The trashy brilliance of Trailer War

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I am a big fan of all kinds of "bad" cinema: big-budget Hollywood disasters, Wingnut Internet conspiracy documentaries, straight-to-video Nigerian morality plays, canine martial arts movies, Nic Cage vehicles, and especially grind house exploitation fodder of every sort. Some of the pleasure I get from grind house movies comes from an MST3K-ish sort of superficial irony, but I have a deep, genuine appreciation for much of it. I genuinely admire the audaciousness, the transgression, and the drive to squeeze the maximum amount of outrageousness out of every budgeted dollar that this kind of filmmaking embodies.

But the moments that deliver this kind of transcendence tend to come amid a whole lot of straight-up awfulness. You generally have to wade through a lot of shit before you get to the jet pack fight or whatever.

Hence the trailer collection. Grind house producers were even worse than Hollywood studios when it came to the practice of putting every redeeming scene from the movie in its previews (in the hopes that people would pay to see them in the full context of the film with all of the nonexciting parts). The upside is that fans of the form can now watch collections of the trailers and get just the good stuff.

Yes, as I had to explain to several friends before I attended a screening of Drafthouse Films' anthology Trailer War at Brooklyn's Nitehawk Cinema, some movie geeks will happily sit through hours of old-movie previews.

Thunder Cops
  • Thunder Cops
Drafthouse Films is an offshoot of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain, whose dedication to screening weird and obscure films has earned itself a place in the hearts of movie geeks everywhere. Trailer War was assembled from the Alamo's vast collection of filmic oddities, and it runs impressively deep and arcane. The best-known title out of the group is probably Maniac Cop 2, represented here by its French language trailer. Out of the dozens of films advertised in the set I've only seen three or four in their entirety, including the slightly trashy Star Wars knockoff, Star Crash, and the deeply strange Black Terminator, in which Enter the Dragon costar Jim Kelly pilots a jet pack and fights a pack of "African tribesmen" costumed like characters out of an extremely racist cartoon.

Voyage of the Rock Aliens
  • Voyage of the Rock Aliens
Trailer War is basically two hours of nonstop, low-budget sensory overload, full of gaudily psychedelic special effects, nudity, stop-action animation, and lots and lots of kung fu, including blaxploitation kung fu, the story of the Sino-Japanese conflict during World War II told through kung fu, and the inexplicably weird horror-kung-fu of Thunder Cops.

Some of the films represented actually look intriguing enough for me to want to try and track them down. Like Voyage of the Rock Aliens, a postmodern-ish musical comedy about a group of New Wave extraterrestrials who come to Earth and apparently start an interstellar battle of the bands with a bunch of Californian retro rockabillies. Or Thunder Cops, which looks like it will blow my mind into a million tiny fragments.

I'm happy to just catch the highlights of the rest of them. The fight scenes from the blaxploitation martial arts flick Force Four are awkward enough to suggest that the "acting" parts of it are unbearable, and the fact that the people behind the movie cast someone named "Warhawk Tanzania" and named his character "Adam" suggests that they are entirely inept. (There is also a trailer for Force Five, which is about white people doing kung fu.)

Star Crash
  • Star Crash
Most of these movies work perfectly well as trailers anyhow. For instance, Animal Protector seems to be about a very 1980s-looking guy with a blow-dried mullet and leather jacket who's part of some sort of animal-liberation group and fights David Carradine, and that's really all I want or need to know about it. In its complete cut it's probably a 90-minute slog through stilted dialogue and shoddily constructed sets, but condensed down into trailer form it offers a brief but thoroughly satisfying glimpse into one of the vast number of strangely fascinating worlds that grind house cinema offers.

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