Little Shop of Horrors

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

Smith interjects, "When Mike and I hooked up, video was coming on strong. So we thought, 'Let's just shoot our own movie.'" The pair's first feature, a short parody of the then-popular Friday the 13th franchise called Death Curse, debuted at a Halloween party. "We were all just sitting around, drinking beer. But our friends thought it was pretty cool.

"We're just doing this to have fun, to party, laugh, have a few beers, meet some actresses," Johnson continues.

"If the girls look good, and they take their clothes off, we're happy," Smith concludes.

"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

The pair's professional breakthrough--though not strictly "professional," and maybe not so much of a breakthrough, either--was 1992's Tortured Soul, about two serial killers named Mike and Ike (like the slasher flicks of his youth, Johnson's films take the occasional stab at comedy). After completing the film, Johnson sent a copy to Film Threat magazine, which used to review underground and amateur cinema. The response was less than encouraging. "What was the word they used?" Johnson knits his brow. ("Misogynist," it turns out).

The chilly critical reception did not cow Johnson. Nor was he troubled by the charge of misogyny; if the word has entered his vocabulary, it doesn't seem to have left much of an impression. In fact, he now regards Film Threat's dismissal as an affirmation of his status as a provocateur. "I wanted to do something really wild to get noticed," he explains. "I was trying to push the envelope."

And the pan didn't seem to hurt the film's commercial prospects: Almost immediately thereafter, orders for Tortured Soul began to roll in. "The last line of that review was 'God forbid, Tortured Soul 2.' We started working on it right away."


Amazingly, most Nightmare Productions films since Tortured Soul have recouped their investment. This is partly attributable to Johnson's shoestring methodology--his videos rarely cost more than $1,000 to produce, and his main expenditures are buying standard horror-film props like Karo syrup and paying actresses to disrobe. But Johnson's films also sell, and he has developed a network of fans through his Web site, Commercial success is relative, of course. "It's not like we're making a killing doing this," he says. "It's art for art's sake."

Pure auteurism, however, is not without its perils. "During one shoot, we went out on a Saturday afternoon to this lake in Richfield. There were all these families picnicking, and then here comes a bunch of rowdy guys, drinking beers, with a video camera. We got chased out of there pretty quick."

"It's definitely gonzo stuff," Smith adds. "We don't get permits or nothing like that. You just run in there, shoot what you can, then run out."

Though Johnson and Smith have thus far avoided the attention of authorities, they have occasionally run afoul of nonplused citizens. For instance, during the filming of Smell of Death, their homage to George Romero, a special-effects sequence called for one actor's head to pop off and roll into a creek. After they'd shot the scene, Johnson was forced to wade in and retrieve the head. "I'd just got a hold of it, and was sort of holding it up by the hair, and along come these two kids. They freaked out and ran to get their dad, and he came running over like he was going to do something about it."

Generally, the duo's difficulties are more pedestrian. While shooting one film, Johnson's lead actor suddenly disappeared. Never one to balk at adversity, Johnson simply rewrote the script to accommodate the casting change. (When the actor mysteriously reappeared, Johnson reintegrated him with the same equanimity.)

Likewise, shooting on a budget that wouldn't pay for lunch on a typical Hollywood backlot requires a strong improvisational bent. Johnson and Smith devise their own effects, which include--but are not limited to--disembowelings, stabbings, exploding heads, and the poking out of eyes with scissors. Their primary tools are latex and Karo syrup (which, when combined with red food coloring, looks more like cherry Kool-Aid than blood), though they recently switched to more expensive fake blood after the talent started complaining that the syrup left red stains on their skin.

The special effect that Johnson and Smith still consider their coup de cinéma involved a hose strung up the inside of an actress's thigh, which sprayed syrup from the general direction of her crotch. "We were the first people ever to film a blood-squirting vagina!" Johnson notes with pride.

It maybe ought to be said that, if the typical Nightmare Productions film is hard to describe, it is often even harder to watch. The acting isn't especially terrible (though Johnson and Smith pretty clearly don't discriminate with regard to dramatic chops). Nor is it the violence, which, though plentiful, is no more risible than that in Hollywood fare like Ridley Scott's pompous and nauseating Hannibal. What's sort of troubling about Johnson's films is the admixture of vérité sex and violence against women--horror movies stripped to their creepiest and most primal wish fulfillment. The experience of watching them is sometimes like seeing an amateur porno intercut with a snuff film.

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