In our overly saturated media marketplace, it’s important to have brands you can trust. And for this film fan, there are few brands more reliable than Drafthouse Films — specifically, a Drafthouse Films re-release of a totally obscure exploitation movie. The Austin-based indie distribution company (and spinoff of the world renowned Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas) has released plenty of critically acclaimed new films: The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence, Four Lions, Cheap Thrills, A Band Called Death. But peppered in between those art-house hits are a handful of more peculiar titles: Miami Connection, Roar, The Visitor, and (this Friday) Dangerous Men. They’re terrible movies, but it’s not as simple as that; there’s something spellbinding about their incompetence, something that transcends schlock and enters the realm of mind-boggling fascination.
Unable to pinpoint exactly what that common quality might be, I went to the source: Tim League, Alamo Drafthouse founder and Drafthouse Films CEO. And unsurprisingly, he hits the nail on the head. “I think there’s an earnestness to them,” League explains. “There’s an otherworldliness to them. It’s people who are beyond any rational common sense, pursuing their vision to create the film of their dreams.”
In the case of Dangerous Men, that vision belonged to one John Rad, who wrote, directed, produced, executive produced — separate duties, apparently — and composed the music. (His is the only name in the credits, over and over again, each job credited separately.) Not much is known about this auspicious auteur, according to League; “We do know that John Rad made other films in Iran before he came to the United States, and he started working on this shortly after he came to the ‘States. This was what he wanted to do, come hell or high water. And he just worked on it as he had time and budget to put into it.”
He ended up spending more than 20 years on the movie, from 1984 through its release, to a handful of theaters, in 2005. League says about “ten people saw this movie” during that very brief run, but one of them was Hadrian Belove, co-founder of the Los Angeles revival organization Cinefamily. He brought it to League’s attention; they screened it at the Drafthouse in Austin, where it played like gangbusters.
“So when we formed Drafthouse Films, we put together a hit list of movies that hadn’t really had their fair shake on distribution, and Dangerous Men was on that list, from the very get-go,” League says. “And we got connected to John Rad’s daughter, who now controls the film and has all the assets and, off and on, we’ve just been chatting with her, trying to explain to her that we’d be the right folks to handle the film, that we’re very respectful towards the legacy of her father. And it took five years for us to convince her that we were the right people to do it.”
In that time, they re-released similarly bonkers titles that may’ve helped paved the way. The first of that bunch was Miami Connection, whose re-discovery as a $50 eBay blind buy has become the stuff of legend. “We have a budget for our non-profit, the American Genre Film Archive, and we have a certain budget, just to acquire new titles,” League explains. “We generally try to broker bigger deals, but we still troll through eBay to see if there’s anything interesting, and Zack [Carlson, programmer], who knows a lot, had never heard of this. It had the right set of words about what it was about, and it was certainly worth 50 bucks.” They screened the first reel at a “reel one party” (where they screen only the first 15-20 minutes of mysterious recent AGFA acquisitions), everyone went bananas, and the rest is history.
So what drives the interest in these bizarre titles? League’s theory: in an age where, increasingly, everything is available, the true oddities stand out. “I think there’s been a lot more exploration among a younger audience,” he says, “because there’s so much content out there and there’s so much average content, and normal content, that when you’re just inundated with visual media, you might tend to become an explorer a little bit more. You want something out of the ordinary. There’s something cool about being in the know about something not everybody understands or knows about.”
And what, exactly, is he looking for in movies like these? “’So bad it’s good’ is such a terrible phrase,” League says. (Whoops.) “You can’t fake this. These are superhuman efforts, usually by people who don’t have enough technical training on how to make movies — but they’re still trying to do the best they can, and that enthusiasm is what I love. And it’s magical. There’s really nothing like it. And for the people who just like to laugh at these things, I think they’re just missing something truly heroic, and that’s what gives me tingles down my spine.”
Dangeous Men is out Friday in limited release.