Spine (1986) and the Realm of SOV Films

July 3, 2015 | By

The cover art may be pure teaser, but it’s kind of brilliant for a ruthless graphic, great title logo, and a catchy tag-line.

The official release of Spine (1986) on DVD via Massacre Video enabled me to sample my first SOV (shot on video) film, a low budget sub-genre usually in the horror genre that critics would probably describe as amateur productions shot by filmmakers who may never have guessed their one-time effort to make a feature-length film would return as something cherished by genre connoisseurs.

As someone who blenders analogue & digital elements for assorted video projects, I get the lo-fi attraction, but there’s always been a fear that what was often made by average Joes were virtually unwatchable, but perhaps my curiosity in this case stemmed from Spine being the one-time effort of adult-styled filmmakers who aimed for legit exploitation by making a slasher film.

The DVD commentary and interviews that flank the film chronicle their amusing adventures in moviemaking which kind of makes the whole endeavor rather charming, and at least for myself, the way I approached the film – watching the movie, following up with interviews and commentary – would actually compel me to spin it again.


Perhaps there’s a certain affection for the filmmakers efforts in trying to make a film using what was the best gear within their budget at a time when video was regarded as professional only in ENG endeavours, corporate videos, or certain TV productions like soaps or live comedy series.

A long, long time ago I took a dip into the corporate video world, and my partner and I used gear that included S-VHS cameras, dumping footage to ¾ U-Matic SP tape, where we edited masters on the latter format.

The editing system was the classic Amiga Toaster, and the reality was this gear was fine for banal industrial work, but worthless for anything filmic simply because film was the only format that had credit. This was in the mid- to late-1990s, which is why the film program at my university mandated everyone not only shoot their thesis on film, but edit and mix on film, delivering a proper answer print – an actually film print of one’s movie made from the negative with an optical audio track taken from a mixed 16mm dubbing system. My movie / thesis cost about $15,000 in 1992, and remains (deservedly) unavailable.

Directors John Howard and Justin Simmonds gambled $20,000 and kind of won, although their efforts maybe didn’t get any appreciation until the film started to make the rounds online from VHS rips, a grey market DVD, and the current DVD which puts on record their memories about making a thriller that was ultimately distributed by a porn label.


Ugly? Yes. Comfy? More springy-bouncy.

The film’s making-of history is more interesting than the movie itself (although I was amused to see what appears to be the same JVC speakers my dad bought in the eighties, and the same ugly sofa that sat desiccating in the basement of a house I once rented. See side pic), but like I said, there’s a strange charm to the weird elements in a movie shot in real locations using industrial cameras that have since been junked.

(Well, not fully junked, as some do pop up on Ebay, and I’ve tested out a few to see how well they hold up, especially when footage is dumped and edited within Premiere. I’m currently finishing a demo reel of a performance from last year’s Toronto Fringe Festival in which two performances of Marilla Wex’s highly regarded Lost and Found were shot using similar vintage ENG gear.

The endeavour has its flaws – low light, grain, and making sure the colour tubes were properly registered – but as an experiment, I think it worked. More detailed blogs on what it was like using a 1986 video camera in 2014, and assembling footage within FCP 7 will follow in the coming days at Big Head Amusements.)

Spine was shot on ¾” U-Matic videotape using 3-tube Ikegami ENG cameras, and while I’d love to play with any Ikegami camera, I’ll pass on the VCRs as I had my share of editing on them, ultimately junking the machines because they were highly problematic monsters. Maybe that’s why I’ve some respect for the directors – I may not care for the film, but I remember cutting videos on those hefty editing decks.

Some of my former top-loading machines actually appear in Poltergeist (1982); they weighed more than 50 lbs, and ideally had to be kept on 24-7 to ensure the boards wouldn’t get funny. If Simmonds and Howard were using the later front-loading machines, they may have been slicker, but they could also be pretty finicky.


Janus Blyth in Spine (1986) as spunky nurse Carrie Lonegan.

Spine was made by niche (fetish) market filmmakers using chunky gear, whereas it seems later SOV films embraced more affordable S-VHS and Hi8 cameras, two CCD formats I used and never liked either because their recordings were prone to colour hazing, especially when dubbing second and third-generation copies.

U-Matic may be a little wringy in the picture department, but it’s cleaner and sturdier than Hi8 (prone to drop-outs, even when using virgin tape) and S-VHS (which, when editing, really mandated the use of industrial Time Base Correctors to minimize that colour shift).

How many SOV films were made during the 1980s and 1990s is probably still a little loose, since there were probably many amateurs whose efforts have either been completely forgotten or lost to time (or are maybe just sitting in a box in a garage), but the tally of released films seems to hover around 30+, with titles listed by Zac Holbrook and on the IMDB, plus a proposed web series.

Coming next: reviews of Mary Dore’s documentary on the women’s movement She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014), and from the KQEK.com archives, a related doc on the inimitable Shirley Chisholm.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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