The Criterion Collection of Exploitation Cinema: Mike Vraney and Something Weird Video

01/06/2014 1:40 PM |

The first time I walked into Video Vault, an Alexandria, Virginia, video store, I was looking for a copy of Peter Jackson’s puppet-sleaze-gore-epic Meet the Feebles. It was ca. 1998, and I’d read a review in the Washington Post, and the local Blockbuster didn’t carry it. I mentioned it to a friend and he said, “Oh, they’ve got it at Video Vault. They have everything.” And they really did. I walked in with my dad—I was 16—and asked where I could find the movie. We were pointed to the “Cult” section on the top floor. The store was in a town house, and each room represented a different genre. The higher up you went, the weirder things got. The Cult room was tucked away around a corner and up a small flight of stairs. Walking in, you passed by a framed poster for the smut classic A Smell of Honey, A Swallow of Brine, autographed by its producer, David Friedman.

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The right half of the room was standard cult-movie fare (Eraserhead, Repo Man, Black Devil Doll from Hell, etc.), but the left half of the room displayed an entirely unfamiliar world of cinematic seediness: “Exploitation.” At least three quarters of those shelves were black clamshell cases, bold retro lettering running down their spines, and the same logo up top: Something Weird Video. Some of them had a little cartoon man in a tuxedo, some of them had a screaming mouth with a number in it. The front covers had the films’ lurid original poster designs, jazzed up in eye-popping primary colors. A warning below read “Adults Only.” A block of text on the back provided a brief plot synopsis and a knowing list of the lowlights that awaited the adventurous viewer. “Something Weird was so important to the video store experience,” says Sean Williams, a prolific cinematographer and former Kim’s Video employee. “Also to a sideways exploration of world cinema, making Coffin Joe an easier auteur to explore than any other Brazilian filmmaker. They plunged the four corners.”

Something Weird Video was founded in 1990 by Mike Vraney, who died last week at age 56. Its collection of exploitation films of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s isn’t just second to none—nothing else even comes close. There are no runner-ups, no third places. As a library of popular culture, it’s expansive, fun, and revealing. As a film preservation project, it’s as important and essential as anything undertaken by the Criterion Collection, Martin Scorsese, or the British Film Institute. For cinephiles, it’s the Island of Misfit Toys, the place to go to test your limits, expand your aesthetics, and appeal your more morbid and/or prurient interests. And without Vraney, these films might’ve been lost.

For a generation of video store kids, Something Weird’s impact was monumental, providing access to a nightmare world of outré cinema that’s impossible to forget. “Mike Vraney was a modern day hero to me,” says Baltimore-based filmmaker Dan Bell, whose scum-soaked underground pictures Go-Go Motel and Night Fifty reveled in the SWV spirit. “This savior meticulously rummaged through the cinematic dumpster to retrieve lost, gleaming celluloid treasures that otherwise would have never been seen again.”

Popping in a tape from Something Weird, you were greeted with the company’s iconic opening montage. Set to the greasy, grindy horns of Syd Dale’s “The Hell Raisers,” clips from SWV’s salacious offerings fly interspersed with nasty, perfect dialog. Most of the lines are from Scum of the Earth: “You’re damaged merchandise and this a fire sale!” or “Deep down inside you’re dirty. Do you hear me? Dirty!” My favorite is, “Please, use my body to keep you alive!” from the Argentinian sex/sci-fi shocker The Curious Dr. Humpp. The same way a TV commercial pastiche for an 80s music compilation becomes a new song in and of itself, I’ve seen this montage so many times that I can recite most of it by heart. Only about half the movies featured are identified, and watching a Something Weird title and spotting a shot that’s in the montage always brought a little sense of accomplishment—winning a scavenger hunt through a cinematic sewer.

If you made it all the way through the feature (75 minutes is an epic running time for a Something Weird title), you were treated to even more seedy goodies. Every tape was filled to the end: sometimes with another montage, sometimes with information about receiving the mail-order catalog. Every now and then you’d get a weird experimental film with a naked lady walking through a room surrounded by animated emulsion scratches. You almost always got an impossibly long loop of two go-go girls (from the Michael Findlay movie The Ultimate Degenerate) grinding to the Cadillacs song “The Right Kind of Lovin’” while the company logo drifted back and forth through the frame. Every Something Weird tape was made to order. The movies might’ve been churned out to make a quick buck, but Vraney and his cohorts presented them with endearing affection. “You came to trust the label as a mark of quality,” says Alex Ross Perry, writer-director of The Color Wheel and another ex-Kim’s employee, “the same way less open-minded, highfalutin people do only with The Criterion Collection.”

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