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."

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.

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, www.nightmareproductions.com. 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.

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.

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 onso 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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