Way back in the halcyon days of September, 2007, when I was just a mere lad, I posted a column about a down-home indie production called BETTER LIVING THROUGH KILLING, which I still think you all out to check out. During the course of writing that column, I discussed a film called THEY DON'T CUT THE GRASS ANYMORE, as it was quite a large and visible to the naked eye influence on BLTK. And ever since that column ran, I had been thinking about doing a column devoted strictly to GRASS's progenitor, the undeniably genius Long Islander Nathan H. Schiff. I've been a fan for many years, so it seemed like a good idea. But still, I hesitated. One the one hand, I always run the risk of alienating any readers I might have when I veer too hard to left of center, and on the other hand, how does one justify a love of Schiff's film?
Fantastic cover - has nothing to do with the film
You see, Schiff's films are more independent and more low-budget than anything you watch. Guaranteed. You will not find much along the way of good performances, nor will you find any polish or gloss whatsoever. What you will get is an unflinching Grindhouse experience, veritably irony-free. The gore is as outrageous as the plots are nonsensical. But it is all done for no other reason than the sheer love of making movies and having a good time with friends. In 2003, the good folks at Image Entertainment, enlisting the expert assistance of Howard S. Berger (not the KNB guy) and Scooter McCrae, digitally remastered Schiff's first three films, and released them with a bunch of neat special features. The end result being that you can now view them as they were intended to be seen, and you can get some great back-story on them as well. This column is merely a push in that direction, as I think, as I have stated ad naseum, that any real movie fan can only benefit from seeing what happens when the Hollywood game is circumvented entirely.
Although, as far as Schiff goes, there was no conscious circumventing. It just simply never occurred to him to leave home to make a movie. At the tender age of 11-years old, he first picked up the family 8MM home movie camera and began making short films. Since the camera operated MOS (without sound), those early 15 or so entries were done as silent films. Which was a good lesson in how music can help move a narrative along, a technique that can be seen in all of Schiff's subsequent feature films (he makes extensive use of library music, and does it expertly).
They also tell the tale of a boy learning how to shoot films from the ground up, with no formal schooling whatsoever. Taking his cue from the Sci-Fi/Horror films he loved so much, all of the Roger Corman/AIP stuff, (as well as the Allied Pictures entries), and of course the Japanese Kaiju films (he cites the original Godzilla as being the "atomic bomb" that set him off), those shorts are an object lesson in forced perspective and quirky editing and camera angles. More than a few of them featured his dog, first as a giant dog monster from space, and then battling stop-motion clay creatures that Schiff designed himself.
But then, in 1979, something life-altering happened: the Schiff home got a new, Super-8MM camera, that shot with sound. Schiff took this as a sign from above that it was time to shoot a feature film. Problem was, he was still a senior in high school at the
time. So, armed with some friends, some relatives, the training his short films provided, and a pocket full of balls, Schiff set out to emulate the films he loves so much. Which of course meant a monster picture. Originally titled The Twilight of the Horror, or something, he shot the first half of it quick and dirty. In fact, almost twenty minutes of the just over an hour running time was shot in one single day (because his cousin and his cousin's friend wanting to get it done so they could get to the beach and scam chicks and play Frisbee).
Paul Smihula, you're famous!
What he ended up with was a hilarious scene featuring a bevy of household items standing in as complex NASA tools, in a miniature Venusian set-piece of his own design. Some space goo is sampled from the surface of the planet, and the rocket blasts off, only to crash-land in the Atlantic ocean, in what looks suspiciously like a creek in Schiff's backyard. Two punk kids (played by Schiff's brother Ed and his friend) use the shampoo, I mean space goo, to flush a rabid weasel out of its hole. Which of course turns the rabid weasel into a gigantic rabid weasel monster, which Fred (the aforementioned cousin) subsequently hits with his car. This doesn't kill the creature, but it does leave an arm behind, for posterity. Fred calls up his friend Jake (the aforementioned cousin's friend) to come over and help him check it out. Mayhem ensues, of course. But with four people dead and only 30-minutes of footage, what was Schiff to do?
Enter John Smihula and Fred Borges, the two other counterparts in Les Trio Infernal. Already friends for several years, the two stepped in and provided a much needed shot in the arm for Schiff. Smihula (who would go on to star in every Schiff film) plays a Clint Eastwood-inspired character named, oddly enough, James Cameron, and Fred Borges is his foil, the mad scientist Dr. Sendam. None of it makes much sense: it seems that Sendam somehow made the rocket crash-land, and kidnaps Cameron and his partner, Detective Anderson, to use their blood to purify the weasel monster's rabid blood, so that Sendam can live forever and create other mutant creatures. Along the way there is much sweet homemade gore, frequently causing Schiff's mother to get her knickers in a twist, because Schiff kept stealing meat from the family freezer to use in the effects. The end is such a goddamn riot that I'm not going to tell you about it here. You'll just have to pick up a copy and watch it for yourself.
When completed, and after a quick title change, WEASELS RIP MY FLESH played very well amongst the gang's high school friends. Because of that response, and their graduation from high school shortly after its completion, the fellas figured that another film was in order. Originally titled Cannibal Orgy, the film was to tell the tale of a string of killings in Long Island, and the man who was paying for them to happen so that he could feed his monstrous and diseased father. Borges was to play the villain once again, and along with Smihula reprising his character of Detective Cameron, the crew (pretty much the trio) also resurrected WEASEL's $400-budget. You heard me: their second feature film to be shot on Super-8 for the amount of money John Edwards spends on a haircut.
Shot over a period of six months, including the dead-cold, frost-bite inducing heart of winter, what would eventually become known as THE LONG ISLAND CANNIBAL MASSACRE
showed great leaps forward in terms of style and gore, even if it does have the same shoddy story-telling. A few interesting things to note, though: the fight scene between Cameron and Zed, another villain in the piece, looks so real because it mainly was real, which was no big deal, because Zed was played by Smihula's brother, Paul. Also, all of the guns, and the firing of such, look real because it was real. Michael Siegel, who plays another cop in the film, was a gun collector, and let the production use some of his stuff, including a Magnum .357, an M-16, and an AK-47.
Does anyone else think this looks a lot like the cover of Redneck Zombies?
The film really picks up in the third act, when we get through all of the killings and to the heart of the matter: the relationship between a troubled son and his literally monstrous father. They exchange some biblical dialog, and end up on opposing sides of a chainsaw. It's actually very creepy and effective. In fact, there is a scene where Borges is getting the business from a live, running chainsaw. He was working at a bullet-proof vest factory at the time, and as such managed to snake some Kevlar to wear under his clothes for protection, but still...that thing, as Smihula points out in an interview, could have hit a piece of chicken bone at any point in time and reared up and caught Borges in the face. So when you watch the movie (because you're going to, right?) keep in mind that the chainsaw is real, and active, chain attached and all. *shudder*
Also bear in mind that John Smihula plays many, many roles in the film. He is Cameron, but he is also Bruce, the hooded psychopath, the father, and he even dons a face-full of peanut butter and wheat germ (not to mention Vaseline all up in his hair) to play a dying, disease-ridden cannibal. This one also features some nice twists at the end, although less incongruous than the end of WEASEL.
Five years would pass before Schiff's next film, a time which he spent working at a hotel in NYC. When he returned home, he sought to make a film which documented his disillusionment with the corporate world, and his disgust at what he saw the "Yuppies" do to each other, and everyone around them, in an attempt to gain money and power for themselves. The result of that angst was THEY DON'T CUT THE GRASS ANYMORE. You can follow the link at the beginning of this column for a lengthier discussion of the film, but to sum it up: no surprise, there was little money to be had to make this film, about two Texas gardeners who move to Long Island and start brutally (did I mention brutally?) killing yuppies (and everyone else, really). What was a surprise was that Smihula would only be available for two weeks, as he was joining the Peace Corps. So Schiff had to jettison nearly all of his ideas for what would have been largely a black comedy, and instead focus on the gore. Which was plentiful, and stands as being some of the most disturbing stuff I have ever seen. Also, when you watch this, bear in mind that it was shot in five days.
Borges could not be in the film, unfortunately, as he was notoriously late for everything, and they could not afford that on a five-day schedule.
I'm not sure what accounts for the 6-years between MASSACRE and Schiff's next film, VERMILION EYES, but I'm not sure I care. Smihula, who really impressed me with his character of Billy Buck in GRASS, goes through the looking glass in EYES, and portrays the diametric opposite of Buck: his unnamed character is
repressed and traumatized by his childhood to the point where he is a stone-faced monolith for much of the movie. But the stone-face belies a man tormented on the inside, a man full of tornadoes waiting to touch down. The film eschews a traditional narrative in order to show a graphic representation of its protagonist's fractured psyche, and the move is a smart one: VERMILION EYES stands out as Schiff's most affecting and mature piece to date. It also proves to be the most difficult to find. The copy I have is a shitty dub from some shitty VHS tape, but beggars cannot be choosers.
Schiff directing John Smihula and Annie Titone on Vermilion Eyes.
But even in that unappealing medium, EYES is still a treat. Smihula's character divides his time between reading books on psychology and smutty true-crime magazines, and carries a Tyvek suit and a video camera in the trunk of his car, and dons both at the scene of several fatal accidents. Instead of alerting the authorities, he poses the bodies and takes pictures, which he ogles later. As his psychosis intensifies, he reaches a point where he can no longer tell fantasy from reality, love from lust, or sex from violence. And when the revelation for his cracked brain is made known, he runs off of his rails entirely, and hideous things happen, both to anyone in his path and, ultimately, to him. EYES is not the campy, cheesy gorefest you'd expect form, Schiff, and it is not a film that you will walk away from easily. If you ever happen across a copy, snap it up.
Or just come over to my house and I'll pop it in for ya :)
1. On all three available DVDs, there are interviews with Schiff, Smihula, and Borges, all worth watching. Also, between WEASELS and GRASS, you pretty much get every early Schiff short that he could find still intact, all of them worth watching for some reason or another.
2. Schiff has been involved in other shorts than his own, including a bunch by the late Joseph Marzano, who also played a cop in GRASS.
3. Schiff and Smihula teamed up a few years ago and did a 6-minute film called THE LAST HETEROSEXUAL. If anyone has info on where I could view that, I'd love to hear it.
4. Speaking of Smihula, he directed a documentary a few years ago called HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT. Here is the IMDb synopsis written by the man himself: "An investigation of the US relationship to Latin America as seen through the prism of the SOA, the controversial training school for Latin soldiers on U.S. ground. Narrated by Martin Sheen, the documentary features interviews with political thinkers (Noam Chomsky, Christopher Hitchens, Eduardo Galeano), Congresspersons (Barbara Lee, Mac Collins), Army officers (Maj. Gen. John LeMoyne),victims and social activists (Sister Dianna Ortiz) who tackle the issues of U.S. economic and military policies in Latin America, the war on drugs, and terrorism." I'd love to see this one also, but the best I could find was a VHS copy on Amazon for $50. F that S, yannow?
5. Finally, all of the three available discs also have a Nathan Schiff commentary, and the man is damn good at them. He keeps a nice balance between taking his work seriously and knowing when to joke about it, and also maintains a nice balance of explaining the story of the film while peppering in interesting behind the scenes tidbits. If you watch the films, and you should, the commentaries will be a brilliant complement to your viewing.
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Eating the flesh of lesser film geeks since '72.
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