Friday, August 13, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Straight To VHS

Manuel Lamas was no Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau. His films were ultra-low budget and ultra-strange, but they could disturb and provoke viewers in a way that solidified his small but dedicated cult following in Uruguay. Regrettably, he also lacked Wood’s endearing charm. It turns out Lamas was a bit of a jerk, but his strange vision still pulls filmmaker Emilio Silva Torres into a trippy wild goose chase in his documentary-hybrid Straight to VHS, which screens live-and-in-person at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

In 1989, Lamas released
Act of Violence in a Young Journalist to virtually no acclaim, but he managed to get a hundred or so VHS cassettes into Uruguayan video stores, thanks to a shrewd distribution strategy. In subsequent years, it took on a mythical life of own with idiosyncratic cineastes like Silva Torres. The title makes it sound like harsher grindhouse fare than it apparently was. There are random supernatural elements, but essentially the film blends a telenovela-like sex and revenge melodrama with a documentary-like presentation of the journalist-heroine’s efforts to explore the nature of violence and document its effects on society.

The acting was challenged and the production values were bargain-basement, but there is still something about the film that gets under people’s skin. Silva Torres assumed finding lead actress Blanca Gimenez would be the key to unlocking the puzzle. She had been Lamas’s writing and producing partner, so it was often assumed she was his romantic partner as well. However, that does not turn out to be the case. In fact, she had all kinds of issues with the late filmmaker. Then just when the project appears stalled, a batch of previously unseen Lamas tapes is mysteriously delivered.

Straight To VHS
eventually goes pretty far out there, but it is really more interesting when it stays relatively grounded. The truth is Lamas, Gimenez, and their films together are sufficiently interesting. They really don’t need a stylized punch-up. By the halfway mark, everyone has us convinced this is a significant work of indie-outsider cinema, despite its dubious aesthetics.

The truth is this is hard film to review. For those of us constantly watching and reviewing cult cinema, it is highly rewarding to get grounded in Lamas. Whether average viewers would feel satisfied plunking down cash money for
Straight to VHS alone is a trickier matter to conclude. However, Fantasia is wisely programming it on a double-bill with Act of Violence, in its first ever screening outside Uruguay. If you are curious about these films to any extent and find yourself in Montreal than you owe it to yourself to see them when you can.

Despite its excesses,
Straight To VHS is clearly a film made by cult movie lovers for cult movie lovers. It doesn’t always click, but its enthusiasm and off-kilter perspective are persuasive. Recommended for the intrigued (you know who you are), Straight to VHS screens again tomorrow (8/14), as part of this year’s Fantasia.