IN MY last column, I wrote about how the "Disturbo 13" list made the reputation of Pasolini's Salo among fans of extreme cinema. Since then, I've been lucky enough to get in contact with the list's author, Stanley Wiater, to nail down the true story of what's become an Internet legend.Wiater wrote "Disturbo 13: The Most Disturbing Horror Films Ever Made" in 1991, and it was originally published in the 1992 anthology Cut! Horror Writers on Horror Film. It included not only controversial cult horror films like Wes Craven's Last House on the Left and William Lustig's Maniac, but art films like Salo and David Lynch's Eraserhead, as well as completely obscure foreign films. How could Wiater know that, thanks to his list, fanboys around the world would be on the Internet 16 years later championing the previously almost-unknown Hong Kong film Man Behind the Sun and Spain's In a Glass Cage?
He didn't, of course—which might have actually made it easier to do the list. "I thought, who have I got to worry about to say 'Stanley, your list sucks?'" remembers Wiater. "There was no other list!"
He did indeed have nothing to worry about, because readers had the opposite reaction. Wiater has made a living as an award-winning writer for 30 years. He has authored or co-authored 16 books. He created the television series Dark Dreamers, which comes to DVD this fall. But "Disturbo 13" had a special staying power.
"People would always come up to me about that article," he says.
Keep in mind, it was written in an era before the pop-culture explosion of lists, before the Internet brought the entirety of movie history to everybody's fingertips and before DVD turned over the rocks that much of extreme cinema was buried under.
"I wrote it with the understanding that the reader was probably never going to see these movies," he remembers. "Most of those films at the time were either bootlegs or third-generation dupes from someone who somehow got a hold of them."
Back then, he was an associate editor for Fangoria magazine, and he drafted three of his own associates—Chas Balun, Steve Bisette and Phillip Nutman—for help in what must have been a fascinating debate over which films actually belonged on the list.
In the end, Wiater whittled it down to 13 and wrote them up in all their gruesome glory. He framed it with a classic insider reference, the "it's only a movie" device originally used to promote Last House on the Left. (The tag line for that film's famous poster warned "To avoid fainting, keep repeating 'It's only a movie ... it's only a movie. ..." It was so successful that its distributor, Hallmark Releasing, attached the same come-on to several of their films throughout the '70s.)
But the capper was the name of the article, an artfully chosen phrase of his own creation that summoned the unsettling mystique of the films he had cataloged. "I thought 'Disturbo 13' sounded like a great trashy movie that no one could get their hands on," he says.
That name became a meme over the years, shorthand for the canon of extreme cinema, as the films themselves became more widely available.
"I went to Amazon yesterday," says Wiater, "and every one of the movies is on, maybe not hi-def, but beautiful DVD. You can get all of Disturbo 13 from Amazon-freaking-dotcom."
Though that is certainly a boon for the cinematically adventurous, Wiater admits he has a touch of nostalgia for the days when unacceptable movies weren't so ... accepted. "You're out searching forbidden fruit, and now that's fruit's around the corner," he says.The legacy of "Disturbo 13" lives on across the blogosphere, message boards and now Wikipedia—anywhere there's an argument about what films can truly be called extreme, it's likely to come up. Since it came out a decade-and-a-half ago, there has been much theorizing over whether newer films can stack up against the original 13. Some Internet denizens have even created their own updated or expanded "Disturbo 13" lists, though often there isn't credit given to the original article and author—which, I'm sorry, is pathetic, even for the web. At this point, Wiater realizes the Disturbo phenomenon isn't going anywhere. "This article just might outlive me," he says. "You do your absolute best knowing those words aren't going to go away."
CULT LEADER is a column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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