In the restoration field, there are plenty of movies that have amassed underground followings for years that finally receive critical acclaim when distributors manage to track down prints and bring them to audiences. These include Charles Burnett's legendary debut feature "Killer of Sheep," which eventually became a hit at several theaters around the country decades after the original production.
That's a far cry from "The Miami Connection," an uber-cheesy martial arts extravaganza with blatantly crummy production values that was made by a Korean black-belt master in the late 1980's. The movie never garnered much attention beyond a single dismissive pan from a local critic when it opened on a few Florida screens in 1987. A bizarre fusion of high school rock-and-roll attitude and hand-to-hand battles between ninjas and coke dealers, "The Miami Connection" isn't the kind of thing that Martin Scorsese's restoration company World Cinema Foundation might help bring back from the dead, but it's exactly the kind of thing that Austin-based Drafthouse Films exists for.
An outgrowth of the Alamo Drafthouse, the movie-theater franchise founded by Tim League, Drafthouse Films launched last year under the leadership of COO James Shapiro and director of acquisitions Evan Husney, formerly the man responsible for discovering modern-day B-movie classics such as "Birdemic" and unearthing past oddities for the likeminded genre label Severin Films. With Drafthouse Films, League made it apparent early on that he wanted to split the company's releases between new movies and repertory films.
"Over the last few years, the marketplace for these types of films have grown," Husney told Indiewire during a conversation at Austin's Fantastic Fest, which wraps Thursday. He cited the success of the midnight-movie phenomenon "The Room" as a major contributor to that trend, but he sees more quality in the movies that Drafthouse chooses to support. "'The Room' is a so-bad-it's-good movie, but I look at 'Miami Connection' as so-good-it's-awesome," he said.
According to Husney, Drafthouse Films intends to release two repertory movies per year, with this year's offerings hitting screens in the next few months. Whereas "The Miami Connection" is a true discovery for the company, the label isn't limited to releasing older films that only the most hardcore genre fans will appreciate.
In addition to "The Miami Connection," Drafthouse will release "Wake in Fright," the 1971 Kafkaesque tale of a burnt-out teacher (Gary Bond) who endures a series of misadventures in a lurid Australian Outback ghost town, from "First Blood" director Ted Kotcheff. While "Wake in Fright" premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and garnered acclaim from Scorsese and others, various rights issues and general neglect prevented it from receiving a theatrical release in the United States.
Even as it was critically acclaimed, "Wake in Fright" was just strange and eccentric enough for the Drafthouse label. Husney first saw it when a print passed through Los Angeles and played at Cinefamily in 2009. The day he started working at Drafthouse, he brought it to League's attention. "It was unlike anything I'd ever seen, this film about bruised masculinity that's funny, dark, scary, beautifully absurd and nightmarish at the same time," Husney said. "I had this gut reaction that it needed to be discovered or it would go away."
With the movie opening at New York's Film Forum next Friday and a DVD release planned for early next year, "Wake in Fright" now has a better shot at finding any number of audiences, from those impressed by its surreal take on a struggling everyman encountering humanity in its most depraved state of isolation to those compelled by its shock value, which includes a memorably unsettling scene of kangaroo slaughter shot during an actual hunt. Kotcheff's own experience encountering a community of rambunctious and perpetually drunk Outback residents while making the movie comes through in its eclectic range of characters, whose hedonism has a jarring effect on Bond's character. The backstory and the plot have so much in common that "Wake in Fright" is practically a film noir documentary. "There's a rabbit hole that keeps going further into the mythos behind it," Husney said. "That's when you know you want to be a part of something."