After decades of compiling bizarre VHS footage, Nick Prueher has seen some shit. So when he recently uncovered a video from the '80s of a Satanist growling on local TV, it wasn't out of the ordinary.
"There was a local talk show called The Best Talk in Town, and this episode was on Satanism," says Prueher. "They had a Satanist expert on, and a seventh-generation Satanist who went by the name Dark Lord Blood." At one point, the interviewer asks Dark Lord Blood about the practical uses of a ritual knife. His only response is a threatening growl.
It's typical stuff for the Found Footage Festival, an exhibition of wacky tapes from the '80s and '90s that Prueher co-produces. Part stage production and part Mystery Science Theater 3000, the festival, which will play at this week at the Hollywood Theatre, showcases strange finds from the VHS underground.
Prueher says he and his co-host Joe Pickett have "always been into comedy;" both wrote for The Onion right out of high school and started a humor magazine at the University of Wisconsin. Afterwards, Prueher wrote for the Colbert Report. But he says their tape-hunting obsession began at a far earlier age.
"We grew up in a small town and didn't have a whole lot to do," says Prueher, who's from Wisconsin. "So we would have friends over on Friday nights, and for lack of anything better to do we would hang out at thrift stores and look for things to entertain ourselves."
The pair started finding old VHS tapes that were troves of unintentional comedy, including an instructional video packaged with a beard trimmer. "We started watching them all and added commentary to entertain ourselves," Prueher says. "We just took it way too far."
That might be a bit of an understatement. The pair started touring their collection on a whim in 2004, and their archive now includes over 10,000 tapes. Their vault grew with the size of their audiences. "We started in the back of a bar, and for whatever reason we had a line out the door," Prueher says. "Later we kept getting offers to do larger and larger places, and here we are."
The festival has strict rules regarding content, including a guideline that states all showcased videos must be from physical media. It makes the outlandish finds-—someone out there actually produced a tape called How to Have Cybersex On the Internet—even more hilarious. The show thrives on lovingly poking fun at a bygone era.
"Finding a VHS tape is more like an archeological dig than typing something into a search bar," Prueher says. "I don't think any of our footage this year is on the Internet."
Lately, the festival has accepted submissions from audiences to help broaden the search. Prueher and Pickett even try to find the stars of some videos to interview them for the show. It's not always easy. "If we can't find someone using the Internet, we'll actually hire a private investigator who's tracked down a few guys for us," says Prueher.
When asked why, Prueher responds with the equivalent of a shrug. "We like finding out why they make [the videos]," he says.
The most notable investigation began when the pair discovered footage of a man named Frank Pacholski dancing in front of an uncomfortable audience wearing a Lone Ranger mask and a Speedo. In an attempt to unlock the mystery of the performance, Prueher and Pickett traveled to California just to meet Pacholski. "We probably spent $2,000 on plane tickets and on our hotel," he says. "And we definitely left with more questions than we arrived with. But we got a few details and included that in our live show."
Since VHS tapes are a dead medium, the Found Footage Fest runs on a finite resource. But it's unlikely they'll run out of material anytime soon. Their vault now outsizes Prueher's apartment, and he says he and Pickett have enough footage to last the apocalypse.
When asked if the festival has a higher purpose, Prueher laughs before calling it a "celebration" of the weird corners of the human race.
"These videos, I feel like, almost say more about us as a people than the greatest movies of the last 50 years," he says. "We're happy to be the archivists and preserve these forgotten and maybe regrettable moments."
SEE IT: Found Footage Festival is at Hollywood Theatre, 4122 NE Sandy Blvd., hollywoodtheatre.org. 7:30 pm Thursday and Friday, Nov. 9-10. $13.