Evil Film School, Bizarro Film-O-Rama - who knows what lurks in the arthouses of Vancouver?
With multiplexes filled with sequels, prequels, and threequels, the idea of cinema as a life-changing experience seems almost laughable. But for the cult-film devotees in this city, watching a movie can still be a transformative, even interactive, experience.
The late, great Cinemuerte International Horror Film Festival, which breathed its last in 2005, reminded Dave Bertrand of this. "That, for me, was the greatest part of the year, each and every year," says Bertrand, reached at his Mount Pleasant home. "It introduced me to a million things, and it was the most fun screening environment. It felt like a really fun community to be part of. For anybody that went to any of those screenings, it was almost life-altering in what it introduced people to. It was for me."
Though Cinemuerte;which brought forgotten classics, exploitation quickies, and foreign horror movies to town;lasted just seven years, a few people are keeping alive the dream of a place where like-minded souls can talk back to ridiculous dialogue and hurl insults at inept filmmakers, or just watch underground hits like the Japanese psychosexual drama Blind Beast. With his Sunday-night Bizarro Film-O-Rama event at the Gaff Gallery on East Hastings Street, writer and film buff Bertrand shows what he calls his obsessions: "strange, trashy, fun films of yesteryear". Earlier this month, a full (on a sunny Saturday afternoon, no less) Pacific Cinémathí¨que had to turn people away from its sing-along screening of "Once More With Feeling", the famous musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It was shown by Cine muerte in its last year, and organizers Happy Bats Cinema were happy to get it back in a theatre, where fans could sing and wear costumes.
Meanwhile, over at Blim (the DIY arts centre just off Main on East 17th Avenue), Evil Film School gives the Film-O-Rama a run for its bizarro bucks by screening such celluloid efforts as Dí¼nyayi Kurtaran Adam, the 1982 bootleg version of which is known as Turkish Star Wars (June 29). Yes, you read that right. And if Turkish Star Wars is anything like the bootleg Turkish Wizard of Oz (otherwise known as 1971's Aysecik in the Land of the Magic Dwarfs), it should be a memorably absurd experience.
"Apparently, most of the battle sequences are actually just footage from Star Wars," says Mariko McDonald, curator of Evil Film School, reached at her Vancouver apartment. As with the Turkish Oz, the foreign Star Wars is legendary in cult-film circles. Both are no-budget remakes, though "accidental Dadaist reimaginings" or "complete and utter trashings" might be more appropriate terms. Among its innumerable ridiculous elements, Oz features a caveman sequence that, if memory serves, wasn't in the original MGM film. The town of Munchkins was reduced to a population of seven, in this case a mix of little people and children. To make things even stranger, the bootleg DVD didn't come with subtitles. For Turkish Star Wars, which is similarly unencumbered, members of comedy troupe Urban Improv will make up their own translation. And one can only imagine what the filmmakers used for a Wookiee.
Though she hasn't yet seen it, McDonald is waiting to watch the near-legendary flick with an audience, which on a good night is about 20 people. She started out showing the same kinds of flicks to friends at her apartment before moving Evil Film School to the bigger space in December of 2005. Among her most popular nights have been those dedicated to William Shatner. In May, Shatner Night Part II included two of the noted thespian's earlier movies: Incubus, a festival favourite from 1965 and perhaps the only movie ever shot entirely in Esperanto; and The Intruder, a 1962 Roger Corman thriller.
"I think awareness of Evil Film School is growing," McDonald says. "But I think as far as actual audience attendance, it's dependent on weather or whether or not the Canucks are in the finals."
She says she intends to continue Evil Film School indefinitely, although she might change the format slightly by showing more local short films. Bertrand is similarly interested in local product, though Bizarro Film-O-Rama has, since its April start, been mostly home to blaxploitation, kung-fu, and horror movies. (He also notes that he helped put together the first successful retrospective of Vancouver filmmaker Jamie Travis's work, including his acclaimed Patterns trilogy.) Where Cinemuerte, Bertrand's inspiration, gathered rare prints and was more or less a proper festival with programs and the use of the Pacific Cinémathí¨que, Film-O-Rama is more low-key. Operating out of the Gaff, the movie night has hosted from zero to 15 people, Bertrand says. And instead of running original celluloid, he uses a DVD projector.
"Basically, I'm going for a glorified night of people hanging out in a living room, watching some crazy shit, and having fun, but in a bigger space," Bertrand says. "It's pretty much people shouting stuff out." He counts the screening for Shogun Assassin, a 1980 samurai film, as one of the night's best turnouts. "There was a lot of yelling of 'Awesome!'"
McDonald and Bertrand aren't the only cult-film obsessives in town. On a monthly basis, the Royal Vancouver Pornographic Society shows adult movies, sometimes vintage or organized around themes such as "beefcake films of the '60s" or "the historical evolution of the gang-bang film" for its members. Last month at the Fox Theatre, local writer and porn historian Dmitrios Otis hosted an exhibit of '70s porn-movie posters to demonstrate the disconnect between the movies' content and what was allowable in advertising images at the time. Artist-writer Robin Bougie continues to publish his comic book; size tribute zine, Cinema Sewer, which details the most perverse of cinephilic offerings. Also at Blim, Ken Tsui hosts a monthly evening that features artier fare like the aforementioned Blind Beast and, on June 28, Andrzej Zulawski's controversial 1981 film, Possession. And the folks at Happy Bats, a video store with an extensive cult-film selection, are planning another screening of "Once More With Feeling".
Admission fees, when there are any, are usually a fraction of what it costs to see the latest Pirates of the Caribbean monstrosity. Neither Evil Film School nor Bizarro Film-O-Rama are moneymaking operations: the former charges a sliding scale of between $5 and $10, and Bertrand asks for a donation of $5, just enough to cover costs.
Nor is there any competition between the two. Asked what he's doing on June 29, Bertrand, who tends bar downtown in the evenings, says he's going to book off. After all, he wouldn't want to miss Turkish Star Wars, would he?