By Doug Gibson
If you're a cult- or alternative-film fan/geek like I am, and I assume most of our readers are, then Brian Albright has provided a great service with his latest McFarland Publishers book, "Regional Horror Films, 1958-1990: A State-by-State Guide with Interviews." (here) The book is comprised in two parts: a series of interviews with directors or persons otherwise associated with regional horror films; and a lengthy, fairly complete listing, state-by-state, of regional, ultra low-budget horrors for the 32 years covered.
Albright correctly describes a regional film as shot outside of the entertainment industry, or southern California, and not associated with a major, or even minor, studio. In many cases, these were labors of love, or hobbies that turned into several-year projects, punctuated by stubborn persistence by the filmmakers to get the thing done. What's fairly consistent through the interviews that Albright gathered -- probably over several years since some of the essays are from 2008 -- is that the filmmakers saw little, or no money, from their endeavors. Distributors took all the cash, the films were pirated and sold throughout the nation and world, the made-for-video market collapsed in the late 1980s ... survivors of the original filmmaker sold the film for a quick buck, and so on. (It would be interesting for McFalarland to publish a book on the many ways ways small-time, regional filmmakers were shut out of whatever cash flow came from their films.)
It's wise that Albright resists the urge to provide interviews involving regional films that hit it big and spawned imitators, such as "The Evil Dead" or "Night of the Living Dead." While their stories are fascinating, there is more than enough articles and books out there for fans to go to. Instead, Albright picks an eclectic group to interview. I particularly enjoy the interview with Robert Burrill, the man behind "The Milpitas Monster." Although previously published in FilmFax, the story of how a school and a small city banded together to make an ecological monster film, partially as a protest against a larger city critic's slamming of said city, is interesting. What started out as a short literally grew, like a monster, into a finished film.
In fact, future filmmakers can learn from some of the stories, including Donald Barton of Florida, who cobbled together investors willing to put in almost $100,000 to make "Zaat," a story about a scientist who turns himself into a catfish monster. (Barton even got a local Baptist church to help out!) After seeing "Zaat" falter and even be turned into other titles by distribution deals that yielded no money, Barton shelved his movie for 30 years before fans convinced him to publicize it on the Web, show it -- to a big crowd -- at an locla theater, and (later) move it back into DVD distribution. Amazingly, I watched "Zaat" recently on Turner Classic Movies' TCM Underground series; a similar "distinction" was awarded another Florida regional film listed in the compendium, "Carnival Magic," directed by the late Al Adamson. (It was also fascinating to learn that regional horror films were easier to make due to tax write offs that were unfortunately eliminated by Congress, strangling the genre by the latter half of the 1980s.)
It'd be nice to see a TCM Underground showing for regional director, J.R. Bookwalter, who is interviewed by Albright, mostly about "The Dead Next Door," his homage to Romero's zombie movies that for a while, received some support from "The Evil Dead" director Sam Raimi. Bookwalter eventually moved into low-budget producing and distribution, and it's facinating to read about the details of that industry. It may be the only viable way for most talented micro-budget regional horror filmmakers to make some bucks.
I also enjoyed the interview with the eccentric Milton Moses Ginsberg, who crafted the bizarre monster/political film, "The Werewolf of Washington," a staple today for horror movie hosts looking to cheaply lampoon public domain films. Ginsberg, who admits to being most horrified by "The Wolfman" as a youngster, created in the early 1970s what seems like a natural take off on the Watergate ... except that the film was hatched and created prior to the Watergate scandal breaking. In any event, it's a prescient regional film, and (of course) died quickly at the box office, before being pirated to the VHS and DVD market.
As mentioned, the compendium is fairly complete, and includes at least a paragraph, and most often more, on the hundreds of regional films included. A lot of low-budget cult figures are covered pretty well in the list, including Andy Milligan and Bill Rebane. The video nasty Utah regional horror, "Don't Go In the Woods ... Alone," is included, as well as the interesting, Texas regional from the 1960s, "The Black Cat." The pre-porno adult regional filmmakers are mentioned from time to time, including the late Barry Mahon's "The Sex Killer," which captures many bleak late-1960s shots of the New York City business districts.
A lot of the films mentioned in this book, including "Black Cat" and Milligan's "Torture Dungeon," would be great picks for future TCM Underground selections. Let's hope the brains behind that series is reading Albright's book..