Thursday, April 29, 2010

Movie Review: Vermillion Eyes (1991)

Nathan Schiff
Written by:
Nathan Schiff
John Smihula
Arlene Burns
Barbara Balmer
Hope Sender

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I promised, a few months back (Jesus!), that my next review would be on something truly obscure. So, here it is, finally - Vermillion Eyes - a surreal 117 minute 8mm nightmare that was never officially released anywhere, in any format, ever. A film so rare and unknown that few have even heard of it, and surely no more than a few thousand people in the whole world have ever actually seen it.

Some time ago, I reviewed a peculiar, home-baked cinematic oddity from Long Island called Weasels Rip My Flesh, directed by Nathan Schiff. So incomparable was the experience that, even to this day, I cannot decide whether it was an unreal work of artistic genius or the juvenile, fevered visual ravings of an unhinged teenager with a camera. The fact that the film was interesting enough to even raise this question perhaps rendered the question itself moot, but the intriguing, bizarre atmosphere of the film continued to haunt me like a strange song stuck in my head. So, like any good film obsessive, I immediately set about hunting down the rest of the director's back catalogue. This task, however, was a lot tougher than you might expect...

Until the mid-2000s, not a single one of Schiff's films had been given any kind of legitimate commercial release. They were not so much "lost films" as "never-were films". He produced his movies on literal zero-budgets, never intending any distribution wider than occasional neighbourhood screenings, projected on a sheet hanging in his back yard. At some point, Schiff decided to make some individual VHS copies of his films (filmed directly off the "screen"), initially for back-up purposes, and later to distribute amongst friends. Somewhere down the line dupes were made, videotapes changed hands and, eventually, Nth-generation copies of four of the director's homebrew epics began to trickle out onto the horror convention circuit, and perhaps more crucially, the mail-order bootleg markets. The titles were: Weasels Rip My Flesh, The Long Island Cannibal Massacre, They Don't Cut the Grass Anymore and Vermillion Eyes. I have seen photocopied "black market" underground mail-order forms from the late-1980s, the darkest days of UK video censorship, upon which these titles rubbed shoulders with the likes of high-profile "banned" fare such as Cannibal Holocaust, The Last House on the Left and Zombie Flesh Eaters. Weasels even made it into the British tabloids when, on the 8th of May 1992, the notorious rag The Daily Star laughably included it on a list of "depraved videos" supposedly seized by customs in a "snuff film" raid.

Then, the internet happened, making it possible for individuals with even the most obscure and arcane interests to share them with like-minded souls, and gradually, deep, deep in the trash-horror underground, something resembling a small cult following began to grow around the films. In 2003, in an astoundingly unexpected move, a major player in the home video market - Image Entertainment - announced that it had acquired the rights to all four movies and would be releasing them, fully remastered from the original 8mm materials, in lavish DVD sets. At last, Nathan Schiff's films would see the light of a legitimate public release. However... when the DVDs finally shipped in February 2004 (to much bemusement and head-scratching among the mainstream horror community) it transpired that one of the movies had been quietly shelved.

So what happened to Vermillion Eyes? Image were silent on the matter but, in's fascinating interview with the director, Schiff offered the following insight:

"Everything was set to go—the artwork was done, the interview, the commentary—everything was done. If you read the liner notes on the other DVDs, it mentions Vermillion. I guess they did things backwards and they showed it to their legal department later, and the legal department found something objectionable to the point that they thought they might get a lawsuit. So they cancelled it, and I got a phone call and a letter—'We cannot release this movie because of its violent nature and content.'"
That was all the encouragement I needed. I sent out
feelers, trawled the internet and sold my soul, until finally I cradled in my hands (or rather, on my hard drive) a busted up, fuzzy, bootleg VHS rip of this uber-rare Z-epic. I settled down, beer-in-hand, ready for a trashy, throwaway, amateurish gorefest filled with crazy twists and bad effects...

...And boy, was that a misjudgment!

The plot revolves around an unnamed man (played by John Smihula, previously the detective in Weasels, here virtually unrecognisable) who, by the time we meet him, is already well into a downward spiral towards death-fixated madness. The whole picture unfolds from his perspective, his psychoses form the structure of the plot and affect every aspect of the film's look and feel: from his perspective, he seems to exist in a world populated almost entirely by women, in a solarized, soulless suburban landscape where bloody murders, fatal car accidents and tragic suicides are commonplace events. Completely disconnected and engrossed in thoughts of violence and mortality, The Man trudges from accident blackspot to suicide scene, donning a face mask and hazmat suit to photograph the earthly remains of the unfortunate victims he finds. Before long, he is moving and posing his "subjects" for morbid "portraits" which he later pours over obsessively. Gradually, his fixation begins to shift from the aftermath to the violent arrival of death itself, and he is consumed by horrific hallucainations and uncontrollable fantasies of mutilation and murder. Various women cross paths with The Man, including his sister, an old girlfriend and a wistful blind girl he meets at a deserted beach. They intrigue him, yet his attempts to reach out to them from inside his disassociated shell are all doomed to end in outburts of savage violence which he seems unable to control (and which may, or may not, be taking place entirely in his imagination).

My description does not do the film justice. Vermillion Eyes is something completely different. If you read my review of Weasels, you'll remember I quite enjoyed it as a piece of innocent juvenalia, with some mesmerizing flourishes of originality and surreality which I considered at the time to be the accidental result of the director's youthful ineptitude. However, this movie now shines a whole new light on Nathan Schiff and has forced me to re-evaluate my opinion of the man. While the constraints of a zero budget are visually apparent throughout, there is nothing juvenile or inept about Vermillion. It is a deeply intelligent, sensitive, frightening and horrific film that mesmerized and disturbed me far more than I was expecting, or was prepared for.

Images of sex and violence permeate the picture, with the two sometimes overlapping in shocking ways (such as when The Man suddenly and unexpectedly executes a blonde-haired prostitute with a gunshot to the head after a long, feverishly stylized "love" scene). There are also extended, unflinching sequences in which living humans are reduced to unrecognisable masses of bone and gristle. In once particularly gross and visually disturbing scene, The Man drugs a girl and splits her open as she lies in the grass, tripping and screaming "there's a worm in me, there's a worm in me", while he removes a long, quivering, serpentine tube of intestine from inside her stomach.

In spite of this extremely shocking material, the film never plays out like a "gore flick", nor does it ever really come across as mysogynistic (which must be a fairly tough statement to believe based on what you've just read, but bear with me). This is not a film about hatred, but about a man's journey into obsession and detachment from reality - either from the reality of his victim's suffering, or the reality of his actions as a whole - and the self-destruction to which any such journey will ultimately lead.

Schiff really seems to have progressed over the course of the four films into a genuinely competent director and cinematographer, and yet he manages to retain that incomparable, noncomformist style. In the likes of Weasels and Long Island Cannibal Massacre, this "uniqueness" looked to be an accidental result of nothing more than his lack of formal training and technical knowledge, but here it seems to have condensed into a consistent, distinct and deliberate filmmaking style that is all his own. Vermillion Eyes is a difficult film to compare with others, as nothing I've seen comes close enough to allow me to do so without being misleading, but the dreamlike visuals and twisted atmosphere are more in the ballpark of David Lynch than H. G. Lewis.

The film is not a perfect nor a very slick one. The general performances, with the exception of Smihula's smoulderingly intense turn, are execrably wooden, and the editing and sound production are often jarring and disorientating. Schiff's greatest trick, however, was to recognise these technical limitations and turn them to his advantage - the stilted dialogue is presented in such a way that highlights The Man's emotional disconnection; the choppy editing and hissy soundtrack actually contribute to the overarching sense of a "bad trip".

You can see the cracks, and there's madness seeping out of them.

Nathan Schiff's career as a filmmaker failed to really go anywhere after this movie. The "Long Island Cronenberg" has not made another full-length feature film in almost twenty years and has directed only two short features in that time: The Last Heterosexual was a six-minute oddity of which I can find neither a copy nor anyone that has seen it; Abracadaver! was a 2008 British-produced camp horror short starring gay cult icon Peter De Rome as a mysterious magician that was decently received at several film festivals before disappearing off the radar completely.

It's a crying shame really, because I'm now dying to see more of his stuff.


  1. Nice review there Kraken, Vermillion Eyes definitely looks like one of the those cool obscure movies. I'll keep my eyes peeled for it.

  2. Where did you find this? I had an old cruddy rip that was unwatchable and I never got to really "watch" it. I've been looking all over for this.

  3. Greeting fair blogger,

    Writing to you from Australia, where I have a very reliable bootlegger who arrived at his market stall the other day with a huge pile of copies of Vermillion Eyes. They were selling like hot cakes. I'm now a bit more intrigued to check this out.

    Thanks for the writings