[2 December 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s time to call out the carnal color guard and get the bugler to blow a rather trashy and tawdry Taps. After nearly seven years celebrating the best of exploitation, Something Weird Video has parted ways with chief home theater distributor Image Entertainment. It was a split fans long felt was coming. Where once a regular schedule of releases would offer between 24 and 36 titles in a year, 2007 saw five. Even more telling, directors the Seattle based company used to champion - Joe Sarno, Doris Wishman - were suddenly finding new homes at places like Seduction Cinema. To drag out the “whore-y” old cliché, a change was definitely in the wind. To continue the truisms, it marks the end of an era.
Ever since its inception as a fan-oriented tape trading collective (back in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s) SWV has marched to its own dare to be bare drummer. Head honcho Mike Vraney took his love of the actual grindhouse (not the reimagined version being propagated today) and channeled it into a solid cinematic cause. He wanted to rescue and preserve as many of these fascinating film artifacts as possible. In addition, he wanted the input from as many of the still living participants as possible. Making important connections with such powerful producers as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, Vraney saw his private collection swell from several dozen to several thousand.
Originally, SWV stayed within the VCR marketplace. Cassettes were cheap, and the low end technical specifications meant that many of the age and damage issues surrounding a title could be ignored. But when DVD became the rapidly evolving film fan format, the company faced a dilemma - remaster all their titles, or be selective in what they released. Working with new partner Image, Vraney decided that every Something Weird disc would fulfill two functions. First, it would offer the best possible print he could find (by this time, he had access to many original negatives), but more importantly, each release would act as volume in an overall exploitation encyclopedia. Commentaries from creators would be added, when possible. Sans said supplement, short films, archival publicity material, and other contextual elements would be provided.
The first few releases - the infamous Blood Trilogy from Godfather of Gore Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman’s work with the wonderful anatomical anomaly Chesty Morgan - would be considered bare bones by today’s SWV standards. Usually containing nothing more than a trailer or a discussion with the filmmakers, these first DVDs began an important process. Ever since hardcore pornography stole its audience, exploitation has been marginalized as moviemaking for the lecherous lowest common denominator. Rightfully described as a genre geared toward nudity, naughtiness, and the more notorious aspects of existence, said categorization allowed prudes and pundits to turn the trendsetters into nothing more than incredibly savvy smut peddlers. But the truth is far more revelatory.
What most movie historians fail to fully recognize is that exploitation gave the filmmakers of the ‘60s and ‘70s a model for the post-modern movement. Where standards and practices kept certain “undesirable” facets off the silver screen, the truly independent producers and directors were pushing the very limits of acceptability. While the mainstream watched in amazement, the grindhouse took on censorship, community standards, the MPAA, the government, and the US Supreme Court. It was the exploitation kings who got nudity declared “not inherently obscene” and that challenged local organizations who tried to dictate what could and could not be shown. They paved the way for the frank, honest depiction of life - warts, wantonness, and all. And for their efforts, they got critically keelhauled, diminished as disgusting sleaze for the dirty minded.
No matter if the assessment was accurate or not, exploitation was more than simulated sex and overly aggressive violence - and Something Weird understood this. They fought to maintain the integrity of their product, even deciding to withdraw certain titles when Image suggested certain ones were “unfit” for general consumption. The company never once thought it was going to turn the forgotten legacy of the past into something celebrated in the present, but for the most part, they were convinced that preserving these early efforts provided insight and instruction to those born too late to experience the genre first run.
Over the course of its mainstream marketing - SWV now offers DVD-Rs of almost everything in their massive, multifaceted inventory - the company resurrected the careers of fallen idols Lewis, Wishman, Joe Sarno, Barry Mahon, Bethel Buckalew, and other unknown directors. It also reintroduced Friedman and Novak to contemporary audiences, explaining how important their efforts were in championing unusual and provocative productions. Sure, some of the films were nothing more than tired titillation attached to equally turgid storylines. Others explored the differing cultural dynamic - hippies, drugs - that was slowly changing the shape of society. With their filmic finger consistently placed on the pulse of an expanding motion picture demographic, exploitation also expanded merchandising, advertising, and other financial aspects of the industry. There was definitely more to the grindhouse than T&A.
Yet time and the growing trends within the format were not kind to SWV’s mission. Since most of the films were ‘loaned’ to the company (Vraney had issues with copyright and ownership from the start), holders of the property often looked for green pastures when it came to releases. While Image claims brisk sales (they will keep all Something Weird product in print for now), it was obvious that the glut of available titles on DVD would eat into the various niche providers. But SWV faced an additional problem - the limited availability of recognizable names. While their catalog contained thousands of unheralded gems, those that would translate into profit became few and far between.
Still, the company’s heritage should be celebrated. In fact, film fans should rally in support, hoping that Vraney finds another partner to help him spread the word. It was through his efforts that proto-classics like Year of the Yahoo, Murder a La Mod (Brian DePalma’s forgotten foray in the perverse), and She-Man were finally found, and the company’s international network of archivists and historians have uncovered more and more members of the “lost forever” alumni. Some may call them the Criterion of Crap, but Something Weird has more in common with that famous aesthetic watchdog than many would realize. They remain the seedy standard bearer.
For now, anyone looking to continue their old school arthouse addiction can call up the company’s website (http://www.somethingweird.com) and order up any number of tantalizing titles. There’s also Image’s back catalog, and that distributor has been very good about cutting prices and creating economical box sets of SWV’s product. Still, it won’t be the same…the anticipation of wondering what new notorious wonder Vraney will unleash next…the speculation on what special features will be offered…the chance to hear Roberta Findlay dish on her dead husband, or listen to Friedman regale Vraney with tales of the original exploitationers - the 40 Thieves. Granted, this could be a very premature burial, but it’s still sad to see the company that made the grindhouse a post-millennial institution walking away from the standard business pattern.
We here at SE&L salute the efforts of Mike Vraney, Something Weird Video, and the distributor Image Entertainment. Over the course of their time together, they have created some of the finest, more informative, and downright fun DVDs in the format’s equally short history. Where else would you find an entire two disc collection devoted to the theatrical spook show presentation, or a massive collection of goofy burlesque films? Who else would give the goona-goona movie the same respect as the kitschy b-movie monster? Years from now, when perspective is more objective, the work of this important cinematic sanctuary will be rightfully celebrated. For now, all we can do is reminiscence, and say “So long, Something Weird.” It’s been a great ride - one many a film fan will remember for the rest of their exploitation filled lives.