The body on the floor spread like the hands of a giant clock, with the arms pointing to ten and the legs tucked tightly together at the half-hour mark. Drops of crimson marked the second hand sweep around the chapter ring, and the contents of the small room stood at the various hour marks around that ring. At twelve stood a chipped desk with a Remington-noiseless laptop on it. The laptop's standby mode had been turned off, and at three stood a leather sofa that showed signs of too many sleepless nights spent tossing and turning on it.
A forensic photographer was sweeping around the body in a clockwise direction, taking shot after shot. Every now and then he paused, appeared to suppress an urge to move something in front of his lens to a better position, then continued. He had an annoying habit of popping the gum he was chewing every time he snapped a shot.
"You about done Brady?" asked the detective, pulling on his right ear, which was a tad shorter than his left. No matter how hard or how often he pulled on it, it didn't get any longer.
The photographer took another few shots. "Yeah, okay, that'll do it. Who is this stiff anyway?
"Some sleaze author. Name's Austin Williams. He just wrote a fictitious book about some fictitious exploitation film called Crimson Orgy. No publisher had the balls to bring it to print except, I hear, Borderlands Press.
"Take a looksy," said another detective standing by the laptop. "Looks like he was chatting up a storm with some goofball blog site called Zombos Closet. Some sort of interview."
They huddled around the small screen and read the interview, hoping to find a clue.
What inner demon inspired you to chronicle this whole sordid affair in Crimson Orgy?
I don’t know about inner demons but it’s fair to say Crimson Orgy is the byproduct of countless hours wasted watching some extremely dubious movies. At least I used to think they were wasted. Since I got a book out of all that cinematic dreck I now have to conclude it was a worthwhile expenditure of time.
You often mention Herschell Gordon Lewis's film, Blood Feast, in Crimson Orgy. Why is that?
That movie is the prototype for the movie at the center of my book. The release of Blood Feast in 1963 was a watershed event, not only for exploitation cinema but American pop culture at large. Absurd as that might sound, it’s true and has been noted by Danny Peary, John McCarty and other film historians. Prior to Blood Feast, graphic violence was taboo in cinema. Obviously, gore had been a staple of 20th century popular entertainment in other forms, from the Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris to the great E.C. horror comics of the ‘50s. It was inevitable, perhaps, that blood and guts would eventually make their way to the silver screen, but that’s easy to say with half a century of hindsight.
Back in ‘63, Blood Feast didn’t just push the boundaries of good taste, it deliberately demolished them. The whole appeal of the movie was its glaring lack of anything redeemable. Carnage for the sake of carnage, period. For better or worse, director Herschell Gordon Lewis and producer David Friedman redefined cinematic violence and horror with Blood Feast. Our culture has never been quite the same since. Whether this pioneering pair deserves praise or damnation is a matter of personal opinion, but their contribution can’t be denied.
What is it about exploitation cinema that's captured your passion?
For one thing, exploitation movies from the early to mid-’60s dealt explicitly with subject matter that Hollywood could not even obliquely reference at the time. Sex, violence, insanity, addiction, disrespect for authority... everything a good story needs, basically. Mainstream movies eventually caught up as the ‘70s approached, with Bonnie & Clyde making explicit bloodshed acceptable and Last Tango In Paris doing the same for sex. Those are just two examples, but iconic ones. The question is whether those movies could ever have been made, much less released, in a society that hadn’t been at least marginally exposed to the work of filmmakers like H.G. Lewis and Russ Meyer.
Another source of interest is that exploitation movies often provide a much clearer picture of their respective era than mainstream films released at the same time. This is because filmmakers like Lewis had no money to spend on wardrobe, props, locations, etc. The actors wore their own clothes and scenes were shot in personal homes, apartments, or motel rooms. In this way, exploitation films are essentially glorified home movies and offer a certain intimate fascination that’s impossible to fabricate on a soundstage. Finally, movies like Blood Feast are an embarrassment of riches for people who, like myself, appreciate the “so bad it’s good” school of cinema. Unintentionally hilarious, mind-numbingly inept and yet genuinely disturbing, there’s just nothing quite like a Herschell Gordon Lewis production.
The events in Crimson Orgy pretty much take place in one general area: Hillsboro Beach, Florida. What's the significance of this area in the history of exploitation cinema?
For a brief window in the 1960s, Miami was the exploitation film capital of the world. Aside from Lewis and Friedman, filmmakers like Doris Wishman set up shop down there and churned out countless Z-grade features for drive-in screens across America. One of the key elements of Crimson Orgy is that the filmmakers find themselves forced to operate in an alien, slightly hostile environment. Hillsboro Beach is a tiny rural community about 90 miles north of Miami, very remote and under the jurisdiction of a redneck deputy. Crimson Orgy’s production team needs total isolation in order to make the type of movie they have in mind, but aren’t prepared to handle the consequences of the events they set in motion.
Meyer and Hoffman, the director and producer of Crimson Orgy, stand prominent in my mind as fully-developed characters, though I can't put my finger on exactly why. Are they based on real-life counterparts?
Shel Meyer and Gene Hoffman are purely original characters but it’s fair to say that Lewis, Friedman and others on the Miami exploitation scene served as prototypes. Something Weird Video has done an incredible job in releasing hundreds of obscure exploitation titles on DVD, offering tons of bonus material including audio interviews. Lewis and Friedman, who had a falling out in the late ‘60s and didn’t speak for years, got together to offer their memories about the three gore movies they made together: Blood Feast, 2000 Maniacs! and Color Me Blood Red. Both men are extremely engaging and their commentaries definitely offered some inspiration, but the characters in my book are not based on anyone in particular. Meyer and Hoffman have to take full responsibility for all the trouble they cause in making Crimson Orgy.
In the story, Barbara gets Meyer to open up about an antisemitic experience involving his mother that contributes to her death. Of all your characters in Crimson Orgy, he's the one you put the most history on. Why?
Shel Meyer is the driving force behind Crimson Orgy. The movie is his personal obsession, whereas Gene Hoffman seems to approach it mainly from a business perspective. The death of Meyer's mother when he was a child, and his suspicions that antisemitic tendencies were at least partially responsible, are very much in the back of his mind during the writing and production of Crimson Orgy. He's determined to make a point with this movie, to strike back in some way at the perceived bigotry that cost him so much. The problem for Shel is that he never takes the time to examine his buried motivations or question where they might be leading him. Ultimately, he gets exactly what he's looking for and pays a terrible price for it.
Cliff the Grip is quite an enigmatic character in Crimson Orgy. You hint at his background, but never really explain it. How about giving ZC readers an exclusive scoop on Cliff. Why is he so screwed-up?
Yes, this is a cloudy issue that has perplexed some readers. What’s known beyond question is that Cliff was committed to the Calm Shepherd Sanitarium in Naples, FL, for nine months as a teenager. Diagnosed with manic depression, he was released when his condition seemed to improve somewhat with therapy. Unfortunately, a fire destroyed the sanitarium in the winter of 1968 (the precise cause of which was believed to be arson but never definitively proved) and thus all medical records relating to Clifford Schepps were lost. I think it’s safe to speculate that if some of today’s antidepressant medications had been available back in 1965, the tragic events surrounding Crimson Orgy might have been avoided. On the other hand, the world would be robbed of the most notorious cult film of all time and I wouldn’t have a book, so I‘m not sure where I come down on this issue.
If you could work at any part in the production of an exploitation film, which part would you prefer? Writer, actor, director, victim, etc, and why?
None. I have a feeling it’s a lot more fun watching exploitation movies, or writing about them, than actually working on one. Long hours, little or no pay, bad food, crummy accommodations, and not much glory when it’s all said and done.
Tell us about your writing background, and what's your writing regimen like? Are you a thousand words a day junkie, too?
I studied film in college, from a critical rather than creative perspective. I’ve never taken a creative writing course, just learned by doing a lot of bad writing and gradually recognizing what was bad about it. As far as a regimen, I wish I had one. It astounds me that someone like Stephen King can sit down and write for 7 or 8 hours a day, every day. With me it comes and goes, which I think most writers would agree is not an ideal approach. A good writing day is 2,000 words or more. I’d love to do that every day but it just doesn’t happen. I need time to let ideas formulate in the back of my mind before I can set them down coherently. I could also turn procrastination into an Olympic event.
In our email discussions, you said "A year or so ago, I stopped by Forrest J. Ackerman's house for one of his regular Saturday morning memorabilia tours (he lives about a mile from me.) It was a great honor to meet the man who's rubbed elbows with so many legends and rightfully become one himself." Okay, you realize you've got to spill the beans on that visit, right? What was it like?
As someone who started reading Famous Monsters magazine at about nine years of age, I was extremely fired up to meet this giant of the genre. As you know, Forry personally coined the term “sci-fi” and provided vital encouragement to multiple generations of filmmakers, some of them with last names like Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola. He’s a straight-up legend. Forry lives in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, in a bungalow called the Acker-Mini-Mansion, a smaller version of the rambling Acker-Mansion he inhabited for decades. The collection of memorabilia on hand is staggering, including many items that were once personal possessions of Karloff, Lugosi, Lorre, Price, and countless other icons. Forry himself is a charming and gregarious host, with an endless supply of anecdotes and a buoyant enthusiasm that belies his physical frailty. He generously opens his home for tours most Saturdays when he’s in town, and I’d strongly encourage any fan of Zombos Closet who happens to be in the L.A. area make this pilgrimage.
(ZC Note: Forrest J. Ackerman died on December 4th, 2008)
What can we expect from you in the future?
I’m currently finishing a new novel called Harpoon City. It shares nothing in common with Crimson Orgy in terms of plot or setting, but I’m hoping it will appeal to the same audience by combining suspenseful and horrific elements with some dark humor in an edgy story populated by memorable characters. And now that the book about the movie Crimson Orgy is finally available, I think it’s a foregone conclusion that the movie about the book about the movie should be unleashed upon the world. Stay tuned for updates on that front.
What question would you love to be asked and what's your answer?
Q: How exactly did you manage to write a genre-bending book released by a small indie publisher that steadily built a mainstream audience until it topped the New York Times Bestseller list?
A: I don’t know, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
"Seems normal enough," said Brady as they finished reading the interview.
"Yeah, but what about that last question. How do you think he did it--top the Times' list I mean?" asked another.
"That's easy. Talent. No mystery there."
They nodded in agreement.
"This Cliff the Grip seems like someone we should look into."
They nodded in agreement.
"Maybe check out Something Weird Video, too. My money's on them."
"Okay, let's wrap it up. I'm starved. Let's get dinner--"
"You mean breakfast."
"Damn, it's that late? Okay, breakfast. Then we'll call on Cliffy boy."
"What about Borderlands Press? Should we pay them a visit, too?"
"Yeah, yeah; looks like we got our work cut out for us."