Color, 1991-2, 485 mins.
Directed by Matt Mitler, Robert Prichard, Jennifer Babtist, Bennett Theissen, Todd Alcott
StarringMatt Mitler, Kevin Brown, Jeff Eyres, Kiki Flynn, Frank Senger, Carolyn McDermott

Color/B&W, 1994, 91 mins. secs.
Directed by Matt Mitler
Starring Matt Mitler, Kevin Brown, Carolyn McDermott, Kiki Flynn, Debra Wilson, Chuck Montgomery
Art Label (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)

An offshoot from participants in past indie labels Culture Shock and Verboden, Vinegar Syndrome partner label Art Label gets off to a very wild and intriguing start with a pair of releases showcasing a creative collective in New York City during the first half of the '90s. The impetus here is the Movie of the Month club, a sort of challenge to make up a movie on the spot in one day; it was dreamed up by Class of Nuke 'Em High's Robert Prichard and Jennifer Baptist who enlisted several friends and colleagues. The most prolific and recognizable of these was easily Matt Mitler, a fixture on the underground NYC theater scene and an actor known for starring in the slasher favorite The Mutilator and Brett Piper's Battle for the Lost Planet (in which he has an unforgettable naked battle against a stop-motion dinosaur). Mitler directs and/or stars in the lion's share of the films collected on the two-disc Blu-ray set Surf Reality Movie of the Month Club Collection, as well as doing both duties for the ambitious (and much more leisurely scheduled) "thesis project" for the collective, Cracking Up. Watching all of these collected together on disc is a head-spinning experience, mixing satire, silliness, genre riffing, primal scream therapy, and whatever else struck the creators on that particular day, even including a protracted goofball take on Shakespeare.

Shot on video (mostly) in various apartments and clubs, as well as on the streets without permits, these are true DIY oddities that become more endearing as you start seeing the same names popping up in different capacities from one title to the next (with actors taking turns as cinematographers, composers, and so on). First up is the silly, sleazy, rockabilly-flavored mob yarn Kid Scarface (57m44s), obviously shot in the winter with Mitler as a slick-haired hustler whom we first see throwing a fit when he's turned down for a job at a video store. From there he rubs shoulders with the local crime scene and gets involved with a femme fatale, though mostly it's a slice-of-life character piece about the absurd situation of job struggling in the big city. It also features the roster of actors who will become fixtures here including Carolyn McDermott, Todd Alcott, Jason Brill, Kimberly Flynn, and Chuck Montgomery. Manic A Go-Go (45m35s) is a very loose ode to cult films that starts with a sort of variation on Bela Lugosi's narrator from Glen or Glenda? before spiraling into a chronicle about a guy with a big mullet who's being chased over a gambling debt and ends up at the apartment of a struggling female comic just thrown off of David Letterman, all of which goes sideways quickly with a talent manager and other motor-mouthed characters getting involved. Extra points for pulling the funny "scene missing" gag ages before Death Proof.

The Prichard-directed Thrill Kill Video Club (47m43s) heads back to the same video store, this time complete with a theme song to boot as we encounter a bunch of misfits at an apartment building whose forays into homicide, intentional or not, are the foundation of the title organization as they use plastic wrap and weapons to make their own video hits. This one is actually quite witty and bizarre at times, as well as the one where things start to get reflexive with an obese guy wielding a knife to eat a tub of frosting sits around watching Kid Scarface. Dick and Jane Drop Acid and Die (54m17s) is... well... a parody of scare films with a narrator warning us about the dangers of LSD, while some bizarre Manhattan denizens act up around town and music ranging from thrash to warbling folk blasts on the soundtrack. It's different. I Was a Teenage Bride of Christ (45m1s) has really rough audio, but it's an amusing, very John Waters-style look at a couple of women whose friendship and plans for an upcoming wedding are disrupted by a major life course change. Complete with a bit of nunsploitation, a Jesus cameo, and the sight of busking nuns in the middle of New York, this one doesn't overstay its welcome and gets nuttier as it goes along. Les Enfants Miserables (51m15s) features Nancy Fichman, Mitler, and McDermott in an elaborate black-and-white lampoon of French art films, revolving here around a destitute pair of siblings named Jack and Jill performing experiments in their apartment only to have to move out and find suitable marriage partners according to the demands of their deceased father's will. Last on the first disc is Alien Sex Phone Psycho (48m8s), which delivers exactly what the title promises as a horror host introduces the twisted saga of urban dwellers being found sliced to bloody ribbons while making phone sex calls. All of the films are pulled from the original tapes and look very SOV-like, obviously, while the DTS-HD MA 2.0 English mono tracks are limited by the source. The optional English SDH subtitles come in very handy during some muffled moments of dialogue, too.

Disc two kicks off with the Surf Reality outlier Macbeth, King of Scoutland (97m39s), which was obviously shot in more than one day and adapts a very silly stage production by the gang adapting William Shakespeare's immortal tragedy into a farcical power struggle among some scouts in the woods. Here the three witches are played by guys in grass skirts and mop wigs, Lady Macbeth is a Girl Scout hopping around with a jump rope, and everyone has a different accent (none of them Scottish). Also on the disc is the recently completed Turf of Savage Homicides (35m3s), which sat incomplete for decades apparently and serves as a showcase for Mitler as a nightmare-plagued, soft-spoken delivery guy who's weirdly nonchalant about the fact that he's being regularly tortured by a couple of guys behind a doctor's office. Then things get weird. Also on disc two are all the bonus features starting with a new reading of an excerpt from Mitler's "Ten Commandments of Low-Budget Production" (6m33s) about his lessons learned after getting started doing 8mm shorts. Then you get a shooting locations tour (12m13s) with Mitler and Prichard, a trailer for Cracking Up, and a huge batch of interviews with Mitler (16m4s), Prichard (4m33s), Jennifer Babtist (7m22s), Chuck Montgomery (3m24s), Jeff Eyres (44m10s), Kiki Flynn (6m45s), Jason Brill (5m25s), Debra Kaplan (4m25s), Dale Goodsen (4m59s), Bob Sikoryak (4m4s), Julia Cracking UpMartin (3m20s), Cracking Upand Linda Hill (8m38s).

Then we get to the group's move to shooting a bona fide theatrical feature on 16mm, Cracking Up, which is understandably shot and performed with a lot more polish. Mitler stars, directs, edits and co-writes here for a freewheeling character study of stand-up comic Danny Gold, a manic member of the Manhattan club scene. Possessing a serious self-destructive streak, he tries to embark on a couple of romantic relationships and seems to be moving up thanks to a new agent -- but his penchant for drugs, self-absorbed behavior, and general dickishness keep tripping him up. The real treat here is seeing a stylized recreation of the Lower East Side comedy club scene in the mid-'90s, here rendered as a kind of jacked-up pit of insanity that culminates in a memorable climax Mitler really commits to right down to his haircut. The opening sequence featuring a bizarre riff on On the Waterfront will let you know very quickly what you're in for, and the lengthy outdoor sequence with Mitler doing surreal mime and Jesus routines for a bemused crowd really has to be seen to be believed.

Pretty much off the radar completely following its nominal theatrical run in NYC, Cracking Up looks gorgeous on this Blu-ray edition and manages to pull out way more color and detail from 16mm than you'd expect. The DTS-HD MA English 2.0 mono track is also in perfect shape and features optional English SDH subtitles; in an interesting touch, there's also an option to watch the film in Cracking Upblack-and-white which gives it a more Cassavetes / Lenny type of atmosphere. Try 'em both, but the vibrant club lighting with those hellish reds is so striking it's probably best to see the color option first. Mitler really commits to the role Cracking Upbody and soul in every way (and throws in a prominent usage of a poster for The Mutilator), while the cast is peppered with a couple of surprises like a young Camryn Manheim in one of her earliest roles. He's all over the disc, too, including serving as a ringleader of sorts for a very loose audio commentary with co-writer Ted LoRusso, McDermott, and composer Arthur Rosen, who all have tons of stories about making the film including location scouting and using acting tricks to get what they needed. There's also an optional, hammy Mitler video intro (2m14s) for the black-and-white version, plus "Backing Up: Looking Back at Cracking Up" (25m23s) with Mitler, Prichard, Babtist, Montgomery, Eyres, Flynn, Brill, Kaplan, Bob Sikoryak, and Martin explaining how the whole thing evolved from early '90s sketch work and ideas both used and discarded that formed the final result looking at the more insane side of creativity. Also included are a reel of extraneous deleted scenes (3m35s), the full "Honest Laundry Detergent" commercial (55s) excerpted in the film, raw footage from four scenes (13m21s) featuring club performances and a lot more Jesus and mime material, three 1991-2 live sketches captured on VHS (18m14s) including the original "Almost On the Waterfront" bit, Mitler's Jerry Lewis-style "Shinderfella" sketch (4m53s) on stage in 1995, and two trailers.

Reviewed on February 5, 2024