Quick, movie fans: How many degrees of separation exist between the winner of this year's Best Picture Oscar, The Hurt Locker, and Ruggero Deodato's infamous 1980 splatterfest Cannibal Holocaust? Answer: exactly one. In his regular job as a film editor, Bob Murawski won an Oscar himself this year for The Hurt Locker (though he's perhaps better known as Sam Raimi's longtime editor, including all three Spider-Man films). But in his not-so-secret life as co-founder of the distribution company Grindhouse Releasing, Murawski has given kingly treatment to some of the most disreputable movies ever made — among them Cannibal Holocaust, the ersatz snuff movie supposedly "banned in 50 countries!"
"They're just basically movies that we love," says Murawski, who launched the company with fellow exploitation connoisseur Sage Stallone in 1996. "The reason Sage and I started Grindhouse was that at that point in the mid-'90s, nobody was putting these movies out. Or if the movies had been out, they'd been on some crummy low-budget VHS label [run] by companies that only thought of them as product. We just wanted to start a company that viewed these movies in a serious way, like a Criterion-style release."
Murawski's passions as editor, distributor and collector of the celluloid extreme come together in what may be Grindhouse's magnum opus: a movie called Gone with the Pope, playing midnight Friday and Saturday at The Belcourt. The cinematic last will and testament of a lounge singer and nightclub comic named Dominic Miceli, a man once dubbed "Mr. Palm Springs," it's an indescribable mélange of music montages, caper comedy, gangster violence and bizarrely earnest religious drama — capped by jaw-dropping un-PC humor and one of the most grotesque sex scenes ever filmed.
The story of a small-time hood (writer-producer-director Miceli, aka Duke Mitchell) who plots to kidnap the pope for a ransom of $1 from every Catholic in the world, it was handed to Murawski and Stallone the day they met in 1995. They had gone to talk to Miceli's son Jeff about an earlier film of his dad's — The Executioner, aka Massacre Mafia Style — when he said he had the sound tapes and a rough assembly of another feature in his Hollywood basement. It was shot in late 1975, but sat in limbo after Miceli's death in 1981.
Murawski spent the next 15 years meticulously putting the movie together, in between cutting films by Raimi and John Woo. The absence of a shooting script and five reels didn't make it any easier. Nor did Miceli's unconventional penny-pinching methods behind the camera. Not only did he work in single takes, he often ran the camera just long enough to record an actor saying his line. Imagine that method applied to conversation scenes. "The movie was literally almost a 1:1 shooting ratio," Murawski says.
In the end, though, Murawski feels the movie has an obsessive, feverish quality not unlike the early movies of Scorsese and Abel Ferrara. The religious themes, he says, "are handled with surprising seriousness even within the context of an wild exploitation film ."
"Duke is clearly critical of the Catholic church," says Murawski, who spent a month in Nashville in the early 1990s working on a Jeff Speakman martial-arts thriller called The Expert. "But as a Catholic myself, I appreciate that it's all handled with some degree of reverence, which is rare in these kind of movies which are usually content to portray clergy in the most unsympathetic light possible."
If nothing else, Gone with the Pope should easily eclipse Miceli's best-known previous film: 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, made back when he was half of a low-rent sub-Martin & Lewis comedy team called Mitchell & Petrillo. As for Grindhouse, Murawski is turning his attention to a new slate of releases — including William Lustig's sleaze classic Maniac, the 1977 Sondra Locke-Colleen Camp oddity Death Game, and something called An American Hippie in Israel.
"I want these movies to seem special, like you can only see them in a theater and you have to plan to see them," Murawski says. "With everything being available, nothing is special anymore."
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