Friday, October 5, 2012

The "Never Got Made" Files #86 - #87: The 2 Cadavers of David Schmoeller

If one is looking for accolades as a film director, the horror genre is probably a place to avoid as most mainstream film reviewers tend to look down their noses at it.  Sure, we get the occasional praise for genre mainstays like Dario Argento and George Romero, or breakouts like Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi.  But some genre directors can be left criminally underrated, despite delivering some solid shockers.  One such director is David Schmoeller.  Raised in Texas, Schmoeller grew up wanting to be a writer (thanks partially to some encouragement from a fellow boarding school student named Tommy Lee Jones) and fell into film by pure chance.

Schmoeller debuted in film by continuing the fine 1970s tradition of Texans shocking the pants off folks via independent horror with TOURIST TRAP (1979), a feature length expansion of his thesis film THE SPIDER WILL KILL YOU (1976).  Blending shocks with a surrealistic edge, the film was an assured debut and very effective (so much so that Hollywood ripped it off uncredited in the HOUSE OF WAX [2005] remake).  If he didn’t win any awards for his debut, Schmoeller should have been given a medal for his third feature, CRAWLSPACE (1986), as he survived a trial by hellfire in lead actor Klaus Kinski.  Despite such behind-the-scenes insanity, the director managed to turn in an striking horror-thriller and later gave us the great short PLEASE KILL MR. KINSKI (1999) about his experience.  And perhaps his biggest achievement was directing and writing (under a pseudonym) the first PUPPET MASTER (1989).  The film’s miniature menaces (including one fashioned after Kinski) he created have become iconic and the series continues to line the pockets of producer Charles Band, who just made PUPPET MASTER X.

With a career spanning over three decades, there is no doubt that Schmoeller has worked on a number of projects for both film and television.  Naturally, there were some unmade ones along the way and he was kind enough to talk with me about two of them via email.


Sporting a title befitting a 1950s film noir, THE 12 CADAVERS OF JOE MARINER was originally a novel published by Donald Weismann, a painter, art historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin.  The inspiration came to Weismann in 1968 while teaching an art class where he received a rather ho-hum reaction to some shocking performance art he was covering.  What, he wondered at the time, would shock people today?  The idea he settled upon was an art exhibition displaying an actual human corpse. (Amusingly, this idea came into fruition in the 1990s with Gunther von Hagens’ BODY WORLDS, which displayed preserved, skinned human corpses.)  Putting pen to paper, Weismann wrote his novel and published it in 1977.  The story follows Joe Mariner on his journey – both literally and figuratively – as he sets out from New Orleans to New York City in a rented U-Haul truck.  His cargo is 12 human corpses, which he plans to display at a major NYC art museum in the hopes of shocking viewers into seeing what he calls “the holy.”  Along the way the everyman Mariner has strange encounters at every stop – from a hauntingly beautiful woman who follows him in a biplane to a man who also collects and displays corpses to a black guy lynching a white Volkswagen Beetle.

As you can probably guess from those few examples, JOE MARINER is a positively surreal novel.  It features some scenes so bizarre that avant garde auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky might sit back and say, “What the hell is this?”  Perhaps that is what drew Schmoeller to the project as he once spent a semester in Mexico City in 1968 studying theater under Jodorowsky.  The real reason is far simpler though.  “Dr. Weismann was a very influential professor of mine in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin in the early 1970s,” he explains.  “He was a painter and filmmaker and writer. I saw all his movies and read all his books. I was his student and friend when he was writing THE 12 CADAVERS OF JOE MARINER – and when the book was published, I optioned it for a short period for a dollar.”

Schmoeller directs Chuck Conners
on the set of TOURIST TRAP (1979)
Indeed, a tiny blurb in Variety in April 1980 announced Schmoeller had purchased the film rights to the book.  As a director, Schmoeller had recently experienced his first theatrical success with the aforementioned horror film TOURIST TRAP.  Choosing such an unusual work for his sophomore feature would probably have sent his career in a completely different direction, but Schmoeller felt a certain connection with the material outside of his personal relationship with Weismann.  “I just loved the idea of this artist taking a truck full of cadavers to NYC with the idea of displaying them as art,” he reveals. “And I had ridden in a school bus full of hippies from Austin to Washington D.C. to protest the Vietnam War.  Driving through the South in a bus full of hippies in the early 70s? What a trip – so, I liked the road movie aspect of JOE MARINER.”

Ultimately, Schmoeller could not garner interest in the project and he never wrote a full script (unbeknownst to him at the time, Cary White, a fellow University of Texas at Austin alum, had written an unsolicited screenplay).  “I don’t think I was a particularly effective producer so, I just didn’t get very far with the project,” he discloses. “And I was probably busy writing and directing other movies and other scripts. I stayed friends with Dr. Weismann until his death at [the age of] 92. I probably disappointed him that I didn’t do more with his book.”

In the end, Schmoeller wound up writing and directing the much more commercial THE SEDUCTION (1982), which turned out to be one of Avco Embassy’s top grossing films the year it was released.   Surprisingly, the saga of adapting JOE MARINER to film didn’t end with Schmoeller’s participation.  Weismann actually went about turning his novel into a screenplay with an old actor friend of his.  Some guy named Lee Marvin.  No joke, Weismann and Marvin pounded out a 147 page script with the intention of the gruff actor, who was a fan of the book, as the lead Joe Mariner.  Unfortunately, despite Marvin trying to convince director John Boorman to helm the project, it didn’t get made before Marvin’s passing in 1987.  For anyone interested in how it might have played out, Weismann republished the novel in 2002 and also included the complete screenplay he co-authored with Marvin.

#87 - HUNTRESS (1986/87)

HUNTRESS was an all around different kind of project for Schmoeller. Six years after the JOE MARINER experience, he found himself working for Empire International, a low budget studio headed by Charles Band. Having survived the CRAWLSPACE war zone, Schmoeller set about making his second feature for Empire and the system there proved to be more commercial and less artistic.  When asked what inspired him to write the script, the director was very honest and straightforward. “Money,” he states.  “I was given a title and a poster and asked to write a screenplay by Charlie Band. That was how we made movies at Empire International in the 1980s.”

As a film producer, Band continued the tried-and-true methods of 1950s B-movie producers who operated with an “idea/poster first, script later” method.  Schmoeller outlined the process by which Band determined which productions his company was going to film.  It started with title contests among employees with a bonus reward of $500 if the title was eventually used.  “He would then send the best 100 [titles] out to poster artists,” Schmoeller explains.  “Two or three times a year, Austin Furst from Vestron would fly in from the East Coast. Charlie would line these posters around his office – 30, 40, 50 posters maybe. Austin would come in, go around the room pointing: ‘I take this one and that one and THAT one.’ He would buy the films based on the title and artwork in blocks of 10-15 at a time. Then Charlie would bring us writers-directors into his office and say: ‘I want you to do this one and that one.’ We would go off and write a screenplay based on the title and artwork. They didn’t all get made, but most of them did. It was a lot of fun. Those were the days. HUNTRESS was just one of those films.”

Unlike JOE MARINER, Schmoeller wrote a full script for HUNTRESS as work-for-hire.  As you can guess from the poster, the plot revolved around a female werewolf.  The specifics, as explained by Schmoeller, involved a bounty hunter named Taylor West coming to a mining town to track a man named Henry Truffles, who thinks he is a wolf and has allegedly been killing people.  Once in the town, West runs afoul of Fraser, the local bully also hoping to collect the $100,000 reward money, and also falls for Diana, a sheltered young woman with the lycanthrope secret.  Naturally, it all builds towards a climax where all of these elements come together.

Despite having written a full script, Schmoeller was juggling multiple projects at the time and ended up shooting CATACOMBS in late 1987 instead.  So what kept the HUNTRESS project from being made?  That answer is simple really.  “The bank took over Empire and closed it down,” Schmoeller reveals of the studio’s collapse.

Empire HUNTRESS promo flyer
(courtesy of David Schmoeller)

Indeed, Band’s company found itself with dire financial problems and, unable to repay their loans, was seized by the French bank Crédit Lyonnais.  Several film productions (PULSE POUNDERS, ROBOT JOX, TRANSFORMATIONS) remained unfinished at the time.  Schmoeller’s CATACOMBS had the unfortunate distinction of being the last completed film for Empire and the director even found himself without a copy after the lone print he personally delivered at the Cannes film festival disappeared into a world of financial red tape (the film was eventually released in the U.S. as CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE by Epic Pictures via Columbia TriStar Home Video in 1993).  Never to be one to abandon a good title, Band eventually produced HUNTRESS: SPIRIT OF THE NIGHT (1995) for his next company Full Moon.  The story also involves a werewolf woman in a small town, but the similarities end there as this new incarnation is a Romanian shot cheapo filled with softcore sex.

In the end, HUNTRESS ended up being one of probably dozens of scripts that got written and then shelved at Empire.  When asked if he would return to the material today, Schmoeller does have a certain affinity for the project.  “I always liked that script,” he says, “despite the goofy way it came into being, written from a title and really goofy artwork.  But I’ve been busy writing-directing-producing my own movies from scripts that I own.”  Now teaching film at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Schmoeller has remained active in the last few years.  He produced the comedy THOR AT THE BUS STOP (2009) and recently completed his return to feature directing with LITTLE MONSTERS (2012).  You can read about both on his official website here.

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