Matty looks back at a peach of a werewolf movie with its director John Callas.
“Yeah, that was me,” laughs John Callas. “We were in the middle of shooting — I think it was a pretty cold day and night that day. We were running behind schedule and Wes turned to me and said, “You need to take a camera and shoot second unit for me”. And I said, “Alright, what do you need?”. “I need you to do a very slow push into the dog and its eyes”. And I said “okay” and asked why and Wes replied, “Because that’s when we’re going to do the doggy flashback”. So off I went with a bunch of guys to shoot it, thinking I’d just kissed my career right down the toilet…”
While said moment from Wes Craven’s unfairly maligned Hills Have Eyes Part 2 (1984) has certainly earned its place in cult film history, Callas’ self-deprecating assessment of all he’s done since couldn’t be further from the truth.
The guy’s a workhorse.
Director, producer, title sequence helmer, music video gun for hire, ad man, novelist, logistics — Callas’ cornucopia of credits include everything from figuring out how to shoot a rock concert with film cameras on Styx’s ‘Kilroy Was Here’ tour to co-directing the 1995 live action trailer for the TriStar logo (you know it: the clouds, the horse, the wings, the rousing score). He’s also responsible for LONE WOLF: a peach of a werewolf flick from horror’s hallowed ‘80s heyday (and which, incidentally, is currently streaming on Amazon Prime here in the U.K.). Kind of fitting, really; it’s as if one canine led to another.
“You know, I had never put that together before. But now that you mention it, The Hills Have Eyes Part 2 to Lone Wolf is a bit coincidental,” he chuckles. “What happened with Lone Wolf is I knew the producers. And they introduced me to the owner of First Films, Michael Krueger, who unfortunately passed away many years ago. First Films and their subsidiary, Flash Features, had a deal with Prism Entertainment. A.B. Goldberg was Lone Wolf’s executive producer and they agreed that they needed a director who could satisfy Prism’s criteria and they entrusted me to put something together that Prism would accept and be happy with. And to this day, as far as I’m aware, they are. Lone Wolf was on Netflix in the U.S. recently too.”
When pressed, the genial Callas prefers to remain tight-lipped on the exact behind the scenes machinations that led to Goldberg seeking a fresh director for the films that he and Krueger were slinging together on the cheap in Chicago native Krueger’s adopted home turf of Denver, Colorado. So let’s fill in the blanks.
A movie nut since childhood, Michael Krueger began as a publisher of Fantastic Films Magazine, which ran between 1978 and 1985 and was pitched as an alternative to Cinefantastique and Starlog. Wanting to make films himself, Krueger set up First and, after briefly toying with producing a theatrical feature, quickly found himself cobbling together a pair of impoverished but easily saleable shockers for the content-hungry video and cable TV market alongside Goldberg under the Flash moniker. Writing and directing both of them, the late Krueger, who, sadly, passed away on the 27th of August 1989 at the all-too-young age of thirty-nine after a battle with cancer, unleashed Mindkiller (1987) and Night Vision (1987) as his opening blows. The results are striking: the former is an icky, disturbing, and Cronenbergian tale of ESP and bodily transformation that’s bolstered by a suffocating mood and some grotesquely beautiful FX; the latter is a deliberately paced and creepy hair-raiser about VCRs, Satanism, and the essence of creativity imbued with a Lynchian sense of surrealism. However, though Mindkiller and Night Vision are absolute catnip for those with a taste for grassroots genre fare, and irrespective of them doing decent business on tape for distributor Prism, in the eyes of general renters and Prism’s top brass — well, their bizarre plotting, lo-fi production values, and sometimes janky tech credentials were seen as closer to Ed Wood than Krueger’s Roger Corman-indebted aspirations. The long and the short of it was that Prism wanted product of significantly better quality (philistines!). And with Krueger’s Lone Wolf script on the docket urgent action was required, lest First/Flash’s three picture deal with Prism be terminated posthaste.
“Michael was such a nice man and he gave me an opportunity, and for that I’ll forever be grateful,” says Callas. “When we started prepping Lone Wolf, I moved in with the producers, Doug Olson and his wife, Sarah Liles, for three weeks and we just tore the script apart and rewrote it because it was not in good enough shape to shoot and I said, “Look, this needs to be fixed”. We did the best we could with it.”
Of Krueger’s Prism triumvirate (his fourth and final film, a sorely underrated unofficial entry in the sprawling Amityville Horror franchise, The Amityville Curse, would be released on cassette posthumously by Vidmark in June 1990), Lone Wolf is the standout. In fact, it’s a rock solid lil’ scareshow full stop. Shot on 16mm for a paltry $100,000 over approximately ten fifteen to eighteen hour days (“I can’t remember the exact amount!”), Lone Wolf tells the Silver Bullet (1985)-esque story of a small Colorado town plagued by a series of gory killings. And as the gruesomely mutilated and half-eaten bodies start to mount, it soon becomes apparent that there’s something worse than a regular wild animal or your everyday sort of maniac stalking the woods and streets…
The pleasures of Lone Wolf are legion. The immediate satisfaction lies in the succulent throwback sensibility of R.S. Cole and Paul C. Reilly’s lycanthrope design which blissfully calls to mind the head n’ hands cartooniness of the Universal Wolf Man cycle and primo B-fodder such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957). Co-ordinated by Deadly Spawn (1983) hero Ted A. Bohus, the wonderfully wet practical gore effects by Vincent J. Guastini (who, along with Bohus, also supplied the grue for Krueger’s Mindkiller, and would go on to provide the splatter and prosthetics for Jeff Mandel’s Elves (1989), Brian Yuzna’s Rottweiler (2004), Adam Robitel’s The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), and Glenn Danzig’s Verotika (2019)) are spectacular too. Callas executes them as if he were telling an Aristocrats joke, each escalating gag besting and out-grossing that which preceded it before the helmer tops the lot of them with a furious, frenzied, heroes-versus-beast showdown at a high school dance. It’s a fabulous, musical burst — but it should be noted that the entirety of Lone Wolf pulses with a similarly rhythmic feeling, Callas orchestrating its passages of tautly assembled jolts as if he were conducting a concerto. Indeed, it might be an easy or cliched comparison given his earlier collaboration with the fright maestro, but there’s without doubt elements of Wes Craven to Callas’ assured style. The authoritative blocking, the knack for building tension, the precise cutting — coupled with the commitment to movement Callas honed in the high-energy realm of pop promos (whereupon he produced videos for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sammy Hagar, and a boatload of others), it’s a giddy combination.
“I think any time I work it influences my next job or next piece,” Callas ponders. “Because you get more experience, you see a shot you never dreamed about before, and then you get a little more confident and want to try stuff that’ll improve the quality of your film. With the sequence set at the dance, my director of photography, David Lewis, and I had a very long conversation about how we were going to stage it and how to get people running in front of the camera and going in different directions and mayhem but somehow, in the middle of it all, find a way to tie it all together. So we approached it very systematically and simply approached it shot by shot. Then we just went after it. I storyboarded it but it was no more than stick figures [laughs].”
Structured as a mystery, Lone Wolf’s quieter joys rest within Callas’ ability to keep us guessing. Literally anyone we meet could be the werewolf, with different characters conspicuously unaccounted for during the snarling furball’s lunar attacks, be they good natured, badly behaved or positioned in an ambiguous grey area somewhere in the middle. Eschewing the broad or referential humour that coursed through several of the bigger classic monster revival pictures of the period (not that that’s a bash: fellow Wolf Man (1941) overhauls An American Werewolf in London (1981) and The Howling (1981); Dracula (1931) takes Fright Night (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987); and Frankenstein (1931) update Re-Animator (1985) are certified masterpieces, after all), Callas plays Lone Wolf straight. Never drab or po-faced — there’s still personality and naturalistic sniping from the film’s protagonists, who’re all high schoolers at various levels on the social scale — Callas instead pushes things just far enough to not tip into outright fantasy, maintaining a real world footing even when ICT students Julie (Dyann Brown) and Joey (Kevin Hart — no, not him; this KH is another Mindkiller alum) begin using a computer to track ol’ wolfie-chops. Of course, these days, that ain’t such a fanciful notion. In fact, it’s remarkably prophetic. But back in 1988, it was as sci-fi as Star Trek.
“The computer stuff was in the script but not to the depth I brought it. I really tried to develop the whole idea of tracking the wolf with it. And I don’t want to blow any smoke up my ass because you already said it but, yeah, I thought it was pretty forward-thinking! And I wanted to bring something a little past the point of what the technology of the time was and thought we should just give it a try. I just thought it would be a cool idea. Whether or not it could happen in the future or not, well, that would be up to the future. But as it turns out, by today’s standards, it’s so easy to track something that way. I mean, iPhones are stronger than the computers that got us to land on the moon. It was a 286 processor that got us to the moon and iPhones could chew that up in half a second.”
“As for the horror side, I am a horror fan,” continues Callas. “It was the ‘80s and everything seemed to have a certain style, especially anything low-budget like us. I did look at quite a few films to get a feel of whether I was stepping too far out of something that would sell — because at the end of the day, you’re not going to get hired again if your film doesn’t make any money. But I enjoy all kinds of genres, and I’m not a camp-y or spoof-y guy. I prefer dramatic material; my heart is really in character-driven pieces. Anything that’s character focused and has a story that I can work with I like to get involved in, and I thought that there was a lot of potential in Lone Wolf — although a lot of it never materialised due to financial constraints.”
Ah, yes, given that lead, it’d be remiss not to talk about Lone Wolf’s obvious peculiarity; a quirk 100% caused by its microbudget and regional making. Because despite its plot being anchored by a gaggle of teens, it’s clear that the ‘yoof’ of Lone Wolf’s cast are anything but. The majority of its ‘young’ players must be aged thirty and upwards. Jamie Newcomb in particular, as the film’s prime suspect, rebellious rock ‘kid’ Eddie, looks as though he’s had a helluva rough paper round. Regardless of everything else Lone Wolf gets right, it’ll likely be a dealbreaker for some, and impossible to accept without a loathsome degree of snark and irony. And that’s a bloody shame: as initially jarring as the thick five o’clock shadows are, and as gawp-worthy as the unconcealed bags beneath everyone’s eyes are as they squabble about classes, mooch around corridors, and sass arsehole jocks, they rapidly become part of the film’s charm. Besides, in terms of the actual performances, Newcomb, Brown, Hart, and the mononymous Siren convey the correct emotional depth and intensity for each scene.
“Well,” sighs Callas, “It came down to this: I was shooting in Denver and I couldn’t fly actors from L.A. or New York or any place else in. I just had to take all the local talent so that was just one of the deals I had to make. I took the best talent available at the time in Denver that auditioned. And yeah, that’s one of my complaints about the movie too. Honestly, I wish I had a little bit more foresight and had said, “Look, why don’t we switch these guys from high school kids to final year college kids” or something like that, just to get the age group a little higher. But, you know, when you work in the low budget world, you have to be willing to let some things go because it wouldn’t get done otherwise.”
“What I do is, I tell everyone what I’d want in a perfect world, not thinking about budget or anything like that. And then it’s a matter of fish trading,” explains the director of his process. ““I know you wanted this but can we settle for that?” and, you know, at some point you have to say “OK” and compromise. But there were some scenes on Lone Wolf that I was like, “No, I have to have it this way” and the producers would give it to me, but then I’d have to compromise in another scene. For example, there was a scene in the movie where the wolf is running around the woods. And David Lewis, the director of photography, said to me, “So what are you imagining here?” So I said, “I want a shaft of light this way, a shaft that way, and I think we should have this and this”. And David puts his arm around me and says, “Come take a walk”. [Pause] “Okaaaaay”. And he says “I think what you came up with is brilliant. I love the shadowing, I love the streaks of light — everything you said is great”. I say, “But there’s a but in there, isn’t there?”. “Yes. We have three lights and two of them are burnt out”. “OK, put one over there and let’s go” [laughs].”
“Another thing I remember like that is about the effects. When we got on set with the mask, I said to the guy playing the wolf [Tom Henry], “I need you to run so many yards in that direction”. And he said, “I can’t”. “Why?” — I thought he was being difficult. He said, “I can’t see out of the mask. They haven’t made me any eye holes,” and I was like, “You’ve gotta be kidding” [laughs]. So I took it to one of the effects guys and said, “Did you forget to cut out the eye holes?” and he just said, “Aww, shit” [laughs]. So he just cut some little holes in and everything was fine after that. I mean, how can you forget about something like that? [laughs] But we were so involved in making all of the effects stuff work — the teeth, the hair, the mouth, the drool — that we just forgot the basics like making sure the poor guy could see! What can I say? The low-budget world! At one point, I even called A.B. Goldberg and took over the post production and said that if I went over, I’d pay out of my own pocket because I had to have at least some control over the editing.”
As busy as ever, as of this chinwag, Callas is gearing up to tackle Christmas Voices: a picture based upon his own 2017 novel that he describes as “a modern day Scrooge”:
“It’s a cross between A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. I’ve got the schedule done and a thirty page detailed budget and a woman in Australia is looking to raise the funds for it.”
However, as our chat draws to a close, the ultra personable filmmaker is keen to draw attention to another gem nestled among his stacked resume: 2015’s slyly satirical, organ harvesting ick-fest No Solicitors (aka ‘No Visitors’) starring Eric Roberts.
“I think any fans of Lone Wolf would like No Solicitors,” Callas concludes. “It’s very strong and character driven. And the gore, as you pointed out about Lone Wolf, it just keeps going over and over the top, and, hopefully, I send you down one path and make you think you’ve got it all figured out and then completely turn a corner. Stuff comes out of nowhere; I think the minute an audience figures out your film, you’ve lost them. And working with Eric Roberts — Eric is like a kid in a candy store. He is just such a consummate pro. He was incredibly kind to the crew, always brought laughter to the set, and never stopped working. The guy just works really hard. At one point he said, “Hey, boss?” and I said, “Yeah, Eric?” and he asked, “What do we do here?”. And we had a nice discussion about what to do and — look, the guy’s an Academy Award and Golden Globe winner and he could have easily just said, “This is what I’m going to do and this is how I’m going to do it”. But he was very invested in understanding why I wrote the character the way I did, the relationships everyone had, and how he should play it. And to have a pro like that working at that level, it upped my game quite a bit as well. He always did stuff to make the crew laugh and he just made everyone calm down and focus.”
John Callas can be found at johncallas.com
Mindkiller, Night Vision and Amityville Curse video covers courtesy of vhscollector.com
A very special thanks to Ted A. Bohus
Updated with corrections on 23/5/20
Follow Matty on Twitter @mattybudrewicz