Little Shop of Horrors

An Affection for Boobs and a Taste for Karo Syrup Turns a Bloomington Basement into a Splatter-Cinema Studio

 Michael W. Johnson's unlikely filmmaking career is predicated on a single commodity: A ready supply of young women who will, for absurdly small sums of money, take off their clothes and allow themselves to be licked, prodded, poked, and doused with red goo. The supply is so ready, in fact, that when Johnson is casting one of his movies, a steady stream of hopefuls, usually in minimalist attire, beat a path to his front door. This, Johnson considers a major advantage of the artistic life.

When Johnson explains his work to these prospective actresses, the response is invariable: "Porn?" (This assumption may have something to do with his haircut, about which, see below.) Johnson is more likely to use the term "erotic horror" to describe his oeuvre. Early in the director's career, a reviewer advised Johnson either to make better porno or to make better horror films. But he has refused to compromise: For the past 15 years, Johnson has, under the imprimatur of Nightmare Productions, successfully produced and marketed his singular brand of micro-budget underground cinema, a mishmash of jiggling breasts, gruesome homemade special effects, and macabre humor.

He describes his films as something of a hybrid: "If it were just porn, it wouldn't sell. If it were just horror, it wouldn't sell. Combine the two, and it sells." It is entirely possible that Michael W. Johnson is both a pornographer and an auteur in the heroic Cahiers du Cinéma mold.

"If it were just porn, it wouldn't sell. If it were just horror, it wouldn't sell. Combine the two, and it sells": Kevin Smith and Michael W. Johnson
Diana Watters
"If it were just porn, it wouldn't sell. If it were just horror, it wouldn't sell. Combine the two, and it sells": Kevin Smith and Michael W. Johnson

Nightmare Productions' headquarters, if that's not too grand a term, is an unassuming house in Bloomington that doubles as the residence of Kevin Smith, Johnson's longtime filmmaking partner. The interior smells strongly of incense and cigarette smoke, which Smith produces in large volume. The living room is dominated by an immense television and an abstract painting that looks like spaghetti spilled on shag carpeting.

The duo's studio is in a small, windowless basement room filled with sound-mixing boards and video-editing equipment, musical gear (like horror auteur John Carpenter, Smith scores and performs music for all the pair's films), and horror-movie paraphernalia, including posters, signed photos of scream queens, and what appears to be a shrine to famous movie monsters. Displayed prominently on one shelf is a lovingly detailed 18-inch-tall figurine of Freddy Krueger. The décor suggests the sanctum sanctorum of a slightly morbid teenager; you would not be surprised to find a stack of girlie mags hidden under the bed and a "No Parents Allowed" sign hanging from the doorknob.

Though both are middle-aged (Johnson is 45 and Smith 49), the pair also have about them the air of protracted adolescence (and bachelorhood). Smith, who has long, graying hair and a wide moustache, is a maintenance manager at a local hotel. The quieter of the two, he is also Nightmare Productions' principal financier: Along with the house, he inherited a sum of money a few years ago, part of which he invested in the snazzy editing console.

Johnson, who is a recently laid-off shuttle driver at the airport, has the type of coiffure colloquially known as Hockey Hair. On film--Johnson and Smith appear in all of their movies, often as psychopathic killers--Johnson looks a bit like a Damn the Torpedoes-era Tom Petty. Both Johnson and Smith are heavy-metal aficionados, and their T-shirts bespeak their affinity. In conversation, they turn out to be bright and funny. In the latest issue of the cult-film fanzine Alternative Cinema, an interviewer made a point of Johnson's apparent normality. After seeing the auteur's films--which include rape, necrophilia, cannibalism, and incest--he had apparently (and perhaps reasonably) expected a drooling sadist.

"I guess in the circles we travel in, people are pretty supportive," Johnson explains. "We're pretty into the death-metal scene, and, you know, birds of a feather." In any case, it's hard not to admire Johnson's obvious and infectious enthusiasm for his craft. He is clearly a man who has found his forte.

Settling into a couch after a brief tour of the studio, Johnson recounts his entrée into underground filmmaking. His affection for horror films, he says, stems from childhood, when his mother, also an avid horror fan, took him to late-show gore-classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left at Burnsville's now-defunct Lucky Twin drive-in. Later, when he was a student at Minneapolis's Central High School, he often ditched class to play pinball or catch horror matinees at one of the old movie houses around Lake and Nicollet. Johnson traces his lineage to this golden age of T&A, when exploitation specialists like Roger Corman, Jesus Franco, and Herschel Gordon Lewis were in their prime.

Though Johnson was always partial to the genre--particularly George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and the mass-produced and notoriously campy Hammer horror pictures--he didn't set out to become a schlock auteur. "I always wanted to be an actor," he explains. "I did a lot of acting in high school. I was even in a few plays at the Children's Theatre under the infamous John Donahue."

After a four-year hitch in the Marines (which ended rather abruptly after Johnson punched an MP in the head during a barroom brawl), he drifted back to Minneapolis and took a series of delivery jobs. Johnson met Smith in 1986, when the latter was managing a neighborhood video store. "I'd come in all the time looking for the latest horror movies," Johnson recalls. "So we started talking, and I mentioned that I was making my own movies, and things just went on from there."

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