Toward the end of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, he praises the horror genre and its audience: “It is a narrow though essential branch of human expression, and will chiefly appeal as always to a limited audience with keen special sensibilities.” I wonder if he had the capacity or foresight to predict anything resembling Wally Koz’s shot-on-video slasher, 555, to come 61 years later.
555 follows the investigation of a hippie-dressed serial killer, The Lake Front Butcher, terrorizing Chicago. A pattern emerges in the midst of investigating: every five years, five young couples are slaughtered over the course of five nights. 555 is a garbage movie.
Shot-on-VHS movies came to light in the early 80’s with the rise of the format itself and – most of all – the video store. People with no knowledge of how to make a movie gathered friends and hit record, often editing VCR to VCR, unleashing their creation onto the video market through tiny distribution labels (Donna Michelle Productions, Camp Video). Some were better (The Burning Moon) than others (Death Nurse).
In 1988, when flashy hand-painted covers and big-box displays were dying, the artwork for 555 was hot pink with a production photo of the movie’s most graphic kill taking center stage. Under the photo was the title, housing a naked woman getting a large blade dragged down her chest. It was ballsy and caused the movie to sell. New release walls were filled with copies of 555.
This is not a good movie by any means. Aside from being gloriously and unapologetically sleazy, more viewings over the years have warranted recognizing golden layer under golden layer. The horrible use of vulgarities spoken by the characters gets dirtier and dirtier. The outlandish actions of horrible detectives are both funnier and immensely more disgusting.
One of the most bizarrely painful moments of 555 is the prelude for an unseen sex scene between suspect, Peter Wayne (Charles Fuller), and investigating reporter, Susan Rather (Mara Lynn Bastian). There’s a long stretch of silence where the actors stare at one another before Fuller awkwardly slides his face into Bastian’s chest. The audio is comprised of uncomfortable grunts of regretful actors and VHS hiss.
Koz’s attention span evidently runs out fast as every kill scene is accompanied by a lack of direction. Actors spend long scenes of dialogue standing or sitting in one place while evidently not knowing what to do with their hands. The most thought-out parts of the mystery are key plot points, filling many holes by being either loud or gruesome with actors literally waiting to be killed. During a late kill scene, a victim sits in bed as the killer approaches; after some hesitation, she pulls the covers over her as he slowly creeps toward her, eventually stabbing her through the sheets.
The investigation itself plays out like a drunken Ellery Queen B-Movie. 555 has been built up to be a long lost splatter flick but, upon revisiting, stands as an amateur mystery story with impressive gore effects (Jeffery Lyle Segal, Re-Animator) that warrants a long shower. It was the end of an era, putting a cap on crazy video marketing tactics and mindless slaughter. As a mixed genre romp rapidly changing its priorities moment to moment, it’s a truly memorable piece of 80’s exploitation.
As Ultra Violent Magazine Editor, Art Ettinger, says in the DVD liner notes, “It still sucks, but it sucks with dignity.” 555 certainly appeals to an audience with “keen special sensibilities” and is worth giving strong attention. There’s a big separation between average slasher/SOV fare and the ambition of Wally Koz’s sole feature.
Massacre Video announced after being long out-of-print since the initial 2011 pressing sold out, 555 is coming back to DVD along with a limited re-creation of the original VHS. It deserves a life beyond dead-format enthusiasts. And if that doesn’t cut it, Japanese distributor, High Burn Video, has stock still available for import.