Showing posts with label david schmoeller. Show all posts
Showing posts with label david schmoeller. Show all posts

Dec 3, 2013

AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SCHMOELLER – PART 2: TOURIST TRAP

Tourist Trap (its Unsung Horrors entry here) is the most insane movie you likely haven't seen. I'd attempt to explain exactly what it's about, but I would become lost in the subplots and sub-sub-plots and I'd question if I were actually remembering everything significant to mention, and then I would likely wander away to satisfy my impulse to watch the film again. Simply, it is a 1979 oddity about a group of stranded kids, living mannequins, a man with telekinesis, and a lot of nightmarish imagery. It is terrifying and absurd and hilarious and disturbing somehow all at once. It is a mind-blowing film that offers dozens of questions with little answers. If there's one person who could shed light on this unheralded little beauty, it would be the film's director, David Schmoeller, returning again to The End of Summer for a frank discussion on the film's origins, a little about Puppetmaster, working with Charles Band, and the 1970s.


The End of Summer (TEOS): I think the best way to start off is for you to provide the genesis of Tourist Trap. This is a film that I saw for the first time several years ago and just did not know what to think. It was horrific and strange and alternately kind of hilarious. I've revisited it several times since then, and not only does it hold up, but it gets better – and I find more to appreciate about it – with each viewing. This isolated man's nightmarish house seems to exist in its own world and with its own rules, and nearly all of it defies explanation. How on earth did you come up with this concept?

David Schmoeller (DS): There is a “why” and a “how” aspect to this question. The “why” – why did I come up with this idea? The answer is a very practical one. I had just graduated from film school and was looking for a way to break into Hollywood as a feature director. When I was in grad school at the University of Texas at Austin shooting my thesis film, Tobe Hooper was in Austin shooting The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It was a low-budget hit that launched his career. So, I decided to do a horror film in the same vein.

The “how?” My thesis film – The Spider Will Kill You – was a "Twilight Zone" short about a blind man and mannequins. I thought the aspect of mannequins coming alive – and their ability to scare you (or creep you out, at least) – was a good ingredient. So, I used some of the basic structure of Chainsaw (van full of young victims) and the lone madman who appears to be okay (Psycho).


TEOS: Tourist Trap exists in a very surreal and nightmarish landscape – if I had to compare it to another film, I would cite Phantasm, due to its dreamy tone and its lack of explanation in regards to the film's more oddball offerings. It's this kind of dreamy tone that makes Tourist Trap stand out from its other late-1970s counterparts. At what point in the production phase did you realize you wanted to push this kind of surreal and unusual approach?

DS: I think that dreamy quality was in the script, and also in previous short films I had made. (The Spider Will Kill You* and Lora Lee's Bedroom* – those are just two of my shorts that had the same quality.) And the tone of those short films probably came in part from my literature studies from my days living and studying in Mexico – the influence of magic realism. And of course, the main influence of The Spider Will Kill You was this bizarre line of mannequins I found in J.C. Penney’s that was so perversely surreal, it makes me laugh to this day (this was the late 1960s). The infant mannequins had some facial features – eyes, nose, mouth, ears – but parts were starting to disappear. As you went up the age-representation of the mannequins – say, the three-year-olds – they started losing whole features – maybe just a single eye. It was just smoothed over. As the mannequins aged, they lost more and more features – until you got to the adults, and all their features were just gone…all smoothed over…so that they almost looked alien. They were so highly stylized; they just didn’t seem to belong in a place like J.C. Penney’s – very surreal and very bizarre. That was when I came up with the story for The Spider Will Kill You.


TEOS: There is a wonderful juxtaposition of legitimate terror and strange, almost absurd humor. I'll cite the "dinner scene" – when Slausen and his "brother" share a meal of soup, which ends with the brother's head falling off – as an example. Noticeably, the film doesn't inject any humor until the kids are already in peril. Because of this, the humor seems to come out of nowhere and feels unexpected. Was this a conscious choice?


DS: Well, I certainly hope the humor was intentional. Although, at the first cast and crew screening in L.A., there was some unexpected laughter in places that surprised me – I remember asking the person next to me, “Why are they laughing?” It could have been nervous laughter – or they could have been laughing at the absurdity of it all. Or, maybe they just thought something or other was just so awful that it was laughable. L.A. cast and crew screenings are full of people who are very cynical – not at all like the cast and crew screenings in Las Vegas, which are nice love-fest screenings. In L.A., they have seen and worked on everything and they tend to judge film work much more harshly. It’s like: “Show me what you got, sucker. I am not very easily impressed.” By the way, that is not the brother in that surreal dinner scene – because he is dead. It is a figment of Slausen’s imagination – it is not real; it doesn’t really happen; it is a dream…it is Eileen, in fact, as far as Slausen is concerned.

TEOS: In a movie like Tourist Trap, especially after a point, I feel like anything could happen, and I stop questioning what I'm seeing and I just kind of hold on for the ride.  I guess that's the beauty of Tourist Trap. About that dinner scene, I need to know: How did you manage to concoct such a strange exchange between these characters? Were you channeling "Abbot and Costello" as you wrote that scene?

DS: This particular exchange just came out almost in whole – as is. Writing generally is very easy for me, but in this case, I think it can be explained this way: the scene is completely organic. Slausen is having a meal with Eileen, who is just a mannequin with Eileen’s face-mask, scarf, and clothes. Slausen has a conversation with her and she responds in Davey’s voice, which is just Slausen slipping deeper and deeper into the abyss of his madness. And at the very end, the lines get crossed (Eileen/Davey gets ahead of the question) and then her head snaps off. It was one of those scenes that came to me in its entirety, and I just had to type it out…the best kind of scene.


TEOS: The character of Slausen possesses incredible superpowers. He has the ability to move objects with his mind, and because of this can seemingly bring mannequins and dolls to life. Yet, there is absolutely no explanation for this. Why did you choose to leave his abilities vague and unexplained?


DS: The power of telekinesis was suggested by Charlie [Band, producer]. It was his only contribution to the script, which was complete when we submitted it to him. At first, I really didn’t like the idea, because the story was entirely psychological. Giving Slausen the power of telekinesis actually explained a lot of the occurrences – not directly, but just vaguely. The audience may assume that the mannequins move because Slausen is making them move with his T-powers. I thought I was already explaining too much, so I certainly didn’t want to explain how or why he had this power. The historical figures in his museum (Custer, Sitting Bull, et al.) are automatons; they are mechanical creations and move because of science. If [audiences] think they move because Slausen is making them move with his telekinetic powers, that’s okay with me.

TEOS: Tell me about the film's musical score.

DS: How Pino Donaggio became the composer was just a stroke of luck. I was asked to be an interpreter by Joe Dante, who had hired Pino Donaggio to score Piranha. Pino did not speak English, so Pino and I spoke Spanish. After we finished spotting the film I asked Pino if he would score Tourist Trap. We screened it for him and he agreed. Charlie Band had spent much of his childhood in Italy, so he was fluent in Italian and he and Pino hit it off immediately. Somehow Charlie came up with another $50,000 dollars for Pino’s fee and the entire orchestral score, which was recorded in Rome. The budget rose from $300,000 to $350,000. I learned so much about scoring a movie from Pino.

TEOS: Charles Band has a somewhat divisive reputation in the horror community. You collaborated with him on this and your 1989 film Puppetmaster. How would you describe your working relationship with him?

DS: For me, Charlie was a very good producer to work for, because he left you alone for the most part. And for most of my movies, we had enough money to make a reasonably good movie. He was not an on-set producer at all. He didn’t pay very much, and sometimes it was hard to get paid, but in my case, I always got paid – until I left his employment. He owes me money for Puppetmaster, and when I tried to collect it he took my name off the movie and put his name on it. (He took my "A Film By David Schmoeller" credit off, and put his name above the title: Charles Band’s Puppetmaster.) That’s a real shitty thing to do – and very petty and small-minded. He’s starting to get old and I think the business is more of a struggle for him, so he feels the need to crib credits. So be it.

TEOS: I don't suppose you're lucky enough to receive any royalties each time a new Puppetmaster film is made, are you? I believe the series is hovering somewhere around ten entries, now...  

DS: Yes, that’s the money he owes me – Puppetmaster residuals.


TEOS: One could argue that the 1970s produced some of the best genre films to date, and Tourist Trap was released at the end of its run in 1979. What was it about this ten-year period that resulted in films like The Exorcist, Halloween, Phantasm, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and the many more?


DS: The '70s also produced some of the most original mainstream movies, too, so it wasn’t just genre films. I think it mostly has to do with the fact that filmmaking was considered more of a director’s domain, and the writers and directors were not interfered with as much as they were in later decades, when the cost of movies started to rise considerably. While The Exorcist was a big studio movie, William Friedkin was just coming off winning an Oscar for directing The French Connection, so he had almost complete control. There is a very funny story of how these three studio executives were assigned to The Exorcist and when Friedkin was way over schedule and way over budget, one of these executives finally had had enough. So he picked up the phone and called Friedkin on the set and said, “Billy, this has just got to stop, it has to stop. And if it doesn’t, well, I’m just going to have to pull the plug.” And Friedkin said, “Okay, go ahead – pull the plug.” And the executive quickly backtracked and said, “Well, Billy, I don’t mean I would REALLY pull the plug.” At which point, Friedkin hung up. Back at the executive’s office, when HE hung up, one of the other executives said, “That was the most expensive phone call you have ever made.”

Halloween was an auteur film, made by Carpenter with no interference from anyone. Same with Phantasm and Texas Chain Saw. The budget [of The Exorcist] greatly eclipsed the budgets of these other three films, but they were all directed by extremely talented filmmakers.

TEOS: Shout Factory is revisiting another of your earlier films, Crawlspace, for a special edition re-release. Has there been talk about seeing a similar release for Tourist Trap?

DS: Catacombs was released by Shout Factory in October with a new director commentary, and Crawlspace comes out on blu-ray in December with a director’s commentary. I was contacted by the person doing the new blu-ray of Tourist Trap to do a new commentary of the movie, but I haven’t heard back from him, so I suspect Charles Band killed the idea (even though I was perfectly happy to pay for the recording myself). It is supposed to come out in December.

TEOS: Now that Little Monsters*, your newest feature, is available on video, do you have anything next in the pipeline that fans can look forward to?  

DS: Yes, I am writing a new horror film called Dead Angels (from the children’s refrain: “When angels fail, they go to hell.”) It’s about dead people whose souls are stuck in the netherworld until they can track down and kill the person who killed them in the first place. It deals with who is really the living dead among us and how many times do you have to kill someone before they stay dead. It’s horror film noir.

 

* David Schmoeller's new film, Little Monsters, is currently available on DVD here, and the director's early short films are available on DVD directly from his official website


Follow David at his website and Facebook

Jun 7, 2013

AN INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SCHMOELLER – PART 1: LITTLE MONSTERS

Writer/director David Schmoeller might not be a household name—maybe not even for your most prolific of horror fans—but he’s given us two undeniable minor horror classics: 1979’s Tourist Trap and 1989’s Puppet Master (which would go on to spawn nine(!) sequels). Except for his steady creation of short films, he has been rather quiet. After thirteen years, Schmoeller has returned with a very different kind of horror story...one sadly based on a true story. David was gracious enough to participate in an interview—we also spoke about Tourist Trap in a separate interview—in which he dishes on his newest independent feature, life imitating art, Fox News, and much more.


 

TEOS: Little Monsters (review here) is based on a true story – more specifically the 1993 James Bulger murder of England. What was it about this event that drew you to turning it into a film? Given the event happened twenty years ago, was this idea slowly simmering in your mind over time, or did you only somewhat recently read about it?

SCHMOELLER: I clearly remember seeing the news of the Bulger murder in L.A. when it happened. The news media had B/W video images of the kidnapping by the two ten-year-old suspects from the many shopping mall cameras. It was a big, international news story. And the nature of the killing was very disturbing. While I followed the story, it did not immediately become an idea for a movie. A few years later, while I was a William Randolph Hearst fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, I started doing research on the story. I think when the murderers were released from prison when they turned 18, the story made the news again. I think this was when I started to become more interested in the story as a possible film idea.

TEOS: The lives of the real murderers seem to closely parallel those of your film versions during the murder, the trial, and their subsequent release. At what point did you let your artistic creativity take over and present a "what-if" scenario?

SCHMOELLER: Little Monsters is completely fictional, although inspired by the actual event. What made it an interesting story for me was that when the two boys, teenagers when released…they passed laws in England that made it illegal for anyone to reveal the new identities or locations of the child killers. They could be living right next door and no one would know. This was another reason the story was so compelling – both in real life and in my growing story line. What happened to the boys after they were released, how did they feel about their crime, would they be able to cope with what they had done (did they even feel bad about what they had done?), and would they be able to live out their lives with new identities? All these issues where completely unknown, so, I had to fictionalize those things. In 2002, I took a group of UNLV film students to the Fringe Festival in Scotland, and since I was going to be there a month, I decided to write the screenplay, which then was called Don’t Look Back. I did a few rewrites, which took me the next year or so, then I tried to have my agent set it up as a film for me to direct, but it was considered too dark for Hollywood. In 2008, I produced (and personally financed) a feature film called Thor At The Bus Stop, which was written and directed by Mike and Jerry Thompson. It’s a very good quirky comedy available at Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, etc. When I realized I actually had the means to make a feature film, I decided to make Little Monsters – and direct it. While I had written and directed a dozen or so short films since I left Hollywood, I had not directed a feature film in 13 years. So, it was exciting. 

TEOS: What was it about the Hollywood system that you felt you needed or wanted to leave it behind?

SCHMOELLER: I have no problem with the Hollywood system. I liked working in Hollywood (mostly – every once in a while you get stuck with an asshole, but that happens in all walks of life). My decision to leave Hollywood for academia was strictly a financial decision. I am better paid, have more job security, and am more respected in academia than I was working in Hollywood.

TEOS: Speaking as vaguely as possible to avoid spoiling a turning point in the film, there's one particular scene where one of the murderers has a heated confrontation with his mother, who shows nothing but disdain for him. She's presented as a rather hard woman leading up to this and the film suggests she is a potential explanation for her son's dangerous behavior. Do you believe that the behavior of a child directly reflects his or her upbringing? Or do you believe we as individuals all have the strength to overcome such an upbringing and still become meaningful contributors to society?

SCHMOELLER: At one point in the screen-writing process, I had a character say: “It’s always the mother's fault.” I believe parents can and do play a major role in how their kids turn out. But there is no common rule. You can have awful parents and turn out OK, or you can have great parents and not turn out so good. My own mother was an extraordinary beauty as a child and a stunning beauty as an adult. Because her beauty was how she was defined, she was a spoiled child and a spoiled adult. She really didn’t mature as she grew into adulthood, even though she was very smart – as smart as she was beautiful. I think her beauty was a huge burden to her as an adult. So, even though she tried, she was really not a good parent. This was before the women’s movement of the '60s, so, my stepfather expected her to be a stay-at-home housewife. Eventually she became a Valium-wife and spent much of my childhood in bed. And when she wasn’t sleeping, she was bored, and sometimes angry. Not anything like the mother in Little Monsters, but still, not a very good mother. We called her “our crummy mother.” I think my older brother suffered much more damage than I did because he was always angry at our crummy mother and our absent stepfather, so he acted out. It was all way too much drama for me as a child, so I just kept to myself. When my older brother went off to college, I knew I would not survive my mother alone, so I left home at 15. And I quickly learned how to be very independent, which helped me greatly in life – especially when I went to Hollywood in the 1970s.

TEOS: In doing my own research into the James Bulger case, I found that, of all things, Child's Play 3 was cited as a negative influence in the lives of the two killers, as those involved in the case proved that the kids had not only watched the film in the months leading up to the murder, but also supposedly detected an instance in which they "imitated" a specific scene. Being that you, as a filmmaker, have dabbled in the "killer doll" sub-genre, and worked largely in the horror genre in general, do you ever feel any responsibility as filmmaker for the content you put out there for public? Do you feel it has the power to influence?

SCHMOELLER: This is a frequent charge, especially when there is a particularly horrendous killing by younger killers – kids or teenagers: “They must have been influenced by a horror film.” People want a way to explain a horrible event, and sometimes the answer is to blame it on a film, and sometimes it’s to blame a parent. I understand this. It is difficult to explain senseless killing. I DO think movies can have a very powerful effect on viewers – especially children. And I do not think children should be allowed to watch inappropriate films. One of the better examples comes from my own work. Tourist Trap was given an inappropriate rating – it was given a PG-13 instead of an R. We were shocked when we received this rating from the Ratings Board. I had not let my own son see the movie – he was 8 or 9 – because I thought it was just too intense and too disturbing. And that tame rating hurt our theatrical release. Who wants to see a tame horror film? Because of that rating, however, it could play on afternoon television. And it’s the reason most responsible for Tourist Trap having a second life, and to have grown into cult status. All those traumatized children who saw it on afternoon TV. I can’t tell you how many people have said to me: “I saw Tourist Trap on TV when I was seven and it scared me to death.” What safer thing for a parent to say to a young child on a Saturday afternoon? “Billy, Mom and Dad are busy – why don’t you go watch TV with your sister…?” [sarcastic smile]

In terms of the responsibility of the filmmaker? Movies are an art form. The responsibility of the filmmaker is to make a good, compelling film. There are very few restrictions (there are certain legal restrictions: you can’t shoot a snuff film; you can’t shoot child pornography, etc.). Wes Craven has spoken fairly articulately about “violence in cinema.” The filmmakers of the ‘70s were informed in part by the war in Vietnam that we watched on the nightly news. Craven maintains that nothing he has ever put on film is as violent as the images we saw on TV every night during that war.
TEOS: The two young actors who played James Landers and Carl Withers were especially good and playing very challenging roles. Where did you find them? What was the casting process like?

SCHMOELLER: Both Ryan LaBeouf and Charles Cantrell were/are students of mine. I had directed Charles in a short film called Ha, Ha, Horror, so I had [previously] worked with him. Ryan is an all-around talent – writer/director and actor – only I had only seen him in comedies. But, he has a nice quality and an intelligence as a person; I just thought he had this special talent that would show up on the screen. They both work completely differently as actors. Charles likes to talk about the scene or his character, has lots of questions, and approaches his work with a “method” process. Ryan just shows up in character and uses his intelligence to play the part. It was such a joy to work with both of them. I also think their performances were greatly helped by Ben Zuk, my editor.

TEOS: Both the editing and the intimate nature of the narrative lent a specific realism to the film, including your use of sit-down interviews. The realistic approach I think is the film's biggest selling point. As you were writing, did you ever have to scale it back? Did you ever veer too far into over-the-top territory, perhaps without realizing it?


SCHMOELLER: The early versions of the story had many more of the sit-down interviews – so much so that they dominated the story. The central narrative in Little Monsters, the story of the two boys, was eclipsed by the detailed facts of the story. I think what you are asking me about is the (realistic) tone of the film. We worked hard on the tone, but there may be some side segments that don’t work for some viewers as well as others (like the TV Tabloid personality). I don’t think G. Gordon is over-the-top, even though I think he is clearly ridiculous (just like I think Glenn Beck is ridiculous), and we did worry he might be mess with our tone. At the same time, I know from my horror film experience that you need to allow the audience to breathe, even laugh out loud from time to time.

As I tell my students, when you make a film, it’s just as likely that you will fail as it is you will succeed.

TEOS: What was the production process like? How long was the shoot?

SCHMOELLER: May May Luong, my producing partner and I, both have day jobs. I am a university professor and May May works in production, so we shot Little Monsters mostly on the weekends over a 3-4 month period. Everyone who worked on the film were either students, who had classes during the week, or they had day jobs. It’s not the best way to shoot a film, but it does work. We shot the film over 24 days, although not all days were full days.

TEOS: Your portrayal of the media isn't exactly flattering, but the conservative talk show host, who actually laughs along with a caller threatening to discover the boys' secret identities and commit violence upon them, is especially obnoxious. How seriously do you personally take the role of media in our society, and do you think it has the potential to be harmful?

SCHMOELLER: I think certain segments of the media, like certain segments of our political system, are really shameful. And when you have some of the more scandalous crimes, such as the recent Jody Arias trial, the Menendez Brothers murder, the JonBenét Ramsey murder, or OJ – pick your famous killing – the media doesn’t always look so good. Is it the public that craves these stories, or the media who benefits from the high ratings? It’s both. I think some of the characters on Fox News (cable) are especially destructive to our society. I think they are flame-throwers for the big salaries they can make by yelling “fire.” And it seems the more outrageous, the more money they make. Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, Rupert Murdoch, Rush Limbaugh – these are media personalities and entrepreneurs, not newsmen. It is called “hate radio” because they are hateful people and they teach listeners to be angry and that it is OK to be hateful and outraged. I have students – not many, but more than I would like to have – who feel entitled to express their anger and outrage – and they do so at inappropriate times and places. They have been damaged by these media personalities, not educated.

TEOS: Your use of sit-down interviews does an effective job of making the story feel as real as possible. Did you write these interviews from scratch, or were they based on actual interviews given at the time of the James Bulger murder?

SCHMOELLER: I did a lot of research for Little Monsters over the years. Certainly, the breadth of players – the large number of people coming from all walks of life – came out of that research. The Clarence Gilyard speech (the criminologist at trial) where he talks about how many people are affected by a single act of violence…not the words themselves, but the essence of that comment, came out of that research.

TEOS: Audience reaction (or maybe I should clarify non-audience reaction) has condemned the film; they've said things like "How dare they turn this story into a film!" and "What would the families think?" Considering we had a film about 9/11 made five years following the actual event, or a film about killing Osama Bin Laden only one year following, what is it about this particular story that have made people cry foul? Is it because the violence is regulated to children this time, as opposed to adults like it normally is?

SCHMOELLER: I think you are talking about “internet comments” to postings about Little Monsters; audience reactions at the screenings [I’ve attended] have been overwhelmingly positive. I think a person who lives in England and lived through the media experience of the Bulger murder, may have a different reaction to the film than someone who doesn’t have that firsthand experience.

And the issue of children killing children can be particularly disturbing to a lot of people. A lot of dog-lovers hated Amores Perros because of the brutal dog fighting scenes, despite the fact that it was an excellent movie.

My mother, who was informed by the zeitgeist of World War II, thought Saving Private Ryan was an awful movie. What she was really reacting to was the opening Normandy beach-landing scene, which was so graphic and so realistic. To her, World War II (actually, I am referring to immediately after the war) was really a romantic event – she was young and beautiful when she met and married my stepfather, who was a returning WWII bomber pilot and looked handsome in his uniform. He never talked to her about the war – AT ALL, ever – and so seeing Saving Private Ryan all those years later shattered her romantic notion of what was probably the best time of her life.

Movies are not for everyone. In fact, they are probably for only a very small audience, especially these days when there are so many other things fighting for people’s attention. I am making something for a very small segment of the world. And I am sure there will be some vocal haters. As Carl Gunther in Crawlspace would say: “So be it.” All I can do is make the best movie I can and hope at least a few people appreciate it.

TEOS: If you could say anything to the real murderers of James Bulger, what would you tell them?

SCHMOELLER: “Did I get any of it right in my movie?”




Little Monsters is now streaming via Amazon Prime.

May 30, 2013

REVIEW: LITTLE MONSTERS


"It's like he was a toy doll that those boys stole and didn't know what to do with, so they murdered my little baby. It's not right to let them go...just because they turned eighteen. 'Happy birthday, you're free to go.' Free to kill again, if you ask me."
From its very dark opening to its equally powerful closing, the newest film from David Schmoeller (interview with the filmmaker here) represents a drastic new side to the filmmaker for those only previously aware of his minor classics Puppet Master and Tourist Trap. Little Monsters, his first feature in thirteen years and based on a true story, is the sobering story of two murderers named James Landers and Carl Withers, charged with murdering a three-year-old boy named David McClendon. The awfulness of this act is then exacerbated by the notion that James Landers and Carl Withers are themselves only children - ten years old, to be specific. The boys are caught, charged, and sent to a juvenile detention center for eight years. Upon their eighteenth birthdays, they are released into a sort of witness protection program, with new identities in tow. One is released into the care of a parole officer and set up with a job at the law firm Slausen et al. (a nice nod to Tourist Trap), and the other is placed into foster care. Forbidden from contacting their family, friends, each other, or anyone from their past life, the two now-teenagers must find a way to continue some attempt at an existence while living with the fact that they, in a moment of foolishness, took the life of a child.

Earlier I said that Little Monsters represented a new side to writer/director David Schmoeller. And that's because there is nothing quirky or cartoonish about his newest film. (If you were previously familiar with Schmoeller's filmography, then you know not to take offense.) There are no killer puppets or screaming mannequins here. There are no popcorn scares and set-pieces to make audience jumps and then smile in relief. And there is no Charles Band in sight. Instead, Little Monsters is about real-life horror. It is about tragedy, human relationships and behavior, and exploitation. It's about knowing how to recognize evil when it's staring you in the face, but then realizing to even try is futile.


During the boys' reentry into society, the film offers society's reaction their release - from parents of the victim, to parents of the murderers, to a conservative talk-show host and pair of slimy tabloid reporters. One murderer's mother yearns to hear from her son; the other tells her son she used to pray he would die in prison. Some members of society with no direct connection to the case want to see the boys punished, while others wish people would just let it lie. Smartly comprised of traditional narrative mixed with sit-down interviews featuring family members, law enforcement, and political officials, Little Monsters is presented as a docu-drama. And why shouldn't it be? The case on which the film is based is real. The kind of violence and psychosis the film depicts is real. The polarizing reactions society has about the death of one is real. We need look no further than the recent tragedy in Newtown to see that we, as people, will never be united behind any one cause, no matter how obvious it may look. Little Monsters is dark and bleak and fucking angry...but so is life.

Ryan Leboeuf as James and Charles Cantrell as Carl are tremendous in their entirely opposite roles. James (now Bob Fisher) is quiet, reserved, and struggling with the next phase of his life. He sneaks away to reference the notebooks that contain crib sheets on his new identity and shies away from the girl next door who shows him attention. Carl (now Joey Romer), however, makes it abundantly clear he is not ready to re-enter society. He is angry, but smiles his way through it, not caring if he's fooling those around him. And both young actors completely outshine their adult counterparts in every way. 


The script for Little Monsters is very smartly constructed, using the aforementioned narrative- vs. sit-down-interview juxtaposition to convey insights into our characters as well as subjective points of view from those removed from the case; you're essentially getting three stories in one: those who support the boys, those who want to see them punished...and the truth. Everybody is right and everybody is wrong all at once. Minor harm is done to the pacing of the film due to the various characters representing the media, but it isn't detrimental. Schmoeller could have easily "cheated" and kept his sit-down interviews in place without relying on talk-show hosts and tabloid reporters asking questions on the other side of the camera to justify this kind of exposition and insight (Linklater and Clooney do it), but their characters aren't entirely superfluous, either. They serve a purpose and represent different facets - a maddeningly realistic take on how the media responds in time of tragedy - but they could have been easily edited out and affected little.


A limited budget has resulted in limited flair, but the film is not without style. Schmoeller instead relies on tone, and in getting dangerously intimate with our two polar opposite characters. You become witness to their madness as well as their regret; you are forced to experience their crimes as well as their struggle to transcend their status as cold-blooded murderers and prove there's more to them than a wrong decision made by a ten-year-old's mind. But you're also forced to recognize that not everything is as it seems - that evil comes in many forms, and not all of them are obvious.

Little Monsters is currently doing the film festival thing and getting good marks wherever it travels. It is without distribution, but here's hoping that changes soon. It is a film that will challenge your idea of perception and force you to confront the power of denial.

More information can be found on David Schmoeller's website and Facebook.

May 6, 2013

UNSUNG HORRORS: TOURIST TRAP

Every once in a while, a genuinely great horror movie—one that would rightfully be considered a classic, had it gotten more exposure and love at the box office—makes an appearance. It comes, no one notices, and it goes. But movies like this are important. They need to be treasured and remembered. If intelligent, original horror is supported, then that's what we'll begin to receive, in droves. We need to make these movies a part of the legendary genre we hold so dear. Because these are the unsung horrors. These are the movies that should have been successful, but were instead ignored. They should be rightfully praised for the freshness and intelligence and craft that they have contributed to our genre. 

So, better late than never, we’re going to celebrate them now… one at a time.

Dir. David Schmoeller
1977
Compass International Pictures
United States

For this edition of Unsung Horrors, we have a very different beast. Being a genre aficionado, I like my horror in all sizes, shapes, and colors - but I generally prefer a serious tone. I prefer feeling unnerved, and I enjoy the feeling of being in the presence of a filmmaker whom I don't entirely trust - not in the sense that I feel the filmmaker is not up to the snuff of delivering a good fright, but in the sense that said filmmaker might just be a little...off; perhaps eccentric, or even insane, to have delivered such a god damned strange, indecipherable, and flat-out bizarre little picture like the one we'll be celebrating today. To watch Tourist Trap is to wonder if the film had been accidentally made by an escapee from an insane asylum after he had held a mini-studio hostage so that his film may be realized. And when I insinuate the filmmaker was approaching this in as unconventional manner as possible, I don't allude to such high-brow works of art like E. Elias Merhige's Begotten or even Buñuel & Dalí's Un Chien Andalou, which are artistic to the extreme of defying convention. No, Tourist Trap is a different kind of insane - one that sports a straight-forward concept that became rather go-to in the late '70s and early 80s thanks to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: a group of kids getting lost in an unknown territory and falling victim one by one to a madman. On its surface, one would assume that's all it would seem to entail. But oh, how wrong one would be to assume such a thing. (That filmmaker, by the way, is David Schmoeller: read my interview with him here.)

Have you ever heard the expression "a mystery wrapped in a riddle wrapped in an enigma?" Tourist Trap is that movie, in spades, but with mannequins. It, truly, is the most bizarre film I’ve ever seen - one that at some points is deeply unsettling, and at others completely ridiculous, whimsical, and odd. It’s almost as if two directors, whose styles completely contradicted each other, directed different portions. Picture an unhappy studio executive screening the latest film from David Lynch, then picking up a phone and requesting an immediate meeting with the guys who made Airplane.


The beginning of Tourist Trap introduces us to a group of young teens as they are temporarily stalled by a flat tire on their way cross-country. One of the unlucky boys, who is the spitting image of the late Steve Irwin but sans accent, rolls the flat to the nearest service station for help. Upon getting there, the boy is haunted by weird, ethereal, slightly erotic moaning emanating from an unseen source. The boy locates the source: a blanket-covered woman lying on a cot in the back of the service station. The boy approaches gingerly, asking the woman if she needs help. Suddenly, she springs forward, laughing in vicious glee, revealing herself to be...a mannequin.

Your mind barely has time to process what appears to be the film's first major development before all hell breaks loose in this little room. The mannequin continues to laugh, its plastic jaw clomping wildly in glee. The boy, understandably freaked, tries to escape the room, but windows close and lock themselves as doors slam themselves shut.

Another mannequin, this one headless, smashes through the outside window. The boy is then assaulted by yet another mannequin, bursting forth from the closet and laughing more creepily than the previous dummy. As the boy backs up in fear, he kicks a small mannequin head that lies on the ground. He looks on in fear as the head slowly turns and opens its mouth wide.

And your reviewer is utterly disturbed.

The room begins going insane as cabinets open and close and objects are mysteriously hurled at the boy as he tries to escape, and all during this fiasco the mannequins continue to laugh.

My God, is this what it's like inside Gary Busey’s head?

A metal pipe is suddenly hurled through the boy, killing him instantly, and the commotion comes to an end. We then pan around the room, taking in the sudden serenity, as if the mannequin-screaming, object-hurtling, window-and-door-slamming shitstorm of a fucked up Quaalude hallucination never took place.

This is certainly not a case of establishing something insane for the purposes of securing a massively crazy opener, but failing to live up to that insanity for the remainder of the film. Rather, Tourist Trap wants to hit the ground running. It wastes no time in easing the viewer into the insanity that is soon to unfurl. "We've only got 90 minutes here, people," the film is saying, "so strap in for the worst nightmare you've ever had while wide awake."

The dead boy's friends, among them Molly (Jocelyn Jones),  the "final girl," come looking for him, and this is when they meet Mr. Slausen (Chuck Connors), owner of Slausen’s Lost Oasis, who approaches them with a large shotgun and cowboy hat. Soft guitar music plays as Slausen lays down his airing of grievances he has with the local town bureaucrats as the girls, having previously stripped down and leaped into a nearby watering hole and are now naked as they day they were born, cover their dirty pillows and stare at him with a mixture of fear and confusion.

Despite the fact that he is clearly the last person anyone with half-a-brain would want to be around, they accept his offer of a lift back to his house under the guise of getting some tools to help fix their car. But don't worry, these kids aren't going anywhere. Both the audience and Mr. Slausen want to see these kids get haunted and slaughtered by sighing mannequins. And boy, will they.

To attempt to explain or make sense of what's soon to unfold is a fool's errand. To date, I have seen Tourist Trap three times, and I am completely unable to decipher anything that occurs. A rather simple-minded premise about mannequins with a life of their own soon morphs into a story featuring quirky and potentially dangerous twin brothers, split personalities, telekinesis, necromancy(?), and even heartbreak.


All of this, on the surface, feels easy to mock, and I fully admit the first draft of this column was written to be included as the newest edition to Shitty Flicks. But my latest viewing of this flick confirmed I could not in good conscience do so. Low brow concept it may have been, and populated with not-so-great teen actors as was often the case for low-budget horror, writer/director David Schmoeller knew exactly what he was doing behind the camera. Without hyperbole, every single solitary shot of a mannequin, or doll, or masked madman, is eerie, or disturbing, even deeply unsettling. Because nothing makes sense. And no explanations are provided. If you're looking for the James Bond villain-esque explanation at the end where the antagonist lays it all out on the table - "here's how I bring the mannequins to life / here's how I learned to move objects with my mind / here is how I resurrect the dead" - forget it. You're barking up the wrong tree here, and you're way way way in the wrong film. I've long said that gaps in logic can be detrimental to a screenplay unless you are in a filmmaker's such capable hands that you not only forgive those gaps, but actually respect them and allow them to enhance your reaction to the story. It gets to be that you want to ignore these gaps, because to do otherwise would result in over-thinking and ruining the experience for yourself.

Each insane development occurs with no for warning, because Schmoeller wants you to feel just as broad-sided as his characters. "Wait a minute, since when can this guy move shit with his mind?", etc. He wants every new occurrence of supernatural territory to slap you across the face. He wants you to feel uneven and on edge, honestly believing anything could happen at any moment. At one point someone could have opened their chest to reveal they were a robot the entire time and it would have felt right at home. (Not to mention something like that kinda-sorta happens.)

Schmoeller is also wise to exploit the hordes of mannequins found everywhere in Slausen's Lost Oasis to immense satisfaction and disturbance. At one point the killer is chasing one of our victims and holds out, at arm's length, a severed mannequin's head.

“See my friend?” the killer grumbles, as the mouth on the mannequin head opens widely and screams.

At this point we have seen enough insanity and unexplained activity that we know this is not a simple case of ventriloquism: This head is somehow alive, and it's screaming at our victim like it is being brutally murdered. This is later confirmed when the killer heaves the screaming head at her as she turns and flees. The head, landing on the ground in front of her, promptly turns by itself and yells at her again.

Adding to this insanity are the occasional bouts of humor. Not unintentional humor, mind you, but honest-to-gosh scenes in which Schmoeller forgot he was making a haunted mannequin, masked-killer movie and was perhaps instead directing a vaudevillian stage play featuring Abbot and Costello.

That decision results in the following scene in which our killer enters a room wearing a mask and sits down next to a mannequin. For no reason whatsoever, after the killer places a bowl of soup in front of the slumped-over mannequin, the dummy suddenly springs to life:

Killer: Eat your soup. It’s nice and hot.
Mannequin: Let’s eat.
Killer: That’s what I said, let’s eat. Is it good?
Mannequin: Yes, it’s very good.
Killer: Want some crackers?
Mannequin: I’d like some more crackers, please.
Killer: That’s what I said.
Mannequin: Yes, the crackers are very good.
Killer: Aren’t da crackas good??

The mannequin’s head falls off directly into the soup, ruining the rest of the date. All of this in the midst of teens being killed and transformed into mannequin parts, one by one. All of this while mannequin heads scream and move on their own, while objects fly across the room without having been touched, while people whom we thought were perfectly real and alive are torn apart limb-from-limb, revealing they were actually mannequins.


Also adding to this insanity is the completely wacko score by Pino Donaggio, perhaps most famous for having scored the majority of Brian DePalma's earlier films like Carrie and Dressed to Kill. Much like Tourist Trap itself, the score alternates between chilling, with stabbing strings, and goofy, with clumsy xylophone hits. It's an awkward pastiche that at some points is trying to drive you mad with fear, but at others is trying to convince you you're in the presence of someone whimsical and eccentric and you should be having a really amusing fucking time.

The last shot shows our lone survivor driving down the street with mannequin versions of all her friends filling out the car that now suddenly works, as Pino Donaggios’s score assaults your every sense, slamming home the fact that, yes, what you just experienced was real, and no, you will never forget it.

Tourist Trap was unofficially remade in 2005 and dubbed House of Wax, as that was the title Warner Bros. happened to own. And yes, while it includes a killer who turned his victims into wax dummies, the similarities end there. But it would go onto lift, from Tourist Trap, the killer-brothers concept, the broken-down-car concept, the weirdo-attraction-in-the-middle-of-nowhere concept, and hordes of mannequins/dummies particularly placed and posed to give off the illusion of being real people.

David Schmoeller would go on to direct more straight-forward genre fare like Puppet Master and episodes of "Silk Stalkings," but Tourist Trap will always be remembered as the movie that made people say: “That was fucking weird. I don’t feel good…”

God bless you, David Schmoeller.

God bless you, Tourist Trap.

God bless us everyone.

I’m gonna go take a shower and hide under a blanket, because I feel really uncomfortable.