"LOOK TO the mirror!"
"Look to the bed!"
"Now look back to the mirror! You are horrified by what you see! You can't stand it! You are going crazy! Now scream! scream! "
On command, the starlet unleashed a bloodcurdling shriek.
"Now pick up the chair! Break the mirror! Again! Again!"
Crash. Tinkle. She uncontrollably swings the chair into the mirror, sending bits and pieces all over the room.
"Thank you." The director softly acknowledged that the scene was finished.
"Thank God." The frazzled actress welcomed the relief.
"My arm! My arm is hurt!" The Boogey man, whose duty was to stand in front of the mirror so his reflection would shatter, had caught some fragments. "Who has some gauze?"
The lighting director's response proved typical of the entire production: "On this budget, you bring your own."
We were shooting "The Boogey Man" in La Plata, Md., the story of what happens when an obsessed woman releases a murdurous spirit trapped in a mirror. It was a year-long, low-budget gamble that would involve frantic rewriting, last-minute cast changes, weather problems and a nightmare editing marathon in a Hollywood motel. The result was a horror movie that by Oct. 1 -- well before its planned major release at Thanksgiving -- was No. 10 on Variety's list of 50 top-grossing films. So far, the $250,000 film has grossed an estimated $6 million.
Director Ulli Lommel, 35, financed the film himself. A veteran actor (over 60 films, many for Rainier Werner Fassbinder), the German-born Lommel had written and directed 10 films -- most critical successes and box-office disappointments. He made two in the United States: "Blank Generation" (with punk-rock star Richard Hell) and "Cocaine Cowboys" (with Andy Warhol and Jack Palance). Both failed to get commercial distribution, and Lommel decided that the only way to maintain creative control was to finance his next film himself. And he also decided that there is only one type of movie nearly guaranteed to pay off the investment: horror.
By selling his residences in Europe and raising a minimum of cash, Lommel managed to secure equipment, film processing and printing, technicians and actors. Everyone received a little money up front, with the bulk to follow three months after release. The director of photography and I (associate producer and editor) both agreed to work for a percentage of the film, and the star's aunt and uncle agreed to supply their property as a shooting location and housing for the crew and actors. Within one month, the deals had been set.
The inexperienced crew, a minimum of equipment and actors who were doubling as drivers, cooks and technicians set out from New York to the Causein Manor Farm in La Plata to shoot a 90-minute film in three weeks. Our budget was close to depleted before we rolled a foot of film through the camera, but we were well stocked with food, film, beer, Karo syrup and red food coloring, which when mixed became a sticky but effective blood substitute (two gallons should be enough for 90 minutes of screen time).
Nothing went as planned. The weather was uncooperative (the first October snowfall in recent Maryland history), the child actors got sick, equipment broke, autos died, the power failed, contracts were broken, signals mixed, tempers short and luck very bad. With between three and 45 people on the set at various times, we were forced to improvise so often that by the third week of 18-hour days no one could even locate a copy of the original shooting script.
The first half of one scene was shot before the snow, forcing us in the second half to substitute extreme closeups for our planned panoramas of Maryland in the fall. Our small special-effects budget also created problems. In one scene, a victim was supposed to be attacked by scissors, nailfiles and various bathroom accessories. The plan was to glue thin wires to the objects, implant them in a Styrofoam vest worn by the victim, then pull them out while shooting the scene in reverse. When the film was printed, the objects would seem to fly at her chest. But the wires (bought at a local hardware store) proved too thin for the scheme, and the actress was eventually smacked to death with a medicine-cabinet mirror.
For the climax, we needed an explosion coming out of a well. Our special-effects wizard appeared with a flame-thrower -- which created an explosion, but also threatened to wipe out foliage for 100 yards around. Unwilling to destroy our hosts' farm, we substituted two cans of aerosol deodorant.When held under a lighter, they produced a flame nearly 12 inches high. With the camera up close, it appeared to be a large blaze. The actor behind the flame choked back his laughter while cringing from the aerosol blast.
Despite the problems, shooting was completed on time. And we waited for the third of the three miracles an independent film producer must hope for: raising the money, producing the film, and (most important and most often most difficult) finding a distributor. Lommel, his wife and star Susanna Love and I checked into Hollywood's transient haven, the Tropicana Motel to begin post-production. (There is little in Washington to compare with the Tropicana, but imagine the Beltway intersecting 13th Street and New York Avenue).
The one-bedroom apartment provided working and sleeping accomodations for Lommel, Love, my assistant, the KEM (large editing machine), the editing bench, 60,000 feet of film and sound tape and myself. With the remainder of our cash budget, we set out to contstruct a story. While I was editing the film, Lommel was seeking out possible distributors. After two months of work we had developed a 65-minute film. That was a mistake.
It was much too short: Theater exhibitors will show something they themselves might consider dull or tasteless, but under no circumstances will they show a film that is short. If a picture doesn't top 80 minutes, it can't be worth $4. So we set out to raise more money and lengthen the picture. Lommel managed to find an agent who, in return for exclusive rights to world sales, agreed to finance completion of the picture. For the benefit of world sales, we added a recognizable name in the additional 20 minutes of screen time (John Carradine as a psychiatrist), and also some plot elements to enrich the story and ease the search for a U.S. distributor.
The final stage before screening was to score the film and add the necessary sound effects -- vital elements in the horror genre. With one week to produce a score, we searched out Los Angeles' crowded reservoir of talented young composers. An afternoon of phone calls brought the perfect "type" to the door. An extended session at the editing table and he was off to spend a week with his synthesizer and return with a soundtrack. I then received a call from Jeff Severson, a friend with whom I had worked in Washington. After five years of spending his waking hours in his basement scoring industrial shorts and writing hundreds of songs with his band, he too had gotten a "break". His band, 4 out of 5 Doctors, was to leave the following week for Miami to record their first album. He sent out a demo tape and I put one of his songs into the soundtrack as a radio cut. Both of us benefited: The band now had a feature screen credit, and the picture had a song by an up-and-coming pop group. Immediate cash outlay: Zero.
After one last overnight editing session, the picture was ready to be mixed. The sound mixing schedule was set, then reduced by 80 percent to accommodate the dwindling budget. When the debts had already mounted to frightening levels, the music came in from the composer -- only 20 percent completed. He had suffered a complete physical and emotional breakdown, and was unable to go on. We spent another grueling night placing music cues in spots intended for new music, stretching existing cues over empty scenes, and adding more sound effects (stabbings, for example, were created by poking a watermelon with a screwdriver). By 9 a.m., we were ready for a first sound mix.
Finally, screenings for potential distributors were arranged. We rented a screening room, put the sales agent to work, and hid in the projection booth with a bottle of Mescal while the money men eased into their seats. Too nervous to move, we spent the hours exchanging stories and drinks with the projectionist, who was no stranger to the game.
Maybe it was my dulled senses or pickled brain, but it was hard to believe. A firm offer from a distributor who specialized in the genre, with a guarantee and an advance large enough to pay off our debts and finish post-production. A print was made, and judging from exhibitors' reactions, we had a sound commercial product while holding exclusive control of the copyright. The year-long gamble was about to pay off. "The Boogey Man" was released by the Jerry Gross Organization in September.