Today I received an invitation to a screening. I get these things all the time, not to sound snobby or anything, but I can never attend them because no one books sweet, subversive cultural screenings in Buttfuck, New Hampshire. This screening was a retrospective dedicated to the director, J.X. Williams whose films today only exist in truncated pieces. Some of them have been circulating in the bootleg VHS circuit since the 80’s, others can be found on Youtube, but series curator, Noel Lawrence has assembled the greatest collection of J.X. Williams’ work in the world and is now ready to show it as he prepares a documentary about Williams.
Who is this guy, I hear you ask yourself. I thought the name sounded familiar, too, but I couldn’t place it. Turns out I’d seen one of Williams’ more notorious social experiments, Satan Claus, as part of the Experiments In Terror 3 (Review) short films collection. See, J.X. Williams was one of Hollywood’s fatal commie blacklist victims. Hollywood tends to hang to the left unless you’re John Milius or Walt Disney, and among those left leaning Hollywoodites was one J.X. Williams, a mail room flunky at RKO who managed to rise through the ranks and write a couple of features. But the blacklist hit and all he could do after he was direct some mob-backed stag films. It was in this setting, however, that Williams was able to flex his creativity and make sweet bank. By the time Williams had worked up to his notorious lost feature, Peep Show, he had developed a freaky film style that crossed pieces of Roger Corman with The Kuchar Brothers and Kenneth Anger. After stewing for a decade making dirty pictures, Williams returned to the Hollywood set and cranked out the aforementioned feature, Peep Show. Peep Show was a documentary of found footage mixed with narrative that made sweeping allegations about the role of organized crime in Washington, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and a plot to get Frank Sinatra hooked on dope. This was released only two years following the death of JFK and was way ahead of the conspiracy theory curve.
Williams always seemed to wear his Andy Milligan hat, though, and this kind of dedication to low culture and a self-imposed slavery to vice led to Williams shooting a ton of garbage. Some of it released, most of it left out to rot in settings unsuitable for storing film. Because of this, not much of Williams’ filmography has survived and what has is in really bad shape or is only screenable in fragments. For instance, Psych-Burn, a hearty fuck you television pilot that was intended to cash in on the burgeoning love-in hippie set but came off more like Laugh-In mixed with the acid trip sequence from Easy Rider. The most ambitious of Williams’ pictures, however, was The Virgin Sacrifice, a trashy Christian scare flick about Satanists living in the suburbs, among the rest of you God-fearing lot. Intended to be an avant approach to Rosemary’s Baby or The Devil’s Rain, the picture is among some of the most legendary cursed movies. Like Poltergeist or The Exorcist, the production was troubled to put it lightly. Williams barely survived a car bombing, thought to be left by mobsters he owed money to and there were numerous deaths from drug overdoses. In the end, the three hour horror epic did a few festivals before it was destroyed in a fire. These days, only a mere nine minutes remain. This curse is thought to have been placed on the picture when Williams had a falling-out with the film’s financier, a high-profile member of The Church of Satan whom many believe to have been Sammy Davis Jr.
There were other features but suffice to say, ensuing decades weren’t kind to Williams, who wound up directing a few new wave music videos before disappearing into a villa in the Alps where he paints landscapes these days. Curator of the J.X. Williams project, Noel Lawrence grabbed his attention when he started asking people questions about the Williams filmography in preparation for his documentary, The Big Footnote, coined from a Williams quote about all you can hope for in film history. Lawrence’s show is starting to make the rounds now. If you happen to be in the Philadelphia or New York City area, you can make it out and see what this psychedelic lunatic was up to at the height of his potency during the reigning era of American Parallel Cinema:
Friday, May 7
The Secret Cinema
Saturday, May 8
Anthology Film Archives
New York, New York
Of course, I’m just giving you the nutshell version of the story. All the details, some clips, images are over at the J.X. Williams Archive. Here’s a taste: