Larry Stouffer's Horror High (1974), recently released on DVD by Code Red, has long been a favorite of mine. The Texas film is a take on the Jekyll & Hyde story, with awkward teen chemist Vernon Potts (Pat Cardi) accidentally transforming himself into a murderous monster. In 2007, Mansfield, Ohio, resident and Horror High fanatic Jeff Kilgore adapted the film as a musical (with Stouffer's permission), and presented it four times at the Mansfield Playhouse, with Cardi in attendance for the opening performance.
I conducted an e-mail interview with Kilgore just before the play debuted in the summer of 2007, originally for an article that appeared on the Fangoria Web site (but that has since vanished during the tangled redesign of that site). As far as I know there haven't been any repeat performances, but with the film now out on DVD perhaps some enterprising horror convention organizer can convince Jeff to dust off the script again ...
Where did you first see Horror High? Had you watched it a lot in the ensuing years, or did the memory just stick with you?
I first saw Horror High (as Twisted Brain) on television in 1979 on a Columbus-area late night movie program called Double Chiller Theatre. I saw it a total of three times between 1979 and 1981; twice on Double Chiller and once on a Cleveland station late-night movie. Between 1981 and 2004, the movie remained only a memory. The good old Friday night monster movie shows died off, and while I know it was available on VHS at one point, I'd never been able to locate a copy until I found it on DVD as part of a horror movie collection.
The film obviously struck some kind of nerve with you -- what, to you, is the appeal of the film?
I suppose it's emotionally satisfying on some basic level to witness a likeable character like Vernon Potts, who has been wronged by practically everyone in his life, find a way to extract revenge upon his tormentors. The worm turns, and all that. Something that escaped me when I first saw the film was the tragic romance within the plot. Vernon harbors a secret love for a girl named Robin, one of the popular girls in his class. Robin is the only classmate who treats him with any decency, and seems to have a bit of a crush on Vernon as well. Neither is ready to admit it to the other until it's much too late ... and I just found that to be hopelessly bittersweet and painfully romantic. Vernon and Robin find the love they've been searching for, but it ends unhappily ever after for them.
When and why did you start adapting it as a musical?
I started working on this around December of 2004. Initially, I was writing it simply to amuse myself; sort of a way to stave off the winter blues. I had loved the movie since I was 14 years old and decided it could work as a stage play. Originally I had envisioned a more comedic adaptation of the original screenplay, but I started toning down the jokes shortly into the writing of it. Once the comedy was eliminated, my inner voice spoke up and simply said, "This needs a rock score added to it. This crazy project of yours just might work for real ...".
In addition to Larry Stouffer, who else from the Horror High team have you been in contact with? How did you find them, and what was their response to your idea?
The DVD of Horror High I had purchased accurately recreated my previous viewings of the film -- the print was horribly faded and scratchy, the sound quality was abysmal; it was 1979 all over again. I had read somewhere that Larry Stouffer had provided an uncut, crystal clear copy of the original Horror High for a screening at a film festival, so I did a search on the Internet and found his e-mail address. I wrote to him, asking if there were any plans to release a "special edition" of the film, considering the sorry shape of the print used for the DVD. He wrote back a few days later (much to my surprise!) and informed me it had been so long ago since the film had been shot that he figured there would be little or no interest in the picture at all. If I remember correctly, I replied to him with an e-mail that began, "Dear Mr. Stouffer ... I have this incredibly wacky idea ..."
Mr. Stouffer put me in contact with James P. Graham, who was the executive producer of the original film. I wrote a proposal to Mr. Graham detailing exactly what I wanted to do with Horror High. Mr. Graham telephoned me one morning, we discussed my idea for about 20 minutes, and then a week or so later I had permission to continue with my work. Eventually through them I also came in contact with Pat Cardi, who played Vernon in the film.
All three gentlemen have been extremely supportive and encouraging with this project. I'm terribly grateful for their input, advice, and of course their blessing to let me "play around" with their original work!
Did you write all of the songs, or do you have a collaborator?
I wrote all of the original songs in the play, as well as a couple of pieces of incidental music that are scattered throughout the play. There is an instrumental piece from the original film I rearranged and wrote lyrics for. And of course, there is an arrangement of a song fans of the film will most definitely recognize ...!
Those who composed and wrote the music from the film that is used in the musical play are Rush Beesley, Euel Box, Jerry Coward and Joy Buxton. My collaborators ... that is, those who performed, recorded and engineered the new songs, are Walter Burbach and Christopher Dillon, performing as The Liquid Air. Walter played electric guitar and programmed some of the keyboards, Christopher played bass guitar and drums, and I programmed keyboards as well.
Can you tell me a bit about your background -- college, theatrical experience, etc.?
I grew up a genuine "monster kid" of the 1970's, reading Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, building Aurora monster model kits and staying up late on Friday nights watching horror and sci-fi movies on television. I became interested in theater in 1976, partially from watching reruns of "Dark Shadows" on WEWS out of Cleveland. The next year I tried out for my first school play, an adaptation of the TV series "Get Smart" in which I played the Chief of CONTROL. (I just realized something; television has had more significance than I realized in my theatrical interests ...!)
Over the years I've done quite a bit of local community theater work, both behind and on the stage. I played several characters in Neil Simon's The Good Doctor, the Reverend John Whitherspoon in 1776, and was part of an improvisational comedy group for close to eight years. One of the roles I enjoyed most was playing Mr. Mushnik in Little Shop of Horrors at the beautiful Renaissance Theater in Mansfield during the summer of 2003. Being eaten up by the giant Audrey 2 was too much fun!
How did you get the Mansfield Playhouse to present the production?
More or less, I just kept pestering the Mansfield Playhouse board of trustees about it! I have been active there since 1998 and served on the board for a few years. They knew me, I knew them. I kept suggesting that they try it out seeing as how the stage is usually "dark" during the summer months. After some discussion, they agreed to give it a shot.
Can you describe the show, and how it compares to the plot of the film? Are there any particular special effects planned for the stage presentation?
This musical follows the film almost exactly; I added a couple of new scenes, but nothing was excised from the story. If you're familiar with the Twisted Brain version of the film, the opposite applies; there is an eight-minute long subplot involving Vernon's father that just meanders on and on and ON ... it stops the film dead in the water. When I made my proposal, I asked if I could strike that out of my version of the story. Mr. Graham told me, "We didn't shoot that, it wasn't in the script, we had nothing to do with it." So Vernon's father met his demise at my hands.
What are your plans for the show after its Mansfield debut?
After these initial 4 performances I plan to see if it needs any further polish, and then ... who knows? Hopefully Vernon Potts will eventually make his way to a theater near you...! :-)
The Dead Next Door is a blog about regional or "backyard" horror and science fiction films made from the late 1950s to the earlyl 1990s (and beyond). These films were released during the peak years of independent film production, created by a motley crew of seasoned pros, gifted amateurs, and enthusiastic genre fans, along with dozens of eccentric dreamers -- doctors, lawyers, insurance salesmen, publishers, commercial filmmakers, TV production crews and moonlighting pornographers -- all looking for their big break or a fast buck or both.