Q&A with Mike Vraney, the guru of `Grindhouse'

by Mark Rahner

The Seattle Times (MCT)

22 June 2007

Mike Vraney, a fan of vintage exploitation flicks, now has his own Comcast On Demand Something Weird Video in Lake Forest Park, Washington, May 18, 2007. (Alan Berner/Seattle Times/MCT) 

SEATTLE—Even if “Grindhouse” flopped in theaters, it’s put gloriously cheap, nasty old exploitation flicks back on the pop-cultural map and unleashed a slew of sleaze on DVD from studio vaults. On the literal map, the movement’s epicenter isn’t in Times Square or a seedy part of L.A.

Since 1990, Mike Vraney has been spreading vintage filth—from horror to nudie reels to educational scare films—to the four corners of the globe from his Seattle-based Something Weird Video. A virtual one-man film preservation society, Vraney, 49, has rescued thousands of less-than-prestigious features, shorts and oddities from oblivion—that is, trash from the trash. And his empire is growing. Along with a thriving DVD business, Something Weird boasts its own On Demand channel with Comcast and has just completed a series of “Exploitica” shows for it. And if that doesn’t make you want a shower, Comcast is adding a second Something Weird channel this fall.

I unzipped the mouth of my leather mask and chatted with the boyishly enthusiastic collector—and comic-book fanatic—about this newly legit film genre.

I mean this as a compliment: You sir, are a world-class degenerate.
Yeah? Degenerate’s the wrong word, but I’ve gravitated to the bottom of the barrel and just under it for my whole life.

You were keeping the grindhouse flame since long before Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. And you worked in a porno theater, which gives you much more street cred.
You know, before the porno theater I worked at a drive-in theater. And I worked the Puget Park Drive-In on the other side of Lake Washington. As a teenager I worked at the Bel-Kirk Drive-In, which was an exploitation house. The best thing is, I got over a thousand stomach distress bags out of the back room from “Mark of the Devil,” the first movie rated “V” for violence.

What are the key characteristics of grindhouse?
Well, the smell of Pine Sol, number one.

From the middle `50s all the way to near the end of the `70s, there was so much product created just for the low-end grindhouse theaters on main street America. But these grindhouses were typically a theater that claimed to run 24 hours a day, but they usually shut down for an hour to clean house. And also to kick out the transients. Because most grindhouses were really just a flophouse. It was a place to go see the lowest-end movies. This was long before video.

How about the movies?
It was a hodgepodge of everything, because the American public, we were so ferociously hungry. So if you think about it, everything from horror movies to science-fiction movies to every genre, from spaghetti Westerns to Italian crime thrillers. Kung fu movies. Exploitation movies of every sort with the word “girl” or “teenager,” and then for a while the words “Copenhagen” or “Sweden,” because it would pack the house or the drive-in.

Why are people finally realizing it’s a legit part of film history?
All film is interesting, and it’s all important, and it’s all labors of love. Anybody who makes a film, it’s like having a kid. The other thing too, it’s beginning points for many of the important people in the industry. Laszlo Kovacs is the cinematographer for “The Defilers” and “The Notorious Daughters of Fanny Hill.” Later on he was the cinematographer for “E.T.” A lot of film students right out of film school, first opportunity they had was to make an exploitation or sexploitation movie.

What do you love about this stuff?
They’re like little pop-culture time capsules. These movies were made on the lowest budgets in the shortest periods of time, and if something culturally was happening within our culture at that moment—if that week Hula Hoops became popular, and that guy was making a movie and it takes five days to make that movie, where a normal movie could take a year, he’d incorporate Hula Hoops in that film. And I love cardboard films. I love bad acting. I love films with continuity where you’re sitting there going “I don’t even know what’s going on.” And I love movies where jaw drops and you go, “What were they thinking? I mean come on.”

The best part about the grindhouse was the trailers. Because no matter what you saw, you were basically there cause you saw the trailer the week or two before and it conned you into getting there. But the best part is you sat there and said, “Oh, god, that movie isn’t what I thought it would be, not nearly as good, or it just didn’t deliver, but god did you see the trailer for next week’s movie? Oh my god I’m going to be first in line.” That’s my whole life! I kept following the trailers going, “I’m going to see it. I just know I’m going to see it.”

I think you should get a federal grant for all of the film history that you’re saving. But it sounds like you’re doing pretty well.
Well, this material, it’s a labor of love and it’s all kind of a weird coincidence. And for some reason I was handed a torch by—there’s a group of men that were called “The 40 Thieves,” and they were all exhibitors, producers, people responsible for making the majority of what I represent. Let’s say 100 years from now people are interested in film, especially in this time period; there is a handful of us that, for some reason, we decided this stuff deserves to be saved. It deserves to be enjoyed, studied, kicked around a little and played with.

Procuring these obscure movies has to be an adventure. What’s your best Indiana Jones find?
In Manhattan I got into a basement almost the size of a football field filled to the rafters with 32,000 cans of negative film. Literally thousands of features, shorts, trailers, totally abandoned from the `40s up through the mid `70s. Through a whole chain of events I ended up with the whole thing. So it’s the cornerstone of our collection when it comes to lost features and things that were—and this material was just days away from being put into a landfill.

What to you would be a guilty pleasure, then? A Merchant-Ivory film?
I have so many it’s ridiculous. But cartoons from the `40s and `50s that were theatrical, like “Heckle and Jeckle” and “Buzzy the Crow” and “Herman & Catnip.” There’s a guilty pleasure for a 49-year-old. Instead of watching my little dirty sex movies, I’d rather watch “Herman & Catnip.”

What are Something Weird’s best-sellers?
Our Bettie Page titles and anything with girls that have very large bosoms. “Street of a Thousand Pleasures.” I’ll tell you a little side note: When 9/11 happened we had the biggest spike—it was unbelievable—in sales of things that had to do with large busts.

This is like the worst Twin Towers joke…
No, I don’t mean that! No, I think insecurity, like people became very scared. I’m talking about a psychological reaction to a huge disaster. And we saw a huge spike in material that wasn’t violent or anything, these are just kind of nurturing, almost comforting material that I sell.

Now there’s Something Weird On Demand. Who’s demanding it, apart from stoners and gay people into camp.
I’ll tell you, I think part of my viewership is an older generation, anywhere from my age to 80. I’m showing a lot of nostalgic material.

So it’s between you and “Murder, She Wrote”?
I have an hour-and-a-half of vintage strippers up every month. This is `30s through the `50s, vintage old-time burlesque. Think about it: Say you’re 75 years old and you grew up with burlesque and you’ve had your TV your whole life, and you finally find Something Weird in 2007, and there’s an hour-and-a-half of your childhood. And none of this has been on TV before. So a guy like that goes “Oh my god I hit pay dirt!”

I have a feeling your ideal evening doesn’t involve a long walk on the beach, a fiber tablet and an early bedtime.
It’s curled up with my family watching something amazing. We watch a lot of material together. I trained my kids really well. Simple as that.

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