DIY Filmmaking, Before Final Cut Pro

A pair of new DVD sets show just how different low-budget filmmaking was in the 1970s and '80s

With some credit cards, a digital camera, Final Cut Pro, and some willing friends, you can make a movie, then upload it to a sharing site, burn DVD copies, or maybe even take it to one or a dozen of the gajillion film festivals around these days. You can even make some headway with your homemade labor of love—witness the buzz surrounding Trouble the Water, a new documentary based on home video camera footage shot by two Hurricane Katrina survivors. It bears remembering, however, that plenty of filmmakers managed to make films in an earlier time when outside the Hollywood studio system equalled completely off the map. Two lavish, loving new DVD sets eulogize the largely unknown auteurs Eagle Pennell and Don Dohler, managing to rescue some of their best stuff from obscurity and to make the stories behind their work into fascinating films of their own.

The first few hand-held, grainy, black-and-white minutes of Pennell's 1978 The Whole Shootin' Match portend amateurish tedium as a lanky cowboy type tends to chores around a busted-ass farm. Then, while feeding the chickens, he picks up a chick and sniffs it. It's a disarmingly odd, uncliched moment, and it telegraphs the film that is to follow. The cowboy, Loyd (Lou Perryman), and his best buddy Frank (Sonny Carl Davis) scuffle up odd jobs around their Texas town, plotting get-rich-quick schemes and dreaming of a big payday. The fact that their best efforts reliably go for naught, plus the fallout from the carousing that results, only increases the friction between Frank and his long-suffering wife (Doris Hargrave) and between Frank and Loyd. What Pennell creates here is something like Lone Star Cassavetes, as the camera seems to catch Perryman and Davis behaving rather than acting—bullshitting, acting out, and coming to terms with a life that always promises more than it delivers. It makes for compelling viewing.

The Whole Shootin' Match DVD package comes with a second disc featuring The King of Texas, a recent feature-length documentary on Pennell's career and life that's almost as engrossing as the main attraction. A lanky high-school hoops star with no film background, Pennell went out and made an impressive short called "A Hell of a Note" (included in the extras), followed by Shootin' Match. The latter was a minor sensation, winning national press and, the story goes, inspiring Robert Redford to start the Sundance Institute to nurture such out-of-nowhere talent. After one more little-seen cult classic, 1983's Last Night at Alamo, Pennell's drinking took its toll on his career and life, which ended in 2002. Directed by Rene Pinnell, Pennell's nephew, King of Texas presents a welcome portrait of the Austin scene in the '70s (Willie Nelson is among the talking heads) and a fitting epitaph for a filmmaker who suffered the same sort of dubious luck as his protagonists.

Unlike Pennell, Baltimore's Don Dohler was mild mannered, drank moderately, and worked an office job until his death in 2006. In his off hours, though, he published underground comics and fanzines, experimented with special-effects makeup, and made 10 low-budget horror films. Even Dohler's small but fervent cult of admirers will acknowledge that his films aren't very good—which is part of their appeal for many—but John Paul Kinhart's recent documentary Blood, Boobs & Beast makes a good case for Dohler as an artist worthy of more respect than The Alien Factor or Blood Massacre usually musters. As Kinhart's adroit production shows, Dohler's makeup fanzine and his D.I.Y. films were enormously influential on a rising generation of sci-fi and horror creators, including Lost's J.J. Abrams and makeup man Tom Savini, both of whom are interviewed here. As Kinhart's camera captures the 2004-05 filming of the Dohler produced-and-co-directed Dead Hunt, BB&B shifts into an examination of the challenges inherent in making a low-budget film, including the documentary title's recipe for creating marketable horror. Dohler visibly squirms when discussing nudity, and his late-period collaborator Joe Ripple is posited by some interviewed as a corrupting influence on Dohler's work, all of which contributes to a surprising streak of drama.

Kinhart's film is, in fact, arguably better than any film its subject ever made, and sitting through Blood, Boobs & Beast's intimate portrait of the shy, bespectacled auteur indelibly burnishes his work. Which is a happy outcome, since the BB&B DVD issue comes bundled with a second disc featuring Dohler's 1982 Nightbeast, one of the best good-bad movies you'll ever see.