From the bowels of K Street
Trash Film Orgy celebrates its fifth year of camp, sleaze and eating brains
Most popular film festivals make their names by launching the careers of fresh talent or debuting what becomes the year’s Oscar darling. But with a name like Trash Film Orgy (TFO), who knows what to expect? For the past five years, TFO founders and husband-and-wife team Darin Wood and Christy Savage have worked to keep the surprises coming at this six-week festival of gory, campy stage shows and B-movie screenings, held annually at the Crest Theatre.
Upon meeting Wood and Savage, I was surprised both by their vast and enthusiastic knowledge of trash films and pop-culture oddities and by the fact that they gave me a gift bag. Among the contents were a small, inflatable tiki drum; Trash Teeth gummy candy; a package of Snake Snacks with “crunchy candy balls” (I didn’t even know snakes had …); and other items commonly found at your local dollar store or sold by vendors in Tijuana. These trinkets, however, barely scratched the surface of the trash world.
For the uninitiated, the Trash Film Orgy is not the Sundance Film Festival or the Telluride IndieFest, and it doesn’t feature the art-house films often shown at the Crest. You almost never will hear the words “Academy Award” mentioned in the same breath as the titles of the movies shown at TFO, but Wood and Savage love them. During our interview, Wood, a wide-eyed auteur with a long beard like that of a mountaintop guru, shared many fractured TFO memories. Savage and producer and co-founder Amy Slockbower—both young women sporting TFO T-shirts—added color and emphasis.
As the trio explained, B-movies have a certain self-deprecating quality noticeable in titles such as The Severed Arm, This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse and Soul Hustler (a film featuring pop star Fabian as “a guitar-playing, heroin-addicted drifter who with the help of an evangelist, becomes a gospel rock superstar overnight,” according to the TFO Web site). Savage defined the trash film as “a film that is generally not a mainstream movie and doesn’t necessarily appeal to the mass market … something out-of-the-ordinary, unusual, over-the-top.” Most of the films screened at TFO are underground, independently produced and often forgotten, but they offer the audience something missing from their lives: “Just a general feeling of being a bit naughty,” Savage said.
However, Savage was quick to add that “trash” does not mean “bad.” “We look high and low for the best in trash films and try to provide the finest in unusual and underground cult cinema,” Savage said.
One of this year’s selections, An American Werewolf in London, perhaps exemplifies the level of high art a trash film can achieve. Directed by John Landis, American Werewolf combines black comedy with graphic, then-state-of-the-art gore. (Breaking rank, it won the first Academy Award presented for Best Makeup in 1982.) For example, the main character, David, suffers through his first full-moon transformation from man to wolf to the tune of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” His best friend, Jack, is killed by a werewolf in the film’s opening sequence but returns several times from the dead—decaying with each visit—to warn our hero of his inevitable wolfishness with deadpan wit and delivery. (“I’m aware that I don’t look so great, but I thought you’d be glad to see me.”)
TFO’s film selections “must have a sense of humor about themselves,” Wood added. Indeed, even if the original intentions of B-movie filmmakers were serious, the results are often comic. Trash films generally fall under the categories of exploitation and cult that skewer the mainstream with titles like Blacula, Gorilla at Large, Kung Fu Zombie, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers and The Toxic Avenger. Although they often feature no-name actors and actresses, film legends such as Vincent Price and Peter Lorre have chewed the trash-film scenery (not to mention Godzilla, who destroyed a few cardboard skyscrapers in his day).
But there’s more to this festival than films. TFO prides itself on celebrating the kitschy, the odd and the obscure—all with an untamed sense of humor. Beginning each festival is the now infamous Zombie Parade, in which participants walk (or drag themselves) down the K Street Mall to the Crest Theatre, often ending in faux consumption of audience members’ flesh. Attendees engage in Mystery Science Theater 3000-style heckling of the onscreen action, while the lobby is host to a fantasia of trash iconography. The audience also participates—willingly or not—in stage shows and games like brain-eating contests, meat wrestling, dueling chainsaws (prior to a showing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2) and Stab-O-Vision (during a presentation of Friday the 13th parts one and two).
“I hope that people are able to let go a little bit and enjoy the other side of life,” said Slockbower. “Going to see movies has become the land of multiplexes, but at the Trash Film Orgy, you get to go to the Crest picture palace and see little-known film gems on a giant screen. It is more of an experience than just going to see the same movie that 3 million people are seeing that weekend.”
This year, Trash Film Orgy will debut its first original film, a six-part serial titled The Curse of the Golden Skull. “It’s a cliffhanger serial starring El Tigre Diablo,” explained Wood, who co-wrote the film with longtime TFO participant Tom Cox. To TFO fans, El Tigre Diablo would be a familiar face—except that they never see it. El Tigre is a masked Mexican wrestling character, a demented mix between Batman’s sidekick Robin and Ren, the cartoon Chihuahua on The Ren & Stimpy Show. El Tigre has acted as emcee for many of the TFO stage shows in previous years, and his catch phrase, “Once again, I am victorious,” is notorious among fans.
Although the serial introduces several new characters, the most memorable may be El Tigre’s new partner, Sidekick Eddie. Savage explained, “Every episode will end with ‘Oh no! How’s El Tigre gonna escape?’”
Although the TFO features all are shown on film, The Curse of the Golden Skull was shot on video by Ethan Ireland. “It will run between 10 and 12 minutes before the feature every night, which means smaller stage shows. But it’s something we’ve wanted to do for some time,” said Wood. The film features some of the actors from past TFO stage shows, but Wood added that they had no trouble finding other willing participants. “Fans made up the film cast and crew,” he said. “We had three days of auditions, 60 people a day.” The film features Miles Miniaci as El Tigre Diablo and Jason Whitesel as Sidekick Eddie, as well as Stephen Vargo, Emma Wheaton, Tom Cox, Nick Roberts, Jillian Leeman, B. Lovely and many other Sacramento actors and personalities.
For months, Wood and Savage have been editing The Curse of the Golden Skull at their apartment, which is a shrine to all things trash. Props and set pieces from the production lie outside: an old seated hairdryer from a beauty salon (the “brain-washing machine,” said Savage); a giant, man-eating frog made from what looks like foam caulking and some other rubbery substance; a menacing tiki; and other props built with simple Styrofoam and spray paint. Inside, next to stacks of dusty paperbacks and old VHS tapes of B-movies, a Michael Myers doll (from the Halloween films) leans against a wall next to a Godzilla action-figure set and other knickknacks from the trash-film world. Arguably, these toys are a testament to the influence these films have had on popular culture.
“Show him the severed-head scene,” said Savage, as I sat next to a rubber-bat prop used in the film. Wood pecked away at the film on his computer, the print showing on an old 10-inch television screen. “Most of the interiors were shot at a local church at 23rd and K,” Wood explained as he cued the scene.
And there it was, a scene so beautifully campy it was mesmerizing: a group of evil Mafia types sitting around a table, plotting their next evil deed. After some seemingly significant banter, one character wields a samurai sword and chops off another character’s head, which proceeds to roll into the middle of the table as the headless torso squirts blood high into the air. The severed head even has a few last words as it rests on the table. The effect is seamless—not George Lucas/CGI seamless, but enough to tell that there is a budget here—and offers just a sample of the gory gags that The Curse of the Golden Skull has to offer.
This year’s six-week event opens with the Zombie Parade, the first installment of The Curse and a screening of Re-Animator on Saturday, June 25. The following weeks include John Waters’ Polyester on July 2, An American Werewolf in London on July 9 (along with a 1980s werewolf costume contest and British beer specials), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (co-written by film critic Roger Ebert in the late 1960s) on July 16, and Forbidden Zone on July 23. The festival culminates on July 30 with the Trash ’Til Dawn marathon, a sex-and-violence slumber party that runs from midnight until 6 a.m.