A Plague on you: Dead Channels' 'Plague Town' enlivens a well-worn genre. "It's skillful, nasty rural-mutant-jeopardy stuff in the tradition of the original 'Hills Have Eyes'," says Harvey.

Dead Channels 2008 Comes Alive

Dennis Harvey October 3, 2008

Fall is here in earnest, and all good moviegoers know it is time at last for the studios to unleash its least brain-numbing efforts of the year with Oscar in mind. Finally, we can enjoy serious cinematic art based on reputable literary sources, directed by Clint Eastwood, and/or featuring Catherine Deneuve.

But for a moment yet…screw that noise!

Those more inclined toward healthy doses of sleaze, gore and retro-shlock can rejoice that it’s also time for the second annual edition of Dead Channels. It’s dedicated to bringing "entertaining and intelligent science-fiction, fantasy, horror, action, exploitation and a few weird unclassifiable cinematic gems" to Bay Area audiences, this year encompassing one evening at Oakland’s Parkway in addition to a week at SF’s Roxie Cinema.

By the time you read this most likely you’ll have missed DC’s Thursday opening night at The Vortex Room, a party featuring projection of a movie perfect for only-sorta-paying-attention-to: Toomorrow, the obscure flop 1970 rock musical-cum-sci-fi-fantasy featuring pre-stardom Olivia Newton-John as "the girl" in a British art-school band. They’re so good space aliens pick up the groovy signal! Like Ms. Neutron-Bomb’s infamous later Xanadu, this is a camp classic more by virtue of idiotic concept than actual watchability. Still, its selection testifies to Dead Channels’ psychotronic adventure: Toomorrow has never been legally available in the U.S. (Which is not to say bootleg copies aren’t rife on eBay.)

The movie-watching begins in earnest today with wall-to-wall horror, though the five programs prove what wide terrain that term can encompass. In Plague Town, a quarrelsome American tourist family exploring dad’s Irish ancestry on vacation discovers backward backcountry types who aren’t…quite…right. It’s skillful, nasty rural-mutant-jeopardy stuff in the tradition of the original Hills Have Eyes. Tomas Alfredson’s critically praised Swedish Let the Right One In is the heartwarming tale of two twelve-year-old misfits who find solace in their friendship—even if one of them is a vampire rapidly depopulating the area. Even darker is From Inside, John Bergin’s beautifully animated version of his own graphic novel. As bleak in substance as it is poetic in style, it follows a pregnant heroine on a train ride through a desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s depressing, haunting, and poignant.

But there’s levity in the mayhem elsewhere today. (Note: Most of Dead Channels’ programs repeat during the week.) Bad Biology, the first film in 16 years by cult fave Frank Henenlotter (Basket Case, Frankenhooker), promises to push the envelope even by his queasily funny standards. Let’s just say its protagonists are two lonely people with…rather…unusual…genitalia…and leave it at that. Also enthusiastically tasteless is Ryan Nicholson’s Gutterballs, which so faithfully reproduces the musk of the cheesiest early ’80s slasher flicks that it soundtracks several crap-rock classics by Loverboy, April Wine, and Chilliwack. Its various horny and obnoxious pushing-30 "teens" are dispatched in over-the-top grisly fashions to avenge a brutal rape. But even as their numbers dwindle, the oblivious remaining victims keep on bowling.

There’s plenty more deliberate schlock on the Dead Channels schedule. On the relatively slick end, there’s Tokyo Gore Police, one of those films in which the Japanese make like Troma, only kinda better. On the cheerfully no-budget side, there’s Retardead, the long-awaited sequel to Monsturd by SF’s own Rick Popko and Dan West. This time, it’s not killer poo but an outbreak of zombiedom (first amongst special-education students) that threatens Butte County. With cameos by the Living Dead Girls, Jello Biafra, Herschell Gordon Lewis and his fellow goresploitation pioneer Dave Friedman, this is fanboy valentine…ripped and out gushing blood, of course. It’d overlong, but you will laugh.

But it’s not all about the severed limbs and exposed organs at Dead Channels. Quite unclassifiable if arguably successful is the legendary Nicolas Roeg’s (Don’t Look Now, The Man Who Fell to Earth) first feature in years. An adaptation of a Fay Weldon novel (by her son Dan), Puffball mixes eros, whimsy, witchery, and some big names playing small roles (Miranda Richardson, Donald Sutherland) in the curious saga of a yuppie couple who move into an Irish country cottage.

Even more offbeat is Karla Jean Davis’ Golothga, which meticulously recreates the aesthetic of cinematic German Expressionism—think the 20s classics of Murnau (Faust, Sunrise) and Fritz Lang (Metropolis, Siegfried)—in telling a dying goblin queen’s tragi-fantastical backstory. Not only is it B&W, its original score required four "thereminists!" (Who at one point cover an Elliott Smith melody—which, strange as that may sound, really works.) This loving homage would impress even Guy Maddin. If you like that sort of thing (how could you not?!?), don’t miss Viscera and the Incubus, one of several shorts programs. This one features A Visit from the Incubus, the half-hour earlier work by Anna Biller whose full-length 1960s sexploitation tribute Viva delighted many in its recent (if fleeting) theatrical release. Similarly, Visit is a spot-on resurrection of retro grade-Z filmmaking at its kitschiest.

Elsewhere on the Dead Channels schedule, there are some notable revived and rare oldies. Probably best-known among them is Colossus: The Forbes Project, a 1970 computer-run-amok thriller regarded by many sci-fi fans as one of the best of its kind ever. (Interestingly, its original release was long delayed by Universal for fear it would be overshadowed by 2001.)

More esoteric in appeal are several super-rare bigscreen revivals. The Weird World of LSD is a 1967 U.S. hippiesploitation mondo movie whose cautionary B&W hallucination horrors include a crudely animated chicken and people in rubber Halloween masks. It’s beyond belief…in a good way!

Back then, Europe was still grinding out plenty of variably trashy genre flicks that competed commercial right alongside Hollywood product, even here in ‘Murrica. Their DC showings this week may be your first/last chance to see two very special ones resurrected on the big screen. Promising pop-art-cinematic heaven in the mode of Modesty Blaise or Barbarella is Elio Petri’s 1965 The 10th Victim, in which Marcello Mastroianni plus Eurobabes Ursula Andress and Elsa Martinelli are players in a futuristic Most Dangerous Game—meaning the "game" is people hunting each other for sport. It’s such an apex of mod stylishness it was referenced in the first (i.e., only good) Austin Powers movie.

In major contrast to that sardonic romp, Spanish-produced, English-language Cut-Throats Nine (1972) is often cited—by those who know about it—as the most violent western ever made, "spaghetti" or otherwise. (At least as many "spaghetti westerns" were shot and/or funded in Spain as Italy.) Duly brutal, and brutally effective, it tells the tale of an Army sergeant tasked with delivering numerous murderous convicts to federal prison across treacherous territory, with his daughter to protect and no other backup once bandit attack massacres his troops. Need I say this journey does not go smoothly?

We’ve more than scratched the surface of Dead Channels’ 2008 edition here. Yet there’s plenty more, including Roddy Piper as star (omnibus supernatural feature A Gothic Tale), directors actually surnamed Kervorkian (Brit Johnny’s ghost story The Disappeared), South Korean snail-horror (the Jung Brothers’ Epitaph), San Francisco literary fraud J.T. Leroy (parodied in mocumentary Who is K.K. Downing?), or stellar shorts like Richard Gale’s incredibly elaborate faux-trailer The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon.

Then there’s official closing-nighter Surveillance, a psychosexual thriller that’s the onscreen first peep from Jennifer Lynch (David’s daughter) since her "controversial" 1993 directorial debut.

So….All youse diehard Boxing Helena fans say yeah!

Still waiting.


Nonetheless I’m sure Surveillance, which stars the estimable Bill Pullman and Julia Ormond (not to mention talented French Stewart, who cannot be blamed for that 139-episode atrocity 3rd Rock from the Sun) will be a surreal-freakout winnah. Why? Well, she’s got the genes, doesn’t she?