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Feeding the beast: Horror vinyl finds its cult

Graveface Records imprint Terror Vision treats scary movie music with the same respect as the obsessive fans who've made it a thriving niche market.

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Last October, Ryan Graveface was manning a booth at the Massacre, a 24-hour horror-movie marathon at the Portage Theater, hoping to sell some stock he'd brought from his collectibles shop in Savannah, Georgia. A man in his 60s walked over and began inspecting an LP copy of the score to Chopping Mall, a 1986 flick about murderous mall security robots. "He picked up the soundtrack," says Graveface, "and was like, 'This is a fucking abomination.'"

The man, Jim Wynorski, turned out to be not a prospective customer but rather a special guest of the Massacre. The festival was screening Chopping Mall, and he'd directed it—which helps explain his strong opinion of the LP's unremarkable cover art. Cult reissue label Waxwork Records had released the album that summer, and as with all its LPs of film scores, it didn't use the movie's poster on the cover. Chopping Mall's original art pictures a severed robotic hand carrying a blood-red shopping bag filled with body parts, but the LP uses a neon-hued, vaguely Patrick Nagel-esque 80s-style illustration of four mannequins, one of which has been decapitated. Graveface shares Wynorski's dim opinion of it. "I had just been talking to a friend at the time that that was actually my least favorite cover art I've ever seen on anything of all time," he says.

Graveface, who moved to Georgia from Chicago in 2010, sells lots of horror scores at Graveface Records & Curiosities, which he's run since 2011. He operates a record label too, confusingly enough also called Graveface, and plays in Black Moth Super Rainbow and his own project Dreamend. He was a horror fan long before he opened his shop, and now that he keeps a professional eye on the flood of new vinyl releases of music from old scary movies, he's well positioned to put his connoisseur's taste to good use.

Terror Vision founder Ryan Graveface - and friend - COURTESY RYAN GRAVEFACE
  • courtesy ryan graveface
  • Terror Vision founder Ryan Graveface and friend

"I just am not, personally, a fan of probably about 95 percent of the replaced artwork on the titles," Graveface says. "And the whole game of selling poster prints of the same items—it's a little too 'collector money grab' for my taste." He doesn't think enough labels exercise quality control. "I just feel like they're throwing shit at a wall, and it just bums me out."

At his Massacre booth, Graveface got to talking with Wynorski, who complained that he'd had no say in Waxwork's Chopping Mall release. "Him and I talked for a long, long time," Graveface says. "He created this thing, and he has no control over it at this point." That conversation helped inspire him to get into the business of releasing horror-movie vinyl himself, and late in 2014 he launched an imprint of Graveface called Terror Vision. He knows he's entering a crowded niche market, but he's confident he can stand out. "I was like, 'You know what? I'm just going to go ahead and pull the trigger on doing this stuff anyway.'"

Terror Vision joins the likes of Waxwork, One Way Static, and Death Waltz (which recently merged with Texas cult-­collectibles outlet Mondo) in its focus on cult, horror, and sci-fi soundtracks and scores. They're all relatively new, and their catalogs all emphasize vinyl—a market sector that continues to grow as sales of CDs tumble. According to an April report by information brokers Nielsen, vinyl album sales in the U.S. have increased 260 percent since 2009.

Graveface has had his eponymous record label for more than a decade, but a large slice of its catalog consists of music by projects he's involved in. Terror Vision breaks that pattern—it's more purely an expression of his fandom than of his own artistic ambitions. So far he's reissued two movies on VHS tape: the 1987 Vincent Price feature From a Whisper to a Scream and a 2012 mini feature by Quintron and Miss Pussycat called The Mystery of Old Bathbath. In July he teamed up with Wynorski and Chopping Mall composer Chuck Cirino to release Cirino's score for another Wynorski film, a 1988 remake of the 1957 Roger Corman picture Not of This Earth. By the end of the month Terror Vision will have four LPs under its belt, including one that comes out this week, WNUF TV28 Presents Frank Stewart Investigates: Halloween. Graveface should have copies of all of them for sale when he comes to town Friday with the Graveface Autumn Pop-Up Spectacle at the Niche Lab in Humboldt Park.

Jonathan Barkan, managing editor of popular horror site Bloody Disgusting, says he first noticed the new world of horror-­soundtrack vinyl in 2012, when Mondo announced the impending release of the score for Lucio Fulci's bizarre 1981 gorefest The Beyond. "These labels are doing something very cool for the horror world by essentially giving recognition to an aspect of the film and immortalizing it," he says.

Barkan studied music production and engineering in college, so he may have an even keener appreciation for a good score than the average horror fan. "I've always thought that the soundtrack to a movie was an unseen additional character," he says. "Imagine a hallway in a rustic country house. There's doors on the left, there's doors on the right. At the far end there's a window, and golden light is coming through—you've got the sunray—and there's little particles floating in the air. If you have a very nice, pleasant tone, at any moment you're gonna expect some children to burst out of a room laughing and playing with toys, and you're just gonna have a happy feeling about it. If you take that exact same shot and you put one single violin with an unrosined bow kind of screeching and squealing across a single note, you're gonna feel like at any moment something's gonna come out and kill you. And nothing changed except for the music."

Barkan finds that these scores can take on a life distinct from the movies in which they're embedded. "I try to place the music to the scene, but when I can't, I start filling in the blanks with my own imagination," he says. "In a way it's almost more terrifying, because then I think about the fear in the film and how it would then apply to me—to fill in the blanks I have to put myself into that situation. With horror scores it can be a very, very unsettling experience. I won't lie—even after almost 30 years of being a part of the horror community, I still will pause records because I get too unsettled and I need a break."

The vinyl format appeals to Barkan too, but the audience at Bloody Disgusting were slower to warm up to it. "Some of them, at first, were very averse," Barkan says. "They were saying, 'Vinyl's a dead format. Why are they doing it? It's pointless.' But now they see that it's everywhere."

Vinyl is still largely the domain of serious music fans if not hard-core obsessives, but the market for it continues to grow. The few remaining pressing plants have to meet a greater demand, often leaving labels waiting on orders for months. Prices continue to increase, sometimes thanks to added goodies—including huge posters, multicolored vinyl, or elaborate packaging like the pop-up art in the deluxe edition of Father John Misty's I Love You, Honeybear that ended up warping the records in their jackets. As Stereogum asked in the headline for a recent feature on the format: "Have We Reached Peak Vinyl?"

Horror LPs are often more expensive than new rock records, partly because some of the top labels in the field are based overseas (Death Waltz founder Spencer Hickman is the UK coordinator of Record Store Day). The extras in many releases don't help prices either: Death Waltz's 2014 double LP of the score for 1984 Christmas slasher flick Silent Night, Deadly Night adds a record of faux yuletide songs made for the movie. And last year's Traction.TV release of the soundtrack for Shredder Orpheus, a bizarre 1989 film about a late-night TV network brainwashing the public from the depths of hell and the skateboarding rocker who fights to stop it, includes a DVD of the hard-to-find movie.

I recently spent nearly $100 on three LPs and a cassette at Reckless and more than $100 for four LPs and a cassette at Bric-a-Brac. I was drawn in by the gory cover art for the Death Waltz release of the score to 1981's Absurd—a maniacally smiling man spells out the movie's name with handfuls of his own pulled-out guts, which are embossed on the sleeve. And Mondo's release of the score to 1990's Maniac Cop 2 includes a track called "Maniac Cop Rap," which I like to think would pique anyone's interest. But both records left me with buyer's remorse. Bric-a-Brac co-owner Nick Mayor understands the feeling. "I love 'em, I keep ordering 'em," he says. "I feel like people have stopped buying them as much, though."

Mayor says few of his customers pick up horror scores that aren't by John Carpenter. But Barkan is convinced that somebody's buying them—he hears about so many new labels coming out with new releases that it's difficult for him to keep track of them all. "In a way I'm upset by that, because I want to keep up," he says, "but at the same time I'm thrilled that everyone is experiencing such success that they can go that route."

Horror labels owe part of their growth to media attention from outside the subculture of fandom. Pitchfork and Fact have covered them, and this month's vinyl release of music from C.H.U.D. attracted rubberneckers from all over the Internet. Just last month Stereogum wrote about Ship to Shore Phonograph Co.'s newly released score for 1966's Manos: The Hands of Fate, a notorious "so bad it's good" movie roasted on one of the best-remembered episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Because no recordings of the score are known to exist, the label had to lift the music from prints of the film, along with the accompanying sound effects and dialogue.

The rise of horror labels has, as Graveface puts it, "paved the way for idiots like me" to launch their own. "The first record I put out on Terror Vision was a Halloween-themed audio puppet show—on vinyl," he says, referring to Miss Pussycat's Anthropomorphizer. "It's not exactly something that a lot of people would understand, but the people that bought it seem to really enjoy it."

When Graveface released the soundtrack to Not of This Earth, he used original movie artwork, and people seemed to enjoy that too. "I'm at these conventions and people see that record," he says, "and they're like, 'Oh my God! It's so nice to actually see the artwork that was made for this thing, that made me [remember] when I was renting the VHS in 1988—it made me pick up the tape in the first place.'" Graveface learned as a kid how important artwork could be to the process of discovery—he devoured so many horror movies growing up that by the time he hit puberty he'd outgrown Freddy Krueger and had to start digging into the oddest corners of the genre to get his fix. "I love that VHS boxes compelled me to rent movies that I never would have seen otherwise," he says.

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The newest Terror Vision release, WNUF TV28 Presents Frank Stewart Investigates: Halloween, owes its existence to Graveface's affection for the VHS format and to the thriving subculture surrounding weird, cheap horror films. The new LP works almost like a radio play—it's an audio prequel to WNUF Halloween Special, a 2013 found-footage flick from Baltimore director Chris LaMartina. Graveface surprised himself with the intensity of his reaction to the movie. "It tapped into a nostalgic part of me that I didn't even know I possessed—it just meant a lot to me," he says. "I grew up in Ohio, and it just reminded me of television in Ohio so perfectly. They were so spot-on with my youth that it was just fucking wonderful. It just made me feel something that I definitely have not felt from watching a movie that was a contemporary film." He reached out to LaMartina about releasing a WNUF record, but because the movie has no score or soundtrack, they had to get creative. "We basically came up with an idea of doing a sequel-­slash-prequel to the WNUF Halloween Special as an audio-only story extension," LaMartina says.

Set in 1987, WNUF Halloween Special follows smarmy TV reporter Frank Stewart in his attempts to communicate with the malevolent entities allegedly haunting a house that's been abandoned for decades—ever since a young man named Donald Webber murdered his parents there. Inspired by small-market TV from the 80s, WNUF Halloween Special plays like a live broadcast, interrupting its action with local ads—for a shooting range, computer learning center, and a demolition derby, among other things. LaMartina doubled down on the dated feel of the production by going out of his way to mimic the crappy look of worn-out VHS playback.

"We thought no one was crazy enough to make a movie that's shot on standard-­definition video now, and then run through a VCR four or five times," he says. LaMartina and his friends, discouraged by what they see as the laziness of most new found-footage films, devised a marketing campaign to make their movie seem as much as possible like a forgotten recording of a 26-year-old broadcast. "When we did the WNUF Halloween Special, doing the VHS-only release and literally releasing it with just a spine label that says WNUF Halloween Special in handwritten Sharpie, we thought that would really sell the illusion," LaMartina says. He left VHS tapes of the movie at Severed, a cult-horror convention in Stroudbsburg, Pennsylvania, and he told the New York Times in a 2013 interview that his distribution strategy has also included tossing copies out of the window of his car while driving in Baltimore.

Josh Schafer works as editor in chief of Lunchmeat, a zine dedicated to obscure VHS titles, and he thinks LaMartina's timing is perfect. "VHS culture is really popular right now—like, more popular than it's been since the format was still thriving, I think," he says. "WNUF really captures the authenticity of the VHS era, and it emulates perfectly what you would see if you taped something off of TV. It's original. It takes the endless fun of Halloween, those aesthetics, the aesthetics of VHS, which are really hot right now, and rolls them into this unique, really well-done film."

In the universe of the movie, WNUF TV28 Presents Frank Stewart Investigates: Halloween is a collection of recordings made before the events of the film by the WNUF characters who (spoilers!) disappear at the end. The station is supposedly reissuing it to fund search efforts for its lost staffers, and the liner notes are written by WNUF station manager Wally Cohen—though of course neither the station nor Cohen exist. Among the LP's extras is a Frank Stewart fan-club certificate.

The record's A side features Stewart's spooky exposés of alleged monsters and hauntings, and on the B side the movie's other two main characters, paranormal experts Louis and Claire Berger, conduct similar investigations and provide step-by-step instructions for a seance. The film is sometimes funny, but on the LP, LaMartina and cowriter Jimmy George crank up the humor—in the tale of the "River Hill Sheepsquatch," for instance, Stewart peppers his monologues with corny puns ("No, I'm not pulling the wool over your eyes"). "It was a true delight to revisit characters I thought I would never be able to use again," LaMartina says.

LaMartina claims that the WNUF movie has found a small but passionate fan base in the two years it's been out, and a similar fate may await the WNUF record. Many devotees of this subculture, LaMartina and Graveface among them, have a soft spot for obsessed self-­starters with shoestring budgets and DIY mentalities—after all, people like that have created many of the obscure films and records fans cherish. The surge in vinyl releases of horror scores might look like a commercial trend, but it's driven in part by a punkish sympathy for the underdog—very few of these scary movies ever made it to a multiplex. LaMartina sees collecting as nearly as important to maintaining such fringe cultures as developing weird tastes in the first place. "Being a collector—it's the same sense of discovery like when you were a kid and you found your favorite book or you found your favorite movie," he says. "It's so essential to creating yourself, like creating your identity as a human being. Figuring out what you love is so important about that."  v

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