Straight to VHS: Sunday Dinner

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cthulahoop 04/12/12 (Thu) 12:06:22 #12766349

The premise of a real commercial "snuff film" has bewitched film-goers and film-makers over the years. From urban legends regarding a suicide in the background of The Wizard of Oz to the campaign of misinformation surrounding The Blair Witch Project, audiences and directors have indirectly conspired to achieve the appearance of an authentic "death on tape" for decades.

The irony is palpable: records of genuine deaths can be obtained near-effortlessly. News outlets provide endless footage of war; meanwhile, one needs only to crack open a history book to find countless images of execution, mass murder, and senseless violence. But these deaths are presented as informative rather than titillating — detached from the camera's hungry lens. They did not die for our viewing pleasure.

The snuff film is more intimate; more voyeuristic. Though it may frame itself as merely "instructive" (such as the seminal 1978 classic, Faces of Death), this contrivance is merely to placate our sense of guilt long enough to watch someone die for our enjoyment. And isn't that the whole point? When Hideshi Hino drugs, kidnaps, and dismembers a beautiful woman over several hours in the 1985 Japanese horror film, Guinea Pig 2: Flowers of Flesh and Blood, is it not clear this is for our own gratification? Doesn't the framing of the film (footage taken by the murderer himself) presume the murderer wants us to watch? Even participate? The harder it is to distinguish from an authentic murder, the more tantalizing it becomes. We soothe our conscience by telling ourselves it's just a movie — all while a tiny voice teases and thrills us with just a whisper: but what if it's not?

This zealous dedication to verisimilitude often has a cost. Hideshi Hino has had to demonstrate his special effects to skeptical authorities on multiple occasions (even going so far as explaining them in another film, The Making of Guinea Pig). The director of Cannibal Holocaust (1980) famously appeared in court with his cast to prove they were not actually dead. Even Faces of Death still receives periodic outcries for the "monkey-brain" scene (the monkey was not harmed; the mallets were foam and the brains were cauliflower).

In 1983, Goldhaus Distributors released Sunday Dinner. The most well-known version is two and a half hours long; it consists of cuts between six different cameras hidden throughout a home. Over the first forty five minutes, we watch a family — a father, a mother, two sons, and a daughter — having an ordinary Sunday dinner. The grainy, low-quality footage and lack of sound design helps sell it as genuine. Then, the footage cuts to the attic; messy, but seemingly uninhabited. Back to the family, heads bowed. The daughter is saying grace. Back to the attic.

Something lurches past the camera.

There are no musical cues, no shocking sounds; merely the silent intrusion of something that does not belong. The effect of this is stunning on account of how it doesn't try to be.

Back to the family, enjoying dinner and chatting about each other's day. We learn one of the boys is having trouble at school. Something about a bully. The mother disapproves of violence, but the father wants him to stand up for himself. The other son, desperate to avoid what is likely a recurring marital spat, interrupts by offering his latest scholastic achievement. He got a B+ on his math exam. The father and mother put their dispute on hold long enough to express their pride. Meanwhile, the daughter complains of a tummy ache.

Back to the attic.

The figure now paces. We cannot make out his face; it is covered in a crudely stitched burlap sack. It's only now that astute viewers start to identify clues that indicate his prolonged presence: Empty tin cans. A filth encrusted bucket filled with (presumably) excrement. Piles of clothes used as a bed.

The shot lingers. For eight minutes, we watch him pace side to side. When he abruptly stops, it almost looks like he's staring up at the camera.

Cut back to the family dinner.

All of them are now slumped in their chairs or over the table, paralyzed and whimpering.

At this point, the film proceeds much as you would expect: the figure descends, then methodically murders each paralyzed family member. The mother is crushed (bones snapping) when she is forced into the oven — then roasted alive. The father is eviscerated, his intestines forced down his throat. Both sons are placed inside the refrigerator, left to experience the agony of asphyxiation via carbon dioxide (the killer notably takes the time to carefully empty the refrigerator's contents before removing the shelves).

The daughter is the last and most disturbing. This is on account of the paralytic (presumably placed in their food) partially wearing off. The audience is subjected to an excruciatingly extended scene where she crawls out to the porch, sobbing and screaming for help — only to be dragged back inside by her ankle. Forty five minutes later, the film ends.

Unsurprisingly, this movie (made available on VHS through Goldhaus Distributors' mail-order catalog) caught the attention of law enforcement. The video was uncredited and the effects (combined with the grainy low quality of the footage) were good enough to make it seem "too authentic". Compounding this problem was that Goldhaus Distributors (operated entirely by a married couple out of their living room) claimed to have received the film from Crystal Elms Productions — a production company that didn't even exist. Goldhaus couldn't prove that the video wasn't real.

Was it, though? There were several clues, not the least of which was that no murder like this had been recently reported. The positions of the cameras implied that they were not hidden at all. The timing of the killer's movements (and that brief glance at the audience) suggested a director's hand. The daughter's complaint of a tummy ache sounded like foreshadowing. The mother's death, while shockingly graphic, had the killer obstructing our view at several key points (points where she could have swapped places with a dummy). The porch camera was used only once, at the end; its placement was extremely convenient. How could the killer have known the daughter would crawl out the back door?

But the most compelling argument of all was the simplest: Why? Why would someone go through the trouble of hiding several cameras in a family's house, secretly living in their attic — only to drug them, murder them, then send the footage to a film distributor for public consumption?

Despite these points, Goldhaus Distributors removed Sunday Dinner from their catalog and handed all extant copies over to the FBI. The ensuing investigation is still ongoing; the movie itself became a footnote in the history of exploitative schlock-horror.

Then, during an interview in 2010 on Troma-Vision (a podcast for horror movies from various genres), Brian Holdinger (an independent film-maker) professed his fascination with Sunday Dinner. One of the hosts (an actress named Susan White) confessed a similar fascination. During the following discussion, they realized they had drastically different recollections of what happened in the film. To settle the debate, they agreed to bring in their copies and watch them together.

They soon discovered that both owned completely different copies. In Holdinger's, it is a mother who lives alone with her two daughters. All three are drugged, butchered, then boiled alive. In White's, it's an elderly couple living alone — they are buried in a pit in their basement as they scream.

It wasn't until January of this year that they started finding bodies.

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