This is a long rambling story without a point but its one I've been meaning to tell since Unseen Films started in 2010
(I should have posted a picture of the reel and film but freaking thing is on the shelf over a book case in my room and I'm just too damn lazy to climb up and get the reel down.)
Back in the mid to late 80’s I worked at and ran a video store here on Long Island. The Video Quest store was part of a loose affiliated mini chain of six or seven stores scattered across Nassau County. The joy of the franchise was that unlike other video stores where you were stuck with just the films in that store, you actually had the resources of the entire chain at your disposal. If you wanted a movie and it was in one of the other stores we’d go and get it for you.
This was really cool because it was a way to see tons of movies you might never otherwise get a chance to see. Every week I’d raid the video choices of our customers and supplement my own viewing. There was one customer, Mr Chapas, who every weekend would ask for 12 to 20 tapes for Friday to Sunday. (No seriously he’d watch 20 plus films over three days). Mr Chapas was the first film fan who approximated the way I felt about movies, he just loved the medium. If it was a movie he would watch it. His attitude was one that matches Unseen Film’s credo of you never know where you’d find a good film. He’d come in with lists compiled from Leonard Maltin and other film guide books (remember this was years before IMDB started). Sometimes we’d be able to help him some times we couldn’t (just as now not everything is available). His film requests would get really heavy every time a new master list for the chain was released. We all knew that the weeks following the release we’d be using a hand truck to get his films.
Back in the early days of home video things could be a bit of a wild west sort of existence. Yes the big companies controlled their releases but the smaller ones and foreign films could end up out from multiple companies and the picture quality could be a crap shoot since there was no digital restoration. Whatever crappy print they had they’d use.
There was one company, I don’t know the name, who released all of the great foreign films on VHS. All their releases were in big red clam shell boxes. If you ever saw the boxes you’d know the company and their releases to the point we still say “do you remember when you could only get that film as a red box? The prints of their releases were rough. When I say the films were black and white I meant it. The blacks seemed to bleed into to the whites and vice versa. The subtitles were burned into the film and occasionally having black halos around them that made them seem to be glowing like weird stars.
Some films were retitled. I don’t know how many times we’d buy some schlocky horror movie, usually some Euro trash film, with multiple titles. Some titles were the result of different print sources, some were video retitles where a new title card would appear for just the title. In other cases you’d end up with films like MONSTER KING GODZILLA or ATTACK OF THE GALACTIC MONSTERS or ELECTRIC WORSHIP which were “fan” made films released as something new. Back in those days there were a lot of titles when you never knew what you were going to get until you got the video tape into your hands.
This was especially true with the Video Quest master list which just listed titles, occasionally a year, occasionally a star and maybe, just maybe a genre. You had a title and that’s it with no indication as to what it was. You could never know if it was comedy, drama or horror film. You could order one film and end up with something else entirely.
I found a whole bunch of good films that way. If it wasn’t my blind luck I’d rely on Mr Chapas who’d return the films he saw and be more than willing to critique every one of them. What I loved was when he’s talk about what he’d just seen he’d make weird connections between films which opened doors to other films. And occasionally he’d report on some film that came from nowhere. It would be a title that sounded interesting, that he’d try. When you look at the tape it had some company on it that you never heard of. A lot of times it was drek, some things little more than a half finished or aborted film, other times it might have been a home movie.
DR HACK AND THE CHEESE RAY was an attempt to do an old movie serial in the modern day. Technically little better than a home movie, the film appears to have been filmed literally in and around a suburban house somewhere, the film has remained in my head because of some truly bizarre plot twists.
The plot of the serial has a hero named the Mosquito (think the Green Hornet) battling a black masked villain named Dr Hack who was trying to take over the world with a death ray powered by cheese.
While this would seem to indicate that the film had a sense of humor, a fact borne out by the tongue in cheek attitude, the film also had incredible swings into nastiness. Mojo the Mosquito’s sidekick is graphically decapitated at the end of the chapter 10. While he recovers after a fashion (he continues on carrying his head under his arm), its rather jarring to see in something so humorous. I mention the decapitation because that’s in the chapter I have on a Super 8 reel, but if I remember the other chapter ending correctly there were horrible car wrecks, a fire where we see the charred remains of bad guys and an impaling that results in disembowelment which then leads into a gruesome joke as an intestine is caught on a shoe like toilet paper (and you wonder why I remember this after seeing it once). The mayhem while graphic wasn’t bloody and was done cheaply done, and yet it always provoked a reaction because it always ended up being unexpected.
The Mosquito was based on the Green Hornet with a more than a touch of Batman. He was a copyright lawyers dream case. It was the sort of character that didn’t riff on superheroes but stole from them whole cloth. To be fair the character was an amusing amalgam and kind of made me wonder why no one had ever quite managed to combine the hornet and Batman in that way. It managed to blend the best sides of both characters into one hero that could have been a comic book character at Marvel or DC.
I’m guessing that the cheapness of the film and the poor (I won’t say nonexistent because I saw it) distribution prevented anyone ever noticing the film at all. Of course you have to remember this was back in the early days of home video when anything could be fodder for the home video market and some people (Mr Chapas and myself) would watch anything because it was on tape.
I have to say that I have no idea where the film came from or how it ended up on home video but it it did. It’s one of those films that I kind of half remember and thought I may have dreamt up, except that a few years ago at one of the nostalgia shows that periodically show up at the Holiday in on 57th street in Manhattan I found a super 8 reel marked Dr Hack. When I asked the guy who was selling what it was he said it was "a chapter from a no budget attempt to make a serial in the 1960’s or 70’s"
When I asked him was it the Cheese film he said “ you know it?”
“I saw it once on video tape in the 80’s or 90’s”
"The whole serial?"
"That’s better than me, I only have the one chapter. I've been trying to find the rest for years"
"Do you know anything about it?" Figuring all the guys selling stuff at these shows tend to know everything.
"Not a clue. Its weird though the chapter has coming attractions on it."
"Coming attractions? on an 8mm reel?"
"I don’t know of what- or if the movies they for even exist."
Curious I have the guys a couple of bucks and bought the reel.
There is something about having a physical connection to a half remembered movie that makes it all the more real. I don’t know how many films I’ve seen over the years, that I saw once on TV, or in film class or even a theater, that have largely faded from view. I have memories of all these films that I remember pieces of that had their titles lost to time. What are these weird Euro action films, swashbucklers, mysteries remembered from a 2am viewing. What were they? Did they exist?
With the internet it’s easier to know that you aren’t crazy. If you look hard enough and long enough you’ll find some reference to a film you’ve seen. I’m constantly saving pictures and links to films I saw long ago that I kind of remembered. And from there I try to track down the film- was the film as I remember it? I have hundreds of DVDs and tapes of films that I sought out because I half remembered them. I may never watch them again but I want a copy as proof that that I’m not crazy. They are the cinephiles equivalent to a hunters animal heads on a wall.
Proof of existence with DR HACK AND THE CHEESE RAY is why I bought the Super 8 reel- I needed proof. Here is a film that doesn’t exist anywhere it seems but on this one reel. Chapter 10 exists proving that the entire film exists. To be honest I haven’t seen the reel in years. I’m not sure the projector works, I think it crapped out not long after seeing the film. It doesn’t matter I have proof. It exists. That's all that matters
To be honest I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I doubt you’ll ever run across DR HACK, but if you should give it a try. Keep your expectations low and just go with it, you might end up pleasantly surprised. And I should say if you ever run across the whole serial let me know. I’d love to see more than Chapter 10.
And if you ever see LET MOJO HANDLE IT with Cool Breeze Jones let me know. A trailer for the film fronts the DR HACK reel and I’m dying to see it.