Sean Byron is a collector of videotapes, viewer of violent sleaze, and co-host of the Junk Food Dinner podcast, which has reviewed over 750 cult movies since 2010. Check out his Discoveries list from 2012 as well!
T'was the season to be merry (Christmas 2014), and what better time to watch a film concerning a boy witnessing his mother be groped by a man in a Santa suit, only for him to grow up and become a psycho Santa slasher himself? I'm certainly not going to watch this on Easter! This is a nuts-o flick, in all of the right ways, with a singular blend of sexual anguish, violent slasher sequences, and holiday cheer. Surprisingly artful as well (with references to Citizen Kane!), it's a shame director Lewis Jackson never worked again (although you can search out some recent interviews with him on YouTube). In a rough X-mas viewing season that for me included such lumps of coal as A Monster's Christmas (1981), Don't Open Til Christmas (1994), and Scream Queen's Naked Christmas (1996), this was the movie to restore my shattered Holiday Spirit. Which, considering the number of poor children it probably terrified in the 80s, is some kind of sweet redemption. Side note: of all the companies in (seemingly dwindling) Blu-ray game in 2015, only Vinegar Syndrome had the chestnuts to put out this notoriously twisted flick in high-definition home video, for which I salute them.
Jack Hill's THE BIG DOLL HOUSE is a legitimately classic Women in Prison flick, and should be no stranger to any fan of exploitation cinema - so I'm glad it's no longer a stranger to me. Shot in The Philippines in 1971 for Roger Corman's new company New World Pictures and featuring early performances from Pam Grier and Sid Haig, this sweat-drenched, heroin-laced stroll through the jungle is one of the earliest examples in the genre (although of course Jess Franco and others had paved the way). It's also representative of a transitional time where Hollywood was starting out on its "Easy Riders and Raging Bulls" journey through new subject matter and new financing techniques, and there are definite parallels between that industry shift and Corman's shift from AIP to New World. As the 70s developed, the concept of innocence would be forgotten and then remembered again only to be set afire on film, as the tone of exploitation films became increasingly nasty through the decade. Despite the bad rap Netflix has unavoidably secured among some ardent supporters of physical media (whether theatrical, or home video), I continue to utilize the service in ways that make sense for me (including watching some of the original programming, which to me seems a better avenue for most artists interested in serialized narrative fiction and probably documentary filmmaking as well, as opposed to working through outdated and overbearing television studios). Still, I try to avoid streaming as a primary means for seeing a movie - if available locally in 35mm, that'll always be my preference, and if I have a copy on hand or can wait it out, I'll seek a home video release (often opting for the VHS format for titles where the inherent fuzz associated with the medium is complimentary to the title - low budget horror just FEELS right on tape, but also often Blu-ray if I'm interested in studying the filmmaking or photography a bit more). That said, this was one of those times where Netflix had a great title available for streaming (sadly since removed) that I hadn't yet caught up to, and didn't have in my own library. And while I'm sure I missed out on at least a fraction of the experience that I would have enjoyed seeing this exhibited theatrically, getting a chance to stream the movie has instantly solidified my stance as a fan of the film, ensuring the next time this plays at a place like The New Beverly Cinema, I'll make the trek to see it in its full photochemical majesty.
Likely influenced by the underrated Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (1982), this rarely seen 50-minute Super-8 movie chronicles the rise and fall of an all-girl Punk rock band, but diverges greatly from Adler's film in tone, going for a more nihilistic and authentically punk rock vibe, and a rough aesthetic that was certainly shaped by its decidedly smaller budget. This early film from director David Markey is similar to his other best known work (1991: The Year Punk Broke, The Slog Movie) in that it chronicles a historically important and colorful time in rock music history, although in this case he does so via a fictional band and a more narrative form. Loose in structure but consistently watchable, rarely has a punk rock aesthetic been incorporated into the process of filmmaking so effectively. Originally titled The Runaways until producer Kim Fowley forced a retitling, this has been a hard to find flick until earlier this year, when it received a VHS release courtesy of King of the Witches and even a theatrical showing at Brooklyn's Spectacle Theater (along with the 1986 sequel Lovedolls Superstar). Listen for the great soundtrack by Redd Kross and others.
One of the famed video nasties, Island of Death is a bizarre accident of a film that maintains your interest by continually upping the ante in terms of weird on-screen antics. Inspired by the box office results of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Greek sleaze director Nico Mastorakis sought out to intentionally create the most shocking exploitation film he could devise, without much of an artistic intent, and the result includes some endlessly memorable (if not always technically well implemented) kill scenes, from decapitations to immolations and everything in between. It's also got a bunch of perverted sexual stuff, including an intimate scene between our lead actor and a pet goat, which is likely one of the reasons this film hasn't gained much mainstream acceptance. Still, this boundary-pushing tale of an incestuous sibling pair creatively slashing their way through all the residents of the small Greek island of Mykonos maintains a lighter atmosphere than you might expect from a movie that breaks so many taboos.
As we discussed on Junk Food Dinner, this tale of two HIV-positive young gay men going on a hedonistic, nihilistic road trip is sometimes referred to as "the Gay Thelma and Louise", but it's so much more than that. The earliest commercially available film from director Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin) shows the young Araki in full control of his tone and style, setting up many of the thematic elements (dogmatic culture, billboard advertising, relationships on the road, struggles with sexual identity) common to his other films and exploring them with a rawness that is matched by two excellent lead performances (Mike Dytri and Craig Gilmore). Brutally direct, and filled with a dangerous desperation that must reflect the reality of living on the fringes of society as a homosexual in the early 90s, The Living End also features one of the most breathtaking final sequences in independent film history.
Since '87 this film has remained virtually unseen, save for the literally-less-than-a-handful of surviving VHS copies that floated in collector circles from the long-defunct Japan-only Exciting Video sublabel from Sony, until collector and archivist Zack Carlson decided to launch Bleeding Skull Video to give the film further distribution after witnessing the madness himself on his VCR. After tracking down once-and-done director W.G. MacMillan (a character actor with appearances in films such as George Romero's The Crazies), he organized screenings of the film coast to coast (including a theatrical debut and product launch at Severed VHS Convention 2014 in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, a Cast/Crew/Director reunion at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, and an appearance on JFD #216. This unparalleled media blitz for a film that had until 2014 been seen only by a scant few likely very much confused Japanese horror enthusiasts, and years later, an even smaller pool of Shot on Video horror obsessives was gladly warranted. In a field that is relatively small in terms of titles (authentic, period, shot-on-video horror films, as compared to all other forms of low budget horror films), it's remarkable that one of such singular quality could sit unknown for so long. The movie leverages the fuzzy video format to great effect, marrying it with a neon-drenched lighting scheme, garish New Wave inspired costumes and makeup, and a subtly apocalyptic synth score. The over-the-top acting and strange directorial fixations only add to the charm, and the ending is simultaneously amusing and depressing. Of course, with this kind of deliberately videocentric stylizing, VHS is the ideal viewing format, and Bleeding Skull even went as far as to include a sweet little Cards of Death zine with their big box release. I think this was the only movie I watched three times within 2014, and I found new things to enjoy about this movie each time.
Long a fan of Luis Buñuel's short films, I was excited to get a chance this year to finally catch up with a film many have identified as a landmark of his career. Surreal and sexy, populated by fantasies of involving domination, sadomasochism, and bondage, Belle du Jour was and remains a bold, memorable film anchored by Catherine Deneuve's stunning central performance as a lonely housewife who takes up prostitution as a means to fill her time. Thematically resonant even today and wonderfully photographed, with a fantasyland Parisian backdrop, this is a film that should appeal to a large cross-section of art and cult film fans alike. My enjoyment was certainly enhanced by the excellent screening at The Egyptian Theatre paired with some Buñuel shorts (including Un Chien Andalou) and a recreation of some film scenes in the lobby (with a live actress portraying Catherine Deneuve coffin-bound in black lace), which was one of my favorite filmgoing experiences of the year.
It’s hard to say that I “liked” this movie, in that it’s a pretty mean-spirited experience overall, from the reportedly horrid shooting conditions to the use of real live animals and real dead humans for some of film’s more chilling gore sequences. On screen and off, this chronicle of the Japanese Army’s Unit 731 program in WWII-era Manchuria is a pretty dismal affair. That said, it came into my life at an extremely coincidental time (I had just visited the remote Chinese town that this movie is centered on, being unaware of its previous history) and from an unexpected place - as one of The Memphis Maniac’s picks for his episode of Ghoul Summer, Junk Food Dinner #222. While it’s certainly a ghoulish film, it’s also an effective chronicle of a neglected dark corner of history, and brings to light some of the lesser known (to Western audiences) atrocities committed in the name of war.
Ghoul Summer clearly left a mark on me this year, as my next pick came only week later on JFD #233, from friend of the show Mike Dikk’s Ghoul Summer pick, the 1985 Soviet portrait of war, Come and See. This is a rather morbid film, from its provocative title to its frank depiction of the violent impact of war on children, recycling of documentary death camp footage, use of live rounds in extremely dangerous scenarios with kids, and extremely “method” approach to coaxing the performance of its fourteen year old lead (filming over nine months in conditions designed to simulate the horrors of war, including extreme dieting). The end result shares something in common with Apocalypse Now in that it’s not a celebration of war, but does find some kind of poetry in the chaos. It doesn’t hurt that the photography on display is some of the most effortless and impressionistic outside of a Bela Tarr film, and the soundtrack is an instantly memorable collage of jarring chaos played on strings and hauntingly beautiful classical musical standards. Chillingly effective at removing all traces of the artificial glamor attributed to war in earlier films of David Lean or John Sturges. Director Elem Klimov never attempted another film after this, and commented decades later, shortly before his death, "I lost interest in making films ... Everything that was possible I felt I had already done."
It’s been a relatively fertile time for John Waters fans, what with the recent Groundbreakers Playboy TV series and I Am Divine documentaries, as well his Carsick book, not-too-distantly-past appearances in Lonely Island videos, and a general feeling that even his earlier, dirtier work is finally getting the recognition it deserves. On a recent Christmas-themed episode (JFD #243), I finally got around to checking out one of the gaps in my Waters history, and I couldn’t have been happier with the results, even if they didn’t include a pair of cha-cha heels. Waters’ follow-up to Pink Flamingos is a cinema verite look of the trashiest, lowest class and lowest brow parts of Baltimore, with some really funny characters and surprisingly outlandish gore. Both Divine and David Lochary are much more competent performers in this compared to Flamingos, and the result is a much more cohesive feeling to the narrative sequences. And although there’s something charming about that wildly anarchic quality in Pink Flamingos, the presence of a real structure and comprehensible dialogue in Female Trouble is somewhat helpful. And while the filmmaking is perhaps slightly less anarchic, it does adopt a very early version of a punk rock aesthetic and explicitly addresses interesting themes of the time, like the marriage of celebrity and criminal in popular culture. By 1974, it seems as if Waters is really eager to prove that he can deliver on the threat to the status quo made by Pink Flamingos, and in this case he triumphantly does just that, raising a banner for weirdos and freaks all over.
There were several other flicks this year (classic and obscurity alike) that I saw this year for the first time, and left a positive impression. Here are some Honorable Mentions: Supervixens (1975), Dragon Ball: Son Goku Fights, Son Goku Wins (1990), Barbarella (1968), Future-Kill (1985), Café Flesh (1982), Bloody Birthday (1981), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), Vibrations (1996), Syngenor (1990), Killing American Style (1991).