The Jar (1984)

In the tradition of Curse of the Blue Lights, Manchurian Avenger, Mind Killer, Night Vision, and The Spirits of Jupiter, here’s another, early ’80s homegrown effort from the wilds of Denver, Colorado. Sure, there are other, obscure Mile Highers to review, such as Savage Water (1979), Lansky’s Road (1985), and Back Street Jane (1989), but good luck locating vintage VHS copies of those Rocky Mountain low budgeters, and there are no — unlike The Jar — freebie or with-ads online streams of those home growners to share.

Yeah, there’s nothing like a reputation among horror fans as “being the worst film ever made” to have a film transition — not by a reissues imprint (Arrow, Severin, Kino), mind you, but by the film’s fans — out of the analog snow drifts of the brick and mortar old to the digital streams of today. And when those same fans shout for a DVD/Blu restore . . . well, there must be something in those frames, right?

Outside of a brief, local theatrical release on April 16, 1984, The Jar is purely a direct-to-video effort (a genre lumped-in with shot-on-video films intended for direct-to-video release) that received its first, widespread distribution in 1987 via the Magnum Entertainment imprint. As result, we have a film that passes the James Whitcomb Riley SOV-duck test — and lands as a buckshot-filled mallard on our SOV stacks.

Well, eh, maybe.

While the proceedings aren’t exactly blowing off the lid off any canisters, The Jar is not that bad.

The debut, 1987 U.S. issue by Magnum Entertainment.

It’s hard to believe this lone effort by screenwriter George Bradley and director Bruce Toscano — an effort clearly influenced by Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982), with a soupçon of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), and a dash of Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) — was shot in Techniscope Anamorphic at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio (if we are to believe the IMDb). Sure, video tapes uploaded to video sharing sites suffer from repetitive, brick and mortar wear n’ tear renting and, regardless of what format a film is shot in, you’ll experience a VHS-wash out, but shot in 35mm? This film? The fuzzy, color-hazing duck a l’orange aromas of the S-VHS and U-Matic recording format of broadcast-news ENG cameras and 3/4-inch U-Matic videotape using Ikegami cameras, permeates the nostrils.

Regardless of the film’s rumored $200,000 price tag — keeping in mind the “Midnight Movie” and VHS rental classics of The Evil Dead shot for $375,000, Phantasm for $300,000, and Basket Case for $35,000 — The Jar comes across as a much cheaper production. In fact, while The Jar more closely resembles a Don Dohler 16mm-to-35mm backyard effort (his debut, The Alien Factor, shot for $3,500; his sophmore effort, Fiend, shot for $6,000), Bruce Toscano’s efforts — however valiant — are void of the against-the-budget Dohler charms we’ve come to adore. The Jar is a perpetually grainy and dark film where the framing is non-existent and the dubbing out-of-sync. It simply does not look like — regardless of its impressive-against-the-budget “Vietnam flashback,” complete with a helicopter; a rental which probably chewed up much of the budget — a $200,000 movie.

The Jar is a film with no middle critical ground: Those who love it, love it. And the haters are as cunning as they are cruel. There is, however, a sliver of middle ground when it comes to the film’s score: everyone agrees the ambient, Goblinesque keyboards by a one-and-done artist, Obscure Sighs (actually director Bruce Toscano and cinematographer Cameron MacLeod), is better than the film deserves. It’s those cherish, Italian-giallo Goblin memories that lend the few to name drop Dario Argento. True, Argento may drift into bizarre, disjointed narratives with out-of-nowhere twists in his works, but a soundtrack alone does not an Argento film, make. What everyone on both sides of the critical fence agree on: all of the respective film disciplines — in front and behind the cameras — took one hell of swing for fences, but instead, struck out.

This critic concurs.

The soundtrack is engaging. The film — in its technical aspects of cinematography, lighting, editing, and sound — is not. There is, however, something to appreciate in writer George Bradley’s insightful and inventive, religious-inspired chronicle. This reviewer sees an influence from The Holy Bible’s synoptic gospels narrative of the Temptation of Christ: the film’s lead character of Paul, our faux-Jesus, is sent off into “the wilderness” to be tempted by the jar’s inhabitant, our faux Satan.

“What the hell, R.D? Are you nuts? Did you watch the same film we did?” Bill Van Ryn bewilderingly drags his cigar. “First, it’s Ingmar Bergman, Brigadoon, Inca death masks and incestuous ghosts with The House That Vanished. Now you’re turning a best-forgotten, SOV piece of junk into a Jesus parable? Sam,” Bill chair swivels. “What the fuck is it with this guy? And tell him to stop featuring me in his rambling, half-assed reviews.”

“I know, Bill. I know. I’ll talk to him. Just leave him be for the moment. He’s quiet and happy in his corner. Besides, we have a Groovy Doom double feature to plan,” dismisses Sam the Bossman.

“Fuck those bastards,” R.D leans into and frantically fingers his laptop. “Here’s some Fellini and Ambrose Bierce references to frost your ass.”

When the final frame of the film’s end credits rolled, a single world appeared: Carrion, which was the film’s shooting title. From the Latin, caro, meaning “meat,” it refers to dead, rotting flesh — animal and human. Another of the film’s alternates titles — if we believe the IMDb — is Charon, the ferryman of Hades who carries souls of the newly dead across the river Styx.

You’ll recall that the powers at New Line Cinema retitled Sam Raimi’s Book of the Dead as The Evil Dead, due to reasoning that “you don’t want movie goers thinking they’ll have to read when seeing a movie.” If one takes a viewing of the script for The Jar — originally released in 1984 as Carrion — in that context, it seems screenwriter George Bradley brought a much more profound narrative, one that expands beyond our assumed, previously mentioned, VHS-horror rental inspirations.

In addition to a definite, Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits (1965) inspiration, there’s also an Ambrose Bierce An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890) vibe in Bradley’s pages. It is that Bierce connection — as result of our protagonist’s war flashbacks — that led some fans to opine The Jar reminds of the later-released Jacob’s Ladder (1990). That exquisite, Bruce Joel Rubin work is, itself, an afterlife amalgamation of the Genesis parable of Jacob’s Ladder, Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, tales from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Bierce’s short story.

Yes, I’ll debate you on this fact: That level of intelligence, as well as impressionistic ambiguity, is in the frames of The Jar.

Is the jar’s occupant, in fact, Charon itself? Is it a coincidence that many a Greek lekythos, that is, a vessel or canister, used to carry anointing oils for funerary rites, are decorated with artistic Charons and found in tombs? Is the jar of our film, in fact, a lekythos meant to anoint the dead? Is Paul, our protagonist, already dead, going through a series of tribulations on his trip through purgatory before reaching Heaven?

The visual craftsmanship of that intelligence, however, as we’ll come to discover, is not in the frames. The Jar is case of — well, a jar of — a film where noble ambitions, it seems, exceeded the skill sets involved. However, director Bruce Bradley and his cinematographer, Cameron MacLoed, are not two morons running around with a camera making a movie. The Jar certainly has its WTF moments of Euro-cinema ambiguity — which is my personal, celluloid jam — pitter-pattering afoot.

Paul’s Federico Fellini-inspired Vietnam flashback.

The most enjoyable aspect of reviewing lost tapes from the VHS fringes in our now, digital age is that the actors involved with the film are able to offer their experiences on social media, in this case, the IMDb: Gary Wallace, who portrayed the lead, Paul, confirmed the “amateur” aspects of the film.

Wallace tells us the film was shot for $200,000, in two stretches of two weeks: the first was shot in the fall, while the second shot in the spring, with pickup shots in the summer. No only were rehearsals non-existent during the shoot: all of the dialog was dubbed. The cast would shoot from 5 to 6 am until dark. Then return to the studio and dub until 1 to 2 am that morning. The process then repeated the next day, etc. Wallace also tells us that director Bruce Toscano — a photographer by trade — decided he “didn’t want the 60 Hz” signal so he could sync the recorded voices to the film. Toscano and his assistant [sound recording Ronnie Cramer, we assume] ended up cutting little pieces of tape and splicing them together to at least try to make the sound match the movie.

European VHS on Antoniana Video out of Spain.

“I think he [Bruce Toscano] and the script writer [George Bradley] had a vision of what they wanted the movie to be,” recalls actor Gary Wallace. “If I remember correctly, they were trying to portray various incidents of inhumanity and how [that] inhumanity could pass from one person to the next.”

That’s what the Jar — or at least the occupant of the Jar, is: a mystical, otherworldly canister/creature that tests the humanity of its possessor and, it seems, in order to save their own “humanity,” they have to pass the canister and its (forget the VHS cover) blue, demonic occupant (that looks a Ghoulies (1985) outcast) to another person. Or the Jar, after if finishes draining a soul, and prior to its host’s death, inspires its passing to another soul.

Now, here’s were the dark photography and poor framing we previously spoke of, comes in: but since we are low-budget cheating, here, it makes — from a creative standpoint — sense. Just not from a narrative one. Did Paul hit another car? Did a car hit him? Did he hit the old man? Did he just run off into a ditch and find the old man? Was the old man hitchhiking or just laying on the roadside? Did the Occupant of the Jar set a trap and make Paul drive off the road to find the old man, so the Jar could be passed on? (I personally think it’s the latter. It’s also obvious: The “accident” was shot — as with the nighttime car scenes for The Evil Dead, as well as Reggie’s ice cream truck wreck in Phantasm — on a darkened soundstage, well, an ad-hoc’d warehouse.)

Anyway, after an “automotive accident,” Paul picks up a crazed, old “hitchhiker” (as some critics have stated) obsessed with a jar he carries in a crumpled paper bag. After taking the man to his apartment — instead of the hospital (so goes the Jar’s power to do its will, IMO) — the man disappears (goes to Heaven or some afterlife, IMO): but leaves behind the Jar. Paul opens the Jar. And no matter how many times Paul gets rid of the Jar, it — with its fetus-like occupant (that never actually comes out of the jar to crawl around) — returns.

Another Felliniesque hallucination.

So starts off the film’s Coscarelliesque surrealism meets David Lynch symbolism (think Eraserhead) — only with none of either filmmaker’s level of non-linear style or viewer engagement. Paul’s disjointed hallucinations and/or dreams where reality meshes with illusion take him from watching his own birth in a blood-filled bathtub (my interpretation of who the teen in the bathtub, is), seeing himself crucified (as he looks down, deep inside a back alley dumpster), a black & white flashback when he interacts with his younger self (again, my interpretation), and a creepy little, Stephen King-type girl walking with a balloon in a park (Is it his dead daughter or little sister? I’m lost . . .), as well as a group of cloaked monks out in the rocky desert (carrying the cross to Paul’s crucifixion).

So — at the risk of plot spoiling — does Paul kill his pretty, romantically-inclined neighbor when she appears to him . . . as the old man who cursed him with the Jar? Does Paul eventually pass off the Jar to his boss to rid himself of the evil? Should we directly pass “Go” on the celluloid Monopoly board and go straight to the Aylmer in Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage (1988) to suck our brains dry? Have we gazed deeper, down inside The Jar than it probably deserved to be? Is it really better than most critics have opined?

No matter.

We know you’ll open The Jar because, you, like us, enjoy out-trashing the last trashy mess we just watched. Take comfort in knowing there’s at least a contingent that enjoy The Jar (including moi). The same can’t be said for the abysmal remake of Jacob’s Ladder. Yes, there was a remake released in 2019: everyone hated it. (Ditto for the 2019 remake swipe at David Cronenberg’s Rabid. Just why? Why? Oh, why!)

You can watch The Jar on You Tube (the Magnum version) and You Tube (the Antoniana version). The soundtrack also has its fans, as you’ll listen from the You Tube clips HERE, HERE and HERE. The second two are fan remixes that make it sound more Tangerine Dream than Goblin, however. But that’s not a bad thing.

Perhaps those remixes could be used in a remake? The story for a great film, is there.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.