FOUNDERS' DAY SPECIAL
OF MAKING A LOW-BUDGET HORROR MOVIE
The Personal Nightmare of
'Nightmare in Blood'
Actor Jerry Walter as Malakai the Vampire, eye to eye with a bird-of-prey coffin, built by John Stanley's dad, Myron G. Stanley.
Want to direct a movie?
Then read this and cry!
By JOHN STANLEY
Many dream of becoming filmmakers and turning their visions into 50-foot-high realities. It is a profession that beckons to current generations like no other. I tried to follow that dream but my story is not one of complete triumph. It is about frustration and failure, even though it ultimately ended with some degree of "success." Let this story, then, serve as a learning lesson.
In the beginning was an idea. That idea came easy, but it was hard to fulfill: to make a full-length movie about the world of fandom, that oddball place in the Universe where fans and enthusiasts come together with professionals to share the fun of science-fiction, fantasy and horror, in whatever incantation these genres might be presented. Whether it is an oil painting of Saturn and its rings, a womans design fashioned to enhance and reveal the curvaceous body of an Xena or Sheena, a Spiderman comic book or a metaphysical novel by Philip K. Dick, so let it please us.
Fandom by 1972 had exploded into an international phenomenon with conventions and assorted gatherings taking place all over our planet. So why not a movie that takes place at a horror convention?
We were just a couple of guys working for a living, grunts in the world of journalism, when Kenn Davis and I decided to write "Nightmare in Blood." Kenn, who painted surrealistic oils on the side, was working as a photo retoucher and illustrator at the San Francisco Chronicle, the same place where I labored (though harmoniously, in tune with a world I was fascinated with) as an entertainment writer, covering movies and television.
At left, that's lovely Erica Stanley, John's wife, voluntarily showing some choice skin as a vampire victim in her husband's movie. At right, Jerry Walter rises
from his luxurious coffin in "Nightmare in Blood."
By the late 1960s I had come to specialize in interviews with such luminaries as Jimmy Stewart, Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason. Yes, I had always leaned a bit in favor of science-fiction: such as my 1966 interview with Leonard Nimoy, months before "Star Trek" came to NBC, or my talks with Ray Bradbury and producer Irwin Allen and some guy named Gene Roddenberry.
Since we rode home together a couple of nights a week, Kenn and I had discovered we shared a common love of movies. I realized, after knowing Kenn a couple of years, that he knew a lot more about movies and he was responsible for pointing me toward some films I had never seen. If anyone opened up my eyes to the richness of movies, it was Kenn. We also shared a love for soundtrack music and were always rattling on about Max Steiner, Miklos Rosza and Bernard Herrmann.
One other thing we shared in common was an interest in science-fiction and horror. We also liked mysteries and in early 1970 had begun working on a private-eye screenplay, "The Dark Side of the Hunt."
It was Kenns idea to write a story about a black San Francisco detective named Carver Bascombe. (This was before anyone had ever heard of John Shaft or Richard Roundtree.) We had even found a San Francisco-based stage actor, John Cochran, to play the Bascombe role.
And then came a big mistake: American-International offered to buy the script from us, but because we had promised John Cochran that the three of us would make the film come hell or high water, we turned it down. (Primarily because they wanted the script without us attached as would-be film wreckers.) We should have taken the offer but we were young and idealisticand very idiotic.
("Dark Side of the Hunt" didnt completely die. A few years later it would be novelized by Kenn as "The Dark Side"my name was on it but I really didnt write it and published by Avon. Kenn would go on to write an entire series about Carver and his San Francisco adventures.)
So, putting aside "Dark Side" for the time being, in the spring of 72 Kenn and I set out to write a horror script revolving around fandom. First came the characters: We decided our "leading man" would be a Hollywood actor named Malakai who specialized in genre vampire movies, and who was a top box-office star.
Malakai would play the role of the vampire when making personal appearances (always at night, always with a coffin in close proximity, always garbed in a Dracula-style cloak) and he would be surrounded by two eccentric (sinister?) public relations men, B.B. and Harris. What the public never knew was that Malakai was a real vampire and his P.R. men . . . well, their true identity would be one of the surprise twists we had in store for the films climax. So much for villainy.
Now to the good guys. Each of our protagonists would represent some area of the fandom world and be part of the committee putting on a horror convention in a large movie palace. Head chairman would be Professor Winslow Seabrook, who wrote mysteries on the side and who would reflect the intelligentsia of the book/fandom world. Cindy, Seabrooks assistant and love interest, would be a good-looking fashion designer who created costumes for women characters. Scotty would be a Sherlock Holmes enthusiast who would use his own esoteric ratiocination to unravel the more complex clues scattered throughout the screenplay (sort of a twisted-up version of Carver Bascombe). Gary Arlington, named after the real-life owner of a San Francisco comic book store and an important contributor to early underground comix, would be garbed in a pseudo-religious robe and serve as a guru-like character who symbolized the great love of comic books in America. This foursome would learn Malakais secrets and enter into a supernatural world even though they knew they were risking their lives.
Two other characters would also reflect the fandom world. George Wilson would be the host of a local Saturday night series called "Fright Flicks" patterned after Bob Wilkins, who was hosting "Creature Features" at KTVU, Channel 2, in Oakland. (I didnt know it then, but in a few years I would be taking his place at KTVU and hosting the same show for six years.) Dr. Carl Unworthnamed after real-life psychiatrist Dr. Frederic Wertham, who had written the infamous anti-comic book diatribe "Seduction of the Innocent"--would serve as the counterpoint to Professor Seabrooks liberal attitudes.
And symbolizing the horrors of the real world, as opposed to those of fantasy and horror fiction, would be Tobias Ben-Halik, a man in black who would emerge from the shadows appearing to be a sinister menace but who in reality was a pure-of-heart Israeli Avenger, coming forth to kill Malaki for war crimes he helped Hitler to commit during World War II.
Whew, it was a lot of stuff to get into one movie, and maybe it was more than one movie could stand, but we naively and energetically proceeded. We were young and enthusiastic and, yes, we would have much to learn from the experience. But we believed in our concept.
With screenplay completed, we proceeded to raise money for the project. We barely found enough family members and friends who believed in us to put together a "budget." About $51,000. Although we knew it would never be enough to take a film to its completion, we saw no reason why we shouldnt proceed to the next stage: choosing cast and crew. One step at a time is a good way to proceed, and never but never take off your blinders or get too smart.
At left, Jerry Walter poses by a tongue-in-cheeky sign at the horror convention locale of 'Nightmare in Blood.' At right, Kerwin Mathews ("7th Voyage of Sinbad," etc.) plays a cameo role in an opening sequence of 'Nightmare in Blood.'
Our first decision: We would go union and take what we needed from the professional ranks of movie-makers. None of this cheapskate business of shooting non-union, taking what you bump into and using people who might be less than the professionals that movie-making demands. We knew this would make the project costlier, but it was a wise choice.
For actors we made a deal with the San Francisco branch of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and for our crew we signed with the Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET). The Ann Brebner Agency of San Francisco was at the forefront of casting in those days and Ms Brebner welcomed us with the same enthusiastic attitude with which she welcomed pros from Hollywood. SAG required one "open audition"a casting call that allows union and non-union performers to try out for a partbut once we had fulfilled that obligation, we realized Brebner was the most helpful in narrowing down our choices to the very best acting talent in the San Francisco-Bay Area.
To portray Malakai, we chose Jerry Walter, a well-known local actor who had distinguished himself as a boy radio actor playing "Jack Armstrong," the All-American Boy. Developing a dislike for Hollywood and its environs, Jerry had chosen to live in Marin County and work in TV and movies. He had distinguished himself in several episodes of "The Streets of San Francisco," and had a role in the movie "Freebie and the Bean."
Walter really made his money from wise real-estate investments but always kept his hand in acting. We discovered he had a boisterous style of acting and could bring the over-the-top histronics we wanted in Malakai: a man well-versed in playing various roles after living for many centuries. Jerry did good accents and pseudo-voices and would give the performance of his life as Malakai.
(Years later George Lucas would hire him to do the voices of the Storm Troopers in "Star Wars" and he would appear in the "Dirty Harry" sequel, "The Enforcer." He would also have a memorable cameo role as a chef in Phil Kaufmans "Invasion of the Body Snatchers.")
To portray Malakais henchmen we had good fortune. I had known Ray K. Goman for years for his stand-up comedy work at Gomans Gay Nineties, a San Francisco club that had been at the forefront of San Francisco night life for decades (I had even profiled Ray in a Chronicle feature.) After the restaurant closed because of the predominant topless movement of the 1960s, Ray had turned to acting, taking supporting parts in movies and TV shows. Among them: "Harold and Maude," "The People" and TVs "The Streets of San Francisco." He was pleased to play B.B. and provided strong moral support, knowing our lack of experience.
To play Harris, we decided on Hy Pyke, a Hollywood-based actor who had just started his acting career with the B-feature, "Lemora, the Lady Dracula." Hy was a demanding and difficult personality to deal with on a daily basis, but when the camera rolled, he suddenly became everything you wanted in a villain. He and Ray together were evil personified.
For Cindy, we auditioned many actresses. Suzanne Somers was introduced to us (she had just appeared as the girl in the Thunderbird in George Lucas "American Graffiti"), but we felt she was a comedienne and would evoke laughter, not the viewer sympathy we were hoping for. (Casting Suzanne would, of course, have given the film a greater identity, but who knew in 1973?)
Finally we discovered that Barrie Youngfellow, the receptionist working for Ann Brebner, was really a good actress, and had taken the job in the hope of getting an acting role. She had a fresh complexion and a bubbly attitude that made her perfect for the part. As a receptionist, however, we hadnt seen what we were looking for, so Barrie asked for an audition. She came with her hair fixed differently and projected exactly what we had been looking for. (Barrie would go on to play Jan Hoffmeyer in the sitcom "Its a Living." I think that personally she hated "Nightmare in Blood" but was kind enough not to tell us that.)
Naturally, we chose John Cochran, our unsold Carver Bascombe, to play Scotty the would-be detective, as we had written the part exclusively for John. ( I suspect John was disappointed over the failure of "The Dark Side of the Hunt" and was never really happy playing a supporting role. Kenn and I both felt John never fully rose to the occasion, harboring some deep-rooted disappointments.)
Drew Eshelman, who had appeared at the cattle call, instantly got the Gary Arlington role. Tall and lean, he was wonderfully ethereal when he read Garys lines. For Professor Seabrook, we discovered an excellent stage actor from Marin, Dan Caldwell, who was perfect as the university professor-novelist type, especially when he auditioned with pipe in mouth. (Dan also had hidden desires to be a director and would eventually direct "Sip the Wine," a pornographic love story.)
The Ben-Halik part had been destined from the beginning for Irving Israel, a local stage actor Kenn and I had previously met and struck up a friendship with. Irving drove a cab for a living but really was better suited to play offbeat, rich characters.
Again, Ann Brebner stepped in to help us cast the Dr. Unworth role, which had proven difficult for us. We needed someone with authority who could still project a sense of arrogance and conceit. The day Ann introduced us to a total unknown, Justin Bishop, he oozed a kind of malevolence that we couldnt resist. And finally, to play the Bob Wilkins role, we chose Morgan Upton, a popular city-based actor who had appeared in such films as "The Candidate" and "Steelyard Blues."
While I finalized the casting for the smaller roles, Kenn was busy picking his crew: cameraman Charles Rudnick, assorted electricians and make-up specialist James Catania. (One of our on-location soundmen, Mark Berger, would go on to become one of the Bay Area's leading post-production sound experts. He served as Francis Ford Coppola's sound montage associate on "The Godfather, Part II" and was also Coppola's post--production sound director on "Apocalpyse Now." In fact, Berger just finished as the re-recording mixer on the yet-to-be-released "Zapata.")
Together Kenn and I started looking for a location for the horror convention, and immediately realized that the well-maintained Fox Theater, built in downtown Oakland in 1928 as part of the theater chain once owned by 20th Century-Fox, would be perfect. We quickly signed a lease with the owner.
We shot for five weeks to achieve what is called "principal photography," and spent every penny of our meager $51,000. It proved to be a difficult job, as Kenn and I had to act as our own producers as well as maintain our day-to-day jobs: Kenn as director of photography, myself as director. We collaborated on many other things and we worked alongside the crew, often carrying equipment to and fro.
Our grandiose concept was overburdening, but we kept going. We had conceived ambitious crowd sequences, and ultimately turned to everyone we knew. One of the participants of a night sequence shot in front of the theater to depict Malakais arrival was a member of a "Planet of the Apes" fan club who talked his buddies into showing up in their costumes and make-up. The leader of this band of chimps and gorillas was later to become a movie director himself: Fred Dekker, who would make "Night of the Creeps," "The Monster Squad" and "RoboCop 3."
Make-up man James Catania proved to be capable of doing much with very little. Among special effects required were a severed head, an eyeball lying on a golfing green, a severed throat, body slashes, and "aging" make-up required for our two PR-men villains.
Bob Wilkins, bless his benevolent heart, allowed us to photograph our "Fright Flicks" scenes on his own "Creature Features" set, thereby saving us the time and expense of creating a set ourselves. Our re-enactment of a TV broadcast was definitely a challenge, with Makalai appearing to put down the host for his tongue-in-cheek attitude toward horror films, and to lay waste verbally (the physical attack would come later) to Dr. Unworth, who was appearing as one of the guests on the show.
It would take six months to a year to edit what we had shot. Kenn and I had to return to our daily jobs to support the continuation of the film project. We worked out of my home with an old-fashioned Moviola film editing machine and a makeshift light table. After screening our workprint with the dialogue tracks several times, we decided to see if we could find an interested Hollywood distributor. (These were the days before the VHS revolution and producers still depended on theatrical distribution, usually followed by a TV sale.)
We showed our film to major studios, such as Universal and Warner Bros, and were repeatedly turned down. Nary a nibble, let alone a half-hearted bite. Several times we rented the Joe Shore Screening Room on Sunset Boulevard and invited distributors to attend. During one such screening, we showed the workprint to executives from a distribution company. When the lights came up, Kenn and I realized that they had all left during the screening. We had been watching the last reel alone. It was one of the most heartbreaking moments in my life.
The weight of making "Nightmare in Blood" into a success weighed on us in many ways. One afternoon we couldnt find a parking place close to the screening site and had to jackass our 20 cans of film, stuffed into two dufflebags, along Sunset Boulevard. Kenn carried the 10 film reels, I carried the 10 soundtracks. I was beginning to feel defeated, that we had lost, when . . .
. . . A company called World Wide called to tell us they wanted to distribute our film. It got even better when the company, based in Burbank, agreed to put up the money to finish the film. The company was new and had just enjoyed box-office success with "Tunnel Vision." Kenn and I had decided we needed a new opening as well as some other "pick up shots," and World Wide further agreed to foot the bill. Plus, they would pay for the final sound mix and answer print.
A couple of months later we were shooting again, with a minuscle crew and a handful of returning actors who were more than pleased to help us out. We shot only four days. The main sequence was a new opening with Kerwin Mathews portraying a swashbuckling heroa parody of the kind of characters he had played in his screen adventures. We filmed at the old gun emplacements located next to the toll plaza of the Golden Gate Bridge. Once these positions had been manned by gun crews to protect the Bay from invasion, but now they were abandoned and forgotten. Mathews friend and fellow actor Mel Ferrer, best remembered today for his villain in "Scaramouche" and for being married to Audrey Hepburn, showed up at the end of the day and drove Kerwin away. We never saw him again. But he added box-office appeal to our opening.
We went back to Lincoln Municipal Golf Course to redo a death sequence involving George Wilsons cameraman, played by Stan Ritchie, a good-natured local actor. (Once re-edited, I felt it was one of the better murder sequences in the film.) Done with the reshoot, we quickly edited in the new scenes. We found a film editing/sound service not far from San Francisco General Hospital and made a deal to work there at night and on weekends to prepare our final soundtracks.
Finding a composer proved to be one of the most difficult experiences. Kenn had a friend he had approached about doing the music and he had agreed to do it. Meanwhile, I had discovered a Marin County composer, David Litwin. But Kenn reminded me about his friend and so I told Litwin we had chosen someone else. The very next morning Kenn awoke me early to say his friend had reneged on the deal. Now we had no composer at all.
Swallowing my pride and crossing my fingers I got on the phone to David, apologizing and explaining what had happened. Despite the fact we had rejected him, he was still willing to take the job. But I felt terrible about it for weeks afterward. I finally got over it when I heard his music. Given his limited budget, Davids music track ended up being remarkably resourceful and even included a parody of Dimitri Tiomkins theme for "The Thing," something we had suggested since the characters talk about the 1951 film during the sequence.
With the final mix finished, we shipped off everything to Consolidated Film Industries, a laboratory in Hollywood. We had filmed our movie in Techniscope, a CinemaScope-like widescreen anamorphic process that had been used to make hundreds of movies during the 1960s. Instead of pulling down a complete four-perforation frame, the Techniscope camera pulled a two-perf frame, thereby giving 2,000 running feet to a 1,000-foot film magazine. This was a great money-saving device in the early stages, when every penny of our $51,000 counted.
At left, Jerry Walter fangs a victim in 'Nightmare in Blood'; At right, John Stanley in his "Creature Features" days as a horror movie host.
In the summer of 1976, almost three years since principal photography, Kenn and I sat in a screening room at CFI one Friday afternoon and saw our film in its finished stages. I felt exhilarated and disappointed in the same breath. I saw many things I didnt likein the story-telling, in the editing, in the sound mix, in the acting, in the directing. I knew we hadnt made a classic, nor come anywhere near making a so-called "cult" movie. Our ambitions had been honorable, but our lack of experience and money had in many ways done us in. Nevertheless, we had a finished movie. That in itself seemed like a miracle. We still had a fighting chance to see our work in theaters.
And then . . . disaster. World Wide decided they didnt want to release the movie after all. It was a marketing problem. The PR guys were disturbed about the films tongue-in-cheek humor and didnt have a clue how to sell it. We would have to find another distributor.
But what about the monies we now owed World Wide for completing the project? We couldnt believe our ears: World Wide would forgive the debt. We were free to look for another outlet. And if we found someone, World Wide would give permission to have more prints made and distributed. Payback could come after that.
We finally did find our ultimate distributor in San Francisco. He dealt in low-budget features that had fallen through several different kinds of cracks. And since we were falling through a crack ourselves, this new distributor gladly agreed to send 15 prints into theatrical releasefirst to "hard tops" and then to "soft tops" or drive-ins
And so for five years (1978-82), "Nightmare in Blood" played theatrically, from first-run to fifth-run, maybe 10th-run. I lost count after awhile. A little money came in dribbles and drabs, but we could see that we would be lucky just to get our $51,000 back.
A VHS deal was consummated in 1985 and the film was released in a pan-and-scan version by a reputable Oakland-based company, Video City. Owner Bob Brown was well intended, although neither Kenn nor I was happy about the inferior pan-and-scan version.)
Another company that picked up the ancillary rights (TV, pay-per-view, foreign markets, etc.) totally ripped us off and disappeared into the woodwork, never paying us a cent and never contacting us again, even though we later heard that "Nightmare in Blood" was distributed in England under the title "Horror Convention" and had become something of a "cult" film in South Korea, of all places.
Kenn and I had visions and dreams about other movies, but it wasnt to be. Perhaps the sheer fatigue of making "Nightmare in Blood" had taken some of the joy out of the process. We stayed together to write a thriller, "Bogart 48," published by Dell paperback books in 1980, and Kenn stayed busy with several Carver Bascombe adventures published by Avon.
Other jobs beckoned to me: I hosted "Creature Features" from 1979-84 at KTVU, Channel 2, in Oakland. It was a great experience that kept me busy doing countless interviews with sci-fi and horror celebrities and making short films I called "minimovies," sometimes with Kenn as cameraman.
But this collaboration was a comedown, nowhere approaching our original dream.
I completed a 33-year writing career at the Chronicle in 1993. Along the way I wrote six "Creature Features Movie Guides" and have now made more than 1,500 crossword puzzles for TV Guide Crosswords and other crossword magazines. I am now planning to write "The Career That Dripped with Gore," a recounting of my personal experiences as a TV host and journalist.
I thought that the nightmare of "Nightmare in Blood" was over, but no . . . about a year ago I was contacted by Image Entertainment of Chatsworth, CA. The company had spearheaded the Laser Disc market back in the 1980s and now released DVD versions of old TV shows, feature films and documentaries. Image wanted to release our film on DVD in its widescreen format.
"Nightmare in Blood" has always been problematic, and so now I had a new problem: The only print we had any knowledge of existed in the Library of Congress, which we had wisely placed there in 1980, being we were the copyright holders. Would it provide a decent enough copy to consummate the deal with Image?
After many months of red tape, the Library of Congress archivists were kind enough to release the print so a new digi-beta tape could be struck. We were lucky: the print was missing no more than a few frames of footage. And although it had undergone some color shifts, modern film laboratory technology was able to restore it to life.
Once again, it looks exactly as I remember it that first time I saw the film in 1976.
"Nightmare in Blood" is a once-in-a-lifetime project that I do not regret, although I have to grit my teeth when I think about its many flaws and imperfections. But there are pleasant memories, too. Recently, when Kenn and I got together to do a commentary track for the DVD version, he reminded me of the ghost in the Fox Theater.
One night as we carried equipment into the dressing room area in the theaters basement, I saw a white, cloudy mist drifting away from me, vanishing when it reached the end of the corridor where I was standing. Maybe, I thought at the time, it was just some dust I stirred up that evaporated away. But . . . as many times as I walked through that area during the five-week shoot, I never again saw a white, cloudy mist, no matter how much dust I was stirring up.
Kenn has his ghost story, too: One night he slept in the lobby of the Fox Theater, his sleeping bag spread out in front of the candy counter. In the basement beneath, he could hear a sliding door being pushed open. . . a pause . . . then he heard the door close itself with the counterweight system that automatically controlled it.
When Kenn told me the story the next morning, I blurted, "But Kenn, you were the only person here last night. We locked all the doors, everyone was gone, remember?"
He stared at me a moment, then asked, "Yeah, I know. So, who the hell was that down there?"
We still dont have an answer.
©2004 by John Stanley. The photos are courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.
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