Jun 26, 2008

The Analog Enthusiast Part Three:
Twisted Brain

My reader(s?) may have surmised that I have run out of ideas for my irregular series of Analog Enthusiast posts since the last installment was in August, but that isn't so! We're just getting started! If anything, the VHS tape is on its way to becoming "the new vinyl". Back in the 90's, during the CD boom, many music collectors would often say "I have that on vinyl"-- out of nostalgia or maybe even some kind of status. And in the glut of DVD and BluRay, so too do people like myself utter: "Oh, I have that on VHS." Where even so the videotape is now replaced by a technologically superior format, the conceit is the same: to have some affection for an obsolete device possibly because it speaks to a simpler and more youthful time. And as such, we're all full of stories about how the video tape has played a part in our lives as a consumer, or as a collector.

As I mentioned in my piece on Interglobal Video in the "VHS RIP" issue of ESR, I unconditionally buy any title with an Interglobal logo. (For a better and more detailed explanation as to why I do, best to read the issue.) Yet, one movie released by Interglobal has eluded me for years-- until now. I speak of no other than the horror schlock title Twisted Brain.

This delightfully bad flick has a special resonance for me, because my cousin John (whom I mentioned in my very first Analog Enthusiast post) had told me about this movie for years, because in the 1970's, Global television used to show it constantly at night. He and his friends would get together (in varying degrees of sobriety) and watch... plus poke fun at it. This piece of cult adulation had made me curious for a long time based on his loving anecdotes about it. One afternoon in 1987, I was strolling through Woolworth's on my lunch hour (during when I was a delivery driver for a flower shop), and lo and behold: there was a copy of Twisted Brain for ten bucks! Why, what was a person to do, other than to call John right away and tell him about it?

Well, even though it was 12:30 in the afternoon, I had unknowingly gotten him out of bed when I called, as I hadn't realized he had just worked the night shift at the hotel. Nonetheless, he later told me that he went to Woolworth's in short order to pick it up. In fact, I had joked that one could see the burn marks from tire treads all over the mean streets of Simcoe as he hurriedly drove his car downtown.

I should mention that John does not buy movies--- but he bought a copy of Twisted Brain. That alone should give some testament to the power of this film. And remember, this was back in a day when the act of buying movies was rare, as people would just rent films instead. The retail prices for pre-recorded VHS tapes were prohibitively expensive in the 1980's-- the only wallet-friendly videos one could buy would be from cheap public domain labels. Interglobal perhaps was the grandfather of all of these companies. As far as I know, it was the first to make an unprecedented move to stock movies for sale in department stores. Soon, companies like Star Classics and Goodtimes jumped on the bandwagon to likewise have films for sale in K-Mart. And to be sure, despite that you were getting a pre-recorded tape for the (then) steal price of ten bones, you weren't getting Criterion transfers. Twenty years on, a lot of these cheap tapes, transfered from already well-worn public domain prints, are barely watchable with their generation loss, persistent tracking problems and washed out colour. But in all fairness, many of Interglobal's titles are still actually pretty good... considering.

Their copy of Twisted Brain however looks like it was rescued from the bowels of Hell, and it is all the better for it. This film (also known as Horror High) is a sordid tale of a high-school nerd that is played to the nth degree. Vernon Potts (played by former child star Pat Cardi, of And Now Miguel and Let's Kill Uncle) is the archetypal wallflower with greasy hair, horned-rimmed glasses, pen holder, and socially displaced from all except his science teacher and his pet guinea pig, Mr. Mumbles. However, Vernon soon develops a potion which turns him into a monster so he can get revenge on all the jocks and teachers who picked on him.

This movie was shot in 16mm (and as such, looks like a step above a home movie), then picked up by Crown International for distribution. Despite that there are lots of outrageous killings (including the scene where a janitor gets tossed in a vat of acid, causing John and his friends to yell out "Janitor in a drum!" -coining a popular cleaning solution of the time), I think the tawdry nature of the film also has an appeal to people like myself who have developed a soft spot for the movie. Perhaps because of the home movie feel to it, viewers may relate to it more, as it is a movie they could have made, and the locations are so generic, yet familiar, that they could easily be fragments of our childhood. And unless one was on the football team, there is likely a bit of Vernon in all of the viewers. Despite the novelty of football players like Joe Greene cast as police officers, and the hokey gore and violence, one has to hand it to the people for playing this movie straight. The excellent character actor Austin Stoker (of Assault on Precinct 13 and Battle for the Planet of the Apes) geniunely lends some class as the detective investigating all the murders around school.

A few years back, Rhino acquired some Crown titles to put out a couple of boxed sets with the "Horrible Horror" banner-- this flick was among those picked. I haven't seen that DVD set, but apparently it was authored for DVD from a VHS source, but I would imagine that it didn't come from Interglobal. This bizarre narrative (including an overlong scene with Vernon's parents on vacation-- this is the only time you see them in the film) is given a further otherworldly feeling with all the blotchy blues and reds that a public domain tape can offer, and it looks like this was recorded from television with the commercials taken out (there are even old-school squiggly video breaks where the edits likely occured). The threadbare presentation of this tape actually compliments that of this film.

After 30 years, the legacy of Twisted Brain lives on, thanks to those who became enchanted by this grimy flick from television or video. In the interim, Pat Cardi has spent a lot of time on message boards sounding off about what a thief Crown International is, and likewise hinting that a remastered version of this movie will happen soon. Personally, I'm not sure I want one. This is a rare film whose luster is from its very grimy nature. Interglobal could've cared less I'm sure, but they've enhanced that feeling even more.

Hey kids, here's a neat poster for the movie.

Jun 25, 2008

ESR Is On The Air

On June 6, I had the honour of being interviewed on the air by Stuart "Feedback" Andrews for his weekly show, Cinephobia, broadcast on CKLN. Finally, after two years, our schedules jived enough for us to get together and discuss things ESR, even though I had to do the interview via telephone, and from a pay phone at that, because my office building had contractors drilling outside without notice.

Stuart was gracious to post the interview online, and for those who missed it, you can click here to listen to, or download it. In 30 minutes you'll get a good history of my film publication, including talk of the new screening series I'm proud to be a part of, and a plug for the new issue. Here is a jpeg of the cover for our latest creation, "Independent Voices". To learn more about this issue and anything else in ESR's back catalog, feel free to visit me at ESR's website by clicking here

Jun 23, 2008

Grinding at the Fox... or, I managed to stay up till 10 AM watching films...

On Saturday night, or Sunday morning, whichever you prefer to call it, Toronto programmer Dion Conflict fulfilled his long-held ambition to have an all-night film show, entitled "Shock and Awe", in tribute to the Grindhouse days of yore, held, ironically, at The Fox Cinema, in the heart of The Beaches, where not much else goes on in this sleepy yuppie retreat all year long except for The Beaches Jazz Festival (which is derided by most of its locals except the business owners). This location is certainly a long way from the fabled Times Square grindhouses, or even our own Yonge Street strip, which in its heyday housed the Rio, whose all-night runs of sleaze films influenced Dion's own desire to give Toronto another taste of such long-extinct action. But The Fox itself is representative of how times have changed, and so it is doubly ironic and fitting that we received doses of cinematic sex and violence in such a family-oriented neighbourhood.

Those who read Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford's quasi-romantic reportage of the debauchery in the Times Square theatres as collected in their book Sleazoid Express will be informed that no rough trade, clouds of marijuana, drinking or police raids were found this night, and the only cans rolling in the aisles were Red Bull. I went to the bathroom a lot, but that was because I was drinking so much coffee. The audience was well-behaved, the decor was modern, and my shoes didn't stick to the floor. Perhaps one should be grateful for the passage of time, after all. Thus, all of the ingredients of the iconic grindhouses were found on the screen, not below it, and that suits me fine. Seeing these half-dozen artifacts from less politically correct times was enough of a history lesson on how much cinematic form and content has changed. But perhaps more importantly, seeing these films on a big screen with a responsive audience added another dimension even to the movies on the bill that I had previously seen. Getting the chance to see any non-current film on a big screen is a valuable cultural lesson, and also a fragile gift that we must continue to appreciate, lest it go away tomorrow.

For those not among the eighty troopers who watched films from 11:30 AM to 10 PM, here's what you missed:

The Boogeyman (1980): I've always considered director, former Fassbinder protege and current direct-to-video hack Ulli Lommel to be a two-trick pony. This and Brainwaves were the only two good films he ever made, in my opinion. The event wisely began with this well-remembered horror film-- the perfect appetizer to get everyone wound up for the six-course meal. All of its weird violence kept the audience going, and after having seen it a couple of times on video, its mood still holds up quite well (also love the use of primary colours in the last third). But the viewers' snickering at the non-horror scenes only confirmed my belief that Lommel can't direct actors to save his life. But isn't wooden acting also part of the menu for a grindhouse festival? Plus, I love Tim Krog's electronic score-- soundtrack album, anyone?

Perhaps the surprise hit of the evening was Matt Cimber's apocalyptic The Black Six (1976), which has the giggly novelty of having six football players filling the title contingent... and not one of them is Jim Brown or Fred Williamson. To be sure, the audience had a blast watching these guys kick some cracker butt, as well as digging the hip dialogue. One of the six discovers that his brother was kicked by some white trash bikers, and his friends help him get revenge. The plot is operable at best-- as it takes about as much time for him to find the culprits as it does to get a haircut. Instead, the narrative is more thought-provoking for its politics evoking everything from Angela Davis to Uncle Tom, showing the complexity of white-black race relations, and its climax lets no-one off the hook.

At best, Naughty New Orleans (1954) is a valuable filmed document of exotic dancers, musicians and comedians from the period-- and I use the term "filmed document" very loosely, as there is little that is cinematic in this rigid affair, replete with day-for-night shots, the same bizarre reaction shots of toothless patrons and spectators who inexplicably bring their wives along to see the strippers, and a nailed-down camera a la Warhol that records dancing moves that wouldn't pass amateur night at The Brass Rail. Interspersed with the acts is the emcee whose tableau of real groaner jokes are at least better than the average homegrown show on The Comedy Network. In the same tradition of a Sam Katzman musical, the plot is merely an excuse to string along the acts. Yell "yeah right" with me unison as I reveal the storyline about a jetsetter who goes out book-shopping in N'awlins, comes across this burlesque club, and is delightfully surprised to see that his girlfriend isn't a secretary after all. The burning question of what kind of book store he'd find at midnight remains unanswered, but I'll bet it would be like that smut shop on Yonge St. that mercifully closed last year.

And now, for a double-shot of 70's hedonism. Rene Cardona Jr's Tintorera (1977)is one of the many "Jaws" rip-offs of the period, but to say this is a shark movie is to call Porky's a stinging satire of our educational system. Mostly, this is a sex romp, as a three-way act is rudely interrupted by a pissed-off tiger shark. Like other Cardona films (Survive; Guyana- Cult of the Damned) this is completely shameless. At least it delivers more sex than most non-porn films of the era ever dared. It is an ugly movie about people with equally ugly morals-- when the shark shows up one almost can read this as a biblical metaphor about the fornicators being punished for their sins, but when the danger passes, people go right back to the pelvic push. This just wouldn't get out of the gate today with its likely authentic scenes of clubbing sharks-- if there was anyone from the Humaine Association on this set, they were likely being serviced while the crew was out filming. It is a fascinating piece of misanthropy.

Danish Pastries (1973) on the other hand, seems like a frolic. This featherweight cheerfulness shows what happens when an aphrodisiac gets mixed up in the water supply, and the students of an all-girls school have their way with all the cartoon-like male goons in the village. This Euro-trash mixes sex with typically overcranked and overdone slapstick, centering on the switching of suitcases... the other containing some potion which would have controlled the passions of the young ladies during the predicted passing of Venus, to prevent another exercise in debauchery that occurred in seventeen-hundred... and sixty-nine. But what fun would that have been?? This silly hardcore fluff was sinfully entertaining to watch on a Sunday morning.

Finally, with the sun already high in the sky, we had the headliner act, Peter Jackson's Dead Alive (1992), presented in its seldom-seen uncut version. While surely it is one of the bloodiest films you'll see in a month of Sundays, all of the carnage is perversely cheerful. Jackson instead delivers a non-stop roller coaster ride in the spirit of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films. A hapless schmoe's domineering mother becomes a flesh-eating ghoul after a bite by a rat monkey, and soon more of the undead begin piling up in his basement. This crazed film may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is surely not boring. It is a Grand Guignol exercise, with every nuance overplayed to operatic proportions-- almost every shot swoops, zooms and tilts. At the heart of it all is a pitch-black Oedipal satire unlike any other on the screen, where the poor guy can't shake free of his mother, even when she's a shambling, rotting corpse. Dead Alive was the perfect jolt in the veins after such a trip through various aspects of grindhouse culture. While this film was made well after most of the archetypal grindhouses had been plowed over in favour of Starbucks and condos, it surely keeps in the gleefully nasty spirit that encompasses the rest.

As it stands, "Shock and Awe" was a fun night alone for its marathon journey through the history of exploitation. But it just wouldn't be a Dion screening without his bizarre prizes -which were drawn every intermission- and blue light specials (finally-- a copy of Sun Bunnies). Plus, the Fox also served up burritos, pizza and -haha- Danish pastries, making this a night full of goodies. It could hardly be called just a night at the movies-- it was a piece of history, and an event unto itself. Such a good time was had by all that they're already talking about doing another grindhouse festival in the fall. Bring it on MacDuff.... and keep those blue light specials coming....

Jun 20, 2008

Small Press Fair 06.07.08

...and so, after coming home from This is a Hijack (see below), I finished the layout for the new ESR, and after three hours sleep, I printed a run of the new issue to take to the spring edition of the Small Press Fair. This time, the fair was being held at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Center, a block east from the usual location at the Trinity-St. Paul church. The space was much bigger and -thankfully- air conditioned. After the political strife that had erupted between small pressers last fall (and I think escalating into a bloody mess that neither side wanted), I was nervous about the tempo of this fair, but that fear was short-lived, as at first, I had a greater sense of urgency. There was zero traffic for the first couple of hours, and I trembled in my soul, thinking that promotion and PR had flown out the window.

However, serendipitously, the early lull turned out to be a strange blessing. Throughout the morning, I had fueled up on coffee like a crazed beatnik in order to stay awake. (Plus, I still had a bit of adrenaline from the giddy atmosphere of the previous night's screening.) I had experienced a moment not felt since those precocious days of first-year college, when exuberant amounts of coffee, coupled with oxygen deprivation in the brain (caused by lack of sleep), resulted in my finding surreal observations to scribble about for the next poetry session, which I would unleash upon my poor classmates in English the following Thursday. And as such, during this two hours of silence at the fair, in that same half-asleep mode of whimsy, I began scribbling my random thoughts in a notebook (a practice I have not done this century). One of the current topics of conversation with my fellow small pressers was the blue sheet handed out to vendors to share their thoughts on the fair, and how to improve it. One fellow vendor, who will go nameless, suggested "Hot dog vendors". And that was enough to keep me laughing for half an hour straight. You had to be there. (People must have thought I was stoned.) But for the next couple of hours, I scribbled down any random observation or idea, while waiting for customers to show up. And if I ended the day with zero sales, I vowed to print it all in one feverish, stinking dirty rant on this blog.

Well thankfully, I didn't have to result to such drastic measures. In the early afternoon, presumably after the locals had had their fill of bagels and brunch, the place began having a steady flow. It was nice to see some regular customers coming by to say hello, pick up the new issue and shoot the breeze. Having done dozens of trade shows in seven years, I always enjoy how they turn into a social hour. Barry Smight popped by and we exchanged horror stories about the stupid industry we both work in. It was also nice to see my pal Laura, who I used to work with, and my on-air comrade from the previous day, Stuart "Feedback" Andrews came by to shop, and also introduced me to a couple other film writers. So in all, it was a nice melange of seeing old friends, and possibly making new ones who became interested in all things ESR that day. After the show, I picked up my tickets for Leonard Cohen, and Dion's "Shock and Awe" festival, and then somehow found the stamina to travel with Kitty to see Roller Derby before finally crashing at one AM.

It fascinates me how things in the underground-small press community always happen in bursts, never constant hums. In one 24 hour period, or two calendar days, I did a screening, a radio interview and a trade show-- and then, this crescendo will be followed by a very long diminuendo. But after a long period of inactivity, it felt good for me to be back in business, and if I may be so immodest, I also feel proud at the fact that I didn't let other crap in my life become a deterrent from me not accomplishing what I wanted for this lovely weekend.

Above: fellow small presser Jen Finlayson and her trusty assistant/mascot, Buddy.

Oh to hell with it. Here's the stuff I scribbled down that morning-- you tell me if it's any good. (Complete and unabridged-- God help us.) It even has a title: "Random Thoughts At the Small Press Fair While Waiting for Buddha to Put a Bullet In My Brain"

-How come I didn't get a blue sheet? Aren't I literary enough? (as I stroke my goatee and twiddle with my neckerchief)
-Ways to Improve Fair #1: hot dog vendors (I won't name who thought of this one, for fear of incrimination)
-Ways to Improve Fair #2: free balloons for seniors. (I'm taking credit for this one.)
-couldn't they splurge for a microphone?
-I didn't know this was going to be in a gymnasium-- my groovy boots are killing me-- I should phone home and have my wife bring my Scooby Doo slipper socks.
-Things To Do: count how many times I turn and look at the door longingly
-...should've gone to the drug store and bought a couple of skin books to pass the time.
-Ways to Improve Fair #3: country and western band.
-I should carry a book with me more often to write random shit like this, instead of sitting at the keys in the twilight, waiting for inspiration.
-Things to Do: take pictures of myself until I ask myself just how fucking vain can I be?
-Ways to Improve Fair #4: bongos!
-For kicks, publish "A Collection of Angst-Ridden Twentysomething Garbage I Wrote Back in the 90's" and see if it sells more.
-The sudden realization that I may be even more fun to be around when I'm tired and pissed off. (And if any of this shit stills seems funny tomorrow, I'll publish it.)
-Thought while waiting in line at the 7-11: "Is this guy making a will?"

Jun 11, 2008

Hijacking the Trash Palace

Last summer, Stacey Case began his bi-weekly screening series "Trash Palace", at his little hideaway of the same name, as a temporary little fling, that just continued to live, and grow. In the past year, the theater moved to a bigger location, and just more involved, as such amenities as a hot dog maker, a pinball machine and, most recently, the popcorn machine, have been added to the fun to be had Friday night. While the programming fare often consists of whatever 70's drive-in exploitation could be acquired on 16mm for cheap, often times whatever was-is being screened would be just part of the ambience. In short order, and with the assistance of Dan "The Mouth" Lovranski at the concession stand, Trash Palace reminded us of the fun and community to be had going to the movies.

In February, Stacey had approached me at 8 Fest about my doing screenings at his venue. I thought that was a noble gesture on his part, and put that thought in my memory banks for when I decided to do another screening series. Then a few weeks later, he had approached me again, as well as Jonathan Culp, to assist with programming at The Trash Palace, beginning in June, in his ambition to now make TP a weekly venue. While Stacey would still program two shows a month, Jonathan and I would each do one. I wholeheartedly accepted his kind gesture, and was literally bouncing up the street at this sudden good fortune. Over the past three years, I had slowly acquired 16mm prints of certain oddball films for my long-range plan of programming them when ESR did promotional screenings. All of the shows at Centre for the Arts in the previous eighteen months were video screenings. It's a cool little place to do shows, but not properly set up to show films. There is really no way to project stuff without a constant noise problem in that one room. So, when Stacey then asked us about what we could show, I offered up This is a Hijack, and he dug that one alone just on the title.

I've already written a synopsis of the film (and its campy virtues) twice on this blog, and therefore feel no need to repeat it (you can just scroll down, if you like). Suffice to say, that a few weeks back, one Saturday morning, while still in my housecoat, huddled over a cup of black coffee, I decided to pre-screen the print, for quality checking. From the word "Go", I was keeled over in laughter at every cheesy line, and overacted nuance. I just hoped that the audience would see it in the same frame of mind....

Prior to Friday, I had a lot of anxiety because I had an extremely stressful work week, and as such, my time and energy devoted to getting the new ESR issue done, updating the web site and other things for the weekend was dwindling. But Friday was just the shot in the arm I needed. That afternoon, I finally had that radio interview with Mr. Stuart "Feedback" Andrews on CKLN's Friday show "Cinephobia", in which we discussed all things ESR, including, timely enough, the show that night and the small press fair the following day. Coming from that, despite treading on glass at work, I had a good blast of positive energy, and Trash Palace gave me another.

In keeping up with the TP tradition of presenting a short prior to the feature (and also keeping in tune with the crime theme that night), I put on the educational flick Policeman on the Job, which extolled on such things as women squabbling over parking tickets and improper use of the 911 number. (And in keeping with another TP tradition, I hadn't yet watched this short.) Whatever concerns I had over ...Hijack though, quickly vanished, as the audience just ate the film up. After the movie, Stacey "hijacked" the projector, and in keeping with the 70s trash theme of the evening, closed the show with highlight reels from various kung fu films. What a night. The following day I was still giddy from all the laughs we had. This is what a show should be like.... a good responsive crowd, a fun time had by all, and that feeling of sharing something with an audience. After more than six months away from doing shows, I had forgotten what that feeling was like.

I am grateful for Stacey and Dan for inviting me into this venue, and look forward to further good times with the next three films ESR is presenting till the end of September. But in general, for the next twelve weeks there are even more amazing gems of drive-in cinema awaiting your attention. Check them out here.

Below: here are some stills for This is a Hijack. If you missed the show, don't worry, we are already planning to show it at a future date....