Something Weird Video: An Appreciation

Now that physical media is almost dead, it has also entered its golden age. Since the only people still paying money for Blu-Rays are insane collectors like myself, companies like Arrow Video, Vinegar Syndrome, 88 Films, Synapse, and Blue Underground have to work extra-hard for our limited entertainment dollars, releasing cult oddities in deluxe, extras-packed editions. We now live in a world where Taboo exists on Blu-Ray “scanned and restored in 2k from 35mm original vault elements” and featuring four audio commentaries, an archival interview with star Kay Parker, and a gallery of promotional images. Taking a page from the Criterion playbook, Vinegar Syndrome builds anticipation for their monthly announcements, commissions artful cover designs, cultivates a subscriber base that orders monthly packages, and offers semiannual 50% off sales. Not a day goes by that I don’t get excited knowing that their releases of Joe Sarno’s Red Roses of Passion and Gerard Damiano’s Throat: 12 Years After will be on my shelf within the next month.172267_front

It’s a good time to be a trash-cinema consumer, and in this context, I’m overjoyed to see Something Weird Video—the grand poobah of all weirdo home-video companies—reclaim its rightful place at the top of the heap. Friends, I am now the proud owner of The Zodiac Killer (1971), the first of a projected series of tricked-out Blu-Rays made possible by the good folks at the American Genre Film Archive, who have acquired Something Weird’s enormous archive. Bat Pussy (1973), which may very well be the worst porno film of all time, will arrive on Blu-Ray in October, featuring “a new 2k scan from the only surviving 16mm theatrical print.” A 4k restoration of Ed Wood’s The Violent Years (1956) will follow.

Something Weird holds a special place in my heart, for no distributor has done more to expand my understanding of what qualifies as a movie. I still remember that fateful day during my teenage years when I visited Bay Street Video’s voluminous Something Weird section and rented my first two films from their library: The Secret Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet (1969) and The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968). The former was a cheerful softcore romp that was more faithful to the source (all things considered) than I had anticipated. The latter was a tasteless Mondo-style documentary of the starlet visiting nudist camps, strip clubs, and transvestite beauty pageants around the world, breathily narrated by a Mansfield impersonator, climaxing with grisly photos of her fatal car crash. These discs included nudity-packed trailers for other sexploitation movies of the era. I was stunned that movies like Anne and Eve and A Clockwork Blue not only existed, but that there was also once an infrastructure of theatres to make them profitable.

(The Romeo and Juliet DVD also included an audio commentary by producer Harry Novak, who had not angst about coming across as a casting-couch sleazeball. Highlights from the first 20 minutes: “It’s not Rene Bond, I can tell. I bought her tits for her, and those are not the ones I paid for.” “She’s a fantastic actress. Especially when she sucks on bananas.” “Ooh, look at those beautiful tits.” “I remember her like it was yesterday… ‘cause when she finished with you, you needed a holiday.”)

 

 

 

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When I was in my second year of university, I would gather every week with a group of friends to blind-rent a Something Weird double feature. In the early to mid 2000s, Image Entertainment released a line of DVDs pairing two films from the Something Weird archive with a raft of bonus shorts and trailers. We established some sort of unbreakable principle that before the night was over, we would also watch every piece of content on the DVD, which led to many late nights slogging through striptease acts from the 1950s.

Some of the more memorable titles: My Tale is Hot (1964), in which aging vaudevillian “Little” Jack Little is tempted by Satan (a guy in a cheap devil costume) to cheat on his wife (the twist ending: Little is actually a harem-keeper and has dozens of wives); She-Man (1967), a lurid, black-and-white transgender sleazefest that was an early credit for Bob Clarke (A Christmas Story, Black Christmas); Dracula (The Dirty Old Man) (1969), which apparently began life as a standard Dracula movie before it was completely redubbed, What’s Up Tiger Lily?-style, into a comedy (opening scene: Dracula’s coffin creaks open; “Oy… have I gotta go to the bathroom…”); Psyched by a 4-D Witch (1973), an indescribable psychedelic patience-tester; Sin in the Suburbs (1964), one of many solemn morality tales by the Bergman of sexploitation, Joe Sarno; and Varietease (1954) and Teaserama (1955), two hourlong filmed burlesque shows that starred the one and only Bettie Page.

The alliance between Something Weird and Image Entertainment was unsustainable: “Back then, I think what Image thought they were going to get from us was Plan 10 from Outer Space or Plan 11 from Outer Space and they were kinda horrified by the stuff we laid on them,” said Frank Henenlotter, the director of Basket Case and a Something Weird staffer. Even so, I was thrilled to discover that the company’s website offered hundreds of other movies deemed unsuitable for mass-market release: compilations of atomic, Christian, alcohol, drug, and driver’s-ed scare filmsTV rarities… dozens and dozens of nudist-camp movies… hundreds of stag films… forgotten cartoons and TV commercials… obscure XXX double-features… unclassifiable “Sexy Shockers”… and “kooky kiddie” entertainments.

Something Weird has, inevitably, been called “the Criterion Collection of exploitation cinema,” but unlike Criterion, there’s no pretense of exclusivity. Its catalogue is a big, messy buffet of cultural detritus. Who else would release three reels of silent outtakes from a lost Ed Wood film? Who else would have the nerve to release something like Fun in Balloon Land (1965)? I can credit Something Weird for my interest in the early black filmmakers Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, Herb Jeffries, and the other all-black-cast films of the ‘30s and ‘40s. As David Church writes in his 2016 book Disposable Passions:

“I would argue that, from a historiographic perspective, SWV is one of the most important video labels—far more so than Criterion—by making available not just adult and exploitation films, but also African American race films, 1930s-1940s American B films, 1960s-1970s European and East Asian genre films; and all manner of ephemeral and nontheatrical short subjects, including striptease loops, soundies, educational/propaganda/industrial films, and other forms of so-called ‘useful’ cinema. Though SWV is more of a business enterprise than an archival project and thus may have motives that would fall afoul of many preservational codes of ethics … Vraney’s completist drive to indefinitely extend the afterlives of so many ostensibly ephemeral films through mass video reproduction at least represents an ethical contribution to cinema history that few other labels can claim.”

Something Weird was founded in 1991 by Mike Vraney, who collected “nudie cuties” on 16mm and 35mm prints when such films were almost never available. He transferred his collection to tape and began selling videos through mail-order, and in those pre-internet days, it must have been exciting to see an ad in Filmfax confirming that, yes, someone had a copy of that rare Herschell Gordon Lewis movie. Vraney began as a bootlegger but eventually formed business relationships with producers like David F. Friedman who were stunned that anyone was interested in their old work. He saved many thrown-out prints from abandoned labs and warehouses, and we can credit him and partners Frank Henenlotter and Lisa Petrucci for saving the last surviving copies of The Curious Dr. Humpp, Monster at Camp Sunshine, Confessions of a Psycho Cat, Bat Pussy, Murder a la Mod (an early directorial credit for Brian De Palma!), and films by Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, Joe Sarno, Ed Wood, and other distinctive artisans.pretty

Many of the DVD-Rs on the Something Weird site are sourced from shoddy (and sometimes incomplete) prints and indifferently curated into random compilations and double features. The aesthetic is, “Hey, we found the only copy of an obscure nudist-camp movie at the side of the road. You really gonna quibble over details?” Something Weird deserves a lot of credit for making the current Golden Age of Exploitation Blu-Ray possible, but it has also become a victim of its own success. Now that Vinegar Syndrome offers a “2k scan from 35mm negatives” of the John Holmes Nazisploitation movie Prisoner of Paradise, it renders Something Weird’s DVD-R version of the same film (retitled Nazi Love Island) obsolete. In the ‘90s, it was almost impossible to find any of these movies, but now they’re all over the internet. Something Weird also suffered a colossal blow when Mike Vraney died of cancer in 2014—although the website soldiers on without him, led by his wife and partner Lisa Petrucci.

The new Blu-Ray of The Zodiac Killer (1971) is most welcome. Supposedly this low-budget exploitation film was made with the intention of capturing the Zodiac. The director, Tom Hanson, rented a theatre for the premiere and invited audience members to write the best answer to the question “I believe the Zodiac kills because…” Hanson apparently thought that by analyzing these cards he’d be able to find the real killer. It’s hard to believe this wasn’t just ballyhoo, but the reporter Paul Avery (played by Robert Downey Jr. in the David Fincher film) was actually involved in this crummy little movie: he is credited as a consultant and wrote an on-screen forward (“The motion picture you are about to see was conceived in June 1970. Its goal is not to win commercial awards but to create an ‘awareness of a present danger’…”). Despite Avery’s involvement, this movie is mostly fiction. It’s exactly the kind of bizarre, nervy piece of trash that you can’t quite believe exists. As such, it’s a much-needed reminder of what makes Something Weird Video the greatest of them all.

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