Reflections on a VHS Tape: Season of Fear (1989)

If I may take a brief respite from queer history and Newark on film to navel-gaze for a moment:

Season of Fear first entered my life in the spring of 1990, and it’s not hard to see how the film might captivate a middle-schooler with brand new access to R-rated rentals; even notwithstanding the rather heavy-handed center of visual gravity, this is a pretty alluring video box. Who wouldn’t be curious about a “twisting, turning summer of passion,” even without the murder?

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Apparently I was susceptible to the film’s charms, as noted in my movie log—though you can see where my tastes tended at the time (I have no idea why I listed the MPAA ratings and then my own version of what they should be, except that I hated the MPAA from a very early age and presumably enjoyed correcting them—more in theory than in practice, it seems. I will stand by the assessment of UHF, however).

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After that, nearly a quarter-century passed without my thinking of the film once. I tend to have a pretty solid film-memory, but having watched nearly every turgid straight-to-video thriller to pass my way between about 1990 and 1995, I will confess that they have melted into a collective blank spot in my mind, where Andrew Stevens and Shannon Tweed and lots of bad soft-jazz sax play out barely-differing iterations of the same dull scenarios unto oblivion. I’m probably not alone here; for a particular age group, this might be called the Skinemax Syndrome.

This all went down in lovely, miserable Wasilla, Alaska. When I reencountered Season of Fear a few months ago, it was at Hollynorm Video on the east end of Hollywood. I used to live near here, and I’ve long been amazed by Hollynorm’s ability to persevere as other local video shops folded (RIP, Jerry’s and Mondo, you are missed). I even somewhat fetishistically filmed it three years ago, more or less assuming it was not long for this world.

I was in Los Angeles for research this time, and had more or less vacuumed up all the good scores among the glorious old VHS tapes Hollynorm continues to stock in its back aisle years earlier. But I was staying down the street, had time to kill, and couldn’t resist another browse when I saw that lovely glowing sign.

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I remembered the box for Season of Fear, but nothing else about it. I wasn’t really curious—the world is full of churned-out torrid low-rent thrillers—but what drew me in was the IMDB’s note that it was filmed in Stockton, California. I’d just been through Stockton for the first time, transferring from a train to a bus en route from Fresno to Chico, and in the ten minutes I spent there, I had exactly two thoughts about the place. First, Stephen Malkmus, who grew up here, doesn’t get much credit for sincerity in his lyics, but “I had to get the fuck out of this town” sure sounds like he means it, and I could see why. Second, next time someone shoots a Jim Thompson adaptation, they should film it here. 

Season of Fear is no Thompson adaptation, but it plays more like the work of someone who heard about Thompson or James M. Cain, got access to a $10,000 budget and a spare farmhouse, and shot a movie. A really awful, plodding, lifeless movie. This blurry screencap sums the whole thing up.

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“We’re not both gonna survive this thing, are we?”
“Well, at least the line of sight here totally doesn’t solicit a spectatorial gaze that would make Laura Mulvey bang her head against a wall, though!”

I have no idea what the youthful me was thinking—my movie log entry is as emotionally legible as a scratched diary entry from an 18th-century midwife. Was it the scenery? We never even see Stockton, and Bela Tarr himself would fast-forward the open scene, basically ten minutes of some guy driving. There’s some decent dust kicked up:

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Later, there are wind turbines, and a dinky lake. The latter has some pathos, maybe that’s what grabbed me?

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Certainly it wasn’t prurient interest; the film can’t begin to compete with early-90s gems like Night Eyes or Inner Sanctum there. It does answer a few questions, such as, What would it be like if a film starred Buck from Kill Bill?

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Or, How did Ray Wise pay the bills before that whole Laura Palmer thing?

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Questions no one will ever ask include, why didn’t Clare Wren’s career ever take off, since she makes a deeply unconvincing femme fatale. The strange presence of a Glenn Frey solo tune over the end credits (wretched, as all things Eagles are) has probably generated little contemplation over the years as well, though I can’t help wondering how that happened, since it must have cost, well, something, where the rest of the film looks cobbled together in spare moments between some other real shoot, like one of those under-the-table bonus movies Jess Franco would make without anyone even knowing.

Apparently the film was not technically direct-to-video, since the Washington Post reviewed it—though I’m not sure whether critic Richard Harrington, who mistakes California desert for “the widest-open spaces of the Midwestern heartland,” actually watched it. Nor should you; if you’re hard up for cinematic dreck, those dreary Canadian tax-loss thrillers of the 70s have more verve. For my part, I am reminded of Lucas Hilderbrand’s confession at the start of his delightful Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright: “My book is unabashedly nostalgic, just as I suspect that the affective uses of videotape have often been.” 

Well, so is this post. Season of Fear has never appeared on DVD, so it can’t held but carry unearned emotional weight simply by virtue of being stuck on an old VHS tape:

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Hell, by this point I’m nostalgic for the dying days of video stores and the VHS-liquidation glory days of 2002 or so. Which is why I take such pleasure in the persistence of rare places like Hollynorm Video, which serve as living affective archives of a bygone era. Nostlagia is a dangerous, reactionary thing, but that said, tell me there is not something beautiful and resonant about this:

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