Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy

A mind-bending predecessor to the modern mash-up, The Movie Orgy (1968) is also the Rosetta Stone for Joe Dante’s oeuvre and a must-experience for movie fans and cinephiles alike.

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Before Gremlins, before The Howling, before he started his career cutting trailers for Roger Corman, Joe Dante hosted the 7.5 hour All Night Once In A Lifetime Atomic Movie Orgy. An ever-evolving edit, it was a communal experience – a mind-bending predecessor to the modern mash-up with no definitive version. Matchbox Cineclub programmer Sean Welsh charts the evolution of The Movie Orgy through five key dates.

October 9th 1965, The Playboy Theater, Chicago

The first screening of An Evening With Batman and Robin, one of two key inspirations for The Movie Orgy. The other was Susan Sontag’s Notes on “Camp” (1964), which popularised the term and inspired the repackaging of the 1943 Batman serial as a single 4.5-hour programme. Audiences laughed at its phony climaxes, marveled at its blatant xenophobia, and it began touring college towns. When Dante caught it, at the World Theater in Philadelphia, he was particularly struck by the camaraderie of the crowd, who “came out into the lobby as if they’d just gotten off a sinking ship.”

Early 1966, Philadelphia College of Art, Philadelphia

Inspired, Dante, a second year student but already a programmer at PCA, decided to host his own Camp Movie Night. The exact date is lost to history, but Dante and collaborator Jon Davison rented the only complete serial available on 16mm in Philadelphia, The Phantom Creeps (1939). They stretched it to seven hours with serials, clips, ads, industrial films and cartoons from their 16mm collections. Its success meant several follow-ups, each a step towards what would shortly become The Movie Orgy, then variously The Movie Orgy 2, The Movie Orgy Strikes Back, Son of the Movie Orgy, Escape to Movie Orgy and Son of Movie Orgy Rides Again.

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March 8th 1970, Filmore East, New York

Although 1968 is commonly held as the term “The Movie Orgy” was first used for Dante and Davison’s project, the performance that film archivist and Orgy expert David Neary describes as “the most important Movie Orgy of all” came in 1970. 1970 was peak Movie Orgy for the pair, who employed dueling projectors (tipping their hats to Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls). Davison’s would show various features – in lieu of new serials – and Dante’s would interject, drawing on his panoply of 16mm weirdness. They took their cues from the audience, so no two screenings were alike. Press coverage of the Filmore Orgy drew the attention of Schlitz Beer, who sponsored Orgies to tour colleges for years. But when the new material the Orgy drew upon to keep it alive began itself to be infected with self-referential camp, it was time to call it a day. Dante, already in Hollywood, sold syndication rights for “The Video Orgy” to be screened on college campuses’ closed circuit TV networks.

Dante's Inferno
Credit: Dennis Cozzalio

April 22nd 2008, New Beverly Cinema, Los Angeles

The grand finale of Dante’s Inferno, a two-week retrospective at LA’s legendary rep cinema. Joining the scores of curious film fans were Davison, Allan Arkush, Bill Hader, Edgar Wright and Quentin Tarantino. Dante enjoined the crowd to move about, go outside, have a smoke, grab a pizza and wander back in. The Movie Orgy was always intended as a movie to be walked out on. But the director was curious to if it would play – have any relevance – after years in his vault. It brought the house down.

September 9th 2018, The Old Hairdressers, Glasgow

We’re screening the digital version Dante made for the New Beverly (not the 90min “UK cut” previously screened in London). It’s 4.5 hours long, the official Movie Orgy, “distilled, recaptured and re-curated”, according to archivist David Neary. It’s not the full, wild 16mm experience, of course, but there’s also no Blu Ray coming. “It’s more like a concert in a way,” Dante says, “It’s something that you really have to be there for.”

Sean Welsh


Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy screens at The Old Hairdressers, Sunday 9th September

Facebook event here. Tickets here.

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the Scalarama 2018 newspaper.

PS: Phantom of the Paradise

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Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise (1974) was our Halloween 2016 screening. Here, journalist Patrick Harley takes a closer look at “the most highly acclaimed horror phantasy of our time.”

There’s a scene in Phantom of the Paradise where the maniacal music mogul known only as Swan makes a point of gifting talented songwriter Winslow Leach (by this point deformed and forced to live in the shadows as the film’s titular Phantom) a contract the size of a phonebook. Flicking several pages into the tome, the Phantom’s one functioning eye chooses an article at random and proceeds to read aloud:

“The party of the first part gives the party of the second part and his associates full power to do with him at their pleasure. To rule, to send, to fetch, or carry him or his, be it either body, soul, flesh, blood or goods” – what does that mean?

The satirical implication that the Phantom is being fooled into quite literally signing his life away later takes on a darker edge, when, distraught with grief, he contemplates suicide, only to discover that the same contract has also voided his right to death.

death-records

Yet death is a recurrent motif in Brian De Palma’s musical horror. Swan’s unscrupulous record label is even named after it: Death Records, its logo a once chirpy songbird, now flat on its back. It’s a journey to which the Phantom could relate; particularly since by the end of the opening act, he’s already been declared deceased. What really perishes in the film’s first thirty minutes though is Winslow’s identity – most of all, his innocence.

winslow

Played by the late William Finley, one early sequence sees Winslow trying to secure a meeting with Swan, confused as to why the producer would have taken hold of his life’s work without crediting or paying him. Having gained access to Swan’s home, he finds out that not only has his music been stolen, but the label is in the midst of vetting potential singers. One such hopeful, and soon to be the object of Winslow’s affection, is the talented Phoenix (Suspiria’s Jessica Harper in her first cinematic role). Whisked into a room and the doors firmly closed behind her, Phoenix immediately screams in terror, swiftly emerging to exclaim that she only came to sing and will not do what Swan is asking of her. Horrified, a clueless Winslow gasps, “That doesn’t sound like an audition!” It’s not long before his naivety finds him crippled, literally destroyed by his belief that he singlehandedly can stop the ever-turning machinery of the record industry.

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But in Phantom of the Paradise, death is just an opportunity to try a new marketing strategy. It is, of course, no coincidence that De Palma enlisted songwriter Paul Williams to play Swan, his compositions for the film also earning him an Oscar nomination. With Williams’ talent and knowledge of the industry lending the film’s songs just the right amount of credibility necessary for pastiche, we see Swan’s house band cycle through multiple incarnations as he strives to find the sound that will unlock access to “The Paradise” (a musical utopia said to be on par with Xanadu). First up, a 1950s nostalgia band named the Juicy Fruits, then the Beach Bums – a surf group who the Phantom, and no doubt De Palma, relishes in blowing up – before finally they are resurrected as the Undeads, a glam-goth act in which every member is styled after the sinister somnambulist from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It is during this performance that Swan clocks onto his biggest hit yet when a literal death, live onstage, leaves the audience in a frenzy; they love it, instantly chanting for more.

laugh

For as much as De Palma’s film points a finger at the entertainment industry (record labels no doubt serving as a substitute for the indie director’s own distrust of studio system), it also turns a mirror toward us, appalled at our willingness to be numbed by spectacle, never pausing to think about what goes on behind the curtain. A standout use of split-screening sees one performance shown from two angles: one the upbeat, cheery stage show intended for the crowd, the other the berating going on backstage. As one camera pans to Swan, watching from his private box, the other descends into destruction. Similarly, Williams’ lyrics too are laced with vicious critiques, the anthem of the sleepwalking Undeads calling out for guidance from a figurehead with a Hollywood Smile.

It’s no surprise then that as the film reaches its climax – a chaotic blend of tribal rhythms and fast cuts in which a televised concert turns into a bloodbath – the only screams are cheers. If one onstage death was good, the fans definitely enjoy three. Pulling the camera back, De Palma reveals that, throughout it all, the crowd continues to dance.

Patrick Harley

COMIN’ AT YA in EXPLODOSCOPE!

Matchbox Cineclub‘s May screening will be COMIN’ AT YA! (Ferdinando Baldi, 1981) on Thursday 19/05/16 at the Old Hairdressers, Glasgow.

COMIN’ AT YA! (Ferdinando Baldi, 1981) is the film that launched the 1980s 3Dsploitation boom, with flying spears, vampire bats and even babies, all jumping off the screen towards you. Matchbox Cineclub are celebrating its 35th anniversary with a special screening in 3D (we’re providing the glasses) and an explosive sound set-up. You can’t miss it, cos it’s COMIN’ AT YA! 

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Synopsis: HH Hart (Tony Anthony), a bank robber, loses his wife (Victoria Abril) to kidnappers on their wedding day. Subsequently, she is traded as a prostitute by villain Pike Thompson (Gene Quintana). HH Hart races against time to find his wife, with the help of a Scottish preacher.

CominAtYa_poster


Tickets are available from Brown Paper Tickets right here. This screening is by arrangement with The Little Film Company.