Matty dusts off his chat with helmer Brian Thomas Jones, who talks the making of his criminally forgotten body horror gem.
I’d like to think that somewhere, in some far flung corner of the cosmos, there are perfectly preserved prints of each and every horror film ever made, lorded over by some sort of sentient extraterrestrial being. This being, this otherworldly guardian of scary movies, would understand the importance of keeping such a meticulous archive; of making sure that each picture is ready for the moment in which it’s called upon for a bells and whistles re-release. They’d know, you see, that if they didn’t curate such a thing, a lot of wonderful, wonderful movies would one day just disappear; lost to time, like Roy Batty’s tears in the rain.
Now, I’m not really talking about Dracula (1931) or The Exorcist (1973) or Dawn of the Dead (1978) or whatever here. No, no. They’re the big boys; terror titans that have all – in my eyes anyway – been ‘archived’ through different formats countless times already. I mean, there’s enough Dawn of the Dead DVDs out there to sink a battleship, for God’s sake! The films I’m on about are the little guys.
You know, those little fright flicks that have already began slipping through the cracks.
Those little fright flick that haven’t moved beyond their long out of print VHS release.
Those little fright flicks that once haunted video stores the world over, but are now in danger of becoming ghosts themselves.
Those little fright flicks… Those little fright flicks just like REJUVENATOR (1988). Or as I like to call it, ‘One of the Very Best Shockers of the ‘80s That You’ve Probably Never Seen’.
“Yeah, it’s never been released on DVD, never mind Blu-ray,” sighs Rejuvenator’s affable director, Brian Thomas Jones. “Nobody’s ever contacted me to do a release either. Do I look back on it fondly? Of course! It was my first feature film and probably my best. It’s certainly the one I’m most proud of. It was so much fun to make – we had some crazy times.”
Rejuvenator tells the compelling story of Ruth Warren (Jessica Dublin), an ageing former movie star bankrolling the dubious research of Dr. Ashton (John McKay). Desperately wanting to be young again, Warren is delighted when, after three grueling years, Ashton’s experiments yield a quality result: A special serum that can reverse the ageing process. Ignoring Ashton’s protests, Warren insists that she be the first test subject and, after an operation, soon rejuvenates back into her younger, sexier self (played by Vivian Lanko). But although initially successful, like all good tales of science gone awry, it turns out Ashton’s serum has some particularly nasty side effects. Icky, brain-munching side effects…
A film I love dearly, Rejuvenator is marvellous, Gothic sci-fi frightener; a kooky and ever-so-slightly-kinky hybrid of vintage Cronenberg, The Wasp Woman (1959), and Billy Wilder’s noir classic, Sunset Boulevard (1950). “I’m mentioned in the same sentence as Cronenberg and Corman!” laughs Jones. “I’m glad you caught the Sunset Boulevard reference though. Ironically, I’m not really a horror fan. I’ve seen a lot of horror films of course, but it’s not my genre; I’m more a Film Noir kind of guy. Man, I wish I could have been a studio director in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s making some of what they did back then… There are some classic horror films I like: All the Universal Monster movies, which are really tame by today’s standards, Halloween (1978), Evil Dead one and two, the first Saw (2004). I’ve never been a fan of the ‘gorno’ type stuff, though.”
Although fascinated with the filmmaking process from an early age, it wasn’t until Jones began attending Virginia Commonwealth University that Jones caught the film bug. Eventually transferring to New York University Film School in 1976, it was while there that Jones began the journey that would ultimately lead to him directing Rejuvenator. Dropping out during the summer of his junior and senior years, Jones soon found himself working for a TV commercial production company, staying with them for a couple of years before freelancing as a production assistant on indie and studio features.
“I needed a showreel if I wanted to be a director, so I went back to NYU to make a narrative film,” he explains. “I finished my Bachelors of Fine Arts degree and made a fifty-eight minute featurette called Overexposed about photojournalists in El Salvador. It ended up as a semi-finalist in the North Eastern US region of the 1984 Student Academy Awards. I lost, but a few days later, I got a call from a guy called Steven Mackler. He said he’d been on the jury for the awards and said that he was really impressed with what I’d done for no money. So Mackler made a deal with Overexposed’s producer to take the film out to try and raise money to shoot another twenty minutes to sell it as a feature. That never happened, but we started looking for other ways of working together.”
So that’s how Rejuvenator came about, then?
“Well, in the summer of ’87, Mackler called me. He’d made a deal with Sony Video Software – SVS Films – to make three feature films which would get a theatrical release before going to the home video market. Sony had just started making their own VHS players after losing the VHS/Betamax format war, and the idea behind SVS was to make low budget genre movies, put them in theatres, and sell them to video store owners as a ‘straight to your store from the theater’ deal. Then they’d cross-market the movies with the video players.”
“Anyway, Mackler gave me a script called ‘Skin’ by Simon Nuchtern [who also wrote and directed the 1984 slasher Silent Madness], which was written specifically as a vehicle for special effects make-up artist Ed French [the grue maestro behind the splatter of Sleepaway Camp (1983) and Blood Rage (1987), among many others]. ‘Skin’ was to be the first SVS film and Mackler wanted me to direct it. I read the script and, when I finished, I said to myself “I can’t direct this script, but I know how to make this movie. It’s Bride of Frankenstein meets Sunset Boulevard!” So I pitched the concept to Mackler and he let me rewrite it.”
Though keeping the structure largely the same and incorporating many of Nuchtern’s planned make-up effect sequences, Jones performed a full page-one re-write in order to work in numerous ideas of his own. “Like I said, I’ve never really been a true fan of blood, guts and gore so when I was writing I tried to weave in all these themes of vanity, addiction, obsession and greed. I wanted to make it my own movie. I wanted it to be heartfelt and dramatic.”
Personally, I’d say Jones was incredibly successful. In a decade teeming with latex excess and cardboard cut-out characters, Rejuvenator is a breath of fresh air; a genuine creeper with an unusually firm focus on characterisation and human conflict. It just so happens that, underneath it all, there’s a rollicking great monster mash going on too!
“The reviews of it in NY Daily News, Fangoria, Variety and Cinefantastique all mentioned the characters and story, saying that it really set it apart from the crowd [of low budget horror films],” says Jones. “One of the nicest compliments I got was from a professor of mine in grad school, who taught critical theory for art. He watched the film and said that I “elevated the movie above the genre with a genuine affection for the characters”. That professor, by the way, is Carmine Iannocone and he just so happened to play the lead in Slaughter High (1986), which came out the year before we shot Rejuvenator. Talk about coincidence and fate! He’s going to kill me for even mentioning it. He’s a very serious sculptor and professor now.”
Citing it as one the greatest times in his life, it comes as no surprise that Jones remembers everything about the film’s production and shoot. “The original [shooting] schedule was twenty days. I think we went over by about two days though and we had a day of pick-ups in a studio to get some missing transition shots once we had our rough cut. The whole thing came to about $230,000 after post, and we shot on re-cans and short ends too. The first thing that pops into my head though is the beautiful fall day we started shooting, day one. It was the mansion where the Ruth Warren character lived and I was stood on the second floor balcony, just watching all the crew unloading the trucks and setting up lights and scrims. I had this rush of excitement and just thought to myself, “Wow! This is all mine!””
“It was this incredible property in New Jersey and we shot the first four days of production there. It was wonderful, a beautiful place,” Jones continues. “Ashton’s lab, though, that was more difficult to come by. I was in one of the production offices and saw these two Polaroids on the production manager Bob Zimmerman’s desk. It was of an old abandoned tuberculosis hospital on Staten Island that had been scouted by Zimmerman and the location manager, Phil Dolan. They weren’t even going to show me! It was perfect – one of the scariest places I’ve ever been to when we scouted. They ended up using it later in the film Jacob’s Ladder (1990).”
“My favourite memory of the shoot itself, though, is the night we shot the scene outside the nightclub. It’s where the monstrous, rejuvenated Ruth needs to use the payphone to call Ashton and there’s a woman – a nightclub dancer – already there. Anyway, we shot the dancer’s death in cuts: the blood and brains splat against the phone booth and the dancer’s body then just falls down the glass. It was shot in an alley in Chinatown so when we had dinner that night, we all went to the nearby Chinese restaurants and Ed French and his team brought back some Cantonese lobster and mixed it all with the fake blood! That’s the gore we threw at the side of the phone booth!” Jones laughs.
“The most absurd scene, where the monster melts down right at the end, that was so much fun too. That was obviously way before CGI was commonplace so it was all tubes of goo and blood, and about a dozen people wearing trash bags and working these syringes and bladders and stuff. We had to get it all in one take so we had two cameras on it. The scene’s up on YouTube as ‘Gory Barfing Creature Woman’ and I think that pretty much sums it up!”
So how did actress Vivian Lanko – the rejuvenated and creature incarnation of Ruth – find such an effects-heavy part?
“Oh, she was committed. She endured hours of effects application and removal. I’d only really ever considered her, in truth. She was part of an experimental theatre company that I was also involved with, so I was familiar with her talents from there. She was fascinated by the character and the transformation, but a little uncomfortable with the nudity required for the role. Still, I cast her and her chemistry with John McKay, who plays Ashton, was great. Now, I would never have thought John right for Ashton if I had just seen his picture, but when he came in… He just WAS Ashton! He and Vivian were two of the best things that happened with the movie, and I think it works as well as it does because of them.”
Upon release, Rejuvenator played theatrically for one week in New York. Jones and producer Mackler’s plan was to use the film’s first round of positive reviews and the solid word of mouth it received in the local press to help re-market it as a modern midnight movie. Sadly, as Jones elaborates, a clueless SVS higher-up began to interfere, putting the kibosh on Rejuvenator before it even had chance to grow. “Yeah, it was booked into theaters for a week because he decided the film “didn’t have legs”. I thought it had real cult potential, but it just never ever got the opportunity.”
“The SVS executive was the same guy who changed the film’s title too, by the way,” Jones continues. “We had a couple throughout, like ‘Scream Queen’ which thankfully never took off, before a sadly-no-longer-with-us friend of mine, Mark Carducci, came up with its original title Rejuvenatrix. To me, that title had the perfect ‘psychotronic’ feel, but this idiot executive decided to call it Rejuvenator instead – probably trying to cash in on the excellent Stuart Gordon film, Re-Animator (1985).”
Here in the UK Rejuvenator went straight to video, mercifully surviving its trip through the BBFC’s pruning shears unlike many of its contemporaries. Regardless, it remains obscure; a curio that’s languishing in limbo while two-bit chunder like Hellgate (1989) gets slapped onto a special edition Blu-ray. Insane doesn’t begin to describe it.
“It’s not a brilliant movie, but I do think it’s a good one,” Jones states. “I’ve always been quite disappointed it never got the exposure or recognition I feel it deserved, even though it has developed its fans from those lucky enough to have seen it. The reviews and the fact it did O.K. on video… I probably should let it go, but I’ll always hold a grudge for that SVS guy who didn’t understand the genre or its fandom and realise the potential of what he had.”
“Today, I’m making a living as a still photographer and teaching photography and film at community colleges,” the director says in closing. “Photography was my first love so I’ve fallen into shooting architecture and interior design commercially.”
Would you ever make a return to the movies?
“Well, it’d have be something that either just easily comes about or a script I’m really passionate about. I’ve been really lucky; I’m one of the few people in my class that got to make more than one feature film. I went on to co-write and co-direct another Mackler-produced SVS film, Escape from Safehaven (1989), as well as an indie erotic thriller called Posed For Murder (1989), and episodes of Monsters, Sweet Valley High, and Big Bad Beetleborgs.”
“I still enjoy watching Rejuvenator every once in a while, though. Those were the days, man! Shooting on 35mm film and editing on Moviola uprights and Steenback flatbeds, mixing in an actual mix studio. These days, filmmakers don’t know what they missed. Everything is Redcam, Final Cut Pro, Pro Tools, CGI, then output to digital files… However, if I had all that technology available to me back then, I’d have probably made more movies!”
I certainly wish you did, Brian.
A ‘Bride’ or ‘Son of Rejuvenator’ would have been terrific!
Previously published at U.K. Horror Scene on 27/02/14
Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz