The Disquieting Guest — RIP Mike Vraney

12 Jan

On January 2, Mike Vraney, the founder of Something Weird Video, passed away. You can read his obituary here. I would like to offer my condolences to his family and his friends and to comment briefly on the importance of his archival work. Because though Something Weird is, of course, a business, it is one with a mission, and Vraney has been responsible for both the preservation and the dissemination of films and voices that would otherwise be no more than entries in film histories, or forgotten entirely.

Something Weird is essentially the Criterion of Grindhouse, relentlessly seeking out and preserving the B and exploitation film. Its mandate goes far beyond horror — the nudie cutie, the roughie, and the rest of the carnival sideshow of cinematic sleaze are at play here. And, sticking to the focus of this column, this is as it should be. Horror is the disquieting guest of the fantastic not just because of the darkness of the tales or the unpleasant emotions it seeks to create, but also because it is disreputable, and always has been. From the Gothic onward, horror has been regarded with suspicion, and in some cases has reveled in confirming the worst surmises of its detractors. After all, as he concludes the introductory chapter of The 120 Days of Sodom, Sade warns, “And now friend reader, you must prepare your heart and your mind for the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.”

Something Weird Video Logo

And so, when it comes to horror, it is fitting that Something Weird provided a home for the films of Hershell Gordon Lewis, for example. Lewis created the gore film with the likes of Blood Feast (1963) and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), and has never had any illusions about what he was presenting: “Blood Feast I’ve often referred to as a Walt Whitman poem — it’s no good, but it’s the first of its type and therefore deserves a certain position.”* This is not far off what Vraney’s approach has been. I remember an interview with him some years back where, if memory serves, he opined that if something had been committed to celluloid, it was worth preserving. Quality is irrelevant — all these films are part of cinematic history, and, quite apart from anything else, they are invaluable documents of the fears and desires of the eras from which they emerge.

One of Something Weird’s most notable contributions is the introduction to North American audiences of the work of Brazilian horror director José Mojica Marins. For many horror fans in the 80s and early 90s, Marins’ films (At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul [1963], This Night I will Possess Your Corpse [1967], etc) were a series of fascinating entries in Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Horror Movies, but otherwise unobtainable. That changed in the mid-90s when Something Weird began releasing his work. Violent, provocative (deliberately so to 1960s Brazil) and troubling (it can be very hard, if not impossible, to distinguish the misogyny of the Coffin Joe character from that of the films themselves), these are an important example of the horror film’s international history.

Photo 2014-01-04 10 17 01 AM

I could go on, and were I to step outside of the horror focus, would have to talk about Something Weird’s championing of the work of Doris Wishman — a pioneer of exploitation, and one of the only women in that era to be working behind the camera in an industry whose male domination was near-absolute. And this brief piece cannot even be said to scratch the surface of Vraney’s accomplishment. I’ll simply close by saying that Vraney shone a spotlight on facets of film history that many would like to forget, and we are the richer for his efforts. He will be missed.

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*Cited in Ghastly Beyond Belief by Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman.

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