Thursday, April 18, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #99: THE FLESH TWISTERS (1979)

“The golden rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.”
- Frank (Keith David) in THEY LIVE

We’ve covered a lot of obscure, unmade films in our “never got made” series, but for entry #99 we’re going to unveil the champ.  This is a project so obscure that it left even the most knowledgeable horror historians scratching their heads; its digital footprint was smaller than Stephen King’s “subjects I should write about” list; and press mentions amounted to less than a bottle of ink.  In my best Carl Denham voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you THE FLESH TWISTERS!”

This evocatively titled horror indie boldly announced itself to the world in the May 9, 1979 issue of Variety.  Sharing a full page ad alongside SLITHIS and HERE COME THE DELTS (CAMPUS CORPSE/THE HAZING being sold as a comedy), THE FLESH TWISTERS tried to entice readers with an indecipherable photo and the promise of “one of the most terrifying stories of the century.”  The talent listed behind it included one Gary Fox as the director and one Rick Swan as the writer.  Fox and Swan?  To quote William Kerwin in BLOOD FEAST, this was going to be “one of those long hard ones.”

The original Variety ad:

Neither name registered on the IMDb and good luck weeding those names out via Google.  Thankfully, amateur detective and crime fighter Bill Picard was on the case and soon established these weren’t just playful animal sobriquets.  Gary Fox and Rick Swan were real and he had found them.  After convincing them I wasn’t the world’s most inventive collections agent, Fox and Swan agreed to talk about the unmaking of their film, the story of how two ambitious young men decided to bend over backwards to try and make THE FLESH TWISTERS.

Believe it or not, the film’s genesis began in higher education.  Gary Fox and Rick Swan were both pre-med students at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa when they first met and became close friends.  While at school, both men were involved in the theater department; Swan penned an opera called THE COSMIC GOOSE that Fox had a role in and Fox later directed Swan’s play THE EGG AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW.

Drake University 1974-75 theater schedule:

Following their mutual graduations in 1975, Fox and Swan moved to Los Angeles to try to get into the film and music business.  Their sojourn to the City of Angels was brief and soon both men were back living in Iowa, where Fox had enrolled into the MFA film program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

“While I was there, Rick and I were planning on trying to cash in on what was left of the drive-in market, which was still going at that time,” Fox reveals in a telephone conversation. “Also, tax codes were such that it was a tremendous tax shelter for an investor.  Those laws have all since gone, but you could basically invest in independent film and write it off. I mean, if you had extra bucks and were a rich guy and you could throw some money around, you could be in the movie business and the Federal government didn’t really hit you that hard at all.  In fact, it was a great write off.  The financial climate was right.  Rick wanted to do something, I wanted to do something.”

Scaring audiences is timeless
Despite being neophytes in the film making business, both Fox and Swan had the acute business sense to know that when working with a small budget on a first time feature that it was best to take the exploitation route.  “If you’re talking about independent productions, you know you’re not going to have a lot of money,” Fox explains.  “So what is the best way to get bang for your buck?  Scaring people is probably easier to do with less money than other kinds of productions.”  Or, as Swan more succinctly put it in our email conversations, “Since obvious incompetents were making acceptable drive-in stuff, I figured I could do it too.”

And so the idea to make a horror film was born.  Swan was the more astute of the two when it came to the horror and sci-fi fields, having grown up with a love for the genre and worked at a drive-in.  He soon came up with the superb name THE FLESH TWISTERS, a title that could easily hold its own on a double bill with THE CORPSE GRINDERS or SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED.

Typical creepy Midwestern town
Swan set about writing the screenplay and tapped into an unusual source of inspiration – his musical career.  “I dropped out of medical school at the University of Iowa to join a rock band,” he discloses.  “I spent five years at it, during which time we made three records and toured extensively.” And it was this time as the lead singer and songwriter for the band Luxury that gave him his motivation for the tale of a mad scientist in a rural town.  “If you've traveled around the more obscure areas of the Midwest, you've probably noticed all the dinky, isolated, creepy towns tucked away in the middle of nowhere. The repulsive inhabitants of these crappy villages spend their miserable days shuffling between the miserable rat-infested bars and the miserable rat-infested granary.  In the screenplay, a musician winds up in one of these dumps, where he is accosted by the zombie-like locals.”

Some flesh to be twisted!
With a finished screenplay that made sure to touch on all the exploitation necessaries (screaming babes, creeping monsters, nasty Nazis), the two men were soon about to set their plan of making a feature into motion.  Fox was almost jumping out of his skin in film school and a film advisor professor suggested he make the feature.  “He was more of the ‘I think you should go off and do that movie’ [type],” Fox recalls.  “He said, ‘Do it while you’re young and stupid. Before you realize how unbelievably hard it is to make a movie.’  Especially in 1977 and 1978.  So I did.”

“So Rick finished the screenplay, he is a tremendous talent and a great writer.  We broke it down and did a production budget.  I came to Chicago.  There is nothing, nothing in Des Moines, Iowa – maybe there is now – but at the time there were no kind of [film] facilities whatsoever.  Not even a laboratory to develop rushes, not one place to rent equipment from.  That had to be done from Chicago.  So I made a bunch of trips, pretty much put together a crew – an editor, a director of photography, all that kind of stuff.  Then we made a preview, a three or four minute trailer.”

Using equipment from the University of Iowa, the FLESH TWISTERS guys crafted a four minute trailer (which is where all of the images in this article come from).  The teaser opens with shots of a deserted Midwestern town as an ominous voiceover warns that in this town there “hangs the shadow of an unimaginable terror” and that “the dead don’t die.”  To showcase such terror we get a girl taking a bath and the requisite necking teens being stalked (“Ed, please check it out.”).  We are then introduced to the madman behind it all, who lives in a creepy old house on the hill (perhaps the most effective shot of the trailer as the camera slowly dollies past a decaying house that looks like the kind of real estate Leatherface would invest in).  We get several shots of him preparing to twist the cranial flesh of the nubile young victims brought to him by his zombie charges.  The teaser wraps up with Gary Fox doing his best William Castle impersonation as he talks to the camera and implores the viewers to “join me in alerting the nation to the existence of this nightmare before it’s too late.”  Too bad he doesn’t see the scythe-wielding madman just over his shoulder.    

An early attempt to convince investors
Naturally, the promo was made to entice investors and it does a great job through its concise editing and just the perfect amount of showmanship.  With the promo done, the filmmakers set out to make their outfit look as professional as possible in terms of their planning.  “If memory serves, it was pretty much all done, or close to it,” Swan recalls of the pre-production. “We had input and support from lawyers, accountants, and financial professionals, all of whom donated their services for free.  I can’t believe it either. We ultimately made a thick book of all this technical and legal stuff to impress potential investors.”

“We started a limited partnership,” Fox reveals. “We were the general partners and investors were the limited partners.  We were selling units at $7,500 a unit.”  They then began showing the promo reel to anyone and everyone who seemed like they could be a potential backer.  “They would meet us and they would hear our pitch.  Then they would say, ‘Yes, I’ll give you a check’ or ‘No, I won’t give you a check.’  The worst part about three years of raising money is not yes and no but maybe.  Maybe is the worst answer you can get.  If you can’t do it, I understand.  I can cross your name off the list and go on.  They never say no.  They always say, ‘Let me think about it’ or ‘let me get back to you’ or ‘I’m not sure yet.’  It is like living in limbo in hell.”

Dick Davis, right, promotes THE HAZING
Along the way the filmmakers met a wide assortment of interesting characters, including one gentleman who offered Fox a substantial amount in exchange for – how shall we say – his non-film related services.  Fox turned him down.  Producer’s casting couch attempt aside, perhaps the wildest character the two aspiring filmmakers met was producer Dick Davis.  Dick Davis was one Richard L. Davis; the R.L. Davis eventually listed on the Variety ad.  Davis was an entrepreneur in the simplest sense, a smut peddler in the stricter one.  He spent the better part of the late 60s/early 70s being a thorn in the side of city councils everywhere as he tried to get XXX material into his theaters and drive-ins. “We hooked up with a guy named Dick Davis, who at the time was much older than us,” Fox explains.  “We were just in our mid-20s.  Dick was a full grown man and he was a pornographer.  He owned a couple of porno theaters in Des Moines.  He was a sleazy guy, but he was interested in getting into the legitimate movie business.”

Davis did bring a certain level of film experience as he had recently been the partial money man behind SLITHIS and THE HAZING (the two films featured on the ad).  While he did bring certain connections (more on that in a bit), what he didn’t bring was any real filmmaking sensibility.  Swan amusingly recalls Davis trying to shoehorn some of his own ideas into their script.  “Yes. Dick Davis – a zillionaire drive-in owner and producer of SLITHIS and main booster and mentor of this project – read the script and had several suggestions,” Swan remembers.  “Any way you could work a rubber-suited monster in the story, so we could call it SON OF SLITHIS?  No, sorry.  Any way you could work in the military?  A “prologue” was written set in a Pentagon office where guys in uniforms discussed the suspicious activities brewing in hidden Midwestern towns. Yes, it was a totally pointless and stupid addition, but what the heck.  Any way we can make this a TV movie? Huh?”

A brief history of Dick Davis (click to enlarge):

1972 - "I promise not to show X-rated films."

1974 - "Yay, I can show X-rated films!"

However, it was Davis who came up the idea to run a big Variety ad (and a tiny blurb in Box Office magazine, the film’s only other trade mention).  “Dick Davis said, ‘Well, we’re going to make a big splash out of this.  Let’s take an ad out in Variety.’  So Rick and I worked up the little artwork on it and – as you saw – we ran an ad in Variety, which was hilarious.  It is still hilarious to me that it was done and even more hilarious that somebody like yourself found it many years later and followed up on it.”  For fans curious about the minutia of the announcement, Fox confirms that no book was ever written or intended to be written for the film and that the lone photographic image is a still of actress Robin Scott in the bathtub.

Box Office mention:

Gary Fox unaware of the dangers
around him both on & off the screen
“Dick was a nice guy to want to work with us,” Fox says, “but I look back on it and I’m going, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’”  Indeed, both men were out of their element in a sense.  During this period, Fox worked as a school bus driver while Swan worked at a suicide prevention hotline (!) and toured with Luxury.  Nowhere was their innocence more on display than when James Galinsky, an accountant friend of Davis who was working on helping secure film funding, was busted in a major drug operation where eight pounds of cocaine were seized in his home. “We were having these pitch meetings and presentations in his house,” Fox recalls incredibly.  “We were running in a fast lane and we didn’t know what the hell was happening.”  
Despite having the Iowa version of Tony Montana in their corner, Fox and Swan were never able to raise the $150,000 they had budgeted the film for.  “Long story short, we talked to everybody and we got together essentially about $100,000 dollars,” Fox reveals.  “Then we hit a wall and could not find the rest of the financing.”  Despite being 2/3 of the way there, Fox did something unheard of in the movie business.  “After much soul searching and looking around, we did what turned out to be maybe the stupidest thing we ever did – we gave the money back.”

“Why it was the stupidest thing we’ve ever did is I’ve since found that if you have a hundred thousand dollars, start shooting.  Once you’re in the middle of production, it is much easier to get the guy to pull out his checkbook and give you $5,000 or $10,000 more for finishing than it is if you haven’t started at all and you’re just some kids with a pipedream. We should have just taken the money and begun.  But my father was an old school guy and he said, ‘It’s going to cost $150,000.  You don’t have it.  You can not go forward in good faith.  You can not risk these peoples’ money.  You need to give the money back.’”  Swan again succinctly sums the budget situation up: “Money. We had some, but not enough.”

died an ignoble, early death
“It kills me to this day,” Fox reveals of the decision to return the money.  “I’m absolutely convinced if we have started shooting that we would have found the rest of the money. That’s the end of the story.  I’ve got no great scars to talk to you about.  I’ve got no great Hollywood thing.  Hollywood didn’t even know this existed.  It’s just a couple of young guys trying to make a movie in the Midwest, not knowing what they’re doing at all.”  Indeed, had the film gone forward perhaps we would be telling an entirely different tale?  After all, just a few years later some young guys in Michigan raised about $150,000 through dentists and lawyers and ended up doing pretty well for themselves with THE EVIL DEAD. Perhaps in some alternate universe a multi-million dollar remake of THE FLESH TWISTERS opened at no. 1 at the box office the first weekend in April 2013 and drove the kids wild.

Alas, movie making is not the quintessential element in our universe and both men went on different paths.  Although Fox and Swan eventually went their separate ways, both men remained in the Midwest and raised families.  Fox continued his education and is now a film professor at Columbia College Chicago and at DePaul University.  Logically, he teaches courses on cinema, but keeps his students unaware of his filmmaking past.  Swan became a freelance writer and penned a series of popular Dungeons & Dragons manuals.  His band Luxury experienced a bit of a resurgence due to re-releases with the song “Green Hearts” even being featured in the film SUMMERHOOD (2008).  He still retains his love for genre movies and currently has a library of 5,000 strong.  Had THE FLESH TWISTERS been made, I have no doubt that with its brain drilling antics and perfect horror font for the title that it would have slid perfectly into the collection.

4 Reactions:

  1. Wow, we're now into "never got beyond an amateurish promo reel and a fake ad in Variety" territory. Kudos. I think you should start to tackle "movie projects that never made it beyond a heated exchange on a drunken night". I have lots of those :-)

  2. An interesting suggestion, that we cover Guillermo del Toro's career, but I don't think even Will has that much patience.

  3. The internet doesn't have enough storage capacity to do a project on del Toro's announced but never made projects.

  4. Too bad. Is there any chance to watch this trailer somewhere?? I'd be glad to.
    Nice article again!


All comments are moderated because... you know, the internet.