Easily the most inspired film-geek retro idea to land in New York since Anthology’s one-eyed-auteur series in 2009, this Halloween-angled suite revisits classic horror indies directed by erstwhile industrial filmmakers — and buttresses them with the ephemeral junk the filmmakers manufactured in their day jobs. Right away we’re reawakened to the fact that the vast majority of films shot in the 20th century — an indisputable lion’s share of cinema history — were disposable non-theatrical shorts assembled for industrial, educational, promotional, corporate, or even religious training purposes.
It’s the kind of forgotten effluvia that found-footage impresarios like Craig Baldwin have lived on, and they can have a creepy, dislocated aura, absurdly ungraceful dream scenarios occupying fake and anemic meta-worlds and saturated with pedagogic zombieness. In a sense, decommissioned industrial shorts from the postwar age are already horror movies — narratives of dread and warning set in a sometimes intensely irrational void.
We are unlikely to watch them for their own merits — but as refractions of sensibilities we know rather well, or long to know better, they can be delicious. So we begin with Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1963), the seminal and infamous bloodletting serial-killer quickie that tipped the first of the infinite dominoes on “gore” exploitation movies, accompanied by Lewis’s debut, an instructional film for Chicago meatpacking outfit Swift & Co., titled Carving Magic (1959).
It is too good to be true: literally, a stilted, aw-gosh lesson for Mr. and Mrs. American Homemaker on how to deftly apply your biggest carving knife to a juicy series of turkeys, roasts, racks, and hams. Structured with flashbacks to a film-within-the-film starring celebrity homemaker Martha Logan (as well as a 22-year-old Harvey Korman), the short is an uncomfortable fetishization of diced flesh, and you can practically feel Lewis’s own yuck factor slowly plump into a market-ready idea behind the camera.
Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) was a more radical departure for an industrial image-maker, but Harvey had the experience, having long helped the Kansas-based Centron Corporation become one of the country’s leading factories for industrials of all types. (If you’re over 35, you saw a Centron film in school.) A modern redo of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Harvey’s sole feature is, famously, a woozy no-budget nightmare constructed out of mold and unease, and once it began appearing on local TV stations in the pre-cable days, its rise as a late-night culty compulsion for an entire generation of ‘Nam-era media geeks was inevitable.
Certainly, for this one performance, the ethereal, wall-eyed wax figurine that is Candace Hilligoss will never be forgotten. The movie’s eternal-return fatal-car-wreck scenario is foreseen in the sidecar Centron short, Harvey’s None for the Road (1957), a pseudo-scientific screed against teen drunk driving. Shades of proto-Hilligossian disaffection haunt the film, but the interpolated sequences of the authoritarian scientist telling us what’s what about intoxication are hilariously prime: At one point, he torments three rats (in progressive states of drunkenness) by making them hang from a thin bar, lamenting the failure of the rubbery, uncoordinated last rodent to even try.
Out of Pittsburgh, George A. Romero’s shorts, accompanying the deathless anxiety classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), are less interesting, being more or less typical and adept TV ads for consumer products, from barbecue accessories to Calgon detergent (aping Fantastic Voyage) to presidential candidate George McGovern. No such disparity plagues Larry Yust, whose feature, 1974’s Homebodies, is an odd, unsung, bloodily funny saga about elderly Cincinnati tenement denizens resorting to serial murder to stop their building from being razed, while his PSA short, Live or Die (1979), is an equally passionate (and well-acted) tirade, complete with real autopsy glimpses, against bad eating habits, lack of exercise, and smoking.
Busy Louisville horror vet William Girdler’s blax-Exorcist rip Abby (1974) makes an appearance beside his sundry workaday one-offs, as yet undetermined, while William Dear and Thomas L. Dyke’s fascinating Northville Cemetery Massacre (1976) — one of the gnarliest and most thematically ambitious entries in the good-biker-bad-cop trend of the ’70s — comes with the filmmakers’ Jump (1970), an independently produced cautionary anti-LSD tale made for sale to schools. The long-neglected Northville hardly needs the ironic context, rippling with Peckinpah shootout montages and starring the very real Detroit Scorpions Motorcycle Club.
Maybe next autumn’s edition will entail tracking down the industrials of Edgar G. Ulmer, Russ Meyer, and Ted V. Mikels (not to mention Carl Dreyer). Of course, there’s a line beyond which the record-keeping gets nebulous, so a recently uncovered print of the little-known chintzy-softcore debut The Satanist (1968), by mysterious Nixon-era exploitation maven Zoltan G. Spencer, plays beside the industrials made for Ingersoll Rand and shot by Canadian filmmaker Spence Crilly — who may well be the same man. The jury is still out, and further research is pending.