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Making Movies on VHS

Most children start their imaginary playtime very young, usually it involves tying a towel around your neck and pretending to fly. As time goes on things get more organized with actual role play featuring “stories”. For example, I remember my neighbor Kelly announcing in the backyard one day, “We’re gonna play Miami Vice. I’m Crockett and you’re Tubbs” and off we went firing invisible guns at imaginary drug dealers. In the 60s and 70s portable home movie cameras allowed kids to put playtime to film, but it was the rise of the VHS camcorder in the 80’s that gave the term “Home Movies” a whole new meaning.

By popping a the blank video cassette into the giant shoulder mounted video camera, kids suddenly had the ability to save their cinematic endeavors to tape and force everyone in the neighborhood to watch their “work of art” in respectful silence. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the most popular home movie genres among my friends and schoolyard associates included Sketch Comedy, Lip Synch Music Videos, Karate Action Flicks and the reigning champion, Horror. I personally made dozens of “films” in all of these genres growing up, but creating scares were always the most fun.

The simplicity of the horror genre, (people being terrorized by a serial killer, ghost or monster) is pretty simple for most kids to grasp. But it’s the nuances that they come up with from their imaginations and their storytelling influences that make all the difference. Plus, putting together a scary movie was pretty easy. If you could scrounge up a couple of friends with creepy masks leftover from Halloween, a plastic knife or two and some ketchup from the fridge, you were ready to roll.

The idea to make my own horror movie first occurred to me in 1989 when my buddy Mike’s, older sister, Shannon decided to show me the “scary movie” she had just made with her friend from High School. Now all I knew about Shannon was that she was Milli Vanilli fan (yep, they existed un-ironically at one point), so I had no idea what this movie would focus on. But she hooked up their video camera to the TV and we were off to the races.

As it began, 2 girls were playing with a Ouija board in a bedroom. Slowly their hands were guided to the letters M-U-R-D-E-R and then for the next 10 minutes one of the girls was chased a by a faceless killer (only shown from the neck down) who in the end was revealed to be the friend with whom she had shared the Ouija board. WHAT A TWIST! It wasn’t particularly well made mind you, but the fact these two 14 year olds had made a semi-serious attempt at real movie making let me know it was possible.

When I finally got behind the camera to create a world of terror for my VCR, it was December 1997. I recruited my friends Bret and Colin to make our sequel to Scream 2 which had just come out the week before. Our film was called Scream 3: Ho-Ho-AHHHHH! Despite the title, the only tie to the holiday season was that the killer wore a Santa hat in the opening kill. The film then followed the standard Scream formula of harassing phone calls and home invasion kills until we ran out of ketchup and maraschino cherry juice for blood. Scream 3: Ho-Ho-Ahhh! was no masterpiece, but it was a lot of fun to make!

A year later, Bret and I teamed up again to make an unfinished tale of horror about a demonic Scoutmaster with a hypnotic pocket watch, who terrorized the lone Boy Scout in his troop. The cinematography was much better (we used a tripod this time), but we had no idea what to do with the premise and the 5 minutes of wacky hack and slash we had filmed, so it was abandoned to “Video Limbo” in favor of reading Gen 13 comic books. From this experience I learned the importance of a script and for my next foray into the realms of darkness, I had a proper development period for the film, like 10 years!

In the wake of Y2K, my best friend, Jeff and I were working as characters at Disneyland (yes, in the fuzzy costumes). On Halloween from 1999-2004 Jeff had been drafted to play a ghoul in one of our co-worker’s Haunted Garage set-ups for the neighborhood kids. Instead of jumping out of the darkness at tiny trick or treaters, Jeff remained just outside the haunted maze warning approaching children not to enter while solemnly raking leaves. The funny part is, this ended up being way more frightening to some people that if he had been wielding a chainsaw. The character became known affectionately, as Rakeman. I fyou're so inclined, you can hear the detailed story of Rakeman’s evolution in Jeff’s own words by clicking this link.

As the years went on the concept of Rakeman was always floating around in my mind. There were many questions that Jeff’s annual performance left unanswered. Where did Rakeman come from? Why was he raking? Was he really a threat or just a creepy sentinel at the gates of candy-fueled night of frights? So in 2009 I pulled out my video camera and decided to answer those questions by getting back in the saddle of Homemade Horror!

The legend of Rakeman as I conceived it, was the story of a troubled man name George who had been cursed by a “Suburban Gypsy” in his youth to roam the night as a stoic “Midnight Gardener”, harmlessly raking leaves until sunrise. Harmless that is, until someone interrupts his work (which happens quite a bit), at which point Rakeman disposes of the nuisance in gruesome ways with the help of his sentient rake. His Goth sister, Trish and crazy Uncle Louie arrive on the scene in an attempt to end the massacre by lifting the curse once and for all. But can anyone truly stop Rakeman? Dun-Dun-Dunnnnnn!

I wanted to invoke the classic vibe of 80’s supernatural horror slashers, with dash of goofy fun. The fact that this was going to be a slap-dash, no-budget production ensured that ridiculousness would be at an all-time high. Plus the fact that the iconic look of the character put him right up there with Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers in my eyes. OK, so maybe not quite THAT iconic, but definitely good enough to rub shoulders with the convict from Wes Craven’s Shocker or the Goblins from Troll 2. I spent a few weeks on a script, planned out locations, put the wardrobe together and most importantly cast the film with actors who worked for free.

To bring the characters to life I reached out to former star of Scream 3: Ho-Ho-AHHHH!, Colin to take on multiple roles and recruited his teen sister, Emily to play the first victim, Mindy. For the role of our femme fatale, Trish, I contacted Disney Character Department alumni, Niki, who jumped at the chance to strut her stuff. Next was a High School buddy, Eric to play the Jerky Chicago Cub’s Fan Victim and the final piece of the puzzle was bringing in the creator of the concept to reprise his role as Rakeman. Jeff was a little unsure as to what I was going to do with his “intellectual property”, but dusted off his rake and joined the team anyway.

When the day of shooting arrived I drove out from Arizona to my childhood home in Irvine, CA to begin a marathon 16 hour filming session that went from 4pm Friday to 8am Saturday morning. With such a small cast, I personally had to play 5 roles while directing the action, but that craziness only added to the low-budget charm of the finished film. Luckily I had a suitcase full of costumes at the ready to “disguise” my identity. 

There were plenty of technical difficulties due to the guerilla nature of this production, but you know what? None of us cared! Everybody brought their own ideas to their characters and were happy to keep filming as long as I kept the candy and soda flowing. It was that feeling of pure creativity with just a touch of planning that really made it into a nostalgic experience. This was exactly like getting my friends together when I was 12 to record our antics onto VHS and not just because the quality of the production was about the same. And just like those days of old, I totally forced everyone I knew to watch it and I made sure to print up DVDs for the cast to do the same with their friends and family.

So how did it turn out? Well, Rakeman: The Midnight Gardener has been up on YouTube for a while now, so you can view all 4 webisodes at the links below, along with the special features and cast interviews. It was really a labor of love and the terrible production values endear it to me all the more.

So I'm curious to hear about your adventures in front of the video camera. What were your movies about or did you just end up on an episode of America's Funniest Home Videos?

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

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Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 19, 2014 at 05:47 PM

I played Allister and Marc Drake in The Lost Few (the guys that both die, LOL). There was much more dialogue between the characters in the original version, but it was so poorly acted and full of convoluted story elements that it all had to go. It was far better to rewrite the important parts and place them in as narration spoken by one of my friends (who was also in some of our movies back in the day). I would like to have had John Holsinger do the narration, but as you saw at the end of the movie, he passed away in 2007 from complications from diabetes. That was hard to swallow, even though we hadn't really been in touch for many years.

Hoju Koolander Posted on Nov 19, 2014 at 05:29 AM

Thanks for the kind words about Rakeman, I am in the process of remastering it and then I will post it to Home Movies section per your suggestion. I finally got a chance to watch The Lost Few and Dark Wrath is awesome! Is that you? Excellent sword work and I love the cardboard armor, I used to make similar costume pieces for myself. The Day Series sounds pretty hilarious.

UHF is one of my favorite movies and Weird Al was my musical icon until I was 12, so I take any association as a compliment. I am very distantly related to Al, he is my sister in law's brother in law's cousin. My brother met him at a family gathering a few years back. And that, as Al would say, is my "Lame Claim To Fame".

Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 18, 2014 at 01:47 AM

Great job on the Rakeman movies! There were some really good jokes in there. You are especially good in them. I can see Weird Al Yankovic in you... like you could be related, and even share a similar sense of humor. LOL

I dug up an ancient thread containing DVD and Menu art from Lost Few for the remastered version, for your perusal. ;)

Vaporman87 Posted on Nov 17, 2014 at 07:46 PM

This article is right in my wheelhouse!

Around the mid to late 80's, I got my first video camera. This camera, however, was not the standard VHS camcorders we are all familiar with. The first camera I got was the infamous Fisher Price PXL 2000.

The camera that now has a cult following cult following.

I mostly used it to record dumb things like my hamster pooping on our kitchen table and such. In fact, I still have some of the cassette tapes with the video on them. However, I lost/sold??? my PXL 2000 years ago, and have no way of viewing any video that may still be on them. If I am to buy another PXL 2000, it's going to be costly (as they fetch $200 to $500 on Ebay).

Later on, I got a REAL camera for Christmas... and the rest is history. We made movies like they were going out of style. Most of them were just dreadful and stupid. There were the occasional "above mediocre" films that we did. One of them I have uploaded to the site... The Lost Few.

That particular version of the movie is a remastered one. The original cut was so bad! Watch the remastered version, then try to imagine how it could be so much worse. Then try to come to the realization that it is. LOL

We would mostly film silly comedy stuff. Filming something serious would require a budget and effects unless it was a drama, and since we hated dramas, we rarely made anything outside of comedy stuff. I have whole collections of VHS tapes with our videos. I've put some of them to DVD for the sake of preserving them, while adding a few touches to help improve some of them (with better audio quality or some better editing and such.

We would probably agree (we, as in me and about 2 or 3 of my friends) that our signature characters were LongBlade and Dark Wrath (from The Lost Few). But we did do some funny characters like Perv Deathwave or the brothers from the Day Series (a series of shorts where I and my brother fight to the death with weapons that are harmless, yet somehow cause us as much pain as real weapons, lol).

I could go on and on and on about this. And I probably will in the days ahead. ;)

Now, time to go watch the Rakeman series. :)

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