[Ed. Note] The Unimonster wishes to express his heartfelt gratitude and appreciation to Senior Correspondent Bobbie Culbertson of http://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
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
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
But the Exploitations would go where
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.
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.