The American Genre Film Archive’s Fight Against “So Bad, It’s Good”

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If you’re at all partial to repertory cinema—you’re visiting this site’s film section, so I’ll presume yes—you’ve likely paid attention to what format the screening will take. If it’s a 35mm print, a footnote may show up: “courtesy of the American Genre Film Archive.” Maybe it was a local affair, hitting up Anthology’s hosting of Andy Milligan’s Bloodthirsty Butchers, or hightailed up to Lincoln Center for a Jackie Chan retrospective. Maybe you saw Penitentiary at Harvard’s The Black Cinema Revolution, you fancy so-and-so. If you’re the shut-in type, you’ve probably seen it on a Vinegar Syndrome DVD. Considering the madness of the films housed by the archive, the name of the archive initially comes as understated and a little dry. Thankfully, that’s where the miracle of graphic design comes in. The Criterion Collection may have its signature C, Vinegar Syndrome its female silhouette with a gold boot. This archive’s acronym, AGFA—pronounced the way it’s spelt: “ag-fuh”—emerges with a 70s exploitation flick title card’s explosive hubris. What kind of 70s exploitation flick, though? A revenge thriller seems most appropriate, headed by amateur detectives. AGFA, Alamo Drafthouse’s non-profit bank of over 3,500 features (and almost twice as many trailers), has avenged the neglected red-headed stepchildren of martial arts, horror, and categories you’ve only hallucinated about. Though its crew are few in number, they are gaining speed, and visibility in New York city including regular spotlights at the theater chain’s new Downtown Brooklyn location, and a screening of 36th Chamber of the Shaolin tonight at Town Hall, in collaboration with Shaw Brothers distributor Celestial Pictures and featuring a live score from RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan (who serves on the AGFA board alongside fellow filmmakers and fanatics Paul Thomas Anderson and Nicolas Winding Refn).

“There’s so much stuff,” says archive director Joe Ziemba over the phone. “We find one thing, we don’t know what it is, and then we find something else to look into—go down the rabbit hole and do detective work.” Ziemba, Drafthouse’s director of genre programming and head of trash obscura fansite Bleeding Skull!, is no stranger to scratching around. His years of championing neglected titles like Meatcleaver Massacre and Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny merged into a friendship with Zack Carlson, one of Drafthouse’s original programmers. On a visit from Los Angeles to Austin, Alamo’s homebase, Ziemba was introduced by Carlson to the massive archive and fell in love. The visits accumulated resulted resulting in a move to Texas and working for Alamo, first as an art director before assuming programming tasks.

Though Alamo had been collecting film prints since opening in 1997, the archive was never given a legitimate name until 2009. It’s split between the theater’s Village and Slaughter Lane locations, but the films are rented all over the world. When I talked to Sebastian del Castillo, chief archivist, he happily reported that a few dozen were currently on loan. It’s a far cry from the minimum of five to ten screenings a month strictly for Alamo locations. “It’s mindblowing that there are that many places willing to play genre films on 35mm,” del Castillo says. Starting as a food runner at Village in 2009, he worked his way up to a projectionist, but was dismayed by its emphasis on digital. Having gone to film school at University of Texas, and spent seven years as a negative cutter in Seattle, he craved handling film. After transferring to the Ritz location, where all titles—including first run—are 35mm, del Castillo began volunteering for booking and shipping. “Since Joe joined,” he says, “it’s progressed from this small distributor to the point where we’re actually scanning film.”

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The day-to-day is split between Ziemba, del Castillo, and a team of volunteers at their Lamar office, which also houses a Kickstarter-funded 4k scanner and editing suite. “Lots of cleaning and scanning, color correcting,” Ziemba says. “We spend a lot of time on practice scans on films where we have probably the last copy in existence, like The Dragon Lives Again.” That restoration played Weird Wednesday, one of the theme nights Ziemba consults on (and which will be a staple of the calendar in Downtown Brooklyn as well, alongside Terror Tuesday, which he curates). The volunteers spend a lot of time on research, as there’s a long list of two hundred-plus films that can’t be looked up easily. A lot of times, the shipping cans holding the film wouldn’t have the entire title—“One can just said ‘Slasher,’ which turned out to be The Slasher… Is the Sex Maniac!”—but they’re very close to being done. But as more films turn up in expected ways, whether fished out the Pacific Ocean or found in an abandoned movie theatre, the pursuit never ends. A curiosity recently revealed on their Instagram were ten Tamil action film prints from the 1980s/1990s—“wasn’t that cool?” Joe gushes—that were rescued by a Drafthouse fan when they were rejected by Goodwill. Unfortunately, they’re without subtitles.

Still, AGFA isn’t desperate for content. Their scanner acquisition coincided with a collaboration with Seattle-based Something Weird Video, the distributor of bizarro titles like Basket Case and The Erotic Adventures of Zorro, which found its start after the death of founder Mike Vraney in 2014. After hosting a tribute event, Vraney’s widow and creative partner Lisa Petrucci began sharing Something Weird’s massive 35mm collection, not excluding the various short subjects and trailers. Since college, Ziemba had been a fan of Something Weird since seeing Deadly Weapons, a revenge thriller in which burlesque dancer Chesty Morgan smothers men with her large breasts, so visiting their offices and archives was a pilgrimage: “I had all my Christmas mornings packed into two days there,” he says. Though del Castillo had no knowledge of Something Weird until working at Drafthouse, his friendship with Zach Carlson whetted his appetite, and here we are. “We were freaking out,” he reports. Last month, AGFA announced over a dozen upcoming Blu-Ray and theatrical releases, all of which are from Petrucci and Vraney’s archive. Keeping true to Vraney’s tendency to load up DVDs with bonus content—“like Cracker Jack boxes,” as the late honcho once put it—the Blu-Rays will all be double-bills: Satanis, The Devil’s Mass, which documents Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, will be paired with Voodoo Black Exorcist; Pot! Parents! Police! with The Devil’s Joint, and so forth.

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Their launch title will be The Zodiac Killer. It’s one of Ziemba’s favorites, one he thought was shamefully lost in the shuffle amidst Something Weird’s relentless DVD output in the mid aughts. “It’s based very much factual in terms of depicting the murders, but also completely ridiculous,” Ziemba says. “The director actually wanted to catch the killer with this movie!” Though clearly cheap and homemade, and not very well known, the film premiered in a new 4K restoration to vibrant response at Austin’s Fantastic Fest. “I want people to see these films the way I do; to feel as though they’ve discovered something,” says Ziemba. He’s declaring a war against “so bad it’s good,” claiming that these films should be accepted for what they are. “You get the feeling that people are putting their own lives on the line. There’s something inspiring in that.”

Even with the rise of digital for first-run features, del Castillo doesn’t fret over celluloid’s demise. “I feel like film will never die,” he says after a long pause. “It’s proven to last hundreds of years, whereas digital is still unknown.” He gets a kick out of seeing audiences enjoy Sleepaway Camp or Surf II in theaters, an experience he can’t envision being replicated. “The stuff Alamo is doing brings people together,” he claims. Thanks to Drafthouse’s theme nights like Weird Wednesday, Terror Tuesday, and Video Vortex, as well as tonight’s Town Hall presentation, cinema visits become far more ritualistic. “We’re hoping to bring some legitimacy to these films,” Alamo CFO Christian Parkes tells me via phone. “It’s an important medium, and we’ve made long strides to preserve it.”

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