NIGHTMARES IN A DAMAGED BRAIN (1981) Part Two:
Code Red Nightmare: An Interview with LEE CHRISTIAN
In Part One of our Nightmares In a Damaged Brain spotlight [which you can read HERE], Matty Budrewicz gave an extensive analysis of director Romano Scavolini’s iconic Video Nasty. Featured within was Lee Christian, the self-confessed exploitation film nut who curated and moderated the extras on Code Red DVDs US release of the film back in 2011. Here, Matty chats to the special features main-man about the film, the notorious problems of getting the Code Red disc out there, and his opinions on censorship…
UKHS: First off, I’d just like to ask how did you become involved in Code Red?
Lee Christian: Basically, my involvement with Walter [who now runs Scorpion Releasing] and later Bill Olsen came about because of a movie called Slithis. Ironically, Bill would later release this film without a commentary track, which is another long story. Anyway, back when I was twelve years old I had seen Slithis in my home state of Iowa, where that film’s producer, Dick Davis, resided as a theatre owner. When I was older, I managed a number of movie theatres that he owned and worked with several of his associates. Fast forward to about eight years ago, I had been a regular attendee of the monthly Grindhouse Festival here in Los Angeles and I asked Eric Caiden and Brian Quinn who run it if they’d be interested in playing Slithis if I could locate a 35mm print for them.
They loved the idea, so I called Dick Davis’ son – Dick had passed away by this time – and to my shock and horror, he told me that all known film elements had been destroyed in a fire where his father had been foolishly keeping them in the closed-down concession stand of a long since closed drive-in theatre that he owned. BUT, he added, there were these two strange guys from Washington state who were trying to secure the DVD rights to it. Maybe, they might have found some film elements, he said. So he gave me their phone number and I called it, but there was no outgoing message on the voicemail that picked up, so I didn’t leave a message.
Then I got a call back from Walter Olsen who was curious why there was a call from Los Angeles on his caller ID; I was curious as to why they didn’t have an outgoing message on their phone, but whatever! Anyway, we talked and he was sufficiently impressed not only with the fact that I knew so much about Slithis, but also that I knew a lot about – and worked directly for the producer of – a film once known as The Hazing, which was released on VHS and DVD as The Curious Case of the Campus Corpse. I also tutored Film History class in college and have a bizarre obsession with exploitation films, and they asked me if I wanted to moderate a commentary track for them. They had moderated some of their own commentary tracks and reviewers had made fun of their accents! The first movie for which I moderated a commentary track was Campus Corpse, which was followed by Beyond the Door, among others. And that was that!
UKHS: I take it it’s something you enjoy doing, helping piece the extras together and moderating the commentary tracks?
LC: I absolutely love doing it, and that’s not just a line! I love doing the research and the surprising answers. Like I said, I tutored Film History class and I love documentaries so it’s a very grounded interest.
UKHS: The Code Red DVD of Nightmares In a Damaged Brain (under it’s American title Nightmare) was a long time coming. How did you get involved with it and what were the problems that delayed its release?
LC: It took it so long because basically Bill and Walter were hoping to find a better source print than what they had. They did complain a lot that people on the internet were demanding that they use only the camera negatives. Having known them both as long as I did, I can say with confidence that if camera negatives were available, they would’ve used them. Both have maintained that the negatives were located and passed over to Jim Markovic, one of the film’s uncredited original editors, who was – at the time the DVD was being prepared – doing telecine work, or similarly related stuff, for Technicolor. Unfortunately, when Markovic opened the cans, he found that the negative was so badly deteriorated due to improper storage that it was unusable. According to Bill and Walter, in fact, Markovic’s exact words were, “Get it out of here. It stinks!” So they continued to search for better film elements.
Meanwhile, another controversy erupted. Apparently, Markovic had advised them to release the film full frame because of how the shots had been composed. I don’t know if you know much about 35mm film and how aspect ratios are actually generated, but basically, a frame of film is closer to square dimensions. Most films that weren’t shot with an anamorphic – “scope” – lens were shot with the aperture wide open, resulting in a square image, hence why boom mics sneak into the top of a frame. Anyone who has ever worked as a projectionist can tell you, there is a lot of space at the top and bottom that is blocked off when you actually project a movie; something that goes back to to the movie industry trying to come up with a means of competing with television, but not quite convinced that Cinemascope was going to last. This is why when some films were released to VHS, you would get more picture information from top to bottom than was exposed during theatrical exhibition.
Anyway, in some scenes, Scavolini had allowed some crucial information to be framed slightly below or above the 1:1.85 area of the frame. One example was the decapitated head in the bed. Another was the scene when George goes to visit the Times Square peep shows; some hooker masturbating action gets lost below the frame in that instance. THAT is why Bill and Walter had announced that they were going to release it full frame. Naturally, that pissed off everyone! Eventually, Bill released it matted at 1:1.85, but what no one knows is that he cheated on that: when significant information would be lost, he simply arranged for the telecine technician to custom modify the framing accordingly for difficult shots. In other words, if you were to watch the film theatrically, the framing would not have been as selective in a movie theatre because once the movie starts, the projectionist sets the framing appropriately and then leaves it set that way for the remainder of the show.
UKHS: I understand there was a bit of an issue trying to get the ninety-odd minute interview extra with Scavolini subtitled too?
LC: That’s something that’s always pissed me off. And frankly, although I wrote up several of the questions for that interview, I’ve never watched it. Bill and Walter had found someone who could visit with Scavolini in Italy and conduct the interview, and he was instructed to conduct it in English. Apparently, as they sat down to do it, Scavolini had asked the interviewer if it would be alright for him to answer in Italian because that was more natural for him, and the interviewer obliged. According to Bill, the interviewer apparently thought that the interview could be effortlessly subtitled in English by the same person who was subtitling movies for Media Blasters, a company that Bill and Walter were engaged with at the time. But supposedly, the guy who did subtitling for Media Blasters had already committed suicide! So obviously, he wasn’t available and Bill and Walter had already spent a lot of money on this release and were likely still pissed off that the interview had not been conducted in English in the first place.
There were also other people involved with the film that Bill and Walter were persuading to participate in the DVD too, by the way; some of which have since granted interviews for Bill’s upcoming Blu-Ray release of the film. Bill had been trying to talk the film’s credited editor, Robert Megginson, who went on to write the screenplay for F/X (1986), but he didn’t want to be involved with the DVD because he’s not proud of the movie. Bill also claimed to have difficulties getting a commitment with Nightmare’s unit manager Mik Cribben; but he’s since done an interview for Bill’s Blu-Ray release. We were all hoping to get an interview with Tom Savini as well, but that wasn’t going to happen.
In short? Nightmare’s DVD was delayed due to an ongoing and unsuccessful search for better film elements, getting the film’s original participants to take part in the DVD extras – most of whom declined – and that goddamn interview that should’ve been conducted in English in the first place!
UKHS: What’re your thoughts on the Savini controversy?
LC: Well, one person that I managed to track down in an attempt to get to the bottom of it was Christine O’Keefe [who played Tatum’s mother]. Scavolini has maintained that Savini did the effects, Savini denies having done the effects, Ed French says that HE did the effects; so who on the film could give a definitive answer to this question without having a reputation to protect? Christine O’Keefe! Someone had to make a mould of her head for the beheading scene, right? So I called her and she barely remembered the film; she’s never seen it, but she did say that there was an effects guy who she was told at the time was a really big deal who was working on the movie. She referred to him as “Tom Savino” when I talked to her. I tried hard to persuade her to do an interview and although she considered it, she eventually politely declined. Mostly, she didn’t want the film coming back to haunt her at this stage in her life: it was very clear from our conversation that she’s not proud of having worked on it!
UKHS: From what I’ve read, Scavolini didn’t have final cut on the film did he?
LC: No, but I get the feeling he saw his role more as a hired hand anyway. Ultimately, he more or less had to wash his hands of the film and move on when it went slightly over budget and the producers wanted to get it released Stateside through 21st Century. From what I understand, there was some friction between Scavolini and John Watkins – who raised the money for the film and also played the “Man with the Cigar” – which probably didn’t help matters, either. At the time, Scavolini was also dating Sharon Smith, so he may have lost interest in the film to some extent since he had that going on.
There’s an interesting adjunct to this though. Baird [Stafford] told us – and this is in the DVD commentary track – that the gore effects scenes were shot in alternate versions; once for what would’ve – at that time – resulted in an X-rating, and once for an R-rated cut. It’s interesting because it does seem to imply that Scavolini was mindful of the American rating system to the point of preparing for a truncated version to appease the MPAA. And 21st Century did end up releasing an R-rated version in 1983, but as far as I know, there are no prints of that version still around and no one seems to know what happened to the more restrained effects footage that was, according to Baird, shot alternately.
LC: When I first saw it when I was sixteen, I was watching it with a friend of mine and as the credits started to roll, I specifically remember turning to my friend and saying out loud, “That was the sickest movie I’ve ever seen!”. Obviously, by this time I hadn’t seen Cannibal Holocaust or Salo: 120 Days of Sodom! But for that reason, I find it fascinating. I don’t know of anyone who has watched Nightmare and then decided to go out and kill someone. So my own perspective is, if you watch a violent movie, isn’t that the point? In ways, I think Nightmare is more morally responsible than, say, Terminator 2, where Schwarzenegger shoots countless policemen in the kneecaps while the audience laughs.
It’s certainly a more responsible movie than movies like Rambo and Red Dawn, where the audience is encouraged to cheer when someone is killed – however, I don’t think any of these movies should be censored either. During the 2012 Republican primaries here in America, presidential hopeful Rick Perry actually got a round of applause for having overseen – at the time – over 300 executions as governor of Texas. I find that kind of blood-lust and America’s obsession with guns FAR more disturbing than anything in Nightmare, which, to be sure, is a disturbing movie. And I don’t think the rapidly escalating gun violence we’re having here in America has anything to do with movies like Nightmare. People who murder abortion doctors, for example, are doing so based on their religious convictions, not because they saw a slasher movie.
LC: I don’t even think British parliament believed it at the time! Perhaps they wanted to believe it but… From an American standpoint, I’ll relate the Video Nasties to something that we’re going through here in America right now. We have a culture of blame and fear-mongering that’s getting progressively worse: poor people are ridiculed as being “takers”, gun legislation can never happen because the NRA convinces enough gullible people that the government is “out to get their guns”, and gays and lesbians are demonised as tearing apart the moral fabric of America. Basically, the Video Nasties era came down to this: Parliament was wanted a “Them” that they could bully around and blame for society’s problems. They were looking for a made-to-order “Bad Guy”. That’s all it was and that’s all censorship is ever about. Well, not quite: it’s also about controlling people and their ability to think for themselves. That’s pretty much my take on the Nasties scandal.
But going back to, as you said, the American perspective again though; we really haven’t had that level of censorship since the advent of the MPAA’s rating system. There’s been a few hiccups along the way; Former Attorney General Edwin Meese’ Commission on Pornography being one. Further back we had the President’s Commission on Pornography and Obscenity, and neither one of these stood the test of time, but each one wreaked its own havoc on free speech. Neither one was the outright ban on several specific films like the Video Nasties scandal was, however. Perhaps due to mostly successful free speech that we’ve enjoyed on this side of the Atlantic, we tend to get a little spoilt and lose sight on just what true censorship really is. You may recall the scandal that erupted when the “Duck Dynasty” idiot spewed some racial and homophobic comments and A&E was poised to suspend the show. A&E is NOT the government and they DO produce the show, so it’s their right to suspend or even cancel it if they want. But American fans of the show screamed censorship – this was NOT censorship – and A&E backed off their plans to suspend it. So Americans really haven’t been exposed to true censorship for some time, fortunately!
As a very special treat to UK Horror Scene readers, Lee has very kindly allowed us a sneak peak into his vast library of script, prep and research notes. Below you’ll find a few bits and bobs Lee used whilst helping to assemble the extra features on the Code Red Nightmares In a Damaged Brain/Nightmare disc. Read Lee’s comments and simply click on the prompts for this superb and exclusive insight into his moderator process!
Please click on each link and this will open up the scripts in PDF format , then hit the back button to return to this article !!
Lee Christian: Here’s four samples of Nightmare’s original screenplay, under the title “Dark Game”. This first one is from the beginning of the film which, as you can see, doesn’t start with George Tatum in bed like the finished film.
LC: Now, this is the scene that does open the film as released – George wakes up frantic but there’s no decapitated head in his bed.
LC: This third sample documents the moments before and after Kathy’s death. You can kind of get an idea of just how far this film skewed from the script in this ten page chunk.
LC: This final bit of script is the last few pages. It ends on page 167! [Note: one script page generally equates for a minute of screen time, giving you a rough idea of just how long a film is supposed to be – Ed.]
LC: These are scans of the index cards that actor Baird Stafford wrote up for me. Bill, Walter and I met him at the hotel they booked for him. We did the on-camera interview in his hotel room. I reviewed the cards briefly at that time, but then used them extensively when I modified my commentary track questions. We recorded the commentary track at Crossroads of the World on Sunset Boulevard the following day. You’ll also see a note that Baird wrote at the top of the page stating that Scavolini had allegedly had some kind of favorable relationship with Vangelis [Chariots of Fire (1981), Blade Runner (1982)] and was planning to ask him to compose the music for the score! I think we talked about this in the commentary track and frankly I’m skeptical that Scavolini had such a friendship. If it’s true, however, and had Vangelis done the music, Nightmare could’ve boasted an Academy Award winner in its music credits!
LC: Lastly, this is a scan of the commentary questions I brought into the recording studio with me. Actually, I had – as I always do – a set of questions to ask that are scene-specific with the timecode info off to the side. Unfortunately, of all the junk related to commentary track interviews that I’ve kept over the years, the commentary track questions for “Nightmare” seem to have, sadly, disappeared.
Code Red DVDs essential limited run blu-ray of the film, under its American title NIGHTMARE, is out now. Get buying it from their store here: http://codereddvd.bigcartel.com/
To go back to part one of this feature, click HERE
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