The shot-on-video boom of the late 1980s through the late 1990s was one that saw a great many backyard filmmakers try their hand at the craft. The early 2000s gave rise to digital video and non-linear editing software made its way to the consumer level allowing even more film fans to churn out movie after movie after movie, regardless of talent. The true pioneers, ranging from 1982 through around 1996, were creating fantastical feature films where only analog equipment was available. Large format Beta tapes were used at most news stations at the time and were cost prohibitive for interested amateurs, so VHS became the media du jour of aspiring filmmakers. All that was required beyond some gear was passion and a deep love for stories that just had to be told. Generally attributed to be the first shot-on-video feature film, John Wintergate’s Boardinghouse, from 1982, was shot using analog video equipment, rudimentary tape-to-tape editing bays and was transferred to film for theatrical release. It was, as you might imagine, a horror film. Almost completely, the analog video features that followed were horror films, at least the films that persisted and resonated with video rental aficionados. There is no mystery in that, though. The horror film, unlike other genres, is content driven. Fans of the fright flick are more than willing to try something different just as long as their thirst for the macabre is quenched. This is nothing new. Drive-in distributors like American International Pictures and, going farther back, poverty row outfits like Producers Releasing Corporation in the 1940s knew one thing: horror sold… and it sold well. It stands to reason then that Wintergate, and his metaphorical offspring, would create films in their favorite genre. You see, they were fans first and foremost, and the only logical next step would be to make the movies that you wanted to see and that mainstream filmmakers were not doing or not doing enough of.
Enter Chester Novell Turner.
A lifelong Chicago resident, born in 1946, the name Chester Turner doesn’t make an instant connection to filmic auteur and black cinema pioneer, but it should. Turner’s relatively low output (two films over the course of four or five years in the mid-1980s) and their non-relative obscurity have overshadowed what has turned out to be a radical new voice in the horror genre specifically and the larger idea of race, ethics, and morality in film in general. You see, Chester Turner is the writer/director of Black Devil Doll from Hell (1984) and Tales from the Quadead Zone (1987). Both films were released, in a very limited quantity and in a very limited capacity, on VHS in the 1980s and only in 2013, after Turner was re-discovered by Justin Louis of Michigan’s Massacre Video, was there a box set DVD release and small film festival tour. Again, even the resurrection of Chester Turner was in an incredibly limited run and after the tour, and a promise of sequels on the horizon, the filmmaker shuttered himself again and has only had sporadic communication.
This, of course, only adds to the mystery and wonder of the films themselves. Taken one at a time, they are very different but direct and exploitive statements on the life and culture of Turner, living on the South Side of Chicago in the 1980s. These films, uniquely, provide a glimpse into an incredibly under-represented slice of life as far as film is concerned and one that is wholly unrepresented in the horror genre outside of their existence. Black Devil Doll and Quadead feature working class African-American actors, homes, religious services, wardrobes, fears, and dreams in a way that no other horror presentation really has. Add into that the pioneering spirit of DIY filmmaking on the cusp of the video revolution and you have something very special, regardless of whether or not it lives up to a mainstream definition of quality.
“”I’m not going to use the N-word, but that’s what it felt like back then, even among my friends: ‘Who’s this … guy think he is? Spielberg?’ Chicago doesn’t offer support to any filmmaker, I think. And can you imagine how hard it was to make anything with four people? I had no connections to anyone or knew anyone who knew anyone who knew anything about how to make a movie. It was like telling someone I was going to be an astronaut now.”
Turner’s first film, Black Devil Doll from Hell, was a passion project. In multiple interviews and post-screening question and answer sessions, Turner indicated that his desire to make a movie, specifically, a horror movie was grounded in his fandom of the genre. Living in Chicago, the ability to get an education in film production was available but, to Turner and other members of his South Side community, the feeling was that it was largely inaccessible, even if only in perception. The University of Chicago boasts a film program and Columbia College, in the Loop, is devoted to four-year degrees in visual arts. Turner turned to correspondence school and that, combined with a well of simmering desire and well-rounded education in viewing horror films provided his formal instruction. He has claimed that the budget of Black Devil Doll from Hell was around $10,000 (the equivalent of roughly $26,000 in 2020 dollars) and $4,000 of that was invested in the multiple VHS decks and VHS recorder used to create the movie. Turner, in a 2014 interview with The Chicago Tribune, noted that he felt pressure from within his own community, too, as if he wasn’t allowed to aspire to filmmaking. He said, “”I’m not going to use the N-word, but that’s what it felt like back then, even among my friends: ‘Who’s this … guy think he is? Spielberg?’ Chicago doesn’t offer support to any filmmaker, I think. And can you imagine how hard it was to make anything with four people? I had no connections to anyone or knew anyone who knew anyone who knew anything about how to make a movie. It was like telling someone I was going to be an astronaut now” (Borrelli, 2014). Much like the films tenaciously making their way back into the limelight 30 years after their initial release, Turner persisted in 1983 and 1984, despite a lack of permission or approval from the establishment or even his own neighbors.
Black Devil Doll from Hell wasn’t a solo effort, though. Granted, Turner was the auteur behind the film, but he had the timely, and invaluable, assistance of his brother, Keefe, who was responsible for the special effects for the film, including creating and puppeting the titular Devil Doll, and his then-girlfriend, Shirley L. Jones, who played the innocent young ingenue, Helen Black, in a fearless performance. This creative trio would not only be responsible for creating the first film, but returned for Tuner’s second effort, Tales from the Quadead Zone, in addition to selling the films, store to store in Illinois and Alabama. In a short documentary found on the Massacre Video release, “Return to the Quadead Zone” directed by Tony Masiello of SOV Horror, Turner described the writing process as a man “possessed” and he scripted a story that he felt had to be told. That story told the tale of Helen Black (Jones), a God-fearing, Christian woman, who felt that her morality and her relationship with Jesus was, in Turner’s words, her ‘most heartfelt desire.’ We are introduced to Helen at a church service where she admonishes a fellow parishioner for talking out of turn during the sermon. As she leaves, she is accosted by a man selling stolen merchandise and admonishes his immorality. We find out, early on, that Helen is a paragon of morality. Even her home is filled with religious iconography, as Turner focuses on over and over again, indicating that there isn’t much that could sway Helen from her path. That is, until she encounters a seemingly innocuous ventriloquist dummy in a local antique shop. Enthralled with the dummy, the storekeeper (Marie Sainvivs) regales Helen with the dark, supernatural history of doll. Apparently, everyone that has purchased the doll has received their ‘most heartfelt desires’ and, invariably, the doll has returned to the store of its own devices. Helen, intrigued, buys the doll and brings it home.
There, the tonal shift of the film happens. The doll is, of course, possessed. Our title tells the audience that it is from Hell and we find out, as the doll proceeds to berate and force itself on Helen sexually, he is the ultimate arbiter of desire. The Black Devil Doll provides its owner her “most heartfelt desires.” In Helen’s case, those desires are sexual. Her prudish morality was simply a cover for her fear of sexual intimacy. The doll takes Helen in a protracted and uncomfortable sex scene that starts as a rape and finishes, predictably, with Helen satisfied and happy for the first time in her life. The doll berates, taunts, and degrades Helen, making her endure ‘pain’ before ‘pleasure’ with a misogynistic rhetoric that actually makes the viewer cringe in how raw and uncensored it is. Helen falls asleep after experiencing her first orgasm (or multiple as the doll insinuates). Upon waking, the doll is nowhere to be found and Helen has begun her own sexual revolution. She trashes the religious iconography in her home and goes on a search for more sexual satisfaction, but partner after partner cannot quench her new thirst. She visits the store to find the Black Devil Doll back in his usual place. She repurchases the doll and takes him home, but the doll will not perform for her. She is left sexually deprived and burning for the doll’s touch, and resorts to the ultimate act of revenge. Helen screams, “If I can’t have you, then no one will!” This brings the doll back to life and, using a psychic attack, again gives Helen her ‘most heartfelt desire’ and ensures that she will no longer have the Black Devil Doll.
The plot itself borrows a great deal from the sexploitation and animated monstrosity films of the time. Turner’s slow burn of the doll moving and animating as Helen turns her back or subtly turning into more than just an inanimate object is reminiscent of the classic TV movie Trilogy of Terror (1975) and the Zuni Fetish Doll segment, which would have been on the director’s radar as a fan. This pre-dates Child’s Play (1988) by four years, but appears to be, in a strange way, the sexually-charged cousin of Magic (1975) featuring another animated ventriloquist dummy. Let it be noted that, as a piece of cinema, the film itself fails in most traditional senses. The dialogue is stilted, overwrought, and spot-on, the camera work is rudimentary at best, and Turner’s shot choice and edit can be compared to a local car dealership commercial… but that isn’t the point. He has taken these elements of fandom and firmly planted them in a uniquely-themed film that is 100% Chester Turner. This is the mark of a true auteur.
Helen Black, as a character, is rooted in a morality that has been culturally forced upon her. In a video interview with Rock! Pop! Shock!, Turner explained that Helen’s religion and the focus on this was a key element in terms of showing her personal revolution (2014). That sexual repression was what this film was battling against. Even the church that Turner used for the opening scene, and the preacher (Reverend Obie Dunson) giving the sermon, attempted to have their contributions taken out of the final product after realizing just how sexually charged the film was, only to be reminded of the contracts that had been signed (Masiello, 2013). They were concerned with what Helen goes through from a moral sense, but what happens to Helen is more akin to the legends of the Monkey’s Paw wherein one need be very careful in terms of actually getting what was wished for. This is the tragic tale of Helen Black: she dared to dream and, in that dare, she paid the ultimate price. Yes, we’ve seen this story before, but we’ve never seen it through this lens. A middle class, African-American woman firmly established in her Chicago community dared to dream and she was rewarded with nightmares. Turner has indicated that the film isn’t about race, and it isn’t per se, but like any other filmmaker there are thematic elements from one’s own experiences that, invariably, manifest themselves in the work. Indicative of this is a small scene right after Helen purchased the doll. She noticed that the arms of the ventriloquist dummy were white. That was simply the fabric that was used to create the doll. She slips brown, flesh-colored, sleeves on the doll so that he looks normal to her. It is here we know that Black Devil Doll from Hell isn’t just some backyard horror film, but a statement, whether conscious or not, on the place of race in the horror genre and proof that there is room and, as much credit as Turner deserves for this, his vision was brought to life by Jones and his brother, Keefe.
An amateur actress and girlfriend, at the time, of Turner, Shirly L. Jones leapt into the role of Helen Black with gusto. Her performance, as indicated earlier, was truly fearless. Most viewers will point to the intense sexuality and nudity required for the part, getting lost in the shocking elements of the story (much like the 2007 ‘remake/homage’ Black Devil Doll did). To be fair, yes, there is an overt amount of sexuality and sexual activity, with the doll and without, but Jones needs to be heralded for her vulnerability. As a performer, disregarding the delivery of lines and some questionable blocking, she presented a version of Helen Black that was willing to do anything to return to a state of bliss she experienced with the doll. This is paralleled with Jones’ willingness to do anything to convey that sense. The journeys of Helen and Shirley through the story and the creation of Black Devil Doll from Hell walk hand in hand on a path paved with good intentions. Supporting Jones in this is Keefe Turner. He is the designer of the Black Devil Doll, intentionally making him resemble Rick James, and providing the voice that denigrates Helen to the point of her fulfillment. Although some of the more ‘active’ doll moments is Turner’s nephew dressed in the doll’s costume and sporting the Rick James-esque dreadlocks, the remainder of the doll’s movements were provided by Keefe, including the sexual encounter with Helen. Here, then, is the quintessential moment and the proof of passion and vision required in independent filmmaking. These three people found themselves in a small Chicago bedroom. Chester runs the camera as his girlfriend writhes on a bed, naked and in the throes of make-believe passion. Between her legs, puppeting a Rick James ventriloquist dummy is Turner’s brother, alternatingly calling Jones ‘bitch’ and thrusting forward as the doll pleasures the character of Helen.
And, to top it off, all of the proceeding, from opening to closing credits, was accompanied by a Chester Novell Turner score as created on his Casio keyboard.
Once the film was completed, Turner was approached by ragtag video distributor Hollywood Home Theatre and the film was released on VHS in 1984. The distributor re-scored the film with canned music, but later releases, namely Turner’s self-distributed efforts and the Massacre Video release, returned to Turner’s original score. Predictably, the release did not go well and Black Devil Doll from Hell fell into obscurity and became a horror film collector Holy Grail acquisition. Chester stated, “I don’t think the world was ready,” regarding that first release and he was probably accurate. This, of course, did not stop Chester Turner. He had another film in him, ready to go. Calling Shirley Jones and his brother together one more time, they created Tales from the Quadead Zone (1987).
This time, Turner dialed down the sexuality. In that aforementioned video interview, Turner indicated that Quadead didn’t require the same level of shocking sex to tell the stories he wanted. Herein it should be noted that this is the process of a thoughtful artist and real indication that the first feature wasn’t solely created for shock value. Tales from the Quadead Zone is a departure in another important aspect: it is an anthology film featuring three stories of the macabre, two as ‘told’ by our narrator and one wraparound story as connective tissue. Possibly drawing inspiration, again, from Trilogy of Terror and most certainly due to the popularity of Creepshow (1982), Turner has indicated on multiple occasions that he was also greatly influenced by Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock and their respective anthology week episodic shows The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Turner, in one of the screenings, responded to a question from an audience member in reference to the title of the film. He indicated that, “Quad means four. You already know what dead means” (Borelli, 2014). The idea that there are only three stories in the anthology is immaterial, though, since each of them are another statement on the environment in which the filmmaker was working. Learning their lesson from Hollywood Home Theater, Turner and Jones went on the road and sold homemade VHS copies of Tales from the Quadead Zone to any video store in Illinois or Alabama that would have them. When store owners popped that tape in the machine, they were greeted with something the likes of which they had never seen before.
The film opens up with credits and a title song sung by Chester and Keefe Turner as accompanied on the same trusty Casio keyboard used to score the rest of the movie. We fade into Shirley Jones credited only as Bobby’s Mother as she prepares something in the kitchen. We find out right away that she is accompanied by the spirit of her dead child, Bobby, who communicates to her and her alone. We know he is reaching out as a gently wind brushes Jones’ face and hair as accompanied by spooky music. Bobby is a good child and just wants mother to read him a story, manifesting a book entitled Tales from the Quadead Zone. Jones complies and reads the first story called “Food for?”
This story sees a family of eight gathered around a table. It should be noted that this a Caucasian family from the deep South, as evident by the accents. Each time before they eat, the patriarch announces how much food is available: food for four, food for three, food for six, etc. The family scrambles as a bell rings and if one doesn’t eat that night, that is only because they were too slow. Eventually, the adult son takes matters into his own hands and once the patriarch announces the amount of food, the son shoots enough family members to bring the count down to the available repast. Tensions escalate as, meal after meal, there is another casualty. The segment ends abruptly with text on the screen indicating that the mother and father are in the witness protection program and eating ‘high on the hog’ as their son is incarcerated.
The odd little story manages to say quite a lot. Shot and cast in Alabama (on a visit to Jones’ family), “Food for ?” manages to call into question the idea of fairness and justice. Again, Turner tells us that it simply doesn’t pay to try and mete out a little justice in the world since, ultimately, the root of that evil will succeed. The head of the family was ultimately rewarded for being a horrible parent, living ‘high on the hog’ even as his children, much like Helen Black, dared to dream. The second story, “The Brothers,” continues that particular theme to an even more violent conclusion.
Keefe Turner takes the starring turn here playing Ted Johnson. He hires two men (Larry Jones and Lawrence R. Jones) to steal a corpse from the mortuary. That corpse is Fred Johnson (William Jones), Ted’s brother. In a protracted monologue, we learn that Fred was a right bastard. He made Ted’s life a living hell, ultimately stealing Ted’s wife away from him. Ted had planned to kill Fred, but nature beat him to it. Ted’s new plan was to dress Fred up as a clown, in a show of the ultimate humiliation, and bury his brother in the basement, far, far away from the expensive mausoleum that Fred had purchased. Fred had no intention of being relegated in such a manner and returns to life out of pure spite, dispatching his upstart sibling and putting Ted into the grave he had dug himself. Fred then shambled his way to his fancy new resting place and prepared to rest in peace.
Again, even in this tale of the two brothers, Turner is revisiting the idea of fairness and the futility in thinking beyond the current situation. Each of these characters, from Helen to Ted Johnson were all dealt a hand, either by geography or race or society or familial obligations and no matter how much they wanted to trade those hands in for a better one, they simply weren’t allowed. This is the tragic story of not only his characters, but Chester Turner himself. He dared to dream and was rewarded with obscurity and rumors of a car crash death in 1996 that stopped whatever meager searches for him and his work there were until Massacre Video came calling in 2013. That bright spot was really foreshadowed in Quadead’s final story, the wraparound story featuring Shirley Jones, called “Unseen Vision.”
As Bobby’s Mother finishes the final story, she sees Bobby’s father (John W. Jones) pull into the driveway. We learn he doesn’t believe that Bobby visits his mother and just wants her to be ‘normal’ and realize that their son is dead. The two engage in a desperate battle, with Bobby’s Mother able to stab her husband. As he slowly dies, he manages to call the police. The police arrive finding a corpse and Bobby’s Mother distraught. She pleads for them to take care of Bobby, leaving them thoroughly confused. Allowed to use the restroom before being taken into custody, Bobby’s Mother does the only thing she can think of and she takes her own life. In doing this, she is reunited, via some early negative image camera effects, with her son. The two of them now have the opportunity to spend the rest of eternity in each other’s loving company.
As the film ends, so does the output from Chester Turner. It is a fitting cap to the journey, though, and foreshadows the renewed interest thirty years later. The final story in the final film of Chester Novell Turner’s film career allowed the main character to not only dare to dream, but to actually achieve that dream. She, like Chester Turner, had to go through hell, but there, finally, was a light at the end of that tunnel.
Borrelli, C. (2014). Horror director’s career back from the dead. The Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/chi-chester-turner-borrelli-20140121-column.html
Masiello, T. [director]. (2013). Return to the Quadead Zone [DVD]. Massacre Home Video.
Tales from the Chester Turner Zone [online video]. (2014). Rock! Pop! Shock! Retrieved from https://youtu.be/0fWYRLrcJn4