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Something Weird: Read an exclusive excerpt from A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies
Mike Vraney of Something Weird Video was truly one of a kind, even in the lurid, carny-like world of exploitation, sexploitation and grindhouse movies that he loved so much.
Mike Vraney; By Permission of Mike Vraney
A punk-rock promoter and one-time porn theater projectionist turned film preservationist and video label honcho, Mike personally saved and championed over 2,500 films that might otherwise have disappeared through neglect. “Something Weird” became not just a label but an amazing, loud and rebellious trash aesthetic, much like SST Records for punk fans or E.C. Comics.
When my co-author Jeff Joseph and I spoke with Mike in July of 2013, we had no idea he was already seriously ill and fighting for his life. He passed away just five months later. [Vraney died on January 2, 2014]
Re-reading his interview now, it’s hard not to think that Mike was summing up a life gloriously (mis)spent on comics, rock & roll, and wonderfully strange and sleazy movies. Mike was The Ramones of sexploitation cinema.
Long live Something Weird! ~ Dennis Bartok, 2017
Here’s the excerpt:
“I know I have the largest sexploitation archive on earth. Not just the commercial value of it, but in the collector sense,” says home video distributor and film collector Mike Vraney.
For nearly 25 years, Vraney’s company Something Weird Video has plumbed the incredibly strange and sleazy netherworld of mostly-forgotten sexploitation films including such subterranean sub-genres as nudie cuties, nudie roughies, nudist colony films and white coaters. A visit to Something Weird’s website brings up choice titles like Nude on the Moon, Olga’s House of Shame, Shanty Tramp and The Curse of Her Flesh.
The sheer volume of obscure films that Vraney has re-released—over 2,500—coupled with his support of neglected grindhouse auteurs like gore-meister Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast,Two Thousand Maniacs!), subversive softcore queen Doris Wishman (Double Agent 73, Deadly Weapons) and producers David F. Friedman (The Defilers) and Harry H. Novak (The Agony Of Love), is fairly amazing.
These are orphan films in the truest sense of the word: bastard cinema that was made to pry money out of people’s pockets and then to be discarded, lost and forgotten, if not for someone like Vraney. If you’re a cinephile it’s easy to get excited about the re-discovery of the lost 1912 silent Richard III or the missing footage from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, but how about Friedman’s She Freak or Lewis’s Scum of the Earth?
These are exploitation movies that still feel like exploitation: crude and rude, with the stench of the peepshow clinging to them.
Mike Vraney (center) with two of his friends, exploitation legends, Dave Friedman (left) and Dan Sonney (right). By Permission of Mike Vraney.
I ask Vraney what it is about sexploitation films that so appeals to him, given that he’s devoted much of his adult life to these movies.
“Number one, they were plot driven. They’re not like pornography of the 1970s which have like zero plot,” he answers without hesitation. “These men thought they had to actually make a movie. The other interesting thing is they were shot in four, five, six days tops. So whatever fad was going that week, say the hula hoop, would show up in that movie.”
In person Vraney is tall, gregarious and good-looking, with shaggy sandy-colored hair just starting to go gray at the edges, and an unabashed love for all things involving punk rock, comic books, movies and naked women.
“The girls were wonderful, lots of beehive hairdos, sexy underwear, sexy lingeries,” he says enthusiastically. “The one thing that my collectors love more than anything is a big hairy bush, and that whole giant underwear and nylons and hose and garters. Because for the last twenty years everybody is hairless—they look like aliens.”
He’s well aware that even in the underground world of film collecting, he’s in something of a class by himself. When I mention that he’s one of the last collectors we’re interviewing, he gives an appreciative laugh: “It makes me feel like I’m at the bottom of the barrel—or below the barrel. It’s okay because what I specialize in is under the barrel as well, which I’m very proud of. I wasn’t out there trying to collect the classics, or preserve or find Gone With the Wind’s missing footage.”
He’s proud to be, as he describes it, a “film scavenger.”
By Permission of Mike Vraney
A long time resident of Seattle, Washington, Vraney was born there in 1957. His father was an engineer for NASA and Boeing who worked on both the Saturn V, the rocket that carried man to the moon, and the classic Boeing 747 airliner.
“I grew up during the 1960s when ‘Laugh-In,’ all these things, made reference to dirty movies, the sexual revolution,” he recalls. “My father belonged to the Playboy Club in the 1960s, and we had Playboy magazines around the house. I remember one time my parents put on a Playboy-themed party where my mother pulled out all the centerfolds and pinned them to the walls, then stuck little doilies over the naughty parts, so when everybody got drunk, they’d pull the doilies off and go ‘ha-ha-ha.’ ”
He clearly inherited his unapologetic love of nude women from his dad. Vraney recalls that when he told his father in the late 1980s of his plans to become king of the sexploitationmovies, “all he said was, ‘sex sells.’ So I got a free pass from my dad to do this.”
Mature-looking for his age, Vraney snuck into his first porn film, Alex de Renzy’s A History of the Blue Movie in the early 1970s when he was barely in his teens: “I was tall with a light mustache so nobody questioned me,” Vraney says.
But his first love wasn’t nudie films, it was comic books, which he began selling as a business while still in high school.
Soon he became friends with a collector of Bela Lugosi films, Michael Copner (later publisher of Cult Movies magazine), who worked as a projectionist at several porn theaters in Seattle including the New Paris Follies and the Mecca Twin. Copner would sneak him in to the movies for free and he started attending porn shows “religiously,” as he says.
I ask if he remembers any of the titles he saw in those long-gone days of adult cinema and he nods, mentioning Behind the Green Door and a wildly obscene film called Long Jeanne Silver (1977) starring an amputee sex actress who used her stump to penetrate her partners. (“Long Jeanne Silver,” the amputee actress, was later busted with noted sex educator/performance artist Annie Sprinkle in a sting operation set up by Rhode Island police. Obscenity charges against them were later dropped.)
“It was like going to the freak show,” Vraney admits about his early exposure to porn. Soon after he bought his first 16mm projector and his first batch of movies, a box of 10-minute “girlie loops” at an auction from a closed-down Washington theater.
Almost inevitably, he started working as a porn theater projectionist himself. “I begged the owner of the porno theaters for a job,” he says frankly. “I was underage, and he put me in Seattle’s only 16mm storefront house called the Sultan Theatre. I remember the first movie I ran was Centurians of Rome. So here I am in this porno theater, a gay house. I was thrilled because I was running film; that’s all I cared about.”
Around the same time he took over the lease on a 1,500-seat Seattle venue, the Showbox theater, and began staging rock shows, including Iggy Pop and the Police. Soon he began booking and managing punk bands including TSOL, Flipper, Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys, and would often screen his collection of girlie loops between bands. “I learned if you showed a film in-between sets, there’d be no fights. Because everybody’d be staring at the film,” he says with a shrug.
In the mid-1980s he continued collecting, mostly 16mm prints of old AIP and Universal horror and sci-fi flicks, but he found himself increasingly fascinated by the forgotten sexploitation films of the 1940s to 1970s, in part inspired by books like V. Vale’s Incredibly Strange Films (1985) and Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film (1987).
After getting out of the punk rock scene booking bands, he made a life-changing decision in 1988: “I decided I was going to be a video bootlegger, because it was obvious to me that the major studios were not putting out what us collectors wanted to see.”
Through The Big Reel magazine, he contacted a Texas dealer named J.G. Nelson who was advertising 16mm and 35mm prints of mondo-obscure sexploitation features for sale.
Vraney bought 10 features from him including Naughty Dallas, The Weird Lovemakers, Kitten in a Cage and Hotter After Dark, and after finding someone in L.A. to do film-to-tape transfers for him, he set himself up in the video business. Inspired by a 1967 Herschell Gordon Lewis movie of the same name, he decided to call his bootleg tape operation “Something Weird.”
In 1989 he made the kind of discovery that collectors only dream about: “I got a phone call from a friend. He told me about an antique shop about 30 miles from my house, and in the back were boxes and boxes, all girlie material, from nudies to burlesque, women’s wrestling, bondage.”
The back room of the Everett, Washington antique store was filled with hundreds of original negatives for lost sexploitation films from the 1930s to the 1950s with titles like Nautical Nudes, Saucy Sue and Tea for Two. Vraney paid the owner $200 for the treasure trove, filled a van and drove off.
Soon, the newly-launched Something Weird Video label was releasing these strange and forgotten movies in packages like “Wrasslin’ She Babes,” “Grindhouse Follies,” and “Bizarre-O Sex Loops.”
Although Vraney obviously loved the nudie content, it was the fact that these movies had been abandoned and neglected that truly appealed to him: “I was fanatical on finding lost films,” he says emphatically.
Read the rest of the “Something Weird” chapter — during which Vraney goes into more detail about the films of Russ Meyer, Barry Mahon, and much more — in A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies, available at Amazon and other fine book sellers. Big thanks to Dennis Bartok and the University Press of Mississippi.
Dennis Bartok; photo by Maria Adriance
Dennis Bartok is a filmmaker, screenwriter, co-founder of distribution company Cinelicious Pics and currently General Manager at the American Cinematheque. His horror feature Nails will be released in the U.K. this summer by Kaleidoscope Film Distribution.
Dennis (left), and Jeff Joseph (right), with Elvis Mitchell, host of KCRW’s “The Treatment”
Jeff Joseph is a motion picture archivist and was formerly one of the best-known film dealers in the United States. Jeff and his late wife Lauren were owners of SabuCat Productions. He is currently working with the UCLA Film and TV Archive in restoring the Hal Roach/Laurel and Hardy library.
A Thousand Cuts is a candid exploration of one of America’s strangest and most quickly vanishing subcultures. It is about the death of physical film in the digital era and about a paranoid, secretive, eccentric, and sometimes obsessive group of film-mad collectors who made movies and their projection a private religion in the time before DVDs and Blu-rays.