DVD: Spine (1986)

July 3, 2015 | By


Spine1986_sFilm: Weak

Transfer:  Very Good

Extras: Very Good

Label: Massacre Video

Region: 0 (NTSC)

Released:  April 14, 2015

Genre:  Slasher / Fetish / SOV

Synopsis: A serial killer abducts, strangles, stabs and removes the spines of pretty nurses.

Special Features:  Audio Commentary with co-director Justin Simmonds, actor R. Eric Huxley, and home video producers Louis C. Justin and Joe Rubin / Interview with co-director Justin Simmonds (32:19) / Interview with actor R. Eric Huxley (10:44) / Stills Gallery (2:00) with music cues / Reversible sleeve art.




As the story goes, two associates with a background in amateur fetish videos decided to take a gamble and enter the feature film world by concocting a slasher film shot on video (SOV), using broadcast ENG cameras to keep their project within a $20,000 budget.

Filmed in 1984, Spine ultimately required a set of reshoots when co-director / cinematographer / producer Justin Simmonds realized the final edit clocked in at 45 mins., far short of the desired 70 mins. that was more or less mandatory for feature film consideration. Co-director John Howard’s script, reportedly a riff on Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), needed more material, so a year later Simmonds wrote and shot a detective storyline that was interpolated into the existing lunatic-on-the-loose edit.

Most of that material was filmed at a commercial complex nearing completion and owned by the same wealthy figure who generously loaned out his snazzy house where the two heroines live and become quite fettered.

Howard’s story is a little loose and loopy – serial killer Lawrence Ashton (R. Eric Huxley) is snatching, tying up, stabbing, and extracting spines of nurses due to a caregiver named Linda, responsible for his mother’s death – whereas Simmond’s new material has two detectives sort of vying for power as they investigate the crimes that eventually lead them to the heroines (Janus Blyth, Lise Romanoff).

While the film was supposed to have boobery and gore, the actresses talked the filmmakers down from exposing unnecessary skin, and the filmmakers may well have been intimidated by the Meese Commission which, at the time, was coming down hard on the adult and home video industry for making movies that had the potential to turn kiddies and adults alike into a mass of lethal perverts – a paranoid witch hunt helmed by the government akin to Britain’s insane Video Nasties paranoia.

End result in Spine: a slight flash of skin, and some decent blood makeup, but no actual scene where a spine is removed from a living or dead bodkin. The lack of gore isn’t the film’s biggest issue when the story and characters are as compelling as a standard porn production. With a tight schedule and director Howard going ‘method’ during the first stages of filming, a few crucial scenes were never filmed, robbing the ending of its logic.

Even odder is the sudden recasting of a detective when an argument had him quit during shooting. A crewman was drafted to assume the role because he too possessed a beard – a recasting coup and unexpected homage to Plan 9 from Outer Space (1958), in which the tall, crew-cut psychiatrist of director Ed Wood. Jr., was hired to replace short, very old (and very dead) Bela Lugosi.

Spine isn’t inept, but it doesn’t live up to its potential in being anything more than a fairly amateurish poke at the slasher genre with a cast of unknowns or associates from the directors’ “tie-up” films, although the casting of horror actress Blyth (The Hills Have Eyes Part II) was a genuine coup, giving the little film some marquee value.

Co-director Howard crafted the striking box art campaign and ad copy (“He’s Looking for Linda… And that could be Anybody”), and ultimately found distribution for Spine with an adult company called 4-Play Video who seemed interested in starting a secondary line featuring horror films. The directors were also smart in cutting their losses by packing the film with fetish content that could be highlighted in an alternate edit for the specialty adult market, should the movie tank on VHS.

Although the 72 minute film was distributed in 1986, Simmonds and Howard’s effort to move from moonlighting filmmakers to the feature film world didn’t pan out when 4-Play was sold to another adult company, and efforts to get a second slasher fell apart, which is kind of a shame given there’s a weird tone to their seminal foray into more commercial home video. Some of the film’s content is a bit too risqué for even indie mainstream labels – Blyth’s Carrie Lonegan is ultimately assaulted and hacked up in a scene that’s visual tepid but tonally dark – but that scene is also buffered by pretty dreadful dialogue and weak performances, neutering its shock value.

For some there is genuine allure in watching mistakes and lo-fi production values shot on good old ¾” U-Matic videotape using a pair of professional Ikegami cameras. This is undoubtedly a fully qualified entry in the SOV genre, and the film’s original big box tape edition, typical of adult and, er, Disney video releases, is apparently a rare commodity.

The film’s first DVD release was a supposedly grey market edition via Substance, and Massacre Video’s DVD marks Spine’s first legit release with contextual extras that include a steady commentary track with co-director Simmonds and co-star Huxley. The pair cover every aspect of the film’s lifespan, and although most of the questions by Massacre Video’s Louis C. Justin and Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin are barely miked, it’s a lively amusing revisitation of what was undoubtedly an adventure for the participants.

Simmonds and Huxley also appear in separate on-camera interviews, with the former elaborating a bit more on his moonlighting gig as fetish filmmaker. (Simmonds reportedly shot 8 of 10 productions manned by Howard. Most of the shorts were filmed on weekends while Simmonds kept his day job at a computer company, which appears as a location in the film’s detective sequences.)

Massacre’s video source is okay – stills from the Substance DVD infer a sharper picture, perhaps due to some edge enhancement – but their transfer is a little softer, and has slight colour hazing typical of S-VHS and U-Matic recordings. The first few seconds of the source tape has some damage but the issues never recur. The audio is fine, and as much as Simmonds loathed Don Chilcott’s synth score, it kind of works for the film, adding a grungy feel to the already lo-fi production.

There aren’t many details on life after Spine for the cast & crew, although Howard did direct around 5 shorts between 1986-1987, most co-starring Huxley. Co-stars Romanoff went into effects work, producing, and publicity, whereas Blyth – Drive In Massacre (1977), Eaten Alive (1977), The Incredible Melting Man (1977), Eaten Alive (1977), The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1984)  appeared in TV shows before apparently retiring after the low-budget Gil Gerard (TV’s Buck Rogers) actioner Soldier’s Fortune (1991).



© 2015 Mark R. Hasan



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