Halloween is on the horizon, which makes this an apt column to reiterate one of the longest-lived of all moviemaking axioms: If you can shoot a horror movie cheaply enough, you’re going to make money.
The reason? Horror has long been a genre that doesn’t need major stars or a big budget to succeed at the box office; there are lots of folks out there who’ll queue up to see a scary movie just because it’s a scary movie, with the ultra-low-budget Paranormal Activity being one of the best recent examples.
Another excellent example came along a little over a quarter of a century ago, right here in Oklahoma. The Tulsa-lensed Blood Cult didn’t just earn more than 30 times its very modest production cost, which is impressive enough. Because it was the first-ever feature film intended to bypass theaters and go directly to the home-video market, it changed the very definition of the term “movie.”
The story of this groundbreaking collaboration between Bill Blair’s Tulsa-based United Entertainment, a homevid distributor, and filmmakers Christopher and Linda Lewis, is told in some detail in Shot in Oklahoma, my recently published book by University of Oklahoma Press. But the focus of the book, which is on theatrical films, militated against the inclusion of the Oklahoma-produced video features that came along in Blood Cult’s wake.
There were plenty of them, though. Within months of Blood Cult’s release, dozens of made-for-video features were in production all over the country, many with a horror angle. Probably because the revolution had happened right in their backyard, Oklahoma filmmakers were responsible for more than their fair share, and homegrown United Entertainment was right there to cut distribution deals. In the second half of the 1980s alone, the Tulsa company would release two more fright flicks by the Lewises, The Ripper (1985) and Revenge (1986), as well as horror efforts from other Oklahoma moviemakers, including Terror at Tenkiller (1986) and Blood Lake (1988).
Unfortunately, things went south rather quickly in the direct-to-video market. The culprit was overproduction; videotape had made it much cheaper to shoot, edit, and release a movie, and even the most avid horror fan couldn’t watch every genre title on the suddenly cluttered racks of the video-rental stores. As is the case with just about everything else in life, timing was of utmost importance.
Which brings us to a trio of Tulsa features that, at this writing, are not readily available. Two of them had what appears to have been nominal releases. The other had a big premiere and sold a few copies for its producer, but never had an actual distributor. All contain horror elements, and all of them were directed by Tulsa’s Larry Thomas. They are Mutilations (1987), a tale of cattle-mutilating aliens; The Change (1989), a romance/psychological thriller featuring a monster-filled nightmare sequence; and Vigilante Blood (1993), a death-dealing masked-avenger picture produced and written by Oklahoman Harvey Shell. Shell, along with fellow actors Bill Buckner and Dann Daigle – among others – were part of an ad hoc Tulsa stock company, appearing in all three pictures.
Mutilations, Thomas says, was influenced by classic science fiction films like the original versions of The Thing (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953), as well as by the stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen, who created iconic monsters for such classics as It Came From Beneath the Sea and 20,000 Miles to Earth. It was Harryhausen, even more than Blood Cult, which set Thomas on his filmmaking path.
“In the early ‘80s, I actually met Ray Harryhausen on several occasions, and over the course of our conversations, he kind of encouraged me to go forward,” Thomas explains.
Then, at a comic book and movie convention, Thomas connected with Texas-based artist John Fischner, who was also a fan of Harryhausen and had been experimenting with stop-motion animation himself. When Thomas read a story about Blood Cult in a local magazine, everything suddenly came together.
One of the reasons Blood Cult’s costs were so low – in the neighborhood of $30,000 – was that it had been shot on half-inch videotape, the kind TV news outfits were using at the time. Thomas, however, decided he wanted to shoot Mutilations on actual film, bumping the cost up to, he says, “less than $100,000.” Part of that budget paid for a long stretch in Texas, where Fischner created the stop-motion animation effects.
“We didn’t have enough money, I knew, to go through elaborate film editing with color film stock,” he adds, “but we found a cheaper way to do it. We transferred it to one-inch, high-resolution videotape and bumped it down to three-quarter-inch tape, and made all our editing decisions on that. I didn’t want that dull Eastman Color look. I wanted that lush, three-strip Technicolor look, like in War of the Worlds. So we went in and boosted the colors throughout the film, to give it that look as much as possible.”
His next picture, The Change, was the story of a young burn victim (Shelly Creel) with repressed, violent memories brought out by a kidnapping. To Thomas, it represented a step up.
“It cost about $150,000,” he says. “It was filmed over six weeks instead of three (for Mutilations). And I realized we needed to get the best performances possible, so I really went to work for over two months with rehearsals. Five days a week, with all the actors.”
As was the case with Mutilations, most of the people involved with The Change were working on deferral, hoping to get a piece of the profits. So far, neither film has shown any.
“That’s what’s sad to me,” Thomas reflects. “They all had faith in the projects. And I’ve never been able to produce money for myself or for them.”
Thomas himself took a deferred salary to direct Vigilante Blood – with the same results. No one working on the picture, including its two Oklahoma City-based leads – Price Fallin (who was, at the time, married to our now-governor Mary Fallin) and Susan Lauren – made anything, and producer-writer Shell ended up in the negative column, spending around $15,000 out of his own pocket to get the film across the finish line.
“A lot of it was craft services, and we had various other minor expenses, but they did add up,” Shell says. “Most of it was equipment. We didn’t have any, so we bought some used.”
Shot on VHS tape, Vigilante Blood made its debut on July 25, 1993, with a star-studded party at Tulsa’s Outback Sports Cafe. But its producer had qualms about releasing it to the general public.
“The problem was the graininess of the picture,” Shell explains. “If we had made it in black and white, it would not have been a problem, but in color it was too grainy. For the kind of money we needed to charge, which was about $10 for a tape then, people would’ve felt robbed.”
So no one involved made a dime out of Vigilante Blood. But it’s a good bet that many of the cast and crew knew there was little chance of a big payday anyway, and did it for the pure joy of helping create a movie.
“They all did it for nothing,” Shell recalls. “But just about every one of them said, when we finished, ‘Be sure to call me the next time you do one.’”