HOLLYWOOD MORTUARY was my first vanity project – that is, one that I completed as a personal project and not as a paid assignment. It, if anything, is my signature project. People who call themselves Ron Ford Fans (God help them) probably came there thorough this movie, or at least heard of me first through its word of mouth.
In 1996, Kevin J. Lindenmuth (of VAMPIRES AND OTHER STEREOTYPES fame) was putting together his CREATUREALM projects: horror anthologies with the segments farmed out to Kevin’s many filmmaking friends across the nation (Kevin deserves a lot of credited for his networking, bringing us all together as a nation-wide community of digital movie guerrillas). I was asked to contribute a segment, so I started looking around for an idea of something impressive I could produce without a real budget.
It started with the title.
Randal Malone (whom I had just worked with on ALIEN FORCE) – never shy about pushing starring vehicles for himself – pitched me an idea he called HOLLYWOOD MORTUARY. Then he proceeded to tell me the plot of the “Incredible Dr. Markesan” segment of the Boris Karloff-hosted THRILLER TV series he has seen the night before on Nickelodeon. What he didn’t know is that I had watched it too. I told him I loved the title but that the story needed to be more original.
So I reworked the story into a new plot about Pierce Jackson Dawn, an obsessive make-up artist whose career is on the skids with the end of the horror cycle of the thirties. So he uses black magic to resurrect two rival horror stars (one of whom he murdered) in order to revive interest in the horror film. But the egos of the two late Hollywood rivals threaten to disrupt all his plans.
It was over a year later, after the film was released, that a critic pointed out the plots similarity to the 1950s schlock-fest, HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER – a film I watched many times as a youngster. I probably had ripped it off sub-consciously. Let’s call it “unintentional homage.”
Randal Malone is a friend to many aging Hollywood stars, and I had access to them through him. I also had a few semi-celeb friends myself that I enlisted to play themselves in interview segments. Framing the story with real celeb interviews, as if they actually knew and worked with this character Peirce Jackson Dawn, I felt would add class, production value and prestige to my no-budge masterpiece.
I wrote fake interviews for Margaret O’Brien, Conrad Brooks and film director David DeCoteau. They were all marvelous, and all donated their work. I think I may have given Conrad fifty bucks.
Silent movie star Anita Page, however, was another matter. She was in her nineties then and unable to memorize lines. Reading from cue cards looked too unnatural. So I hit on the idea of asking her about the silent movie icon Lon Chaney (the Man of a Thousand Faces) and his facility with character make-up. Page knew him well and worked with him more than once. So when she talks about Pierce Dawn’s make-up skills, she was really talking about Chaney. The conceit worked beautifully, because her reminisces were passionate and honest.
HOLLYWOOD MORTUARY became part of the second CREATUREALM anthology film, FROM THE DEAD. I liked it fine for what it was, but it also left me unsatisfied. I wanted more! In short, it screamed to be developed into a feature. So, one year later, when the rights reverted back to me, per my contract with Lindenmuth, we expanded it. I wrote some new characters in. My friend film historian Tim Murphy played a sardonic version of himself, and actor Joe Haggerty played Morry Mackerman, a disruptive fan based loosely on fandom icon Forrest J. Ackerman. We also shot many new scenes, expanding the zombie killing spree sequence so integral to the plot. We also reshot the cheesy effect at the end, and I cut it into a feature film that made me happy. Still does, in spite of its crudeness. It is sincere and charming and funny, and pretty much the picture I set out to make.
HOLLYWOOD MORTUARY: THE FEATURE premiered at the Monster Bash convention in Monroeville, IL in the summer of 1999. It was the hit of the festival and I sold every one of the dozens of VHS copies I brought along for that purpose.
It was released on DVD by Dead Alive Video in 2000, with the short CREATUREALM version included as an extra.
Not so long ago, filmmaking was a rich man’s game. A member of the economic 99 percent had little chance of getting his or her movie made without the patronage of some one-percenter.
Truth be told, in the mainstream, that is still the case. However, thanks to game-changing technological advances, those with less-than-unlimited resources do have a pathway to get a film made and to have it seen by thousands worldwide. In the final shuffle, the hope is that talent and craft will win out over expensive flash.
In 1989 I dreamed of someday having the resources or the patronage to make my first film. A decade later I had five features under my belt as writer, producer and director, and all had been distributed around the globe. I did not become any wealthier in the intervening years, nor did I find a sponsor with deep pockets. No, digital video simply progressed to the point that it spawned consumer-level digital video equipment. The technology since has improved vastly, and become even more affordable.
That innovation began a revolution of folk like myself who had the hubris to challenge the reigning gods of mainstream cinema with their home-made, no-budget movies. And somehow, they succeeded – to a degree. For a time, those plucky cineastes contributed content to the Sacred Shelves at Blockbuster and Hollywood Video.
Titles like “Vampires and Other Stereotypes,” “”Feeders,” “Things,” “Rage of the Werewolf,” “Riddled with Bullets” and “Shatter dead” shared space on those shelves alongside mainstream Hollywood movies, sorted alphabetically, with no assumption of lesser-value.
Names like Kevin Lindenmuth, Jeff Leroy, Todd Sheets, Hugh Gallagher and the Polonia Brothers, Mark and John, to name a few, started developing fan bases. Lindenmuth could be counted on for dark, character-driven horror dramas. Gallagher specialized in over-the-top gory erotica. Leroy had a penchant for elaborate miniature effects and action. Sheets was pure splatter, and the Polonias, probably the most prolific filmmakers of the era, covered just about every sub-genre in horror and science fiction.
It was a time of fearlessness and naiveté, walking hand-in-hand. It was a unique time in cinema history, when the mainstream had its first skirmish with upstart startups, vying for the same inches on the Sacred Shelves. Upstarts with less polish, but chutzpah to spare.
It was, in fact, the birth of crowd sourcing media content, which is rapidly becoming a formidable force in media marketing.
This blog exists to celebrate that time and its players in the brief, ambitious, naive period I am calling the era of Grassroots Cinema. Each post will highlight some movie or some filmmaker from that era, and maybe some interviews and guest posts as well.
NEXT: The making of “Hollywood Mortuary.”
There is little about me that is not a products of media.
As a child I had little interest in sports. Make that no interest. Trees and birds and the outdoors all looked better when shot properly. The kids in sitcoms were much nicer than the aggressive ones at school. Monster roamed the world, sure, and occasionally destroyed cities. But how much more preferable they were to the real monsters on the playgrounds.
In short, if it didn’t exist on a screen or on a page, it left little mark on me. Today that has all… well, it’s pretty much still so.
In the mid to late 1990s consumer digital video equipment hit the market and changed the world. I, along with a handful of other ambitious, like-minded film geeks, armed ourselves and started making movies in our backyards with the hubris and no money, and we got them distributed world-wide. Like most of us, I never made a bucket of cash off of them, but my movies flooded the video store shelves. Now, the VHS graveyard is littered with Ron Ford product.
My first vanity piece, Hollywood Mortuary, developed a cult following that continues to this day.
Like musicians, we digital video pioneers were nearly always the victim of distributors, who took the fruit of our creativity and sweat to line their pockets, while tossing us tokens and scraps.
Hollywood producers have treated me no better. In 1994 I was hired to write a horror movie called The Fear, which was produced at a budget of around ¾ million. It grossed millions worldwide and actually pulled its distributor, A-Pix, out of the red for a time. I, however, was paid but a pittance of the contracted amount. I successfully sued the company, but was unable to collect from an already-dissolved LLC. — What Price Hollywood?
Today, it is a do-it-yourself world. The corporate Jabba the Huts eat all the pizza, if you offer them a slice. We digital pioneers had the right idea. We now live in a world where you can control your dream, from inception to exhibition. It is perhaps the only way for an individual artist to survive and remain an individual.
This blog is a step in that journey to own my own creativity, and to profit from it.