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.