Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Chas Balun, Rest In Piece(s)
The book was THE GORE SCORE and I was probably 16 or 17 years old. Maybe even a bit younger. A slim tome, not even knocking in at a hundred pages as I recall, but it was a groundbreaking piece of work, especially to mine eyes. To my little mind who was only exposed to FANGORIA and what horror movies I had the forethought to rent because of that magazine, THE GORE SCORE was a fucking revelation. I just assumed movies like GATES OF HELL or those other lower end imports sucked because I had not heard of them. I saw no coverage, knew nothing of what they were about. And didn't care, I was all about Freddy, or the latest movie. RomeroChas Balun trepanned my skull and poured in a world full of new horror with that one book. And he didn't fucking stop for many years. MORE GORE SCORE, HORROR HOLOCAUST, THE DEEP RED HORROR HAND BOOK, DEEP RED MAGAZINE and most importantly his column in GOREZONE magazine (the most missed magazine of the mainstream horror genre in my opinion). That motherfucker laid his tracks into the genre and let a lot of people like me know that horror only BEGAN where most of us thought it ended.
This trail blazing old hippie of horror died December 18th, 2009 after a long fight with cancer. For reasons I am not privy too (nor should I be, I am not family) this was not made public until today. Though his writing about the genre had trailed off, the loss felt from his passing is still a huge one. His presence was important with his working meaning a lot to an entire generation of us out here. Hell, him and his work meant a hell of a lot to me.
Without his work I sincerely doubt I would be making films today. I mean that in all honesty. There is a direct connection between his raw enthusiasm for the upcoming independent filmmakers and my not only wanting to be a filmmaker, but having the courage to actually do it, when the hurdles in my life would become too large. His writing would often help me to believe that people out there could find the kind of work I wanted to make. He often wrote of the new artists in his books and columns, reminding us that the old guard, the Romero's, Cronenberg's etc had to have come from somewhere and that probably reading his shit right then were people that had that edge, that burning desire to break the genre wide open and be heard. This was a consistent theme in his stuff and it meant a fuck-ton to me.
I read HORROR HOLOCAUST so much that it literally fell apart. I still have that copy with the pages loose. I proudly have all the issues of DEEP RED, which is where. like many others, I discovered the work of Buddy Giovanazzo who now stands among my favorite filmmakers. I still read those issue to this day, having read them more times than I can honestly count. The enthusiasms for the genre always apparent.
But Chas was never one to back down from his opinion either. He didn't like the direction he saw the genre going in the late 80's and was very vocal about it. The whole horror comedy bullshit that was the studio's answer to being bullied by various censorship venues was something he rallied against often. He screamed about sequels, the lack of originality, the sacred cows of the genre selling out and getting lazy. He had no personal stakes in the genre so he could say what he wanted. He made his living as a graphic designer, so he was not beholden to the industry to be nice. this only endeared him more to the people who counted. The fans. The people who agreed with many of his opinions, and began to champion the older films he was helping to dig up and rediscover. The first place I read about LAST HOUSE ON DEAD END ST. was in Balun's PIECE 'O MIND Column. Same with FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. These amazing grindhouse films that we all talk endless about online now, that have special edition DVD's were once only mentioned in hushed whispers and tones and gotten through illicit bootlegs and trading of tapes. And it was Chas Balun who was championing them. He was among the first people to tell horror fans to wake up and get laser disc players, to start buying Japanese import tapes, to start looking in your local ethic shops for alternate cuts of movies and to start embracing Foreign movies such as Hong Kong cinema. All of which became standard operating procedure a few years later for the true horror fanatic. But Chas was there first leading the way.
Then there was the controversy. Oh yes the controversy. It was Chas Balun who was the first to introduce to these shores the work of Jorg Buttgereit, Andreas Schnass, and the GUINEA PIG films. This stuff would have eventually filtered in anyway I suppose, but it was the writing in his books that woke people up to this stuff first and for-most. Realistically I think few people jumped on the Andreas Schnass stuff outside of the catchy title of the VIOLENT SHIT trilogy, though they remain popular to this day for some reason. But Buttgereit's NEKROMANTIK became a certified underground sensation thanks to one very small review in Deep Red magazine (and then later another mention in one, now defunct SLAUGHTERHOUSE magazine). Tapes got traded, the movie was bootlegged as it was not available any other way at the time. It lived up to the hype and made a splash in the underground. Eventually Film Threat home video picked it up as well as Buttgereit's other films. To gain favor and public attention they went after Chas Balun as a "bootlegger" starting a war. Balun never advertised as a tape source, though he would send you a list if you asked. He would gladly trade instead of sell you anything. It was pretty far from his vocation and only something he did as a way to expand the collection and get stuff that others could not see out to them. If it was not for Chas Balun, NEKROMANTIK would have not had the fanbase to even been a title worth distributing at that point (I am sure it was Film Threat's flagship title). This all climaxed with Film Threat Editor Chris Gore getting a beer poured on his head in public at a Fangoria convention. Nothing much more ever came of it than that.
The Guinea Pig thing went a little deeper after Chas had made a few tapes of those movies for friends. Fellow writer Dennis Daniels (who was writing for Film Threat at the time) showed one at a party that included some Hollywood "names" including Charlie Sheen and Adam Rifkin (can Rifkin even really be called a Hollywood name though) who were both convinced what they saw was a legitimate snuff film. Now, Sheen I can forgive, he was probably really high at that point in his life, but Rifkin is a filmmaker who has made movies with lots of special effects. He fucking well should have known better. They went to the FBI and reported it. Somehow pretty much the entire DEEP RED "Family" was thrown under the bus in the process to the feds as having actual snuff films. Of course once the Feds investigated and saw the episode that was behind the scenes footage it all became a moot point. And a rather embarrassing one at that.
Not too long after that Chas started drifting away from the Genre. His writing became more and more sparse, with only a couple of books in the late 90's and 2000's. His discouragement with where the genre went was obvious in those tomes. His enthusiasm was almost gone it seemed. If you watch the incredible documentary IN THE BELLY OF THE BEAST about the 1997 FANTASIA film festival there is some telling footage of Chas in there really taking to task filmmaker Nacho Cerda for his movie AFTERMATH which Balun basically considered to be just "gorenography". He also didn't appreciate the raw footage shown of festival organizer Karem Hussain's SUBCONSCIOUS CRUELTY either. Chas seems honestly distressed by the films on display there. Later some of his writing expounds upon how the newer wave of filmmakers seem totally intent on just out-doing each other. Going for the gore shot and nothing else. Who can be more brutal and vile than the other guy at the expense of everything else. At the time I disagreed with him violently about that. I think AFTERMATH is a fine film. But as time has wore on, I really have gotten what he was talking about now. After seeing this current generation of independent horror filmmakers that are doing just exactly what Chas was saying. Complete and utter shit like A BLADE ABORTION have shown that he was right about where this was all going.
My own personal contact with Balun started in the mid to late 90's when I traded some tapes with him. He was the first person that I got some "underground" and uncut movies from. I got an uncut copy of MEET THE FEEBLES from him that I went on to were the hell out. I later when working at the local art house theater, booked a 35mm print of because I had loved that tape so much. I also got MEET THE FEEBLESLAST HOUSE ON DEAD END ST. (which I would go on to write a sequel to many years later that came "this close" to getting made with orignal LHODES director Roger Watkins before he too passed away) and some other compilations that Chas had done himself among many other things. I made my first compilation tape ever and sent it to Chas. He sent me my first copy of THE HOLY MOUNTAIN as I needed it for a film class (my obsession for Jordorowsky then exploded). I finally met Chas Balun in 1997 at the Fangoria Weekend of Horrors in Las Angeles. I was there with my friend Terek Puckett who had just moved to L.A. and Jim VanBebber who was about to move there. That weekend was crazy and I met a LOT of other people such as Buddy G. (who said the trailer for my then in progress film THE MUTILATION MAN was "fucking sick and twisted" one of the best compliments I have ever gotten), Bill Lustig and John Lazar aka Z. Man Bartel himself. But getting to sit down with Chas Balun at the hotel restaurant and have a 1:00 am dinner, just he, I and Terek was probably the highlight of the trip. Just calm, cool, no bullshit or pretension chillin out talking about movies. I remember he confided that at that point he had really gone back to his roots and was into the 50's Sci-Fi movies like EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCES and INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN. He was even jacked up to see INDEPENDENCE DAY! The next day one of the big panels at the convention was for the BLADE RUNNER reunion (one of the last appearances of Brion James unfortunately) and William Sanderson was there. Chas Balun was among the first people to ask a question and naturally he asked Sanderson about FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE. Sanderson squirmed and hemmed and hawed but answered the question, but then another one from the crowd, came. Soon the Q&A had been derailed from BLADE RUNNER to FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE with Balun leading the charge. Sanderson went from being embarrassed of this quasi racist bit of his ugly past to willing to openly talk about it as he realized the crowd loved the movie and appreciated his work. All because of Chas Balun.
I regret that I lost touch with Chas over the years. I often thought to myself that I should send him my latest movies, but then didn't. I think I was afraid he would lump my work in with the generation of people who are just in it for the shock for shock's sake. Now I regret it. I should have let him know that I am making movies because his writing kept me consistently enthused enough to continue. When I was basically kicked out of film school for making content they disapproved of, it was Balun's writing that convinced me it didn't matter that my heart was true to what I was doing. I DID tell him that when I met him. So at least I got that much right by him. I started my fanzine because I admired what he was doing, and I still write this blog for that same reason. Last year we lost the great writer Bill Landis (as flawed as some of his views may have been he was a hell of a writer) and now we've lost Chas. We are clearly at the end of an era. Michael Weldon better go get a health check up stat!!!
© Andrew Copp
Below is the trailer for "CHUNKBLOWER" a film that was written by Chas Balun and to be directed by Jim VanBebber. This trailer was all that ever got made. I read the script for it, and it could have been described as THE HILLS HAVE EYES meets GUINEA PIG in an urban setting. Truthfully in the climate that horror films were at in the 90's, this was NEVER going to get made.