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'Schlockmeister' Filmmaker Larry Buchanan Dies at 81

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page B08

Larry Buchanan, 81, the spectacularly awful visionary behind "Mars Needs Women" (1967) and other films so horrid yet profitable that the director proudly called himself a "schlockmeister," died Dec. 2 in Tucson of complications from a collapsed lung.

Martian invasion films have ranged from high-end to stenchy. There's "The War of the Worlds," and then there's "Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster," known by the alternative title "Mars Invades Puerto Rico."

Larry Buchanan made nearly 30 films, most of them forgettable.

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But few zero-budget works retain the cult renown of "Mars Needs Women," starring Tommy Kirk as the insistent alien and Yvonne Craig, later Batgirl on the old TV series, as his potential captive.

Craig said a few years ago that the film was so grainy that it looked as if it had been lighted with a flashlight. Everyone had been professional on the set, she said, and so it surprised her when the final results were not.

"It's in, I think, almost everyone's book of the worst movies ever made," she said. "And if it's not number one, it's right up there."

Mr. Buchanan, an energetic, good-humored man, was aware of his cinematic reputation. For years, his backer was cheapo American International Pictures, whose executives were so pleased with his speed that they flung money at him to churn out films for the direct-to-television and overseas markets.

The Dallas-based director was reservedly gratified that "The Eye Creatures" (1965) and "Zontar, the Thing From Venus" (1966) -- frankly, any of his nearly 30 films -- often made most-dreadful lists.

"I suspect I might first have been recognized for the wrong reasons," he told a reporter in 1997. "It kind of stung, at first, to be singled out as a maker of movies that are considered 'so bad they're good,' but then you've got to realize the only bad recognition is no recognition."

One of his favorite stories concerned the time he was at the Cannes Film Festival to promote a movie and received an interview request about "Mars Needs Women." The reporters were Israeli and were fascinated by this man, whose film had been dubbed into Yiddish and was evidently a hit.

Mr. Buchanan was born Marcus Larry Seale Jr., in 1923, in Lost Prairie, Tex. His mother died when he was 9 months old. His father, a law enforcement officer, was killed during a bank robbery. Raised at an orphans' home in Dallas, he spent much of his time watching movies at the home's theater.

He turned down a ministerial scholarship to take an apprentice job in the prop department at Twentieth Century Fox. The studio changed his name when he did bit work as an actor.

Hoping to direct, he was steered to an Army Signal Corps training program, and afterward he returned to Dallas to make films and commercials. He cast the unknown Jack Klugman as the heavy in his first feature, the 1952 Western "Grubstake" (also known as "Apache Gold"), shot for $17,000 in the Big Bend area of far west Texas.

His "Free, White and 21" (1963) was "the first of the blaxploitation pictures," he said, but was largely a serious courtroom drama about an interracial rape. When the movie made a bundle for American International, its executives told Mr. Buchanan: "Name your ticket. We need pictures. We want some cheap, fast, color pictures."

He obliged with "Naughty Dallas" (1964), about a small-town stripper who seeks fame in the big city. He did location shooting at Abe Weinstein's famed Colony Club strip joint.

Many subsequent films were conspiracy-minded pseudo-documentaries, including "The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald" (1964), a universally derided account of John F. Kennedy's assassin, and "Down on Us" (1984), which claimed that the government killed rockers Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin.

Shadowy federal forces, he said, were also behind the cancellation of the Oswald film's debut in Milwaukee. "The picture was fiction -- pure fiction -- but it frightened somebody," he said. "I'd have to name Nixon. That picture was suppressed!"

Some may have wished Nixon had suppression powers over Mr. Buchanan's other biodramas, of Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe and gangster Pretty Boy Floyd. The latter was played by Fabian, and Mr. Buchanan said, "I'm very proud of the machine gun scenes in it."

He was able to make the occasional "personal picture," such as "Strawberries Need Rain" (1970), about a young woman who begs the Grim Reaper for one more day of life. He intended the movie to be a touching film about understanding desire, but it is largely seen as a sex romp.

If the title and plot seemed suspiciously similar to two Ingmar Bergman classics, "Wild Strawberries" and "The Seventh Seal," it was intentional. As a joke, Mr. Buchanan gave Bergman directing credit when he showed the film at an art-house theater in Dallas. He claimed that the local college crowd cheered the movie, believing Bergman was the force behind it.

In the early 1970s, Mr. Buchanan made "The Copper Scroll of Mary Magdalene," a serious picture about the historical Jesus. He had recently completed postproduction work on the film, which he called his magnum opus.

He wrote a memoir, "It Came From Hunger: Tales of a Cinema Schlockmeister" (1996).

Survivors include his wife, Jane, and four children.

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