Making a mockumentary is always tricky business. Go too far one way, and the film becomes stiff and humorless. Go too far the other way, and it becomes goofy. Though it’s obvious that Justin Channell has great passion for his subject matters— bad 80’s horror flicks and VHS— his fake doc WINNERs TAPE ALL: THE HENDERSON BROTHERS STORY is too stiff at times and too goofy at others.
Channell tells his story through the point-of-views of three men: low budget camcorder auteurs Michael and Richard Henderson, and superfan Henry Jacoby, who grew up in the same West Virginian town as the stepbrother filmmakers. After a brief education on the underground world of VHS horror collectors, the film jumps right into Henry’s obsession with CURSE OF STABBERMAN and CANNIBAL SWIM CLUB, which gives the flick its avenue into interviews with the Hendersons. Along the way I saw large chunks of their two flicks, heard a lot about their hot rise to fame and their even quicker ride back to anonymity, and found out that, in the world of this mockumentary, a man can lose a testicle to a shark bite.
None of this plays quite as fun as it should, for several reasons, the first of which are the interviews. Given their two films, I would’ve envisioned the Hendersons as inspired madmen, gutting it out against low budgets, acting far below the Quality Equator and all the other obstacles of indie filmmaking. Instead, I got two slow talking West Virginia boys who, many years later in the interviews, have no sense of humor nor overwhelming, ironic hubris over their creations. Actors Zane Crosby and Josh Lively play it too straight for this sort of film; had they been more fired up and played it with a crazy gleam in the eyes, this could’ve been a lot better watch. As for Henry, he’s just there to be a fanboy. His hero worship blows past the borders or ridiculousness almost every time he opens his mouth. At least Chris LaMartina brings the proper enthusiasm to the role.
It also would’ve helped to have more than three participants. Though the Hendersons discuss other cast members on the two films, none of them appear. This narrows the focus, and when two of the three are duds, it sinks the film. How great would it have been to hear from the actor who played the cannibal in CANNIBAL SWIM CLUB? Or the director of I PISS ON YOUR GUTS, who inspired the brothers to make films? I’ll never know, but I guarantee it would’ve added to the event.
The flick also spends way too much of its brief running time showing clips from STABBERMAN and SWIM CLUB. A real doc might show clips, but not these many or these long. However, I was impressed by just how accurately Channell represented low budget 80s trash; from the scratchy, worn out VHS style look, to the interminably long scenes of dialogue with obnoxious line readings, to piss poor special effects, Channell knows his subject matter well. So well, in fact, that I really wish he would’ve made the full length STABBERMAN flick instead of this mockumentary. That flick would’ve said everything about the era that WINNERS TAPE ALL strives to say.
The film succeeds best as a look at the microculture of VHS horror collectors. My friend and DE contributor Chad E. Young is an avid insider in that scene, and it helped me understand WINNERS TAPE ALL a little better when I thought of all the times he’s posted on social media about some great deal he got at a swap meet for eight VHS tapes. As an insider, Chad would likely appreciate this flick a lot more than I did. But what about the average horror fan outside that cult? I have my doubts.
And that brings us back to the major problem with WINNERS TAPE ALL. The best mockumentaries play straight man to the outlandish characters involved in some niche, knowing those characters will unbeknownst to themselves provide all the humor necessary. Watch any of his films and you’ll understand that Christopher Guest is a master at this. Justin Channell takes a noble swing at it, and his love for the material is obvious, but he’s not near being in Guest’s class. Perhaps he’ll come a little closer with his next mockumentary.