Sexploitation! T&A drive-ins! Incest! Dirty dwarves! If this has you all riled up in a good way, then you’re probably aware (or should be) of Severin Films, a five-year old studio dedicated to rescuing, restoring and releasing controversial oddities from around the world for DVD/Blu-ray and niche theatrical releases.
Among some of their most popular titles: Roman Polanski’s rarely seen sex comedy “What?”; Richard Rush’s cult hit starring Peter O’Toole, “The Stunt Man;” the original “The Inglorious Bastards” and the restored edition of Richard Stanley’s landmark shocker “Hardware.”
To celebrate the company’s five years in the game, Brooklyn’s reRun Gastropub Theater tonight kicks off a one-week Severin Films retrospective with seven of their best films.
We caught up with one of Severin Films’ three co-founders, David Gregory, to talk about his passion for all things outside the box. Gregory came to the company following his work at Blue Underground UK and its subsidiary VHS/DVD label Exploited, where he gained notoriety for trying (and failing) to release an uncut edition of Wes Craven’s 1972 classic “The Last House on the Left” in the UK; an experience that left him reeling for years.
“The British Board of Film Classification arbitrarily picked out a few moments that weren’t obscene,” he said. “We took it to the court, but it’s a kangaroo court. It’s a court owned by the censors, so they select the jury, which consisted of a bunch of children’s TV programmers and teachers; basically, people who are looking after the well being of children. Which is fine, but not the kind of audience for ‘The Last House on the Left.’ So we were unable to get it through without cuts. Originally they said that it needed 12 seconds of cuts, but then they asked for a further 30 seconds after we challenged them. That made the film worthless to us.”
Have you run into problems at Severin Films that mirror what you went through with the BBFC for “The Last House on the Left”?
We’ve run into various things, but nothing on that kind of scale. We’ve had distributors decide that titles are beyond the pale. We released an animated adult film called “Once Upon a Girl,” and the distributor decided it was pornographic. Pornography is subjective. So they distributed it for a year and then suddenly got afraid it would create bigger problems.
What do you make of the whole “Human Centipede” sequel fiasco in the UK? Are you surprised?
I was actually, because the censors have gotten a lot better. They’re still very strict, but they’ve been a lot better. They pass most of the controversial films that would have been banned earlier. “The Last House on a Left” is now available on DVD uncut. The head of the censors has now changed, which just goes on to show how subjective it is. Very few films get outright rejected in the UK now.
But it’s interesting that that would be the film to get it. It’s the biggest one to face rejection in some time. The appeal is going to be quite high profile. In fact one of the members of the disputing company contacted us to get some tips on how to handle the appeal process, not that we succeeded.
And you’re willing to help?
Oh absolutely. Anything to make that ridiculous institution really show itself. The days of the BBFC have to be numbered at this point. At least in my lifetime, I hope that they’re shown up to be the ridiculous thing that they are. It’s so expensive to rate a film in the UK, it’s absolutely not worth releasing certain films there because you have to pay a couple of grand to the UK censors to go through that long arduous process. Here [in the US] as an independent filmmaker, you can distribute your own film if you want to. At least you can just put it out. You can’t do that in the UK. That’s still illegal.
If you had to pick your favorite Severin release, what would it be?
It would be “Santa Sangre” for sure, hands down. I was after the rights of that movie for years and years. When were finally able to acquire it, I was absolutely delighted. We went to ridiculous lengths to stuff the DVD and Blu-ray with hours and hours of special features and a new transfer supervises by the DP. We went to the absolute limit.
Speaking of special features, how many people do you have on your team unearthing footage to fill out the discs?
Well, there are only four of us who are full time. So we do most of it ourselves. That’s how I got into this business; was doing special features originally. It’s kind of my niche. But we do hire people, because lots of these films are Italian. Sometimes we hire we people we’ve worked with in Rome to track down the artists. But in the case of “The Hairdresser’s Husband” for example, we went to Paris to interview Patrice Leconte about the film.
Have you been surprised by the love the company’s received from fans and filmmakers alike? You’ve only been in the game for five years, but you already have a great following.
I don’t know that we knew we’d reach a certain success level. But because of being primed in the years with Blue Underground, we knew there was a certain level of expectation among directors of cult (for want of a better word) movies. We’re really trying to build the brand as something to build a decent product.
With the rising popularity of VOD, do you fear an end to what you for a living?
I don’t know if it’s going to wipe it out completely, but it’s already made a massive dent. Because the fact is people are quite happy to watch a lower resolution of a film on watch instantly. And that’s OK. We sent our products to Netflix as well and they’ve been very good to us. On the other hand, for myself personally and hopefully for a continued time, I’m hoping there’s people that will want to own the actual disc with all the extras. But yeah, there’s no doubt that the quality is not necessarily the highest on the agenda for everybody.
What kind of care goes into restoring the films?
A lot of time is spent tracking down the rights holder, then finding what elements they have and what condition they’re in. More often than not, they’re in pretty good condition so it will be a matter of doing a high-def transfer, doing clean-up on that transfer and some audio.
In other cases… we did a film called “The House on Straw Hill.” The guy said it had been kept in the same cold storage facility for the last 30 years. Well, it turned out that that storage facility was a barn in his back garden with no roof. There was water damage and mold. It’s not something you could clean without going in frame by frame. Unfortunately, as awesome a movie as it is, it doesn’t warrant a $100,000 restoration. So we’re desperate, cobbling together print in order to actually put it together, without it actually becoming a too-expensive venture.
What’s a cult film to you?
You know, I don’t like particularly like the word ‘cult film.’ It has a different connotation to everybody. Some people think “Easy Rider” is a cult film. Honestly, that was an enormous hit that everyone saw. When you think of cult, you think of niche and different. I think a lot of the stuff that Severin puts out is undiscovered gems or guilty pleasure. Things like that. There’s something about all of the films that we put out that should be of interest to a hardcore few or a hardcore many. It really just depends on the title.
To elaborate on that, what are the criteria that a film has to fulfill to be on the label?
It’s usually as simple as something that we like. Usually, it’s got something about it that we think is unique and pretty cool.
What strikes me as really unique about your company is that it seems like it was founded by the fans for the fans.
For me, it was that early video in the 1980s where I really got passion for strange films. When I walked into video store nine years old, I remember seeing all these movies that were so beyond James Bond and shit. You actually had to rely on the artwork on the cover to tell you about what the movie was. There were no recognizable names attached to it. There was something about the discovery of all these movies that was very exciting.
Nowadays there’s not that much mystique because you can always trace where these obscurities came from. But it’s gone through another level, where you actually want to see these films in a real presentable form, hearing what the director has to say.