United Home Video (VCI Entertainment)
Bill Blair started in the business as United Films, supplier of 16mm prints for schools and civic organizations, but was quick to see the potential of a new market when the Sony Corporation introduced its first Betamax VCRs to American consumers. Gradually Blair began to shift his interest from film rentals to video tape distribution, adopting the corporate name of Video Communications, Inc. With the cable television industry just beginning to stir national interest and the home video recorder still a toy for rich kids, VCI was able to secure the nontheatrical rights (including video release) to many films at a moderate cost.
By the time the early ’80s rolled around, Blair had also gotten in on the burgeoning cable television market, using his movies to provide all the programming for a local cable channel. Working with him on the production end was Linda Lewis, promotions director for Tulsa radio station KRAV. Because her position involved getting publicity for new features coming to Tulsa theaters, she was doing a lot of face-to-face interviews with movie stars, and videotaped versions of those sit-downs were the perfect thing to play between Blair’s pictures on the cable station.
“When I started being invited on the interview junkets, I went to Bill Blair and said, ‘I have this footage. Would it be something we could work with?’” remembered Lewis recently. “He said, ‘If you can learn to edit, you can do whatever you want with it.’ So I was working in his back room on his old three-fourth-inch editing machine, putting together these fifteen-minute Intermission with Linda Lewis shows.”
Blair knew this, of course. And when his pipeline for new video releases began to shut down, thanks to more and more companies— including major studios—getting into the home video act, it was probably only natural for him to start thinking about making his own picture.
Lewis’s idea was to shoot a feature film like a TV soap opera. He’d gotten the idea from his sister, actress Judy Lewis, who had produced some episodes of the daytime drama Texas in the early ’80s. “I knew they taped an hour long show every day, and I thought if we used videotape instead of film, and edited it ourselves, we could do it,” remembered Lewis. “Then, if we used the crew from [the KOTV show] PM Magazine, and we all took our week-off vacation at the same time, with the weekend we’d have nine days to shoot.”
Although the film ended up costing a couple thousand dollars more than Lewis estimated, and a few pickup shots had to be done after the nine days were over, director Christopher and producer Linda were right in the ballpark with both their estimates. “We had to be right about the shooting schedule,” said Christopher. “We all had to be back at our jobs on Monday.”
Although Blood Cult—as the movie was ultimately titled—was a local production in every sense of the word, its cast featured one actor who had a handful of theatrical-feature credits—Julie Andelman was her name. A former Tulsan, her resume included the 1980 horror picture The Silent Scream. In Andelman was top-billed as Tina, the daughter of the local sheriff who gets involved in a series of killings on campus that point to a dog-worshiping cult.
Blood Cult (1985)
The plot of BLOOD CULT is centered on a series of co-ed murders that suddenly disturb the back-to-school routine of a small Midwestern university town. The victims are horribly mutilated … an arm gone here, a head gone there, but the killer evidences a strong sense of fair play by leaving a gold amulet, bearing the likeness of a hound, in exchange. The investigation by Sheriff Ron Wilbois is complicated by the political pressures of an upcoming election. With the help of his perky daughter and her dorky boyfriend, Wilbois finds the amulet’s design was once used by a group of New World witches who worshipped a devil-dog called Caninus. They performed ceremonies of power using a mannequin pieced together from the body parts of people who offended the cult in some way.
BLOOD CULT, estimated to have cost as much as $30,000, may not be a classic, but it is slick and well-produced. UEP put all their money up on the screen and learned a lot in the process. BLOOD CULT was written by Dr. Stuart Rosenthal and producer Bill Blair several years ago with the late Buster Crabb in mind for the pivotal role of Sheriff Wilbois. Crabb and Blair had met and become friends as a result of United Films’ re-release of some early serials in which Crabb had starred. Though the project was never realized, Blair was left with a script handy when he and partners Christopher and Linda Lewis (a Tulsa-based husband wife media team) began to think seriously about mounting a production of their own.
Charles Ellis, retired manager of the Tulsa Civic Ballet, was cast as Sheriff Wilbois. Oklahoma playwright James Vance plays the boyfriend of Tina, the sheriff’s daughter, portrayed by former Tulsan Julie Andleman, who has appeared in character roles on film and television. Andelman was featured in the low-budget thriller SILENT SCREAM, done-in amongst a load of dirty laundry. Other roles were filled by local stage and broadcasting talent.
Paul MacFarlane was hired to photograph BLOOD CULT using a Beta news camera (jokingly referred to as the “shaky cam” because of the great care they had to exercise to create fluid camera movements). Christopher Lewis, who studied filmmaking at USC and is the son of producer Tom Lewis and actress Loretta Young, directed. And Rod Slane of Star Track Recording Studios provided the original score.
Normally, of course, a feature is shot on 35mm for 16mm film and transferred to videotape later for television and home-video release. Many pictures, especially horror movies, end up getting only video distribution, but that’s not intentional. They just fail to land the theatrical deal they are looking for. The producers of Blood Cult, however, have no designs on the theatrical market. They shot their feature (on a nine-day shooting schedule) using Sony Beta Cam high-speed half-inch video recorders, for release directly to video. Cast and crew were all local, except for star Julie Andelman, a Los Angeles-based actress who graduated from a Tulsa high school and post-production work was also done in Tulsa.
“What we’d like to do,” says Bill Blair, president of United Entertainment, “is start a whole new breed of movies made strictly for videocassette. We did horror first because you can always expect to make money on a horror film-horror always sells. We’ll do more horror, and some of our others down the line will probably be science-fiction, since we can do a lot of computer special effects now, and we’ve got lots of stock footage in our library to work with.”
United Entertainment may be an unfamiliar name to home video fans, but Video Communications Inc. (VCI) isn’t. United Entertainment grew out of VCI, a videotape company with over 300 titles in release to the home market and other 100 packaged for television. Among VCI’s films are such sleazoid favorites as Twisted Brain, Scream Bloody Murder, Blood of Dracula’s Castle and the Herschell Gordon Lewis epic, Monster A Go-Go (the latter one of a dozen pictures in VCI’s “Le Bad Cinema” series). The company also co-financed Don Dohler’s The Galaxy Invader (“It came from a galaxy far, far away, an alien explorer-its mission… TO KILL.”), which Blair says went directly to home video via VCI.
For years, Blair had been talking about making a movie with Christopher and Linda Lewis, two local media personalities. He dusted off a script he and a Tulsa neurologist had written several years before called The Sorority House Murders and took it to the Lewis’s. They agreed it could be done on a very low budget and had a chance of turning a profit in the home-video market, so they threw in with Blair. They brought in the feature, with the new title of Blood Cult, for what Lewis calls “a real low budget,” but Blair insists that the quality is high.
United Entertainment’s next film, which should be in the can by the time you read this, is also a horror feature and also takes place on a campus. Lewis calls it a “modern-day Jack the Ripper story with a twist. Once they get rolling, Blair and the Lewis’s expect to be getting out a movie a month, all headed straight for United Entertainment could become the video equivalent of PRC, the legendary 40’s B studio that cranked them out as fast as it took to stand George Zucco before a camera.
Blood Cult and the new idea it represents have already attracted national attention from other video distributors and filmmakers. Los Angeles’ Joe Wolf, a former vice-chairman of Media Home Entertainment (when Mediaco financed Nightmare on Elm Street, Wolf was the Co-producer) says, “We’re all aware out here of what Bill Blair’s doing. The way I see it, though, is that there’s a problem with publicity. You’ve got to have publicity to put the movies out, the sort of publicity that comes with a theatrical release. The way it is now, you can make money, but you won’t get your big pictures, your Halloweens. He could break even on what? Eight thousand copies?”
Wolf, who also co-produced the Halloween films and Hell Night, believes, however, that made-for-video movies could be the wave of the not-too-distant future. I think it’ll definitely work in the future,” he says. “Maybe two or three years from now, you’ll have the video market that’s big enough to support a Halloween.”
One filmmaker who thinks that that future is here now-at least for independent producers-is Jeff Hogue, whose Majestic International Pictures, based in Jonesboro, Arkansas, has given the world Invasion of the Girl Snatchers, Curse of the Alpha Stone and Doctor Gore’s Body Shop, to name a few of the dozen or more Majestic releases. VCI has home rights to his films. “An independent producer doesn’t have the kind of capital base you need to make a major theatrical release,” he says. “To really compete with the Nightmare on Elm Streets out there, $350,000 is about as cheap as you can go. But you can make a quality video for about $30,000. At one time, people would’ve said you were crazy to do a movie just for the video market, because that theatrical revenue was so crucial. Now, the way things have progressed, it’s the smartest way for an independent producer to go. I’d sure do it.”
Jeff Hogue, whose pictures get theatrical play dates, still calls the home video market his “life blood.” “I’ve found the video market to have taken over the drive-in market,” he says. “Your low-budget material, your exploitation material, was seen at the drive-in because the walk-ins didn’t want to deal with it. With exploitation films, you don’t really sell the steak anyway, you sell the sizzle, so the ads for the movies were always great-just like the ads for the videos are now. Also, people didn’t know what they were going to see until they got in. They just wanted to sit back with their girlfriend or their wife and drink a beer and watch a couple of exploitation movies, and they can do that at home now. The clientele the drive-ins catered to are home, watching the same kinds of films on home video.”
Whether or not Blood Cult kicks off a new wave of low-budget horror and exploitation movies aimed solely for the home market remains to be seen. The odds, though, look good, especially to independent filmmakers with limited resources who realize how much the home-video market-and the television market-has grown. As Bill Blair said, “There are three markets left for filmmakers that command big, big dollars: home video, theatrical and television. When you can hit two out of three, you’re doing pretty well.”
Grassroots Makeup FX
Here’s something to think about. Suppose you’re, oh, let’s say a 23-year-old horror movie fan, who idolizes Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Dick Smith and all the rest. You’d love to work on a film, to break into the business, but you live in the middle of the country where such things are about as likely as George Steinbrenner being satisfied with the New York Yankees. So you do makeup work wherever you can, winning some contests here and there-and then, all of a sudden someone from a new film production company calls up and says, “Hey, how’d you like to do the effects for this horror movie we’re making?”
Well, it happens. It happened not once but twice-to Dave Powell and Robert Brewer, roommates who work as graphic artists for Tulsa’s Newspaper Printing Corporation-when Blood Cult co-producer Linda Lewis put out a call at a local magic shop for “someone who could work with latex.” The store’s proprietor recommended Powell and Brewer, and before you can say Craig Reardon, the two were hooked up with United Entertainment.
“They came to us a week before they started shooting and said they needed a severed finger, a severed torso, a severed head and a severed hand,” says Powell. “It was the chance of a lifetime.”
The two continued working at their day jobs, going home in the evenings and building body parts and mixing blood. They ended up working a lot of 16-hour days, and doing a lot of improvisation.
“The schedule was so tight that it was hard to get what we needed from out in California, so we had no foam latex,” said Brewer. “We did it all with liquid latex, slush molding, and the help of a lot of patient friends.” The film was a learning experience for everyone involved, especially when it came to some of the effects used in the picture.
“They had a store mannequin head, and they asked us, ‘Can you make this look real?” Powell recalls with a grin. “We took a death mask from a friend of mine instead. I redid that head about five times, and it just didn’t look right. On the day of the shoot, I came home from work and I was sitting there looking at it, and I felt like something still wasn’t right, so I finally cut the mouth open and cast the teeth, and it worked.”
The two also ran into trouble with a severed arm that looked too stiff and with their blood mixture, which Brewer describes as “your standard Dick Smith recipe, with Karo syrup and food coloring and all that.”
“The blood came out looking like strawberry syrup at first, Powell says.”Robert ran out and got a can of Coke and poured it in. Then it looked good, and it was delicious.”
Working on a budget of only a couple of hundred dollars, Powell and Brewer created their effects with liquid latex, beeswax, cow bones, foam rubber (from pillow cushions bought at the local K-Mart) and mortician’s wax. For bladder devices, they used Baggies.
“The biggest complaint we got from our work on Blood Cult is that two people had to get up and walk out while they were looking at dailies,” says Powell. Adds Brewer, “We must be doing something right”
According to Christopher Lewis, “It cost $27,000 to make. VCI spent $100,000 promoting it. But on the opening day of its release, because cassettes were selling at that time for sixty bucks a shot, it made $400,000.” The direct-to-video feature ended up grossing well over a million dollars and is still available from VCI.
They did more than pretty well with Blood Cult. They changed the face of the industry forever. The release of Blood Cult in August 1985 represents nothing less than the line of demarcation between the old definition of a movie and the new one, which continues to evolve even as these words are being written.
The Ripper (1985)
Their follow-up production, THE RIPPER, indicates they have already come a long way in a short time. THE RIPPER’s shooting schedule and budget were almost twice that of BLOOD CULT, and it shows. The film features an appearance by makeup master Tom Savini and a script rife with horror movie references.
“Well,” explains Savini, “Chris Lewis called me and said, ‘Hey, you want to play Jack the Ripper?’ and I said, ‘Sure!”
Now, along comes The Ripper, described in advance publicity as a “modern-day Jack the Ripper story.” Once again the whole thing was shot on videotape for release directly to the home video market. Because of the larger budget for The Ripper, Lewis was given the comparative luxury of a 14-day shooting schedule (Blood Cult was shot in nine days) and was also able to get Savini.
When The Ripper was in pre-production, Blair and the Lewises decided they wanted someone to act in the feature who would be a recognizable name to their target audience-the horror homevideo fans. Savini, it seemed, fit the bill perfectly. His footage in The Ripper was shot in a 14-hour dusk-to-morning session at a downtown Tulsa warehouse.
“He was a real professional, “says makeup man Robert Brewer. “He brought his own costume, but he didn’t do very much in the way of makeup. I think all he brought were the contact lenses and a goatee.”
Brewer and Dave Powell did the special makeup effects for Blood Cult, and were allowed to write in their own effects scenes for The Ripper. Both of them were impressed with Savini, long an idol of theirs.
“He brought along the eyes he used for Fluffy and for Stephen King in Creepshow,” Brewer says. “He also showed us a better way to do squibs, where you don’t have to have a license for them. They work off an electrical charge, and they’re like match-heads dipped in wax. We called ’em Savinis. Put a little blood and chicken liver in there, and you’ve got it!
The lenses Savini uses in The Ripper may give his fans a little of the old deja vu. “They’re the same lenses I used in an episode of Tales from the Darkside called ‘Halloween Candy,” he says, “and also in the film I made in Hong Kong, Scared to Death. They were also used in my book (Grande Illusions, later reissued as Bizarro!) to illustrate what you could do with contact lenses.”
After completing his work on the Ripper, Savini returned home to ponder film offers, which are coming in with alarming regularity these days.
Could one of these offers advance the career of Savini the actor? Savini says that he presently has a chance to star in a film called Recoil, which he describes as a “Vietnam revenge” picture, but he also has several directing offers as well. According to local rumor, Tulsa may even draw him back to either act in or direct another United Entertainment horror film.
Actor/director/makeup man Savini says, “I’ve got lots of trouble juggling everything right now. There are five or six projects happening at about the same time, and I’ve got to make up my mind what to take on.”
To get to the outdoor set where United Entertainment’s newest made-for video horror feature, Revenge, is being shot, one has to drive out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, toward a country road near the town of Okmulgee. On one side of a clearing is a large pond, and at its edge stands an ominous-looking altar, studded with dog’s heads, a location bustling with activity.
A young, attractive woman steps away from the group around the altar. “We’re getting all this ready to do the scene with the monks tonight,” she explains. “Actually, it’s the confrontation scene, leading up to the surprise ending.”
The young woman is Jill Clark, who, despite her tender years, has worked on several films shot in and around Tulsa, including Rumble Fish. She has been with United Entertainment from the beginning, working as associate producer on the company’s first two pictures, Blood Cult and The Ripper. On this, UE’s third movie, she is assistant director as well.
Clark’s involvement with all three films is by no means unique. Most of Revenge’s crew also worked on the first two movies, and five of the actors from Blood Cult reprise their roles in Revenge.
Revenge, however, isn’t a sequel to Blood Cult, according to director Christopher Lewis, who has helmed all three of UE’s releases. “Instead of calling it Blood Cult II in the title, we’ll probably call it something like ‘Part Two in the Blood Cult saga,’” says Lewis, taking a breather in one of the motor homes nestled under the trees. “The reason we’re not emphasizing Blood Cult is that we don’t believe Blood Cult is indicative of our work now, inasmuch as it was shot on video and the budget was real low. It was an experiment that worked-it got us into the home video market and showed that there was a market for made-for-video product-but the production values aren’t indicative of what we’re doing now. The budget is drastically different and the script was written to stand on its own.”
Revenge has a 14 day shooting schedule, two recognizable names in the cast-Patrick Wayne and John Carradine and a budget in excess of $150,000, still very low by East and West Coast standards but pretty good in Tulsa.
“We changed our concept a lot,” maintains Lewis. “On Blood Cult, we went in and shot it like a TV show, with videotape and two cameras. The second one, The Ripper, we did with tape and one camera. Now, we’re using 16mm film and, basically, one camera. We’ve gone for a more theatrical approach.
“The Ripper was very, very gory, while Revenge is more subtle, more of a murder mystery, although there are some good gore effects in it. It’s just not as gory as The Ripper. It’s different subject matter, so it doesn’t need to be.
“Besides,” Lewis adds with a smile, “Savini was in The Ripper, so we had to make it gory. But there are still gore effects here and a surprise ending. It’s about a country woman and a city man who try to find out why one’s husband and the other’s brother were killed. The trail leads to a dog-worshiping cult.”
The city man is played by Patrick Wayne (whose fantasy films include Beyond Atlantis, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger and The People That Time Forgot), who won’t be on the set until early morning. The country woman is played by Tulsa actress Bennie Lee McGowan, re-creating her role from Blood Cult. McGowan was also in The Ripper.
Nearby, McGowan stands talking with James Vance, who wrote Revenge and who starred in and provided additional dialogue for Blood Cult. Originally, Vance was to play his own brother in Revenge, but the decision was made to instead fill that role with a name actor. So Vance, a local stage veteran, stepped aside in favor of Wayne.
Later, a man passes, his face smeared with dark makeup, his body clothed in a brown, hooded garment. He stops to visit a moment, and then excuses himself and goes on past, to an area where others garbed like him congregate, moving in the shadows. Later, in a climactic scene with John Carradine, they will be before the cameras as the monk-like members of the cult of Caninus.
Further down the path, Robert Brewer sits atop the slope leading down to the clearing, watching as the crew sets up a shot. Brewer, as many Fango readers will recall, was-with David Powell-a founding member of the special FX team that came together to work on Blood Cult last year. Then, it was only Powell and Brewer; three films later, the team has grown into a seven person studio called DFX, Inc.
“David Powell and Doug Edwards are handling the big effect tonight,” reveals Brewer. “I worked on the murders that lead up to it. We killed the girl in the hot tub Tuesday evening and the reporter in the alley Saturday night.”
Just what is the big effect? Its exact nature is tied into the film’s surprise ending, and is therefore being kept under wraps, but Powell, unloading makeup paraphernalia from his car, supplies some information. “What we’re doing tonight is a demon mask on Stephanie (actress Stephanie R. Knopke). It’s basically a one piece appliance. We’ll put that on her, plug it all in, Karo Syrup her hair down and make the mask gooey and drippy. Then, we’ll put a burn appliance on top of it. We planned to do two piece ripaway appliances, but we had to simplify that because we ran out of time.”
As the crew works, a dark Silverado truck appears, winding around the road at the pond’s far end and slowly driving across to the cluster of trucks and motor homes. The truck’s back door opens, and John Carradine-the man who was once known as “half a profile because of his thinness-is helped out and into a motor home, where makeup people wait. After a moment, the motor home door opens again, and Carradine’s manager carries in a stack of large white cardboard sheets to be used as cue cards.
After being made up, Carradine sits erectly at a table in the motor home, talking with visitors. He may be over 80 years old, his hands may be twisted cruelly by arthritis, and he may occasionally sound like someone’s grandfather when he talks, but John Carradine still projects the unmistakable aura of class and elegance, of a Hollywood gone by, a Hollywood when that name was, truly, magic. Among the other people in the motor home are his manager, a man who goes by the single name of Byron, and Bennie Lee McGowan. It turns out that McGowan’s college Shakespeare teacher, a man named B. Iden Payne, was a good friend of Carradine’s.
It also turns out that Revenge is a landmark for Carradine. “This is my 500th film,” Carradine insists. “My first picture was Tol’able David, a talkie remake of a picture Richard Barthelmess had done.” Five hundred features is a remarkable total, and there are those who maintain that Carradine’s total is actually a few films short of that number. Still, when one considers how long and often he has worked, 500 films doesn’t sound impossible. It’s widely known that Carradine considers his horror work only a small part of his career. He says he’s no fan of current horror films, but he talks a bit about some of his ’40s genre pictures, throwing out titles like Return of the Ape Man, House of Dracula and Bluebeard.
“John was offered the part of the monster in the original Frankenstein,” says Byron, as Carradine nods his agreement. “But he turned it down because it wasn’t a speaking part.”
Says Bennie Lee McGowan, “It would’ve been a shame for that wonderful voice to have been wasted.” At that statement, Carradine arches an eyebrow and a flicker of a smile plays across his face. “My dear,” he says, “it has been wasted a lot.”
Outside the motor home, Byron ticks off a list of Carradine’s accomplishments. He has recently been made a life member of the Players Club in New York, becoming one of only four people so honored. He has acted in 180 separate plays, which Byron believes is another record. He has been named celebrity spokesman for the “Save the Eagle” campaign. And he and Byron, along with a third partner named Susan Flahive, who has also come along to Tulsa, have started a production company. On their slate of projects is a remake of the film (and stage play) Tobacco Road, as well as a movie the three wrote called Captain Willoughby and several documentaries, including one concerning Bigfoot that Carradine intends to narrate. Byron and Carradine are also opening an antique store in Sans Diego, where they both live. Called Umbrella Jack’s, after the TV movie that won Carradine an Emmy, it will include “many of the things from his monster movies,” including the original scripts from his ’40s Monogram features, Byron says.
Back on the set, Tulsa actor Josef Hardt, who worked as a TV horror show host for a time in the 1960s, runs through his lines as the crew begins testing fog machines. Hardt is re-creating his role as the high priest of Caninus, the dog-god, and tonight he is ringed by hooded monks in pale blue makeup, some holding dobermans on leashes. A fire blazes and crackles in the background, bathing the scene in orange light that’s almost as bright as the white lights of the crew.
The Silverado drives down, as close as it can get to the clearing. Several people help Carradine out of the truck’s cab, leading him down to the set where Christopher Lewis and the film crew wait. As he passes, people fall silent, watching a man who is a link to the very beginning of the talkies, who once consorted with the likes of John Barrymore.
Carradine looks a bit unsteady and feeble as he is led to the set, but he grins, and his voice is strong. As two crew members drape a white robe over him, Lewis explains the scene and asks for a run-through. Carradine nods, and in a moment, he begins to speak the lines in that familiar, compelling voice, and it’s as if a sudden chill snaps through the crowd. All eyes are riveted on him as he speaks. No one stirs.
When he finishes, Byron, on the edge of the crowd, whispers, “I’ve managed Yvonne DeCarlo, Sterling Hayden, Steve McQueen … I’ve worked with many stars. But John has a quality in his voice not many have.”
Lewis calls for a take, and the camera rolls. Carradine draws himself up and looks directly into the camera. “I am time itself …” he begins, and, standing at rapt attention in the crowd, Jim Vance strains forward a little and then closes his eyes, listening to John Carradine say the words he wrote. Slowly, his face splits into a wide grin, which stays there even after Carradine is finished and the take is in the can.
Shot in Oklahoma: A Century Of Sooner State Cinema by John Wooley, courtesy University of Oklahoma Press.