This column was originally going to be my typical fanboyish rant, until I dug a little deeper. Now it is going to be more of a frustrated rant about a director capable of so much, but realizing so little of it. He has made movies ranging from outright brilliant to near worthless, with varying degrees of culpability assignable to him or others involved with the respective projects. He now dwells primarily in the academic world, but may just surprise me yet with some irons in his current fire.
What's with the camera?
The director in question is David Schmoeller. His career began when his University of Texas thesis film, THE SPIDER WILL KILL YOU, took runner up in its Academy Award Student Film nomination (he lost to Robert Zemeckis, so cut him some slack), and on the strength of that garnered a (paid!) intern position on the Peter Hyams film CAPRICORN ONE (1978). The great opportunity to get paid to watch a film being made helped Schmoeller immeasurably when, just a year later, he embarked on his own debut effort.
That debut film, a reworking and lengthening of THE SPIDER WILL KILL YOU, is none other than the seminal horror classic, TOURIST TRAP (1979). I cannot overemphasis the importance of this film. In it, Chuck Connors (a name at which the mere mention of should be enough to send you scrambling to update your queue) plays homely Mr. Slausen, just a good old boy, never meaning no harm. When a group of college kids happen across his wannabe wax museum, the titular tourist trap, with car trouble and one of their numbers already missing (from a gruesome intro set-piece, which brings THE EVIL DEAD strongly to mind), he simply endeavors to help them out best as he can. Why, it's not his fault his psychotic (and "wildly" talented) brother Davey gets a little out of control, now is it?
TOURIST TRAP is one of those holy grail films, in that it actually scares me. It was out of print for many years, so when my brother hooked me up with a VHS dub from an 80's HBO showing snarfed from someone he worked with, I was unsettled and oddly delighted to find that it dialed my clock back 20 years and left me quivering in a puddle of my own urine. But don't just take my word for it. In his indispensable treatise on horror films, Danse Macabre, none another than Stephen King claims TOURIST TRAP to be his favorite horror film. That is quite some pedigree.
Unfortunately, the incongruous PG rating essentially killed the film. The late 70's were a different time: the name of the game now is "pusillanimous", with movie companies scrambling to make their films appeal to the broadest base possible (especially teenagers, the demographic with the most disposable cash). Nope, back then, people wanted meat; they wanted gristle; the rating was a clue to what was in the film. PG was a death blow to the financial success of the film. Which, of course, is a crying shame. The film has recently been given a respectable DVD release, but still remains a largely cult phenomenon.
But one of TOURIST TRAP's producer, Irwin Yablans, thought enough of Schmoeller to give him another directing gig, this time for the Schmoeller-scripted THE SEDUCTION (originally titled The Romance). Yablans, while having certainly been involved in bringing some good stuff to the screen, strikes me as something of a raging crackhead. While TOURIST TRAP was being shot, Yablans had another film in production you might have heard of, HALLOWEEN. Yablans thought TOURIST TRAP was going to be a smash and HALLOWEEN was going to be an abject failure. He also thought the Pino Donaggio score ruined TOURIST TRAP. So you can see what Schmoeller was dealing with. Between Yablans and fellow SEDUCTION producer Bruce Cohn Curtis in-fighting and generally making shitty decisions, THE SEDUCTION ended up the exact opposite of TOURIST TRAP: a commercial success and an artistic failure.
For my money, I think THE SEDUCTION has a decent premise:
Morgan Fairchild as a television personality being stalked by psycho Andrew Stevens, but it just never ramps up. It's sedate and pretty, and then tries to deliver a raunchy climax too late. It needed to steadily build tension, and get dirtier and grittier as it went on, but a few minutes of the audio commentary on the DVD will show you what went wrong. Well, depending on how far into it you get. I got about a half an hour into Yablans and Curtis jerking each other off and Schmoeller being quiet as a church mouse before I threw my hands up in the air and pressed stop. Schmoeller was so turned off by this experience (the shooting of the film, not the commentary) that he did not direct again for nearly six years.
If you think Puppet Master's Blade looks a little like Klaus Kinski...
But when he did, boy what a doozy.
That doozy is 1986's CRAWLSPACE, starring the skin-crawl inducing Klaus Kinski as the super-creepy (like he could be anything else) owner of an apartment building. One which only rents rooms to young, pretty women, and seems to have a really high turnover rate...hmm...I wonder...
CRAWLSPACE saw Schmoeller return to TOURSIT TRAP's Charles Band-run Empire pictures. In fact, CRAWLPSACE has many similarities to Stuart Gordon's two Empire pictures, DOLLS (which also had Curtis as a producer) and FROM BEYOND. In addition to both being done for Empire, they were both shot in Italy, and had much of the same crew, including SFX man John Buechler. Schmoeller also once again retained the services of Donnagio for the score (Donnagio doesn't speak English, but Schomeller speaks Spanish fluently, and in fact once worked as an interpreter).
CRAWLSPACE is, for me, a very effective film. Kinski is over the top gross, and there is more than enough black humor and freaky kills to keep any horror fan engaged and alert. It also betrays some of Schmoeller's more artistic tastes, with some surprisingly expressionist sequences (most notably the ongoing Russian Roulette gag).
Another similarity between Schmoeller and Gordon's two Empire films of that year is that they were among the last for the company before it folded. But the irrepressible Charles Band went on and forged Full Moon, and Schmoeller pretty much put them on the map as a serious unit with his legendary PUPPET MASTER (1989). That movie, featuring the talents of both William Hickey and Paul LeMat, spawned no less than seven sequels, and Full Moon can pretty much bank all of its bank on it. A fact that has caused contention between Schoemller and Band. Schoemeller feels that Band wants all credit for Full Moon's success for himself, and has as such denied him exposure as the director of the film (like nixing a director's commentary for the DVD) and even not paying him his proper royalties (Schoemeller also wrote the script, and even retains a credit on all the subsequent PUPPET MASTER films, for the usage of the characters created by him).
The odd thing about that alleged rivalry is that it has in no way kept Schmoeller from working with Full Moon. Although after watching 1990's NETHERWORLD, you'll damn well wish it had. That movie, also written by Schmoeller under the pseudonym Billy Chicago (the name of the character Schmoeller cameos as in the film) is abysmal. I rented it when it first came out, because I popped a boner whenever Full Moon released another film at that time, but NETHERWORLD disappoints in every way. It is especially bad because of how much I respect Schmoeller as an artist. But this movie is just plain bungled. I don't know if Band stuck his hand in and messed with it, or what, but it has bad acting, bad accents, unconvincing special effects (sorry Mark Shostrom – normally I am a huge fan of your genre work, but I have to call them like I see them) and an utterly incomprehensible story. Avoid at all costs. (if you must endure it, FFW through the credits – there is a nice taffia joke at the end)
For the purposes of this column, I rented a movie
called THE POSSESSED (2005) because NetFlix told me David Schmoeller directed one of its three vignettes. The film is set up so that each segment plays without credits other than the title, so I thought it would be a fun game to try to identify which one was Schmoeller's. The first, In the Devil's Spell is an amateurish and painful bore. I kept waiting for the punch line, but it appeared to be serious. I hoped that wasn't it. The second one, Witches' Dolls, was quite a bit better, but still seemed a little oddly paced. It also seemed to borrow heavily from PUPPET MASTER. I decided that must be the one. But then the third one came up, and it dropped a bomb on me:
...it wasn't accidental.
It was f*cking NETHERWORLD.
Well, not exactly.
It was a heavily truncated version, reducing the original 90-odd minutes to about 30. It also had some different music. I am quite shocked to report that it was a vast improvement. At least at first. They switched some stuff around, and cut whole characters and subplots out. But as it bore on, the editing proved unable to make it a cohesive narrative without the cut scenes, and it descends into gobbledygook by the finale. But it started to make me wonder if the other segments were also carved from respective feature-length films. Since the DVD had a trailer for the film, I watched it...and, lo and behold, it showed scenes from all three segments that were quite clearly not in the anthology versions. It all makes a little more sense when you realize that the film was put out by Full Circle (I think that's the name, I'm too lazy to look it up) which is an offshoot of Full Moon.
After NETHERWORLD, Schmoeller spent a while doing television (Silk Stalkings and Renegade), but that was mostly a bill-paying maneuver. Which I would also assume his two entries for yet another Full Moon subsidiary, Pulse-Pounders (aimed at the younger crowd), THE SECRET KINGDOM and MYSTERIOUS MUSEUM, are as well. They're harmless enough, kind of throwaway, though my daughter really likes MYSTERIOUS MUSEUM (which I will admit had a nice taffia call-back to NETHERWORLD).
As I said earlier, Schmoeller now spends most of his time in the academic world, as the Department of Film Associate Professor in film production at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and also has a hand in the archiving of short films and hosts weekly screenings of such (as well as producing two of his own recently, PLEASE KILL MR. KINSKI and SPANKING LESSONS).
As I also stated earlier, he does have some feature irons in the fire. As well as helming part of a (legitimate) anthology in Singapore (WEDDING DAY), he is looking to do a script he wrote called HA HA HORROR, about a film reviewer who watches one too many horror films, and something called CATCH THE WIND, "a Romeo-Juliet teenage love story set in Cuba."
I'm looking forward to seeing some new stuff from him, and I hope some of you see fit to check out some of his existing work.
1. I was not able to secure a copy of Schmoeller's THE ARRIVAL to review for this column, but I hear it is pretty wild and wacky (not to be confused with the Charlie Sheen film of the same name).
2. I was likewise not able to secure a copy of CATACAOMBS, which Schmoeller thinks of as some of his best work. Mainly because I had not realized that it was never released domestically under that title. It had a limited life as CURSE IV: THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE.
3. The credit given to Davey on TOURIST TRAP is funny. Anyone know why?
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