A small family relocates to the Sonoran Desert to be closer to the grandparents of the family. Though there are news reports of a spectacular triple supernova and the young granddaughter has seen a glowing alien construction behind the barn, the family is at ease until, one night, a UFO soars overhead and appears to land in the nearby hills. Apparently, the triple supernova has opened a rift in space and time. The family finds that their electrical appliances no longer function, and the youngest daughter of the family has a telepathic encounter with an extraterrestrial. The grandmother, too, sees one of these diminutive creatures beckoning to her, but it soon vanishes.
The grandfather, while trying to start the car, sees that a strange animal is approaching from the distance. The grandfather goes back inside and informs the family that something is coming; before long, a variety of horrific, alien monsters (all of these creatures being of a reptilian or amphibious nature) are proceeding to slaughter each other outside the house; some are trying to break in (after knocking) and kill the family. After a few moments, the UFO appears again and teleports the creatures to a different place. The family take this opportunity to escape to the barn, which is more easily defensible than the house. The family become separated from one another and each hides until sunrise, where they find that they have been launched thousands of years into the future. They meet up with the daughter, who had become separated from the family during one of the time-warp events. She knows, somehow, that everything is going to be fine now. After walking across the desert, they finally see a domed city in the distance, and decide to seek refuge there. The grandfather proclaims that there must be a purpose to all of this. The family walks off into the distance, having survived the day time ended.
The film was originally conceived by script writers Steve Neill, Paul Gentry, and Wayne Schmidt. The three offered a script for another project to producer Charles Band, who thought it was too expensive to make but offered to produce a science-fiction film if it was based in one or two locations.
Steve Neill is not your everyday, run-of the-mill, bottom-of-the-barrel scraper, however. For the last four years, he’s been making a fine living off his makeup talents, designing and applying material for The Crater Lake Monster, Kingdom of the Spiders, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, Demon and various other film features and TV commercials. His partners in the Vortex production, Paul Gentry and Wayne Schmidt, come from the same creative background but don’t have the impressive list of credits.
“I’m a science-fiction fan,” says Schmidt, “doing the convention circuit and the whole bit while writing screenplays no one seemed to buy. Until this came up I was doing a lot of starving.”
What came up was Neill going to work for Charles Band on the young producer’s two SF efforts of last year-End of the World and Laserblast. Suddenly, Neill had found his responsive ear and took no time in exploiting it.
“Steve had the tenacity to walk into work with some spaceship models he designed,” Schmidt relates. “They subsequently caught Charlie’s eye. He grilled Steve as to what they were for and Steve told him they were for a movie he was working on. Charlie was receptive so Steve brought me into it.”
What emerged was a concept alternately titled Race for Antari or Star Racers, concerning, not surprisingly, racers in space. Band was interested not so much in the theme at that point, but the creative package he could create: Neill on makeup, Gentry on SFX and Schmidt on script. Unfortunately, the idea soon became too big for Band’s budget.
“Charlie called me into the office one day,” Neill recalls, “and said, ‘I’ve got some good news and some bad news. First, the bad news is that Star Racers has been shelved. The good news is that I still want a picture from you. I want simplicity, I want one location and I want it this week.’”
Neill accepted the challenge and one hour later came up with the concept of Vortex.
“Basically,” Schmidt narrates, “it involves a family who moves out to the desert and builds a completely self-sufficient house out there. But due to a space occurrence it turns out that their home is built on what you might call ‘the Bermuda Triangle fault-line.’ It gets whisked into other dimensions and the family goes through all sorts of-how shall I put it?-traumatic experiences. Heh, heh, heh.”
“It seemed to work real well,” Neill takes up the story, “so we drafted it out real fast. We signed three contracts and started the picture based on a one-page synopsis!”
But one page does not a movie make. The spanking new production team of Neill, Gentry and Schmidt had to get a shooting script, they had to get a director, and they had to gather a cast. Suddenly filmmaking wasn’t fun anymore. It was still exciting, but it sure wasn’t fun.
“The scriptwriting went on and on and on,” says Schmidt. “And the film grew in scope until we wound up with a project as involved as our Star Racers. And it was to take close to as much time. It’s not the simple project we started with by any stretch of the imagination. While Charlie handled most of the casting decisions with feedback from the distributors, we started creating the ‘look’ of the film.
“We brought in Lane Liska who worked on Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica to draw up our ideas. Meantime Steve, who had worked with John Bud Cardos on The Dark, called the director and got him in on this one.”
Although a second location was added and the final shooting script called for months of post-production effects work, things were going smoothly. Band had signed Jim Davis, Dorothy Malane, Chris Mitchum, Natasha Ryan and Marcy Lafferty to play the leads, while Cardos began putting his crew together. According to their contracts, Gentry would be the director of photography and head of special effects, Schmidt would discover the wonders of producing by doing a little bit of everything and Neill would oversee it all-valiantly trying to stave off his first ulcer.
The crew descended on Apple Valley for 10 days of location shooting, then things began to get a little dusty. The crew turned out not to be entirely reliable and Gentry was removed as cinematographer.
“The problem with low-budget films,” details Neill, “is that you get crews who are experienced in only that type of film, there is a lot of hiring and firing because they’re, kind of, in-between talents. I hate the watch-watchers, though, the guys who complain all the time then quit on you. If it weren’t for guys like Greg Jein, our model maker, and Joel Goldsmith-Jerry’s son who is doing the sound, the movie wouldn’t stay together. These guys are totally dedicated. I mean, when Paul Gentry was replaced as DP he took it cool. He knew he got aced, but he worked it out smoothly and kept helping. I can’t thank these guys enough.”
Not only was Neill’s patience tried, his wallet was sorely tapped as well. In the movie business, the least little mistake can push the film thousands of dollars over the budget-a lesson the young trio learned the hard way.
“We were supposed to be on location 10 days and we were there 16,” Neill relates. “The government charged us $6500 for use of the land. Beyond that they wanted so much for each actor, so much for each camera, so much for each truck and so much for each car. It cost like $10,000 to rent a dry lake bed. And we didn’t even have to be there!
“You see, Bud had this idea that a scene which was set to be shot with special effects could be done on location. It called for a sort-of ‘intergalactic spaceship graveyard.’ He had all these friends, he said, who had all these old planes that could be flown down for free, etc., etc. It turned out to be a nightmare. When it came time, there were no free planes. It cost $6000 to fly one plane mockup to the location. It seems that Bud would rather see his old planes out there and shoot it for himself than hand it over to special effects. That’s been a problem.”
Fortunately, the production wasn’t all problems. The stage-bound mock-ups of the house, the barn and the corral turned out better than expected and the SFX were being created with style. All in all, the production values for Vortex marked a new high for Charles Band. The young filmmakers expressed their admiration for the abilities of their youthful boss.
“I’ll give him credit,” Schmidt says. “He was willing to take a chance with three guys who had no “authorized’ experience on a film. He has a lot of courage and for that we owe him a great debt of thanks.”
Neill, while mirroring his partner’s sentiments, also points out one of the problems of low-budget filmmaking. “Charlie is incredible. He signed us for Vortex, Dave Allen for The Primevals, wrapped Tourist Trap and Auditions just before releasing Fairy Tales. And that’s just this year, practically. Our only problem is that he seems to think he’s giving us enough money but he’s not. We’re stretching as hard as we can to make this a great picture.”
The final judgment will come, of course, after Vortex is released and the money starts-or doesn’t start to roll in. Given the returns on Band’s prior contributions to the genre, the trio are confident of a decent showing. But win, lose or draw, they all feel very strongly about the lesson in life their film has taught them.
“All through the production I wanted to strangle people,” says Neill. “But as a producer I couldn’t do it. You’ve got to bite your tongue instead of blowing up. I used to have a really bad temper, but that’s gone now. I learned to smile at people, sometimes leaving a bad taste in my mouth.”
Happily, the best is yet to come for the team. The principal photography is finished and they are now deep into the SFX, their first love.
“The special effects are the nicest part of the production,” says Neill, and his associates concur. “It’s like we’re free of Bud and free of the crew and Charlie has dumped the film in our laps and said, ‘Go for it.’ We are, believe me. We’re pouring our flesh and blood into this.
“But you know what? I’m not excited. There’s too much to do. I’ll get excited the night the film opens. Then I can just sit there and shout, ‘Yeah!’ at the screen. Until then, I’ll be very serious.”
J. Larry Carroll
Jim Davis as Grant Williams
Dorothy Malone as Ana Williams
Christopher Mitchum as Richard Williams
Marcy Lafferty as Beth Williams
Scott Kolden as Steve Williams
Natasha Ryan as Jenny Williams
Roberto Contreras as Gas Station Attendant
Visual Effects by
David Allen … dimensional animation / technical advisor: Special Visual Effects Unit
Beth Block … opticals: 2nd unit
Dave Carson … effects art director: Special Visual Effects Unit
Chris Casady … special animation crew
Lyle Conway … stop-motion figures designer & creator
Randall William Cook … dimensional animation (as Randy Cook) / storyboards (as Randy Cook)
Jim Danforth … The “City of Light” by
Paul Gentry … dimensional animation (as Paul W. Gentry) / director of special visual effects: Special Visual Effects Unit (as Paul W. Gentry)
Gregory Jein … models constructed by (as Greg Jein)
Laurel Klick … opticals: 2nd unit (as Laural Klick)
Peter Kuran … special animation effects supervisor (as Pete Kuran)
James F. Liles … opticals: 3rd unit
Laine Liska … models designed by (as Lain Liska)
Robin Loudon … effects production secretary
Steven Nielson … effects editor (as Steve Neilson)
Lori Redfern … special animation crew
Wayne Schmidt … opticals: 1st unit
Jerome Seven … special animation crew
Tom St. Amand … stop-motion armatures (as Tom St. Armand)
Rick Taylor … special animation crew
Pam Vick … special animation crew
Joe Viskocil … special pyrotechnic effects
Garry Waller … special animation crew (as Gary Waller)
Jim Danforth … matte artist (uncredited) / matte photographer (uncredited)
Cinefantastique Vol 08 No 2-3
Famous Monsters of Filmland#161