Friday, April 23, 2010

The Town That Dreaded Negative Publicity

A few blurbs on Charles B. Pierce's The Town that Dreaded Sundown, one of his best films and still criminally unavailable on DVD.

From The Northwest Arkansas Times, Jan. 27, 1977

Phantom Killer Still Haunting Texarkana

TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) -- Does a phantom killer still lurk in the streets of this city on the Texas border? City leaders say no. Advertisements on television and in newspapers say yes.

"In 1946 this man killed five people. Today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.," say the ads for the movie "The Town That Dreaded Sundown."

"The ad is too much -- that's just not true," says Mayor Harvey Nelson. "There's objection that this whole thing will be spreading fear in the community. There are relatives of the victims still living here, and this is very unpleasant to them."

The movie is based on the Phantom Killer murders, which occurred between March and May 1946. The victims were usually young people parked in lovers' lanes. The men were killed first, shot in the head. The women were tortured before they were killed.

Four of the deaths occurred on the Texas side of the border, one in Arkansas. City leaders complain that the ads single out the Arkansas city.

The murders were never solved, the killer never punished.

"The fellow they thought -- but couldn't prove -- was the Phantom was sent to prison in Leavenworth, Kan.," said Harvey Wood, executive editor of the Texarkana Gazette. "It is absurd to say the Phantom is still at large. It scares the children."

Nothing like the panic that occurred in 1946 has been sparked by the movie.

"No one is going around locking their doors, afraid to come out like they did back then (in 1946)," Wood added. "People have lived through so many Phantom stories they're not upset anymore -- except the kids."

Police Captain Walter Weir added: "There's been no problem that I've heard of. Everyone's going to see the movie, but there's nothing like a panic."

Nelson said he hasn't and won't go see the R-rated movie, which has been playing in town for nearly a month. "I wouldn't be interested. I lived through it. I like tings that are amusing. This isn't amusing."

Capt. M.T. Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers was in charge of the investigation, and is a key character in the movie. Now 85 and living in Dallas, Gonzaullas said Wednesday that he's still devoted to solving the Phantom Murder case.

Is the Phantom Murderer still at large? "That's the 64-dollar question," he said.

From The Oakland Tribune, Feb. 28, 1977

Film Angers Town

TEXARKANA, Ark. (AP) -- City councilmen have voted to file a lawsuit against the producer of the movie "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" for advertising that "a phantom killer still lurks in the streets of Texarkana, Ark."

City Atty. Joe Griffin said the suit was prompted when Texarkana officials visited Washington, D.C., and were kidded about the advertisement.

John Stroud, a lawyer for producer Charles B. Pierce, said Pierce already has asked distributors of the film to change the newspaper and television ads.

The movie is based on the Phantom Killer murders that occurred between March and May 1946. Five persons were killed, and no one was arrested despite a massive investigation.

**The article below predates the film's release, but includes the interesting bit of trivia that the governor's wife was the script supervisor on Town! David Pryor, coincidentally, also served as a U.S. Senator from 1978 to 1997, and his son, Mark Pryor, now holds his former Senate seat. At the time of this article, the Pryors were separated, but later reconciled.

From The Northwest Arkansas Times, Oct. 20, 1976

Barbara Pryor Has Movie Job

LITTLE ROCK (AP) -- Arkansas First Lady Barbara Pryor -- the estranged wife of Gov. David Pryor -- has become the secretary-treasurer of a new movie production company.

The company, Fair Winds Productions Inc., is scheduled to shortly begin filming "Wishbone Cutter," a western, along the Buffalo River.

Mrs. Pryor will be co-producer of the movie, an official said.

The company is headed by Earl Smith, who has been associated with some of Charles B. Pierce's Arkansas-based productions.

Smith said Mrs. Pryor became interested in movie production while working as a script supervisor on the Pierce production of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown," filmed in Texarkana.

He said Mrs. Pryor is talented and "extremely efficient."

Pryor's office said the governor has nothing to do with the film.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Creeping Unknowns

UPDATE (2/14/2013): I've put together yet another list of rare and lost regional horrors. See the new batch here!

Many regional horror films are justifiably obscure; they received limited release in theaters or on video, and in some cases were only distributed in a handful of states. There are a handful of films, though, that are beyond obscure -- mysterious movies that seemingly exist only by way of myths, rumors and a handful of rare posters.

Below I've listed what I consider to be the rarest regional horror films ever made. Some may yet turn up on video (one, in fact, already has), while others have probably vanished forever. I've managed to see two of the 14 films, and I have a line on at least a couple of others. Have YOU seen any of them? Do you think you've uncovered an even MORE obscure regional horror? Leave a comment!

The Weird Ones (1962)
Filmed In: Texas
Director: Pat Boyette
Status: Lost
All copies of this oddball sci-fi flick from comic artist, screenwriter and TV personality Pat Boyette were destroyed in a garage fire. Boyette's other horror film, the leprous Dungeon of Harrow (1964), however, is available on almost every public domain DVD set ever released, which I guess makes it the opposite of a lost film.

The image above comes courtesy of the folks at Comicartville.

Demon from Devil's Lake (1964)
Filmed In: Oklahoma
Director: Russ Marker
Status: Lost
This notorious phantom film was set to be the follow-up to Marker's Texas-lensed Nazi time travel epic The Yesterday Machine, but according to Marker the investors ran out of money and Marker himself ran out of patience before the film was completed, making it probably the rarest of these rare films in that it is not only lost, but also incomplete.

However, producer Don Phillips' wife Laurie turned up over at the Classic Horror Film Board claiming that the film was mostly completed, and that Phillips had handed it over to Larry Buchanan, which could explain why frequent Buchanan collaborator James Sullivan wound up remaking it as Night Fright. So the mystery deepens. At any rate, actor/singer Bob "Git It" Kelly gave me copies of the two rockabilly songs he wrote for the film, so at least I have an idea what the movie may have sounded like.

The Devil's Sisters (1966)
Filmed In: Florida
Director: William Grefe
Status: Lost
This true-crime/white slavery pic was based on the real life case of the Gonzales sisters, who murdered several dozen women in Mexico while running a prostitution ring.

You can see some nice advertisements for the film over at The Temple of Schlock.

The Transformation (A Sandwich of Nightmares) (1974)
Filmed In: New York
Director: Lewis Jackson
Status: Lost
Before making the psycho tour-de-force Christmas Evil (1980), Lewis Jackson directed the softcore film The Deviators (1970) and this peculiar experiment about a sex cult, book-ended with behind-the-scenes footage of the production. According to Jackson, he used to own a print of Transformation, but his ex-wife took it. If anybody knows Jackson's ex-wife, ask her to go through her garage and rescue this piece of history!

Again, the fine folks over at The Temple of Schlock have provided some imagery.

Banned (1989)
Filmed In: New York
Director: Roberta Findlay
Status: Unreleased
Unfortunately, Roberta Findlay's final feature as director (which includes an early appearance by Debbie Rochon) was never released in any form. It's about a jazz guitarist that's possessed by the ghost of a dead punk rocker.

Silent Death (1983)
Filmed In: New Jersey
Director: Vaughn Christion
Status: Unknown
Details are sketchy about this masked vigilante film that may or may not have horror overtones, but the Gore Gazette gave it a scathing review after what was probably its only theatrical engagement at the Paramount Theater in Newark, N.J., on a triple bill with Maniac (1980) and An Eye for an Eye (1981).

Director Vaughn Christion and producer Doyle Taylor are still active, and you can see clips of Christion's Web series Wildflower here.

Revenge of Bigfoot (Rufus J. Pickle and the Indian, 1979)
Filmed In: Arkansas
Director: Harry Thomason
Status: Unknown
This one concerns a bigot, an Indian and a sasquatch, but I can't tell you much more beyond that because it appears to have vanished off the face of the Earth -- unless Thomason himself has a copy. Thankfully, several members of the cast have posted their memories over on the Internet Movie Database.

The Naked Witch (The Naked Temptress, 1967)
Filmed In: New Jersey
Director: Andy Milligan
Status: Lost
One of Milligan's earliest period pieces, this lost film is frequently confused with Larry Buchanan's The Naked Witch (1964), which is available on DVD from Something Weird.

The Wednesday Children (1973)
Filmed In: Ohio
Director: Robert D. West
Status: Limited Availability
We covered this pseudo-religious cautionary horror film here. Unless you are a frequent viewer of Wadsworth, Ohio, public access station WCTV, or you live in my house, odds are you'll have a hard time seeing this one.

The Beast From the Beginning of Time (1965)
Filmed In: Kansas
Director: Tom Leahy
Status: Limited Availability
Popular horror host Tom Leahy (a.k.a. The Host) made this film in Wichita along with his cohorts at KARD, but it remained unseen until it debuted on local television in 1980. Since then, the film turned up as an episode of The Basement Sublet of Horror, and that show's host Gunther Dedmund was gracious enough to let us view it. If you really need to see Leahy in action, check out King Kung Fu (1976).

Sasqua (1975)
Filmed In: Massachusetts
Director: Channon J. Scott
Status: Limited Availability
We first learned about this obscure Bigfoot movie over at the Temple of Schlock, and the folks over at Cult Reviews provided some more detail on their site. Channon Scott (who also had credits on The Black Angels and Dolly Dearest) claims to have a copy of the film, and other copies are allegedly floating around. There's also this clip on YouTube:

Voodoo Heartbeat (1972)
Filmed In: Nevada
Director: Charles Nizet
Status: Limited Availability*
Horror-espionage hybrid about Chinese spies trying to steal a serum that turns people into vampires. Director Nizet made six films before his alleged homicide in Brazil in 2003.

*UPDATE: A careful reader reminded us (see comment below) that dogged researcher and author Stephen Thrower (his "Nightmare Movies" may be one of the most important texts on horror films generated in the past 20 years -- seriously) has located a print of Voodoo Heartbeat in the UK, and a thorough dissection is expected in Volume 2 of "Nightmare Movies."

The Hackers (1987)
Filmed In: Michigan
Director: John Duncan
Status: Available!
Rare shot-on-video slasher film about crazed, murderous handymen. According to The Bleeding Skull, it was never distributed outside the Midwest. The film's production company, Camelot Studios in North Street, Mich., has done us all a favor and added a page dedicated to their lone horror opus here. Although Camelot now offers the film on DVD, I've included it on the list because, until recently, it remained so obscure.

Blood Circus (1985)
Filmed In: Maryland
Directors: John Corso, Joseph Ryan Zwick
Status: Unknown
We previously covered the origins of this aliens vs. wrestlers flick here, as well as providing an update on the life and legend of unrepentant former infomercial huckster Santo Rigatuso, a.k.a. Santo Gold, a.k.a. Bob Harris. Santo claims to have discovered the previously lost masters and 35mm negative for Blood Circus. Until he finds a distributor, you can order a copy of the "Making of Blood Circus" from his Web site.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fall Cinema Wasteland Guests Announced

I usually mark the arrival of Spring with a number of annual rituals -- the first official lawn mowing, blowing the soot off the grill, and making the trek up to my old stomping grounds in Strongsville, Ohio, for the Cinema Wasteland expo.

I only made a quick trip this year, just long enough to snag an autograph from Day of the Dead's Bub the Zombie, buy some stills for the book, and wolf down a pulled pork sandwich in the Holiday Inn restaurant with some of my friends over at The Extreme Society Show.

I did make time to snag a flyer for the October event, and as is often the case, regional horror fans have plenty of reasons to make the journey to Cleveland.

Topping the guest list, and back by popular demand, is the Godfather of Gore himself, H.G. Lewis, along with the star of the Connecticut-spawned I Spit on Your Grave, Camille Keaton.

Also on the bill will be Austin Stoker, veteran of both Horror High (Texas) as well as William Girdler's Abby and The Zebra Killer (Kentucky), along with his Abby co-star, Carol Speed. Evil Dead alums Josh Becker and Tom Sullivan will also be on hand.

On a completely unrelated note, we were stoked to learn that Don May and the folks at Synapse Films will be releasing three long out-of-print Hammer horror films on DVD -- Vampire Circus, Twins of Evil and Hands of the Ripper, along with all 13 episodes of the "Hammer House of Horror" TV series. That has nothing to do with regional horror films at all, except our friend Daniel Griffith -- the busy documentarian behind the upcoming K. Gordon Murray biopic, as well as the William Grefe doc They Came from the Swamp -- will be handling the extras for the highly anticipated discs. Synapse hopes to have the DVDs available by this fall.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Banned in Sarasota

When Blood Feast, generally credited as the first American gore film, opened in the fall of 1963, drive-in audiences responded by lining up for miles to see it, and local bluenoses reacted with shock and horror at the film's crude gore and crass title. In Sarasota, Fla., just a few hours drive from the Miami locales where the movie was made, the film was actually pulled from the Ritz Theater by court order after a group of 12 concerned citizens signed a petition to have the film shut down after one showing. The petition, filed in court by attorney William E. Robertson, declared that the film depicted "sadistic and inhuman behavior."

A hearing was originally scheduled on the case on Nov. 22, 1963, but postponed -- the court was closed to mark the observance of President John F. Kennedy's funeral services.

The ban lasted well into 1964. In March, the District Court of Appeals in Lakeland reversed Judge Robert Willis' issuance of a temporary injunction against the film, stating that the judge had abused his discretionary powers by denying the theater's petition for setting a bond in the restraining order. The plaintiffs appealed the to the Florida Supreme Court, but the injunction was eventually dismissed by a circuit judge in May of 1965 after months of inactivity.

Blood Feast ran into similar problems all across the country. In East Haven, Conn., a drive-in canceled the film after a group of police officers viewed it and found it objectionable. The Pittsburgh Press refused to run advertisements for the film, prompting a group of local drive-in owners to sue the paper. The Armstrong Circuit in Ohio canceled Blood Feast after patrons raised a stink about the trailer (which played to a largely family audience during a showing of Spencer's Mountain and The Wheeler Dealers in Toledo). In Philadelphia, the manager of the Nixon Theater was arrested for exhibiting an obscene film and contributing to the delinquency of a minor after screening Blood Feast for an audience of teenagers in 1964.

The ban in Sarasota prompted a number of letters to the editor of the local Herald-Tribune, both for and against the injunction.

In an interview with the paper in March 1964, producer David Friedman noted that the film had played in 45 states, but Sarasota was the only city where legal action had been taken. (He also noted that the film had outgrossed Cleopatra -- in Belgium.)

"At first I was very amused by the injunction," Friedman said. "But then when the case kept getting pushed back, I became annoyed. Legally my company hasn't entered into it, but if Florida Theaters decides to drop the case, I'll have no other choice but take action with my own lawyers, for the simple reason that no one person or a group has a right to play God. If they want to act as a board of censors, then fine, but first let the city establish such a board by ordinance and then let those 12 run for it in an election."

Sarasota resident John Higgins chimed in with a letter published in the Herald-Tribune on June 2, defending the film. Here's the closing of the letter:

"Sometime [sic] ago in Miami three people were so disgusted with a public display that they went to court to have its showing prohibited, because, with the dictatorial complex, it matters little whether the subject be sacred or profane. The three people could not show that the display could arouse the passions of even the weakest mind. Nevertheless they won their case and the Christmas Nativity scene was removed from the lawn of the public school.

"If that can happen to a gory movie and at the other end of the spectrum it can happen to the innocent pastoral scene of the Nativity, can it be wondered that we ask, "By what right?" What about all the possibilities between these two extremes? The injunctive approach is a dangerous one. If each little group took its views to court and had injunctions issued to suit its particular views -- where would democracy be?"