In the realm of horror cinema good making-of films, like those of any other movie category, are few and far between. Too often what we get in the way of behind-the-scenes accounts are bloated retrospectives of interest only to fans of the films they chronicle (as was the case with 2011’s MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD) or shallow and pointless cinemasturbation (see 1997’s FULL-TILT BOOGIE, about the making of FROM DUSK TILL DAWN). Yet worthwhile making-of movies do exist in the horror-verse, even if they tend to be difficult to find.
Proceeding in chronological order, we’ll start with CUADECUC, VAMPIR (1970), which is very likely the most unique and audacious behind-the-scenes documentary ever made. It juxtaposes behind-the-scenes footage of the making of Jess Franco’s Christopher Lee headlined COUNT DRACULA with scenes from the finished film (example: a shot of Lee’s face getting made up followed by a clip from the scene he was being groomed for), all presented in scratchy black and white film stock, and overlaid with a profoundly creepy avant-garde score by Carles Santos.
The end result is essentially an “essay film” (as represented by the likes of KOYANISQAATSI and BARAKA). It’s been opined that director Pere Portabella’s aims were political in nature, with Lee representing Spain’s longtime dictator Francisco Franco (whose image, like that of Lee’s Dracula, was a manufactured one). The film, however, is far richer, and stranger, than that interpretation suggests.
DEMON LOVER DIARY (1980) is another one-of-a-kind work, a moviemaking documentary that ranks with classics of the form like BURDEN OF DREAMS and HEARTS OF DARKNESS. It’s certainly one of the most intimate and outrageous such films, as not too many of them end with their makers literally fleeing for their lives! Unfortunately, DEMON LOVER DIARY is also one of the most obscure making-of docs, having never been legitimately released on home video (which due to the outrages it depicts is hardly surprising).
1977’s THE DEMON LOVER was a no-budget P.O.S. co-directed by bad movie guru Donald Jackson (who would go on to subject us to abominations like ROLLERBLADE and HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN). Joel DeMott, the girlfriend of TDL’s cinematographer Jeff Kreines, decided to bring a camera to document the behind the scenes drama, and the result was DEMON LOVER DIARY.
It seems Jackson financed TDL by scamming money out of his insurance company via a faked on-the-job “accident,” although that didn’t stop him from mortgaging his house to get the film completed. His lack of filmmaking experience led to endless bickering from his crew and a climactic meltdown at the home of rocker Ted Nugent, where Jackson fired a gun in the presence of, or possibly at, Kreines and DeMott–who in DEMON LOVER DIARY’S concluding moments are heard fleeing (the screen having gone black) as a panicked DeMott screams “They’re shooting at us!”
It’s easy to laugh at the fumbles of Jackson and his cohorts, but anyone who’s ever worked on a low-budget production will recognize the grueling hours, clashing of egos and overall lack of organization on display here. DeMott’s crude home-movie aesthetics only serve to enhance the experience, serving up a film that, as the title portends, truly is a cinematic diary. Possessing none of the slickness that permeates (and often ruins) most making-of films, DEMON LOVER DIARY is a raw and timeless work that should be viewed by all aspiring horror-meisters.
THE HAMSTER FACTOR AND OTHER TALES OF THE TWELVE MONKEYS (1996), an 88-minute document on the calamitous filming of Terry Gilliam’s 12 MONKEYS, attained legendary status long before it was finally released (as part of the 12 MONKEYS DVD). Put together by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, who went on to make LOST IN LA MANCHA (another on-site accounting of a turbulent Gilliam production), THE HAMSTER FACTOR remains an eye-opener, with a candid approach that was downright revolutionary for its time.
We see an increasingly harried Gilliam arguing with his star Bruce Willis and producer Charles Rovin, bitching that he can’t figure out the story of 12 MONKEYS, and at one point locking himself in his trailer. We also get a first-hand glimpse of the turmoil that erupts when a child actor cast in a pivotal role can’t hack it and Gilliam is forced to make a last minute casting change, while the crew is driven crazy by Gilliam’s insistent focus on tiny details, such as a hamster in the background of one scene (hence the title).
Most intriguing of all, we get to look in on the test screening process, where randomly recruited audiences fill out cards detailing their opinions about the film. The responses for 12 MONKEYS, we see, are mostly negative, but that didn’t stop the movie from going on to become a minor hit. Hmmm…you think that just might suggest the testing process isn’t as reliable as Hollywood likes to think?
AMERICAN MOVIE (1999) documents the making of a little seen 35-minute splatter-fest called COVEN. Of that film, a grainy black and white bummer about an alkie who gets sucked into an evil support group, the less said the better. But its 30-year old director and star Mark Borchardt is a true character, and watching him make COVEN is far more entertaining than the finished product.
We meet the fast-talking Mark, his hilariously monotone acidhead buddy Mike, his doddering uncle Bill (COVEN’S “Executive Producer”) and several more eccentric folk residing in Mark’s Wisconsin hometown. Director Chris Smith closely observes Mark and the gang fumbling their way through the three-year production of “COH-VEN” (according to Borchardt, the actual pronunciation “sounds too much like oven”), and also fills us in on the minutiae of Mark’s day-to-day life, including his jobs as cemetery caretaker and newspaper delivery boy, and his strained relationships with his ex-wife and three young children.
We see what a tremendous burden it is, financially and otherwise, for Mark to complete his opus. COVEN’S finished form may suck, but its maker’s superhuman perseverance is to be applauded.
INFERNO/L’ENFER D’HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT (2009) is a retrospective chronicling of the unmaking of French maestro H.G. Clouzot’s legendary 1964 folly INFERNO. The film was to be a flamboyant psychological thriller about a man (Serge Reggiani) consumed by jealousy over his flighty wife (Romy Schneider), which inspires a wealth of nightmarish visions.
Based on the footage we’re shown, consisting of experimental test shots and a week’s worth of on-location photography, INFERNO could have turned out to be either a terrifically innovative motion picture that would have “revolutionized” filmmaking (as director Serge Bromberg opines in a voice-over) or a deeply silly mass of psychedelic self-indulgence. Much of the footage is fascinating, but just as much of it plays like bad outtakes from PSYCH-OUT. The hopelessness of the enterprise is born out by the recollections of those surviving crewmembers who labored on INFERNO, which was wracked by an unusually indecisive and unfocused Clouzot, and shut down after a myriad of production problems and the premature defection of its lead actor.
As for the documentary overall, it’s a terrifically fascinating piece of work that prefigured the recent vogue for unmade movie docs (see JODOROWSKY’S DUNE and THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: WHAT HAPPENED?), and remains one of the standout entries.
BEST WORST MOVIE (2010), a fun documentary about TROLL 2, the so-called “worst movie ever made,” takes a different approach than the other films on this list. It contains a great deal of retrospective info about the making of TROLL 2, but what BEST WORST MOVIE is really concerned with is the film’s afterlife, and the bizarre cult that has formed around it.
The director was Michael Stephenson, a kid actor in TROLL 2, and the main player is George Hardy, an insanely good-natured dentist who played Stephenson’s father. We follow these two around the country as they screen TROLL 2 for overflowing crowds, and hear from various fans (including American troops stationed in Iraq) who unaccountably love the film. To his credit, Stephenson is careful to show that the TROLL 2 cult only stretches so far, as he and Hardy discover upon trying to flog the movie to disinterested patrons of horror and memorabilia conventions. Stephenson also deserves points for keeping his focus largely on the engaging Mr. Hardy, who’s precisely the type of person you wouldn’t believe in a non-documentary movie. BEST WORST MOVIE won’t exactly change the world, but for bad movie buffs it’s an enjoyable and rewarding watch.
Finally we have LOST SOUL: THE DOOMED JOURNEY OF RICHARD STANLEY’S ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (2014). This talk-heavy documentary is essentially a glorified DVD extra, put together by David Gregory of the DVD outfit Severin Films. LOST SOUL’S format will be familiar to any veteran DVD-phile: a succession of talking head interviews about movie-related matters, interspaced with clips from the movie in question and archival photos. It’s not quite as strong overall as the films profiled above, but the account related here is nonetheless a deeply fascinating and dispiriting one: the unmaking of director Richard Stanley’s ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, an extremely ambitious New Line Cinema production that was done in by bad weather, skittish executives and its supremely egomaniacal lead actor Val Kilmer.
We hear from Stanley, producer Edward R. Pressman, New Line honcho Robert Shaye, actress Fairuza Balk and many other participants in the MOREAU saga, all of whom have strong opinions about what went wrong. The question of whether Stanley’s proposed film was truly the lost masterpiece it’s made out to be remains an open one (did this oft-filmed property really need to be done again?), but it’s an indisputable fact that the John Frankenheimer directed abomination that emerged from the rubble of Stanley’s attempt was an unmitigated disaster.
In fact, the stories of Frankenheimer’s labors on MOREAU provide some of LOST SOUL’S most interesting material, with the production descending into a morass of sex, drugs and general insanity that was fully reflected in the finished product. Near the end of LOST SOUL Shaye lavishes praise on Frankenheimer for managing to complete the film at all, which given the madness he was up against was indeed a heroic accomplishment.