The Chiller Theatre Horror Movie Convention celebrated its 13th anniversary on Halloween, 2003. To mark the occasion, Daniel F. Doyle and Michael Furno teamed up with Academy Award-nominated actor Danny Aiello (yep, that Danny Aiello) and covered the event with nine cameras, focusing the majority of their attention on six folks who they felt represented the best cross-section of the Chiller show: actress Tiffany Shepis (“The Hazing”), horror legend Gunnar Hansen (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”), no-budget auteur Bob Gonzo (the “Rod Danger” series), uber-fanatics Dave and Cathy Wilbur and Chiller mainstay and staple personality 42nd Street Pete, who also narrates the documentary. Along the way, they run into such luminaries as Tom Savini, Kane Hodder, David Carradine, Candy Clark, Marc Singer, Sid Haig and Linda Blair—not to mention a couple hundred rabid fans, fanboys and fanatics. John Zacherle (“Dr. Horror’s Erotic House of Idiots”) is the honorary host of the doc, with archived bits from his Chiller Theater TV show inserted throughout (emulating Zacherle’s “pop-in” trademark).
The result is an interesting overview of what a horror convention is like. As the cameras follow the luminaries around, the viewer is treated to shots of the long lines—Chiller gets lines that reach beyond the parking lot and into the highway—groups of the hardcore fans who come in costume, late-night costume party or no, and are given glimpses of the acres of items for sale in the dealers’ rooms, commerce being just as important as the celebrity meet-and-greets at shows like these. What’s missing, though, is an idea of the sheer size and scope of the show, and how its grown over the past 13 (now 14) years. On Saturdays, Chiller is packed and the claustrophobia from the sheer amount of bodies is overwhelming. Yes, you see the lines, but you don’t really feel the crush inside the rooms.
The biggest problem I had will not be a problem for most people. “UnConventional” actually felt more like a documentary on Tiffany Shepis’ experience at Chiller, as the bulk of the footage is dedicated to her waking hours, with the narration worshipping her every move. Hansen and the Wilburs are given a bit of a short-shrift in comparison. The viewer is left with the impression that Hansen is a grouchy narcoleptic (a running gag involves shots of closed doors and overlayed snoring when referencing Gunnar’s need for a nap after his trip). As for the Wilburs, who are supposed to represent some of the crazier fans who attend (though not nearly as strange as the little mildly-retarded fan who likes to be punched by Gonzo’s Gorgeous Girls), come off as a little desperate for attention, but nothing more. The oddest addition, comedian and director Bob Gonzo, will be completely foreign to some viewers (indeed, I’ve been a regular Chiller attendee and I’ve never even heard of the man), though it becomes clear that his booth gets attention due to his bevy of scantily-clad actresses he employs to sell his movies.
But mostly, you get shots of Shepis. Shepis walking, Shepis drinking, Shepis taking part in a nude photo shoot with artist Ric Frane, Shepis hanging out in the laundry room with some of the hotel staff… As she is listed as a co-producer the attention seems suspicious, but it’s not too hard to believe that since Shepis obviously likes the attention, and the filmmakers obviously like to pay it to her, that a natural symbiotic relationship was struck well before the cameras rolled. For Shepis fans, this will not be a complaint.
Where the documentary succeeds is in giving the viewer a sense of the exhaustion one feels from attending all three days. Chiller is a three-day, non-stop party, and there are glimpses of the friendships that have grown between table-neighbors over the years. It’s also nice to see such homage paid to Zacherle. One person nearly absent from the festivities is the “Grand Poobah” and organizer Kevin Clement. You’d think more screentime could be dedicated to the man who is responsible for the twice-yearly event. On the other hand, Clement’s band, The Dead Elvi, have a number of great songs on the soundtrack, so at least his presence is felt throughout.
None of this is to say that it’s by any means a bad documentary and “UnConventional” is anything but boring and nothing short of highly entertaining. At times it’s positively beautifully shot—particularly for a documentary, with the cameramen getting footage on the go—and is edited at a good pace with plenty of horror clips (and Zacherle) to break things up. There’s also a nice end-credits sequence where the behind-the-scenes people are given their own face time.
For the casually curious, “UnConventional” is going to be a fascinating look at the microcosm of horror fans, and a cool look at one of the biggest conventions in the country. If anything, the filmmakers should be commended for avoiding the easy jab of making horror fans look like morons. Most of the people interviewed in short sound-bites actually come off as intelligent and articulate (though there are plenty of “Chiller f*****g rules!” exclamations, hard as it is to argue with the sentiment). For frequent Chiller attendees, the documentary is a host of “Hey, there’s Jasi Lanier! There’s Don Calfa!” If you were actually present at the Halloween, 2003, show, there’s a good chance you’ll see yourself in there somewhere. While it may not fully prepare you for attending a show, at least you’ll gain an appreciation for the effort it takes to put on a Chiller show and you may come to understand what all the fuss is about.