Director Bruce G. Hallenbeck never had a chance when it came to making horror movies. Ever since he saw a werewolf movie on television called THE UNDYING MONSTER when he was three years old he was hooked. It also helped that he grew up in a little town called Kinderhook, New York, which was where Washington Irving actually wrote THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW. The legend of the Headless Horseman is big in this town (a distinction it shares with Tarrytown, which is where Irving actually set the story), and there are a lot of "haunted houses" around, so Bruce's Halloween nature was nurtured at an early age.
He turned five in 1957, the year of the big Gothic horror revival; saw all the Universal monster movies by the time he was seven. He saw HORROR OF DRACULA in 1958 in a theater and remembers kids running screaming from the place. He was in Heaven. It changed his life. Of course, it helped that his grandmother, who raised him, let young Bruce indulge his creative interests.
He made comic books when he was seven or eight that were based on horror movies of the day; discovered FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine when he was eight, and was fascinated by the fan section in which kids wrote in about the home movies they'd made. He thought, "if they can do it, why not me?" So he started making movies when he was twelve, with his father's camera. The first one completed was called KIKO, SON OF KONG-it was mostly claymation. You see, he had been in denial for a few years about the Son of Kong's death in the original movie, so he brought him back in his film.
After that, he completed my first live-action movie, THE CREATION OF FRANKENSTEIN, in which he played the monster through most of it, with a Universal Frankenstein mask and his hands painted green.
Numerous other films followed, including a spy movie, a science-fiction film and several vampire films-all short subjects of between three and fifteen minutes. And all were silent, shot in Regular 8mm film. When he graduated from high school he took a year off and got heavily into writing; He had numerous articles already published in journals such as THE CHRISTOPHER LEE FAN CLUB-mostly film criticism, and in high school had won a top writing prize for his short story, FEAR IS THE COLOR OF DARKNESS. When he was seventeen, he discovered the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and, inspired heavily by them, started writing his own short stories. Three of them were published when he was nineteen in a professional fantasy magazine called MOONBROTH. He was paid very little money but now he was a "professional" writer. Of course, none of this stuff paid the bills but by this time he had a state job. Three years of civil service drove him nuts, so he got into radio, with a job as copywriter / talk show host / production director / sales / engineering at a Hudson, New York radio station called WHUC. I was in radio for about fifteen years. During that time, Bruce continued to write for magazines such as FANGORIA, CINEFANTASTIQUE, MONSTERLAND and many, many others. He also continued to make movies; his first Super 8 sound film was called LORD RUTHVEN, based on THE VAMPYRE by John Polidori. Then he did another "music video" film based on Jethro Tull's SONGS FROM THE WOOD album. In 1979 he traveled to England for the second time in his life (the first had been in 1975, when he met Hammer music composer James Bernard and interviewed him for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS Magazine) and went out to Pinewood Studios, where a script that he had written based on his short story FEAR IS THE COLOR OF DARKNESS was under consideration for filming by Tyburn Productions. The financing fell through for the project but he got to know more Hammer alumna, and felt yet closer to his dream of making movies.
In 1983, he got into 16mm production with a project called CANNIBAL CHURCH; it never got finished, but enough was shot or an eight minute promotional reel that was taken to MIFED by Alexander Beck. It was deemed "too outrageous" and never got funded. Bruce rewrote the script and it was transformed into a more Hammeresque project called GRAVE'S END. He got his Hammer friends interested in it, and by 1985 it was announced in VARIETY as a British-American co-production starring Caroline Munro, Ralph Bates, Michael Gothard, Bobbie Bresee and Russell Todd, to be directed by Jimmy Sangster. And the funding fell through. There was actually $400,000 in escrow for the production, but the investors (who were Greek) argued amongst themselves and pulled out.
The project was optioned by two other producers-William Paul and Brendan Faulkner-and fell through both times. Everyone loved the script, from special effects ace Ed French to Hammer alumnus Ralph Bates-but no one came through with the money. Feeling frustrated by dealing with so-called "big boys", he decided in late 1987 to mount his own production in 16mm. He got together with a local filmmaker named Antonio Panetta, who happened to own his own Arriflex camera. He wanted to make art films, and Bruce wanted to make horror films, so they compromised on a remake of Carl Dreyer's VAMPYR-an art house horror film.
The movie ended up being released by Panorama Entertainment in 1991 under the title of VAMPYRE. Recently it was re-released by E.I. INDEPENDENT CINEMA, who also released his tribute to Hammer films, FANGS.
Q: How did FANGS come about and how did you get Veronica Carlson to host the documentary?
BRUCE: After attending a FANEX convention in Baltimore, at which I met Veronica Carlson, I asked her to host and narrate an hour-long "shockumentary" called FANGS, a history of vampire movies and she agreed. She hadn't been in front of a movie camera in seventeen years, since she had done THE GHOUL for Tyburn. We flew her up to New York and shot her scenes on the same locations we had shot VAMPYRE, and everybody had a great time. FANGS was first released by my own label, PAGAN VIDEO, in 1992. We took out full-page ads in FILMFAX and sold quite a few copies, essentially broke even on the production.
Q: You also tried to get another former Hammer star at this time to be in another productions…
BRUCE: Yes, I wrote a script then called RAVEN'S INN, based on the old classic HORROR HOTEL. I wanted Ralph Bates to star in it, and he would have-had he not passed away that year at the age of fifty from pancreatic cancer. Just one of many tragedies that I've had to endure in the 90's, a decade of almost absurd highs and lows.
Q: Tell us about BLACK EASTER, the anthology film you did a few years ago.
BRUCE: Well,, my grandmother passed away in 1993, and my grandfather the following year. As a kind of therapy, I wrote and directed BLACK EASTER, an anthology of mood pieces about death and the beyond. It starred Veronica Carlson and Debbie Rochon (TROMEO & JULIET, ABDUCTED II). It was the first feature that my company, Pagan Productions, shot on video (with Betacam). I was very happy with the result, but a hold-up in post-production has kept the film from seeing the light of day as of this writing. A great shame, as I think it contains the best performance that Veronica has ever given. Hopefully, it will be released soon.
Q: What are your current projects?
BRUCE: I'm currently working on a project called LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT-not a remake of the Chaney classic but an AVENGERS/X-FILES/H.P.LOVECRAFT combination of elements that should be a lot of fun. Hopefully, it will be completed by the end of 1999.
Q: Who are your influences and what are your aspirations as an independent director?
BRUCE: My early influences were the films of Hammer and Universal. It was a great time to be a kid; when you went to the movies you could se stuff like HORROR OF DRACULA, CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, BRIDES OF DRACULA, KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, HOUSE OF USHER, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH-it was the era of classic Gothic horror. Later, when I discovered H.P. Lovecraft, I decided that it was up to me (as I had the same birthdate as old Lovecraft) to make movies based on his work. It's something I'd still like to do. Ultimately, my dream would be to have a production company along the lines of Hammer. I rate Terence Fisher as one of my favorite directors, along with Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Ken Russell and Orson Welles. I have very little interest in making schlocky exploitation; classic horror is my meat and potatoes. And I have less than no interest in making anything reality-based; I'd rather create a world from scratch.
Q: You've shot your projects both on film and on video. Do you have a preference for formats when doing a project?
BRUCE: VAMPYRE and FANGS were filmed in 16mm, and BLACK EASTER on Betacam. I find both of those formats to be extremely professional, high-quality and relatively easy to work with. Of course, you need crews who know what they are doing-you can't do it all yourself. I don't usually do my own photography. As a writer/director and sometime actor, I have far too much else to think about.
Q: How did you go about casting some of your other actors?
BRUCE: For VAMPYRE, we had additions at a local high school, and we videotaped them. All the actors we used were local, most of them with theater backgrounds. I like to use stage actors, as I find it much easier to tone them down that to bring low-key film actors up. I also like the more theatrical, "British" style of acting. For FANGS, of course, we used Veronica Carlson; the script was written for her. BLACK EASTER was cast both locally (after a series of auditions) and out of Manhattan. I cast Debbie Rochon because we had just done a photo shoot with her for RAVEN'S END, which ended up not being filmed. I cast Veronica again in a key role, and Arthur Lundquist (who had been campaigning for roles in my films for some time) and Cheryl Hendricks, both of whom had appeared in THE REGENERATED MAN for Ted Bohus. I think that BLACK EASTER is the best-acted movie that I've directed. LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT was cast after a series of taped auditions; the actors are locals with stage backgrounds and some movie experience.
Q: One of my favorite things about VAMPYRE is the musical score. Who did you get to do this?
BRUCE: It was composed by Edward J. Kilgallon and produced by Robert Bengraff. It's entirely original and was produced at a now-defunct studio called Sidestreet Productions. Kilgallon was eager to get into film composing, and is now based in Nashville. The sound and music track were the most expensive aspects to completing VAMPYRE, and those involved in it were among the few people on the production to be paid up front.
Q: There's a lot of people out there who are interested in making films. Any words of advice?
BRUCE: If you want to make a movie, then make it. Don't let anything stop you. If you don't have the money, find it. Borrow equipment and get as many freebies as you can. Tell you actors they may have to brown-bag it. Above all, be patient. If you're directing it, bear in mind that you actors are (probably) not being paid, so don't act like a tyrant. Work with them, not against them, and you'll find that they will reward you with the best performances they can give. Don't raise your voice on the set; if the cast and crew feel that you're acting like an idiot, they may take a walk and not come back. And thank everybody at the end of the day's work. They've earned it, and much more. To be a filmmaker, you have to love movies. You have to be willing to put up with sleazy distributors, working long hours for little or no money, and sometimes getting no financial rewards in the long run. But if you've completed a film, you've done something remarkable that relatively few people are able to claim. I applaud all independent filmmakers who, against all odds, complete and release movies that are in some cases better than those of their Hollywood counterparts.
Thanks to T. Ranstill from Brimstone Productions for conducting the interview and huge thanks to Bruce G. Hallenbeck for participating.