Back in 2003 or so, Mike Schlesinger was promoting a trailer for a movie that Sony had just picked up. I saw the trailer and howled with laughter. Mike told me that it was a real trailer for a real movie. I asked him if the filmmakers could keep that pace up for the length of a whole feature, and he assured me that they did. It was a little film called The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, and I bugged Mike mercilessly to find me a theater where it was playing.
Making a movie is a tricky thing, and independents doubly so. It’s almost a delusional state, or a psychological malady. You need to have a crew of at least a dozen people working together on a project that the odds say may never be seen outside of the 2am-4am time filler slot on TNT. Most don’t make money, and most lose their investment entirely.
This is why I’m often enchanted with the can-do spirit of 1950s filmmakers. As much as we like to make fun of him, Ed Wood was a successful filmmaker. He beat the odds. He got films made and released. Roger Corman was and is a successful filmmaker. His films hit theaters and TV. Were they silly? Sure! Cheap? You bet! But they got made… and the directors came back to make more. I’d guess that 90% of movies that are started are never finished, and maybe half of those that are finished are ever released in some fashion.
I sensed an immediate bond with writer-director Larry Blamire’s creation when I finally got to see it. A lot of people don’t really understand what he was trying to do. The most clueless critics (I’m not going to link to a clueless review… find it yourself) say that Larry is spoofing 1950s-60s movies and making a deliberately bad film. He’s not. He’s making a tribute to those films, and he’s even limited in much the same way they were. Sure, it’s funny, and it’s a little more over-the-top than the originals were. But it’s clear that Larry loves movies, low-budget or not.
One of the marvels of Lost Skeleton was the way Larry aped that poetic but tin-eared dialogue that we know so well. Ed Wood is famous for it, but you can hear it ring through epics like The Conqueror and most of the Roger Corman films of the period. It’s the sound of “Get it done by tomorrow morning so we can shoot this.” Larry nails it.
And it takes a special kind of actor to be able to read that sort of dialogue without sounding like he’s an idiot. John Wayne couldn’t do it, but Charlton Heston could. Lyle Talbot did it in Glen or Glenda. But all of Larry’s talented stock company does it brilliantly. It’s a joy to watch these folks tear their way through the film, with innovative reaction shots, and clever but not-quite-hammy portrayals.
When Larry premiered Lost Skeleton Returns Again at a convention in Kentucky, I drove for several hours to see it. I did it again to see his cut of Trail of the Screaming Forehead. (I even resisted the chance to throw spitballs at Mike Schlesinger when he won the Rondo award, and that was self-restraint, people.)
But now Larry is spearheading a brilliant and innovative Kickstarter campaign to make the third Lost Skeleton film. I couldn’t let this opportunity go without talking to him about it. Most Kickstarter campaigns are pretty static and dry (like mine was), but Larry has a new video or hook every couple of days. It’s quite cool.
For the record, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us is a project I endorse wholeheartedly. But then again, I’m that guy who has a popular blog for a TV show that he can’t sell! Still, we all must do our part, and this is mine!
I INTERVIEW NOW! (Did you see what I did there? Well, if you didn’t, then skip it.)
Q1. You’ve done some clever satires of popular genres. Your first picture was Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. That’s been discussed to death, but I’d like to talk to you about the pictures that inspired it. It has a very Bert I Gordon/Roger Corman/even 50s Universal feel to it. These pictures have a feel of “Wow, these poor guys had nothing to work with. It’s amazing that the film even got finished.” You seem to celebrate that spirit. Would you discuss that feel of 1950s filmmaking and maybe give us some films that gave you some inspiration?
LB: I wrote a play in the late 80s, a comedy-with-heart called Bride of the Mutant’s Tomb that had an Ed Wood-like director scrambling to finish his film in Bronson Canyon while everything seemed to go wrong. I didn’t realize that would be me several years later. Although everything wasn’t going wrong for us of course, it was still a mad scramble and that now almost seems a “method” approach to what we were emulating. My relationship with 50s low (or medium) budget scifi is complex; I chuckle with respect. That is to say no matter how unintentionally funny some of them were (and plenty weren’t) I still admire that they got it done. It’s almost heroic. And I love when a film like my oft-mentioned Attack of the Crab Monsters conveys genuine atmosphere, a sense of doom. It’s crazy. They often touch a surreal vein in me, the incongruous imagery they present, whether consciously or not. The reversed footage of The Blob running up the old man’s arm, giant eyes crawling around snowy mountaintops, even that skinny big-headed monster in Fire Maidens of Outer Space lurking in a lush natural Eden-like setting. Unconscious strangeness is still strange.
Q2. I really loved that your sequel to Lost Skeleton was not just a rehash of the original, but it was a much bigger-budget production that went in a completely different direction. From an artistic standpoint, tell us how you like to approach the idea of sequels. I know that a lot of the 1950s sequels don’t do a good job of changing direction and become rehashes. One particular film that does it well is Revenge of the Creature, which is quite a different film from the picture that spawned it, Creature from the Black Lagoon. On the other hand, the Godzilla pictures really started to get old quickly after a promising start.
LB: I agree. And Revenge of the Creature is a great example. I enjoy that film as much as the original (though every time I watch it I do want just a little more monster-on-the-loose action). I do dislike sequels that rehash. I only did the second Lost Skeleton movie because I had a different idea, and I went from dead set against it to “I gotta make this movie.” Even the music reflects something entirely different; from the low budget scifi style production music to the Herrmannesque feel of Morgan and Stromberg’s score. I love both but the latter reflected the matinee adventure perfectly. Expedition, jungle, monsters–I still love that formula. And guess what–it still worked for my favorite Jurassic Park movie, Jurassic Park 3, another example of a sequel treading different ground. Hell, it was more fun than either of its forerunners. Do a sequel if you have something different up your sleeve, otherwise don’t bother.
Q3. As everyone knows, you’re currently trying to finance the third Lost Skeleton movie, which I understand is a departure from the last two. Your Kickstarter campaign is really brilliant. What did it take for you to get this going?
LB: Well, thank you and it’s taken a lot of work. I tried to start it up last year but I was taken away by other projects. Several months ago I began making the videos that I felt were necessary to try and get across that we do some wacky and different stuff. It started with the “lost” footage from the original “silent” Lost Skeleton, which was created to be only one small part of the faux documentary A World Without Lost Skeleton. And that piece was a (something) load of work for me, some pretty intensive editing. But I have to say I was as happy with the outcome as anything I’ve created. It sets up the conceit of the Lost Skeleton being at war with me, which I thought might be an amusing arc to keep the Kickstarter interesting. Add to that exec producer Mark Stuart’s mighty effort with the pledge incentives and you’ve got a lot of work put into this. As to The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us, once again the story came to me and presented something very different from its predecessors; the characters living in the suburbs circa 1963, with Dr. Paul experimenting with atmosphereum while a series of “radiation murders” is going on, and the Lost Skeleton moving in next door as he seeks to get his full power back. It reaches new heights of absurdity, which is always of interest to me.
Q4. You made a number of episodes of Tales from the Pub, which are quite hilarious. Those are great spoofs of 1950s “spooky” shows, particularly One Step Beyond and even some of the John Nesbitt shows. I particularly like the way that you have a nasty film-like splice in the credits of every episode, just like a bad syndication print would have. Can you talk a little about the 1950s shows that inspired you for this?
LB: We were having meetings in Dan Conroy’s basement pub like once a week, looking to plan our next project and it came to me as something of a creative outlet; these perfect little economical pieces that we could shoot on our own and post online just to keep ourselves sharp, and of course have fun. I’m pretty sure I had just seen a fairly creepy episode of Lights Out (I think it was) called “The Martian Eye” that had something of a claustrophobic paranoia to it. These were infectious for me; the more I wrote the more came to me–and I really enjoyed the challenge of having to tell a story in just a couple pages. The cast was game and everyone chipped in wearing different hats; shooting, lighting, etc. One Step Beyond was probably the closest model, but like our movie parodies I hesitate to add that I really do enjoy that show. It’s nothing like, say, spoofing something cause it’s “bad”, it’s spoofing it because it’s fun.
Q5. I almost feel that your spoof of “old dark house” pictures, Dark and Stormy Night has too much material to spoof, since it’s never really been done before. You caught everything in these pictures, from the scheming relatives to the rigged seance, the dumb “wait, that’s impossible” character identity switches, and the hidden gorillas in the basement. I’d like you to talk about this genre a little and how it inspired you. Give us some specific vintage titles you’d recommend.
LB: I really do love old dark house pictures–Jen [actress Jennifer Blaire] and I have been known to binge on them–and it’s sad to think we may be (incredibly) running out of ones we haven’t seen (I’m still hoping Columbia’s 1933 Fog, which sounds like an old dark house on an ocean liner, may turn up). I decided it would be absurd fun to incorporate every ODH setup there is (some of which you mention), combining the will, stranded travelers, washed-out bridge, curse, escaped lunatic, etc. When Jen and I watch them we have strict criteria; for instance if the night lasts only one act, or if the police arrive and the setting is no longer so isolated, we’re inevitably disappointed. If there’s no storm, that’s a letdown–at least give us some howling wind for crying out loud. In fact, atmosphere might just be the most important ingredient for us. And even though DASN is a comedy I wanted it to have some of that. Just to rattle off some favorites: The Phantom of Crestwood, The Bat Whispers, Night of Terror, Menace, Rogues Tavern, One Frightened Night, House of Mystery to name a few. The Old Dark House is wonderful of course, though highly atypical, and Rene Clair’s And Then There Were None is probably the classiest, and a wonderful film in any category. Of the made-for-TV movie heyday, the best would have to be the excellent but unfortunately titled She’s Dressed to Kill (1979). Of course I love the alternate venues, like the old dark baseball stadium in Death on the Diamond or old dark movie studio of The Preview Murder Mystery.
Q6. I know you’d rather not be typecast as “that Lost Skeleton guy” because you have a lot more ideas to offer. Please discuss Steam Wars and what you’re doing with that.
LB: Steam Wars is my epic and it’s coming into its own, starting with the first three books of a graphic novel, the first of which is almost at the printer, followed by action figures–all leading up to a movie (and possible franchise). I’m partnered with Jerrick Ventures on this, which is Jeremy Frommer and Rick Schwartz. SW incorporates everything I love about big action movies, swashbucklers and cliffhangers and involves massive Victorian fighting machines shaped like armored warriors and manned by crews. It’s steampunk, though I was developing it before there was such a term.
Teaser trailer for Steam Wars
LB: Well, I would never say I worked with Ray (if only!). However just to have his blessing on Trail of the Screaming Forehead, in that we were using traditional stop-motion, was a thrill for me. Hell, hanging with him on several occasions was a thrill. One of my boyhood inspirations and idols, the last true cinema magician. The Cyclops emerging from the cave in 7th Voyage of Sinbad was a defining moment for me. I’m proud to have Trail called a “Ray Harryhausen Presents.”
Q8. Trail of the Screaming Forehead is a departure from the Lost Skeleton genre, but a subtle one. It’s more of a bright Technicolor film, much like some of the color 1950s and early 60s fare. Can you discuss the different artistic “feel” of Trail and what films inspired you on this? I keep thinking of Invaders From Mars for some reason…
LB: Definitely, as well as Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Small town residents gradually taken over until the heroes become more isolated and paranoid. I wrote it immediately after the first Lost Skeleton and it just came to me; again, a need to do something quite different but with a similar humor. This one had no “strings showing” though. It looks slick and polished, as though made by different folks in the early 60s. Mike Schlesinger calls it Douglas Sirk meets Body Snatchers or something like that. It definitely has that look. Are you familiar with that great book Still Life, with those ridiculously rich color photos from 1950’s movies? Like that.
I should also mention I’m writing the audio Adventures of Big Dan Frater, with Brian Howe, Dan Conroy and Alison Martin reprising their Screaming Forehead roles in a series of outrageous tales. The great Philip Proctor (Firesign Theater) is narrator. These will be available soon, and ongoing.
(Dr. Film responds: I’m not familiar with Still Life. I suppose I should be.)
Q9. I know you shoot digitally, which is a particular preservation problem. The version of Final Cut Pro that you used to cut Lost Skeleton is now unsupported and obsolete! Do you have any plans to preserve your films so that the master materials are not lost? (I didn’t make a pun about the Lost Skeleton becoming lost, so you’re welcome…)
LB: Thank you for that. No, you know, I really don’t. But I should. Definitely.
Q10. I often get interviewed by people who have no idea or understanding about what I do, and I think they don’t ask questions that are entirely relevant to the point. What question should I have asked that I didn’t ask, or what would you like to answer that I didn’t ask?
LB: I actually really liked these questions because they’re somewhat different than what I’ve gotten before. The only thing that comes to mind is something like “what are you watching now?” which may or may not be of interest. I just finished With Fire and Sword, Jerzy Hoffman’s 1999 epic that wraps up his trilogy set in 17th Century Poland, which I found beautifully entertaining and richly satisfying. It might even edge its way into my top ten favorite movies which changes gradually over time. René Clément’s Les Maudits made it on there not too long ago. Blowup may always be at the top for me.