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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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STARRING GUESTAR, WITH CHRIS MACKEY

Followers of this blog (and you know who you are, That One Guy) are already aware that my customary once-a-week post has slipped off for the last few weeks. I have been even more swamped than usual, what with directing one play, rehearsing one, and performing in another all at the same time. And that doesn’t include the two short films I am acting in. But I am back now, though the pace of my life hasn’t slowed down any. Gotta get back up there and ride that horse, dammit. Or something like that.

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Chris Mackey today

The subject of this installment is Chris Mackey, the only microbudgeter I ever met with a burning passion for publicity and promotion. That makes him unique in a crowd of unique folk who spend a majority of their energy in creative pursuit, for (most of the time) little or no compensation.

I met Chris early on in my movie making (for want of a better word) “career.” We met at a collector’s show where I was promoting one of my films. He later contacted me to do an interview for his fanzine, “Guestar.” That ‘zine continues today as a website (http://guestars.wordpress.com). I enjoyed his enthusiasm and banter so much that I invited him to play the Forry Ackerman-inspired self-styled publicist character in one of my first features, “Hollywood Mortuary” (1999). Type casting, right? That’s what I thought. However, Chris was a beginning actor and didn’t think he would be able to memorize the lines, even though I told him they need not be letter-perfect. The role went to a more seasoned actor, Joe Haggerty, but Chris would make his mark later as an actor, as you shall read later in this blog.

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Chris as he looked when I met him, with his mother and some Kiss lookalikes.

“The first movie [I remember seeing] in a theater was ‘Planet of the Apes’ (1969),” Chris said of his earliest genre influences. “My friends insisted on front row, and these apes on horses, I swear, Jumped over our heads.”

Like most of us in this rag-tag microbudget club, Chris became obsessed with those images on the screen.

““My mother would take me and my little brother to family- themed matinees during summer,” he continued. “Most memorable were ‘The Time Machine,’ (1960) and ‘Santa Claus Conquers the Martians’ (1964). I would act sick and stay home to watch the morning movie. I would [also] turn my TV down at 11 pm and watch the late movies. [In those days] it seemed every network had one until 2 am. I haunted the school and city libraries for any books on film.”

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Chris spoke about his early ambitions and his road to becoming a generator of publicity.

“[I] was going to be an artist, any kind really,” he said. “But, then we discovered I was color blind and I switched to black and white, with pens and brush ink. Then I was going to do comic-books, but [then I] found artists as good as me or better [who were] not making any money at it either. So I switched to publishing independent comics.”

Chris was heavily influenced by Mark Thomas McGee’s book “Beyond Ballyhoo,” which he read over and over.

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“Then something clicked in my brain,” Chris mused. “Why are some movies boring and others try so hard to keep me awake for 90 minutes?”

Chris concluded that the difference was, in his words, “promotion and ballyhoo.”

“Movies need a title, a hook and moments [that make] you stay eating that popcorn and drinking that soda until the credits.”

Thus, in 1983, began the Guestar ‘zine, which has since morphed into the website Chris refers to as a “cyber ‘zine.” It is driven, he says, by interviews with (mostly) microbudgeters, and is filled with movie reviews, which Chris cites as his main love in doing what he does.

“Move reviews feed me,” he said.

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Genre icons Robert Z’Dar and Michale Berryman, as photographed by Chris Mackey.

He studied the way that Galaxy Press promoted science fiction at comicons and in comic book stores. He was also influenced by the promotion work done by Action International Pictures. He developed a philosophy to always praise, and never condemn. That, he concluded, was the secret to serving genre to the masses.

It can, however, still stir up controversy.

“Ballyhoo isn’t dead. Just don’t put ‘em down, and we both shall flourish. Many a cyber cat-fight [has been waged] on Amazon over my soft reviews of stuff I love. Really.”

He also tried making his own films with his brother and his friends.

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Chris making movies. That is NOT his brother with him.

“I don’t like being behind a camera, but we made a few.”

Next Chris began organizing Star Trek and Star Wars conventions in his Central Californian home town. “A rival promoter offered me $60 an hour to play Darth Vader at a mall for a weekend, because only I was big enough for suit.”

Thus began a new chapter in Chris’s life.

“I have had 21 great chances to be in films,” Chris said. “I Played a mad scientist more than once, and a drunken ex-teacher in “Evil Ever After” (2006). [I played] Hugo Strange, a Batman villain, seven times in a web-series and documentary.”

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I finally turned my camera on Chris when he played the  cockroach in “Deadly Scavengers” (2001). This time, however, he was cast first and the suit was made to fit him. Sadly, most of his suit work was obscured by the producer who made the decision to cover up our fun rubber suit monster with generic images of real cockroaches, superimposed right over Chris! For me, my original cut is far more entertaining.

Chris also played an alien in my short film, “That’s How They Get You,” which was a segment in Kevin Lindenmuth’s anthology, “The Alien Agenda: Time Enough (2002).”

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And then there is Chris Mackey the microbudget producer.

“I was offered the rights to a film, ‘Minds of Terror,’ for less than $300 that starred Conrad Brooks and Joe Estevez,” Chris said. “It was dumped because all [of the] violence was shot off screen or implied, and it had no nudity, I designed a poster and marketed [it on] on Ebay and Amazon and re-titled it twice and sold again. Now it’s about to get an MST3000-like fan-film riffing version for Christmas.”

“I’ve [also] line produced, just because it needed to be done, on films I wrote, like ‘A Dove among Pigeons’ (2011).”

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A Dove Among Pigeons

Chris also produced and directed a horror western short film called “Boot Hill Blind Dead,” (2011) co-produced by William Combs. Yours truly, the author of this blog, played the lead character, who relates the tale of “the handsome Stranger” at a wild west roadshow. That film will soon be re-released as part of the horror-western anthology “Bloody Spurs,” alongside my own film, “Man Without a Saddle.”

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Family comes first of course, and Chris’s family life often felt compromised by his movie making/promoting ambitions – a common problem among microbudgeters, and a key reason why my 25 year marriage failed 8 years ago. We often make promises to ourselves that we will end this madness once and for all. But it is always a temporary decree, because guys like us need to do this to be happy, no matter how meager the rewards.

“I said last year I would end my involvement in microbudgets. But, I’m writing even more and look for “Tribal Black Ops.” Next year.”

I sure will, Chris. I can’t wait!

Stay Calm and Keep Shooting

The Pace of Things

Time is money, even in microbudget (or perhaps especially so). If you take too much time getting it in the can, you’re burning meager resources, and tempting the labels of pretentiousness and egotism. But if you move too fast, you can get sloppy and destroy any chance of rising above the dreck and challenging the attitudes and preconceptions that many bring with them to the screening of a microbudget film.

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This captive audience of cast members and insiders is easy to please. Your real audience will come in challenging you to entertain and dazzle them. How do you do that and get it in the can on budget? – That is the question!

I’ve been at both ends of that spectrum. But mostly, I have been accused of moving TOO fast. I learned on the run, trying to please producers who gave me little to nothing and expected results yesterday. It’s the groove I fall into whenever I am on a movie set. Yet I look back now and cringe at some of the sloppy details, most of which could have been fixed while keeping on schedule and budget if I had taken a moment to step back and look at it coolly.

Of Price and When

The pace of your shoot is heavily determined by budget and deadline. Many of the short films I make now are for timed competitions (see Ron Ford’s Microbudget Blog, July 4, 2015), a challenge I find especially stimulating and feel particularly suited to, given my background. In those cases, shooting fast is everything. But still, without taking care and time to get good sound, images and performances, the project will have little chance of taking home awards.

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“Time is money… Time is money… Time is money…” (Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, UFA, 1927)

Even if yours is a personal project, and costs you nothing but your time – that is, even when there is no incentive to move more quickly – there must be some sort of urgency to the pace of the shoot, lest cast and crew people become bored and move on to other projects. I’ve been there, too. One project I acted in in the early 2000s was never completed, and can never be now, though we would love to. We’ve all changed too drastically. – That is a tragedy.

Hurry Up and Slow Down

The only really answer to the question of how quickly or slowly to shoot your project is to strive to make the best movie you can, under any given circumstances. In other words, go in prepared, do your homework, take your time on the set, and try to get it right. But keep an eye on the clock. – Oh. And try not to panic.

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To face The Clock, do your homework, go in prepared and confident. (Orson Welles, CITIZEN KANE publicity shot, RKO, 1941)

Remember: Sound. Lighting. Performance. Those are what count. No matter how special your effects are or how revolutionary your ideas, if those basics aren’t up to snuff, nobody will give a damn.

NOBODY. WILL. GIVE. A. DAMN.

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Quasimodo thought the critics would be so mesmerized they would see past the poor performances and production sound in his microbudget masterpiece, “Sanctuary is my Middle Name.” – Sadly, he was wrong. (James Cagney, MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, Universal, 1957)

MICROBUDGET ETIQUETTE 101: DON’T BE A DICK

There is a narrow gap between being a confident director and being a dick. The winning microbudgeter walks a razor’s edge.

My two big passions in life are microbudgetry (folks call it film making) and Community Theater. They have many similarities. They have many very important differences too, but that is meat for a future blog. One of the qualities they share is a reliance on committed volunteers. People who will put serious energy into your project because they believe in it or because they are trying to build a body of work for themselves. These are worthy goals, and it is a healthy, reciprocal relationship, as long as everyone is laboring on spec.

COMMUNITY THEATER and MICROBUDGET MOVIE MAKING

Onstage as Shelley Levene. (Courtesy Daniel Baumer, Danscape)

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CrawlingBrainFullScan Directing “The Crawling Brain.”

However, if you do end up making the next “Blair Witch Project” and you get millions for your inspired microbudget effort – don’t be a dick. Be prepared to share the profits with those who helped you get it.

Too often I have been on microbudget sets where the director imagined him or herself to be the next Scorsese, just what Hollywood has been waiting for. These dicks (they shall not be named here) usually bring with them an unspoken assumption that cast and crew people know how lucky you are to be on the ground floor of this next wave in the cinematic art-form. And anyone who doesn’t suck wind at the power of that “artistry” clearly doesn’t “get it,” and probably doesn’t need to be on their set.

Consequently, many of these proud would-be film “auteurs” never finish their projects, because members of the cast and crew, feeling ill-used, will walk away from it.

These so-called artists are self-deluded dicks. They need to learn some manners. Don’t be that dick. Be prepared, great. Know what you want and be firm, absolutely. Be confident and be sure, but don’t for a second think you are better than anybody else. That’s solid advice in the world, and it’s true on the set, as well.

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You ain’t all that.

When you have sufficient budget to pay all your people, it’s a dream. Your cast and crew really appreciate it, even if the pay is little more than a token. And if you can pay them well, you can even afford to push them a little, make demands if necessary. Even then, of course, you should still be guided by the “Don’t Be A Dick” principal, but you do have a little more wiggle room.

“We have a budget this time, folks!”
(Bikini Frankenstein, Retromedia)

However, if your cast and crew are unpaid, which is generally the case in microbudgetry, you had better be prepared to keep your ego in check and treat them with respect. They are donating their time and their passion. You should be grateful and you should show it.

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Happy microbudgeters: “Tiki” (Retromedia) reunion. Ron Ford, Angie Dierdorff, Joelene Smith, Daniel Anderson and Heather Swanstrom.

Volunteers are to be wooed and nurtured. They are your companions in the project, they are a kind of family, and they are your friends. Let them know it every day on the set.

Film is Dead – Leave the Camera Rolling

We micro budget guys invented shooting cinematically on video media. It is rapidly becoming the norm, leaving film behind as a fringe medium, suited only for experimental artists and nostalgia buffs.

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The Dinosaur Days of Film

On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan as much as said that film is dead, when he remarked that he could not tell the difference between identical shots done on film, and those shot on state of the art HD video.

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Marc Maron, comic genius/cat lover

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Vince Gilligan, creator of mature, layered television

On a slightly later episode of the WTF podcast, movie makin’ one-man-band Robert Rodriguez confirmed the death knell. While discussing his 2007 anthology collaboration with Quentin Taratino, Grindhouse, Rodriguez said that Tarantino planned to shoot his segment, Deathproof, on film, to recreate the 70’s drive-in look and feel. Rodriguez, however, chose to shoot his segment, Planet Terror, on video and simulate the identical drive-in look in post-production, at a fraction of the expense and with a lot more control.

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Along the way, and inadvertently, Rodriguez explained how working in video has affected even the traditional protocol of shooting a movie. Particularly in the use of long rolls to cover multiple takes.

“I just leave the camera rolling,” Rodriguez said (paraphrasing). He has the actors go through several takes of the scene at hand until, he is satisfied, before ending the roll. The takes are separated by slates while the camera still rolls. The director makes notes of which takes work and which do not en route, to save the editor endless headaches.

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Robert Rodriguez, movie studio in a Stetson.

Then he moves on to the next piece of coverage needed for the scene and starts the process all over again.

It’s a neat and efficient system, suited to the new technology. I have done some version of in the past, but kind of instinctively and not as cleanly documented and organized as Rodriguez. Often on a shoot I will have the actors go right into the next take without stopping the roll. It’s recorded on a digital card, so there is no expense in letting it run, and the actors don’t get “cold” from breaking their momentum and having to start over again for a fresh take. When I work like this on the fly, however, I just put fingers up in front of the lens in order to separate each take – one, two, three, etc.I couple that with a verbal slate, just to clarify.

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Silent star Anita Page was in her nineties when she played a mock version of herself in my film “Hollywood Mortuary.” Her “interview” scenes are peppered throughout the film to give a sense of authenticity. All her scenes were shot as one take, conducted like a real interview.

Nine times out of ten, we microbudgeters are our own editors anyway, so you can be a little looser about it than the pros, with their so-called “budgets.” After all, you were there on the set when it was shot. You know how it went.

Still, a few notes couldn’t hurt either.

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I have a vague memory of my first viewing of “The Wizard of Oz” on TV as a small child, something that would become an annual event. I remember the Tin Man’s first appearance, and my brother and I getting very excited because there was a robot in it! “It’s not a robot, it’s a Tin Man,” my mother said. But tin or steel, a metal man is a robot in my book.

The point is, robots have always been cool, the stuff that fuels geeks to become microbudget filmmakers.

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An early Robbie the Robot concept shelters his grandson R2D2 at the Robot Hut.

When I learned that a guy living not an hour from me, in a rural section of Eastern Washington, had the finest collection of movie and TV robots this side of anywhere, I had to see for myself. After a little field work, I tracked down electrical engineer and musician John Rigg and finagled my way into a visit to his “Robot Hut.” Quite an honor. He doesn’t do it for just anyone, or he wouldn’t have time to do anything else. I’d like to say it was my movie credits that opened the door for me, but it probably had more to do with my knowing the daughter of one of his best friends.

So my friend Mitch Tiner and I went to visit. Mitch is a great friend, and he does all the special effects make up and miniatures for my films. Sometimes he acts and does the music, too. He was as excited to see this collection as I was.

From the road, John’s ranch fits right in with those around it. But if you pull in and look at the far side of one outbuilding, you will see a giant robot display on the wall, emblazoned with the legend, Robot Hut.

Robot Hut video produced by Colin Malvaney for The Spokesman Review. 

Inside are 4,000 plus robot items. Many of those items are life size, meticulous, hand-built, replicas of some of the most famous robots from movies and television. John built them all from scratch, many times re-building them three, four or five times until they met his exacting standards. The imperfect earlier models were sold off or given away to fans who couldn’t believe their luck!

You enter the building through an “airlock” anteroom, powered by a devise fans will recognize as Krell technology from “Forbidden Planet.”

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Krell technology

That is the prelude to a perfect replica of that movie’s Robbie the Robot right inside the door, who speaks to you as neon tubes light up where a mouth should be.

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“Welcome to Altair IV, Gentlemen.”

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“I am to transport you to the Residence.”

Also in attendance are Gort, Tobor the Great, Maria the “Metropolis” robotrix, Johnny Five, Huey, Dewey and Louie (“Silent Running”) R2D2, C3PO, B-9 (“Lost in Space”), the walking tin can from The Mysterious Doctor Satan, the sentient machines from Venus that attacked in “Target Earth,” and many, many more.

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Gort

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Tobor the Great

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Maria of Metropolis

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Johnny Five

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Huey, Dewey and Louie

Mitch and B-9. That does not compute. Danger, Danger!

Mitch and B-9. That does not compute. Danger, Danger!

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The Mysterious Doctor Satan

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Target Earth

And there are some pretty swell non-robotic items thrown in for the sheer fun of it.

Flying saucers from “Lost in Space”, “War of the Worlds” and “Forbidden Planet,” for instance.

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The Jupiter 5, from “Lost in Space” TV series.

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The C-57D, from “Forbidden Planet.”

And the one and only Time Machine from… “The Time Machine.” (Okay, not the one and only, it’s a copy, but it’s a pretty damn perfect one.) A second Time Machine John built was seen last season in an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.”

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Screw Deloreans. This is stylin’ through time.

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The Time Machine

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Time Machine console

Rigg has been obsessed with robots his whole life, and possesses a natural gift for mechanics and building things. In 1980 he decided to recapture his youth and find the six toy robots that meant so much to him as a child. Along the way, he started collecting other robots as well, and then it became a sickness that many of us geeks can relate to. In John’s case, it was a glorious disease. These hand-built masterpieces are a testament to the films they are copied from – to their durability and to their ability to inspire the geeks and artists of the future.

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A Robbie head variation used for his appearance in the “Uncle Simon” episode of  “The Twilight Zone.”

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A force field generator post from “Forbidden Planet”

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Wider view of Johnny Five from “Short Circuit.”

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“Silent Running”

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Model of “Forbidden Planet” control room.

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Tiny little bot booties on “Target Earth” robots.

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Remote control for “Tobor the Great.”

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Robotic walking legs topped by “Target Earth” robot body pulls a cart.

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Fiberglass mold for Robbie legs.

Dracula, Original Gangster of the Id

Every microbudget auteur started as a movie fan. Most of us, enamored of one genre more than another. For whatever reason, the majority of us that I have known got there through a love of horror, science fiction or action movies. I am no different. I have been a horror guy for as long as I can remember. As I got older I learned to appreciate all genres, and now I am more inclined to follow directors than genres in my viewing selections. But when I was little, man, monsters were all I cared about. And among monster makers, Universal reigned unrivaled.

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Photo by Ron Ford

I will soon be teaching a class on Universal monsters for a local Community College outreach program. I have been studying up. preparing curriculum. What follows is part of that prep, but has much to do with why I am driven to make movies now.

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The term “horror movie” did not exist before 1931, according to film historian David J. Skal (“The Horror Show”).

David Skal also said, monsters in Hollywood are the “gangsters of the id.”

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David J. Skal, film historian

Like the gangster movie, the horror film has its roots in the Great Depression. Dark escapism was the soup du jour for a public whose carpet of security had just been pulled out from under them. Those shell shocked people were only too eager to dive into darker waters than those waded in the giddy Jazz Age ‘20s.

In 1931, “Dracula,” with Bela Lugosi, was burning up the box office on Broadway. Yet, Hollywood was reluctant to take the bite. The reason for that, at least as far as Universal is concerned, was that the studio head, Carl Laemmle, Sr. had a distaste for morbid content.

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Carl Laemmle, Sr.

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Carl Laemmle, Jr.

Logosi on stage

Bela Lugosi as he appeared on Broadway in “Dracula”

No American film before that time had featured a supernatural creature. In pictures like “London After Midnight” and “The Cat and the Canary,” the vampire or the creeper always turned out to be a hoax, with a person in disguise who had an agenda. It was always Farmer MacGregor, who was thwarted by those meddling kids. Papa Laemmle, however, was being pressured by his son and heir apparent, Carl Laemmle , Jr., to make the movie. He thought dark horror stories were just swell, and he was sure that “Dracula” would blow up at the box office.

London+After+Midnight+pelicula

MGM was also sniffing after the rights to the Broadway play, so Papa Laemmle bit the bullet and procured the rights to make “Dracula.” Papa had one proviso, however, that the great silent star and make-up maestro Lon Chaney must play the Count. That plan fell short, however, when Chaney died of lung cancer, just a few months after diagnosis. So the search was on for a new Dracula.

Veidt

Although a hit on Broadway, Universal was reluctant at first to cast Bela Lugosi in the film version of “Dracula.” Conrad Veidt, of “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari fame, was one actor considered for the role before Lugosi’s ultimate casting.

But that is another story.

“Dracula” was made with Bela Lugosi in the lead, and no matter what you think of that dank but creaky melodrama, it was a box office smash, vindicating Carl Laemmle, Jr., and making Lugosi an icon. The horror cycle had begun. When Papa stepped down a short time later and Jr. ascended to studio head, its survival was ensured – for a time at least.

Theme: Monsters!!

Theme: MONSTER!!

Theme: MONSTER!!

Theme: MONSTER!!

Theme: MONSTER!!A small part of my collection of Universal Monster memorabilia