The ready availability of video cameras in the 1980s resulted in an increase in low-low-low budget genre films that I hesitate to classify as a “boom” simply because while plenty were made, only a handful managed to work their way onto video store shelves across the world. The likes of 555, BOARDINGHOUSE and THE RIPPER received larger releases, much to the chagrin of unsuspecting video store customers looking for something that, well, didn’t look and feel as though it could turn into porn at any moment.
Shot-on-video genre films tended to be primarily horror due to its easy marketability and the fact that SOV filmmakers tended to be horror fans in the first place, but occasionally someone who just wanted to get out there and make a movie went beyond the elements that could be easily captured by a gruesome photo on a VHS box. Such is the case with 1994’s PHOBE: THE XENOPHOBIC EXPERIMENTS, an impressively ambitious feature-length science fiction action pic made in Niagara, Ontario, using the finest cameras the local community cable channel had to offer.
PHOBE, newly issued on DVD in a great package from Severin’s InterVision arm, is something of a minor miracle. Made with a budget of $250 by writer/director/producer Erica Benedikty, PHOBE takes its inspiration from THE TERMINATOR and PREDATOR, but conceptually feels more like an addition to the CRITTERS/I COME IN PEACE/THE HIDDEN sub-genre of “alien comes to Earth to hunt other alien” films that were created in the Schwarzenegger blockbusters’ wake.
John Rubick plays Sgt. Dapp, a bounty hunter pulled in for one last job by the members of Central Command on planet Mondora in order to capture a “Phobe,” a very dangerous creature that has escaped confinement. The Phobe has landed on Earth, and Dapp must track it down and bring it back alive. Matters are complicated, however, when the Phobe’s egg is picked up by Jennifer, a high school student played by Tina Dumoulin.
Shot on video with a paltry budget used primarily to cover the cost of a mask and some pyrotechnic effects, PHOBE could have easily ranked with countless other low-rent endurance tests that are revered only by those determined enough to see anything cheap and sleazy that they can get their hands on. (Some people even have podcasts devotes to this sort of thing! The mind boggles.) However, partially by going with a straightforward science fiction/action premise and partially due to Benedikty’s understanding of how to move the plot along with ease, PHOBE manages to be highly entertaining.
There’s no doubt that PHOBE is a cheaply-made film, and there’s no attempt to hide the bargain basement nature. The props are “Laser Tag” sensors and nonsensical eyewear, the performances are amateurish, and the special effects, even with the remastering done for this release, won’t deceive you into thinking you’re watching something even as high-grade as an Asylum feature. Benedikty, however, seems very aware of this, and uses the resources to the best of her ability, shooting close-ups to disguise locations, utilizing colored gels and even getting in the odd dolly and crane shot.
I’ve seen countless SOV features that fail to be engaging for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with a budget – long scenes of people talking, difficult to parse dialogue, nonsensical storylines, performers that are not just amateurish but bland – and, to my delight, PHOBE doesn’t fall into any of these traps. It’s not a feature done on video and put together out of lack of passion or competence – it’s clear that Benedikty and her cast knew what to shoot for, and tried their hardest to get to that point. The results aren’t the cheap “outsider art” nature of many SOV films, but rather a minimalist take on a familiar genre plot, made with the passion and sincerity that still maintains a tongue-in-cheek attitude.
While the film never received a proper home video release, it aired repeatedly on the local public access channel and developed a cult reputation. InterVision’s new DVD release presents the film with some special effects alterations, though some clips of the original effects are also included as a feature on the disc. (My preference would have been to have had the original version included in its entirety as well, but this is a small quibble.) The disc also includes a 20 minute documentary on the making of the film and its subsequent following, directed by REWIND THIS!’s Josh Johnson. More information on the film is gained in a great Q&A session with the cast and crew conducted at the film’s first public screening last year, and a commentary track with Benedikty guided by Canuxploitation’s Paul Corupe and Last Blast Film Society’s Peter Kuplowsky rounds out the package. It’s generally a fine commentary, with Kuplowsky asking questions repeatedly and Benedikty very eager to give detailed answers, though it does occasionally taper off as the trio just watches the movie.
It’s hard to blame them! PHOBE is a genuinely entertaining film that just feels like a group of friends have decided to make a sci-fi flick and they’re inviting you along for the ride. It’s proof that while making a movie on video for $250, you may be forced to be cheap and amateurish, but you don’t have to be dull.
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