Saturday, November 19, 2005

Swimming in Oatmeal for Satan!

Though I can by no means afford 'em all, I've been a long-time fan of Mike Vraney and his bountiful Something Weird Video output. Mike was inevitably my favorite table at the Chillercon of yore (I haven't been for years), and most often reaped the bulk of my $$$ during those twice-a-year sojourns to the Meadowlands of New Jersey.

Since the arrival of DVD and Mike's innovative deal with Image to springboard Something Weird into the mass market, he's detoured even more of my $$$ into the SW stable. It's to the point where I'll purchase a SW DVD out of idle curiosity, since even the "least" of the catalogue on DVD offers a bounty of extras I've never heard of -- and believe you me, I've been scouring for these films since childhood, in whatever venue presented itself, from 8mm cutdowns from Castle and Ken Films to our contemporary DVD overload.

Among my recent SW late-night viewings was the Asylum of Satan package. This is one I picked up on impulse and a whim, having always been a fan of director William B. Girdler's films (e.g., Death Curse of Tartu, Sting of Death, Day of the Animals, Stanley, Grizzly, The Manitou, etc.) and curious about Asylum for its grotesque newspaper ads (featuring a Haxan-like demonic visage that seemed to be made of clay). The lead feature lived down to my utter lack of expectations -- it's among Girdler's least entertaining efforts, though still fun for a Girdlerphile like moi -- but its surprise made-in-Florida co-feature Satan's Children was the real delight. I was completely unprepared for the lunacy of this 1973 opus from "who's this?" director Joe Wiezycki -- this was apparenty his first and last film -- helming a generation-gap psychodrama shot in and about Tampa Bay by a local TV station crew expanding their horizons.

It's a genre mix of post-Manson JD/counterculture/biker/satanist fear-mongering, in which a callow teen youth who hates his spoiled older stepsister and his home life (they make him -- gasp! -- mow the lawn) bolts away to immediately fall into the clutches of a biker who offers him a place to crash. That night, said biker and his gang gang-sodomize the kid for laughs and dump him in a ditch. He's found and "rescued" by a nomadic pack of flower-children who turn out to be (cue music) Satan's Children! Typical of the post-Manson cinematic landscape, these hippie space-cadets are depicted as a free-wheeling, torture-lovin' pack of misfits, only our rescued protagonist becomes the favorite squeeze of the coven matriarch while its patriarch is away. Of course, when head honcho warlock returns, things go south: the protective coven matriarch is buried in sand up to her neck and left for the ants (after her head is covered in syrup to allure the insects) and our young hero flees with the coven in pursuit. Some drown in an oatmeal-like pit of "quicksand," others are fried on a fence, and junior jail-bait indeed makes his way back home -- and then the film really slides off the deep end. The finale is a corker, even if its most transgressive act (incestuous rape) is kept off-screen.

For its era, the paths this low-budget youth-gone-astray flick pursues are pretty out-to-lunch, from the homosexual gangbang to the patricide-fueled excess (including the revenge-rape and crucifixion of sis) of the final act. Sodomy was a big-screen no-no in the 1970s, though I suppose Straw Dogs and Deliverance broke that cinematic ass-cherry. Still, among rural drive-ins, biker pederasts ass-reaming a long-haired teen boy would have driven most redneck yokels into a homophobic rage and out of the drive-ins all together. The climactic melee might have prompted salutary honking-of-horns from those who stayed the course (though our androgynous hero's method of murder -- smashing bottles over Dad's head until he croaks -- is hilarious, and as badly staged as the rest of the homicidal "action"), but those would have been either the heartiest souls, those who were distracted from the first act, or those incapable of driving themselves home earlier.

The story is told with that seamy, impoverished flat-footedness of similar first-time-out 1970s drive-in era fare, defined by its maladroit acting, clumsy staging of mayhem, and lack of any real energy. For me, though, the clash between Wiezycki's flaccid direction, the cast's high-school-theater theatrics, and the lethal ire of the film's narrative content proved strangely intoxicating. If you view it in the context of That '70s Show, it's even more disorienting: view it as "Eric's Big Night Out," ending with Eric's murder of Red and rape & crucifixion of Laurie (hey, is that Tommy Chong as the coven leader?), and you'll see what I mean.

By any yardstick, this is a pretty weird flick, and it's all the more delightful for having been essentially a lost film until SW rescued it from oblivion.

Coincidentally, my friend Steve Twiss (who had no idea I had this DVD, and likewise had never heard of the film) sent me the link to a website for
  • Big 13 WTVT Channel 13
  • of Tampa Bay, that area's CBS affiliate from the year of my birth (1955) to 1994.

    There's a multi-page overview of WTVT's "Shock Theater" horror host,
  • 'Shock Armstrong,' The All-American Ghoul

  • Better yet, though -- lo and behold! -- the site also features a complete diary of the making of Satan's Children by assistant cinematographer Marc Wielage, dishing the dirt amid the behind-the-scenes story of the film's production! It's all waiting for you at
  • Satan's Children: The True Story!
  • There's a fully-illustrated synopsis of the film, in case you feel the need to know more before tracking this DVD down for yourself, but best of all are the details behind the film's inception and production. This gem was shot in part on short ends leftover from The Sting, which is as close as this curio ever got to an Academy Award.

    And to think it all happened in Gibsontown and Lutz, Florida. Someone should write the definitive tome on Florida filmmaking, as it's peppered with masterpieces like this among the stratos-fear of Herschell Gordon Lewis's splatter classics, Girdler's pantheon, one-offs from The Mermaids of Tiburon to Zaat!... and countless others.

    My favorite revelation: according to Marc Wielage -- who oughta know 'cuz he was there -- that was indeed oatmeal those satanist suckers are floundering in. "$178 worth of oatmeal," to be exact, and that's 1973 dollars-worth-of-Quaker-Oats.

    See, it pays to study special effects from a tender age -- and eat Maypo.

    Anyhoot, Marj and I are off to see Harry Potter tonight -- but I can't see where it'll hold a candle to Satan's Children.

    Sometimes, less is more. Waaaaaaaaaaay more.