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“You’re damaged merchandise…and this is a fire sale!”
Mike Vraney: 1958-2014
The holiday season came and went and I honestly thought I was done here. With my latest column complete, I poured a glass of bubbly and partook in the annual viewings of Black Christmas and Santa Claus (Versus the Devil). Feeling creatively satisfied for the first time in moons, I treated myself large by vacationing in the blinding winter’s whiteness of Illinois. Quality time spent with family, digging through musty old thrift stores and eating an average of 2.5 buffets a day. Bloated like a tick, relaxation was achieved through countless hours of silence and gazing upon embroidered rabbit throw pillows. This is the good life.
On my return home, I rang in the New Year by partying with the Norovirus. This put a damper (and Pampers) on any celebration. Three days with nothing to do but chew toast, pound soda water and sweat it out. It wasn’t all bad; I did complete the task of watching a Crown International DVD boxset. Weekend with the Babysitter, The PomPom Girls, and The Pink Angels all breezed through my peripheral as I drifted in and out of drug haze. These films may not have been great, but for a guy green with virus and pissing from his ass every twenty minutes, it was the video equivalent to the mash potato comfort I dearly needed.
The 2nd of January came and I arose, freshly feverless, porous like coral and five pounds lighter. As the New Year’s first cup of coffee slapped against my enamels, I hunkered down at this here desk, cranked up the damned internet machine and said aloud; “Go ahead world, fire away. I can take a punch. Nothing’s gonna’ bring me down…”
This was a hell of a wallop to my still sensitive insides. I sat there for a moment and teared up. I couldn’t believe how torn up I was for a man I had never met outside of the occasional business phone call, some fifteen years ago.
For those of you out of the loop, Mike Vraney was the Oz behind Something Weird Video’s Emerald City curtain. To say he was important in molding this misshapen mass that sits here typing would be an understatement. As mentioned in my most recent ramble; the best I can muster when writing nowadays is the personal stories and the memories that go along with watching these types of films I review. And when it comes to Something Weird and their gargantuan back catalog of filth, I’ve got a slew of them.
There are a handful of things that built the genre fandom within me. Things like the first five years of Fangoria and reading both John McCarty’s Splatter Movies and Tom Savini’s Grande Illusions. Later on, Chas. Balun’s Deep Red did quite a bit of irreparable damage, as well as thumbing through Michael Weldon’s colossal Psychotronic Film Guide. Those late nights spent ogling Mad Ron’s Previews from Hell compilation also scrambled my lobes. But one of the biggest and deepest – perhaps the last true game changer - would be discovering the Something Weird collection.
We’ve flogged the importance of horror and exploitation zines to death around here, so I won’t go down that rabbit hole. My pre-internet days were overflowing with the knowledge of craptastic monster & sci-fi cheapies, biker scunge and action revengers. All the major and minor league publications had plenty to say on such titles, though finding some of these inept relics could be troublesome, if not nearly impossible. That said, there was still plenty of good old guts n’ gravy made available by legitimate VHS labels that could satiate these acquired tastes. I didn’t have to hunt too long and hard for gunk like The Black Gestapo or Barn of the Naked Dead. Video stores actually stocked those things. Euro-trash and Italian horror were an altogether different issue. Bootleggers would be the key source, unless you wanted those hideously mutated versions – poorly edited, washed out and badly framed – that Wizard Video and the like spat upon US viewers.
A couple of nice guys with dueling decks hooked me up with the early works of Russ Meyer. Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! and Mudhoney were first to my virgin eyes. I loved them dearly, but was always surprised at how sharp they looked and how tame they were. Nowhere near the ghetto-filth of Al Adamson or HG Lewis. Dare I say even better looking than the best Corman or AIP product? Totally. Only Meyer’s came with bigger better tits, like a Lil’Abner skit on steroids. Dirty outhouse - I mean arthouse - but certainly not porn.
The first week of college, I was introduced to actual smut. That is, smut that wasn’t on late night cable and scrambled to the point of unwatchable. This should stick with me as a momentous occasion. Sadly, it doesn’t. You can also forget visions of me jerkin’ the gerk. I watched it on a couch with my new roommates. The title escapes me and it doesn’t even merit a Google search. The film was filled with hollow headed Benetton© advert rejects; the same kind of bland gals I gladly escaped in those Midwestern high school halls. The bangs on their head always beat their bra size by inches and those pleated, high wasted acid washed denims were boner killers. Neon “Frankie Says” sweatshirts covered whatever luscious curves they might’ve had as well. Boo. I’ll take a pass.
One smutty flick that did scar me and scarred me DEEP was John Water’s Pink Flamingos. Inside the hefty softbound Splatter Movies was an image of Divine from the climax of Multiple Maniacs. A giant drag queen Liz Taylor disheveled, sexually assaulted by an oversized lobster puppet. Not the kinda’ thing straight-laced teens in Rockford IL came across very often. So here I was, half a decade later with this lobster rape still perma-burned into the back of my eyeballs and moving to a fresh apartment over five hundred miles from home. What was the first thing I spy opening the door? A gift left behind by the previous tenants. Dead center on the dining room table was a hastily labeled VHS and a single long stemmed rose. My roommate chucked a shipping box aside and picked the cassette up. “Pink Flamingos!? Ugh, that’s some gross ass shit” he bemoaned. I didn’t flinch; I shook. Holy hell, that’s an early John Waters flick! I was dropped onto that pathway to trashville with frantic and scampering feet. I had seen this chicken fucking, gender bending and turd eating glory, and I needed MORE.
I pillaged through the video collections of my school chums like a drugfiend. I drained Pittsburgh of its mom & pop rental stock like some sorta’ a magnetic vampire. At the high point of obsession, I was buying upwards of fifteen monthly genre publications, all on the budget of a part time dish washer/yogurt puller. I accumulated closet loads of prerecorded tapes. There was enough literature on gore, ghouls and girlies in my home that I’d end up leaving a small U-hauls worth on the roadside after a few too many cross country moves. But after I was handed my diploma, there came a stagnant downtime. I had become cocksure, filled with a “seen it all” attitude. Nothing was left to take me by surprise.During this time (late eighties/early nineties) mail-order companies and bootleggers were mostly peddling pre-code stuff, European scares and other psychotronic, juvenile crime sorta' jive. The market wasn’t really there for the soft core or roughie grindhouse chunder of yore, because most folks had forgotten – had they even known that it existed. Sure, Bill Landis or Jimmy McDonough wrote the occasional Findlay piece or Joe Bob Briggs would get a hold of Nude on the Moon, but for the most part if you were knowledgeable and actively seeking for Harry Novak or Dave Friedman productions outside of their readily available horror titles, you were searching in a dead zone.
America and its pop culture couldn’t give two flying frogs about who Bettie Page or Lili St Cyr was, let alone Chesty Morgan and her spy camera infused rack. No matter how many times The Cramps or RE:search would attempt to inform, the average squares rarely took notice. Those who did care (punks and perverts) relished in the word-vomit spouted off by the elder zinesters. It was safe to assume these reels of fly-by-night filth had either been melted down for silver content or hauled away to the nearest landfill. All that was left were faded memories, rotting like vinegar syndrome in the minds of a few select deviants peppered along the coasts. You could try to wring information from them, but it was safe to assume their most important cranial recesses were now wasted; a thick soup filled with the flickering images of a thousand tired Swedish Erotica loops.
He seemed to be an obsesso-trash collector built from the Lux Interior school of fandom, only instead of hunting for deranged rockabilly and novelty 45s, Mike went sifting through warehouses in search of the most lurid skin flicks and sinema’s aborted dumpster babies. From the 50’s nudies through the 60’s roughies - he hoped to unleash them all. Something Weird got its start like most bootlegging operations of the time; pushing those old dark house horrors or lost science fictions and wrapping them up in simple uniform sleeves. But the dams of Babylon burst when Mike was handed the keys to producer/director David Friedman’s private vaults. The exploitation king let him raid his stash, legitimately unleashing it upon the masses. That initial flood of sleaze led quite a few cinemaniacs splashing down the rusty sewer pipe, flailing and gasping for air. What was all this? How could it have gone dormant for all those years? The positive pairing of the Friedman & Something Weird led to many other heavy hitters signing along the dotted line. Producers and Directors by the likes of Harry Novak, Doris Wishman and Herschel Gordon Lewis followed suit. We’d all seen earlier tapes of Blood Feast or Two Thousand Maniacs, but now the world could gaze upon Lewis’ moonshine-sploitaition epic, This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! and his lost kiddie oddities like Jimmy, the Boy Wonder. It's not like The Sinful Dwarf or She Came On The Bus had been burning up the rental charts - AT ALL. Top off this beastly stack of crap with a few Jerry Gross produced horrors, Mexican wrestling nonsense, school scare flicks, sword & sandal stupidity, the greatest trailer collections ever compiled and the genius/madness of Coffin Joe Mojica. Not a bad beginning for a tiny Seattle start-up. People took notice. Curtains were drawn by the thousands in the collector’s community. Dirty heads were about to get dirtier.
With this flux of grind-slime, my stagnation broke. I stumbled upon my first batch of Something Weird titles at a Tower Records in Tempe, AZ. Fourteen hundred miles from Seattle; I lay in a beanbag chair watching My Tail Is Hot in that summertime bake of 1993. Truly a head scratcher, this nudie (most definitely) cutie (not always) about a pudgy Buddy Hackett wannabe getting lured by Satan to infidelity left me in shambles. Barely a film, the threadbare plot is held together by clumsy cheesecake scenarios, plastic pitchforks, tin foil and a rather large piece of astro-turf. Toss in a bit of Hitler, some sub-par vaudevillian shtick and those ever present torpedo tits and what you’re left with is something otherworldly. Something your uncle hides in a sticky sock drawer. Something truly Weird. And this stuck with me.I couldn’t shake it. Why did it exist? Who the hell would sit in a theater and watch this? Slowly I came to the realization: I WOULD SIT IN A THEATER AND WATCH THIS. I depleted the SWV supply that was on hand at Tower. I checked off other titles like Kiss Me, Quick! (Laurel & Hardy meet Frankenstein’s Castle - with boobs) Space Thing (Mars Needs Women - with boobs) and Please Don’t Eat My Mother (Little Shop of Horrors - with full penetration!). I can even recall a Milwaukee radio DJ speaking of the last one when I was ten years old. I couldn’t believe I was actually seeing it - and from interviews I’ve read with Mike - he was sure that others wouldn’t believe they were getting to see it as well, even if they really shouldn’t.
By the time I hit Washington State and started working the video shopkeep angle, I was fairly well versed in this unsexy, foot rubbing soft-smut and the other red tinted grime that Something Weird peddled. Even still, living in such close proximity to the “factory” made every sundown my personal stag night. Those tapes in their shocking hard plastic shells really knew how to sell. Each was emblazoned with enough day-glo toner and outrageous admats to make the raunchiest Norton or Crypt Records catalog blush. And speaking of catalogs; that original SWV whopper, the Bucky Beaver Blue Book and the update supplements that followed are still some of the finest film zines I have on deck. As a one time drive-in projectionist and manager of both The Apple and Green Parrot Seattle porn theaters, it was safe to assume that Mike knew how to promote. Get those asses in the seats, so to speak. These pages weren’t just grocery lists of titles with an order form attached; they were inches thick and overflowing with lengthy descriptions, rare stills and the seedy stories of sleaze pits past by respected genre writers. Even goons like rockin’ wrestler Johnny Legend and filmmaker Frank Henlotter spouted off crazy ballyhoo to lure you in. The 42nd Street Pete article where he interviews a semi-retired Deuce prostitute was a total throwback to the Sleazoid Express days. I’m glad I held on to them all. Actually, all but the one. There’s one I cut up and used for wall paper at Video Vertigo. If you were to stop by the store around 2001, you’d be greeted at the gate by this garish homemade wrapping paper, plastered all around the front window boxes. Littered on top of this collage were broken unspooled tapes and decrepit portable TVs. Some of these televisions were wired to project videos onto the front sidewalk and more often than not, the cathode rays that shot into the street were supplying visions of cinematic drug trips, battered old horror trailers and forgotten grade school shorts - all available from Something Weird Video.
It was incredible to see this small company grow with the booming DVD surge, taking flight under the Image Entertainment distribution wing. A lot of so-called public domain titles had to be put to rest as other legitimate labels started getting rights secured for their proper release. Trash like this was suddenly in vogue. But Something Weird had the big guns that kept it afloat: The mighty HG Lewis collection. That definitive and gorgeous print of Basket Case. Doris Wishman’s sexy shots of potted plants. Y’no - the good stuff. I’m still in shock from walking into a Media Play mega-store and picking up a DVD release of Andy Milligan’s The Ghastly Ones. It took me a decade of hunting and more than a hundred dollars to secure a real VHS of that hot mess. Kids could now strut into their local department store and nab a copy of The Curious Dr Humpp. THIS HAD BECOME A BIG DEAL. Actually, it became too much of a big deal. Perhaps y’all are aware of that fateful Halloween season at (a certain retail giant) where if you bought a select chunk of horror or sleazy cheese, you’d got a free Something Weird Sampler disc? The sampler was an alphabetical run through of all the titles available on DVD at that time. Maybe everyone at the corporate office thought it was just fun scares and childs fare like the spookshow effort they produced? Rumor has it some “mother” (obviously one not as cool of mine) complained about their tween bringing the sampler home and upon seeing all those Amazing Transplant scabs and lesbian enriched moments of Bad Girls Go To Hell, raised quite a ruckus. Not long after, the smut surge in the chain stores started to wind down.
Once I no longer had video store ties, it seemed as though the SWV release schedule had slowed to a crawl. After more than a decade of new titles surfacing, remasters hitting disc and three hundred nudie loop compilations, perhaps the well run dry? I’d check in over at the website from time to time, but mostly they were running deals or transferring their backlog to DVDr. No longer delivering discs at a furious pace, operations were scaled back to the more homespun, made to order times of their VHS heyday. Things had shifted directions. There was an On Demand SWV cable channel. Seriously. My Father-in-law lived by it. Vraney & Co. got into actual film production and compled the great HG Lewis documentary Godfather of Gore. Another feature - That’s Sexploitation! – has just started playing the festival circuits. Things were looking up. Times change and Something Weird moved with the debris filled tide. The filth lives on.Then on the second of January, 2014 - as I finally mustered the post-illness strength to sit upright - news came that Mike Vraney had passed. Like most everyone I seem to admire in recent years, fucking cancer comes along and takes its toll. Mike had been quietly battling this ailment for some time. I now see why things had slowed at the palace of trash. That said, the man still left behind quite a legacy. A catalog of over 2,500 titles unearthed and initially considered lost, worthless and unimportant. We proved that to be untrue. And we have a lot to thank Something Weird Video for.
What saddens me most about this isn’t just the tragic loss of a life too soon, but also the death of a "power couple". Not like a “Buy! Sell! Trade!” power couple - all suited up with brief cases and Blue Tooths© - no sir. I mean a power couple that seems to fit together so perfectly in their artistic vision or creative passions that they drive each other - push each other - harder and further towards achieving goals above and beyond what they had ever expected. Two pieces of a puzzle that in the end clicks together seamlessly and flat out rule it in every aspect of life. Couples like Lux & Ivy of The Cramps or Jim & Jane Henson, the founders of The Muppets. Couples like Ross & Carla Ward of Tinkertown, NM - one of the greatest roadside attractions in America. Billy and Miriam over at Norton Records also get the gold, as well as new jack wonder-twins like Cinema Sewer’s horror/smut connoisseur Robin Bougie and his animator wife, Rebecca Dart. These couples continue to warm my hollow heart. Hell, the trainwreck that was Sleazoid Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford even had its merits. These folks are all total inspirations to what my wife, Bonni & I wish to achieve someday. To live, build and curate together. To plow forth with these gonzo passions and absurd dreams. To do what you do enjoy best in life - no matter how dumb or funny it may seem to others - and build an honest legacy that cool people will respect you for. Naysayers be damned. And when the sad, inevitable eventually comes knocking, there will be this warm blanket of crazy memories, personal triumphs and your collective creative output together to remember that fallen soul mate by.
Visit the Mike Vraney Memorial page here.
Something Weird Video website is here.
An incredible tour of the Vraney home at Secret Fun Blog (seriously, make sure you check this one out).
Pictures were borrowed from the internet. Thanks.
To read other installments of TV As Eyes please browse the archives here.
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