Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Some filmmakers have their fingers on the pulse of the movie-going public, others down its throat. The latter group constitutes the rogues' gallery of Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford's Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square! (Fireside/Simon & Schuster, 2002; 315 pages). Landis, who earlier published a splendid biography of Luciferian auteur Kenneth Anger, and wife Clifford vividly recreate the lost world of Manhattan's 42nd Street, the former cesspool which now serves the Big Apple's international tourist, as opposed to its rough, trade. Landis (1959-2008) pulled several years as a projectionist/manager at sundry fleapits, braving a workplace where "muggings and bloody needles were the order of the day." His legendary fanzine helped legitimize the grindhouse genre, earning him the enmity of underground heavyweights Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs, while endearing him to Mr. Anger. (Anger later feuded with Landis over his unauthorized bio, but that's showbiz.)

The tour ranges from the stylized kink of the Olga trilogy (1964-66) and other early roughies to women-in-prison epics and mondo movies. Their creators are creatures of the night: shadowy, often pseudonymous people who move with hand-held Bolexes through the margins, where magic usually happens. Film distributor Stan Borden "was slobbering, but he was personable." Producer George Weiss "had a Jungian feel for the sordid American S&M unconscious." Andy Milligan made movies for as little as $750, and the costumes for his gory period pieces were loudly colored so as to survive the blowup to thirty-five-millimeter. Once, when his Sweeney Todd ripoff Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970) was resurrected at the Lyric, a censored throatslitting--performed to appease the MPAA--resulted in the hurling from the balcony of a small refrigerator. "The crowd became agitated," Landis notes dryly. These were dangerous places to displease an audience.

The Cameo purveyed industrial-strength hardcore, while the Anco "sat on a nest of rotten eggs." Genderbenders from Ed Wood to Doris Wishman unreeled while "Latino junkies on the lam after a quick strongarm robbery slumped in the aisles." The Rialto programmed an unrelenting gore apocalypse; the Roxy's blaxploitationers "were as inflexible and distinct as the troublemakers sitting in the audience." These theatres form an infernal roll call as the authors invoke the Dark Gods of the Tenderloin.

Of course, conjuration demands sacrifice, preferably bloody. Roughie pioneer Michael Findley was decapitated in a helicopter crash atop the Pan Am building. Laurence Merrick, director of 1972's Oscar-nominated Manson documentary, was murdered several years after the film's release, as was interviewee Ronni Howard. The toll was also psychic. William Sanderson, best known today as hillbilly Larry from Newhart, hanged a black pastor's wife in Fight for Your Life (1977), a picture "calculated to drive inner city audiences berserk with rage." He told Clifford he was afraid the film would come back to haunt him. (Landis, who was present at an Empire screening, reports that "white patrons tried to leave the theatre as unassumingly as possible"). Many filmmakers never made any money from their work. Distributors sold prints to subdistributors, who could reissue them with impunity while their creators received no residuals whatsoever. Roger Watkins was unaware for years that his pseudo-snuff Last House on Dead End Street (1977) was actually playing somewhere and even turning a profit, as well as stomachs. The Dark Gods have a voracious appetite.

The title of Larry Buchanan's High Yellow (1965) "was so offensive you had to call the boxoffice." David Durston, director of Boy-napped (1975), spent a night in the pokey after star Jamie Gillis ran through Little Italy with a pistol, alarming the locals. Bob Roberts' 1976 porno take on the Patty Hearst saga, Patty, was closed by court order after only one week. Landis and Clifford enthusiastically convey the grit and the grime of psychosexual cinema in the funniest Deuce memoir since Josh Alan Friedman's Tales of Times Square.

This is not to suggest the book is without faults. The authors perpetuate the myths that Milligan directed 1964's The Naked Witch (it was Buchanan), and that celebrity monologist Spalding Gray appeared as the depraved El Sharif in Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976). They also claim that Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (1980) was the director's response to Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox/Make Them Die Slowly (1981), when it's the other way around (though Lenzi did inaugurate this notorious subgenre). Ivan Rassimov, and not Massimo Foschi, is listed as the star of Deodato's The Last Survivor/The Last Cannibal World (1977), and so forth. These are curious errors for film cultists to make, and Sleazoid Express would have benefited from tighter editing.

To take this tour, however, is to experience by proxy the movies' anti-canon, a refreshing alternative to that puffed-up mainstream that imagines As Good As it Gets (1997) is as good as it gets. The socially disreputable sorcerers of cinema remain as vital as ever in this age of Hollywood product whose innovations are inversely proportional to their stratospheric budgets. Really, now: Wouldn't you rather watch I Drink Your Blood (1970) or White Slaves of Chinatown (1964) than the latest groaner from Jerry Bruckheimer? (Video companies are helpfully appendiced.) See them and die a thousand deaths.