Tag Archives: Blood Mania

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The Other Manson Family or Bottom Feeding In The Overseas Distribution Aquarium – An Exploitative Memoir

 

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            My significant other and I arrived in Los Angeles in 1977. We’d driven a “drive-away” Impala through a cross country blizzard from Boston.  Her mother Natasha had snared us a one bedroom in the apartment sprawl she lived in.  It was a terraced bunker uphill from the  Whiskey a Go-Go.  Dionne Warwick had been the only notable tenant there until Motley Crue in ’82.  Warwick had left eons back but long time dwellers acted as if she was still there providing glittery gravitas to the joint. It was neglected and battered but Clark Apartments was all dream exotica to former denizens of Boston’s Back Bay.  With its soaring palms, floodlit pool and a glimpse of L.A. basin sparkle this was cockeyed heaven.

Bouncing from temp spots at IBM legal to Pepperdine’s lost Watts’ campus I was longing for some Hollywood glitz appointment. Natasha offered an opening at her company, a film distributor mere blocks away from our Clark Apartments. I interviewed with Manson Distributing Corporation’s president, an anxious, awkwardly jovial gentleman named Michael Goldman. After mild chit chat, Goldman hired me. Obviously Natasha’s recommendation was key, tinsel town nepotism at work.

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Manson Distributing Corporation was situated at 9145 Sunset Boulevard in the Aladdin Building, blatantly accented by the fat brass Aladdin’s lamp hung over the entrance. It was, and still is, an undistinguished two-story square which in 1977 sat across from the Cock’n Bull tavern, birthplace of the Moscow Mule and Jack Webb’s daily waterhole.  Next door was La Maganette, our usual takeout choice, a dimly lit Italian mock swank with regulars from Sammy Davis to Richard Deacon. Further east on Sunset was Scandia, considered L.A.’s premiere eatery alongside Ma Maison.  In that era L.A. had a narrow gastronomic belly. Other neighbors included Dick Clark Productions, Dick or his wife were often out front trying to curb their massive dogs, and the old school Paul Kohner Agency, my first agent’s quarters, with John Huston carefully squeezing himself and his oxygen tank through the front door.

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Jack Webb was never perched far from the feast at the Cock’n'Bull.

 

                  The rest of Sunset was ripping itself from the clutches of the sixties as it stumbled through the seventies. Filthy McNasty’s and its flooze were in last gasp. Power Burger gave super beef shots. Turner ruled the booze front. You could eat the same bubbling quiche at both Old World and Mirabelle’s. The Rainbow served decent crunch pizza (and still does) but the Hollywood Vampires had gone bye-bye and metal heads were beginning to ooze in.  The Roxy and the Whiskey had ace acts then (before they succumbed to pay-to-play to survive.) And Tower Records was the center of the vinyl cosmos (sorry Licorice Pizza.)

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Edmund Goldman, Michael’s father, started Manson around 1953 with Sam Nathanson, the name “Manson” came from their surnames’ last syllables.  Sam had departed and Ed was settling into a more patriarchal role as Michael commandeered the company through the next phase. Ed’s fame claim was that he purchased domestic rights to Gojira from Toho for twenty-five grand and brought it to Harold Ross and Richard Kay at Jewel Enterprises.  Ross and Kay with Terry O. Morse transformed Ishiro Honda’s ground busting anti-nuke fable into the castrated American Godzilla, King Of The Monsters. There were a number of accounts as to how Ed discovered the film. One had him seeing it in a Little Tokyo movie house (did Ed really stray from the Westwood or Beverly Hills theater circuit?) Another was that it was brought to Ed’s attention by his friend Paul Schreibman, an attorney and distributor, and importantly legal consultant for Toho. But the tale I favored was from Manson’s bookkeeper Margaret who said that during the war when Ed was the Far East emissary for Columbia Pictures he was put into a Philippines detention camp by the Japanese. He struck up a friendship with one of the guards and after the war that guard became an executive at Toho. As a token to their friendship the former guard alerted Ed to the wonder which was Gojira.  I never asked Ed for verification preferring to just savor the myth.

But I did demand back story on the framed photo in Ed’s office of him being attacked by the Three Stooges on the Columbia lot. In the pic Moe has Ed in a nasty hammerlock while Shemp and Larry are doing unmentionable things to his extremities. Regarding the gouging Ed commented, “Moe Howard was friendly enough but if a camera was around he’d become dangerously violent.  Those other knuckleheads would follow his lead.”

“How often did you go to the track with Shemp?”

“We weren’t that close.” he replied.

My annual bonding with Ed came as the various foreign film markets approached. Whether it was Cannes, MIFED, or the local newbie American Film Market Ed and I would go in the company car to Smart & Final on Melrose to buy a snack spread for the hotel sales room. We’d spend a day choosing the perfect client confections.  Ed believed food was crucial to making sales.  Ed in sweater vest and dress pants resembled the Monopoly man, sans top hat, gone casual. Ed said I looked like an extra from Satan’s Sadists (one of Manson’s many Al Adamson titles.) It wasn’t off the mark when the Smart & Final cashier suggested I was Ed’s “personal hippie valet.” Ed chuckled then muttered something about Al Adamson and Sam Sherman liking Red Vines.

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I was stationed at Manson with the boys in the shipping department. The “boys” were actually two gents in their late forties and one drag queen. Devon, a determined thespian in a magnificent but obvious toupee ran the scene with expert devotion, spiked wit and high drama. Devon’s long time friend Hal assisted.

Hal was a notary and professional eccentric who had developed his own axis and orbit. At first flush Hal was the spitting image of Ernie Kovacs homophobic conception Percy Dovetonsils, including bottle spectacles and moustache, although Hal’s tongue wasn’t Percy’s. Hal expounded on Marxist principles and the anti-carcinogen benefits of cinnamon in coffee and ground up apricot pits in everything while tirelessly playing a cassette of Edith Piaf’s best. He would display his weekend acquisitions from Bargain Circus and every yard sale in a 20-mile radius of Griffith Observatory, while indulging you for your take on their value, “Guess how much, how much?” He spoke endearingly of various “mudderfuggers” who had wronged him in his global trots, tales which included his excommunication from Israel, his deep romance with India (where a soothsayer said he’d die one day, the teller was off Hal took his dirt nap in Ireland) and the glorious Roma days with Devon dating Vatican cardinals and bishops while waiting for movie roles. Hal and Devon were in Catch 22’s whorehouse scene with Charles Grodin but that “mudderfugger Nichols cut us out!” Hal didn’t hit the editing floor in Cast A Giant Shadow where he can be seen briefly as Kirk Douglas’s secretary.

The drag queen, who Hal called Queenie, was the messenger.  He jockeyed Goldberg cans from Manson’s storage (a garage with a flea size studio apartment over it behind The Palm on Santa Monica) to Nossecks’, Aidikoff’s, and Sunset screening rooms around West L.A. and Beverly Hills.  But he spent too much time on the phone arguing with fabric stores over his next costume construct. Queenie’s days were numbered as his outside curriculum was encroaching on his workaday performance.

Shipping’s main responsibility was contract fulfillment of a title’s publicity and film elements or sending out sales materials to potential buyers.  70’s overseas sale promotion required mailing salt lick sized ¾” NTSC video cassettes (a 60 and 30 minute part for each title) along with brochure sheets like these:

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Manson’s library was primarily exploitation and a hefty part of that was adult fare or as Devon discreetly tagged it “fuck films.”  Not surprisingly there was concern when sending out screening cassettes about territory censor guidelines.  This meant that features needed to be clearly marked as “hard” or “soft.”  I was appointed to determine which library screeners had “erect” as opposed to “flaccid” organs on display.  Proper labeling would decide (sometimes) whether a title made it through customs or whether it ended up in the custom house’s private library. (Greece’s postal board held “art film” fests on the second Thursday of every month.)

Japan allowed adult importation as long as a metamorphosis occurred.  Japanese distributors would purchase a feature positive 35mm print and then carefully go through it frame by frame removing all  pubic hair and genitalia, intricately “painting” it out.  From the new “clean” composite they’d make a “dirty” (low grade) negative to create release prints.

In pre-video days most territories had no public outlet for things pornographic. The Mideast was an impossible sell for anything vaguely sexual. A breakthrough came when the new Manson salesman Pete (who had moved into sales from shipping hence opening my position) sold Sinderella and the Golden Bra, a very soft skin offering, to a Lebanese distributor. After governmental slice and dice the film could have been sold as live action Disney.

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The Manson library was morphing when I came aboard.  There’d been a past deal with Janus so classics like Chimes At Midnight had been sold alongside Orgy of the Golden Nudes but overall little strayed from b to z-standard sex and violence. Now Mark and Marilyn Tensor’s Crown International was providing Manson with a new wave of youth attractions.  Crown had gone from producing Weekend with the Baby Sitter and Blood Mania to mild teen romps like The Van and Van Nuys Blvd. The Crown feature The Pom Pom Girls was second to Disney’s The Rescuers in France’s 1977 box office, a defining prize for Manson and Crown.  Another source would come from producer Charles Band with nil-budget, humdrum sci fi like The Day Time Ended, Laserblast and End Of the World. That last title brought Christopher “Playgirl After Dark” Lee and Sue “Lolita” Lyon together for the first time. Not venturing completely from stroke flicks, Band also provided an adult musical Fairy Tales (in the tradition of Bill Osco’s Alice In Wonderland and Band’s own Cinderella.Fairy Tales was notable for finally pairing Martha Reeves with Professor Irwin Corey.

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But the bulk of titles remained in the grand bottom feed tradition. Many of the purveyors were loyal pals of Ed Goldman and no one truer than Bulgaria’s gift to the world Stephen Apostolof aka A.C. Stephens.  Steve’s amazing history has been detailed capably elsewhere (particularly the interview gangbang in Psychotronic No.8, Winter 1990.) He was a habitual visitor to Manson often bringing a box of “stinkweed” cigars for Ed which Ed would dispose of as soon as Steve was out of sight.  Manson distributed such A.C. works as Class Reunion, Snow Bunnies, Fugitive Girls and Lady Godiva Rides, with its trailer narration “Filmed on two continents… in Hollywood.”  Steve was presently trying to get Edmund to pick up his latest title Hot Ice. (Hot Ice was a caper film with intended and unintended comic overtones, that unique A.C. Stephens blend. As I recall it had almost no nudity which didn’t help the sale.)  As part of the new Manson prescience there was a reluctance to acquire Hot Ice. Steve was having difficulty with this and confessed openly about it to Devon and myself. He was certain this was his greatest film and possibly the last one his buddy Eddie Wood was capable of working on. “I’m worried about the son of a bitch. He just drinks and watches TV. If Manson distributes Hot Ice it’ll help Eddie.”

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This was before major hoopla over the Ed Wood oeuvre. Like many in the tri-state area my brother and I were big fans having watched Plan 9 and Bride every time they were on Zacherly’s Chiller Theater. I asked Steve to bring Ed with him next time and we could have lunch at Cock ‘n Bull and discuss the tender side of the “The Super Swedish Angel” Tor Johnson. Steve said Wood never leaves his chair unless he falls off it.  I pleaded some more and Steve said, “If Manson distributes my Hot Ice I’ll bring Eddie to lunch.”  After Steve left Hal and Devon described Eddie Wood as “a transvestite drunk” who they didn’t want near the office. They continued with how decrepit Criswell and Vampira had become haunting the aisles of Hollywood Ranch Market at midnight. I’d seen Vampira there once and she looked heavy but fine for late fifties. Devon added “Do you really want to eat lunch with a stinking old rummy in drag?” From then on whenever Hal and Devon saw a distressed female on the street they’d suggest I take her to lunch since it might be Ed Wood (akin to “don’t step on that spider it might be Lon Chaney.”)

The ribbing continued up to the day in ’78 when a despondent Apostolof came into the office and told us Eddie was dead. Steve mused, “If Manson had picked up Hot Ice maybe Eddie would still be alive and we could have lunch. That’s something to think about.”

Manson was a compact crew in 1977, with around ten employees.  Sales and acquisitions were handled by Ed, Michael and Pete. Natasha was Michael’s assistant.  Michael as a CPA oversaw finance and was a supreme organizer.  He oversaw a paper system with multiple title, agreement and client files with every telex and soon FAX copied in triplicate regarding every contractual burp. I would never see this level of order again at another film company, anal fascism at its best.

Margaret the Manson bookkeeper was in another realm, a chain smoker who looked like Ben Franklin in a muumuu anchored to a cyclone torn office. Her desktop was a document layer cake topped by charred invoices from smoldering Pall Malls. Margaret always wore sandals; shoes couldn’t contain her toes with their elongated, twisting, never manicured nails. Margaret’s life goal was to purchase federal land in Nevada and build an underground home for herself and her son. She’d show me house blueprints and cackle about the brilliance of her plan. It would never be but she did have a novel approach to financing. South Korean distributors often paid in cash due to their government restrictions for moving money overseas via transfers or checks. So Margaret sometimes would deposit hefty greenback payments in the Sunset City National on the Beverly Hills line. Once while walking cold thousands to the bank Margaret was robbed. Or so she said. Margaret had pulled a pathetic con. Instead of her underground home she ended up in a state run facility. Poor Margaret.  As I remember she made a first-rate lasagna.

Margaret used to complain about many things including tracking “short film” distribution. “What a waste of time these aren’t even real films.” Manson did distribute short films, one was The Legend Of Jimmy Blue Eyes which was nominated for an Oscar in ’64, directed by Robert Clouse who would later helm Enter The Dragon.  The other was Minestrone written and directed by Danny DeVito. DeVito during this time was mainly known for playing Martini in the play and movie of Cuckoo’s Nest as he hadn’t yet nailed the part of Louie on Taxi.  So like Apostolof DeVito had nothing better to do but hang around the shipping department chatting up Devon.

One fine day DeVito was to drop by to pick up some Minestrone flyers.  Devon left them out for Danny and headed to an audition. Hal was making his daily lunch concoction which consisted of Laughing Cow cheese cubes, wheat germ, Lipton’s onion soup mix, apricot pit powder and boiling water shaken up in a thermos. Queenie was out running errands. The shipping department was a unified jumble of desks and chairs, no partitions, telex machine, file cabinets and plenty of wall cases slotted for pub materials. Each of us had a chair but there was no space for guest seating. While passing Queenie’s chair I noticed its cloth seat was damp, badly stained.  I asked Hal if he’d dropped some of his thermos slop on Queenie’s chair.

“No, I did not.  Lemme take a look at it.” Hal examined the chair, feeling and sniffing it. “There’s K-Y all over it.  Wait‘ll Devon sees this he’ll have another heart attack.”

The bohemian occupant of the residence over the Manson storage garage had told Devon recently that Queenie was bringing visitors there.  It wasn’t to peruse stills from The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed Up Zombies of which there was an unusual glut of 8x10s in the garage.  The connect between Queenie’s chair and the garage would likely occur to Devon.

“Don’t touch that chair.  I’ll be right back.”  Touching it was far from my mind. Hal ran off to pick up Dirty Western dialogue continuity copies nearby at “Henry Jaglom’s copy joint”, “Jaglom’s” because he tended to stake out there.

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Edmund G. buzzed me to take a print of Cries Of Ecstasy, Blows Of Death across the street to Nosseck’s.  “Right this minute?” “Yes, right this minute.” I grabbed the print and left, leaving the shipping department unmanned. Nosseck’s Screening Room was in the rear basement of a building which would soon house David Geffen and Lookout Management. Run by Don and Marilyn Nosseck it was a historic little theater. Don was there between screenings so we struck up the usual conversation about the months Howard Hughes holed up in ’58 watching Republic horse operas while chasing Hershey bars with Alta-Dena quarts. As I examined the carpet for ancient cow juice stains I envisioned Queenie’s chair and DeVito sitting in it.  I hightailed it across Sunset.

DeVito was indeed in Queenie’s chair talking non-stop to Devon.  Hal walked in with the Dirty Western continuities. As he was about to inform DeVito about the state of things I intervened, “No, Hal, some things are best left… you know.”  DeVito departed with his flyers and Hal updated Devon on Queenie’s chair. Devon didn’t have a heart attack but he had one of his more striking outbursts, transparency sheets and an ashtray took wing, Devon’s skull rug did an Edgar Kennedy 360.  Queenie vamoosed to Las Vegas where someone believed he died in the 1980 MGM Hotel fire.

In ’79 Hal found some old lysergic acid in his freezer and dropped it before a dinner party.  At the soiree Hal had chest pains and ended up hospitalized.  It was a minor attack but he was put on lengthy bed rest.  This by the way doesn’t suggest a correlation between LSD ingestion and heart function (refer to Sidney Gottlieb’s CIA studies for further analysis.)

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With Hal temporarily gone Devon brought in a close pal (and perhaps past romance) to sub for him. I came into work to find a familiar face dressed in Johnny Cash black seated at Hal’s desk.  The distinctive Oklahoma accent, which graced Rod McKuen LPs, called out, “Hey, Todd, didja hear Sid Vicious is finally dead.” It was Jesse Pearson, Bye Bye Birdie’s Conrad Birdie announcing that Sid Vicious had OD’d in NYC.  Jesse was now directing porn having given up acting after a mountain top revelation while shooting Bonanza in’69. He’d tired of playing   cowboys and “Birdie types” like Johnny Poke on Beverly Hillbillies and Keevy Hazelton on Andy Griffith. Jesse was a sweet guy and very funny. A recent Manson acquisition was Olly Olly Oxen Free starring Katharine Hepburn (it paired well with Atom Age Vampire.)  Jesse did an imitation of Kate singing Sid Vicious’s version of My Way.  Jesse got smacked with cancer later that year and headed to Louisiana for his final days. My significant other and I went to his going away gala at erotic producer Tod Johnson’s Hollywood Hills castle. She spent the party crying in the bathroom as she’d had a pre-teen crush on his Birdie character.  Jesse regaled the rest of us with gallows humor about crossing Cedar Sinai’s striking nurse picket line to get to his dentist. “Let me through. Gotta get my cavities filled before I’m dead.” The last film Jesse directed, The Legend Of Lady Blue won best picture at the 1979 AFAA Erotic Film Awards and Jesse under the name A. Fabritzi won a posthumous best screenplay trophy.

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While Manson started picking up fringe mainstreamers like Charlton Heston’s Mother Lode, Philip Borsos’ The Grey Fox, Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline Of Western Civilization, Miyazaki’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and the Oscar winning documentary Genocide there was still room for top grade exploitation. Answering my prayers Jimmy “Salacious Rockabilly Cat” Maslon brought Herschel Gordon Lewis’s ‘60s classics Blood Feast and Two Thousand Maniacs! to the Manson family.   As well Mr. Lewis was being coaxed to revisit Blood Feast with a follow-up (it was finally completed in 2002.)  Canadian productions under the Great White North tax shelter began showing up like Roger Vadim’s The Hot Touch and David Cronenberg’s Scanners.  There was morbid interest in how the Dorothy Stratton tragedy would impact sales of Crown International’s Galaxina (not much bang there.)

Reoccurring visitors made appearances in the shipping department.  Johnny Legend bopped through trawling for trailers for his comps.  Holly “Tuxedo Warrior” Palance and Tanya “Tourist Trap” Roberts dropped in for hot clips for their promo reels and cocktails at “La Maggot.” Richard “Soft White Underbelly” Meltzer came by and did a tap dance because his tune “Burnin’ For You” was climbing the charts. Jim Wynorski was our “one-day trailer maven” before he made his directorial debut with The Lost Empire beginning his eighty and still counting features.  Jim would bring his cohort Linda “Humanoids From the Deep” Shayne who hijacked my IBM Selectric.  Al Adamson and Regina Carroll would peek in on occasion.  And Steve Apostolof usually showed up around film market time still shopping Hot Ice.

Sometimes surprise guests hung around longer than they wished. Manson had a small screening room on the second floor with a booth for 16mm projection and ¾” NTSC playback.  The projection room door had a troublesome lock. Once while passing the room I heard banging and a voice yelling in French and English. I went in to discover Roger Vadim trapped in the projection booth.  I freed the understandably distraught director.  I asked him if he thought Bardot would have been a more superior Barbarella than Fonda and he punched me in the face.  No, actually he was so upset by his entrapment he barely said “Merci” and took off for the safety of Sunset Blvd.

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I made numerous excursions up to Charlton Heston’s home on Coldwater during the promotion of Mother Lode. He was usually wearing a corset for a back injury. “Damn tennis.” Heston would go through the color transparencies I’d chosen approving the slides we needed to support the film. He seemed often to be in pain so I didn’t engage him in heavy conversation.  But one time after throwing out complimentary jazz about Touch Of Evil and Will Penny I got around to his most recent stage turn as Sherlock Holmes and the role of Holmes in general. I asked him if Robert DeNiro would be better as a Watson or a Holmes. ”DeNiro can pretty much play whatever he wants to play and I’m sure he’d play it well.”  What about Clint Eastwood? “That would be an interesting portrayal.” What about Mickey Rooney?  Heston handed me the pile of slides. He made a guttural noise, adjusted his corset and strode into the next room. I never got to ask him about his co-star in the play Crucifer Of Blood, Jeremy Brett who played Heston’s Watson. At that time Granada was just beginning to court Brett for their Holmes series.

The next time I visited Heston he and his house staff greeted me outside by the tennis court and they kept my visit quick without dialogue or gracious house entry. It may have been my earlier mention of Mickey Rooney or the furtive gestures of the crazed individual, actor Johnnie P. from San Jose Confidential, who was sitting in my company Toyota in the drive.

 

Devon was getting more stage work and spending less time in the office.  Other than the time Mae West kissed him at the Crown International premiere of Sextette  the happiest I’d seen him was when he found the discarded brand new 40” TV in the building dumpster. Someone had deposited the TV and remote and Devon was the first to spy them. Devon carried them into the office proclaiming “They’re mine!”   Both items were in cartons shrink wrapped with colored cellophane.  Feverishly elated he set them aside by his desk and planned to take them home at day’s end.

In the hallway outside shipping the owner of the Aladdin building, a Beirut millionaire, accosted me and Adam, the non-drag queen new shipping guy, and asked us what happened to the TV set out by the trash.  We told him that Devon had snatched it up. He began to laugh maniacally.  “I put it out there to see who would take it. It’s a complete goddamn fake.”  A peculiar prank indeed, like bad Allen Funt on lithium.

When Adam told Devon I knew there’d be a compressed acting lesson in the offering.   Devon violently tore off the wrap, smashed open the carton and removed the TV shell weighed down with worthless ballast instead of tube and circuitry.  The TV remote turned out to be a pack of cigarettes.  Devon pushed everything to the ground.  Then he picked up the phony remote.  “Well at least I got a pack of cigarettes out of it.”

Devon would go on to star as Waldo Lydecker in a staging of Laura at the Hollywood United Methodist Church.  It was great acting, a critic pronounced him better than Clifton Webb.  Christopher Guest and Peter DeLuise were in the cast. The only down side the night we went was that Peter’s father Dom sat in front of us and  seemed to be doing a monologue for himself competing with the play.  The night of Laura’s final performance, after the last curtain call, Devon dropped dead back stage; he finally had that second heart attack.  It was like a cheesy Busby Berkeley plot only there was no need for an understudy to step in.  One odd note, days after Devon’s death the director of the play, Dick “East Of Eden” Davalos, called the office asking for Devon to go to lunch. He obviously knew of Devon’s demise but acted as though he hadn’t. Taken aback I told him Devon wasn’t in. Dick inquired about Devon the next day as well. I asked him if this was some sick joke. He said “Don’t worry about it.” and hung up.

Manson had a wonderful Christmas wingding each year at the Beverly Hills Hotel.   It was a fine arena for prattle and pratfalls.  A place for buyers, producers and talent to mingle in a festive moment.  Where Michael “Timerider” Nesmith would recall how Hendrix traumatized parents as the Monkees opening act and how his mother had invented Liquid Paper. Director Penelope Spherris debated the magnetic appeal of Albert Brooks vs Darby Crash.  A German distributor pulled a knife on a Scandinavian distributor. I tried to convince Mark and Marilyn Tensor to no avail that Crown should do a teen zombies flick. Richard Farnsworth acted out horse stunts making the ladies swoon. My future boss Andy Vajna declared First Blood would change the foreign marketplace forever. My future wife grabbed a violin from the string quartet and played hot gypsy improv. And Charlton Heston passed through quickly due to back problems. “Damn jai alai.”

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I quit Manson to go to Texas seeking lost romance and ended up spending time with a charming carnival freak show in Beaumont (Hall and Christ Sideshow I believe).  When I returned to L.A. Manson welcomed me back into their fold but it was a-changing.  Manson International eventually moved from Sunset to a “more prestigious” building on Olympic in West Los Angeles. The bigger digs were required for the larger Manson Family of twenty plus employees.  As part of its expansion Manson got hitched to production, financially floating Albert Pyum’s concrete boat Radioactive Dreams.  All production is high stakes gambling but some of us were concerned where Manson was placing its bets.  Employees jumped ship to more lucrative ventures. In 1985 Michael kicked me and two other “non-team players” out the door. It was the beginning of streamlining for eventual sale of the Manson library to Jonathan Krane’s MCEG in 1987.

I resurfaced at Carolco, a foreign distributor and producer which did not feed off the bottom, a company that transformed Hollywood financing for better or worse.  Carolco’s filing system was absolute chaos compared to Manson but for Carolco that may have been insurance.

Gabriella

Finding My Way Into Schlock

Massage Parlor Murders

Massage Parlor Murders! (1974) would be just another generic morsel of sleaze, if not for its weird six-minute pre-title sequence. In it, a masseuse attempts to negotiate the removal of her clothing with a pasty-faced, flustered client who starts forking over twenties more out of nervousness than sexual desire. The conclusion of this oral contract caps what passes for suspense in this affectless scene, which is flatly lit, staged proscenium arch-style, and accompanied by a jaunty Mickey-Mouse score. Massage Parlor Murders! is probably the only slasher film ever to open with a vaudevillian blackout sketch. The fact that only one of the two characters in it appears again in the movie (and then only for a few minutes right at the end) creates a narrative disconnect, and the scene is hilarious because it contrasts so jarringly in tone with everything that follows. It’s also endearing because it’s one of those surprising movie moments in which an especially appealing bit performer brings a bland scene to life. Olive-skinned Annie Gaybis, who plays the masseuse, has an unusual beauty and a soft Noo Yawk accent, and she really nails the stripper’s seductive hard-sell routine in a funny, authentic-sounding way. It turns out the movie isn’t about Gaybis’s character, but the fleeting possibility counts for a lot.

The other seventy-four minutes of Massage Parlor Murders! (and don’t leave off that exclamation point!) comprise an banal, semi-comprehensible serial killer procedural. But, as Chris Poggiali’s thoroughly-researched liner notes point out, it would be hard to find a more useful time capsule of its particular moment in the history of crap. Like many low-end exploiters, Massage Parlor Murders! was stitched together out of barely usable footage. Chester Fox, whose Hitchcockian cameo happened to be in the role of Gaybis’s befuddled john, was the first of two credited directors, a fringe figure whose other oddball credits included an obscure Marcel Marceau short and an aborted attempt to film the famous Fischer-Spassky chess match. The other, Alex Stevens, was a stunt man hired to add some brisk car chase scenes and a bathhouse not-quite-orgy that looks like it might have been filmed with a hidden camera. Incoherent as it is, Massage Parlor Murders! may be the grindhousiest of all 1970s grindhouse movies, just because it’s set and photographed in and around the place where more people saw them than any other: Manhattan’s Times Square at the depth of its Ford to City: Drop Dead-era decay.

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Re-release prints of Massage Parlor Murders! scissored off the prologue, turning it from a mostly ordinary exploitation film into a wholly ordinary one. A complete theatrical print of the original version is now available as a crisp, colorful Blu-ray thanks to Vinegar Syndrome, a new, Connecticut-based company that specializes in the kind of fringe sinema that even connoisseurs of schlock have never heard of. Ready to explore the oeuvre of porn auteur Kemal Horulu? Vinegar Syndrome has you covered with not one but two double feature DVDs. In the midst of a scary transitional period in which many once-thriving independent labels (and major studios) have cut back or given up on catalog releases, cult and exploitation is one of the few niches still being profitably mined for home video special editions. They’ve been through hard times – Something Weird now releases on DVD-R, and Code Red produces self-distributed limited runs that go out of print almost immediately – but hardy labels including Synapse Films, Scorpion Releasing, Shout Factory, and Grindhouse Releasing are still rereleasing little-known trash classics upon an unsuspecting public at a rapid clip.

It was through another Vinegar Syndrome release, Mark Haggard’s The Love Garden (1971), that I discovered Barbara Mills. Also credited as Barbara Caron, Mills was a prolific sexploitation starlet who somehow never received the same kind of cult recognition that Pam Grier or Claudia Jennings, or even Haji or Marsha Jordan, still enjoy. In The Love Garden, Mills and Linda York (her frequent co-star, and also a wispy redhead with offbeat looks) play lesbians whose partnership is threatened when a new, male neighbor falls for York’s character. At first, this very low-budget film – which has only three characters, and entirely post-synched dialogue – comes across as a dated exercise in “curing” homosexuality. Even though the male protagonist is a Jewfro’d, un-macho Tony Roberts type, he also details (in voiceover) a plan to intrude upon a relationship that he sees as unnatural, at least compared to the lovin’ he’s trying to bring. Mills’s character is the least sympathetic of the three – not quite a stereotypical “predatory lesbian,” but older than York and possessive. So it’s a shock – a calculated, well-crafted shock – when The Love Garden reverses course entirely in its last few minutes, upending all of the hero’s comfortable sexist assumptions and taking an explicitly anti-homophobic stance. I’d also argue that The Love Garden, which devotes 28 of its 70 minutes to a pair of equally tender and unhurried sex scenes (one gay, one hetero) that stop just short of going hardcore, functions as feminist porn avant la lettre.

Not every movie made for the raincoat crowd had subversion on its mind: The Love Garden is paired on DVD with another Barbara Mills vehicle, The Suckers (1972), a clunky attempt to make a softcore Most Dangerous Game. The Suckers doesn’t get around to explaining the obvious “twist” in the plot until after the halfway mark, and its sex scenes are as crude and unappealing as The Love Garden’s are sensuous and open. Mills has a fairly minor role in Escape to Passion (1970), the second film by director James Bryan – she’s one of the participants in the long Crisco orgy at the, er, climax of the film. But Mills and Bryan shared a connection to the Venice Beach hippie scene. Mills, who died in 2010, used her nudie work to support a free-spirited lifestyle as a Venice artist. Bryan, who also lived and worked there, was an authentic regional filmmaker who captured this corner of Los Angeles with the same perceptive eye that George Romero turned upon western Pennsylvania. A film student at UCLA around the same time as Jack Hill (and Francis Ford Coppola, whose first feature was a nudie), Bryan has a fraction of Hill’s skill for self-promotion and, to judge by the three early films released on DVD together by Code Red, twice as much talent.

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Only sixty-five minutes long, Bryan’s debut feature The Dirtiest Game in the World is clearly a B-side – a lengthy sex party hung on a thread of political satire, albeit bookended by documentary footage of the 1968 Democratic convention and an epigraph by Richard Nixon (!).  But Bryan’s formal imagination dominates Escape to Passion, his magnum opus. Using the B storyline about a laid-back orgy impresario (Titus Moody, in full Roy Orbison drag and playing a version of himself) to supply the requisite nudity, Bryan pours his heart into the story of another Angeleno fringe dweller, a petty thief named Leo (the talented Leonard Shoemaker) whose higher criminal aspirations orchestrate noir-style tragedy. Clearly a New Wave enthusiast, Bryan fills Escape to Passion with naturalistic, often handheld camera work, associative editing, and a remarkably dense sound design. Cutaways to movie stills of Robinson and Cagney as Leo describes his dream of a big heist are pure Godard, and the hilarious pop-art bank heist (complete with kiddie space helmets and a naked lady) wouldn’t be out of place in Shoot the Piano Player. The honkytonk soundtrack (set partly in a topless country-western bar, Escape to Passion is almost a musical) anticipates Ashby’s and Scorsese’s pop music scoring. Bryan’s I Love You I Love You Not (1974) is one of the great Los Angeles time capsules of the 1970s; Century City, the Classic Cat and the Aware Inn on Sunset Boulevard, and Venice’s Pacific Avenue are all caught in its amber. I Love You is the story of a nymphomaniac, which in Bryan’s hands becomes a sympathetic portrait of a young woman (Lynn Harris, touchingly vulnerable as she wanders the L.A. streets in an incongruous fur coat) on the edge of mental illness, for whom sex with a series of selfish, damaged men (and women) proves an unsatisfying, temporary escape. Although more constricted by amateurish performances and gratuitous sex scenes than Escape to Passion, I Love You still feels like the bizarro-world, soft-porn version of some canonical New Hollywood film – A Woman Under the Influence or An Unmarried Woman or Coming Home.

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I wish it had been Bryan who tried to turn Barbara Mills into a star instead of Mack Bing, the sitcom director at the helm of Gabriella, Gabriella (usually dated 1972 but probably ca. 1970; Code Red). Mills plays the title character, a teen who flees from the bad vibes given off by her hypocritical, repressed parents (depicted Love, American Style-style, albeit with unflattering middle-aged nudity) into a series of vignettes in which she discovers free love and (literal) sexual revolution. It’s a terrible movie, although its incoherence and obvious symbolism make Gabriella, Gabriella more reminiscent of the European New Wave’s flower-power excesses than any mainstream American film of the era. (In other words it’s closer to Chytilova’s The Apple Tree or Varda’s Lions Love than to Skidoo – but again, that’s not a recommendation). If The Love Garden shows off Mills’s acting chops in what amounts to a character part, Gabriella is an infatuated tribute to her natural beauty (which encompasses a prominent, if adorable, overbite and a crop of clearly visible hair on her upper lip and forearms) and uninhibited exuberance.

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This unreleasable (and evidently unreleased) smorgasbord of peace-love-dope clichés would be totally forgotten today had it not been scavenged for a more high-profile film, Class of ’74 (1972; Code Red). Although the finished product is ultimately no better than Gabriella, Gabriella, Class of ’74 (credited to Bing and a more experienced director, Arthur Marks) has to count as one of the most clever efforts to reconstitute a new film out of the spare parts of an old one. Marks fashions Gabriella, Gabriella into a sequel to itself, packaging the earlier footage as flashbacks to high school and reintroducing Gabriella as a college student (at the University of Southern California, this writer’s alma mater), eager for amorous adventures – or more of them, that is, this time with her new besties as sexual tour guides. If Bing’s movie tried to cash in on Woodstock ideas of sex, Marks’s is pure proto-yuppie cynicism. The sex is transactional, every orgasm a brass ring. Ostensibly the huntresses, Gabriella and her girlfriends somehow end up as trophies for the kind of smug middle-aged clods (played by Gary Clarke and Phillip Terry, among others) who were objects of ridicule in Gabriella, Gabriella. Even the transformation of Mills’s body illustrates a shift from empowerment to conformity: the hair on her arms and face has been waxed off, and the hair on her head is longer and styled with blonde highlights. To put Mills on a par with her relatively A-list co-stars (Marki Bey, Pat Woodell, and Sondra Currie), Marks gave her a glam makeover – and subdued a lot of her personality.

If James Bryan was an auteur of the scuzzy fringe, then Arthur Marks was about as corporate an exploitation director as one could be – a shrewd packager of blax- and sexploitation trends for mini-majors like General Film Corporation (his own company) and later AIP. His films are formulaic and impersonal, but not without their charms. I’m especially partial to Bonnie’s Kids (1973; Dark Sky), a violent, anarchic road/crime spree movie often (and perhaps dubiously) cited as a Pulp Fiction influence. The best thing about Bonnie’s Kids is Tiffany Bolling, a sexy blonde who could be dull in ingénue roles but came ferociously to life when cast as bad girls. She’s terrifyingly feral as a sociopath who engineers a ransom kidnapping in Guerdon Trueblood’s The Candy Snatchers (1973; Subversive Cinema), a more plausible Tarantino inspiration and one of the most unrelentingly cold-blooded movies ever made, right through to the savagely misanthropic twist ending. If there’s one Nixon-era obscurity that deserves to be recategorized as a “real” movie rather than exploitation, it’s The Candy Snatchers. Trueblood (primarily a television writer) ties with Electra Glide in Blue’s James William Guercio as the great one-and-done feature director of 1973, if not of all time, and his invisibility is probably the factor that has kept The Candy Snatchers out of the canon. If some auteurist cred would help up its profile, note that screenwriter Bryan Gindoff’s only other credit is Walter Hill’s beautiful debut film, Hard Times (1975).

These crawled-out-from-under-a-rock films of the 1970s are full of low-rent “stars” who substitute energy and sensuality for finesse, and not all of them were female. Alex Nicol’s deliciously gaudy Point of Terror (1971; Scorpion Releasing) offers a worthy introduction, and farewell, to the forgotten Peter Carpenter. Playing a lounge singer at a seaside dump called the Lobster House, the often shirtless Carpenter manages a decent approximation of Tom Jones’s sweaty charisma in this lurid neo-noir that rips off The Postman Always Rings Twice and half a dozen of its contemporaries. Crammed with unexpectedly good songs (credited to Motown producers Hal Davis, Jerry Marcellino and Mel Larson), Point of Terror seems less interested in operating as a suspense or a horror film than as a star vehicle or a pop opera. Carpenter, who apparently died young (variant accounts of how and when have surfaced across different DVD extras and the internet), also co-wrote Point of Terror, his final film, as well as the earlier Blood Mania (1970; Code Red).

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Directed by Robert Vincent O’Neil, Blood Mania is another stylish, modestly-scaled, fatalistic crime film that synthesizes familiar femme fatale / male patsy clichés. From there one might leap to O’Neil’s The Psycho Lover (1970; Something Weird), a sort of companion piece, made in the same year and with a similar plot, but with Lawrence Montaigne (best known as a Star Trek guest star) subbing for Carpenter. All three of the films have the look and feel of a reasonably good episode of a comfort-food crime series like Mannix or Barnaby Jones – a compliment, not a dig, when you consider how indifferently made most grindhouse fare was content to be. On style points alone, Point of Terror is by far the standout of the three, thanks to cinematographer Bob Maxwell’s oversaturated colors and some imaginative transitions by editor Verna Fields (Medium Cool; Jaws) – not the sort of talent you’d expect to find working on a Crown International release. But all three of the Carpenter and/or O’Neil pictures are what passes for classy (or classical) in an era when the most revelatory independent action movies – like Walter Cichy’s Cop Killers (1973) and Robert Endelson’s Fight For Your Life (1977) – were punishing, self-conscious exercises in simultaneously gratifying audiences’ lust for blood and damning them for it.

I hasten to emphasize I’m far from the first critic to discover any of these gems (or polish any of these turds, to say the same thing a different way). Film historians like Tim Lucas and Michael Weldon have devoted slavish attention to schlock since the dawn of home video, and there are several thorough DVD review sites (like DVD Drive-in, Mondo Digital, and 10,000 Bullets) that only cover cinema’s underbelly. Personally, I never really knew what to do with this scuzzy corner of movie history. I always read Psychotronic Video on the newsstand but never sought out many of the films it covered, not even as a horny teenager in search of illicit nudity. For a young movie buff discovering Hitchcock and Hawks and Nicholas Ray, and a bit later Antonioni and Rivette and Tati, what room is there for Harry Novak?

Only as I near my twentieth year of cinephilia have I gotten interested in crap, and started to find slots for it in my personal mosaic of movie-watching. I’m still skeptical of any iteration of movie fandom that focuses exclusively on junk cinema, and there seem to be many movie fans who are content to traverse only the Mystery Science Theater 3000-Tarantino-Shock Cinema axis. And I think that writers who trump up articulate defenses for talentless hacks like Jess Franco or Ray Dennis Steckler usually end up making less of an argument for the films than for the impulse to validate guilty pleasures as good taste. But over the last few years many of my favorite discoveries have been in this category of cinema, and I suspect it’s crucial that I came to them as something of a postgraduate cinephile.

Although trash might seem to be entry-level cinema, I think it may be more rewarding for the movie fan who’s seen everything. Since what’s good about these films is rarer and arguably harder to suss out than in mainstream filmmaking, it helps to have somewhat refined taste – as well as the patience of a seasoned truffle-hunter. If that sounds snobbish, understand that I’m not patting myself on the back for aptitude, only for endurance. Affinity for a medium counts, but I suspect that taste is more a factor of the 10,000 hour-rule: unless you’re a complete idiot, once you’ve seen 5,000 movies you’ll be able to tell good from bad. That’s how you can zone out through the turgid bulk of Massage Parlor Murders! and still reliably snap to attention for the six minutes in which it gets weird. Exploitation is low-yield cinema – much of it deserves scorn, until suddenly it doesn’t – and again, plumbing those highs and lows is bonus-round territory for the avid cinephile. Another benefit of being in the 10,000-hour club (a club I joined, for the record, somewhere around 2009) is that it gradually purges one of any inclination to point and laugh at art that doesn’t work – a desire that comes, of course, from uncertainty about one’s own judgment. It helps to come at fringe cinema with judiciousness but no condescension.

I remember a prominent film critic, one of my teachers at USC, telling us that she didn’t find her voice as a writer until about five years previously, and then suddenly it clicked. The same could be said of confidence in one’s own taste, and I’m glad I waited to start exploring these movies until after I passed that threshold. In the same way that an artist can’t move to abstraction until he understands technique, perhaps an aficionado can’t recognize outsider art until she knows the canon. Would I have fallen in love with Joe Sarno (probably the most gifted sex film director, even more so than Russ Meyer) had I not already seen the Bergman and Dreyer classics that his films seem to be in a conversation with? I doubt it. The films of James Bryan, who also strikes me as an authentic primitive, might only be a tenth as good as Nashville or The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. But a tenth as good as those is still pretty good, and the time to unearth someone like Bryan is probably after absorbing the oeuvres of the masters whose sensibilities he echoes or gropes toward. (Or, to paraphrase Monty Python: if you liked this film, you may also enjoy La Notte.) If I have a guiding principle as a committed movie lover, it’s that curiosity and experience must always expand, never contract. I don’t know what the next frontier will be, but it might be Kemal Horulu.

Stephen Bowie is a contributor to The A.V. Club and the founder of The Classic TV History Blog.