Returning to the Primal Screen: A Conversation with Neo-Grindhouse Provocateur Rob Hauschild
Peter GutiérrezA member of the Online Film Critics Society, Peter writes for Twitch, the Financial Times, and Rue Morgue. He is also a contributing editor at Metro magazine, and a columnist on blockbuster movies for Screen Education. Get too-frequent updates about comics, books, movies, and TV via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez View all articles by Peter Gutiérrez
Can two of the most downtrodden of film genres, horror and exploitation, actually help restore the communal wonder of the cinema itself? Well, for the producer/distributor behind Wild Eye Releasing, this may be a question that’s barely worth asking….
Every time I start to suspect that my own taste in movies is, well, suspect, I recall Rob Hauschild. To put it bluntly, I’m about as edgy as a four-year-old watching Wiggles DVDs compared to him. Back in the ‘90s Mr. Hauschild was the editor/publisher of the fanzine VeX, which was delightfully subtitled “Movies and Whatever.” Talk about eclectic: one issue there’d be an interview with Hollywood legend Robert Wise discussing Shirley Jackson and the next issue there’d be an article about how to make a Giant Monster movie. I guess it makes sense, then, that these days Rob runs Wild Eye with a fan’s enthusiasm, a cineaste’s eye, and an old pro’s hard-won knowledge of the industry.
Back in May I attended the world premiere of Wild Eye’s new film, Blitzkrieg, an experience in the abject and the amusing that I am not apt to forget anytime soon. More than a decade ago its director, Keith Crocker, made The Bloody Ape, an exploitation version of The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Wild Eye’s other big 2008 release. Last week Wild Eye repeated an experiment that it launched on June 13 (a Friday, of course)—screen a bunch of hall-of-fame-caliber grindhouse trailers at New York’s Pioneer Theater and follow them up with an authentic feature from the same period, in this case Andrea Bianchi’s maggot-faced zombie epic, Burial Ground (1981). Having grown up on grindhouse fare, I found the evening to be a near-perfect jolt of nostalgia, and the diverse audience ate up every second of it; indeed, a film festival atmosphere prevailed at what was actually just a regular night at the movies. The same venue will be hosting a limited theatrical run of Blitzkrieg this month while Rob slowly starts thinking about other projects, including a doc on the heyday of the 42nd Street scene in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And in the midst of all this, he somehow found the time to sit down and answer my questions.
Until now I'd thought of Wild Eye primarily in terms of horror, but with Blitzkrieg and, to a lesser extent, The Bloody Ape, it seems that you're venturing into exploitation. Does that mean you're open to distributing a range of genres, or do horror and exploitation just kind of go hand-in-hand for you?
It's certainly a little of both—I believe it would be a small form of professional and creative suicide to stick to one genre, as my own taste and that of the public reflects a broader range of interest in films. And many films that defy genres or only touch on horror and exploitation deserve just as much attention and care in release and re-examination. Of course, that said, exploitation and horror hold a very large part of my heart, and I will always gravitate towards them on a personal level. But what Wild Eye has allowed me to explore is the full spectrum of cinematic offerings available and given me the position of curator, where I can step outside of my own personal taste and work on releasing films that have broader appeal yet still speak to me as a wide-eyed fan of many genres.
Along the same lines, Wild Eye had previously focused on DVD releases but with Blitzkrieg you're in theaters, too. Is that an exception to the rule or do you see your company doing more theatrical going forward?
Well, theatrical will always depend on the film itself, and it's now something we have learned to do and can in the future, but at the micro-level of filmmaking we are immersed in, theatrical is icing on the cake. It's a wonderful support system to DVD and other new methods of getting a film to the fans because the communal aspect of watching a film in a theater cannot be replaced in any other way. And as long as there are small, independent theaters who are brave and willing to support small, offbeat works, we will always consider theatrical as one way to promote and share what we have planned with moviegoers.
Please tell us more about Keith Crocker and why you were motivated to work on two projects with this filmmaker. Is this kind of close relationship with an indie auteur the sort of thing Wild Eye would like to foster more of, or is this just a happy one-shot?
No, the relationship Wild Eye has with Keith Crocker is a model for what Wild Eye aspires to, becoming the champion of a unique and interesting filmmaker's vision and running with it, even if it bucks the system or defies explanation. This is why in the future we will head down some non-horror and non-exploitation roads—the vision is the important part, and again it's much like an art gallery in that there is a relationship we attempt to establish with the artist, and not just release what can make a quick buck or what we can get our hands on because there is no shortage of films being made. It's the connection with a filmmaker that is more interesting and creatively rewarding to me.
And Keith is a perfect example of this. I have known Keith for over ten years, as we were both publishing film fanzines in the ‘90s (he, Exploitation Journal, myself, VeX). I had actually interviewed Keith for one of my issues when he completed The Bloody Ape, and we have been friends ever since. When I became involved in Wild Eye, Keith was just filming Blitzkrieg and planned on releasing it himself, but as we talked and his vision came closer to completion, it just naturally evolved into a support system. I wanted Wild Eye to support what he was doing outside the system to bring his films to the surface, as he deserves it and in that he is the type of outsider artist that not only makes for an interesting partner in business, but also who is saying something different that blurs the genre lines.
“Outside the system” is putting it mildly. To date have you encountered any resistance to the fact that you're dealing in a Nazisploitation flick, either from critics or from theater owners? Or is it pretty clear in these post-modern times that Blitzkrieg has more to do with a '70s subgenre than with the historical Third Reich?
Oh, yes, there has been some door-slamming, some idle threats and some resistance from critics to even watch the film, sometimes magazines or websites passing around the movie to find someone who dares put it in their DVD player. To a degree it's understandable and not without sound reasoning from someone who has not seen Blitzkrieg. But there has been a tremendous amount of interest and support for the film despite the subject matter—mostly because it has been 25+ years since a filmmaker has attempted to tackle this genre, and secondly because of Rob Zombie's mock trailer in the movie Grindhouse (2007) for the 'Werewolf Women of the SS,' his spoof of the genre. I think Zombie's trailer opened up discussion and interest in the Nazisploitation genre again, which was applied to Blitzkrieg. And I think the important part to understand is that Blitzkrieg is a send-up of the genre, it is not a Nazi torture porn as many will expect—there are scenes of extreme gore and exploitation, but the manner in which Keith Crocker delivers it is often tongue-in-cheek and designed to evoke the utter ridiculousness of both the genre and war itself. This is a Nazi film that real Nazis would not enjoy in the least, as they are made fools of and of course get what's coming to them in spades.
I'm a huge fan of one of your earlier releases, Crawlspace. Can you guide readers through the process of how you unearthed a gem like that, found a decent print of it, secured the rights, and so on?
Well, I cannot take full credit for Crawlspace or the "TV Movie Terror Collection" that Wild Eye released. As I was beginning the seeds of a small DVD label, there were some film collectors I knew who were already doing some DVD work and I brought my set of skills to what they were doing, and it eventually all moved over to Wild Eye. That’s where the TV movie collection came from, so those films were already in production, the prints secured and so on.
Okay, thanks for making a game response to such a misguided question. Let me recover by shifting gears and asking about The Bloody Ape, which to me is an interesting film for several reasons. First off, when is the DVD being released, and do you have any plans for theatrical screenings?
The DVD will be released in late September, alongside The Blitzkrieg DVD release—a Keith Crocker 1-2 punch in the pants. It will be a special edition, featuring a commentary with Keith and two leads from the film, including George Reis, who runs the DVD Drive-in Web site and who stars in the film. The disc will also feature a complete cover gallery for Keith’s infamous fanzine, The Exploitation Journal, as well as a horror short Keith shot in the 1980s. Since announcing the DVD release, we have been asked to screen The Bloody Ape at a fest or two, and at an all-night grindhouse show in NYC. So, yes, we would love to screen it theatrically, preferably from a Super-8 sound projector!
To me a movie like The Bloody Ape comes more out of a theater tradition than film. I don’t mean the production values, but rather the very earnest dialogue and the whole spirit behind it—“Let’s get together and put a show on for folks.” And of course that show has something for everyone—sex, violence, humor, “literary” themes. I feel that if someone bankrolled Keith Crocker so that he could have his own rep company on the Lower East Side, he’d be great at churning out Grand Guignol crowd-pleasers. Make sense?
Makes complete sense, and Keith will love you for that comment! It’s accurate, and really touches on Keith’s sensibilities as a filmmaker—and not everyone understands that on first glance. The Bloody Ape comes as much from Vaudeville and the carnival-tent tradition of storytelling as it does from the grime and guts of the grindhouse. And Keith makes no secret of the fact that Andy Milligan is one of his favorite, if not his absolute favorite, exploitation director. So you can clearly see the Milligan in the film, the hand-made, otherworldly-ness of the characters, situations and locations—they exist in this gory, surreal realm where Keith can play with the absurdity of the human condition and get away with it, as there is a grand morality at work and justice is doled out. This goes for Blitzkrieg as well, and I like that neither film exactly gives horror/exploitation fans what they want on the terms they’re used to—they have to work a little harder and sit through some dialogue and story hoops to get to the juicy stuff they paid to see.
Of course in The Bloody Ape I was also struck by the over-the-top stereotypical rabbi character. At first I thought it was a South Park-style jab at political correctness, but one of the major storylines concerns an unflattering portrayal of a brutally racist police chief. How do you reconcile these two elements, or do you?
I do to a point, in the same way I reconcile any clichéd stereotypical character in any given film—on a case-by-case basis. Keith’s character-types are presented in his films with such a broad stroke of humor and absurdity, that to cry political correctness deprives you of the joke—and is silly in the face of the finished product. And I think it’s important to note that while The Bloody Ape is rife with stereotypes and racist dialogue, it’s all unfolding on this poor soul, the African-American lead character Duane, who is the only sane, upstanding character in the whole movie. The racist, moronic Establishment cops are trying to pin the ape killings on him because he’s black—ridiculous. So he becomes this cross between Duane [Jones] in Night of the Living Dead (Crocker even names and dresses him in homage to Romero’s tragic lead) and Melvin Van Peeble’s Sweetback character—and as the put-upon, moral center of the film, Duane has to run through this whacked-out world trying to talk sense to its deaf-eared inhabitants, much like Taylor trying to explain to Dr. Zaius that he’s the smarter one and that he was here first… but all reason is lost when the world is turned upside-down.
I want to close by touching on the huge success of the theatrical horror and exploitation evenings Wild Eye has been programming. Do you think generally the time is right for this sort of thing? I’m wondering if the pendulum has swung in the other direction in terms of U.S. movie culture—as audiences we’re now used to finding any obscure title ever made on the Web or on DVD, but now we crave a shared experience of those old titles on a big screen… to really become an audience again. How does this theory fit with your experiences?
They really illustrate that theory in the best possible way. The shows have been a smashing success—to my surprise as much as yours, I’m sure. And they have found an audience we didn’t expect: young people, people in their early 20’s, film students. These are not the jaded horror fans that been at this for years, this is fresh blood, who want to see these films the way we did—live. And they want to see these films with an audience and get loud. Even though they can go and rent or buy or download the same film, they cannot buy the collective experience, they cannot buy that one, well-planted talk-back to the screen from a stranger that makes the audience roar. That’s what they’ll remember, and they will come back for it. Many are seeing these films for the first time as well. We must see films as a group because this is how we learn to communicate with film and with each other—the collective walk-through of a drama, no matter how poorly executed—we crave it, it’s in our makeup. And there is no critical stance involved, no box office scores to check: this is the experience of seeing the film, not the performance of the film itself. So I do believe the time is right to take some of the exploitation out of the widescreen, restored-print special editions and the Blu-ray DVD players and put it back up on the screen—the more tattered the print, the better. And I hope that Wild Eye continues to be blessed with an avenue to offer this experience to new and old fans alike.[An abridged version of this interview originally appeared in the newsletter of the Science Fiction Society of Northern NJ. -PG]
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