The American Genre Film Archive On Why Exploitation Movies Are Worth Preserving

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The late Mike Vraney, a former projectionist with a penchant for the unusual, founded Something Weird Video in 1990, showcasing the best in exploitation cinema from the 1930s to the 1970s. Featuring sleazy sexploitation flicks, drive-in classics, gory horror tales, and weird obscurities, Something Weird became a right of passage for B-movie fans around the world. The company introduced audiences to the icons of exploitation, including Joe Sarno, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and Doris Wishman.

Since Vraney’s tragic death in 2014, an organization out of Austin, Texas has been working with Something Weird to preserve the collection’s 35mm prints and introduce the bizarre catalogue to a whole new generation. The American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) was officially formed in 2009, but its founders have a love of genre cinema that stretches back to their youth.

Flavorwire recently spoke with AGFA member Joe Ziemba about working with filmmakers like Nicolas Winding Refn to preserve these offbeat movies, their upcoming slate of exploitation releases, and a new Kickstarter campaign to bring Something Weird into the future.

Flavorwire: Who is the superhero team behind the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA)? It’s a somewhat mysterious entity.

Joe Ziemba: It’s a non-profit in Austin, Texas. There’s one full-time employee, Sebastian del Castillo. He’s the head archivist at AGFA, and he basically handles all of the day-to-day goings on — inspecting prints, organizing the entire collection, keeping everything on track. There’s a small group of us who also work for the Alamo Drafthouse and donate our time to working towards AGFA. We love it and believe in it so much that we just want to do it all the time. It’s myself, Tommy Swenson, Laird Jimenez, one of the programmers here in Austin, and then there’s Zack Carlson, a former Drafthouse employee who now works for Fantastic Fest and is still part of this family.

Knowing your work with Bleeding Skull [Ziemba’s trash horror film website] and some of the group’s interest in weird genre cinema, did the concept for AGFA come about as friends discussing films and wanting to combine passions toward a great good? What led to the belief that it’s essential for you to do this work?

It really started with Tim League, who is the CEO of the Alamo Drafthouse. He found a depot of prints that were for sale. It might have been the late ’90s. It was really cheap, so he rented a U-Haul, drove 12 hours by himself, and filled his U-Haul with film prints. When he got back to Austin, he wasn’t sure what to do with them. He got together with a group of people, and they formed a board. That’s how AGFA was founded. It started with this very small collection of Tim League’s. It has grown over the years, with tons of acquisitions. Lars Nilsen, who also used to be an employee of the Alamo Drafthouse, but is now at the Austin Film Society, did a ton of work early on — a decade’s worth of acquisition, driving out, picking up prints, doing trades. A bulk of the collection was from that as well.

When we came on we were all enamored with AGFA, because we had no idea. The awareness of what AGFA did was very small. We were just completely blown away by it. The initiative that we’ve taken up now, since we’ve been given the keys to the kingdom, is trying to get the word out more about AGFA so these prints can be shared and people are aware that they’re here. The reason they exist is so people can enjoy it. The prints of the movies only come alive with the audience watching them. The main mission of AGFA is to get out there and share it. Here in Austin, with Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday [theme nights at Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse], I’d say 75% of the prints we play every week are from AGFA. That feeling of seeing how happy they make people keeps pushing us to do it more. It’s not like we’re performing brain surgery on people and saving their lives, but it’s an incredible feeling.

AGFA’s head archivist Sebastian del Castillo

Describe the facilities where you store these films.

There isn’t a dedicated storage facility for AGFA in Austin. It’s one of the things that’s a five-year goal, to have an actual facility where everything’s in one place. Right now, it’s spread out over two facilities. And we’re pretty much almost running up storage at this point, because of the acquisitions. It’s hard for Sebastian, because he has to drive all over town every day. But there’s a main build room in one of the facilities where he does most of the work.

What criteria do you use when choosing what films to preserve?

It’s really a group decision. It’s based on what we have and what’s out there. It’s kind of crazy how hidden things are, because you think that you know where all these titles are, and there’s always a few things to uncover. But you might come across a private collector who’s like, “Oh yeah, I have these things in my shed in my backyard,” and it’s five movies that no one else has. Five lost movies have been found. It’s incredible, and it happens so much.

For us, it’s mostly about the rarity of the movies. Also, how much they mean to us and how much people will appreciate these movies. A lot of this exploitation stuff from the late ’60s… to us it might be fascinating — a cultural snapshot of the past gone by — but for an audience to actually watch it, it might be kind of difficult. It’s not exactly crowd-pleasing to watch a 60-minute black-and-white movie of people in their underwear rubbing up against each other. There’s not much indelible quality in that, but they’re still important. There’s an amount of preservation that goes into all of these, no matter what they are. Some of them that are really special and have the power to please many people on many different levels, I think those are the ones that we really focus on. The greatest thing is when we find something completely lost, and it turns out to be amazing.

Would you say most of the films find their way to you, or do you seek them out?

I think it’s shifting a little bit. AGFA was built on seeking them out in the early days. But with the advent of things like Instagram, where we have a presence out there, a lot more people come to us. We do these things like depositor prints, where people who own prints just hold them at AGFA so that people can still rent them, but they remain the property of the people who deposited them. A lot of filmmakers have come to us with that, which is great. I think it’s a balance of both. The power and feeling of the hunt is something that we thrive on and love. It’s kind of like searching for old videotapes. It’s the same exact feeling when you’re searching for these 60-pound prints. I’d say it’s 50/50 for us.

‘The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire’

Tell me about the typical person you work with? Are these former projectionists? Collectors? Total weirdos?

I think it’s a mix of people. Sometimes it’s a collector. We had one guy that was driving along in his hometown somewhere. He said, “Oh, there was an abandoned drive-in, so I got out, went to look, and there were 50 prints sitting there.” We took a trip out there and brought back what was salvageable. Most of it was decayed and had spider eggs or a rat’s nest. We were able to salvage a couple of prints. That happens occasionally. Sometimes it’ll be filmmakers or distributors from the ‘60s and ’70s who were thriving back then, but are now retired and sitting on a storage facility full of prints. It’s a large variety of people and different situations.

Do you primarily see AGFA as an educational tool, a preservation tool, a cultural tool?

I’d say it’s a mix of all three. I think all of those things are integral to keeping this part of our culture alive. Educational… that can be a loaded statement. We don’t [take the stance that] we’re doing this powerful thing that everyone needs to know about. If people are interested in it, and it’s something they seek out on their own, then AGFA is here to help them do that. We want to make it easy to see these movies. For us, we had to search and dig, and it took 10 years to find these movies on VHS tape. Now, we have prints readily available of these movies. Part of it is just access and making it easy for people to discover these things on their own, and making sure these are available for the public to show these movies.

Will there ever be an end goal of appealing to universities and other institutions to make room in their archives and screening rooms for these films, though? Do you hope, beyond a fan following, that people will care about movies featuring stars like [Deep Throat‘s] Harry Reems or movies where vampire hookers devour a guy’s genitals with plastic fangs [The Mad Love Life of a Hot Vampire]?

There’s always hope in the world that it’s possible. It’s something we would all work for. Back in the day, the movie that you just described, you’d feel guilty and horrible for wanting to watch it. But as people start to understand why these movies were made, who they were targeting, and why they are fun and important, they’re a snapshot of our culture that’s gone — and it will never be back. But it’s important, because there were things that were done there that were never done again. Our specific end goal is to just share — share and preserve. By doing that, as the world grows and starts to understand exploitation and that it’s there, the audience grows wider year by year. I think that’s the only goal we would have. We want as many people as possible to see these movies and feel happy watching them.

What’s the process of preservation like? How long does it generally take from discovery to release?

I guess it depends on who you’re working with and who’s doing it. Sometimes it can be tricky. There’s this movie called The Astrologer that we found at AGFA — the one surviving print. The movie turned out to be really fascinating. It was this guy, Craig Denney, who basically made a vanity project about astrology and his psychic powers. We got a 4k transfer made. We started exhibiting it. We couldn’t find anything on anyone involved. And then it turned out the rights holders were around. It turned out to be a major studio. That was tricky, because it involves a lot more people. Sometimes some of these rare movies are complete orphans, and the rights holders are long gone — so you have to track down who is left in the family or who is still around that can speak to this. It’s really a case by case basis. The process can be really smooth and quick. Miami Connection is an example of one that came together really easily, because Zack Carlson and Lars found that print randomly. The guy who made the movie, Y.K. Kim, was still around. It was easy to contact him and work out a deal. Drafthouse Films wound up releasing that movie. I’d say anywhere from a couple of months to years. As far as exhibition goes, it’s fairly easy for us. There’s no rights given or implied when you rent a print from AGFA. It’s up to the people showing the movie at their theater to track down the rights and make sure it’s all squared away.

Since you’ve been exhibiting these films at the Drafthouse for quite some time, is the next step more Blu-ray releases? I know you’ve been working with Vinegar Syndrome [an exploitation film-focused distribution company and film archive] on a few titles already.

Definitely. It’s an ongoing process, both with Vinegar Syndrome and on our own. We’re still trying to figure that out. We love doing that. It’s been great working with Vinegar Syndrome, because they actually own the rights to a lot of movies. And in some cases, they have the only print in existence at AGFA. That was the case for Super Soul Brother and Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things. It was great to have people finally see these prints, because they had been at AGFA for over a decade. To bring those to a wider audience and have them cleaned up — the transfer was made from our print, but they were cleaned up and restored — they looked really great. They really replicate what it was like to watch the actual print in a theater. We were very happy with those. We want to do more of that.

What’s become of Something Weird since founder Mike Vraney’s death in 2014?

Something Weird is still around. Lisa Petrucci, his partner and widow, is still running the company with one full-time employee. We’re stepping in to help her more in terms of keeping the legacy of Something Weird going, because it’s a lot for one person to handle.

Something Weird, for us, was a complete benchmark in our lives. For me personally, it was a stepping stone to my understanding of these movies, and exploitation in general. I started young by watching horror hosts on TV. I saw Ed Wood movies in high school, but then I discovered Something Weird, and the floodgates opened. It completely changed everything about the way that I understand movies. I’ve been obsessed with them for 15 or 20 years.

We just want to make it easy for people to find the incredible depths of movies that Something Weird has released and has still yet to release. When Something Weird came out, it was in the ‘90s during the late VHS stage. They made the jump to DVD with incredible double and triple features. They introduced the world to Herschell Gordon Lewis and Doris Wishman. There are so many amazing things that they did. All that stuff is out there, but it’s easy to forget. It’s not on everyone’s radar. We want to make it easy and possible for people to understand the immense importance of Something Weird and what they did — and also bring them into the next generation, basically, by making new 4k transfers of movies that we feel are really, really special.

What inspiration or lessons do you take from what Vraney did with Something Weird?

We have a tremendous amount of respect and understanding of how important Something Weird was for many people across the world. I think we’ve come to see that more as the Kickstarter has been going — the outpouring of love and appreciation for this company. The inspiration comes from wanting to preserve that feeling. We want it to be accessible, loved, and appreciated in the way that Vraney did — not looking at it as so-bad-it’s-good garbage to laugh at. But looking at it as these people, these filmmakers, put their lives into this. It’s exploitation. It’s fun and sometimes goofy, but it’s also a piece of American culture that’s very important and often misunderstood. We want it to be understood. We want people to have fun and enjoy it.

When I think of Something Weird, naturally I think of Herschell Gordon Lewis since the company was named after his movie. Vinegar syndrome recently released the lost HGL films. Are you planning on doing something with the HGL anomalies like Taste of Blood or Scum of the Earth? They’re definitely more complex, or a more serious effort, than some of his other movies. Are there more HGL movies that we just don’t know about yet that you’ll be releasing?

Taste of Blood is interesting. It’s such an epic, because it’s like two hours long. It’s amazing that he put so much into that. The movies that were more serious are sometimes the most interesting in the entire Something Weird catalogue. I always see the Michael and Roberta Findlay movies in that way, like The Curse of Her Flesh … the whole Flesh trilogy. On the surface they’re very dark and exploitive movies, but when you look deeper there’s an artistic element going on. Hitting all of those different levels is also our goal. When looking at the Something Weird catalogue and what’s available, we try to hit all of the points that Something Weird always hits. The Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, in particular, are owned by someone else. That’s off limits. We won’t be working on any of those. There’s a possibility of licensing them, but they were never outright owned by Something Weird. They were always sublicensed. There are plenty of other lost movies that we do have in the works that are just as amazing.

Can you talk about those films?

I can say we have 11 titles that are lined up already

Eleven that are lost movies?

No, movies that we want to preserve and release theatrically, starting with The Zodiac Killer.

The Kickstarter campaign is for a 4k film scanner. Why is this equipment so essential to the process of preserving these movies?

The 4k means that it’s a high-definition digital transfer of a film print. We can pretty much replicate what it looks like to watch a print in a theater with scanners, which has not previously been possible. If you go to a theater and watch a 35mm print, obviously nothing is ever going to top that. But when you watch things on 4k that are scanned in the right way, it’s really difficult to see a difference, and they look really beautiful. All of us in the last year didn’t know about it, we thought it was weird. But we’ve come around. I think mostly that’s because of the effort of Vinegar Syndrome. They were trailblazers in saying, “This is what a restoration of this type of movie should look like.” They’ve proved it over and over again. We’re consistently blown away by how good they look.

How did [Drive director] Nicolas Winding Refn get involved with AGFA? Given the fact that he was a teenager when a lot of these movies were first available, and he now looks to genre cinema as an inspiration for his own films, has he been one of the people guiding the shape of AGFA? Or did he just think it was cool and want to be a part of it?

I think it’s more about being a kindred spirit. Nic initially bonded [with AGFA] over Andy Milligan films, because he was really one of the guys who was bringing Andy Milligan to the forefront. Andy Milligan for so many years was looked upon as the lowest of the low. “You can’t get worse than Andy Milligan movies. You can’t even watch them.” But a lot of us really appreciated him and what they were, which are these really crazy melodramas that were made for $1,000 with a tiny camera and tape recorder on Long Island. It’s incredible stuff. Refn was one of the people who stood up and said, “Look, there’s some merit in these movies beyond what people for the last 40 years have thought of them.” AGFA has a lot of Milligan movies in the archive. Just from knowing Tim [League], he came on as an advisor/board member — just like Paul Thomas Anderson, who is also a board member at AGFA. We work on prints together. If Nicolas has Milligan prints that he would like stored at AGFA, that’s something we do.

‘The Zodiac Killer’

How do younger fans come to these films? Is it all the Internet? Through loyalty brands like the Drafthouse? Can a love of these films be broken down by audiences of a certain generation, or do you think it’s more mixed than that?

In a weird way I think it can, in the sense that every single generation seems to rediscover these movies for their own somehow. It’s just driven by passion. When I was a kid, it was through books like RE/Search, Incredibly Strange Films, and the Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film. I made lists of all these movies that I couldn’t find. In a way, the Internet is just a bigger version of that, where the accessibility is incredible. You can basically find anything you want. It’s always driven by the same thing, which is there’s a reason why multiple generations turn over and are inspired to find these movies. I don’t know if I can actually define why, but I guess I could say because they’re so special and unique, and they offer things that other movies don’t offer. It’s amazing for me to see the turnover, especially in Austin at things like Terror Tuesday and Weird Wednesday where you’ll see all ages of audiences — and they’re young. It’s like, “Wow, how do you guys know about this?” I don’t think we ever try to answer that question. We’re just grateful that they’re interested. There’s always going to be an attraction to exploitation and horror movies. Even if you start with new things that are being released, if your passion is strong, you’re going to want to go deeper and deeper and find out more. “How did this happen? Who is this person influenced by, and who influenced this? Oh, Eli Roth put out this Green Inferno movie, and they’re talking about Italian cannibal movies. What does that mean? What are these movies?” Whatever way you get in, there’s no judgment about how it happens. There’s always going to be gateways and interest. It fuels itself. It’s amazing, pure, and unique.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Not having enough hours in a day to do all of the things we want to do. My job is pretty multifaceted. In terms of AGFA, it’s strictly on a volunteer basis. My job is primarily at the Drafthouse. I’m an art director and a programmer. But with AGFA, it’s whenever I have time to think about how to improve and make it better. There’s just never enough time, because all of it is fun. All of it. Laird and I always have these conversations. “Man, if we could just do AGFA all day, it would be a dream come true.” We love our jobs as well, but AGFA is really special. We just want more time to work on all the ideas we have for it. Eventually I think we’ll get them done. It just takes longer.

In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of VHS, repertory cinema, and a new interest in exploitation. For example, there was a screening of Goodbye Uncle Tom at this year’s Fantastic Fest. I was sort of blown away by that, given the fact that no one wanted to admit to seeing this challenging movie many years ago, apart from hardcore exploitation fans.

It’s a maturing of people’s understanding through knowledge and accessibility. New people coming up and watching these movies for the first time are appreciating them for what they are and not looking at them through glasses of irony or to laugh at them. I think that’s an important part of it. There’s more of a respect now and understanding. Obviously a lot of exploitation movies are completely offensive and very wrong — they were wrong when they made them, and they’re wrong today. But with the right context of appreciation and understanding, that goes a long way. Getting that communication out is part of it. I’ve noticed a real shift in people starting to understand and accept more, which is great. It might be because I’m in a bubble in Austin with our programming, but I notice it in other places and theaters when I travel. It’s a great thing.