There are few matches made more in heaven Austin’s American Genre Film Archive and Seattle’s Something Weird Video. A sort of sister organization to the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain, AFGA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit founded in 2009. They work to preserve the legacy of genre and exploitation cinema through preservation, restoration, and distribution. The latter part of that mission, of course, has been severely curtailed by the pandemic.
According to AGFA director Joseph A. Ziemba, “Before COVID, it was kind of incredible how fast our theatrical catalog was growing. It was our bread and butter for 3-4 years. As soon as COVID hit and all the theaters closed, though, we had to pivot very fast. It was panic mode for three months, figuring out what we had to do, what to focus on, and just how to survive during this.”
AGFA has weathered the storm by accepting donations, selling exclusive downloads, and through their small but superlative catalog of home video releases. Ziemba doesn’t expect things to be running at full steam again for a couple years, but their mission endures.
Something Weird Video has a few years on AGFA, having been founded by the late Mike Vraney in 1990 to make bizarre, discarded low-budget cinema of the 1930s-70s available on home video. With the help of his wife Lisa Petrucci (who has kept the company going since Vraney’s passing in 2014) and fellow obsessives like filmmaker Frank Henenlotter, Something Weird has worked tirelessly to champion dome-melting films by the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Doris Wishman, Fredric Hobbs, Ed Wood, and a seemingly endless parade of iconoclasts and degenerates. In recent years, Petrucci has struck up an ongoing partnership with AGFA to create 4K digital transfers of some gems from their vast catalog and keep the dream alive for a new generation of freaks.
Since Halloween is a favorite holiday for exploitation film lovers and Riot Fest fans alike, now seemed a good time to get Ziemba on the phone for a rundown of some spine-tingling oddities from Something Weird’s catalog. Ziemba is an exploitation film fan first and foremost, having maintained the blog Bleeding Skull since 2004; his opinions come from a place of true enthusiasm for the creepy, trashy, and just plain odd. If you’re looking to dip your toe into the Something Weird world, he’s a voice you can trust!
JOE ZIEMBA: This is probably the one that most people know out of any of the list, but it’s really important to me. When I discovered Something Weird, Basket Case was one of the first VHS tapes I rented… I would go into the video store and see this wall of neon dayglo spines, and it was just Disney World for degenerates! I couldn’t believe these movies, and didn’t know anything about them. The first few weeks that I got into Something Weird in college, I rented Ed Wood’s Necromania, because I was a big Ed Wood fan. That was followed by Doris Wishman’s Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73.
Basket Case was there, as well, and it had a great cover: a basket with these eyes looking out and this insane-looking monster. I had to see it! It stuck out more at the time because it was from the ‘80s, whereas most of the Something Weird movies were from the 1960s-70s, but it also stuck out because it was the ideal of a certain type of movie. It has EVERYTHING! It’s like Herschell Gordon Lewis directing Freaks on the set of Taxi Driver. There’s stop motion, real-life sleazy people on the street, and this puppet monstrosity jumping out and killing people.
So much about it is just so authentic and pure, it’s a beautiful movie. Obviously, it’s not politically correct; it’s an exploitation movie. But what a gutter trash symphony! It just stuck with me forever.
Also, Frank Henenlotter, as both a filmmaker and a person, is like John Waters to me, just a national treasure. His work is amazing, but he’s also so knowledgeable and articulate about exploitation history. He’s a great, great person.
Henenlotter plays a really interesting part in the Something Weird lore, but it is interesting. His films come a bit later, and from more of a self-aware and satirical place than a lot of what inspired him. It resonates on the same level, though. Do you have any insight as to why that is?
Frank’s not only a fan of exploitation history, he’s one of the foremost authorities on it. He was there with Mike Vraney finding these films and discovering them for the first time, and had lists of movies he wanted to find, and which they found together.
I think his outlook towards those movies, celebrating them as glorious pieces of art — he’d watch something like The Curious Dr. Hummp with the same reverence that he’d hold for a Douglas Sirk movie, for the kind of “important” film that maybe Criterion would release — really spoke to how he went about making his own films. He knows what he loves, and he’s kind of reliving it when he makes his own movies.
[Editor’s note: The trailer for Indecent Desires isn’t currently on YouTube, so we picked this cutely combative interview between Wishman and Conan O’Brien from 2002 instead. You can see the trailer on the Something Weird website.]
ZIEMBA: Doris Wishman only made a handful of horror movies, so for this list specifically, Indecent Desires is the one you want to watch. It has the base level otherworldliness that accompanies a Doris Wishman movie, because of the way she went about making movies: they were all post-dubbed in very strange ways, so there’s lots of shots of peoples’ feet and ashtrays to cover up the fact that she didn’t have sync sound. She did whatever she could do to get around showing peoples’ mouths onscreen! When you know that, the techniques make sense, but if you watch her films for the first time not knowing that, it seems like it’s from another planet. She also had a very manic editing style; she didn’t know how to edit film herself, so she’d sit behind someone and yell at them, telling them what to do. So, the movies become this complete refusal of all earthly logic. When you go into one of her movies, it helps to know it’ll feel that way.
Indecent Desires, though, has another level on top of that. The plot is basically this guy in New York looks into a garbage can, finds a toy doll and a magic ring, and he uses those two things to control people and make them do what he wants. The plot is bizarre enough on its own, but paired with this strange style, it becomes this central Doris Wishman experience.
In addition to her films Deadly Weapons, Double Agent 73, and A Night To Dismember, Indecent Desires is kind of “the one”. It’s more obscure than some of her other films, but if you want the Wishman experience, it delivers on every level.
I also think it’s really important that Doris’s legacy lives on, because she’s the most prolific woman filmmaker of all time. Her stuff has been looked at a lot as a weird novelty, but she had such a distinct style. She’s really important.
PSYCHED BY THE 4-D WITCH
(WARNING: this clip is mildly NSFW, so here’s hoping you’re working from home.)
ZIEMBA: For the first ten years I was diving into the very deep Something Weird catalog, there were specific movies that just broke my brain. I’d sit on the couch and not believe what I was seeing. Psyched By The 4-D Witch was definitely one of those experiences.
It’s very experimental, and it’s mostly a sex film with horror elements. I’ve always thought of it like if the Kuchar Brothers made a movie of (1970s comics magazine) Vampirella in someone’s garage! It’s got these sex elements, horror, vampires, but it also feels like you’re stepping into the mind of a serial killer making a home movie on Super-8.
It’s so far gone. So much happens, and it’s really funny, trippy, experimental… it’s all of these things together. It’s NOT for civilian audiences… if you’re reading this and thinking “oh, this sounds like a good horror movie for Halloween”, it’s not! This isn’t a movie for normal people. If you’re deep into this world, though, and you want something that’s completely foreign to anything you’ve seen in your life, I’d go with Psyched By The 4-D Witch.
WIZARD OF GORE
ZIEMBA: The biggest thing that makes this one stick out over other Herschell Gordon Lewis classics is Allison Louise Downe. She was Lewis’ longtime partner, and did a lot of work uncredited for him: she wrote most of the script for Blood Feast, she worked behind the scenes in multiple ways and even starred in a few of the films. For this one, though, out of nowhere, she steps up and does all the gore effects. This is a super-important part of horror history: this was a woman who taught herself to do gore effects, before there was a Tom Savini or really any kind of industry built around horror special effects. She was there first!
Also, though, her input elevated Wizard Of Gore. It’s a next-level Herschell movie! In a lot of his other films, the camera sits 10 feet away from everyone and things happen. It’s pretty static. The Wizard Of Gore still has that, but Lewis was also playing with dream imagery and surrealism in a way that most of his other movies don’t (The Taste Of Blood did it, too, but it wasn’t so focused).
Even though it’s got one of the longer running times in his catalog, it holds up because of the combination of Downe’s input and her effects work. Also, though, the subject matter of the film, where you’re questioning whether it’s a dream or not and they’re messing around with media and television, makes it multilayered in a way a lot of Lewis’ other films aren’t. It’s a midnight movie on the level of, say, Multiple Maniacs or Night of the Living Dead. If you have any interest in the history of horror, you need to watch The Wizard Of Gore.
THE ZODIAC KILLER
ZIEMBA: I first saw this one at the tail end of my aforementioned discovery phase, and it’s probably the last one I watched that made that major impact on me. It’s fascinating to think that someone made a movie to catch a serial killer when he was still at large. Imagine the danger involved in that! It’s one thing to have that idea, but following through on it was complete madness. Also, to find out that the person who made it was able to finance it because he owned a chain of pizza restaurants in California… the story just keeps getting better!
The film is trying to be a true crime expose, but it goes to places that, in retrospect, make no sense. They didn’t know a lot of the facts then, so they had to fill things in. It’s just a fascinating snapshot of the time, too: knowing that they were screening it in San Francisco when the killer could show up at any moment and see it is pretty terrifying! (Director) Tom Hanson was dead serious, though: he wanted to catch The Zodiac Killer AND make a million dollars by making this movie.
At screenings, they would set up these elaborate traps in the theater to try to lure The Zodiac Killer, which would never happen today. There would be rent-a-cops in an ice cream freezer underneath the ticket booth, waiting for someone to buzz in and say, like, “hey, we’ve got a hot one!” so they could pull them into the bathroom and grill them. “ARE YOU THE ZODIAC KILLER?”. It’s total lunacy!
There’s so much that’s special about the movie, and it’s the one film on here that AGFA has released on home video, our first restoration project with Something Weird. Sebastian (del Castillo, AGFA’s Head of Film Preservation) and I got to spend time with Tom Hanson when we were recording commentary and working on the extras for the home video release. Before that, the only info that was really out there about Tom was an extensive interview with Chris Poggiali for Temple of Schlock… we were really intimidated to hang out with him, but he was everything we hoped he would be, everything that you would think a man who owned a chain of pizza restaurants and dropped everything to make a movie in order to catch a serial killer would be! He’s a real straight shooter, but there were so many things where it was hard not to be incredulous. We asked him if he was scared and he was just like “no, I was carrying a gun the whole time.” It was a fascinating experience, and it made the movie even more special learning all these crazy things from him.
The American Genre Film Archive is chugging along, but they’re always accepting donations. Bonus: a very small donation can net you a download of one of their Mystery Mixtapes or a few select obscurities from the Something Weird catalog (of course, you can always donate more for those).