The advent of videotapes in the late 70s and early 80s brought the movie experience into the home for the first time. No longer were we slaves to whatever was on the Friday Night movie, and an entire library of obscure cult movies became available at the touch of a button. Two events have happened in the last few days that are cause for nostalgia. Yesterday, Criterion released Beyond the Valley of the Dolls on Blu-Ray, and sadly, Herschell Gordon Lewis, “The Godfather of Gore,” passed away Monday at the age of 87.
On Christmas day of 1982, my family got its first VCR. There were two modes, VHS and Betamax. Although Beta had superior picture and sound quality, they only allowed one company to sell Beta tapes, whereas VHS opened the field to anybody. The limited film selection led to the demise of the Beta in the United States. There were no video rentals at first; you had to buy each movie for around $80 each, which severely limited your options.
But soon, blank videotapes allowed you to copy movies like “A Clockwork Orange” and The Who’s “Tommy” off of the brand-new cable movie channel, HBO. However, the show that really brought cult movies to your average viewer was “Night Flight’s Take Off” on the USA Network with its program of concerts, bizarre shorts created by artists like the Residents and Church of the Sub-genius, and music-based movies like “The Harder They Fall,” “Rude Boy” and “Another State of Mind.”
The ability to tape not only from television, but to copy tapes by hooking two VCRs together led to the trading of movies, and that is how I came into possession of “Blood Feast” and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Something else “home theatres” did to popularize cult movies was to free up the viewing experience. People could hold viewing parties where they could drink, smoke pot, take hallucinogens, and perhaps most importantly, talk during the movies. If you have ever watched B-movies alone, you know it’s much more fun when you can repeat choice lines and point out weird mistakes and subtle jokes to each other.
Although “Two-Thousand Maniacs” was his most popular film, I much preferred the campy “Blood Feast” to the too-realistic bloodthirsty hillbillies that made punk bands afraid to tour in the South. Herschell Gordon Lewis’ first film, “Blood Feast” was filmed in 1963 with a budget of $24,000, although it looks much cheaper. Maybe film was really expensive. The plot revolves around Fuad Ramses, caterer, murderer, cannibal, and devout worshipper of the goddess Ishtar. Lewis’ profligate use of animal parts and blood set a new standard for horror movies and made “Blood Feast” a drive-in favorite. The bad acting, improbable situations and cheesy props make it cult movie gold.
By contrast, Russ Meyer’s 1970 flick, “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” is a slick, shiny romp through the 60s music scene in Los Angeles. The movie follows a girl group and their bizarre friends as they rise to the top and hit bottom in the jungle of LA. This unofficial send-up of “Valley of the Dolls” is co-written by noted movie critic Roger Ebert, and is perhaps one of the most quotable movies of all time. The most famous instance is when Mike Myers exclaims, “This is my happening and it freaks me out!” in “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.” The songs, written by Stu Phillips, have catchy melodies, and have been covered by bands like The Pandoras and Redd Kross. Alternately an expose, a melodrama, a comedy and a horror film, the movie is, as the poster boasts, “Not a sequel–there has never been anything like it.”