approach to trashing genre norms, the icing on the cake is the inclusion of a horror cameo to end all horror cameos (to reveal who that is would spoil the fun). Yet while what plays out on screen is all good anarchic, self-referential fun, there’s a more important – and more serious – edge to Scare Package that lies hidden out of view, behind the camera. The very word “package” in the title is a curious one; on one hand, it dryly acknowledges the film’s own awareness as a commercial product and all that entails, but there’s another side to the term that implies notions of collectivity. This, in horror, is notable: for a genre that has struggled – and still struggles – with the active practice of diversity, amongst Scare Package’s debut directors are both women (twins Courtney and Hillary Andujar join genre stalwart Hagins on the project), and the first directorial credit for Black comedian and actor Baron Vaughn. Perhaps in this light, this big dumb kooky ball of blood, goo, and fun is more than merely a package: it’s a gift.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written six books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), the Bram Stoker Award nominated Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes Without Faces (University of Wales Press, 2019), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is also the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019). Alexandra is a board member of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, and a programmer at Fantastic Fest, the largest genre film festival in the United States.