This past Sunday, I spent the Lord’s Day watching 13 hours of exploitation film insanity and it was amazing. Ex-Fest is an all day event programmed by the good gentleman at Exhumed Films. For those not in the know, Exhumed Films has been hosting horror film events in the Philadelphia area for 16 years. Focused exclusively on film prints, both 35mm and 16mm, they have played some of the most well known and most obscure movies for a ravenous and dedicated audience.
Before I jump into Ex-Fest III, I would like to provide a little context for those not from the area. Philadelphia, even before the digital invasion, has never been a huge market for repertoire film. Those living in Austin who read this blog or NYC have access to regular events of obscure film classics, especially those in Austin with the genre classics regularly shown at The Alamo Drafthouse. Philly has never had anything like that. In order to understand the phenomena that is Exhumed Films one really has to imagine this as a DIY collective. These are four dudes really scrambling over the last 16 years to find reliable venues and venues that still have film projectors (which are an endangered species in the area). They have made a home at The International House in West Philly, a dormitory on UPenn’s campus that also houses the Ibrahim Theater, one of the LAST film capable venues in city limits. No, really.
Exhumed Films’ hard work, independent spirit, and the vast collection of one of their members allow them to show some great films. Harry’s film collection is internationally known, and in fact some of you Austin heads have watched his personal prints down at the Drafthouse on many occasions. Exhumed Films regularly present double features, host a 24 hour Horror-thon around Halloween, and for the last 3 years have hosted a 12 hour Exploitation Film Fest called Ex-Fest. This fest is announced without any inclination of what will play, just like their Horror-thon, you simply buy a ticket and hope for the best! Each year both events usually sell out, and quickly!
This context is needed for you readers to understand the level of absolute excitement I feel for this event. I was stoked to near embarrassing levels. It is also important to understand how rare this is here. For some of you, catching an obscure 70’s shock fest on film is only as hard as looking at the events page in your local paper (wait, showing my age here, internet events page.) Here in Philly, without Exhumed, we would likely only see most of these films visiting another city or getting invited to screenings at Harry’s house! I mean, also the internet. But as we all know, watching films at home and watching them in a theater full of excited mutants are entirely different experiences. So even the films that I did not love (of which there were a couple) I feel incredibly privileged and blessed to have suffered through and maybe even be offended by alongside fellow critics, skeptics, and nerds. IT WAS AWESOME!!
Ex-Fest is always a crazy mix of films and this year was no exception. It was the first year a movie, though dumb, made me think seriously about what is or is not offensive to me. But we will get to that. Most of what was presented I had a visceral entertainment reaction too, even when the quality was not my favorite. First, I will go through and talk about the films, and afterwards I’ll give some details about the event so that those who just wanna know the movies can get their fix!
1. SUNDAY IN THE COUNTRY- 16mm Scope
Hey, lets start out our day with Ernest Borgnine as a pleasant and yet somewhat vindictive Grampa! Sounds great! This movie is an oddly moralistic tale of a Farmer who decides to take the law into his own hands against the wishes of his granddaughter and show some brutal criminals his own brand of justice. That sounds like a killer revenge movie, which is what this should be…but is not. Look, I find revenge movies difficult for a number of reasons, but not least of which is the idea that in order to justify the brutal revenge on screen, a brutal crime needs to have been committed and we the audience need to watch it. No matter how compelling the crime is, I never want to see it. It fills me with dread. Consistently, I hate it. Then I saw this movie, and I hate to be callous, but this crime (in the scale of revenge movie crimes) is kind of lame. So lame that, though they made the criminals pretty bad dudes over all, I could not at any one time identify with the need to put these dudes through the ringer. While Ernest Borgnine, who plays Adam Smith, is a pretty mild torturer by opting only a few times to be truly brutal (there is a mildly awful dog attack) I still felt bad for the criminals which is the exact opposite desired audience reaction for a good revenge plot. Now, I did not feel as bad as the granddaughter feels, and here was where the movie was even more frustrating. The conflict for much of the film is between irrationally vengeful yet oddly pleasant Grandpa, and bleeding heart/awfully naive granddaughter Lucy. That is not a movie I really wanna watch. Borgnine for me was so oddly compelling in a role that on paper lacks real motivation, I still got sucked in. Michael J. Pollard as the one crazy guy in the criminal trio was also great. I loved his alternating between psychotic and whiny, it felt both ridiculous and yet very real. Anyway, not the visceral excitement I would have preferred to start the fest, but I had fun. I don’t if it was because 16mm is harder to scope, but the print at times looked not great, and the focus was a real issue. Still, glad to have seen it.
2. RADIOACTIVE DREAMS- 35mm Scope
Ok, for real what the fuck is this movie? I mean, like, really though. It reminded me at times of SIX STRING SAMURAI, maybe because of the post apocalyptic theme, maybe because of the use of music, but likely because of the superfluous nature of the dialogue. This films starts with two cop-like men running into a bomb shelter during a nuclear blast with two boys. We meet these same boys years later when they are seemingly adults. They have lived in this shelter for years and have read nothing but crime novels and old LIFE magazines. As such, when the film starts with them finally escaping their shelter into a post-nuclear wasteland, they totally lack any modern culturalization, and instead imagine themselves starting their careers as private eyes. Yep. In this post apocalyptic world the boys soon learn that the world is broken into various gangs, each defined mostly by a now extinct sub-cultural group. Needless to say, self-identified, sub-cultural group life has become very cut throat. Through a series of misadventures, the man boys (by the name of Marlowe and Phil) end up with a key to start a new nuclear conflict. Each gang, from the greasers to the hippies (who are also cannibals) double and triple crosses this ignorant duo to get those keys until Milo and Phil decide to fight back. This brief plot description makes it seem like any of that really matters to watching this film, but let me tell you the story is ridiculous and barely cohesive. The dialogue is really nonsensical and at times completely superfluous to understanding what is going on in a scene. In fact the entire film is an editing nightmare, just a giant mess. Much of the footage resembles an extended music video more than anything like a compelling story. Watch this clip:
And understand, this was not a music video associated with the film. THIS IS THE ACTUAL FILM, THE ACTUAL SEQUENCE IN THE FREAKING MOVIE.
I loved it! RADIOACTIVE DREAMS was completely bat shit! It had unjustified and unexplained costumes, “new wave punks” as a sort of dominant over class, the use of a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the inclusion of giant mutant rats. Now, to be fair, many folks I talked to thought this movie was a waste of time. It was too stupid, too silly, too gratingly poor in execution to be worth the time. Yet I have to say, when Sue Saad breaks the fourth wall for an eye gougingly ridiculous musical performance, the film crossed over into the kind of awful brilliance I cannot look away from. My mind was blown. Sound was kind of off with the print, but overall an astounding experience.
3. THE WITH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA 35mm Scope
This 1976 film is one of those classic “crazed woman” films that focus on a young woman whose horrible experiences lead her to commit terrible acts of violence. In this case, childhood trauma, which I will not describe for both spoiler issues and good taste, causes Molly to take razors to various men she is attracted to. This movie is immediately intense and violent, but goes through the motions in a slow manner, building to a truly ridiculous crescendo. I wish I could say I have a good review of this film, but while I liked what I saw, I missed the very end. When one is at a 12 hour film fest with only 5 minute breaks between films, you gotta miss some stuff so you can get your grub on. So I missed the last 15 minutes of this movie for the sake of food.
I do regret it because the ending as described to me sound like a total mind rot, but oh well. This movie style has always been hard for me as I find these psychotic women trope characters actually disturbing, and this one is no exception. Not a very exciting movie, but has some really awesome imagery worth checking out.
4. VIGILANTE- 35mm Scope
WILLIAM LUSTIG, WILLIAM FORSTER, FRED WILLIAMSON, 1983 FUCKED UP NEW YORK, THIS MOVIE SHOULD SELL ITSELF!! I loved VIGILANTE. Yes, this is another revenge film, and a really dark one. But first off I love me some William Lustig and this whole era of New York film making. The number of aspiring film makers ignorant of this gritty time period is astounding to me, so get on it. Point is, this film is classic and stars some of the most familiar faces in exploitation and even just action cinema. I mean, for real, WODDY STRODE is in this. No, really! This film is not just some B-movie visceral ride that makes up for quality with guts, it is actually a really beautiful film to watch. In fact, the only solid film-making it lacked in was the editing on the big car chase towards the end which started to lose some energy for me.
Otherwise, this movie is not only awesome but totally bad ass. Now, as I said previously, revenge films are hard for me. Especially those like VIGILANTE which so often represent a kind of response to evil and violence, which is with more violence, that I hope we all know is immature and destructive. Yet VIGILANTE casts a vision of a city so corrupt, so lazy in it’s own self management, that vigilantism seems like the only choice. And that is compelling. I do wish the film featured a little backlash, a little more evidence that this path of revenge/vigilante justice at the very least is dangerous. Then again, who cares? This is escapist art for me, and as such it is one of the more exciting films I have seen in a really long time.
5. SHOGUN ASSASIN 2 (LIGHTNING SWORDS OF DEATH)- 35mm Scope
I have been told this was Tarantino’s print loaned to Harry for this screening, and if so: THANKS QT!! I freaking LOVE the LONE WOLF AND CUB films that I have managed to see, and even more their English dubbed SHOGUN ASSASIN versions. I have not done much comparison but I know some of you real true Samurai Film Geeks out there know what’s up with this franchise so please comment and let me know how this one stacks up in the series and how the English dubbed and original Japanese versions differ. This was the perfect way to carry me through that mid day slump. Anything slow in this slot might have led to some ZZZZ going on, so thanks for the placement here. If you are completely unfamiliar with this franchise, Ogami Itto was the emperor’s assassin. He refuses to execute a child and becomes a disgraced samurai wandering the countryside with his own child, who becomes the perfect assassin for hire sidekick. These movies are exciting, insanely violent, and just a lot of fun. This one had some moments I could not help but cheer for, and some out of control blood spurts. We also learn more in this film, indirectly, about who Ogami is and what kind of man he is. I loved it, and the print was rather impressive. I guess, for some, this film fest is about obscurity and both this and the last film are not that. For me, it is just about fun and seeing things on film. A perfect choice!
6. GET DOWN AND BOOGIE- 16mm (aka: DARKTOWN STRUTTERS)
I only add the AKA because I think this film got a wider release under that name. I actually think this is one of several DVDs I own but have not yet watched. And I certainly expect it is a less than legal copy that I won in a white elephant contest. Regardless, this is the film that gave me some real thought bubbles during the fest. As I hope has become obvious, this is not generally a deep thought event for me. I do not expect to be asking myself life’s big questions during this fest. GET DOWN AND BOOGIE made me do that. Strange for a film many friends have called “Black Benny Hill but not as fun as that would be.” GET DOWN AND BOOGIE is a 60’s style mad cap, slapstick, goof ball comedy that just happens to be one of the most racially charged films I have seen in a long time. It attempts to get at that racism through humor, and at times is actually a little witty in the way it does that. The story follows a young black woman as she attempts to find her mom. Of course, none of that matters as the goof ball antics take precedence over any plot. What got me thinking was its treatment of African American stereotypes, which it dealt with (it seemed to me) primarily by accepting them but making them seem more positive. This was mostly ineffective, as was the attempt at lampooning white folks, though here it was slightly more successful and even had some fun insights.
The point is: this is a silly movie that is a bit too long, kind of fun, but got my brain buzzing. It is offensive (what racially charged humor from 1975 would not be) yet it also has at its core, past the free watermelon slices or the white guys in pig outfits, some interesting if poorly executed ideas. I think it is mostly enjoyable as a piece of historical oddity, a film that probably causes more harm than it intends to but is still worth laughing at. GET DOWN AND BOOGIE was just a little too off for me to have much fun with it. I think even in over analyzing like I did, it could still have been fun. However, between the flat way the jokes hit and my wondering what to think the whole time, it was kind of meh. GET DOWN AND BOOGIE also shares the failings of many older comedies in it’s treatment of gender and sexuality. They still have some strong patriarchal and very hetero-sexist tendencies that take away from my experience. I love the exaggerated white villain, I hate the inclination to make him effeminate as part of the insult to whiteness. It is perhaps inevitable, but it was enough that I feel compelled to mention it. That being said, since I apparently own it, I will likely watch it again and think about it some more because I am obsessive like that. Only see this if you are into Blacksploitation films that feel more “sploitation” than “black.” The print we saw was a little beat up but not in a distracting way.
7. PINBALL SUMMER- 35mm
Okay: Canadian teen sex comedy that focuses on pinball. Sounds fun, sounds like a good time, maybe even a little naughty. Maybe some nudity and goofy laughs? Sure, why not? There are not enough half naked girls in all of Canada to justify this movie. Total boring crap. The main characters are jerks who you hate as much as the “villains”, and aside from one drive-in scene that for some reason made me giggle uncontrollably, I could have lived the rest of my life never knowing this movie existed.
8. GUMS- 35mm
This film was deemed so offensive by the Exhumed Films guys that they officially ended the fest with the previous film and decided, if you stayed and watch this film, that was your choice. Me and the lady friend did not make it through the entire thing, though not because we were offended (though we both had reached our fill of pubic hair and penis shots.) This porno comedy, a parody of JAWS which at first seemed to hold some amusing promise, was just too poorly done to be compelling. Some points were giggle worthy, but mostly it was just bland. It would only be offensive to any who are offended by seeing nudity onscreen, but it barely felt pornographic because it was not sexy in the least. I was nervous that a room full of folk watching an even mildly pornographic film would just feel gross, but this feels too ridiculous to be that kind of awkward. It was just kind of gross, with a few puns here and there that I loved. But my loudest laughs were in disdain of the film more so than with it. If you like very hairy nudity or just seeing a really bad movie and mocking it, maybe this is a good bet. For us, after so many hours of awesome, we could not make it through this difficult one. I am officially against the idea of pornography, and do not like it personally. But that was never at issue here. GUMS felt less to me like porno and more like naked comedy, and not well done on either count. Oh well, after so much I loved, two bad movies is a price worth paying.
If you read this far, GOOD FOR YOU! The fest overall was awesome. Some things I loved were the food options (hooray for local eateries AND food trucks coming together to sustain a room full of nerds!), the awesome poster and t-shirts by Haunt Love, and the coffee provided by Grindcore House. I saw lots of folks I love, even if I did not get a chance to chat them up. They also give away the best prizes before the event. In case you were wondering I am 0 for 3 in becoming a prize winner. Many are donated posters from a collector who gets a lot of these posters signed at horror/genre conventions.
This year had a few firsts including going for 8 films, which was a trade-off because they didn’t do any trailers. The breaks were also very short (only 5 minutes) between the films. I thought I would love this format, more bang for your buck, but I missed the classic trailers and I missed having more time between films to socialize. Despite my kind of ridiculous complaints, I still had a great time at the fest. If you live anywhere in the area and have not yet come to check out an Exhumed Films event, get on it. The quality of presentation as well as the welcoming community of deviants is well worth it!