Guts On The Road: My Hunt For The Abomination

Touché, The Abomination. This game is over.

The journey has been a long and winding one. Nearly a decade of yearning, dashed hopes, and heightened expectations have been filtered into 95 minutes of total bewilderment. Indeed, the chase has ended. For on this night, I stare at my VHS shelf. A tattered copy of the original Donna Michelle Productions tape of The Abomination stares back. The entire world has melted into harmony. But where did it all start? How did I become so enthralled with a film I had never seen before? And furthermore, can a backyard Super 8 gorefest from 1986 ever hope to justify a cross-country search? My mind reels and drifts.

2 AM. Caustic synths jolt me awake. My vision is hazy. I hear coughing. I see blood. I smell wood paneling. A man keeps repeating, “The Abomination, which makes all things desolate…The Abomination, which makes all things desolate…The Abomination, which makes all things desolate…”

“You don’t have to emulate Truffaut Or Godard to be considered credible. You can emulate Herschell Gordon Lewis.”
– Bret McCormick, Director-Writer,
The Abomination

May 3, 1998. That quote. That’s what did it.

It was my twentieth birthday. My then-girlfriend, now-ex-wife, hit me with a trash film revelation. I received two gift books: Re/Search’s Incredibly Strange Films and John McCarty’s The Sleaze Merchants. Sure, I had seen Blood Feast. Yes, I owned VHS pre-records of every Ed Wood film. Hey, I had dinner with John Waters when I was ten. I thought I knew all about weird films. I was wrong.

That month, The List began to take shape.

Every horror VHS junkie knows about The List. It begins as a tattered scrap of paper which conveniently fits into one’s wallet, purse, or breast pocket. With each page turned of Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Video Guide or Steve Puchalski’s Shock Cinema, The List gained momentum. It grew into a notebook. Years later, it matures into an Excel spreadsheet. Eventually, The List transcends Earthly disposition and happily morphs into an existential assistant for the cunning trash film obsessive. It has your back. Now and forever.

And so, in May of 1998, thanks to the brilliance of Incredibly Strange Films and The Sleaze Merchants, my List exploded. Gore! LSD! Palm trees! Chesty Morgan! A brave new world was uncovered. The Thrill Killers. The Awful Dr. Orloff. Brides Of Blood. The Ghastly Ones. A Night To Dismember. And, of course, The Abomination.

The Abomination! I loved the title. I loved the ads. But who was this Bret McCormick guy? Was he really discussing Francois Truffaut, a director I learned about in college, in the same breath as H.G. Lewis, the man responsible for The Gore Gore Girls? And why did the poster for The Abomination feature a smiling guy with big sunglasses getting his insides pulled out? It was strange. Strange enough. The Abomination shot to the top of my List.

“There’s a chainsaw decapitation, slit throats, hands bit off, an exorcism, a cat in a toilet, and good ole fart humor.”
– Michael Weldon,
The Psychotronic Video Guide

September, 2003. Over the previous three years, I inundated myself with the magical allure of trash-horror films. I bought every important book I could find. I ordered catalogs. I took notes. Thanks to the newly established DVD format, it was becoming much easier to actually see these films. Finally, there was Shriek Of The Mutilated! At last, I beheld Unhinged! The forbidden wonders of trailer compilations such as Screen Scaries, which taunted me as a child, were finally coming to fruition. I was in heaven. But reality soon hit. DVDs were only skimming the surface. “The more obscure, the better,” became my adage. VHS tapes became my muse.

My List expanded, subtracted, and became more focused. “VHS only” rarities were given top billing. Now, I just had to find them.

In September, my ex-wife and I quit our jobs, sold our house, rented an apartment, and bought a van. Over the next three years, we’d visit almost every state in North America, surviving on naive belief that, yes, we could do whatever we wanted to do. We drove through California’s Redwood Forests at midnight and slept there until dawn. We sat in traffic for seven hours in New York City (twice). We visited the Night Of The Living Dead cemetery in Evans City, PA. We spent wonderful evenings with relatives in Boston. We appreciated the barren-yet-lush beauty of Utah. It was like John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, except there was no book to write. There were only lives to live. And tapes to find.

During this time, I embraced my passion for obscure VHS collecting with total savagery. I knew what was out there. My List told me so. Now I had an opportunity to find them. I was unleashed upon America’s independent video stores. Naturally, they suspected nothing.

The Abomination would be mine.

“Monster-beast creature possesses a youth in sunglasses and makes him tear eyeballs out of human sockets…an ugly business.”
– John Stanley,
Creature Features Movie Guide Strikes Again

October, 2003. Driving through Kent, Washington on our way to Seattle, we pulled into an unassuming strip mall. Stardust Video cowered in a corner. As everyone knows, video store hauls are undeniably hit-or-miss. I approached the dirt-caked door with my usual mix of haste, excitement, and childlike wonder.

The smell hit me immediately. Stardust Video was a “popcorn machine” video store. A good sign. You see, old stores catering to the popcorn-and-a-movie tradition sometimes went too far by installing a real life popper by the front counter. The resultant odor suggested a humid mixture of stale Cheetos and dirty feet — it was repellent yet tantalizing. For some reason, these stores always, and I mean ALWAYS, come through with unbelievable finds. Stardust was no different.

I made a quick sweep. Films for rent were ordered by genre, but not alphabetized. Return Of The Family Man, The Devil’s Gift, Psycho From TexasThe Abomination! With a gasp, the box was in my hand. I poured over the explicit photos and copy. “Naturally, this film contains multiple depictions of blood, guts, and slime!” Naturally! Everything I had read in The Sleaze Merchants appeared to be true. Invigorated, my nose followed the smell.

The elderly man working the counter, clad in an old cardigan and flannel shirt, seemed congenial enough. I’ll call him “Jerry”.

“Well, hi! Would you like some popcorn?”

“Uh, heh heh, no thanks. I actually have a question for you. Do you sell any of the older horror VHS tapes you have for rent? Not the ones on the ‘Sale’ racks, but the ones that are still available to rent?”

“Ahhhh. No.”

“Really? No exceptions?”

“Well, look. This is how I make my living. If I start selling tapes right off the shelf, this place could be gone…LIKE THAT!” (He snapped his fingers).

“Well, I just collect older horror titles and I’ve been looking for this one for a really long time. Would you take $20 for it?”

“Let me see it.”

I’m sweating. He pulls an index card out from under the counter.

“Now, you see? This one’s been rented SEVEN TIMES since 1987. That’s how stores like mine make their business. Understand? Do you know what a pawn shop is?”

“Well, yeah, of course I –”

“Then you should go to one of those. There’s one about two blocks over. They’ve got lots of tapes. Now, we do have a number of Adult titles for sale over on the back wall. All sorts of stuff. You know?”

Then, Jerry winked at me. Unsure of what had just transpired, I added a cordial “Thanks!”, shot a final glance at The Abomination, paid for a handful of Sale rack tapes, and exited Stardust Video. Well played, Jerry.

“Mother-fixated nerd boy is possessed by a 3,000-year-old monstrosity sending him on an eyeball-gouging, chainsaw-wielding rampage.”
– James O’Neill,
Terror On Tape

August, 2005. With two years of traveling behind us, things started to settle down. As I’d hoped, my collection had expanded by the hundreds. Drive-In Massacre, The Mummy And The Curse Of The Jackal, Horror House On Highway 5, Spine, Halloween Night and other obscure pieces of garbage had found a loving home.

Yet, The Abomination remained impossibly elusive.

I was beginning to think it was a lost cause. Aside from the fact that no other video store I visited had even heard of the the film, my closest fellow trash obsessives all came up short. The occasional (maybe once a year) eBay listing shot up to ridiculous prices. Whatever The Abomination ended up being, it most certainly was not worth $80. For a few months, I had all but forgotten about the film. Then, it happened.

On a crisp summer Saturday, my ex-wife and I decided to pay a visit to her childhood hometown of Blue Island, Illinois, just for kicks. Towards the end of the day, she mentioned, “You know, there was a cool video store called Blue Island Video that we used to go to. The entire basement was filled with horror movies. Lots of big boxes.”

Ten minutes later, we stepped into a veritable trash-horror wonderland. There was a popcorn machine. There was a basement. She was correct. Two minutes after that, I held a copy of The Abomination in my hands for the second time. We approached the counter. There was a middle aged woman working. She wore khaki pants, a Chicago Bears t-shirt, and big tinted glasses. I’ll call her “Sandy”.

“Hi, what can I do for ya?”

“Hello, ma’am. I was wondering if you’d ever consider selling any of your older horror VHS tapes? This one, in particular?” (By now, I had this bit down to a science. Charm, smiles, and a polite countenance are key traits in video store bartering.)

“Well, actually, I can’t do that. You’d have to talk to our owner. He’s not here.”

“Great! Can we give him a call?”

“I don’t think he’d sell that.”

“Can we give him a call?”

“I’m pretty sure we’ll be selling some of our VHS tapes in the next few months. If you want, you can call back and check.”

“So, you can’t sell me just this title? I can give you $20 for it.”

“No, I’m sorry. I just can’t do that. Here’s our card. Would you like some free popcorn?”

Although defeated again, I was grateful to Sandy, based solely on association-to-The Abomination alone. My ex-wife and I drove home that evening on the wings of childhood nostalgia. We listened to The Zombies’ Odessey & Oracle, discussed the photos we’d taken, and talked a lot about where she used to spend time as a kid. It was nice. All the while, my brain was racing. Certainty was upon me. It was only a matter of time.

On Saturday, March 17, 2007, I purchased The Abomination for $2.50 from Blue Island Video. Sandy wasn’t jiving me. In January, they had liquidated the VHS tapes, setting up a massive “Sale” rack at the front of the store. Curiously, customers virtually ignored the horror films on that rack. Not so curiously, I did not.

As I finished paying for my large stack of tapes, Sandy and I shared one last exchange.

“I’m glad you were able to come back and get that movie. It’s an old one! Seems like you really wanted it! Would you like some popcorn?”

“You know what, Sandy? Yeah. I would.”

The Abomination was mine. Now, I just had to watch it.

“You are the whore of Babylon, Mother! You’re the mother of this…ABOMINATION!!”
– Cody,
The Abomination

The kitchen cabinets have puked. The washing machine has puked. A woman, her son, his boss, and his girlfriend have puked. I think maybe even God has puked. Somebody get me a Bible.

In 1985, Dallas, Texas-based filmmaker Bret McCormick was ready for action. Having lost some money on the home video release of his inspired-yet-problematic first film, Tabloid, by Los Angeles-based Tapeworm Video, McCormick embraced the experience and learned from it. Tabloid was an eccentric, John Waters-lite spoof, which was unable to attract an audience. In an interview with John McCarty, McCormick explained his need to switch gears.

“Most buyers didn’t want [Tabloid] because it wasn’t classifiable as a horror film, an action film, or a comedy. It was a bit of all three.” McCormick continued, “So we talked to people about what kind of picture would move…they told us horror.”

Bret McCormick listened. In an effort to save money, make a splash, and satiate the home video market, the writer-director grabbed a Super 8 camera, hit the backyard, and went to town. The results were Ozone! Attack Of The Redneck Mutants and of course, The Abomination; two trash-gore films which were shot back-to-back, edited on video, and “crammed full of as many gross-out special effects as our meager budgets would allow.”

While Ozone! found semi-distribution via the insanely obscure Muther Video, The Abomination fared better. Donna Michelle Productions, the Hollywood-based company responsible for unleashing Jon McBride’s Cannibal Campout and Woodchipper Massacre, picked up the movie. The resultant success or failure of The Abomination is inconsequential. It found limited distribution. It was listed in famous books. It sat on video store shelves. It enticed people. Perhaps, even at Blue Island Video.

The Abomination is manic, ambitious, and completely insane. Upon initial impressions, it’s no trash classic. But there’s something else there. Something special. Something which finds an abrasive balance between Biblical riffing, physical sickness, skewed humor, and bloody vagina monsters which hide in cubbards (and washing machines). How does that grab you?

Cody (Scott Davis) lives with his Mom (Jude Johnson) in a wood-paneled shack. Talk about issues. Mom has a tumor, but she also devotes her life to shady evangelist Brother Fogg (Rex Morton). Cody fills his time with working as a mechanic, driving around in a truck with his girlfriend Kelly (McCormick’s then-wife, Blue Thompson), battling nightmares, and killing people. Or does he? Hack! Cough! Mom belches up the tumor. It infects Cody. He coughs one up, too. Soon, the growths multiply, infect the entire house, and take form as…The Abomination! The Abomination — a beet-red mass of teeth and curious openings and tentacles! The Abomination — a force, originating in the Bible’s Prophecy Of Daniel, which eats everyone! The Abomination — I have no idea what it is! Is Cody really a killer, or is this all part of The Abomination’s grander scheme? Perhaps Brother Fogg’s interesting toilet scenes will clue us in.

The gritty onslaught of blood-barfing, coughing, strange religious references, and later, extreme chince-gore, is one thing. But the presentation of The Abomination — that’s something else entirely.

Douglas McKeown’s The Deadly Spawn. Nathan Schiff’s They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore. George Barry’s Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. Each of these films builds its own set of rules within the confines of lo-fi artistry, thereby crafting surreal, self-contained worlds which hold no ties to rational thought. They disturb. They entertain. They even further the boundaries of exploitive D.I.Y. filmmaking, taking the next (il)logical step after bizarre films such as The Wizard Of Gore and Blood Freak. The Abomination, with its mismatched post-dubbing, odd approach to editing and organization, and stray insertions of tape-manipulated voices, synthesizers, and library music, fits right in with this group. Ideas are reiterated obsessively, to the point of actually beginning the film with a five minute highlight reel of the gruesomeness that awaits. Events are thrown together as if by chance. The final 20 minutes explode in a claustrophobic stench of wet cow intestines and humorous bloodshed. It’s psychedelic anxiety, 1980s style.

For all this bizarre inventiveness, The Abomination isn’t perfect. Driving scenes pad nearly 10 minutes of the film. The unneeded repetition of certain sequences slows things down. Unlike The Deadly Spawn, which shares a similarity in design and theme, there’s no real focal point to the film as a whole. As a result (and very much in keeping with gore overload problem in They Don’t Cut The Grass Anymore), the film nearly chokes on its own crazed methods. Nearly, but not quite.

The Abomination may not achieve regal status amongst this freak clique of films, but it’s far from forgettable. In fact, repeated viewings only bolster the film’s endearing qualities and smooth out incipient bumps. In the end, The Abomination is a unique, grotesque experience which reminds one not only of the admirable (and literal) guts of mid-80s D.I.Y. trash filmmakers such as Bret McCormick, but also the attractive, mysterious era of VHS distribution in which they thrived. Not such a bad thing to think about from time to time.

“The Abomination, which makes all things desolate…The Abomination, which makes all things desolate…The Abomination, which makes all things desolate…”

Awakened with a jolt, I stare at my VHS shelf. A tattered copy of The Abomination stares back. I smile. I think back to the first time I opened The Sleaze Merchants, the first time I laid eyes on the film at Stardust Video, and the irony of purchasing my own copy from a store which rented Flight Of The Navigator to my ex-wife when she was ten years old. My smile grows wider.

Was The Abomination worth it? Well, I still don’t own Mad Ron’s Prevues From Hell, Filmgore, or The Monster And The Stripper.

I place Odessey & Oracle on the turntable. “Care Of Cell 44″ starts up.

See you on the road.

WORKS CITED
McCarty, John. The Sleaze Merchants: Adventures In Exploitation Filmmaking. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995
Stanley, John. Creature Features Movie Guide Strikes Again. Pacifica: Creatures At Large Press, 1994
Weldon, Michael J. The Psychotronic Video Guide. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1996