I’ve heard some deeply saddening news amid preparing this report. A lifelong personal hero has passed with the death of Jonathan Harris. Some of my earliest TV memories are of "Lost In Space," the incorrigible Dr. Smith and his "bubble-headed booby" sidekick, The Robot. Mr. Harris had been scheduled to appear at this Halloween edition of the Chiller Theatre Expo (Oct. 25-27, 2002), but fans were informed he’d bowed out due to an unforseen "family commitment." My thoughts are certainly with his wife, Gertrude, and son, Richard. And my thanks goes to Chiller for providing the opportunity to meet the good doctor last year. In fact, it was Mr. Harris, and dozens of other familiar faces such as his, that made this return Chiller pilgrimage an absolute must.
It’s Friday night and the entire lobby of the Sheraton Meadowlands hotel in East Rutherford, New Jersey is sardined with genre fans begging to be unleashed upon more than 15,000 square feet of memorabilia vendors and 90 or so luminaries from all stripes of film and television. I have one of the coveted "pre-show" tickets, yet there’s such pandemonium and at least three discernible lines, that I pounce on a chance to greet a B-royal.
Calling all exploiteers
"I was fortunate enough to meet you on the set of Blood Feast 2," I remind David F. Friedman. He invites me to sit down and I commence to gush about how pleased I was to have the opportunity to see he and Herschell Gordon Lewis back in action after so many years. He smiles, says what a joy it was to work with Herschell again. I start to excuse myself, but instead ask, "How do you feel about the picture? From an interview I read, I got the impression you aren’t entirely pleased with the final product." Friedman then explained that he was never keen on the idea of a Blood Feast sequel, because he didn’t think it had the legs of a Two Thousand Maniacs redux. "Fuad’s GRANDSON?!," Dave asks rhetorically. He says the young crew "didn’t listen," which caused both elder filmmakers to grumble. "At first it was ‘Us against them.’ Then we reasoned, hey, they’re paying us. We’ll do it their way and be done with it." He also didn’t cotton to what he described as the "sophomoric humor" of the script that ultimately "didn’t work." Yet he encourages me to see the film and form my own opinion. (It’s a 3-star underachiever that, except for the gore, looks and sounds NOTHING like a H.G. Lewis picture. More on that later.) Friedman would much rather praise his friend Herschell and fondly recall the time they spent working together again. That’s what he chooses to take from the experience.
Meanwhile, sexploitation fans will be pleased to note that Herschell and Dave’s Goldilocks and the Three Bares is coming to DVD from those cinematic Samaritans at Something Weird Video. It’s being paired with Friedman’s grindhouse classic A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine. He’s recorded a commentary for the disc.
My quick "Hello" kept right on truckin’ as the 79-year-old carny regaled me with sage wisdom gleaned from the midway such as, "Never educate a chump!" He told me about discovering his "Fanny Hill" on the beach. About shooting flicks in just five days with camera maestro Laszlo Kovacs. Yet it was when I thanked him for the time he’d taken with me that he said something that hit home. "If anyone comes up to me and says they like what I do," Friedman explains. "I have an OBLIGATION to speak to them and answer any question they may have. And it’s my pleasure to do so!" That generous belief is shared by most at Chiller, which is chief among the show’s strengths as a fantastic fan experience.
Old time tent revival
Last expo, a freak storm buckled the circus tent in the parking lot, scattering celebs and fans. The temporary outdoor venue was an adequate answer to Chiller’s ever-increasing growing pains by venting the overflow crowd. Now it’s no more and sorely missed. When I wasn’t excusing myself for mangling someone’s toes, I’d hear fest veterans hiss about "the lousy setup this year." I’m not sure I’d be so harsh. Here it’s a case of TOO MUCH of a good thing. What a problem to have! But rooting out your favorite stars DID turn into something of a scavenger hunt through the back rooms and various cubby holes where talent were stashed. Most of the time getting to them must have looked like salmon schooling up stream. Elbows flying. A slug’s stampede of "Pardon mes! Excuse mes! and Sorry about thats!" It was every man for himself in the dealer rooms as well. Hundreds were stranded for more than three hours when a 300-pound storm trooper jackknifed in front of the Sub Rosa Studios booth.
An excellent spot to escape the crowds and rest one’s dogs is in the seminar room. For the first time in 30 years, the cast of "Land of the Giants" has been reassembled — Heather Young (Betty Ann Hamilton), Deanna Lund (Valerie Scott), Don Matheson (Mark Wilson), Don Marshall (Dan Erickson), Stefan Arngrim (Barry Lockridge), Gary Conway (Capt. Burton) and special guest Kevin Hagen (Inspector Kobick). They dutifully answered giddy questions from the audience about the horrors of the "giant hand" prop and the indomitable Irwin Allen. Marshall’s written a feature film script titled Escape From a Giant Land and he’s gathering signatures to illustrate fan interest in the project. The series recently became available on DVD via Columbia House subscription. There was also a "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" panel featuring Allan Hunt (Stuart Riley), Terry Becker (Chief Sharkey) and series regular Warren Stevens.
Former Alfred Hitchcock heartthrob Tippi Hedren described the "nightmare" of having feathered critters tied to her bod for the big attic scene in The Birds. That, and how she spent the next week hospitalized for exhaustion. Hedren speaks about "Mr. Hitchcock" with great respect, even after he’d become "obsessed" with her and when his attentions weren’t returned, "he said he’d ruin my career and literally did" by keeping her under contract. Today her passion is the protection of exotic cats via The Roar Foundation’s Shambala Preserve. Roar is also the title of an ill-fated film in which Tippi starred along with then husband (and director) Noel Marshall and teenage daughter Melanie Griffith — both of whom were mauled by lions during filming. Events that underscored Tippi’s commitment to provide proper, safe habitats for abandoned and mistreated big cats. She’s recorded a commentary for the flick, which she expects will be released in December.
Truth be told, THIS is the lecture to which I’ve been most looking forward. An all grow’d up "Dennis the Menace" — Jay North — on the irresistible topic of "Serial Killers I’ve Known." The famously unhappy child star told of how he’d been abused by his aunt and felt ill-equipped to maintain the "happy go lucky" persona expected of him. Years afterward, he found a release for his pent up anger through the exploration of life’s darker side in true crime novels. From 1994 to 1997, he worked the graveyard shift as a correctional officer at Florida State Prison, often guarding inmates on death row. He’d sat in the electric chair. Was fascinated by Henry Lee Lucas and Otis Tool. But he actually got to know and even shared a "last meal" with Bernard Bolander during the two weeks spent watching him, making sure he didn’t "kill himself and cheat the state." Bolander had been convicted of killing four men and setting their bodies ablaze in a car trunk. Jay chose not to witness that execution. He did, however, see Jerry White put to death in the electric chair. "It was nothing like The Green Mile … It was quick. All of a sudden it was over … I don’t think anyone feels pain." He’s since left the facility citing rampant corruption among fellow officers. Mr. North is also active in a support group for child actors called A Minor Consideration. He’s considering writing a book about his experiences.
Next stop, Tromaville
Troma star Joe Fleishaker wonders like any other CineSchlocker, "When am I going to WIN one of your contests!?!" Any day now, Joe, any day now. He’s manning Troma’s booth greeting fans like myself and extolling the virtues of the studio‘s latest DVD excretions: Mutant insects challenge the brave men of Dead and Buried Exterminators in Bugged. CineSchlocker idol Linnea Quigley attempts to survive Graduation Day. A zombified keister flasher seeks vengeance in Buttcrack. Chicks rule in the post-apocalyptic world of Superstarlet A.D. But the most popular item of the weekend, no doubt buoyed by an amazing Chiller-only $35 sale price, seems to be The Tox Box featuring a handsome 3D keepcase, the first three Toxic Avenger films and the "Toxic Crusaders" cartoon series. Curiously missing is the three-disc Citizen Toxie extravaganza that sadly won’t be under the Christmas tree this year. Perhaps it’ll hit streets this spring? Until then, Fleishaker and myself plan to wear out the Roan Group’s new Zulu disc.
Full Moon Entertainment
Cybersquatters may have overrun their long neglected website, but the studio’s little black heart beats on. They hope to release 24 titles in the coming year. An ambitious goal for certain. Just in time for the holidays, comes Bleed starring Debbie Rochon as a gal whose beau keeps company with a "Murder Club." Brinke Stevens, Julie Strain and Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman pay their dues the hard way. They’ve got a creature feature about killer scorpions called Stingers. And Full Moon is also the home of Bill Shatner‘s Area 51 opus Groom Lake. Plans for a David Decoteau boxed set fizzled when rights issues became a problem, and in more distressing news, there’s no Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama special edition on the immediate horizon.
Darian Caine was fishing change for a twenty out of her boot when I asked her about which of her upcoming flicks she’s most excited about. "Lord of the G-Strings!," she beamed. "You know those twins in the movie? That’s me!" Well, I wouldn’t know a hobbit from a smurf, but nod in recognition just the same. Ruby LaRocca‘s here. So are Barbara Joyce and Howard Stern muse Laurie Wallace. Unfortunately, superstarlet Misty Mundae is busy on the nearby set of the studio’s most ambitious spoof yet — Spiderbabe — helmed by the masterful John Bacchus. Both flicks are due this spring. Right now, Satan’s School For Lust is the hot topic. Ms. Mundae stars as Primula Cooper who endures the unusual extracurricular activities favored at the Diablo School for Girls. Michael Raso‘s salacious poster is so spectacular that Terry M. West‘s flick may well pale in comparison. Seduction’s first breakthrough was The Erotic Witch Project, which still sells ridiculously well, has spawned two sequels, and there’s rumblings of another. Now, our favorite New Jersey sleaze merchants are set to invade late-night cable after inking a deal to air Play-Mate of the Apes on Cinemax! New g-strings all around!!!
Something Weird Video
Mike Vraney doesn’t like doing interviews. Although, he’s willing to consider talking to me, "Unless I decide you’re an asshole." Vraney’s shunning of the leering press began after doing every possible interview he could in the years after starting Something Weird in 1987. "Then I decided, ‘F@#% everybody. I’m not talking to nobody!’ And when I did that, I actually started selling more. It became mysterious! So there’s a logic there," he explained. While the technophobic Seattle schlockmeister proudly claims to have never touched a mouse, he and his vast catalog of fringe cinema oddities have been "discovered" and increasingly celebrated by the DVD generation. "I’m a very eclectic weirdo person. My work speaks for itself. It’s obvious that I’m very drug influenced," Vraney deadpanned. "I’m also very subversive. So it’s a cosmic joke that I’m getting orders from Best Buy, or any of these places. It’s really amazing. But then again, time has caught up with me. It’s like a rock ‘n’ roll band. You can be the worst group on Earth, but if you last 20 years, you’ll be popular. Guaranteed. Because you’re a dinosaur, and you’re from an era that doesn’t exist anymore, now people are interested in you." As for when YOUR favorite title will be released by Something Weird, well, it also better be on Vraney’s wish list. "In my world, there’s literally 500 to 1,000 movies left for me to find and then I’m done. Absolutely done and I won’t care anymore," he said. "When I first got this idea and pursued it, I told everyone I’m going to be the king of the smallest ant hill you’ve ever saw. I’m going to be the best at it. … And I honestly believe my DVDs, as a whole, not individually, are better than anybody elses." No doubt about it, Mike!
At the other end of the SWV booth is a man responsible for capturing many of the flicks Vraney’s peddled the last 15 years. He’s C. Davis Smith, or as he offers when shaking my hand, "Chuck." That’s a name that’s probably still ringing in the ears of anyone who’s heard the late great Doris Wishman‘s riotous commentary for A Night to Dismember. She shared the track with and lovingly shouted at !!!CHUCK!!! who’d been her cameraman on the flick, along with such classics as Bad Girls Go to Hell and Keyholes Are For Peeping. He’s eager to answer my questions about Doris. Even in the old days, did she really stand right next to the actors and coach them during filming like I’d seen in the behind-the-scenes reel for Satan Was A Lady? Yep! Was she always as "animated" as she was during your commentary? You betcha! Then he tells me how he’d bit his tongue that whole track, because all the while Doris was ranting how much of the original footage was destroyed, Chuck knew he had at least 70 percent of it stored at his home. In fact, his son had co-starred in what was a decidedly different flick. Thus comes The "Lost" Version of A Night to Dismember to DVD as part of The C. Davis Smith Collection. (He didn’t have a copy to offer other than a VHS screener. Can’t wait to check that out.) Chuck and Doris also reunited on her last film, Each Time I Kill, and he’s helping to oversee its completion. Doris had done a rough cut, but Chuck had to school the movie’s editor on such Wishman hallmarks as lingering pans to ashtrays. He’s also very pleased with the "look" he was able to achieve with the film, as he feels Satan Was A Lady’s Miami-influenced vibrance didn’t fit Wishman’s style. It’s fantastic that someone with Chuck’s enthusiasm is around to keep her unique vision alive.
Return of the Double Feature
Like it, or not, the "value-added" double feature is all the rage among genre distributors. MGM’s Midnight Movies line may have solidified the trend, but Seduction Cinema, Full Moon and Something Weird all told me of their emphasis on this approach for future releases. Often a new flick will be paired with an older title, thus doubling it’s chance in the marketplace, and without delving into production of time consuming and potentially costly bonus material. On one hand, twice as many titles are making their digital debut. On the other, fans’ pet titles could potentially be short changed. It’s a trend certain to spark debate.
The usual suspects
Their lines rarely spill out the door and snake down the hall. If you buy a picture, that’s great, but they’re more than happy you’ve dropped by. It’s folks like Brinke Stevens and Michael Berryman who make Chiller great. Berryman recognizes me because he swears I’m the spitting image of a young Wes Craven. Apparently it’s something I do with my eyes. Amid our chatter, he bowls me over with the news that Anchor Bay is preparing a special edition DVD of The Hills Have Eyes and that he’s participating in the supplements. "They’re going to do it right!," he promises. Now, Anchor Bay ain’t talking yet, but to my mind what Pluto says is gospel. He’s also the final word on fan conventions: Chiller’s number-o one-o followed by Frightvision and Horrorfind.
Ms. Stevens hasn’t slowed even a smidge. Brinke recently wrapped her 100th feature — a remake of the vampire epic Carmilla. Fans of Teenage Exorcist will want to snag the new Night Owl Theater disc for her commentary. She’s set to join fellow scream queen Linnea Quigley in Corpses are Forever. Speaking of the living dead, Brinke also reprises her role as "Linda" in Slumber Party Massacre 4 directed by the great Jim Wynorski.
So long, farewell
I’ve long since wised to the fact the hotel elevators are a lost cause. So I breeze down the back stairs nine floors and cut through the Classic Sports Pub on my way to the lobby. As I do, I spy Hellraiser‘s Doug Bradley descending on the bar for a cocktail. His pleasant demeanor certainly belies his Pinhead persona. But drive nails into anyone’s noggin and they’re bound to get cranky. Right now, the costume contest is in full swing. It’s the apex of any Chiller experience, especially the Halloween edition. After the parade of entrants, the winners take their bows and The Dead Elvi are unleashed to thunder their bone-rattling tunes right here in the lobby. Most sound, to my untrained, non-corpse ear, like variations on "The Munsters" theme. Those steel willed enough to squeeze their way up to the cash bar are guzzling high-dollar hooch. I’m busy playing paparazzo with the costumed horde and waiting for some yahoo other than myself to request "The Monster Mash." Hobnobbing with revelers are Franken Berry, The Invisible Man, oodles of vampires and a babe sporting a disturbing array of auxillary breasts. It’s a gleeful freak show only to be found at Chiller and something tells me I’ll be answering its siren’s call again.