Thursday, March 26, 2015

An Interview with Makeup Effects Artist and Author, William Munns

Special Makeup Effects Artist William Munns has had a lifelong passion for movies, makeup, monsters, and the creatures that populate our world; and even those mysterious beings that may not. Following in the footsteps of his peers and colleagues, Munns made super 8 films before embarking on his profession of both teaching the art of makeup to budding FX artists (from 1973-1979, and again in 1987-1994), to creating cinematic creatures great and small. Having worked in the television medium, and on films of varying sizes and budgets, Munns was able to pull off impressive work when he often had little time and money to do so. His passion for nature and wildlife led to his association with, and studying under Ralph Helfer, founder of the renowned Gentle Jungle, Inc, an animal training facility that has dozens of films and TV credits to its name. Tiring of making monsters, by the late 1980s Munns concentrated on creating wildlife exhibits and prehistoric hominids and dinosaurs for museums and theme park; these included robotic attractions during his time working at Creative Presentations, Inc. Sasquatch fans will no doubt find interest in Munns' enthusiasm for Cryptozoology. His Bigfoot studies led to the epic, 500+ page book, 'When Roger Met Patty'; published in 2014, it's a meticulously compiled, serious look into the Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967. Munns embraced CGI technology in 1997--a technique which was an indispensable tool with research for the aforementioned, legendary Bigfoot film. In the field of special makeup effects, William Munns is a rare artist who has vast experience in not only making fantasy creatures, but working with real ones as well.

Recently Mr. Munns answered a number of questions about his career, primarily in film makeup effects. Below is the result of that interview, followed by links to his website with anecdotes about his work and where to purchase his book on the PG Bigfoot film. Munns likewise answered a number of questions solely about his time working on the 'killer lion' movie, SAVAGE HARVEST; and those questions and answers can be found HERE at the bottom of the review for the film.

VENOMS5: Where did your interest in makeup effects originate from? Was it a film, or your interest in wildlife and Cryptozoology? 

WILLIAM MUNNS: My interest in makeup and special effects originated with Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, and the wonderful creature things in it. The single makeup I think inspired me most was the Morlocks from THE TIME MACHINE (1960). I can't think of a time when I wasn't loving wildlife and nature. Cryptozoology began to fascinate me when the Abominable Snowman was first described, before Bigfoot caught on.

V5: How did you working on BLACKENSTEIN (1973) come about?

WM: BLACKENSTEIN was one of my first pro jobs, definitely my first doing makeup prosthetics. A fellow makeup artist, Gordon Fried, got the job of doing the regular makeup and he came to me to do the monster prosthetics. 

V5: What's the story behind your involvement on QUEST FOR FIRE (1981)? I've read it was originally cancelled and restarted elsewhere.

WM: Ralph Helfer and I did bid on a concept to take live animals and make them into prehistoric ones (Indian Elephant to Wooly Mammoth, Black Rhino to Wooly Rhino, big Lioness to Sabretooth Cat, big horse [like a Shire] into a Megaloceros [giant Irish Elk]), but our bid wasn't accepted. So the film started with other people and other animal trainers in Europe. They filmed the movie and came to Canada to do post production and then felt some scenes were needed, and so they came to Ralph to put together some animals (like a pack of wolves) and trainers to fight with the animals; and I was brought in to make dental impressions of the trainers (so the Canadian makeup team could make dental prosthetics for the trainers) and Rae Dawn Chong needed a full belly mold so they could fit her for a pregnancy prosthetic. So I did some dental casts and the body mold of Rae's stomach. I wasn't paid for it, and I was in the middle of multiple projects (including SWAMP THING and SUPERSTITION) so my effort was minimal to the overall production.

Boone Narr gets a kiss from Clyde (Buddha) on the set of ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980). Photo Tuskaloosa News, July 2nd, 1980
V5: Going back to your lifelong interest in wildlife, you frequently worked with animals, and most famously with Ralph Helfer and Boone Narr of Gentle Jungle. Do you recall anything about this long standing rumor that the orangutan used in ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN (1980) was beaten to death?

WM: I took my animal classes at Gentle Jungle in 1979. The orangutan used in that picture was originally named Buddha, and a fairly mature male. Boone Narr was his primary trainer, and a truly excellent man who never mistreated animals. The "girl" orang was actually also a male, from the Dallas Zoo, so they first named him Dallas; but once the movies became so popular, Buddha was called Clyde (like in the movie), and Dallas was renamed C.J. (for Clyde Junior). I remember the purchase of C.J. from the Dallas zoo for the film, because C.J. was a Borneo/Sumatran cross, and the zoos were in the process of taking crosses out of the zoo breeding system so orangs were mated only with the same type -- Borneo organgs to same, Sumatran orangs to same. CJ, being a cross/hybrid, was thus phased out of zoo prospects as a breeder and thus sold into the private sector to Ralph Helfer. Buddha (Clyde) did die after the movie was made, but the cause of death was never determined to be trainer mistreatment.

I was working with Boone Narr when he trained Buddha, because Buddha had a curious thing about men with beards and Boone had to break him of that fixation. I had a beard, so Boone used me as his distraction to train Buddha to ignore instead of grab. I also watched how Boone trained Buddha to flip the finger, by extending Buddha's second finger up, and then putting a donut on it for Buddha to eat. Finally, all Boone had to do was show Buddha a donut, and the orang would raise the finger to get it.


V5: The main source of Buddha's mistreatment and eventual death seems to stem from a 1985 National Enquirer article. Other sources that have propagated this rumor likewise use the same terminology, making errors in the process, even down to the films title as 'Every Which Way You Can'. There's a book out there from 1993 by Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall titled 'Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People'. In it, the authors suggest animal abuse by way of three observers, two of which are named Kenneth DeCroo and a Robert Porec who claim to have witnessed Narr beating Buddha/Clyde the orangutan. Did you know these men?

WM: I knew most of the trainers then, and those names don't ring any bells. Boone was the lead trainer. Other trainers I knew were Sled Reynolds, David MacMillian, John Gillespe, John Downy, David (something, he worked Misty the Elephant), Joe Camp, Tammi Maple, and a boy Tana Helfer knew, Bill (can't recall last name) started to learn training on the ANY WHICH WAY movie with Clyde Junior. Sled and David MacMilliam were Boone's most frequent trainer partners with the primates, Buddha, C.J., Doc and Eve (chimps). Boone was truly one of the best and kindest trainers I knew.

Unfortunately, Gentle Jungle had a series of real animal tragedies. Some animal rights fanatics blew it all out of proportion. Sultan, the best tiger, died two weeks after being tranquilized to be dyed black for THE BEASTMASTER ([1982]he was over-tranquilized, because the Vets over-estimated his weight). Then an elephant, Misty (who had a mean streak) killed the head zookeeper at Lion Country Safari, where Gentle Jungle had relocated their animals; but the zookeeper death was the man's fault, in that he wasn't qualified to handle Misty and she would get wild around foolish people. So between Buddha's death, Sultan's death, and the zookeeper's death, the Animal Rights fanatics went on the warpath against Ralph and Gentle jungle, and made a lot of false or wildly exaggerated claims, thus starting the rumor about Buddha.

These same fanatics heard about my work making chimps into Gorillas for Warner Brother's Dian Fossey bio. They claimed we were putting full overhead gorilla masks on the chimps, which could shift and block their breathing, when in reality we were putting nose appliances and head caps, and the chimps were never in any danger at all. So the animal rights fanatics just make things up and don't bother with the real facts.

Anyways, Gentle Jungle was damaged by the accident investigations and never recovered, even though trainer abuse was never proven. Ralph [Helfer] quit the business and his trainers went out on their own with new animal companies they set up.

But once the rumors take hold, it's almost impossible to clear up the story and put the rumors to rest. I worked with Boone when he was training Buddha for the second movie; I was on the hair color crew for Sultan, and I worked with Misty on a TV commercial a few weeks before the zookeeper incident, so I had first hand knowledge of the animals, the trainers, and the incidents. The malicious rumors usually come from people who weren't there.

V5: This has happened to you personally, while working on other films?

WM: We are all vulnerable to people's claims. Brian Peck, on RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), was an actor (playing Scuz) and a friend of Kenny Myers, who replaced me. Brian was posting stories of me supposedly trying to put a bald cap on him and he decided to just shave his head, which is untrue; because I was hired with the promise that real punk kids would be cast and there was no punk makeup work I should bid on or plan, and when they cast regular looking kids, I only agreed to do wigs for Linnea [Quigley] and Jewel [Sheperd], and they took the guys to a punk hair salon. Never was a bald cap, never even talk of one. So why Brian invented his story, I don't know. I just know people invent things. Also, someone invented the story of Ray Wise on SWAMP THING (1982) breaking his leg or arm, so Dick Durock was moved up to double him as Swamp Thing. False. Dick was hired first, specifically to play Swamp Thing, and as an afterthought, they decided Ray Wise should have a facial mask and chest so he could do the Swamp Thing farwell dialogue scene. So the broken bone story was pure invention.

V5: For someone who supposedly beat an orangutan to death, Boone Narr has maintained a very prosperous, successful career as an animal trainer for over 30 years. What happened to him after these early 80s tragedies and what became of Clyde Jr.?

WM: Once Gentle Jungle was struggling business-wise, Boone and Sled Reynolds left to start their own company, Hollywood Animals, in Lebec, CA, north of Los Angeles and Valencia. By 1986, they were well established, because that was when Boone, Sled and I started the chimps as gorillas for Warner Brothers' Dian Fossey project "Heaven and Earth", which merged with Universal's GORILLAS IN THE MIST (1988) while we were doing our prototype work, and Rick Baker was prototyping gorilla suits for universal. Once they merged productions, they put all the gorilla work under Rick, and Boone; Sled and I were phased out. Boone owned two of the four chimps we did as gorillas, AJ and Baby Stymie, while Hubert Wells supplied Big Karunga and Mouse.

Boone bought Clyde Jr. from Ralph [Helfer] when Ralph's business was going down the drain; but just before that, C.J. was used for a TV movie about a gorilla that does sign language and escapes its owners and finds a deaf boy who befriends him (A SUMMER TO REMEMBER [1985]). I was to make C.J. into a gorilla, and we demonstrated the concept to the producers at CBS Studio Center offices. But then the producer just arbitrarily cut my budget in half, so I arbitrarily suggested he find somebody else to do it cheaply. Somebody tried and failed, so they just re-wrote the story to say C.J. was a dark orang mistaken for a gorilla.

C.J. was retired while working on a movie. He had matured to his aggressive age, and grabbed trainer Bill (can't recall last name, Tana Helfer's friend) and tried to have sex with the trainer after pinning him to the ground. Thankfully the man's jeans were strong. Anyways, C.J. was deemed unsafe to work with after that, and sold to a breeder compound. 

V5: On THE BOOGENS (1981) you've stated the filmmakers weren't quite sure what a "Boogen" should look like. What was your experience on this picture?

WM: The Boogens people were very nice, but they just couldn't make up their minds on what they wanted the Boogens to look like. So we ended up with a body like a sheep's brain, tentacles, claw pinchers, and a turtle-like retractable head. I wasn't on set every day, so I missed the day when they accidentally set fire to their cave set (inside an abandoned supermarket) and the foam used to make the rockwork was highly flammable then, and the whole building went up in flames in two minutes. Thankfully, nobody died in that fire. 

V5: Which effects did you handle on DEAD AND BURIED (1981) and how was the experience working on that cult favorite?

WM: Mainly the guy with tubes put into his nose and acid pumped into his sinuses so his face dissolves and collapses. There were two animatronic heads of him for two takes of the scene. I think I did something with a slit throat, too, but my memory is vague about that one (it was a harpoon slashing;see insert). That experience was great for me, all the time, money, and crew to do it perfectly. It was funny that when Fangoria first ran an article about the film coming out with an article about Stan Winston's great work on the cover, it was my head they show with his cover line. Stan wasn't happy.

V5: You replaced a previous makeup artist on THE BEASTMASTER (1982) with an enormous amount of work to be done in a short amount of time. Was there anything you wanted to do on this picture but were unable to because of time?

WM: I replaced Michael McCracken, Jr. three weeks before shooting started. It was all I could do to simply finish the effects they needed. So I didn't go into it with any visions of what I wanted to do, but rather just took their list of things they needed finished and worked from that.

V5: What involvement did you have on SUPERSTITION (1982), and how did that job come about?

WM: I was originally the effects supervisor on SUPERSTITION while SWAMP THING (1982) was stalled because of complications in the production deal; so when SWAMP THING went active, I couldn't prep it and be on set for SUPERSTITION, so I turned that movie over to David Miller and Steve LaPorte, who were on my crew prepping. I can't remember how I got involved with that one. 

V5: SWAMP THING was another troubled production. What was it like being a suit actor when you had to step in for Ben Bates? Would you want to do it again?

WM: I understood the physical stress of working in a suit, and I grew up with a stuntman for my next door neighbor, so I knew the basics of stunt fights. I wouldn't do it now because I'm old and out of shape. But my philosophy was always to lend a hand and try to help get the movie done, even if something they need isn't in my original idea. 

V5: Would you say money and time is the biggest problem facing makeup effects artists on low budget movies?

WM: Always.

Munns' makeup for Doc the chimp on Brainstorm
V5: BRAINSTORM (1983) had its share of problems. How was your experience on this big budget movie versus smaller budget pictures?

WM: The people were wonderful. Doug Trumbull and his production designer John Vallone. We worked out a concept and they just trusted me to deliver, which I did. Natalie Wood's tragic death is what really damaged the production.

V5: I take it WHAT WAITS BELOW (1984) was a disappointment for you as per the alteration to your original creature designs (see insert below). Did you have a hand in the giant snake monster also?

Munns' less vicious, humanoid makeup
WM: Yes, I was disappointed they changed my original concept, but everything kept changing on that show. Tony Gardner did the snake/eel thing.

V5: It went through a few title changes. How was it working with director Don Sharp?

WM: I actually developed the story with Sandy Howard when it was called 'The Primitives'. We set up the basic story while in Brazil when we were doing SAVAGE HARVEST (1981). It took three years to get it made, and they were constantly changing the story, the creatures, the budget, everything. Don Sharp had his own ideas about the creatures, and he wanted things my makeup budget would not allow. That's when the project became a challenge.

Munns' Creature and Little Big Man FX recreations
V5: I've a fondness for monster suits, so I was curious how long it took you to build your CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON replica. Was this during your time as a teacher at Elegance Academy of Professional Makeup in Los Angeles?

WM: Yes, in my makeup school years, around 1975-1976. I guess I put about 300 hours into it.

V5: With your lifelong interest in Cryptozoology, did you ever build a Bigfoot suit?

WM: I built a 8' tall Bigfoot figure when I was director of the Makeup school, but I don't have photos of the full scale one. Just photos of my 1/6th scale design maquette which you can see in my book, 'When Roger Met Patty'

V5: Outside of the PG film, do you have a favorite movie about Bigfoot?

WM: No favorite.

V5: Is their anything on your resume you'd like to change if you could go back and do so?

WM: I never think about if I could change the past. I just like to learn from the problem jobs so the aggravation as a constructive result. 

V5: I notice a lot of the films you worked on, you were frequently given little time and money to pull off your makeup effects. Do you feel like you'd made a name for yourself by being able to work efficiently under such pressure, or was this a normal occurrence in the FX field?

WM: It's normal to some extent. One does not succeed at all if you can't handle the pressure and be inventive on short order.

V5: Is their a film or memory on or off a film set that you're particularly proud of?

WM: I did a commercial for AST Computers in 1987, a parody of the 2001 'Dawn of Man' segment with five ape suits, and the hero mask was a 12 function RC head. That was probably my happiest, most successful (and most financially profitable) project. One of these days I need to transfer the VHS tape of it to digital video so it can be shown.

V5: What are you up to these days?

WM: Still working on PGF (Patterson-Gimlin Film) things, and trying to get a lip sync software invention funded for development. 

V5: Last question. With CGI having taken over the FX realm, do you think practical effects will ever become the dominant form again? Such as in prosthetics, blood squibs, creatures, etc. I see some films going back to it, and others claiming they were going to utilize practical effects, but did not (THE THING prequel/remake for example).

WM: No, I don't see any filmmakers going back to practical effects, because CGI just keeps getting better and better, and easier, and more spectacular compared to what physical effects can do. There will always be injury makeups and facial prosthetics for character effects, but that's about it.

For even more background information (particularly about Munns' involvement on films like SWAMP THING and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD) and behind the scenes photos of his body of work both in and outside movies, check out his website at the link HERE.

To purchase his book on the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film at amazon, 'When Roger Met Patty', click HERE

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Savage Harvest (1981) review


Tom Skerritt (Casey), Michelle Phillips (Maggie), Shawn Stevens (Jon), Anne-Marie Martin (Wendy), Derek Partridge (Derek), Arthur Malet (MacGruder), Tana Helfer (Kristie), Vincent Isaac (Jurogi), Eva Kirrita (Tantsi)

Directed by Robert Collins

The Short Version: Killer lions roar in this US-Brazil-Kenyan co-production; an under-seen action-horror thriller in which Tom Skerritt must protect his family from a dozen or so hungry lions salivating for people burgers. Some instances of gore and violence seems to have been cut, but you do get to see some impressively disturbing shots of dummies filled with meat being dragged off and torn apart. These lions may have been difficult actors, but they take pride in their work. Fans of THE KILLER SHREWS will get a kick out of the climax. Reaping some suspenseful thrills, this HARVEST ends up a well paced B picture that was originally envisioned as something a bit more cerebral.

A devastating drought in Africa forces local workers to move to the city to survive and causes starving predators to seek out a new food source with humans next on the food chain. A pride of hungry lions lay siege to a house in Kenya in an attempt to sink their teeth into the human food trapped inside.

An unjustly obscure, and really quite extraordinary entry in the 'Killer Animal' sweepstakes from a director primarily of the television medium. Any time you have a movie where big cats are required to interact with humans in an aggressive fashion, it's a testament to everyone involved--regardless of how good or bad the film turns out--that the filmmakers manage to make you believe in the onscreen danger. That's one thing SAVAGE HARVEST has in spades is harrowing sequences of lions re-enacting the zombie siege of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD to get at the warm human flesh inside. As opening and closing title cards inform the audience, SAVAGE HARVEST is based on true events.

The filmmakers (particularly the editor) amass more than a few shock moments that balance the scale between a jump scare and tension. The lions are incredibly resourceful at finding ways to get inside the house even after their human targets have boarded up all the more accessible entry points. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some of the cast members do incredibly stupid things that allows them to be put in danger while upping the animal attack ante that is this films bread and butter.

The last half will particularly delight bad movie buffs with a fondness for THE KILLER SHREWS (1959). In it, Skerritt and the rest of the survivors build a cage made of metal, wood, and held together with chains. They move across the ground in a last ditch effort to make it to one of the cars. It's an ingenious contraption; and offers the film one last extended sequence of suspense as the lions furiously try to break through the cage and claw at their legs as they move precariously towards their intended destination. 

There's also a modicum of characterization found in Ralph Helfer's script. Tom Skerritt's Casey is divorced, barely spending time with his family. He has a good rapport with his wife's current husband, though (played by Derek Partridge who acted in the animal themed THE IVORY APE [1980]). Naturally, all hell breaks loose upon one of Casey's infrequent visits--this one to see his daughter compete in a tennis match. This presents an opportunity for this broken family unit to reconstitute itself. Unfortunately, little time is afforded this arc; so little in fact, that it's forgotten once the lion attacks increase, and they increase quickly. It's handled so carelessly, the writers would have been better off just having Casey as the husband and Derek as a business partner, or family friend. 

Producer and co-writer Helfer, a famous animal trainer and behaviorist, as well as founder of Gentle Jungle, Inc., seems to want to guide the picture into a particular direction with its human-animal interaction, but this, too, is mostly abandoned amidst lots of screaming, roaring, and strewn viscera.

According to articles of the time, the original script had a lot more exposition between Skerritt's hunter character and one of the lions in the film; the big one with a scar on his face. This, too, goes by the wayside. Casey (Skerritt) possesses some sort of empathy for the lions. He doesn't want to kill them, and goes out of his way to avoid it; even so far as proclaiming that rifles will be ineffective against them! Other than a few ambiguous moments, this aspect of the script becomes not only confusing, but annoying; especially with Casey's "I'll shoot you, I won't shoot you" fickleness when confronted with a life threatening situation. Makeup effects artist William Munns stated in interviews of the day that one of the reasons this mutual respect between two pride leaders was abandoned was the difficulty in working with a multitude of lions; each had been trained to do something different, and what might work with one, wouldn't work with another. As it became more difficult to get the footage they wanted, the film was changed to a more straightforward action-horror picture.

This lifelong love of animals and wildlife extended to Munns, he having previously studied under Ralph Helfer. It was through their mutual affection for animals that led the teacher to seek out the student. Helfer ultimately asked Munns to work on the rampaging lion picture, which had been gestating since 1979. Munns' duties on the production were varied such as makeup application to both humans and lions, and supplying prosthetic body parts for the violent scenes of flesh being ripped asunder. Additionally, Munns built a partial lion suit that he himself wore for shots that would have been impossible to do with the real animals in frame.

Coming a bit late to the 'Nature Amuck' party, the 70s revival--excluding the mammoth classic that is JAWS--had some of its best examples towards the latter half of the decade. The small screen let loose a handful of these, and two of them were thematically similar to SAVAGE HARVEST (1981). MANEATERS ARE LOOSE! (1978) concerned a suicidal animal trainer releasing two Bengal tigers that go about depleting the population of a California community. THE BEASTS ARE IN THE STREETS (1978) is more family friendly in its action-centric story of a tanker truck crashing into a game preserve, setting some 60 beasts into the streets. The former on May 3rd and the latter on May 18th of 1978. 1981 brought another lion movie into theaters with Noel Marshall's ROAR. Eleven years in the making, it (barely) told the story of a family living with dozens and dozens of big cats. It ended up being one of the biggest box office failures in history, but has survived as one of cult cinemas most fascinating endeavors for the sheer insanity involved in its making. SAVAGE HARVEST likewise failed at the box office, seemingly relegating lions as box office poison much like dragons and films with the word 'Legend' in them.

Years later in the late 90s and beyond, big cats were back and hungrier than ever, albeit aided heavily by the use of CGI. THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS (1996) was another true story, this one about the lions of Tsavo, a pair of flesh hungry lions that killed a number of workers in Africa, and the hunt to bring them down. PREY (2007) has a woman and her child trapped inside a jeep with hungry lions trying to get inside, while in BURNING BRIGHT (2010) a woman is trapped in her home with a tiger! More big cats were on hand in the mediocre SABRETOOTH (2002) and its atrocious followup, ATTACK OF THE SABRETOOTH (2005).

Tom Skerritt had been in the business for nearly 20 years prior to his role in SAVAGE HARVEST. Working mostly in television, he has starred in some hugely successful pictures, but superstar status seemed to elude him. A fantastic actor, some of his work most familiar to readers of this site would be BIG BAD MAMA (1974), THE DEVIL'S RAIN (1975), and ALIEN (1979); the latter picture likely being his most recognizable role. FIGHTING BACK (1982) was his DEATH WISH with its plot similar to Bill Lustig's VIGILANTE from the same year. Skerritt got to play a cop in the Stephen King adapted THE DEAD ZONE (1983) for director David Cronenberg. Skerritt had experience battling big cats having starred in the aforementioned TV terror flick, MANEATERS ARE LOOSE! (1978).

Tana Helfer (above far right) is the daughter of producer Ralph Helfer. A fascinating woman, she grew up with animals and eventually became a trainer, a stunt woman for films utilizing them, and the author of the book 'When You Fight the Tiger'. She plays Kristie, the young tennis player and daughter to Skerritt's character. She still lives in Kenya. Her mother wrote a book as well, titled 'The Gentle Jungle'.

Prior to appearing in SAVAGE HARVEST, the gorgeous Anne-Marie Martin went by her real name of Eddie Benton. Some of her genre credits include roles in PROM NIGHT (1980) and THE BOOGENS (1981). She auditioned for the role Princess Leia in STAR WARS (1977), and found greater fame on television programs like DAYS OF OUR LIVES and SLEDGE HAMMER!

The director of photography, Ronnie Taylor, went on to perform camera duties on high profile pictures like GANDHI (1982) and HIGH ROAD TO CHINA (1983); and some of Dario Argento's movies such as OPERA (1987), THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1998), and SLEEPLESS (2001).

Considering the rarity of this movie, I became interested in learning a bit more about its making aside from what was available in vintage magazine articles. I contacted the films makeup artist, William Munns, and he was kind enough to answer questions about his career, including SAVAGE HARVEST. Below are the questions and answers pertaining to this film.

Venoms5: I've read about your love of animals and working with them, so was this a pleasant experience working on this picture?

William Munns: Working with the animals was one of my most enjoyable experiences. I even got to work a bit as a trainer, for the sequence where the family tries to escape the house in a constructed sort of cage they are inside, with several lions outside. They used five young female lions which were somewhat trained, but they had only four trainers, so I was allowed to be trainer 5 for the fifth lion. After each take, we;d each go in and throw a chain around the neck of one lioness, and lead it away from the scene while the scene was reset or cameras moved. And doing makeup on Dandy, the main lion, was fun because he really was an incredibly tame and friendly male lion.

V5: Was Dandy another name for Zamba? Or was that a different lion entirely?

WM: Dandy and zamba are different lions. Zamba was Ralph's first and probably best lion, and he starred with Pamela Franklin in the movie THE LION (1962). If you want to know a lot more about Ralph's animals, get 'The Gentle Jungle' by Toni Helfer, (Ralph's first wife and she was married to him when we did Savage harvest) and it describes Zamba in detail. It also describes an incredible elephant named Modoc.

V5: What was the budget and how long did you work on the film?

WM: I don't know what the budget was, but it wasn't big. The producers got some financial concessions and support from Brazil to encourage US producers to make movies in Brazil, and so that's where we filmed, in a small town called Vassouras which was about 2-3 hours drive outside Rio de Janeiro. I had about 6-8 weeks prep to build the prosthetics, and we were on location in Brazil for 8 weeks.
V5: I noticed photos in old magazines and film stills display images of gore and violence not in the release version. I also noticed in a NYT review from May 23rd, 1981, Vincent Canby states the film is R rated, yet domestic posters have PG on them. Is this a mistake on the reviewers part, or was the film re-submitted to tone down these scenes?

WM: I don't recall its rating, but I did make quite a few body parts for people eaten by lions, but the film didn't show much of those things. I can't recall anything that would have justified an 'R' rating back then.

V5: The scenes with the lions dragging off the dummies were particularly striking. I've got an interview with you in an old Fangoria magazine and one of the dummies (I believe of actor Derek Partridge) is incredibly life-like from the photo. Was shooting these types of scenes particularly difficult? I also recall a dummy lion built to be blown up, but it's not seen in the film.

WM: The Derek mannequin was a poly-foam head from a life-cast of Derek, poly-foam arms, and then the entire body wardrobe was simply filled with meat. The producers delivered a 1/4 cow to my makeup room on set and my assistant and I carved up this 1/4 cow and packed it into the wardrobe of the body. The lions really loved tearing it apart. The lion prosthetic blown up I don't recall seeing either, except a real fast cut where you might see it for a split second.

V5: How much of your work was cut and were there any FX sequences that had to be dropped for time and budget?

WM: I don't recall exactly what all I did, so I can't say what was cut. My plan was to build a lot of "just in case" options and then put together what is needed on the location. So I had life casts and face masks to double all the main actors, and several mannequins as well.

V5: Were there any accidents or close calls on the set while working with the lions?

WM: The only serious accident was with a young lioness and the black woman, Eva Kirrita, because the plan was originally to let the real actors interact with the trained lions, so her attack by a lioness went wrong and the lioness accidentally bit her in the leg, making a puncture wound in her thigh. As soon as that happened, the producers reversed policy and said no actors could work with real lions, so only trainers could (using my actor double face masks) and the real actors could only interact with me in my lion costume. It's me mauling Derek in his close up fighting the lion, and it's me wrestling with Tom Skerritt on the porch. Only Tana Helfer was allowed to work with Dandy, because she had been raised with him and knew exactly how to work with him.

V5: I've read that Tom Skerritt disliked having been in the movie. Is this true? 

WM: Tom was promised he could work with the real lions, and that was one of the reasons he accepted the part. Once the accident above occurred, with Eva, the producer said no actors work with lions, Tom was very disappointed. The fact that he had to wrestle me in a lion costume instead of a real lion was one of his major disappointments.  

V5: Was Helfer (or his daughter for that matter) satisfied with the finished product?

WM: As far as I know, Ralph and Tana were satisfied with the film. Not many other people were. I was satisfied with my work and the experience, but I found the movie boring when I finally saw it in its release version. 

20th Century Fox released SAVAGE HARVEST domestically with reportedly little fanfare. Rated 'PG', the film isn't all that gory, but what brief gore that's seen, coupled with strong attack scenes, it will likely get a 'PG-13' today. A lot of the gore created for the film was not used, although promotional stills display some of these cut bits. Magazine articles from the time also showcased the bloody business put together for the film (see insert). Not long after its anemic theatrical showing, it showed up on HBO, where more people probably saw it. It hasn't been seen much since (at least in America) and has yet to legally surface on DVD anywhere in the world. Shout! Factory supposedly had interest in putting it out, but rights issues involving two Beatles songs being sung by the family in an effort to take their minds off the lions trying to get in will allegedly keep it from release.

If you are fond of 'Animal Amuck' movies, SAVAGE HARVEST is one you will definitely want to add to your list. There are far worse films out there, and particularly in this sub-genre, so it's a shame it remains largely unseen and unappreciated. While the film has some gruesome moments, those expecting a lot of gore will be disappointed. For that, you'll find it in the Italian made WILD BEASTS (1984), another late-blooming killer animal movie. Flawed, but highly engaging, this HARVEST reaps what it sows--pure B movie entertainment.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Crater Lake Monster (1977) review


Richard Cardella (Steve Hanson), Glenn Roberts (Arnie Chabot), Mark Siegel (Mitch Kowalski), Bob Hyman (Richard Calkins), Richard Garrison (Dan Turner), Kacey Cobb (Susan Patterson)

Directed by William R. Stromberg

The Short Version: A creature resembling a Plesiosaur hatches from a dormant egg after a meteor crashes into Crater Lake in this moderately ambitious, if failed low budget throwback to the monsters of many a Fab 50s flick. Periodic dino attacks and bad acting ensues. Lots of meaningless dialog, hillbilly comedy, and an intrusive sub-plot involving the sheriff chasing a crazy man (he kills for his booze but pays for his meals!) around the lake defy the viewer to keep watching. Hindered by a handful of behind the scenes mishaps, this nearly worthless monster movie is redeemed by the stop-motion animated Crater Lake critter.

A meteor crashes into Crater Lake, attracting the attention of local scientists and law enforcement. Acting as an incubator, the heat from the falling rock hatches a dormant prehistoric egg at the bottom of the lake. Six months later a very hungry aquatic dinosaur goes on a modest rampage devouring anyone who goes near, or into the water.

Reportedly financed through an inheritance, the one and only directorial effort of William R. Stromberg is torture to sit through. It begins promisingly, but sinks faster than a mob victim wearing cement shoes. Outside of a few fleeting moments of potential, the monster sequences keep it alive, but even some of these are infected with inertia. Most grievous is the finale--where you'd expect it to shine the most. According to sources, an animation shot for the climax inexplicably went missing (more about this below). Filmed for approximately $200,000, Stromberg's big screen debut as director was, like many a movie, not without its share of production problems.

A portion of the movie had already been shot when the filmmakers came to the conclusion that what they had was inefficient. The decision was made to scrap what they had and start over. According to director Stromberg he cast himself in the role of the doctor for the initial version, but stayed behind the camera for the do-over. Crown International came aboard bringing additional financing with them. With Crown involved, Stromberg reportedly lost a lot of control. Planned monster sequences such as an attack in a cavern and the beast ripping off the roof of a building to get at room full of dancers went unfilmed due to budgetary constraints. Reportedly, Stromberg also had little input in regards to the editing of his movie. Existing expository scenes were cut, yet, oddly, some others were extended leaving a mostly boring mess of a movie when the monster isn't onscreen. 

Moreover, the editing is totally backwards by forcing the stock 50s monster characters (law enforcement that wants the thing dead and the scientists that want the thing alive) into the background and putting the spotlight on a hillbilly Laurel & Hardy schtick that takes up far too much of the running time. Elsewhere an utterly stupid sub-plot about a disgruntled long hair killing two people in a convenient store leading to a gunfight-chase with the sheriff adds nothing except more questions. Why does he gun down a store clerk and a customer over a $4.75 bottle of liquor, but has no problem paying for a meal in a diner shortly thereafter? If this bit of padding led to the sheriff's discovery of the monster it would make more sense for its placement, but it doesn't. The sheriff (played by co-scripter Cardella) stumbles upon the monster a few scenes later.

Aside from leaden to bad acting, horrible pacing, and incongruous editing, Paul Gentry salvages some of the technical aspects with his cinematography; his camera captures some beautiful, as well as haunting visuals of the title body of water. Filmed on location at Huntington Lake in the High Sierras and on Palomar Mountain, some moody shots of natural fog and mist add an enormous amount of production value to a film with very little of it. Scotland's Loch Ness Monster is evoked in some of these shots where the monsters neck breaks the water, gliding a ways before descending back into the lake.

Before making his creature feature, Stromberg dabbled in amateur cinema; at an early age he concocted a 16mm version of 'Sound of Thunder' by Ray Bradbury (later made into an execrable, big budget disaster in 2005) and working in animation for DAVEY AND GOLIATH cartoons and commercials. Collaborating with long-time friend and filmmaking associate Richard Cardella (he plays the sheriff in the film), the duo set about writing a script about that most famous of mystery monsters, Bigfoot. This being the mid 70s, Bigfoot sightings were on a multitude of Silver Screens with a variety of interpretations, so this idea was eventually abandoned--settling on a monster more akin to that other famous folkloric creature, the aforementioned Loch Ness Monster.

The strength of CRATER LAKE (what little there is) lies mostly in its stop-motion creation. The picture had quite a pedigree behind the scenes in bringing the beast to life. David Allen, well known to insiders and cult fans, but not established with mainstream viewers to the degree of Harryhausen or Danforth, signed on as stop-motion supervisor. If you remember those animated Swiss Miss, Pillsbury Doughboy, and Mrs. Butterworth commercials, you've seen just some of Allen's work. His King Kong Volkswagen commercial is his crowning achievement among his TV credits. 

Another friend of the director, Allen designed the title creature as well as assisting in the construction and sculpting of the 15 inch model. STAR WARS (1977) animator Jon Berg (also listed as John Berg) built the armature. Award winning FX artists Phil Tippett (DRAGONSLAYER, ROBOCOP, WILLOW, STARSHIP TROOPERS) and Randy Cook (CAVEMAN, THE THING, FRIGHT NIGHT, LORD OF THE RING series) joined the pack as assistant animators. Like Berg, Tippett worked on STAR WARS and popularized the use of the Go-Motion SPX technique; both he and Berg animated the chessboard monsters highlighted in the sequence where Luke is warned Wookies are prone to ripping arms out of sockets when they lose at the game.

Going back to the animation, Tippet sculpted the creature minus the head (which Allen handled). Along with assistant animators Tippet and Cook, the great Jim Danforth allegedly pitched in and did some animating of his own although there is conflicting information that he never worked on the film at all. Reportedly these effects took roughly two and a half months to complete. David Allen animated half of the stop-motion sequences, while Tippet and Cook did the rest of the work; which leaves us with Jim Danforth. According to an old Cinefantastique article, Danforth's minimal work on the picture was highlighted by a spectacular bit of animation during the climax showing the snowplow ramming into the monster. This particular bit ended up disappearing somehow or other. There are a couple of brief shots done live showing the plow cutting into the creature (yet no wounds are visible on the animated monster), but these are unimaginatively directed, doing nothing to help bring the film to a crescendo on the scale of one of Harryhausen's creature feature denouements.

Taking into account the films low-level status and Danforth's limited participation, one can speculate he wished to disassociate himself from the production. To see what Danforth was capable of, check out Hammer's WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH (1970); a picture that also featured David Allen animation (the Chasmosaurus sequence). Other Danforth credits include 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964), PLANET OF DINOSAURS (1978), CLASH OF THE TITANS (1981), and CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982). 

It wasn't all dimensional animation (or Fantamation as it's described on promotional materials and in the credits) seen onscreen in CRATER LAKE, though.

Contacted in 1975 to build a Bigfoot suit when the picture was still about the Sasquatch, makeup artist Steve Neill (GOD TOLD ME TO, STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, FULL MOON HIGH, GALAXY OF TERROR, Q, FORBIDDEN WORLD) was then tasked with building a large monster head instead. It's seen a few times under and above water, and matches very well with the animated creature. Funnily enough, Neill's aquatic dino noggin turned up a few years later in Mel Brooks' HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART 1 (1981) without the artists knowledge. Incidentally, all these guys  (minus Danforth) worked together on LASERBLAST (1978) the following year.

Regardless of circumstances determining how good or bad the finished product is, Stromberg's name is on it as director. Despite making quite a lot of money, Stromberg never directed again; but in articles of the time period, the man seemed to look forward to mounting another project. However, William's sons, Robert and William T. Stromberg, followed in his footsteps--the former having done visual effects for many major Hollywood pictures and directed MALEFICIENT (2014); the latter has more than two dozen credits as a composer. 

As for THE CRATER LAKE MONSTER, it's barely a footnote in monster cinema, but one that most everybody has seen on television or video at some point. Aside from being one of the better 'creature from the lake' flicks--a sub-genre with very little to recommend it--only the hardcore bad movie fans and stop-motion fanatics will have tolerance for it. The only things that save this MONSTER from remaining at the bottom of CRATER LAKE are its special effects and photography--two things that most other pictures built around a similar topic can rarely, if ever muster.

This review is representative of the Mill Creek blu-ray paired with GALAXINA (1980). Specs and extras: no extras; 16x9 widescreen 1.85:1; 1080i (for CRATER LAKE MONSTER); three English audio options: 2.0 DTS HD, 2.0 Dolby Digital, English PMC Uncompressed;  running time: 1:23:54

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