Forgotten Film Fest
July 20, 2014
by Tim Mayer
Exhumed Films have been putting on shows in the Philadelphia area for the past 17 years. Their goal has always been to screen the sort of films Chestnut Street grindhouses would play in the glory days of the 1960s and 70s. Utilizing a network of collectors, they’ve been able to present films rarely seen outside their initial releases.
So I was excited to attend Last Sunday’s Forgotten Film Festival at the International House near the University of Pennsylvania. International House is a large residence facility built decades ago for foreign students. It comes equipped with a fully functional theater which can project 35mm film, always a crucial element in seeing obscure feature films. International House is a little easy to mistake for an office building, since it’s located next to the University of Pennsylvania.
As always, parking is the one thing to keep in mind when attending a film showing in Philadelphia. I parked right out in front of International House, thinking that – it being Sunday – there would be no street parking fee. Guess again. Because I was adjacent to the U of P campus, that part of Chestnut Street charges for parking from 8AM to 8PM every day. Always look at the parking signs, because if you don’t, you’ll find a nice invitation from the mayor’s office under your windshield wiper.
By the time I picked up my Fest ticket (and purchased another one for this October’s 24 Hour Horror-thon), the show was about to begin. I made my way through a mass of urban hipsters and cinemaniacs to the auditorium. But first I had a chance to chat with one of the organizers and get a question answered: since these are privately-owned prints being shown, does Exhumed Films ever get flak? Has someone ever called them up and claimed to be the rights holder? Apparently not. I was told in 17 years it’s only been an issue three times. Surprisingly in these days when distant relatives pop up and suddenly demand some studio fork over the cash for DVD rights.
Prior to the showing, the packed house was entertained by Mr. Chris Poggiali of Temple of Schlock, who talked about the interesting facts behind the production and release of these forgotten films. For example, he mentioned that SKATETOWN USA was rushed into production so it could beat the competing roller disco movie ROLLER BOOGIE into theaters by two months. He also lectured about the mob which swarmed over the Cherokee Theater in Atlanta where SON OF DRACULA premiered.
After one of the organizers warned the audience to view respectfully, the show began. As always, the day began with some classic trailers dug-up from God Knows Where. Most were forgettable, with the exception one for the 1985 Live Aid show which (literally) featured Bowie and Jagger dancing in the streets (going to be a long time before I can burn that image out of my skull).
The first feature was SKATETOWN USA, one of several movies filmed to cash in on the brief roller disco craze of the late 70’s. I’d like to give a precise description of the plot, but it’s not possible. It had something to do with a gang of skaters called the Westside Rollers showing up at a huge roller rink, called Skatetown USA (of course) where a skate competition is being held. Patrick Swayze played “Ace,” the leader of the gang. His appearance provoked laughter from the audience, although they continued giggling throughout the movie. Let’s see, Scott Baio was in the movie as was Maureen (“Marsha! Marsha! Marsha!”) McCormick. I noted the late comedian Vic Dunlop as a concession stand employee. Dean Martin’s uncle, Leonard Barr, made an appearance as an elderly comic who kept up a running gag while Dorothy Stratten (as "Girl at Snack Bar") demanded her pizza. Billy Barty played Flip Wilson’s father. We got to see Flip in drag. And there were more pink afros, tube socks and suspenders than can be imagined, plus impressive camera work and even more impressive skating. Did I cover everything?
SON OF DRACULA (1974) was next, and I managed to miss the credits when I ran out to move my car to a street where the parking was free on Sunday. Chris had told us during his introduction that the film had been re-released by distributor Jerry Gross under the title YOUNG DRACULA after the success of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. I learned later that the YOUNG DRACULA title card that was sloppily cut into the print screened at the fest garnered big laughs.
Let me tell you a story about SON OF DRACULA. Years ago this film played my hometown of Dayton, OH. I’d read about the movie in the entertainment section of the local paper, so I was eager to see it. The Nilsson song “Daybreak” was even on the local AM stations. That damn movie played for all of one week at a downtown hippy art theater and then vanished, never to be seen in any format.
Sunday, I found out why.
God was this movie a dog. What genius thought Harry Nilsson would make a great movie star? The man spent the entire movie walking around in a trance while the other actors tried to carry the plot. It had something to do with Count Downe (Nilsson), the son of Dracula, coming to Britain to be crowned the King of the Netherworld. The only watchable parts were Nilsson performing some live music. It was in the afternoon when this film was shown and I still had to fight sleepiness. Couldn’t someone have pulled Nilsson aside and tried to give him acting lessons? The only reaction the movie got from the audience was applause when Keith Moon appeared as one of Nilsson’s back-up musicians.
I also missed the opening credits to the next movie, Andy Milligan’s BLOOD, because I was out buying dinner. During his introduction, Chris explained that this was originally released as the co-feature to LEGACY OF SATAN, but also played in New York, Cleveland, and parts of Illinois and Florida as BLACK NIGHTMARE IN BLOOD (as the second feature to CHINESE HERCULES), and actually made Variety's Top 50 Grossing Movies chart one week under this title. The print screened ran 69 minutes, more than 10 minutes longer than the overseas video releases.
Milligan had a thing for roses and they’re all over the house in BLOOD. Even the lead actress sports roses in her hair. There’s also a hilarious confrontation between Dr. Orlovsky and the lawyer, which makes a lot of sense when you realize Milligan’s chief financial backer was a member of the legal profession. Talky as always, BLOOD lets you know Milligan had a theatrical background. Definitely a real treat!
The second to last movie, MURDER ON THE EMERALD SEAS (a.k.a. THE GREAT MASQUERADE and THE AC/DC CAPER), was in the best shape of all the prints. As it was a shaggy dog joke incarnate, I’m guessing the movie hadn’t passed too many times in front of a projection lamp. A 1973 movie by Alan Ormsby, who gave us CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, SEAS was a comedic mystery about a police detective who goes undercover as a woman to find a serial killer on board a cruise liner (“The Emerald Seas”). Henny Youngman has a 30 second cameo in it, so the film has at least that much humor. But the rest of it consisted of jokes that don’t work today, if they ever did, such as a dwarf telling a tall model he can’t loan her any money this week because “I’m a little short,” or this zinger from an undercover cop: “I should have joined the sanitation department. My brother did and he cleaned up.”
Finally we came to the star of the show, a movie so obscure that it had not been seen in 40+ years: THE SATANIST. This turned out to be a black and white adult film from 1968, arguably the last year anyone was filming feature films in B&W. What I had hoped would be a forgotten horror movie turned out to be one long exercise in watching women with fake eyebrows undress. It began with a brief introduction by a writer in an insane asylum. He wanted to tell the audience a story about what happened to send him there. Next, it moved to him and his wife (in a tight dress) at a motel. And it didn’t go much of anywhere after that point. Since the filmmaker was trying to avoid prosecution by the local censorship boards (this being in the dark days of the 60’s), nothing was shown in front below the waist, of either sex. At one point I thought the movie might go all Kenneth Anger when a semi-nude young woman began casting a magic circle to the sound of sitar music, but this proved to be a ruse. Even the audience began fidgeting in their seats five minutes into the movie. The frequent close-ups of the actors’ ecstatic faces did provoke laughter from the crowd. It appeared to have been filmed without sound.
Most of the attendees enjoyed themselves. On the street it was easy to spot anyone who was there for the festival, because they tended to be wearing David Lynch T-shirts and discussing Argento films – not the sort of conversation you normally hear, even in the vicinity of the university. At one point I noted a couple filming their own “At the Movies” style show with a camcorder. Nor was it unusual to see people in the audience writing down notes as the movies were playing.
Once again, Exhumed Films gave cineastes a chance to travel back in time to the days of sticky floors and stale popcorn, a time where the movie you were going to see could be a retitled version of what you’d just seen last week, or something so fascinating it would change your life. I’m eagerly awaiting the 24 Hour Horror-thon this October.