Tuesday, May 01, 2007

"John Austin Frazier"... Unmasked

Ponder the fate of John Austin Frazier, driven insane by viewing the Europix triple-bill "Orgy of the Living Dead."

Today, a tantalizing excerpt from the Operazione paura/Kill, Baby... Kill! chapter of Tim Lucas' forthcoming MARIO BAVA - ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, which solves the forty year mystery embodied by the question... "Who was John Austin Frazier?"

Europix Consolidated waited a full year before releasing Operazione paura in America, by which time their company name had changed to Europix-International. They branded it with the unfortunate exploitation title Kill, Baby . . . Kill!— following the patterns of AIP’s Die, Monster, Die! and Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!—which was more evocative of plunging daggers, go-go boots, and rock ’n’ roll than the suggestive, turn-of-the-century chills the film actually delivered. It was paired with The Sound of Horror—a black-and-white Spanish import originally titled El Sonido Prehistórico, which starred (in early, extremely unpromising roles) future horror queens Ingrid Pitt and Soledad Miranda, and a strong contender for the cheapest special effect of all time—an invisible dinosaur.

The resulting double-feature was sold as “The Big S & Q Show,” with lurid advertisements guaranteeing “You’ll Shiver and Quiver with Kill Baby Kill—and—Shake and Quake with Sound of Horror!” The combo scored well on the American drive-in circuit, and became something of a cash cow for Europix, who licensed both films for TV syndication as early as 1968. By this time, Variety finally got around to reviewing the overlooked film, thanks to a belated report filed by Stuart Byron (“Byro.”). He wrote: “Reviewed for the record since this Italian horror mystery, set in the Transylvanian vampire country, has been in US release via Europix Consolidated since 1966 [sic] though only now playing New York (as a second feature at a 42d St. grind house). But film demonstrates once again, as some European critics think, that in director Mario Bava lies one of Italy’s most important film talents though he specializes in genre product. Kill Baby Kill is a small masterpiece of its kind, comparing favorably with the late Val Lewton’s horror programmers of the ’40s.”

Its geographic inaccuracy aside, Byron’s comments are significant in hindsight as one of the earliest American commendations of Bava’s talent. Europix maintained the film as an active theatrical rental for several more years, during which time it trailed other double-bills from Europix (and other companies) as part of weekend triple-bills. In 1972, it was revived once again as part of Europix-International’s legendary triple-bill, “The Orgy of the Living Dead.”

For this program—the brainchild of Europix national sales executive Bob Kilgore, formerly with Gemini Film Corporation—Bava’s film was retitled Curse of the Living Dead and cut to 75 minutes, by dropping an entire reel. Also in the package were Revenge of the Living Dead (a similarly shortened retitling of La lama nel corpo/The Murder Clinic) and Fangs of the Living Dead, actually Amando de Ossorio’s Malenka (1967), a Spanish/Italian vampire opus starring Anita Ekberg—the only film of the three not previously released by Europix. Disguised with new, unfamiliar titles and fresh PG ratings, the films were first paraded across America in March 1972 with a brilliantly exploitative ad campaign. It pictured a screaming man in a straitjacket, who, the accompanying text explained, was “John Austin Frazier,” a man committed to a mental hospital after viewing the “Orgy of the Living Dead” triple bill. “If you lose your mind as a result of viewing this explosion of terror,” the ads declared, “you will receive free psychiatric care or be placed, at our expense, in an asylum for the rest of your life!”

The campaign—hilariously fleshed-out in a trailer that showed as little footage from the three films as possible—was masterminded by Alan Ormsby, a young artist/writer based in Coral Gables, Florida, where he played major creative roles in the making of several well-remembered, independent horror films, including Deathdream (1972, writer and makeup), Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972, writer, actor, and makeup) and Deranged (1974, writer, co-director and makeup). In 1975, he published an instructional book for children, Movie Monsters: Monster Makeup & Monster Shows To Put On. In later years, he co-authored Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People (1982), directed the recursive horror film Popcorn (1991), and wrote The Substitute (1996) before his stint as a staff writer for the CBS detective series Nash Bridges. Ormsby’s personal devotion to the horror genre made the “Orgy of the Living Dead” campaign a classic of boisterous ballyhoo, which also managed to include a surprising grace note of scholarly respect. For the first and only time on an American film poster, the Maestro’s name appeared above the title: “Mario Bava’s Curse of the Living Dead.”

“I don’t know that I can take credit for that,” laughs Ormsby, “but I certainly knew who Bava was at the time, going all the way back to Black Sunday. I remember also being very impressed by Planet of the Vampires, with its scary dreamlike atmosphere. A lot of people, over the years, have asked me about the work I did on that campaign, some of them asking me to sell them the rights to that skull artwork I did for the posters, but I don’t own it anymore.”

When asked the earth-shaking question “Who was John Austin Frazier?” Ormsby draws a blank until he’s reminded about the screaming man in the straitjacket—and then he laughs.
“That was my friend Victor Bumbalo,” he reveals, “an award-winning playwright who has gone on to write screenplays and do some acting jobs, too. Europix did a special one-sheet just of him, which was hilarious; I’ve seen it on eBay. I remember that Bob Clark and I also shot some film of him, which I guess was used in the trailer. It was shot right inside the offices at Europix, which was this dinky little company in the midst of a porn theater district in New York City. I remember, at the time we shot that, Behind the Green Door with Marilyn Chambers was playing at a theater right across the street!"
The trailer Ormsby mentions was subsequently abbreviated into a pair of TV spots, which are included as extras on the KILL, BABY... KILL! disc in Anchor Bay's THE MARIO BAVA COLLECTION VOLUME 1 box set). As was widely reported, Bob Clark recently perished with his son in a terrible automobile collision caused by a drunk driver.
Book excerpt (c) 2007 by Tim Lucas

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