For movie geeks, big communal experiences like horror cons are similar to holiday Catholic mass: you go because you go. You buy into the same belief system as everyone else there, you listen to the anointed and exalted tell the same stories every time, and you convince yourself it was a fulfilling experience. But if the usual gatherings are akin to a spiritually empty church service, repertory screenings are pilgrimages to the Holy Land: special events that devotees undertake due to a deeper need, and which often involve great amounts of faith and sacrifice. And you can evangelize day and night, but only fellow true believers will understand why you're doing it.
But if you get it, you get it, and you'll make the drive, set aside a full day, do what you need to do to make it happen. But if you're not in certain regions, rep screenings are tough to come by. Austin has the Drafthouse, Los Angeles has the New Beverly and Cinefamily, and the truly out there, fringe films they screen are the subject of movie geek envy across the country, if not the globe.
Philly’s a slightly different story. When Landmark bought the Ritz chain a couple years ago, they experimented with midnight screenings, but more often than not they screened surefire nostalgia magnets like Ghostbusters and The Goonies. And that’s not a knock: Landmark brought to Philly 35mm prints of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jaws, and Taxi Driver, and that was awesome. But to really scratch the kind of repertory itch I’m talking about, Philadelphia must turn to Exhumed Films.
Exhumed Films was started by four friends from the Philly/South Jersey area, one of whom is a collector of film prints. They made their bones in the late 90s screening genre staples like Evil Dead 2, slasher classics, and the kind of low rent fare films like House of the Devil failed to emulate. They’re real film fans, with a “by any means necessary” approach to presentation (they’ve changed venues a number of times, once due to a need to find the only projector in the area capable of showing Friday the 13th Part 3 in 3D). Their film prints aren’t always the best (I recall a Phantom of the Paradise screening in the 90s with a near-incomprehensible final reel), but they’re always film prints which, again, if you get it, you get it.
The guys at Exhumed have been doing 24 hour marathon horror screenings around Halloween for the last couple years, but as they’ll tell you, they’re as tired of screening Phantasm and Halloween sequels as anyone. These guys are movie fans, not just horror fans, and this past week they launched Ex-Fest - a 12 hour film festival featuring seven non-horror grindhouse finds. Being a notorious spoilerphobe, to me the genius of their presentation is that they DO NOT TELL YOU the films ahead of time. They drop hints: the posted schedule: a “Euro Western”, an “Italian Crime/Revenge” film, “Travoltasploitation”, “Blaxploitation (From the Philippines)”, “Hicksploitation”, “Kung-Fu”, and “Sexploitation.”* But you don’t know what film you’re going to see until it’s projected. So the unveiling of each film is greeted by cheers, murmurs, and in the case of the “Travoltaspoitation” entry, bewilderment.
The Face With Two Left Feet (this title does not exist on Google; I eventually found a review under the title The Lonely Destiny of John Travolto) is that perfect storm of 70s grindhouse WTF-ness: a Saturday Night Fever rip-off which not one person in the theater had ever heard of, starring and Italian porn star, and a leading man who appears to have undergone plastic surgery to resemble John Travolta.
Had the film not starred one Giuseppe Spezia, it would be a tedious and forgettable entry in the tidal wave of crap disco films that turned up in Saturday Night Fever‘s wake. But the star’s carefully altered and manicured face bears such a bizarre resemblance to Travolta that you’re actually riveted as your mind, unengaged by the plot at any time, tries to imagine the genesis of the film - did they find this guy before they decided to make this film? (Signs point to yes.) Was anyone on set disturbed by this guy’s surgically created chin dimple? And as you stare at such a nearly identical facsimile, you’re confronted with the more existential questions of what makes one man a charismatic movie star, while his physical doppelganger is an absolute void.
From what I could gather, the plot concerns a group of friends who all work in a hotel by day, and hit up local discotheque “John’s Fever” to dance like white people with no self-awareness by night. The hotel cook is a nerdy fella named Gianni, and he pines for the sexy blonde DJ at John’s Fever (la Cicciolina, a good decade before she entered politics and offered to fuck Saddam Hussein in the name of world peace). At the same time, the hotel is abuzz with news of John Travolta coming to visit the hotel. One of our disco-dancing band of rascals decides to be a dick and draws a mustache on his female co-worker’s Travolta poster, and guess what they find out?
This leads to the group to give Gianni a Travolta makeover, starting with a research visit to the movie theater, and ending in the chair of the hotel hairstylist, a homophobic family man who pretends to be gay at work. (Yeah, I don’t know, either.)
The movie montages the living shit out of Gianni’s transformation into Travolta Versione Due, which then sets the stage for them to…steal Travolta’s limo and go to the disco. I think. I’m not really sure why they were going through all this. They spend at least as much time using this Travolta lookalike thing to make the concierge think he’s losing his mind. They’re kind of a hateful bunch. But a wrench is thrown into their plan when they realize their perfect Travolta impersonator can’t dance! They try to teach him, but quite honestly they’re all pretty shitty at it, so they decide to tell the patrons of John’s Fever that he’s forbidden from dancing in public because of a contractual clause.
But Italians are pushy as fuck, so when Gianni heads down to the disco in the white suit, he’s harassed by everyone, including his pre-porn object of desire, and when she begs him to dance, he’s all bewitched by her and can’t say no. His friends look on nervously as his love for la Cicciolina transforms him from a schlub who can’t dance into a schlub who can really barely dance. At all.
(skip to 1:28 for the moment of truth)
The club owner SOMEHOW sees through the ruse, and the jig is up! The booty-shaking buddies must use their disco skills to beat the shit out of the club owner’s goons, and Ciccolina accepts Gianni for who he is. Everyone winks (or tries to wink) at the camera. Roll credits.
The above clip and paragraph pretty much spoil the end of the film, but since it’s not on DVD or VHS, and was never released in the United States, that’s probably all you’re ever getting. And that’s the magic of rep screenings, or at least the magic of Exhumed’s Ex-Fest: We all bought a ticket for 12 hours of movies with no idea what we would get. I had hoped that, at best, it wouldn’t be the Rudy Ray Moore or Troma stuff I’d already sought out on my own, but these guys blew my expectations to pieces. They’ve got a Planet of the Apes marathon in July (hey, we can’t all get to Austin) and are partnering with a Pennsylvania drive-in in the fall to show some vintage sleaze under the stars. I’ll be making that drive for certain. I’d like to thank them for a night - and 14 years - of great film-going experiences.
*The entire lineup, for your Youtube searching pleasure:
Euro Western: CUT-THROATS NINE
Italian Crime: NO WAY OUT
Travoltasploitation: THE FACE WITH TWO LEFT FEET
Blaxploitation (From the Philippines): SAVAGE!
Hicksploitation: REDNECK MILLER
Kung-Fu: THE FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH
Sexploitation: (THE OTHER) CINDERELLA