Never Coming to a Theatre Near You
Stephen Romano's continuing adventures in fake movies
Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 12, 2010
Film trailers at their best are the seductive and primal essence of the films they represent. They are the tease, the come-on, the promise of cinematic bliss/adventure/thrills to come. By definition, they are attractive, whereas their full-length counterparts can be – and often are – anything but.
Now imagine an alternate reality where there would be no films, just film trailers, no coming attractions, just previews of them. Heresy, perhaps, but not without its merits. Imagine: All trailers, no features means never having to have sit through Home Alone (Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, Home Alone 3) or Look Who's Talking (... Too, ... Now) or Uwe Boll or confoundingly unnecessary remakes of Rollerball, Death Race 2000, or any Eighties-era slasher flick.
No one takes that alternate reality more seriously than Austin writer/artist/jack-of-all-cinematic-trades Stephen Romano, who just over a year ago released his hardcover magnum opus, Shock Festival, on an unsuspecting world (see "Shock and Awesomeness," Oct. 24, 2008).
Ostensibly a deep down history of the lesser-known, darker corners of Seventies-era exploitation cinema, Romano's massive tome was in fact a completely fictional enterprise – not a one of the 101 "strangest, sleaziest, most outrageous" films covered within the 356 heavily illustrated pages had ever existed outside of the author's terminally fevered imagination. It was a fake, all of it, but an entertaining and whip-smart endeavor that paid homage to the real world of exploitation filmmaking by fabricating an alternate cinematic reality out of whole cloth, celluloid, and fictitious, fame-hungry freaks who reminded readers of real-life 42nd Street rebels and bottom-of-the-bill blowhards.
The punch line? A sizable percentage of the people that picked up Shock Festival thought it was real, at least until they hit the endnotes that revealed the shocking truth behind the loving lie of the book.
Now Romano has followed up that epic project with a triple-disc, seven-hours-plus-long companion set that includes not only two crammed-to-bursting DVDs of the real-world trailers that inspired the book, but also 14 faux-trailers inspired by the book, created and submitted by fans and filmmakers from as close as Romano's Hyde Park backyard to as far away as Argentina.
Quick quiz. Which of the following Shock Festival titles is not an honest-to-badassness actual exploitation film?
a) Gone With the Pope
b) Cry of a Prostitute
c) 7 Dwarves to the Rescue
d) Dark Night of the Demon House
Tough call, we know, but the answer is "d." Maybe you're beginning to see what we mean when we say "alternate reality."
The new DVD Stephen Romano Presents Shock Festival is, on the face of it, a lot like Synapse Films' ongoing 42nd Street Forever exploitation trailer series (the most recent edition of which was officially branded/curated by the Alamo Drafthouse). But faces, as any genre film fan or Texan leatherworker will tell you, can be deceiving. Packed in between the raw, often brilliant, occasionally just plain bad trailers – real or not – are a cinemaniac's mad treasure trove of supremely exploitative extras, the most surprising of which is an entire MP3 disc-full of 312 long-forgotten radio spots ("The Omega Man ... more than fantasy ... maybe the future!," for instance, or Trick Baby: "Shake hands with the boys in blue ... then count your fingers!") and another half-a-disc's worth of equally obscure television trailers (less nudity, more hyperbole). But it's what Romano calls his "tribute trailers" that really blur the line between fake and not-fake.
"We hadn't initially planned on including [fake trailers] for the fake films that made up the Shock Festival book," Romano says, "but the DVD company that I was working with, New Jersey's Pop Cinema, had already begun receiving fan submissions from people who really dug the book and were inspired to make their own faux-trailer accompaniment. We ended up with 14 completely original trailers for these films that only exist in the alternate reality of the Shock Festival project. It was really a case of people hearing about the project and calling me – often in the middle of the night – to say they wanted to make a trailer based on one of the films in the book."
True to the spirit of independent exploitation filmmaking, not all of these faux-trailers are cutting-edge works of genius – but there are plenty of edged weapons dicing and slicing throughout.
"Some of them are kinda bad," Romano admits with a grin, "but most of them are pretty good. A few were made by old friends of mine, like Dave Neabore, a musician and budding filmmaker who I've known since 1997, when we were working on a Lucio Fulci soundtrack together. We had been corresponding after the book came out, and he mentioned he'd love to do the trailer for Dead Bugs on the Carpet, so I told him, you know, 'Go for it!' And it's one of the best ones anyone made.
"And then there was Providence-based filmmaker Richard Griffin, who's done a number of independent genre features and ended up shooting a really great trailer for Dark Knight of the Demon House. We even received a trailer from some guys in Argentina for a Shock Festival film called Thinking Man's Gun, which is just this wild assemblage of lost clips from this nonexistent film that actually plays really well as this made-for-video, Spanish action-adventure film. That was unexpected, but very cool."
All of which makes Romano's literary-cum-audiovisual shriek-show one of the most deliriously meta, pomo, pop-culture mash-ups yet conceived. For the uninitiated, it can be downright difficult to discern where the dividing lines lie between the real and the freshly faked. (Thank god for interactive DVD menus.)
The commentaries – one by Romano and one by DreadCentral.com's Uncle Creepy – don't necessarily help sort things out, either, but Romano's, specifically, is akin to taking a History of Exploitation Filmmaking 101 class in and of itself. Eschewing the traditional trailer-specific route (best realized on TrailersFromHell.com, the flagship site of onetime Roger Corman-trailer-cutter Joe Dante), Romano roams far and wide from what's actually flitting by in supersaturated and/or slightly washed-out blood-red color on your screen. Instead, he rambles excitedly, entertainingly, informatively on and on, skipping like an axe blade across a lake of blood through the entire history of exploitation trailers and all relevant personages, including but not limited to Independent-International Pictures maven Sam Sherman (Mad Doctor of Blood Island, Naughty Stewardesses, Blazing Stewardesses), who also gets his own on-camera interview and I-IP trailer section.
"Watching a trailer compilation is a kind of noncommittal movie-watching," Romano explains. "I think that it's an art form in and of itself: They're little movies, although the trailers that I most enjoy watching are not, admittedly, those that are known to your average filmgoer. They're not Terms of Endearment. The stuff I'm into and the stuff that I've included on the Shock Festival DVD are things that are just so far out there that they can be appreciated on multiple levels.
"For instance, there's the trailer for Lucio Fulci's House by the Cemetery, which is narrated by [the late monologist/David Letterman guest] Brother Theodore, who sounds absolutely crazy because, you know, he was absolutely crazy. So it can reach you on an ironic level, the level of just appreciating it because it's so over the top that it's hilarious. Then there's the genuine appreciation factor of really digging it because it's something cool and historical. Trailers from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties have a real timelessness to them that's lacking in modern trailers."
Which is, of course, a truism that cannot be denied by anyone who has been paying attention to the trailers-by-committee that have been coming out of Hollywood for at least the last decade. Think about it: What's the last in-theatre film trailer you saw that really made you squeal and drool and say to yourself, "If I don't see that film I am going to die." Chances are it wasn't for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and if it was, you need some serious schoolin', kid. Personally, our most recent "gotta see it or gonna die" trailer was, unsurprisingly, the mangy, retro-meta double-team of Tarantino/Rodriguez's Grindhouse, all the way back in 2007. Why that one, you ask? As Romano explains, it's all about that narrator (or lack thereof):
"Nowadays you rarely come across a trailer with a narrator leading things around, and I think that's to the detriment of the modern trailer. In the Seventies you had instantly recognizable narrators like Percy Rodriguez, who did not only Steven Spielberg's Jaws but also the Enzo G. Castellari Jaws knock-off Great White, and guys like Adolph Caesar, who, apart from starring in [and earning an Academy Award nomination for] A Soldier's Story, also narrated hundreds of movie trailers including everything from Dawn of the Dead to A Nightmare on Elm Street. The really weird thing is that the trailer for Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse is the only recent trailer that I can think of that has that old-school-style narrator, and, oddly enough, it's a voice actor they cast to sound specifically like Adolph Caesar, who died in 1986."
We all have our favorites: Andy Warhol's Flesh for Frankenstein and Blood for Dracula are high on our personal list, alongside the eerie French animation of The Fantastic Planet and the ridiculously atrocious stop-motion hijinks of Flesh Gordon. For Romano, the connoisseur of cult, it's the purity of the exploitation that gets him every time.
"Trailers are an art form unto themselves, and if they're really good and they manage to pace it right – like the trailer for Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45, which is one of the best short films I've ever seen in my life – then it's almost as good as the movie itself. It accomplishes its mission, which is to make you want to go see the feature film, but at the same time it's also a perfect film by itself."
So what's Romano's favorite trailer on Shock Festival?
"Pieces," he says without hesitation. "Pieces is the greatest postmodern hard-sell trailer ever. It's less than a minute long, and it only has three images from the movie: a shot of someone pulling the rip cord on a chainsaw, a shot of a woman screaming, and then a shot of a guy backlit by the sun, coming at you, with the absolutely genius double tagline 'Pieces: You don't have to go to Texas for a chain saw massacre. Pieces: It's exactly what you think it is.' It's basically the fundamentals of the hard-sell exploitation trailer in under a minute, complete with a giant, red 'Warning!' sign kicking things off. It's all about the hype, really, kind of like the cinematic equivalent of the carny barker whose job it would be to get the marks in off the midway and into the show."
Every good exploitation comes with a warning attached – "Just keep repeating: It's only a movie. ... It's only a movie. ..." – and Stephen Romano's Shock Festival DVD is justifiably emblazoned with its own, which notes that between the grungy grindhouse goregasms and the flaming stewardesses and the dueling commentaries and the – god help us – multiple "easter eggs" to be searched for and found, the viewer will give up seven hours of his life to Romano's wild, wild world of exploitation real, reel, and surreal. And really, that's hardly too much to ask for one of the world's most neglected art forms.
Romano: "Between Shock Festival the book and Shock Festival the triple-DVD, this has been a three-year labor of love for me and, also, for the filmmakers who ended up doing these fake trailers out of love and for zero profit. Basically, I just wanted to say to the world, 'Hey, this is what inspired me to do the book; these are the trailers, for better or for worse, that made me who I am today, and, you know, they really are an art form in and of themselves, and one worth pursuing, collecting, and revisiting over and over again.'"
The 3-disc Stephen Romano Presents Shock Festival set is now available for purchase. For more info, visit www.myspace.com/shockfestival.