Documentary Review: In search of a cult film, and the Uruguayan crank who made it — “Straight to VHS”

When it comes to cult films, ours is not to reason why they gain that status. Ours is but to shrug and marvel that this rare phenomenon has occurred, again, and perhaps laugh or cringe along with the cultists, which may give us all the clues we need.

“Straight to VHS” is about Uruguay’s first direct-to-video thriller. “Act of Violence in a Young Journalist” suddenly appeared on video store shelves there in 1988, and copies of it entered legend — at parties, family and friends’ New Year’s tradition, clung to by film school students much the way Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” inspired a generation of American indie filmmakers.

“Hey, I can do that,” would-be Coppolas and Kubricks said, sometimes going to far as to brag, “Hey, I can do BETTER than that.”

With “Act of Violence,” a bizarre, often inept thriller involving a radio reporter and her work, conversations and relationships, they had to be right. It has hints of “The Room” in its inane storytelling, incompetent editing and weird characters. All anyone knows about the filmmaker, Manuel Lamas, is that he’s obviously “self taught.”

“Straight to VHS” director Emilio Silva Torres sees the movie as “a punk rock call to grab a camera and film your world.”

Torres, whose own filmmaking bonafides are skimpy in the extreme, set out to find Lamas and the people who made this film. Talking with fellow filmmakers, critics and fans from all over South America, using too-few snippets of “Act of Violence” to truly give us the flavor of it, “Straight to VHS” becomes a mystery and a manhunt, as well as a search for Lamas’ other titles.

We hear from people who sold or rented him video gear, learn about the primitive high-end camcorder and video-deck-to-deck editing conditions Lamas worked under. Torres learns, through newspaper and magazine archives, of other films.

But getting people to tell him about Lamas and give away where he is proves nearly impossible. Long hunts for the stars prove almost fruitless as the survivors prove to be reluctant to be interviewed on camera. It is people on the technical side who have more to add. And with a few news clips here, some “personal VHS tapes” of Lamas there, and a couple of interviews, a portrait emerges.

Lamas was an arrogant know-it-all who knew little and wouldn’t listen to advice or accept simple gear upgrades that would have polished his productions. As to why his stars won’t talk about the experience, clues emerge from his personal tapes, which an old colleague held onto. We see him experimenting with shots and framing and scenes, and then rehearsing a sex scene.

“Selfish,” one colleague recalls, in Spanish with English subtitles. “A misogynist,” a former actor allegedly says.

“He was a sadist,” Torres, who worked in the camera and electrical department of a single documentary, diagnoses. “I get why everyone wants to forget him.”

Torres’ film has moments when it’s a fun man-hunt movie, and the footage he uncovers can be chilling, in a rambling confessional (actual footage of Lamas) or control freak “directing” a rehearsal sense.

But as each and every on-camera interview rambles on — too long — and the film itself winds and wends its way towards its quarry, a nagging feeling overwhelms the non-Lamas-cultist that Torres has never answered question one.

“Why is this guy worth hunting down, again?” There’s so little of “Act of Violence” included here, with its fuzzy video transfers and static-blur effects used to show its age, for us to form an opinion on it.

It’s not as obviously-demented and wrong-headed as “Plan 9 from Outer Space,” not kitschy/revolting like “Pink Flamingoes,” not as amusingly, instantly incompetent as “The Room.”

Torres has plenty of fellow aficionados on camera telling us that they “get it,” but not really why. And he samples so little of the actual film that we’re kind of left in the dark.

He’s made a documentary that investigates a cult filmmaker who had a big influence without unraveling that influence, a period piece that visits many a former (now empty) video store, that catches up with that VHS generation and a few hardcore fans who fling to VHS, who prowl social media pages hunting for those long lost actors. But in not showing enough telling samples of Lamas’ films, he never really lets us in on the joke.

Rating: unrated, nudity, sexual situations

Cast: Manuel Lamas, narrated by Emilio Silva Torres.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Emilio Silva Torres. An IndiePix release.

Running time: 1:17

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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