It was called “No Wave Film.”
Although that wasn’t the official name: it was borrowed from the No Wave underground music movement which was already growing at the time and involved many of the same people.
Some people called it the “New Cinema,” which was actually the name of the theater which showed these films.
Whatever you call it, the legend is that, in 1977, “Freddie the Fence” a local dealer in dubious commodities, got his hands on a case of Super 8 cameras and the Underground artists and musicians on New York City’s Lower East Side rushed in to buy them cheap. Soon they were shooting lots of odd little experimental films and showing them to each other. Andy Warhol’s underground films from a decade earlier were a major influence.
Which, yes, means many of them were probably pretty terrible by objective standards.
But not all of them.
Two of the most talented of the No Wavers were the husband and wife team of Beth B and Scott B who created this remarkably good Noir-tinged feature length detective story at the very end of the New Wave in 1982.
Perhaps part of the reason it is so good is that they supposedly spent around 84 thousand dollars on Vortex: that’s a ridiculous amount, when you compare it to what most of these films cost, although, when you look at the film itself, even that figure sounds remarkably low. Instead of 8mm, it was shot on the far more expensive 16mm and a quick glance through the credits reveals it had a huge crew including makeup artists, an art department, lots of musicians, editors and a horde of production assistants. There are even a few rather minimal special effects.
“Futuristic Thriller” would probably fit this film more than science fiction: while a space-based weapon drives the film — we even see a model of it and there’s even an attack by a deadly laser — we are never told whether this is the future, or if this is set in our current world. Unlike a lot of films set in the near future made in the same era (such as the New German Cinema classic, Kamikaze 1989) There is no introduction telling us about the future we are in and how we got there, only a long, inexplicable psychedelic sequence, which may be stunning but comes with no explanation.
Among the many familiar faces from the New York Underground and other films by the Bs who show up in Vortex’s cast and crew, one notes Jim Jarmusch, who would later go on to become a major Indie Director, does a bit of voice acting; Roger Corman favorite (and Joe Dante regular) Dick Miller has a bit part; while John Lurie, a musician, actor and filmmaker who worked on countless No Wave films and directed the goofy and nearly successful Men in Orbit the year before, is one of the musicians providing the score.
Vortex stars another major No Wave figure, who appeared regularly in Beth and Scott’s films, underground singer, poet and occasional actress, Lydia Lunch. She is Angel Powers, a tough Private Investigator, who is called in to investigate the murder of a U.S. Senator. Her client thinks that the hit was ordered by Frederick Fields (played by Bill Rice, another regular, who was also the assassin, Jaeger in the German punk science fiction film, Decoder). Fields is a Howard Hughes-like multi-billionaire who is so reclusive that he hasn’t been seen by anyone for the last three years, other than his former chauffeur, Anthony Demmers (James Russo who went on to a long career in movies and TV).
However, as tough, hard-as-nails, private eyes go, Angel has a decidedly insouciant attitude towards her work: she only takes the case because they’re willing to pay her lots of money, and spends a lot of her time on the case lounging in her bubble bath, reading through documents. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether she’s actually working on the case at all, particularly when she ends up dallying with Anthony Demmers.
It all has something to do with the latest weapon Fields is developing, a space-based satellite-killing laser. Perhaps the best moment of the film comes when a small demonstration model of the weapon goes wrong and Fields is nearly killed in a laser blast.
A dense tangle of corporate intrigue and sex snarls up the entire film. It’s all punctuated by some stunning imagery, full of harsh contrasts, striking compositions and lots of chiaroscuro. We often see Lydia’s face swimming against a black background, or framed in the only well-lit part of the screen. There’s even a bit of action and violence at the climax, although there are a lot of long, quieter parts framing it. After all, this is a deliberately artistic film, which doesn’t want to create something standard and Hollywood.
And yet it is still can be enjoyed as a corporate thriller. A very strange one, with some truly berserk moments, like Demmers trying to impress Lydia, while she is lounging on his bed, by feeding his pet python with a dead rat.
But what the heck, it still works.
As the No Wave broke up in the mid-Eighties, with many of its major players going in different directions, The Bs became founding members of the so-called “Cinema of Transgression” which featured shocking and graphic displays of sex and violence.
You won’t find that in Vortex, however, where we only get a glimpse of one of Lydia’s nipples while she is in that bubble bath. Nor can I say I mind, as they instead made an eccentric and decidedly artistic film which still works as a thriller, which doesn’t need to rely on cheap thrills or graphic shocks. It definitely isn’t for everyone, but it is worth a look if you are into movies which are rawer, artier, or more challenging. Vortex is a bold, punk-infused product of a strange moment in New York City History.
And we should be thankful that Freddie ended up with that case of Super 8 cameras…