VERNACULAR VIDEO

Vernacular Video: The Black Horror Films of Chester Novell Turner
Paul Corupe

The VHS boom of the 1980s led to a diverse assortment of strange and offbeat shot-on-video (SOV) films cluttering shelves of mom ‘n’ pop video stores, but none so distinctive as the Camcorder-shot chillers of Chester Novell Turner. One of the only African-American directors dabbling in horror films in the early- to mid-1980s, Turner’s primitively crafted films Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984) and Tales From the Quadead Zone (1987) remain the most bewildering straight-to-video releases of the decade; jarring fantasies about puppet rape and domestic violence that have less in common with the other SOV films of their time than they do with a larger tradition of African-American folk and outsider art.

Although not generally recognized by the art community until the 1970s, the visual tradition of self-taught, regional African-American artists is surprisingly rich. While most well known outsider artists like Henry Darger and Judith Scott coped with mental health issues and either secluded themselves from their peers or were institutionalized, African-American outsider artists were relegated to the margins of society simply due to the colour of their skin and their poor, rural surroundings. These sharecroppers, itinerant preachers and ex-slaves in the southern United States may have lacked formal instruction, but that didn’t stop them from creating an expressive artistic tradition ranging from found object junk monuments to imagined landscapes in pencil crayon, from root sculptures to fully adorned environments. These artists often developed their own private cosmologies of symbols and imagery to depict their lives and religious and social beliefs. And even though they may not follow formalized rules of perspective, composition or scale, their work remains powerful and intensely personal.

The same can be said about Turner’s Black Devil Doll from Hell and Tales From the Quadead Zone, two of the only true examples of African-American video folk art. Like the porch-front musicians captured in Alan Lomax’s field recordings or well-known African-American outsider artists like retired handyman Mose Tolliver, who decorated furniture scraps with vivid portraits of birds and trees rendered in common house paint, Turner had little money and even less professional training when it came to the arts. Still, he managed to use the few tools available to him to render a singular vision of his own private world.  Filmed in Chicago and featuring almost exclusively all-black casts (most likely a budget necessity rather than any kind of political or social statement), Turner’s malformed movie output often seems to be a direct extension of his life and experiences.

Little is known about Turner—he apparently gave no interviews and is rumoured to have died in a car crash in 1996—but he was an undeniable auteur. Handling almost every aspect of production, from writing, directing and editing right down to composing the crude drum machine soundtracks and self-releasing VHS tapes of his work to local video stores, Turner’s films may be almost shockingly unsophisticated in their technical quality and often deviate from the accepted conventions of genre filmmaking, but they still possess a distinctive viewpoint and obvious vitality that makes them worthy of discussion.

Shot for a reported $8,000, Black Devil Doll from Hell never really reaches the depths of sheer terror implied by its title, and remains instead a deliriously depressing message picture about a woman led astray from the church by her repressed desires. And the film also happens to feature the most disturbing puppet-on-human sex scene you probably never wanted to witness. Tuner’s ingénue, Shirley Latanya Jones, headlines as Helen Black, a devout and virginal gal living alone in a tiny home littered with bibles and religious artwork. Helen’s actually pretty lonely—little surprise, since she’s not much fun to be around, constantly commenting on the loose morals of her man-chasing girlfriends and offering stern biblical lectures to a hustler shilling stolen TVs on her street corner.

But all that changes when Helen drifts into a junk store one afternoon, and ends up fascinated by a black ventriloquist’s dummy with shoulder-length Stevie Wonder braids. Despite no obvious need or use for the doll, she waves off the clerk’s warnings of its mysterious powers and takes the unsightly thing home. She then deposits the dummy on the toilet and steps into the shower, absentmindedly fondling herself while fantasizing about the dummy crawling on top of her. Suddenly disgusted, Helen quickly quash those thoughts—at least until the dummy (or his school-age stunt double) leaps from a closet and drags her to her bed. What follows is not for the timid—tracing his grotesque tiny tongue over her breasts, the doll offers up a non-stop streak of obscenity yelling “How do you like that, bitch?” while demanding she beg for more. Rather than being horrified, Helen ends up enjoying the doll’s attentions, and fully gives herself over to his wooden flesh.

The next morning, however, the doll is nowhere to be found. Helen hits the town looking to scratch her newly discovered itch, but quickly discovers that the local studs and barflies don’t satisfy her like an unreasonably aggressive 3 1/2 foot pine-carved toy. After a long search she finds the doll has magically returned to the store’s shelf, and again takes her pint-sized lover home—only this time, he won’t come alive. Frustrated, Helen strips naked and pleads her case, but it’s too late. The doll’s eyes glow with evil intensity and he reawakens just long enough to choke her to death before ending up back in the same junk store, assumedly waiting for yet another unsuspecting church lady.

Most first-time viewers are mystified by Black Devil Doll from Hell’s obtrusive technical shortcomings. The muffled, thudding Casiotone beats often drown out important dialogue, and Turner displays a Doris Wishman-like penchant for letting the camera roam around rooms during conversations, focusing on seemingly random objects. The editing is confusing, even in the “recut” version released on the Hollywood Home Theater label after Turner’s initial indie release—a version that also adds a no-frills six-minute title sequence (with blatant typos) and includes a laughable lo-fi guitar rock track called “I’m Your Nightmare” written and performed by the distributor’s president called.

Whether by choice or simply a byproduct of Turner’s unrefined approach, Black Devil Doll From Hell’s ostensible horror narrative all but ignores the genre’s common tropes. Instead, there’s a noticeable and disconcerting distance between the anticipated storyline and the actual atmospherics of the film. The basic message here of the virtuous outliving the promiscuous is not entirely unlike many slasher horror franchises of the 1980s, but Helen’s downfall into dirty puppet sex and her subsequent murder are never suspenseful or horrific, and it gets increasingly hard to laugh at the (unintenionally) campy touches as the film barrels towards its depressingly inevitable conclusion.

While there’s little in Black Devil Doll From Hell that specifically identifies the doll as being demonic—aside from the title and a few odd scenes where he exhales (sulphuric?) smoke—the film has notable religious overtones, even opening with a scene in a black-owned Baptist church that was more than likely Turner’s own place of worship. Helen is seduced—literally and forcibly—out of a virtuous life by a Satanic stand-in in a grimy lapse of judgment that more often resembles the dire warnings of a Jack Chick Christian comic tract than a horror film. In fact, the vivid depictions of demons, virgins, seduction and screeds against sin directly recall spiritual artwork by black outsider artists like Sister Gertrude Morgan, a Southern Baptist-raised “Bride of Christ” who believed her self-taught paintings of herself and Jesus flying in airplanes helped “carry God’s message to the headquarters of sin.”

Made three years later, Turner’s follow up, Tales From the Quadead Zone, may be even less coherent. This time, the director downplays the religious overtones, instead offering up three roughly hewn stories that all deal with violent family breakdowns and dysfunction. In the wraparound story, “Unseen Vision”, Shirley Jones returns as a woman caring for the invisible spirit of her dead son Bobby (a hairdryer indicates his ghostly breath; fishing line helps him “hold” objects). After lunch one day she begins to read Bobby stories from the titular book (which looks like a bible wrapped in a hand drawn paper cover).

The brief first story, “Food for ?” features an entirely white cast; a rarity in Turner’s universe. A hillbilly family is about to eat dinner when Pa announces they only have four sandwiches for the eight family members—half will have to go hungry (the entire clan is apparently unfamiliar with long division).  The same problem occurs at the next meal, prompting one of the family members to grab a shotgun and blow away enough of his kin so that everyone gets to eat. The screen then freezes, with superimposed text revealing that several others were shot a few days later, Ma and Pa are living “high on the hog” in Witness Protection, and that the killer has been sent to the “gas chair,” which one can only surmise as a terrifying execution device worse than both the gas chamber or the electric chair alone.

The next tale, “Brother” may not be quite as sleazy as Black Devil Doll from Hell, but it’s got a similar seedy carnival feel that looks to be Turner’s take on the familiar EC Comics revenge story. Ted (played by Turner’s own brother Keefe, who also supplied the voice of the Devil Doll) rounds up a couple pals and breaks into a local funeral home to steal the corpse of his deceased brother, Fred. Why? So he can take him home, dress him up in a clown costume and bury him in the basement—but not before he spends ten minutes chuckling about his plan as he berates the body for stealing his wife and driving her to suicide, among other wrongs. Of course, the clown-suited Fred springs to life (for no apparent reason) just in time to choke Ted to death and stab him with a pitchfork. Fred gets a chance to respond to his brother’s accusations, but his dialogue is so heavily processed in this scene, seemingly inspired by the waterlogged zombies in Creepshow’s ”Something to Tide You Over” segment, that it’s almost impossible to make out what he says.

“Now wasn’t that strange?” Shirley asks Bobby, as action shifts back to the “Unseen Vision” wraparound story, which begins to unfold as a bizarre portrait of domestic abuse. When Shirley’s husband Daryl arrives home and discovers her pampering an invisible son that he doesn’t believe in, he begins smacking her over the head with the book. They end up physical tangling in the kitchen as he repeatedly calls her a “crazy motherfuckin’ dirty bitch”. Finally, Shirley grabs a kitchen knife stabs him to death. The police arrive and arrest Shirley, but she convinces them to let her go to the bathroom. While reminiscing about her son and fingering a razor blade, she suddenly slashes her throat. In the final scene, her ghostly image returns to the house to reunite with her dead child.

Even more than his previous film, Turner’s attempts at storytelling are non-traditional and almost shockingly underdeveloped. If Turner was influenced by the deeply ironic delights of Creepshow, The Twilight Zone TV show or horror comic books, he absorbed none of their lessons—his three segments are largely missing the twists that make these works so effective and, in the case of “Food for ?”, lack even a proper set-up or any sense of logic. Instead it’s the small details that make Tales From the Quadead Zone such a fascinating watch—the opening credits are superimposed over crude Dungeons and Dragons fantasy art drawn by Shirley Jones herself, the insistent Casio noodling drowns out almost all of her narration, and “Brother” spends a peculiar amount of time focusing on a novelty prop—a mug shaped like a breast.

But Turner’s eccentric artistic decisions only distract from the apparent personal nature of the project. Tales From the Quadead Zone begins with a note that the film is “dedicated to the memory of Chester Turner Sr.” and as such may actually be Turner’s weird way of dealing with his father’s death. There’s no telling whether the violent family squabbles depicted in the film may have been drawn from the director’s own experiences, but it’s interesting to note that each anthology entry focuses heavily on death, and specifically that the victims in each story are killed by a family member. Rather than the expected scenes of terror, what ultimately comes through is the underlying tragedy of each family situation—the hillbilly family is slowly starving to death and Ted is afflicted by a blinding rage and jealousy that motivates him to deny his brother a proper burial on consecrated ground—a sin that he pays for with his life.

It’s the final segment of the wraparound story that remains the most poignant part of the film, however. Turner saves the sadistic husband and father for last and gives him the most spectacular and well-deserved death, as he stumbles around the house with a prop knife hanging from his gut. A dark but strangely bittersweet mood descends once Shirley is overcome with despair and starts contemplating suicide, vividly recalling playing with her son and then making the choice to be with him in the afterlife. The only horror here is the tragic toll that the domestic abuse takes, completely destroying the lives of this entire family. It’s an approach that’s wildly at odds with the SOV splatter of Boardinghouse (1982), Spine (1986) or even the Canadian-lensed Super-8 atrocity Things (1989), which usually cared about little more than creating no-budget gross-outs.

It’s doubtful that Turner intended to make personal films disguised as tales of terror to trick prospective renters and boost sales. As shown by films’ ambitious but rudimentary special effects, it’s clear that Turner had a love of the genre and was driven to try his hand at filmmaking by any means necessary. In doing so, he inadvertently became one of the pioneering black horror directors, the only tenuous connection between William Crain, who led the blaxploitation horror fad of the 1970s with Blacula (1972) and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976) and the “urban horror” boom of the 1990s, such as Def By Temptation (1990), The Embalmer (1996) and Bones (2001).

But where both blaxploitation and urban horror films were made simply capitalize on an underserved black audience (and are both dominated by white directors),both Black Devil Doll from Hell and Tales From the Quadead Zone aspire to more than just a quick buck. Chester Novell Turner may only be a footnote in the history of horror cinema, but his films manage to transmit a powerful and intensely personal vision that occasionally peeks through the disturbing scenes of rape, zombie clown attacks and suicide. It’s this quality that makes Turner’s crudely fashioned films not only stand out from other SOV work of the era, but also qualifies them as true pieces of African-American outsider art.

About the author:

Since 1999 Paul Corupe has shared his passion for Canada’s film history at Canuxploitation.com, a site recognized as the essential source for uncovering the forgotten films of Canada’s past. He regularly writes about genre film and Canadian cinema in publications including Rue Morgue magazine and Take One: Film and Television in Canada. He has appeared in several documentaries about Canadian film and scripted episodes of Bravo’s On Screen! television series.

Comments

  1. WOW! I rented “Black Devil Doll” on VHS from Palmer Video in Lawrenceville NJ back in the early 90′s (’91 or ’92?). It became a cult fave with my friends. It soon vanished from the store and the manager there in ’94 even offered me money to dupe my copy because he’d had so many demands from customers for it!

    8 yearss ago

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