Emerging from the ruins of America’s disillusioned Reagan-era youth, DIY filmmaker Nick Zedd took the ‘fuck you’ sentiment of his country’s hardcore punk movement and carved it bloodily onto celluloid, with a series of startling short films that would form the basis of what he would later term "the cinema of transgression".

Filming on whatever stock they could lay their hands on (often utilising discarded offcuts from local studios, or even stealing reels for their needs), this unofficial collective – which also included the likes of Beth B, David Wojanarowicz, Tommy Turner and performance artist Joe Coleman – stuck to a manifesto concocted by Zedd, vowing to break cinematic taboos and forsake conventional attributes such as budget and talent for shock tactics.

Early stand-outs from this troupe include BLACK BOX, THE NYMPH, WHOREGASM, POLICE STATE and WHERE EVIL DWELLS. If you can hunt them down, they’re well worth checking out. As is Jack Sargent’s excellent book "Deathtripping", which stands as possibly the best literary account of this short-lived but influential movement.

Which leads us to Richard Kern, a native of North Carolina who as a young man relocated to New York in the early 1980s and stumbled across Zedd in a local cinema. He was immediately overwhelmed with the desire to make his own films. And get laid in the process.

Kern, who later became a revered photographer of fetish and BDSM material (he’s had several coffee table-type tomes published over the last couple of decades), immediately stood out from the crowd. His keen eye for lighting, framing, editing and sound made him a more aesthetically reliable proposition than his counterparts – though his films are still ugly, naturally – and with these talents came an ability to tell stories within his bombastic imagery in a manner that the others seemed less capable of.

This led to Kern attracting the likes of punk poetess Lydia Lunch and then-Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins to appear in his films, as well as some great bands – Butthole Surfers, J G Thirlwell, The Dream Syndicate, Sonic Youth etc – offering their services for the soundtracks.

Ultimately, a core of Kern’s volatile, confrontational films (perhaps ‘hate anthems’ is a more apt term) became bandied together on VHS, and later DVD, and known as The Hardcore Collection.

And now, here they are … on blu-ray. Yes, you read that right!

Presented in chronological order, the disc offers no less than 21 films which collectively span Kern’s career between 1983 and 1992. Between them, they are as fucked up, pretentious and at times genuinely unnerving as anything else out there. And they often boast great slabs of either post-punk or industrial (sometimes both) as their scores.

To offer a critique on each individual film would render this review cumbersome and user-unfriendly. So, assuming many who visit SGM are familiar with Kern, I’m going to keep it briefer than I could and start by stating that many of these films are fucking awesome. In a no-budget, grungy type of way.

Imagine, if you will, the experimental shorts of Kenneth Anger, set to rock music while tackling subjects such as sexuality and religion in typically subversive manner. Now imagine the odours that permeate through the screen when you watch any of the films that came out of Andy Warhol’s Factory period. Take in a heap of transgressive sexual behaviours and profane language from the early cinema of John Waters. Throw in some occasional sloganeering ("I owe you nothing", "Destroy", Sex is Death" etc), often presented as flashing capital letters in a manner popularised by Jean-Luc Godard. Now, mix them all together and infuse them with an unhealthy dose of spiteful nihilism, and you might get something akin to the poison Kern was peddling.

Okay, for the benefit of those not so well versed in all things Kern, here are some of my favourite moments from this set:

It all begins here with his 1983 effort GOODBYE 42ND STREET, a 5-minute handheld walk down the legendary street of sleaze and pornography, interspersed with screams, nudity and scenes of simulated gore (axe killings, shotgun suicides etc). The movie posters witnessed during this walk down memory lane are great in themselves.

THE RIGHT SIDE OF MY BRAIN is a perverse take on feminist empowerment, Lunch hanging around seedy disused buildings and dreaming of being overpowered by various men (including Rollins), while whispering out a portentous poem about repressed desires. In the disc’s bonus interview, Kern reveals it was Lunch’s idea to perform a violent blowjob on her male co-star. And they shot the footage twice for good measure!

Sonic Youth are the stars of DEATH VALLEY 69, a clip for their titular song. It meshes live footage of the band with scenes of the convincingly deranged Lung Leg thrashing spastically in rage, riot cops bashing heads, people jumping to their death, bombs being launched on towns and so on. It rocks, pure and simple.

MANHATTAN LOVE SUICIDES proffers a quartet of shorts: STRAY DOGS (Wojanarowicz’s facial gymnastics in this one are hilarious in a tale that, stylistically and aurally, could be seen as a minor influence on TETSUO: THE IRON MAN), WOMAN AT THE WHEEL (a foul-mouthed and impassioned take on the male obsession of cars as an extension of the penis), THRUST IN ME (Zedd looking cool and surly in dual gender roles, rocking tunes, a splashy bathtub suicide reminiscent of the one in THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES and a final two minutes that will make first-timers’ jaws hit the floor), and I HATE YOU NOW (B-movie effects, a scathing commentary on vanity and almost obligatory female nudity come the finale). Beautiful.

SUBMIT TO ME and SUBMIT TO ME NOW, made a year apart in the late 80s, are highly stylised, dialogue-free barrages of BDSM footage. Both escalate from innocuous dancing to more and more perverse imagery. In the first one, Lunch masturbates with a black dildo while Lung Leg produces a flick-knife from between her legs. The second instalment is more extreme still, its images of bondage soon leading to some startling footage that wouldn’t feel out of place in a video nasty. Mega gore ensues in the closing minutes of NOW.

Leg is at her vitriolic best in YOU KILLED ME FIRST, one of Kern’s stronger narratives. She’s the eldest daughter of a puritanical family, frowned upon for her punk rock looks and attitude. Eventually the constant criticism gets to be too much for her (including unrelenting abuse from her father, Wojanarowicz in an against-type role) and she explodes memorably around the family dinner table. Once seen, never forgotten.

THE EVIL CAMERAMAN is 11 minutes of industrial noise accompanying scenes of Kern indulging in light sado-masochistic thrills with a trio of comely ladies. The first of which is the disconcertingly waif-like Jap Anne. Disturbing, kinky and oddly amusing in equal measures, this another film that buries itself deep in the viewer’s memory.

SEWING CIRCLE and PIERCE are companion pieces. The former finds Kembra Pfahler having her vagina sewn shut in real time. Likewise, the latter documents the nipple piercings of Audrey Rose (I don’t think these people are using their real names … do you?!). Both are in colour and are filmed in a very matter-of-fact, as-is manner. PIERCE even contains the constant whir of the camera over the audio. But that doesn’t stop Rose weeping to the screen at one point, "Richard, they’re hurting me". Gosh.

FINGERED is perhaps Kern’s masterpiece. It’s a frustrated, furious howl against society that starts with a text warning of the obscenities to come … and never lets up from there. In the space of 23 minutes, we see Lunch’s phone sex operator hornily accept a stranger into her room, get fisted and angrily fucked up the arse, and then go on a murderous road trip with her new beau.

Climaxing with a truly frightening attack upon Leg which acts as a clear forefather to THE BUNNY GAME, FINGERED pulls no punches (even the dialogue is nasty). Performances are bitter and twisted; Kern’s editing is tight and exciting. It’s little wonder that John Waters called the film "the perfect date movie for psychos".

THE KING OF SEX is set to a Killdozer song of the same name, and basically sees Zedd cavorting in a bohemian-style dwelling with two female lovelies. It all gets a little aggressive, but it’s all good. And the song’s great, in a way that weirdly recalls The Mentors.

THE BITCHES offers two sultry ravens the chance to challenge sexual politics and reverse roles, strapping on dildos and spit-roasting an arrogant male. They culminate by shooting fake cum all over him.

MY NIGHTMARE ends things with Kern wanking on his bed, imagining how things will go with the pretty brunette due to arrive imminently at his apartment for a sexy photo shoot. He shoots his load, wipes up the jizz and quickly dresses as she knocks on his door. Unfortunately, things go downhill for him from there …

Also included are the likes of X IS Y, HOROSCOPE, GUN SHOOTING, NAZI, CATHOLIC, TUMBLE and SCOOTER AND JINX (aka MONEYLOVE). Some of the later stuff, to be fair, is pretty dull.

Arty, trashy, cerebral, dumb, fun, laboured … Kern’s films are frustratingly erratic, and yet always engrossing. Sometimes it’s difficult to gather what it is he’s trying to say (make no mistake, for all that the cinema of transgression began as a simple affront to celluloid conventions and sensibilities, these people were renegade artists and therefore DID have statements to make) but the visuals – and soundtracks – always compensate.

Kern’s influence can be seen to this day in the best works of people such as Karim Hussein, Lucifer Valentine, Jim Van Bebber, Jorg Buttgereit and even Gaspar Noe. To name but a few. His films are dirty (both in terms of content, and their look), noisy even though many of them are lacking in dialogue, and quite often play out like extended music promo videos.

Given that these films were all shot on cheap Super 8mm stock and cobbled together by largely non-professional film crews that tended to consist of Kern and a couple of mates, it’s fair to say they’re never going to look a million dollars. If they did, they’d undeniably lose a lot of their grimy charm.

Thankfully, MVD Visual have respected the origins of these filthy films and remastered them uncut in full 1080p HD resolution while taking care to retain grain and print damage, ensuring a natural and familiar look about them. Each film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, in an MPEG4-AVC encode.

Colours where applicable – at least half of the films are black-and-white - are bolder than ever before, clarity is definitely increased (scenes in the likes of SUBMIT TO ME and FINGERED that were previously too dark are now a lot clearer) and the sense of depth is heightened in each film. Throw in good contrast – especially strong during the monochrome offerings – and accurate flesh-tones, and the results are most satisfying. The art of Kern’s work truly comes through more than ever before: the framing of his compositions; the expressive colour schemes; the design of his interiors and character costumes.

English 2.0 audio is clean and consistent throughout the set, with any traces of overt hiss having been nicely cleaned up. Any drop-outs in audio (there are only a couple) are fleeting, and representative of the original recordings.

The disc, which is a region-free one, opens to a static main menu page and from there you’ll find the expected pop-up menus. These are limited, in that we get a choice of "Play All", an option to view the films individually or a route direct to the extra features.

Speaking of the disc’s bonus features, by far the greatest one is a new 70-minute HD video interview with Kern. He comes across as honest, likeable and surprisingly not as film literate as I thought he may be. But he’s sincere and engaging for the duration, as well as being unexpectedly fanboyish when recounting his initial meetings with the likes of Beth B and Nick Zedd. This is an excellent accompaniment all-in-all, punctuated by brief onscreen headings which signify the theme he’ll be talking about for the next few minutes. He speaks with humour, candour (ooh, he’s not too kind about Lunch) and enthusiasm. I was very impressed with this feature.

DESTRUCTION is a 3-minute black-and-white film from 1984 that hasn’t been released until now. Here it is, as another extra, detailing silently the escalation of violence that passes through a junkie’s head while jacking up in his own ramshackle apartment. As with Kern’s other works, it’s discomfiting in its soiled authenticity.

11 minutes of standard definition outtakes from FINGERED are insanely fascinating, offering alternate and extended takes of – of course – some seriously deranged material. It’s weird to hear Kern calling "cut" in a completely rational manner at the end of each demented scene: it becomes, bizarrely, more of a film than I thought it was.

Next up are 3 minutes of outtakes featuring the inimitable Leg. Fucking hell. So what if they play out silently? She still comes across as convincingly feral in these off-cuts from the SUBMIT TO ME shoot.

This impressive set is rounded off nicely by a 4-page booklet containing liner notes by Michael Chaiken.

Richard Kern’s squalid underground short films in HD? On blu-ray? Really?! I thought it was a sick joke when this was first announced but, fuck me, there is a God and this disc truly does exist. Not only that, it’s a fucking masterpiece.

What else can I say? Essential viewing.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by MVD Visual
Region All
Not Rated
Extras :
see main review