Exploitation TV: Volume Nine

For the final Halloween Edition of Ex TV, we go on three vacations that turn into nightmares!

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. 

For the ninth installment of Exploitation TV, we take three different vacations, which all turn into seemingly endless nightmares...

Wet Wilderness [1976] (d. & w. Lee Cooper) 

Some movies have zero socially redeeming value, produced simply to play at all-night porno houses in The Deuce, so that men in trenchcoats could get their jollies off in a dark theater. Wet Wilderness is one of those utterly reprehensible works - a mid-'70s "roughie" (read: violent porno) that's all about the rape and destruction of the white American familial unit. The plot (as much as there is one) is simplistically demented: a family of four go on vacation in the woods, only to be attacked by a maniacal rapist, who denigrates and sodomizes them one by one. Late in this one hour work of monstrous carnality, writer/director Lee Cooper introduces an imprisoned black man (whom the sadist has kept tied up in his wooded hideout) just so he can be used as a debased prop in the machete-wielding deviant's acts of violation. 

While the existence of scum reels like Wet Wilderness are impossible to justify from any artistic or moral standpoint, they do act as an insight into what this particular subsection of '70s grindhouse culture meant in the grand scheme of the post-'60s sexual revolution. "Free Love" took an entirely new definition on 42nd Street, in that folks came to these seedy smut houses in order to indulge fantasies they often couldn't in their day-to-day straight lives. You want to see a Danish loop where a woman jerks off a horse? Go visit the bookstore next to the Ritz; they've got that booth. Rape fantasies? See Wet Wilderness in the house next to the one playing a third run of Profondo Rosso ('75). The Deuce was a playground for perverts, and "artists" like Lee Cooper were only filling a niche need they desired, usually using prostitutes as their actresses in these icky artifactsJust like its interracial cousin, Hot Summer In The City ('76), Wet Wilderness is a time capsule regarding the way exploitation and pornography used to cater solely to degenerates, who just wanted to jack off to their own bizarre (sometimes troubling) fetishes in peace. 

Don't Go In The Woods...Alone! [1981] (d. James Bryan, w. Garth Eliassen) 

The ineptitude of James Bryan's slasher boils Don't Go In the Woods...Alone! down to the point that it almost resembles elemental cinema - campers in the woods, an unseen force of primal will, tales told 'round a fire, bumbling cops, a wonky Moog score - all cobbled into eighty minutes of unfeeling slaughter. Characters are introduced without any backstory, only to be offed seconds later. Even do-gooders ogle the bodies of innocent women lost in the wilderness. The camera lumbers about, placing us in its invisible, omnipotent shoes, passively observing as these anti-human happenings go unchecked before our eyes. Then - just as quickly as it began - Bryan's movie abruptly ends, as if there's no more fun to be had torturing audience members with its aloof violence any longer. 

For all its grim murder theatrics, there's an oddball, folksy charm to the way Bryan tells his tale; the mountains of Park City, Utah providing an oddly idyllic backdrop for the horrifying shenanigans going down. The jangly construction of scenes, with truck beds being used in place of a Steadicam to achieve tracking shots, adds an air of "anything goes" DIY scrappiness that's undoubtedly endeared this no budget endeavor to the hearts of horror fans. Still, Don't Go In the Woods...Alone! is only going to be for the slasher devoted, who've seen it all and are merely consuming the remaining curios for their respective tics and quirks. 

Nightmare Weekend [1985] (d. Henri Sala, w. George Faget-Benard & Robert Seidman) 

Less a film than it is a psychic transmission from another galaxy, where a scientist (Wellington Meffert) builds a super-computer (voiced by an external sock puppet, mind you) that at one point tells his daughter (Debra Hunter) the best way to meet a man and lose her virginity is to put on a white dress and go hitchhiking, Nightmare Weekend is less a narrative than it is a series of nonsensical vignettes, stitched together with the sinew of softcore sex and bloody violence. Three college coeds (including future CNN newswoman and NYPD Blue actress Andrea Thompson) are invited down to the mad genius' Florida lair/dream house by his evil assistant (Debbie Laster), where she then allows the oversized Commodore to run rampant with its digital desires for the gaggle of bubbleheads. 

Bikers, exploding faces, tarantulas, inexplicable dubbing, and an arcade/disco that acts as a waystation for these Down South damned are only a few of the idiosyncrasies that make up this otherwise indescribable oddity. The choppy editing (which often resembles botched reel swaps) transitions us from scene to scene, as the green-haired, constantly clapping, plushy interface sics floating, silver Phantasm-style spheres on its new guests, which then force themselves inside a host, reversing any and all personality traits they possess (before ultimately transforming them into demons). For many, this will be a taxing, interminable head-scratcher, while others will see its rather obvious badness elevate itself into the strange realm of gauzy, accidentally avant garde insanity from a French softcore filmmaker who would never attempt to step outside his fleshy realm again. Bon voyage motherfuckers, and have a happy Halloween!