Released a year prior to The China Syndrome (1979), Slithis was the flip side of the nuclear- radiation red-alert genre, a sort of Creature from the Black Lagoon on Venice Beach. Still living less than a block from the water, Stephen Traxler has evolved his career beyond Slithis without having lost sight of the beast that started it all. Thirty years after its release, a framed Belgian poster for the film still hangs proudly above his fireplace.
Oddly enough, Traxler’s road to Slithis began with a little help from The Mickey Mouse Club. “I started in the film business as an actor and extra when I was still in high school,” he recalls. “A good friend of mine was one of the earliest Mousketeers, and his mother helped me land an agent. There used to be quite a lot of stuff for teenagers, so I worked a great deal. When I turned 18, I was able to do a lot more and made it a full-time career.”
During this time, Traxler found himself drafted into the infantry for the Vietnam War. Both before and after his service, he kept busy with bit roles on such shows as Gomer Pyle: USMC (where he doubled for Jim Nabors), plus extra and stunt gigs on Girl Happy (1965) with Elvis Presley and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965). After Vietnam, Traxler attended California State University Northridge to earn his degree
“Once I graduated, I decided I’d had enough of everything for a while, so I moved up to Mammoth Lakes, California this was about 1971 or so and lived there for several years as a ski bum. The second year I was up there, two other guys and I opened up the FM radio station.” Serving as the program director and morning DJ, Traxler achieved celebrity status in Mammoth Lakes but before you could say, “Break a leg,” Traxler did exactly that.
“I broke my leg rather severely in a ski race and had to be operated on,” says Traxler, who relocated to Venice to have additional surgery at UCLA, and was rendered immobile. “I was basically stranded,” he continues, and in a twist of fate worthy of a bizarre Rear Window sequel, his imagination ran astray while looking out the window in his Venice refuge.
“I was kind of watching the canals day after day, and started thinking in terms of a what-if,” Traxler recalls. “ ‘What if we did an old-fashioned 1950s low-budget monster movie, and the creature comes out of the Venice canals?’ That was the genesis of the whole thing, sitting there with a full-length cast on and too much time on my hands, imagining this stuff.”
Instead of making a movie about then-trendy predatory creatures, like sharks or snakes, Traxler created his own beast: the Slithis, a scaly monster born from nuclear waste that’s going to make humankind pay for messing with Mother Nature. In naming his beast, Traxler recalls, “I just tried to think of the slimiest, slitheriest thing I could, and that just popped into my head.”
Creepy canals and broken legs not withstanding, Slithis was as much a result of commerce as it was of creativity. It was the mid-1970s: Leatherface had recently terrorized Texas, JAWS was making history as the biggest financial success in Hollywood history and its sequel was on the way, so the market was primed for a monster movie. Traxler knew, though, that he’d be making his flick at a low cost. “Warner Bros, wasn’t going to come knocking on our doors, so the only way we could do a film was as a low-budget piece,” he says. “I went with the horror genre because I thought that if there was anything that had a shot, it was that genre.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
The first step, of course, was to raise the $100,000 budget. “I put the deal together with a very good friend of mine who had worked in the movies with me, Paul Fabian, hence the name of our company, FabTrax. We took pictures of the various locations where we wanted to shoot, put together a presentation and slide show and started knocking on doors, trying to get investors at $10,000 a pop.” During this time, Traxler paid the bills with a day job at 20th Century Fox. “We would work at the studios during the day and have investor meetings at night.”
With the help of an acquaintance in the real-estate business who provided the first 10,000.00, their efforts gradually started paying off. Traxler and Fabian secured the services of an attorney who worked free of charge because he admired their dedication, and a contract was created in which all money raised went straight into an escrow account, where it would stay until the entire budget was acquired. The duo also began placing ads.
“We did some advertising in The Hollywood Reporter, and this guy Dave Peltzer called and said, ‘I’ll invest $10,000 in your picture if you’ll give me a job. I want to be an assistant director,’ ” Traxler says. “So he came on board as our 2nd AD. Then there was a long period where we couldn’t break past those original four people, so I put some more ads in the trade papers.
“Then I got two phone calls,” Traxler continues. “One was from a guy named Dick Davis. He said he was in town with his partner Bob Fridley, and they were doing a movie called The Hazing (1977) (The Curious Case of the Campus Corpse) that they were just finishing up. He said I could bring my presentation down to his office, and he’d take a look at it.”
Both Davis and Fridley were prominent theater owners in Des Moines, Iowa, and Davis’ Midwestern roots would play an important role in promoting Slithis: He had a legend of his own as an exhibitor in the region. “His real thing was adult movies in those states,” Traxler explains. “At a very low level, he was the Pussycat Theaters of that area. He used to tell me about the amazing amount of money he made, all in cash. The parking lots were overrun with pickup trucks; it was all these old farmers who would come out and give sellout business to those adult theaters. That was really his biggest financial success at the time.” .
Now Traxler had to sell a sea monster to the porn king of Iowa. Fortunately, all it took was the drop of a name. “I was on a picture called Fire Sale at Fox,” Traxler says. “The sound guy and I became friends, and I told him about the project. He said, ‘There’s only one guy you want to shoot this thing, and I’ve worked with him on a couple of independent projects. His name is Bob Caramico.’ So I called Bob, and he was this real gruff-sounding guy right off the streets of New York.
No stranger to the strange, Caramico had already carved out a niche as a top cinematographer for low-budget horror and exploitation films. His extensive B-flick resume includes the Ed Wood scripted Orgy of the Dead (1965), The Black Klansman (1966), Journey to the Center of Time (1967), The Cremators (1972), Blackenstein (1973), Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (1973), Octaman (1971), Eaten Alive (1976) and The Happy Hooker Goes to Washington (1977) among others. Most importantly for Traxler, as it turned out, Caramico had shot a Fred Williamson vehicle titled Mean Johnny Barrows (1975). The production manager on that film was Bob Manning who had just done The Hazing with Davis and Fridley. Manning was sitting beside Davis during Traxler’s Slithis pitch, and it was a stroke of luck that would launch Traxler’s career.
“At the end of this conversation, Davis turned to Manning and said, ‘What do you think?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if there’s a market for it, but the one thing I do know is these guys have the right DP. If anybody in town can shoot this picture in 12 days, it’s Bob Caramico.’ Bingo! That was all it took. Davis looked at me, shook my hand and said, ‘You got 60 grand, and all I want is the distribution rights.’ I said, ‘You got it!’ ” Traxler also remembers Davis telling him, “ ‘Let’s be friends now, because the f**kin’ comes later!’ Boy, I should’ve been listening, because later, did we ever find that out!”
With 100 grand in hand and a 12-day schedule on the calendar, Traxler went to work. Caramico brought several of his regulars on board; one was then 20-year-old Mimi Leder, who had just served as script supervisor for Caramico on a feature titled Where’s Willie? (1978) The daughter of exploitation stalwart Paul (I Dismember Mama (1972) Leder and future director of Deep Impact and The Peacemaker was again hired as script supervisor on Slithis.
“Mimi was very nice, though at that time not particularly knowledgeable about filmmaking or being a script supervisor, but she was up to the challenge,” ‘Traxler says. “I liked her. Her father had been kind of a semi-king of schlock himself, so she knew where everyone was coming from.”
Not oblivious to Slithis’ own high schlock factor, ‘Traxler turned the limited funds to his advantage. “I figured with the genre we were in, low budget didn’t matter, because I was really spoofing those kinds of movies to begin with.
In casting Slithis, Traxler consciously sought a distinct and eclectic group of actors who would stand out. The two leads are the movie’s most normal characters, and were intentionally cast that way. Wayne Connors, played by Alan Blanchard, is a frustrated journalism teacher who thinks he’s onto a Watergate-level scoop with the Slithis, and his girlfriend, improbably named Jeff, was portrayed by Judy Motulsky. “I used to know a girl named Jeffra,” Traxler explains. “Again, going against the grain. I wanted Alan to thread the needle through all this strange stuff, and to make sure he had a strong woman by his side. Alan would be my Alice in this off-kilter Wonderland of Venice, populated by lunatic cops, Vietnam burnouts, cheesy hustlers, mad scientists and a large, man eating creature. He did a pretty good job.”
The Captain Quint of Slithis who helps Wayne track down the monster was played by the also improbably named Mello Alexandria, a former prizefighter from Jamaica. Alexandria stood out due not only to his gregarious nature, but also his unique voice, which wasn’t the stereo-typical “jah mon” Jamaican patois. “That accent was real,” Traxler recalls. “He had a good personality, and came across real well. I thought, ‘Boy, if we can get this guy to come across on screen like he does in real life’ which is tough to do, by the way ‘we’ve got something.’ He was a solid actor who brightened up the screen. ” The most important casting, though. was the Slithis itself. Traxler picked a close friend. Win Condict, to don the big rubber suit. “He was a water polo champion at UCLA,” the filmmaker reveals. “He was one of the greatest athletes I’d ever known, a real water guy, and I thought no one would be better inside that costume than him.”
Shot around the world-famous Venice Beach area (now a real-estate gold mine), Slithis is a wonderful time capsule that captures the area when it was a haven for beatniks, weirdos, hippies and odd assorted characters. “Today, it’s all built up and hoity-toity,” Traxler notes. “But at the time, that was just starting to happen, so it was still quite atmospheric. I’d lived there and played there and in Santa Monica, so I knew the area fairly well. There was a wealth of great-looking locations and stuff we could steal off the street.”
In fact, the entire film was lensed on actual locations. “When you’re making a movie for $100,000 in 35mm, you really have to get your production value through practical locations. You want to make that low budget work for you instead of against you.”
One such situation involved a scene in which a middle-aged playboy picks up a nubile young vixen at a standing-room-only… tortoise race! “I had to go and get permission to shoot there, but those races were hugely popular at the time and kind of unique, so I thought, ‘Hmmm, nobody’s gonna understand what this is about. This’ll wow ’em in Des Moines!’ ”
PRINCIPAL PHOTOGRAPHY/SPECIAL EFFECTS
The monster outfit was based on sketches Traxler drew, and built by a group of artists. “They did a ton of very hard, diligent, good work for us, for very little money, because they looked at it like an art project.”
The costume was made out of four different kinds of rubber, and soaked up water like a sponge obviously not practical for a monster that comes from the sea. It also didn’t have a zipper, and had to be sewn back up every time Condict put it on. Once he did, he was in there for the duration, meaning no rest-room breaks. “I didn’t care if he had to go to the bathroom,” Traxler says. “He’d piss in his pants, it didn’t matter. It was the most impractical monster costume that possibly could have been made.”
The film contains a number of shots from the monster’s point of view, which look like they were shot through a Coke bottle, but were actually done with a hurricane lamp. “We took the top off and put it over the lens,” Traxler explains. “That gave us a warped kind of view to begin with, and then we could ooze water off it.”
Slithis didn’t go over its 12-day schedule, and stayed on its small budget. “Seven of those days were actually nights,” Traxler recalls. “Three were on the water. We shot for half an additional day doing atmosphere shots in and around Venice. That was very low-key, and done without permits.”
Once completed, Slithis had to make three trips to the MPAA before winning a PG rating. On first viewing, it was given an R for gore, but a moment of accidental nudity a nipple slip during a creature attack wasn’t a factor in the MPAA’s decision. “It was never about the boob that showed,” Traxler says. “That was a Janet Jackson moment.” As far as what the MPAA wanted trimmed, “They were talking about four seconds, or some ridiculous amount. It was that petty. So I said, ‘They’re playing a game with me now.’ If I had been from a studio, there wouldn’t even have been a discussion. So we re-cut it, taking out everything they wanted. We showed it to them a third time, got a PG, then stuck it all back in and had the prints run off.”
A funny situation also occurred involving the title. If you watch the movie, the moniker is actually Spawn of the Slithis. “I felt there was kind of a literary, highbrow charm about Spawn of the Slithis,” Traxler says. “Then, as Dick Davis correctly pointed out, Slithis doesn’t have any meaning. ‘And nobody who’s going to the movie seems to know what the word “spawn” means. So rather than have two words nobody understands, why don’t we just use Slithis and have it be powerful as a one-word title?’ I said fine, but we had already made the prints with Spawn of the Slithis on them! When it came time to promote it and do the one-sheet, we just went with Slithis.”
Davis tried to sell Slithis to AIP and Crown International, but their summer ’78 lineups were already filled and both companies passed. He finally decided to release the film himself, and book it regionally. As it turned out, AIP and Crown’s offerings that season bombed, clearing more screens for Slithis. With a little over 100 prints going around the country, the film scared up pretty strong business.
“It did really well in the Midwest,” Traxler says. “It went through the roof in Hawaii. It did standing room only at the Adams Theatre in Detroit, playing there for three weeks and in those days, for a little movie like that to be held over so long was a pretty big deal.’ It hit number 18 in the (Variety chart of the) 50 top- grossing pictures in the United States. This was unheard of for a picture that only had 110 prints.”
Since Slithis was a takeoff on ’SOS fright fare, Traxler figured some William Castle-style gimmicks to help promote the film would be fun as well. The result was a Slithis Survival Kit and a Slithis Fan Club. Thousands of people wrote in, but Davis wasn’t prepared to respond to people who requested information or wanted to buy Slithis merchandise.
“A number of people actually sent in money for products, and there were none!” Traxler recalls, incredulous. “He put this thing together, but he never followed through and had the T-shirts, caps and stuff made up.” Among the thousands who wrote in was the famous fighter Leon Spinks, who was a big fan of the movie and filled out an application to join the Slithis Fan Club.
Traxler also took the monster on the road with him. The Slithis suit was falllng apart by this point, but the filmmaker was still able to visit campuses as well as morning TV and radio shows, usually with a local high-school student hired to wear the outfit. “Nowadays, the movie stars or directors go on Jay Leno,” he says. “But in those days, doing those gimmicks getting somebody inside a costume, the Slithis Survival Kit, having the young guy
Davis sold the rights for home video, which was just starting to become a secondary market, to Media Home Entertainment (whose VHS release was Slithis only legit video incarnation; it has yet to be officially issued on DVD). The overseas rights went to a company called Bless International for $450,000. With so many hands in the pot, no one is sure how much Slithis ultimately made not that Traxler saw any of it anyway. Like many first- time independent filmmakers, he got royally screwed.
“Slithis made a lot of money, literally millions of dollars,” Traxler says. “As a distributor, Davis never paid Paul or I a single cent of the profits that were contractually due us as controlling partners in the production company. He broke the contract time and again, and when he could no longer hide the profits from domestic theatrical distribution, the foreign sale, domestic TV, home video and military sales, he told us to sue him.”
Then The Los Angeles Times ran a story about Traxler getting the shaft, and a Hollywood attorney offered to help out pro bono. “But the reality was that Davis had moved back to Des Moines,” Traxler notes. “His attorneys were there, and even though our contract clearly stipulated that all legal issues must be dealt with in California, and governed by California state law, Davis chose to ignore it. The attorney told us we’d have to employ a law firm in Iowa to get to Davis, and the over all cost of a lawsuit could easily exceed $50,000. Since we had been working on the film for a year for free and we were both broke, that ended it.”
There were plans for another Slithis film, and Traxler had the upper hand against Davis because the contract gave Traxler ownership of the movie as well as remake and sequel rights. Slithis’ ending leaves things open for a follow-up, and Traxler wrote a script that would take place 10 years later. A Broadway producer was interested in making the movie in 3-D, no less and wanted the creature to be more sympathetic in the sequel, like Frankenstein’s monster. But after the producer lost money optioning the script, Traxler gave up pursuing that project.
‘Traxler still hopes to bring Slithis back to life, though. A website is in the works which will include not only film clips, but also interactive storyboards for a potential new Slithis sequel. Traxler has already written the script and is considering a graphic-novel adaptation as well, with the hope to turn it into a feature film.
And for fans of ’70s B-movies, the memories of Slithis live on. In 2007, Quentin Tarantino programmed a two-month-long Grindhouse Film Festival at LA’s New Beverly Cinema, during which he showed Slithis on a double bill with another lost gem of the decade’s low-budget horror, the 1979 Dimension Pictures release Screams of a Winter Night. It was obvious that many in the audience hadn’t seen Slithis before, and it brought the house down that night. The crowd laughed, whooped and hollered right along with it, adding a whole new dimension of fun to the movie.
Slithis didn’t launch Traxler’s directing career as he’d hoped, but he went on to produce Dracula’s Widow (1988) and has had a successful Hollywood career in assorted production capacities on many major Hollywood films. “Slithis really taught me how to make movies,” he notes. “When you do a low-budget picture like that fairly young in your career, and you’re forced by the simple fact that there’s no money to take on so many things, you learn a great deal about the art of creating motion pictures.
“I feel very comfortable doing those big-studio pictures, but I really like the small ones where you have more control. You can do more. They don’t pay as well, but they’re a lot more fun.”
Alan Blanchard – Wayne Connors
Judy Motulsky – Jeff Connors
J.C. Claire – Dr. John
Dennis Falt – Dr. Erin Burick (as Dennis Lee Falt)
Mello Alexandria – Chris Alexander
Win Condict – The Monster