Restoring Insanity: How the American Genre Film Archive is Saving the History of Exploitation Cinema

Joseph Ziemba was doing research for his next book, a ’90s follow-up to “Bleeding Skull: A 1980s Trash‑Horror Odyssey,” a compendium of the work he’d been doing for the site he started to celebrate the glories of lo-fi genre films in 2004, when he came across “Limbo,” the sole directorial effort of Tina Krause. Only 30 VHS tapes had been made of the movie by its distributor Subrosa and while Krause was well known within the DIY horror world for her work in front of the camera, few knew that she had taken a crack at a ghost story behind it, so much so that when Annie Choi, one of Ziemba’s partners in Bleeding Skull went to have drinks with Krause and asked her about it at Ziemba’s urging, the actress/director said she couldn’t remember anyone ever bringing it up before.

“I actually think outside of any of Tina Krause’s direct friends or anyone who was part of her scene, up until very recently, the AGFA team and myself were the only people who had seen that movie,” says KJ Relth, a programmer for the UCLA Film & Television Archive who will be presenting “Limbo” on surely the biggest screen it’s ever played on at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum on July 21st. “It’s one of the few known shot-on-video horror films  made by a woman, so it’s something new that AGFA had found and really wanted to highlight. Because it was shot on video, it was intended to be viewed in a home environment, so [seeing it on the big screen is] a pretty rare and strange opportunity.”

You could say that about any of the films that are being shown as part of “Catch a Thrill! Celebrating 10 Years of the American Genre Film Archive,” which kicks off on July 12th with a screening of the trippy ‘80s Mexican fever dream “Don’t Panic” and runs through August, highlighting the extraordinary work of an archive that’s origins are as improbable and unusual as the movies they house. Ziemba was able to parlay his work tracking down the rare and obscure for Bleeding Skull into being able to preserve them and make them more widely available as the director of AGFA and although it’s been a decade since Alamo Drafthouse founder Tim League made the preservation endeavor formal, the series reflects nearly two decades’ worth of work that’s been put into creating one of the world’s preeminent film archives and certainly a unique one with its focus on exploitation and horror films that wouldn’t be expected to get the loving treatment that “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Citizen Kane” enjoy to endure for future generations to appreciate.

However, the collection of AGFA films capture cultural currents in ways the accepted classics do not, films often made with only passion as an available resource and putting characters that are usually left in the margins on major releases front and center. Besides offering truly unpredictable and unhinged entertainment, the films emerging from the unfiltered id of their makers also reveal voices often ignored by the mainstream and every bit as valuable as portraits of the time and place they were made. The series was put together by Relth and the AGFA team with this diversity of experience in mind, ranging from fantasies that take audiences from the nightclubs of Jakarta in the ass-kicking “Lady Terminator” to the full moon colony of Doris Wishman’s “Nude on the Moon,” made when nudist communities were all the rage, to the raw reality presented by the work of Sarah Jacobson, a fearless DIY filmmaker who passed away far too soon at the age of 32, but not before releasing two films that exude the rebellious riot grrl spirit of the ‘90s in “I Was a Teenage Serial Killer” and “Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore,” which were recently restored by AGFA.

“We wanted to show horror films and action films while make it as international as possible, and also give it as much gender parity as possible in terms of makers and on-screen representation,” says Relth, who saw the series as an opportunity to highlight all the film history that is kept from being lost by organizations such as AGFA and for one archive to honor another.

A series such as this is a twist on par with any you’d find in the films of the archive from its humble beginnings in 1999 not long after League opened the Alamo Drafthouse. Always on the lookout for interesting movies to play there, he eventually came across of a trove of around 500 35mm prints in Missouri and packed them into the back of a U-Haul headed back to Austin with only a vague idea of what the film canisters contained. Legend has it that the truck was overstuffed to the point that League had to discard a few of the films along the way to keep rolling, but in the time that followed, it was usually the other way around as League and other staff members of the Alamo that included Kier-La Janisse, Lars Nilsen and Zack Carlson rescued prints from all but certain destruction, finding a home for a warehouse’s worth of martial arts and action films from the shuttered Hong Kong label Tai Seng Entertainment in San Francisco to the lone copies of American regional cinema unearthed in garages and put up for auction on eBay.

League and Nilsen started a film series — Weird Wednesdays, which was free for audiences willing to take a chance on what they might be seeing — just to figure out what they were actually acquiring. (A tribute of sorts will be paid to these early days of AGFA history that will be recreated to the degree it can be during the series with the Reel One Party on July 13th when “five of the most explosive, amazing and obscure Reel Ones in our archive,” promises Ziemba, will be screened, and although a far better organized AGFA knows all the films by now, they’re keeping what they’ll show a secret from Relth.) Still, even after properly cataloguing the films, there was the issue of upkeep and preservation.

“Okay, we have all these film prints and we’re all just learning on the spot how do we take care of these things and not wreck them,” says Janisse, the head programmer for the Drafthouse between 2003 to 2007 who currently sits on AGFA’s board. “Now AGFA has an actual program that they do with the Harvard Film Archive where they train projectionists in how to project 35mm and 16mm films, so there’s still younger people that understand that technology and how to play these films in the future.”

While the growth of the Drafthouse as a national chain gave AGFA a natural distribution channel for their films to play outside of Austin, they now have created an entire ecosystem for these films to live on, renting out their prints to theaters around the world and attracting a number of the most (in)famous genre labels to become part of what they can offer theatrically as part of their catalog, including Shout Factory (bringing with it a mix of Cassavetes and Corman), Severin Films and Vinegar Syndrome.

When Mike Vraney, the founder of the venerated Seattle-based cabinet of cinematic curiosities Something Weird Video, passed away in 2014, Ziemba approached his partner Lisa Petrucci about how they could collaborate on keeping the distributor alive. A subsequent Kickstarter campaign did one better by affording a 4K digital scanner that allowed for gems from Something Weird’s collection to be restored and preserved with new DCPs and start to pursue rare titles that had fallen out of circulation that they could distribute themselves. (Between their own restorations and those created by their partners, AGFA’s library has swelled to holding nearly 800 DCPs, among the most in the world that can be easily accessed.) It isn’t only the films that look rejuvenated aesthetically, but the scrappy distributors that have kept the torch burning for them for years.

“Mike [Vraney] was the heart and soul of this company. He didn’t want or expect me to keep it going, but his/our legacy just meant too much to me. Then along came AGFA,” Petrucci, now also on AGFA’s advisory board, recently said in an e-mail. “Their unbridled excitement, knowledge and enthusiasm for all things Something Weird has reignited the brand.”

Naturally, Petrucci will be on hand in Los Angeles to present Wishman’s “Nude on the Moon” on August 9th, as well as at the off-site event “Grand Dames at the Grindhouse,” presented by Janisse’s Miskatonic Institute for Horror Studies, at the Philosophical Research Society the next evening, where she’ll lead a discussion about Wishman and Roberta Findlay, who became pioneering female filmmakers during the 1960s by finding ways to get creative in the sexploitation genre. (Teases Petrucci, “We’ll watch clips and trailers from some of their Greatest Hits and talk about their sleazy and often unsettling subject matter, distinctly unique camerawork and vision, and overall significance to exploitation film history.”)

Another special event will follow “Nude on the Moon” on the 9th with “Smut Without Smut,” a program Ziemba developed at the Drafthouse with the help of Something Weird and Vinegar Syndrome after finding a number of XXX movies with interesting and subversive elements, if only you could see past the pesky hardcore sex scenes.

“Not everyone wants to watch that, so we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could cut out all of the XXX stuff and just present these movies just as straight horror movies?’” We did three shows of that here in Austin and it was really fun,” says Ziemba, who notes such experiments have been inherent in the AGFA mission from its infancy.

“One of the things working at Alamo that makes it so exciting is that it’s always changing and growing and expanding. There’s always new ideas. It’s a constant energy of creativity coming through the company, so there’s always change and you always kind of roll with it, which is what I really like about it. Everything we set out to do, we just go out and do it, so all of the changes have been really positive.”

Recently, Ziemba’s team grew to four to keep up with the Archive’s growth and they just released their 12th home video release, Wakaliwood Supa Action, Volume 1, a double feature of the no-holds-barred Ugandan action films “Who Killed Captain Alex” and “Bad Black,” the latter a discovery at Fantastic Fest in 2016. With four more releases on the way this year and likely five in 2020, AGFA is keeping up with demand and then some, allowing for at least a little more time to enjoy their 10th birthday with a celebration at Drafthouses nationwide later this year, including at their new location in downtown Los Angeles. Still, for as much surreal imagery as Ziemba has been privy to as part of his job, nothing he’s seen may compare to this series at the UCLA Film & TV Archive being on the calendar.

“It’s always felt like it’s more of a DIY thing, just barreling forward and doing what we do,” says Ziemba. “This is really the first time one of the most prestigious universities in the world is looking to us and saying, ‘We want to focus on you and celebrate your tenth anniversary,’ so it’s really special for us.”

“Catch a Thrill! Celebrating 10 Years of the American Genre Film Archive” will run at the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood from July 12th through August 17th. A full listing of events is here.

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