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Nicolas Winding Refn’s new streaming service tries to shape a better future out of a sleazy past

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What the free site’s initial three films and essays say about Refn’s intent, and the history of grindhouse cinema

Illustration courtesy of byNWR

A few years ago, Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn began buying and restoring old exploitation films just because he could. Last week, he took the hobby public with the launch of byNWR, a new, free website designed to showcase and share that collection a few titles at a time, via selections curated and supplemented by a rotating group of guest editors. Typically for Refn, the outspoken writer-director of Drive, the Pusher trilogy, and The Neon Demon, considerable self-created fanfare preceded the launch. That initial public-relations wave included an op-ed in The Guardian, which generated a widely circulated quote about the hysterical, high-stakes tone of the world, given the conditions the Trump administration has created. (“It’s terrifying. It is also thrilling.”) It also included a call for “good, challenging art, not good-taste art, which is the chief enemy of creativity.”

True to those guidelines, there isn’t much good taste to be found in “Regional Renegades,” byNWR’s three-film introductory selection. But there is an extraordinary amount of creativity. The initial three movies were curated by Portland-based journalist and biographer Jimmy McDonough, whose work includes biographies of Al Green, Neil Young, and exploitation filmmakers Russ Meyer and Andy Milligan.

All three were released between 1965 and 1967, and each was made by a director with a sensibility that, by design or otherwise, wouldn’t find a home in the era’s respectable theaters. This is grindhouse fare, the sort of films that might show up at local drive-ins, but which would most often be found playing in a triple bill at budget prices in the kind of downtown theaters that once catered to patrons happy to let one unusual, unsavory feature follow another.

Illustration for byNWR courtesy of Jason Ngai

Each film also confirms that the now-vanished breed of seedy grindhouse theaters were home to images and moments of creative daring and breathtaking oddness that would never be seen elsewhere. And in spite of the new site’s focus on regional filmmakers working at a particular moment, this initial selection offers considerable variety: there’s a long-thought-lost horror movie, an almost-avant-garde piece of soft porn, and a violent melodrama whose tale of prejudice and abuse still packs a wallop.

The sole directorial effort of Bert Williams, a character actor known later in his career for tough-guy turns in films like Cobra and The Usual Suspects, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds plays like an attempt to meld the atmosphere of a Val Lewton horror film with the sensibility of a European art movie. That hybrid worked brilliantly in Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult classic Carnival of Souls, but Williams, who also writes and stars in the film, doesn’t have Harvey’s skills.

In fact, the word “skill” doesn’t seem applicable to much of the film, in which elements like competent lighting and blocking make only cameo appearances. But he does have panache, and a bizarre late-film revelation, plus the dreamlike, washed-out scenes of a nude, masked killer, all make it a fascinating one-off oddity.

Illustration for byNWR courtesy of Jason Ngai

With ambitions beyond the grindhouse, Williams tried to turn The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds into a mainstream hit. But it was met with indifference, and it faded into obscurity until a 35mm print surfaced in a Massachusetts theater a few years ago. Dale Berry had no such lofty aspirations.

A country singer who drifted into filmmaking by way of Dallas’ burgeoning 1960s strip-club scene, Berry directed five features in six years. His Hot Thrills and Warm Chills tests the limits of what can properly be called a movie, wrapping a half-assed narrative about an all-female gang gathering in Rio de Janeiro to steal the bejeweled “Crown of King Sex” during Carnival around ample amounts of nudity.

Berry shot the Carnival sequences guerrilla-style during Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and that’s one of the less-confusing features of a film that mostly consists of stripteases and badly simulated sex scenes set to a peppy, endlessly recycled Latin jazz score credited to “Dario De Mexico.”

Hot Thrills and Warm Chills provides nonstop titillation until a bleak climax that arrives with no warning. Shanty Tramp, on the other hand, mixes grimness with T&A from the start. Shot in Florida by Joseph Prieto, it follows a small-town Southern prostitute as she drifts from man to man during a hot summer night, leaving only ruin in her wake. Shanty Tramp is every bit as sleazy as its title suggests, but while it seldom misses a chance to show star Eleanor Vaill (billed as Lee Holland) without a top, it also touches on religious hypocrisy and racial bigotry while depicting its eponymous shanty tramp’s wicked ways as the product of an abusive upbringing, all with a bluntness that a more respectable film would never dare.

Illustration for byNWR courtesy of Jason Ngai

Veteran exploitation viewers know that such films can be long marches through the cinematic desert in search of the occasional oasis, and even Shanty Tramp, the best of byNWR’s initial set of releases, is sometimes more sand than shade. But even in the long, arid stretches — Hot Thrills and Warm Chills can make writhing, superhumanly proportioned naked bodies seem dull, which almost counts as an achievement — it’s easy to see Refn’s attraction to the material. Take away the enveloping aesthetic of his film The Neon Demon, and it contains much of the same raw material found in so many exploitation films: an unrelenting sense of sexual peril, wild narrative turns, a willingness to repeatedly shock and offend, then up the ante. It’s similarly easy to understand why Refn is positing such films as an alternative to what he views as the safety of today’s filmmaking, in which regional, handcrafted fare has more or less vanished.

The site also has ambitions beyond introducing a few strange, old movies every few months. Taken as a whole, byNWR makes a case for several lost or dying institutions at once: the low-budget exploitation film, of course, but also the obsessively focused zine, the Web 1.0-era online magazine, and the video-store clerk willing to recommend something truly unusual to jaded viewers who think they’ve seen it all.

Though it’s not immediately evident from byNWR’s graphics-heavy design, there’s a wealth of material here beyond the films. Each movie has an “explore” section filled with essays and photo-sets, though users have to create a free account to access the written content.

Some of the supplementary material is directly related to the selections. Memphis-based journalist Bob Mehr, author of Trouble Boys: The True Story of The Replacements, supplies a detailed survey of Williams’ career. Revered cinematographer Darius Khondji photographs the Nudie suits once owned by Berry, which Refn acquired alongside the director’s films. Other pieces are more thematically linked, like essays from sex workers about their on-the-job experiences, and a McDonough profile of white soul singer Wayne Cochran.

There’s a lot to take in here, and Refn and the site’s editors clearly want visitors to get lost not just in the movies, but in the stories of the men and women who created them, the times and places that shaped them, and the worlds suggested by them. (The site will have a new guest editor each quarter. The staff of the renowned UK cinema magazine Little White Lies is up next, with a “Missing Links”-themed batch that includes Curtis Harrington’s cult favorite Night Tide.)

In Refn’s view, these worlds are dangerous, restless places where good taste finds no footing, and creativity draws blood. He clearly hopes site visitors might be inspired to reshape the future, once they delve into film’s half-forgotten, disreputable past.

Disclosure from the writer: Writer and byNWR contributor Bob Mehr, an online acquaintance, put McDonough in touch with me as the byNWR site project was in its early stages, hoping that my experience with the beloved-but-shuttered film site The Dissolve might be helpful. McDonough revealed only the broadest possible details, and I’m not sure I was of much use to him.