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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Retro Review: A Meanness in This World: Traveling Through Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS at Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Feb 20th, 2015 By:

badlandsBADLANDS (1973); Dir. Terrence Malick; Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and Warren Oates; Tuesday, Feb. 24 @ 7:00 p.m.; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets $11; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

If you’re looking for a reason—any reason—to go see a movie, look no further. The Landmark Midtown Art Cinema kicks off its “Midtown Cinema Classics” series with one of the greatest modern American films, Terrence Malick’s debut feature BADLANDS.

Some filmmakers take decades to find their voice. Yet there are others who seem to arrive on this earth fully formed. Orson Welles stormed out of the gate in 1941 having assembled his influences into an entirely identifiable personal style with CITIZEN KANE. David Lynch emerged from the shadows in 1977 with the most David Lynch-iest film ever made, ERASERHEAD. Martin Scorsese captured everyone’s attention with the first example of what can only be called a Martin Scorsese Movie with 1973’s MEAN STREETS (while not his debut, his two previous features were the atypical BOXCAR BERTHA, a project-for-hire under the auspices of Roger Corman, and WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?, a short film he expanded over the course of several years into a very different feature). And that same year, Terrence Malick debuted his own idiosyncratic means of storytelling with the brooding, brilliant BADLANDS.

Told from the viewpoint of Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year-old girl growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, South Dakota, BADLANDS examines Holly’s infatuation with 25-year-old greaser Kit (Martin Sheen) as they slowly fall in love. While she obsesses over him romantically as they explore each other’s philosophies on life, his own psychotic and amoral side reveals itself and together they violently remove any obstacle that threatens to stand between them and the life with each other they desire. Based loosely on the real-life murderous exploits of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, BADLANDS also stands as a poetic examination of life, love and death set against the dusty, sun-baked plains of the Midwest.

Contemplative in tone and deliberate in pace, BADLANDS set the tone for Malick’s further career as he examined such subjects as war (THE THIN RED LINE), the founding of Jamestown (THE NEW WORLD) and the meaning of life itself (THE TREE OF LIFE). Even at this early stage of his career, though, he proves himself a master of imagery and composition and creates an experience that is pure cinema. Painterly tableaux fill the screen and slowly reveal their emotional heart as Spacek’s narration combines with the haunting strains of experimental classical composers such as Erik Satie or Carl Orff. Moments of incredible beauty are carved out of nothing but light, color and shadow. Divorced from attempts to emulate the rhythms and cadences of literature or stagework, Malick’s world can only exist in those rays of light captured by a camera, painstakingly edited into a cohesive statement and then projected onto a screen.

Badlands-104But lest this sound like a movie full of art-film clichés that holds you at arm’s length with its own sense of pretentious self-importance, BADLANDS is instead Malick’s most accessible film and a perfect entry point for those unfamiliar or intimidated by the visionary director’s work. It may perhaps be his masterpiece (with DAYS OF HEAVEN running close behind). Malick’s singular approach is wed to an incredibly compelling story, so that the dynamic of the narrative propels the audience through even the film’s most low-key moments. When you combine this with the career-making performances of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, you have a film that it is nearly impossible to look away from.

Presented as part of Landmark Midtown Art Cinema’s “Midtown Cinema Classics” series, you have the rare opportunity to immerse yourself in one of the modern classics of American cinema in its natural habitat—on a theater screen. Please do not let this pass you by.

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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Kool Kat of the Week: Daniel Griffith, Local Filmmaker and Purveyor of All Things Cinematic and Obscure, Ballyhoos it up at Monsterama 2014

Posted on: Jul 30th, 2014 By:

by Melanie Crew
Managing Editor/Contributing Writer

Daniel Griffith, local award-winning filmmaker and founder of Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, will be joining a sinister line-up of horrorific guests at the inaugural Monsterama Convention, founded by our classic monster-lovin’ fiend, friend and ATLRetro contributing writer, AnthonyTaylor, which will be creeping into the Holiday Inn Perimeter in Dunwoody this weekend, August 1-3! So, prepare for a ghastly weekend of ghoulish proportions!  Griffith will be joined by a guest list filled to the bloodcurdling brim with chillers like Victoria Price, daughter of Vincent; Hammer scream queen Veronica Carlson, director Jeff Burr, filmmaker Larry Blamire (LOST SKELETON OF CADAVRA), Bram Stoker Award-winning writer Brian Keene, ATLRetro’s very own “Chiller-ess in Charge”, Anya Martin, Kool Kat Shane Morton, a.k.a. Professor Morte [see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Shane here], Kool Kat Madeline Brumby [see ATLRetro’s Kool Kat feature on Madeline, here] and so many more!  So, haunt on down to Monsterama this weekend and get your bones a’rattlin and your classic monster fix!

Griffith, purveyor of all things cinematic and obscure, and no rookie to the B-movie and classic horror genre, has produced and directed over 45 documentaries, with his company, Ballyhoo Motion Pictures, spanning a wide-range of film history, genres and subjects.  His documentary library is far too prolific to list them all, but in a nutshell he has directed and produced: THE BLOODIEST SHOW ON EARTH: MAKING VAMPIRE CIRCUS (2010), THIS ISLAND EARTH: 2 ½ YEARS IN THE MAKING (2013), [both will be screened at Monsterama this weekend], RETURN TO EDEN PRAIRIE: 25 YEARS OF MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000 (2013) and THE FLESH AND THE FURY: X-POSING TWINS OF EVIL (2012).  Griffith is currently in production on CELLULOID WIZARDS IN THE VIDEO WASTELAND: THE SAGA OF EMPIRE PICTURES, the official feature-length documentary delving into the rise and fall of Charles Band’s legendary Empire Pictures studio, known for cult films such as RE-ANIMATOR (1985), ZONE TROOPERS (1985) and GHOULIES (1985). His documentaries have gained him not only notoriety in the cult film arena, but also the 2012 Rondo Award for “Best DVD Bonus Feature” for his documentary biopic on Universal B-movie actor, RondoHatton, TRAIL OF THE CREEPER: MAKING THE BRUTE MAN (2011) and the 2013 Forrest J. Ackerman Lifetime Achievement Award.  Griffith is also the official documentarian for the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” DVD releases.

ATLRetro caught up with Daniel Griffith for a quick interview about his devotion to film history, from the greats to the barely-knowns, his desire to set a story to film and his trek into the deep dark cavernous minds of long ago filmmakers, plotting the map of film history.

And while you’re takin’ a gander at our little Q&A with Griffith, take a sneak peek at an excerpt from his documentary, PSYCHO’S SISTER: MAKING THE NAME OF THE GAME IS KILL! (2013), delving into the history of the 1968 drive-in thriller!

ATLRetro: As a documentary filmmaker, you are foremost a film historian and avid preservationist, which is clearly evidenced in the wide variety of documentaries you’ve produced with your company, Ballyhoo Motion Pictures. In the grand scheme of things, why do you feel it is important to not only preserve, but also to share these stories?

Daniel Griffith: The media of the past serves as a type of looking glass or time capsule. It is the definitive visual representation of artistic achievement and human frailty. Therefore, it is important to have a documented record of how those works were created, if only to build awareness and preserve its shelf life. Selfishly, I became a documentary filmmaker to further understand the medium of cinema and television. To me, the film artisans of the past are the direct link to the motion pictures of the future. Studying and understanding their contributions was the BEST film school. But, as I moved from project to project, I began to recognize how many films and television series have drifted into obscurity. I guess I made it my responsibility to tell the story behind those works.

You seem to give a lot of love and respect to the underdogs, to the films and projects of yesteryear that never quite reached the level of success in the industry that the majority set out to achieve. What is it about these films, these filmmakers that magnetize you? That compels you to tell their story?

I never compartmentalize the films I document. To me, the least successful motion picture can have just as much value to an individual as the most revered or noteworthy. It is my duty as a film and television documentarian to change the way we look at the works of the past; to give each production an equal opportunity to share the spotlight. Who knows? A viewer may discover that the best stories of human triumph and creativity come in the cheapest, most misunderstood packages.

You’ve produced many bonus features and documentaries for Shout! Factory, Synapse Films and VCI Entertainment, etc. over the years, which has included a comprehensive peek into your fans’ favorite sci-fi, horror and ‘80s B-movies, westerns and a variety of retro filmmakers and film companies. Can you tell our readers how you became a documentary filmmaker?

It began with a simple challenge; to singlehandedly create a narrative and follow through with its execution. About eight years ago, I was developing one motion picture script after another. Slowly, a case of cabin fever set in. I was restless. I wanted to get out into the field and visualize a story on film. While discouraged, I revisited a wacky holiday episode of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATRE 3000, entitled “SANTA CLAUS.” During the opening credits, a title card reading “K. Gordon Murray Presents” appeared on the screen. I thought to myself, “Who is this K. Gordon Murray guy, and why did he choose to distribute this surreal, Mexican children’s film?” In that moment, a documentary concept was born, and simultaneously the seed that would eventually become Ballyhoo Motion Pictures.

The name “Ballyhoo” draws to mind a long list of whimsical, colorful and raucous shenanigans of the circus variety. What’s the story behind the name?

My company name and logo are comprised of several unique personal events. The logo itself dates back to my first exposure to the works of the cinematic showman, William Castle, and his film, HOUSE ON HAUNTEDHILL. The scream that accompanies the logo is the first scream you hear prior to the opening credits of that film. It was the scream that woke me up as a child when the film played on television. Utilizing it in the context is my way of saying to the viewer, “WAKE UP! The show is about to begin and you don’t want to miss it!” And the name Ballyhoo represents two of my passions; the energy found on the midway of any traveling carnival and the promotional tactics used on the motion pictures of the past.

As a guest on several panels at the first ever Monsterama Convention, including a Q&A session with Victoria Price, Vincent Price’s daughter, and a panel discussing documentary filmmaking, what do you hope to pass on to the eager ears of the convention-goers?

Well, for one, this is a great opportunity to learn more about one of the greatest actors of our time. Vincent Price was not only a celebrated actor in film and television, but he was also an accomplished cook, author, painter and art critic. While he is remembered for his chilling performances in the DR. PHIBES films, as well as William Castle’s, THE TINGLER and HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, there was much more to him than the horror genre that sustained him.

Additionally, two of your documentaries [“The Bloodiest Show on Earth: Making Vampire Circus” (2010) and “This Island Earth: 2-½ Years in the Making” (2013)] will be screened throughout the weekend; two very different documentaries, but both created with the same amount of respect and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Can you tell our readers what your favorite experience was while making each and what you would do different, if you could go back and change anything?

Well, one of the greatest experiences I had working on all the Hammer documentaries, including VAMPIRE CIRCUS, was visiting the renowned Pinewood Studios in England. Filmmaker John Hough, who previously directed Hammer’s TWINS OF EVIL, gave me a private tour of the entire back-lot. This is the studio where most of the James Bond films where shot, the 1978 version of SUPERMAN, the first ALIEN film and Stanley Kubrick’s, FULL METAL JACKET, just to name a few. It was astonishing!

As a filmmaker, you are getting the chance to live out your dream every time you create and release your work into the world, a dream you’ve had since your early childhood. Any advice for the next generation of Kool Kids who long to dive head first into the land of imagination and cinematic storytelling?

Watch as many films as you can! Don’t be afraid to take chances on viewing films that are outside your comfort zone. Just because it’s black and white, or subtitled, doesn’t mean you will not enjoy it. Like an author with a library card, watching films is your first, best education.

Who would you say are the filmmakers that inspired you most?

There are simply too many to count. I continue to be amazed by filmmakers, past and present. I have always admired the way Orson Welles demands more out of everyone, including himself. I deeply admire the poetry found in every frame of a Sergio Leone film. Being a child of the ‘80s, I have always responded to the childlike sentiments found in almost every Spielberg film. On a more obscure note, I find the offerings of director Joseph H. Lewis strangely addictive. This list could go on and on and on…

In such a short amount of time, you’ve got 45-plus credits under your belt, releasing shorts to full-length documentaries, and have gained a following in the MST3K, B-horror and sci-fi circles, with a promise of more to come! Can you give our readers a hint of what’s next for Daniel Griffith and Ballyhoo Motion Pictures?

In a perversion of Al Jolson’s famous line, I’ll have to say, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” More Mystery Science Theater 3000 productions, for sure. I am currently in post-production on an epic documentary about the history of television’s most iconic series! However, unfortunately, I cannot divulge the title at this time. But, if you find me at Monsterama, I just may be persuaded to tell you.

Can you tell our readers something you’d like folks to know that they don’t know already?

While attending the Monsterama Convention, you’ll have the opportunity to stop by the Ballyhoo Motion Pictures table to view original props from various B-movies of the past, as well as purchase EXCLUSIVE retro movie items!

What question do you wish somebody would ask you and what’s the answer?

From the offices of Warren Beatty: “Will you produce a documentary on the history of Dick Tracy?” The answer is, “I’m on my way!”

 

All photographs are courtesy of Daniel Griffith and used with permission.

 

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Retro Review: The Plaza Theatre Celebrates 50 Years of The Beatles’ A HARD DAY’S NIGHT With a Gorgeous New Restoration!

Posted on: Jul 2nd, 2014 By:

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964); Dir. Richard Lester; Starring The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr); Runs Friday, July 4 – Thursday, July 10 (see Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Has it been 50 years already? Hard to tell when it comes to something timeless, and there are few films as timeless as The Beatles’ motion picture debut, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Chock full of great music, wild comedy, groundbreaking direction and a witty, snappy script, it’s enjoyable enough on any occasion. But with a beautiful, newly-minted restoration, there’s no better way to commemorate the movie’s half-centenary than spending an evening at the Plaza Theatre with the “Fab Four”.

When it comes to rock & roll movies, there are generally three camps. There are straight-up documentaries and concert films, like The Band’s THE LAST WALTZ, ELVIS: THAT’S THE WAY IT IS, WOODSTOCK or Dylan’s DON’T LOOK BACK. Then there are the films where a rock star gets shunted into some generally cockamamie scenario which has musical performances conveniently hanging off of it, such as most Elvis movies or Herman’s HermitsMRS. BROWN YOU’VE GOT A LOVELY DAUGHTER. Then there are those films where you’ve got a plot and actors that serve chiefly to prop up a handful of showcase musical numbers, featuring musicians that you don’t really see outside of those isolated performances, aside from maybe five minutes of acting to establish their presence in the film. This is typical of most 1950s rock & roll movies (Elvis vehicles excluded) like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK and—in later years—the Ramones’ tribute to these flicks, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL.

Then, there are the exceptions, and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT is one of the most striking. It’s not a documentary, though it probably gets closer to the true spirit of The Beatles and Beatlemania than any documentary could. It’s not tied up in some convoluted plot that exists to just fill time between songs (that would be their follow-up movie, the winkingly self-conscious HELP!). And with The Beatles starring as themselves, it breaks away from the ‘50s template. At the time, it was truly revolutionary. There really wasn’t much else like it.

And it remains the single greatest rock and roll movie ever made.

Like Joe Bob Briggs used to say, it doesn’t have any plot to get in the way of the story. The Beatles have to make it to a TV studio for a live broadcast, putting up with Paul’s troublemaking grandfather (“He’s very clean.”) and the trappings of superstardom along the way. That’s it. But that threadbare plot allows plenty of time for the lads’ personalities to shine through and firmly establish each of them as distinct characters. It also allows ample opportunity to present The Beatles’ music organically: not only as score, but as source—in staged rehearsals and run-throughs leading up to their on-air performance.

The script is incredibly clever, providing constant tangential episodes within the film that deliver small moments of energy, so we never hit a dead spell in the journey. As a result, it plays as something of a sketch film, with the consistent forward dynamic of the band’s race to the TV studio maintaining an overarching momentum. In addition, screenwriter Alun Owen spent several days with the foursome and drew dialogue from interviews with the band to deliver Beatles “characters” that were true to each individual member of the group.

Director Richard Lester was a left-field candidate for helming the film, personally chosen by The Beatles on the basis of his work with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan on TV and in the 1960 theatrical short THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM. Visually inventive and wildly imaginative, he not only innovatively captured live music performances, but also delivered crazed comic sequences (such as the opening chase scene, a rapid-fire interview segment and the wild “We’re out!”/”Can’t Buy Me Love” romp). It all comes across as pure giddy exuberance in cinematic form. And even though it depicts The Beatles as prisoners of their own fame, it’s also early enough that we’re still seeing them enjoying the view from between the bars. (As Orson Welles said, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”)

Acting-wise, The Beatles are surprisingly confident on-screen. Paul comes across as level-headed and charming, George as dryly droll, John as sardonic and anarchic and Ringo as sensitive and compassionate. It’s Ringo in particular that shines during a sequence in which he escapes from the TV studio to anonymously wander about town and winds up palling around with a young kid. The keen script, Lester’s deft direction and Ringo’s performance join forces to create one of the film’s most memorable chapters.

And then there’s the music. Rather than use the film to push already-existing product, aside from the previously-released “Can’t Buy Me Love” and a quick medley of hits as the basis for their TV performance, the film uses newly-composed, original material by the band. And the resulting LP, their first to not feature any cover songs, is perhaps The Beatles’ first great album. With all songs written by Lennon and McCartney, it firmly established The Beatles as a truly self-contained unit—and one that sounded uniquely like themselves, rather than a large derivative of artists that came before.

I could write for forever and never be able to capture what strange magic this film conjures. It’s pure electricity on film. It’s full of the joy of life and the living of it. Like I said before, it’s the greatest rock & roll film ever made. And what the hell, one of the greatest films, full stop. And hey! If you need more convincing to see this after all of the superlatives I’ve been piling on, it has been newly digitally restored for the film’s 50th anniversary, with a new 5.1 sound mix created at Apple Studios, and word on the street is that the end result is a marvel.

So drop what you’re doing and see this at your earliest convenience. Even if you don’t know it, you need a reminder of why The Beatles were one of the biggest phenomena of the 20th century, and there’s no more entertaining way to get that reminder than with this film.

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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Step Right Up to CARNIVAL OF SOULS, Just One of a Macabre Menagerie of Movies at the Plaza Theatre’s October FrightFest

Posted on: Oct 16th, 2013 By:

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962); Dir. Herk Harvey; Starring Candace Hilligoss and Sidney Berger; Friday, Oct. 18 @ 9:30 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 19 @ 5:30 p.m. & 7:20 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

During the Plaza Theatre’s week-long celebration of classic horror, a number of legendary films are being shown, including NOSFERATU, WHITE ZOMBIE, FRANKENSTEIN and THE INVISIBLE MAN. But sandwiched in there is a film that dwelled in relative obscurity for years before home video led to its rediscovery and reappraisal: Herk Harvey’s incredible CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

The film’s plot is deceptively slim. Church organist Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) and her two girlfriends are challenged to a drag race over a rickety bridge, and plunge into the river below. While the police drag the river for the remains, Mary emerges with no knowledge of how she survived. Upon leaving the town of Lawrence, Kansas, for Utah, she starts experiencing supernatural events that grow in intensity. She sees haunting visions of a ghoulish, pasty-faced man everywhere she goes. A nearby abandoned carnival pavilion seems to be pulling her toward it. And, eventually, she begins experiencing states where she becomes literally detached from her surroundings—nobody can see or hear her. These all seem to be leading her to an inevitable fate, as she is continually beckoned to take her rightful place among the dead in the Carnival of Souls.

The bones of the story may seem familiar if you’re a fan of old-time radio or THE TWILIGHT ZONE. A similar tale was first told on THE ORSON WELLES SHOW in 1941. “The Hitch-Hiker” took place on a cross-country drive, after the narrator (Ronald, played by Welles) has a car accident following a blow-out. After getting his tire fixed, he sees the same haunting hitchhiker motioning to him at various points on his journey. Nobody he encounters sees the strange man, yet the hitcher continues to appear along his route. At a stop, he calls home only to receive the news that he never survived that accident, and realizes that the hitcher is Death himself, waiting for him to accept his fate and move on. The story was a radio staple for years, and was later adapted by Rod Serling for TWILIGHT ZONE, with Inger Stevens in the lead role of “Nan.”

The story of a person who should have died—who may, in fact, be dead as the story proceeds—is not an original one, and has been seen many times before and since CARNIVAL OF SOULS. From Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story “An Encounter at Owl Creek Bridge” to 1990’s JACOB’S LADDER and 2001’s MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and from 1983’s SOLE SURVIVOR to 1999’s THE SIXTH SENSE, the basic story proves to be still-fertile ground.

But few have done it as well as CARNIVAL OF SOULS.

Herk Harvey, an industrial filmmaker based in Lawrence, came up with the film’s premise as he passed the then-closed Saltair Pavilion on his way to Salt Lake City. To set his film apart, he claims to have wanted to achieve “the look of a Bergman, the feel of a Cocteau.” His atmospheric lighting and high-contrast cinematography come about as close to that as one can achieve on a $33,000 budget. The film is one of those rare “dreamlike” movies that earns its name. The looming camera angles and the oppressive feeling of dread that accompanies her strange visions translate Mary’s sense of feeling trapped in some otherworldly web to the screen with incredible effectiveness. CARNIVAL’s organ score also adds to the disorienting effect of the film. The textual reason for its presence is an explicit reference to Mary’s profession, but its unconscious association is with silent film. And the intrusion of something from another time or place (the specter of death, the abandoned pavilion) into our present is one of the main conflicts that defines the atmosphere of the movie.

Lee Strasberg-trained star Candace Hilligoss also deserves strong praise, as she carries the entire weight of this film. She has the task of making the character of Mary Henry—who is extremely distancing and unsympathetic—into a character that we fear for. Hers is not a character that we immediately identify with. Everyone that reaches out to her gets pushed away (some deservedly so), and yet we eventually identify with her growing need to connect. As her supernatural experiences become more and more frequent, she suddenly finds that she needs these people. They’re at least less unnerving than that strange man she keeps seeing.

The movie was relegated to the bottom half of double bills upon release, and while late-night broadcasts inspired a small cult of film buffs to take cues from it, CARNIVAL’s quiet approach to horror kept the film from spreading far outside those numbers. It wasn’t until 1989, with the debut of the film on VHS, that people really began to take notice. New prints were struck and screened at art-houses and film festivals across the country, and Herk Harvey—who had continued to be a successful industrial movie maker and film instructor—was finally able to see his only feature film gain the kind of respect and acclaim that it had long deserved.

Herk Harvey joined the Carnival in 1996.

This is not a movie to be slept on. It’s a small, haunting masterpiece of horror cinema that was almost forgotten. It’s the kind of re-discovery that you wish would happen more often. Feel that pull? It’s the call of the Plaza, drawing you into this CARNIVAL OF SOULS. Care to dance?

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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Space Invaders Hit Drive-Invasion 2013! The Starlight Drive-In Blasts Off With 1980s Sci-Fi Classics!

Posted on: Aug 29th, 2013 By:

The Starlight Drive-In presents Drive-Invasion 2013Starlight Drive-In; Sunday, Sep. 1; Gates open @ 10 a.m.; Admission $20 advance, $25 at door, children 3-9 $5; Advance tickets here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Official World Famous Drive-Invasion is upon us, and there’s a whole slew of hot bands from Memphis garage-thud legends The Oblivians to the one and only  MAN… OR ASTRO-MAN? being cooked up at the Starlight Drive-In for all of y’all Drive-Invaders! But let’s not overlook the great movies that will hit the screen as soon as the sun goes down. This year, there’s an action-packed lineup of 1980s sci-fi flicks that run the spectrum from wild and wacky to dark and gritty.

THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION; Dir. W.D. Richter; Starring Peter WellerEllen Barkin and John Lithgow; Trailer here.

Let me tell you a secret.

You may not know this, but our planet was invaded by Red Lectroids from th dimension. This realm had been occupied by clandestine Red Lectroids since October 31, 1938, when Dr. Emilio Lizardo—having been possessed by their leader Lord John Whorfin—brought them to Earth. Specifically, to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. This was reported live as it happened by Orson Welles, but he was later pressured to claim that his broadcast was a work of fiction. From that day, they had been posing as humans and developing technology at Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems in order to take over this planet. Thankfully, we were protected by the Hong Kong Cavaliers under the leadership of physicist, neurosurgeon, test pilot, race car driver, rock star and comic book hero Buckaroo Banzai.

The efforts of Buckaroo Banzai and his crack team/backing band to our planet from the imminent threat of complete takeover by the Red Lectroids were documented by writer Earl Mac Rauch and director W.D. Richter in their 1984 docu-drama THE ADVENTURES OF BUCKAROO BANZAI ACROSS THE 8TH DIMENSION. Rauch and Richter present the true-life tales of Banzai with the effortless charm and thrill-a-minute excitement of vehicles featuring pulp heroes like Doc Savage, or radio adventurers like Captain MidnightPeter Weller embodies the role of Banzai with a wry and drolly laconic air. Ellen Barkin is magnificently funny, smart and sexy as Penny Priddy, the twin sister of Banzai’s late wife. And John Lithgow is completely unhinged as Lizardo/Whorfin, sporting a wild red fright wig and speaking in a ridiculously over-the-top Italian accent. Supported by a stellar cast of veteran character actors (Clancy BrownJeff GoldblumChristopher LloydRobert ItoVincent Schiavelli and Dan Hedaya, among others), the film is nearly as wild, exciting, funny, fast and ridiculous as the real-life events they are based upon.

THE LAST STARFIGHTER; Dir. Nick Castle; Starring Lance GuestRobert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy; Trailer here.

THE LAST STARFIGHTER is essentially what every kid playing video games in the early 1980s dreamed would happen to them. Teenager Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is a nowhere kid in a nowhere town, whose only real escape is in playing the Starfighter video game outside the diner where his mom works. One evening he manages to top the highest score on record, which gets the attention of the game’s inventor Centauri (Robert Preston). It’s revealed that Centauri is a disguised alien and that the game is a test to find people qualified to actually fight in an interstellar war between the Rylan Star League and the Ko-Dan Empire. And it’s up to Alex to save the Rylan home world and protect the universe from the Ko-Dan leader Xur.

As far as STAR WARS rip-offs go, this has long been a favorite. It’s directed with brisk energy by Nick Castle (who played Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN!), and features a spectacular mix of practical special effects and early CGI. Lance Guest does a great job in the role of the film’s ersatz Luke Skywalker, convincingly frustrated by his surroundings and dreaming of something bigger. And he’s bolstered by great performances from Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy. It may be a slight movie, but it’s a lot of fun.

THE THING; Dir. John Carpenter; Starring Kurt RussellWilford Brimley and Keith David; Trailer here.

Something from another world has crash-landed in the Antarctic. Something that can mimic any living thing. It’s already wiped out a Norwegian research station. Now it is inside the neighboring American compound, and it could be taking the place of any person—or persons—there. Who can you trust, when anyone could be…the Thing?

Many people consider this one of the greatest remakes ever made. I am not one of those people. To me, this isn’t a remake at all; this is simply a second adaptation of John W. Campbell’s novella WHO GOES THERE? The Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby 1951 film (there is disagreement over who actually directed) was a loose adaptation of Campbell’s story, jettisoning the entire “alien imitation and assimilation” aspect of the plot, and only focusing on the threat of an alien menacing an Arctic scientific outpost. While John Carpenter borrowed the title treatment from the Hawks/Nyby film, everything else is much more faithful to Campbell’s original tale.

Though it’s hard to find someone today who doesn’t love THE THING, this wasn’t the case in 1982. It received mixed-to-negative reviews upon release and was considered a flop, only barely breaking into the top 10 for three weeks and only taking in a third of its cost on its opening weekend. Critics and moviegoers seemed to prefer the “aliens are our best friends” approach of that year’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, which came out just two weeks prior to THE THING. And the special effects of Rob Bottin—now seen as a landmark exercise in visual effects—were largely seen as unnecessarily grotesque and gory at the time, overshadowing the onscreen suspense.

It’s amazing how wrong people can be.

In the years since, a much-needed reappraisal of the film has taken place. It’s now regarded as one of John Carpenter’s finest works, second only perhaps to HALLOWEEN. The ensemble performances are excellent across the board. Kurt Russell makes a believably reluctant hero, questioning everyone even as he questions himself. And each supporting actor—from Wilford Brimley to Keith David, from Donald Moffatt to Richard Masur, and on down the line—creates a unique and memorable take on their character. Bottin’s bravura special effects are shocking and surreal, heightening the alien nature of the transformations on display and providing a sense of “anything goes” unexpectedness to the proceedings. And John Carpenter proves himself a master of onscreen composition, creating gorgeous tableaux with every shot. He keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, but never rushes things. And he ramps up suspense at every turn, continually making you question every person on the screen before you. Add on one of Ennio Morricone’s best scores, and there’s little more one can ask for.

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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Fear of Hitler and Channel Flipping: Why Orson Welles’ WAR OF THE WORLDS Radio Broadcast Ignited a Panic in America on Halloween 1938

Posted on: Oct 31st, 2012 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

Orson WellesWAR OF THE WORLDS radio broadcast (1938), the most famous of all media hoaxes, was, in fact, not a hoax at all.

It starts, 40 years before the incident, with the publication of H.G.Wells’ novel WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898), which was almost the first – and certainly the earliest that is still influential – science fiction novel of alien invasion. It was part of a larger genre of Invasion literature,” a body of proto-SF novels concerning England being invaded by its more familiar enemies, generally the Germans. The other Invasion novels tended to be propagandist to the point of jingoism, and Wells, who always was internally torn regarding the subject of militarism, chose to deconstruct the literature. It is almost, but not quite, an anti-war novel. Though it featured feats of great heroism by the English military, it devoted significant real estate to human hypocrisies, cowardice and cravenness. It challenged the nationalistic/colonial myths that drove most other Invasion novels.

Wells told his tale with potent verisimilitude, using real and exactly contemporary settings, and employed literary devices like its first person narrator addressing the reader directly as if he’s discussing events familiar to all: “It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days…The storm burst upon us six years ago now.” He referenced other sources when there were story details that the narrator could not have been expected to have directly witnessed, “As Mars approached opposition, Lavelle of Java [observatory] set the wires of the astronomical exchange palpitating…He compared it to a colossal puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet, ‘as flaming gases rushed out of a gun.’…A singularly appropriate phrase it proved. Yet the next day there was nothing of this in the papers except a little note in the Daily Telegraph.” These were effective devices for creating a faux-realism, as it mimicked the style of a history book and the epistolary novel more than the then-evolving fictional narratives of most modern novels written in a close third person POV.

The Mercury Theater must have been drawn Wells’ narrative when they chose this work for their 1938 Halloween-eve broadcast. Another was probably related to [the fact that] Universal Studios had established that Americans had a taste for being scared, but by the late 1930s, their great franchise monsters slipped towards self-parody because folklore-based supernatural thrillers were not the best platform to address what was really scaring America at the time. The rise of fascism played a large role in science fiction replacing supernatural tales as the fantasy of the Zeitgeist.

The cover of a 1970s LP of the broadcast.

In the Mercury Theater version, scriptwriters Howard Koch (CASABLANCA [1942]) and Anne Froelick (HARRIET CRAIG [1950]) used real and exactly contemporary settings, this time in the U.S. and within the range of the New York City broadcast tower. They heightened the immediacy by presenting the first half of the broadcast entirely in the form of faux-news bulletins interrupting “regularly scheduled programing,” which was also fictional. The bulletins came with increasing regularity, then took over the programing entirely as the war turned hot and people started to die. There were emergency response bulletins, casualty figures, evacuation instructions and reports of millions of refugees clogging the roads. A government official makes a statement, and the actor mimicked President Roosevelt’s voice, though the character was given a different name. The story didn’t use the device of real-time, wherein the events of the narrative covered the same length of time as the experience of audience, but the time-compression was deftly disguised. As the audience listened for minutes, they never questioning that hours of story-time had elapsed (or months, if you include the reports of the observations “of the colossal puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet” Mars).

As the story moved to its pre-intermission climax, Orson Welles (producer, director, and starring as one of the reporters) claimed to be transmitting a view from the top of a Manhattan skyscraper, and described an apocalyptic scene: “five great machines” wade across the Hudson River to New York City, spewing poison gas. As the smoke drifts from west to east, he can see people “falling over like flies” while others, panicked, dove into the East River “like rats.” Finally, the gas reaches Welles. The last sound is the voice of a desperate ham radio operator, “2X2L calling CQ. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there… anyone?”

A thing about these bold devices, though they have the power to captivate, even overwhelm, the audience, is that they limit options for complex storytelling. The more conventional devices are more flexible, which is why they are used more often and which is how they became conventional in the first place. When the story became more complex and character-driven in the second act, more conventional dialogue and monologue were used. It marked a bold dramatic shift, akin to how innovative and overwhelming the Omaha Beach sequence was in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), but as that sequence told us very little of the actual plot and specific characters, as soon as audience was properly impressed and completely tamed, and the action moved away from the beach, a far more conventional WWII film unfolded.

Orson Welles performing WAR OF THE WORLDS.

Because of the scandal, the very fine second act is under-appreciated. Especially notable is a sequence where the narrator (again Orson Welles) hides in the basement with a madman. It’s a scene in the book (and I should note that the Mercury Theater version, for all its changes from the original, displayed the most fidelity of any of the major adaptations of Wells’ novel). Mercury revised this sequence to address contemporary concerns. The madman is clearly traumatized by the violence inflicted on his nation, and rants delusionally of taking revenge by creating a cult of personality around himself and training a generation of ruthless warrior children. This was a pretty explicit reference to Europe, traumatized by WWI, falling in goose-step behind fascism. Mercury’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, like H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS, articulates the fears of the coming World War; they just happen to be talking about two different World Wars. The stressing of the poison gas over the heat-rays was another change from the original novel, reflecting that the world had changed since 1898.

The fact that this was a fiction was made clear before the play began, and it was announced again at intermission, and at the end Orson Welles breaks character to state once more this was fiction, “the equivalent of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’” Yet reportedly more than a million Americans believed it was all true (later attempts to come up with more realistic estimates put the number in the thousands). The not-a-hoax had unleashed THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA (a title of a 1975 ABC TV movie that recreated the events).

OK, so what the hell happened?

Well, the Mercury Theater had fairly poor ratings as it was put up against the very popular CHASE AND SANBORN HOUR on NBC radio. About 15 minutes into CHASE AND SANBORN, the first comic sketch ended and a musical number began. Apparently the musicians weren’t that talented and many listeners started “channel flipping” (a truly degenerate cultural pastime that was introduced with the corrupting new technology of radio, and even today has yet to be purged from our civilization). When the listeners hit CBS, they encountered music they liked better, the fictional “regularly scheduled program” of “Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra.” It’s not a surprise they stopped, as it was actually the CBS Orchestra directed by the great Bernard Herrmann (CITIZEN KANE [1941], PSYCHO [1960]). They had missed the opening announcement that this program was fiction and part of the story’s set-up. When the next faux-news bulletin came in, all hell started to break loose.

A poster for the George Pal-directed, best-known movie adaptation of WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953).

Oops.

But wait, that’s after the 15-minute-marker. It was only about 20 minutes before intermission and next announcement that this was fiction.

Yeah, but that was still after the announcement of the “evacuation instructions.”

Oops, again.

The New York Times reported, “In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture. Throughout New York, families left their homes, some to flee to nearby parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada, seeking advice on protective measures against the raids.”

Things were worse in Concrete, Washington, when the power and phones went out with disturbingly convenient timing with the radio play’s unfolding narrative.

Future TONIGHT SHOW host Jack Paar was on-air at Cleveland’s WGAR. As panicked listeners called the studio, Paar attempted to calm them on the phone and on air, “The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?” The listeners accused him of being part of a government cover-up.

One of the lessons of that night was the dangers of the malleability of the public in the hands of a powerful mass media. This was an early lesson, but not the first. On the other side of the ocean, Germany’s leader, Adolph Hitler, had already spent years successful molding the will of millions with media propaganda no more honest than a deliberate hoaxes like ALTERNATIVE THREE (1977), GHOSTWATCH (1992) or ALIEN AUTOPSY (1995) but far more effective than any here listed. Effective to the point of permanently altering the course of human history. One can hear Hitler gloating as he cited the panic as “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.”

One last note: If you read about this incident today, you will likely be reminded by the writer that WWII would erupt just months after the broadcast. Most American writers of this subject are myopic to the point of error and trivialization. You see, by the time of the broadcast, the Nazis had already intervened in the Spanish Civil War, Germany had already taken Austria, Italy had already taken Ethiopia, etc, etc. For tens of millions in Europe, the war was already underway; and most of the panicked Americans didn’t think we were being invaded by Martians, but Germans.

Editor’s Note: Robert Emmett Murphy is based in New York. This article is number 52 in a series of 100 essays he is penning, inspired by the British documentary THE 100 GREATEST SCARY MOMENTS (2003). It is reprinted with permission. The moment selected for the list can be found at the 1 hour, 36 minute marker. Listen to the entire original broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS here.

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Audio Wonderland: Imagining the Sounds of AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS with The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company

Posted on: Dec 9th, 2011 By:

Ethan Hurlburt, Sara Lozano, Maddie Dill and Laurice White in ARTC's 2008 production of AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS. Photo credit: Caran Wilbanks

 

Much is made of the visual aspects of the holidays—all the lights, the snow, Santa in his suit of red. But with, the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company (ARTC)’s AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS, the sounds of the season take center stage Dec. 10, 11, 17 and 18 at the Academy Theatre in Avondale Estates. In the spirit of the season, tickets cost whatever you can afford, even if that means free, so it’s a great opportunity to experience the Noel nostalgia of not just city holiday traditions but also an enjoyable performance art form that came close to going the way of the dinosaur but is now enjoying its own Retro revival. However, ATLRetro hopes you will give what you can to support this hardworking community theater in tough economic times, and ARTC is donating 25% of all ticket sales to the Center for the Visually Impaired.

Back in the 1930s and ‘40s families gathered together in the evenings to listen to the radio. Much more than music, less-than-funny deejays and pontificating talk show hosts, radio channels used to air a wide variety of programs from adventure serials with iconic characters like THE SHADOW to dramatic productions like the infamous WAR OF THE WORLDS broadcast narrated by Orson Welles, soap operas like STELLA DALLAS to comedies to FIBBER, MCGEE & MOLLY. But with the advent of TV, radio theater became all but a lost art form.

ARTC was one of the first of a handful of companies around the country who have embraced radio theatre, and for more than two decades, its members have worked passionately to afford it a new lease on life as a live performance medium. While listeners still use their imagination to visualize the action, the live stagings, at theaters and also often at science-fiction conventions, afford a behind-the-scenes peek into what it would be like to visit a vintage radio station. Actors read their lines live, and sound effects and music are added on the spot. Of course, you can also purchase recordings of ARTC productions, which run the entire gamut from dramas to comedies to new takes on the old SF adventure serials, to further take yourself back to the golden age of radio. Seems like it’d be bound to make that long roadtrip home for the holidays go a little faster, and once you get there, wouldn’t it be nice to get everyone to be quiet, gather around the fireplace and listen to them, too?

ATLRetro asked David Benedict, vice president of ARTC and co-director/coproducer of AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS by Thomas Fuller, why the holidays are such a perfect time to enjoy radio theater and why it should be preserved in a CGI-laden visual age.

Without giving away too much, what’s the basic story behind AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS?

The most basic summary I can give is that AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS is about Christmas inAtlanta. It is a series of short vignettes that detail how our unique city has celebrated the season throughout the years, beginning with the first appearance of the Christmas tree and continuing to modern day. It is framed by the image of a family gathered together for the holiday, passing their own memories along to their children.

David Benedict introduces AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS. Photo Credit: Caran Wilbanks.

This is ARTC’s 12th year performing AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS, so it’s becoming an Atlanta Christmas tradition itself. Why do you think this show has such enduring popularity?

Although the world has gotten smaller, people still hold a strong connection with their local community. AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS puts a sharp focus on the way the holiday and the way we as a city celebrate it has changed throughout the years, while also highlighting the things that remain constant: family, hope, renewal, and giving.

Why does the radio theater format work so well for this production?

Christmas, along with Halloween, are extremely imaginative times of the year and lend themselves well to the format. Radio theatre, or audio drama, calls upon the audience to use their imaginations to envision for themselves the settings and the appearances of the characters. We facilitate this through our use of well-written scripts, sound effects and music. During Christmas, people are more in tune with their imaginations, which is exhibited through our common references to elves at the North Pole, winter wonderlands and flying reindeer. These things, as well as the general joy and goodwill of the season, resonate extremely well with radio theatre.

Do you have a favorite scene in AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS—or should we say “segment”—and why?

It’s so hard to pick one. Thomas Fuller was a master at painting visual tableaus with nothing more than a well-chosen word or two. But if I had to pick just one, I would probably go with Davy Crockett and Me, which tells the story of two brothers who desperately want Davy Crockett’s coonskin caps from the classic TV show. The piece makes a point of contrasting the black and white television of the time with the colorful lights and decorations of the holidays that really stands out in my mind. Plus, I’ve performed it with my good friend Hal Wiedeman for the last few years. We’ve grown so used to the roles that we’ve taken turns being the other brother a couple of times, and we joke that we’re going to give the director a heart attack one year and try switching roles in the middle of the performance!

Jayne Lockhart and Rachel Pendergrass perform in the 2008 ARTC production of AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS. Photo credit: Caran Wilbanks.

ARTC has performed many plays by Thomas Fuller, and he was a key player for many years with ARTC. Can you share a few words about his impact on ARTC and why ARTC continues to perform so many of his works?

It is hard to overstate the importance of Thomas Fuller to ARTC and the loss we felt at his passing. Thomas had a complete grasp of the potential of radio theatre. He wrote compelling characters, he understood the medium for which he was writing, and he could use sound very effectively. Moreover, though, he was constantly pushing us to greater excellence. He would take new writers and offer them advice, encouragement, and help them make the most of their story. As for why we continue to perform his work, I think you only have to listen to one of his plays to know that. His work stretches us, and as we continue to develop new writers, we often use Thomas’s work as the benchmark against which new work can be measured and the heights they can strive for. One of our (relatively) new writers, Kelley S. Ceccato, has taken to this challenge and is currently writing some of our most immersive, lushly soundscaped work.

It’s pretty unconventional and some would say courageous if you actually want to cover expenses to have tickets that are “name your price.” Why do you do that, and what guidelines should people use to decide what to pay?

Radio theatre was largely abandoned in the United States back in the 1940s and 1950s, and although it is enjoying a comeback of sorts in the modern Internet age, people still don’t often think of it as a viable entertainment medium. And yet when people are exposed to our work and the work of other radio theatres around the world, they find the medium very enriching. At this time of year, we want to give the gift of imagination to people who might not otherwise have the financial capability to come to live theatre. In this economy, leisure expenses are not always affordable, but we feel that at this time of year we have something to offer and want as many people as possible to be able to receive and enjoy the gift of audio drama that we have to give.

In addition to that, we are also making a donation of 25% of all ticket sales to the Center for the Visually Impaired. We feel it’s a very natural fit with this particular nonprofit, and we’ve made a donation to them for several years now as a part of this show. Patrons who are not sure how much they should pay for a ticket should do what feels most comfortable to them. We invite people to come see the show for as little as $0, but we encourage them to pay as much as they like. For the truly undecided, we have a suggested price of $10.

Radio theater isn’t thought of as a visual medium, so why is it so much fun to see it performed live?

Live theatre is always an adventure, and even though we aren’t doing re-creations of the classic radio dramas, preferring to write our own material and do original adaptations, there’s still a nostalgia appeal to seeing a group of actors creating a scene right in front of you using nothing but their voices and the audience’s imagination. There’s also an immediacy that’s difficult to re-create with a recording. How many times have you stopped and listened to a song you heard on the radio even though you could have listened to it on your mp3 player any time you wanted? Lastly, there’s the controlled environment of the theatre itself. Life moves fast these days and even in the car it can be difficult to tune out the distractions and give your imagination free reign, and when you can do that, audio drama is at its best. Being in the theatre allows you to close your eyes and forget everything else except the picture being painted in your mind.

David Benedict, Bill Kronick, Rachel Pendergrass, Jayne Lockhart, Laurice White. Photo credit: Caran Wilbanks.

Plus, you never know what’s going to happen. One performance, which took place at Stone Mountain Park outdoors on a rainy day, called for a gunshot. We had a recorded sound effect ready to go for that, but as it turned out, there was someone at the festival demonstrating an actual black powder pistol and we worked it out with them to fire the gun on cue to add a little extra realism. We rehearsed it and it went off without a hitch, but during the performance the pistol misfired. You haven’t really lived until you’re in a situation where your sound effect hasn’t happened, there’s no way for it to happen, and your next line is supposed to be “She shot him!” As it turned out, on that particular occasion, he ended up poisoned.

How long have you been involved in ARTC, and what got you started?

I honestly don’t recall the exact date, but it’s been a really long time. Probably in the early to mid-‘90s. I’ve been a Dragon*Con attendee for many years and ARTC has performed at every Dragon*Con since the first one [1987], but somehow I hadn’t been to any of their shows. At one particular convention I happened across the name in the program book and made it a point to attend. As I recall the performance was COUNTRY OF THE BLIND or possibly THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU. Even though I had heard of radio drama before, I wasn’t aware that anyone was still performing it and certainly had never seen it done live. The entire experience just appealed to me, watching the sound effects being created on stage by the Foley crew, hearing the actors perform with as much passion and skill as any stage theatre or movie I had ever seen. I sought them out and got information about joining just as soon as the performance was over and have never looked back.

David Benedict. Photo credit: Ben Thompson, Alexandra Photography.

All of ARTC’s performers and technical team do this as a labor of love. What do you do as your day job, how did you personally get involved in ARTC, and why do you think the art form is worth preserving in a visual era?

Currently I work as an assistant manager in Guest Programs at the Georgia Aquarium. My team is the one you are most likely to interact with on a typical visit as we do exhibit interpretation and help people to better identify and understand the animals and conservation issues. As I mentioned, I first saw ARTC at Dragon*Con and was immediately drawn to them. I’ve actually gone through several jobs while sticking with ARTC the whole time and they have played a pretty major role in keeping me in the Atlanta area.

As Thomas Fuller once said, audio drama is probably the most plastic of all the art forms, which means that it can be molded by a skilled writer, sound designer and actors to be whatever you need it to be. Without suffering from the budget constraints that limit all but the most well-funded big studio filmmakers, audio dramatists can set whichever scene they want and there are dozens if not hundreds of people worldwide who are producing it in their own homes. It’s also a much more active art form. Well-crafted films can draw the audience in, but even the best films don’t really involve the audience the way audio drama can. By allowing them to set the scene, radio theatre makes the audience an essential part of the creative process and, we hope, encourages people to be more imaginative in their daily lives.

Many of your previous productions are available as recordings and make great gifts. What 3 productions do you recommend for someone wanting to get a good introduction to radio theater and ARTC, and how can one purchase recordings?

We have a wide variety of genres to choose from, so while we primarily serve the science fiction/horror/fantasy fan base, there’s really something for everyone and it depends on what you’re looking for. My personal favorites, though, are probably ALL HALLOWS MOON (an occult western) by Thomas E. Fuller, RORY RAMMER, SPACE MARSHAL: VOLUME 1 (a science fiction serial) by Ron N. Butler, and THE PASSION OF FRANKENSTEIN by Thomas E. Fuller. I think it’s also worth mentioning that AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS is finally out on CD this year. One of the hazards of an all-volunteer small-press audio publisher is that sometimes things get caught up in the production cycle and never find their way out. AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS took five years to complete, but I think the end result is totally worth it.

Recordings can be purchased on CD at our live performances or by mail order at www.artc.org. You can also download our material from Audible.com, iTunes and Amazon. And for those folks who aren’t sure what modern audio drama sounds like, they can check out our free monthly podcast at http://podcast.artc.org and download mp3s of our past live performances. We also appear on Aberrant Radio Monday nights at 8:30pm.

The cast of AN ATLANTA CHRISTMAS takes a curtain call, including Alton Leonard on guitar. Photo credit: Caran Wilbanks.

What’s next for ARTC in terms of live shows and new recordings in 2012?

Our next live performance after Christmas will be March 3 and 4 at the Academy Theatre where we’ll perform THE TIME MACHINE by H. G. Wells, adapted by Thomas E. Fuller. After that we’ll be at LibertyCon inChattanooga, TN, in July and Dragon*Con in September. In between we’ll take a short break to get back into the studio. Titles for the studio sessions are still being finalized and we still have a bunch of things left from our last studio session to finish up, but I’m thinking strongly of taking in THE TIME MACHINE, which used to be in the catalog but is now out of print, as well as THE COLOUR OUT OF SPACE by H. P. Lovecraft, adapted by Ron N. Butler, and if we get really ambitious we may attempt Brad Strickland‘s five-part adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson‘s TREASURE ISLAND.

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