The more observant among us may have noticed, in the past few months, the appearance of a new cabal–the just-born secret society of art film-loving genre hounds behind a series of grindhouse-style double features showing at the grand old Victoria Theatre.
The San Francisco Cult and Psychotronic Film Society, which manifested for the first time this past July, is fueled by the occult, powered by the bizarre, devoted to the obscure. The evidence is plain to see on their Facebook page, an unfiltered stream of the best way-out genre efforts showing around town: A high and low-culture orgy of fear, flesh and fisticuffs. In anticipation of this weekend's sex-plosive double feature of Viva & The Frightened Woman, we spoke with one of the shadowy Society's founders, Dave Cowen, about this weekend dishy offerings, the state of genre film, and what it means to be "psychotronic."
7x7: What exactly is the San Francisco Cult and Psychotronic Film Society?
Cowen: The San Francisco Cult and Psychotronic Film Society is an organization dedicated to the preservation and theatrical exhibition of cult and genre movies. Not limited to any single type of film or era, we're focused on promoting films that are obscure and outlandish that never developed a wide following, but are deserving of a second look.
How many people would you say are in the SF Cult and Psychotronic Film Society, and when did you come to be?
Cowen: There are currently three principals, including myself, not to mention everyone who's liked us on Facebook, followed us on Twitter, or come to a screening. We started in July of this year with the creation of our Facebook page to highlight and promote the various cult film screenings going on in the Bay Area, and were surprised and encouraged by the support we've received so far.
Is the word "psychotronic" a reference to Michael J. Weldon's out-there movie guide, The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film? Is he a big influence on your programming?
Cowen: It is a reference to Weldon's Encyclopedia and Video Guides. I don't think that there's a better shorthand description for the motley assortment of films we love. Some folks call them B-movies, which is a label that doesn't seem appropriate for any number of epic, singular (or even expensive) films that never found an audience, while other folks call them genre films, even though the kinds of films we love are often interesting because of the unique ways that they combine or break genre rules.
Why pick the Bay Area to show these films?
Cowen: Over the past couple of years, the Bay Area has lost a number of great venues that regularly had screenings of cult films, like the Parkway, the Red Vic, and the Lumiere. Great places to see films like the Castro or the Roxie have become heavily booked with festivals and first-run films, or classic films that are more conventional favorites. At the same time, 35mm gear is getting pulled out of theaters, limiting most rep film screenings to low-quality DVDs or to movies which are popular enough to justify high definition transfers. Yet, while things have been waning in the Bay Area, there's been a huge outpouring of support for these kinds of films at theaters like the Alamo in Austin or the Cinefamily in LA, who somehow manage to get a hold of all manner of strange, rare and interesting prints. My hope is that the Bay Area, with such a great history of film culture, could still support getting these films in front of an audience on a regular basis.
The films your showing this weekend are fairly unknown, whereas you've already screened The Warriors, which itself has its own of cult following–tell us about Viva and The Frightened Woman–which one deserves a cult following?
Cowen: Both deserve a cult following, of course! Viva is an incredible reproduction of late-60s and early-70s sexploitation films, from Radley Metzger to Herschell Gordon Lewis to Russ Meyer, and hand-crafted with a remarkable amount of attention to detail for a low-budget film. With saturated colors, great music, and even animated sequences, it screams out to be seen from 35mm film. The Frightened Woman is the film that's ripe for rediscovery, being virtually unknown in America and largely unavailable on video for many years. It's an Italian "giallo" that subverts the horror/thriller genre with a sly sense of humor, irony and remarkable modern-art sets and designs.
What make both Viva and The Frightened Woman so fascinating to watch is that they start by delivering the kinds of cheap thrills that you'd hope for from 70s exploitation films (outlandish characters and costumes, garish or saturated colors, mod set design, sexy situations) then manage to work in subtle and intelligent commentary on sexism, racism, power dynamics and the place of exploitation in art, even at the same time they're encompassing the viewer in epic weirdness.
What does the future hold for SF Cult?
Cowen: If enough folks come out for our screenings this month, we hope to continue on with monthly screenings in 2013, and present everything from insane movie musicals to killer computers to found footage extravaganzas.
How do I join the society/cult?
Cowen: Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @SFCultFilms, or most importantly, come out to the Victoria Theatre to see Viva and The Frightened Woman tonight, or our comedic cannibalism double feature of Cannibal! The Musical and Parents on the 27th!