Monday, April 1, 2013

The Forgotten Master Of Horror

Wes Craven.  John Carpenter.  Dario Argento.  Herschel Gordon Lewis. George Romero.  Tobe Hooper.  Jess Franco.  Fred Olen Ray.  Hell, even Ed Wood.  These are the names you think of when someone says “Masters of Horror.”  These are the kind of filmmakers that fans adore, hungrily snapping up the latest ultimate-special-super-deluxe-limited-edition-collector’s-edition of even their schlocky, obscure titles like a bunch of rabid weasels.  Even directors like Ulli Rommel, Todd Sheets, and Charles Band, who have been responsible for more lost brain cells than all the weed Snoop could dream of, have cult followings.  But there is one man who stands shoulder to shoulder with all of these men, yet has virtually fallen through the cracks.  He is a filmmaking legend whose career has spanned six decades.  He has lent his talents to every genre, but his contributions to horror are arguably his greatest cinematic achievements.  However, his name remains largely unknown to horror fans.  I intend to rectify this grave injustice.  I will do everything in my power to ensure that none of you ever forget the name of the great Alan Smithee.

Alan (sometimes spelled Allen) Smithee has come to be known as the go to guy to step in and save the day on embattled pictures.  Almost every one of his film credits came as the result of the original director and the studio butting heads.  Smithee was always ready to offer a helping hand, seeing that these pictures got made after all by directing them himself.  He is also a master of the art of the remake.  Over the years, for one reason or another, a new version of a movie needed to be made.  Sometimes it was because the original couldn’t be shown on television in its original form.  Sometimes airlines needed a shorter version to show their passengers.  Whatever the case, Smithee would deftly remake the films with an uncanny ability to seamlessly recreate the style of the original director.  His remakes include genre flicks like Dune and The Guardian, as well as mainstream fare like Showgirls, Scent of a Woman, Heat, and The Insider.  He has worked in every conceivable facet of film, from effects and art direction to screenwriting and producing during his remarkable career.
Not much is known about Smithee’s life before his first film job.  In fact, his reclusiveness has been a running theme.  His private life is a complete mystery.  He burst into the public eye (how’s that for a mental image?) in 1969, directing a western called Death of a Gunfighter.  Don Siegel was the original director, but as would become his M.O., Smithee stepped in when problems arose between Siegel and the studio. 
Death of a Gunfighter won him acclaim from the critics.  The New York Times said the film was ““sharply directed by Allen Smithee who has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background detail.” No less an authority than Roger Ebert said, ““Director Allen Smithee… allows his story to unfold naturally. He never preaches, and he never lingers on the obvious.”  His career seemed to off to a great start.
That was not the case.  He did not direct another film until  a 1978 comedy called Barking Dog.  Then, after directing Gypsy Angels in 1979 (starring Vanna White as a stripper!), he worked in television throughout the early eighties.  He did have his first brush with the horror genre during this period.  Ironically, it was not as a director, but as a producer.  Michael Ritchie, original producer of the classic 1981 horror comedy Student Bodies, had to switch to the director’s chair after Mickey Rose left the project.  He called upon Smithee, who agreed to step in and assume the role of producer.
Alan would get his first taste of directing in the horror genre through tragic circumstances.  During the filming of 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, an on-set helicopter crash killed co-star Vic Morrow and two child actors.  The second unit director was traumatized to the point that he could no longer be involved with the film.  Smithee, once again, stepped in to take up the slack.
His talent was displayed even in that second unit footage.  One man who saw it and knew that an underrated artist was at work was none other than Moustapha Akkad.  Akkad obviously had an eye for talent.  The Halloween series, which he produced, was well in its way to becoming one of the most successful horror franchises of all time.  But in 1985, Akkad was still smarting from the hostile reception Halloween 3 had received.  He decided to make a horror feature outside of the franchise, and recognized that Smithee was the right man for the job.  The slasher flick Appointment with Fear, also known as Deadly Presence, was the first horror feature Alan directed.  Unfortunately, it did not recapture the magic Akkad had created with Halloween.  The film tanked at the box office, and was only a modest success on home video.  To this day, it has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-ray.  Honestly, I don’t think it’s THAT bad.
Smithee returned to TV, directing episodes of The New Twilight Zone and the pilot that launched MacGyver as one of the most successful series of the eighties.  He directed a couple of forgettable TV movies as well.  Possibly remembering his positive experience producing Student Bodies, Smithee chose a horror comedy as his next genre project.  He directed Ghost Fever, starring Sherman Hemsley of The Jeffersons fame, in 1987.  It was awful.  I love me some Smithee, but this flick was just plain bad.  All the greats have missteps though.  My Soul To Take.  Ghosts of Mars.  The Card Player.  Survival of the Dead.  You know what I’m talking about.  Anyway, Smithee would only participate in one other horror project in the 80’s as one of the screenwriters of The Horror Show (aka House 3).  In the later part of the decade, he would enter a science fiction phase, directing Solar Crisis (starring Charlton Heston and Peter Boyle) and the American version of Masato Harada’s live-action manga Gunheddo. He also went back to his comfort zone, TV, for a couple of episodes of Tiny Toon Adventures.
In 1991, he decided to give horror comedy one more try.  This time he directed a masterpiece called Bloodsucking Pharaohs in Pittsburgh, which might be my favorite horror comedy of all time.  Think Airplane meets Bloodfeast meets Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.  It’s great stuff.  I’ve always been baffled that this film isn’t more widely known than it is.  I could talk about it forever, but we need to move on.  You can read more about my thoughts on this flick at THIS LINK.  Nathan definitely says check it out.
TV movies, including The Birds 2: Land’s End (a sequel to the Hitchcock classic) followed throughout the early to mid 90’s.  He directed a supernatural thriller called Raging Angels in 1995 that has become a classic in the “so bad it’s good” category.  Check out this clip featuring a pre-Boondock Saints Sean Patrick Flannery.

1997 brought the most high profile project of Smithee’s career. Special effects bad ass Kevin Yagher decided to take a stab at directing, and his first project was Hellraiser: Bloodline.  When he and the studio couldn’t see eye to eye and he abandoned the film, there was only one man who could come in and deliver what would end up being the last good Hellraiser film.  That’s right, Alan Smithee took the reigns and took Pinhead to space.  While a lot of people hate this film with a passion that burns hotter than Courtney Love’s gonorrhea, I dig it.  After Bloodsucking Pharaohs, this is probably the second biggest jewel in Smithee’s crown.  He followed it up with two decent direct to video horror flicks; The Coroner and Le Zombi de Camp-Rouge.
In 1999, Smithee’s world came crashing down.  A parody movie about him entitled An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn was released.  This film, starring Eric Idle, proved to be so inflammatory that the Director’s Guild of America blackballed him, swearing that his name would never appear in the credits of a major motion picture again.  This proud artist was a laughing stock. He would not direct another feature throughout the first decade of the new millennium. 
In fact, he could no longer get work on a legitimate movie.  Walter Hill tried to get him to direct Supernova.  The DGA said no.  Tony Kayne tried to get him a job directing American History X.  Again the DGA said no.  Ti West tried with Cabin Fever 2.  Same story.  What was Alan to do? He made a documentary here and there, including Wadd: The Life & Times of John Holmes.  He found work in the music video field, directing clips for the likes of Whitney Houston, Faith No More, Sarah McLaughlin, Puff Daddy, The Strokes, and Destiny’s Child.  Eventually, he was reduced to making porn.  The series Alan Smithee’s Streetwalkers produced four volumes between 2004 and 2006.  Smithee unfairly languished in obscurity and ridicule for many years. 
Then, in 2011, he decided to make one more feature… and this is where the story becomes personal for me. That year, he embarked on an ambitious project known as Another Night of the Living Dead.  The zombie movie incorporated elements of the original undead classic, while new footage made it a whole new story.  The film also featured the on-screen debut of a certain horror blogger that you all know and love.  Yes, I played a ghoul in that film.  Words can’t express what an honor it was just to be on the set with such a legend.  He had amazing energy for someone making a movie 42 years after his first one, and admirable humility for someone who has seen and done as much as he has.  When I told him of my love for his earlier flicks, he just smiled sheepishly, turned back to the camera, and continued doing what he loves.  Working with him was a remarkable experience that I will treasure for a lifetime. 
Alan Smithee’s legendary career deserves far more recognition than it gets.  He’s given us a couple of great films, a few good ones, and more than a few that are pretty bad.  Throughout his oeuvre, however, his work has always been entertaining.  Alan Smithee has definitely earned the right to be listed among the greats.  This April, I implore you to check out the films of the forgotten master of horror.  Don’t be a fool.


Chris Hewson said...

Great post, and definitely miles better than my April Fool's Day post!

Maynard Morrissey said...

Absolutely fantastic post, Nathan. Pure brilliance!

Just a few weeks ago, I watched "his" crappy Birds-sequel, and I also remember lame stuff like Hellraiser IV or Nutt House. What a director! ;-D

Kweeny Todd said...

*dies laughing*

Master of Horror indeed! :D


All hail the Savior of our
Glutei Maximi, ED WOOD!

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