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Posted by Kelly Hughes
Richard "RB" Botto Richard "RB" Botto

Today's guest blog comes from Stage 32 member Kelly Hughes, an author, director and screenwriter from Seattle, Washington. Kelly first gained notoriety back in the early 90s for his Grunge-era series Heart Attack Theatre, a weekly horror/suspense anthology he wrote, directed, and edited for Seattle public access TV. Since then, he has filmed two features as well as a documentary of this early work titled Heart Attack! (2012), which has been playing the film festival circuit, including screenings at the Thin Line Film Fest in Texas, the London Analogue Festival, the Tri-Cities International Fantastic Film Fest, Cine-Rebis in Portugal, the London Underground Film Festival. The film will also be featured at upcoming screenings at Crypticon Seattle and the California Institute of Abnormal Arts.

In this entry, Kelly brings us an interesting view on the evolution of low-budget horror films and how they compete with the Hollywood Blockbusters. He explains the process of how he put together his feature La Cage Aux Zombies, and why he believes low budget filmmakers should band together and bring back some true grit to their films.

I look forward to the (healthy) debate generated by this topic and I thank Kelly for his contribution to the Stage 32 Blog.

Cheers!

RB

Exploitation filmmakers used to have two advantages over Hollywood studios: sex and violence.

Whether it was a Russ Meyer nudie, or a Herschell Gordon Lewis gorefest, low-budget directors working outside of Hollywood could always count on getting more bang for their buck if their starlets were buck naked and if their villains wielded a butcher knife.

Hollywood distanced itself from this so-called sleaze - these films that mostly played the drive-in movie circuit or at those seedy Times Square theaters with sticky floors and late morning matinees. The lurid little indies, while harassed by censors and moral crusaders, were free from Hollywood assimilation. At first, anyway.

Going back to the early ‘60s, you had a mainstream release like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. But it only teased at nudity. Never really showed the knife cutting into Janet Leigh’s flesh. It’s a scary classic. But nothing like the tawdry thrills of Blood Feast just a few years later. Or Night of the Living Dead a few years after that.

“We made zombies eaters of human flesh,” says John Russo, co-writer of George Romero’s horror classic. “Which was originally my idea.”

Forty-seven years later, the eaters of human flesh are more popular—and profitable—than ever. Zombie epic World War Z has grossed over half a billion dollars worldwide. The Walking Dead season 5 premiere was the most watched cable TV drama of all time. And the gory special effects have gotten really good.

But this is subject matter that, back in the ‘80s, would have been lucky to have received a direct-to-VHS home video release (although the artwork on the box would’ve been totally bitchin’). And along with cheap slasher movies, and shot-out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere Mad Max rip-offs, ultra low-budget filmmakers owned a practical niche. They could crank out tasteless, yet entertaining features using non-name actors, and kitchen pantry special effects. And with a great title, a titillating tagline, and a gross out cover, these movies could compete with Hollywood releases at your local mom and pop video stores. But now Hollywood has co-opted the Exploitation genre, leaving low-budget filmmakers without a competitive edge.

You could say it officially began with Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. With that implicit decree: “Trashy, brilliant b-movies will be even more brilliant when I recycle them as brilliant, self aware art films.”* The generation of film school grads followed. You could also point to the huge success of The Exorcist in the early ‘70s and all the delicious devil and disaster movies from that decade. Not to mention those “documentaries” about searching for Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Noah’s ark.

I think the turning point was Nip/Tuck: a glossy cable TV show that slipped in graphic surgery scenes that looked so real you thought they were medical school training videos. Then followed shows like American Horror Story and True Blood, which truly combines lots of blood with lots of sexy flesh. And made werewolf nudity so primetime.

So what’s left for the little guy? Can we still use sex and gore as a competitive edge? Can we still grab an audience that gets to see some of Hollywood’s most beautiful people routinely perform softcore sex scenes? Or realistic body mutilation on any number of “crime scene” detective TV shows?

SIMPLER TIMES

In 1993, I wrote and directed the world’s first zombie drag queen movie. This was the year before Priscilla: Queen of the Desert came out. Just before Too Wong Foo, and The Birdcage. So when it came to both zombies and drag queens, there was a lull in the marketplace. The title and tagline came to me immediately:

La Cage Aux Zombies: A Towering Inferno of Blood, Guts & Glamour!

I’d like to claim this was a no-budget feature. But I did pay one of the actors. My first celebrity cameo, Kitten Natividad. Kitten starred in the Russ Meyer classics Up! and Beneath The Valley of the Ultra Vixens. She was a nod to the masters of sleaze and sensationalism that came before me. And she had two enormous, exploitable assets, if you know what I mean. The magic of working in this genre is that the scenes practically write themselves.

Kelly Hughes with Kitten Natividad in Las Vegas


Although my recent Director’s Cut for the London Underground Film Festival seems to have gained it a new appreciation, and a used copy once sold for over $100 on Amazon, La Cage Aux Zombies was initially trashed by the critics. But here’s the weird thing: I still got it into video stores. First in my hometown of Seattle at Scarecrow Video (where to this day you can still rent it on VHS) and then a sale to the Tower Video chain. They bought a copy for each of their stores. And before that, at the Video Software Dealers Association convention in Los Angeles, where a distributor agreed to carry my movie without even watching it - I just popped into their booth, showed them the video box art, and they were sold.

Why? Because I had the magic formula for Exploitation movie success:

  1. Lurid title
  2. Even more lurid tagline
  3. Vivid artwork
  4. Cult celebrity cameo
  5. Kinky violence
  6. Heavy-chested actress

Back then, it really wasn’t more complicated than that.

The cover for La Cage Aux Zombies

But what’s left for today’s Exploitation filmmakers? Nothing shocks us anymore. Jerry Springer and all the reality TV that followed took all the fun out of trailer trash. RuPaul brought drag queens into our grandparents’ living rooms. And zombies? They’re now a multi-million dollar big screen spectacle. They’re on lunch boxes; they’re the cute plush toy you tuck in with your baby. I hate to say it, but zombies have kind of lost their edge.

Don’t get me wrong. I think The Walking Dead is brilliant. And I’m glad that as a viewer, I have so many options to watch quality horror. But as a filmmaker, I feel shut out. Even in the low-budget indie world, sleaze is now looked down upon. And the special effects bar is raised so high, our dime-store zombies don’t even register on the radar. So maybe it’s not that we’re looked down on - we’re simply irrelevant. People can get all their kinky, visceral thrills from Hollywood now in the multiplex or in their home on cable on their 48” flat screen. And compared to all the Saws and Hostels of the past decade, my work seems more Disney Channel than grindhouse. What’s a zero-budget sleazemeister to do?

Can we take back the sleaze from Hollywood? Will Hollywood grant us a few crumbs? Throw us a few grisly bones with little bits of dangling meat? Or will they continue to take everything that is nasty and decadent, throw a bunch of money and A-listers at it, and leave us with nothing to exploit?

I’m tempted to ask God to grant me the serenity to accept the Hollywood I cannot change. But instead, I will meditate on a few more words from my Patron Saint of Zombieness, John Russo:

“I think that when we made zombies into eaters of human flesh, we tapped into an atavistic fear in the human psyche—the fear of being devoured. And anytime that someone comes up with a new, exciting slant on this phenomenon, and executes it well—whether it’s in books, comic books, or movies—that person will have a good chance of launching a career, getting famous, and/or making a lot of money.”

So where does this leave indie exploitation filmmakers? We’re a pretty inventive bunch, and I think most of us enjoy the challenge of coming up with new lurid ideas for our low budget movies. But at this stage, no subject matter is taboo in Hollywood. We’ve seen just about everything except romantic comedy snuff films (RomSnuff?) and necrophilia sitcoms (I dare you to try that, Tyler Perry!). And with every new big budget movie release, and every new TV season, Hollywood shocks us with new levels of depravity.

So I think a backlash is in order. We need to discard Hollywood’s glossy veneer and bring back some true grit to our films. To exploit our rough edges. To disarm our audiences with a what the hell am I watching, and what kind of people make this trash uneasiness.

We need to scare and/or titillate without self-awareness. Without endless references to better, seedier films. Without the crutch of “Look at me. I’m so hip.”

So I’m going to stick with my Panasonic DVX100b for now. Keep my productions mean, lean, and lo-def. Not everyone will like it. Not all outlets will show it. But for my core audience, I’m going to create something they can’t see anywhere else. Especially not in Hollywood.

*Btw, I actually do enjoy the films of Tarantino. Except for Reservoir Dogs, which I’m still too afraid to watch because of that ear scene!


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As always, Kelly is available to answer any comments or remarks on any of the content above in the Comments section below...

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