Memories of Our Movies

 

Act Naturally

My Life and Apar Films

Part I: Beginnings

(Clayton Rogers and the Parfarganian Menace, 1969)

 

When I was 14, I was a movie star. Of sorts. It was 1969 and my friend Christian Doherty – a wild kid who was very quick-witted and amusing with an encyclopedic knowledge of action films ­– asked me if I wanted to be in a movie he was making. It was purportedly based on a short story by another friend of mine, Tom Sinclair, and had the improbable name of Clayton Rogers and the Parfarganian Menace (the original tale dealt with the “Palfarganian” menace – note the “l” replacing the “r” – such subtle differences are what movie adaptations are all about).

It turned out that it wasn’t much of a movie, more an opportunity to play chase games. ­­­In fact, it wasn’t a feature film at all, but a “serial,” based on the old Flash Gordon sci-fi serials of the 1930s – short installments with a cliff-hanger ending.

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The way the cliff-hanger worked was simplicity itself: our hero (Clayton Rogers, played by Tom Sinclair) would find himself in a precarious situation (like hanging off a cliff – hence the name cliff-hanger) ­– only to be resolved in the following week’s chapter. The solution was often a cheat: in Flash Gordon, a spaceship carrying Gordon might explode at the end of one chapter, with no possibility of Flash escaping. In the subsequent chapter, however, we’d see a scene that we somehow missed the previous week,  where Flash conveniently jumps out of the spaceship with a parachute (or whatever they wore in space) moments before the blast.

It was a convention we tried to ape, but with our limited budget, all we could manage was, for instance, falling off of a cliff (in our case a big rock in Riverside Park), and in the subsequent chapter, finding our hero landing on a ledge that wasn’t shown in last week’s installment.

We made a five-minute chapter every Saturday for five or six Saturdays. This being the Super-8 pre-digital era (hell, it was the pre-everything era – pre-minicam, pre-VHS, pre-Beta), we’d shoot a chapter one week, the film would be sent to Kodak in Rochester. N.Y., for development, and then we’d reassemble the following week for a screening just before we’d shoot the new chapter.

The scripts were improvised (sometimes using incidents from the Sinclair short story) and widely improbable, often straining our limited special effects: I recall that at the end of one chapter, a villainous warlock (Alan Saly) caused an explosion that rocked Clayton’s world. Saly brought along his chemistry set and managed to create a puff of smoke; we magnified its seriousness by shaking the camera every which way but loose. It was a cool effect; not Flash Gordon, but close.

We made many other movies – all much better than Clayton Rogers – but first love is always the most memorable, and that was our first love, a movie that has been lost in the mists of memory. Perhaps it’s just as well, though. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and I hardly think that our poor Parfarganian Menace would smell as sweet today as it did to those fresh-faced 14-year-olds of long ago.

December 31, 2010

The Place Revisited

Act Naturally

My Life and Apar Films

Part 2: Horror

(The Place, 1972, 2011)

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The Place was Christian Doherty's first film in black-and-white and his first horror film with a plot (1971's Visual Horror, a series of horrific and ludicrous images has a great title but not much else going for it). It was based on a story wrtitten by Doherty writing as "Fred Daper" (one of a dozen nom-de-plumes he would assume in a prolific teenage writing period).  Here is the surviving fragment (the ending – another few paragraphs – is missing): 

In a lonely spot by Old Mayberry Road, there lived a hermit who called himself "The Devil of Mayberry Road. He was very nice, which lots of people told me. Even though he was nice, at times, he could be a scary sort of chap.

Mayberry Road, I should say, is famous for ghost stories. People came from miles around to see the so-called spirits that are rumored to hang around. The hermit was a great teller of ghost-stories, and that's where most of them got started.

My name is Jones, and I went to investigate the hermit, whose name was Harrap, a strange sort of name. He lived on a mountain which was surrounded by large trees. I gathered the hermit did not like visitors. I went up to a strange-looking cave, which was  the wrong thing to do, for the hermit rushed me out with the muzzle of a gun aimed at me,

"Are you Harrap?" I said, starting off a conversation. 

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No answer.

"Then I shall be leaving," I said in the most unbelievable voice.

"Cone here," the hermit said suddenly.

"Yes," I answered.

"Why did you come?" he asked.

"I am interested in how you hermits live. I came for an interview."

"What would you like to talk about?" I gathered from his speech that he had a cockney accent.

"Just tell me about yourself. "

"I don't have to say a word," his speech surprised me, for it was pure American.

"Well, what about your life?"

Suddenly, he said, "Come here," and I followed him into the cave.

He told me to sit down and get comfortable, because he was going to tell me a short story. "I might as well tell it to someone," he began.

"A long time ago, before you were born, I would go to my grandma's house every Saturday. We used to talk together and laugh a lot. There was one thing unusual about her, though, She just loved to tell ghost stories."

I listened on, with growing interest, although it was still not very exciting.

"Her ghost stories were very exciting and I used to love 'em. They sounded so real, almost as if she had been a witch herself. One day, my mother came in and heard my grandma telling me one of her stories. I never could see my grandma again, after that. My grandmother was furious and even got mad enough to put, a curse on my mother and father, saying that they would die when the sun rode. The next morning they were dead."

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He paused, as if thinking. He went on.

"Well, I thought it was jus·t a coincidence and cried for my parents and all the usual rot. But I could not help thinking. After that, I again to see grandma regularly. But she wasn't the same old grandma. She had changed a great deal. Her hair was always a mss, and sometimes she would get furious for no reason at all and bawl me out. I did not like her any more. I left one day and was very discouraged because she had yelled at me and even threatened to beat me."

I was very interested in the hermit's story and I begged him to continue.

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"I had forgotten my briefcase for school at her house and I vas afraid to go back and get it. I went back and at the door I stopped and listened. Through the door I heard a conversation, It was with a man.

"The conversation went as follows: 'Darby, come here,' said my grandma. 'Go into the woods and get me some wood.' I ducked behind a tree and saw the man whom I presume was Darby come outside. A minute later he returned to the house.

[The story concludes with grandma putting a curse on Harrap, who, the narrator tells us, died soon after he told this story.]

Doherty wrote this simple, bizarre non-story in 1969 when he was 13  (there's not much to it, except for curses being placed on various people – a teenage power wish, born out of frustration with parental controls?) and two years later decided he wanted to make it into a horror film, in black-and-white, no less.

We shot it in two weekends, one afternoon at my parent's house and one evening in Riverside Park, on a particularly cold night, at Grant's Tomb on 121st Street. The tomb substituted for Harrap's cave, and the drive became "Old Mayberry Road." We took the essence of the story – the hermit, Harrap (Tom Sinclair) was now a homeless man (though back then we called them "bums"), and (because we knew few girls at the time) grandma became Uncle Silas (Alan Saly), who still told horror-filled stories (in this case, lifting text from another story, "He Had All He Wanted"), and placed a curse on young Harrap for discovering Silas's dread secret ("Uncle was a warlock.")

That discovery scene was our most spectacular sequence to that date. We put lighter fluid in three or four ashtrays and placed them around the room. We then set flames going in each and when Sinclair entered, he found Saly raising his arms to Satan as the flames burned around him (needless to say, when we extinquished the flames with cool water, the glass ashtrays cracked apart). The final touch came when Saly dipped his finger in rubbing alcohol and lighter fluid and set it on fire as he pointed the flaming finger for a few seconds (that was all he could take.)

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The offbeat horror story – Doherty's expressionist take on a Twilight Zone-style tale – is a fascinating and bizarre portrait of a man on the edge of madness, all set in a castle in Mayberry! No chases, no guns, a lot of long takes, and, of course, some crazy violence. It was more influenced by Caligari than Callahan and was the most unusual film in Doherty's oeuvre.

Cut to 2010. The director had recently returned to filmmaking after a 36-year hiatus. He had been avoiding his trademarks – absurd violence and equally absurd-but-exciting chases – and instead been concentrating on drama (Is This Love?) and a trilogy of comedies (Hugh & I, A Girl Like You, All the People). After warming up on these films, he asked me to help him create a horror movie. Since all old Apar Films players and fans admire The Place, we agreed that it might be time to make a new version of the classic (which had a new life thanks to webcasts of it).[[wysiwyg_imageupload:244:]]

Steve Tichenor, an actor in one of my improv classes, offered the use of his restaurant, The Clam Hut. Located in the Highlands on the New Jersey shore, it was closed for the winter and had a suitably spooky atmosphere for a ghost story. I went back to the original tale and concocted a new screenplay based on some of the ideas in it (and even lifted some of the dialogue), and in early December we went out and shot the new version of The Place. Tichenor plays Johnny Powell, the man in search of the truth (Jones in the original story and film), and we added traditional horror film staples: two women in peril, here named Nora and Myrna (the naming of the three characters was my little joke: referencing William Powell and Myrna Loy – and the character she played in The Thin Man series, Nora Charles; Loy often played the perfecrt wife, a far cry from either the Myrna or the Nora in The Place). As a nod to the original film, Sinclair has a brief cameo as Harrap, his part in the 1972 version.

We tried to make it spooky, and I think the cast – Tichenor, Chris Griggs, Amy Bettina, Krissy Garber, Eileen Cole, Larry Cioppa, and Rosemary Hyziak – all do bang-up jobs in their performances. Does it hold up to the original Place? Let's say it's different, like Chinese duck is different from Russian caviar. But you can love them both. Watch for The Place, coming soon.

December 31, 2010