Warped and Bloodied: Two New Books by Drafthouse Veterans
Giving the forgotten children of horror and exploitation the analysis they deserve
For the last 20 years, the Alamo Drafthouse has been ground zero for film preservation. Not the grandiose greats of cinema that will always be the subject of academic discussion and constant distribution, but the unloved and forgotten, the overlooked and underappreciated, the movies of the grindhouse, the drive-ins, and increasingly the neighborhood video store. Movies that played on the circuit with a dozen different names until the print was just a mass of splices and tapes that were played so often the magnetic coating was crumbling away. Through its American Genre Film Archive, they've saved many of those films from disappearing. Now two books by Drafthouse and AGFA veterans – Warped and Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive and Bleeding Skull!: A 1990s Trash-Horror Odyssey – give those films the context and history they deserve.
For Austin moviegoers of a certain vintage, the words "Alamo Drafthouse guide" trigger an à la recherche du temps perdu torrent of memories. Pre-online scheduling, the old zine-sized monthly guide was how cineastes planned their viewing schedule: It was also the only way to find out what half of the films even were. The micro-essays accompanying each listing were a vital insight into these rare titles, especially those that played as part of Weird Wednesday, the Alamo's celebration of grind, sleaze, offbeat genres, and unique visions that defied categorization
So when former Weird Wednesday chief weirdo (now Austin Film Society Lead Programmer) Lars Nilsen and ex-Drafthouse programmer-turned-author and filmmaker Kier-La Janisse started the process of compiling all those blurbs into Warped and Faded, it was simply a matter of getting all those guides, scanning them, and ...
Nilsen could scarcely suppress a snorting laugh. "Not really. It was hard to find them."
Turns out, no one had thought at the time to preserve a complete library of this now-historical resource, and Warped and Faded quickly became a lot more than just copying and pasting. Around three years ago, Alamo founder and Executive Director Tim League approached Janisse about editing a book about Weird Wednesday. In fact, the project was being discussed back when she first joined the Drafthouse in 2003 but, she said, "it was still pretty early days, so there was no Mondo, no merchandise branch of the Alamo."
The massive, glossy volume they finally produced was a long way from what a 2003 version would have looked like. Nilsen said, "Back in the early days, what I think people were envisioning was that we would make a mimeographed, stapled-together zine."
It would have been quite a zine. In total, Weird Wednesday has shown over 700 films drawn from an ever-expanding cache of prints that would become the film preservation nonprofit, the American Genre Film Archive; and every title shown up to AGFA's incorporation in 2009 is included in the book. However, this is when relying on those guides would have been risky. In those early, chaotic days, Janisse said, "We'd have a film in the calendar, but then there'd be something wrong with it, and it would be swapped out at the last minute." However, the book is an accurate history of what screened, not the wish list alternative reality where a print didn't turn up in shreds, or some distributor back in the day hadn't marked a stack of reels as the 1979 Canadian version of H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, when the cans really contained Texan sci-fi softcore skin flick Things to Come. Fortunately, another Drafthouse programming regular, Jake Isgar, had been working on a spreadsheet of what had been shown when, and when there had been replacements. Janisse said, "We'd have no blurb for that movie, because it was a last-minute replacement, so new blurbs had to be written."
But that's not all that's written new for the book. Warped and Faded is also a potted history of the explosion in interest in collecting and preserving exploitation movies on 35mm in the early 2000s. Nilsen said, "These were movies that a lot of the older collectors didn't want. They didn't want them in their collection, they didn't want them in their home, they just didn't want them in their lives." It was a new generation of collectors like Exhumed Films programmer Harry Guerro and filmmaker Ant Timpson, that helped save these films from the literal trash heap. For Nilsen, that's what made the scene around these remarkable movies so important. "If you knew about these films, it's because you actually cared."
Visually Horrifying Stunners
Caring is the reason why Bleeding Skull, the celebration of ultra-underground VHS-era horror, exists. Joseph A. Ziemba that started the cranial crimson flow in 2004, when he launched his website bleedingskull.com as a personal passion project, dedicated to all the unsung heroes of terror who sprayed gross-out gore all over the video store shelves. The website was "just escapism and stress release," he said, "to write about these movies that I felt deserved a little more respect in the world." Movies that were unloved, or forgotten, or only ever released in home-duplicated copies out of a gas station in Wyoming. Movies like plastic-fanged vampire suckfest Dracula in Vegas (shot in East Transylvania's only trailer park), inexplicable exercise video Lisa Cook's Deadly Workout, or the entire catalogue of David "The Rock" Nelson, whose negative-budget films are like a kid throwing all their toys into one big pile, only with monsters, and just as much fun.
Fast-forward 17 years, and Ziemba's hobby has become a cornerstone of film preservation and celebration. In his day job as AGFA creative director, he's overseen restorations of many of the 35mm prints that made up the backbone of Weird Wednesday and its sinister sibling, Terror Tuesday, plus he's added those shot-on-video horrors into the mix. Plus, Bleeding Skull is bigger than ever. He said, "It blows my mind, every day, when I step back and think about it."
He's also just released his second Bleeding Skull book. In 2013, he co-authored Bleeding Skull!: A 1980s Trash-Horror Odyssey, a shuffle through the shelves of 1980s underground horror. Now comes its sequel, Bleeding Skull!: A 1990s Trash-Horror Odyssey, written with fellow obscurity enthusiasts Annie Choi and Zack Carlson (Ziemba's predecessor as Terror Tuesday host). Ziemba called this new volume "a natural progression" from the first, inspired by his own changing tastes. When he started Bleeding Skull, exploitation cinema journalism was caught in a drive-in and grindhouse time loop from the mid-Fifties to the late Seventies. "The Eighties stuff was so fresh because no one had really gone deep on those movies. As the site progressed and our interests progressed, the Nineties started to feel more appealing." Amid the torrent of lazily ironic Scream rip-offs and Tarantino wannabes "we realized that there were just as many DIY movies that were super-pure in their intent."
Both Bleeding Skull books are dedicated to vaporizing the idea that these films are disposable. "They're not things people respect or are of proud of watching," Ziemba said. That doesn't stop audiences watching them, although Ziemba mournfully noted that they're streaming "fourth-generation rips that were compressed with RealAudio 20 years ago. So part of the goal is to raise awareness, and make sure that people are watching them in the right way." That means there's no place for "so bad it's good" thinking, an idea Ziemba has been waging war on since Bleeding Skull started. "It's entitlement. It's projecting something on the movie of what you think it should be without accepting it for what it is."
Now, through AGFA's Blu-ray releases and theatrical distribution program, these films have new life supplemented by the essays and reviews of Bleeding Skull – even if that means the warm fuzz and shoddy tracking of magnetic tape. Not that Ziemba's bothered. "Format doesn't matter to me," he added. "I just want to see the movie in the best way possible, as it was originally conceived to be seen."
Warped and Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive by Lars Nilsen and friends, edited by Kier-La Janisse, Mondo, 416 pp., $35
Bleeding Skull!: A 1990s Trash-Horror Odyssey by Zack Carlson, Annie Choi, and Joseph A. Ziemba, Fantagraphics, 272 pp., $34.99