Monday, September 23, 2013

Corrective surgery on invisible faces -- Surgikill and Lords of Magick

This essay is by one of our favorite Plan9Crunch contributors, director and screenwriter Sherman Hirsh, who penned both the Andy Milligan film, "Surgikill" and the 1980s adventure fantasy, "Lords of Magick." Both are reviewed on this blog and Sherman has provided his recollections of these films. In the following essay, he describes some re-editing he has done on both films, as a personal project. It's interesting to read about the private, definitely not for sale, edited versions. So here we go, enjoy readers! Above is co-blogger Steve D. Stones' art work on Surgikill.



I was interested to learn recently that NIGHT BIRDS, one of Andy Milligan’s formerly lost films has been recovered.   This was significant to me because I was associated with another of Andy’s lost films, SURGIKILL.  Somehow, in the early ‘90’s,  word spread that Andy had made SURGIKILL, but no one knew where it was and assumed it was just lost.  Except that it wasn’t really lost.  It was being held for ransom.

Even though SURGIKILL was shot in 1988, it never saw light of day until 2000.  There was a contractual dispute between the Van Harlingens and a representative of certain investors.  This guy was a total pain throughout the production and I blame him for all of SURGIKILL’S major problems. He couldn’t keep his hands off, and was constantly interfering.  He was so nasty,  Andy almost got into a fistfight with him, because the guy thought he was a better director than Andy Milligan.  This was the guy who wanted to take out all the Horror elements and rename the film SCREWBALL HOSPITAL.  That title almost stuck.  When I was redoing the titles, I found ONE FRAME of the title, SCREWBALL HOSPITAL left from an earlier edit. 

Anyway, the film ended up rotting in a garage in Beverly Hills for more than a decade, until the VanH’s settled with him, which is why SURGIKILL was for a time, one of Andy’s lost films.  Andy was once quoted as saying that someday all shooting would be on Video.  He was right, and I was able to use technology that didn’t exist when Andy was producing to slightly improve his last film. 

A couple of years ago, I remastered  SURGIKILL for its DVD release.   This consisted mostly of redoing the titles, putting one of those dreaded FBI Copyright warnings on the beginning, and designing new box art.  While I was doing this, I got the idea of seeing if I could improve it.  I had no plan. I just started at the beginning and  fooled around with anything I thought needed fixing.  This consisted mostly of putting in sound effects where they had been omitted, and adding dissolves between scenes where the transitions  were too abrupt.

Then I decided to see if I could dress up the whole film, and erase some of the sloppy parts that were not Andy’s doing.  If you are familiar with the history of Surgikill, most  of which is chronicled in Plan9Crunch, you know that  it was “improved” by individuals with more money than film sense.  They waited until Andy’s contract had expired and put in that insipid ending and a load of crude gags that had nothing to do with the story.   As I was analyzing the film for stuff to futz with, I realized that Andy had shot the first part of the film with reasonable faithfulness to my script.  He made some changes to character names I didn’t like, but the changes he made were,  ultimately, no more than any director makes to a script to make it work in its circumstances.  The deeper you get into the film, the more the Stupid creeps in.   Nothing much I could do about that, but I could at least make it look a little better.

All I could really do was slap a few bandaids on it.  I found a reverb setting in my editing software for “HOSPITAL HALLWAY”, and applied it to all the PA announcements made by Nurse Rached, a touch that made those scenes a little stronger.   When the crepitant Mrs. Gross let loose her intestinal pollution, in addition to the existing fart sound, I filled the shot with a nasty green fog, which was funny because the characters didn’t notice it,  as if it is what always happened.   During her surgery, when her gaseous guts are detonated, I always thought the explosion was wimpy.  A louder explosion sound and a re-edit of the explosion itself gave the scene the guts it needed, in addition to the cow guts used for props.

There is a scene I really, really hate.  Someone (guess who) got the idiotic idea of hiring an Oliver Hardy look-alike to play an undertaker named BuryMore.  He looked like Ollie all right, but he was THE WORST ACTOR I EVER SAW IN A FILM!  He mumbles out a stream of stupid banal one-liners, in a really boring mumbled monotone.  I wanted to just jerk the scene, but instead, I rendered the scene in Black& White and made it grainy, like an old movie.  I filtered the sound to make it sound like an old movie, too.  Better, but still not good.

Various places had weak sound effects or no sound effects at all.  Somebody gets hit on the head with a  bedpan, you want a satisfying CLUNK.  There were a few points I could punch up like that.  Basically, that’s all I was able to do.  I gave a copy to John and Darlene ( Bouvier ) Van Harlingen, who own SURGIKILL. They  liked the new version, but never did anything with it.  When SURGIKILL had its world theatrical premiere in Long Beach, it was the regular, normal version that got screened.   So, my version exists as a file on my computer and a few bootleg copies I slipped to my friends.    Legalities being what they are, it will probably stay that way.


I’m assuming you’ve seen LORDS OF MAGICK.   If you haven’t, you can always pick up a 20 year old retired rental copy on eBay.  Not only is there no DVD of LORDS OF MAGICK,  there was never any sale of copies to the public.  It was only sold to video rental stores and the original price was $86.00!  Or you can watch the whole thing on YouTube for free.

There are two major complaints I have against LORDS OF MAGICK.  The first is that idiotic prologue.  It talks about a contest to find the Lord of Magick, when there is absolutely no shred of that in the story. David put it in just because he liked it.  He did that a lot.  That whole pointless scene of the Princess and the Pea was just one of David Marsh’s whim.   Anyway, when I made my re-edit, that prologue was the first thing to go.

The second is the overall tone of the film.  People talk about how amateurish LOM is.  One of the reasons for this is that David had no feel for the genre.  He just didn’t understand Fantasy, and he had a little trouble staging the comedy, too.  He tried to play LOM as an Urban Action Film.  That doesn’t work.   It’s the old “square peg in a round hole” situation.  Parts just don’t fit together.

The first major evidence of this is the opening scene of Salatin abducting the Princess.  It comes first in the story, making Salatin the most important character.   Also, setting up the crime before you introduce the hero is a common tactic in Urban Action films.   If you open on a high action point, everything after that is a letdown.  It’s better to build to a peak.  This movie isn’t about Salatin. It’s about the Redglen Brothers fighting Salatin, and they should come first.  So, I excised the abduction scene and moved it to  the  point in the story when the King explains the problem to the brothers, as it had been written in the script.  Instead of opening on a violent nasty incident, we introduce the brothers chatting as they head to the local tavern.  We see them in their natural habitat, a thousand years ago, enjoying the world they live in, then we propel them into the weird mean world of the 20th Century.

With the two main problems neutralized, I could now move on the assorted minor boo-boos.  The first day of shooting was the first 1986 scene on Hollywood Boulevard.  There is a part where Ulric Redglen, the Bad Boy of Good Magic,  pulls his sword and chases a kid who makes the mistake of turning on his Boom Box and startling Ulric.  Except that the music that was supposed to scare Ulric was never added to the sound track, so we don’t know why Ulric chases the kid.  One viewer on YouTube called the scene racist.  This viewer thought Ulric chased the kid because he was Black,  because the music was missing.  I added the music.

An earlier 986AD scene had the boys doing a little necromancy to get info on how to bag Salatin.  They wake up a hanging corpse and use it to invoke some  ”OLD ONE”.  I didn’t think the stiff sounded ominous enough, so I isolated the dead guy’s lines and shifted the pitch and added a little distortion and reverb and synced that to the production sound track, giving the OLD ONE a little more menace.  The corpse was hanging by his wrists, rather than by the neck, which is what we really wanted to see, and I thought that was kind of bland.  I added a mysterious glow around the dead guy’s head to give it a little more visual magic. 

Other than that, and a few dissolves to smooth out the story, that was all I could do  for LOM. 

I wish you could see the smoothed out versions of SURGIKILL and LORDS OF MAGICK, but copyright laws being what they are, that’s not likely.  You’ll just have to watch them as they are and dream, as I did for a quarter century, how they could have been.

Here are some links to some of Sherman's previous essays for Plan9Crunch:

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