Dead Channels : The San Francisco Festival of Fantastic Film

Dennis Harvey April 19, 2007

Reports have it that that some oblivious patrons of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s “Grindhouse” are walking out midway, thinking their evening over, and prompting a planned re-release of “Death Proof” and “Planet Terror” as separate features. Most, no doubt, assumed “Grindhouse” was just a cool name suggestive of the kind of major bodily harm you’d expect from a movie as violent (if often comically so) as this one, not a reference to the actual exhibition location of low-budget horror, action, and sexploitation features of the ’70s and early ’80s. Grindhouses were —really, there aren’t any left — typically dilapidated theatres in downtown or run-down urban areas. To audiences of overwhelmingly male winos, dealers, dozers, and the odd genre-film buff, they showed double or triple bills of movies the respectable mainstream barely knew existed. By which I mean early ’60s “nudie cuties,” schlock horror, “cautionary” exposés of drug excess, “mondo” movies, European softcore, martial arts imports, etc. Anything that traded chiefly in sex and/or violence, usually screened continuously from early morning until midnight, if not 24/7. These flavorsome environs were invariably dark (thank God, since who wanted to know why the floors were always so sticky?), filled with spontaneous audience outbursts, occasional fights, and the odd drunken pratfall. Probably the last real one in SF was Market Street’s late, beloved Strand, where I enjoyed numerous memorable experiences… not all of them cinematic.

One was hearing a yelp of pure hellfire terror from some poor addle-brained soul when Tim Curry’s very convincingly rendered horned-Satan character flashed onscreen in the preview for Ridley Scott’s fantasy “Legend.” (The Strand mixed upscale genre items with campy, sexy, and trashy ones in its later years.)

Another was during an Alexander Jodorowsky bill. Going to the men’s room (always a little scary at the Strand), I found my urinal neighbor costumed exactly like the avenging-spaghetti-western-Jesus hero of the director’s “El Topo,” leather-hatted head to floor-length leather-duster toe. Woo hoo!

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” premiered at a grindhouse, no one thinking at first that it could possibly travel above the lowest theatrical-circuit rung. Such now cult-adulated no-budget auteurs as Andy Milligan, Radley Metzger (before he went porn) and Russ Meyer saw most of their movies released straight to U.S. grindhouses. (Or drive-ins, in the case of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ notorious 1963 gore landmark “Blood Feast.”)

These disreputable but beloved emporiums faded out in the ’80s, however, shuttered by a mixture of urban renewal, home video, and the wind-down of movies produced for such “specialized” audiences. These days even the few remaining drive-ins show first-run mall flicks — a sad state of affairs, if you ask me.

You can taste a bit of the vintage grindhouse experience this weekend, however, as the last of Dead Channels’ “Month of Sleazy Sundays” brings together three vintage features from three very different aspects of grindhouse history. They comprise an eccentric, tasteless, and delightful triple bill of movies that passed well under the mainstream radar when first released.

First up is Dwain Esper’s beyond-belief 1934 “Maniac,” an allegedly serious look at the social problem of mental illness that managed to incorporate a catfight between two hypodermic-wielding women, a madman plucking and eating a cat’s eye, and a rapist who thinks he’s a gorilla. Plus of course some fleeting nudity… and “hallucination” footage stolen from Benjamin Christensen’s “Witchcraft Through the Ages” and Fritz Lang’s “Siegfried”! This was what “Adults Only” films had to offer in the ’30s — maximum lurid sleaze, but nothing sexually explicit. (“Stag reels” a.k.a. “Saturday night smokers,” the actual porn of the time, were only shown at private parties and men’s clubs, far from the law’s prying eyes.)

The South has always lived by its own rules, and for a while in certain lowbrow circles it had its own cinema as well. These were micro-budgeted features made almost exclusively for the Southern (largely drive-in) circuit — Herschell Gordon Lewis’ famous pioneering gore flicks, starting with 1963’s “Blood Feast,” among them. Another was the astonishing “Shanty Tramp,” which I’m here to tell ya you’ve just gotta see. Watching it is like the first time with, say, “Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” — you’ll keep thinking, “Ho-mi-gawd, is this the best movie ever made?”

In the ’70s, a new breed of country-bumpkin action flicks and sexploiters marked by rawed-up “Hee-Haw”-style humor occupied the same space. The titles were at least as, er, flavorful as the movies: “Tobacco Roody,” “Midnight Plowboy,” “Country Cuzzins,” “The Pigkeeper’s Daughter” (a personal fave).

Dead Channels’ second feature on the 22nd is 1971’s “Preacherman,” which was a big hit beneath the Mason-Dixon line for many years. As with many films in the regional genre, it involves a man of the Lord (writer-director-producer Albert T. Viola) who hypocritically lusts after both hotpants’d hillbilly womanhood and cold hard cash. The North Carolina feature is pretty shameless — at one point it’s suggested that a character is having unnatural intimacy with a chicken — but primarily comic. You’ve got to wonder if some of the “plain folk” used as extras or amateur supporting players had any idea what they were getting into. Imagine the pileup of lawyers that would be involved if anything similar happened today.

The blaxploitation vogue of the ’70s had its share of major-studio cash-ins, but it was a refreshingly equal-opportunity affair in that the sex and violence its audience expected could be served up just as well by independent, low-budget filmmakers; star salaries and elaborate production values were not required. Striving to outdo one another, many of these movies were deliberately outrageous, from Rudy Ray Moore’s hilarious tongue-in-cheek vehicles () to the myriad amped-up, dirtied-down knockoffs of mainstream hits (“Black Godfather,” “Black Shampoo,” etc.). (1974’s “Abby” was so blatantly an “Exorcist” imitation that Warner Bros. tried to legally block its release.) A few movies were just off in an orbit of their own: A particular cult fave is Jamaa Fanaka’s 1975 “Soul Vengeance,” whose hero takes revenge on the rich white jerks who ruined his life by… er, well, let’s just say a doctor at one point exclaims “His penis had grown to frightening limits!”

There’s a similar I-can’t-believe-someone-actually-made-this quality to the same year’s “Black Gestapo.” Fed up with white gangsters who run the drug and prostitution businesses in an African American neighborhood, beating up anyone who gets in their way, local men form a “Black People’s Party of Watts.” They succeed in routing the bad guys, but power immediately corrupts: Instead of cleaning up the ‘hood, this militarized operation simply takes over the criminal rackets, proving taskmasters just as brutal and greedy as ol’ Whitey was. With their ill-gotten new gains they hole up in a gated mansion with a whole lotta guns and quite a few white chicks.

When the community can no longer tolerate being ripped off by its own breathren, a climactic shootout occurs of sky-high body count proportions. Just in case you miss the point, historical Nazi footage and awkwardly dubbed-in “Sieg heil’s!” are inserted at odd moments. This little gem is from director Lee Frost, whose other credits include “Race With the Devil” (RV vacationers Peter Fonda and Loretta Swit from “M*A*S*H” chased around the Southwest by Satanists) and “The Thing With Two Heads” (which consisted of a death-row convict played by Rosey Grier and a racist millionaire played by Ray Milland).

This triple will be screened — scratchy vintage prints ‘n’ all — at the Mission District’s Victoria Theatre, which started in 1908 as a vaudeville house and has undergone many a change since, but alas: These days, the owners keep the floors pretty clean.