Updated: Jan 14, 2022
Making films used to be more challenging than using iMovie. Your VHS camcorder offered a small, black-and-white viewfinder, so it was best to review footage on your VCR. Tape heads could break, and your camera would need to be repaired. Shooting in low light? You might see ghostly trails on the playback. Low resolution compared to film was to be expected.
On the plus side, shooting on video cost less than celluloid, and tape was reusable. Also, it eliminated the turnaround time needed with film, because nothing needed to be sent out for processing. The perfect storm of faster and cheaper meant that a metric ton of shot-on-video (SOV) movies were churned out in the '80s. Anyone with a camcorder, a few bucks and some friends could make a movie. Mark and John Polonia were pioneers in the SOV landscape, and Mark continues to innovate in low-budget filmmaking since John's passing in 2008. Mark is a good friend of mine, and granted me a Retro Injection interview, which true cinephiles should check out.
Channel 13 is a long-lost, SOV horror anthology from Mark and John Polonia. The Polonia Brothers have churned out a cannon of over seventy films since the '80s. Production of Channel 13 began in 1986 when the brothers were finishing high school, and the footage was almost lost to the ages. In 2015, Mark unearthed the raw tapes during a basement cleanup. He had completely forgotten about the long-shelved effort. Sitting down with the decaying elements, Mark unleashed his editing wizardry to construct a vision of what he would have released decades prior. I was thrilled to contribute to the completion of Channel 13, by appearing in wraparound segments featuring my house and home arcade. Sub Rosa Cinema released Channel 13 in 2019.
Weighing in at an hour and appropriately thirteen minutes, Channel 13 contains three short stories, presented in a format similar to the George A. Romero and Stephen King collaboration Creepshow. When an unnamed character played by yours truly attempts to channel surf, he finds that only Channel 13 is broadcasting. Its programming? A monk-hooded monster who introduces three sinister stories:
"All Hallows Eve"
The inspiration for Mark's 2009 feature-length movie HalloweeNight, this yarn deals with a tormented youth joining his murderous scarecrow on a path to vengeance. John constructed an impressive beating heart effect for the scarecrow, but the highlight of this segment is an incredibly bloody confrontation in the supermarket where John worked. It was filmed without permission, while the store had customers!
"Claws of Terror"
This second vignette is shorter and more lighthearted: It pits a seed-toting, stonewashed jeans-wearing dude against a giant bird. Mark constructed the creature for this feature in 2015, with a look reflective of his SOV heyday. Keep a lookout for the victim's "Beware the Penguins" Budweiser t-shirt, placing this shoot squarely in the '90s. An intentional bird in-joke, or just a great coincidence? This segment boasts the best video quality of the three, due to its later production.
A couple of stranded guys unwisely decide to spend the night at Hank's Sauce Factory. Hank is all-too willing to offer the strangers some country hospitality, and one of them suspects something isn't kosher with his operation. But is it too late? John Polonia was inspired to pen the story after seeing publicity stills of Motel Hell. Horror films played a big part in the cinematic development of the Polonia brothers: This featurette evokes shades of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and its cloth-masked killer could be Jason's stand-in for Friday the 13th Part II. (Well, maybe without the Velcro-strap sneakers.) While all of the short films on Channel 13 showcase “working with what you've got,” bonus points go to “Slaughterhouse” for its montage of Hank's processing machinery, which reminded me of Ted V. Mikels' The Corpse Grinders. (You can look that one up for yourself.)
But that's not all! What will be the fate of the unwary channel surfer, now that he has taken in this depravity?
With great cover art that's screaming to be a t-shirt, Channel 13 is a limited release, pressed on 225 Blu-ray discs and 100 DVDs by Sub Rosa Studios, or “SRS Home Video,” per the retro nod on the cover. There was also a run of twenty-five VHS tapes, which has long since sold out. I was initially disappointed, having to buy a DVD of a shot-on-video movie. It felt wrong, especially after viewing Channel 13 on VHS, thanks to Mark's tape. But Sub Rosa did a great job in giving the DVD release proper retro treatment, via pseudo "Be Kind & Rewind" and "Horror" video store-style decals. They did what I hoped they would do, and integrated a photo of a VHS tape into the DVD's label. The disc version has an insightful commentary track by Mark which frequently made me laugh! Mark's like that.
Some people scoff at technical inferiority of “the old days,” but others celebrate CGI-free, grainy glory. If you love blood and guts, the '80s, and VHS, you'll want to tune to Channel 13. It's a low-budget, gore-soaked slice of SOV history.
You can check out Retro Injection's other horror and sci-fi reviews here. You'll also love our homage to VHS tapes, and a tribute to the video stores of yesteryear, many of which rented Polonia Bros. films!