Staff Picks: Reflections of Evil



Staff Picks: Reflections of Evil

By Alex Ross Perry

An interview with underground filmmaker Damon Packard.

Reflections of Evil plays Metrograph At Home through February 28, as part of our series Staff Picks: Kim's Video.

Damon Packard

Kim’s customers loved that we had commercially unavailable videos: bootlegs, originals or dubs of foreign releases, and copies of films provided by the directors themselves. These tended to live in the ‘Experimental’ or ‘Cult’ sections. Reflections of Evil, a self-distributed two-and-a-half-hour assault on commercial movies, good taste, and cinema as you know it was one such title. Writer/director/star Damon Packard creates what seems to me the closest equivalent to what Timothy Carey might have been making had he directed more than one feature, or lived to further experiment with consumer video tools. Any synopsis or summary (the film has a plot only in the way surrealist, underground films have plots) fails to convey what this abrasive, revolting, hilarious, and disreputable film offers, but suffice to say it is exactly the type of ‘only at Kim’s’ cinematic ephemera that kept customers wary of, and receptive to, future recommendations.—Alex Ross Perry

Since this is programmed as a tribute to the store and in conjunction with Kim’s employees, let’s start with your memories of visiting. Was your movie already on a shelf?

I was there around 2004. I was invited to the Manhattan Museum of Modern Art to make a film for them, with some friends from England. That turned into Lost in the Thinking (2005), it’s a long story. But I remember visiting Kim’s at that time. I know they had Reflections of Evil. They may have had something else…

Would that copy have come from you?


How important was it for you to create those videos and distribute them to stores? Because certainly, in the mid-2000s, that was the place to find a movie.

When I finished the film, in 2002, I had a huge run of DVDs made. I sent them around to a lot of places, a lot of people, but nothing happened. I never heard anything back. It took years for that movie to get to the people who watched it… to seep its way into finding an audience.

[When it finally did] was that because of its video distribution? To me, it’s the kind of movie that would have had much more of a clearly understandable language around it 10 years later, because of online filmmaking. But it existed at a time where you’d just find the film somewhere, and think, “This must have been dropped off here by the person who made it.”

There just wasn’t really much I could do with it. I did get some minor distribution through Go Kart films. It won some festival awards eventually. Fantasia Film Festival? And then years later, I was invited to various places for screenings.

Were you always thinking that this unwieldy, uncopyrightable, almost bootleg underground film would live forever as a DVD? Or would it have felt somehow less legitimate—if you can even call a movie like this legitimate, had you not been able to self-release it on video, like, if you just had one copy that you were touring around to festivals? Did you need to feel like it was out there?

Mostly, I just wanted to make it. It was my first feature. I’d been making short films for 20 years, almost. So, you know, I had to do it. Anytime you finish anything… I mean, if you’re making independent films, especially short films, there’s nothing much you can do, unless you have distribution and release deals already set in stone. But if you’re just doing it on your own independently as an undergrad…

Exactly. Because today, you would just put it online. That’s what you would do. At the time, Reflections of Evil seemed like a legitimate movie to me because there was a DVD of it. That made it a real thing like. I’m holding it. This is this is an actual movie, an actual object.

I guess that getting a bunch of DVDs made was the end game.

"John Landis was actually one of the first people who responded, oddly enough... He sent a Universal Monster postcard saying something like, 'Yeah, I watched it, enjoyed it, cut it down to 90 minutes.'"

Were there role models, or any kind of business models you were looking at, for self-distributed underground movies?

No, but it was kind of a fun process of guerrilla distribution, because I had so many DVDs made. I was sending them to hundreds and hundreds of celebrities. But I also used to leave them at Nordstrom, and have homeless people passing them out on the street.

Which celebrities got copies?

Well, a lot of them did. But of course, I never heard back from 99% of them. John Landis was actually one of the first people who responded, oddly enough. He didn’t watch it at the time. But later he sent a Universal Monster postcard saying something like, “Yeah, I watched it, enjoyed it, cut it down to 90 minutes.”

How did you get it to him? Did you just look up people’s addresses?

At that time, you could buy these celebrity address lists at film and TV collector bookstores. It was still the physical mail era. Somehow these lists were being sold.

The first time I saw [Reflections of Evil], I was struck by that Universal Studios-ness of it, with that kind of nightmarish adjacent quality. I was like, “This is like everything I love, but it’s approached in a way that seems deranged, and illegal, and radical, and bootleg—but I’m watching it in a theatre!”

Aside from a fixation on Spielberg and Lucas that runs throughout the Packard canon, the film has fun remixing and recutting promotional videos for theme parks, television advertisements from the ’70s and ’80s, DVD features, this reclaiming and repurposing of cultural ephemera. Everything about that was confusing, and I couldn’t imagine what was going on there. Were you genuinely drawn to that sort of Hollywood-ness?

Yeah, I’m genuinely drawn to that sort of thing.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but you use, is it Tony Randall introductions from DVDs?

Tony Curtis.

Tony Curtis, of course. You basically start your movie the way so many budget DVDs begin: with some irrelevant intro that you make irreverent by obviously overdubbing it to be about yourself. So already watching this movie is like watching a cheapo DVD. But mutated in some odd way.

That was an afterthought when I was cutting it, adding in all these extra things.

That, to me, was the brilliance of the movie as like a “video video.” Because, when you pop in the old Mr. Arkadin DVD, there’s this pointless introduction from Tony Curtis talking about Citizen Kane. And if you rent videos, you know that introduction. And then I see your movie and I’m like, 'Here’s that exact thing again. What other movies is this on? Where did this guy come from? How does he even care about the Tony Curtis introduction as much as me and my friends do?'

Now that I’m thinking back about it, I think the idea behind that was I wanted to make this look like a Laserlight video or some sort of cheap DVD release, maybe something that came from a laser disc.

Reflections of Evil

As a video store employee and video collector, that’s what I loved about [the introduction]. Looking at the John Landis/Joe Dante generation, something like The Kentucky Fried Movie or Amazon Women on the Moon, those films are pastiche collages of the kind of B-movie culture these guys loved. Now, you would have something called a ‘post-internet movie,’ where it’s 10 seconds long and takes internet language into account.

But your movie is this perfect thing, right in the middle. This is the DVD generation. It’s much narrower than the Saturday-morning-cereal and the attack-of-the-whatever-movie generation, and it’s much more ephemeral than the current internet movie generation. Yet I was like, 'Oh, I get all of this, I understand the bootleg nature of this.'

So, are you, or were you, a huge physical media collector?

Not really, actually. I have friends who were. I’d never got into collecting anything really. Well, actually I had a big music collection.

Was there any reason that you didn't collect movies?

I just never got into it. I didn’t have the space. I was moving around a lot.

So not even a video store regular, in California or elsewhere?

I would go, but I didn’t even get into the renting that much. I just liked going out. I would see things theatrically. I came out of the ’70s and ’80s, going to the theatre.

I just wanted to mention in closing that when this movie played at Lincoln Center, my girlfriend—now wife—went to see it with me. Twenty minutes in, she says, “I’m going to have a panic attack or throw up, I have to leave.”

When I got home, I was like, “Are you okay? Are you sick?” She said, “No, I’m fine. It was just the movie instantly made me feel like I was going to lose my mind.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah, if that’s how you were feeling after 20 minutes, I can assure you two hours later, you would have felt the exact same plus a lot more.” It had the most overwhelming physical effect on her. And that doesn’t happen to her for many things. I still remember, all these years later, Reflections of Evil got under her skin right away. It was like hypnosis, it just completely worked on her.

The first half of that movie kind of bugs me. I think it’s slow and it can be difficult for people, especially with the character on the street yelling and screaming.

Which I loved then, and I anticipate still loving. Just the hostility. And that hidden camera prank stuff was such a ’90s underground thing. It became so viable again, but much later. The ’90s was this wonderful circulating bootleg prank video era. This movie is that plus cinema, plus much more. And I’m glad that hopefully this [screening] can help some people see Reflections of Evil, as I did, on a huge screen.

Great, and with a 4:3 ratio.

An SD, I assume? I don’t know what the sort of finishing quality is of at the time or now?

Actually, I have an HD remaster that I just made, that was upgraded from the dual layer DVD using topaz.

Alex Ross Perry is the director of the films Impolex, The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth, Golden Exits and Her Smell.