In one of the most disturbing moments of the 1978 psychological thriller The Mafu Cage, Cissy (Carol Kane) beats her pet orangutan to death. Afterwards, she demands that her sister Ellen (Lee Grant), with whom she has an incestuous relationsip, find her a replacement pet, declaring, "You get me what I want or I will assassinate myself right now!"
It's the kind of all-out freakiness that's typical of a screening organized by Portland film presenters and record label, Wyrd War. Programmed by partners Dennis Dread and Tiffany Kenaley, Wyrd War mostly screens films that have faded into VHS obscurity, often because they're absurdly violent. Their last screening, held in October at the Hollywood Theatre, was of Rocktober Blood, a 1984 horror film about a heavy metal frontman (Tray Laren) who goes on a gruesome killing spree. In one of the first few scenes, he slits one sound engineer's throat and impales another with a coat hanger.
But according to Dread, Wyrd War isn't just a blast of pure, unadulterated brutality. "It's a war," he says, "Against the gentrification of the soul."
That may sound fire and brimstone, but sitting in Southeast Grind on a Thursday night, that's clearly not the case. Dread and Kenaley speak through warm smiles, and they've brought their 20-year-old daughter, Kallisti, who sells Wyrd War merchandise. The two clearly have a sense of humor, as evidenced by their decision to make an album of music from the Enchanted Forest theme park. But they also like to eject audiences from their comfort zones by exposing them to challenging, frightening movies.
The Mafu Cage certainly fits the bill. Directed by Karen Arthur, the film delves into the tortured lives of two siblings, played by Kane and Lee Grant. It prominently features incest, overacting and, eventually, violent murders, but Dread describes it in almost academic terms. "[The movie] juxtaposes the two sisters as wildness versus this sort of domesticated professional who's actually able to go into the outside world and be successful and have a partner and a career," says Dread.
It's from the same era as Godzilla vs. Megalon, Mommie Dearest and Jaws—the kinds of pulpy movies that ignited Dread and Kenaley's passion for cinema. In the '90s, Dread and Kenaley were among the earliest Movie Madness disciples. Yet it wasn't until 2014 that they founded Wyrd War. They refused to confine their programming to any single director, era or genre. "We've never really spoken out loud what the Wyrd War ethos is," says Dread. "Certainly one of the core values of everything we've done with Wyrd War is exposing people to things they may not have been exposed to already."
Hence the decision to screen one of the Halloween series' less-heralded installments—the notoriously Michael Myers-free Season of the Witch—with its composer and sound designer, the legendary John Carpenter collaborator Alan Howarth, in attendance.
It's all part of Dread and Kenaley's vision of the movie theater as a communal space. For their screening of witchcraft-infused horror flick Eyes of Fire, Kenaley made corn-husk dolls to give to audience members. "Sometimes it scares people and disorients them," says Dread. "They don't fully understand why they're getting a free gift that looks kind of strange."
But Wyrd War hopes its audience continues to grapple with that strangeness long after they leave the theater. That can be a lot to ask—one of the most recent movies that Wyrd War screened was the 1986 monster slasher Rawhead Rex, which is about an ancient demon that looks like a "9-foot-tall phallus with teeth" that goes on a gory killing spree through the Scottish countryside, and in one scene, pisses on a priest.
"Recently, the head programmer of the Hollywood told us, 'You know, we've never had any complaints about any of your Wyrd War films,'" Kenaley says. "And Dennis and I both, at the same time, went, 'Really?'"
Dread seems to recognize that it's possible to push an audience too far. "People need to feel that there are places they can go to be safe," he says. "But I would say that for Wyrd War, we believe art is not that space."
SEE IT: The Mafu Cage is at Laurelhurst Theatre. 2735 E Burnside St, laurelhursttheater.com. 9 pm Wednesday, Dec. 20. $5.