Strangeland (1998)

A detective pursues a sadist specializing in body modification rituals who lures teenagers through the internet.

VHS release pictured: 1998, Artisan Entertainment.

Starring: Kevin Gage, Dee Snider, Linda Cardellini | Director: John Pieplow

Strangeland: VHS of the Month Review

by Sam Rakestraw

* * * SPOILERS * * *

Who knew that Twisted Sister could be so scary? I certainly did not. Man, this year we are hitting out of the park with personal projects written, directed, or produced by some of the most unsuspecting figures –Joe Spinell with Maniac and now Dee Snider's Strangeland. It's always fascinating to watch the type of ways they see and portray serial killers and what message they hope the audience will take with them after the movie is over. Strangeland takes a more dramatic approach with modern primitive culture (or the culture of intense and painful piercings) as the main theme.

Strangeland has its roots in Twisted Sister's iconic 1984 album Stay Hungry. On the same side as their signature track "We're Not Gonna Take It" is a song entitled "Horror-Teria". This ballad tells the story of a deranged child-killer, Captain Howdy, and him being set free on a technicality similar to Freddy Kreuger. The second part of the song details his death at the hands of an angry mob of parents. In Strangeland, the character of Captain Howdy is given a modern revamp as a piercing and pain-obsessed predator who lures teens through an online chatroom so he can spread the good word of modern primitive culture. Whether they live or die is none of his concern. In the age of dial-up internet, Strangeland is a mix of When a Stranger Calls and Hellraiser.

"What kind of name is Captain Howdy?" Clearly, Genevieve Gage (Linda Cardellini) has never seen The Exorcist. She and her friend Tiana (Amal Rhoe) are the latest abductees of Captain Howdy (Dee Snider). Carlton Hendricks, got to love that comic book-like letter play, has been doing this for a while we presume. There's no suspicion as he lives as an unsuspecting member of a small Colorado town suburb –in a house that bears a resemblance to the Myers house I add. Luring in and torturing Genevieve was his first fatal mistake because she's the daughter of detective Mike Gage (Kevin Gage) who has been investigating the disappearances since day one. Now, it's personal.

In true faithfulness to the original song, Captain Howdy is caught and arrested by the 30-minute mark. He's found guilty by reason of insanity and given a road to rehabilitation. His one year in prison and three years in a mental treatment facility are told through newspaper clippings. All of his victims lived except for Tiana, so maybe that's why the leniency, but it still feels like giving someone like Dahmer a road back into society instead of keeping them locked up. Still, that's the point of the song and movie, to make you feel outraged.

The movie continues to be faithful to the song when a mob led by angry local Jack Roth (Robert Englund) kidnaps, beats, then hangs the seemingly cured Carlton Hendricks. The Nightmare on Elm Street influence comes full circle here with Freddy Krueger himself reenacting his own origin story on the opposite side. However, the branch they hang him from proves to be too weak, and Captain Howdy is brought back from the edge of death. From there, the Colorado town that has been so quiet for four years turns back into a hellish playground of fear. Detective Gage has to spring back into action and confront this deeply personal demon.

In the world of horror, stitched mouths and impaling body piercings are associated with Strangeland. My mom even fondly remembers this movie as a Twisted Sister fan –I was truly not expecting that. Captain Howdy doesn't discriminate either like you may be thinking. Some of the victims we see are men. Even though the junk-piercing scene wasn't visible, I was still holding mine in sympathy and fear. This is probably how women felt watching Sleepaway Camp. When it comes to piercings, I think there's a fine line between being a self-expressive individual and being a Cenobite. Dee Snider blurs the line as Captain Howdy. All of his lines were based on actual quotes by Fakir Musafar, who is considered to be one of the foremost figures of modern primitive culture and body modification. Anyone who performs a flesh hook hanging should be considered all that and more. His Wikipedia picture is the best thing ever –he looks so in the zone. Piercings like that can't be too bad for you since he lived to the ripe old age of 87 in 2018.

Production of Strangeland was largely funded by Dee Snider himself and Larry Meistrich of The Shooting Gallery Pictures. Scoring action-hero character actor Kevin Gage was also a big win for production. I think they gave detective Mike and his family his last name for that reason. Being able to go head-to-head with Twisted Sister in a game of cat and mouse then hand-to-hand combat has to be a high point of his career. Robert Englund also helped add to Strangeland's legitimacy as a truly scary movie. Joe Pieplow, the director, was likely an employee of Shooting Gallery Pictures.

Of course, the best part about Strangeland's production isn't the actual Colorado-based shooting location or Snider in a villain role, it's the soundtrack. With such a major musical talent spearheading this movie, you can bet that they are going to curate or create a banger soundtrack. With Strangeland, you naturally have some Snider and Twisted Sister, you also have Megadeth, Anthrax, System of a Down, Kid Rock, Eminem, and Pantera. The soundtrack was so large, that some songs had to be cut.

A strength that Strangeland has is scaring you without showing you much. It's not a terribly gory movie with a lot being shown. A lot of the fear just comes from the idea of intense body modifications in areas you would rather them not be. But at the same time as Captain Howdy repeatedly stressed, there are parts of the world where jamming a hook through your spleen is completely normal and even a part of growing up. So, there is always that one biting tiny thought in the back of your head that maybe Captain Howdy has a point. But after what he's done to Genevieve, who really gets no breaks in this movie, he's irredeemable.

With a budget of around $1.1 million and a gross of $713,329, Strangeland was, by all means, a flop. But it found an extremely odd success in video stores. The Artisan release is reported to be one of the most stolen tapes in video store history. I personally think we have the Twisted Sister fans to thank for that. Why wouldn't you steal a movie starring and by your favorite singer at a time when internet downloads weren't fully realized? Isn't it kind of like The Beatles making a slasher movie about Maxwell and his silver hammer with Paul in the main role? That also makes you wonder why it didn't do good in theaters if all of the Twisted Sister fans showed up.

I've learned that VHS tapes from the mid-90s to early 2000s are loaded with the most previews and bumpers before the movie. This was also the time when VHS distributors started to include their website handles. Artisan Entertainment, before being bought by Lionsgate, oversaw several theatrical and video releases. The first bumper on this tape is a nice, wholesome video store ad followed by movies that were coming to theaters and videos at that time. We have Black Mask with Jet Li, Jerry Springer's Ringmaster, the thriller Acts of Betrayal, the biopic The Temptations, and a VHS John Wayne collection with all his movies remastered.

Strangeland is still celebrated as a horror IP today. In 2007, Dee Snider and his son wrote a comic prequel series concerning the true origin of Captain Howdy and how Carlton Hendricks got into body modifications in the first place. In the meantime, there have been talks about a sequel despite Captain Howdy's fate at the end of the movie with Snider still attached. Some unique horror content always comes from rockers. This isn't the last heavy metal flick we'll be seeing this year.