Little Shop of Horrors

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

According to Johnson this alienating effect is at least partly intentional. "They're pretty mean-spirited," he says. "There just aren't many nice characters. It's really the underbelly of America, the outcasts of the world, the loners and losers who ain't got no friends."

Johnson's most narratively complex film to date is probably Dying to Meet You: Serial Killers--A Love Story, which, to the filmmakers' chagrin, was renamed Serial Killer Massacre by its distributor. In it, a dumpy-looking psychopath (played by Jeff Murphy, a childhood chum of Johnson's who stars in many Nightmare Productions films), falls in love with an equally dumpy female killer. In a rare attempt at characterization, Johnson includes flashbacks that attribute the sociopathy of each to childhood trauma. "I liked that they looked like real people," he explains, "because that's the kind of evil that really exists. I was thinking about what makes people like that into killers."

Like the slasher flicks Johnson grew up watching, his films are, in general, less driven by plot than by a series of set pieces in which partially clad women are dispatched. Johnson also cleaves closely to the genre's puritanical sexual politics (i.e., abstinence as a survival strategy). Nevertheless, Johnson's callipygous ingénues routinely disregard what the in-jokers from the Scream franchise might call the Janet Leigh Rule of Scary-Movie Survival: When an insane killer is on the loose, it's almost never a good idea to take a shower.

"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

Johnson writes most of his scripts, and his dialogue, though including the occasional horror-flick allusion, tends to be workmanlike in the perfunctory nice shoes,wanna fuck? manner of porn. E.g., this conversation from Johnson's latest, Tortured Soul 3, between a buxom grad student (played by scream queen Stephanie Beaton) and Johnson's possible murderer.

 

She: I find you to be quite an interesting guy.
He: You're not just saying that because you think I'm a killer?
She: I have to admit, if you were the killer, it would turn me on so much.
He: Why don't you just lie back and pretend I'm the killer.
She [obliging]: Oh, yes. [Moaning, fondling, etc.]

 

Finding willing performers is, not surprisingly, something of a full-time obsession for Johnson. Occasionally, he will import a B-list actress like Beaton from Los Angeles. More often, though, he recruits his cast through newspaper ads, strip clubs, and the Internet. One of his recent discoveries, a 21-year-old aspiring model named Kat Surth, met Johnson through a local cheesecake photographer who often recruits women for the filmmaker.

"He said they were looking for a couple of girls," recalls Surth, who plays "the blond one" in Tortured Soul 3. "I met him and he seemed like a typical director, with, you know, a ponytail. He didn't have a script, but I thought, 'Well, okay.'" (Surth ultimately improvised most of her performance, which is less impressive than it sounds, given that she makes a fairly quick exit.)

After shooting her scenes--including an explicit Sapphic interlude in a Jacuzzi--Surth was called back: Johnson had pressed the wrong button on the camcorder. "I'm pretty open-minded, and I do some fetish modeling, so I'm comfortable with the girl-on-girl stuff," Surth says. "The girl I did the scene with didn't want to be strangled, though. She said, 'You can drown me; just don't strangle me.'"

While Johnson admits that his films may transgress the pale of mainstream taste, he has no plans to compromise his vision. Already, he is at work on his latest feature, tentatively titled Hotel Hell ("Where you check in..." etc.). "I might move to Hollywood just for the weather," he says. "But here I don't have to deal with any of the crap that goes along with that. I'm totally in control. And I'm doing what I love."

While Johnson remains firmly anchored in the DIY ethic of his chosen medium, advances in video-editing technology have allowed him to steadily expand his directorial repertoire. In his last film, for instance, he was able to include a slow-motion sequence. As usual for the auteur, though, the decision was as much pragmatic as artistic. "This girl was just such a horrible actress that we had to cover her performance." Johnson pauses a beat and grins. "But she had great tits."

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