Dan Halsted is sitting on the stage of Portland's Hollywood Theatre. Although the seats in front of him are now empty, Halsted is able to fill the theater by showing obscure, almost forgotten films. "It's an unspoken deal," Halsted says. "You have never heard of this movie, but I can guarantee it's worth your seven bucks to check it out."
In Portland film circles, Dan Halsted may be best known as the guy with the legendary 35-millimeter kung fu film collection. And to Portland International Film Festival (PIFF) director Bill Foster, Halsted represents an opportunity to reach new audiences. "[We are] trying to create a space for all [different types of] people to come together, get curious and hop across their normal boundaries," says Foster.
More to Explore
Last year, PIFF launched the late-night After Dark series, four genre-specific features aimed to "push cinematic boundaries." Targeting a demographic of 20- to 30-year-olds, Halsted programmed a diverse collection of films, including yakuza hit men, Japanese mutant girls and a zombie/vampire buddy flick. But the highlight was Rubber, a twist on the classic monster flick featuring a psychotic killer tire. It packed the Hollywood Theatre with a standing-room-only crowd.
Halsted is excited about this year’s selections, full of crime, horror and one attractive alien in a bikini. The series opener Headhunters, playing February 17 at Cinema 21, truly stands apart. "It’s probably the best thriller I’ve seen in years," says Halstead.
The Kung Fu Master of the Hollywood Theatre
It’s easy to picture Dan Halsted as a film DJ, spending his free time digging through thousands of movies to find gold. Halsted then unleashes his picks on a growing fan base, which pack the seats at his monthly movie screenings.
Many of the movies he plays at his Grindhouse Film Festival and Kung Fu Theater are 35-millimeter reels from his private collection, which often are the last-known prints of these movies in the world.
For the uninitiated, a grindhouse refers to a theater that once showcased exploitation films — a broad term encompassing thousands of movies with exaggerated themes of horror, violence, revenge, drugs and more. Films like Gone in Sixty Seconds, Shaft and Night of the Living Dead broke through to mainstream audiences, though many, like Night of the Lepus (a film about giant killer rabbits) and Tentacles, did not. "The '70s and '80s grindhouse features were like independent movies of the time," explains Halsted.
Kung fu films — Hong Kong action films from the 1970s and '80s — are loaded with fast hand-to-hand combat, bad overdubbing and iconic sound effects. But to Halsted, there is nothing kitsch about it. "I take all these films very seriously," says Halsted, who believes the movies of kung fu theater are as influential as any film. Mention Casablanca and Halsted will counter with the influence of a film like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. "In China, [kung fu films] were exactly like the western [movie genre] in America." Check out Dan Halsted's five movies to watch for exploitation or kung fu beginners
Changing How We View Movies
In the age of Netflix, where anyone can stream or download most movies, how does Halsted peel people away from their computers and into seats at the Hollywood Theatre?
Beyond his exclusive grindhouse and kung fu footage, on any given night Hollywood Theatre may be playing classic films like Gone With the Wind, Saturday morning cartoons/commercials, live music accompanying silent films, and rare concert interviews and bootlegs. It's all part of a philosophy called "original programming." Practiced by the legendary Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas, Halsted follows a strategy of selecting content that is put together in-house and therefore can't be found anywhere else.
This approach seems to be working at the Hollywood. Halstead estimates that ticket sales have roughly tripled in the past year. However, he is quick to note that the success he's found may be due more to the anomaly of Portland rather than the original programming.
"I feel lucky in this town. The stuff I like, and think is good, has found an audience. It blows me away. I still look out into the packed audience [during kung fu theater] and find it strange."
He adds with a grin, "It's an awesome city."
Dan Halsted's Five Beginner Kung Fu and Exploitation Movie Picks.
#1: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978)
This is the one to watch. It's the quintessential kung fu movie. It has a great story, great everything. I always compare kung fu films to American westerns, so in comparison, this film is like The Searchers. It's the best.
#2: Rolling Thunder (1977)
I am surprised nobody really knows about this film. It's so good. Written by Paul Schrader around the same time he wrote Taxi Driver, this movie is a classic revenge exploitation movie.
#3: Zombie (1979)
This movie is really violent... it has this famous scene in it with a zombie fighting a shark. But what I like about Lucio Fulici's films is the atmosphere. Zombie is moody and gross; you can see and feel all the sweat. It also has cool music.
#4: Shogun Assassin (1980)
This pick is a little unfair. The film is the first two Lone Wolf and Cub movies edited together, which allows it to infuse the best parts of the two movies into nonstop action. But this one always brings the house down.
#5: Alligator (1980)
After the success of Jaws, producers used any animals they could think of to star in monster movies. Alligator is really well written and awesome. If you take Jaws seriously, why can't you take Alligator seriously?