Saturday Night Grindhouse Chapter 4: Meet Your Host

What was once known to the Native Americans as Little Flat Lick is modern-day Duffield, Virginia. While still inhabited by natives, Daniel Boone, Squire Boone, Dr. Thomas Walker and Elisha Wallen were pursuing western lands and were among the earliest European explorers who frequented the area. Little Flat Lick became Duffield after Sam Henry Duff – a native of Mt. Airy, North Carolina – settled there with his family in 1818. 

Being a major location for the railroad, the town saw growth, eventually filling up with a few stores, a blacksmith shop, a brick yard and a sawmill. This led to the town officially becoming incorporated in 1894. In the 1950s, as the country grew less dependent on coal, Duffield was chosen as the site of a regional industrial park that would serve Lee, Norton, Wise and Scott counties. This was upsetting to the coal-mining community, of course, but it was this industrial park that helped Duffield move into the modern era. In 2007 it was home to Tempur-Pedic (employing over 2,000 people in the region) as well as Virginia Fiberglass, Gilbert Lumber, Rasnic Veterinary Clinic, Cumberland Glove, the volunteer fire department and others.

Drive around town and you’ll find the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail, a monument erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution that marks the Wilderness Road and a train depot movie prop built by a major Hollywood studio for the 1980 film Coal Miner’s Daughter. The depot was originally built in the town of Appalachia, Virginia, and was relocated to the property of Duffield local Kenny Fannon – his front yard, to be exact. Fannon converted the old depot prop into a train museum full of memorabilia seen by tourists throughout the year.

Fannon

And while one may feel this niche collection in the small Virginia town is Fannon’s claim to fame, he’s mostly famous these days for being the chairman of Labor Day festivities … Festivities that include lawn mower and tractor pulls, old-time crafts, classic car shows, a 5k, a community parade and Sunday church service under a tent.

These are just some of the events that you can experience while visiting Duffield Daze – a weekend-long festival held by the local community. Food vendors set up, live music is played and there’s even a Miss Duffield Daze Pageant with categories for Miss Duffield Days, Teen Miss, Preteen Miss, Young Miss, Little Miss, Tiny Miss, Toddler Miss and Baby Miss.

A little creepy maybe, but not too bad for a small town in Southwest Virginia boasting a total population of 73 (all-white, as per the 2020 census). It is the smallest incorporated town in the state of Virginia.

It was in this tiny country area of the Old Dominion where something sadistic took place. When the veil between the living and the dead was at its thinnest … When the moon was at its bloodiest … when an unsuspecting soul spoke the contents of the Necronomicon … Yes, it was in this God-fearing, family welcoming, simple-living town that something unspeakable occurred. I’m talking about the birth of Shannon “The Cinema Warrior” Wallen.

Aside from the miles of deep, dark forests and moonlit backstreets that serve as the home to backwoods people whose mere existence terrifies the braggarts of the big city, Duffield is not the place to go if you want to find horror entertainment. From the time he was born, Shannon was only able to see edited versions of horror films on CBS Late Night broadcasts – from classics like Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974), It Lives Again (1978) and Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) to creepy selections like the Sentinel (1977, directed by Michael Winner) and cheap cult misfit Spawn of the Slithis (1978, directed by Stephen Traxler).

Growing up with an interest in horror was not easy for the Cinema Warrior. In third grade, he was reprimanded for horrifying his classmates with tales of the Amityville Horror, a 1979 horror film he’d just watched merely hours earlier. While his interest in the macabre wasn’t shared with his peers, adolescent Shannon took it upon himself to seek out the strange and unusual on his own, often begging his parents to take him to movies. A write-up in the local paper depicting Farmer Vincent from Motel Hell (1980, directed by Kevin Connor) wearing a pig head and holding a chainsaw whet his appetite for more – what other kinds of horrible things could be seen in this film? His folks would maybe never take him to the movies but it didn’t dampen his spirit – in fact, it made him yearn for what he was missing even more.

Probably not what they showed in the newspaper but you get the idea.

He got his first taste of the production world after tracking down issues of Fangoria and Starlog magazines. In addition to the images of bloody gore-fests and interviews with the stars of the films, their directors and production companies, these zines also spoke at length of the special-effects artists and the many prosthetics and stunts that made them famous. In the days before CGI, horror film special effects were done the hardcore way. If you wanted a head to explode, you couldn’t use a computer to animate it … you had to find a way to make a realistic head blow up with equally realistic innards and blood. If you wanted to depict something graphic (legally), you had to get creative. Seeing behind the curtain of these productions served as an appetizer on a menu of pure shock that Shannon would be ordering from in his future.

Years later, Shannon would occasionally go into his local Blockbuster Video (AKA “Lackluster Video”) with a friend and steal copies of Fangoria Magazine in defiance while his companion checked out an assortment of mainstream films. 

Eventually, the madman was finally able to go to the local movies and to see classics like Mother’s Day (1980, directed by Charles Kaufman), Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982), Pieces (1982, directed by Juan Piquer Simon) and Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984 directed by Charles Sellier). These films led Shannon to the most intrigue and fascination … but going to the movies – a rare event – meant getting to see these fine productions only once.

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In 1953, Dr. Norikazu Sawazaki developed a prototype for the helical-scan video tape recorder. Three years later, Ampex brought in the quadraplex videotape recorder, but its $50,000 price tag meant only the wealthiest of TV networks could afford it. Between 1956 and 1969, other companies developed video recording devices including Sony’s CV-2000 and RCA’s monochrome VTR. 

With recording technology growing, so did recording mediums. 1962 saw the Stereo-Pak four-track audio cartridge, 1963 brought the compact audio cassette and Instamatic film cartridge, the 8-track cartridge was released in 1965, the Super 8 cartridge hit in 1966 and Sony created U-Matic in 1970.

Philips also changed the game in 1970 with the release of Video Cassette Recording (VCR). Initially available for television stations, VCR was made consumer-available in 1972, the same year video cassettes were made available for at-home viewers. When the Philips N1500 was released, it cost around $850 – adjusted for inflation, that’s equal to about $6,298.41 today. In 1972, the yearly income of the average American was just a hair over $11,000, so it goes without saying that VCRs were not widely distributed right away.

The Philips N1500

It wasn’t until between the late 1980s and early 1990s that the VCR dominated – rising in number from 14%-66% of households owning them. The price of an in-home system decreased from $6,000 to $500, then eventually $100 or less. One of the households that took advantage of the lowered cost was the home of the Cinema Warrior himself – and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Home video was a savior for Shannon and he took full advantage of his mother’s indifference toward what content he chose to consume. Horror was a huge hit on home video, so he not only got to watch the classics and the new releases, but he could now watch them multiple times. There was also a new world that was introduced – independent films that wouldn’t have been released to local movie theaters in small-town America and certainly not on broadcast television. Some movies opened even more new doors – after renting Basket Case on VHS, Shannon found a dedication at the conclusion of the credits to a man named Herschell Gordon Lewis, filmmaker responsible for 1960s splatter classics such as Blood Feast (1963), Two Thousand Maniacs!(1964) and one of my personal favorites, Wizard of Gore (1970). He tracked down more information on Lewis through books and magazines (there was no internet, after all) and before long, Shannon was obsessed with horror and exploitation on a new level and began diving ever deeper.

Shannon frequently visited a local mom-and-pop VHS rental store owned by an elderly couple who lined their walls with posters from Bad Taste (1987, directed by a young Peter Jackson), Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991, directed by Frank Kenenlotter), Class if Nuke ‘em High 3: The Good, the Bad, the Subhumanoid (1994, TROMA film directed by Eric Louzil) and more. Their new-release shelves were filled with the same films – not the tired, mainstream stuff found at “Cockbuster Video” and its ilk.

The majority of this magical store was horror – a dream for the Cinema Warrior. The rest of the shop consisted primarily of offbeat Kung-Fu and other Asian ass-beating films. Somehow the horny bastard never made it to the porn room but from what he could see through the sometimes-open door, it looked like the old couple stocked every possible film that ever depicted explicit sex. He got to know the owners rather well, often asking them to put a poster or some promo material on hold for him only to be told they already had his name on it.

Scouring the aisles of the local video rental store, Shannon then found a film that would change his life forever – 1984’s the Toxic Avenger. Directed by Lloyd Kaufman and produced by Troma Entertainment, the heartwarming tale of a skinny nerd growing into a strong antihero thanks to a vat of toxic waste made Shannon have ooze-covered hearts in his eyes – a passion for a film that continues for him to this day.

As more films were released on VHS, Shannon was able to get his hands on everything from Universal Monsters and alien/giant bug films from the 1950s to powerhouse pieces of cinema like George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Despite feeling such a strong passion for the genre, however, the more he researched, read and learned, Shannon couldn’t help but feel as though horror was treated with little respect – almost like a joke merely one step above porn.

This was likely due to similarities between the two genres. Sexploitation films were low-budget movies packed with gratuitous nudity and often shown at grindhouse theaters that frequently showed horror films of all sub-genres in the 1960s and 70s. This particular brand of exploitation film came into being just a year after Roth v. United States declared that sex and obscenity were not synonymous. Films like Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965) and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) paved the way for the explicit eroticism that would soon inspire horror filmmakers and invade their films.

Some of the now-famous filmmakers in the horror industry got their start in the porn world as well, including Wes Craven, director of horror classics The Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Shocker (1989) and more. It is commonly known that Craven left his job in academia to write and/or edit hardcore porn films under pseudonyms in the late 60s before making his directorial debut with The Last House on the Left

Others blurred the line like Fred Olsen Rey who got his start with low-budget horror but found his stride making softcore porn films for Showtime and Cinemax – Bad Girls from Mars (1990), Bikini Drive-In (1995) and Attack of the 60-Foot Centerfold (1995) just to name a few. Fred worked with former Roger Corman-employee Jim Wynorski on Scream Queen Hot Tub Party (1991). In the horror world, Wynorski is known for his work on Chopping Mall (1986), Death Stalker 2 (1987) and Sorority House Massacre II (1990) but he also freuqnely dipped his toe into the erotic with films such as The Bare Wench Project (2000), Alabama Jones and the Busty Crusade (2005) and the Breastord Wives (2007). 

In addition to his love of horror, exploitation and sleaze, Shannon was also a fan of music and performance art – primarily the kind that makes your skin crawl, your blood boil and all the other general feelings one gets from seeing your favorite scary movie. Being a part of a very niche subculture meant Shannon was introduced to a variety of people from all walks of life with one thing in common: a taste for the obscene. 

As a performer, he fronted a few different acts including Legions of Destro Iscariot. Legions was heavily influenced by Philly hardcore band Bad Luck 13 Riot Extravaganza where anything goes and things could get violent. Another chaotic act was Sounds of the Rotten South – a two-man noise act comprised of Shannon as Jeb (The Cobra) Dishner along with Chaotic Underworld co-creator Patrik Dougherty as Wild Zeke Calhoun, two rebels who would break out of county lockup every few months, come into town, get doped-up and destroy everything while making noise, verbally assaulting the audience and selling both meth and catfish out of the back of their truck. According to Shannon, “No real meth was harmed.” 

Professionally, Shannon landed at Dad’s CDs in Kingsport – the infamous local record shop specializing in used CDs, cassettes and DVDs. Honestly, the perfect place for someone like Shannon to spend his time, utilize his vast knowledge of both cinema and studio all while getting paid.

With this background and his great love of all things scary, Shannon used his passion as fuel to become an iron-fisted champion of the artform he loved so much. He vowed to spend as much of his time promoting little films and other projects that needed fan and community support, to talk as much as he could about movies and the small-town heroes who made them. He would also make it a point to support the horror hosts with their cheap local shows on public-access stations across the country.

Little did he know that he would go on to be one of these small-town heroes, himself.

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