Murder on Demand: The Horrors of Video Rental

Curator's Note

Minutes into The Last Horror Movie (UK, 2003), a burst of static interrupts the first murder in what has previously seemed an undistinguished slasher flick. Viewers are now directly addressed by Max, a charismatic serial killer who has taped over the original film with a video diary documenting his exploits. Evoking the mockumentary format and dark humor of Man Bites Dog (1992) and the self-reflexivity of Peeping Tom (1960), Max turns to actual murder as a means of overcoming the horror genre’s creative exhaustion, interspersing his killing footage with moral dilemmas addressing the viewer’s own responses to such violent representations. Max ultimately reveals that he tracks down renters of this very video, making spectators into participants by recording their videotaped responses to the video diary before killing them and returning the video to the store for the next unsuspecting customer.

Unlike Videodrome (1983), The Video Dead (1987), or Ringu (1998), which depict video technology itself as a source of supernatural horror, The Last Horror Movie posits the practice of video rental as potentially horrific. Human agency is the real monster here, as the renter’s prurient interest in horror representation is confronted by Max’s lethal inquiries about one’s reactions to images of “real” death (including the renter’s own impending demise). This resonates with Britain’s history of moral panics over “video nasties” and horror films mistaken for “snuff,” but also expresses a more general anxiety over video technologies as objects of mediated interpersonal exchange. After all, whose fingerprints are on the rental formats that we casually bring into our homes, and what dubious uses might these same images have served for countless strangers?

While the film’s premise relies on the direct-to-video (DTV) release destined for most independent genre films, its conceit is made less plausible by the ongoing decline of brick-and-mortar video stores, which has made it more difficult to chance upon DTV films that overcome their scant publicity budgets with lurid titles and box art calling from store shelves. Few critics and scholars have investigated the vast field of DTV genre production, suggesting their own fears or anxieties over how to account for this threateningly abundant realm of independent cinema. DTV films may remain ignored or minimized due to lingering biases against non-theatrical titles, but if scholars are reluctant to delve into this world, they will continue to neglect some of the most genre-literate work being released.

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