An Interview with Preston Fassel, author of Landis: The Story of a Real Man on 42nd Street

Bill Landis

Photo by Robert Carrithers

1980s’. Times Square, New York City. Specifically … 42nd Street. Called The Deuce, home of The Roxy in the theater district, and scores of porn stores and junk shops. Decadence reigned supreme. Not just the place, but the people, the movers and shakers, the storytellers and creatives. Artists from all walks of life, up and down and all around. And the home of one man, Bill Landis. Writer, porn star, actor, performance artist, critic, husband, addict, junkie. Bill was all of these, and so much more. He chronicled the seedier facets of life on 42nd Street with his groundbreaking zine, Sleazoid Express. Amongst critical reviews of the best Grindhouse Cinema had to offer, the magazine also focused on the people, the creators, as well as the fans, of this era.

42nd Street remains today but is nothing like before. Gentrification and renovation have all but removed the funk of a billion souls cruising for the ‘next big thing’. Preston Fassel (Our Lady of the Inferno) remembers. If it wasn’t for Bill Landis, and the book he wrote with his wife Michelle Clifford called Sleazoid Express, Fassel wouldn’t be who he is today. Sadly, Landis died from a heart attack in 2008. There are no biographies of the man, just a brief IMDB page that feels a little neglected. Fassel aims to change that, with an exhaustively researched article that turned into a much longer, and necessary piece. We caught up with Preston and chatted with him about 42nd Street, Bill Landis, and Sleazoid Express.

What is it about Landis and his work that spoke to you?

PF: When I first read Sleazoid Express in 2004, I really had no idea what a grindhouse was, let alone exploitation cinema. I’d read passing references to them in a writeup for Kill Bill the year before, but the way the article was written it made it sound like both terms were somehow tied up in Shaw Brothers-style kung fu cinema. Then I read Landis’ work and it opened up this whole new world to me. Subcultures have always really fascinated me. And when you’re eighteen, nineteen, anything that’s forbidden or subversive is always intriguing, especially when you’re growing up in a small town in Oklahoma that is functionally still living in the 1980s and is very conservative. So, the idea that there had been this kingdom of the damned that existed just below the surface of polite society that was built around subversive cinema was endlessly fascinating to me, and Bill and Michelle Clifford documented it with such love in the Sleazoid book. They brought it to such life, and they did it with such humanity. It’s very wry and a little bit snarky but there’s also this deep well of humanity and empathy to it. It opened up this whole new world to me, of an entirely different type of filmmaking and filmmaker I didn’t know existed.

There seems to be a renewed interest with 42nd Street, especially with tv series like The Deuce. Why the sudden fascination? 

PF: The Deuce was an environment that was, in its own strange way, very inclusive. It was not by any means some sort of racial and sexual paradise where everyone got along, and the movies that came out of 42nd demonstrate that racism and misogyny were very deeply entrenched there, but, at the same time, conversely, there was also sort of this idea that everyone was equally unequal. Everyone there was a misfit in some way, and it was a place where misfits could find their tribes. The Deuce had a thriving drag culture, it was a place where queer individuals could meet and interact before that was societally acceptable. Andy Milligan’s Vapors is all about a closeted either gay or bisexual man coming to the Deuce to meet other queer people and explore his own sexuality. You could see movies there made by women, Asians, people of color, queer people, long before Hollywood or mainstream cinema was embracing those filmmakers. Long before Patty Jenkins and Gus Van Sandt there were Roberta Findlay and Andy Milligan. We’re having this sort of cultural reckoning now regarding the societal repression of non-heterosexual, Anglo, cis-people, there’s a growing interest in those people’s stories. This is why stuff like The Deuce and Pose, I think, are really coming into the mainstream, because in a lot of ways the story of 42nd is the story of America in the 20th century, for better and for worse. I also think that our ongoing societal dialogue with sex work is a part of it as well. 42nd Street was built on movies, drugs, and sex, and there was a very thriving sex work scene there. As America is coming to the radical realization that sex workers are people I think there’s an interest in hearing those peoples’ stories, which further humanize them.

With the renovation of 42nd Street that began in the 1990’s and continues today, many of those landmark counterculture establishments are gone. What can be done to protect their cultural significance?  

PF: It’s sad to say but I think New York sort of missed the boat on that. 42nd Street is complexly unrecognizable from what it used to be. Before COVID I went to see the site of the Roxy, the theater that inspired the Colossus in my books, and there’s a Ripley’s Believe it or Not and wax museum there now. It’s understandable, though. It’s easy to think about these places as being culturally significant from the perspective of thirty years later, but at the time, New York was primarily concerned with tackling the AIDS and crack epidemics, which had really flourished in the grindhouses. The sort of lawless nature of 42nd street had made it conducive to unsafe, anonymous sex and drug dealing and drug use. It was common knowledge that you could go someplace like the Roxy and not get hassled if you wanted to hook up or shoot up. Bill wrote about this, how people were dealing and smoking crack in the auditoriums, right out in the open, and how people were hooking up in the bathrooms. So when New York shut these places down it was as a health hazard; that they did or could have any cultural significance was the last thing on their mind.

Lyric Theater

Photo by Preston Fassel

That being said, the Lyric theater—where a lot of Andy Milligan’s stuff ran—is still standing. The Harris and the Selwyn were the final two theaters to close down but the Lyric is still there. It’s a stage theater now; before COVID, they were showing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is pretty surreal. It’d be wonderful to put up some kind of plaque or memorial there that stands for all of The Deuce, maybe some kind of small display in the lobby with photos to memorialize that this place and these people existed. It’s sad but the majority of the average consumers of grindhouse films in their first run aren’t around anymore; a lot of them succumbed to AIDS and drugs. One of Bill’s transitory articles as he was moving into “polite” journalism in the 90s was a snapshot of the guys he was friends with on 42nd and the implication in the article is that if they aren’t dead already by the time the article runs, they will be soon. It was a rough scene that attracted people living a rough lifestyle.

On the other hand, while the buildings and people are gone, the films are still out there, and places like Severin and Vinegar Syndome and Arrow are letting the grindhouses live on in our own living rooms and bedrooms. Bill and Michelle talk about this in the Sleazoid book about how it’s now possible to program your own double and triple bills. And Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest and other similar revival houses and festivals who show exploitation cinema are allowing people to relive that communal experience. Every year, Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Circle Cinema puts on an event they call The Slumber Party, which is a five-movie all-night exploitation marathon, and the atmosphere at those things is like stepping back forty years right into a Deuce auditorium, minus the prostitution and chance of getting robbed during the feature.

Why do you think Landis has remained relatively unknown, especially considering his accomplishments?

PF: I think the subversive nature of Bill’s writing—and to an extent, Bill himself—have played a big factor. These were not mainstream movies even by modern definitions. They were always horror’s creepy little brother. Horror as a genre has undergone a rehabilitation over time. Back in the 80s, Tony Timpone was having to go on talk shows to defend horror cinema and convince the country that it was not a conduit for Satanism and murder. Tom Hanks, of all people, was in a movie called Mazes and Monsters that was basically all about how if your children watch horror movies and play D&D they’re going to go crazy and commit suicide. Today, something like It: Chapter 1—a movie about a child-eating clown— is one of the highest grossing movies of the year. So the print media that acted as a cultural gateway for horror like Fangoria and Rue Morgue have been able to undergo that same kind of rehabilitation. You can buy Fangoria at Barnes and Noble now, whereas in the past you had to buy it in a black bag in the porno section of a local bookstore. It would be nearly impossible for the stuff that showed on 42nd Street—the stuff that Bill was writing about—to undergo any kind of rehabilitation. It was very dark, nihilistic stuff even by today’s standards. Culturally it’s significant because of what those films represented but the actual content of some of them is nearly indefensible. Sleazoid, by its very nature, was always an underground commodity.

The paradoxical nature of that is that the folks who were inspired by him went on to have more visible careers. At the time Bill came onto the scene, genre writing was almost exclusively fan-centered. Famous Monsters was all about keeping the old Universal and Hammer stuff alive. Then Fangoria came onto the scene and sort of functioned as the progenitor of the internet in that it was giving readers BTS photos and interviews and DIY SFX information they’d never had access to before, which was revolutionary at the time. And then a year into Fangoria’s run Bill came onto the scene and he was the first person to really look at genre films critically and academically and talk about what they meant. You can really trace the current state of horror writing and academic analysis of genre back to Sleazoid. What Diabolique and Rue Morgue and more recently Fangoria are doing with genre writing begins with Bill, but, it’s a matter of Bill having influenced one generation who influenced another and that influence is just now reaching the mainstream; and the ur source has sort of been lost in the shuffle.

Which is another factor in Sleazoid’s obscurity and Bill’s attendant obscurity. Sleazoid, Gore Gazette, Psychotronic and the other 42nd Street zines were never the properties of million-dollar corporations that could mass-market them and put them into bookstores in Akron or Peoria. Fangoria may have been in a black plastic bag but some kid in the Midwest could still pay their older sibling to go get him or her a copy. Sleazoid was DIY. I tell a story in Landis about Bill getting fired because he was using the xerox at Merrill Lynch to print a run of Sleazoid. There were always a limited number of very cheap, easily disposable copies floating around out there. Originals are hard to come by today. They’re ephemeral.

Then there’s the matter of Bill himself. As I cover in Landis, he could be a hard person to know. He had drug addiction issues for big stretches of his life and he had a tendency to alienate people. Most people’s recollections of him end with the big blowup that precipitated the end of their friendship or partnership. He was on the brink of entering the mainstream before he died—he was traveling the country, introducing movies at places like Chicago’s Music Box Theater and The Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. This was right as the cult movie renaissance was really taking off. And then he succumbed to his addiction. It’s easy to imagine him being this elder statesman of the grindhouse scene if he were still alive today; he died at just the wrong time.

Is there any chance we could see back issues of Sleazoid Express in the future beyond private collectors?

PF: I’d like to think so, but, it’s unlikely. There’s a lot of very messy, very complicated legal issues involved regarding who owns the rights to what. A few people have tried to get comprehensive coffee table-style books of the original print run published over the years, including Nicolas Wendig Refn and me, but they always hit dead ends.

The Roxxy Theater today

Photo by Preston Fassel

What can be done to further promote Landis’ incredible legacy today?

PF: Share the Sleazoids that are out in the world today. Scan them, upload them, share them. My collection is almost wholly digital and was shared with me by various people. I have one hard copy, which was a gift from “Mad” Ron Roccia after I covered Prevues from Hell in Fangoria. And buy the Sleazoid Express book, which is still in print from Simon and Schuster, and Bill and Michelle’s Kenenth Anger book, which is out of print but floating around on Amazon.

I’d love to see people dig more into his life and write more about him, too. I did some exhaustive work in Landis but I kind of hoped that more than being the final word on Bill it would be the bedrock for more academic study of his life and writing. There are still missing pieces to the Bill Landis puzzle I’d like to find one day, whether that’s me revising the text in an updated edition or someone picking up where I left off. Especially with Severin’s recent announcement of the Andy Milligan box set, which is already pushing The Deuce further into the genre spotlight, the time is right for a Bill Landis renaissance, and I hope this is the beginning of it.

Part One of Preston Fassel’s incredible biography of Bill Landis.

Buy Sleazoid Express: A Mind-Twisting Tour Through the Grindhouse Cinema of Times Square by Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford


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