REJUVENATOR: A Look Back at a Forgotten Classic with Director Brian Thomas Jones
I’d like to think that somewhere, in some far flung corner of the cosmos, there’s perfectly preserved prints of each and every horror film ever made, lorded over by some sort of sentient extraterrestrial being. This being- an other-worldly guardian, if you will, of scary cinema- would understand the importance of keeping this kind of meticulous horror archive, each film ready for the moment it’s finally called upon for a bells-and-whistles re-release.
They’d know you see, that if they didn’t curate such a thing, all these wonderful movies would one day just disappear; lost to time, like Roy Batty’s tears in the rain.Now, I’m not really on about The Exorcist, Dracula, Dawn of the Dead et al here, people. No, no- they’re the big boys, the terrifying titans that have all, in my eyes anyway, been ‘archived’ through different home video formats countless times already. I mean, heck- there’s enough Dawn of the Dead DVDs out there to sink a battleship for God’s sake! I’m talking about the little guys.
You know, the little fright flicks that have already begun slipping through the cracks.
The little fright flicks that haven’t even moved beyond their original big-box VHS incarnation, let alone been given a cursory vanilla disc.
The little fright flicks that once haunted video stores everywhere, but are now in danger of becoming nothing more than genuine ghosts themselves.
The little fright flicks… Just like Rejuvenator. Or, as I like to call it, One of the Very Best Shockers of the Eighties That You’ve Probably Never Seen.
“Yeah, it’s never been released on DVD sadly,” Rejuvenator’s affable director, Brian Thomas Jones (pictured left) , says. “Nobodies ever contacted me to do a release either. Do I look back on it fondly? Of course! It was my first feature film and probably my best. It’s certainly the one I’m most proud of. It was so much fun to make- we had some crazy times!”
Rejuvenator tells the story of Ruth Warren [Jessica Dublin], an ageing former movie star bankrolling the research of Dr. Ashton [John McKay]. Desperately looking for a way to be young again, Ruth is delighted when, after three long years, Ashton’s experiments finally yield a quality result: a special serum that reverses the ageing process. Ignoring all of Ashton’s protests, Ruth insists she be the first test subject and, after an operation, has soon been rejuvenated into a younger, sexier woman [Vivian Lanko] again. Though initially successful, like all good tales of mad science it soon becomes apparent that Ashton’s serum has some particularly nasty side effects. Particularly nasty side effects of the icky, murderous and brain-munching kind…
A film I love dearly, Rejuvenator is a marvellous, Gothic sci-fi frightener- a kooky and ever-so-slightly-kinky hybrid of Cronenberg, The Wasp Woman and Billy Wilder’s noir classic Sunset Boulevard. “I’m mentioned in the same sentence as Cronenberg and Corman!” Jones laughs, modestly. “I’m glad you caught the Sunset Boulevard reference though. Ironically, I’m not really a horror fan. I’ve seen a lot of horror films of course, but it’s not my genre- I’m more of a Film Noir kind of guy. Man, I wish I could have been a studio contract director in the thirties, forties and fifties making some of the noir’s they did back then… There are some classic horror films I like: all the Universal Monster movies, which are really tame by today’s standards, Halloween, Evil Dead one and two and the first Saw. I’ve never been a fan of the ‘gorno’ type stuff though.”
Fascinated with the filmmaking process from an early age, Jones’ first tentative steps into movie making were, like with so many others, through larking about with a Super 8 camera. “I’d shoot random things and then edit them together to the beats of songs I liked. I guess I was making music videos, but I just didn’t know it yet!”. However, it wasn’t until Jones began attended Virginia Commonwealth University that he really caught the film bug. “As a sophomore, I was taking all the film classes they had and one of our assignments was to go to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for the Fifth Annual Washington Student Film Festival. The judges there were Willard Van Dyke, a famous documentarian, and John Waters, who I think had just made Pink Flamingos. The top five prize winning films all came out of New York and I figured that that must be the place for me so I started transferring.”
It was whilst attending New York University Film School in 1976 that Jones began the journey that would ultimately lead him to directing Rejuvenator. Dropping out during the summer of his junior and senior years, Jones soon found himself working for a TV commercial production company. “I stayed with them for a couple of years and then started freelancing as a production assistant on indie and studio features,” he explains. “I needed a showreel if I wanted to be a director so I went back to NYU to make a narrative film. I finished my Bachelors of Fine Arts degree and made a little fifty-eight minute ‘featurette’ called Overexposed about photojournalists on assignment in El Salvador, which ended up as a semi- finalist in the North Eastern US region of the 1984 Student Academy Awards. I lost but a few days later, I got a call from a guy called Steven Mackler. He’d been on the jury for the student awards and he told that he was really impressed with what I’d done for no money and said that I’d only lost by two tenths of a point too! Mackler made a deal with Overexposed’s producer, Robert Altschuler, to take the film out to try and raise money to shoot another twenty minutes to sell it as a feature. Though that never happened, we soon started to look for other ways of working together.”
So that’s how Rejuvenator came about then? “Well in the summer of ’87, Mackler called me. He’d made a deal with Sony Video Software- SVS Films- to make three feature films which would get a theatrical release before going to the home video market,” Jones says. “Sony had just started making their own VHS players after losing the VHS/Betamax format war and the idea behind SVS was to make low budget genre movies, put them in theatres and sell them to video store owners as a ‘straight to your store from the theater’ deal. Then they’d cross-market the movies with the video players.”
“Anyway, Mackler gave me a script called Skin by Simon Nuchtern [who also wrote and directed the 1984 slasher Silent Madness], which was written specifically as a vehicle for special effects make-up artist Ed French [the grue maestro behind the splatter in Sleepaway Camp and Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, amongst many others]. Skin was to be the first SVS film and Mackler wanted me to direct it because of our relationship. I read the script and, when I finished, I said to myself “I can’t direct this script, but I know how to make this movie. It’s Bride of Frankenstein meets Sunset Boulevard!”. I pitched the concept to Mackler and he let me rewrite it.”
Though keeping the structure largely the same and incorporating many of Nuchtern’s intended gloopy make-up effects, Jones performed a full page-one re-write in order to work in numerous ideas of his own. “Like I said, I’ve never really been a true fan of blood, guts and gore so when I was writing I tried to weave in all these themes of vanity, addiction, obsession and greed. I really wanted to make it my own movie- something really heartfelt and dramatic.”
Personally, I’d say Jones was incredibly successful. In a decade teeming with latex excess and cardboard cut-out characters, Rejuvenator is a blast of fresh horrific air; a genuine creeper with an unusually firm focus on rich characterisation and human conflict. It’s just so happens that, underneath it all, there’s a rollicking great monster mash going on too! “The reviews of it in NY Daily News, Fangoria, Variety and Cinefantastique all mentioned the characters and story, saying that it really set it apart from the crowd [of low budget horror films],” says Jones. “One of the nicest compliments I got was from a professor of mine in grad school, who taught critical theory for art.
He watched the film and said that I “elevated the movie above the genre with a genuine affection for the characters”. That professor, by the way, is Carmine Iannocone and he just so happened to play the lead in Slaughter High, which came out the year before we shot Rejuvenator. Talk about coincidence and fate! He’s going to kill me for even mentioning it- he’s a very serious sculptor and professor now, certainly one of the best I’ve ever had.”
Citing it as one the greatest times in his life, it comes as no surprise that Jones remembers near enough EVERYTHING about the films production and shoot. “The original [filming] schedule was twenty days. I think we went over by about two days though and we had a day of pick-ups in a studio to get some missing transition shots once we had our rough cut,” he says.
“The whole thing came to about $230,000 after post and we shot on re-cans and short ends too. The first thing that pops into my head though is the beautiful fall day we started shooting, Day One. It was the mansion where the Ruth Warren character lived and I was stood on the second floor balcony, just watching all the crew unloading the trucks and setting up lights and scrims. I had this rush of excitement and just thought to myself, “Wow! This is all mine!””
“It was this incredible property in New Jersey and we shot the first four days of production there. It was wonderful, a beautiful place,” Jones continues. “Ashton’s lab, though, that was more difficult to come by. I was in one of the production offices and saw these two Polaroids on the production manager Bob Zimmerman’s desk. It was of an old abandoned tuberculosis hospital on Staten Island that had been scouted by Zimmerman and the location manager, Phil Dolan. They weren’t even going to show me! It was perfect- one of the scariest places I’ve ever been to when we did a crew scout. They ended up using it later in the film Jacob’s Ladder too.”
“My favourite memory of the shoot itself though, is the night we shot the scene outside the nightclub. It’s where the monstrous, rejuvenated Ruth needs to use the payphone to call Ashton and there’s a woman- a nightclub dancer- already there. Anyway, we shot the dancers’ death in cuts: the blood and brains splat against the phone booth and the dancers’ body then just falls down the glass. It was shot in an alley in Chinatown so when we had dinner that night, we all went to the nearby Chinese restaurants and Ed French and his team brought back some Cantonese lobster and mixed it all with the fake blood! That’s the gore we threw at the side of the phone booth!” Jones laughs.
“The most absurd scene, where the monster melts down right at the end, that was so much fun too. That was obviously way before CGI was commonplace so it was all tubes of goo and blood and about a dozen people wearing trash bags and working these syringes and bladders and stuff. We had to get it all in one take so we had two cameras on it. The scene’s up on YouTube as ‘Gory Barfing Creature Woman’ and I think that pretty much sums it up!”
So how did actress Vivian Lanko- the rejuvenated and creature incarnation of Ruth, “Elizabeth”- find such an effects-heavy part? “Oh, she was committed. She endured hours of effects application and removal,” says Jones. “I’d only really ever considered her for the part, in truth. She was part of an experimental theater company- La Cucaracha- that I was also involved in so I was familiar with her talents from there. She was fascinated by the character and the transformation but a little uncomfortable with the nudity required for the role. Still, we cast her and her chemistry with John McKay, who plays Ashton, was just great. Now, I would never have thought John right for Ashton if I had just seen his picture, but when he came in… He just WAS Ashton! He and Vivian were two of the best things that happened with the movie and I think the movie works as well as it does because of them.”
Upon release, Rejuvenator played theatrically for one week in New York, Jones and producer Mackler’s plan being to use the the first round of positive reviews and good word of mouth it received in the local press to help re-market it as a modern midnight movie. Sadly, as Jones explained to me, a clueless SVS higher-up began to interfere, kiboshing the film before it even had chance to grow. “Yeah, it was booked into theaters for a week because he decided the film “didn’t have legs”. It had real cult potential but it just never ever got the opportunity.”
“The SVS executive was the same guy who changed the films title too, by the way,” Jones goes on. “We had a couple throughout, like ‘Scream Queen’ which thankfully never took off, before a sadly-no-longer-with-us friend of mine, Mark Carducci, came up with its original title Rejuvenatrix. To me, that title had the perfect ‘psychotronic’ feel but this idiot executive decided to call it Rejuvenator instead- probably attempting to cash in on the excellent Stuart Gordon film Re-Animator.”
Here in the UK Rejuvenator went straight to video, mercifully surviving its trip through the BBFC’s pruning shears unlike many of its contemporaries. Irregardless, it remains pretty damn obscure, languishing in curio limbo whilst two-bit chunder like Hellgate get the full on, special limited edition blu-ray treatment. Insane doesn’t begin to describe it…
“It’s not a brilliant movie, but I do think it’s a good one,” Jones sighs. “I’ve always been quite disappointed it never got the exposure or recognition I feel it deserved, even though it has developed its fans from those lucky enough to have seen it. The reviews and the fact it did OK on video… I probably should let it go but I’ll always hold a grudge for that SVS guy who didn’t understand the genre or its fandom and realise the potential of what he had.”
“Today, I’m making a living as a still photographer and teaching photography and film at community colleges,” the director says in closing. “Photography was my first love so I’ve fallen into shooting architecture and interior design commercially.”
Would you ever make a return to the movies? “Well, it’d have be something that either just easily comes about or a script I’m really passionate about. I’ve been really lucky, I’m one of the few people in my class that got to make more than one feature film. I went on to co-write and co-direct another Mackler-produced SVS film, Escape From Safehaven, as well as an indie erotic thriller called Posed For Murder, and episodes of Monsters, Sweet Valley High and Big Bad Beetleborgs.”
“I still enjoy watching Rejuvenator every once in a while though. Those were the days, man! Shooting on 35mm film and editing on Moviola uprights and Steenback flatbeds, mixing in an actual mix studio. These days, filmmakers don’t know what they missed. Everything is Redcam, Final Cut Pro, Pro Tools, CGI, then output to digital files… However, if I had all that technology available to me back then, I’d have probably made more movies!”
I certainly wish you did, Brian. A Bride or Son of Rejuvenator would have been bloody terrific!
A massive thanks to Brian Thomas Jones. Visit his photography website at www.brianthomasjones.com
For more ramblings, follow Matty Budrewicz on Twitter @mattybudrewicz