The video underground of the early 1990s produced its share of groundbreaking horror films. Examples include AMERICA’S DEADLIEST HOME VIDEO, GORGASM, PUSSBUCKET, DARKNESS, JUGULAR WINE, SAURIANS and ZOMBIE BLOODBATH, all of which were shot on video for very little money, and all of which made a (minor) splash during the years 1990-94.
Overshadowing them all was 1990’s erotic horror extravaganza DARK ROMANCES, by far the most innovative and ambitious project of this particular era. A two volume anthology with a total running time of around 3½ hours, DARK ROMANCES was certainly light years ahead of its SOV predecessors (which included the underachieving likes of SPLATTER FARM, TWISTED ISSUES, VIOLENT SHIT and THINGS); the claim that it contained “the most superb production values ever seen in a video feature” (as an L.A. Weekly reviewer stated) was quite accurate in 1990. Now? Well, as with most of its fellows, time has not been kind to DARK ROMANCES.
Volume one is entitled “Born Evil.” It contains two mini-features, both directed by Mark Shepard. First up is “The Black Veil,” which begins in Victorian England (established via an etching of an old building in place of the real thing). Here a young woman named Meg tracks Justine, an old friend, to the notorious grand guignol theater, apparently the only place Justine feels safe. What Meg doesn’t realize is that Justine is under the evil spell of Diana (scream queen Brinke Stevens), a seductive vampire babe who reappears throughout DARK ROMANCES. Before long Meg herself falls under Diana’s spell, and the consequences, as you might guess, are dire.
The direction by Mark Shepard has a slick, confident sheen that nearly excuses his oft-amateurish juxtaposition of close ups and wide shots, and also the bad acting. Patently fake English accents are a constant, as are tacky synthesizer music and distracting video effects (distorted lenses, superimpositions, etc) that seemed quite innovative back in 1990. Not anymore!
Those things all carry over into “Born Bad’s” second offering “Listen to Midnight.” It features Todd, a misogynistic photographer looking for rough trade in LA. Todd finds what he’s after in the form of a seemingly naïve young lady he lures back to his apartment. There they have sex, which comes to involve flesh ripping and a scarifying metamorphosis.
Volume two of DARK ROMANCES is entitled “Bleeding Hearts,” in which Mark Shepard opened the directorial chores up to a variety of contributors. The five segments are more streamlined and compact than those of Volume One, although amateurish filmmaking and bad acting are still very much in evidence.
“She’s Bad, She’s Blond, She’s Lunch” starts “Bleeding Hearts” off with a white trash couple on a crime spree who try and fleece a DNA scientist in lovers’ lane. Unfortunately for the couple, the scientist has brought along an aggressive creature that feasts on human flesh.
“Cardinal Sin” features a nerdy teen who after rejecting the advances of Diana in his schoolyard becomes dangerously obsessed with a Penthouse centerfold, leading to all manner of unpleasantness.
“Pet Shop of Death” involves a dorky suburbanite living next door to Diana. The guy heads to a freaky pet shop, where he purchases a deadly critter that obligingly chews up his bitchy dominatrix wife.
“Last Love,” written and directed by the talented John Strysik (of THE HUNGER ARTIST and THE MUSIC OF ERIC ZANN), is about a distraught woman psychiatrist who’s haunted–quite literally–by the ghost of her deceased boyfriend. This one is notable for a wildly psychedelic climax
The Patricia Miller directed “What Goes Around…” finishes things off, and is probably the best of the bunch. It’s done up as a mock-film noir, shot mostly in black and white and featuring hard-boiled narration. The narrator is a private dick seduced by an alluring blonde (actually Diana in disguise) who “collects” artists–i.e. she destroys their lives. From there the narrative undergoes some impossible-to-predict twists involving physical mutation and a science fictionish conspiracy.
Like many early-90’s SOV horror fests, DARK ROMANCES was released on VHS by Film Threat Video. That 2 tape set came complete with enthusiastic blurbs by Forrest J. Ackerman, Clive Barker and Stephen King (who encouraged viewers to “Go out and get a cheeseburger, this one’s worth it”–as I recall, upon first viewing DARK ROMANCES I did just that, and found the experience an enjoyable one). Following Film Threat Video’s mid-90’s dissolution it was re-released in 1998 by Salt City Home Video before inevitably falling of the radar. So obscure is DARK ROMANCES these days that it doesn’t even get a mention in Eric Stanze’s otherwise admirably thorough FEARnet article “The Lawless Land of Direct-To-Video, Micro-Budget 80s/90s Cinema.”
How does something as groundbreaking and iconic as DARK ROMANCES go to near-total obscurity in less than a decade? Aside from the demise of Film Threat Video, the changing nature of the industry is largely responsible: by the end of the decade SOV horror was all-but ubiquitous, and had become increasingly slick and polished. Productions like SHATTER DEAD and THE DIVIDING HOUR proved that such fare didn’t have to be amateurish and woodenly acted, with the no-budget charm of their predecessors having long since worn off.
So what’s to become of DARK ROMANCES and its fellow early nineties SOV opuses? I’d venture to day say very little. Few of the films mentioned in the opening paragraph of this essay ever made it to DVD, and all are now extremely difficult to track down. That’s probably as it should be, as most of those films are either extremely poor or extremely dated–which is certainly the case with DARK ROMANCES, a project that is above all else a quintessential product of its time. Maybe someday it will be viewed as some kind of proto masterpiece (as so many early-eighties slasher flicks are currently assessed), but right now it stands as a mildly interesting curiosity and very little else.