Director and producer David DeCoteau has had one helluva career. Whilst even his most ardent supporters would have a hard time describing it as illustrious, the Canadian-American schlock kingpin has certainly been prolific. Hell, a look at his IMDb slate should be enough to tell you that, with well over one hundred directorial credits (under a variety of eclectic pseudonyms) since the mid eighties alone. Factor in his producing, writing and assorted other credits and well… Well I guess it’s safe to say that dissecting his full body of remarkable, money-spinning work would be a meteoric task; a near impossible endeavour, in fact, that’d be better served by a wordsmith far greater than myself.
Now, by and large DeCoteau has been responsible for a fair amount of dreck, something that he himself would probably admit to too. However, for the more liberal, loon-minded cineaste- you know, those of us with a voracious appetite for hootingly good tripe, there is actually a whole lot to savour with ol’ Davey’s hokum. And, what’s more, there’s a surprising amount of artistry and craft behind it all too.
One of the standout directors of the late eighties-early nineties direct-to-video B scene, DeCoteau is certainly one of the strongest visual stylists amongst them. Unlike his contemporaries Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski who prefer a more ‘locked-off’ camera approach, DeCoteau sports a keen eye for staging and pomp-filled composition. Favouring Dutch angles and deep focus, he possesses a strong understanding of how to get a slick, richly photographed film in spite of meagre budgets, schedules and resources. Just check out the sorely undervalued car boot sale classic and discount shop favourite Legend of the Mummy 2 (or Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy as it’s also known)(1999) for the proof: bottom-end it may be, but it’s wickedly photographed, with a look falling somewhere between classic Hammer and the glossy energy of Tony Scott.
It’s perhaps with the late Scott that the best comparison lies. Like Scott was, DeCoteau is a populist filmmaker. Just consider the evidence: both were/are commercially safe and both filled/fill the needs and demands of their paying audience and financiers, churning out profit-making hits in their respective fields in spite of often vicious critical lambastings. Best of all, however, is how they both managed/manage to do so whilst remaining true to their own artistic sensibilities, elevating them far beyond that of a pair of box-ticking journeymen to the status of true pulp auteur’s. Sure, their budgets may be drastically different, but it can’t be denied they’re not a million miles away from each other, especially when one considers that beach volleyball scene from Scott’s ’86 smash Top Gun…
I refer, of course, to homo-eroticism DeCoteau’s defining trope. Openly gay himself, DeCoteau has been the figurehead of the niche homo-horror sub-genre since his minor video success with Voodoo Academy back at the turn of the millennium. A thoroughly enjoyable quickie (DeCoteau shot it all in four days), Voodoo Academy is one of DeCoteau’s finest, the story of six male students at a strange Scientology-tinged Bible School being seduced into kinky black magic by the resident Reverend and house ma’am. It’s effective and surprisingly atmospheric stuff, a sort of low-key hodge-podge of Suspiria (1977), Angel Heart (1987) and a Calvin Klein boxer shorts commercial.
Retrospectively, it’s easy to see DeCoteau’s distinctive blend of histrionic horror and sculpted, shirtless young men implicitly flirting with one another as the next logical step in his filmic evolution. Reworking and inverting the playful, girl-ogling sexiness that characterised his earlier gun-for-hire T&A jobs like Beach Babes From Beyond (1994), and infusing them with the same Queer Cinema sensibility that made his experimental black and white gay art-pic Leather Jacket Love Story (1997) such a festival hit, DeCoteau has turned post-Scream teen-centric terror into a girl and gay-baiting art-form a fact his longevity can attest to. Though perhaps a little too much for some, there’s without doubt a big and demanding market for DeCoteau’s kind of chilling chintz. I mean, just look at the colossal Twilight saga – what are they if not glorified DeCoteau flicks? Angsty teens, topless hunks, supernatural shenanigans…
Ultimately, I think without Dave DeCee and, say, his Brotherhood series (2001-2009), Sparklin’ Edward Cullen et al just wouldn’t have been possible. The only difference is that the six-strong Brotherhood chapters are actually pretty damn good, unlike the god-awful Twilight, and the first three (I’ve Been Watching You, Young Warlocks and Young Demons as they’re known over here) especially so. It would seem even directorial titan Martin Scorsese isn’t above lifting from him either, what with his latest DiCaprio-starring hit bearing a strikingly similar title to DeCoteau’s 2002 lycanthrope romp Wolves of Wall Street. Oh, to see the faces of the people who unexpectedly stumble across that one…
Beginning his film career as a production assistant for the legendary Roger Corman back in the eighties, DeCoteau soon found himself at the attention of another iconic B sultan, Charles Band, with his first mainstream movie proper, Dreamaniac (1986).
The impact Band has had on DeCoteau is gargantuan and it’s often under the Full Moon head honchos auspicious guidance that DeCoteau has made a vast majority of his best stuff, such as the terrific should-have-been-a-series Shrieker (1998) and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988)- his most well-known film. Indeed, a lot of DeCoteau titles I’ve already mentioned have also been Band produced, occasionally – as in the case of Legend of the Mummy 2 – uncredited. However, the real treat of their numerous and fructiferous collaborations is 1991’s Puppet Master III: Toulon’s Revenge. For my money, it’s DeCoteau’s masterpiece.
Retconning the timeline established in the first two instalments of the flagship Full Moon franchise, DeCoteau’s part III is a period-set prequel starring Mr. Sardonicus (1961) himself, Guy Rolfe. It’s Berlin 1941 and the Nazi’s- as they so often do, are unsuccessfully attempting to raise the dead for use as battlefield super-soldiers, via the experiments of the surprisingly well-meaning Dr. Hess. His superiors, the lecherous General Mueller and full-blown S.O.B. Major Kraus, are a different story however, and they take great umbrage when they learn, through Kraus’ driver and spy Lt. Stein, that master puppeteer Andre Toulon has been performing politically subversive shows with his anthropomorphic puppets. After a Kristallnacht-esque raid on his home in an attempt to grab Toulon’s secret life-giving elixir results in the death of his beloved wife Elsa, the heartbroken Toulon swears revenge and, with the help of his deadly puppets, embarks on a swath of bloody retribution against his wrongdoers.
Made whilst DeCoteau was closeted both personally and professionally, and purely because he was the only director willing to travel to the originally planned Romanian locations, Toulon’s Revenge is understandably free of his guy-candy fetishism. It’s for the best really too, as any sort of over the top eroticism would likely be out-of-place in the comic book-y series, lest of all between a gaggle of overly tactile male model types! Even without DeCoteau’s signature auteurist flourish though, Toulon’s Revenge is a far from perfunctory mercenary gig, packed as it is with his usual panache and creative bombast.
Transcending its modest budget, Toulon’s Revenge is a big-feeling picture, without doubt the most ambitious and most handsomely mounted of DeCoteau’s career. It’s part rollicking little horror programmer and part Where Eagles Dare-ish wartime adventure, just as DeCoteau and scripter C. Courtney Joyner envisioned it. This magpie, cherry picking knack is another goodie habitual to cinematica DeCoteau: his utilising of an obvious love of the movies to create interesting and often inter-textual cross-genre product. Take Creepozoids (1987) and Final Stab (2001) for example. On paper, both are nothing more than shameless rip-offs of Aliens (1986) and Scream (1996) respectively, with the latter actually going as far as to be being cheekily retitled Final Scream here in the UK. Now, I’m not going to dispute for one second that that’s not how they came about, but both transcend the usually awful ‘Rubbish Clone’ category by actually being quite inventively referential and self aware.
The excellent Creepozoids, for instance, knows it’s fundamentally man-in-a-rubber-suit tosh and DeCoteau is more than willing to celebrate it, firing a whole manner of archetypal sci-fi and horror motifs at the screen with gleeful abandon: Aliens, a monster baby a la It’s Alive (1974), giant rats, an abandoned research facility, the fall of man, and a future earth thrown into ecological hell… It’s all there, delivered with a fair amount of wit too. Even better is that it’s all capped off by the, erm, ‘double delicacies’, shall we say, of Scream Queen Linnea Quigley.
The twisty-turny Final Stab meanwhile, is DeCoteau’s pleasing contemporary valentine to the golden age of slashers. It’s a wonderfully silly and loving patchwork of retro fun and sly humour, a shining minor gem vastly superior to more famous and truly chunder-some soulless Hollywood slash-arse like the Prom Night (2008) remake. In short, it’s much better than a casual glance would suggest.
Elsewhere, DeCoteau inverts the Death Wish (1974) vigilante formula with a female twist in his self-explanatory Lady Avenger- a cheap and cheerful blast of kinda-gritty action fluff from 1988. It’s an area DeCoteau would explore further with his producer only Steel & Lace (1991), a schlock hybrid of rape-and-revenge and the then blossoming DTV cyborg genre that followed in the wake of RoboCop (1987). Tailored towards what sells they both may be but, like Creepozoids and Final Stab, the glee in which they each embrace and toy with their own conventions is refreshing. Interestingly, Lady Avenger and Steel & Lace link pretty nicely thematically with Toulon’s Revenge, essentially creating a loosely connected ‘Vengeance Trilogy’ well over a decade before Park Chan-wook even began his. What? I’m just saying…
In Toulon’s Revenge, perhaps the most striking moments (other than the ones of puppet carnage, natch) are those which allude to the classic Universal horror of the thirties, Frankenstein (1931) in particular. The similarities between actor Ian Abercrombie’s conflicted Dr. Hess and Colin Clive’s conflicted Victor Frankenstein are just as impossible to ignore as their shared use of stylised lab equipment.
It’s an obvious tip of the hat really, considering how Frankenstein’s director, the openly homosexual James Whale, is the progenitor of ghoulish camp. Fittingly, DeCoteau would later go on to helm his own revisionist version of the classic Mary Shelley tale, the kiddie-friendly Frankenstein Reborn! (1998), and even go as far as to cite Whale’s stupendous Bride of Frankenstein (1935) directly during a scene in 1999’s prequel to the prequel, Retro Puppet Master: “A world of God’s and monsters,” a young Toulon says, echoing the effete Dr. Pretorius.Stuart Gordon, a DeCoteau peer and fellow Band alum, and his debut film Re-Animator (1985) are another key Toulon’s Revenge touchstone.
In a fun visual quote, Toulon’s magical serum looks suspiciously like Herbert West’s glowing green re-agent from the similarly Frankenstein-like saga; who knows what kind of Freddy vs Jason franchise hopping this could’ve yielded too, had Re-Animator just kept the original H.P. Lovecraft stories thirties setting! The DeCoteau-Gordon back and forth doesn’t stop there, however. Exchanging the weird creepiness of William Hickey’s portrayal in the original Puppet Master (1989) for a more human and pathos laden take, the then seventy-nine year old Rolfe gives an excellent dramatic performance as the definitive incarnation of Toulon. It’s a turn cut from the same genial horror hero cloth as his part in an earlier Charles Band exec produced killer toys flick, Dolls (1986), directed by (you’ve guessed it) Stuart Gordon. Rolfe would return to the Toulon role three more times (or four if you count his archival footage appearance in the duff part eight, Puppet Master: The Legacy) before his death in 2003.
Weirdly, and as if to confound even more the already incestuous nature of the eras B movie scene, Brit actress Sarah Douglas- best known as the villainous Kryptonian Ursa in Superman I and II (1978/80)- would later go on to star in Re-Animator and Dolls producer Brian Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993). Unlike her part as the angelic Elsa in Toulon’s Revenge, Return finds Douglas as the driven military head of a scientific programme planning to raise the dead for use as battlefield super-soldiers. Just like Mueller, Kraus and Hess. It’s a convoluted web, no? Even more so when you think that Return’s producer, Gary Schmoeller, is the brother of David Schmoeller, the director of the first Puppet Master. Good Lord…
Ironically, just as Toulon’s Revenge stands as DeCoteau’s best, two of his subsequent entries in the series are amongst his worst: 1998’s Curse of the Puppet Master and the aforementioned Retro Puppet Master. Whilst bad scripting and a general air of rushed tackiness are forgivable, that both movies are so painfully dull is not; DeCoteau land is many things, but it’s never boring. It’s a shame too as Curse in particular boasts one of the most nifty but wasted premises of DeCoteau’s filmography; a Tod Browning-tinged tale of a madman attempting to turn one of DeCoteau’s beloved twinks into a human puppet. Thankfully, DeCoteau atoned somewhat with Puppet Master: Axis of Evil (2010), an interesting, amusing and again World War II-set Toulon’s Revenge companion piece.
Though the old rental medium that allowed someone like DeCoteau to flourish in the first place is now a thing of the past, it’s lovely to see that he remains as productive and as enterprising as ever. By embracing the online streaming platform, DeCoteau and his production company Rapid Heart have certainly proved themselves still relevant in the home entertainment arena, just as his recent 1313 brand shows.
Sure, the films may now be of noticeably lower quality than his giddy heyday (a truly horrifying thought if you’re one of the man’s detractors), but any filmmaker who still manages to regularly belt out gloriously goofy gay-tickling pap like Giant Killer Bees! (2010) and Hercules Unbound! (2012) deserves to be celebrated if you ask me. I mean, the MILF-tastic 1313: Cougar Cult (2012) alone is enough to warrant a look for the B curious, reuniting Quigley with fellow schlock sex sirens Brinke Stevens and Michelle Bauer, some twenty-four years after their last team up in DeCoteau’s Nightmare Sisters.
A look around your local Tesco’s entertainment aisle will tell you Big Dave is as vital as ever too. Just last week a new DeCoteau joint, Bonnie & Clyde: Justified (2013), stormed into their charts top ten, whilst his endearingly naff Hansel & Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft (2013) has been one of their bargain zone mainstays since its release back in March last year.
What with that and companies like 88 Films pushing his back catalogue out into the market again, there really is no better time to immerse oneself in DeCoteau’s stuff. You’d do well to give it a go. I think you’d just might like it.
For more ramblings, follow Matty on twitter @mattybudrewicz