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Author Lars Nilsen on Warped & Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of AGFA

A Chronicle of Cinematic Archeology

Nov 30, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Around the turn of the millennium, a ragtag group of genre film fans and print collectors came together at the then-tiny Alamo Drafthouse cinema in Austin, Texas, to run a series called Weird Wednesday. At midnight, the projectionist would start rolling a rarely-screened exploitation film. These were on films reels that were often damaged, usually having sat unwatched in a warehouse or storage unit over the decades since they’d last toured the nation’s drive-ins and budget theaters. The screenings were free and attracted a rotating assortment of misfits and movie fans.

Although the Alamo Drafthouse has grown exponentially from those days of being a lone, single-screen cinema, the Weird Wednesday series is still going strong after two decades. In the meantime, the reels and reels of horror, kung fu, sexploitation, and other subgenres accumulated by the Weird Wednesday crew became the founding collection of the American Genre Film Archive, a non-profit venture preserving some of cinema’s wildest and almost forgotten features.

In the new book Warped & Faded: Weird Wednesday and the Birth of the American Genre Film Archive, former curator Lars Nilsen tracks—with the help of many friends and fanatics who helped make it happen—the genesis of Weird Wednesday and its early years of programming. There are stories of unique screenings and filmmaker Q&As, a chronicle of film collecting in the early Internet era, and tales of incredible movie hauls rescued by these cinematic archeologists. Think: the adventures of Indiana Jones, but with preservationists spelunking into damp warehouses instead of booby-trapped temples.

The first part of Warped & Faded is an oral history of how Weird Wednesday came together; its largest section is a comprehensive film guide covering the movies that were shown. A “Hall of Fame” section contains essays about the series’ most frequent filmmakers and stars by some of the top cult film historians writing today, and an epilogue details just how the American Genre Film Archive, or AGFA, came to be. Most delightfully, the book is packed with posters and advertisements, scans from scratched and faded film prints, and original series calendars—so much art that any exploitation geek will lose hours flipping through it all.

Author Lars Nilsen hopped on the phone with us to talk about the book, the legacy of Weird Wednesday, and how many cinematic oddities may still be out there waiting to be discovered.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: For a large part of Weird Wednesday’s history, you were a host and curator for the series. For people who weren’t there, how would you describe the vibe of these free, late-night weird movie showings?

Lars Nilsen: It was like a poker night, sort of. It was really much less structured than you would think of, when you think of a film series. It got around through word of mouth more than anything. If you will think closely about Wednesday, midnight: that’s such a tough time. It’s a brutally tough time to have a film series. I don’t care where you are—even Midtown Manhattan—it’s a really tough time to run a film series and have enough people show up for it. Austin in those days was a much smaller town than it is now.

There was almost like a fence there between the normies and the people who would actually show up for [the Weird Wednesday] series. It was automatically an odd bunch of people. Creatives, musicians, and some hardcore unemployable, let’s say, who would show up for this thing. The people who went there were kind of paying their dues, because they were going to be losing sleep, or they were already live outside of society’s strictures. It really was a poker night for those kinds of people. When I say “poker night,” I just mean we weren’t playing poker, but it was just so informal. It’s not like the crowd was sitting there caring about the films or anything, but before the films, after the films, a lot of the shared memes that we would have together would be about the films. We might make references to certain lines in the film, so it really grew up to be a subterranean culture around these films.

Most of the movies featured as part of Weird Wednesday were considered disposable. After they made their initial buck, most of these prints were treated like garbage until they came into you and your colleagues’ hands. In your opinion, why are these movies—regarded as little more than trash for so long—worth reviving and preserving?

Well, I should say that, basically, all film prints were considered garbage. They were disposable. There were hundreds of film prints of Bonnie and Clyde that went into a dumpster at some point. There are hundreds of film prints of almost every movie that’s existed that went into a dumpster because you really only needed to keep a few around to service repertory needs. These were films that were not even kept around to service repertory needs. These really were films that had ended up someplace, generally in a depot or in a warehouse, because after they had run their course, nobody wanted to pay for return shipping.

That’s really the most basic, simple answer as to how these films ended up with us, and they didn’t end up in a lab or independent storage facility. Once they had played the drive-ins, been out there and played in all the different theaters, unless they were sent out of the country to some other English language territory like Jamaica or South Africa, they just languished someplace because nobody was going to bother paying the $15 or whatever it cost back then to send it back to the print owner.

The print owner didn’t care enough to think about it, or make a long-distance phone call to ask them to ship the thing back. These just ended up sitting in a depot someplace, or sitting in a warehouse, or sitting in a theater box office, or sitting in theater storage. That’s how they made their way back to us. There’d be a process of re-accumulation, where people who went to auctions or rented these former warehouses or whatnot, ended up with all these prints on their hands and didn’t know what to do with them. They would call whoever was putting the word out about it, or generally Big Reel magazine, to let them know what they had and that they wanted to sell it. They didn’t know what the hell they had, and that’s how it all ended up making its way back to the “magnetic affinity” people, which I would say were people like us who cared.

Are there many movies that you’re aware of—whether through incomplete prints, or trailers, or write-ups—that you still haven’t found? Are there still lost treasures out there?

Sure, there are lots of films that we haven’t found. There are films that the community at large hasn’t found, like Voodoo Heartbeat, which has a really mouthwatering ad mat. Everybody wants Voodoo Heartbeat by Charles Nizet. It’s probably not that good of a movie, I would bet, but it is one of our holy grail movies. Yes, there are lots of movies like that. Chris Poggiali, who runs Temple of Schlock, has a series called “The Endangered List” and he covers a lot of his films that there are ads for but nobody has. The films are either lost, or they were under such an inscrutable retitling that no one knows what the hell the movies were that were being advertised.

Sometimes when there are films that are presumed “lost,” the film itself wasn’t lost. It’s just that some things were retitled a whole bunch of times. Often we would introduce a film at Weird Wednesday and then a different title comes up all together, and half the audience would go, “Oh, my God, they’re showing the wrong movie.” But then, the other hip half of the audience knows, like, “Oh, yes.” These movies would be retitled on a regular basis. Somebody would literally go to Eckerd Drugs and print up 35-millimeter camera images of a new title. They would literally take a 24-frame roll of film of a new title card, print it out at Eckerd Drugs, and place that onto the print. That literally happened. They’d pin it on and give it a new title altogether.

A big reason for that would be that they didn’t want people to know that they were paying to see a film they’d already seen. Also, distributors might be running, let’s say, a cheerleader program, and then they’d have a movie that had nothing to do with cheerleaders, but they would rename it The Hot Cheerleaders and splice that title on, and then you’d be watching an Italian giallo or something.

Access to many of these films has grown tremendously since the heyday of Weird Wednesday. There’s digital trading, for one thing, and then labels like Arrow and Vinegar Syndrome and even AGFA’s own home video releases which have made quite a few of these movies more widely available. It feels like a movie being “obscure” has become less and less synonymous with it being impossible to see.

Don’t worry that there aren’t a whole lot of obscure, wonderful movies out there, because there are. Sometimes it almost seems like we’re living in a singularity, because weirder and weirder stuff keeps popping up. It’s almost like the hand of God is just reaching back in the timeline and retconning the whole situation, and dropping in some amazing movie from 1984 that we’re now finding and going, “Holy shit. I cannot believe this movie existed this whole time and we never knew about it.” All of that continues to happen. Those odd, metaphysical phenomena are continuing to happen.

Let’s imagine you have a mystery audience member in a theater or screening room, and you don’t know anything about their cinematic tastes or their personal sensibilities. Could you pick one movie from this book for them to watch that would sum up what Weird Wednesday was all about?

I think there are a number of them that really do. I might say something like Switchblade Sisters. I think it’s such a competent piece of work. It’s pretty inexpensive, but it’s also just extraordinarily well-made. It’s extraordinarily ambitious. It’s Shakespearean. It also has this thing that a lot of these movies have, that it’s a war movie where people are getting killed, but it’s just taking place in a high school. People shot and it never even makes the news. It’s not like a big, huge deal in this suburban place. Yes, all of that. The movie just works. The acting is fantastic. The direction of the acting is fantastic. The dialogue just works, and I think people can watch it.

It’s not the most obscure movie, but it’s also a movie that—people are not hearing about Switchblade Sisters on, I don’t know, TCM or whatever. For a lot of people, they might be like, “Wow, are there other movies like this?” I think that’s an impulse that you really would like to cultivate. “Wow, are there other movies like this?” If you hear that, you really feel like you rang the bell.

(Buy the book here.)



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