In this exclusive, career-spanning Q&A, Matty catches up with the elusive star of Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor.
A trip to Walt Disney’s (alleged) cryo chamber aside, few things afford someone immortality as well as horror movies do.
Think about it: You’re a fan, right? I bet you can remember every single film that your favourite director or actor has ever been attached to. I know I can. It’s what we do: Fandom lends itself to obsession and us genre hawks will happily fixate on those that we hold dear. And be they alive or dead, our horror heroes are cherished.
That’s why modern moviemakers like Rob Zombie and James Wan are as revered as Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper (or, to go back even earlier, James Whale and Tod Browning).
That’s why contemporary thespians such as Jeffrey Combs and Robert Englund are deemed as legendary as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
That’s why our icons become, well, our icons.
But while it’s important to hail the patron saints of fear filmmaking, it’s equally as vital to tip our cap to those a little more under the radar; those who may not be as well known, but whose work is just as rich and genre-friendly.
So allow me, then, to introduce you to my latest fixation:
The mighty John Marcus Powell, star of icky sci-schlocker METAMORPHOSIS: THE ALIEN FACTOR (1990) and a handful of other excellent but seldom-seen fright flicks.
“It’s very flattering to be interviewed,” the gregarious Powell says as we settle into a mammoth transatlantic phone call. “But tell me, how did you find me?”
Well, that’s a story in and of itself. By IMDb’s estimation, Powell had all but fallen off the earth at the turn of the millennium. Not that their accuracy is to be trusted, mind you. After all, their listing of the Welsh player – under his stage name, ‘Marcus Powell’ – confuses him with an identically named actor who couldn’t be any more different: the dearly departed dwarf performer who had appeared in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), The Elephant Man (1980) and Time Bandits (1981). So although it’s true that Powell’s last credited role was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance in 1999’s low-key werewolf rom-com The Curse, the above average heighted trouper has never played an Oompa Loompa and is still very much alive. In fact, John Marcus Powell remains as creatively fervent as ever, the septuagenarian’s focus having shifted from treading the boards to poetry, with two remarkable collections (Loony Lovers (2011) and Glorious Babe (2014)) and a string of compelling live readings under his belt.
Indeed, it was the chance discovery of Powell’s writing that led to the following career-encompassing chinwag; a chat that was a dream come true after I’d lamented the lack of information available about him in a previous piece (see below). And as you’ll go on to read, I firmly believe that his moment in the sun is long overdue. From his scene-stealing supporting turn in the kinky and kooky Rejuvenator (1988), to his bravura starring role as the big bad in the aforementioned Metamorphosis, Powell oozes the type of robustly ghoulish splendour not seen on screen since Christopher Lee first donned Dracula’s cape.
He’s a horror villain par excellence.
It’s time to celebrate him as such.
Let’s start at the beginning. You were born in Abergavenny in Wales. When did the acting bug bite?
Oh, pretty soon. I went to Cardiff Drama School to study acting when I was eighteen. And Anthony Hopkins was there the same time as me – actually, I was his roommate for about year – and he was, what, the best known guy to come from that school. So I went there and after that I went into repertory. I did an Arts Council tour of Wales, and then I went to Whitby, in the North of England. From Whitby I went to York, and from York I went to Eastbourne. From Eastbourne I went to Gilford and from Gilford to Windsor. And then I went into – and it was quite a big deal in those days – into a television series called Emergency Ward 10.
And that was a soap, right?
Yes, one of the first. At least in Britain anyway. I played a doctor in that for a couple of years, and then was lucky enough to work in the West End. I understudied Ian McKellan in a play called The Promise, and then I went into a play directed by Harold Pinter called The Man in the Glass Booth. So I sort of occupied myself with that for a long time and then got sick of it and packed up and went abroad to teach English in North Africa for a couple of years.
So where did the poetry come in? Was that something you were always doing?
I was always writing, yes. And when Harold Pinter directed me, I showed him some of my short stories and he was very nice about them. And he got a couple of them published in the Transatlantic Review. So while I had those short stories published, someone wrote to me and said “I think that your work is terrific. If you’re working on a novel please get in touch”. And as it happened I was working on a novel, and I worked on a novel for ages and ages and nothing ever came of it. I just wasn’t able to finish it. And then one day I suddenly started turning the prose I’d written into poetry. And I thought “Fuck! I don’t want to be a poet! No, no, no!” I thought it was much too difficult, and that you can’t make any money with poetry. But that’s what I turned out to be. That’s what I write. That’s how I think. So I found out I was a poet as I was writing prose, if you like. I don’t enjoy writing prose, but I do enjoy writing poetry.
Reading through your 2014 collection, Glorious Babe, I get the impression you were from a working class background.
What did your family think of your creative pursuits? Was there much encouragement from them?
They didn’t really know what to make of it. They weren’t that proud or that ashamed. They would certainly be ashamed of the gay side of my creativity! But, I don’t know; the person who was most important to me was my mother and my grandmother. Because, you know, my mother was divorced quite early on. And she had a boyfriend – she had the same boyfriend for many years – and he was quite well off, but we had no money. You say working class, but we were proletariat, almost sub-proletariat! And my childhood was sort of faced with the difficulty of being gay. I knew I was gay from being very young. But, you know, how do you share that in a Welsh working class background, surrounded by macho prejudice from women and men? But at the same time I had lots of friends, and Abergavenny was a nice little town.
Do you think that’s maybe why you latched onto acting; the escape and the more nomadic side of it? I mean, it certainly sounds as though you’ve lived in a lot of different places. Several of the poems within Glorious Babe read like a travelogue.
It could be that. Or it could be me not having faith in any sort of social group; not believing in society as it is, but who does, you know? I think it’s maybe me just not feeling like I fit in anywhere I’d like to live permanently. Well, except New York. I’m quite happy here.
How long have you lived in New York?
Oh, over thirty years now. Since the early ’80s.
What did you do between the end of the ’60s and your arrival in NYC? Were you still performing and writing in some capacity?
Well, I’d done some odds and sods over in France – my French is not good, by the way! But I thought I’d kind of given all that up. Then when I came to New York I was immediately offered some play; I played Jesus Christ in something, in some rather awful production on the Lower East Side. And that was it: I was back into acting again. I really enjoyed doing it. So I did quite a number of Off-Broadway plays, and Off-Off-Broadway plays – never did a Broadway, but Off I did a lot of. And I fell back into it again that way. And people saw me and that’s when people asked me to be in the films that I was in.
Was Rejuvenator your first feature film credit? I presume IMDb is wrong when they list you as playing an Oompa Loompa…
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know why they’ve done that, but that’s not me! [Thinking] I think Rejuvenator was probably was my first, yes. I know I went into it very confident though, but that would have been down to the stage work. Rejuvenator‘s producer – I forget his name – was dreadfully mean. He’d rigged up a studio in Staten Island, which is one of the outer boroughs of New York. And it was either an insane asylum or an old tuberculosis hospital, and it was in a total state of disrepair. The production took over a little bit of the hospital and converted it into a studio way out in the middle of nowhere. And I remember that we’d go out there on the ferry – you had to go over on the ferry to Staten Island – and they’d take you to the studio and we’d do our work and the producer wouldn’t take us back to the ferry! He was damned mean! It was dreadful. I can’t remember how we did get back; I think a group of us had to wait for the cameraman or someone, but every day we were abandoned out there once we’d finished working. And it took a couple of weeks to shoot! And I remember thinking “Am I going to stick with this?” because it was dreadful conditions.
When you first read it, what did you think of Rejuvenator‘s script? And what did you think of your part, ‘Dr. Germaine’?
I thought it was much better than the film turned out to be. But I loved the part, and I loved the film’s theme. Rejuvenator reminded me of Sunset Boulevard (1950); that kind of picture, just more horrific. It really interested me, and I think it could have been very, very good if they’d have had more money. You know, I didn’t see it at the time, but somebody said to me afterwards, about Germaine, “Did you copy James Mason?” Like fuck, I did not!
[Laughing] I can see that. You just channelled him!
Right – but only subconsciously!
And you say you didn’t like the finished film?
Well, I thought the director was better than he was given credit for. He seemed a bit bullied by the producer and, I think, the cameraman, who thought he was better than he was. I think if the director had been a little stronger and had his own say Rejuvenator would have been a better film. He was quite an intelligent guy. [Pause] What was his name again? David something?
Brian Thomas Jones.
Brian! That’s it. I think Rejuvenator was his first film.
It was. And you’d go on to work on his second, the post-apocalyptic Escape From Safehaven (1989), which he co-directed with James McCalmont. What are your memories of that? It was the same creative team as Rejuvenator, right?
Yes. They were done very close together. I went from Rejuvenator to Escape From Safehaven almost directly. Escape From Safehaven was done in Manhattan, and I’ve always thought that I’ve got a couple of really good scenes in it. There was even one that required some ‘real’ acting; a long monologue which, I mean, it wasn’t that well written, but I really remember studying it.
After Escape From Safehaven, your next film credit is for Metamorphosis. Before we get to that, was there anything else in between? Anything IMDb might be missing?
I don’t think so, no. But I was amazed at what you said to me before we started; what did you say I was in, The Curse?
The Curse, yes. It’s your last on screen appearance according to IMDb, from 1999. You play a priest.
For the life of me I can’t remember anything about that at all. Where I did it, why I did it… I absolutely can’t remember anything!
That’s crazy. For what it’s worth, it’s a cracking little movie. It’s extremely low budget, but it’s very quirky and very funny and full of heart. My only criticism of it was that you weren’t in it enough. You had about thirty seconds of screen time, if that. And you’re hid behind the partition of a confessional booth so I could barely see you.
[Laughing] I can vaguely, vaguely remember the booth. Who directed it?
It was written and directed by Jaqueline Garry.
Did she do anything else ever?
Nope. Nothing. Not that I could find anyway.
Amazing. I can’t remember where it was done, whether it was a location or a studio. It’s vanished completely from my mind. If it was only a little bit, I probably only had one day on it.
So, the big one: Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor. To me, it’s your magnum opus. I can’t stress enough how wonderful you are as the dastardly Dr. Viallini. It’s lip-smacking villainy of the highest order.
[Laughing] Thank you, Matt. Thank you.
I take it you had a lot of fun with the part?
Yes, I did. And I was helped… I mean, it was done in a proper studio. Metamorphosis‘ director, Glenn Takakjian, built a studio out in Jersey City. And he was just full of enthusiasm. He had lots of ideas and he was nice, and I liked Katherine Romaine who played opposite me. Actually, I’d done a play with her before so it was quite by accident that we met again. I enjoyed acting with her. In fact, I enjoyed acting with everyone on Metamorphosis; I thought they were all good. And, of course, playing Viallini was pure ham. But there was a storyline to it, and I loved being killed and all that. The film had teeth, you know? It was very professional. You could sense that Glenn had a budget. That there was a plan. That there was a feeling for the shape of a scene. So, yes, I enjoyed Metamorphosis a lot.
You can tell. You really get into the film’s outrageous spirit.
Glenn helped a lot. I remember him being very explicit about how I got out of a car. He said, “Get out of the car as if you own twenty of them”. I thought that was a good piece of direction!
What strikes me about Metamorphosis is that you give what I’d term a classic horror performance. Dr. Viallini is someone I could imagine Bela Lugosi or Vincent Price playing. You’ve got that sense of macabre theatricality; of camp, and of not being rooted in reality, you know?
Well, I have that theatrical background so I used it. In fact, I was able to use it in Metamorphosis. I think it was the right approach for it.
Metamorphosis began life a sequel to an ultra-low budget cult horror flick called The Deadly Spawn (1983). Were you familiar with the original film?
Hardly. I knew it was around somehow, and I knew a little about Metamorphosis‘ titles. They had various titles that went around when we were making it: ‘The Deadly Spawn 2’, ‘Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor’ which they ended up with… But I’d never seen the first one, no.
Can you remember how you came to be cast as Dr. Viallini?
Glenn was careful. There was a lot of auditions; I mean, it was like being up for a major film the amount of auditions I had.
And what did you think of Dr. Viallini? How did you get into his headspace?
To me, he was all about power. He was the sort of person I really wouldn’t like if I met him. He’s a bit like Trump, right? Well, except a bit more intelligent! But he was about power, really, and the belief that, like all of these big CEOs out there, that he’d discovered the secret of the world. And the secret of the world is financial.
It’s interesting you saying about power. It’s probably me looking too far into these things, but one poem of yours that really struck me is Politics, which is built around your sexual dalliance with a policeman. In Politics, you’re young – a teen – and this policeman is older, married, and in a position of trust. Yet here he is having this torrid affair with a minor. And I just find it fascinating that you can sort of weave it into your characterisation of Dr. Viallini; this idea of power and authority, and how people can very, very easily abuse it.
Yeah, that’s exactly it, so that notion is still with me. That’s a poem about Aneurin Bevan, the Welsh politician who used to leave his posh car in Abergavenny and proceed to his own electorate in a very small car so they’d believe he was a very humble man. And the policeman, yes, the policeman says that that was very hypocritical but he’s being more hypocritical than everybody, this family man meeting for sex with a teenage boy. But I accepted the hypocrisy of that situation, you know? It’s very interesting that you should like that poem. I’m glad that you did.
To me, I think a lot your poems can be teamed with your acting. You can see that they all come from the same creative tapestry.
Poetry certainly has something to do with performance. They go well together. And I think they go well together because poems are meant to be shared. And that goes for all poetry, really. I mean, if you think of the greats like Shakespeare, he was certainly a poet but everything was meant to be shared in a space with other people. And being an actor – and whether I like it or not, I probably will be until the day I die – everything I write is meant to be shared in a space with other people. That’s why I quite like doing the poems on camera. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.
Actually, there’s a poem on your YouTube channel that I’d like to touch on: Mutation, which deals with AIDS and HIV. When I watched it, I couldn’t believe how much it fit with Rejuvenator and Metamorphosis.
Because both of the those movies represent a very specific subgenre of horror called body horror. And as body horror really gathered steam during the ’80s thanks to films like John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and the work of David Cronenberg, there’s an argument that they’re actually an artistic reflection of the AIDS epidemic; that their popularity coincided with – if you pardon the term – the ‘rise of AIDS’. And watching Rejuvenator and Metamorphosis, you could certainly read AIDS metaphors in them, what with their focus on hideous bodily transformations. Is that something you picked up on? Did you ever think or see Rejuvenator and Metamorphosis as veiled social comment?
I didn’t, no. I saw them more as an existential thing, sort of the awareness of the body. Of the awareness of the body as corrupt, and the outside nature of it. But what you’re saying is fascinating. Fascinating to think about. [Pause] I mean, I remember it being a horrific time, you know? I never caught the place at the peak of its decadence, but when I came to New York I went to a couple of clubs, and I’m not very shockable but they kind of shocked me [laughs]! But very soon it was the beginning of AIDS and people became really scared, and all those clubs and bars, and all those cinemas on 42nd Street where everything went on closed down. And I can remember people I knew, friends of mine, saying things like when their boyfriend died, they were reduced to nothing but bone and clinging to whatever little bit of life was left in them, but that they never looked more beautiful as they did in those last days. And that’s just an extraordinary thing to say. To me it’s certainly something that’s got elements of horror and spirituality in it. It’s describing very much what you’re talking about. You can’t quite analyse the difference between horror and beauty very often. I can see why horror directors would pick up on that.
After Metamorphosis, your next credit offered something of a change of pace: you had a small role in the Paul Newman drama Nobody’s Fool (1994). What can you remember about it?
Oh, that was so disappointing! I had a really good scene in that. It was Jessica Tandy’s last film. I was doing odds and sods in it, sort of an extra really. And then they had a scene that they didn’t have an actor for. So they chose an actor who really didn’t know how to deliver a line. The poor guy, he had the part, and obviously he couldn’t go along with it so they gave it to me. And I was so pleased to get in a major film, you know, with Paul Newman and Jessica Tandy. I did the scene, got tickets to a showing of it months later and, of course, the old, old story: They cut my scene! [Laughing] So I’m just about in the film, but they cut every word! I remember thinking “Oh, they can’t cut this”, because it was so integral to the story. But they cut out that part of the plot too! And then that happened again on something called Pootie Tang (2001).
You were in Pootie Tang?!
Yes! I had a good part in that. I did it on television first with, not Chris Rock, but Chris Rock’s best friend was in it. And Chris Rock saw what I did on the TV show, and when it came to doing the film, Chris Rock said to his friend, “You’ve got to get this guy”. They looked all over New York for me and they found me. So I did the scene for Pootie Tang. I thought it was really good, but I was cut again [laughs].
There was four years between Metamorphosis and Nobody’s Fool, and then four years between Nobody’s Fool and your next film credit. What did you do in that eight year gap? Are there any films missing from IMDb?
I did a lot of theatre. I did Hedda Gabler by Ibsen, and then I starred in something called The Comedians. There was a play in Philadelphia as well, about Jesus Christ and I played an archbishop but I can’t remember the name of it. [Thinking] Was it Strike a Bell? I did that right before Mob Queen (1998).
Your scene in Mob Queen is great fun. As a self-confessed fan of the classics, you must’ve enjoyed playing the drunken, pretentious boss of a strip club that’s devoted to topless renditions of Ibsen and such.
[Laughing] I did, I did! That was done very quickly, actually. I don’t know why, but they filmed it out on a boat way out in Brooklyn, in New York Harbour somewhere. The girl who played the stripper, she was really into it as well. I thought Mob Queen was rather good.
I agree. It was a charming little comedy. But you returned to horror the next year with Kill By Inches (1999). And I’ve got to say, that’s one interesting movie.
Isn’t it just.
It’s defiantly abstract; a weird, atonal mood piece. The closest thing I could proximate it to is Peter Greenaway or David Lynch directing a remake of Repulsion (1960). What’re your memories of Kill By Inches? How did you get the part? What was it like to work on?
Yes, very arty stuff. I went through a casting director, and it was directed by a couple, Arthur Flam and Diane Doniol-Valcroze. I think they married later, I’m not sure, but, obviously, they were partners in all ways: romantically and on film. Diane was French and she had more to do with it than he did; she’d won some kind of prize in film school and everyone was expecting big things from her. But, yeah, I enjoyed Kill By Inches. I don’t think it was completely successful. They kept on talking about some philosopher; as well as directing, Arthur and Diane had written the script too, and they were very interested in this philosopher and the film was supposed to express all of his ideas. I can’t remember his name, and I don’t know how or why Diane in particular was so enchanted by him. I thought the film kind of showed that. It was a little bit pedagogical. But it’s horrific alright, isn’t it? It’s nightmarish.
Absolutely. It’s got a really oppressive tone. I first saw it quite late at night, and I found it slowly burrowing deeper and deeper into my psyche – a true horror film! And your performance as the killer’s father made my flesh crawl. You were grotesque.
[Laughs] Good, good! I think I captured something that Arthur and Diane didn’t intend, and I don’t even know if I intended it or not: my character’s sort of incestuous interest in his own daughter. I thought he was good too, the lead, Emmanuel Salinger. He had a terrific face.
So after Kill By Inches, we’re back to the film that you can’t remember, The Curse.
I must’ve done them close together. Were they the same casting director?
They were. Kill By Inches and The Curse were both cast by Jodi Collins, who also cast for The Chris Rock Show. So that explains your connection there.
I was kept going until the early ’00s then, wasn’t I?
Yep. Despite being made in 1999 and showing at a few festivals, Kill By Inches didn’t get a proper release until 2001, the same year that you were cut from Pootie Tang. Was there anything after that? Or are there any other films you’ve been in that we haven’t touched on?
I don’t think so. I think that was it really. I mean, anything I’ve done since then has been odds and sods in the theatre, and the poetry which has taken up my life really now. [Pause] What do you think of the – you like the poetry, obviously – but do you like the performances of the poems?
I like them a great deal, yes. You have great charisma; a gravitas in your manner and in your voice, which is why I think you’re so well suited to playing authority figures.
Thank you. Something’s happened to me along with… It’s sort of… I was always in danger of being very self conscious about my voice, you know? I knew I had a good voice – well, a good actor’s voice – and I could be much, much too conceited about it. And it was inclined to becoming between me and the characters. Since reading poetry I think I’m in love less with my own voice. I’m more in love with the material, you know? Maybe because the material is mine now, and I don’t want to intrude on it. In fact, the further I can get out of the way of the material, the better!
Are you still performing the poetry? The last kind of mention I could find online of you reading live was from 2015.
Not as much, but I’ve got to get back into it because I’ve got a new book coming out. I do go to clubs and sometimes perform, but I’ve been ill. I had a car accident two years ago that really knocked me out, and sort of half crippled me. But I’m better than I was and… You know, I’m getting on now. I’m in my late seventies! But when the book comes out, I’m going to have to at least launch it. So, yes, I’ll get into again.
When are you hoping the book will be out? And what’s it called?
Well, [my editor] phoned me last week and he said he’d edited it as much as he could, so he said he’d send me it to see if I agreed with his revisions. And then we’ll sort the title and the design, so maybe May or June, I think.
The John Marcus Powell Filmography
1988 – Rejuvenator, 1989 – Escape From Safehaven, 1990 – Metamorphosis: The Alien Factor, 1994 – Nobody’s Fool, 1998 – Mob Queen, 1999 – Kill By Inches, 1999 – The Curse, 2001 – Pootie Tang (scenes deleted)
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