Something Weird This Way Comes
Alamo Drafthouse pays tribute to Mike Vraney
The name said it all. Something Weird.
When ex-punk manager and sex-cinema projectionist Mike Vraney founded Something Weird Video in 1990, grindhouse cinema was dead. Worst of all, it had taken decades of exploitation movies with it. Thousands of titles were rotting on shelves with no screens to show them. So Vraney saved them using the very murder weapon that had killed their drive-in homes: VHS. Taking his company's name from 1967's bizarre sleazefest Something Weird (witches! ESP! cocktail parties!), the self-crowned king of crackpot cinema salvaged thousands of sinful titles from the trash heap and injected them into modern homes.
Sadly, Vraney died earlier this year at the age of 56. This weekend, the Alamo Ritz will commemorate him with the gore and strangeness that were his trademarks. First, an afternoon screening of That's Sexploitation!, his documentary with cult director Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) on good ol' fashioned cinematic smut. Then on Saturday night, the Drafthouse booking team has selected five titles from Something Weird's humongous archives in a mystery tribute marathon.
It's no exaggeration to say that Vraney warped a generation of film-loving minds. Take Joseph Ziemba, host of the Alamo's Terror Tuesday series and curator of trash cinema website Bleeding Skull!. He discovered "the aesthetic of Something Weird" when he got a copy of Re/Search's bible of the bizarre, Incredibly Strange Films, for his 18th birthday. He said, "I was so enamored with it, but I couldn't find the films anywhere." Luckily, his freshman year at the University of Illinois he stumbled across Champaign-Urbana's leading video store, That's Rentertainment. "They had an entire wall that just said 'Something Weird,'" he said. It wasn't just the films, but how Vraney presented them. "The design of the tapes was so great, because there was always bright blues and purples, lurid colors, and bright press kits and one-sheets. Then the text on the back would almost give everything but not quite. It was the whole package."
The spine of the collection came from the private holdings of pioneering exploitation producer Dave Friedman, creator of such sinful classics as Scum of the Earth. Yet Something Weird's exhaustive collection didn't just release obvious high/lowlights like hillbilly shocker Two Thousand Maniacs! or hilarious anti-drug "educational" movie Reefer Madness. As the label grew, Vraney added offerings as diverse as amateur-hour stag loops, horribly dubbed sword-and-sandal epics, and ill-informed educational shorts to his roster. Even the mail order catalog was cherished, a veritable Cahiers du Cinéma for perverts and gorehounds. Vraney built a business, and in the process created a massive pop-culture archive. Ziemba said, "I would always crave weirder stuff, and I wanted them to go crazier, and they always would. You start with Nude Scrapbook by Barry Mahon, and you end up with something like Kiss Me Quick that Peter Perry did – where they just threw in monsters and Thirties slapstick and science fiction – and just keep going with it."
Vraney wasn't just an entrepreneur. He was an ethnographic historian of American cinema's dirtiest backwaters, telling the Chronicle in 2001, "We live in a transient society where we throw things away like they're nothing." (See "Something Weird," Feb. 16, 2001.) Like Alan Lomax saved American folk music for the Library of Congress, he archived and released everything from drive-in intermission reels to lascivious goona-goona travelogues, putting a size 10 hole in the idea that smut, sin, and bloodshed began with the Internet. (In fact, next time you're checking out Fifties casting-couch shorts on YouTube, watch for the SWV logo in the bottom right corner.) And it's not just film fans who got an education: Modern burlesque would be a shadow of its pulchritudinous glory if performers couldn't study the shimmy and shake of Betty Page in titles like Varietease. But for Ziemba, Vraney's greatest countercultural contribution was to restore underground heroes like Doris Wishman and Ray Dennis Steckler to the screen. "Every time they put a film out, it was always from the heart and from a place of respect. It was, 'We're not saying that these movies are awful or good, but we're saying they're important.'"
The Weird World of Weird: A Mystery Marathon Tribute to Mike Vraney and Something Weird Video takes over the Alamo Ritz on Saturday, March 29, at 7pm. That's Sexploitation! kicks off the day at 3:40pm. Visit www.drafthouse.com for complete details.