Brand of Shame
|by Nathaniel Thompson
MONDO DIGITAL: You came from a strong carnival/sideshow background that influenced your filmmaking. How much do you feel the two have in common?
DAVID FRIEDMAN: The whole milieu of exploitation, the old roadshow men like Dwain Esper and Lewis Sonney, had a background in the carny, or at times they’d be doing films and working carny at the same time. Go out somewhere with the carny and then in the winter go out with pictures; it went hand in glove. The whole idea of the roadshow was that you not only showed them a picture but sold them something else, like a book or a postcard, or you had a lobby display. When I was a kid, this guy came through town with a “Crime Does Not Pay” show, and he had all of these guns in the lobby. A friend of mine named Mike Ripps made a picture years ago called Bayou, and he turned it over to United Artists. Mike was from Alabama like me. For a few years they didn’t do anything with it, since there wasn’t anything to the picture, really. It was supposed to be about people living down in Louisiana. Mike took the picture back and came up with a great title: Poor White Trash. Then he went out on the road, doing roadshows for this thing. He made a trailer of himself in the background, saying, “I was the producer of this picture. Due to the abnormal subject matter, only viewers over the age of 18 will be admitted. Armed guards will be at the box office to make certain that everyone is 18, and you must sign an affidavit stating you are over 18.” So he’s out roadshowing this thing with a couple of guys dressed up like cops, and they got a printed affidavit for everybody to sign. You could play the actual picture at a Sunday School picnic, really. Mike made a great remark, though: “If you want to make a picture, they can see that on TV. You gotta give ‘em a show. With me, they had the show before they ever got into the theater.” That was basically what exploitation was all about, a happy combination of the carny and film business. With roadshows you could be in a few dozen places at the same time, and you didn’t mind if it rained or not. If it rained on a carny, you were dead for the night. With a theater, though, it doesn’t bother you too much. Loving both film and carny, it was a natural for me.
It’s interesting you mentioned Dwain Esper and those guys. A lot of them had legal problems, mostly their own fault, with their cutthroat distribution.
Oh, yeah, stealing prints and jumping their territory. In my book I talked about when Dwain bought the rights to Freaks from Mrs. Browning and had it out as Forbidden Love. The only forbidden love is between the midget and the full grown woman! People were coming into a drive-in down in Charlotte, looking at a classic film, and they didn’t know what they were looking at. They started tearing the damn theater apart, and Dwain runs into the projection booth with a reel of nudist camp stuff and says, “Quick, lace this up!” So the audience said, “Oh, wow, look at that!” All of a sudden you’ve got nudists running around for 15 minutes and everybody walks out of the joint well satisfied. Those were the things that fascinated me, though I actually had a job with Paramount, climbing the corporate ladder, until I decided to get a little more excitement. That’s when I hooked up with Kroger Babb and the boys at Modern Film in Chicago. As a matter of fact, I walked away from a pretty fair job; they’d offered to let me come to New York and head the publicity department of the company when I decided to go out roadshowing with Mom and Dad, Because of Eve. That took guts! The old roadshow guys had a spirit of adventure, the guts of a burglar. These pictures could take any subject that the major companies couldn’t touch at the time because of the Hayes Code. As long as the subject was in bad taste, you could go out and exploit it. You had dope pictures, pictures about childbirth, miscegenation. Anything went. Herschell Lewis and I had been making nudie cuties and nudist camp pictures, and we invented another genre that came to be known as the “roughie” with a picture called Scum of the Earth. It was deliberately shot in black and white as contrast to the la-de-da nudie cuties, to make it look like a little stag film. It brought in a little violence, too. Violence even more than sex became the principal ingredient of the roughie. You get a little tired of the beautiful young starlets in various stages of dress and undress, prancing around in nudie cuties, and a nudist camp is about as erotic as going through the cold storage room at Swift & Co. So we were tossing around ideas one day and out of it came that four letter word: gore. That’s where Blood Feast came about. Herschell and I were on our way down to Miami to make a nudist camp picture called Bell, Bare and Beautiful, with a stripper named Virginia Belle. We were working as paid mercenaries. On the way down, we started putting a script down on paper, and out of it came Blood Feast. When we had finished Bell for a bunch of burlesque people, we kept half a dozen of those folks to put into the cast of Blood Feast. That terrible, terrible little movie which we shot in four and a half days for $24,500 in 35mm color, established a whole new genre of film. It was years ahead of Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween - the first real slasher/gore film. It stood alone for a good ten years before some really tried something like it again.
Had you seen any other truly bloody movies before this one? The Europeans had experimented with it a little bit.
Before Blood Feast I never saw blood in color. I think this was probably the first picture where people even died with their eyes open. I was a movie freak; I’d been going to movies forever and ever, and I’ve always loved action pictures. If somebody got shot, you didn’t see gushing blood. The guy clutched his chest and closed his eyes and fell down. Nobody ever made anything like John Woo, where he slaughters five thousand people in one reel! It’s funny, he uses a gun for most of ‘em. I grant you, a submachine gun can put a lot of lead in somebody, but he didn’t use anything really horrible like an icepick or a machete. A lot of the idea for Blood Feast came from comic books.
Like the E.C. Comics.
Yeah; there was that psychiatrist, Wortham, who wrote the book Seduction of the Innocent. He ranted and raved about comics leading children into spasms of violence. He had close ups of eye injury, things like that. Outside of that Bunuel film [Un Chien Andalou] with the razor and the eyeball, you never saw anything that extreme, even in the few Oriental films that came in. Once in a while you would see some jungle footage of animals tearing one another apart, but I don’t recall any human mutilation prior to Blood Feast. So, for better or for worse, this is what it did. There was a great review in Variety: “The fact that it takes itself seriously makes it all the more deplorable.” I wrote back the reviewer, “Whoever said we were taking it seriously?” We were laughing all the time, and the biggest chore was hard trying to keep those girls from giggling while they were being “mutilated.” So gore, blood, slasher -- that became an exploitation field. We had a lot of imitators, like The Undertaker and His Pals, that came along a few years later, but as far as major distribution, it wasn’t until Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th that you saw that on a mainstream scale.
The Europeans had a kind of give and take with that, too.
Not to sound grandiose here, I think Blood Feast may have inspired some of the Italians. Mario Bava, for example, and Jesus Franco. Those fellows didn’t do anything that extreme prior to Blood Feast.
It’s interesting that Bava did one major horror movie before that, Black Sunday, but it was so heavily censored in the U.S. You guys got yours out totally uncut, with blood flying everywhere, while that film was two years earlier, with about ten seconds of gore cut out.
Yeah, it took a while for America to really get on the bandwagon. All the violence today has become gunfire, though some of the effects are absolutely astounding, starting with American Werewolf in London and things like that. Herschell has always said we should make Blood Feast 2, but there’s no way in the world we could compete. We’re still thinking in terms like, boy, if we had $100,000, what kind of picture could we make? You tell that to anybody in Hollywood and they’ll kick you out of the door. What are you gonna do, make a trailer?
You could maybe feed the cast and crew for a day.
Yeah! Now, most of Blood Feast was just pure showmanship. Vomit bags and all that. I would go into towns and swear out an injunction to get the picture from being played in the town. In Sarasota, Florida, the injunction stuck, and I couldn’t get it lifted! Then you have the manager of the theater make sure that any children who came unaccompanied by an adult had a letter from their parents. In Tampa, we opened the picture at a downtown theater, and about six hundred kids showed up, all of them with a letter. Of course, over 90% of them, they’d written the letters themselves! Those were the fun things. I kind of feel sorry for a lot of guys in the exploitation film business today, making these pictures that go straight to home video and maybe cable. Guys like Fred Olen Ray, Jim Wynorski -- the Friedman and Lewises of the ‘90s. They’ll never have the thrill of standing in front of a theater, watching people come in and walk out in various stage of disgust or shock. That was the joy of the business, not necessarily making the things but getting them distributed and standing to watch ‘em as they came out.
The last movie I can think of that really follows that tradition is Basket Case.
Frank Henenlotter, yeah. That whole idea goes back to show business where there was a black woman, Mary Lou William, who actually had the torso of her twin growing out of her chest. That was not a medical impossibility, with the twin being attached. Of course Mary Lou kept the body of the twin as her livelihood, but that premise wasn’t too farfetched for us carnival guys. Good picture, by the way.
I’ll never forget them handing out those surgical masks at the theater doors.
They had some great looking freaks in the third Basket Case, where they kept them all in this house. Of course, nothing ever topped the first one -- nothing ever does, really. I know Frank really well; talk about a walking encyclopedia of exploitation, that’s Frank.
Now you followed up Blood Feast with Two Thousand Maniacs.
That was really Herschell’s. I had been in New York and seen Brigadoon, so when I came back I was telling Herschell this story of a little Scottish town that came to life every hundred years. Herschell was always fascinated with everything Southern, although he was Chicago born and educated -- supremely educated, I might add. He had taught English at Southern Mississippi, and I think we got along so well because he thought I was another Souther redneck... which I am! Out of that he came up with a Southern town that was massacred by the Yankees, so it comes to life every hundred years and gets revenge. I went down to Florida to search for locations and came up this little town, St. Cloud, which is where Disneyworld is today. They bought land down there for a hundred dollars an acre while we were making the picture. There was an old hotel in the front of the town, and we spent about eight days there, shooting that film. That one was a lot of fun. It had a pretty fair story and a hell of a soundtrack!
“The South’s gonna rise again!” Somebody even put out an album of that. I was out in L.A. and met a young man I’d been talking to for a long, long time. He was interesting in making a picture about Russ Meyer’s life story or my life story, so I went over for a little meeting with these fellas. They said, “We’d like to remake Two Thousand Maniacs.” I said, “Well, I think I can see what you’ve got in mind: 1901 to 2001.” They kind of laughed and said yeah. But then they’ve gotta figure out what happened in 1901 other than McKinley getting shot! That was a Polish anarchist, so you couldn’t really blame the Southerners for that. So I said I’d look through my history books and find out some terrible thing that happened in 1901 that somebody might want to avenge years later.
You could always make something up, some Yankee mass murderer.
Sure! The amazing thing to me is that, as junky as these pictures were, they’ve continued to live all these years, even before there was such a thing as video. These pictures played every drive-in theater in the South, as regularly as a picture called Thunder Road. That film was a necessity for every drive-in theater in the South, to be played at least once a year. There came a point that Blood Feast and Two Thousand Manaics became the same thing and had to be shown. They were like perennials, the flowers. Then when video came out, there weren’t too many distributors. I didn’t think there would even be a market for it.
But there was!
Oh, yeah. About half a dozen companies have put it out as the rights would change from one place to another. Just the theatrical releasing of the damn things always amazed me, even up into the ‘80s these were still playing.
So what will the Something Weird editions be like?
They’re absolutely perfect, from the original negatives. I don’t have a DVD machine, but now I’ll have to get one!
What other titles can we expect?
There’s the whole “Blood Trilogy,” obviously, that Herschell and I made together. Color Me Blood Red is the third fim in the trilogy, about a mad artist who finds out blood is just the hidden pigment he was looking for. All three films were shot in Florida. At that time, Herschell and I both lived in Chicago, and I owned and operated a fairly successful independent film distributing organization there. Herschell came in one day and said he was going to make a picture, and I said, well, take a number. Then he said, “You don’t understand, I’ve got all the financing.” I said, “Well, sit down, please!” And he made a picture called The Prime Time - Karen Black’s first movie, which she was in for all of about fifteen seconds, when she was a student at Northwestern - and followed it with Living Venus, which starred a young Harvey Korman. After those two, Herschell and I started making nudie cuties. I’d known Russ Meyer and seen his first picture [The Immoral Mr. Teas]. We were very successful, and every exhibitor with an adult theater at the time wanted to make his own picture. They would hire Herschell and me to make them; we must have done thirty of them. Then we thought abotu what we could do that nobody else had ever done, something in extremely bad taste. I’d do anything to get out of Chicago in the winter, so we made one of the early nudist camp pictures, Daughter of the Sun, down in Florida. It was Herschell’s first trip there, and he fell in love with it. From then on, all we would do every winter was plan to make four or five pictures in and around Miami, which we did. We shot Blood Feast in Miami, Two Thousand Maniacs in St. Cloud, and Color Me Blood Red in Sarasota, where I’d spend most of my winters anyway. Those pictures were our great excuse to get out of Chicago and spend several weeks in Florida making pictures - a nice bonus.
In the “Blood Trilogy” it’s interesting how the actual amount of blood seems to get smaller as the movies go on. Color Me Blood Red is much more story-driven, with only one really graphic scene.
Yeah, where the guts are hanging out. I can’t answer that one; I think it just happened that way. In Two Thousand Manaics, the executions were not quite as graphic as the ones in Blood Feast. The scene on the beach where Fuad rips the girl’s head open and scoops out her brains, or where he’s flogging the girl to death, and so on. In Two Thousand Maniacs, the barrel roll and the rock didn’t lend themselves to the amount of blood we had used before. It wasn’t anything planned, just happenstance. We had found this cosmetic company in Miami that had developed this stage blood with the viscosity of human blood, and it also photographed like a million dollars. It also could be swallowed without causing too much bodily harm.
Well, we never told the actors, but the chemist who sold it to us kind of laughed when I asked whether we could put it in people’s mouths. He said, “Yeah, but I gotta tell ya, one of the ingredients is Kaopectate.” A great scene in Blood Feast is the one where I’m drunk and taking the girl up the stairs in the motel. When I go back to get more whiskey, Fuad comes in and forces her down on the bed, then rips her tongue out. This girl had a large mouth, which was how we happened to cast her. Her name was Astrid Olsen; I found her at a Playboy Club one night. We filled her mouth with strawberry gelatin as blood, so she’s looking up at the camera and all that’s in this gaping cave of a mouth is this gurgling cauldron of strawberry jam and fake blood. Later on, one of the only pictures I didn’t put my name on was Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS, made for a bunch of Canadians. It was a very sad experience; these Canadian guys couldn’t have gotten a phone installed in Los Angeles. I had just finished a picture at the old Selznick lot, The Erotic Adventures of Zorro, and so I was well known on that lot. The old Hogan’s Heroes set was on the blacklot there, and I knew that they had sold that property for condominiums. I asked the studio manager if I could burn that thing down, and he said sure, do anything you want. So I made this picture for these Canadians, and it was a mess. I hired this young make-up guy named Joe Blasco, and he got into it. He came up with some of the greatest effects I’ve ever seen. Later on he became head of make-up at ABC and runs a series of schools on make-up. He came up with all of those effects, and they worked like gangbusters. Of course, that was a relatively bigger budget picture, $110,000. It was at the same studio where Gone with the Wind was made!
Ilsa’s another movie that refuses to die.
They really played a money game on that one; the money was coming to Panama, Luxembourg, Nova Scotia, then to Los Angeles. I never had any money. Every day I’d need money, and it wasn’t at the bank. They’d call and say it should be there. One day I needed $50,000 to pay off everybody, and they said, “Could you lend us $50,000 for a couple of days?” I said, “I’m working for you; what is this?” They wouldn’t have been able to step foot across the border of the United States if they’d gone through with that. So the money finally showed up. I made the rough cut in L.A. and sent it up to Montreal. They sent it back with notes like “Reel 1, 12 ft, 6 frames, take out 1 frame.” I said, “What are you talking about? This is a rough assembly, not the finished cut. Why don’t you finish it up there, take my name off of it, and send me my check?” Don Edmonds, whom I’d hired to direct the thing, went on to do a couple more for him, which weren’t that bloody. I had known Dyanne Thorne from burlesque; she really loved that part.
You could tell! There’s a lesser known movie of yours that’s really excellent, A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine. How do you feel now about that one?
I love that picture. I had found Barbara Jean - Stacey Walker’s the name I gave her - when we were getting ready to make The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill. We’d gone out to Santa Monica one day to have lunch, walking along the beach, and this girl comes up to ask if we’d give her a dollar for a hot dog. We got to talking with her, and she was a runaway from Texas. Thre more I looked at her, she had a real Texas twang in her voice, but she was gorgeous. I said, “How would you like to be in a movie?” She said, [heavy twang] “Aw, you kiddin’!” “I’m not kidding, what are you talking about? Play Fanny Hill. She’s supposed to be an English courtesan.” Who the hell’s going to be listening to her? They’re gonna be looking at her. So we put her in this picture, and Laszlo Kovacs shot it. In fact, he shot Smell of Honey, too. While we were shooting this, I thought I’d better get something going for this kid right away before my competitors grabbed ahold of her. So I wrote Smell of Honey; the original title was The Maneater, but I knew no newspaper would take that. By that time these long, tricky titles were in vogue; Radley Metzger was using Soft Skin on Black Silk, that kind of thing. It became A Smell of Honey, a Swallow of Brine -- she leads them on and yells rape. The interesting thing in that picture is the scene where the guy is having the dream sequence, where he’s tied up and she’s whipping him, then she’s tied up and he’s whipping her. That kid was named Sam Melville, just a young actor looking for work in L.A. About six months later he got into a series called The Rookies, about three young cops, and that thing ran for a long time. I showed my friend A.C. Lyles a rough cut of the film, and he said, “Bring this girl over to me at Paramount. I wanna talk to her.” The day I was supposed to pick her up, she’d cut out and gone back to Texas. She was a nutcase, but boy, she was beautiful.
That’s too bad; she was great in that movie.
She was very good in Fanny Hill, too. The only other thing she made was a short I did at a nudist camp out in San Bernadino, called “But Charlie, I Never Played Volleyball.” We shot the whole thing in one afternoon. You can get it through Something Weird.
I’ve never seen that one!
I liked that little picture; it cost about $11,000 to make. It was fun to make, with all practical locations.
We probably won’t see that one on DVD soon, but at least it’s on tape.
Some of the DVDs will be great. We’re doing Erotic Adventures of Zorro, and we’re doing Space Thing. There’s “the picture that makes Plan 9 from Outer Space look like Citizen Kane.”
Yeah, but yours is in color...
Then there’s The Adult Story of Jekyll & Hide, and the two Betty Page pictures.
How did [Russ Meyer regular] Stuart Lancaster wind up doing Long Swift Sword of Siegfried and all those other films with you?
He did Lustful Turk and Starlet, too. I got him through Russ. He’s a grandson of the Ringlings and at one point was Vice-President of Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey, so I’d known him in Sarasota. He was of the elite there, and he took his first inheritance and invested it in a little theater there. When Johnny North got control of the circus, he ousted the rest of the family, who were called the 49ers because they had 49% while Johnny had 51. They had to stand aside while he ran the show. Stuart’s theater went belly up, so he came out to Hollywood and found work with Russ. When he got his second inheritance, Russ advised him on that, and I think he saved some money. The last time I was in L.A., I asked Russ to go see Stuart, but he’s in the hospital. I had shot Siegfried in Germany and dubbed it at Paramount, so Stuart became one of the voices there. He was great in Starlet, a good little picture. The story of Entertainment Ventures, Inc. We shot that at the old Monogram Studios before it became a radio station. The same thing with Trader Hornee.
That’s one of the most visually beautiful movies you’ve done -- great eye candy.
All those exteriors were shot at the Franklin Canyon Reservoir about five minutes north of the Beverly Hills Hotel! All the black people were from South Central. For that scene with the big entrance with the elephant, the cameraman called me over and said, “Look up there. There’s some guy way up there looking down at his with binoculars from a five million dollar house.” Here are all these black people and an elephant, and this one guy was so funny -- standing there in his outrageous costume, he said, “I think I’m gonna walk up there and knock on his door and say, ‘Hey, man, we’re your new neighbors!’”