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11 April, 2009

Something Weird on the Screen: The Wild, Bizarre and Wacky World of Scare-Your-Children Movies, Exploitation Shorts and Stag Films

[Ed. Note] The Unimonster wishes to express his heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to Bobbie Culbertson of www.junkyardfilms.com, without whose knowledge and assistance this article would not have been possible. As I stated many times during the writing of this piece… Thanks Bobbie, you’re the best!

As I may have mentioned a time or two (or forty…) in this column, I love cheesy movies… the cheesier, the better, especially if it cost less than the price of a new car to produce. Give me a movie that’s the celluloid counterpart of a twenty-pound block of Velveeta®, something that could put a deathgrip on King Kong’s colon, and was done on the cheap, and you have one happy Unimonster. And from THE BLOB to BUBBA HO-TEP, no type of film does low-budget cheese better than the Genre film—specifically the five associated genres of Horror, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Fantasy, and Exploitation.

Why is it that I enjoy these types of movies so much more than their mega-buck Hollywood blockbuster cousins? Well, one answer is lowered expectations. When a major studio pours $180 million into a picture, it had damn well better make me stand up and cheer; anything less is just a disappointment. Movies such as INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, HELLBOY 2: THE GOLDEN ARMY, or THE DARK KNIGHT demand huge budgets, but the finished product is well worth the filmmakers’ investment. But when a big-budget film flops, it’s usually a disaster of biblical proportions, sometimes ending the careers of those involved. The best-known example of this was 1980’s HEAVEN’S GATE, the boring, bloated, Box-Office bomb that sank the career of heretofore-promising director Michael Cimino. With a budget that ballooned to five times the original estimate, and a running time that was north of three-and-a-half hours, it was Box-Office death, earning less than three-and-a-half million on a thirty-five million dollar investment. However, when no one expects anything from a movie, it’s hard to be disappointed.

And that brings me to another reason for my love of cheap movies… they’re so much more entertaining. Let’s face facts—most people go to the movies to be entertained. Not enlightened, not educated, not indoctrinated… simply to relax and have a good time. That’s hard to do when the director is trying to beat some socially relevant message into your head; even harder when the beating lasts for three or more hours. There are people who enjoy that sort of thing; there are also people who prefer tofu to rib-eye. I have little use for either sort of person.

I for one want entertainment from the movies I watch. If I want enlightenment, I play golf. If I want education, I read a book. And I scrupulously try to avoid indoctrination. All I seek from my hard-earned movie-buying dollar is a couple of hours of mindless entertainment… not a disguised thought exercise. I don’t think I differ greatly from the average movie fan in that regard, either. The average movie fan just wants a little something to take him or her out of their mundane, everyday existence—something that they can’t get in their normal lives. Sometimes that’s a thrilling adventure yarn, sometimes a historical drama, and sometimes, it’s something just a little further afield. Something strange, something unusual, something… weird.

For nearly two decades, there’s been a small company catering to those of us who share a love of the cinematic equivalent of a ripe wedge of Roquefort, movies that define the term, “So bad it’s good…” Something Weird Video is precisely that—something weird, indeed anything weird, that has been captured on film or video.

Say you have a fondness for 1950’s vintage High School hygiene films… SWV has you covered. You consider yourself a fan of the films of Harry Novak? They’ve got what you’re looking for. Need a Bettie Page or Tempest Storm stag reel for your next bachelor party? Something Weird is the place for that, and virtually every other type of low-brow, low-class, and low-budget film you can imagine.

Founded in 1990 by Mike Vraney, SWV has grown into a major distributor of classic, and unusual, genre films. They also specialize in the type of short films that collector’s love, but that every other distributor ignores. Industrial films, propaganda films, educational films—name an obscure form of video, and chances are they have it in stock. From a 1959 film produced by the Kansas State Board of Health on the dangers of Syphilis, to ‘60’s-vintage Police training films on how to spot signs of marijuana use, to a promotional film put out by Karo Syrup entitled THE ENCHANTED POT, virtually every taste and interest is catered to by the company. But by far, their stock in trade is the good, old-fashioned, Exploitation Film.

Precursor to both the Grindhouse films of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, and the X-Rated adult features of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, Exploitations became big business as the silent era transitioned into sound. A small group of producer/distributors, part con-men, part Hollywood mogul, and with a stiff measure of carnival huckster thrown in, came to dominate the Exploitation circuits, playing in dingy downtown theaters and out-of-the-way rural Drive-Ins. Known collectively as “the Forty Thieves”, these showmen traveled the country exhibiting their films to curious crowds, always promising the raw, uncensored, unvarnished truth about a myriad of social ills, from child marriage to the dangers of sexual promiscuity and drug abuse… and delivering just enough to keep the rubes and yokels happy.

The Exploitations were the cinematic equivalent of a traveling sideshow; talk up the crowds, get them excited about whatever symptom of moral decay was the topic of that week’s film, get them to lay down their money for a ticket, and then give them pretty much what they were expecting—a little entertainment, a little skin, a little naughtiness, all wrapped up in a package that they could regard with a sense of moral outrage and indignation—while secretly wishing that they themselves could indulge in some of that naughtiness.

The kings of the Exploitation circuits made fortunes with these films, often recycling them over and over by splicing new title cards into the prints, or by trading them to other distributors in exchange for films that had already worn out their welcome on other circuits. Names like Kroger Babb, Dave Friedman, and Dan Sonney might mean little today, but in their era, and in their arena, they were as powerful and influential as Samuel Goldwyn, Darryl F. Zanuck, or Walt Disney. They were the moguls of Exploitation; the men who worked beyond Hollywood’s pale, creating films no “respectable” distributor would dare touch. In the ‘40’s and ‘50’s, they, and others like them, fought for an end to censorship of motion pictures and increased freedom for filmmakers, even if ‘mainstream’ filmmakers looked down their collective nose at them.

As the ‘50’s gave way to the ‘60’s, the Exploitations began to change. The moral message that had been such a prominent part of the “Road Show” era of Exploitation films fell by the wayside as the courts struck down, one by one, the draconian censorship laws on the motion picture industry. Without the need to justify their more salacious or risqué content, a new breed of filmmakers, people such as Harry Novak, Doris Wishman, and Mike and Roberta Findlay began producing a new breed of Exploitation film.

These were truly exploitative films, lacking any pretense of cultural or educational value. From Wishman’s ‘Nudie Cuties’ to Herschell G. Lewis’ gore-filled horrors, the early ‘60’s were an explosion of new trends in movies, and those on the leading edge of those trends were the Exploitation filmmakers. The same year that audiences were shocked by the sight of Janet Leigh dressed only in her undergarments following an afternoon tryst in PSYCHO, moviegoers in New York City’s 42nd Street grindhouses were watching Wishman’s NUDE ON THE MOON, a Sci-Fi “epic” filmed at a Florida nudist colony. Three years before Peter Fonda starred in the landmark film EASY RIDER, he starred in a not-so-vaguely similar movie, THE WILD ANGELS, directed by Roger Corman for American-International Pictures.

But the Exploitations would go where Hollywood dared not follow, and do so in ways that the major studios wouldn’t think of emulating. At a time when Hollywood was still struggling to come to terms with homosexuality, racism, drug abuse, and a rapidly changing cultural landscape, the Exploitations were treating all of these topics in an open, frank manner… even if that treatment was less than honest—or flattering. These were key themes for the “grindhouse” cinema, the infamous strip of theaters along 42nd Street in Manhattan. A few blocks away might be the bright lights of Broadway, but here all was darkness and shadow, and it was populated by those who shunned the light. The grindhouses of “The Deuce”, as the strip was christened by authors Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford in their book, Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square, were where the Exploitation film reached it’s zenith. There you could find an endless variety of perversion and prurient delights… if you were willing to risk your wallet, or perhaps your life, for the experience.

While those who frequented the theaters that made up the “Deuce” profess fond memories of the experience, the truth is slightly different. The grindhouse area was, in fact, a filthy, crime-ridden, two-by-eight block section of the city that was a breeding ground for prostitution, assault, robbery, and disease. The only reason fans of these movies traveled to such a blighted zone was because that was the only place that you could see these films… and despite their low-quality and frequently tasteless subject matter, many of these films were worth seeking out.

New York City’s efforts to remake it’s public image led to the end of the “Deuce”, as theater after theater was razed upon the altar of ‘urban renewal’. For the most part the fans of Exploitations weren’t displeased… with the growth of Home Video and the newfound freedom to watch whatever you might choose in the privacy of your own home, why brave the dimly-lit alleyways of 42nd Street? And as Hollywood’s standards changed, the line between what was “mainstream” and what wasn’t began, first to blur, then to vanish altogether. This began as early as 1969 when an X-Rated film, John Schlesinger’s MIDNIGHT COWBOY, won the Oscar® for Best Picture. Ironically, this film examined the lives of two Times Square hustlers played by Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, and their struggle to survive as denizens of the “Deuce”. This led to a spate of semi-respectable adult films—DEEP THROAT and BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR were two notable titles—that were shown in first-run theaters. With Hollywood now free to explore many of the topics that were previously the sole province of the Exploitation filmmakers, many of them moved into the final stage in the life cycle of the Exploitation filmmaker—hardcore pornography—and the true Exploitation film died a slow, lingering death.

But the movies that made up the more than five decades of the Exploitation period haven’t died, though it was only the efforts of a dedicated few who kept the memory of these films alive, people like Mike Vraney, Bill Landis, Michelle Clifford, Dave Friedman, Harry Novak, and others who have worked to preserve these films, and history of the Exploitation Cinema.

While it’s easy to dismiss these movies as trashy, lewd, and without redeeming value, I believe that is far too harsh a judgment. Yes, these films were trashy, designed primarily to titillate and tease their audiences… and to that, I say, “So what?” Could not the same be said for most of the motion picture industry? The goal of producers and distributors hasn’t changed since Edison screened his GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY in the 1890’s—to put asses in seats—at whatever ticket price the market would bear. If the Exploitation filmmakers hadn’t given the movie-going public what they wanted, then they wouldn’t have accomplished this. And if they hadn’t accomplished the task of selling tickets, then they wouldn’t have lasted as long as they did. Trashy—yes. Lewd, lascivious, exploitive, prurient, pandering, coarse, vulgar, bawdy… yes, they were all of the above.

But they were also entertaining. Sometimes that’s good enough. Sometimes, that’s just what you’re in the mood for. And thanks to Mike Vraney and his Something Weird Video, we can indulge that mood whenever it strikes. And not in some run-down, flea-ridden, rat-infested den of iniquity with a movie screen, but in the comfort of our own homes.

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