Raider of the Lost Archives
Before I’d even moved to San Francisco, I’d heard reverent whispers of a mythical underground screening room and speakeasy somewhere in SOMA intriguingly dubbed the “Vortex Room.” A friend who programs kung fu films in New York cooed about its luscious leather banquettes; another starry-eyed film bud gushed “it’s one of the coolest spots in town” almost drooling as he detailed its signature drink, the Vortini. Needless to say, when I finally settled into my new home in the city by the bay, visiting the Vortex Room was first on my to-do list.
Years later, when I’d all but forgotten about it, I find myself quite unexpectedly at the unassuming threshold of the Vortex Room, staring through a shabby glass door on Howard Street into the darkness beyond. It’s an after-party for a screening of Zardoz, a forgotten masterpiece of future-schlock showcasing a diaper-clad, ponytailed Sean Connery, and, thanks to the neighborhood, the creep factor is high. Eager to escape Howard’s own vortex of human zombies and shopping-cart shantytowns, I step inside and squint into an inky darkness. “Welcome to the Vortex,” I hear a man’s voice say. I look around, but he’s nowhere to be seen. Pawing through an arterial corridor lined with black fabric, I brush past a gargantuan furry die and I’m inside.
Red leather booths hug the walls, and loungy mood lighting propels shapes around the room, limning the vibe of a swinging club scene in a 1970s exploitation film. A projection of a swirling blue vortex engulfs one wall, and across the room an ominous eye peers out from its center next to a crocheted rug of Charlie Manson's face almost panting in approval. Like a soundstage for a forgotten location on Gilligan's Island, the Vortex Room is lined wherever possible with tiki, bamboo, and goofy chinoiserie.
One night a week, sometimes two, the Vortex Room is host to screenings of way-out cult films in original 16mm and, in rare case, DVD. On more than one occasion when local film programmers have tired of navigating the winding pathways of SF’s over-ground world of film exhibition and just want to show a film, they call the Vortex. Tonight is one of those nights.
Pivoting around an imposingly large replica of an Easter Island stone head sitting on the bar, one man holds court serving libations (donations only, please!) and simultaneously operating an arsenal of clunky film equipment from a dusty perch above the bar. One moment, he’s stirring one of the legendary Vortinis, and the next he’s gone, disappeared behind a curtain hidden in the wall.
The wizard behind the curtain is Scott Moffett, the Louisiana-born son of a policewoman who has operated the Vortex Room on his lonesome for almost four years. Clad in a tan leisure jacket and black turtleneck when we meet, he looks like a cross between the cartoon character Johnny Bravo and the actor Ricardo Montalbán – if he had replaced his regimen of bronzer and midday sun with whiskey and all-day movie marathons. The resemblance to the one-time Star Trek villain may be subliminally inspired by the Vortex’s recent film series, when Shatner himself was in town for a one-man comedy show and the Vortex, in the grips of hardcore Shatnermania, screened a rainbow of rare appearances from Mission Impossible to Gidget.
Over a beer, Scott and I talk about T.J. Hooker, soft Corinthian leather, and tinfoil spaceships before I get around to asking for a history lesson. The notoriously elusive Vortex Room doesn’t have a website, so the only way to hear about its backstory is straight from the horse’s mouth. Scott tells me that before the Vortex he co-created and operated another space, the Werepad. A prime specimen of the kind of rowdy indie warehouse spaces that fueled San Francisco's cultural scene during the 1990s, the Werepad was a DIY venue in the Dogpatch that hosted performances, cult film screenings, and rock shows. When Jacques Boyreau, the co-creator of the 'Pad, moved on to Seattle, less manpower and ever-increasing rents necessitated a move to smaller digs, and the Vortex Room was born. As I take all this in, I notice a framed portrait of Charles Bronson looming over a gleaming Flash Gordon pinball table (one of the room's youngest artifacts, it was born in 1980). “He’s kind of the patron saint of the Vortex Room,” Scott admits.
As it turns out, Scott and I both share a peculiar obsession with Bronson's work in a commercial for a Japanese cologne called Mandom. In the ad, Bronson spends a long day carousing and cheekily reenacting notable scenes from popular American films of the time. When he returns home, the ad makes a quick left turn toward the absurd: Bronson throws his shirt in the air, lights up his pipe, and pours an entire bottle of cologne over his body while a Sergio Leone-style gun battle explodes in the background. It’s a sight. Scott’s been thinking about selling Mandom: “I wanted to import it but you have to buy a whole pallet. We were going to serve it back here at the bar.” I check to make sure he means the cologne. He does. Stationed next to the Hams, Schlitz, and Racer 5 that line the glass shelf behind him, it wouldn’t have been out of place. Like the commercial, the room is dripping with the kind of delirious, über-manly kitsch that ruled the late ’70s and early ’80s.
Opening a nondescript black door behind the bar, Scott beckons me deeper into the belly of the beast. Inside, around 600 films are crammed, reel after colorful reel, into tiny shelves packed five feet high and extending down the hallway like canned goods in a celluloid bomb shelter. At least I know the apocalypse won’t be boring. An intimidating collection of cautionary tales like LSD 25 (an “educational” film narrated in cheeky voice-over by “Mr. LSD”) and LSD: Insight or Insanity; exploitation classics like Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Blood Feast and Roger Corman’s Bucket of Blood; and undiscovered gems with mondo titles like Shanty Tramp and Angel’s Wild Women teeter high above eye level. In 1989, Scott worked at the UC Theatre in Berkeley, where a projectionist turned him on to an underground network of print collectors spanning the continental U.S. from California to Connecticut. He scored his first feature, Cosmos: War of the Planets, and since then has devoted more than 20 years to digging through the collections of shuttered theaters, treasure rooms of backyard collectors, and dusty stacks of aging projectionists in search of the wildest and woolliest films he can find. That stash is what has become The Cosmic Hex Archive, the engine that fuels the midnight madness of the Vortex Room.
In addition to the physical archive of prints, Scott also maintains the Cosmic Hex website, where visitors can download digitized versions of some of the archive's crown jewels. The site itself is a digital artifact from a former age – one of those Web 1.0 knowledge stores that teenagers like me salivated over while dreaming about going to this crazy little free festival in the desert called Burning Man. It’s also the closest thing to an old-fashioned video store on the Internet.
Surrounded by Scott’s most precious objects I start to feel a bit like a space invader myself, so I make my move toward the door. Before I leave, I prod him for tales of decadence and debauchery at the Vortex Room and he stands behind the bar, raising his one salt-and-pepper eyebrow as though he might actually not answer me, today at least. A friend of Scott’s steps into the room, so I try my luck with her. She’s tight-lipped: “You know, just the usual – sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll.”Looks like I’ll just have to find out for myself. I get the feeling that some nights are best left in the Vortex.
These days the Vortex Room Film Cult screens rare films and cult classics every Thursday at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. Before you go, check current screening info on its Facebook page. You can also sign up for the mailing list. If it's your first foray, make sure to leave some extra time to get lost in the Vortex before or after the screening.