Something Weird - Vibrations/ Fluctuations/ Submission
Many of your average movie fans wouldn't know a real exploitation film if it came up and bit them in the balcony. While they would surely recognize the bastard offspring of this genre - the slasher film, the sex comedy, the softcore slices of erotica - few could name a single title or filmmaker in this varied and vital part of cinematic history. Though we may be chagrined to admit it, the grindhouse circuit with its taboo busting brazenness and desire to test the limits of taste and legality, laid the groundwork for the modern movie. These pioneers of the perverted opened up audience acceptability for certain heretofore-scandalous subject matter, and challenged the outrageous censorship that once dominated the filmic landscape.
Since its founding over fifteen years ago, Something Weird Video has dedicated itself to locating and preserving as many of these lost treasures as they can. Begun as a hobby by a true aficionado of offbeat cinema, this backroom tape trading enterprise blossomed into a kind of AFI for the raincoat crowd. It was through the efforts of the company's founder, the fanatical Mike Vraney, as well as a collection of like minded movie lovers, including outsider film buff (and maker) Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker) that some of the seminal works of the era have been located and saved, most just moments away from being destroyed forever.
Without their tireless searching and salvaging, we wouldn't have the near complete canon of Herschell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast, Suburban Roulette), Doris Wishman (Bad Girls Go to Hell, Nude on the Moon) and that mighty monarch of the exploitation film, David F. Friedman (She-Freak, Trader Hornee). SWV has also championed the catalog of producer Harry Novak (Wham Bam Thank You Spaceman, Please Don't Eat My Mother) and showcased works by Larry Buchanan (The Naked Witch), William Grefe (Death Curse of Tartu) and Andy Milligan (The Ghastly Ones), Indeed, since they started releasing DVDs, they've amassed over 150 titles, bringing nearly 300 lost gems back from the dead or dying to be rediscovered by a new generation of fans.
The movie has a rather simple plotline. Barbara is a neophyte writer in New York, typing manuscripts by day to supplement her meager poetry sales. A deeply troubled young woman with a shady past just bubbling below the surface, she hopes her new apartment will be the start of a new life. Unfortunately, Barb's sleazoid sister Julia makes another of her patented bad penny turn-ups at her sibling's door.
She's lost another lover, and wants to shack up with Sis for a while. Naturally Barbara is uncomfortable about this. After all, she and her redolent relative shared more than "secrets" when they were little girls. The stink of incest is ripe between the two, and when Julia is not trying to drag her kinfolk back into the delights of Sappho, she's doing a dirty DiVinyls over the sex sounds emanating from the room next door.
Unable to control her carnal urges, Julia makes a trip to the neighbors, and discovers her very own private den of icky iniquity. The storeroom/ fetish parlor is run by mistress Georgia, who supposedly inherited everything in it from her dad (!). Behind closed doors, she explores the joys of group sex, as well as the use of a vibrator the size of a canned ham.
This alien-style stimulator immediately catches Julia's eye - among other things - and before long, the game gal is an active part of Georgia's motorized menagerie. Oddly enough, this makes Barbara jealous. But instead of fighting the sinister urge, she too makes a trip to the G-spot spa next door and has her horizons broadened, so to speak.
Proving that faux fornication is the ultimate expression of pre-hardcore raunchiness, Sarno's Vibrations is a collection of corporeal moments bordered by a semi-serious, incessantly talky familial melodrama. This is classic Joe in his pre-ABBA period. The only thing different between this and Sarno's other opuses is that, in this piece of peek-a-boo pseudo-porn, the director spends more time on the skin than he does on the sordidness.
Let's face it; any film that features an outdated massager that looks like it would - and quite possibly could - strip the barnacles off a battleship is not interested in subtle innuendo. Instead, it wants to put its lead actress in a decidedly decadent setting so she can work herself up into a self-love lather, over and over again.
In reality, Sarno's statement here is more about sex as a freeing ideal than a corrupting concept. Sure, Barbara and Julia used to play a rather unusual game of Four Square when Mommy turned out the nightlight. But slutty little sister sees nothing wrong with expressing your physical needs (and she's got the 'spreads it all over town like bad gossip' reputation to prove it). No, it's Barbara who looks like an idiot here, rebuffing the advances of a studly client - and her sibling - in an attempt to escape her predilection toward perversion. But once she let's go and discovers the original joys of bone jumping, she's finally able to stand on her own two feet, and become the strong, independent career gal she claimed she was. Poor Julia, however, is lost in her autoerotic addiction. The movie closes with her tied to a pair of bedposts, Georgia giving her groin a good fleecing with that damn oversized pocket rocket.
At least Sarno provides us some plot to ponder here. Leo J. Rhewonal's Fluctuations (1970) is just mental masturbation of a decidedly demented variety. Combining elements as divergent as women reading erotic novels sans underpants, a couple of guys practicing kung fu and what has to be the world's first recorded phone sex call, together with lots of shots of ex-beatniks polishing each others less-than-buoyant bongos, you can tell Rhewonal thought he was onto some manner of cinematic masterwork. But instead of avant-garde or surreal, most of Fluctuations is just plain perplexing.
As the doughy dudes go all Jujitsu on each other, we see hirsute ladies lounging in their less than fetching birthday suits. All the while, a couple discusses the pleasures of peeing and shitting on each other. How lovely. Then, to make matters even more bewildering, Rhewonal takes the karate cries (which sound suspiciously, like people barfing up their breakfasts) and superimposes them over the sex scenes. If ever a film correctly commented on itself by inadvertently placing nausea noises over some stifling softcore drivel, Fluctuations is the one.
In reality, this is just mindless fun - the keyword being mindless. While Rhewonal and his incredibly unattractive cast may have been trying to bring fantasies to life by creating the world's first work of expressionist eros, they really end up doing nothing be making a landfill of lust.
The messy monkey lovin' won't stimulate anything except perhaps your gag reflex (remember the marital arts moments) and there is nary a narrative strand in sight. If you pay close attention, the telephone conversation between the heavily accented 'Nu Yawk' lovers is a hoot, filled with the kind of unpracticed panting that suggests grade school kids discussing the birds and the bees. But it quickly turns from obscene to obnoxious. Like a montage made by rabid mongrels hopped up on spoiled Spanish Fly, Fluctuations is still a fun, frenetic experience. It's just not going to make any sense, either saliently or sensually.
Thankfully, Submission (1969) brings us back to the narrative real world. What we have here is your typical killer couple on the prowl. Barry has a strange habit of raping woman - mostly as a hobby. He has a "wife" named Vicki who he keeps at bay with the promise of candy bars and children's toys. You see, Vicki appears locked in a very severe case of arrested adolescence, and the moment she spies a Zagnut, or a Teddy Ruxpin, she's flowing like Niagra after the spring thaw. Barry preys on this jaded juvenilia, using Vicki as a front to get employment from rich women. They then rob the ladies blind and kill them in convenient, "accidental" ways.
Their latest mark is Linda, a rather long in the tooth fashion designer who apparently needs servants to mind her collection of aquariums. Naturally, Barry and Vicki are hired and begin casing the joint for untold treasures. One day, while the curmudgeonly Coco Chanel is out, the couple discovers their employer's secret. She's a raging lesbo, even making films of her large, same sex orgies. Barry takes her labia loving tendencies personally, and he tries to change Linda's rotation in the batting order. Of course, he doesn't know that Vicki is discovering her own inner Indigo Girl, and she ends up in bed with the miserable mistress instead.
Barry is now, naturally, not needed, and as a final testament to her conversion to perversion, Vicki rejects all things caramel and makes sure her "husband" has a nice 'trip' - and a rather fatal 'fall'.
Something Weird was smart to save Submission for last, as it plays like a cobbled together version of the previous two offerings. It contains some of Sarno's attention to narrative detail while utilizing a frantic flashback style that suggests Fluctuations stream of consciousness carnality. But director Allen Savage has a few of his own unique tricks up his sleeve, elements that help this film be more satisfying than stupefying.
Making Vicki a naughty nougat-a-holic is a masterstroke, since nothing looks seedier than an adult woman felating a Baby Ruth.
Barry's tendency to commit random acts of sexual assault (he stumbles upon a girl walking in the park and figures, what the Hell) accents his already dopey dictatorial personality. And Linda's "love" of the ladies is a last minute revelation that keeps Submission's sordid situations percolating directly within the pro-potboiler parameters. Though the softcore here is rather routine, and the concentration is more on control than caring, we still get some nicely sleazy moments in what ends up to be a tribute to the joys of both gay - and Gummi - sex.
As a DVD company, Something Weird is known for both its penchant for the odd, as well as its tender lovin' transfers - especially where it pertains to black and white cinema. Indeed, the 1.33:1 full screen images are amazingly pristine. Sure, there are some editing defects and a few faded moments (especially in Fluctuations) but the occasional grain and dirt gives the films a real gritty, iconic quality.
Sound, or course, is another issue, and there is not much the company can do with horribly recorded original elements. Sarno was a stickler for technical merits, so Vibrations is a decent aural offering. But both Fluctuations and Submission have a muted, mumbled quality (not to mention the former's 'taken from the telephone' dialogue) that often turn the conversations into the sonic equivalent of queso dip.
Perhaps most disconcertingly, Something Weird is famous for its fully loaded DVD packages. Commentaries, archival short subjects, mini-featurettes and other exceptional added content are usually the order of the day. But since they offer us three films for the price of one (albeit all in the 60 to 70 minute range), the company must consider this to be bonus bonanza enough. All we get on this title are some rather uninteresting Submission outtakes (complete with no sound) and an uninspired gallery of trading cards.
Still, anyone interested in getting to know the unheralded history of the post-60s motion picture will get a kick out of Something Weird's wild, wonderful catalog of corruption. While Vibrations/ Fluctuations/ Submission may not be the perfect SWV sampler, this tainted triptych does represent the genre at its most archetypal. They offer the 'bare' minimum basic factors - sin, skin and shamelessness - that went into a typical grindhouse offering. They, along with hundreds of others like them are just waiting to be discovered - and this company is dedicated to unearthing each and every last one of them. Here's hoping they succeed.
The Top 10 Releases of 2015
The DVD Talk 2015 Holiday Gift Guide
The Top Movies to Watch on Halloween
Going Back in Time - DVDTalk Interview with Jason Aron, Louis Krubich, and Lee Leshen