Monday, November 25, 2013

Obscure Oddities: To HELLFIRE and Back!

“If you have a story that seems worth telling, and you think you can tell it worthily, then the thing for you to do is to tell it”
                                    – Dashiell Hammett

The film HELLFIRE entered my life like my old girlfriends – namely, it caught me unaware, slapped me in the face and screamed, “Pay attention to me!”  This happened via a full page advertisement (see left) that appeared in an American Film Market issue of Variety in February 1986.  I first spied the ad in 2008 and was instantly intrigued by the subtle combination of sci-fi and exploitation.  Oh, and the naked girl.  A quick cross reference of the actors listed brought up the info that it had been re-titled PRIMAL SCREAM and put out by Magnum Home Video in 1987.  Thanks to the power of eBay, I soon had a copy.

My initial viewing of it left me mystified.  While the plot was a tad confusing (“I hope I never have to sit on a bench in a court to weed out who is who and what was going on,” director William J. Murray amusingly confessed), there was much to admire about the film.  Although low budget, it was ambitious in nearly every department despite being made outside of Hollywood.  The screenplay was filled with twists and turns as sharp as the dialogue as futuristic private eye Corby McHale (Kenneth McGregor) tries to figure out what is going on with a new killer fuel codenamed Hellfire.  Matching the ambitious nature of the script, the director provided plenty of visual style in assembling his grimy future.  So it shocked me to find out that Murray had made just one lone feature and, like a victim of Hellfire, seemingly vaporized.

A halfhearted investigation to find Murray began but Google always lead me either to a Christian minister or everyone’s favorite Ghostbuster.  The trail picked up earlier this year (5 years later!) when internet sleuth Bill Picard noticed a new credit on Murray’s IMDb page.  Yes, my own version of Corby McHale had cracked the case for me.  After some emails through acquaintances, I did indeed reach the William J. Murray I was looking for this past summer.  Not only was he more than willing to talk about the film, he was also still in touch with Keith Reamer, the film’s editor and major player in the making of the movie.  And almost serendipitously, he informed me that my timing was near perfect as this fall marked the 30th anniversary of the beginning of filming of HELLFIRE.  So this, ladies and gentlemen, is the story of how one ambitious young man and a group of friends learned to make and release a feature film, their cinematic trial by (hell)fire.

William Murray was born in Northfield, New Jersey in the late 1950s.  Like any healthy kid growing up in the 1960s, Murray developed a sci-fi and horror film addiction.  His pusher went by a name familiar to thousands of kids: Forrest J. Ackerman. Yes, it was the old “Famous Monsters of Filmland” that got his creative juices flowing and it was Murray’s cousin Michael who provided the initial dose. “He subscribed to it before I subscribed to it,” Murray reveals. “He lived in Philly and I lived down near Atlantic City.  We’d visit each other in the summers and he had some early issues.  We saw that kids were getting their parents’ 8mm cameras and making movies.”

Murray was soon joining the ranks of his fellow Famous Monsters filmmaking brethren, focusing his eye on a Keystone 8mm camera with a triple lens configuration that a local photographer had for sale for $35. “I can remember saving money like crazy when I was 12 or 13 and then that was it, we were off,” he recalls.  “We did a thing called MONSTER RAMPAGE, which was a ten minute Godzilla movie. Then we did a sci-fi thing called T-MINUS 24 HOURS, which had a revolving cast.”  As he grew older, the film projects grew in size and scope, including an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s I AM LEGEND which featured future THE SIMPSONS producer David Mirkin as the lead vampire.

By the time college rolled around, Murray had found his passion and looked to a future in filmmaking. Initial plans to attend school in New York were dashed due to an illness in the family and he instead enrolled in Bucks County Community College located in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.  The school suited Murray fine as it had a healthy film program and he eventually met two men –Richard Heierling and Thom Parkin – with whom he would begin a collaborative relationship.  Like John Carpenter and Don Dohler before him, Murray didn’t just aim high he literally reached for the stars with his debut, by choosing to do an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s classic sci-fi novel RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA.  “This was crazily enough the year STAR WARS (1977) came out,” he says. “So science fiction was everything in the fucking world at that point.”

“We were doing it in such a rinky dink way,” Murray explains of his first major film project. “We partnered and bought two Bolex cameras – an electric one for synch [sound] and wind up one to do single frame for special effects.  I would say we achieved maybe two thirds of it. We wrote a script and built the sets and the models.  I still have all the black and white stuff. It was shot in reversal.  We didn’t know what we were doing, but some of it looked really great.  And we put enough together to actually convince someone to say, ‘Wow, you really know what you are doing. Where can we take this further?’  And that was the idea.”

Also in the late ‘70s, Murray entered in the exhibition end of movies. He started working at the Tilton Theatres that he used to frequent as a kid and through an unfortunate circumstance (the manager died of heart attack while on vacation) ended up becoming the manager.  A few years later, Murray and some friends leased an empty theater and opened Stage Door Cinema, an art house theater that specialized in foreign and cult films. Unbeknownst to Murray at the time, the avenue of theatrical exhibition would be fortuitous to the genesis of HELLFIRE.

Around the same time, Murray met a fellow film enthusiast by the name of Keith Reamer, who would also be instrumental to the film’s production and eventually be HELLFIRE’s editor.  “He was just getting out of the University of Bridgeport at that time,” he explains.  “We found a lot of things in common.  We kept hanging out.  I showed him my stuff, he showed me his stuff.”

Eventually the two men decided to give feature filmmaking a try. Their initial projects were more exploitative in nature – Reamer wrote a film called BODY COUNT and Murray penned a teen horror film titled BOARDWALK BLOOD.  “That was something we kind of whipped together really quickly,” Murray explains.  “It is something that would never get done now because it opened with basically a theater massacre in one of the boardwalk theaters in Ocean City. We thought we’ll have a guy and he’ll shoot up the place and it’ll be cool.”

Reamer, who had a decidedly bigger interest in horror/exploitation cinema than Murray, was helpful in getting a meeting with New York’s first family of fringe filmmaking – the Mishkins. The duo headed into the city to meet with William Mishkin.  “He was exactly what you would expect an incredibly marginal, drive-in film producing guy to be like,” Murray reveals of Mishkin, who reigned supreme in a cluttered two room office.  “We were encouraged and let down.  He said ‘I’ve got to see what you can do. I need to see something finished and if you can get through all the hurdles that would be something.’ We were just not going to take no for an answer.”

The rejection led Murray and Reamer to drop the horror film idea and instead concentrate on a sci-fi detective project that Murray had been concurrently developing with friends.  This story turned out to be HELLFIRE.  With a budget of less than $400, Murray shot a 5 minute teaser in 16mm that would be used to interest potential investors in 1981.  Actor Steve Emhe was enlisted to essay the lead detective Corby McHale.  “We just did some action scenes and added some narration,” Murray reveals about the short.

Incredibly, a financing opportunity soon fell into Murray’s lap, or I should say lobby, in 1982.  “I actually had a guy who was putting video games into the lobby of the theater,” Murray explains. “We got to talking one day and I said, ‘Well, I’m originally a filmmaker’ and he said, ‘Oh, I’d love to see your work.’  He was putting in video games, not the top notch ones, but he was making some money.   He was from Philadelphia and he would come down and service them and we would get to talking.  He eventually asked, ‘What have you done?’”

The video game entrepreneur in question turned out to be Howard Foulkrod, the man who would eventually finance HELLFIRE.  Murray showed Foulkrod the HELLFIRE short along with bits of RAMA, which was enough to convince the Pennsylvania native to back these first-time filmmakers.  Things fell into place quickly after that.  “I got a hold of Keith and said, ‘We need a crew.  We need this and that.  We’re going to get funded,’” Murray says. “And then we just started whipping it together in the fall of 1982 and early 1983.  Keith pulled in a couple of people from the University of Bridgeport.  I even got my cousin, the one who got me interested in filmmaking, involved.”  

In terms of the crew, a wide variety of young local talent was recruited. Robert Zeier worked as a set designer for a theater company in West Point, New Jersey and was hired to do the film’s art direction. His wife, Francesca Chay, supplied the costumes (“We had to tame [her designs] down at every notion,” Murray says).  Dennis Peters was recruited to be the director of photography and Dan Karlok and Stan Mendoza as gaffers; Karlok eventually would take over the DP position.  And David Swift was given the Assistant Director title.

Assembling the script was a collaborative effort between Murray, Di Pietro, and Dan Smeddy, although Murray is only given credit on the final film.  “Yeah, oh boy, lucky me,” he jokes.  While BLADE RUNNER (1982) is often listed as an influence in reviews online, the concept actually predated the Ridley Scott film.  The group, however, did actually draw inspiration from another fictional detective – Harry Orwell.  “I was a huge HARRY O fan as was Dave Di Petrio,” Murray reveals of the cranky television detective played by David Janssen.  “The show had just gone off the air.”

With filming slated for the fall of 1983, Murray and his associates set about casting their film. “We put an ad in Backstage and rented a studio for two hours in New York City to see who will work for next to nothing,” he discloses.  “That’s where Ken came from.  That’s where Joe White, who is Nicky Fingers, came from. That’s where Jon Maurice, who played the police chief and was the nicest guy in the world, came from.”  When it came to the big haired femme fatale, only Murray’s own native New Jersey could provide such talent. “[Julie Miller], the woman who is the crazy blonde, came from there.  She was a revue star over in Atlantic City and she wanted anything to be in a movie. She did it for free.”

Perhaps the biggest name in the film is also the most surprising.  AD Swift managed to track down ‘50s and ‘60s character actor Mickey Shaughnessy.  Having starred opposite Elvis in JAILHOUSE ROCK (1957) and John Wayne in NORTH TO ALASKA (1960), Shaughnessy came out of retirement to play local bookie Charlie Waxman.  It would prove to be his final film role as he passed away shortly after filming.  

Free was the optimum word as the film began production for five weeks in the fall of 1983.  Any and all resources were exploited, such as grabbing some aerial shots when it became known that a projectionist who worked for Murray had a pilot’s license or using Foulkrod’s house for a location. According to Reamer, the crew would meet every morning at Murray’s mother’s house for day old pastries and slept four-to-a-room at his own parent’s house. Locations such as the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey were secured for no fee.  A majority of the crew worked on pay deferments, but everyone gave their all according to Murray.  “We said if we’re going to do this, we’re going to really try and do it,” he says.  “We’re going to throw everything in.  Every department needs to chuck it all in and see what happens.  It wasn’t a great A-level thing or great indie film or anything like that.  It was a genre piece and doing what we think we can do with it with effects and our surrounding resources.”

Continuity shot to maintain big hair:

The ability to get stuff on the cheap also allowed the filmmakers to add some futuristic production value with the inclusion of the tiny LiteStar cars featured in the film.  “Those guys were actually trying to produce them,” Murray reveals of the prototype futuristic cars showcased in his film.  “We had two of them.  They’re real. They had motorcycle engines and would ride on the road.”

The LiteStar car:

The initial shoot proved to be particularly challenging for the neophyte filmmakers.  In addition to organizing problems, it was physically grueling as the crew had to lug the heavy 35mm equipment from location to location.  Murray’s biggest problem, however, was in front of his behemoth of a camera.  Lead Kenneth McGregor proved to be a pain in the debuting helmer’s side, even going so far as to almost create a mutiny among the cast.  “He knew his position. He knew he was the star,” Murray reveals.  “So he was able to exert a certain amount of influence.  He’d do whatever he wanted to do and he’s constantly leaning on people like ‘hey, can you lend me twenty bucks.’  Of course, he was stuck in Atlantic City for weeks.  You take New Yorkers out of their natural element and you put them in a place as boring as 1980s Atlantic City and they’ll go out of their fucking minds.”

The cast & crew on location:

Now, both men are sympathetic to the lead actor’s plight.  “Thinking back, I can only think how clueless we were,” Reamer explains, “to expect these people to give up their lives, work in South Jersey for 5 weeks and get not a dime for a cup of coffee! Ken was completely right to hold us hostage, we got the message and we did the right thing. It took an ass like Ken to make a stand for the rest of the very nice, more submissive cast.”

An amusing anecdote, however, from the time of film did provide Murray with a bit of karmic justice for McGregor’s insubordination.  “We scheduled to do a daytime alley shot with Corby running with a gun drawn,” he explains.  “Before long somebody sees this white guy with a gun standing around and calls the cops.  They got Ken.  They grabbed him, threw him in the car.  Then they come and ask who is in charge.  I said ‘I guess I am’ and they threw me in the car.  I get in the car with Ken and he just fumed the whole time.  They took us to see the police commissioner and it is his last day on the job.  He’s drinking in his office and saying, ‘I love it when movies come to town.’  We lost a whole half a day, but managed to keep Ken out of jail.  The whole time I’m thinking, ‘Do not get into character here.  Don’t be going all method on these guys.’”

Director Murray on the set:

With filming completed just before Christmas 1983, Murray and company then spent 1984 getting the film into shape. They did 10 days of pick up shots and completed the FX and miniature work with long time friend David DiPietro from the early 8mm days with Murray’s cousin, while Reamer toiled away tirelessly on cutting his first feature.  Post-production was a long and arduous process that saw Foulkrod’s initial investment of $75,000 double.  Reamer credits the first-time producer as one of the main reasons the film got finished.  “He had a lot of money tied up, and he had no experience, but he brought a certain discipline to the project that helped us along,” he reveals.  “I am not completely sure the film would have ever been finished - at least finished by the year 1985 - without a Howard on board.”

Keith Reamer editing (or eating) HELLFIRE:

Instrumental to the post-production process was the guidance of long-time exploitation veteran Jerald Intrator.  Well into his 60s by the time he worked on HELLFIRE, Intrator had a long history in the low budget field.  He directed the Bettie Page burlesque classic STRIPORAMA (1953) and the Meg Myles sexploitation vehicle SATAN IN HIGH HEELS (1962).  He also famously imported (and added new footage to) titles such as THE CURIOUS DR. HUMPP (1969) and NIGHT OF THE BLOODY APES (1969). This would prove to be his final picture and the logo of his company Unistar graces the opening of the film.

By 1985, the film was done and they decided to shop it around.  They opted to put the film in the hands of Walter Manley Productions.  “We thought about this early on that we need to get an agent,” Murray explains of the decision process. “We all got a secondary education on how things get done.  They wanted to take the project on and it was a perfect fit for them.  It was a little better than some of their stuff and probably a little bit worse than some of their stuff.”

It was through Manley’s company that the film was sold worldwide with deals in the UK, Germany, Netherlands and Australia.  Although the film did end up going directly to video in the United States via the aforementioned Magnum, it was initially picked up with hopes of theatrical distribution by Florin Creative.  “The US distribution rights were picked up by Steve Florin, who ran a chain of theaters in New York state,” Reamer discloses. “Florin was brought to the project by indie-producer Jerald Intrator.”  It was Florin who was responsible ultimately for the title change from HELLFIRE to the less-descriptive, but equally grabbing PRIMAL SCREAM. At the end of the day, the producer got his money back and everyone got paid.  Anyone who’s read our pieces on independent filmmakers here on Video Junkie knows this is a very rare thing.

Believe it or not, the filmmakers didn’t have any sort of premiere for the cast and crew, though producer Foulkrod did go to Cannes to oversee its selling.  Murray got his chance to see it theatrically when he flew to the West Coast to catch a screening at the AFM.  With childhood buddy / ‘Simpsons’ Producer David Mirkin in tow, he was able to catch it on the big screen.

AFM screening:

Once the film got to market, Murray was exhausted and returned to his theatre job.  While he does still own a 35mm print of the film, he has long since lost track of who now owns the rights.  Bijouflix DVD announced the film in 2009 (for which underground auteur Damon Packard cut a trailer), but it never came to fruition. “At this point I’m totally unaware of who owns the rights to it,” he says candidly.  “It is the son that walked out the door that doesn’t come back.  You’re just glad he’s gone. That was a long time ago and that thing has kind of slipped away.”

Damon Packard trailer for PRIMAL SCREAM:

Variety review, May 14, 1986
(click to enlarge)

Murray didn’t lose the filmmaking bug though.  In 1991, he mounted his sophomore feature titled MILE ZERO. Despite having a sci-fi sounding title, this film was a complete 180 from his debut, a character drama inspired by the works of Hal Hartley that saw him reunite with DP Karlok.  “That was a tiny little character driven film,” he explains, “about a young woman who works at greenhouse in a small seaside town and is a cartoonist by want and desire.  She runs into a guy who is cute and turns out he is deaf.  That is about 85% finished.” While the film remains unfinished, the ever resourceful Murray is thinking of using the footage in one of the music videos he directs.  For the last five years, Murray has established himself as a freelance director /editor / videographer in New York City.

In the end, HELLFIRE emerged not only as a film, but as a great example of the low budget, outsider cinema where a group of creative people pool together. It also proved to be a valuable launching pad many of the people who worked on the film.  “It was a very big start for everybody,” Murray says.  “Other people were slowly getting into the industry. Everybody in that picture has worked in the industry almost exclusively.”  

DP Dennis Peters would go on to lens many other features and recently completed his own directorial debut, the thriller I’M NOT ADAM (2014); Stan Mendoza worked as a location manager for dozen of Hollywood movies in New York City; Dan Karlok continued gaffer and camera work and also moved into the director’s chair, directing episodes of LAW & ORDER and receiving a Grammy nomination for the documentary ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL: THE MAKING OF “RIDE WITH BOB.”; David Swift continued to work as an electrician in the film industry; and Reamer would have a flourishing and diverse editing career climbing from PLUTONIUM BABY (1987) to the Sundance titles as I SHOT ANDY WARHOL (1996) and AMREEKA (2009).  “My experience with HELLFIRE was invaluable, and unforgettable,” Reamer adds. “In many ways, it made the rest of my career possible and I will always cherish its existence.”

HELLFIRE 30th Anniversary Reunion (left to right): 
David Swift, Stan Mendoza, Keith Reamer, Dan Karlok, William Murray

When asked about his feelings on HELLFIRE some 30 years after it began, Murray is levelheaded about the final product. “I guess there are a couple of moments where I still feel pretty good about certain things,” he says.  “It was really grasping for something that was just so far out of reach.  What you can do with so little and try to get so much out of it. It was a bunch of kids in their 20s.  And they didn’t strike gold like some people did, but our heart was in it.  I still have warmth about the whole thing.”

Many thanks to William Murray and Keith Reamer for their assistance in bringing this piece together.  To see Mr. Murray’s music video work, click here; to learn more about Mr. Reamer’s continued work as an editor, click here.  Also, thanks to EB Hughes and the tenacious Bill Picard for their help in locating the key player in this story. And, of course, Tom for saying, "You need to watch it again!"

 Alternate PRIMAL SCREAM poster:

2 Reactions:

  1. Great detective work as always, WW... now I GOTTA see this movie!
    (Been enjoying the hell outta your YouTube channel too!)


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