Stephen Thrower - A kaleidoscopic journey through the heyday of Horror and Exploitation Cinema in America
Stephen Thrower, Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents (FAB Press, 2008)
«Nightmare U.S.A. The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents” is an invaluable textbook that explores Independent horror films from 1970- 1985.
Written by Stephen Thrower, this is a bible for the midnight movie lovers. Choosing several directors and films that he feels best represent the genre, Thrower’s book is a well-detailed account that not only includes his in-depth analyses of the movies, but also first-hand accounts from the people that made them. It took him several years to perform the research for this book and this is made apparent in his scholarly approach to movies that are often looked down upon.
Thrower breaks the lengthy book into three sections. The first is a detailed essay on the underground horror independents and explains some of the highlights and low points. It even examines pictures (”Forced Entry,” “Hardgore”) that pushed the genres into depraved oddities of violence and sex. Section two consists of several chapters devoted to specific movies, their history and interviews with the directors and or the producers. Section three includes brief reviews and interviews for over 100 films, from “The Alchemist” to “The Witch Who Came from the Sea.”
It is a worthwhile read that leaves no lingering questions about the making of some of these films. The directors of these pictures simply relish in recounting the tales of the production of, for most of them, their only attempt to break into Hollywood. Their tales are relatable to anyone with a dream of making a movie someday and how these hardships never kept them down. It is great that their stories are finally told.
The funny thing is that while reading these accounts, you remember that their basic dream was to make a movie about a raving lunatic in the city or the woods. Sure, first-hand accounts are great, but what about the films in the book? “Nightmare” is the good, bad and ugly account of horror films.
Even if you don’t necessarily agree with Thrower’s review, he makes a well-documented argument as to why the movie is relevant. That is made clear in the first chapter, which details “Don’t Go in the Woods… Alone” and makes it sound so much better than the actual experience of sitting through it. This is especially true when we hear first-hand from James Bryant (”The Executioner Part 2.” There was no “Executioner” part one by the way.) about what it was like to direct the production.
But don’t let that chapter turn you off. The chapters to come will teach you about many great horror films that you may never have heard of including, “The Centerfold Girls,” “Don’t Go in the House,” “Fight for Your Life,” “The Strangeness,” “The Child,” “Schoolgirls in Chains” and “Death Bed: The Bed that Eats.”
Section three even covers some great films including “Boarding House” (Featuring an interview with director John Wintergate) and “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death.” Some other movies chosen for this chapter are considered not worthwhile by Thrower, so their inclusion is puzzling.
Time and time again, studies are done on some of the great and historical films of our time, but Thrower has jumped into waters that no one else has dared to tread and creates a new perspective for movie lovers. The retail price maybe considerably high, as it runs for close to 60 dollars on Amazon.com, but for hardcore movie aficionados, it’s a purchase you won’t not be sorry that you made.» - Anthony Benedetto
«Stephen Thrower once again pulls on his galoshes and wades deep into the mire of latex and tangled videotape that is the horror cinema underground. In previous books, Thrower has focused primarily on European output; but here he begins an epic assault on the American exploitation scene from 1970 to 1985.
For Thrower, these are halcyon days, when nothing got in the way of a fast buck and localised home-grown output could respond to current events and the national mood far faster, and often more effectively, than their bloated major studio counterparts. By the mid 1970s, however, the studios had caught on and began churning out schlock of their own, much of it lacking the hungry zeal, spontaneous panache or plain loopiness that makes the good stuff so appealing. Following this, the independents toned down their own material to better emulate the majors and the cycle began again – America eats its young and the great Ouroboros of culture is sated once more.
Thrower brings a finely-honed analytical eye to the material, one that few of the films’ creators can ever have expected to receive, but his writing is never dry. In fact, his enthusiasm can be downright alarming at times. Following a lengthy, heartfelt paean to the starkly choreographed thrills of the slasher genre, even the author feels it necessary to note “perhaps I’m getting a little peculiar in my old age”.
The bulk of the book combines detailed reviews with biographical interviews and reminiscences from many of the filmmakers, and it’s here that we sense the passion and dedication – even heroism – involved in getting these films onto the screen, as well as the labyrinthine career paths taken by some of their creators. Who would have believed that the writer/director of monster mashup The Deadly Spawn taught High School English to David Copperfield, that Sopranos maestro David Chase cut his teeth on Grave of the Vampire, or that the director of Devil Wolf of Shadow Mountain would end up making a new-age docudrama starring mystic astronaut Edgar Mitchell?
Cultural archæology of this kind is increasingly important in our throwaway world, particularly for those of us trying to gain a better understanding of the fringes inhabited by fortean phenomena. The drive-ins, grindhouses and VCRs that beamed Godmonster of Indian Flats or Frozen Scream into the churning collective unconscious of America’s youth are the forge of future forteana, urban folklore and moral panics. These are the cinematic equivalents of Fort’s “damned data”.
A final note on the lavish production values – Nightmare USA may be pricey, but it’s all sizzle and all steak, with the text complemented by coffee-table-sized colour pages of rare photos, posters and lobby cards from the filmmakers’ own collections.» - Mark Pilkington
«Let this review serve as proof positive that my love affair with the UK's FAB Press is due to the consistently excellent nature of their books, and not simply due to the fact that publisher Harvey Fenton and company tend to send me a free review copy of damned-near every book that they publish. No, in the case of "Nightmare USA", FAB's new book by Stephen Thrower, I bought this sucker myself. I proudly (but, I will admit, with some trepidation at the almost scarily high price of this almost Macedonic book, not to mention the 20 bones it cost just to get the thing shipped to me from the UK) preordered this book many months ago...long before the oft-delayed book came out. So, suffice it to say, my relationship with FAB is one that demands commitment. So, were my fears (and dollars spent) all for naught? Or, did FAB come through yet again with another book that will be destined to become a priceless addition to my horror and cinema-related library? Read on...
Many of you are familiar with FAB Press' "standard" format... large-scale books crammed to bursting with thoughtful, witty editorials and articles, stills, candid shots, promotional materials, and in-depth reviews. It's no secret that this very website is designed to somewhat emulate FAB's "style", and for good reason. Nobody does horror/exploitation reference books better than FAB. It really is as simple as that. This is a fact of which the good folks at FAB are no doubt aware, and I hope they consistently pat themselves on their backs in richly-deserved self-congratulatory gestures. Hell, if they don't, I'll do it for them...in print. Come here, you...that's a boy...*pat pat pat*...who's a good fellow, then? OK. Now that that's out of the way, let's actually take a look at the book itself, shall we? "Nightmare USA" is structured like many of FAB's books. If you are a fan of this kind of thing (and let's face it, you probably wouldn't be reading this if you weren't), you'll find much to chew on. As with his previous cyclopean tome "Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci", Stephen Thrower is at the top of his game in "Nightmare USA". His observations are always valid, and even if you don't always agree with his opinions, there's no getting around the fact that the guy simply knows whereof he writes. A keen familiarity with his subject matter might be enough for some publishers, perhaps, but not FAB...oh ho ho no. Instead, they demand that their stable of writers be witty and unpretentious, too. Thankfully, Thrower fits the bill nicely.
It's almost impossible to write a review about a book like "Nightmare USA", if only because the depth and breadth of the thing is so immense, while still sticking to such a particular niche that it keeps fans/readers happy and interested throughout the book. Lest this review consist solely of gushing fanboy hyperbole, I feel I must point out one or two "sections" (not so much "chapters") as particular favorites. Maybe it's a cop-out, but the "Introduction" itself (clocking in at over sixty pages!) is as good an overview of independent American horror and exploitation cinema in the 1970's and 1980's as has ever...or ever will be...put into print. It reads like a fucking doctoral thesis, for crying out loud. Yet, it's always entertaining. Again, I can't stress this enough, if you're hungry for knowledge, then this book is like a ever-lovin' Super Sized Meal 'o' Horror. Also of note (and by "of note" I of course mean "of incredibly high merit") is the chapter entitled "It Came from New Jersey!" which deals with Douglas McKeown's struggles to get his film (fan favorite The Deadly Spawn) off the ground. It's a beautifully-written and executed piece, filled with the kind of anecdotes and remembrances that pretty much guarantee that McKeown will fade into history with an almost Ed Wood-ish aura of mystery, goofiness, and love for cinema.
Probably the most interesting thing about "Nightmare USA" is how effectively and neatly puts all other stabs at this subject matter to eternal shame. I mean, let's face it...this is very likely the best book ever written about the golden era of American independent horror cinema, and it was written and published by the English. So, not only is this an important book when taken for its own merits, it totally calls out the American indie horror community to take notice of stuff that's happened on their own turf! Why the venerable Chas. Balun never wrote a book of this magnitude and/or breadth is totally beyond me. I love the guy, but I guess he was too busy (like most of the rest of us from that era) worshiping Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato. I digress. The point is that "Nightmare USA" should serve, if nothing else, as a wake-up call to American fans of indie horror. It should rile a whole new generation of young filmmakers, writers, effects artists, and would-be producers to swift action. Maybe, in another twenty or thirty years, someone (Thrower himself, perhaps?) will write a book about your piece of blood-soaked Americana. It's only going to happen if we, as a community, take notice. If the Brits are taking notice, then so must we!
So, summing up, "Nightmare USA" is yet another resounding success from FAB Press. It serves as a fun read, an encyclopedic tome of arcane cinematic lore and knowledge, and it's damned attractive sitting on a coffee table. What more could you want from a horror cinema reference book? Nothing! That's right, nothing! The price tag might be steep, but trust me...this will be the best chunk of change that you've spent on a book in a dog's age. Thank you, Stephen Thrower, and thank you, FAB Press, for yet another reminder of why you folks are at the top of your game. Highest possible recommendation.» - Matthew Dean Hill
«Do you think modern audiences would enjoy the well-made “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”, which does not deliver any chills until the last 10 minutes?
- For me it delivers chills all the way through, but they’re subtle ones and it’s mainly an exercise in mood and emotional dislocation. By the time the “zombie” locals attack, I think the film has already done much of its work. There are a few subtle ghost-themed horrors around these days, but they tend to need some kind of high concept payoff, like “The Others” or “The Sixth Sense.” It would be hard to get a film like “Jessica” released today, but audiences looking for something out of the ordinary, and who enjoy the 1970s brand of horror, should definitely seek it out.
What interviews can readers expect in volume two of “Nightmare USA?”
- Already written, I have chapters on the following: “Tourist Trap” (David Schmoeller (writer/director); “The Children of Ravensback” (Max Kalmanowicz, director); “Honeymoon Horror” (Harry Preston, co-writer/director); “The House That Cried Murder” (John Grissmer, writer); “Night of the Demon” (Jim Ball, producer); “Unhinged” (Don Gronquist, co-writer/director); “Lemora” (Richard Blackburn (writer/director). And features on the late Robert Burns (“Texas Chain Saw Massacre” designer, and director of “Mongrel”); the late Harry Kerwin (“God’s Bloody Acre”, “Getting Even”, and “Barracuda”); Simon Nuchtern (director of “Silent Madness”, co-director of “Snuff”); and Worth Keeter (Wolfman, Rottweiler). Plus, lots more as I get stuck in to new material.
“The Child” mixes several genres to become one interesting little film. Why do you think it works in that picture?
- What I love about “The Child” is that it normality gets discarded very early on and the whole movie feels like a garbled dream. It doesn’t waste time trying to be plausible: there’s dry ice wafting around the forest and tilted camera angles right from the start. The director, Robert Voskanian, made the movie without previous experience. He was an Armenian immigrant who enrolled at film school then just went out there and did things his way. He now works in the nightclub business and this was his one and only stab at filmmaking. I love that it’s so oddball and illogical. Just about the only practical model they had when they made it was “Night of the Living Dead,” but by adding the psi-power theme and the “evil child” theme, they deviated so far off that template! I love “evil child” films anyway. I always identify with the kids. “The Child” is quintessential 70s exploitation to me. When I started writing “Nightmare USA,” it was very high on my list of “must-cover” titles.
How did you become involved with re-scoring the music for the 1977 film, “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats?” What is your musical background?
- While I was corresponding with George Barry, the director of “Death Bed,” we discussed music a lot and I sent George a selection of CDs I’d produced. When I put him in touch with Cult Epics, who released the film on DVD, he asked me to provide the new title music, as the score had never been completed back in 1977. George was very keen on a track from Luminous Darkness, an album I recorded with my group, Cyclobe, so I re-recorded it with some new details to give the piece more of a psychedelic feel.
What fueled your passion for this genre?
- I’ve been drawn to horror since childhood; straight away, as soon as I could read sufficiently, I was delving into weird fiction. I read Poe and Lovecraft when I was 10; I gobbled my way through masses of short stories and “macabre tales” in my teens and as soon as I could get into cinemas showing “X” certificate films (the UK version of “R” in the 1970s), I did so. The first horror films I saw that made a real impact on me were David Cronenberg’s early films – “Shivers,” “Rabid” and “The Brood” – and Lucio Fulci’s early-1980s films such as “City of the living Dead” and “The Beyond.” Then, when video came along, I relished the opportunity to see films that I’d read about but which had not been released in UK cinemas – such as the Herschell Gordon Lewis and Andy Milligan films, or “Last House on the Left,” “Cannibal Holocaust,” “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS,” et cetera.
Do you feel the Independent horror scene had an influence on the slasher franchise movies? “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th” and “Sleepaway Camp,” to be specific.
- Oh definitely; it’s well-documented. Quite a few of the slasher franchise people had roots in the independent scene anyway – Sean Cunningham and Wes Craven being the obvious examples. What’s less commented upon is the way the “major studio slashers” had a negative influence on the exploitation independents. As long as films like “Scream Bloody Murder” or “The Ghastly Ones” were playing on 42nd Street or at the drive-ins, mainstream critics barely noticed them. But when “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” cleaned up at the box-office, all the majors decided they wanted a bit of the action and released their own versions – “Terror Eyes (Paramount), “Happy Birthday to Me” (Columbia); “When A Stranger Calls” (Columbia); “He Knows You’re Alone” (MGM), for instance. I like those movies, but they’re far more polite and tasteful than they should be. The rawness was diluted. Even then, they attracted lots of bad press from uptight killjoys in mainstream film criticism. Their increased commercial presence, newspaper adverts and TV spots and press screenings, meant that mainstream critics – Siskel and Ebert, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris – were going to see slasher films. And they hated them. Even the bland, comparatively bloodless ones, they hated. They took a holier-than-thou, why-must-we-tolerate-this-filth attitude; they wrote scathing, hostile, morally alarmist reviews and that embarrassed the majors, who subsequently watered down the format even more. Meanwhile, thanks to all of this studio dabbling in the slasher genre, audiences were getting used to horror films looking glossy and expensive. They began to expect production values that the true exploitation independents couldn’t afford. So the majors really screwed up the game, by getting involved in a genre that really ought to have stayed slightly underground, or at least not quite mainstream. A TV critic would never have bothered to comment on a Herschell Gordon Lewis film; but they sure as hell wanted to pontificate about “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” because they could see the poster campaign uptown on the way to work. Horror had escaped the blue-collar picture-houses and the sleazepits and that’s why the genre ended up being neutered in the mid-to-late 1980s.» - Interview with Anthony Benedetto