From the vault of Zombie Hamster: Matty’s epic 2015 chinwag with cult filmmaker David DeCoteau, who discusses his underrated 1997 thriller ‘Skeletons’ in this unprecedented, career-encompassing interview.

Oh, for the humble production assistant; it’s the most thankless job on the film set.

The hours are long and gruelling, and the pay – if, at all, there’s any – is crummy. They’re the first in the firing line when anything goes wrong; the whipping boy at hand because, when there’s doubt, it’s just easier to blame the bloody runner.

But even when you’re at the very top of the filmmaking heap, you should always be nice to your P.As. Because in the crazy world of the movies, there’s always chance that that poor young gofer you’ve just blasted might eventually be your boss…

“It’s so Hollywood,” laughs director David DeCoteau. “Your fucking craft service guy takes over a movie from you! I felt so bad for Ken, though; I mean Ken Russell was a visionary. But he did not leave Skeletons on a friendly basis. He was fired and, well, it was great for me because, looking back, I’ve just finished my hundredth movie and Skeletons is certainly one of the better ones. It’s certainly the biggest budget I’ve had. It’s just so odd how I got the job in the first place.”

THE HIRED HAND

David DeCoteau is no stranger to the Hollywood game.

A thirty year veteran of cut-price genre moviemaking, he’s seen it all; from cult success with such fine fodder as Sorority Babes In the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988) and Nightmare Sisters (1988), to quietly influencing the likes of Twilight (2008) and The Vampire Diaries (2009 – 2017) with his groundbreaking homoerotic chillers, Voodoo Academy (2000) and The Brotherhood (2001). But before such sprightly schlock would cement his often unacknowledged status as the heir apparent to the Corman and Band kingdom of the modern B flick – and long before the quirky helmer would take the reins of the equally underrated SKELETONS from the late Russell – the Portland, Oregon-born auteur was much lower on the food chain.

“I moved to Los Angeles when I was eighteen years old,” he explains. “I wasn’t moving there to make the Great American Movie, I just loved working in the genres: horror, science fiction, fantasy, action, sexy, teen comedy… You know, all the tried and true stuff! All the stuff that I grew up watching.”

“It was about ’83 or ’84 and I’d been working for a producer named Don Borchers [1]. I worked with him on a movie called Angel (1984) and I was one of a couple of his production assistants back then, along with Frank Darabont who’s now a big time Academy Award nominee. And I did craft service which was sort of like the set janitor and snack boy, you know what I’m saying? Like, if I were craft service in England, I would have been the boy that walked around with the tea [laughs]. Now, the first film I saw when I arrived in L.A. was Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), and then I saw his early works at repertory theatres like Tommy (1975) and – one of my favourite films – The Devils (1971). So I was just thrilled to be able to work with Ken as a P.A. on Crimes of Passion (1984), which Don was producing. And then you obviously fast forward twelve years and I’m suddenly taking Skeletons over from him.”

Beyond such neat coincidence, it’s tough not to draw more parallels between the two equally legendary directors. Within their staggering filmographies, both DeCoteau and Russell share a similar taste for the outlandish. Their work is characterised by mischief and provocation, much to the chagrin of each man’s numerous detractors. Both are rich in their visuals too, the pomp powering either’s material filled with an opulence that few of their contemporaries can or could match.

DeCoteau, however, can finish a project on time and on – or under – budget. He’s a consummate professional and a producer’s dream; you don’t rack up the amount of titles he has by being difficult to deal with. Russell, meanwhile, was infamously fiery; a berserker-like powerhouse with a long history of butting heads with the money men and anyone else he deemed to be in his way. His time on Skeletons was no different.

“Ken wasn’t too easy to get along with. He was very gruff, very aloof on Crimes of Passion; I only approached him once and was pretty much barked at to get away from him. And I saw that explosive temper of his often! And on Skeletons [the producers] were having a lot of trouble, a lot of conflict, with him over the film’s budget and scheduling. I think he’d lost the use of his left or right arm or something by this point too; I think he’d had a stroke so I was just like, “Poor Ken”. I really, really did feel so awful, especially as after I took Skeletons over Ken’s agent, the wonderful Bobby Littman, this British guy who used to run MGM in the UK, ended up signing me because I took over his client. So I took his film and his agent too, which was even more bizarre [laughs]!”

“But what happened was, at the same time they were letting Ken go, I was directing a little action movie for the same company called Prey of the Jaguar (1996). And the producers liked my cut of it, which I delivered to them on the weekend that they fired Ken, and they needed someone to take Skeletons immediately as they had a pay or play situation with Skeletons’ star, Ron Silver. Basically, Ron was going to get paid whether the film got made or not. So obviously it was more financially beneficial to make the movie, maybe make a little profit, but they wanted to do it on a more reasonable schedule. And that’s when I was hired.”

On paper, a measured dramatic thriller about small town bigotry and repression hardly seems like an obvious choice for a niche talent like DeCoteau. And though the above noted chance and good fortune played a large part in him taking on Skeletons, it’s worth remembering that serendipity was also responsible for him being tasked with the excellent third instalment of Full Moon’s beloved Puppet Master franchise, Toulon’s Revenge (1991); a gig DeCoteau landed purely because he was available to shoot in Romania.

Puppet Master III is DeCoteau’s best movie, but Skeletons comes a close second. Like that World War II-set deadly doll delight, Skeletons is a polished, thoughtful and remarkably well constructed, character driven jolt of top-drawer entertainment; DeCoteau once again demonstrating not just how deft a craftsman he is, but just how strong a storyteller he can be with a focused script behind him. Of course, that’s all knowledge after the fact. And while Skeletons’ production company, Hit Entertainment, were happy to have the helmer on board, convincing the film’s now sadly since departed star and its fledgling writer, Joshua Michael Stern, that he was up to the challenge was another matter.

“I didn’t just say ‘yes’ right away. For one, I had to get approval from Ron Silver. After Ken was let go, he had that power so I was like, “Well, this is going to be a complete pain in my fucking ass. Fuck it!”. I just didn’t want to deal with that kind of thing! And I didn’t need to do it because I had a few other offers but, seriously, they made me an offer I really couldn’t refuse. They came up with a lot of cash and said, “David, you really need to do this movie.” So I agreed and, thankfully, Ron approved.”

“Ron, though, was challenging to work with. He’d not played a good guy in so long; he’d just played the villain in Timecop (1994) and a bunch of other stuff. And it was, well, it was not that he was difficult. It’s just once in a while he’d – well, he was going through a divorce at the time so he wasn’t the happiest guy in the world! [chuckles] And he was having to go from this to doing a sitcom called Veronica’s Closet (1997). This is a serious actor who’s been in some very, very big movies: Garbo Talks! (1984), Reversal of Fortune (1990)… He’d made some really big movies and he was just trying to pay his divorce settlement here! He was an interesting and very complicated guy; a devout liberal until after 9/11 when he became this arch conservative. Complicated, but a brilliant actor and a brilliant man too. He actually did me a few favours after we finished shooting: he introduced me to Avi Lerner, the owner of Nu Image. He’d done a few action films for them and introduced me to Avi and said that I could get a film done quick.”

“Now, Josh Stern has gone on to tremendous success as a writer and director with the Steve Jobs biopic [jOBS (2013)] and Swing Vote (2008) with Kevin Costner. Skeletons was his first produced screenplay and he had the great Ken Russell attached to it so he was obviously very excited. But then when the company said, “Oh, by the way, Ken’s no longer directing it but the guy behind Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama is instead,” he was a little let down! I couldn’t blame him! So I promised him, I said, “Look, I will do the best I possibly can with the conditions and, as a matter of fact, I’d like to have you on the set every day. Every minute I want you actively involved in the creation of this movie”. And he was then really enthusiastic because I really had him there, talking and working with the actors, doing last minute rewrites and stuff. So he liked the fact that I brought him in on all these creative choices. But that’s something I like to do anyways: if I can afford to have the writer in Los Angeles or wherever I’m shooting, it’s just really handy for me.”

Like the sorely missed treble of Hammer stalwart Terence Fisher, Euro icon Jess Franco, and boisterous blockbuster Tony Scott, DeCoteau has found a way to reconcile his own unique obsessions with the pulp needs of whatever he’s assigned to; genre fluff at first glance but all part of a wider artistic tapestry. DeCoteau himself, however, is quick to downplay such analysis – this very conversation, for instance, is full of the unassuming moviemaker politely sidestepping any suggestion of auteurism. As he says, he’s simply “a journeyman” and “a working director”. Yet key thematic threads weave in and out the fabric of his robust cinematic resume; inter-connective moods, ideas and images that anyone who’s seen his sprawling 1313 series can attest to. There are fixations on vengeance, and on ritual; on relationships and sensuality, beyond just the obligatory T&A requirements. Even his most mercenary jobs, the films masked by one of his many pseudonyms (Ellen Cabot, Julian Breen, Richard Chasen et al), betray an unmistakably DeCoteauian thumbprint: The notion of the nominal hero or heroes, usually flawed, fighting against a more powerful, deeper rooted force far beyond their or their environments control; be they a monster, entity, sect or unit.

In his futuristic, Alien (1979)-aping cheapie Creepozoids (1986), the threat is quite literally beastly as a band of soldiers fend off a marauding, amino acid-feeding creature while trapped inside an abandoned government bunker. His sublime, Death Wish (1974)-riffing showstopper Lady Avenger (1988), meanwhile, sees an escaped prisoner going after the gang of thugs who murdered her brother; a plot echoed in Puppet Master III and Prey of the Jaguar, which has a puppeteer and an ex-Special Ops agent seeking retribution against the Gestapo officer and crime lord responsible for their wife and their family’s slaughter, respectively. Elsewhere, the bawdy sci-fi comedy Test Tube Teens From the Year 2000 (1994) finds a pair of asexual high school students from the future travelling back in time to stop a prudish principal outlawing sex through her hardline politics. And in Skeletons, it’s Silver’s recuperating, Pulitzer-winning journo, Peter Crane, who must unravel the small New England town of Saugatuck’s disturbing conspiracy of silence after the suspicious death of a homosexual couple.

“You know, I guess I’m just drawn to that type of material,” DeCoteau ponders. “A lot of them are gun-for-hire jobs but I always try to give my own interpretation of the material, even though I stick with the scripts; I never rewrite a script. With Skeletons, I felt that the good guys, the Crane family, had to have skeletons in their closet. The bad guys, the townsfolk, obviously did so I felt that it would make the title metaphor more interesting if they did as well. So Ron’s father character’s got a smoking problem and a heart problem. Dee Wallace as the wife wears the pants but is hysterical and overly emotional about everything, and their son is probably gay.”

“It was this young actor, Kyle Howard, who played the son, Zach. And I went to him and said, “Look, in the script it says that you see this Aryan boy in the middle of the street – in the courtyard or in the middle of town or something – and the question I have is this: Are you frightened? Or are you attracted?” And I got this really beautiful Aryan-looking guy named Jeremy Jordon; he was a very big pop star back in the 90’s and he went on to do [Stephen King’s Storm of the Century (1999)] and Never Been Kissed (1999), but he’s really striking and kind of creepily beautiful. So I said, “What’s interesting, Kyle; do you look? Smile? Is it a friendly smile? Are you attracted or does his look scare you? These are all choices we’re gonna make, Kyle, that are going to change the entire point of view of your character”. And we talked about it and there’s a scene later where this Aryan guy and his gang were meant to put a tattoo onto Kyle’s Zach. I felt that was a little too violent and that the father would just immediately call the attorney general and blow the whole town up, so I thought why don’t we just use lipstick? They’d just put the word ‘faggot’ but misspelled across his back.”

“You had all this stuff Josh had written so I personally felt that if I could contribute something make the actors feel as if there was even more substance, or at least give them the room to work and create some textures to the characters of their own, I’d do it. And ultimately, the gay subtext was my idea; although I’m just all about the best idea and the best one from whoever wins, you know? But I really did like the whole chase scene of the Zach character through the school – which was the first day of shooting, by the way, and a sixteen hour one. Once we got into the showers where the Aryan boy’s gang trap him, I said to Jeremy, “Are you seducing him? Are you tempting him? What are you doing?” And Jeremy really wanted to play the gay angle, very much so. There’s a line where Jeremy says, “Take his shirt off,” and that was just the way it was written. But Jeremy said to me, “Can I add one more line?” and I said, “What?” and he says, “Oh, I’ll just surprise you”. So I call action and Jeremy, as the Aryan boy, says, “Take his shirt off. Slowly.” And that, that just changed the whole dynamic of the scene.” [2]

“I tell you, there’s a lot of ways to play something. Was Skeletons a director for hire job? Absolutely, but you try to contribute and toss up ideas. I changed the ending of the movie because there was a draft of the script where I liked the ending a lot more. I did it and I got into a lot of trouble because it was last minute. The producers came to me and said, “You can’t do that!” but I said, “I did it. The writer’s been here and he and Ron support this change. It was in a previous draft and dramatically it works best based upon the movie we’ve made so far.” So there was a little problem with that but finally they said, “OK, it works”. The producers really liked the movie, ultimately. And Jordan? Well he liked the movie too.”

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THE WOLF & THE JAGUAR

Three years before pleading guilty to securities fraud and money laundering – and over a decade before Martin Scorsese would adapt his best-selling, mythologising memoir – stockbroker-turned-conman Jordan Belfort, ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, was taking a dip in the choppy waters of low-budget moviemaking. Beginning with the Martin Landau-starring comedy The Elevator (1996), Belfort would quickly rack up credits across a slate of inexpensive titles; executive producing endearingly goofy fluff like Assault on Dome 4 (1996), and a pair of toe-curling Hulk Hogan family flicks (Secret Agent Club (1996) and the peerless Santa With Muscles (1996)) alongside production company Hit Entertainment. Fresh from shepherding Full Moon’s erotic subdivision Seduction Cinema (née TorchLight), it was into this set-up that David DeCoteau stepped when he was offered the job of Hit’s Belfort-backed Prey of the Jaguar.

“It was near enough the minute I put my feet down off the plane from Romania that I was offered it. Prey of the Jaguar was this real impoverished, kind of skid row version of The Crow (1994) meets Batman (1989) that we shot for like a nickel and half, with Linda Blair, Stacy Keach and Maxwell Caulfield. And David Silberg, who co-produced Skeletons, was instrumental in getting me it. He said that [Hit Entertainment] needed some directors for some low budget action movies they were doing. I was a non-union director at the time too, and one with a lot of experience so that was very attractive. I was also bonded by the completion bond company so I was a bonded director and on their list, so all the ducks were just really in a row there. And this was before digital so there was not that many available directors either. I mean, in terms of consistency, I think there was only a half-dozen of us – certainly in L.A. anyway – that were either in pre-production, production or post consistently for years. Fred Olen Ray, Jim Wynorski, myself, Corman, maybe David Prior and Albert Pyun… We were all non-union so we worked a lot, and there was plenty of movies still to make because video was still strong. That whole ’80s into ’90s thing was a completely different world.”

“Now, when it comes to Prey of the Jaguar AND Skeletons, there was a lot of production partners on both the films: Silberg, and the Schuster family, Brian Schuster and his father, Harry. Brian and Harry are both very sweet; they’re colonial South Africans and they owned a lot of restaurants and were involved in the movie business a little and owned Hit Entertainment. And that’s where they’d met Jordan Belfort and got involved with him as a producer.”

“Jordan I became friends across Prey of the Jaguar and Skeletons. He was very much a movie buff, and I was up at his house often and we watched movies and hung out. He was a really, really nice guy and, well, unfortunately, he just had his troubles with the law [laughs]! But, you know, I just got told he was a Wall Street guy so I just assumed, “Great! He’s got money!” and then, well, it all just came crashing down, which was a bummer! There was nothing suspicious about Skeletons or Jaguar’s production, though, which a lot would assume. I don’t even think any of the films Jordan made made any money! And in L.A., where all of his movies were shot, there were no tax incentives at all so, if anything, he was at a loss. So there’s nothing too lurid there [laughs].”

“He did, however, tell me about the whole event with the yacht sinking. He told me about that in detail, and about how his phone room worked – I just didn’t realise it was a boiler room! He told me a bunch of stories about that and just how he made his millions. I mean, I knew very, very little about that sort of Wall Street world; although I tried to learn a lot about it later when I made Wolves of Wall Street [3]. And that was, what? 2002? I was living in Canada at the time and the producers of it flew me out to New York to do it there. Jordan’s book only came out about five years ago or so – I don’t know whether Jordan stole my title but somebody did [laughs]!”

So while Quaalude rampages and the ins and outs of penny stock scams were, alas, not part of Skeletons‘ day-to-day creation (unless, of course, DeCoteau is keeping well and truly schtum about it), there’s one particular discrepancy surrounding the film’s making that really is pretty dubious. On July the 13th 2004, Skeletons‘ rights were auctioned off by the Screen Actors Guild in the union’s first ever public foreclosure, for non-payment of wages and residuals. Skeletons was one of seven films that made SAG’s blacklist, Belfort’s 1996 thriller Blood Money another. [4]

It’s one hell of an ensemble to default monies from too. Belfort may have had the odd ‘name’ like Landau, James Brolin and Martin Sheen peppering his casts, but, for the most part, his output was a veritable who’s who of B appeal; Hogan, Bruce Campbell, Traci Lords, and Billy Drago amongst the schlock friendly throng. Skeletons, though, oozes eclectic class, with Silver paired alongside such legendary big hitters as James Coburn and Christopher Plummer; and cult icons Paul Bartel, Buck Flower, Dee Wallace and the guy who played Police Academy (1984)‘s gun-totin’ Tackleberry providing distinguished support.

“David Graf!” the director cackles, contemplating his working relationship with the comedy saga’s gone but not forgotten mainstay. “Graf was on the project prior to Ken leaving so he was a little suspect of the whole thing. I was trying to coordinate scenes and stuff like that and he was not exactly… [Thinking] Look, I liked him but I just remember not really having any communication with him! He was like, “Who’s this young whippersnapper trying to take over the great Ken Russell?!” It was similar with Dennis Christopher too: he was disappointed that Ken was dropped but he was certainly nice enough to deal with the whole director change thing. I mean, he still stayed on the movie. And I’ve always been a fan of Dennis’. He came on for one day and was just awesome.”

A near typical appearance for the Fade to Black (1980) star, Christopher’s scene-stealing extended cameo is tailored for the quirky character specialist. His Jim Norton lies at the centre of Skeletons‘ mystery; a gay out-of-towner accused of slaughtering his lover while working in Saugatuck. Naturally, Silver’s just arrived Crane smells a rat and, after Norton’s equally suspicious death, unearths something far more sinister beneath the town’s seemingly hospitable facade; a black, hate-filled heart embodied by Saugatuck’s creepy leader, Christopher Plummer’s Reverend Carlyle.

“Christopher Plummer was absolutely the sweetest, most gentle, incredible actor I’ve ever worked with. He is such a pro, and just so talented and amazing. His work is incredible and, really, I was just very, very lucky to have him. We were very close on the set; he was very lovely. And I have a very close relationship with him now too. He was instrumental in helping me when I emigrated to Canada. He’s Canadian and he liked how quickly I worked and so he felt that they could use me up there.”

“Coburn was another pro. I actually felt like I didn’t have that much of a handle on his character, so we talked about it and we sort of found a happy medium. He was great to collaborate with. The rest of the cast, I’d met Paul Bartel years earlier in line at a movie theatre – didn’t remember me, of course – and I’d just used him on Prey of the Jaguar. Buck Flower I had in Sorority Babes and Ghost Writer (1989), and Dee Wallace is just a doll! I’ve worked with her a few times since, on Stem Cell (2009), as a voice in Bonnie & Clyde: Justified (2013), and in one of my talking animal movies [My Stepbrother is a Vampire!?! (2013)]. She’s one of my official Dave DeCoteau Scream Queens!”

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THE RAPID HEART OF THE MATTER

Along with contemporaries Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski, DeCoteau is one of the architects of late ’80s Scream Queendom. And with boutique DVD and Blu-ray labels like 88 Films and Ray’s own Retromedia currently riding high on the resurgent wave of starlet worshipping nostalgia, the ever enterprising DeCoteau has saw fit to reunite the leads of his epochal Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama and Nightmare Sisters not just in such waggish quickies as 1313: Cougar Cult, but through his own annual gala event too; Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer, and Brinke Stevens et al are all a fixture of the helmer’s ‘Day of the Scream Queens’.

“Oh, it’s really great; an autograph show where you come in and buy a photo and the girls sign it for free,” DeCoteau explains. “It’s a nice way for the girls to make a little money and to meet the fans. I’d been thinking about doing it for several years and just decided to pull the trigger and do it. But part of the rules is that the Scream Queens have to have worked for me at least once. So I had sixteen Scream Queens at the first one in 2014, and twenty-two this year at Dark Delicacies bookstore in Burbank. They hosted the event – so check them out at darkdel.com – and it’s short, and free so you can meet all the girls. It was just such a huge hit the first time that I’ve tried to make it an annual thing every January. January sort of seems to be a dead month in terms of conventions.”

It’s a fascinating step in the filmmaker’s evolution as an artist; his Rapid Heart Pictures is now as much a brand as it is a production company. But, as already noted, DeCoteau would never be so vulgar to even entertain the idea. In his words, a Rapid Heart flick is driven more by the demands and trends of the market than by any sweeping creative statement. Simply, DeCoteau’s ultimate goal is to get his work seen and turn a profit. Yet with an unprecedented amount of control exerted across every aspect of each Rapid Heart production, DeCoteau overseeing everything from conception to distribution, he’s easily one of the most overlooked genre visionaries of the modern era. After all, a large part of Rapid Heart’s setting up was to make the kind of films that he himself wanted to see.

“It was all started by you guys, two Brits [laughs]! If you look at that slow motion volley ball scene that Tony Scott shot for Top Gun (1986), and then you look at the shot Ridley Scott did of Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise (1991), right from the belt buckle up to that face of an angel; it was two British directors that created this modern celebration of the male form, even though they were both straight guys and straight filmmakers. I was there opening weekend for Top Gun in 1986 at the Chinese Theatre, and we were watching this movie that was populated with the most beautiful men on earth, and they were photographed in such a way – all glistening, all slow motion – that the whole audience were, “What the fuck kind of movie is this?!” But leave it to two Brits – brothers no less – to make me wonder, “Hmm, maybe there’s a market for this kind of movie. No one’s doing it”. They kicked me in the ass and made me think that this, this was the way to go. And Voodoo Academy; well, it may have taken some time getting there, but that was the film that changed everything.”

Another neglected gem of ’90s genre cinema, DeCoteau’s superlative 1999 pearl Voodoo Academy is a sweaty, dialogue-driven amalgam of supernatural weirdness, dark, Scientology-lampooning satire, and provocative homoeroticism. Shot for pocket change over a mere four days, it’s Suspiria (1977) by way of Kenneth Anger; a potent religious creeper that finds a gaggle of strapping young men falling victim to the bizarre goings on in an isolated Christian science school. Wild and intoxicating, Voodoo Academy‘s a must for lovers of adventurous B pulp, and a real eyebrow-raising experience for the unprepared. It certainly caught its producer, Charles Band, off guard. The Full Moon chieftain excised a whopping twenty minutes of the film’s most audacious footage before its straight-to-video release.

However, quite why Band was surprised is anyone’s guess. DeCoteau had never shied away from it: As “Dave McCabe”, he pseudonymously honed his craft on several gay porn flicks produced by Gayracula‘s (1983) Terry Le Grand, before dropping teasing, gay-baiting images into Dreamaniac (1986), and 1989’s gory, made-for-tape slasher Murder Weapon – the latter the embryonic version of the Rapid Heart formula, with its accent on shirtless young men (Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2‘s (1987) elusive Eric Freeman among them) amidst the slaughter.

“Yes, it had always been there,” DeCoteau agrees. “When you’re working in the genres, you kind of get to do what you want for the most part, in terms of cleverly; like, you can sneak things in and maybe, generally, no-one will notice and it’ll just depend on what they think. It’s like the second Nightmare On Elm Street, which is the gayest horror movie ever made yet nobody who made it even knew it was that gay [laughs]. Sometimes people just – especially when it comes to gay subtext – it just goes right over their heads. And sometimes, people are like, “Wait a minute; I know what’s going on here!”

“But, with Skeletons, what was great about that is that it was a thriller about gay intolerance. And I liked it because it dealt with it in such a mature way; a way in which it could be discussed. Skeletons wasn’t designed as some syrupy, movie-of-the-week type TV film – even though that’s how it ultimately was shown. It premiered on HBO, which was really thrilling because it was so heavily promoted as one of those big Friday-night-at-eight kinda things [5]. But content, though, it was right up my alley. And right afterwards I made a little black and white gay art movie, Leather Jacket Love Story (1997). My coming out film.”

A modest hit on the festival circuit, DeCoteau’s charmingly fluffy rom-com marked the first major shift in his sensibility; the point in which the director’s own sexuality became an explicit, intrinsic component of his work. Post Leather Jacket, it was a wildly exploratory period with DeCoteau imbuing the likes of cracking sci-fi potboiler Absolution (1997), and a slew of more Band-backed for-hire jobs (Curse of the Puppet Master (1998), Talisman (1998), Killer Eye (1999), and Witchouse (1999)) with the same visual and tonal rhythms that Voodoo Academy would go on to refine. His metamorphosis from journeyman to auteur – albeit one reluctant to admit it – was complete by the time of Rapid Heart’s excellent maiden voyage, the canny Stephen Sommers cash-in Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy (2000). [6]

Essentially pioneering his own subgenre, DeCoteau emphasised light chills, athletic physiques, and tight, white boxer shorts. Guy ogling, low-level frighteners for a gay and teenage girl audience (the teen terror market was a hot commodity again in the wake of Wes Craven’s Scream (1996)), the homoeroticism of his early Rapid Heart productions was much more genteel than the willy-waving abandon on display in the playful but frank Leather Jacket Love Story. Granted, 2003’s glossy creature feature Leeches! might have piled on the double-ended imagery (the mutated, throbbing beasties of the title pretty much one giant dick joke) but, for the most part, DeCoteau’s simmering sensuality steered well clear of anything too pointed or on the nose; a necessity, he says, when it came to selling the movies.

“Oh, they were very coy, and very clean. Nothing too hot or too graphic. Very exportable; no censorship issues, no ratings issues, almost PG-13. I tried to stick with that for a number of reasons, like it’s easier to cast, but it is just easier to sell them. The Brotherhood films I was able to get into BlockBuster; they were clean but very sexy movies and I was able to just sneak them in saying, “Hey, nothing gay about this. They’re just vampires. Beautiful male vampires!” [Laughs] And boy oh boy, those Brotherhood films did very, very well worldwide too; they were a phenomena. I think you [British] got the first one as ‘I’ve Been Watching You’ [7], but they all played on Sky. We also played on a large terrestrial channel in Germany – the first four of the movies – and, well, this was unheard of for a film with no stars. So those films had a following and they were a phenomenon, and at the time no-one had really tried to do anything with this type of film; these horror movies for a girl and gay audience. Now cut to not too many years later, and you have Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf… That’s pretty much what I was doing back in the early 2000’s, just on a much – MUCH – bigger budget!”

“There was that Renny Harlin movie too a few years back, The Covenant (2006). That film did not fare very well but I noticed in the trailer for it that it used words like ‘brotherhood’ and then I realised that the owner or manager who runs Screen Gems, the Sony genre division, is an openly gay studio head. And he came to a couple of screenings of my films, so I’m just wondering if maybe he thought there was a market there. I don’t know, maybe not, but so many people emailed me saying if I’d seen The Covenant because it was like a big budget Dave DeCoteau movie. Then a few of my films and my name were mentioned in a few major reviews for it, and they said that it was obviously a knock-off of what I was doing! So I thought, you know, it’s flattering that they would spend sixteen million on a knock-off of a Dave DeCoteau movie – but I don’t know if that was entirely intentional [laughs]!” [8]

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DECOTEAU UNBOUND

In a digital age when true independent film is considered to be at risk, David DeCoteau remains as prolific as ever. A look at his IMDb page lists a whopping sixteen titles in the last two years alone; Video On Demand now the third generation of home entertainment that the director has catered for. Really, for fans of his work, there’s never been a better time; DeCoteau’s voluminous output is now but a few clicks away thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Roku, Full Moon, and his Rapid Heart website – the latter’s branding even extending to exclusive programming all of its own. It’s with his content, though, where we’re truly treat; the excruciating A Talking Cat!?! (2013) and its horrendous, family friendly ilk notwithstanding, DeCoteau is currently belting out some of the most creatively exciting material of his entire career.

Building upon the feverish, stylised intensity of 2006’s Jean Rollin-inspired Beastly Boyz, the helmer’s sprawling, heavily auteurist 1313 saga has birthed such gutsy, art-tinged schlock as Giant Killer Bees (2011) and Night of the Widow (2012). And though claggier entries like Haunted Frat (2011) and the soul-destroyingly poor Bigfoot Island (2012) do little for the hit and miss, micro-budgeted series’ mainstream reputation as a whole, the self-reflexive smarts of Frankenqueen (2012) showcases a mastery of craft far more astute than most would ever give DeCoteau credit for. Indeed, his already low budgets may now be drastically reduced, and his recent shooting schedules slim even by his usual less-than-a-week standard (the long-awaited 2: Voodoo Academy (2012), for example, was shot in one day), but DeCoteau’s ideas are completely creatively unfettered; the freedom of being in charge of his own distribution and his keen sense self-awareness ensuing that last year’s slyly deconstructive double of 3 Scream Queens (2014) and Knock ’em Dead (2014) are as much a celebration of DeCoteau’s type of gleeful bumf as they are acidic pastiches of it.

In 3 Scream Queens, the eponymous trio (pluckily played by – who else – Quigley, Bauer and Stevens) find themselves locked in a cinema and forced to improvise an ending to an incomplete film within the film; in actuality, a selection of some of DeCoteau’s sauciest guy-ogling footage to date. A framing device is attempted but it’s largely inconsequential. Instead, the helmer’s more interested in tipping his hat to his iconic scare starlets, and thanking his own loyal fanbase with a gratuitous, full-frontal shower scene that finally breaks his stringent no-nudity policy.

The darkly comedic Knock ’em Dead, meanwhile, offers a similarly arch but less niche riff on genre filmmaking. In a nifty, neo-blaxploitation twist, Rae Dawn Chong, Debra Wilson and Anne-Marie Johnson star as three faded horror heroines descending upon an isolated mansion to make one last trashy fright flick; a sequel to the blockbusting frightener that first made them. Homaging everything from The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) to Friday the 13th (1980), and spoofing several of DeCoteau’s own signature beats, in terms of sheer fun, it’s the director’s most accessible flick for quite some time – and certainly a fitting end point to this mammoth Skeletons-based chat since Knock ’em Dead‘s making is as equally indebted to the legendary Ken Russell.

“I am very, very proud of Knock ’em Dead. It’s a real sassy, Agatha Christie kinda thing; very funny and very commercial. It was written by Barry Sandler who wrote The Mirror Crack’d (1980) but, what’s really funny, is that he wrote Ken’s Crimes of Passion! We met on that, became friends and decided to make our little movie together all these years later. So, like Skeletons, I guess I have Ken Russell to thank for Knock ’em Dead too!”

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Footnotes

[1] Donald P. Borchers, the, as 88 Films explain in the press notes for their forthcoming doc, The Life, Legacy and Legend Of…, ‘charismatic and frequently unrecognised genius behind Children of the Corn (1984), Beastmaster (1982) and Two Moon Junction (1988)’, among many others.
[2] A shame, then, that the “slowly” was snipped from the final version.
[3] A lyncanthropic greed parable, DeCoteau’s smartly scripted and adroitly handled Wolves of Wall Street might just be his most underrated movie – and THAT is saying something! It’s American Psycho (2000), Wolf (1994) and Euro-style esoteric pageantry rolled into one satisfying, Eric Roberts-starring package, as a young broker unleashes his inner animal at an exclusive New York firm. Allusions to Belfort’s kind of high-flying lifestyle abound.
[4] http://www.sagaftra.org/content/sag-holds-landmark-film-auction-recover-delinquent-residuals
[5] Skeletons was sent straight-to-video here in the UK, belatedly landing on tape in January 2000 via long since gone distributor Third Millennium, who also released DeCoteau’s Ancient Evil and Brotherhood 1 – 3. Skeletons’ subsequent DVD issues (from budget specialists Planet and Prism Leisure) are perennial discount and thrift store staples. All panned and scanned, every release so far makes a dreadful hash of DeCoteau and DP Tom Callaway’s delicate 2.35:1 scope photography.
[6] Or ‘Bram Stoker’s Legend of the Mummy 2’ on these shores, Third Millennium annoying retitling it to capitalise on the rental success of director Jeffrey Obrow’s god-awful first Legend of the Mummy (1998).
[7] An a.k.a. which, weirdly, resulted in it getting an unofficial sequel, with Steve Balderson’s shoddy Pep Squad (1998) rebranded as ‘I’ve Been Watching You 2: Prom Night’ when it was dumped straight-to-UK video (by Third Millennium) in 2002.
[8] Who knows, but there’s likely more than coincidence to it: The Covenant’s scripter, J.S. Cardone, was also a one-time Full Moon regular, penning the screenplays for ShadowZone (1990) and Crash & Burn (1990) – the latter a film DeCoteau produced.


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