“Listen Boo Boo, you’re lucky you made it back the first time. If you want to join the pantheon of dead skate rock guitar heroes that’s your choice.”
SHREDDER ORPHEUS is a weird D.I.Y. type of movie made in the late ’80s in Seattle by people involved in the underground rock and art scenes of the time. It’s post-apocalyptic or futuristic or something, but more Max Headroom than MAD MAX. The story is based on the myth of Orpheus, played by director Robert McGinley as a skateboarder and lead singer/guitarist of a band called The Shredders. Instead of an Underworld there’s a sinister quasi-religious TV Channel called EBN (Euthanasia Broadcast Network) that hypnotizes the people. Just the normal people, maybe: the one person we see watching TV is the one civilian we see, the one non-punk or music scene type of guy that doesn’t work for the network. And the people who do work for the network look like they might as well be in bands because they’re all wearing white makeup and shit like ghouls. Most of their programming seems to be weirdos chanting slogans like “The Ministry of Sombulance – praise the ray!”
The EBN creeps kidnap Orpheus’s girlfriend Eurydice (Megan Murphy, DEADBEAT AT DAWN) after seeing her dancing (mostly just spinning and waving her arms a little, to be honest) at the Shredders show at the Thrash Bin Club. They decide she’s the key to co-opting the music counterculture for their purposes. “If we’re going to get beyond the corporate crust and expand our viewing addicts,” explains one of the executives, “we’ve got to reach out and put our finger on the main vein of the youth market. We need the heartbeat of America.” But if they kidnap this one dancer and base a show around her he says they can “play in Peoria.”
Luckily Orpheus received as a wedding gift a rare four-stringed glowing electric Gibson lear that, according to legend, was designed by Jimi Hendrix to expand consciousness or something like that. Orpheus finds that playing it can do weird things like open the door to EBN. Inside he sees his dead parents, loses the memory of them, fails to retrieve his lady, but comes home alive.
Like Max Headroom this was a story made right on the edge of something, just to the left of prescient. It looks forward into the information age, but from an analog perspective. It’s all about rays and cathodes and cassette tapes. Memories are represented by literal files in folders which get shredded in the after life. (So shredding can refer to the guitars, the skateboards, or the file disposal methods.) Orpheus has to travel down a hallway completely filled with shreddings.
Once he’s back he performs with his band more, skateboards with his friends and is convinced by his manager to see an Oracle (Gypsy Mandelbaum) about his depression. There’s a scene with a guy doing a bunch of fancy trick skating, and the movie ends on a half pipe, but Orpheus doesn’t seem like a pro in that particular sport. He just rolls around fast at night in parking garages and stuff. There’s one that’s legendarily dangerous, and his friends Axel and Scratch use goofy future slang to talk him out of braving it until the undead EBN network executives tempt him with a magic skateboard. It just rolls up to him, leaving a trail of smoke, and he hops right on.
They need him to play music on TV because with these other chumps they got down there Eurydice’s dancing is uninspired, to put it lightly. They better come up with something quick. Peoria’s gonna hate this show!
Of course when he gets there the Furies or whoever tear his head off. In this version they wear metal masks and carry power drills and get a cool silhouetted entrance like a bunch of American Gladiators or something:
That’s one of the better shots. It’s all very cheap and home made looking, but sometimes the weird vibe it has going really clicks. I like any scene where the agents of EBN shoot this glyph-beam from their ray guns or portable TVs. It reminds me of some weird MATRIX type shit, some strange other world coming out of the shadows to oppress us.
Orpheus and his friends live in “The Grey Zone,” what the city (never specified as Seattle) considers a low income housing project, but it’s actually just 5 acres of shipping containers. The narrator Axel was paralyzed in “the Contra Drug Wars” and rolls around sitting on a skateboard all day. You may notice that he has a good speaking voice and a knack for flipping out like a Texas Chain Saw character. That’s because he’s the legendary Seattle poet Steven Jesse Bernstein. He had some mental and addiction issues and he committed suicide a few years after this movie. But he was a talented writer and performer and was known for doing crazy shit like reciting with a mouse in his mouth. He had an album on Sub Pop Records that came out after his death, I remember it was pretty interesting.
I’ve never been a punk rocker or nothing but I was around, so I love seeing this movie because it’s a snapshot of that time. Unfortunately for those purposes they (deliberately, I assume) avoid showing regular Seattle shit. There’s one shot of the Columbia Tower, which was only 4 years old at the time so I guess it still looked futuristic. They mention the Showbox a bunch of times, which is my favorite music venue in Seattle, but they never actually get there.
Still, it has a very identifiable late ’80s Seattle attitude to it. It was before Kurt Cobain and before anybody outside of Seattle gave a shit what was going on here, and there were all these weirdos passionately doing their thing just because they wanted to. And what else were they gonna do? I guess in that sense this is our shoddy, overcast version of SLACKER. It reflects this belief that the counterculture has always had, especially at that time, that corporate America is using TV to brainwash the normals and is gonna try to steal our shit and turn it into a product to open up new markets and hypnotize even more people into their drones. THEY LIVE did it better, of course, but this is the music world version of that, they’re specifically worried about the suits commodifying the youth and music culture. Actually, that did happen here just a couple years later. Hmm.
I like that Hendrix is held up as a mythical figure to these mythical figures. We will always claim him, even though he left. Sorry, Jimi.
One of the villains from EBN, the guy with the camera that Orpheus gets into a scuffle with at the show, is Frank Harlan. I remember him as Bill Bored, the host and creator of Bombshelter Videos, a show that played late at night on a local station and showed weird local videos, mostly punk, but other stuff too. And a short film or two and low budget ads for local places that could never advertise on any other TV show.
This wasn’t Public Access, this was KSTW Channel 11 (then switched to UHF station KTZZ TV 22). So regular people might see it. If they stayed up all night.
And man, I completely forgot about this until the movie, but one of the crazy bands they played on there was Metaphonics, these insane percussionists who made music by banging metal junk together. I seem to remember a video where they were using power tools, shooting sparks all over the place, wearing wigs made out of bicycle chains. Well, they perform in this movie and I think at least one of them is doing percussion on the score. I’m not sure if Linda Severt, who plays “the andogyne” Scratch, is a Metaphonic, but she’s introduced playing a beat on an oil drum. This was a good idea for a post-apocalypse movie, there should be more junk drumming in the future.
So even if this isn’t the best telling of the ancient myth of Orpheus it’s pretty cool that all these creative people got together to tell it. It’s a story that has lasted over time but it’s an absolutely dated movie, in a good way. It could only be made by those people in that time and place.
For years SHREDDER ORPHEUS has only been on VHS, but Seattle’s own Light In the Attic Records recently released the soundtrack on vinyl, and it comes with a DVD of the movie. My pals the Cinefamily are showing it on Saturday, April 11th, 2015 at midnight for the 25th anniversary. Check the official Shredder Orpheus websight for info.
McGinley only directed one other feature, JIMMY ZIP, in 1999.