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Roberta Findlay’s Grindhouse Legacy

NY- A quick recap, for those who now rely on Netflix and The Bravery for their cheap thrills: Before it became ice cream parlors and sporting goods stores, Times Square was mainly known for a row of miserable movie theaters with glorious names such as The Lyric, The Selwyn, and The Empire. Early hipsters wasted many evenings, nights, and days-as if they could tell the difference-watching triple bills of great trash films while sitting next to bums who’d found a place to sleep. This was all great fun until crack came to town. The theaters became a lot more dangerous just as trashy films became available for home viewing on VHS.

That would create an entire new generation of schlock fiends who mourned the demise of Times Square’s grindhouses. This also meant the demise of seedy distributors who funded desperate artists, nutcases, and hustlers. They’d hand out a cheap budget, the filmmaker would make an even cheaper film, and then the distributor would make millions off of modern trash classics.

If any of this makes you nostalgic, then Roberta Findlay thinks you’re crazy. “People who like those old movies seem to have deep psychological problems,” she explains. “Under the best of circumstances, I wouldn’t call any of them art. My first budget was $5,000. That was the deal. You’d be given a budget and then they’d own the film. I’d get a fee, whatever the fee was. Until the last picture I did, when my producer wasn’t going to pay me-for no reason. He punched me in the eye, and then, forbearance to sue, he paid me what he owed me.”

Roberta’s pretty sure that was over 1974’s Angel On Fire, the first hardcore sex film she ever directed. Before that, Roberta and her late husband, Michael, were one of the most influential duos to ever work in exploitation films. Except they weren’t. Everyone just seems to think so-mainly people with deep psychological problems. This helps explain why Roberta Findlay has spent her post-filmmaking years avoiding her fans. Unlike other schlock auteurs, Findlay hasn’t been interested in cashing in on her notoriety. There’s a lot of notoriety to enjoy, too. Roberta Findlay is a legendary exploitation figure on her own.

She doesn’t like how easily she’s found, though. Findlay still lives and works amongst the same blocks where her movies once played the grindhouses. She’s being interviewed at her job in a Times Square recording studio, and she’s kept her quirky cuteness and shag haircut. It’s also nice to see Roberta lighting up some polar-fresh Kool cigarettes. The tight black sweater shows that she’s kept her figure. Roberta looks like a woman in her mid-fifties who’s worked hard to maintain her hipster iconry.

Except she hasn’t. In truth, Roberta-unlike several of her delusional low-budget contemporaries-isn’t looking to convince anyone about her great lost achievements. She’s just out to promote the DVD reissue of her final films: Tenement: Game of Survival, The Oracle, Blood Sisters, and her unreleased horror-rock epic Banned. These represent Findlay’s last attempt to milk the exploitation market back when video stores were desperate for product. She responded with masterpieces of oppression that Abel Ferrara would envy.

Take my word that these films are fun and fascinating. Hopefully, you’ll be easier to convince than Roberta.

“We made these films for two reasons,” says Findlay, “One, to make money, which we did. Not a lot by Hollywood standards, but for our own personal use, we did very well. And I liked to shoot as a cameraman. That’s what I liked best, being behind the camera, doing shooting and lighting.”

Findlay might have a better attitude if she wasn’t regularly acclaimed for films that she claims to have never made. Any veteran trash fiend is ready to discuss the epic seediness of the Her Flesh series: The Touch of Her Flesh, The Kiss of Her Flesh, and The Curse of Her Flesh, all released between 1967 and 1968. Michael Findlay directed them, and Roberta is routinely credited as the series’ producer, writer, and/or cinematographer. Roberta remembers it differently. “My husband was making those films, and I guess I knew about them. I’m not in them. I was in school. I wasn’t quite married to him yet, but I left home at 16 and moved in with Michael, and he was making these pictures. I don’t even know if I was on the set. Maybe I did voiceovers. I would say if I had done anything more. I don’t mind talking about this. It’s just that people expect me to be something I’m not.” Michael Findlay-separated from Roberta at the time-died in a helicopter crash in 1977. That left Roberta to be the focus point of freaks who’d really like to know a femme mind who could come up with such sickness worthy of Her Flesh. As a result, Roberta quickly lost interest in cultivating a fanbase.

“These people would write in,” she says, “and it’s always going back to the Her Flesh trilogy and following my career. It started probably with home video. They always seemed creepy to me. That was the good thing about Media Blasters putting out my films. I had so many calls in the past year, and I was just able to send all those calls and correspondence on to Media Blasters. You were one of them-but you don’t seem like a serial killer to me.”

There’s a lot more for Findlay to set straight. She says that she wasn’t the cinematographer on her estranged husband’s Invasion of the Blood Farmers, although she can claim credit for the amazing camera work in Michael’s Shriek of the Mutilated. She also insists she didn’t dub any voices in Snuff, or appears onscreen in Satan’s Bed, a hippie oddity from ’65 which introduced Yoko Ono to the raincoaters of New York City. However, Roberta’s proud to note that her career began in 1971 while working with her director husband as the first-time cinematographer of Slaughter. This low-budget Argentinean production would later be recut and reissued as Snuff in 1976- complete with an ad campaign claiming the film featured actual footage of a woman’s murder.

Roberta had already fled her marriage by then-but you can forget the feminist legend that Findlay was offended when producer Allan Shackleton created the phenomenon of Snuff. “What really happened was that Paramount released a film called, I think, The Slaughter, and they bought the title away from my husband and his partner. Paramount gave them a couple of hundred dollars or whatever, and then Shackleton found an article in the Washington Post, I think, about these snuff films being imported into the country. He said, Let’s take that title. The only thing I object to, philosophically speaking, was that nobody was paid.”

That’s the thinking of a true feminist icon. In fact, Findlay would continue to work with Shackleton after Snuff. (He’s the guy who’d eventually punch her in the eye.) Having broken up with her husband, she would strike out on her own as a prolific porn director/screenwriter/cinematographer.

“I didn’t have anything else to do,” Findlay says. “The crews were exclusively male, of course. I wouldn’t have hired a woman to be on a film, except for makeup. People would ask me through the years how I was able to control the guys, or if I ran into sexism. Honestly, I never had to think about it. I never had a problem in any part of the industry, dealing with producers or distributors or the crew. We just went to work.” In that spirit, Findlay isn’t interesting in hearing about her work as a pioneer. “I did that once,” she admits. “It was so embarrassing. I went out around ’88 or ’90 with some X-rated film. C.W. Post College, it was, under the pretense-their pretense-that I was some kind of artist/feminist. Nonsense. I don’t know why I did it. It was very silly, but if that’s what I’m supposed to be, fine, as long as I get paid.”

Tell her that she should be a feminist icon just for the ending of her Daughters of Lesbos, and you’ll only be reminded of Findlay’s jumbled filmography. “Daughters of Lesbos?” she asks. “What is that, a rock group?”

Explain that it’s one of her films, and stand corrected once you go into the plot. “No,” she replies, “I never made a lesbian film. The only run-in I had with a bunch of lesbians scared me to death. It was with Snuff opening in New York and being protested by groups of women. I answered the phone and there was this deep voice: ‘Hello, this is’-whatever her name was-‘and I represent Lesbians On Broadway’-or whatever it was-and she said that I should come help protest, since the film was a disgrace to all womankind. So I said I’d go protest just to get her off the phone. I said ‘How will I know you?’ and she said, ‘I’ll be wearing a trench coat and a hat.’ I never showed up. That was my only run-in with lesbians. They scare me.”

Roberta’s also sitting out the most recent wave of vintage porn chic, despite having worked with some of the greatest bodies of that period-including John Holmes, although the subsequent bust lacked the impact of a Deep Throat trial.

“We were shooting Honeysuckle Rose in New Jersey,” she recalls. “It was ’81, I guess, and I didn’t know John was having problems. All I knew is that he drank a lot of milk. I don’t know anything about drugs. Boys and girls in New York, as far as I knew-I was so naïve-didn’t take drugs. We never had any drug problem in the ’80s with the New York people who wanted to be actors. They were dedicated. People would gossip that John was on drugs, but I never noticed it. The police came along and peeked through a window, said, ‘Look what John Holmes is doing in there’ and arrested the entire cast and crew. John was there and they searched the car, and he had somehow carried with him some guns and cocaine in a car used by the production crew. Oh, they loved that. It turned out to be a bad bust. We sued the police and won. I didn’t know-I thought we were doing something illegal.”

Findlay gave up the adult biz by the mid-80s, and filmmaking in general after Banned went unreleased in ’89. (“There were no more video companies left to sell garbage to.”) That began the recent low profile-assisted by how being a hipster icon just doesn’t pay well. “I’ve had requests during the years to do all kinds of things,” Findlay notes. “NYU had a symposium-a symposium-for sex-film makers, but I just throw the stuff away. Most people, if they’re still thinking about some minor thing they did 20 years ago, that’s big trouble. I’ve had requests over the years to do interviews for magazines and schools-but there’s no money involved, so forget it. I guess they figured I’d be happy to have publicity. But for what purpose? Finally, these DVDs are out and there’s a purpose.”

The aftermath of Roberta’s media blitz will be a lot of revamped filmographies. “I never used a pseudonym after the first few adult films,” she insists, “and there are people who say that I’ve worked under all these names.” There’ll also be people insisting that Findlay’s covering up her history. Let the record show that Findlay certainly seems comfortable with her past. She’s happy to discuss her own sex scene before the cameras in 1966’s Take Me Naked-but she’s just as quick to deny making a cameo as a cleaning lady in the X-rated Raw Footage.

For the record, Take Me Naked is also one of Findlay’s rare claims to working with Michael. “My husband shot the scene,” she recalls. “I was definitely in that, and I did a scene in another picture. I can’t remember the title, but it had a bunch of lesbian scenes, too. It’s not the one you mentioned.”

Findlay pauses, inhales on a Kool, has a good laugh. “Oh, yeah-I was a star.”


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