Even for a jaded explorer in cinema’s nether regions, Northville Cemetery Massacre is a sleazy trip. “It’s a pretty nasty exploitation film,” Jon Dieringer, the programmer behind Anthology Film Archives’ current series, Industrial Terror, concedes, before detailing the specifics: rape, police brutality, and Detroit’s Scorpion Motorcycle Club.
But before directors William Dear and Thomas Dyke pitted a corrupt police force against a real-life biker gang, they produced an anti-drug PSA. “Jump,” an unabashed love letter to the counterculture films of the late 1960s, revels in LSD-soaked psychedelia as much as it condemns it.
“What the hell were these people doing making educational films?” Dieringer asks.
Midwestern directors like Dear and Dyke, who spun educational and industrial films for the classroom while moonlighting as purveyors in sadism, were the inspiration for Industrial Terror. Pairing horror classics and hidden gems with the same directors’ commercial output, the series presents an uncanny portrait of American consumption in the midcentury.
Hershell Gordon Lewis’s “Carving Magic,” a pink-hued instructional aimed at the Tupperware party set, opened Industrial Terror last Friday. In the film within a film, a domestic goddess educates a clueless actor on the correct ways to slice and serve a variety of meats. The short seamlessly segued into the cannibalistic plotline of Blood Feast, universally acknowledged as the first-ever splatter film. The films share a wooden lead actor and an ardor for bloodied flesh.
In Larry Yust’s Homebodies, elderly tenants lead an uprising against greedy developers to save their building from demolition. The septuagenarians exact revenge on city officials and construction workers with a gaiety that permeates “Live or Die,” its accompanying short. A screed against poor health choices, “Live or Die” blithely cuts between its aging protagonists’ smoking and overeating and gruesome autopsy footage.
Dieringer eschewed the obvious and opted for the thematic with this bill, but he couldn’t resist screening a copy of “The Lottery,” Yust’s best-known short, to stragglers after Sunday’s screening of the other two films. Midway through the Shirley Jackson adaptation, the audio faded and the screen turned black.
“The film’s sort of fucked up,” Dieringer announced with an apologetic laugh as the lights flickered on. If he sounded unusually invested, it was because the copy was his own, and he’d spent hours that day repairing the damaged print.
An avid collector, Dieringer purchased “The Lottery” from an elementary school in Alaska on eBay. Damaged from years of manhandling by untrained teachers, the 16mm copy’s history is visible onscreen. The unique imperfections are part of the appeal of celluloid to Dieringer, a trained projectionist and preservationist.
Celluloid was one reason Dieringer chose to show the series at Anthology instead of at Spectacle theater in Brooklyn, where he’s most often involved in programming. Another was the challenge he anticipated in obtaining midcentury commercial shorts, some by directors obscure in their own right. “I would compare it to chasing footnotes,” he says. Without preservation institutions like Anthology, such archival sleuthing would have been impossible.
Dieringer also acknowledges a close-knit community of collectors, eager to share their finds. The biggest score of the series arrived in the double bill of The Satanist and “Breakthrough.” The former, directed by Zoltan G. Spencer, was recently found and screened in Philadelphia by a friend of Dieringer’s for the first time since its original 1968 theatrical run. Its finder had a hunch that the director may have dabbled in industrial shorts.
Searching under one of Spencer’s pseudonyms — Spencer Crilly — Dieringer found a reference in a 1955 air compression journal. The entry touted “Breakthrough,” an industrial short produced by global manufacturing firm Ingersoll-Rand. Convinced by dates and context clues that the directors of “Breakthrough” and The Satanist were one and the same, Dieringer got in touch with Ingersoll-Rand, requesting a copy and permission to show the short in conjunction with a soft-core horror feature.
Industrial Terror celebrates the irony of its subjects’ double careers without mockery. In finding common threads between commercial shorts and underground features, Dieringer highlights the ways in which educational and exploitation films have influenced one another. Budgetary efficiencies like voiceovers and utilitarian staging bleed into the low-budget flicks, while a perverse sense of humor filters into many of the otherwise staid commercial shorts.
“That feeds into the whole idea of necessity is the mother of invention, where you can see creative responses to these budgetary or scheduling restrictions,” Dieringer explains. The results are usually laughable. But through the lens of Industrial Terror and its focus on the workaday careers of its directors, the style assumes an industrious poise.
Lest we get too comfortable glorifying the bygone work ethic of the 1950s, however, the series also offers the insight that the same men charged with shaping our corporate-sponsored American ideals were formulating novel ways to slay young women on their own dime.
A former theater usher recounts his experience viewing Blood Feast for the first time in 1963 in Herschell Gordon Lewis: The Godfather of Gore: “The audience loved it,” he says. “It was a realization for me as to what ghouls theater audiences really are.”
Industrial Terror continues at Anthology Film Archives through October 31. For a full schedule of screenings, see the website.