Friday, 31 January 2014

Mike Vraney (1957-2014)
& Top Five Something Weird Releases.

I’m afraid I’m a bit late on this one, but it wasn’t until earlier this week that I learned – via a tribute post on Tim Lucas’s blog – that Mike Vraney, founder of the legendary Something Weird Video label, passed away at the start of January.

Conditions in whatever passes for the “industry” of restoring and repackaging old films may have moved on considerably since SWV’s glory days in the ‘90s, but the sheer volume of lunatic oddities and forgotten, marginal footage that they unleashed upon the world means that most of us are still playing catch-up, and it’s safe to say that most people who have been fans of weird movies for any length of time can probably recite their famous opening reel from memory. Their releases were certainly pivotal in inspiring me to begin taking an active interest in this kinda thing, and that crazy echo effect that plays beneath their logo still gives me a brilliant “I-have-no-idea-what’s-gonna-happen-next”, thrill of the unknown type tingle every time I hear it.

Of course, what ‘happened next’ wasn’t always all that great – try as I might, I’m really just not in the market for most of the seemingly endless ‘60s sexploitation flicks that they put so much effort into releasing, and, hilarious though most of his movies may be on first viewing, I’m not really that big a fan of their flagship director Herschell Gordon Lewis. But nonetheless, I’m glad that all that kinda stuff exists, and that there was someone dedicated enough to put it all out there – and, as Lucas’s obit makes abundantly clear, when it comes to the legacy of SWV, exists is very much the key word.

In the past few decades, we’ve got used to a world in which the chances of any currently existing piece of art or culture being lost forever is fairly minimal (or so we assume, anyway). But that certainly wasn’t the case back when Vraney was making the scene, and I think it’s fair to say that the impact he personally had on the preservation of pre-video tape era American film was vast.

All of those stranger, trashier, seedier flicks form the ‘50s, ‘60s & ‘70s that so many of us are currently so busy downloading, streaming, watching on Youtube..? A fair percentage of them wouldn’t just have been ‘hard to find’ without the efforts of Vraney and SWV, they would have been destroyed. The kind of material he specialised in fell well below the radar of any ‘official’ archive or film library, and if it wasn’t for his timely intervention, how many movies which are now marvelled over by viewers around the world (to say nothing of their value as a historical record of American life & culture in the mid-20th century) would have ended up in the incinerator? I don’t know much about Vraney as a person, but for that alone I think, he deserves our eternal respect.

As such, a good way to pay tribute seems to be to run through a quick list of some of my all-time favourite SWV releases, most of which would probably never have even reached our eyes without the efforts of Mike Vraney and his collaborators.

5. The Black Cat (1964)

Not to be confused with any of the numerous, more storied horror films inspired by Poe’s most-filmed tale, this out-of-nowhere regional obscurity – strangely accomplished on a technical level, yet utterly batshit in terms of acting & scripting – uses its literary source material as the jumping off point for the story of a strange, cackling man-child who, in between a lot of rather boring talky segments, commands our continued attention by means of force-feeding champagne to his frightened menagerie of animal friends, silently freaking out in an outburst of murderous rage in a ‘Moe’s Tavern’-esque dive-bar as an unknown, eye-patch wearing garage band plays, and finally lamping his long-suffering wife in the face with a fire-axe, in a full-on gore moment that could have escaped from an ‘80s Fulci movie. What does it all mean..? The immediate death of somebody’s dreams of being a great film director, more than likely, but I for one certainly enjoyed the resulting mess.

4. Blood Freak (1971)

My god, what can you possibly say about this one that hasn’t been said already? Truly one of most confounding brain-wrongs ever coughed up from the depths of marginal American film-making, it is staggeringly inept, utterly bizarre and genuinely rather unsettling in its presentation of a world in which everyone seems to be a severely traumatised and/or maladjusted individual under the influence of heavy sedatives, torn between the influence of evangelical Christianity, systematic drug abuse and chemically-enhanced factory farming. It’s like a Butthole Surfers album come to life in the form of a pro-God, anti-drug, Vietnam-damaged turkey-headed psychedelic gore movie, with the fact that it’s confused message seems to be entirely in earnest only rendering it all the more upsetting. Or at least, I think it is, anyway. To be honest, I’m still not sure whether the stern narrator who turns up at the end to warn us about the dangers of drug addiction whilst smoking cigarettes and coughing like a cancer patient is meant as a piece of intentional humour, or just the result of random, unthinking incompetence. In fact, I don’t know if anyone really knows. Most of the other people on screen act like they barely even know how to breathe or stand upright, so they’re not really giving us any clues. In the final analysis: I don’t know where this came from, or what it’s trying to say, but God help us all. UNcinema at its finest, and most terrifying.

3. The Fat Black Pussycat (1963)

Featured on the same disc as the aforementioned ‘Black Cat’ (hence no cover art), it’s been a long time since I watched this one so my memory ain’t all that clear, but my overall impression was that of it being an absolute belter of a weird little movie. As I recall, the story goes that it started life as a sorta New York shot murder mystery in which two square cops go under cover amid Greenwich Village beatniks, prompting much wonderful early Roger Corman / Jack Hill type comedic shenanigans as they search for a giallo-esque killer amid the wastrels and hep-cats of the coffee bar / house party scene. Then apparently, after all this was done and dusted, a new producer (the aptly named M.A. Ripps) got hold of the initial cut, decided it was too dull to release as was, and set out again to shoot a bunch of new foot age and a new ending, splicing additional moments of sex, violence and bomb blasts into existing scenes, and adding a horror-ish plotline about an evil cat taking over people’s minds and driving them to murder! The result? Disorientating moments of spatial and temporal incoherence, jarring and unpredictable shifts in tone, meaningful plot-lines that gradually veer off into drooling insanity, and (as I recall) more fun than those squares who insist upon watching movies that were all shot at the same time by the same people can even imagine.

2. Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973) / Roseland (1971)

You want “something weird”? You got it. And praise be to SWV for helping to disinter two thirds of the extant celluloid legacy of perhaps the greatest unsung hero of American outsider cinema, the one and only Fredric Hobbs. I already spilled much ink on the subject of ‘Godmonster..’ here, so instead we’ll say a few words about ‘Roseland’, which I was meaning to embark on a similarly detailed write-up of, but… just couldn’t face it, to be honest. Shot for producer Harry Novak on the basis of “nudity + whatever = bucks”, ‘Roseland’ is ostensibly Hobbs’ “sexploitation” film, in much the same way that Alabama’s Ghost is his “blaxploitation” film and ‘Godmonster..’ is his “monster movie”. Which is to say: certain images and ideas may momentarily cross over with the conventions of the genre in question, but basically 98% of the completed footage resembles nothing that has previously been seen in any motion picture made anywhere on earth.

Featuring Hobbs regulars E. Kerrigan Prescott and Christopher Brooks delivering their most fevered and theatrical performances to date (the latter in the role of a black Hieronymous Bosch), ‘Roseland’ to some extent concerns with the following: 1) Prescott’s career-ruining performance on the Ed Sullivan show of a big band show tune entitled ‘You Can’t Fart Around With Love’, an event that apparently traumatises the nation. 2) His subsequent mental illness, which sees him assuming the guise of ‘the black bandit’ and stealing prints of pornographic films from what appears to be a giant, echoing gymnasium. 3) The revelations imparted to him by the re-embodied spirit of Hieronymous Bosch, and his ongoing ideological conflict with a sleazy psychiatrist regarding issues of sexual morality that become increasingly unclear as the film progresses. And, 4), extremely lengthy messianic fantasy sequences in which armies of naked hippies trudge across expanses of unoccupied hillside to prostrate themselves in worship before a series of giant phallic statues. In conclusion, I would not recommend this film for viewing by the uninitiated, for that way lies only pain, but for those of us already driven to a state of fanaticism by Hobbs’ two later works, it represents another essential corner of the Bermuda triangle that is his brief but unique filmography.

1. Confessions of a Psycho-Cat (196?)

Yeah, so apparently I just really like cheap, black & white films of uncertain pedigree with vague counter-cultural affiliations and the word ‘cat’ in the title. Deal with it. Anyway, I’ll immediately cop that ‘Confessions of a Psycho-Cat’ isn’t really ostensibly ‘better’ (or weirder, or more entertaining) than any of the other films on this list, but for me, it still stands tall as the perfect example of an SWV release: a vicious, sleaze-packed and total impoverished exploitation picture, seemingly thrown together by a gang of sneering, Nouvelle Vague-digging beatniks, none of whom ever troubled the film industry again, and incorporating footage culled from at least two completely different projects, seemingly shot about five years apart. Pure magic. This was actually one of the first films I reviewed for this weblog, and, whilst I can’t really endorse either the tone or content of my writing back then (never mind the stolen screen-grabs, before I figured out how to do them myself), my enthusiasm for the film itself remains untarnished. In short, an unlikely ‘Most Dangerous Game’ framing story sets the scene for a deranged female huntress stalking the streets of New York in search of three nefarious losers who accepted her “stay alive for 24 hours” wager. Much semi-experimental, hand-held camera based mayhem ensues, incorporating twitchy, Hawaiian shirt-clad drug pushers, Jake LaMotta staggering about like a drunken human cannonball, wild modern jazz freakouts, bloody misogynistic murder flashbacks and a bow & arrow battle in Central Park. Whoa there. Just in case we get TOO excited, there are a lot of languorous, fully-clothed hippie ‘love’ scenes spliced in from the later, post-’67 shooting date too, but hey, it’s Something Weird, so you wouldn’t expect anything less really, would you? Go with it.

Something Weird Video still exists, and you can buy stuff from them here.

1 comment:

Wayne Davidson said...

Sad news. Thanks for your recommendations.

A couple of my favourites:

Satan in High Heels
Campy noir trash with a killer jazz score.

This often popped up on John Waters' lists of best films - which was recommendation enough for me. It's 60's sexpoiltation verging on Russ Meyer territory (which, like you, I don't usually care that much for), but it's so melodramatic over the top that it transends into a kind of grubby Douglas Sirk grindhouse film (if there was such a thing).

Some others:
Bloody Pit of Horror
Day of The Nightmare/Scream of the Butterfly
The Starman volumes
The Wild Wild World of Jayne Mansfield