Tag Archives: Underground

275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

“God gave him a calling in life, and that was to make pornography.”–George Kuchar on Curt McDowell

DIRECTED BY: Curt McDowell

FEATURING: Marion Eaton, Melinda McDowell, Moira Benson, Mookie Blodgett, Ken Scudder, Rick Johnson, Maggie Pyle,

PLOT: On a dark and stormy night in the Nebraska hinterlands, several individuals on the road end up taking shelter at “Prairie Blossom”, an old dark house that is the dominion of alcoholic matron Gert Hammond (Eaton). Everyone present has secrets and obsessions that are brought to light, and pair off in various combinations for sexual liaisons. The group also finds itself trapped inside the house by a gorilla rampaging outside.

Still from Thundercrack! (1975)

BACKGROUND:

  • Producers John Thomas (who briefly appeared as country singer Simon Cassidy) and Charles Thomas were film students of Thundercrack! actor/writer George Kuchar, classmates of director Curt McDowell, and heirs to a fortune from the Burger Chef fast food chain, which they used to fund the movie. They also provided a rooms in their home for the shoot.
  • George Kuchar was a legend in the underground film industry, making hundred of short, campy avant-garde films together with his twin brother Mike. Noteworthy titles include Sins of the Fleshapoids and Hold Me While I’m Naked (both from 1966).
  • Actress Melinda McDowell was director Curt McDowell’s sister.
  • Kuchar and McDowell were rumored to be lovers.
  • The movie was shot for $9,000 and $40,000 in deferred costs.
  • Buck Henry used his clout as a judge to set up a (scandalous) screening at the 1976 Los Angeles Film Festival.
  • The original negatives disappeared and only five 16mm prints of the film were struck. One print was seized by Canadian authorities and three had been edited in an ineffectual attempt to make the film more marketable. The badly-damaged but uncut fifth print was primarily utilized for the transfer of the 40th anniversary Blu-ray release by Synapse Films.
  • El Rob Hubbard’s[1] Staff Pick for a Certified Weird movie.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Among the various obvious (and mainly pornographic) images to choose from, the one that sums up the spirit of Thundercrack! is the publicity photo of Gert and Bing in a melodramatic clinch—Bing in a wedding dress, Gert staring off into the horizon. It’s iconic, yet subversive, and pretty much encapsulates the film’s mood.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Versatile cucumbers; pickled husbands; amorous bipeds

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The collision of several elements: the lurid melodramatics along with the hardcore action, the visual stylization and the complex wordplay, all combine to make a film much more engaging and—dare I say it—innocent than one would expect from a mid 1970s hardcore sex parody film. Or, is it a parody film with porno elements? You decide…


Brief scene from Thundercrack!

COMMENTS: “What the heck is going on here—some sort of communal therapy group? Is that what this is?!!”—Bing

That’s probably a fair assessment of Thundercrack!, Curt McDowell’s Continue reading 275. THUNDERCRACK! (1975)

  1. Fun Fact: actress “Maggie Pyle” and her husband (one of the crew members) were my landlords for a short time in San Francisco in the early 90’s. []

366 UNDERGROUND: THE KINGDOM OF SHADOWS (2016)

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Joana Castro, Bruno Senune, Carina de Matos, Falvia Barabas, Daniel Pires

PLOT: Shuffling between the interior and exterior of a building (with guest appearances from some jagged cliffside rocks), various symbolic events occur because of the actions of various symbolic people.

Still from The Kingdom of Shadows (2016)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This clutter of film scenes might be interpreted as “weird”, but I’m leery to describe the onscreen capering as a “movie”. Perhaps it’s just my staggering lack of interpretive skills, but when the characters are only somewhat explainable because you read the opening credits, I find the “movie” part a bit wanting. Not much is clear, and the lack of dialogue handily augments the altogether excessive incoherence of the narrative.

COMMENTS: I shall begin by saying that Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais may well have accomplished something impressive with their symbol-ridden film, The Kingdom of Shadows. Throughout the film there are little hiccups of inspired images that, in isolation, would make for compelling photographs to ponder. The lack of dialogue lends itself to a lack of explanation, but that allows for a mutuality of incomprehension across the globe. Unfortunately, it leaves the viewer grasping blindly for what it is the filmmakers are trying to say.

The story proper (I am guessing) begins weirdly enough with a pair of golden hands magically boiling up a pot of water. What ensues is a long-form mishmash of figurative images and sequences that vaguely intrigue, and certainly baffle, the viewer. A furtive young man appears during the bridging sequences, who may be acting as witness, along with us viewers. Inside a 19th-century (?) house, a clutch of people (indicated in the credits as “mother”, “daughter”, “uncle”, and so on) interact in strange ways with motives that are impossible to divine. An inspector comes along at some point (again, we know his vocation only from the credits) and twirls his mustache a lot. Eventually the gang inside the house takes up arms against the “daughter,” driving her outside. Interrupting the action is a pair of (usually naked) young people having quasi-dance-like interactions of joy, terror, and sundry other feelings.

As I’ve hinted in the preceding paragraphs, while there may be a lot going on in the movie, very little of it makes any sense. It would help if I knew what the directors were trying to say, and a commentary would no doubt be illuminating. That said, this presents a problem: any movie that cannot stand up to unsupervised viewing is of dubious merit. If there isn’t clarity, there needs to be a “vibe” of some sort, or at least an ambience. However, The Kingdom of Shadows is too scattered to have such a vibe, and any ambience is sabotaged by incoherent or careless touches. To support the latter, I give the example of a slow-moving “pursuit” scene through one of the house’s corridors. The turn-of-the-last-century feel is utterly destroyed by a very obvious smoke detector on the wall. Its square plastic frame and glowing electric light immediately crush whatever mood may have been built.

I have no doubt that all those involved poured their hearts and souls into making this movie, so it pains me a little to have to be so down on it. After the sturm und drang of various troubled moans from the young observer, after the not-quite balletic artiness of the “Adam and Eve” vignettes, and after the cranked up symbolism, we’re still left with something that’s a bit amateurish and more than a bit boring. If there were an unhealthy halfway point between How the Sky Will Melt and Begotten, this movie hits it, and hits it hard. ‘s piece—while perhaps incomprehensible—has that dream-like “thing” required for such an exercise in post-narrative film. That “thing” is never found by the directors of The Kingdom of Shadows, which is more the pity.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film that does never try to make perfect sense, instead using impressive, often tableau-like imagery to get its point across… a film like this might not be for everybody, but those with open minds are up for a fascinating journey…”–Mike Haberfelner, [re]Search My Trash (contemoraneous)

264. THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971)

AKA Hot Number

“I said, anybody who makes dirty phone calls as a life’s project is a pretty weird person. So where am I going to get the kind of material that he would be speaking? He wouldn’t be speaking anything we know. He would be talking the kind of stuff that you see on men’s room walls. “–The Telephone Book lead animator Len Glasser on his inspiration for the final sequence

DIRECTED BY: Nelson Lyon

FEATURING: Sarah Kennedy, Norman Rose

PLOT: Oversexed Alice receives an obscene phone call and falls in love with the mellifluous caller, who reveals his name to be “John Smith” of Manhattan. She searches the telephone book to find him, encountering stag film producers, perverts and lesbian seductresses in her quest. When she finally tracks him down, they share the ultimate obscene phone call, whose orgasmic power is depicted symbolically as a crude, sexually explicit surrealist cartoon.

Still from The Telephone Book (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • “superstars” Ultra Violet and Ondine appear in small roles in the film. An “intermission” scene showing Warhol himself quietly eating popcorn was cut, and the footage lost. (Still photos of the scene do exist).
  • Writer/director Nelson Lyon went on to write for “Saturday Night Live” in its earliest years, but his career ended after he was involved in an infamous speedball binge that ended with John Belushi’s fatal overdose.
  • The film was a complete flop on release and quickly disappeared from circulation, preserved in rare bootlegs and only resurfacing as a curiosity in the new millennium.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: In the animated sequence visually expressing the ineffable ecstasy aroused by John Smith’s erotic patter, the bottom half of a gargantuan woman—with rivets in her thighs, suggesting she’s an automaton—squats on a skyscraper and pleasures herself, while a man whose entire head is a tongue watches her with drooling interest. Sights like that have a tendency to stick in the mind.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: “Superstar” pontificating over a nude; rotating pig-masked man; tongue-headed cartoon libertine

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The last twenty minutes. Up until then, The Telephone Book is a mildly absurd pre-hardcore sexploitation comedy with art-scene pretensions; a long confessional monologue from a pig-masked pervert followed by a surreally obscene, obscenely surreal animated climax launch it into a different stratosphere of weirdness.


Original trailer for The Telephone Book

COMMENTS: The Telephone Book is a sex comedy dirty enough for Continue reading 264. THE TELEPHONE BOOK (1971)

POP MEETS THE VOID (2015, WILLIAM CUSICK)

‘s Pop Meets The Void (2015) is what independent film should be: an alternative to mainstream cinema, as opposed to a low budget imitation of Hollywood fare.

Cusick sees the artist as in revolt against common sense and repressive conventions of the social order. The musician protagonist of Pop Meets the Void encounters the fingernails-down-chalkboard inquisition that almost every artist endures from bourgeoisie muggles: “Are you a real artist or do you just wanna be?” Fill in the appropriate follow-up blank: “Are you famous? Are you rich? Do you have a recording contract with a big label? Have you published a book? Have you acted in a real movie, like the ones from Hollywood? Have you sold a painting for a million dollars yet?” Followed by “So, what’s the point?”

German Expressionist painter Franz Marc astutely addressed the artist’s encounter with the bourgeoisie in an entry from the famous “Blue Rider Almanac”: “It is strange that people should value spiritual treasures so differently than material ones. If someone conquers a new colony for his country, the whole country rejoices for him and does not hesitate to take possession of that colony. Technological achievements are met with the same rejoicing. On the other hand, if someone should think of giving his country a spiritual treasure, it is almost always rejected with anger and irritation; his gift arouses suspicion and people to try and do away with it. Why new paintings and why new ideas? What can we buy with them? We already have too many old ones.”

Painter Paul Gauguin advised young artists to worry less about the finished work and locate sacrament in the artistic process. This is Cusick’s spirit. He retreats and takes the role of artist as hermit, keeping his music attic-bound. As a hermit, his worldview encompasses the artist as misfit prophet.

Still from Pop Meets the Void (2015)The narrative of artist as contrarian to the world has been around as long as there has been artists, and will continue until the artist goes the way of the dinosaur. If Cusick had merely followed an orthodox route, his film would be dishonest and pedestrian. Cusick knows such a retreat must inspire a genre-rejecting, authentic composition, and Pop Meets The Void‘s fantasia qualities make it a startling work that validates the narrative as both immortal and relevant. History does not exist. Rather, the artistic expression is fluid. Marc sees continuity as opposed to an historical valve which shuts on and off: “Cezanne and El Greco are spiritual brothers, despite the centuries that separate them.” We can, of course, subscribe to the maxim there is nothing new under the sun, but Cusick stubbornly refuses to be fence-bound, charismatically imprinting his own process.

Criticizing the historical development of cinema, wrote: “Moving pictures merely repeat what we have been told for centuries by novels and plays. Thus, a marvelous instrument for the expression of poetry and dreams (the subconscious world) is reduced to the role of simple REPEATER of stories expressed by other art forms.” Cusick utilizes the liberty of dreams to convey boundless paradoxes presiding in the asphyxiating mirage of adulation and celebrity.

Smarter still, Cusick forgoes the aloofness which often permeates and hinders the surreal aesthetic. In ambitiously attempting to construct something akin to a Mahlerian universe, Cusick does not shy away from bathos. If it is all-encompassing, then his work must be imbued with all facets of the mortal experience. Pop Meets The Void is coarse and sleek, opaque and diaphanous, textured and emotional, a visual work about music. As the late composer Pierre Boulez advised: “We must be cultural omnivores and raid all the art forms to enhance our own medium.” Cusick’s impetuously earnest effort does just that, and is a List contender.

CAPSULE: SCHRAMM (1993)

Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Florian Koerner von Gustorf,

PLOT: Life ebbs from the body of Lothar Schramm after a fatal fall from a ladder. Memories of murders, self-loathing, hallucinations, and his love for his next door neighbor blink on and off the screen. What starts with the death of a murderer becomes a portrait of a grisly, nuanced soul.

Still from Schramm: Into the Mind of a Serial Killer (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As with his previous film, Der Todesking, Buttgereit somehow manages to ride the crest between gore and philosophy, making Schramm considerably more meditative than would be expected. Its (now) familiar “mind of a serial killer” theorizing does result in the occasional shock, but it certainly isn’t the weirdest thing you could see before breakfast.

COMMENTS: There is something to be said for efficient film-making. So often it seems the case that a director wants his or her film to go on for as long as it takes to say everything about its subject. Sprawling movies abound; some peter out, some take forever to find their target, and the worst neither gain momentum nor really tell much of a story. Such a curse is not suffered by Jörg Buttgereit, the affable German behind the underground horror hits Nekromantik (1 and 2), Der Todesking, and, the last feature of his early career, Schramm. In a tight sixty-five minutes, Buttergereit explores the final thoughts and days of the titular serial killer.

Schramm’s chronology is only slowly revealed, beginning, effectively, at the end of the story. Suffering a fall while painting a blood-spattered door frame, Lothar Schramm (Florian Koerner von Gustorf) collapses in the spilt paint, and time slowly rewinds. Our first living encounter with him shows him dispatching two altogether wholesome evangelizers. An impatient woman knocks on the door. Eventually things sift back further and we see what are likely childhood memories, interspersed with the scenes from the days immediately preceding the fall. Schramm’s manner and actions may now seem typical, but in 1992 (the year Schramm was filmed), the precarious mental state of a rather off-kilter man was quite a bit fresher. (As Buttgereit remarks in his charmingly cute introduction, the reason he made this film was he was tired of watching “chain-smoking detectives pursuing the serial killer”, instead of seeing things from the other side.)

As I mentioned, the film is brief. However, it gets everything done that it needs to in the run-time. In what has become almost standard in the genre, Schramm is a generally low-key, pleasant guy who enjoys jogging and chatting with his next-door neighbor (Monika M.), a prostitute who relies on him for company and, later, protection. Stylized flashbacks of murders, a kitchen drawer full of lipstick, and unsettling hallucinations of his own physical deterioration hint at his mental imbalance. (Taking a cat-nap in his taxi, he dreams about a dental appointment for a tooth removal that quickly escalates into an eye removal). While he’s keeping busy with loneliness and killing prostitutes, his neighbor gets herself involved with some rather demanding and unsavory older clients.

There is certainly a fair share of repellent material in Schramm, but anyone familiar Buttgereit’s work should be unsurprised. However, unlike the gross-out tours-de-force of his Nekromantik films, Schramm is more the sibling of his pensive work, Der Todesking. The violent scenes in Schramm are sparingly scattered, and all the more troubling for so being. With this release (and the upcoming über Buttgereit set), the people at Cult Epics have made available a neat little treasure that not only illustrates why this director deserves (a little) greater fame, but also that underground cinema has more to offer the public than just cheap thrills.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has ‘fans only’ written all over it… Using out-of-date experimental means (repetition and color distortion), Buttgereit tries to put the audience into the killer’s mind, and probably gets as close as a director with limited means can.”–Eric Hansen, Variety (contemporaneous)

366 UNDERGROUND: SPLENDOR SOLIS, HOME MOVIES 1998-2015 (2015)

DIRECTED BY:

SYNOPSIS: Compiled from footage filmed over a period of 17 years, Splendor Solis is a tone-poem celebration of cinema, creativity, play, collaboration, friendship and all of the splendors under the sun.Splendor Solis

COMMENTS:  The latest from The Underground Film Studio (who previously brought us Savage Witches), Splendor Solis is a 60 minute twin-screen presentation of odds and ends from the previous 17 years of Daniel Fawcett’s filmmaking career. While that may at first seem to be a pretty easy (and lazy) way to build a film, not to mention an invitation to boredom, Splendor Solis ends up being anything but tedious.

Combing through 17 years’ worth of “home movies”—video diaries, unfinished films, video experiments, filmed performances, behind-the-scenes footage and yes, real home movies—is a massive undertaking in and of itself. Attempting to make a coherent and interesting film out of all that material is an additional mountain to climb. Splendor Solis succeeds in overcoming the boredom trap in two ways. First, the editing by Fawcett and is crackerjack. Presenting the footage via twin screens helps immensely in using up footage and in juxtaposing segments. Second, the music and sound design play an integral part in keeping the energy level up.

The result is a playful spectacle for the eyes which also serves as an accelerated look at the growth of an artist.

Splendor Solis had its World Premiere at the 35th Cambridge Film Festival in September, 2015 and will be making the film festival circuit in 2016.

EDITED BY: Daniel Fawcett and Clara Pais

MUSIC BY: Simon Keep, Jos Dow, Daniel Fawcett, Alex Lemming, Magnus Williams, Thomas Hartley

CAPSULE: AIMY IN A CAGE (2015)

DIRECTED BY: Hooroo Jackson

FEATURING: Allisyn Ashley Arm, Michael William Hunter, Sara Murphy, Terry Moore,

PLOT: While a mysterious virus ravages the outside world, a quirky teenage girl is forced to undergo brain surgery to become “normal,” then imprisoned by her family. Still from Aimy in a Cage (2015)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Weird? Yes, indeed. But this stylish debut, while pretty, doesn’t quite pull all its ribbons together into the tidiest of bows.

COMMENTS: Allisyn Ashley Arm may headline, and Crispin Glover’s name may sell tickets, but the real star of Aimy in a Cage is Chloe Barcelou, the production and costume designer. She creates an arresting world that looks like a post-apocalyptic “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” Set in a single sprawling flat that recalls visual icons like , , and even or a wacked-out at times, the movie looks like a trippy graphic novel come to life. In Terry Moore’s first scene, she wears improvised beer can rollers in her hair. Aimy earns herself headgear that looks like added several extra feet of ductwork on top of the Robot Monster‘s helmet. I adored the faerie mushrooms embossed on the outside of Aimy’s door. The barrage of stylistic techniques—Fleischer brothers cartoons, mad pans and angles, circular masking, fisheye lenses, paint dripping over the lens—can be a little much, but they are all well executed and add to the film’s ramshackle, cluttered charm.

Unfortunately, the story does not engage us nearly as much as the film’s visual milieu does. The problem is with Aimy herself. Not with the performance of Arm, an ex-Disney Channel star who seems like she would be lovable in another project. She does exactly what she is asked to do here, which is to act bratty and scream a lot. Aimy is totally narcissistic, in that bright teenage girl way; she’s the kind of character who complains, “why can’t you all just accept me for who I am?” while doing an interpretive dance and throwing fistfuls of candy into the face of her long-suffering boyfriend. The movie starts out with misunderstood Aimy breaking her grandmother’s treasured vintage doll and getting into a shrieking contest with the old bat, and it just gets more and more shrill as it goes on. Aimy is abused, its true, but in the opening reels she gives as good as she gets, and we can totally understand and sympathize with the family’s decision to tie her to a chair and gag her. When the girl taunts her grandmother, hateful though the old harridan may be, about her fiancé’s recent abandonment and laughs that the old woman will die alone, are we really supposed to take her side? It’s as if the script simply assumes we will side with the young against the old and the artist against the conformist, and so doesn’t feel the need to make Aimy likable in any way.

Does that mean the girl earns the torture that is heaped on her in the later reels, which ranges from psychological abuse to lobotomy to being tied in a chair and force-fed while begging to die? Of course not. But successful antiheroes, from Alex deLarge to the Comedian of Entertainment, have two things Aimy doesn’t: they are given some redeeming, humanizing characteristic for the audience to latch on to, and their suffering is treated seriously, as something real, no matter how unreal their surroundings may otherwise be. Aimy’s chaotic character is closer to abrasive roles in ‘ early comedies, but she doesn’t have the drag queen’s perversely lovable outrageousness.

Glover’s character, a sort of southern gentleman gigolo in a fur coat, is decent, but the role’s subdued nature means his casting takes more advantage of the actor’s weirdo cred than his gonzo energy. For Glover, however, not spazzing out all over the screen is stretching as an actor, and it’s interesting to see him take on a subtler weird role. is prominently billed, but her appearance amounts to a forgettable cameo that makes no difference in the story.

In Aimy‘s defense, it does effectively capture a budding teenager’s sense of self-absorption and paranoia; that alone does not, however, make for a pleasant or rewarding moviegoing experience. Still, there will be those who will want to uncage Aimy for the visuals alone, and I won’t dissuade you: as long as you have a high tolerance for abrasive adolescent antics, it may be worth a VOD rental. Aimy in a Cage does not have an official release set yet, although a Blu-ray is listed with the possibly specious date of April 1, 2016.

There is one additional weird point to make about Aimy in a Cage, but it relates to the film’s funding rather than its content. Writer Hooroo Jackson invested almost everything he had in Bitcoin in 2012, when the price of a digital coin stood at $10, and cashed out when the virtual currency rose to $650. He used the proceeds to fund a movie version of his own graphic novel. I can’t think of any nobler way to dissipate a lightning-in-a-bottle windfall than that.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s not just that the always quirky Crispin Glover is featured in Aimy in a Cage that makes it weird… Fans of twisted independent cinema might celebrate Aimy in the Cage (it won the Director’s Prize at the Portland (Oregon) Film Festival), and it is a beautiful film to behold, but the damn thing is madder than Alice’s Hatter!”–Elias Savada, Film International (contemporaneous)

A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART ONE

To say that is the most polarizing of American filmmakers, even among his own fan base, is stating the obvious. Not even invites Waters’ level of divisiveness. By and large, the cult filmmaker’s canon is split between those who prefer his pre-Hairspray (1988) work and moviegoers who cannot digest the earlier, low budget underground period, and are forced to begin with that crossover film. With the later Waters’ crowd, the consensus is that the director took the shock ’em til you succeed route, and it worked. After that, Waters made legitimate movies. Waters himself seemed to add fuel to that theory with Cecil B. Demented (2000), which took aim at independent (along with conglomerate) filmmaking, although he did not refrain from self-parody or self-critique.

When composer Igor Stravinsky followed a series of seismic, revolutionary works with a reversion to a neo-Classical style, many of his advocates (avant-garde proselytizer Pierre Boulez among them) and disciples deemed him a traitor, literally picketing his concerts. Waters’ earliest fans were far more forgiving of their idol’s mainstream success. Perhaps that is because their prophet is cut from the same pop cloth as an Elvis Presley, rather than Stravinksy’s heritage of European high art. Although Waters would certainly wax amused (at least publicly) at the notion of his work being classified as art, he is no less provocative or innovative than his counterparts in the academic avant-garde. His flair for provocation is born of his time, place, and culture. Waters’ response to his heritage is honest, rendering him an authentic American success story.

By dubbing himself “the Pope Of Trash” in early write-ups in Baltimore newspapers and speaking engagements, Waters himself allegedly gives credence to the argument from the “early film” faction that once the director lost regulars , , and , and experienced authentic critical and financial successes, he merely took the money and ran. The earlier films represent the real John Waters.

For a filmmaker who has always invited polemics, the controversy may be appropriate, but ultimately it proves a distraction in approaching Waters as a viable filmmaker through a substantial body of work that reveals a developing love for narrative. Waters earliest films would not have indicated this.

Like Carla Bley in jazz and Philip Guston in painting, Waters’ earliest works were primarily abstract (surreal, non-linear). Each eventually realized their work was too thematic and moved beyond abstraction into postmodern tenets. Waters’ first effort was the little seen seventeen-minute 8MM short Hag In A Black Leather Jacket (1964). Shot on a $30.00 budget at the age of eighteen, the film was made from stolen film stock courtesy of Mona Montgomery, who starred and was Waters’ then-girlfriend. The narrative reportedly concerns a white ballerina (Montgomery) who discovers a black man (an uncredited actor) in a trashcan. After a brief courtship (with Montgomery being carried around in the garbage receptacle), the two are married by a Klu Klux Klan priest (uncredited) with a drag queen serving as the bridesmaid in a rooftop wedding (filmed at the home of the director’s parents; Waters’ mother also provided the piano score). performs a dance, and the “costuming” included an American flag and tinfoil. Hag In A Black Leather Jacket is one of the few Waters films not to feature . Waters has maintained that it’s best this remains in the closet. Reportedly, many of the shots are nonsensical, and were influenced by arthouse films that Waters had read about (but not seen).

Roman Candles posterWaters was sent to NYU, but dropped out. His next film was the experimental 40-minute Roman Candles (1966), which featured Waters’ regular crew, the Dreamlanders, including longtime friend Glenn Milstead (whom Waters gifted with the stage name Divine), Lochary, Stole, Pearce, Maelcum Soul, and Montgomery (who again supplied the stolen film stock). It was the first film produced under Waters’ Dreamland Studios banner.  Highly influenced by ‘s phenomenally successful underground film Chelsea Girls Continue reading A JOHN WATERS RETROSPECTIVE, PART ONE

366 UNDERGROUND: HEART ATTACK! THE EARLY PULSE POUNDING CINEMA OF KELLY HUGHES (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Kelly Hughes

FEATURING: Betty Marshall, Ernest Rhoades, James Peterson, Sarah Katherine Lewis

PLOT: We are introduced to the work of Kelly Hughes, the creative guru behind the assaultive public access series “Heart Attack Theatre,” through the words, experiences, and memories of the cast and crew who worked with him.

Still from Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes

COMMENTS: Kelly Hughes is an underground director who hails from Seattle. He established his prominence through “Heart Attack Theatre,” a series broadcast on public access airwaves from 1991-1993 that most bourgeois viewers would dismiss as trashy, reprehensible, or simply “shock for shock sake.”

I resent that last tautology the most. When pinned on an artist’s work, the cliche is frequently used to imply that the artist’s work is disingenuous, exploitative, and that the labor and the blood and sweat that they invested in it wasn’t meaningful as anything other than a cheap novelty to amuse a select few.

As the first interviewee, Ernest Rhoades, says as he recollects his experience working for Hughes’ “Lucky Charms Productions,” some artists simply create ugly and nasty things from pure love and passion. Some artists are just destined to be dismissed as ugly misfits. Despite being penniless, starving, and painstakingly filming under what most professionals would deem as intolerable conditions, they still work because they truly believe in what they are creating. I strongly emphasize with that warrior-like commitment.

And I’m sorry, Kelly Hughes, that you never were able to create the explosive-laden, cacophonous action film that you secretly always wanted to create.

But I do appreciate that you made something.

Heart Attack! gives us glimpses of the lo-fi, brazenly transgressive style of Kelly Hughes’ brief filmography. Obviously, the initial comparison that emerges is to the early films of  (though to be honest, I think that comparison is just inescapable for a lot of low-budget filmmakers like Hughes, as pointless a criticism as when people carelessly fling around the descriptor ian when reviewing weird films). Anyone familiar with the filmography of   will definitely notice the strange effect that Hughes gets from lo-fi VHS recording tape technology, the grainy texture and subtly abstract, impressionistic colors that making the visual aesthetic as tenuous and degenerative in form as the perversely grotesque content on display.

Though if we’re going to spend this much time pretentiously discussing art, I say let us recall the words of transgressive art’s intellectual forebearer, Antonin Artaud: “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.”

Here is a brief listing of some of the films featured within Heart Attack!‘s breezy hour-long survey of Hughes’ lo-fi inventions in the public-access television medium:

• “Shot In Hughes’ kitchen”: A woman and a man stare in horror at the open kitchen cabinet. The man crawls inside it. It inexplicably consumes him. The woman screams.
La Cage Aux Zombies: An “upscale Grapes of Wrath lady” (played by a very handsome man) stares out of a rusting, dilapidated door window. S(he) has a cartoonishly shrill groan and an amputated arm, and salutes Hitler fashionably. More happens, but it is challenging to say where the other clips fit into the larger narrative. Looks cool, though.
• “Say My Name Before I Die”: A nude man and woman stand in front of a bathroom mirror. They are discussing monetary concerns. They begin to copulate lovingly.
• “An Inconvenient Whore”: A nude man stretches over the edge of a bed, moaning. A woman leans over his face and informs the strapping young prostitute that there is another client waiting. Moaning resumes.
• “Gut Reaction”: A grizzly man in the middle of the woods wields a chainsaw. His potential victim screams in terror. Hilarious Benny Hill-esque antics ensue. The woman escapes and is picked up by a good Samaritan driving a dingy pick-up truck. The grizzly man appears and straddles the truck, blocking the view of the front windshield. She admits that she previously had an affair with her gynecologist. We discover that the man chasing her was her former lover. And then there is dismemberment. Afterwards, she spontaneously gives birth to a gigantic lime-green toy serpent. Then her snake baby chases them off.

From what I saw of Kelly Hughes’ films, I genuinely liked them. The ensemble didn’t act poorly, either, for being mostly unrecognized and technically amateur by conventional standards.

But I won’t say anything definitively on Hughes’ cinema until I actually watch his films. In their entirety.

Because as a fellow misfit, and as a young reviewer, I believe he deserves my respect when I approach his films.

So until that day I see his films, I consider any opinion on the early cinema of Kelly Hughes as merely tentative.

Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes is exclusively available online at vhx.com. Watch Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes ($3.99).

CAPSULE: ABNORMAL: THE SINEMA OF NICK ZEDD (2001)

DIRECTED BY: Nick Zedd

FEATURING: Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch, Annie Sprinkle, Kembra Pfahler,

PLOT: A collection of shocking, often pornographic underground films from “Cinema of Transgression” founder Nick Zedd.

War Is Menstrual Envy from Abnormal: The Sinema of Nick Zedd
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although occasionally interesting, none of the shorts here are memorable enough to require inclusion on a list of the best weird movies ever made.

COMMENTS: In 1985’s “Cinema of Transgression Manifesto,” Nick Zedd demanded that “boring films never be made again.” Even taking into account the context of this broadside (which was explicitly aimed at structuralist filmmakers like who dominated the film school curricula of the time), this was an incredibly arrogant claim that was doomed to come back and bite him when audiences noticed that—surprise!—the films made by Nick Zedd and the Cinema of Transgression were frequently boring. “Any film that doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at,” continues the Manifesto, and despite the dubious nature of that claim, Zedd’s films usually do succeed on that front (although occasionally, they only shock due to how boring they are—“Lydia Lunch,” I’m looking your way).

At any rate, note that the statement “any film that doesn’t shock isn’t worth looking at” doesn’t imply the converse: that any film that does shock automatically is worth looking at. Like most experimental filmmakers, Zedd’s work is a mixed bag, with a few successes shining out from amidst a sea of crud. The now out-of-print “Abnormal” disc collects most of his important short films made between 1980 to 2001, along with an excerpt from the (brilliantly titled) feature length movie War Is Menstrual Envy and some interviews and behind-the-scenes tidbits. Here’s the rundown of the films, approximately in reverse-chronological order (as they are presented on the disc):

  • “Tom Thumb in the Land of the Giants” (1999): This show-on-video short is presented as a trailer. It’s not clear whether this is a pitch for a longer movie that never got made, or whether this was the concept all along. Zedd’s son Kajtek is pursued by a “phantom” through a graveyard in broad daylight; it ends with a shot of a one-armed man and the boy escaping (though the magic of trick photography) into a giant vagina! At only 4 minutes long there is still some dead space, but it is about the optimum length for a Zedd film.
  • “Ecstasy in Entropy” (1999): A (mostly) silent black-and-white film set in a strip club/bordello. Retired-porn-star-cum-performance-artist Annie Sprinkle appears. There’s fellatio and fake ejaculation, and at one point the strippers laud the virtues of anarcho-socialism in voiceover. It briefly switches to color for the last few minutes for a catfight. Not as interesting as it sounds.
  • “Why Do You Exist?” (1998): A woman smears spray-cheese and whipped cream on her ample bosom, then we see a parade of video portraits of performance artists and grimy underground personalities mugging for the camera. Once you get past the boobies it’s fairly dull, unless you’re one of the out-of-work actors profiled here.
  • War is Menstrual Envy (1992): This 14-minute clip is the meatiest and most nightmarish segment of the collection. A topless woman painted blue and dressed like a nun (Kembra Pfahler) unwraps a disfigured burn victim, then dresses him like a sheik; another woman (Annie Sprinkle) enters, undresses him again, and licks his scarred chest. Then opening credits run over footage of eye surgery. The grotesque beauty on display here is Zedd’s finest work, but 14 minutes was enough; another hour of this stuff would be nauseating Continue reading CAPSULE: ABNORMAL: THE SINEMA OF NICK ZEDD (2001)