Current Music: Strapping Young Lad - Shine
Back in high school, my close friend Patrick and I would often go to the local Blockbuster and try to rent the most awful films in their catalog. Most of the time this endeavor resulted in a few laughs but very little else. The promise of a killer clown or snowman was often met with something that was completely soulless in execution and everything else.
Then one day we happened upon a movie called Feeders. The cover showed an obvious rubber alien head hovering over the earth. What more it had a Blockbuster sticker that said "Restricted to minors." To put the icing on the cake, the back of the box somehow managed to misspell the name John as "Jhon". We knew we had found something special, but we had no idea just how special until later that evening. The movie was <i>extremely</i> low budget ($500 as we would later find out) and the rubber alien puppet was... well, a rubber alien puppet. It snacked on cast member after cast member while obviously being shot above the "waist" as a puppeteer operated it below. Needless to say, we were ecstatic - we laughed, we cried (with laughter) and had one of the most entertaining 70 minutes I have ever recalled.
Afterwards, we tried in vain to find out more about these mysterious filmmakers called the "Polonia brothers", but back then the Internet was still burgeoning and left us with few leads. We found out they were from Pennsylvania, had done a few more films and that's about it. DVD's were still on the edge of the horizon and searching for more VHS copies of these movies ranged no positive results.
Years passed and our enthusiasm died a bit, although Feeders was rented a handful of times simply to relive the experience. Fast forward to after I entered college and worked part time at a video rental store. For some reason that I'm still not entirely sure of, I decided to look at the back of one of the b-films that had just been released, The House That Screamed. Lo and behold, what names did I see under director? John and Mark Polonia. You would have thought by my reaction that I had just found an unknown Orson Welles film or the original cut of Annie Hall.
I immediately called my friend and we watched the movie in a matter of days. It contained many of the same actors, and many of the same quirky styles found in Feeders and our interest in these mysterious Polonia brothers rose once more. This time, however, the Internet had grown in it's size and the amount of information and we were able to track down a website with some scant info. Even more exciting, there was an email address! With the giddiness of two 13-year-old girls writing a fan letter to Mr. Belvedere, we bashed out an email to the Polonia brothers, even offering to drive up to PA if they ever needed help on a film.
Now, up until this point, I'll be the first to admit that there was a fair share of snark involved with our admiration of the Polonias. Years and years of MST3K had left me with a critical eye towards the low-budget work of your Ed Woods and, in the extreme, your Coleman Francis'. My friend and I had merely written off Feeders as being "bad", albeit in the "so bad it's good" category and pretty much had come to the conclusion that the Polonia brothers were most likely your average hacks just making movies to shill out in video stores for a quick buck.
Getting back to the story, a few days later we got a response from Mark Polonia. We were surprised at how friendly and open he was to a simple fan letter, even going so far as to welcome our offer to help next time they were doing a film. Now granted, most of their movies back then were done by a scant number of people and the promise of working on one isn't like busting into a Scorsese set, but the very fact that they would be so open to such an idea was pretty damn cool in our opinion.
Of course we never followed up on the offer which, in retrospect, was a huge mistake on our part. There really was no excuse except there wasn't any "time" what with school/work/relationships/whatever and all the other reasons one gives for not doing what they really want to do. However, our attitude towards the Polonias began to morph at that point. There was an actual face behind the movies that revealed itself as ordinary guys who just love doing the movies they make, no matter how cheap. What's more, we discovered that the Polonia brothers were twins! Identical ones at that! (A small in-joke, but this news made us laugh because it revealed that during one scene in Feeders, where John Polonia fights his "clone", what we thought was a well-done split screen effect was actually just both brothers being on camera at the same time. Go figure.)
Apparently a small but dedicated number of people were also starting to follow the Polonia's work. One of the first reviews I ever found on Feeders was from the website Something Awful which trashed the film, albeit in an amusing way. This actually began my love affair with their site and over the years I got to watch as they reviewed several other movies that the Polonia brothers put out. Apparently my friend and I weren't the only ones who had latched onto their peculiar output. But, despite all the acidic comments Something Awful had thrown at their films, the webmaster actually got in touch with Mark and Jon McBride and let them do their own article in rebuttal. It's a bit funnier if you read the original review of Feeders, but their humor and penchant for self-deprecation is obvious and the same goes for the site's own love for their films.
Once DVD became the mainstay, every small film company started pumping out their low-budget movies into stores. This, along with the multitude of online stores, became a godsend for my friend and I. In a matter of a scant few years, numerous Polonia brother movies were available somewhere. And even though I still haven't bought a great number of classic films that have been available for a decade, you better believe almost every one of the Polonia brothers' films are residing on my DVD shelves.
This might seem fairly strange to most. Admittedly, if you only see one or two Polonia films you might just laugh them off as a joke much like my friend and I did so many years ago. There's so much out there in the way of films, especially poor ones, that it's hard for a couple of guys from PA to stand out in the crowd. But the more I saw and read about these guys, the more I respected them. It was also a big help that many of their DVD's are loaded with commentaries and behind-the-scenes footage that reveals the Polonias as just a couple of ordinary guys who decided to start making movies. Hell, it isn't even their "career", as such, since they both hold full time jobs and raise families in your average everyday suburbs. The point is, they used all of their free time to grab a camera, some friends and make the movies they wanted to make. The Polonia's were among some of the first to get a shot-to-video film into major chain retail stores. Sure, they were all done with little-to-no budget. Sure, most of them take place in the same locations. If nothing else, these attributes add a familiarity to their work that is comforting. It almost feels like you're watching a movie made by close friends, which was something of a staple for my friends and I going all the way up to and through college. And as the Polonia's got better and better, it was like rooting for the underdog and you were proud to see them grow as their budgets got a little bit bigger and their aspirations became realized.
It's sometimes hard to tell from multiple sources, but they apparently have done 30 films in the past 20 years. I won't lie and say that every one can be counted as a personal favorite, but no matter what they always entertained me. Using a cuts-only editing deck as the command center for a spaceship in Blood Red Planet? Classic. Having Santa Claus being attacked by alien puppets which results in the jolly old elf mowing them down with a laser gun? Inspired. Having Earth be taken over by aliens in Feeders, only to ignore the entire climax in Feeders 2? Amazing.
And they just keep on coming. There's a number of films either awaiting release on DVD or in the process of being made, all of which look to be just as entertaining as their other fare. My friend from high school, who is still as rabid a Polonia fan as I am twelve years later, gets information from me every couple of weeks from a Yahoo group I joined dedicated to the brothers and it still makes us excited when a new release comes out.
So imagine my dismay when I woke up yesterday to posts that said "John Polonia dead at 39." On Monday, 2/25/2008, John had a heart aneurysm and passed away.
The news hit me harder than I would have expected it to. Even my close friend was flabbergasted after I left a message on his phone to inform him. But as I said before, after following them for so many years and hearing them talk it almost seemed like he was a friend, albeit a distant one. Acting wise, he was easily the highlight of most of their films, even if it was just a cameo and (usually) cannon fodder for whatever murderous alien/person/killer fish was in that movie.
Remember that bit earlier when I talked about people being filled with excuses about why they don't achieve what they really want in life? Their job wears them down, there doesn't seem to be any time left at the end of the day, etc., etc.? Hell, I'm guilty of that as much, if not more, than anybody else. Well, John and Mark and Jon McBride and all the people involved with their films.. they found, and still find, the time. John didn't earn a star on the Hollywood walk of fame but he lived his life doing what he loved until the very end, despite the numerous hurdles I'm sure a truly independent filmmaker has to face in order to get his movie out there into the public. At the end of the day, that's why I enjoy the Polonia brother's films. Despite budget limitations and anything else, the dedication for what they're doing bleeds through their work and shows a legitimate love for a medium which never, and might not ever, truly love them back (at least in a mainstream sense).
You won't see their films on any end-of-year "best of" lists, you won't see a mention of John next year in that horrid "In Memoriam" montage the Oscars always have, and I doubt Roger Ebert will be writing a book about their work. Still, John helped dedicate a large amount of blood, sweat and tears to making films that they enjoyed and hoped others would be entertained by. While I never had the good fortune to meet the man, I believe he lived a full life because he never let anything stop him from doing what he damn well wanted to do.
I look forward to the release of Wildcat, Black Mass and obtaining my copy of Splatter Beach. While I imagine it will be sad to see his final roles, I also believe that Mark and everyone else will continue making the films they want to see, even if it only reaches a small percentage of the populace; because that's what makes their movies so great. More people in this world should aspire to their level of dedication.
So I guess all I have left to say is "thanks, Jhon... I mean, John." ;)
A nice tribute page to John: http://www.brettkelly.net/poloniatribut