No one would confuse Boardinghouse for a good movie, but it is one-of-a-kind—and sometimes, that's a more remarkable achievement. Made in 1982, Boardinghouse was the first horror feature shot on digital video, which would be a notable landmark even if the movie's plot, performances, and dialogue didn't match its grade-Z aesthetic. As it is, director John Wintergate (who cowrote the screenplay with his wife Kalassu) apparently uses the rough visual format as an excuse to embrace all things crude and nonsensical. The intentionality of the movie's ludicrousness is debatable—there's a fine line between surrealism and inanity—but the end product is the same: a vision of primitive digital sleaze that seems to have drifted in from an alien dimension (or perhaps just from early '80s California).
The movie opens with a bright-green digital scrawl, ostensibly on the computer screen of a detective in the Beverly Hills Police Department. A monotonous voiceover narration accompanies the onscreen text for good measure, providing the backstory: in September 1972, a doctor and his wife, both of whom specialize in the occult, are found dead in their Mulholland Drive home, apparently a double suicide. Their daughter Debbie, after witnessing their deaths, undergoes a nervous breakdown and is institutionalized. But the mayhem continues: later occupants of the house also meet bizarre, grisly demises, including a woman whose arm is chopped up in the garbage disposal (one of the first diegetic images to which Boardinghouse treats us) and a man who falls out his beach chair and into the swimming pool.
Flash forward a decade: the home is bequeathed by its most recent owner, also deceased, to his nephew Jim (played by cowriter-director Wintergate under the pseudonym Hawk Adly). If he ever exhibited recognizable human behavior, Jim might have been an interesting character: a playboy who has some kind of law-related career, he believes in transcendental meditation, karmic energy and telekinesis. Apparently, he's also a shameless sleazebag as he puts out an advertisement for the home to be rented only to young female starlets in and around Hollywood. The young women who show up to rent rooms are meant to be sexualized, but the early '80s fashions and pixilated imagery make that difficult. Thankfully, they don't seem threatened by Jim as he primarily sits around shirtless and gazes about his weirdly sexless harem.
Jim might very well have been a precursor to Tommy Wiseau's Johnny in The Room: a weird blend of virility and easily wounded insecurity, who frequently gives stilted line readings in an unplaceable accent. He beds several of the nymphets practically without trying and halfheartedly protects one of the tenants from her cop ex-boyfriend. (If only the film would have used this subplot as a way to inject some political commentary, but sadly, Boardinghouse has no such ambitions in mind). Another boarder played by cowriter Kalassu (credited only by her first name) performs in a hair metal/pop band, turning Boardinghouse into a cringe-inducing musical for at least part of its running time.
In the 160-minute "director's cut," at least, so much time is devoted to these unrelated storylines and sloppy characterizations that there's hardly any horror going on. In one of the early scenes, a sanitarium doctor, apparently under a demon's spell, tears out his own intestines (squeamish viewers shouldn't worry; the unconvincing effect appears to be created by handfuls of dog food). Later, at about the forty-minute mark, a woman taking a shower (one of many instances of gratuitous but totally unappealing nudity) hallucinates blood dripping from the tiles and envisions herself as a bloody pig woman in the mirror, pulling a dead rodent from her mouth. The latter scene is so inexplicable and grotesque that it could actually be considered scary, or at least unshakeably bizarre; sadly, it's one of the few moments in the movie that carries an ounce of intrigue.
It all culminates in a raucous house party at which numerous guests start dropping like flies. Ultimately, the real source of the horror is revealed, as Boardinghouse turns out to be not a haunted house movie but a story of demonic possession. The narrative is rarely engaging, but every once in a while a true oddity appears onscreen to recapture your attention: for example, the worst high-five ever captured on camera, a scene in which a refrigerator vomits yogurt upon the poor woman who opened the door, and a moment in which a victim's eyeballs fall out of their head and into a bowl of punch at the climactic party.
The phrase "so bad it's good" comes to mind, but that expression has always seemed a little too unkind, as though viewers are innately superior to everyone involved in the making of the movie. Despite the snark with which I wrote about the movie above, it's hard not to admire Boardinghouse's anything-goes lunacy, the weirdness that transpires from so many misguided decisions, and the obvious enthusiasm that seemingly everyone involved had for the project. Back in high school, I made videos with my friends predominantly as an excuse to hang out, improvise, mimic our favorite genre clichés, and build blood-squirting machines as an excuse to indulge in gratuitous gore. I had flashbacks to those DIY video projects while watching Boardinghouse, and that in itself is reason to appreciate it.
Back in 1962, Manny Farber wrote, "Movies have always been suspiciously addicted to termite-art tendencies. Good work usually arises where the creators...seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn't anywhere or for anything." I'm not necessarily saying this applies to Boardinghouse—I still hesitate to call it "good work"—but it has zero ambitions toward gilt culture. It is, as Farber said later in the same article, "termite tapeworm-fungus-moss art [that] goes always forward eating its own boundaries." It exists in contradistinction to polished, competent, well-made Hollywood fare, and there is something extremely valuable in this polar opposite of lofty ambition.
One of the most successful motifs (I use that word somewhat bashfully) in Boardinghouse is a fuzzy digital blob, vaguely human-shaped, that appears onscreen whenever something ostensibly horrific is about to happen. This is often followed by a close-up of a black-gloved hand foregrounded against a blast of colorful static—an unexpected homage to giallo, maybe. Never mind that the scenes that follow these maximalist touches are rarely frightening; the oddity of their abrupt appearance is what really matters. Comprised of rough digital effects in their nascency, edited into the film with the sloppiest jump cuts imaginable, they fly in the face of narrative (or any kind of) logic and take on an appearance all their own. They're the clearest indication that, ultimately, Boardinghouse might not be good or bad but simply, singularly ugly.
Runtime: 157m. (Director's Cut)
Premiere: December 31, 1982 (San Francisco)
US Release: October 21, 1983
US Distributor: Coast Films (original theatrical release); Olive Films & Slasher // Video (American home media); American Genre Film Archive (international Blu-ray release)
Director: John Wintergate
Producers: Peter Baahlu, Elliot Van Koghbe
Writers: John Wintergate, Kalassu Wintergate (as Jonema)
Music: 33 1/3, Kalassu, Teeth
Cinematography: Elliot Van Koghbe (as Obee Ray), Jan Lucas
Editor: Jim Balcom, Johnny Kay
Cast: John Wintergate (as Hawk Adly), Kalassu (as Kalassu Kay), Alexandra Day, Joel McGinnis Riordan, Brian Bruderlin, Belma Kora, Tracy O'Brian, Mary McKinley, Rosane Woods, Cindy Warren, Christopher Conlan, Elizabeth Hall, Tom Mones, Dean Disico