Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March Odds and Ends

The return of the Bleeding Skull; farewell to porn star Jamie Gillis; God's Bloody Acre on DVD; and more surprising news and updates!

Hard to believe it's almost Easter (and time for my annual viewing of the killer bunny flick Night of the Lepus). I've been hard at work on the book and gathering material for the blog, but I somehow managed to not get around to posting any of this stuff:

* I was surprised and delighted to see that one of my favorite Web sites, The Bleeding Skull, had been reactivated, ending creator Joe Ziemba's two-year hiatus. The site (where we first learned about the obscuro shot-on-video horror flick The Hackers) now has a new look, a new mission, and a new review of Death Brings Roses, a previously unheard-of film by Crypt of Dark Secrets auteur Jack Weis.

* Porn star Jamie Gillis, 66, died in February. The Columbia University grad was a fixture of the New York-based adult film scene in the 1970s, but also appeared in a number of horror and horror-themed adult films, including Dracula Sucks (1979), Dracula Exotica (1980), Joel M. Reed's Night of the Zombies (1981), and the more recent Die You Zombie Bastards! (2005).

* The Brooklyn Academy of Music is having a Bill Gunn retrospective this week that includes screenings of Personal Problems (1980) on April 1; the arty New York-lensed vampire film Ganja & Hess (1973) on April 2; The Landlord (1970) on April 3; and the extremely rare Stop (1970) on April 4 followed by The Angel Levine (1970).

*Word on the street is that Code Red will be releasing Harry Kerwin and Wayne Crawford's made-in-Florida redneck revenge flick God's Bloody Acre. The company has also announced a DVD for the too-long-out-of-print Slithis.

* And finally, we just found out one of our favorite writers, UK-based Kim Newman, is updating one of our favorite books, the 1985 (released in the U.S. in 1989) tome Nightmare Movies. The entirely revised and updated is coming out through Bloomsbury Publishing.

That's all for now, but I've got a lot of good stuff planned for April: A chat with Track of the Moonbeast co-writer Charles Sinclair; the wacky story behind the making of Island Claws; and a look at the rarest regional horror films ever made.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Regional Horror Film That Wasn't

Just in case you were wondering, there is a lot more to me than just my deranged obsession with low-budget regional horror films. Case in point: my obsession with the low-budget California horror film The Creeping Terror (1964).

Considered by some to be the worst movie ever made, The Creeping Terror was produced and directed by former Bridgeport, Connecticut, resident Arthur White, a.k.a. Arthur Nelson, a.k.a. Bradley Nichols, a.k.a. Vic Savage, an actor/writer/grifter/alcoholic/philanderer whose life story is far stranger than anything he ever managed to capture on film.

Rather than get bogged down in the details, you can read more about him in this lengthy thread over at the Classic Horror Film Board. He's also the subject of a new documentary, now in pre-production, from busy filmmaker Pete Schuermann. You can follow the progress of the project over on his new Web site, www.creepfilm.com.

The article below was published just after White released his first film, the J.D. flick Street Fighter. While it's unlikely that the horror film project he announced at the time was ever going to be made (White was either looking for publicity or money or both), White was at least thinking about doing a genre film, so perhaps the seeds of The Creeing Terror were sewn from this remnants of this phantom film.

Within a year, White would abandon his wife and children and go on the lam with his teenage girlfriend. It would take another three years and several arrests before he was able to scam enough money to launch another movie project.

From The Bridgeport Sunday Herald, Oct. 25, 1959

Monroe Locale of Horror Film by Vic Savage

Calm, suburban Monroe has become a Connecticut movieland with the filming of a North Star Production science-fiction horror picture, "The Beast" under the direction of 26-year-old Vic Savage.

The North Star banner, owned by Savage and his brother John, both Bridgeporters, has already turned out "Street Fighter," shot in Southern California, currently on national lease through Joseph Brenner Associates.

Savage, who serves the triple role of producer-director-actor in the latest effort, chose the rolling Monroe hills because of the availability of certain local players whom the Savage's have known since childhood.

Only a half year ago, backed by local and West Coast money, North Star Productions became a reality and activity on "Street Fighter," the maiden effort, was begun. Soon after the movie premiered, Savage was swinging into motion on plans for the current production.

John Savage was cast in the lead role with the femme top billing going to Barbara Young. The script was written by Vic Savage, who took on the added tasks of directing and producing.

Savage, educated in Bridgeport public schools, migrated to California six years ago to be near the subject of his childhood dreams, motion pictures. He's lived on the Coast since studying and learning the mechanics and intricacies of making film.

He admits that in film making, as in other business fields, there's little substitute for experience and know how and begin close to the pros is the best place to be situated.

Getting set up has been one problem the new company has been faced with in its freshman stages. Another which confronts the company is breaking the exclusive inner circle of movie-making big time.

Savage says "Street Fighter" has already been screened in New York for people interested in marketing the film overseas. In addition, there have been inquiries from top movie companies in New York and Los Angeles on commitments for "The Beast."

The latter should be ready for print and distribution within a few months -- and Savage has plans to plunge into some topical American scene category films as North Star's next endeavor.

Savage has been encouraged with the box office showing in New York and advocates that the movie industry, providing sound family entertainment, can hold its own against the threat of television.

It's a rebuttal against the advice handed out by some entertainment experts that TV offers the only future for young people in the show business field.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Still Crazy After All These Years

Pittsburgh, Pa.

With the remake now in theaters, I figured it was time for a post on George Romero's The Crazies (1973).

While Night of the Living Dead was still in the process of building its cult audience, Romero directed two commercially disappointing films, the drama There's Always Vanilla (The Affair, 1971) and the supernaturally-themed Season of the Witch (Hungry Wives, 1972).

The Crazies was a return to form, although sandwiched as it was between Romero's zombie classic and his artistic tour-de-force Martin (1977), it's always seemed like something of an ugly stepchild in the Romero oeuvre.

In the film, the government attempts to cover up the accidental release of a bioweapon (code named Trixie) into the water supply near Evans City, Pa. The military swoops in, declares martial law and quarantines the community, but the hazmat-suited soldiers soon find themselves confronted by the now infected citizens, who have been turned into homicidal maniacs by the chemical.

The Crazies initially had a very abbreviated theatrical release in 1973, and according to a 1978 clip in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it never even played a theater in Romero's home town. It was re-released under the title Code Name: Trixie and under its original title by the newly formed Laurel Entertainment in 1976. The film nevertheless had a clear influence (along with David Cronenberg's Rabid) on many of the infection-themed zombie films of the past decade -- notably 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Romero's Dawn of the Dead.

You can read TIME magazine's take on The Crazies from the April 2, 1973 issue here, where the unnamed reviewer describes Romero's scripts as hovering "dangerously close to illiteracy."

And just for fun, you can compare trailers below:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Peter Graves, 1926-2010

We were sad to learn of the passing of former "Mission: Impossible" star Peter Graves this week. In addition to his TV work, he was in a slew of cheap horror and sci-fi flicks over the years, including It Conquered the World (1956), Beginning of the End (1957), Killers From Space (1954) and The Clonus Horror (1979).

He never made a regional horror film, although he was in the Louisiana-lensed Bayou, a.k.a. Poor White Trash in 1957. He also shares a credit with Blood Stalkers director and bigfoot hunter Robert W. Morgan -- the 1976 cryptozoological classic The Mysterious Monsters (1976). So to honor Mr. Graves, a brief video sampling of one of our favorite bigfoot/Loch Ness Monster documentaries:

Here's Graves in a clip from the film:

Here's the ridiculous boy scout dramatization:

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Devil Went Down to Wadsworth

The Wednesday Children (1973)
Wadsworth, Ohio

One of the best things about researching regional horror films is that I occasionally come across a movie that not only have I never heard of, nobody else has either. So I was pretty excited when I saw that, as part of their "Endangered List" project, the folks over at the Temple of Schlock recently posted some info on an obscure Ohio film called The Wednesday Children.

I'd never heard of The Wednesday Children before, so I was quite surprised to see that it had been written and directed by one of my old professors at Kent State, Robert West. When I knew him, West was a member of the radio/TV department -- tall, stooped, wearing owl-like glasses and something of an eccentric, he handled most of the film classes, including a Cult Films course that I took my sophomore year. (I wonder how my parents would have reacted if they knew I'd spent some of my hard-earned tuition dollars to watch Flesh Gordon unspool one quiet Saturday afternoon.)

When this film was made, West was a program manager at Cleveland radio station WJW and a prof at John Carroll University. He was also a Universalist-Unitarian minister (he also plays a minister in the film), which would at least partly explain why this film so closely resembles the low-budget Christian films made during the same period.

Robert D. West

Intrigued, I did a quick Google search and discovered that not only did The Wednesday Children still exist, it had recently played on the Wadsworth public access cable station. I took a chance, sent an email to the station management, and within a week had a copy of this regional rarity spinning in my DVD player. (A big "Thank you" to Johanna Perrino at WCTV for providing a copy of the film.)

The film was produced by Wadsworth native Homer Baldwin. Baldwin, by the way, was a former mailman who later became a cable commissioner and producer for WCTV, which explains why the film is in their library. You can read his obituary here. When Baldwin was 40, he enrolled in cinematography courses and started his own film company in Wadsworth while working as a custodian at Wadsworth High. His office was at the school was next to both the AV department and Time Warner Cable's access studio, and Baldwin soon began taping school events and creating programming for the cable station. In the 1980s, he played a key role in getting Time Warner to relinquish control of the studio to the city, launching WCTV in the process.

But back to The Wednesday Children. The plot: Young Scott Miller's parents have subjected him to the type of banal neglect that was common in the laissez-faire 1970s -- dad (Donald Murray) works long hours and seems to care more about his model airplanes than his son, while Scott's stepmother, played by Marji Dodril, is a bit of a nag and wears a wig (evidentally a sign of her duplicitousness). Enter Mr. Fenton (Al Miskell), the weird church janitor who meets secretly with the local children in an old barn and promises to teach them how to get rid of the adults in their lives using something called "transference."

Although he's supposed to be diabolical (and more than just a bit creepy, what with his hanging out in barns with a bunch of little kids), Mr. Fenton's spiel is closer to the type of New Age claptrap you could hear from the streetcorner gurus of the era -- and exactly the type of stuff that so alarmed the likes of Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham.

Mr. Fenton - standard bearer for creepy janitors

This really isn't quite a horror film. The bulk of The Wednesday Children is the type of didactic, "are you listening to this important life lesson I'm giving you" stuff you'd find in a run-of-the-mill relgious movie of the time -- don't be such a self-absorbed jerk and spend more time with your kids, otherwise they will fall under the sway of diabolical, humanist hippies. (The scenes of Mrs. Miller wandering desperately through the abandoned streets of Wadsworth bring to mind Russ Doughten's The Thief in the Night.) But then there's the wacky climax.

If The Wednesday Children followed the pattern of the cautionary Christian films of the period, it could have ended any number of ways: A final act of selfless parental love could have saved everyone, or Mrs. Miller might have woken up in one of those "it was all a dream" cop-out endings, or Mr. Fenton and his minions might have triumphed, provding a lesson to lax parents everywhere.

But the last ten minutes or so definitely veer into horror territory, with all the kids swarming various adults while making sieg-heil salutes in order to magically “transfer” them somewhere; the father storming into a barn and screaming at the sight of .... something kept off camera; the mother frantically running around the empty streets and discovering that all the adults have vanished, rapture-style.

And just when you think you’re either going to get a good dose of “this is what COULD happen if you Christians don’t tend your children” -- I'll issue a big SPOILER ALERT here if you think you'll ever watch this movie -- the terrible tykes give the evil janitor a taste of his own “transference” medicine, then run outside, ring the dinner bell and dance with joy in the front yard like they just stumbled into the climax of a Ray Dennis Steckler movie. The end.

Since my initial viewing, I've thought a lot about The Wednesday Children and the questions it leaves lingering the in minds of the audience -- like, what just happened? Why is that little boy wearing his mom’s wig? Who’s going to cook for these kids?

I don't know if I'll ever find the answers, but I've come to the conclusion that if anybody ever makes a prequel to The Children of the Corn, it will probably look a lot like The Wednesday Children.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Legend of Charles B. Pierce, 1938 - 2010

Arkansas filmmaker Charles B. Pierce, the auteur behind The Legend of Boggy Creek and The Town that Dreaded Sundown, passed away last week in Dover, Tenn. He was 71.

If there were a Mount Rushmore of regional filmmakers, Pierce's mug would be right up there alongside George Romero and Herschell Gordon Lewis. While it doesn't necessarily have the same cultural cachet as Night of the Living Dead or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Legend of Boggy Creek is a touchstone film for fans who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s and had even a passing interest in bigfoot. The supposedly true story of the Fouke Monster -- a hairy biped that supposedly roamed the Fouke, Ark., region in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- terrorized legions of young viewers who saw the film either during its initial release or one of its many, many TV airings.

When I started working on The Dead Next Door, Pierce was at the top of my interview list; unfortunatley, he was already in poor health by the time I tracked him down, and the interview never happened. I have tracked down various Pierce- and Boggy Creek-related items from a number of old newspapers and magazines, so I'll try to post those over the next week or so.

Pierce worked in advertising, and even appeared as a kiddie show host on Texarkana television before launching his film career with Boggy Creek. The low-budget faux documentary reportedly made $25 million, and he followed up with a string of horror films, westerns and even an ill-fated viking movie starring Lee Majors (The Norseman, 1978). Along the way he also found time to write the original story for the Dirty Harry flick Sudden Impact (1983).

Among his later horror offerings were Boggy Creek II (1983, which featured Pierce and his son in lead roles, both wearing alarmingly tiny cut-off denim shorts), and The Town that Dreaded Sundown (1977), which was based on the unsolved Texarkana Moonlight Murders that took place in the 1940s. As with most of Pierce's "based on a true story" projects, this one took significant liberties with the source material (the memorable death-by-trombone sequence being an obvious highlight).

In 2008, the Little Rock Film Festival honored Pierce with a tribute that included a Q&A between Pierce and childhood friend Harry Thomason. The Festival also established the Charles B. Pierce Award for the best film made in Arkansas.

You can read Pierce's Associated Press obituary here, or check out the coverage in the Texarkana Gazette.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Gainesville Ghoul

From The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 7, 1972