This week, Vulture is taking a look at great unproduced, unreleased, or unheralded entertainment.
Considering the high cost, in money and time, of producing even the cheapest feature-length film, it’s always a minor tragedy when the final product ends up largely unseen. That happens for any number of reasons, of course, ranging from rights issues to creative disagreements to the old standard of “it just wasn’t good,” and over the course of Hollywood history countless movies have ended up unavailable to the general public. But now that streaming video sites are an inescapable part of our cultural fabric, more and more of these unseen films are cropping up. If you’re in the mood to delve into the catacombs of cinema history and unearth some great films that have eluded the public eye for decades, these seven are a good place to start.
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
The Citizen Kane of movie bootlegs, Todd Haynes’s first film dramatizes the life of singer Karen Carpenter through the use of some very unauthorized Barbie dolls. A deeply scarring account of the anorexia and family drama that consumed Carpenter’s life, Superstar quickly reveals the purpose behind its aesthetic by showing how its fragile subject was remade in everyone’s image but her own. Haynes’s flagrant (if brilliant) reappropriation of the world’s most famous brand name and clearance-free use of the Carpenters’ music pretty much guaranteed from the outset that Superstar would only be seen by the very few — at least, until the copyright-defying marvels of streaming video.
Cannibal! The Musical (1993)
Troma Pictures was kind enough to upload Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s first feature film to their own YouTube channel in its entirety, so the rest of us can marvel at all the fake blood and period costumes $125,000 can buy. Made while the future South Park creators were still attending the University of Colorado, this jaunty reimagining of 19th-century prospector Alferd Packer’s grim story of survival (which involved allegedly eating the flesh of his traveling companions) is the cannibalism-and-jazz-hands mashup you didn’t know you needed.
Cocksucker Blues (1972)
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll have never been depicted so literally — or so flagrantly — as they are in Robert Frank’s tour documentary about the Rolling Stones. Frank’s cameras capture the band’s first post-Altamont tour in the United States: unvarnished, unfiltered, nasty footage of Mick Jagger and company as they take drugs and have sex with groupies, laying bare the philosophy of pure indulgence that powered their public image. Though still officially unreleased due to decades of legal action taken by the band, the film was recently screened at Film Forum, and bits of it can be found online.
After establishing himself as the king of New York grit and grime, Martin Scorsese brought his camera to his parents’ apartment and asked his mom how to make “the sauce.” The resulting 47-minute documentary — which played on TV and at film festivals, but never received a wide release — is a warm, hilarious series of fast-talking dialogues between the director and his immigrant parents, as a still-young Marty learns about his family history in Sicily and the struggles of trying to make a new life in America. “Talk natural — you’re not an actress,” his father, Charles, instructs his mother, Catherine, at one point. But this is as natural as it gets for the Scorsese family, and we can all be grateful for that.
The Fantastic Four (1994)
Yes, really. We know that low-budget shlockmeister Roger Corman only green-lit this adaptation of the Marvel comics team so he could retain his rights to the property, and we know that the film is about as kitschy and cheap as its origin would suggest. But we would argue that The Fantastic Four has more charm than the three “proper” big-budget Fantastic Four releases from the current blockbuster era. Never meant to be released, this bargain-basement superhero outing is a welcome antidote to the current, bigger-is-better era of comic-book films. It may remind you of your childhood, when you dressed up as the Thing and your buddy filmed you knocking over stacks of bricks.
La Luna (1979)
Bernardo Bertolucci was the demon of cinema in the 1970s, between the infamous, exploitative erotica of Last Tango in Paris and the wildly bloated historical epic 1900. But lesser known is Bertolucci’s taboo-courting film that concluded his work in the decade, a film that never saw a formal home-video release. An opera singer (Jill Clayburgh) and her son (Matthew Berry) move to Rome after his father’s suicide, where they descend into heroin use and incest, while the film commits its own kind of incest with incessant references to Bertolucci’s earlier works. Self-indulgent hedonism? Or something more … operatic? (Note: The video above is in Spanish with English subtitles.)
The vast majority of Erich von Stroheim’s gargantuan epic of realism and tragedy is lost forever: Five hours of footage from the original cut, which hovered somewhere around nine hours, has disappeared from the earth. A boiled-down 140-minute version, which von Stroheim disowned, has yet to receive a proper home-video restoration. But it’s floating online, and even in its bastardized form it retains the general story of a quack dentist who wins the lottery and is forced to contend with a jealous rival. (Note: The video above has Italian title cards.)