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Kevin Lindenmuth: Microbudget Pioneer

In the mid-nineties, Kevin Lindenmuth was my hero. He self-financed, wrote, produced, directed and edited a feature horror film, “Vampires and Other Stereotypes,” which was filled with Hollywood-quality prosthetic effects. More than that, he got it distributed worldwide on VHS, the then-reigning format for home viewing.

 

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Kevin J. Lindenmuth in his element

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Imagine my thrill when he asked to be in his second feature-length film (which turned out to be even more popular, and to spawn two sequels), a dark, original vampire drama called “Addicted to Murder.” I shot my scenes in LA and Kevin cut them into the rest of the footage, which was shot in New York.

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I was inspired and greatly motivated by his ambition and drive, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

So I did.

Kevin’s love of dark tales began in some disturbing childhood events.

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“My father was going to medical school in Chicago, and one of my earliest memories was walking into a white room and seeing all these headless bodies,” Kevin reminisced. “I remember asking, ‘Where are their heads at?’ Their heads were all covered for the medical students with white fabric, and in the white room it looked like there were all these headless corpses. For some reason, I was at his school and had wandered into a room I wasn’t supposed to go into…”

Kevin also remembered other childhood traumatic such as a babysitter who would have sex with her boyfriend in the same room as him. He also remembered being held hostage by spinsters when his ball bounced into their yard and he and some friends tried to retrieve it. “That was scary,” Kevin remembered.

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Other influences Kevin cited were the horror films on TV and the 1960s supernatural soap opera, “Dark Shadows.” As people who know me well know, that show was one of my prime corrupters, er, motivators, as well.

Kevin started, like most of us microbudgeters in those days, making super 8 films in his back yard.

“’Vampires and Other Stereotypes’ was the first feature I did on my own, but I did make lots of Super 8mm films when I was a kid, mostly stop-motion animation stuff. Then, in college, there were the student films, which were weird, like “Roadkill,” where it was this guy’s job to hit and run people during the day.”

However, the payday and liberation from his day job did not come from his first feature effort. New strategies had to be considered.

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”While one of the more well-known Brimstone titles, ‘Vampires and Other Stereotypes’ was the least lucrative of them all,” Kevin explained. “That is primarily because it cost the most to produce. That was the only movie I got money from an outside source (parents!). I still haven’t made money back on that film!”

 

Long before social media, Kevin struck on the idea of farming out segments of his anthology films to fellow filmmakers throughout the nation. It had the additional happy effect of drawing us all together into a community, myself among them. I don’t remember much destructive competitiveness, bickering or pettiness among any of us. We were all thrilled to get the boost of Kevin’s growing horror movie machine. And Kevin was able to make quality product at a budget that afforded him a profit. Most of us remain good friends.

“A year after I shot ‘Vampires and Other Stereotypes,’ I wanted to do another movie, as did Mick McCleery, who starred as the demon in that flick,” Kevin continued. “Mick was a really good filmmaker. So we came up with ‘Twisted Tales,’ an anthology. He directed an episode, I directed one, and the third was directed by a friend of Mick’s, Rita Klus, who helped work on ‘Vamps.’ That was the first collaboration, and that went smoothly.”

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By the time Kevin finished “Addicted to Murder,” he was already in contact with many other filmmakers around the nation.

“This was from going to the conventions like Chiller and Fangoria, and also from magazines like ‘Independent Filmmaking,’ ‘Daculina,’ and ‘Alternative Cinema,’” Kevin said.

He began including cameos of other microbudgeters in his early films. Some of those include Scooter McCrea (“Shatter Dead”), Jeffrey Arsenault (“Night Owl”), and myself (“Rage of the Werewolf”).

“I also enjoyed killing (‘Fangoria’ writer) Mike Gingold a few times (‘Addicted to Murder 2,’ ‘Alien Agenda’), which was weirdly cathartic.”

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Other anthologies followed, among them the franchise anthologies “Creaturealm,” and “The Alien Agenda.” My signature film, “Hollywood Mortuary,” started as a short film produced for one of the “Creaturealm” films – “Creaturealm: From the Dead.”

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The video stores in the 1990s saw a lot of Kevin’s movies, which he tirelessly self-distributed, selling and reselling around the planet. But, as it did for all of us, things began to shift with the turn of the millennium and the rise of the cyber age.

“I made a decent living with the indie movies in the mid-to-late nineties, but in the early 2000s, even sub-distributors didn’t want to pay any money for independent films,” Kevin explained. “Also, my contact at Blockbuster decided to establish his own company (Maverick Films) and just funneled his own movies in there, so Blockbuster was out.”

Since that time, sadly for his fans, there have been no Kevin Lindenmuth horror films.

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“The reason I stopped making the features was that I couldn’t afford it anymore and I didn’t consider it a hobby. Plus, I had to pay bills and survive. It isn’t like I became an indie filmmaker to make millions. Everything made on one movie went into the budget or budgets of the next ones.”

Kevin moved in another direction that has paid off better than the narrative features ever did.

“I went in the other direction and started making documentaries,” Kevin said. “It was an opposite process – making something out of a bunch of footage rather than shooting a specific bunch of scenes for a narrative – but far more people and far more income was made making the documentaries. And it is something I enjoy doing.”

“My recent one, finished a few years ago – ‘The Life of Death,’ – is getting a widespread release on DVD through Wild Eye Cinema next month,” [Actually, due next week. December 15 – RF] Kevin said. “That documentary, which features interviews with genre personalities like Tom Sullivan (‘Evil Dead” effects), Lloyd Kaufman (Troma), Bob Fingerman (‘Adventures into Digital Comics’), Jack Ketchum (‘The Girl Next Door’), Keith R.A DeCandido (‘Done the Impossible: The Fans’ Tale of ‘Firefly’ and ‘Serenity’), and past collaborators like Scooter McCrae, Debbie Rochon, and Sasha Graham – all talking about their perception of death. It’s one of my favorite projects so far.”

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Kevin has also spent his post-feature filmmaking time writing books about filmmaking. Some of those include “The Documentary Moviemaking Course,” “How to Make Movies,” “Making Movies on Your own,” and “The Independent Fimmaking Experience.”

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Kevin’s fans, however glad for him we are, still miss looking forward to his next dense, dark horror drama.

“I miss working on the narrative films, too,” Kevin admitted. “I’d love to make another horror film. In fact, I recently collaborated with Tim Ritter and wrote a Truth or Dare/Addicted to Murder” cross-over movie, which I’d love to do. But that’s sort of gone to the wayside [for now]. The main problem is recouping the money invested in these movies – and also the time. It’s been 25 years since I shot my first movie, and it’s not any easier or more lucrative. In the meantime, I do have a zombie book coming out called “The Dead Don’t Die,” that I co-wrote with Evan Jacobs (‘Walking Between the Raindrops,’ ‘Alien Force’), so the collaboration with other filmmakers is still happening.”

“I do think, though, that I’ll be making another feature in the next few years,” Kevin concluded.

You BETTER not be yanking our chains!

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Why do you think they call it exploitation?

I grew up on films with names like Herman Cohen, Bert I. Gordon, Samuel Z. Arkoff, James H. Nicholson and Roger Corman in the main titles. For me, those names were always the harbinger on a fun time. Maybe not a thinking man’s good time, but fun is fun, and some things transcend their own dumbness with sheer entertainment value. Exploitation films can do that.

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But think about that word.

Exploitation means to take advantage – advantage of someone or some idea or some value that has enough impact that it can be appropriated as a selling point. So bottom line: somebody is being taken advantage of. It’s unfair. Hey folks, that’s why we don’t have freak shows anymore! Although I must admit that if they did still exist, I’d be tempted to lay down my coin and check out what’s in the tent.

freaksrandianeckTodd Browning’s “Freaks,” (1932) behind the scenes.

Chances are, in the end, it’s the creative talent who is being exploited.

Even Roger Corman, the most benevolent and most beloved of cinematic exploiteers, told me personally that if I ever worked for him (which, as it turns out, I never did) I would be used, exploited and underpaid. But that I would walk away with professional credits to build upon. And of course he gave that leg-up to so many greats in the industry: Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Copolla… the list goes on.

Samuel Z. Arkoff , the co-founder of American International Pictures, the exploitation king of the 50s, 60s and 70s, was probably one of the worst of these artist-eaters. He began his professional life as an entertainment lawyer, making money off the backs of those working in movies. He partnered with entrepreneur James H. Nicholson and formed AIP, a company designed to make exploitation films aimed at the youth market and drive-in theaters. Arkoff was notorious for never giving away a nickel he didn’t have to. He famously edged his partner out of AIP in the 70s and stole it all for himself. Nicholson died, according to Forrest J Ackerman and other authorities, broke and broken-hearted.

Fast forward. Samuel Arkoff was the professional mentor of the man who gave me my first break. I only wish it had been Corman, who is so genteel and upbeat when he screws you. I speak of Greg Sims, owner and founder of Devin Entertainment. Sims hired me in the early 1990s to script a horror film based on his slight idea of a homicidal wooden mannequin. That became “The Fear,” a minor hit on VHS in 1995. It even spawned a hit soundtrack recording and a (terrible) sequel.

Fear 2 The awful sequel

Sims, to his credit, took the time to read a script I left in his box when I worked for him as a driver on his film “Red Surf.” I left scripts for a lot of producers in those days. Sims is the only one I know for sure who actually read it. He told me the script – a comedy called “The Graverobbers,” – could be shot without any rewriting, a great rarity, and that he would hire me soon to write another script for him. He made good on that, too, when he hired me to write “The Fear,” less than a year later.

What he neglected to do was to pay me the 30 grand or so he promised to give me in exchange for my efforts. It seems that was his plan all along, a trick he learned from his mentor Arkoff. I successfully sued the owner of record, Morty LLC, the company formed to make a movie out of my script. However, that company had dissolved immediately upon completion of the picture, so there was legally nobody to collect from.

Sims told me all along, sue me if you like, but you will never collect. He was so right. And that’s how they get you.

And that leads us back to the ugly truth that artists always have and probably always will get the shitty end of the stick as long as art is driven by commerce. Yet, how else to reach a mass-audience?

There is some hope as long as the Internet remains free. There are those who have done well using the Internet to distribute their own works. However, doing so takes savvy, drive and probably every waking moment to make it viable. That, in effect, turns the artist into a business person. And often the creative work suffers as it takes a back seat to the sales effort.

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So what is the answer? Damned if I know. But I still love watching exploitation films, and I still love making them. So I stumble along.

Have a good day, folks.

WE’RE SELLING POSTERS – THE MOVIE IS AN AFTER-THOUGHT

American International Pictures was the exploitation leader in the 1950s and 1960s. Executives James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff spearheaded movies designed to be seen in drive-ins, appealing directly to teenagers and young people as their target market. AIP was unabashed in its attitude that marketing came first, product second. It didn’t develop movies, it developed campaigns. Nicholson would brain storm titles – Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow, The Fast and The Furious, The Beast with a Million Eyes – a concept poster would be drawn up and then a writer was given the assignment of turning it into a screenplay. Usually with an impossibly short deadline.

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And that, my artist friends, is the cold hard truth of marketing creativity. You are selling the poster. The movie comes second. I am a filmmaker, not a graphic artist, so I always found that as discouraging as I’m sure many of you are feeling right now reading this. Nevertheless, it is so, and I have had to learn to accept that and stop kicking and bitching. It doesn’t mean we can’t do creative work and good work to back up that ad campaign. And if the movie is any good, it will be remembered long after the poster art is forgotten.

My first film as a director, Alien Force, was made for Wildcat Entertainment, and they followed a similar scheme to Nicholson and Arkoff’s. Once we had the title, producer Mark Gordon and myself went to the video store and looked at the boxes of a lot of action-oriented space movies and video games. Finally, we were inspired by the box art for Duke Nukem, the video game. We were inspired by the Duke’s pose and ripped it off – er, borrowed it – for the pose of our lead actor, Tyrone Wade, in a poster photo shoot. Next we rented an impressive alien mask from a costume store (this was before we knew what our alien would look like). Then we hired a graphic artist, Michael Feifer, to put it together into a pleasing poster.

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I’d like to say the movie was a huge hit based on that cool poster, but still, I was pretty pleased with how it came out, and my premise still stands. If you want to sell your movie, spend some time on some kick ass ad art. The same principal holds true today. People won’t watch a streaming movie they have never heard of unless they are first inspired by that thumbnail ad art on their screen. Period.

ONE MAN (OR WOMAN), ONE MOVIE: THE SPIRIT OF MICRO-BUDGET

The great director Frank Capra (MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) made personal movies within the Hollywood system, touting a philosophy he called “one man, one movie.”

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The idea that a feature length movie could be a personal work of art was a radical one in 1930s America. However, Capra had the industry clout to do and be that after his IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT surprised the industry by winning the Oscar for best picture. But it was a rich man’s game.

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Now, it’s pretty much the go-to attitude of micro-budget movie makers. Only you don’t have to be famous to practice the One Man (or Woman) One Movie philosophy anymore. Now we have the Internet: a world-wide forum to get our stuff seen.- How cool and convenient and amazing is that?

This blog began as a celebration of the earlier, more naive, less skilled and less jaded movies of the early days of digital filmmaking. They were creative days, when backyard auteurs could walk into their local Blockbuster or Hollywood Video store and see their completely personal micro-budget, backyard opus on the shelves, to be rented by movie-lovers looking for something new. What a thrill that was.

That little tickle to the ego is gone now. But the spirit of what those filmmaker did is alive and thriving. Consider them – people like Kevin Lindenmuth, Jeff Leroy, Ted Newsom, Ron Bonk, The Polonia Brothers, and, er, myself – as pioneers, paving the way for the auteurs making feature movies with whatever means they have today. – And getting them seen online.

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Consider a couple examples that I know of just in my local area (Spokane, WA). Jesse James Hennessy, a director who specializes in gory horror, but often with a playful twist, is making a web series called MR. DARK. It is a dark drama about a detective with second sight. It is designed to be cut into a feature film when all is done. James Allen Teague is another filmmaker in the local area. He is making a feature-length thriller called MAGDALENE BLUE in fits and starts as locations are secured and cast and crew are reorganized every month or two. He will get it done. I know him.

The same thing is happening all over the country. And around the globe.

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This blog is here to celebrate micro-budget filmmaking and filmmakers, be they from the VHS days, or doing it right now. Let’s keep the One Man (or Woman) One Movie spirit going. Let’s give Hollywood a reason to be scared.

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If you make feature length movies without major sponsorship and with budgets under $50,000, I want to hear from you. I want to know what you’re working on. You can comment here or contact me at my retro-nineties VHS email address: fordius@aol.com.

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