HIGHLIGHTS FROM HARRY NOVAK AND
Girl with the Hungry Eyes
movie that first put you on the map was Kiss Me Quick, and monsters
were really coming back into vogue at the time on TV. What gave you the
idea to combine that with the nudie genre?
The current releases were where he usually got our ideas. For instance, after Midnight Cowboy we did a picture called Midnight Plowboy. We made inferences to other major product. The monsters were a combination of all the different monster pictures, and we made fun of them. You've got the wolf man, Frankenstein, a guy from outer space, a vampire, and you turn it into a funhouse with T&A. There's nothing objectionable about it.
How did you decide on a strategy to release it?
Like a general release picture in the cinemas. I used to be a booker at RKO Pictures, and I'd book the Walt Disney product. Whoever would buy it, I'd sell it. I tried to pick certain theaters; for example, the Fox Theater in Philadelphia was sort of an art house, specializing in unusual French exploitation pictures, so I went to them. I used that strategy for booking the show throughout the country in the same kind of theaters who would be showing art films. Then the drive-ins started picking it up, along with other theaters.
Did you ever have censorhip problems?
Never. In fact, Maryland used to be a major censorship area, and I got certificates without any cuts there. You had to go through all kinds of hassles there, but I never had anything cut.
John Waters really increased their reputation after the problems he had with them.
Yeah, John Waters knows all my pictures by the way. It's amazing, some of the pictures he puts out. Pink Flamingos, for example, is a joke.
Which is exactly what it was designed to be.
I've got some jokes, too. Just look at the hillbilly series, twelve or thirteen of them. One would outgross the other, and it's like going to the carnival. You're going to have cornballs there. The only thing that was different was the faces, but they were all country.
Did a film like Country Cuzzins do better in the South, or were people in the North curious about them, too?
They're pretty much even in America. Movies like that or Pigkeeper's Daughter or Southern Comforts were just big theme parks with a variety of girls. Southern Comforts was an instant success down South, and of course the name was a play on the whiskey. Later they made a picture called Southern Comfort and went to set up a suit against me. I thought that was great and turned it over to my attorney, thinking now we'd make some money. When they found out there were wrong, they made a settlement because I was out way before their picture. In the days I was releasing these pictures, I would put full page ads in Box Office Magazine and Film Journal. They would have five districts, and if I bought a full page ad, that would go into five districts. So I used to run an ad in every issue. The company's name and the pictures were all over the map.
It's interesting you mentioned the Walter Hill film Southern Comfort, since that was similar to another film you released a couple of years before it called Rituals, a Canadian import with Hal Holbrook.
I've done so many movies, I honestly can't remember. This happens all the time; we never tried to rip anybody off, but we did make something similar to sort of play around with it. When Texas Chainsaw Massacre came out, we turned around with California Axe Massacre.
And Please Don't Eat My Mother was a spin on Little Shop of Horrors.
Yeah, that one was a big success, too. Of course, we were fortunate to get Buck Kartalian from Planet of the Apes in that, and we had some SAG players in that picture. A lot of the men and women knew me, and during their breaks while looking for work they'd come and work for us. They never had any problems.
How did you first meet Rene Bond?
My production guy probably brought her in. She had a boyfriend at the time, and she had him perform with her in that picture.
Yeah, that's who it was. She also played in our country pictures, and in the first one she had no boobs. Somewhere along the line she needed them to keep getting work, so my partner and I extended some money for her to get some boobs. She worked it off though and did several shows for us.
It seemed like she was in almost everything in the early '70s.
Yeah, I guess the boobs helped her because she was almost flat-chested!
In 1968 you also switched over to horror with Mantis in Lace.
That was a horror mystery, a thriller, with a little T&A in it, and it had psychedelic lighting which was quite the thing at the time. For the drive-ins and the conventional theaters, Mantis in Lace was the horror title, and Lila was the sex exploitation version. There was very little difference, maybe ten minutes at the most. It did exceptionally well for the period.
The DVD should be amazing with all the trims that never made it into the picture.
Oh, yeah. We were grinding away shows as quickly as we could because we needed them for releases. At the same time of Mantis in Lace, the cameraman, Vilmos Zsigmond, also shot Machismo up on the Columbia ranch.
So do you hang on to all of the cut material and promotional art for all of your films?
More or less, yes, but it's impossible to keep the outtakes on each and every picture because I would have to have a warehouse. At one period we threw a bunch of stuff off the second level into a dumpster just clean out a couple of rooms. I wish I hadn't done that to some of the stuff, but my studio's still full. Mike Vraney came in looking for outtakes, and I told him to go digging since I don't have the patience to sort it all out. He just asked me to point him in the direction, and I did, and he started finding stuff I didn't even know was there.
I can imagine how happy he was.
He was very, very happy, and there's still lots to be had for the other pictures. I've got room after room loaded with negative outtakes. I employed 38 people, and as I started downsizing, I took each office and started turning it into a vault. Now I don't throw anything away, but I still have lots of stuff inside and also outside in a shed. There are racks in the parking lot filled with cases of film because there's no more room on the inside. We're bulging with film!
Has Mike gone through everything there yet?
No, there's a long, long way to go. I had some people from New Zealand come in recently to see me and then head back home to Auckland. He said he could spend a week going through this stuff, and he wanted to pick up material to show several pictures back home. At the New Zealand Film Festival they played The Sinful Dwarf, for example. At the next film festival will be A Scream in the Streets, which is also called Girls in the Streets. The first title is for action lovers, and the second for girl lovers.
Which title will it be on DVD?
I don't know, whichever title Mike wants to use. I don't change titles just to get another booking for the picture; it depends on the area. Girls in the Streets wouldn't be a good title in Australia, for example, because it would cause too many censor problems, but A Scream in the Streets just plays better as an action picture. Even the L.A. Times were their own censors and didn't want something with "girl" in the title, but they would take an action picture called Scream in the Streets. I had an old Swedish picture that kicked me off in business, a pick up with subtitles, called Girls without Rooms, and I made my own one-sheet posters. I did well with in the art houses, but then the sex houses wanted to have it. There was just so much I could do because the negative was blown and the prints were wearing out, so that was it for the picture. I don't even have a print or a videocassette for it anymore. There was only one girl in the picture, really, who went around looking for a room, but the title is what sold the picture. The same thing for Mantis in Lace -- how many people really know what a mantis is? Lila is intriguing, so I incorporated the name to be Lila, Mantis in Lace, depending on what part of the country it went to. In Japan they like sexy stuff, so they just called it Lila to call it a blue movie.
What about The Girl with the Hungry Eyes?
Oh, that and Agony of Love were my titles. Agony of Love was the story of a couple I knew very well, the woman in particular. She was married to a very rich man, and she'd sit around all day without nothing much to do. She wanted to make money on her own. This happened on Sunset Boulevard, at a restaurant called Ben Frank's across from the Playboy Club, where I saw this blonde over on the other side of the room and told the guy I was eating with, "See her over there? She's got money in the bank. A lot of money. She doesn't know what to do with it." We started talking, and that's how Agony of Love got started. She would go out and hustle, not for the money, but for the fact that she could make money. If you see the end of the picture, then you know the whole story. It's really true. She's dead now, and so is her husband. Girl with the Hungry Eyes is just an everyday story about girls trying to pay their rent, so they'd hustle and do different things to make their way. We really did those back to back with most of the same people, but I don't remember how we came up with all of the titles. We'd try to give different connotations to the title depending on people who would come in.
The films still hold up really well, too. They're compelling to watch.
Well, let me tell you, at the time we shot the pictures, we couldn't afford star lenses and special cells to give different looks to the photography. I was smoking cigarettes at the time, so I'd take the cellophane off the cigarette pack, rub a little vaseline on it, and put it over the camera lens. That way you'd get that hazy effect. Those scenes were all home made because we couldn't afford dissolves, but occasionally we'd have a swish between scenes. Mostly we did our own dissolves within the camera. In the early years that's how you'd do special effects.
Around that time you also started to import more titles. What was your rationale for picking up sexy horror titles from overseas like Caged Virgins and The Mad Butcher?
Caged Virgins had sex in it; we originally called it Caged Vampires, for the horror lovers. The versions are identical, but the sex house wouldn't play Caged Vampires. It depended upon the theater in the area, at the time.
That movie changed titles so many times.
Yeah, it really depended on where it was going. Now with The Mad Butcher, I put up some of the money to finish that one. It was originally called The Strangler of Vienna or The Butcher of Vienna.
Where did the alternate title of Meat Is Meat come from?
That was just the shooting title. Every picture has a shooting title or a number. I couldn't remember numbers, so we'd give it a title on the spot. Please Don't Eat My Mother was called Glump, but I never released it that way because it doesn't mean anything. Meat Is Meat doesn't mean anything, either. I called it The Mad Butcher because the true story of the Butcher of Vienna involved a guy who killed people and ground them up. There was even a book that used the same name.
How did Victor Buono agree to appear in it?
A guy named Bob Oliver who made the film had been in Italy making pictures for many years. He enticed Victor into this film, and Victor found it rather amusing. He seemed excited to do it, and he was reasonable, so we made the picture. I changed the name to The Mad Butcher to sell it to the newspapers, because Vienna wouldn't mean much to them. All of my pictures played the drive-ins, including that one, but the biggest by far were the hillbilly ones.
So would you say Tobacco Roody and those other films were your bread and butter?
Oh yeah, they were all bread and butter pictures. I could always count on a good gross for them. The theater owners always knew what kind of money they would make.
Some of the later hillbilly films like Sassy Sue and The Pigkeeper's Daughter weren't quite hardcore, but they got a whole lot closer. Did you prepare any different versions of those?
Oh no, there was only one version for all of them. In Germany The Pigkeeper's Daughter was a big hit, partially because the translation of the title into German was very funny. It's hard to convey it if you don't speak German, but the basic meaning was My Daughter Is a Pig.
It's nice to see those films finding a whole new audience with videotape and DVD.
Well, they're ageless. Most of those films still hold up well, such as the costume pictures like The Sex Lives of Romeo and Juliet and The Notorious Cleopatra, which are all based on well-known literature and history. As for the hillbilly films, they haven't dated either. Just look at Bill Clinton and Al Gore -- they're still country people. Bill and Hillary are from Arkansas, and nothing has changed with the Arkies. The Okies, the hillbillies, they're all the same now, and those films haven't changed, either. They're strictly cornball. The press materials are the same, too.
The Clinton scandal could have been a gag from one of your movies in particular. And Bush is pretty country, too.
Sure, he's Texas
country, but I don't know which picture of mine he'd resemble!