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TRASH “Obsessed” is a term not infrequently bandied about when talking about film directors, particularly those with particular, distinctive thematic or stylistic trademarks that are clearly more a matter of personal than commercial instinct. It applies well enough to now 82-year-old Spaniard Jess Franco, who’s been making movies for 55 years — he’d already clocked time as a philosophy student, earned a law degree, written pulp novels, and flirted with becoming a jazz musician before turning to the medium — and doubtless won’t stop till he keels over dead with a Red One in his hand.

But in his case, the more relevant term might be “addicted.” What can you say about a man who’s made a number of features probably unknowable to himself, let alone anyone else (let’s just say somewhere not far below 200), often working under dozens of pseudonyms? Their funding cobbled together from umpteen international sources (not excluding Liechtenstein), distributed under hundreds of titles and in myriad edits for specific markets (i.e. more sex where allowed, more violence where not)? You can’t say he’s in it for the money, since chronic lack of it has helped shape his aesthetic, not to mention the composition of loyal colleagues willing to work now and get paid (maybe) later.

You can say he’s an admitted voyeur whose peephole is the camera, and that this particular addiction must be satisfied no matter what the obstacles, or how sub par the results. Hence, who knows how many hours of frequently lurid, strange, usually shoestring filmmaking that would probably drive any wannabe completist mad, particularly since so much of it shows every boring and/or depressing sign of having been thrown together just because it could be. Yet the House of Franco provokes wary fascination — like the contents of a hoarder’s home, it may seem a reeking pile of junk at first glance, but with gas mask and gloves on you will eventually uncover interesting artifacts of a unique life lived deep in the nether-realms of Eurotrash genre cinema.

Several vintage Francos have come out on Blu-ray and DVD lately, offering movies that, depending on your tolerance, will fall into the “good to know” or “too much information” category. If you’re a newbie, it’s best to start with the 1960s hits that briefly made him look like a global contender. He struck pay dirt with 1961’s The Awful Dr. Orloff, Spain’s first horror movie and a pretty shocking one to have gotten away with during the censorious Francisco Franco regime. He was always pushing the envelope further than the censors liked, particularly with such sexy surrealisms later in the decade as Succubus (1967), Venus in Furs (1969), and Marquis de Sade’s Justine (1968). Dreamlike in imagery and narrative, their arty psychedelic kitsch still casts a certain spell.

For good or ill, they also typed Franco as a man who could work in any language (he speaks a half-dozen), anywhere, with any cranky B-level international star (Klaus Kinski, Christopher Lee, etc.) imported for marquee value, and make something exploitable out of any slim means. Thus the means steadily got slimmer — though he’d still get an occasional bump in production values on titles like 1975’s Jack the Ripper (a curiously flat enterprise despite the genius casting of Kinski), 1980 slasher Bloody Moon, and 1988 gorefest Faceless. Who knows where his career might have gone if he’d held out for better projects? Probably he wouldn’t have increasingly crossed over from softcore to porn, let alone made 15 features in one not-so-exceptional year (1983).

But then, neither would he likely have made numerous movies that seem driven by insatiability alone — like 1972’s Sinner (a.k.a. Diary of a Nymphomaniac, a surprisingly moralistic corruption-of-youth tale; 1973’s Countess Perverse, succinctly described on IMBD as “Two wealthy aristocrats lure a virginal girl to a Spanish island for a night of sex, death, and cannibalism;” 1973’s Female Vampire, the first starring vehicle for waifish, exhibitionist muse Lina Romay, his spouse and collaborator until her death earlier this year; and 1974’s Exorcism, with the short, squat director himself as a murderously crazy ex-priest who mistakes swingers’ mock “black masses” for the real thing. These four were recently issued for home viewing. The latter two (on Kino Lorber) come complete with alternate versions emphasizing bloody mayhem over naked frisking.

They are, of course, a mixed bag, sometimes winningly eccentric or even poetical, sometimes just sleazy and dull. For every decent to genuinely good Franco opus (among the latter, improbably, 1976’s quite serious Love Letters of a Portuguese Nun), a dozen or more are likely better off unseen when they’re not outright unseeable. (He’s left behind many films unfinished, lost or in legal limbo). What are we missing in the likes of 1980’s Two Female Spies With Flowered Panties, 1981’s Bloodsucking Nazi Zombies, 1984’s The Night Has a Thousand Sexes, 1986’s Lulu’s Talking Ass, 1986’s Tribulations of a Cross-Eyed Buddha, or this year’s Al Pereira vs. the Alligator Women? Maybe they’re best kept suspended somewhere between Franco’s imagination and our own.

Symptom of the universe



TRASH Get ready, Damon Packard fans — the mad genius behind underground cult sensations Reflections of Evil (2002) and SpaceDisco One (2007) unfurls his latest, Foxfur, at Other Cinema’s fall season kickoff (also on the bill: Marcy Saude with a slideshow on ufologist George Van Tassel, free champagne and VHS tapes, and more). I spoke with the Los Angeles-based Packard, who hopes to attend in person, ahead of the event.

San Francisco Bay Guardian How long did it take you to make Foxfur?

Damon Packard A little less than two years. I mean, it should have taken a week, because there were so few shooting days. It just took that long because it’s so difficult when you’re working with no money. I was adding little bits right up to the last minute [before the film’s July 21 premiere in SoCal]. Shots of cats, stuff like that.

SFBG Is that why you have something like six different women playing the lead role?

DP Yes. There were always these short windows of time when we had to shoot, and I had to get whoever was available. It became an experiment in the end, with the multiple actresses.

SFBG When people ask you what Foxfur is about, how do you explain it?

DP It’s difficult to sum it up. I would say it’s a UFO sci-fi fantasy, mostly about the Billy Meier Pleiadian contacts of the 1970s. That was the inspiration.

SFBG Many of your previous films made use of non-original footage, like Carpenters videos and old commercials, but Foxfur is all original, isn’t it?

DP Well, I do use music from Tangerine Dream scores: Firestarter, Wavelength (both 1984), things like that. Also some ambient tracks by Steve Roach and Michael Stearns.

SFBG In addition to Foxfur‘s Billy Meier references, the film also has actors portraying David Icke and Bob Lazar. Why conspiracy theorists?

DP Well, they’re part of the Foxfur universe — I like taking real-life characters and incorporating them into a story. Foxfur is obsessed with New Age elements — crystals, dolphins, the Pleiadians — which includes people like David Icke and Richard Hoagland. She’s an avid Coast to Coast AM listener. So yeah, it was supposed to be about her disillusionment. She’s so devastated when she discovers that it’s not real.

SFBG There’s a line in Foxfur about how “everyone is operating in their own vacuum of reality,” and scenes depicting people zoned out on their phones, unhelpful store clerks, and so on. Were those your 21st century frustrations coming out?

DP It happens a lot in real life — everywhere you go, you sort of run into that. Nobody knows anything about anything and nobody wants to help anyone. It’s a kind of apathetic, clueless, state of mind. Or if you need to call your bank, for example, you’re gonna get transferred to all these different worthless departments where people won’t be able to help you. There are always problems, errors, computer systems going down. You can’t get any answers to anything.

SFBG You’ve said in the past that you’re anti-CGI, and Foxfur (which contains the line “I hate Peter Jackson!”) suggests you still feel this way.

DP I do think there’s room for a good balance between practical and digital effects — there’s no reason not to use modern technology. For the most part, though, I hate it. It usually looks awful. I don’t know why other filmmakers, including veteran filmmakers, don’t see that.

I think practical effects are better and always will be, but there aren’t any companies set up to do practical effects anymore. It’s incredibly difficult to do and there aren’t any filmmakers pushing for it. But real explosions, real pyro, always looks better than any kind of digital explosion.

SFBG Is there any hope for the future of film? Or — since Foxfur takes place on the eve of the apocalypse — of humanity?

DP One of the themes of Foxfur is about the “dead zone” — in the film, it’s the time we’re in now, where everything is revolving in circles. It’s a time that wasn’t meant to exist. We’re in the end of the world already.

To me, it feels like music, fashion, it’s all reaching to the past. There’s no new movements going on. It’s a strange time. And movies feel that way too; it seems like everything’s been done already. Everything is an updated variation. I wanted Foxfur to be really pressing in that sense: that there’s no hope, there’s no point in anything. I can’t imagine there’s any future to cinema, or what movies will be like in even five to ten years from now. Are we going to see reboots of reboots? How many reboots can they keep going on with? If it’s not a reboot or a sequel, it’s a reboot or a sequel in disguise.


Sat/15, 8:30pm (reception at 8pm), $6

Artists’ Television Access

992 Valencia, SF


Poppin’ off


TRASH The late, beloved Werepad begat the Vortex Room, the former closing when co-founder Jacques Boyreau moved from SF to Portland, Ore. But ties between those concerned with both venues remain tight, and August is a big month for them all. Firstly, it sees the release of Boyreau’s latest coffee table tome, Sexytime: The Post-Porn Rise of the Pornoisseur (Fantagraphics, 96pp., $29.95). Really, you might ask, does there need to be a book devoted to full color reproductions of posters from the “golden age” (circa 1971-82) of XXX features?

Ohhhh yes. These hundred pages excavate a retro wonderland of film-shot sleaze with the usual tasteless ad lines (Finishing School: “She took a cram course in pleasure”) and graphics variably dime-novel crude, psychedelic, and disco-era slick. There are titles topically trendy (CB-themed Breaker Beauties; Erotic Aerobics; Patty Hearst-inspired Tanya) and parodic (Blazing Zippers; One Million Years AC/DC; Flash Pants). There’s even cautionary sexploitation, as the sheet for 1976’s Female Chauvinists warns “DO YOU KNOW: Women libbers are planning to take over the world? That they have recruiting camps in every corner of this planet?” So that’s where Rush learned about feminism.

Meanwhile back at the Vortex, the venue’s fifth anniversary is being celebrated through the month’s end with a Pop art-themed series of Thursday night double bills. It doesn’t get any more Pop, or Op, than incredible and inexplicable The Touchables, which despite its obscurity today was actually a mainstream 20th Century Fox release in 1968. Ah, the Sixties. This was just a simple tale of four Swinging London model types who, after stealing a Michael Caine dummy from Madame Tussauds, decide to be more ambitious and kidnap a live male pop star. They then take him to their giant-inflatable-plastic-dome country hideaway, torture him with sex play and go-go dancing, and unknowingly await the arrival of gangsters hired by a gay wrestler who also covets the abducted lad.

You know, that old story. Keen minds thought up this insanity: Robert Freeman, the Beatles’ “official” photographer making his directorial debut, cooked up the screenplay with Ian La Frenais (future Tracey Ullmann collaborator) and Donald Cammell (soon to be responsible for 1970’s Performance and 1977’s Demon Seed). The Touchables‘ co-feature is the almost equally daft Deadly Sweet (1967), another Swinging London artifact, albeit one directed by Italian Tinto Brass, who had yet to meet Caligula or his true calling as ass-man equivalent to Russ Meyer’s boobaholic in the softcore sexploitation hall of fame.

Next week things settle down a bit with Streets of Fire, Walter Hill’s fetishistically stylized 1984 music-video fable, and 1971’s Captain Apache, a weak Euro Western enlivened by a trip sequence and Carroll Baker’s apparent belief that she’s acting in a farce.

Then the weirdness level rises dangerously again August 23, with two lysergically bent missives from the “turbulent” decade. From 1969, Cult of the Damned (a.k.a. Angel, Angel, Down We Go) is the least-known of American International Picture’s psych flicks, and no wonder — compared to giddy The Trip (1967), Psych-Out (1968), and Wild in the Streets (1968), it’s a twisted downer. Future feminist singer-songwriter icon Holly Near plays the plump, unhappy only child of a jaded Hollywood couple whose household is seduced whole by rock singer Bogart (Jordan Christopher) and his entourage. Advertised with “If You’re Over 30 This Is A Horror Story,” Robert Thorn’s only directorial feature is rancid, baroque, and bizarre to no end, offering the opportunity to hear Roddy McDowell say “Baby man, I am just sexual. Like sometimes I can just stare at a carrot and baby man, that carrot can turn me on,” as well as Jennifer Jones (as mom) brag “I made 30 stag films and never faked an orgasm.” (It should be noted that shortly after completing her role, Jones had a nervous breakdown.) Cult‘s co-feature is 1962 sci-fi oddity Creation of the Humanoids, which was purportedly Andy Warhol’s favorite movie — that should be recommendation enough.

The series’ final bill moves upmarket to showcase two expensive early 1970s flops. You may search in vain for defenders of 1972’s Bluebeard, which features Richard Burton as the famed ladykiller and an array of Eurobabes as his victims — alas, not including American lounge-act extraordinaire Joey Heatherton, whose final wife is by far the most annoying but lives to tell. For a movie that features Raquel Welch as a nun, it’s pretty slow going, despite some imaginative production design and hints of a satirical zest that old-school Hollywood director Edward Dmytryk just couldn’t grok.

A more rewarding curio is 1974’s 99 and 44/100% Dead, a gangster spoof that supposedly represented a career nadir for director John Frankenheimer. (Actually, his nadir came the prior year with Story of a Love Story, one of those movies so interesting in concept and cast you can’t imagine it’s worthless — until you see it.) What can you say about a film that features Chuck Connors as a thug who screws different lethal weapons into his severed arm socket? Plus a rare appearance by the mysterious Zooey Hall of I Dismember Mama (1972) and Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1971)? That it can’t be all bad, and in fact it isn’t.


Thursdays through Aug. 30, 9pm, $7

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF

Facebook: The Vortex Room


TV gone wild


TRASH History does not record whether the evening of January 23, 1974 struck anyone immediately as a momentous occasion. Probably not: perhaps distracted by Watergate, porn chic, rising gas prices, the Exorcist phenomenon, and passage (one day earlier) of Roe vs. Wade, any television viewers straying over from CBS’s Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour to ABC at 8:30 p.m. could hardly have fully understood the significance of what they were about to experience.

Today, we can only wonder at the supreme cool of an era in which a summit of titans — William Shatner, Andy Griffith, Robert “Mr. Brady Bunch” Reed, and Marjoe Gortner, the latter recently profiled in these pages — might be shrugged off as another night’s disposable entertainment. Or another week’s, this being an “ABC Movie of the Week” in the variously taboo-breaking, trashtastic, and forgettable lineage of gay drama That Certain Summer (1972), Karen Black-a-thon Trilogy of Terror (1975), and self-explanatory Gidget Gets Married (1972). Perhaps those who stuck it out, stunned into a dislocative state by the unexpected impact of primetime existential bleakness, chose to forget the experience and go on living their lives as best they could. (It can surely be no coincidence that, in a general sense, everything’s gone to hell since.)

You, of course, can approach forewarned at the Vortex Room when Pray for the Wildcats finishes off a bill celebrating the still alarmingly active Shatner’s 81st birthday. What, pray tell, is Wildcats? It is seriously sick shit directed by Robert Michael Lewis and written by Jack Turley, two nondescript network hacks hitherto and henceforth never so guilty by association. Their Mount Rushmore of broadcast comfort-food stars — the wild card being Gortner, a self-exposed evangelical con man just starting to turn his notoriety into an acting career — play business types on a guys-only holiday in Baja.

Except Gortner ain’t the weird one here, despite his contrasting youth and Godspell ‘fro. Instead, that’s erstwhile Mayberry sheriff Griffith, making the “old country boy” folksiness curdle on his tongue as Sam Farragut, a tractor tycoon who basically blackmails the other three into going on the trip lest their advertising agency lose his million-dollar account. They reluctantly leave their spouses (notably a bitchy Angie Dickinson) behind to pretend they’re having fun with this weaselly, wealthy hick.

Trouble is, Farragut turns out to be a full-on psychopath whose notion of kicks fast grows unpleasant. This proves particularly unfortunate for a hippie couple whose supple young flesh attracts Uncle Andy’s leering attention. But it leaves no one unscarred — as if we didn’t already get the cynical point from prior caustic references to “the rat race” and the American dream, Wildcats ends with one character saying “I want a divorce,” another announcing her recent abortion (topical!), and a third sighing an all-purpose “God help ya.”

This midnight walk on the daaaark side will be preceded by a program of Shatner rarities, including his very special 1972 guest appearance on Mission: Impossible, as an evil playboy in an episode titled “Cocaine.” 


Thurs/22, William Shatner rarities, 9 p.m.; Pray for the Wildcats, midnight, $7

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF


Higher and higher


TRASH Rejected by audiences. Panned by critics. Beloved by a loyal cadre of alternative comedy fans.

Wet Hot American Summer may not have found success when it premiered in 2001, but the offbeat comedy has since become — like so many underrated flops — a cult classic.

“I’m always amazed that some critics didn’t just dislike it, they were outright hostile to it,” says David Wain, who directed the film and co-wrote it with Michael Showalter. “But those who keyed into it, whether the first time or second or third, seemed to really key into it. And for that I’m grateful.”

Those diehard Wet Hot devotees came out in droves when SF Sketchfest announced a live radio play version of the movie: tickets to the event quickly sold out. At the event, Wain will join Showalter and other cast members, including Paul Rudd, Amy Poehler, and Michael Ian Black.

Black remembers when he first realized Wet Hot had achieved cult status.

“About two or three years after the film came out, people started hosting midnight screenings at various theaters around the country,” he says. “It’s very gratifying, particularly because its popularity has remained pretty consistent over the last decade, and has found new fans among people who are unaware of our work — The State, Stella — beyond that movie.”

Those who missed the sketch comedy of The State and Stella were likely the same audience members baffled by Wet Hot, a film that is gleefully strange and — past the simple premise of “last day at summer camp” — difficult to explain.

Wet Hot does not fit into neat categorizations,” Black reflects. “It’s not a parody, it’s not a romantic comedy, it’s not a comedic homage. It has its own thing, its own sensibility.”

Part of that sensibility includes a talking can of mixed vegetables (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin), a cameo by falling Russian space station Skylab, and Black having steamy storage shed sex with future Sexiest Man Alive Bradley Cooper.

“It was kind of awkward because neither of us had ever been with another man before, but once we got into it, it was fine,” Black recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is pretty much just like making out with a girl, only with a dick.'”

Because Wet Hot is the kind of movie fans watch and rewatch endlessly —something I can attest to from personal experience — those attending the live show probably have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Still, Wain promises a unique theatrical experience.

“We’ve gathered much of the original cast and many other awesome comedy folks, and we’ll have a live band and we’ll do an audio version of the movie,” he says. “Should be a blast!” 


Jan. 19-Feb. 4, $10–$75 (Wet Hot event SOLD OUT as of 1/18, alas — but there’s plenty more Sketchfest fun to be had!)

Various venues, SF


It’s good to be bad


TRASH It seems hard enough to be a successful child actor without losing your head eventually, let alone one so identified with a particular role that no one is ever inclined to let you forget it. Yet The Bad Seed‘s Patty McCormack has survived intact the formative experience of playing arguably the most notorious child role ever — hundreds of times on stage and once in a 1956 film version that refuses to go away.

At least it was the most notorious until The Exorcist (1973) — but remember, demon-possessed Regan was a victim, not a perp. Seed‘s pigtailed Rhonda Penmark was a stone-cold sociopath, manipulating everyone around her and arranging the “accidental” deaths of those who couldn’t be manipulated.

In 1954, when William March’s novel was published to acclaim, this was a pretty shocking conceit; its theatrical adaptation the next year only fanned the flames. In a move very rare for Hollywood, all the principal Broadway players were retained for the film, a prestige project directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Most of them wound up Oscar-nominated, even if a Production Code rule requiring no crime be left unpunished forced the original ending to be softened (if you can call it that).

When she began playing Rhoda, McCormack was just nine, but already had prior Broadway, TV, and big-screen credits on her resume. She was, it seems, a stone-cold pro, though not an off-camera brat. However, she had enough of an edge not to fit into the uber-perky Sandra Dee mode of the era’s teenage ingénues; instead, she spent those years doing TV dramas, then “graduated” to a run of exploitation movies with ace titles, like 1968’s The Mini-Skirt Mob (“Hog straddling female animals on the prowl!”) and The Young Runaways (“They experiment with drugs … with sex … with each other!”).

Afterward she continued to work on television (including extended roles on both The Ropers and The Sopranos), on stage, and in occasional movies — notably being devoured by mutant cockroaches in 1975 cult horror Bug and recently playing First Lady Pat in 2008’s Frost/Nixon.

When McCormack appears this weekend at the Castro as the guest of honor for impresario Marc Huestis’ latest tribute extravaganza (not for the first time — that was in 1999), you can ask her about all these career highlights and more. But of course primary curiosity will be directed toward The Bad Seed, particularly since the film will be screened, and preceded by a drag “Miss Bad Seed” contest.

The actress has always been a good sport about this lingering fame from over half a century ago, but has reportedly refused any offers to reprise her signature role (or take the mother’s) in any Bad Seed sequel or remake. Yet she relaxed that rule, sorta kinda, to portray the person Rhoda might have grown into in a couple of direct-to-video cheapies released during the mid-1990s.

Mommy (1995) cast the veteran thespian as Mrs. Sterling, widowed by more than one wealthy husband (heh heh), now raising perfect little daughter Jessica Ann (Rachel Limieux) just the way she likes it, alone. When anyone attempts to interfere in that Mini-Me molding process — like a teacher who inconceivably gives a medal of academic merit to another student — Mommy gets very, very angry. Nonetheless, her sharklike smile always returns in time to greet the police interrogating her over the latest violent death she insists having nothing to do with.

Written and directed by Max Allan Collins, the Iowa-shot film is so bad it’s just … bad, amateurish and witless despite the fun McCormack is clearly having. Not to mention the weird appeal of her supporting cast: playwright and lead Exorcist priest Jason Miller looking pretty ill as a cop, velvet-voiced scream queen Brinke Stevens as Mommy’s suspicious sister, “First Lady of Star Trek” Majel Barrett as that unfortunate teacher, pulp maestro and definite non-actor Mickey Spillane as an attorney.

It made enough of a splash, however, to warrant Mommy 2: Mommy’s Day two years later. This sequel has marginally improved production values, better kills, and the line “I know, dear, you’re innocent. Like O.J.” Now a famous murder, Mommy has been released from prison with an experimental anti-psychotic implant in her brain — not that it stops her. Meanwhile Jessica Ann has taken up figure skating. There are no bonus points for guessing what kind of blade her pissy coach’s throat gets slit with.

These movies are for Bad Seed and Patty McCormack completists; drinking games can only help. However, the interview extras that have the star talking about various phases of her career are so entertaining you might hope for Mommy 3 so they can continue. 



Sat/15, noon (brief Q&A), 7:30 p.m. (gala tribute), 9 p.m. (film only), $10-$25

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 863-0611


New DVDs, old sleaze


TRASH When it comes to home viewing, gratuitous violence is always a selling point for genre fans — the censorial gloves that handle most theatrical films are off, “unrated” becomes a plus rather than commercial suicide, “director’s cut” usually means more blood and maybe a little flesh previously removed at the MPAA’s behest. The flood of obscure old exploitation titles now being released to DVD and Blu-ray are duly advertised as high on mayhem, whether that’s actually the case or not. (One mid-70s Swedish sexploitation item just released is billed as a “violent cult classic,” though apart from a bit of fetish whipping there’s nary a violent moment in it.)

Sometimes one even wonders if the writers of back-cover copy even bothered to watch the film itself, a question that recalls the halcyon days of VHS when box descriptions of cheap back-catalog titles often seemed to be about other, perhaps imaginary films entirely.

Nonetheless, you don’t have to look too far to find retro schlock living up to its hype, reminding that in grindhouse days of yore big-screen movies could get away with considerably more crassness than they do now. One such cheerfully nasty oldie is Ruggero Deodato’s 1976 Italian Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man, invitingly labeled as “ULTRA VIOLENCE from the director of Cannibal Holocaust.”

That 1980 milestone in the annals of yecch was still years away when Deodato and scenarist cop-flick specialist Fernando Di Leo delivered this crazy exercise in vigilante justice with a badge. Ray Lovelock and Marc Porel do the Starsky and Hutch thing as a Roman “special squad” police duo who always get their man — though to the exasperation of their superiors, said man always meets an bloody “accidental” death in the process of apprehension. In fact it’s acknowledged that the pair has criminal instincts. They’ve only chosen this side of the law to wreak as much violent havoc for kicks as possible and get away with it.

Swiss Porel and Italian Lovelock were two of the most beautiful men — we’re talking Alain Delon level here — in movies then. Deodato lets them act not just like a flippant thrill-crazed comedy team nonchalantly distributing harm everywhere they go, but like a couple close-knit in other ways. We see that they share the same bedroom (if not bed); the few times they express sexual interest, it’s to “take turns” with a woman in each other’s company. Such interludes clearly do no more than kill time for our prankster-hero psychopaths between the greater visceral rewards of reckless motorcycle chases (reportedly shot without permits in the heart of Rome) plus blowing and shooting stuff up. They’re adorably lethal.

Speaking of vigilantism, few U.S. films ripped off the Death Wish (1974) formula — aside from Death Wish sequels, of course — with more lurid tactlessness than 1980’s The Exterminator, now out in a DVD/Blu-ray pack. Writer-director James Glickenhaus’ magnum opus has Robert Ginty as a Vietnam vet whose avenging of a comrade’s assault by Class of 1984-style “punks” snowballs into a general NYC cleanup campaign utilizing a flame thrower, machine gun, soldering iron, giant meat grinder, electric carving knife, and jazz great Stan Getz — well, he’s featured in a rare non-violent, wholly incongruous scene at a nightclub.

Lest we object to this unlawful justice, the perps pulverized include hoodlums who gut-punch old ladies and pimps who “serve young boys to perverts.” Tea Party logic is affirmed in an ending where FBI operatives, having slain our antihero (or so they think) on government orders because successful vigilantism makes public officials look bad at election time, smirk “Washington will be pleased.” Yeah, they’re all out to fuck ya! NRA 4-ever!

The Exterminator offered a cheap-thrills alternative to the original slasher wave. Gleefully surfing the latter’s blood tide is Alex Pucci’s Frat House Massacre, a belated DVD release that reprises the excesses of that era and then some.

With nary a dull (or tasteful) moment in its 116-minute director’s cut, this 2008 campus flashback has it all: psycho fraternity president, deliberately fatal hazings, rampant cocaine abuse, nasty sex and nastier sexism, boobs, a surprising surplus of well-toned male nudity, ludicrously gory murders, a disco production number, brutal towel-snapping, music by one of the Goblin guys (of 1977’s Suspiria fame), zero narrative continuity, and lines like “Studying always gets me horny.” Frat House Massacre would be a guilty pleasure if it weren’t clearly in on its own joke. 

Three is the so-so number


GAMER Take a look at your favorite games from the past few years and you’ll find most were released not only on one system, but on two or three. The days of platform exclusivity are waning, and all these multi-platform releases mean console exclusives like Resistance 3 are increasingly important to manufacturers interested in maintaining their position in the industry.

Sony’s Resistance saga traces the path of a space virus sent to Earth to turn humans into alien-beings called the Chimera. The first two games follow Nathan Hale, a soldier who battles the virus across Europe, and eventually America. Resistance 3 kicks off where the second game ended (Resistance 2 spoiler warning): virus-stricken Hale is shot dead by his second-in-command Joseph Capelli.

Capelli is a more interesting protagonist than his predecessor, and killing off the main character allows developer Insomniac Games to create a more compelling story that deviates from the military action of the first two titles, but it also robs the story of its building tension, and the final product doesn’t have the oomph needed for an epic end to a purported trilogy.

Visually, Resistance 3 boasts some impressive animations and lots of detail. Little things, like trees bent backwards and street signs trembling during a windswept shootout on small-town Main Street, create an uncanny atmosphere that is not unlike Half Life 2 — a game that the cross-country trek of Resistance 3 evokes in more than just atmosphere.

Where Resistance 2 had a more modern shooter attitude (maximum of two guns, regenerative health), the third entry flips the switch in a positively old-school way. Health is distributed via health packs and you can carry a vast and devastating weapons arsenal for the duration of the campaign. Much like Insomniac’s other series Ratchet & Clank, the devil is in the arsenal.

Weapons are introduced at an alarming pace, each with primary and secondary fire, doubling the number of options. Even the earliest of weapons, like the Bullseye (shoots around corners) and the Auger (shoots through walls) are designed to create diverse combat experiences, and a limited ammo supply encourages you to try them all.

Three years of polish has done wonders for Resistance 3, but it’s hard to believe this is the end Insomniac had in mind. Despite its Sony exclusivity, consumer hype is not where it needs to be and Insomniac recently indicated that they are ready to move on. On paper, Resistance 3 is easy to recommend: it’s atmospheric, varied, and has a ton of content when you factor in above-average multiplayer, 3D and Move support. But in a sea of options, it’s hard not to be wary of the sinking ship. 

Stark raving mod


TRASH One of the longer-running Holy Grail pursuits among a certain type of movie fan finally ended last month with the official DVD release of Otto Preminger’s Skidoo, a legendary 1968 boondoggle that was the veteran Hollywood prestige director’s attempt to tap the new “youth market.” Someone deemed those crazy kids might be magnetized, in the year of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby, and Yellow Submarine, by a gangster farce starring the fossilizing likes of Jackie Gleason, Carol Channing, Frankie Avalon, Mickey Rooney, and 78-year-old Groucho Marx (as God).

Possibly impressed by the dancing-trash-cans production number, a presumably well-paid Timothy Leary opined “I think this movie’s going to ‘turn on’ the country.” But between the script’s attempted surrealism, Preminger’s cement-block flair for levity, and the cast’s general bewilderment, Skidoo could only become Hollywood’s most grotesquely square attempt to groove with the Now Generation. A major flop, notoriety made it a sought-after curio for later generations who mostly had to dig its bad trip in crappy 10th-generation TV dupes. Now that it’s available through above-ground channels, everyone can experience the satisfaction of finally seeing something they’ve always wondered about, even if Skidoo will always be better in theory than actual viewing.

But how to see such yea more obscure relics of cinema’s most flailingly adventuresome era as Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up To Me (1971), The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970), or B.S. I Love You (1971)? What about the umpteen “kinky” pre-porn sexploitation epics and Pop Art-flavored spy spoofs from Europe that never achieved the cult (let alone the budget) of 1968’s Barbarella? Or those early TV movies which scarred late-wave boomer kids’ memories, then were left to gather studio library dust?

Good luck — considered to be of no remaining commercial value, most of the above eluded salvage even at the height of the 1980s VHS craze, when it seemed almost anything shot on celluloid (or not) got shunted out to hungry renters. What is the fan of post-“Golden Age,” pre-mall flick moviegoing to do?

Fortunately, meeting the demands of a discerning, frequently obsessive few have been such variably gray-shaded online market purveyors as Video Search of Miami, Something Weird, Subterranean Cinema, and Modcinema. Modcinema (www.modcinema.com), currently celebrating its third year anniversary of “exploring ’60s/’70s culture through rare and hard to find films,” is run by Los Angeleno Dante Fontana. He blames the no-show of some psychedelic relics and Me Decade titles on music rights issues — before VCRs, soundtracked songs were licensed for very limited use, and can now be very expensive to renew.

Things are looking up, however. Warner Bros. and Sony/Columbia have launched on-demand DVD-R services, Fontana says, noting “we’ll see many rare movies become available over the course of the next several years. Many studios are in debt and they want to make money off of their titles currently being sold on the gray market by people such as myself.”

He’s not worried about the competition, however. “I love these films and want them to become available on an official level. I consider what I do preservation, [selling] titles that are in danger of being completely forgotten about, raising awareness so that the studios will see there is in fact a fanbase of people who’d buy a DVD of a movie like Skidoo if they saw it.” Still, there remain “thousands and thousands of movies out there being neglected. Films that simply don’t have any known stars in them, or experimental-art films, made-for-TV movies, international films that never got any U.S. distribution.”

Among the nuggets Modcinema has unearthed in such categories are vintage telepics like The Feminist and the Fuzz (Barbara Eden as middle America’s then-idea of a Women’s Libber — forever fuming at imaginary sexist offenses, requiring a he-man to settle her down), vanity biker flick J.C. (as in Jesus Christ, which is how producer-writer-director-star William F. McGaha’s character humorlessly sees himself), or leeringly Italian crime caper You Can Do A Lot With Seven Women. And those are just from 1971.

Fontana also has a particular fondness for vintage Franco pop. In his collection you’ll find plenty of showcases for Françoise Hardy, Serge Gainsbourg, etc., plus multiple episodes of the incredible monthly 1965-70 TV program Dim Dam Dom, which made the best use of a go-go dancing ensemble this side of Shindig! while offering musical guests both native and imported (from the Bee Gees to Jimi Hendrix).

Modcinema has also packaged some unique compilations: The “Colorspace” series is a party sampler of movie trailers (“Now you’ll know the thrill of wrapping your legs around a tornado of pounding pistons, like The Girl on a Motorcycle!”), fashion promos, commercials (007 Deodorant), and whatnot. Hearing Nancy Sinatra trill “Shake that cola drag/Try the one that’s really mad!” for RC Cola — well, it can really blow your mind. (Dennis Harvey)

A gutsy legacy


Movies today might be a gutless affair if not for the industry of Herschell Gordon Lewis a half-century ago. Literally gutless — you have Lewis to thank for every splattersome moment of exposed entrails and explicit gougings since.

Oh sure, the restrictions against graphic violence in U.S. cinema would have lapsed eventually, degree by degree. But who else would have had the nerve to do it all in one swoop with a movie as early, and thoroughly tasteless, as 1963’s Blood Feast? Nothing like it had existed before, and those few who noticed it outside rural drive-in and urban grindhouse viewers surely wished it never would again. (The L.A. Times called it “a blot on the American film industry,” Variety “an insult to even the most puerile and salacious audiences.”) A futile wish, that.

Next week sees the DVD release of, incredibly, 82-year-old Lewis’ latest feature: The Uh-Oh! Show, a reality TV spoof whose game contestants win fabulous prizes for getting answers right — and suffer grisly body-part losses if they don’t. A month later Image Entertainment and Something Weird will spring both a “Blood Trilogy” Blu-ray set of his first three horror “classics,” as well as Jimmy Maslon and Basket Case (1982) director Frank Henenlotter’s documentary portrait Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore. The latter features such fans as Joe Bob Briggs and John Waters, surviving collaborators, and of course Lewis himself tracing his infamous influential cinematic path amidst myriad original clips.

This was not begun as a personal mission of rebellion, perversity, or artistic aspiration, but for sheer profit pursuit. After checking out possible careers from radio to teaching English Lit, he found a Chicago berth in advertising, which eventually led to making commercials and buying out a small production company. Figuring there was more moolah in features, Lewis partnered with producer Dave Friedman and found some success via pre-porn “nudie cuties” with titles like Boin-n-g and Goldilocks and the Three Bares (both 1963).

Just as they’d imitated Russ Meyer, however, others soon imitated them, overcrowding the field with topless frolics. What other naughty but inexpensive concept could they exploit that others hadn’t milked dry yet? The answer was Blood Feast, shot in nine days for $20,000, wherein an alleged caterer (the wildly hammy Mal Arnold as “Fuad Ramses”) gathering ingredients for a socialite’s “Egyptian feast” rips limbs and whatnot from comely young women to revive an ancient goddess.

The acting was atrocious (especially by Playboy centerfold star Connie Mason), the script was laughable, and the craftsmanship primitive at best. When Blood premiered at a Peoria, Ill. drive-in, viewers howled with laughter — then hurled, as on-screen victims had brains, tongues, etc. separated from their person, then dangled in front of the camera at length. (These local butcher-shop bits often grew rather ripe by shooting time; pity the poor actress who had to stuff a rank cow tongue in her mouth.) Friedman and Lewis duly provided souvenir vomit bags at future venues. They had a hit.

Plenty more such followed, though Friedman eventually went off to L.A. to make his own sexier cheapies (such as 1968’s Nude Django and Thar She Blows!, and 1971’s The Big Snatch). Feast‘s immediate follow-up Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964) was a comparatively elaborate horror comedy that remains Lewis’ personal favorite. But when it failed to make more money despite improved production values, he learned his lesson and kept costs dirt cheap. By 1972’s The Gore Gore Girls, even he realized he’d taken red paint and animal innards as far over-the-top as they could go, leaving the movie biz to become a highly successful guru of direct marketing. Until a rising tide of cult rediscovery finally prompted a larky return in 2002’s Blood Feast 2: All U Can Eat, that is.

At nearly two hours, The Godfather of Gore covers a lot of ground, guided by an octogenarian subject who’s still every inch the flamboyant salesman. Beyond the horror films, it touches on Lewis’ forays into biker action (1968’s incredible She-Devils on Wheels), juvenile delinquency (1968’s Just for the Hell of It), hicksploitation (1972’s Year of the Yahoo!) and even children’s entertainment (1967’s The Magic Land of Mother Goose).

Several other lesser-known 60s features are now considered lost, although it’s too bad Godfather doesn’t make room for such extant obscurities as Miss Nymphet’s Zap-In (1970) and the great wife-swapping saga Suburban Roulette (1968), whose theme song promises “ring-a-dingin’ with that swingin’ set,” while the trailer posits 1968 Illinois suburbia as “where the stakes are as high as the morality is low.”

TV party


TRASH These days we’re used to TV series regularly offering better, more serious, and more relevant drama than mainstream movies, a notion unthinkable not long ago. But even at the height of boob tube silliness, when zero cable alternatives and FCC strictures resulted in mostly bland programming, there was some room for deviation from formula. That room was primarily occupied by TV movies, which began being produced in 1964. By decade’s end they were a broadcast staple, earning strong ratings and lessening the need for networks to purchase old theatrical-release films for broadcast.

In the 1970s TV movies would increasingly take on social issues. That kind of activist edge was still pretty rare, however, when two little-remembered telepics the Vortex Room is showing on Thursday, July 14 first aired. Both are dated relics stylistically but surprisingly prescient politically.

The Man (1972), which was given a brief theatrical release after being made for ABC, was adapted from Irving Wallace’s trashy bestseller by The Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling — fair enough, since its conceit must have seemed science fiction at the time. James Earl Jones plays a fusty academic Senate president pro tempore suddenly swept into the Oval Office after circumstances wipe out the succession line before him.

Having a “black,” “Negro,” or “jigaboo” (depending on who’s talking and how publicly) commander-in-chief naturally brings out the not-so-latent racism in the various old white male power-mongers used to minority colleagues being powerless token figures. Polite and awed by his position to a fault — he’s no 2008 Barack Obama — our protag nonetheless learns to stand up for himself and his office, even if that means making some decisions unpopular with black voters.

Four years earlier, another trashy novelist (Sidney Sheldon of The Other Side of Midnight) had the pretty good idea of updating (without crediting) Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 cautionary novel It Can’t Happen Here — about a “patriotic” political party pushing the country toward a fascist dictatorship — as a modern action-suspense series. What with Vietnam protests, campus unrest, civil rights struggles, and so forth, the concept of our nation undergoing civil war was evidently too hot for the networks. They passed even after the original script had been shorn of nearly all direct political commentary.

Nonetheless, feature-length pilot Shadow on the Land is fairly strong (and violent) meat for the era. Its hectic portrait of a nation oppressed by governmental “security” brutality, air travel restrictions, etc. on one side, destabilized by a “Society of Man” underground resistance on the other is a metaphor applicable to the Nazi threat of Lewis’ day, Nixon vs. the Left, or post-Patriot Act America. It’s by turns wooden, heavy-handed, shrill, and sophisticated — not exactly good, but still a credible picture of something that could well happen here, perhaps more easily now than in 1968.  


The Man, Thurs/14, 9 p.m.;

Shadow on the Land, Thurs/14, 11 p.m., $5

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF



Into the Vortex, part one



For some the ’60s and ’70s never stopped swinging — even (or especially) if they were barely out of womb when all that decadence crashed into the anti-counterculture, pro-coke Reagan era.

For many years, one of SF’s greatest connoisseurs of retro sexual revolution kitsch and coolness has been Scott Moffett. For all we know, even as you read this he’s reclining on a fun fur rug, drinking Martini & Rossi on the rocks, reeking of Hai Karate, sandwiched by Barbarella and Pussy Galore.

In 1994 he and Jacques Boyreau cofounded the Werepad, a waaaaaay-south o’ Market psychedelic lounge that hosted parties and screened rare, frequently scratchy 16mm prints of movies with titles like Maryjane (1968), Island of the Bloody Plantation (1983), and William Shatner’s Mysteries of the Gods (1977). He also created the Cosmic Hex Archive (whose website lets you can download everything from 1966’s Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs and 1976’s Shriek of the Mutilated to 1972’s Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny for a modest fee) to protect and show just such “forgotten works.” He’s collaborated on movies, books, and traveling exhibits, all reflecting the same groovy aesthetic.

The Werepad is now gone (as is Boyreau, to Portland, Ore.), but Moffett now runs its more compact successor not-so-far south of Market, the Vortex Room, and with Joe Niem programs its Thursday Film Cult nights.

The theme to the Vortex’s May schedule — sorry if you missed last week’s bill of Roger Corman’s 1959 beatnik parody Bucket of Blood and the astonishing 1969 Japanese portrait-of-a-crazed-artist erotic horror Blind Beast — is “Art, Obsession, and Film Cult.” The series unites a widely disparate slate dealing with art-making in one form or another, as inspired, manipulated, or rendered homicidal by sexuality and violence.

Thursday, May 12 there’s a double bill whose first half unusually (for the Vortex) reaches back to mainstream Hollywood’s “golden” era. German Expressionist master Fritz Lang (Metropolis, 1927; M., 1931), followed up 1944’s The Woman in the Window by regathering its stars on a new suspense melodrama: 1945’s Scarlet Street. The latter is crasser, pulpier, and driven by demure 1930s ingénue (and future Dark Shadows matron) Joan Bennett’s inspired vulgarity as Kitty “Lazy Legs” March, whose yea lazier boyfriend (Dan Duryea) proposes that she seduce an accountant and amateur painter (Edward G. Robinson) whom they both mistake for a wealthy artist. This lurid saga ends on an unusually bitter, ironic, haunted note for its time.

A greater discovery is Scarlet Street‘s Vortex cofeature. Scream Baby Scream (1969) is vintage psychedelic horror at its trippiest. This low-budget but pretty dang groovy artifact goes out of its way to be with-it: the cast wears ultra-mod fashions, the interiors are crammed with objets d’Op Art, the score is cool jazz-rock (dig those flute solos), and the dialogue is chock-full of Now Generation philosophizing (some rather grammatically-challenged, such as “I feel so strange — like a nightmare that I don’t want to think about”).

All of which doubles the fun in watching an otherwise (slightly better made) imitation of movies like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1965 Color Me Blood Red. Written by future genre hero Larry Cohen, its young protagonists are four art-school students; hero Jason is practically cohabiting with girlfriend Janet, but she’s acting like maybe she Needs Some Space. (Of course, he’s also acting like a jealous jerk — it’s unclear whether the film is aware how clearly it reflects the none-too-feminist gender dynamics of mainstream hippiedom.)

Janet takes her art very seriously, attracting attention from a creepy established artist (Larry Swanson) famous for oil portraits of hideously distorted faces. Meanwhile, models, art students, and miscellaneous youth-on-the-beach keep “disappearing.”

You can guess what happens. But among Scream Baby Scream‘s many surprises are a long LSD trip sequence (protagonists go motorcycling on the highway! Feed baby elephants at the zoo! Imagine themselves as monkeys in a cage! Interpretive dance!), scenes at a psychedelic coffeehouse, a party setpiece with groovy band the Odyssey (plus go-go dancers and liquid light projections), and zombie ghouls on the loose.

There’s also nudity, pot smoking, and a lot of relationship arguments. The last half hour takes a weird left turn into Vincent Price terrain, complete with a gloomy old mansion, a mad-doctor flashback, and so forth. The movie was clearly intended for drive-ins at best, but it’s colorful, fast-paced, and ever so delightfully wrong. Directed by little remembered B-pic toiler Joseph Adler, it was an early big-screen writing credit for Cohen, showing signs of the perversity that would later result in 1973’s Black Caesar, 1974’s It’s Alive, 1976’s God Told Me To, and 1988’s Maniac Cop, to name a few.

Trash will spotlight the rest of the Vortex’s May schedule next week. A $5 donation gets you into these Thursday screenings. For that dough, you could buy half a ticket to Bridesmaids. Please don’t tell me that’s a tough decision. (Dennis Harvey)


Scarlet Street, Thurs/12, 9 p.m.;

Scream Baby Scream, Thurs/12, 11 p.m., $5

Vortex Room

1082 Howard, SF



Portal 2


Valve Corporation

(Xbox360, PS3, Mac/PC)

GAMER Portal 2 reminds us that “first-person” is a point of view first and a game type second. With combat-themed shooters incestuously fumbling over one another to produce the most similar experience, it takes a certain amount of marbles to deliver a shooter about strategy and narrative instead of death. But for developer Valve, Portal’s sequel was never a risky gamble.

Portal (2007) was a surprise success, a last-minute addition to Valve’s Orange Box bundle that boasted heavy-hitters like Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2. It was Portal, the little game that traces its history to a college senior project in Washington state, that brought the most buzz. A puzzle game where you play a test subject in a future lab, Portal tasks you with escaping elaborate exam rooms by using a gun that shoots portals — one orange, one blue — go in one and come out the other. But it wasn’t just Portal‘s mechanics that attracted players; the humor, pacing, and whimsical approach made it memorable.

In the same way that I can define what made Portal a sensation, Valve too was armed with the secret to its success. A joke is never as funny the second time, but Portal 2 knows its audience and does its best to satisfy old fans while telling an altogether new story.

Sometime after the conclusion of Portal, human test subject Chell is awakened in a deteriorating laboratory by a robot named Wheatly. As Chell, you must negotiate the cavernous lab and a vengeful computer AI named GLaDOS and familiarize yourself with new, futuristic technologies like force fields, light bridges, and gels that make you bounce. Early levels reiterate the first game’s slow and easy increase in difficulty, but soon you are gleefully translating your puzzle-solving skills into a means of escape.

Most of the game is set in test rooms, and it’s unsurprising to learn that Valve’s vision for Portal 2 wasn’t entirely clear: it continues its tradition of creating puzzles first and contextualizing them later. A great benefit in telling the tale comes from stellar voice-acting by Stephen Merchant and character actor J.K. Simmons. Fewer conventional puzzle rooms would be nice, but the brain teasers themselves are consistently satisfying.

Valve could easily have damaged its cult credibility by amplifying a perfectly concise experience, but Portal 2 works. With an equally satisfying (and wholly unique) cooperative mode that highlights teamwork — and a developer commentary mode that places commentary nodes within the game world — Portal 2 packs enough content to justify its standalone release. The joke might be less funny when you anticipate the punch line, but in this case it all comes down to delivery.

Power and shared wealth



In the 1930s, political cartoonists often portrayed California’s monolithic Pacific Gas & Electric Co. as a giant octopus, its tentacles extending into every sphere of civic life. If money buys influence, the cephalopod analogy may still be apt today when considering the company’s tally of corporate giving, part of a detailed filing with the California Public Utilities Commission.

PG&E’s largesse, measured in thousands of dollars in donations, spills into a broad array of nonprofit organizations, educational institutions, chambers of commerce, and volunteer-led efforts throughout the state. PG&E’s corporate giving is so broad that it even extends to several organizations affiliated with appointees to the Independent Review Panel convened by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to investigate PG&E’s deadly San Bruno pipeline explosion.

While the utility undoubtedly advances worthy causes with its myriad donations to youth groups, cultural centers, organizations fighting AIDS and cancer, arts councils, environmental groups, and other charitable entities, corporate contributions always reflect a calculated decision, notes Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies.

“They’re a big company, and they’re trying to, shall we say, ingratiate themselves with a wide swath of community interests, including nonprofit groups,” Stern told us. “The cigarette companies did that all the time, and it was very effective … because nonprofits then laid off on ballot measures, for example, or they would oppose ballot measures that would increase cigarette taxes. My bottom line is, businesses don’t just spend money gratuitously. There is a business reason a business spends money — campaign contributions or donations. And they have to justify that to their shareholders.”

In mid-October 2010, CPUC president Michael Peevey announced his selection of five expert panelists for the newly created advisory body on the San Bruno explosion. In an official filing, Peevey ordered PG&E to fund the panel, which would be tasked with gathering facts and making recommendations to the CPUC “as to whether there is a need for the general improvement of the safety of PG&E’s natural gas transmission lines, and if so, how these improvements should be made.” A report on the panel’s initial findings is expected in the coming weeks. The effort is on a parallel track with the federal investigation now underway at the National Transportation Safety Board.

The appointees bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the table. Panelist Karl Pister, for example, chairs the board of the California Council on Science and Technology, served as chancellor at UC Santa Cruz, and has taught civil engineering. Jan Schori has an insider’s understanding of how an energy company is run thanks to her past experience as CEO of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD).

Yet some of Peevey’s appointees to the Independent Review Panel have ties to PG&E. Panelist Paula Rosput Reynolds formerly held positions at the investor-owned utility, according to her bio, including serving as an executive of the PG&E’s interstate natural gas pipeline subsidiary. An understanding of the company’s inner workings could be considered an asset, but it also raises questions about her independence.

Panelist Patrick Lavin serves as an executive council member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents PG&E employees. He’s also on the board of directors of the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE), a nonprofit that counts PG&E among its membership. CFEE sponsored a two-week trip to Spain last November for government officials, energy industry representatives, and others to study “renewable energy, infrastructure, public private partnerships, desalination, and rail,” according to its website, picking up the $8,880 tab for Peevey to join the trip. The nonprofit received donations from PG&E totaling $45,000 in 2009, $45,000 in 2008, and $40,000 in 2006 — the three most recent years available.

Schori, meanwhile, has clearly held roles in the past that have placed her in an adversarial relationship with the utility considering that SMUD — a public power utility — has engaged in territorial battles against PG&E. Yet Schori also serves on the board of the Climate Action Reserve, a nonprofit that also counts former PG&E vice president of operations Nancy McFadden — the architect behind PG&E’s ill-fated ballot initiative Proposition 16 — on its board of directors.

Climate Action Reserve received $45,000 from PG&E in 2009, according to a CPUC filing. Schori also previously served on the board of directors of a nonprofit called the Alliance to Save Energy, which was co-chaired by former PG&E CEO Peter Darbee, who was expected to step down April 30 with a retirement package totaling nearly $35 million. The Alliance to Save Energy received $45,000, $35,000, and $35,000 in PG&E donations in 2009, 2008, and 2006, respectively. Schori did not respond to a request for comment.

The chair of the San Bruno Independent Review Panel is Larry Vanderhoef, former chancellor of UC Davis and a highly respected academic. As an ex-officio trustee of the UC Davis Foundation, Vanderhoef is engaged in soliciting private-sector contributions for the university. UC Davis has received an average of around $200,000 in philanthropic contributions from PG&E each year since 2005. In an e-mail to the Guardian, spokesperson Claudia Morain noted that Vanderhoef “has never been involved in PG&E solicitations.”

PG&E’s contributions to the two nonprofits and the university represent very small portions of the total budgets of these three entities, particularly in the case of UC Davis. At the same time, they are relatively large sums compared to the contributions the company generally makes. The city of Berkeley, for example, received just $2,500 from PG&E in 2009. Most organizations receive less than $10,000, but certain groups are given much more. The UC Regents, for example, received a $406,400 donation from PG&E in 2009.

“The panel members are all eminently qualified to perform the important job that has been entrusted to them.” CPUC spokesperson Terrie Prosper told us. “It is not surprising, or inappropriate, that the panel members also are involved in philanthropic activities of various kinds in California. Nor is it surprising that PG&E, California’s largest public utility company, in its own donations to various public and nonprofit institutions and its other philanthropic activities, supports some of these same worthy causes. These philanthropic activities in no way impair the independence, good judgment, or valued public service the members of the Independent Review Panel are giving to California.”

Stern, of the Center for Governmental Studies, said PG&E contributions to organizations affiliated with members of the Independent Review Panel did not necessarily raise a red flag. “Sure it has some impact, but not in terms of disqualification. That’s off the table as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “I have 15 members on my board of directors. I would never say that because we got a grant worth $200,000 from PG&E that that would affect my board member ruling on a PG&E matter,” he added, speaking hypothetically.

As members of an advisory group rather than public officials, he noted, the panelists would not be in violation of any conflict-of-interest rules. “Certainly there’s always a question of bias and appearance of impropriety. And the question is, how extensive is it? It’s a whole bunch of different factors. It’s all gradations. There is no rule on this, obviously, but it’s an appearance question, and whether or not the appearance looks like they’re going to be biased.” At the end of the day, he added, the question would be settled by “looking at the final results and seeing what the final results say.”

Land of the undead


VAMPIRE APOCALYPSE There are no sparkly torsos in Jim Mickle’s Stake Land, a movie that depicts a vampire snacking on a human infant within its first five minutes. After that bold declaration that this is not a film to be fucked with, Stake Land shifts its focus to a ragtag pair of travelers who’ve taken to rural America’s back roads, trying to annihilate as many vamps as possible: teenage Martin (Gossip Girl‘s Connor Paolo), and his gruff mentor, Mister (Nick Damici, who co-wrote the script with Mickle).

As books, films, and comics have taught us, whenever a big chunk of the human race is wiped out (thanks to zombies, an unknown cataclysm, etc.), the remaining population will either be good (heroic, like Mister and Martin, or helpless, like the stragglers they rescue, played by Kelly McGillis and Danielle Harris, among others), or evil — cannibals, rapists, religious nuts, militant survivalists, etc. Stake Land doesn’t throw many curveballs into its end-times narrative, but it’s beautifully shot and doesn’t hold back on the brutality. The film opens at the Roxie on the heels of its local debut at the San Francisco International Film Festival. I recently chatted with up-and-comer Mickle about horror, the Internet, and … well, what else is there, really?

SFBG Stake Land feels very much like a zombie apocalypse film, except for the choice of monster. Why vampires?

Jim Mickle [Co-writer Damici and I] had just done zombies — we had rat zombies in [2006’s] Mulberry Street — but I think we both felt we didn’t get to do everything that we wanted to do there. Yet, also, we didn’t want to do the Romero thing and just do one zombie movie after another. I think we were looking for another monster, and we both liked vampires. They’re human-based, so I think you can treat them like characters and not just monsters, and be able to have them stand in for a lot of different things socially — but also have a lot of fun with them.

SFBG A lot of vampire stories depict the vampires as living secretly among the human race, but in Stake Land, they’ve basically taken over.

JM Originally, we [planned the film as a Web series], and that was how it started. The first 10 pages were always the same, and from there it went to different webisodes, where, for example [the characters] stopped off in New York City and had to fight a hopping vampire in Chinatown. It was all about, “When are people gonna wake up and realize they are surrounded by vampires?” But we were gonna do it very low-budget, and the question was always, like, “Holy shit. How are we gonna pull this off?” When the idea became to make a feature out of it and to sort of merge all these stories together, it just felt like that — a bunch of stories strung together and very chapterized. We wanted to hang onto that, but also give it a backbone and an overriding theme.

SFBG Do you have plans to follow through on the Web series?

JM We did try to keep it going — we have these prequels that have come out [on the iTunes Movie Trailers page at trailers.apple.com]. There are seven total — each character has their own short film, basically, sort of right before we meet them in the movie. We wanted to keep the idea of the serial going. We liked the idea that there are these new ways to release movies, and the online presence really matters for movies now. I still have yet to see a really successful Web series, so we tried to find a way to do that and mix that in [with the prequels]. But we still have all those scripts, you know, and when people talk about sequels and stuff — we still have that material there, and it’ll be interesting to see where it goes.

STAKE LAND opens Fri/29 at the Roxie.

A long time ago, in a galaxy not far away



SCI-FI DOCUMENTARY Recalling a simpler time — before mass commercialization and marketing took over the world of science fiction, pop culture, and fan conventions — local filmmaker Tom Wyrsch’s new documentary Back To Space-Con conveys the story of the home-grown, grassroots-fueled sci-fi conventions of the 1970s, told through interviews with the people behind the events, fans who were there, and rare footage shot on location here in the Bay Area more than 30 years ago.

Coming off the successes of his first two projects, 2008’s Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong, which looked at the local TV phenomenon Creature Features and last year’s wildly popular Remembering Playland At The Beach, about the now-gone San Francisco beach-side amusement park, it wasn’t hard for Wyrsch to decide on what subject to tackle next.

Several years ago, the late Bob Wilkins, former host of Creature Features, had given Wyrsch a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind 16mm footage taken for his show at a series of Star Trek and sci-fi conventions, showing a great array of fans, their handmade costumes, and of course, the many special guests and celebrities who were on hand.

Wyrsch himself had attended some of these events, the larger ones called “Space-Con,” when he was growing up in the Bay Area. “At that time they were a brand new experience,” says Wyrsch. “To go to these conventions was just fabulous. And they definitely left a mark.”

With his fond memories in place and the opportunity to use Wilkins’ rare original footage, Wyrsch decided to interview the people who helped put on the shows, along with those who had attended the conventions as fans, all to help share the feeling of what it was like back then, which the film does very effectively.

“My approach to making documentaries is to really do two things: First, I want to take people back who actually experienced it. The other part is, I want to be able to take people there who never had a chance to go because they either weren’t in the area or they were too young,” says Wyrsch.

One of the great things about Back To Space-Con is seeing all the homespun costumes that fans wore — this was before the Star Trek movies started being made, and for some of the conventions included here, just before and at the beginning of the Star Wars (1977) phenomenon. There were virtually no official costumes or merchandise, and many of the people interviewed remark how wonderful it was to see such creativity and excitement in their fellow fans.

“[Space-Cons] were fan-based conventions that really did not have anything to do with the industry. They were the fans putting on shows for each other,” says Wyrsch. “In the film you can see how they are the grassroots movement of conventions that led to the ones we have today.”

Wyrsch is grateful to have been able to use so much original film footage, and he hopes viewers will appreciate how rare it is that material like this has survived all this time.

“What the younger generation doesn’t know was that it was very difficult and very expensive to go out in the field and do an interview or to film indoors because of lighting and the old cameras,” he explains. “With video and all the high-tech electronics and computers you can put in the camera [today], you don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore. But back then, it was tough, and with a lot of interviews they would go out and do them and then throw the film away because there was no use to it anymore and it took up a lot of storage space. Bob [Wilkins] kept this, and he kept part of history.”

Wyrsch will be on hand at a special Back to Space-Con premiere event at the Balboa Theater, along with former Chronicle writer and Creature Features host John Stanley, and Ernie Fosselius, the man behind the Star Wars spoof Hardware Wars (1978).

“I think people get to see the simplicity that was there in the seventies, it wasn’t so regimented like they are nowadays,” says Wyrsch. “And people love that.”


Thurs/14, 7 p.m., $10

Balboa Theater

3630 Balboa, SF

(415) 221-8184



Acid-washed terror


RETRO GORE With the upcoming release of Scream 4 — the overlong-awaited latest in a series riffing on 1980s slasher clichés — it feels like a good moment to review the source material, which is to say the deadly spawn of Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980). Issued at the heyday of the direct-to-video market, those films’ myriad cheap-and-cheaper knockoffs explored the full range of variably amateur charm.

Two years ago Ti West made a very nice homage in The House of the Devil, a babysitter-in-peril thriller that was slick and canny enough to get an actual theatrical release. No such thing is risked by Drew Rosas’ Blood Junkie, a new DVD release from Troma — the company so indiscriminate it can’t help but release a good movie once in a while. (Still, it should dial down its contempt: Lloyd Kaufman’s recycled all-purpose introduction suggests any movie might be better than the one you’re about to watch.) This dead-on parody of no-budget VHS horror circa 1987 (according to its website, Blood Junkie was “shot in Wisconsin for $7,000”) is a sleeper and a keeper for anyone who covets the worst of Reagan decade style.

Mulleted Craig (Nick Sommer) and fellow pencil-‘stached buddy Teddy (Mike Johnston) are on the prowl for chicks, a quest answered when they meet high school best friends Rachel (tube-topped Emily Treolo) and Laura (feather-haired, four-eyed Sarah Luther), who has just come into a big $35 booze budget left as grocery money by traveling parents for her insect-tormenting brainiac little bro Andy (Brady Cohen). The attraction is irresistible; Teddy alone sports a lime-green tiger-striped T, denim vest, and acid-washed jeans. Babe magnet!

Anyway, this quartet plus imp go camping near an abandoned chemical plant. Bad things happen, thanks to a killer of extremely vague identity and motivation. Which is just as it should be.

With its dweezly synth score, post-synched dialogue, lowbrow FX, fake aerobics workouts, and pseudo-age-streaked “film” stock, Blood Junkie is pure retro-flavva’d silliness. One nice touch is the male protagonists’ bromantic frisson — played as a joke, albeit so persistently that Craig’s offhand mid-wrestle “I seriously want you, man” feels like a naked confession. 


Fernando Di Leo, glorious bastard


ITALIAN CRIME CINEMA Italian cinema has a long history of innovators, but — like every other country, albeit more so — it survived commercially for decades via genre imitators. Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Pasolini, Bertolucci, and so on couldn’t have existed without the fiscal cushion provided by genre-feeds to the international market: first via mythological muscle man fantasies that reduced Hollywood’s Cecil B. DeMille-styled antiquity epics to more cost-effective displays of simple brawn, spear-throwing, and horse-riding over Hollywood-level stars and production values. Then via spaghetti westerns that made Clint Eastwood the star he hadn’t become on home turf, reworking a quintessentially American genre toward border-blurring maxi-minimalism.

That was the 1950s and ’60s. Fernando Di Leo began as a scenarist, contributing to myriad spaghetti westerns including Sergio Leone’s Dollars films, though he never liked the genre. (“Happily, I have a great capacity for writing incredible crap.”) He stirred controversy with early directorial efforts about female sexual frigidity and juvenile delinquency, really hitting his stride with a series of the violent crime dramas that dominated 1970s Italian commercial cinema — alongside horror films and the neverending sex comedy genre.

Often tapping the “elephant’s graveyard” of past-prime Hollywood actors who preferred to take starring or lucrative “guest star” roles in European films rather than support whippersnappers back home, these movies were made with the international market in mind. Some are even baldly imitative of The French Connection (1971), The Godfather (1972), Serpico (1973), and other influential U.S. hits of the era, to the point of unconvincingly fudging cultural and geographic compasses.

But while Di Leo’s films duly mixed veteran American actors into “Europudding” casts, his poliziotteschi exercises (he later voiced a preference for the term “noir”) were specifically Italian, with strong undercurrents of social criticism toward corrupt cops, politicians, and church officials — particularly those who’d disingenuously claim the Mafia “no longer existed.”

It certainly existed in these movies, four of which are showcased in “Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection,” a box set representing DVD specialty label RaroVideo’s launch into the U.S. market. (It’s simultaneously releasing Fellini’s 1971 circus homage The Clowns as well.) It’s quickly apparent why this director was a professed huge influence on Quentin Tarantino, though they differ in politics (does QT have any?) and taste for verbal pyrotechnics (of which QT has arguably too much). The flamboyant tough guys played by beloved character actors, intricately internecine plots, explosions of outré violence, and vintage leisure-suited cool, however, passed from one to the other like DNA.

Caliber 9 (1972), first of the “Milieu Trilogy,” starts out as an unremarkable series of you-hit-me, I-hit-you shootings and explosions in the wake of the disappearance of $300,000 after a robbery. Primary suspicion falls on stony Ugo (Gastone Moschin, hitherto a comic actor), a bagman just out of prison who steadfastly denies that he absconded with the loot belonging to crime boss “the Americano.” But by the end every last viewer certainty has been overturned.

Mario Adorf, cast as the loudest, most obnoxious of Ugo’s mob tormentors, becomes the lead in that same year’s The Italian Connection, playing a small-time Milan pimp framed for a heroin shipment’s theft — and as a result hunted by two imported U.S. hit men. They’re sleazy career villain Howard Silva and John Ford’s towering, poker-faced fave Woody Strode, who both worked for Di Leo again. (He enjoyed repeatedly working with certain actors.) They provided the model for John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s scrapping double team in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.

A private-screening-room massacre at the start of 1973’s The Boss doubtless provided blueprint for the fiery climax of 2009’s Inglourious Basterds. Not that the two are otherwise related — this tale of Sicilian mob wars has a don’s university-student daughter kidnapped by rivals as revenge for that earlier act, then “rescued” by Silva’s stone-cold contract killer.

But the misogyny that surfaces fairly briefly in Caliber and Connection takes alarming precedence here: adapting to her gang-raping captors like fish to water, Rina (Antonia Santilli) proves a nymphomaniac pothead alcoholic, insatiable every which way. She’s a degrading “rich bitch” cartoon that must have horrified its few female viewers at the height of women’s lib. (No wonder Santilli abandoned her short screen career almost immediately afterward.) At least The Boss outruns that sour shit with a last lap of spectacular twistiness. A professed womanizer, Di Leo now seems like an auteur who should have left female characters the hell alone.

The RaroVideo box ends with 1976’s exceptionally stylish and perverse Rulers of the City, a.k.a. Mr. Scarface, in which a child survivor of a mob slaughter (Fassbinder regular Harry Baer) grows up to avenge himself on don Jack Palance (“Just looking at him and my asshole twitches,” an underling opines), who exercised reptilian zest decades before his exhibitionist-pushup Oscar comeback. But he’s not the only one: a Shirley Temple-bewigged chanteuse vamp (Gisela Hahn) in see-through lingerie sings about abortion just before being glimpsed in a postcoital five-way with participants including too-pretty ice-blond Al Cliver (a.k.a. Pierluigi Conti). Culminating in a foot race as clever as the automotive climaxes of Bullitt (1968) and The French Connection, this is a baroque, self-mocking melodrama you’d be hard-pressed not to love.

Di Leo ended the decade with two highlights among many lurid debtors to 1972’s Last House on the Left: Notorious To Be Twenty (1978), whose free-spirited young heroines meet a brutal fate all the more shocking for its coming out of the blue after 80-odd minutes of comic frivolity; and Madness (1980), wherein Joe Dallesandro terrorizes a bourgeoisie household. But the films Di Leo liked to make were now unfashionable in a shrunken market, Italian financiers favoring crass new local tastes for gore-horror and softcore sleaze. After two dispirited mid-1980s action films he retired, still in his early 50s. Before his 2003 death he enjoyed revived attention thanks to cult enthusiasts led by guess who. These movies all look sharp in their DVD restorations, offered English both dubbed and subtitled. (There were precious few “original language” Italian features then — everything was post-synched, into whatever required languages.) The box set’s accompanying booklet features a 2001 interview with the director in which he’s both frankly self-critical and astonishingly hubristic.

King of the spook house


BRAZILIAN CULT HORROR English-language horror cinema has had its share of actors identified with playing one particular role over and over, from Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to Robert Englund’s Freddy Krueger. But we’ve never had anything quite like José Mojica Marins and his infamous Zé do Caixão (José of the Grave). Known to cult movie fans worldwide as Coffin Joe, this top-hatted, cape-flaring, bearded undertaker with extra-long curved fingernails and a mile-wide sadistic streak has been a sort of folk hero in Brazil for nearly 50 years.

His vehicles are unique fever dreams — alternately silly, shocking, or surreal, when not all three at once — that take great pleasure thumbing nose at traditional morality and any institutional authority, whether state or (especially) church. “Destroy me, I believe in nothing!” he dared God while desecrating graves in his first film, 1963’s At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul. God demurred, perhaps intimidated.

This week sees the U.S. release (in Synapse’s Blu-ray/DVD combo pack) of 2008’s Embodiment of Evil. It’s Marins’ return to the role after a long layoff, and to the director’s seat after a longer one — apparently since 1987’s 48 Hours of Hallucinatory Sex, last among the porn movies he was reduced to during an extended career lull. (Those films are said to be stubbornly, grotesquely anti-erotic, which would be entirely in character.) It’s an official conclusion to the “Coffin Joe Trilogy” left off in 1967’s This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, which was advertised promising “200 Snakes! 300 Spiders! 1,000 Extras! The most terrifying film in the world!” and certainly gave sensation-seeking patrons their money’s worth with a prolonged color climax depicting the torments of a papier-mâché hell.

That makes Embodiment perhaps the longest-delayed end to a horror trilogy, kicking Dario Argento’s ass — you will recall his “Three Witches” triptych of 1977’s amazing Suspiria, 1980’s incoherent but picturesque Inferno, and 2007’s daft Mother of Tears. Perhaps Embodiment‘s biggest shock arrives when it opens with the 20th Century Fox logo — clearly somebody is still very big in Brazil. Otherwise it’s back to blaspheming basics for our antihero, who after many years is being released from prison, despite having apparently “killed nearly 30 guys just in jail.” (Never a paragon of political correctitude, Marins has the warden reluctantly “letting the beast loose” and telling his terrified guards: “Any of you turns chicken on me, I’ll get you to stand watch at the queers ward!”)

Once out, Coffin Joe resumes his lifelong quest to find a “perfect woman” capable of bearing a child “higher than God, lower than Satan,” thus allowing our “visionary of the superior bloodline” to achieve immortality. This he’ll do “even if it means imploding the entire cosmos!” For all his hubris, however, this archvillain is still scared shitless whenever his past victims appear as accusatory apparitions.

As ever, auditioning mates (most screaming kidnapees) involves “testing” for fear and resilience in ways they’re unlikely to survive. En route he also acquires lots of new enemies and is happy to orchestrate their grotesque demises too. If Coffin Joe is a sort of spook house incarnation of ideas from Nietzsche and Sade — he’s a mortal superman imposing his will on those haplessly constrained by the societal conventions he scorns — his horrors are hardly grandiose; instead they are manic plunges into the realm of ick.

One unfortunate’s face meets a bucket o’ bugs; another is coated with hot cheese, followed by hungry rats. While CJ evinces disgust at how the world has changed during his long absence (favela kids sniffing glue, etc.), his new adventure takes advantage of some new cultural norms, including goth-punk henchmen, seemingly real body piercings, and a young priest who enjoys applying electric nipple clamps at the altar. (None of this is as memorable as one “terrifying” vision in 1970’s LSD-themed Awakening of the Beast: mooning butts with cartoon faces painted on, several clutching plastic “noses” ‘tween cheeks. Run for your lives!)

Far from the best Coffin Joe movie, Embodiment nonetheless brings the crazy with Marins’ distinctive zeal for outrageous offense. His once frequently-banned works now look loopy and quaint, yet there’s still a subversive edge. Then again, he’s also a lot like the snickering older brother at the Halloween party who thrusts blindfolded kids’ hands into cold wet spaghetti, crowing “WORMS!”

Naughty girls (need love too)


SCANDAL! Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is one of those pillars of French culture whose dismissal might well get you deported. (Deservedly.) It has inspired innumerable adaptations and co-optations, including a Hindi musical, a VeggieTales episode, and a postmodernist novel posing as a nonfiction memoir-literary homage (Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot). Its film incarnations have been reset everywhere from Portugal to Argentina to Rye, N.Y., attracting directors as celebrated as Jean Renoir and Vincente Minnelli and actresses as disparate as emotional heavy-lifter Pola Negri and chilly, twiggy Isabelle Huppert.

A few notches below that lofty company is 1969’s The Sins of Madame Bovary, a German-Italian coproduction with the era’s requisite mixture of dubbed multinationals — none very well remembered now — which is being issued this month by South San Francisco’s CAV Distributing. Despite its lurid title, this is a fairly faithful, if uninspired, version of the novel directed by journeyman Hans Schott-Schöbinger, whose less-than-illustrious prior credits included something called The Pastor with the Jazz Trumpet (1962).

It was a last career stop for him, but just the beginning for star Edwige Fenech, an Algerian-born beauty contest winner of Maltese and French extraction who would be the face that launched a thousand European exploitation movies — well, a lot of them anyway — over the next decade-plus. (Never entirely retired, she recently had a cameo in 2007’s Hostel: Part II.) Through all her giallos and sex comedies, Fenech, a brunette with a jones for heavy mascara, gamely deployed her beauty in various stages of undress, revealing a curvy figure with considerably less discretion than Flaubert allowed the tragic ninny he both pitied and ridiculed.

It’s probably on the shelf of every junior-high library now, but the original Madame Bovary was hugely scandalous — not just in her fictive world of bourgeois discontent, but in the salons, government offices, and courts of actual mid-19th century France. Couched in the most exquisite prose, her hapless infidelities — spurred by the fatal error of having married a nice, very dull country doctor — brought charges of immorality against author and original publisher (when it was serialized in a magazine) that came close to throwing the future pal to George Sand, Turgenev, and Emperor Napoleon III in prison.

Who knows how many titillated readers tried to emulate Emma B.’s suggested shag in a closed horse-drawn carriage only to discover their design in that era would in all likelihood make that exercise conducive to unpleasant contortions and muscle cramps? Perhaps that was another of Flaubert’s little jokes — as a many-mistress’d lifelong bachelor who’d explored the length of the Kinsey Scale (yet never truly moved out of his mother’s house) and had the venereal souvenirs to show for it. Yet one suspects he would have found the subsequent graphic sexualities of later banned books Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Ulysses, Tropic of Cancer, etc. to be merely vulgar.  


Valley of the (killer) dolls


CHUCKY CHEESE It’s hard not to fall in love with Jennifer Tilly. Star of hits big (1997’s Liar Liar) and cult (1996’s Bound), she’s an Oscar-nominated (for 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway) actor who also happens to be a champion poker player. Though she specializes in dim-bulb sexpots, Tilly is no dummy — witness her hilarious turn in 2004’s Seed of Chucky. In addition to providing the voice for killer doll Tiffany (whom she also portrayed in 1998’s Bride of Chucky) she also plays “Jennifer Tilly,” a character who kinda but not really resembles the real Jennifer Tilly.

Seed of Chucky, directed by Child’s Play series creator Don Mancini, is the most gleefully campy Chucky film to date (John Waters cameo!) San Francisco’s favorite horror hostess, Peaches Christ, is bringing Tilly and Mancini to town for a special pre-Valentine’s Day screening. What better excuse to talk with Chucky’s main squeeze?

SFBG Are you excited about the Seed of Chucky event with Peaches Christ?

Jennifer Tilly We are so thrilled to be getting the Peaches Christ treatment. We loved the trailer — Don Mancini was like, “Oh my God, this is so exciting!” He’s the one who created the Chucky series. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but over the years the franchise has just gotten more and more warped, and I really think the true spirit of Don Mancini is starting to come through.

SFBG I remember the first few Child’s Play movies did actually try to be scary.

JT A lot of people say that they were so scared when they saw the first Chucky movies that they couldn’t have any dolls around. But by now, everybody knows what Chucky is about. When we did Bride of Chucky, I think, there’s a line where somebody goes, “Oh my God, Chucky isn’t even scary. He’s so ’80s.” So when Don did Seed of Chucky, he just decided to go to town with it. Don just kind of got free reign to do whatever he wanted — though the studio did give him some notes when they got the first draft. They said, “It’s too funny. It’s too gay. And there’s too much Jennifer Tilly.” When he told me that, I thought, “How could there be too much Jennifer Tilly”? (Laughs.)

SFBG Did you have a hand in creating the “Jennifer Tilly” character?

JT After Bride of Chucky, Don became one of my very best friends. When he said I was going to play myself in Seed of Chucky, I said, “Oh, you have to make me an over-the-hill, horrible, obnoxious diva.” The studio was saying, “She’s too unlikable. She’s the protagonist, she should be likeable!” They didn’t understand that we were sort of deconstructing the genre. But a lot of the lines that were in the movie, I actually came up with — like when Tiffany is dragging Jennifer Tilly’s unconscious body, she goes, “Fuck, she’s fat!” Which was something I just ad-libbed. There were a lot of lines about how my career was in the toilet, like the famous line “I’m an Oscar nominee, and now I’m fucking a puppet!” The only thing Don had me do that I didn’t want to do was throw up in my purse. But I’m a pro. (Laughs.)


SFBG I heard that Don Mancini is planning a return-to-scary remake of Child’s Play (1988). Are you involved in that?

JT There are a lot of rumors — they definitely have the go-ahead to make the next Chucky movie, and I think that was one of the ideas. The other idea was to continue the Seed of Chucky story, because people really like the character of (Chucky’s child) Glen-Glenda. I honestly think we’ve come too far to turn back now. (Laughs.) I think the idea behind the remake is that we have so many more special effects, so you could do it so much more realistically. But I don’t think a good horror movie is about having the most brilliant special effects. It’s in the writing and the presentation and the acting.

Also, I just think the direction that Chucky is going — I’ve made over 60 movies, but everywhere I go, the No. 1 movie that people know me from is Bride of Chucky. I go to foreign countries where they don’t know any English at all, and they point at me and yell “Bride of Chucky!” And Don conceived Seed of Chucky as being a cross between Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Ordinary People (1980) — it’s not just a slasher film. There’s something for everybody!


Sat/12, 8 p.m., $20

Victoria Theatre

2961 16th St., SF



Gorgeous George


TRASH She’s an unstoppable force, that Sherri Frankenstein. As embodied by Linda Martinez in an anything-but-soggy serial by George Kuchar, Sherri is endlessly buffeted by life — shoved, mutilated, or worse by rapacious characters ever-eager to administer injections. She’s prone to oracular gestures so lengthy and dizzyingly impulse-driven that their conclusions directly contradict the reality around her. But whether she’s carousing at a go-go club or distractedly presiding over a Dracula’s castle-turned-home for wayward women, Sherri’s is a spirit that will not be snuffed.

Sherri’s odyssey begins in 2003’s Kiss of Frankenstein, a screen adaptation of a 2003 play’s torrid and torrential vomitous verbiage. Shot in three hours for $500 and post-dubbed in a bathroom, Kiss is an orgy of all that Kuchar in dramatic mode has to offer — a DayGlo video update of the old dark house scenario of his and Curt McDowell’s classic Thundercrack! (1975) with live action-meets-animation interiors that outdo Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) in terms of lurid décor. Martinez’s sheer organza negligee is only the raciest fabric in a dance of the 700 veils to rival Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment (1949). The dreamy-eyed male lead’s hairy chest and right nipple peeks out from a torn pajama top. A maze of maniacal monologues and mythical machinations — listening to Kuchar’s characters rattle off narration, one can’t help but ponder the narcissistic nature of memoir — in the form of a hungry Hungarian “pilgrimage for the palate,” the first chapter in Kuchar’s monstrous equivalent to Wagner’s Ring includes a sudden ax attack rendered in the style of William Castle.

Fresh from an acid facial, Sherri is back and pig-biting mad in 2005’s The Fury of Frau Frankenstein, another of Kuchar’s collaborations with his students at San Francisco Art Institute. Abandoning Kiss‘s monologues for title cards and visual tale-spinning, Fury introduces Sherri’s buxom niece Leticia, whose fate is watched by a Ryan Gosling-like newspaper reporter named Bruce. (In a bit part, young filmmaker Sarah Hagey almost steals the movie while her man is stolen.) Kuchar unleashes a blitz of post-production video effects, placing party scenes within envelopes and sprinkling digital glitter on Sherri’s face. Shot for $100 less than its predecessor, Fury is pure cinematic gluttony on a budget: a stew is stirred with a dismembered hand, a glimmering spider web curtain from the previous movie returns as one character’s cape, and a bat scurries across a floor in a manner that evokes not just the ravenous killer brains of the 1958 British horror flick Fiend Without a Face, but also furry slippers.

Technical difficulties prevented a viewing of the climax of Kuchar’s Frankenstein Cycle, 2008’s Crypt of Frankenstein. But Sherri returns in a sequel to the series, 2010’s Jewel of Jeopardy, whose cast includes an M.D. A little weary and slurry and lost in the length and relentlessness of her monologues, she’s soon helpless — gleefully so — to stop a Dracula who “burns quite easily” as he feasts on the “nubile necks” of her female charges, administering “hellish hickeys.” Here, the prop-mad and pixelated fervor of Kuchar’s meta-montage reaches its apex: digital blood drapes the screen, hairdos morph into spider webs, a character is beaten with his own severed leg, a Santa Claus wall hanging beams green rays from its eyes, Martinez’s flesh is visually rhymed with a Frankenstein mask, and the cast is momentarily lost in a blizzard of animated hearts and stars that would bring a blush to the face of the Lucky Charms leprechaun.

It’ll end in puke, of course, but anyone with a hungry eye should welcome the Roxie’s decision to put three nights of movies by George Kuchar on its menu. Or a hungry heart: the cheerful gastric onslaughts of Kuchar’s Frankenstein cycle are countered by the disarmingly poignant mortal attention to digestion and bodily function in his recent diary films, Vintage Visits, The Nutrient Express, and Dribbles, all from 2010. The time is right to gorge with George. 


Fri/28–Sun/30, $6–$10 (Fri/28: The Frankenstein Cycle; Sat/29: It Came From Kuchar plus two Kuchar shorts; Sun/30: new video diaries by George Kuchar)

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087


Here, kitty kitty


VINTAGE SEXY CINEMA “Ooh-la-la!” For decades this nonsense phrase personified “Continental” knowingness of a nature heavily suggestive to Yanks and yoinks raised under the buzz-kill shadow of a nation founded by Puritans. Just what did it mean? Oral knowledge unbeknownst to Oral Roberts? Sneaky-Pete glimpses of furry minx? Houses of ill repute and burgundy upholstery? Whatever: for long decades, Americans figured Old Europe knew sensual pleasures we were too nouveau to grasp, let alone grapple with.

Hollywood evinced salacious interest in exotic European sirens from early days — seminal silent vamp Theda Bara was credited with all kinds of exotic origin, though her actual city of birth was not-so-decadent Cincinnati. Soulful exported sensuality spanned subsequent decades from Garbo and Dietrich to “heady” Hedy Lamarr and driven-snow Scandinavian (till she got pregnant and left her husband for Rossellini) Ingrid Bergman.

These celluloid goddesses were afforded regal glamour and mystique, as if the Atlantic crossing kept foreign emotions remote. But after World War II, something happened. For one thing, Silvana Mangano exposed substantial melons in the florid post-neorealist melodrama of 1949’s agricultural potboiler Bitter Rice. She ignited a craze for voluptuous Euro-babes that lasted at least two decades, until censorship’s downfall rendered merely-hinted nudity as chaste as Mary Poppins.

Those glory days of international starlet innuendo are commemorated in “Love Kittens,” a new First Run Features DVD box comprising four vintage features of maximum retro spiciness. Two-star Agnès Laurent, which the sage L.A. Times then proclaimed had “a better figure than Mademoiselle Bardot!” Form-fitting duds notwithstanding, she now seems as merely cute as squeaky-clean contemporary Sandra Dee. Her first exported sensation was 1957’s The Nude Set, a.k.a. Mademoiselle Striptease, in which she’s a provincial student pressed to impress her fiancé by practicing the ecdysiast art form in a Parisian basement jazz club. Fear not: this delicious dunce is soon ushered safe back to bourgeois complacency by her stalwart if questionably faithful betrothed.

That same year, she guest-starred in Les Collegiennes, released in the U.S. as The Twilight Girls. The real star is Chanel model and Life magazine cover girl Marie-Hélène Arnaud, playing a newly arrived teacher at a girls academy. One of her charges is Catherine Deneuve — a barely recognizable 13-year-old making her screen debut in scenes restored from their originally cut U.S. release. Laurent is the high-born adolescent whose arrival at the school triggers scandalous entanglements.

Defined by another girl’s line “Please stop crying … whatever it is you’re thinking of now!” this melodramatic curio is like 1969’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie meets 1931’s Mädchen in Uniform meets you-name-it. (Lesbian sentiments are signaled by theremin noodling. Why? Because they’re weird!) Yet it’s largely a smart, sophisticated, just-sporadically-lurid tale that might’ve been better appreciated had it not been billed as “sexy, secretive, seductive” exploitation. It probably didn’t help that scenes crudely inserted after principal photography added two dormitory dwellers much inclined to shed bras and bounce a lot.

Laurent’s vogue was brief — she retired from the screen a half-century ago, dying just last year at age 74 — in contrast to “Teutonic temptress” Elke Sommer, who still occasionally acts in one of her purported seven language fluencies. She had planned, in fact, on becoming a diplomatic translator when modeling called instead. Winning a pageant on vacation in Italy, she got discovered by neorealist pioneer Vittorio De Sica and was soon hopping around the continent as the latest blonde bombshell dropped in Bardot’s wake. By 1963 she’d hit Hollywood, prettying up increasingly dismal mainstream dreck like Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) and Deadlier Than the Male (1967).

But first she impersonated a Frenchwoman in her two “Love Kittens” opuses, both directed by semi-forgotten Gallic sexploitation expert Max Pecas. She was just 21 — though already very worldly, not to mention curvy — in 1961’s Daniella by Night, playing a model whose work travel sinks her in a Roman potboiler of espionage, blackmail, and murder. (This intrigue’s gist is summed up by one character’s great line: “Apparently, everyone’s jealous of everyone else.”) Our heroine’s virtue is mortally endangered in several circumstances that threaten to separate her from clothing. It would take too long here to explain the pretzel logic by which Danielle must strip before a nightclub audience, then exit with horny American sailors, in order to escape assassination.

In Pecas’ 1963 Sommer vehicle Sweet Ecstasy — one should note certain territories saw it as Sweet Violence — she’s a crass seductress willing to play free-trade merchandise amid a yachtload of quasi-beatnik spoiled rich kids. Eventually she’s redeemed by caring enough to discourage a boy from participating in the craziest variation ever on a chicken contest, involving blindfolded leaps from construction-site cranes.

The difference between these European “sex” flicks and those coming just a few years later is remarkable. There’s so much plot, so many name actors (at least ones familiar to arthouse audiences at the time), and so much production gloss floating the tame exploitation elements, with their ludicrous excuses for toplessness. When heavily painted Sommer was steaming up screens as still import-only Eurobabe (“Nudest Elke Sommer is filmdom’s friskiest frisk!” Playboy exhaled), her movies weren’t exactly classy, but they weren’t Z-grade trash, either.

Her Pecas films remain treasure troves for Francopop enthusiasts: the first was co-scored by Charles Anzavour, the second featured songs by Johnny Halladay. By 1968 — still well before hardcore’s advent — collapsing censorship standards meant racy stuff could predominate, with only a slender g-string of narrative coverage required. Sommer might have been cheesecake — but she was too famous to give it up that freely.

Dark end of the street


DOCUMENTARY CLASSIC This column space is usually devoted to pop culture detritus. But this week we’ll bend the Trash definition to encompass human detritus, as in such timeless phrases as “Those people are nothing but trash.” The occasion is the Roxie’s restored re-release showcase of On the Bowery, a 1956 piece of early U.S. independent cinema that won major prizes. But it also struck many observers at the time as akin to literal trash: they wanted it dragged into some dark alley under cover of darkness, then quietly removed, lest polite society sift through the unflattering mess.

The 65-minute feature echoed Italian neorealism’s influence, as it mixed documentary footage with dramatic elements using amateur actors basically playing themselves. It provided a filmmaking “school” for debuting director Lionel Rogosin, a son of well-off New York City Jewish textile manufacturers who, like many of his peers, felt the need to make work addressing social equity rather than just “enjoy life” after the Holocaust. He hit on film as his chosen medium, South Africa’s apartheid system as desired subject — but as he knew nothing about filmmaking, taking on some smaller project first seemed apt.

Interviewed just before his turn-of-millennium death for 2009’s The Perfect Team: The Making of On the Bowery, which the Roxie is also showing, Rogosin recalls approaching this endeavor (initially planned as a short) with characteristic immersive fervency.

Having decided to focus on New York’s Skid Row district — the onetime flourishing heart of Manhattan whose slow degeneration began when an overground rail built in the 1870s bypassed stopping there — he spent a full six months befriending and bar-crawling with “Bowery bums,” occasionally slinking back to his Village apartment. (To neighbors’ consternation, sometimes these new pals would come uptown to pound on his door at 4 a.m., shaking the rich guy down for gin money.)

In the saloons and flops he found his cast, even his crew: cinematographer Richard Bagley, who shot 1948’s Oscar-nominated The Quiet One (another neorealist semidocumentary, about a Harlem juvenile delinquent), was found carousing thereabouts. (He died of cirrhosis in 1961 at 41. That was six years later and four years younger than Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe James Agee, who’d written The Quiet One and drank himself to death before he could write Bowery.)

Bagley understood what Rogosin meant in wanting the film to look like Rembrandt’s portraits of 17th-century Amsterdam’s poor and diseased — black and white On the Bowery has stunning passages of nothing but faces ruined by hooch and hardship, soulful in their grotesquerie. (Probably many were beyond registering being filmed.) The slim story, dialogue improvised within a barely scripted structure, centers on itinerant railroad worker Ray. Drifting into town between jobs, this uncomplicated rural Southerner has the ill fortune to get buddied up by the older Gorman, a.k.a. Doc (he claims to have blown a legit surgeon’s career), who spies a soft touch. Umpteen glasses later, Ray is left unconscious at the curb, his battered suitcase stolen by Doc to buy a few hours’ privacy in one flophouse’s chicken wire “room.”

Ray awakens the next day sobered but not sore, determined to stay dry long enough to clean up, get some work, and get outta here. Knowing his weakness for the sauce, he recognizes Bowery life as a pit he might easily vanish in. But after an abortive night at a depressing church mission, he answers the siren call of Doc’s mooching hospitality and gets in worse straits than ever. There’s both surprising redemption and a stone-cold reality check at the end of this woozy-view slice of gutter life.

On the Bowery won great acclaim in Europe and an eventual Oscar nomination as Best Documentary. (It was also inducted into the National Film Registry in 2008.) Yet it was scarcely distributed here, and outright condemned in some quarters. Eisenhower America preferred the less seemly aspects of its domestic life be kept hidden from view. Bagley’s shocking vistas of bruised, broken, passed-out “forgotten men” littering already decrepit city sidewalks at dawn — like extras in a Cold War sci-fi scare film about the Bomb — seemed not just an ugly truth but an unallowable one.

The New York Times and other commentators assailed the filmmakers for wallowing in gratuitous filth. At an otherwise triumphant Venice Festival premiere, socialite ambassador Clare Boothe Luce and publishing tycoon husband Henry snubbed Rogosin, the first Yank to win its Documentary Grand Prize. She reportedly encouraged the U.S. State Department to suppress Bowery‘s further exposure abroad — and was no doubt appalled when it became a runaway hit in certain Eastern Bloc nations.

Rogosin did make that South Africa film (1958’s Come Back, Africa, another Venice sensation) as well as several other little-seen social-justice documentaries, before continual funding shortages forced his mid-1970s retirement from the medium.

On the Bowery‘s “stars” imitated the art that had replicated their lives. Having been told by a real physician that he wouldn’t survive even one more binge, Gorman “Doc” Hendricks honored the crew’s pleas and stayed sober as long as the film was being shot. Once it wrapped, he promptly relapsed and died, never seeing a frame of the end product.

Handsome, affable 42-year-old Ray Salyer helped Rogosin promote the movie, dignified and frank about his own alcoholism in a Today interview excerpted in The Perfect Team. That publicity attracted Hollywood acting offers, including a purported $40,000 contract Salyer refused. When the attention got to be too much, he simply “hopped on a freight train and nobody ever saw him again.” Legend has it he later returned to the Bowery, dying there. A surviving nephew recalled his father (Ray’s twin among a brutal Kentucky Methodist minister’s 12 children) saying this wayward brother “returned permanently screwed up” from World War II military service. He was “still the charming, witty, engaging guy he had been, but with a deep sadness in his eyes. And he couldn’t drink enough to make it go away.”


Jan 14–20, $5–$9.75

Roxie Theater

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 431-3611