Kool Kat of the Week: From Whispers to Screams, Director Jeff Burr Becomes One with the Monsters as a Fangtastic Guest at the 5th Annual MONSTERAMA CONVENTION

Posted on: Oct 2nd, 2018 By:

by Melanie Crew
Managing Editor

Jeff Burr, local award-winning independent filmmaker, will be joining a sinister line-up of horrorific guests Monsterama Convention’s fifth frightening year, co-chaired by our classic monster-lovin’ fiend, friend and Kool Kat Anthony Taylor, creeping into the Atlanta Marriott Alpharetta this weekend, Friday – Sunday (Oct. 5-7)! Prepare for a ghastly weekend of ghoulish proportions including a guest list filled to the blood-curdling brim with chillers like Luciana Paluzzi (THUNDERBALL; THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN); Rachel Talalay (FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE; TANK GIRL); Ken Sagoes (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3); creaturific artist Kool Kat Mark Maddox; Victorian chamber metal musicians Valentine Wolfe; Kool Kat Shane Morton, ghost host with the most, a.k.a. Professor Morte; glamour ghoul Kool Kat Madeline Brumby and so many more! So why not get wicked and haunt on down to MONSTERAMA for a weekend of monster madness!

Burr’s film career spans 30+ years as writer, director, producer and actor. His love of filmmaking spawned as a child growing up in Dalton, GA, with the production of Super 8 films with his neighborhood friends, and became full-on reality when he was a student at the University of Southern California. He and classmate Kevin Meyer produced their student film, a Civil War drama, DIVIDED WE FALL in 1982, which gained a lot of attention from film festival goers and jurors, taking home over a dozen awards world-wide. His first feature film, horror anthology FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM released in 1987 under the title THE OFFSPRING, starring the Godfather of Horror, Vincent Price, alongside a strong cast of actors and actresses. On April 28, 2015, Shout Factory released their Blu-ray of WHISPER, containing bonus features produced by local horror history expert and documentarian, Kool Kat Daniel Griffith of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures [RETURN TO OLDFIELD, and A DECADE UNDER THE INNOCENCE]. Burr continued to delve deep into the abyss of horror as the director of STEPFATHER II (1989), LEATHERFACE: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III (1990), PUPPET MASTER 4 (1993), PUPPET MASTER 5 (1994), PUMPKINHEAD II (1993) and he will continue to play in the filmmaker fire as long as he is able!

ATLRetro caught up with Jeff Burr for a quick interview about his love of film; his first ever feature-length film, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM; his experiences with the one-and-only Vincent Price and this year’s maniacal MONSTERAMA madness!

From A Whisper to a Scream Set – Vincent Price, Jeff Burr

ATLRetro: As a visual storyteller and filmmaker, you’ve played the roles of director, writer, producer and actor for the last 30-plus years. What drew you to become a filmmaker and what keeps you playing the game?

Jeff Burr: I grew up in Dalton, GA and for whatever reason always loved movies. My mom worked for a radio station and had a pass from the local theaters to see any movie for 50 cents, so I saw quite a few movies from a young age. Both of my parents were active in community theater in Dalton, and I always loved going backstage, etc. to see how the sets were built and behind the scenes. I started making Super 8 films with my friends and it grew from there. It is a calling, or an obsession, or an addiction…pick your label. It is one of the most frustrating, heartbreaking, crazy endeavors to make a film – the only thing worse is not doing it! If you will permit a shameless plug, on the Scream Factory Blu-ray of my first feature film FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM, there is a documentary by Daniel Griffith called A DECADE UNDER THE INNOCENCE, and that is truly my origin story.

Is there a film you have always wanted to make? Or still plan to make?

Heck yes! I have several films that I want to make. One is a comedy/drama, another is a period adventure film in the vein of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, albeit lower-budget and messy, not unlike AGUIRRE in scale. I am also working with a talented writer from Florida, Jonathan Dornellas, on a horror script about a subject that affects everyone.

You co-directed your final student film for USC, DIVIDED WE FALL (1982), with Kevin Meyer, winning over a dozen awards at film festivals world-wide. Can you tell us a little about the film, and what it felt like to win so many awards as a student filmmaker? And most importantly, how can our readers access the film, if possible?

DIVIDED WE FALL was a period Civil War action/drama that kind of became our own version of APOCALYPSE NOW. The film grew and grew in scale and took close to a year to make. John Agar (a name Monsterama fans would hopefully know and love), Nicholas Guest and David Cloud starred. Future “Leatherface,” R.A. Mihailoff and veteran character actor Mike Shamus Wiles had major supporting parts. Kevin Meyer and I did everything on it – writing, directing, photographing, editing, producing, etc. We dropped out of school to finish it and had a big premiere in November of 1982. The film went on to win awards, etc., but the gates of the Hollywood Studios didn’t magically open for us, as we probably naively thought! I am hoping the film will be included on the upcoming Turbine (germany) release of FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM.

Your first feature film and horror anthology, FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987) [a.k.a. THE OFFSPRING], which was shot mostly in Dalton, Georgia, just a few short hours north, became a huge cult hit amongst genre lovers. Any fun/scandalous behind-the-scenes stories you’d like to share with our readers?

The making of FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM is full of stories, and if you’ll permit me one more shameless plug I would suggest that if you have any interest in the making of a very low-budget regional film in the 1980s there is an amazing documentary on the Scream Factory Blu-ray from Daniel Griffith and Ballyhoo Productions entitled RETURN TO OLDFIELD. WHISPER was my first feature film, and in many ways it felt like an extension of my Super 8 films. I was happy and lucky to have my brother William as one of the producers, and my great and talented friend from college Darin Scott as the other producer and co-writer – not to mention another great college friend C. Courtney Joyner as the other co-writer. The crew was a mix of amateur and professional, and it was an amazing experience. The cast was a dream come true, and getting to work with actors such as Vincent Price, Clu Gulager, Cameron Mitchell, Terry Kiser, Harry Caesar, Rosalind Cash, Angelo Rossitto, Susan Tyrrell and Martine Beswicke was pure artistic bliss. As far as scandalous stories go, you’ll have to see the documentary and hear the commentaries!

Speaking of WHISPER, in your opinion, what are the pros and cons of directing an independent “regional” film vs. a Hollywood studio production?

Well the obvious “con” about doing a regional low-budget film is that you don’t have money to throw at problems that invariably rise up, but the good thing is that you can solve those problems with imagination. It might lead down a different and better path. What was wonderful about making the film was that I had complete creative control, and didn’t have to justify every artistic decision to some producer or executive. I am an independent filmmaker at heart, and that is where I belong. It has only taken me 30+ years to figure out what I knew at age 17! And for the record, I really have never directed a real “studio” film.  I would say I made it to the triple A ballpark but never really took a swing in the major leagues.

What were the advantages of revisiting the neighborhood backlot of your childhood?

Whisper – Roger Corman and Vincent Price unite!

The advantage of shooting a film in Dalton was that I knew some pretty interesting locations and was able to shoot them, and the town itself was incredibly cooperative and enthusiastic. No film had ever been shot there, and of course the process of making a film was very different then. Now there are films made in every small town in America! But Dalton really was a supporting character in the movie, and it could not have been made anywhere else. In a very literal sense, I owe whatever career I have and had to the town of Dalton.

What was it like to work with the “Merchant of Menace,” Vincent Price, a.k.a. Julian White, the historian and thread that tied the terrifying tales together in WHISPER?

Working with Vincent was heaven. Getting Vincent to do the movie was hell. He was just as you would probably expect – generous, funny, so intelligent, warm, and so damn talented. It was an honor, and I do mean an honor, to be able to direct him. But in the process of getting him to do the movie, man oh man there were a few moments I will never forget. Watch the documentary! (And come talk to me at Monsterama – I will tell the whole story!)

In true Price fashion, his character says, “One thing I’ve learned, my dear, is that one is never too old for nightmares.” As a purveyor of horror [TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE III; PUPPET MASTER 4 & 5; PUMPKINHEAD II, etc.], would you agree with this statement? Can one be too old for spooky, nightmarish fun?

No one is ever too old for nightmares. What makes you have nightmares might change, but there will always be delicious dread certain nights when you lay your head on your pillow. And one thing that horror fans (of which I am proud to be one) have is a sense of wonder and humor that keeps you young. I don’t like the phrase “They never grow up.” Better, “They never grow old!” To have a sense of wonder about the world, and an amusement, or bemusement, even of the worst of the world is a great quality to possess.

Do you think you’ll ever return to Dalton to make another feature film?

LET US PREY (early Super 8 film starring Bobby Pike)

I absolutely intend on making more films in Dalton! There is an amazing talent pool in North Georgia, one that is growing as I type this! And the filmmaking infrastructure in GA is here to stay. GODZILLA, KING OF MONSTERS shot for one day in Dalton. I would have fainted if that had happened when I was 14!

Who would you say are the filmmakers or films that inspired you the most and what was it about those particular filmmakers/films that inspired you?

I have been inspired by many films and filmmakers. In the horror genre, David Cronenberg, George Romero, John Carpenter, James Whale, Michael Reeves, Roger Corman – way too many to mention!  Certain fairly obscure films that I saw as a kid and always stuck with me are PHASE IV, EQUINOX, SHOCK WAVES, THE TERRORNAUTS. However, I would say the most influential movie that I have seen is 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. I saw it as a kid, and I have seen it many, many times since on the big screen. Just saw it twice in the 50 year anniversary edition.  I don’t know why that film hooked onto me, but it did and it has stayed with me for 50 years. Other directors/films I love are Jerry Lewis, William Friedkin, Orson Welles, Sam Peckinpah, Stanley Kubrick, Andrei Tarkovsky – again too many to mention. To be a filmmaker, you have to be a lover of film, of all film, from all countries.

Can you tell us a little about working for the king of B-films, Roger Corman, at New World Pictures?

I worked in the advertising department with Jim Wynorski, and it was as crazy and as educational as you could imagine. My crowning glory was that my tagline was used for the newspaper ads for SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE – “He’s dressed to drill!” And a few years later, I had a meeting with Roger about directing Vincent Price, and he came to the set to have a reunion with Vincent!

Would you agree that independent filmmakers have come to rely on the popularization of smaller and more local film festivals, especially genre filmmakers? Why do you feel that film festivals are so important to independent filmmakers?

Film festivals are essential to low-budget indie filmmakers, as it can be the only theatrical exposure that they have. To see a film with an audience and to hear the reactions is uplifting and incredibly educational for filmmakers.  And it is a way to break through the white noise of so many films out there, with word of mouth, reviews, etc. I hope that the theatrical experience for smaller films doesn’t go away!

Can you give us five things you’re into at the moment that we should be watching, reading or listening to right now— past or present, well-known or obscure?

The 50th anniversary reissue of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY; the reissue of SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT in Burt’s memory; waiting for Don Coscarelli‘s book on independent filmmaking, TREE OF LIFE Criterion Blu-ray; and waiting for the (soon to be released) TALES FROM THE HOOD 2 from my good pals Darin Scott and Rusty Cundieff!

Any advice for up and coming filmmakers out there trying to get their foot in the door?

The most obvious piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers is get out there and make a film. Make one, learn from it, apply the lessons to the next one, and on and on in a never-ending cycle. Two more things – don’t be more excited about the gear you have to make the film than the story you are telling. Love your actors and cast very, very carefully. A wrong casting decision cannot be fixed in post. In the scripting, shooting, and post processes, take your time so you don’t waste the audience’s. And as quickly as you can, learn that the most important thing to photograph is the human face.

What’s next for Jeff Burr? Anything exciting coming down the pike?

William Burr doubles as Cameron Mitchell (Whisper)

There’s always something exciting coming down the pike! I’ve got projects I am working on, and who knows what lurks down an unknown road?

And last but not least, what are you looking forward to most at MONSTERAMA, one of our favorite local classic monster conventions around!? Anything exciting planned for attendees?

I think I will be on a panel, and there will be full disclosure about any area of my checkered career that anyone wants to know about. I am just looking forward to talking to people that have the same love of movies that I do, and I always learn of films that fell under my radar that I will then seek out, etc. I look forward to seeing Sam Irvin again – he is a great guy and a talented and dedicated filmmaker. And of course to meet Mark Goddard, Luciana Paluzzi, etc.  Meeting and talking to actors you have admired since childhood is a great thrill.  And I have some THE KLANSMAN questions for Luciana!!!

 

All photos courtesy of Jeff Burr and used with permission.

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Mall Insecurity: Just A Few More Chopping Days Left Until Splatter Cine-mas at the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: Dec 9th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema presents CHOPPING MALL (1986); Dir. Jim Wynorski; Starring Kelli Maroney, Tony O’Dell, Russell Todd, Barbara Crampton, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov; Tuesday, Dec. 10 @ 9:30 (photos and merch table open @ 9); Plaza Theater; Trailer here; Facebook Event Page here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

In the middle of the holiday season, when shopping centers are teeming with masses of bargain-hungry consumers, who doesn’t wish that a few bloodthirsty killbots could be unleashed to thin out the crowds? Look no further than the Plaza Theatre for some vicarious thrills as Splatter Cinema presents CHOPPING MALL!

You know, there was a time when a Jim Wynorski movie meant something. Granted, it didn’t mean much. But you knew what you were getting when you saw his name on the screen—an exploitation movie that didn’t take itself seriously in the least, and that sent itself and the genre up for affectionate ribbing. In short, a kind of low-rent Joe Dante flick (which makes sense, as both directors came from the benches of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures farm team). This is best exemplified in his two most fully-realized movies: his 1983 feature debut THE LOST EMPIRE (a comic variation on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME but with a lot more nudity) and his more successful follow-up, CHOPPING MALL.

CHOPPING MALL answers the age-old question, “what would happen if mall security was handled by robots, and a freak lightning storm caused them all to go kill-crazy on a bunch of teens partying in a furniture store after-hours?” This question has plagued theologians, philosophers and scientists for centuries, and finally found all of its potential ramifications explored in full, rich, intellectual detail in the hands of Jim Wynorski. The answer, of course, is “well, the kids would start dying in hilariously bloody ways, and it would look a lot like DAWN OF THE DEAD if, instead of zombies, there were really cheap robots that looked kind of like Number 5 from SHORT CIRCUIT, yet acted like the ED-209 from ROBOCOP.”

Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in CHOPPING MALL (1996).

Wynorski’s direction is perfectly adequate for this. It’s not pushing any envelopes or even trying to be groundbreaking in any way, but it’s tight and well-paced, creating a fun sense of tension while at the same time allowing you to chuckle at the complete outlandishness of it all. The movie hides its cheapness reasonably well, making the most of its Sherman Oaks Galleria setting, and features a host of familiar faces to distract you from the low budget. Among the teens getting slaughtered are Kelli Maroney from NIGHT OF THE COMET, Tony O’Dell from HEAD OF THE CLASS, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2’s Russell Todd and scream queen Barbara Crampton of RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND fame. Cameos are provided by the always-welcome Dick Miller (as Walter Paisley, his character name from A BUCKET OF BLOOD) and the delightful team of Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, reprising their roles of EATING RAOUL’s Paul and Mary Bland.

In short, CHOPPING MALL is just a whole hell of a lot of fun, and one of the better (and bloodier) ways to blow off steam this time of year. If you want to turn your over-taxed, shopped-out brain off and have a riotously good time, you could hardly do better than watching a shopping mall turn against the idiots populating it. And don’t forget to show up early and get your photo taken in a gore-filled recreation of one of the movie’s scenes! It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Get Set for a Swinging Time with Vincent Price at THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM! A New Digital Restoration at Atlanta’s Historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Jan 30th, 2013 By:

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961); Dir. Roger Corman; Starring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele and John Kerr; Premiere Friday, Feb. 1 @ 8:00 p.m. with giveaways; then nightly at 8 p.m. Feb. 2- 7; Plaza Theatre (visit website for times and ticket prices); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Finally, after years of waiting, it is now possible to see PIT AND THE PENDULUM on the big screen once again in a newly-restored, high-definition digital presentation. For far too long, the movie has been hard to see in optimal condition (even the most recent MGM Midnite Movies DVD of the title isn’t anamorphically enhanced for widescreen presentation). This is something that’s always struck me as odd since it’s one of the best-remembered films of American International PicturesEdgar Allan Poe cycle, was a huge box-office smash at the time and contains some of the most defining scenes in post-1960 horror. Be that as it may, as far as securing prints go, it has been one of the more obscure films of Roger Corman. Thankfully, that’s changing now, and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM can be seen in all of its glory and grandeur at Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre from Friday, February 1 through Thursday, February 7. Friday night’s showing will feature a special giveaway of two free tickets to all nine days of the Atlanta Film Festival: a $600 value! It promises to be an event big enough to befit the legendary teaming of Corman, Price and Poe.

Roger Corman. The name means many things to many people. To some, it primarily conjures up images of cheaply-made and quickly-shot horror/sci-fi fare from the 1950s and ‘60s. Flicks like CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, A BUCKET OF BLOOD and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. For others, it is chiefly and inextricably linked with the development of the “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and ‘70s. Movies from American International Pictures and New World Pictures that helped launch the careers of talents like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Robert De Niro, Barbara Hershey, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda. For a former co-worker of mine, it means “that aloof guy who would stroll into the New Horizons office and ask if Jim Wynorski had called.”

But for a certain set of the man’s fans, the first things that come to mind are two names: Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price.

In 1960, American International Pictures was seeing the market for their low-budget, black-and-white output shrink. Roger Corman had been their most prolific filmmaker, churning out low-budget schlock in 10 days or less (mind you, it’s some great schlock, and never without a sense of wit and intelligence behind it all), and convinced studio heads Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson to take a risk on shooting a full-color widescreen film with a larger budget (a full $300,000!) and a longer production schedule (a full 15 days!). The success of this film, HOUSE OF USHER, pushed AIP to demand more of the same: another Poe adaptation, made by the same team and starring the same lead, Vincent Price.

Corman complied and assembled his USHER team: cinematographer (Floyd Crosby), set designer (Daniel Haller), score composer (Les Baxter) and screenwriter, the now-legendary horror author Richard Matheson. Matheson had seen a good deal of success as a writer in the decade previous to his teaming with Corman. He had adapted his novel THE SHRINKING MAN into the smash sci-fi/horror film THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and his novels and short stories were in high demand. He had just been added to the stable of writers employed by THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and was also selling scripts to western- and war-themed TV shows. In short, Corman (in a typical move for him) had spotted an up-and-coming talent that he could grab for relatively cheap: someone who might be willing to trade some of the money he could get from a higher-paying gig for the relative liberty of a Corman screenwriting job. The pairing worked so well on USHER that Matheson returned for this, and several of the films following this in Corman’s Poe series.

The film is set in 1th Century Spain, and follows Francis Barnard (John Kerr) as he visits the castle of his brother-in-law Nicholas (Vincent Price) to investigate the death of his sister Catherine (Barbara Steele). Nicholas recounts that Catherine had been driven mad by the castle’s history and atmosphere, had committed suicide and now walks the castle halls as a ghost. When it is uncovered that Catherine had been interred alive, Nicholas is sent into paroxysms of fear and plunged into madness as he has visions of the traumatic events of his childhood. It all culminates in Nicholas’ break with sanity as he tortures his household in the dungeon beneath the castle’s floors.

Because of the slightness of narrative material in Poe’s short story, which is set nearly entirely within a prison cell over the course of a few nights, Matheson was encouraged to devise a way to shoehorn Poe’s tale into just the film’s climactic scene. In doing so, he created a psychologically rich screenplay centered on the main character’s neuroses, all of which seem to stem from a terrifying event witnessed in his youth. This psychological approach to gothic horror would prove to be incredibly influential in the years to come, as reverberations of its themes (along with their visual depiction by the team of Corman, Crosby and Haller) would be seen in many of the great Italian gothic horrors of the 1960s and ’70s, as Tim Lucas uncovered in his 1997 interview with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi in VIDEO WATCHDOG #39. Gastaldi admitted that the film had inspired his screenplays for Mario Bava’s THE WHIP AND THE BODY and Antonio Margheriti’s THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH: “Yes, of course! THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM had a big influence on Italian horror films. Everybody borrowed from it.”

Vincent Price, too, returned to the AIP fold. Price had starred to great effect in HOUSE OF USHER, and brought equal parts menace, dignity and emotional complexity to what could have been a flatly-played character in lesser hands. In THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, he would be given even more to chew on as Nicholas Medina (and, in flashback, his crazed Inquisitor father, Sebastian Medina). Some have argued that perhaps Price sank his teeth a bit too deeply into the role, which required him to shift from a refined-but-fragile gentleman persona to that of a raving madman at a second’s notice. And it’s true that Price seems to be having the time of his life, relishing every utterance and mannerism, and basically being Vincent Price at his Priciest. But in a film that demands a tone that almost tips into the surreal, his nearly over-the-top performance works perfectly as a piece with every other element in the production.

Barbara Steele, fresh from starring in Mario Bava’s international gothic horror success, BLACK SUNDAY, is also incredibly memorable as Catherine, delivering an impressively expressive performance. However, it’s hard to objectively discuss her work in this film beyond the physical aspect of it: thinking that her natural British accent didn’t mesh with the other actors’ performances, AIP had her part dubbed in post-production by another actress.

Visually, Corman and his team work wonders with what little budget and time they were given, using impressive sets borrowed from other studios, violently active camera work and dream/fantasy/flashback sequences warped and twisted optically and displayed using a blue and red color palette. Corman’s direction is—as usual—tight and effective, providing impressive and perfectly-timed jolts while steadily building an atmosphere of oppression and madness. For pure horror, it is the highlight of the entire Corman/Poe series, and artistically tied only with THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (MASQUE may be more thematically and symbolically rich and more daring in its approach, but PIT beats it on pure fright value).

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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