Scuzz in the Days of VHS

There was always a touch of scuzz at the movies, but I was usually too young to get a taste of it. The “Adults Only” come-on wasn’t pitched at kids. Once, I was even denied entrance to a movie that announced no such restriction. Occasionally, in one of those triple-feature-for-a quarter theaters that would show whatever they could get their hands on, I would see something like a bohemian artist cutting up models and using their blood for paint, but those were anomalous moments. Unless you were a regular at the grindhouses or drive-in theaters, the names of David Friedman, Doris Wishman, Hershell Gordon Lewis, Jess Franco, Jean Rollin, and Lucio Fulci were probably unknown to you.

Until the arrival of VHS and the video rental outlets. When video was new, it was addictive because when you went to the store to return a video, you usually rented another one. And once you had caught up on all the normal movies you might have missed in the theaters, you started in on the exploitation shelves, where all those forbidden treasures from the sixties were becoming available. The first thing you realized was that most of them were crap. Movies like “Danielle by Night” were standing proof that the ‘adults only” audience would sit through anything if there was the promise of a naked boob in the package.

Those movies weren’t so much scuzzy as sleazy. The real scuzz hit theaters in the seventies when the country embraced pornography as a legitimate genre. Once the gangsters and devils were given the sanction to put whatever the hell they wanted on the screen, the smut peddlers were forced to up their ante if they wanted to stay in the game. But it was a no-win situation. Even Russ Meyer, with his false-phallused Nazi perverts, could not compete with the psycho killer-rapist of Alex de Renzy’s “Femmes de Sade.”

Seattle in the seventies was an open city for pornography. The crap was advertised and reviewed in the daily newspapers along with the legitimate movies. As a result, a lot of us were conned into patronizing them. Some of my old favorite third-run theaters had turned into porno palaces, and a few suburban theaters started mucking up the neighborhoods by programming the lucrative filth. It wasn’t the hard-core sex that made these movies so rancid; it was the sadism that engulfed the whole industry, both on off the screen.
It was this world-gone-porno that became the subject of the scuzz movies that emerged in the eighties.

Before getting into that, let me backtrack to the seventies for a brief look at how scuzziness insinuated itself into our consciousness in that decade. At first, the relaxing of moral codes allowed for a new humanity to emerge in a national cinema that had always looked askance at behavior that was judged as socially deviant. The Oscar-winning “Midnight Cowboy” opened the doors for the Andy Warhol produced films directed by Paul Morrissey, which in turn gave John Waters a foothold on commercial cinema. Unlike the hardcore porno junk, these movies were spirited affairs that had social and entertainment value. They were also, admittedly, pretty scuzzy.

But they were made by marginalized artists, not kidnappers and murderers. And they created alternative cinematic worlds of their own, unlike the creeps like Penthouse magazine’s Robert Charles Joseph Edward Sabatini Guccione, who blew his scuzz-wad all over the posh surfaces of “Caligula,” which A. Alan Friedberg booked into his Sack Theater Chain in Boston, which also exhibited a scuzzy thing that promised to include scenes of actual murder, called “Snuff.” Although Boston had succeeded in creating a “combat zone” where prostitutes, drug dealers, and pornographic films were legally quarantined, Friedberg was able to finagle his way into bringing porno into mainstream theaters outside of the zone.

Despite Friedberg’s efforts to bring pornography back into the mainstream, my move to Boston from Seattle in 1981 brought me into a world that was relatively free of pornography and its influence. But video stores introduced me to a new brand of scuzz, of which its most accomplished purveyor was Abel Ferrara. I rented “Driller Killer,” “Ms. 45,” “Fear City, “and “China Girl” in the 80’s. I went to the theater to see “King of New York,” Bad Lieutenant,” “Dangerous Game,” and “The Funeral” in the 90’s. Not all of these moves were scuzzy, but they came from a scuzzy place, a world of drugged-out criminals and normal people going mad in the scuzz environs of New York City.

There were many times, while sitting in my apartment on Mass Ave, watching scuzzy videos in the afternoon, that I questioned the reasoning that told me this stuff was worth watching. There I was, eating cheap pizza and drinking beer in the shadow of Harvard University on a sunny day, watching “Cannibal Holocaust,” “52 Pick Up,” or “The Beyond,” while the rest of the world was out having a good time with “My Life as a Dog” or “Babette’s Feast.”

But now, over 25 years later, the whole world seems to be addicted to scuzz on mainstream television e that is worse than anything I watched on video in the age of VHS. They plod through the abominable soap opera “The Walking Dead” just to see a few scenes of zombie munching that are as gross as anything Lucio Fulci ever filmed. And they get a new maniac every week on Criminal Minds” who tortures and murders victims as cruelly and explicitly as in any grindhouse splatter from the 80’s.

The point I am getting to is that in the days of VHS and the grindhouses and the midnight movies, it was only us weirdos who were attracted to this crap. Today, it is the average person who feeds on the gross insanity of the doings of demons and the scuzzball sermons of the damned. Frankly, I have lost my taste for most of what I used to watch, but there are a lot of movies set in urban infernos that have a lot to tell us about the world in which we live. Abel Ferrara’s new picture, “Welcome to New York” is a prime example. But television junk such as “Breaking Bad” has nothing to say except that all is fair in the amassing of wealth. It is your moral duty to murder and destroy any one or thing that stands in the way of your financial betterment. “Don’t fuck with my money” used to be the cry of pimps and drug dealers. Now it is the hymn of the new capitalist. I never became a scuzz from watching movies like “Switchblade Sisters” or “La Grande Bouffe.” But teevee shows like The Walking Dead and Breaking Bad are turning the whole world to shit.

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