Remembering Austin’s Dismember The Alamo 2017
Being a hardcore horror movie marathon junkie, Dismember the Alamo is one of my favorite yearly events that we hold here at the Drafthouse. It's a moment where a room full of fellow weirdos can come and plow through four to five scare pictures (most of which are shown on 35mm, thanks to the involvement of the American Genre Film Archive), celebrating with their geeky community during the spooky Halloween Season. In years past, this writer has schlepped to Houston, in order to see picks from BMD's own Meredith Borders, Evan Saathoff, and Phil Nobile Jr. (not to mention that city's wonderful master of ceremonies, Rob Saucedo).
This year, I stuck closer to home, where Austin programmer Joe Ziemba decided to tailor '17's four film* shindig around a theme of "Shitty Kidz" (which Ziemba says is his absolute favorite subgenre within horror). After being ritually slaughtered on stage by a gaggle of bloodthirsty little mutants, Ziemba welcomed us all to the chaos, the lights went down, and after a pair of trailers before each title (which included everything from Devil Times Five ['74] to The Good Son ['93]), we were treated to a handful of classics that stretched the programming parameters to their very limits (in the best way possible, of course)...
Film #2 - Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told  (d. & w. Jack Hill)
Jack Hill’s Spider Baby (which was projected from Quentin Tarantino's personal 35mm print) is a bridge between the cinematic Old World (read: the haunted house spook fests of William Castle and Hitchcock's Psycho ['60]), and a new, taboo-pushing style of cheapo exploitation, ushered in by the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast ['63]). It’s a cannibal movie that’s lurid, yet undeniably chaste and bloodless, opting to establish a microcosm of “unconditional love” that the Merrye Family enjoys inside their dilapidated, hilltop mansion. From the jokey, animated opening credits of his first solo authorial effort, Hill is signaling that his tongue is firmly in cheek; paying homage to history (right down to the casting of B-Movie legend Lon Chaney, Jr. as patriarch/caretaker, Bruno), while also establishing his own fish tank brand of filmmaking (as Hill was forever obsessed with cults, microcosms, and those exploited within). Predating Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre ('74) by nearly a decade, the severity of that blown out nightmare is never present. Ostensibly the most playful “cannibal picture” ever produced, Hill’s vision is more focused on the ways bonds are bolstered against disease, outsiders and the ravages of time itself, all while chuckling along at its own black-hearted jokes.
Shot in twelve days during the summer of '64, Spider Baby was produced mere weeks after both The Munsters and The Addams Family premiered on prime-time TV. Funded by two real estate developers (Gil Lasky and Paul Monka) who wanted to break into the film industry, Hill was allotted $80,000 to film his own “monster family” story. There’s an overt goofiness and referential quality to the proceedings that places the movie in league with these mainstream smashes (not to mention Sid Haig's bald visage acting as a Fester stand-in). But Hill is interested in cinema, not television, draping each corner of the Merrye estate in dark shadows, from which giant tarantulas can crawl. There’s an air of forbidden sexuality that permeates every frame, as sisters Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn) and Virginia (Jill Banner) roam the halls like lost brides of Dracula, and Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart) begins to embrace her own inner vamp, prancing about in black lace lingerie. By the time we find out what the extended family who's kept in the basement are really up to, Spider Baby has concocted its own intoxicating potion of mega-weird, and Hill is proving that he can make an $80K movie look like a million, dirt and blood-stained bucks.
Film #3 - The Brood  (d. & w. David Cronenberg)
The Brood is arguably the chilliest, angriest entry into David Cronenberg's "early" body horror canon, as he's essentially sacrificing his ex-wife (whom he was involved in a drawn out custody battle over their daughter during its conception) on the altar of his artistic rage. Uncoincidentally, Frank Caravath (Art Hindle - playing Cronenberg's stand-in) is trying to rescue his own daughter from his estranged wife (Samantha Eggar), while the woman undergoes intense psychotherapy at the isolated cult of Plasmatics (pioneered by Oliver Reed's brilliant, typically intense mad doctor, Hal Raglan). In typical Cronenbergian fashion, the internal strife of his patients manifests itself through horrific bodily abnormalities as Frank's wife begins to transform her rage into terrifying, snow suited dwarves, who brutally eradicate the source of their mother's pain.
Were it not for the father/daughter throughline, and one character's late change of heart, The Brood would almost come off as anti-human, as Cronenberg is obviously exorcising a significant amount of psychic pain through his own brand of goopy genre cinema. Yet what's most striking is that - no matter how many times you watch the movie (and for this writer, it's been a lot) - the Canadian master of splattery mayhem is building on his previous horror pictures, Shivers ('75) and Rabid ('77), both of which feel incredibly jangly and unfocused by comparison. Perhaps it was the autobiographical material that also helped him zero in on craft, as The Brood is easily the strongest of those body horror days, at least until Videodrome ('83) came along and blew everybody's faces through the back of their skulls.
Film #4 - Şeytan  (d. Metin Erksan, w. Yilmaz Tümtürk)
Joe Ziemba likes to send his audiences out of the theater bewildered and dazed thanks to his final picks. Last year's dosage of Polonia Powah! (via the SOV maestros' Hallucinations ['86]) was a bugnuts trip into the psyches of teen boys who wanted to wrestle weird dick monsters and watch one character shit out a butcher's knife. This year's pick - the Turkish Exorcist ('73) rip off Şeytan - doesn't quite reach the same level of batshit as that bit of VHS anti-logic, nor does it live up to the promise its brief description holds.
However, watching this wacko transmission from another country's cash in pop culture with an audience was a riot, as the film was projected from a VHS bootleg, that was subtitled by someone that gave up trying halfway through (and started using the onscreen text to become a voiceless version of a Ugandan VJ, cracking their own jokes). This lost in translation approach makes up for the fact that, outside of minor cultural idiosyncracies and usual shoddy production values (these movies all look like they were shot on film stock already plagued by vinegar syndrome), there really isn't much remarkable about this clone. It plays like a sped-up scene for scene breakdown of the original, but there's arguably no other way to watch this movie than in a crowded auditorium. So, for that much, this writer will always be thankful, as Dismember the Alamo yet again did not disappoint in delivering some classic cinema on celluloid, and one bonkers curiosity I can now cross off my own "must see" list.
*We were politely asked not to write about Film #1, as it was a rare mystery title reserved only for this audience. Sorry boys and ghouls!