Happy anniversary: Will "The Thrill" Viharo and his wife/"lovely assistant," Monica Tiki Goddess, claim the throne at the Cerrito.

'Thrillville' turns 11

Michael Fox April 9, 2008

One man’s camp is another man’s trash. Or maybe it’s the other way around. In any event, this is the endless, bruising debate among cinephiles: What “distinguishes” the painfully bad stuff—the misfires of talented artists, the hack work of lesser mortals, the by-the-numbers cookie-cutter crap—from the low-rent gems, the bizarre one-offs, the twisted genre riffs, the pinnacles of unintentionally hilarious bad taste? With the latter we have entered the exalted province of Will “The Thrill” Viharo, the fez-festooned impresario of the monthly East Bay cult-movie extravaganza “Thrillville.” In anticipation of his 11th anniversary show April 10 at the Cerrito Speakeasy, featuring the 1958 chiller “It! The Terror From Beyond Outer Space” (whose plot was ripped off by “Alien,” it’s widely maintained), we hobnobbed with Viharo over a mug of joe. “Garbage to me is anything with Tom Cruise,” he explained. “Trash to me is anything with Tura Satana. Trash is something you keep and recycle; garbage is something you use then throw away. I prefer trashy films; they have a longer life.”

Viharo considers himself a writer first and foremost, and he got into showbiz in 1997 at the invitation (or should we say instigation) of the Parkway Speakeasy’s brand new owners, Kyle and Catherine Fischer. They asked him to launch a weekly Saturday late-night screening series, which Viharo originally called “The Midnight Lounge.” He proved to be a natural host, developing and expanding his “Thrill” persona to the point where it seemed appropriate for the series to take on his alter ego’s name. Not that Viharo fancied himself the main draw; the program typically featured a burlesque performance by the likes of the Devil-Ettes or Kitten on the Keys in addition to an iconic “B” movie like “Kingdom of Spiders” (starring master thespian William Shatner) or “Viva Las Vegas” (starring master thespian Elvis Presley) or “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” (starring, well, the Creature).

To his surprise, and immense gratification, “Thrillville” (www.thrillville.net) has survived, thrived and evolved into an (perish the thought) institution. As he embarks on his 12th year at the helm, Viharo finds himself a de facto member of the Bay Area’s exclusive fraternity of programmers-slash-archaeologists-slash-showmen that includes Peaches Christ (“Midnight Mass” at the Bridge Theatre), Jesse Hawthorne Ficks (“Midnites for Maniacs” at the Castro), Joel Shepard (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts) and Eddie Muller (Noir City). Each of these curators draws crowds by sifting for gold, or really, really shiny dross, in the cavernous corridors of American film. What they don’t do, contrary to public perceptions, is worship the past while ignoring the present.

“I’d say a sense of irony, a sense of style, is what ‘Thrillvillle’ is about, more than the past,” Viharo muses. “Something like a Russ Meyer movie, which is considered trash now, to me is artful in that he achieves his goals. He has his own sense of aesthetic that he sticks to. He’s not pandering; he’s just being himself.”

This brings us back to an amplification of Viharo’s favorite distinction. “Trash is more stylish,” he declares. “Garbage is more concerned with the fashion of the day. One is timeless and one is time-bound.”

That may read as just another Viharo potshot at shameless Hollywood flash and dash. In fact, it’s a brilliant analysis of why so many remakes, from “Oceans Eleven” to “Dawn of the Dead” to (I’ll go out on a limb here) the upcoming “Get Smart,” are all sizzle and no soul. The originals expressed a genuine inspiration, while their modern-day copies are fitted to a marketing campaign.

Lest we veer too far toward seriousness, Viharo characterizes “Thrillville” as a combination of retro-fetishism and contemporary irreverence. You can call it old-fashioned fun, because that’s the real bottom line.

“There are ‘Godzilla’ purists,” Viharo says, “who are offended by the fact that I will actually point out that Godzilla is a Japanese guy in a rubber suit. I actually prefer the dubbed version as opposed to the original subtitled version because it’s funnier. We’re not kids anymore. So we don’t look at zombies and ‘Godzilla’ the same way we did when we were 10. I think the people making these movies knew they were ridiculous. Roger Corman knew he was making silly movies. But he put 100 percent into it.”

Viharo has published a novel, and he writes about retro culture for a slew of magazines and ‘zines. Writing is his game, while putting on the fez and playing the character of “The Thrill” (aided and abetted by his stage assistant and wife, Monica Tiki Goddess) is a form of performance. That said, he’s looking forward to programming and hosting “Thrillville” for the foreseeable future. So which movies of recent vintage might Viharo add to the playlist 20 years from now? Here’s his list:

“Fido,” Grindhouse,” “The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra,” “Casino Royale,” “Swingers,” “Land of the Dead,” “Diary of the Dead,” “Slither,” “Mars Attacks!” and “Mulholland Drive.”