Exploitation TV: Volume Six

This week it's a trio of madmen who help us start to celebrate the Halloween Season.

For cinephiles, the definition of home video label Vinegar Syndrome’s name is something like a secret handshake. The disease it references consumes celluloid. When film stock starts to degrade, it releases acetic acid, the key ingredient in (you guessed it) vinegar. This phenomenon became a plague during the 80s, chewing up prints of pictures improperly stored in hot, humid conditions. In many cases, where reels of smaller films were scarce due to budgetary restrictions, one bad case of vinegar syndrome could rob the planet of an artist’s work. 

According to a ‘12 study conducted by the Library of Congress, only 14% of nearly 11,000 movies made between 1912 and 1930 exist in their original format. Around 70% were lost completely. Coming in at a close second in terms of casualties is the Exploitation Era. This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, as many of the weirder, more obscure movies made during these decades of disrepute are pictures we’ve probably never heard of in the first place. Thankfully, the Bridgeport, Connecticut boys at VS own a private archive, from which they’ve been pulling and scanning prints of overlooked horror, exploitation and smut cinema from all eras. To make it easier on all us degenerates, they’ve even established a streaming service, where you can log in and watch all the back alley oddities they’ve been uncovering and preserving, so that true vinegar syndrome doesn’t rob us of any more great trash art. 

The Halloween Season is upon us! To commence the celebration, we're spending some time with a trio of murderous madmen...

A Bucket of Blood [1959] (d. Roger Corman, w. Charles B. Griffith) 

"Walter Paisley is born!" Roger Corman had already directed over twenty pictures by the time he helmed A Bucket of Blood in '59, but this savage dissection of beatnik culture feels like a manifesto for American International (the company he ran with exploitation big-wig Samuel Z. Arkoff). The story of a lowly busboy (character actor king Dick Miller) who becomes an overnight success at the poetry house he cleans tables for after coating a cat he accidentally murdered in clay, A Bucket of Blood is a horror movie about art that posits art is whatever we say it is, and all those passing judgement are pretty much frauds anyway. Cheap, jangly, and hilarious, Corman's movie is steeped in jet black irony and a macabre sense of humor, as this newly minted "genius" (who is basically one nervous stutter away from being a Rain Man prototype) graduates from animals to humans, molding them into a portfolio that he sells for bundles of scratch. 

Corman's always labeled his deliberate horror/comedy hybrid an "affectionate satire", but the way it depicts these pretentious coffee shop hounds is anything but loving. Conceived while shooting The Wild Ride ('60) with Jack Nicholson (who shares a producer credit on Bucket), Charles B. Griffith (Little Shop of Horrors ['60], Creature From the Haunted Sea ['61]) injects a scathing sense of judgement over the entire San Francisco art scene. The condescending, spoken word poets and ballad-singing jokers all bow down to this murderous dunce king, and Miller leans into the pauper's transformation, relishing the fact that he's now one of the "creators" instead of a mere admirer. In the end, everyone is full of shit and it all concludes with tears, as this blue collar mastermind completes his opus with a self-portrait that's weirdly devastating for a movie this damn funny. 

I Dismember Mama (a/k/a Poor Albert and Little Annie) [1972] (d. Paul Leder, w. William Norton) 

One of the great elements of 70s exploitation was that the trailers used to sell these movies were often much more hilarious, thrilling and overall entertaining than the actual movies they were cut to shill for. I Dismember Mama is a perfect example of this phenomenon, as the double feature spot used to promote it is one of the greatest instances of grindhouse hucksterism ever committed to celluloid. Paul Leder's work of lurid sociopathy follows Albert (Zooey Hall), a psychotic who's broken free from the looney bin, where he was initially committed for attempting to murder his mother. Albert subsuquently embarks on a rampage in his old neighborhood, torturing and slaughtering women before taking one of their daughters (Geri Reischl) hostage, brainwashing her into becoming his pure, underage bride.

"I'd like to be your father, your friend, and your playmate," Albert salaciously whispers to the girl, bringing the ick level of Leder's film to an all-time high. But the movie never really follows through on its truly nasty premise, playfully dancing around its mad protagonist's desires before descending into a rather tedious recycling of horror film finale cliches. Still, I Dismember Mama (which was originally titled Poor Albert and Little Annie) isn't without its sleazy charms. The "will he or won't he" tension regarding our lead's unnatural love for the little girl is certainly tough to take at times, and Hall owns an unsettling level of lecherous charisma, cooing every line like he's trying to lull each character he enounters into their graves. There's nothing here you haven't seen before, but the scratchy, lo-fi devotion to uneasy melodrama definitely makes it worth at least one viewing for the truly devoted. 

The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer [1993] (d. David R. Bowen, w. Carl Crew)

The "as it occured" filmic accounts of serial killers' real life misdeeds have been commonplace in cinema since John McNaughton annhilated audiences with Henry ('86), but David Bowen's The Secret Life: Jeffrey Dahmer transforms the Wisconsin murderer's heinous spree into a sub-softcore 16mm fantasy, where the mop-headed geek is reimagined as a mulleted glam metal beefcake (Carl Crew, who also wrote this lo-fi experiment). All of the blonde hunk's inner desires are relayed via a breathy, croaking voice over, where he informs us of every bloody action he intends to commit, before savagely dismembering his seventeen victims before our eyes. It's savage stuff. 

Equally unsettling is how The Secret Life embraces its sad fatalism as much as it does the lingering melancholy of Dahmer's existence. There's a sense that this blue collar pinup was never able to stop himself, barreling toward prison and his eventual demise behind bars because it was the only thing that turned him on and made him truly feel alive. There's a repetitive element to the picture, as we essentially watch him drug and keep these men in his heart again and again, but that only helps reinforce what a mundane, sexual act taking a life became for Jeffrey. He was horny and didn't want to be alone anymore, and the fantasy we're witnessing was how he kept on keeping on, day after day. 

Tune in next week for three more picks from your new favorite channel. In the meantime, log in to Vinegar Syndrome’s streaming service to embark upon your own filthy adventures.