Friday, January 3, 2014

Mike Vraney 1957-2014

Mike Vraney and Lisa Petrucci, photo credit: Lars Erik Holmquist

Shocking news awaited us as we awoke this morning. Mike Vraney, the founder of Something Weird Video, had passed away from lung cancer at the age of 56. An official statement from SWV said, "Mike was a very private person and didn't want anyone, except his closest friends, family and colleagues, to know about his illness. He went through aggressive chemotherapy and radiation treatments for over a year, but sadly the cancer spread and cruelly took him from us."

The news hit those of us who have been fans of his life's work for the last three decades like a ton of bricks. You see, his was not merely just another home video company. Founded by Vraney in Seattle in 1990, Something Weird unearthed thousands of films and entire b-movie and exploitation sub-genres from the dustbins of history. Especially back in the early and mid-90s, when information on the kinds of films he championed was not widely disseminated or easily found, the Something Weird Video catalog was a revelation. The films were categorized under headings like "Untamed Video", "Sexy Shockers From the Vault", "Grindhouse Follies", "Spies, Thighs & Private Eyes", "Crime Wave USA", "Sci-Fi Late Night Creature Feature Show", "Wrasslin' She Babes", "Nudist Camp Classics", "Twisted Sex", and the perfectly succinct "Big Bust Loops". I and countless other intrepid cinematic explorers poured over those catalogs, with their eye-catching graphics, tidbits of biographical and historical information, and original ad mats and poster art, like holy grails. We ordered these films through the mail, and some of us were lucky enough to live near adventurous mom and pop video stores that actually carried them. My own local mecca was Scotty Cooper's Video Bazaar in Metuchen, NJ, who always stocked a large collection of SWV titles on VHS, their colorful spines practically jumping off the shelf and into my curious hands, enticing me to take them home and dive into a world that had been lost to time, or may have existed only in the mind of a single, twisted auteur who died penniless and unknown, but whose life's labor was finally being presented to a (comparatively) wide audience.

He brought the films of people like David F. Friedman, Herschell Gordon Lewis, Andy Milligan, Doris Wishman, and Harry Novak to public attention and helped spread the gospel of the "forty thieves", a loosely-affiliated cabal of roadshow impresarios whose traveling exploitation shows in the early decades of cinema played fast and loose with local vice ordinances as they zig-zagged back and forth across the countryside. And he didn't merely do it on a subterranean, cult level. In the early 2000's, he pulled off something that we all would have thought impossible just a few years earlier (and which would have been impossible only a few years later), when he made a distribution deal with Image Entertainment which led to the then ubiquitous Borders Books chain to stock Something Weird Video DVDs in their big box stores nation-wide. Suddenly, middle Americans looking for the latest Adam Sandler or Sandra Bullock movie might accidentally come across The Monster of Camp Sunshine, Color Me Blood Red, or Satan in High Heels. He also got the films exposure on mainstream television, first with a series on the USA Network in the mid-90s, Reel Wild Cinema (hosted by Sandra Bernhardt), and more recently with the Something Weird On Demand channel available through Comcast cable. Today, we take it for granted that these kinds of movies are part of our collective kitschy Americana, but Vraney blazed a trail, without a map, not knowing how it was going to end up. His was a mission fueled by personal passion, and without his work, we'd all be living in a less interesting world.

Mike is survived by his wife, Lisa Petrucci, and two children, Mark and Danielle. Our deepest sympathies go out to his family, his friends, and everyone else who will miss him.

Now lets take a look at some of the familiar images that we may never have even known about if not for Mike Vraney via the famous classic opening bumper that kicked off every Something Weird Video release.