The New England based VHS label and distro King of the Witches has quickly earned a name for itself with their ultra-limited series of VHS mix tapes and special fan packages. A rabid fan base has responded in kind to the company’s love of extreme horror and exploitation, with many of their VHS releases selling out within hours of release.
We contacted the shadowed and mysterious King of the Witches to uncover some of the secrets behind their dedicated DIY service and expose the dark and sweaty underbelly of their exploitation life.
Can you recall when the idea of starting a label and doing DIY VHS distribution first hit you? There is obviously a lot of love and devotion behind what you’re doing here; are you surprised with the positive response you’ve received thus far?
The response has been pretty crazy. I'm surprised that there are so many people that care about something that I put together by hand. I've got customers in Australia, Germany, England, Switzerland, and a bunch of other places all over the world that have bought stuff from me and that's blown my mind. I'm happy.
Was there ever any worry that the idea would sink like a stone? What sort of challenges did you have to overcome early on, and what sort of prep went into the earliest brainstorming of what you wanted King of the Witches to be?
I get worried every time there's a release. Usually it's just me being over critical of myself, everything tends to go smoothly though. Surprisingly, early on there weren’t many challenges. I think getting off to a strong start has helped to give us the momentum to keep going and expanding. At first I didn't really put a lot of thought into what I was doing; the first release was a mix tape that I put together over the course of a couple of weeks and did a live release at a little video swap meet kind of thing. I sold out while I was there, which was unexpected. So I decided that I should make it available to my friends online that couldn't make it to the event. Looking back at the mix tape, I really don't like it. But it's been progress ever since.
Did you always have a sort of game plan or set of goals in mind when deciding how you wanted to approach the label? How did you go about organizing inventory and setting up your first projects?
The first project was super DIY, all recycled pieces. I copied over other films and used old beat up clamshells. Now I've got it down to a science. I have a supplier for new clamshells and cassettes. It sort of takes away from the DIY feel that the original stuff had, but now I can feel more proud of my product. There never really was a game plan. I didn't announce any of the releases until the day that they were released which sort of made people scramble for them, but now that I'm dealing in a lot of the titles that I never thought I'd be able to get my hands on, I try to go about it in a more professional manner.
King of the Witches seems to specialize in what some might call the “fringe” areas of cult horror, sleaze and exploitation, focusing on extreme and adult fare, whether it’s a shot on video slasher or golden age sex feature. Was it pretty much agreed upon right away that there would be no boundaries as to what you would release and distribute?
I just really didn’t want to be like everyone else doing boutique video releases. I wanted to approach from a different angle and have a catalog of films that would cater to all different people.
I love horror movies, so I'll never turn down the opportunity to distribute an extreme horror film or gore movie. But I'm really more interested in the oddities out there. I love documentaries and obscure low budget stuff, I'd really like to do more forgotten gems.
How many people are involved with these day to day operations? Do you handle the lion’s share of packaging, shipping, organizing, etc, and would you ever want to expand in the near future to the extent of a Severin or Synapse/Impulse, or is it firmly DIY for you all the way?
It's just me for the most part. I get a lot of help from a few people with shipping, supplies and printing. I really wouldn’t have lasted this long without them. Keeping it such a small operation is great because I have full control over pretty much everything I do, but keeping an open mind about expanding is really important because I think there's a lot of potential to grow with what I'm doing. I'd like to eventually do DVDs and Blu Rays, and I know it’s a realistic goal. I think it's just a matter of putting the effort.
The care and thought that has gone into every one of your limited VHS releases is staggering, and very much appreciated by your rabid fan base. To play devil’s advocate for a moment: why go through all this trouble? Is it a case of you releasing a tape the way YOU would want to see it releases as a consumer, with all of these extras unique to this limited run?
I just think that people like "things." I'm really not into all of the extras, for me it’s just clutter. But at the same time, I know that what I'm doing is aimed at a collectors market so every package needs to be special. I'm more of a fan of extra footage, interviews, behind the scenes stuff, though, so I try to aim more towards that.
Speaking of which, your print runs are often quite small, sometimes in the 25 or under range. What sort of factors determine how limited you decide to make a release, and do you find that more and more people have grasped on to these releases, resulting in each tape garnering a bigger buzz each time?
It all depends on the film. Mix tapes I can do whatever I want with because I make them. Films depend on what I license and the contracts. Most filmmakers don't care about VHS and understand that it's a niche thing, so they let me do however many I want. A lot of the time I try to do more so that more people can see the films.
When it all comes down, it's about the films and getting them into people's hands.
So I try to keep that in mind at all times. A lot of the stuff coming up is going to be in the 50-100 unit range. I think a lot of the other VHS outfits are trying to see who can sell out the fastest. But if I make 100 tapes and it takes a year to sell them all, that's fine, because they each end up in the hands of someone who wants them. All of the “limited to under 30 copies” stuff is just a pain for new fans because they shouldn't have to deal with eBay prices three months after a films initial release.
What have the reactions been from you customers, fans and Facebook followers? Would you say that FB has been an important tool in bringing awareness to KotW, and building up a community of people who dig what you’re doing?
Facebook is a huge factor in KOTW. So many people are on there and it makes it easy to just follow along with news about releases, screenings, and other news. It's so much easier to just log onto Facebook and scroll through your news feed than it is to go to another site. Everyone knows how to use Facebook and navigate it. It's just a convenience. I've had a lot of people email me from storenvy that don't have Facebook so I'm looking into getting a mailing list going too.
You’ve revived the lost art of the VHS mix tape. How have the live screenings been for these mix tapes, and could you describe the work which goes into creating these? What sort of deviant goodies can be found on them?
I love mix tapes, man. They're such an important piece of VHS history. There are a few other people who have done them too, but I think I've made mix tapes a big part of what I do. They're just a great way to see new things. You can pick up the Whore Church mix tape and see things that you wouldn't see on the Abortion Bin mix tape or you can pick up the Secret Lair mix tape and see stuff that you wouldn't see on a Party Levitation tape. It's great. It really is art and a cool representation of the people making them. We've only done one screening so far which was so much of a failure that I consider it a success. I went into it not expecting anyone to show up and to my surprise there were about 20 people in attendance. By the end of it only 3 people were still there. It's like the "Correction" scene in A Clockwork Orange.
I try to use a lot of graphic sex scenes in my tapes but make them feel as un-sexual and ugly as possible. If people watch my tapes and feel a little sick afterwards, then they served their purpose. Each mix tape takes a month or two to make. Whether its 30 minutes or 90. I have to dig through so many films and videos to get to a final product that it’s kind of a strenuous task. Whenever people watch them and actually enjoy them it makes my day. Every time I finish one I feel like I never want to do it again. And then two months later I find myself piecing another one together. Just today I was discussing another screening.
Were you able to get your hands on a lot of these mix tapes when you were younger, and, if so, how did they influence what you’re doing with the Party Levitation tapes?
I'd seen mix tapes throughout my years of collecting VHS. There weren’t a lot that I've picked up. I don't really know what influenced the Party Levitation material. They're not really the same as the mix tapes I've seen. They're very reliant on music. I think it's just a matter of me collecting horror movies and porn and listening to heavy music. They all just got really well together.
Has there been any negative criticism or attacks upon what KotW is doing from those who might be “offended” or “disgusted” by some of what you’ve released?
The first screening was weird, I think the crowd was just looking for something to do on a weeknight and once they started seeing rape scenes and gore they realized that they weren't attending something very relaxing.
It's a loud and intense experience, especially in a theater. Otherwise. I think everyone else knows what it's all about and understands what I'm all about.
Everyone has their own set of early VHS memories from childhood, whether it be paying an $80 VCR rental fee or sneaking a watch at a tape or two they “shouldn’t be watching” as a kid. What really stands out in your mind from the era of big boxes, rewinding and track adjusting?
I spent so much time at video stores growing up. My Dad used to send me in with a permission slip and let me spend as long as I wanted looking while he sat in the car. I would rent five or six tapes at a time, and bring them back the next day and rent more. I'd watch every Halloween in a two day span. And then start on Sleepaway Camp or the Silent Night Deadly Night series. After I'd watched everything in the horror section at one store, I'd bug my dad to get a membership at another store. Eventually I had him driving three towns away to rent movies. I was probably 13 or 14 when all of the video stores started really ditching their tapes and my dad would bring home boxes full a few times a week. It was great. I remember watching Willow so many times that the tape snapped, then doing the same thing to ET. Not having video stores and having to go to Red Box or use Netflix is almost depressing.
Do you feel that VHS culture in generally is coming back in a fashion similar to the vinyl resurgence which continues to gain momentum amongst music fans? Do you think that it will to continue to grow, or eventually hit a glass ceiling of sorts?
I think that a lot of us never really stopped collecting tapes.
I don't really collect vinyl, so I don't know much about it. But it seems like that never really went away either. They’re still being made. I'm not sure that VHS will ever get big again, or that major companies will think it’s time to start duplicating tapes, but Troma is already back into it on a small scale. It's weird to think that most kids under 20 now have no memories of VHS. I hope that it lasts forever. It will for me, I'm sure.
How did you guys do at the Severed VHS convention in Pennsylvania? Was this your first time attending a fest/con as KotW, and do you think you’d like to have more of a festival presence in the future, perhaps at Rock and Shock or something?
We did so well at Severed. It was the first time for KOTW, we had a three table spread for 3 companies. A giant banner, a crazy amount of product on the tables. It was amazing. I had four or five new releases for the convention and sold pretty much everything I came with. There was a handful of stuff left over, but it didn’t last long when it hit the Internet. I'd love to do more conventions. Rock and Shock and Cinema Wasteland are things that I've thought about for the future. I'd like to try to get a Severed type thing going around here.
How has the scene reacted locally in New England to what you guys do? Is this a fertile area for supporting your deviancy?
I never realized how big my local following was until I put together all of my orders to get shipped for a recent release and noticed how many Massachusetts and Rhode Island addresses there were. It could definitely be a lot bigger. But I'm still in a developmental period.
What else lies ahead for King of the Witches?
Oh man. There's so much to look forward to! This summer we'll be doing Desperate Teenage Lovedolls and Lovedolls Superstar in special edition VHS and DVD combos. The infamous Goddess Bunny documentary, cleaned up and featuring over a half hour of never before seen footage. A bunch of crazy independent horror films from some awesome friends. Party Levitation 4! Hopefully some more old trailer compilations. Collaborations with The Video Pharmacy, Secret Lair, Horror Boobs, Plotdigger Films, Mange, and so many more. I'm swamped. But I love it.