Review by Doug Gibson
There's a lengthy passage in the biography, "Dad Made Dirty Movies: The Erotic World of Stephen C. Apostolof," McFarland, 2020, in which our subject Apostolof is in dire straights. It's 1978 and his film, "Hot Ice," is a flop. "Hot Ice" is -- by design -- not a soft-core porn film. It's an attempt to make a light-hearted R-rated diamond heist spoof.
More on "Hot Ice" later, but the problem is that Apostolof is finding out there's no interest from distributors in a "mainstream" Apostolof film. His mostly successful track record of making a soft-core porn film, earning lots of money, and sinking profits into the next similar film is now stalled. The low-budget producer/director and sometimes distributor is hurting financially. Apostolof haunts a distributor he's worked with before, literally begging them to take on "'Hot Ice."
The distributor won't budge. But in an interesting twist, a member of that company asks Apostolof if he could meet filmmaker Ed Wood, who has worked on several Apostolof films. Wood is slowly dying from the effects of long-term alcoholism, and Apostolof knows he's not capable of even a lunch. But, promoter to the end, he dangles -- perhaps in hopeful jest -- a lunch with Wood if his film is picked up.
The film is not picked up. There's no luncheon with Ed Wood. Frankly, the interested employee was teased by his colleagues for even having an interest in Wood's films. Apostolof would never make another film. He did envision more and in vain tried to get them off the ground, including a planned sequel to his most-popular film, "Orgy of the Dead."
It is kind of ironic, or at least interesting that the death of Ed Wood in late 1978 coincides with the professional filmmaking death of Stephen C. Apostolof. The Bulgarian-born filmmaker was the real last link Wood had to the film industry. As "Dad Made Dirty Movies" authors Jordan Todorov and Joe Blevins note, Wood likely saw in Apostolof a last link to the "legitimate" film industry, meaning anything other than the hard-core porn film/writing business.
"Dad Made Dirty Movies" is a great (cult) filmmakers biography, the best I have read since Rudolph Grey's Wood oral bio, "Nightmare of Ecstasy" -- which Apostolof contributed to -- and Jimmy McDonough's bio of Andy Milligan, "The Ghastly One. ... "
A 2011 film documentary of the same name, directed by Todorov, preceded the book.
Apostolof had such an interesting life. Born in Bulgaria, he became a lifelong fierce anti-communist and was imprisoned as a teen by the communist regime. He eventually escaped the country, fleeing to Istanbul, where he slept for a while on the beach and later toiled as a piano player in a cabaret/bordello.
He tried to join the U.S. Army, but not being a citizen ended that dream. He almost joined the French Foreign Legion, but changed his mind. The young Apostolof, not yet 21, ended up in Paris in 1948. He lived a bohemian lifestyle and was active in the large circle of Bulgarian emigrants there, which included anti-communist activism. In 1950 he emigrated to Canada, and settled in Toronto, where he met his first wife, Joan Mary Higgins. After their wedding, the pair moved to Los Angeles, Calif.
Apostolof frequently switched jobs, with an eye to making it in the movies. He got an opportunity when he produced the very low-budget, "Journey To Freedom," 1957. It's based very loosely on Apostolof's escape from communism, with communist agents chasing the protagonist as far as America. In the cast is cult actor/wrestler Tor Johnson. It's available for free with Amazon Prime. I have watched it. It's passable low-budget second-half-of-the-bill fare. Apostolof is seen in a cameo. The young producer erred in not nailing down a distributor, but eventually Republic, where Apostolof found a job, picked it up. When all was finished Apostolof got some money back, $7,150, but not enough to avoid bankruptcy.
For several years he worked at various jobs, including at IBM, trying to keep bills paid for the family. His marriage with Joan ended in late 1963. By the middle of the decade, Apostolof met a man named Ed Wood. With an eye on entering the still new, "nudie pictures" genre, he bought a screenplay from Wood for $400 and helmed "Orgy of the Dead."
Like so many others, Ed Wood's presence and influence paved Apostolof's cult status today. The graveyard setting mixed with stilted nudie cuties dancing, the booming voice of Criswell as Emperor of the Dead, along with a Vampira clone. A cheap mummy and werewolf prancing around, all terrorizing an innocent couple; a script with Woodian dialogue. The film is premium cult unique. It recently received an upper-crust Blu Ray release, with extras and film commentaries.
Apostolof settled into the soft-core porn film world easily. Without Wood, he made several films, often aping salacious current interests, such as "Suburbia Confidential" and "College Confidential." "Lady Godiva Rides" sounds more intriguing.
The choicest parts of the biography start with "Orgy of the Dead" and end with the ill-fated "Hot Ice." It's fascinating to get this glimpse into the professional and family life of a "dirty movies" filmmaker. Although there's a lot of input from Apostolof's children, and his last wife, Shelley, there's no rose-colored glasses.
It's sometimes gritty truth. We meet a father who loves his children, and his faith, but is not above extramarital dalliances in his first marriage, and making the grimy, misogynistic soft porn of the late 60s to mid 70s. We see a family patriarch who can make money off the movies but is lax on providing long-term security.
And Apostolof, like many of his colleagues, was not above stretching, or completely changing, the truth. After all, the man sold sizzle more than steak. One anecdote of Apostolof's that is likely stretching the truth is his oft-reported claim that at his first meeting with Ed Wood -- at the Brown Derby restaurant -- Wood arrived in drag. Grey, for example, considers it a tall tale.
And, there's a lot of Ed Wood in the book; and that's great. He helped, usually as a writer and/or assistant director, in Apostolof's 1970s films. He even acted in one, "Fugitive Girls," playing three roles! "Fugitive Girls" may be Apostolof's best film. It has a basic story, women escaping a prison, and follows through the plot without the constant sexual intercourse interludes of other Apostolof efforts. With a larger budget and better filming locations, it might have been a decent second bill for American International Pictures. Wood does well playing the sheriff and an old mechanic named Pops.
The "Hot Ice" misfire, as the authors relate, happened due to fears that low-budget soft-core popularity was near the end. The previous middle-aged dysfunctional male fantasy sex films repulsed Apostolof's wife. Apostolof badly wanted to break into mainstream films. He would not do hard-core films. In fact, he used Stephen C. Apostolof in the credits. In his skin films he was always AC Stephen.
I have watched "Hot Ice" and it's just too low-budget across the board to have been a successful endeavor. The leads are actually pretty good and seem to be loose and enjoying themselves. But the script drags too much in the first half. Stock shots of skiing -- from previous Apostolof films -- with drab music seem a bit like home movies.
The book has enough about Ed Wood to be the genesis for a conventional biography of the man. It's fun to read of Wood being handed a $500 check for doing a "novelization" of "Orgy of the Dead." He then does a happy dance in the publisher's office. There is Apostolof's anger learning Wood swiped publicity pictures of "Orgy of the Dead." There's photos of a puffy Wood -- looking quite drunk and sadly very unimportant -- at the seventh anniversary celebration of Apostolof's film company. And there's an anecdote of Wood showing up too drunk to play a role in "Hot Ice," and later sobbing apologies to Apostolof about his drinking problem.
I also enjoyed reading about Apostolof's brief attempt to run a movie theater and show his films. He hoped to avoid losing money to distributors. Despite Criswell's "prediction" that the theater would be a great success, it failed.
From reading the book, I'm sure Apostolof cared about Ed Wood and considered him a close friend. Wood's widow Kathy resented Apostolof, yet had appreciated the work he gave her husband. She may have kept details of Wood's funeral from Apostolof. It's likely Wood worked very cheaply given his well-known alcoholism.
Ed Wood and Apostolof were alike in conventional ways; strong anti-communists, and conventionally conservative males with a dated, "Mad Men" perspective on sexual issues. The authors note that Apostolof's sexual stars were not very young adults, but more seasoned adults, who preferred dark bars and intimacy in drab hotel rooms.
While it grated on Apostolof that his late-in-life fame was largely Wood-related, the now-impoverished man, living on Social Security and forced to accede to his working wife's living decisions, was pleased at the recognition he received. It took him to film festivals in Japan, England, France and provided some income, as well as hope that he might make a sequel to "Orgy of the Dead," the Wood-related film that garnered most attention. He also entered a lifetime friendship, and regular phone calls, from "Nightmare of Ecstasy" author Grey. Apostolof lived a long life, dying in 2005 at 77 after a major stroke. He lived his last years with Shelley in Mesa, Ariz.
The constant theme in any biography or recap of a Wood associate's life is the paradox that Wood was considered a down-and-outer. Yet, Apostolof, Gregory Walcott, Tor Johnson, Vampira, and others owe 90 percent of their acclaim to the once-condescended-to Ed Wood.
Yet, if Wood had never met and worked with Stephen C. Apostolof, this wonderful book would probably not exist. So, in the end, it's a plus for all, including the reader. The book can be purchased via Amazon here.