A couple of weeks ago at Lincoln Hall, late on a Saturday afternoon, Chester Novell Turner took the stage. Or rather, to be exact, he climbed onto the stage, throwing a leg sideways and hoisting himself from the floor to the stage. He did not seem to notice the short flight of stairs waiting a few feet away. The scene was awkward, unintentionally funny, yet charmingly befitting: Turner is the director of “Tales From the Quadead Zone” and “Black Devil Doll From Hell,” microscopically budgeted, Chicago-made horror movies from the 1980s, both of which are beyond awkward — awkwardly paced, awkwardly acted. Both were shot on VHS tape, so the picture quality is awkward. And both led to a film career that's as awkward as it is remarkable.
So awkward that, although there were at least 50 fans at Lincoln Hall to see Turner, until recently many of those same fans probably assumed he was dead: About two decades ago, a rumor spread among aficionados of obscure, low-budget horror movies that the largely unknown Turner had died in a car accident.
He had not.
Last year he heard about that rumor for the first time. Which was awkward. But also, oddly heartening, because not only had Chester Turner not died in a car wreck in 1996, he had no idea that he had any fans.
He didn't know he had a legend.
"I always knew I was weird," he said after the Lincoln Hall show. "I knew I found things funny that most people do not laugh at. Now all this time later I find there are others like me. I do take some solace in that."
A lifetime ago, when he was in his early 30s, he had made two cheap horror flicks using an off-the-shelf video camera, a few friends for actors and some money from his mother. "Black Devil Doll From Hell" (1984) told the story of a timid churchgoer (Shirley L. Jones, Turner's girlfriend at the time) who buys a demonic ventriloquist dummy that converts her into a promiscuous zombie. "Tales From the Quadead Zone" (1987), an anthology movie, is a collection of shorts about killer clowns, ghostly suicide pacts and demented hillbilly dinner parties. The movies were shot mostly on the South and West sides. Neither was shown in movie theaters; instead, Turner and Jones sold VHS copies to neighborhood video stores throughout the Chicago area. He says the two movies, which together cost less than $15,000 to make, brought in less than $4,000.
So he stopped. He put his dreams of being a director behind him.
He met a woman with eight children, helped raise them. He started a home remodeling business.
Then a funny thing happened: Among fans of locally produced horror movies, and collectors of rare VHS tapes — which remain Turner's largest constituencies — his movies circulated far outside of Chicago.
Word of Turner, and bootlegs of his films, spread within horror circles. The few details known about him became as compelling as his films: He was the rare African-American filmmaker in a considerably white genre, making horror films with black casts, shooting in working-class living rooms, capturing the texture of everyday life (again, in a genre not traditionally known for its attention to everyday reality). His soundtracks were catchy, clever and forward-thinking — produced on a Casio keyboard by Turner himself, sounding somewhere between a minimalist John Carpenter score from the '70s and an 8-bit video game soundtrack from the '80s. But, most intriguingly: Turner's horror films were deeply idiosyncratic, sexual and unnerving.
The Black Devil Doll himself wore farmer's clothes, braids in his hair and was modeled on Rick James. In one of the "Quadead Zone" stories, a man steals his brother's corpse from a South Side funeral home, then — and you really never see this twist coming — dresses the body in a clown outfit. Then it gets really weird.
Even Michelle Turner, 46, one of Turner's two children from a previous marriage, said: "I am extremely proud of my father and surprised by the attention he's getting now. But he's twisted — a nice kind of twisted. When he had that devil doll making love? I'd never seen anything like that. Now I'm older, and I still haven't."
Technically speaking — sound, editing, etc.— the films of Chester Turner stand slightly ahead of your nephew's bar mitzvah video and slightly behind a community college recruitment pitch, circa 1982. But creatively? Nothing in his films gets played for laughs. And nothing is devoid of knowing smirks. Imagine your most surreal, sluggish, lurid daydreams, as impossible to predict as to shake off — "astonishingly repellent yet utterly hypnotic," Aaron Christensen wrote on his Chicago-based blog Horror 101 With Dr. AC.
Said Louis Justin, the 23-year-old Flint, Mich., native whose Massacre Video label recently reissued Turner's movies as a DVD set (leading to packed screenings in alternative cinemas and concert venues around the country, including Lincoln Hall): "I seriously see Chester's movies as good movies. They have technical flaws. But despite that, they are singular. Chester was clearly not just following a low-budget horror formula. There was no irony or winky-ness in what he did, and I respect that. For whatever reason, they stick with you."
Said Jake Yuzna, who showed "Quadead Zone" last year as part of a VHS retrospective at New York's Museum of Arts and Design: "Chester came out of a period when people with no formal training in film were making movies with video cameras, and though his movies have so many illogical places — 'Quadead Zone' suggests four stories; we get three — you feel a complete earnestness and unabashed love in what he's making. By traditional standards, these are failures. But this is what we're supposed to mean by 'indie film.'"
Within movie-collecting circles, an original Chester Turner VHS tape became so prized that, several years ago, Earl Kessler Jr., a graphic designer from Pennsylvania, paid $665 on eBay for a VHS of "Quadead Zone" (then "went ahead (and) sold the copy of the film I purchased off eBay and doubled my money," he wrote in an email). At Odd Obsession, a Wicker Park video store specializing in the unusual and rare, a copy of "Black Devil Doll" was stolen years ago and never replaced, said owner Brian Chankin. "The only people who come in for Chester Turner are VHS collector kids — but that is not a small number of people, actually."
All of which went on unbeknownst to Turner, whose story (and fate) remained a mystery to even the most obsessive horror fans. In the encyclopedic "Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990," author Brian Albright asked: "Who is Chester Turner, and what demons drove him to create these freakish cinematic experiments?"
Last fall, Cinefamily, a Los Angeles alt-theater (which lists actors Michael Cera and Joseph-Gordon Levitt on its advisory board) hosted a sold-out screening of "Black Devil Doll From Hell" and an appearance by Turner. "The truth is, up until that screening, we fantasized about what kind of person Chester was," said Bret Berg, director of programming. "He had become so legendary, and his films were so weird, I suppose you could call him an 'outsider artist,' but that's debatable. He is unquestionably an interesting filmmaker. And, in the age of the Internet, when you can find out about any filmmaker, Chester Turner stayed one of life's mysteries."
Actually, for most of the past 25 years, Chester Turner was living in plain sight. He just didn't announce himself as a filmmaker, let alone the filmmaker of marginal works he assumed were long forgotten. He is 67 and lives alongside a funeral home in the South Shore neighborhood. His apartment is small, warm and stuffy. His longtime girlfriend died a few years ago, and on a recent weekday, he could be found in front of his TV, surrounded by stacks of new DVDs, playing a round of the video game "Resident Evil" on PlayStation 3.
"I'm not a normal 67," he said, smiling.
He spoke with a soft, almost Southern lilt, though he grew up near the University of Illinois at Chicago campus. He had a goatee and was energetic, charmed by the new attention but guilelessly matter-of-fact. On that stage at Lincoln Hall, before mostly young guys, several wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with the titles of his movies, Turner wore a big smile, a Cubs jacket, a Cubs hat and not an ounce of self-importance. He did not seem like a man who had just discovered a treasure chest of hipster cred.
He explained to the audience that part of the $10,000 it took to make "Black Devil Doll" went to crew and actor salaries (he didn't know that working for free is an accepted part of the culture of independent filmmaking).
And when a guy asked what "Quadead Zone" meant, he replied: "'Quad' means four.
'Dead' … you know what that means."
Told in his apartment later that many of those people at Lincoln Hall (and at his well-attended appearances in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas) were there undoubtedly because they just wanted to see the guy who would think to make a movie with sex scenes between a puppet and an actress, Turner chuckled. "When I showed that movie to my mother, she said, 'I love you, Chester, but you're a weird cookie.' I said, 'Ma, you helped finance me!'" Turner said. "Ideas just come to me. It's how I think: Say I have an idea about a grandmother, and she's baking. OK, what is she baking? You assume she's baking people, right? That's just the start for me."
Turner said he grew up fascinated by "The Twilight Zone" and was constantly writing horror stories, but he went to work in the remodeling business and put aside dreams of being a filmmaker. Then came the VHS revolution of the 1980s, when "lots of people noticed that something like 'Friday the 13th' was selling well on shelves and, as long as the box on a video-store shelf looked pretty good, they could make a horror movie with store-bought video cameras," said Joe Ziemba, a Homewood native, founder of the Bleeding Skull horror website and a programmer at the influential Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin (which has shown Turner's films).
Asked if Turner's being an African-American in a white scene or any degree of irony factored into the appreciation of his movies, Ziemba said: "Absolutely not. His work transcends all of that, actually. Like a lot of people who started making movies with video cameras back then, he had a creative volcano in his mind."
Indeed, Turner was so determined to make a film that he took a correspondence course on filmmaking, the only route he knew to get even the most rudimentary instruction. Turner said: "I'm not going to use the N-word, but that's what it felt like back then, even among my friends: 'Who's this … guy think he is? Spielberg?' Chicago doesn't offer support to any filmmaker, I think. And can you imagine how hard it was to make anything with four people? I had no connections to anyone or knew anyone who knew anyone who knew anything about how to make a movie. It was like telling someone I was going to be an astronaut now."
In the end, though Turner hoped to get his films shown on cable, the best he could do was selling several hundred copies of each movie, mostly to video stores; for a short time in the 1980s, "Black Devil Doll" was distributed on a now-defunct video label, which Turner says sent him a one-time check of just under $1,000.
"Chester was always the strongest one in our family," said Keefe Turner, his younger brother. "It took a lot of endurance even to get where he got. But I always thought it would happen for him eventually — eventually."
Chester Turner's rise from obscurity to slightly lesser obscurity began a year ago. Louis Justin of Massacre Video, obsessed with landing a copy of "Quadead Zone," spent months scouring phone books and databases for Turner; indeed, Google the name "Chester Turner," and the first thing you get is a wealth of material on the convicted Los Angeles serial killer Chester Turner. "I looked in obituaries," Justin said. "I searched the names in his credits (many of which were fabricated by Turner to give his productions a greater feeling of authenticity). I called every Chester Turner in Chicago, then every Turner in the Chicago area. The name was so common, and people would not know what I was talking about: 'Are you related to the Chester Turner who made "Black Devil Doll From Hell"?' A lot of people thought I was being a racist (expletive) and hung up on me. I went to Chicago and hit video stores on the South Side until I came to one that knew about the videos, and then I narrowed my search to a 5-mile radius of the store."
Justin returned to Michigan and dialed the phone numbers that hadn't picked up the first time — and then found Chester Turner. "I said to Chester, 'Did you direct a film by chance?' And Chester said, 'Yes, how do you know about that?' I hung up and composed myself, then called him back and told him that I wanted to release his films on video again."
Said Turner: "I didn't believe him. He said he was a big fan. So I'm thinking, 'Right, and your bottom line is?'"
Justin drove to Chicago. He and Turner talked over pizza and hashed out a deal: Justin would pay Turner for the rights to the two films. He also agreed to help finance a new Chester Turner horror movie. Justin said he paid Turner more than the director received for his films combined (he wouldn't say exactly how much but that it was less than $10,000). Turner, in a separate interview, said the deal was "very fair."
"But I actually didn't completely believe him that people loved my movies until we went to (a horror movie convention in) Cleveland," Turner said. "He got me a round-trip ticket and a hotel room. When I got there …"
Turner became misty-eyed recalling that day last fall: "It touched my heart."
Justin recalled: "Chester just kept signing autographs and looking over at me, and I would nod, like, 'See? I told you.'"
In fact, as they toured last fall, so many fans told Turner about the relative ease and affordability of digital filmmaking — as well as the micro-funding site Kickstarter, which Turner had not heard of (but which has been used by many filmmakers, including Zach Braff and Spike Lee) — that Turner became encouraged. He immediately set to work on writing "Tales From the Quadead Zone 2" and "Black Devil Doll From Hell 2."
"Quadead Zone 2" will be the first; Turner plans to begin shooting in March. And Keefe is building the next Black Devil Doll From Hell, which Chester said will look more like a Henry Winkler than a Rick James.
"This will be my next act, my way of repaying the warm feelings," Turner said. "But I'm different now. I'm older and can't do the extreme low-budget thing the same way. Not if it stunts my ability to make what I want. Though if I have to dig into my pocket, I will. Because I do my best with what I have to work with."
Twitter @borrelliCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun