Even before they made Santa Dog, their first published recording, The Residents began work on an incredibly ambitious project: a full-length film called Vileness Flats. The group had just moved into a studio at 20 Sycamore Street, San Francisco, which had a completely open ground floor -- just perfect, it seemed, for a sound stage. The Residents felt that film would be the ideal medium for the ideas which had been knocking around in their heads and jumped in with both feet.
The new studio was roomy, but not quite big enough to make a movie. In order to be able to fit sets into the ground floor space, the group made most of the characters in the film midgets. They aren't played by midgets, mind you -- the costumes were designed so that full-height people could scrunch up in them and waddle around.
The sets were very elaborate, done in a sort of German Expressionist style reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They were made of cardboard and the space limitations meant that each set had to be completely dismantled before the next one could be built. This, of course, affected the filming schedule and sometimes even the developing plot.
Like the sets, the story itself was built as needed. There was no script before shooting started, only a vague outline of the story. The script grew as film progressed -- a system typical of the project. The Residents hired people as they found a need, grabbing Graeme Whifler to do the lighting and some directing and hiring J. Raoul Brody, who was to become a good friend, to act.
The Residents may not have been organised but they were in control, something they felt was very important. Without a film company looking over their shoulders and telling them to make sure it would sell, they could do whatever they wanted to. They financed it all themselves (one of them selling his sports car for $1200) and could only work on it during evenings and weekends because of the jobs they were holding down to pay for it all. They used 1/2" black-and-white video tape in the filming, for a variety of reasons. They felt that video was the coming medium and wanted to be on the leading edge of the technology. Also, with video tape they could see the results of their work immediately after filming, which was useful as it let them get right on with re-shooting when necessary. Most importantly, they didn't have to pay for developing.
Unfortunately, the lack of direction on the project meant that it dragged on for years. By 1976, The Residents had fourteen hours of video filmed and were not even two-thirds of the way through what they had of the incomplete script. To make things worse, 1/2" B&W video tape had become obsolete due to the introduction of the Beta and VHS colour formats, so the footage looked incredibly dated even though it was brand new. There was no way that the video could be transfered to film and re-shooting the footage was out of the question. The space limitations were becoming too restrictive as well -- it took a full year to build set for and film the night club scene, for instance. Finally, shortly after they released The Third Reich 'N' Roll, The Residents abandoned Vileness Fats. Not ones to let even failed projects go to waste, they proceeded to tease the outside world with stills from the film, incorporating the mysterious film that never was into their mythology.
Because the film and script were never completed, let along released, the story of Vileness Fats is rather difficult to describe. It deals with the community of Vileness Flats, a town populated by round one-armed midgets. (The film's name was changed to "Fats" later for no adequately explained reason, while the town retained the original "Flats") The synopsis here is deduced from a number of sources and may not be entirely accurate, but it should give you an idea of what's going on:
Vileness Flats is being threatened by the Atomic Shopping Carts, armoured carts with huge drills on the front (the props were "borrowed" from a local Safeway). A Bridge keeps the Shopping Carts away, but the villagers also hire the Berry Boy twins, a pair of Siamese twin tag-team wrestlers named Arf & Omega, to protect them. The twins fight off the Carts, saving Vileness Flats, and are honoured with a banquet. The mayor thanks the pair and Steve, Vileness Flats' religious leader, gives a long, boring speech. The twins heckle him, throwing their dinner (giant broccoli) at him and he stomps off, depressed.
The defeat of the Shopping Carts leads to a new problem, however. The Bell Boys are a gang of midgets who live in the desert on the other side of the Bridge. They disguise themselves as meat and cross the now-safe Bridge to steal the real meat in the village, and their raids are depriving the villagers of necessary protein.
Steve has his own problems as well. No-one except his mother (played by Marge Howard) knows that he is really two people. Not only is he Steve, religious leader of Vileness Flats, but he is also Lonesome Jack, the leader of the Bell Boys and mastermind of the raids. To complicate matters further, both Steve and Jack are in love with an immortal Indian princess, Weescoosa (Sally Lewis), who has been spending eternity searching for her true love. Whenever it looks like she has found him, however, he dies.
The raids by the Bell Boys are causing unrest in the village and fights are breaking out due to the lack of food. The villagers ask the Berry Boys to deal with the attacks, and they agree. Before they do anything, however, they head off to a local nightclub to relax. The first act is a performance of Eloise, a song from The Residents' unreleased album Baby Sex. Next comes a song sung by Peggy Honeydew, the nightclub's singer (played by Margaret Smik). Honeydew flirts with both of the twins, getting each jealous of the other. She is part of a plan to get rid of the two so that Lonesome Jack and his boys will be free to attack the village, and it works. The two become enraged with each other and have a knife-fight right there in the club, killing each other.
Steve, confused and worried about the whole mess, decides to jump into a local volcano to get rid of the problems.
And that's about as far as the film got.
Vileness Fats dominated The Residents' lives for the four years that it was in production. Even when they were taking breaks from the film and working on other projects, Fats would creep in. The "Arf & Omega, featuring The Singing Lawnchairs" track from Santa Dog is taken directly from the film's soundtrack; Margaret Smik joined The Residents as Peggy Honeydew for the Oh Mummy! Oh Daddy! Can't You See That It's True; What the Beatles Did to Me, "I Love Lucy" Did to You performance in 1976; and the famous Land of 1000 Dances promotional video was filmed, for the most part, on the Vileness Fats sets using Vileness Fats props.
In 1984, The Residents discovered that the state of video technology had advanced to the point where they could salvage their old 1/2" Vileness Fats work and transfer it to VHS. They created a half-hour video from their original fourteen hours of footage and recorded an almost all-new soundtrack, calling the result Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats?.
The new video focussed on the Berry Boys' story, from the Shopping Cart battle to the twins' death at the night club. It also spends a lot of time with Steve's mother, but only touches briefly on the Bell Boys, Lonesome Jack, and Weescoosa. Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? has very little dialogue and doesn't worry too much about getting a coherent story across.
The question this video's title poses may be answered soon. Ralph America is in the process of attempting to preserve the original 14 hours of Vileness Fats video, mastering it off of the ancient video tapes, in the hopes of producing a Vileness Fats DVD some time in the near future.
The videotape also includes half an hour of live footage from the Mole Show tour.
When the Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? video came out, The Residents released a soundtrack album as well. It has recently been re-released on CD as part of the new "Film and Video Series" from ESD.
The first 98 copies of the Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? soundtrack album were pressed on transparent red vinyl. Eloise was left out of the program listing on the original LP.
When the Moleshow / Whatever Happened to Vileness Fats? video was finally released in Europe in PAL format, The Residents celebrated with the PAL TV LP, a collection of tracks from both videos.
The first 5000 copies of the album were pressed on red vinyl and had the side labels reversed.