Into the Vortex, part one

Pub date May 10, 2011

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