Back before VCRs, cable, and the syndication boom, local TV stations hustled to find cheap programming outside prime time. As a result, every channel had morning, afternoon, or all-night movie slots. These slots were the cinematic equivalent of the discount binan elephant’s graveyard for low-budget head-scratchers from the 1950s and ’60s.
Sometimes you might find an undiscovered gemthe eerie 1963 horror movie Carnival of Souls, for example. More often you’d sit wide-eyed and incredulous through the likes of Attack of the Mushroom People, a deranged Japanese fungusfest about castaways who turn into bloodthirsty shiitake. The later the hour, the weirder, sleazier, more surreal and obscure the movies became.
Cable banished most of these films from the airwaves in favor of biweekly broadcasts of Teen Wolf and other 15-year-old box-office hits. But they’ve refused to go quietly. Comedy Central’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 (which goes to the Sci-Fi Channel in the fall) built an enormous cult following on the goofy appeal of crummy old exploitation movies. Its success did not go unnoticed. TNT now devotes every Friday night to “MonsterVision,” a wall-to-wall orgy of mindless mayhem hosted by former Vandy man Joe Bob Briggs. Nashville’s WNAB-Channel 58 shows crappy gutmunchers every Saturday night with horror host Humphrey the Hunchback.
The best of the post-MST breed, however, is Reel Wild Cinema, which airs 11 p.m. every Sunday night. Hosted by Sandra Bernhard, whose retro-nuevo presence fits the material like Spandex, Reel Wild Cinema packs its 60 minutes each week with as much sex, shock, sin, and strangeness as broadcasting standards will allow. Although it has only been on the air since April, it has drawn promising ratings, strong viewer responseand, most importantly, the kind of heavy word of mouth that made MST3K a surprise hit.
Each episode features a different vintage exploitation flick condensed to a breezy 20 minutes of “good parts.” The term is highly relativein the case of 1965’s brain-boggling The Bloody Pit of Horror, the good parts include muscleman Mickey Hargitay mincing around a dungeon in paprika-colored tights, while busty starlets squeal on a rack. The remainder of each show is fleshed out with burlesque shorts, grindhouse reels, drive-in trailers, and interviews with such sleaze mavens as Russ Meyer, actress Tura Satana, and producer/distributor David F. Friedman.
Standards are high at L.A.’s Mondo-A-Go-Go Productions, which originated Reel Wild Cinema for CBS before bringing it to USA. “[The movies] must be absolutely outrageous, out of control, and devoid of social value,” says Marty Sokol, the show’s executive producer, whose tastes were formed during a four-year stint at lowbrow Troma Pictures.
The movies are supplied by co-executive producer Mike Vraney, a well-known name in exploitation circles. Vraney’s Seattle-based company, Something Weird Video, has carved a niche for itself as one of the country’s biggest resources for hard-to-find nudie flicks, B-movies, and overseas horror titles. (The program is, among other things, a very shrewd cross-promotional concept: Something Weird offers full-length versions of each night’s feature for sale, along with T-shirts and other trinkets.) A longtime fan of oddball cinema, Sokol was introduced to Vraney by cocreator and editor Jimmy Maslon. The three hatched the idea for a show that would pay tribute to the wild, the weird, and the wickedly watchable.
Their affection for genre films separates Reel Wild Cinema from similar shows. Each week’s feature is edited by Basket Case director Frank Henenlotter, himself a curator of vintage sleaze, and the movies are prefaced with remarks about directors, stars, or production histories. Silly the program may be, but it has a certain historical integrity. A recent show presented an encyclopedic montage of famous burlesque queens, strippers, and nudie cuties, from Nashville’s own Betty Page to the bodacious Tempest Storm. An upcoming show will feature all three films in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ notorious “Blood Trilogy”Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and Color Me Blood Redwhich ushered in the era of the hardcore gore movie in the early 1960s.
The show still has problems to be worked out. Bernhard’s narration falls prey to a certain Elvira-esque cutesiness, as if the staggering absurdity of Teenage Gang Debs or a Mexican Santa Claus weren’t readily apparent. And the interview segments thus far have been a consistent letdown, uncertain in tone, approach, and content. But when Reel Wild Cinema is really cooking, as on a mind-blowing recent night of hopped-up drug movies, it’s funny, bizarre, informative, and oddly reverenta graduate course in junk cinema conducted by cigar-chomping carnies.
“We’re all fans of the genre and the independent showman,” says Sokol, who at 28 is younger than most of the movies he shows. With an average of 1,000 letters arriving each week from fans, Reel Wild Cinema may be tapping into the same audience as MST3Ka large group of young hipsters, nostalgic baby-boomers, and jaded boob-tube babies who find something fascinatingly awful about the innocuous depravity of yesteryear. The appeal of these bracingly lousy movies lies in their pure unpredictability, an ingenuity born of lunch-money budgets and unbridled ineptitude. No wonder these insane flicks are making a comeback on late-night TV, where the channel-surfing eye constantly searches for twisted sights. Given a choice between the slick, empty professionalism of Teen Wolf and a wrestler menacing babes in a torture chamber, a true insomniac will choose the guy in tights every time.
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