I like Nicolas Winding Refn’s films—the ending of The Neon Demon was enough to redeem that otherwise flawed film for me, though that’s a topic for another time—but I’m a huge fan of his ongoing side gig as a film preservationist. He first caught my eye when he bought a collection of film prints by obscure exploitation director Andy Milligan, including the only known copies of several of Milligan’s works, back in 2012. I was delighted when he said he was motivated to buy Milligan’s work by Jimmy McDonough’s (now out of print) biography The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld Of Filmmaker Andy Milligan, which I had just finished shortly before the news broke. I later wrote about attending an exhibit of Refn’s movie-poster collection in 2015, at which I shyly sidled up to the autograph table and told him that I collected movie posters, too.
Refn likes to speak in modest terms about his obsession with vintage exploitation films, saying, for example, that he hadn’t even seen most of the movies in his art book The Act Of Seeing. But the care and attention to detail with which he restores these films and re-presents them to the public betrays his affection for the material, an affection that seems at least partially driven by sympathy for the filmmakers whose works end up in landfills. As he told The New York Times at the end of July, “A lot of the films [had] maybe just two prints existing—once they were gone, there would be nothing. All the hard work in making a film and then they would be lost, which would be really sad.” I identify with that sense of duty, as anyone who has lived with me, and therefore has had to deal with the crates and crates of weird old VHS tapes I drag with me to every new apartment, can attest.
So perhaps it was a foregone conclusion that I would be really into Refn’s new preservation venture, byNWR, a highly curated—and free, if you’re watching on a computer—streaming service that was announced last October and has been slowly rolling out new content ever since. byNWR, which describes itself as “an unadulterated cultural expressway of the arts,” combines the best attributes of two other speciality streaming services: the curated selection of Shudder, and the excellent supplemental features of FilmStruck.
The content on byNWR is truly unique: These are films in danger of being lost forever, not well-known cult classics. And frankly, they’re not to everyone’s taste. They’re all crudely made, many of them have pacing issues, and some are downright offensive to contemporary sensibilities. (This is particularly true of the “hicksploitation” films featured on the site.) If you stumbled on one of them on some bizarre late-night cable channel, you’d probably change the channel after a couple of minutes. But byNWR puts them in context, not only historically, but also artistically, revealing their true value as fascinating documents of their respective eras and misunderstood works of outsider art.
Titles are released in quarterly collections, each with a new film released monthly. Last fall came the “Regional Renegades” collection, featuring the films The Nest Of The Cuckoo Birds (1965), Shanty Tramp (1967), and Hot Thrills And Warm Chills (1967). I watched the latter, a collection of vignettes loosely strung together by a thin plot about a gang of female jewel thieves plotting a heist during Mardi Gras. You never actually see the heist, but you do get a lot of footage of the French Quarter in the mid-’60s, as well as burlesque dancers with gloriously caked-on eye makeup and sky-high hairdos performing their signature routines. Materials accompanying the film include extensive interviews with the four self-proclaimed “broads” who make up the core ensemble—one even includes some of her poetry!—as well as essays from various authors about regional cinema, the music and culture of New Orleans, and the art and business of exotic dance.
This month launched a new, slightly more highbrow series called “Missing Links,” which opened with a title I had heard of before: Night Tide, a 1961 magical-realist horror-romance from prolific ’60s and ’70s B-movie director Curtis Harrington. (He also did a pair of Grande Dame Guignol movies, Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? with Shelley Winters, and What’s The Matter With Helen? with Debbie Reynolds, in the early ’70s.) The film is notable not only because it features a very young Dennis Hopper, but also as a document of the early ’60s L.A. beatnik subculture (there is a lot of bongo drumming in this movie) and as a bridge between ’50s drive-in cinema and the then-nascent American independent film movement. The plot recalls a gender-swapped The Shape Of Water, as lovestruck sailor Johnny Drake (Hopper) falls in love with reluctant mermaid Mora (Linda Lawson) on the Santa Monica pier; the pace undeniably drags, but the film is hypnotic and worth a watch anyway.
Next month’s looking to be a good one on byNWR, as the service adds the second film in its “Missing Links” series: If Footmen Tire You, What Will Horses Do? (1971), an infamous Christian scare film from holy-rolling huckster Ron Ormond that contains an absolutely gobsmacking scene where a Communist gets a bunch of kids to renounce Jesus and embrace Fidel Castro by giving them candy. (It’s embedded above.) I’ve seen it, and can attest that it’s a must-see for those who watch Pure Flix films ironically. After that comes November’s selection, Spring Night, Summer Night (1967), an obscure art film shot on location in Appalachian Ohio that was re-edited for maximum sleaze and released under various titles to capitalize on its incestuous theme. In its original form, however, it’s reportedly more Killer Of Sheep than Common Law Cabin. I’m looking forward to it.
byNWR is now up and running on its own website. It isn’t currently available in its free form as an app for Roku et al, but if you prefer to watch the films on a TV (and don’t have one of these also-recommended cables that essentially turns your TV into an external monitor), they also stream on MUBI as they are released.