I never met Something Weird Video’s founder Mike Vraney, but I spoke with him by phone back in 2005, and was charmed by his sincere appreciation for vintage exploitation cinema, which surpassed my own not-insubstantial enthusiasm. Like myself, Vraney enjoyed watching old drive-in fodder because he found those movies to be much truer to their times than polished, expurgated Hollywood fare. One of the reasons I like doing the “Midnight To Midnight” column here at The Dissolve is because I want to keep my eyes open for the Z-movies of today that might contain a nugget of honesty or artistry worth preserving. What was great about Vraney is that he had no illusions that the work of filmmakers like David F. Friedman, Doris Wishman, and Bethel Buckalew was masterful, in the way that genre filmmakers like George Romero or Radley Metzger could be. (Although Something Weird did release some films by Joe Sarno, who sometimes reached those heights.) Vraney just thought these movies were fun, and fascinating; and he felt it was imperative to keep as much of this material in print as possible, to assure that a once-thriving piece of popular culture didn’t get forgotten. With each new Something Weird release, Vraney was adding chapters to an increasingly rich story, about the true independent movie producers of the 1960s and 1970s.
I use the past tense because Vraney died on January 2nd at age 56, of lung cancer. While Something Weird has remained a going concern, in recent years it’s largely gone back to its roots in mail-order, which means that younger movie buffs may not be aware of how important Something Weird was, first during the heyday of the independent video store and then during the DVD boom. Vraney founded Something Weird in 1990, and helped fill up the back rooms of the better video stores with VHS compilations of stag reels and nudie cuties, including some of films Bettie Page made in her pin-up days. When DVD came along, Something Weird partnered with Image to release discs that contained double- or triple-features of exploitation oddities, supplemented with short films, trailers, and commentary tracks. At a time when big box stores had empty shelves in their nascent DVD sections, Something Weird titles could be found in unexpected places, all around the country. Multiple companies would later spring up to carry on Something Weird’s tradition of curating the outré, but for a time Something Weird was like The Criterion Collection of sleaze, releasing discs that were essential purchases for well-rounded cinephiles interested in the bigger picture of film history.
When I interviewed Vraney, it was one of a trio of interviews about the DVD business. (I also spoke to George Feltenstein of Warner Home Video, and Lee Ferdinand of Home Vision Entertainment, which at the time was an up-and-comer in the arthouse/foreign DVD sphere.) Back in 2005, the DVD market was still thriving, and the best DVD producers were actively trying to satisfy the demand among the devoted for movies they’d never seen, packaged with helpful archival material. The rise of Blu-ray and digital distribution has changed the industry’s focus to some extent, and these days—with the exception of boutique labels and MOD outlets like Warner Archive—the home video business is more about re-releasing the same well-known films every few years in new packages.
But the beauty of physical media is that “out of print” doesn’t mean “out of circulation.” Vraney’s commitment to collecting fringe cinema survives him, in the form of thousands of Something Weird DVDs and VHS tapes (some distributed by Image, some only ever available through the SWV catalog). With Vraney’s death, cult movies have lost a champion. But for generations to come, whenever anyone wants to learn more about the subgenre of nudist camp documentaries or to dig deeper into the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, those Something Weird discs will still be around—a testament to one man’s wonderfully weird taste.