Australian writer Michelle Alexander is one of my favorite critic-journalists covering world genre/obscure/infamous/cult/exploitation cinema, the people who make and appear in it, along with the history of the distribution/exhibition/advertising of these films and with censorship issues they have encountered. Based in Melbourne, Australia she has a special expertise in how these types of films have been treated there in terms of import issues, local censorship and classification, exhibition and promotion. She also writes on the history of Australian cult cinema and has a special interest in Italian genre cinema of the 1950s through the 1990s. Michelle is a regular contributor to such websites as her own blog chellesinferno.blogspot.com
- CINEMADROME Forums - THE place to go to discuss all matter of Eurohorror, exploitation, cult and experimental cinema, also features many informative reviews. Moderated by genre expert Robert Monell.
- Cinefear Blog - scans of the legendary fanzine 'The Exploitation Journal' and movie reviews
- Cinefear Video - 'The Connoisseur's Source for Horror and Exploitation'. Hundreds (thousands?) of horror, explotation etc titles avaliable here
- Digital Retribution - Australia's most popular horror website
- I'm in a Jess Franco State of Mind (Robert Monell's Blog)
Michelle has also edited and written for her own zines, been published in ARTS DECADES MAGAZINE and is currently working on an extended essay on the films of Jean Rollin for a future book project. Michelle adds [see below post], I'm also a contributing writer to Melbourne writer/film historian Dean Brandum's upcoming and much-anticipated TECHNICOLOUR YAWN publication which will be looking at the history of drive-in screenings in Melbourne from 1970-1984, a project I'm very proud to be part of.
Q: You have written about "cult" movies from various countries for various online publications. What first got you interested in these type of films? Was there one film in particular?
A: When my family first purchased a VCR in the mid-1980s, they would hire out tapes every week and inevitably their choices would be comedy, martial arts or horror films. During these weekly excursions to the local video store, I always gravitated towards the horror section, where the vivid, garish video slicks repelled and fascinated me at the same time. I was permitted to watch what was considered the more ‘tame’ horror fare (such as Poltergeist, The Gate, Creepshow 2, Tobe Hooper’s Invaders from Mars and Psycho). However with my older brother, sister and cousins always around and left to look after me while my parents, who had an extremely dysfunctional relationship, were involved in their own personal dramas, I was usually present when the older kids were viewing Evil Dead, Amityville 2: The Possession, An American Werewolf in London, Xtro, Alien, The Thing, The Video Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Things I really shouldn’t have been watching at that age, but I never once was traumatized or even frightened by those films, just intrigued.
Over the next few years my fascination with horror took a backseat as I became hooked on video games, but in 1994 a close friend of mine got bitten by the horror bug. Her family owned a video store (Gamon Video Centre), so thanks to her we had access to all the latest genre releases. Which were pretty woeful at the time (Ghost in the Machine, Brainscan, Man’s Best Friend, Buffy the Vampire Slayer ad nauseum). The absolute last straw for me was enduring a particularly excruciating pile of said direct-to-video excrement called The Club. One day at my local library, I loaned two books which helped introduced me to a whole new horror world – Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies and Phil Hardy’s The Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror Movies. These bibles introduced me to European genre aueters such as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Jess Franco and Ruggero Deodato, as well as key titles such as Dawn of the Dead and Last House on the Left. By lucky coincidence, a letterboxed, uncut subtitled print of Deep Red screened on TV at that time, and the film completely blew me away. The stunning visuals, cinematography and Goblin soundtrack left me awestruck and absolutely gave me the Eurohorror/cult bug. To this day, my all time favourite film of this genre is Deep Red; it made an absolutely unforgettable impact on me.
Q: You started at least one zine. Could you talk about it?
A: Archetype Malice was co-created and written by myself and a school friend in the late 1990s, basically a bit of fun so we could write about our favourite topics (horror and cult movies, music, alternative culture). Somehow we actually sold a few copies! Lasting for an entire four issues, it was an EXTREMELY primitive zine, yes even for zine standards, we’re talking stapling every issue together by hand and gluing pictures and slabs of texts onto pages for the original template.
Q: Could you talk about growing up as a fan in Australia? Were there other people you met there who were also interested?
A: Well, back in the olden days 20+ years ago, (i.e. before Facebook, online forums etc), it was much more difficult to meet fellow fans who were into the more obscure stuff. I used to think I was very much alone with this interest, but gradually I began connecting with other fans by writing to zine editors such as John Harrison and Adam Lee, and in the late 90s I started posting on the Mortado’s Page of Filth forum, where I met more like-minded people. Because in Australia, it’s always been a relatively small group of folks who are seriously into these films, you tend to recognize the same names and faces over the years in fan, writing and collectors circles, and more often than not the Oz fans have an instant camaraderie based on their common interests, which is great.
Q: How did you see these films there? Can you talk about the TV programming which showed these locally? Did you have a favorite?
A: In regards to the TV programming, there is a free-to-air channel here, SBS, which specializes in world cinema. Following their landmark 1994 Deep Red screening, SBS began regularly screening nice prints of uncut, subtitled Eurocult classics, hosted by the inimitable Des Mangan. Some absolute gems and rarities screened during those golden years, including She Killed in Ecstasy, Night of the Hunted, Nude For Satan, Shock, The Devil’s Nightmare, The Sinful Nuns of St Valentine and many others. These broadcasts sadly ceased in the early 2000s.
As far as I know, it was EXTREMELY rare for other stations to screen these films. My mother recalls viewing Mondo Cane way back in 1976, and extremely cut versions of The Last Cannibal World and Man From Deep River were screened in 1981 and 1984 respectively (thanks to local film historian Dr. Dean Brandum for confirming this to me).
Other ways I’d see these films was from several video stores around Melbourne, dupes obtained from mail order vendors such as Melbourne’s own Phantastique Video and via friends and traders. There was also an alternative bookstore here called Polyester Books, which at the time of this interview will be closing in a matter of weeks due to being swallowed up by the plague of high rents/gentrification/hipsterdom/homogenization (all the same thing really). They had a nice little stash of bootlegged tapes there, which gave me access to my first viewing of the tremendous Cannibal Holocaust at age 16. The tape’s murky, nth generation quality and Venezuelan subtitles only added to its devastating effect, giving it even more of a “what the fuck am I watching???!!!!!!!!!!!” feel, similar to when the first dupes of Last House on Dead End Street did the rounds.
Q: What was the local home video scene like, pre DVD? Were the kind of movies you liked available in stores? If so, which stores had the best collections, most varied collections?
A: Some stores, in terms of video content, were MUCH better and varied than others. I was fortunate enough to have a pretty good local video store which had a huge horror section, so I’d always take advantage of the $5 for $5 weekly rentals deal there. To join video stores here, you had to be over 18 and provide several forms as ID, such as a driver’s license, utility bill, etc. I remember when I was 14, I tried to talk the customer service person at my favourite local store into letting me sign up using a library card and birth certificate extract as ID. No, it didn’t work (it was serious business joining back then!), but I simply borrowed my older brother’s membership card and hired whatever I wanted out without any trouble for four years there until I was 18 and could FINALLY get my own treasured piece of plastic.
In terms of varied content, generally the inner city video stores tended to have more of a variety of cult movies due to their clientele (a lot of uni students and alternative types). My absolute favourite video store in those pre-DVD days was one of these inner city outlets, Video Busters in Collingwood. To get there I’d have to take a bus, a train and a tram, but for me it was completely worth it. Compared to now, when we can watch almost anything with the click of a button or a swipe on a screen, there was a hell of a lot of work chasing down these things! But I never saw it as annoying or irritating as the thrill of the chase, and digging up hidden gems, was a lot of fun. Video Busters Collingwood had a massive cult movie section, possibly the biggest in Melbourne, and was instrumental in enabling me to delve further into the Bava and Jess Franco catalogues, as well as to catch up with viewing key ‘controversial’ titles such as The Driller Killer, Nightmare and Pieces.
In the city there was also a shop called ‘Inferno Video’ that specialised in horror, cult and exploitation movies. This one space contained many of the most hard-to-find and sort after VHS titles in Australia, such as The Lonely Violent Beach, Hitch-Hike, To be Twenty, Island of Perversion, Primitives, Farewell Uncle Tom and many more, to rent from the store’s opening in 2000 until a couple of years later, when the owner (who, to put it diplomatically, was a colourful character), put a complete stop to all rentals.
Q: Were there any Aus zines you found of special interest?
A: John Harrison’s Reel Wild Cinema, Adam Lee’s Spasmo, Michael Helms’ Fatal Visions and David Nolte’s Crimson Celluloid were all absolutely essential reading at the time, expertly and entertainingly written by guys who well and truly know their stuff. All filled their publications with fantastic reviews and articles, and a bunch of rare interviews.
Q: Do you some favorite cult film directors?
A;Definitely the Grand Masters Dario Argento, Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci and Jess Franco, and the English Realist directors Alan Clarke and Ken Loach
Q: Were there any international film publications you sought out/found particularly informative or favorites in the 1990s video era?
A; Discovering Craig Ledbetter’s European Trash Cinema when the World Wide Web was still in its early days was definitely an eye-opener for me, introducing me to Eurohorror/trash/sleaze works beyond the key Argento/Bava/Fulci titles, such as To Be Twenty, Terror Express and Delirium. The ETC Jess Franco Special Edition certainly cemented my admiration for the genius of the man and his phenomenal discography. I recall Craig writing in the editorial of one issue, “Why don’t any girls read ETC?” and I felt like screaming “I’M OVER HERE!!!!” I would have loved to write for the mag back then, but unfortunately it had already ceased publication. Other favourite international publications were all from the UK: Samhain, Diabolik and John Martin’s Giallo Pages, all of which continued to expand my knowledge of the more obscure films and players of the genre. If only I’d known about Keith Crocker and George Reis’ groundbreaking Exploitation Journal back then – meticulously researched, honest, hilarious and scathing – that’s one that would have been on the top of my list back then (it is now).
Q: Did you get into DVD right away or were you a late comer, like myself?
A; I didn’t get into DVD immediately, though not due to lack of interest – due to sheer lack of money! Being a poor student at the time, I only purchased my first DVD player in mid 2001. Naturally my first disc purchases were Anchor Bay’s releases of Deep Red, Tenebrae and The Beyond. Aside from being blown away by this new medium’s visual quality, I vividly recall oohing and ahhring at the commentaries because they were of course new concepts at the time.
Q: Did you get caught up in the local video censorship seizures there? Were any of your videos or things you ordered grabbed by customs, which ones?
A; In early 2002 I’d ordered DVDs of Cannibal Holocaust and Opera from the U.S. based Shocking Images. A few weeks later, instead of my discs I received a letter from Customs stating that they’d seized both my discs for the following reasons: “sexual violence” for Cannibal Holocaust and “extreme violence” for Opera. Yes, Holocaust was banned here until late 2005, BUT Opera was NEVER banned here, which I was especially pissed off about. I believe when Opera was initially released on VHS here, some copies had ‘Banned in Queensland’ stickers slapped on them as a marketing strategy to boost rentals, but as far as I know it was NEVER banned in Queensland nor anywhere else in Australia. Just some overzealous Customs person who didn’t have a fucking clue about what they were doing. I could have fought the decision, but honestly I really couldn’t be bothered with the trouble and stress. I simply got my discs not long after from another vendor. I’ve had friends who’d been raided and had to go to court in the draconian years of the 90s/early 2000s here. What an absolutely ridiculous, frustrating and pathetic waste of time and resources.
Q: Did you follow the banned lists locally? Were these widely published/known there? What is still banned there, if anything?
A: The Australian censorship board has always been wildly contradictory in what it has chosen to censor here and release uncut. For example, in the video era most of the late 70s/early 80s Fulci titles and Italian cannibal films were cut to ribbons, packed with these irritating, clumsy jump cuts, while things like Farewell Uncle Tom, Island of Perversion, Bloodsucking Freaks, Pieces, Men Behind the Sun, Nightmare, Hell of the Living Dead and I Spit on Your Grave were passed completely uncut! While on the surface titles with sexual violence seem to be a big no-no with our censors here (ie: Mad Foxes, Thriller: A Cruel Picture, Night Train Murders etc), there’s a bunch of them I just mentioned full of that sort of content that got through intact!?!?!?! I don’t get it as much as you!
A number of cult classics such as A Clockwork Orange, Cannibal Holocaust, Last House on the Left, The New York Ripper, Beyond the Darkness and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 were embarrassingly banned for many years, while one could write a book on what went on with Salo here. Largely due to the noise created by rampant moral crusaders here, It was banned and unbanned four times! Thankfully that ban has been lifted...for now. Absolutely moronic...
I have to say that since around 2006, things have improved censorship-wise (for example Beyond the Darkness being passed in 2014, that NEVER would have happened in days of yore for example as necrophilia tends to get an instant big REFUSED CLASSICATION stamp), but there’s still the occasional idiotic decision.
As for titles that are still banned or refused classification to this day, here’s a few: Ken Park (once again due to parasite ‘moral crusaders’ who have nothing better to do with their time), Black Deep Throat, Night Train Murders, Mad Foxes, The Gore Gore Girls (and they kicked up a fucking big stink about it too), Nekromantik 1 & 2, Aftermath, Lucker the Necrophagous, Thriller: A Cruel Picture, Nazi Love Camp 27, SS Camp 5: Women’s Hell, SS Experiment Camp, The Beast in Heat, and predictably all of the Ilsa films. A fair few Jess Franco and Joe D’Amato films were released here theatrically in less reputable cinemas or drive ins, but were very heavily cut.
There is an excellent website that I regularly follow, Refused-Classification.com, which provides up to date information and lists as to what has been banned/unbanned/censored in all aspects of Australian media, as well as Rod Williams’ very informative Media Censorship in Australia Facebook page.
Q: I'm always interested in what female writers/collectors think of sexploitation directors like Joe D'Amato/Jess Franco. Any thoughts on those two?
A; A number of female writers tend to look at these films from an academic or feminist point of view, but to put it simply and straightforwardly, I see them as unique, interesting and above all entertaining and that is the manner in which I write about and discuss them. The sexploitative and violent elements are part and parcel of the genre they specialized in, and do not offend or disturb me. I also strongly admire that both of these directors never compromised and refused to ‘play it safe’, and remained staunchly independent until the end.
Many thanks for your interview, Bob!
And many thanks to Michelle Alexander.
(C) Robert Monell, 2016