News Column

One-time tombstone showroom now regular haunt for creepy-film buffs

October 25, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 25--PHILADELPHIA You may have noticed the creepy, abandoned-looking building at 12th and Spring Garden Streets, its battered block-stone front inscribed, "Finney & Son -- 1850."

It was once a tombstone showroom, a place where a bygone vendor of mausoleums displayed its wares.

You may also have noticed that on many nights, the place looks alive, lights ablaze and shadows falling on the walls.

It's not ghosts. It's art.

All kinds of art -- paintings, prints, music, and especially film -- curated and exhibited at the aptly named Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art, or PhilaMOCA for short.

The shows tend to touch the strange, macabre, or forgotten, charged with the thrill of discovery and the joy of the absurd.

"I like to think I'm in touch with the different subcultures. Even if I'm not a fan myself, I can appreciate them," PhilaMOCA director-curator Eric Bresler said shortly before he welcomed 25 people to Monday's Video Pirates party, a free, regular showing of odd and unusual footage. This month's theme: Halloween.

Bresler, 34, a Drexel University graduate, never wanted to star in movies but always wanted to be around them. The creator, director, and editor of Otaku Unite! -- a film about the explosion of interest in Japanese animation -- is a lifelong comic-book collector, a devotee of the band Sparks, and such an enormous fan of Michael Nesmith of the Monkees that for years he wore a wool hat in tribute.

He has found his home at PhilaMOCA, where the staff consists of Bresler, a couple of interns, and two reliable volunteers. Attendance at shows has ranged from a full-capacity 300 to a low of two.

"As long as I believe in what I'm showing here," Bresler said, "I'm OK with attendance."

There are no leftover headstones inside the building, but signs of the previous incarnation remain. Overhead is a hook and pulley, once used to hoist huge chunks of granite and marble. In the garage space is an old sliding fire door, which could be sprung to block the spread of flames.

On the walls now is a nameless exhibit of horror-themed works, among them a bright, cheery portrayal of the Bride of Frankenstein, and a darker image of a driver being ejected through the windshield of his car in an accident.

The centerpiece is a drawing by artist Jen Lightfoot that shows a girl -- or maybe a zombie? -- who seems to be missing patches of skin.

"It's large, immediate, and horrific," said Jay Bilinsky, 23, a recent graduate of the Temple University Tyler School of Art, who curated the show. "It instantly sets the mood for the entire place."

The center recently staged a burlesque tribute to director David Cronenberg and, on Wednesday, held the Philadelphia premiere of Birth of the Living Dead, the new documentary about George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead. Friday brings The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1920 German silent film -- backed by an original, live score from Not So Silent Cinema, which creates new music for old films.

Perhaps best of all this fall: a Halloween-night double feature, Black Devil Doll From Hell and Tales From the Quadead Zone, both directed by Chester N. Turner, a sort of shot-on-video mad genius and long believed to be dead.

It turns out, Turner is alive and living in Chicago. He'll speak at PhilaMOCA on Halloween in what's billed as his fourth-ever public appearance.

PhilaMOCA doesn't have a sign outside. And it doesn't advertise. If you're deep into film, you know it's there.

"I love the space. I'm drawn to a space like this," said Matt Garrett, 34, creator of the New Jersey-based horror film Morris County, who was at PhilaMOCA this week.

The building squats at 531 N. 12th St., half a block from the gorgeous but empty Church of the Assumption and across the street from a Citizens Bank branch. Finney & Son was a three-generation firm that lasted more than 100 years, on 12th Street from the Civil War through the 1960s. After the business closed, the building sat vacant until the 1980s, when it was briefly used by a sculptor.

In 2007, disc jockey and music producer Wes Pentz, known as Diplo, bought the property as headquarters for his Mad Decent record label. He left for Los Angeles in 2010, renting the building to Gavin Hecker, who founded PhilaMOCA. When Hecker moved to New York last year, Bresler took over.

He puts on about 300 events a year, including the monthly Video Pirates that screened Monday.

At 7:40 p.m., the lights went down, and the screen lit up: a 1988 Fat Boys rap video starring slasher-film icon Freddy Krueger. Next came early MTV footage -- yes, once there was music on MTV -- and a second Krueger video in which he discusses the expansion of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise.

There's nothing like seeing Freddy Krueger talk sales figures.

After that came a 1990 Horror Workout video starring scream queen Linnea Quigley, whose exercise regimen opened, of course, with a shot of her naked in the shower.

"This place is always worth my time," said Chris Zinn, 23, a Philadelphia film devotee, who attended with his girlfriend, Elaine Maulucci, 23. "There's a very strong sense of 'Look at this awesome thing I found, and I hope you find it awesome too.' "

The funereal tone of the building adds to the vibe of the films, they said, but it's Bresler's devotion to unearthing rarities and his meticulous presentation that make the center a regular haunt.

"You don't know what you're going to see," Maulucci said. "It's different, to say the least."

After graduating from Drexel in 2001, Bresler turned his senior project into a full-length documentary on Japanese anime.

Bresler worked at the old TLA Video on Spring Garden and as managing director of the Philadelphia Film Society. In 2009, he put his knowledge of Far East culture to use, spending a year as tour promoter for several Japanese rock bands.

For the last 18 months, he has been exploring dark corners at PhilaMOCA while figuring out its future. The center isn't a nonprofit agency, so it gets no government grants. It depends on the receipts that come through the door. (For information, go to www.philamoca.org.)

That's enough for Bresler to buy groceries and pay rent on the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Caroline Hubbard, a Temple University Law School student, who sings in a band called Weird Hot.

His goal is to make the Mausoleum of Contemporary Art more of what it is, a place where fans reliably find something exciting and unexpected, something they can't see elsewhere.

"I envision this as a full-time, full-purpose art space," he said. "We can't be characterized."

jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906

@JeffGammage

___

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