Chas. Balun sits in his darkened living room in an easy chair near a bookshelf decorated with a severed arm, the hand of which cradles an eyeball.
He flicks the remote control and the VCR comes alive with mayhem and gore--zombies running amok, aliens from outer space hacking teen-agers to death, blood oozing from hatchet wounds, and assorted scenes of disembowelments.
"Look at that," he howls with obvious admiration, "doesn't that look real?"
For at least 15 hours a week, the scene is repeated as Balun screens what he calls "brain-eaters and barfing aliens," horror films of known and unknown vintage, domestic and foreign.
And when the screening is completed, Balun does not, as one might expect, pick up his own hatchet and into the dark night go. Instead, he repairs to his office and critiques the films in what he calls a "cultivated, well-researched, guttersnipe" style.
Balun is a leading cult horror film critic and author of three books on the subject--"The Connoisseur's Guide to the Contemporary Horror Film," "The Gore Score" and "Horror Holocaust." He also writes and edits a quarterly journal, "Deep Red," in which he reviews the latest the producers of film and video gore have to offer.
The 39-year-old Westminster resident is one of the best in the field, says his publisher, Tom Skulan of Fantaco Enterprises Inc., because he isn't hesitant in venting his spleen with passion. For example, "Halloween II" in Balun-speak was "lurid, pandering and ridiculously plotted . . . (an) eyesore that wears out its welcome right away. . . . Dreadful and mean-spirited."
And, while he acknowledges that the amount of blood in a film is important, he's also watching for artistic merit. Of "Night of the Living Dead," he writes: "The swift and deadly ironic twist to the ending shows (director George) Romero was not simply intent on retelling another tale of the walking dead but commenting on the suspicions, hostility, selfishness and paranoia inherent in us all." He is passionate about the films he admires. Of his all-time favorite, "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," he writes: "Truly a masterpiece, one which all contemporary classics of the macabre must be judged against."
In judging films, Balun's criteria start off rather simply--it's got to scare the pants off you, or at least make a stab at it.
In "The Gore Score," he assigns film ratings from one to four skulls on artistic merit along with a numerical scale of 1 to 10 for carnage.
In "Horror Holocaust," which analyzes horror film history and trends, Balun comments that "blood is to horror what the kiss is to romance."
He brushes aside criticism that horror films desensitize viewers or incite them to violence, particularly against women. While the films portray death, decay and excruciating pain, they don't endorse them, he maintains.
"What's wrong with digging these movies?" he asks. After all, the audience is inside somewhere watching them, "not out there setting dogs on fire or shooting people on the freeways."
Balun has "dug" them since childhood and that passion is manifested all over the Westminster house he shares with his wife, Pat Petric, three dogs, two cats and two finches.
The den's walls are papered with horror-movie posters which overflow onto the ceiling and into the outside hall. A rubber rat, entrails spilling out, occupies the window sill. Assorted animal skulls gathered at swap meets and on back trails are scattered casually about the house, one wedged between the ropes of a hanging plant, which also has a machete suspended over it, and a bloodied (fake, of course) butcher knife spearing the soil.
Balun obviously delights in playfulness and black humor. On the back cover of "The Connoisseur's Guide . . . ," the 6-foot, 5-inch, 240-pound critic is shown in a butcher's apron holding a knife to a cat's neck. In his "about the author" caption, Balun describes himself as a "comfortably middle-aged" man who "enjoys Sunday painting, collecting books and chainsawing puppies."
You might expect a giant obsessed with horror films to at least appear sinister. You would be wrong.
With blond hair, red beard and rosy cheeks, Balun looks more like a Santa. And, like St. Nick, his disposition is jovial--albeit certainly irreverent.
He enthusiastically shows visitors the most harrowing segments of his film collection, insisting that they not hide their eyes or turn away. If they do, he simply shows the scene again--and again.
A horror aficionada herself, Balun's wife, who is also his typesetter, often joins him at screenings.
Critics' lack of enthusiasm for horror films prompted Balun to begin reviewing them in 1982. A graphic artist who studied at Cal State Fullerton, Balun does the design and layouts for "Deep Red" and still earns about half his income from that field.
One of his strongest-held views is that most horror films are "awful" because they aren't made by true fans and artists but rather by businessmen anxious to exploit cheap thrills for some box-office success.
"You can tell when a person in love with the genre makes a film," he says, pointing as examples to "Demons," "The Evil Dead" and "Texas Chainsaw Massacre."
And his love for the films has attracted a lot of fans.
Tony Timpone, editor of Fangoria, a horror-film magazine with a circulation of about 250,000, says Balun is the only one of his 20 contributing writers to regularly receive fan mail.
"He combines professionalism with a fan's fervor in his writing that appeals directly to the horror-fan audience," Timpone says. "He really speaks his mind in a colorful and distinctive way . . . and he's also very humorous."
Balun displays that sense of humor in his review of "Dr. Butcher, MD" "Undiscriminating gorehounds will love the brain transplants, cannibalism, zombies, eye-gougings and disembowelments, but all others will see only a poorly dubbed, ridiculous import item with absolutely no redeeming values. If you're the former, make sure you see this one; if you're the latter, rent 'My Dinner With Andre' instead."
Balun has become a bit of a cult hero himself, receiving letters decorated with drawings of skulls and addressed to "Blood Brother." His greatest admirer is a man from Holland (the books are sold worldwide) who claims to have started a Balun fan club with "7 1/2 members."
Balun revels in the praise and gloats over favorable reviews of his books in counterculture magazines. "I love it when they call me a genius," he says.
He has also decided that it's time to "put up or shut up" and plans to direct an independently produced movie scheduled to start shooting in February or March about a husband-wife team that performs grotesque experiments on "unlucky denizens of Hollywood Boulevard."
Gunnar Hansen, who played Leatherface in "Chainsaw Massacre," is writing and will star in the film. On the choice of Balun as director, Hansen says: "I like his approach; it's very straight-forward and unpretentious. Among gore freaks, he is very well known and well thought of."
You can be sure of one thing with Balun directing--that the film will produce the same "little rush, that jolt" you get from riding a roller coaster. It's what keeps the fans coming back.
BALUN'S TOP 10 HORROR MOVIES
Horror-movie connoisseur Chas. Balun picks the following 10 movies as his favorites. They are not necessarily the best artistically, he said, "but they're the ones I could watch over and over again and not get tired of them." Balun offers a brief explanation of why each film made his Top 10 list.
1. "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" "More real scares per (1974) dollar than any horror film ever made." 2. "Re-Animator" (1985) "Best mad-doctor movie since 'Frankenstein."' 3. "Basket Case" (1982) "Morbidly funny, gory cult hit." 4. "Videodrome" (1983) "Terribly original and challenging horror." 5. "The Thing" (1951) "James Arness has never been better." 6. "Zombie" (1979) "Best use of an eyeball and a 14 1/2-inch splinter." 7. "King Kong" (1933) "A wondrous, beautiful fable for all time." 8. "The Howling" (1981) "The funniest, sexiest, hippest werewolf film of them all." 9. "The Hills Have Eyes" (1977) "A horrifying, genuinely creepy thriller." 10. "Day of the Dead" (1985) "A thinking man's zombie film."