Saturday 17 March 2018

Death Collector (1988)

Director: Tom Garrett
Writer: John J. McLaughlin
Stars: Daniel Chapman, Ruth Collins, Loren Blackwell, Karen Rizzo and Philip Nutman

I didn’t know about the 1988 film Death Collector until last year, but I’m a big fan of genre hopping and this one is a post apocalyptic western with wild credits. The first half dozen characters include ‘Molested Woman’ and ‘Hood with Whip’, before progressing all the way to ‘Fearless Turbo Sluts’. Splatterpunks John Skipp and Craig Spector play, no surprise here, ‘Splatter Punk 1 and 2’. I got a kick out of the assistant editor and sound editor being credited as a pair, given that the former was Donald Johnson and the latter John Donaldson. Keep watching, though, and you’ll reach Francisca Vanderweerdt. Thirty years ago today, she showed up on set to do make up and hairstyling. Then, as she wrote on Facebook last year, ‘The assistant director came over and introduced himself. When I shook his hand, the loudest voice I have ever heard said, ‘This is the man you’ll spend the rest of your life with.’’ That was Brian Pulido, the Evil Ernie to her Lady Death and they married in 1991. Congratulations on thirty years together, folks!

Back then, this was called Tin Star Void and I wonder what writer John J. McLaughlin wanted it to be. It’s really a western at heart, but it seems more like a post-apocalyptic action flick, nothing like the pictures that would make his name, many years later. This was his debut as a scriptwriter and it was clearly going to spend its days being rented from Blockbuster, the sort of tape with ‘cult movie’ written all over it. McLaughlin only wrote one more film in the entire twentieth century but eventually hit the big time in the 2010s. Yes, the scriptwriter of Death Collector, as definitive a straight to video title as anything starring Rutger Hauer or Dolph Lundgren, went on to be a big shot, writing or co-writing Black Swan, Hitchcock and Parker within only four years. That ambition is perhaps why Death Collector, for all its many faults, still feels interesting and, in its low budget way, stylish. It’s not as wacky as Six-String Samurai, made a decade later, but it does bear some similarities in approach and would play well to the same audience.

The heart of the film is the usual western revenge story, merely set in the unlikely state of Connecticut, where Hartford City is ‘a town on the edge, a crumbling society where malevolent forces are just barely held in check by a dying breed: the lawman.’ What really shakes it up, though, is its timeframe, which is... well, I have no frickin’ clue whatsoever. Our hero is a singing cowboy, of the sort who had his day in the thirties and forties; even though this is a colour picture, his outfit is still black and white. However, the cars date to the fifties and sixties, all of them in pristine condition and obviously the result of a partnership with a local classic car club. Oh, and the fashion is mostly contemporary to the eighties, not only given that Francisca was clearly a new wave chick at the time. Thirty years of Brian throwing devil horns in her immediate vicinity may have made a little difference but, if it did, it surely took a lot longer than it took to wrap this picture.

Certainly there are a lot of new wave chicks in the club in which Wade Holt sings throwback songs, except for those odd tables of old time riverboat gamblers and topless dudes trying to emulate Rambo. Apparently that’s a thing after the apocalypse. You spend your life working out to the point where you can be your own action hero when the end times come, but you find yourself playing cards instead with some dude from a Mississippi paddle steamer while Wade Holt croons to the wrong girl at the front table, even including a bit of Besame Mucho in Spanish. She’s Annie Northbride and she’s not the wrong girl for wearing a black PVC jacket and coil earrings but because she’s Hawk’s and he’s the big bad boss in town. Sure enough, just as they get into their sex scene, Hawk’s men show up with shotguns. Here’s where I point out that the only law in town is Wade’s brother, Jack, who apparently inherited the position of sheriff from his dad, only to be promptly shot dead trying to warn Wade. So now it’s undeniably Hawk’s town.
Of course, the traditional western revenge plot would have Wade go after Hawk and he does, in his blood drenched shirt and with his unloaded gun. Turns out that’s a pretty bad idea and it results in a quick diversion to prison, where he doesn’t do well. There’s no hope for him at all, at least until one of the most bizarre plot twists of all of eighties genre cinema. Of course, we know he’ll get out of prison somehow, because this is just the fall in the rise fall rise flow of the traditional western and we know Hawk’s going to get his in the end, but how does he get past this apparently insurmountable hurdle? I challenge you to figure it out, because it’s as unlikely as it gets. Do you give up? OK, here goes. The prison closes. Yep, we weren’t actually post-apocalyptic until now, because the apocalypse goes down somewhere offscreen where there’s an imaginary effects budget. The guards open the doors and hand the prisoners their things. Go north and avoid all large cities, they suggest. They’re suddenly the nicest prison guards ever.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of post-apocalyptic flicks, partly because I grew up in the eighties devouring all the genre cinema I could find and it was an omnipresent theme during the Reagan/Thatcher years. However, I can’t think of another post-apocalyptic film that revolved around money. The apocalypse here is a financial one, as the banks digitally bomb each other and society collapses. The hold that Hawk maintains on Hartford City is financial too, as he’s in the insurance business and he changed for the times. Now, if you stay in town and stay alive until 35, he’ll pay you a cool million dollars. What that’ll buy you in a collapsed economy, I have no idea, because the script doesn’t dig that deep, but everyone’s in on it. Everyone except Wade, that is, who only wants the payout from the $10,000 life insurance policy his brother Jack handed to him as he was bleeding to death. This approach may be because Tom Garrett’s initial funding for the picture came from a $30,000 insurance payout after a traffic accident.
To be fair, there are a couple of other changes. Jack’s girl, Melissa, who was a waitress at the bar, now owns it, a plot progression rather foreshadowed by the fact that the place has a huge neon star out front instead of a name and Melissa usually goes by Star. The other is that Bunky, who occupied the cell next to Wade, ends up in Hartford City too, just in time to save him from a beating after his failed picnic with Star. Incidentally, that’s how happy Wade is; the apocalypse can go down and society can collapse, but he’ll keep on smiling, playing his guitar and taking his brother’s old flame out for a picnic. Then again, Hawk, the big boss, spends his time bowling, which really doesn’t enhance his attempts to play tough. He has to try so hard at being tough that he even has a British henchman whose name is Tough. The only character who manages to be tough without trying is Bunky, not least because John Scott channels Fred Williamson pretty damn well, and that’s the only reason the action scenes work as well as they do.

I should add here that Tough is played by Philip Nutman, who’s another horror novelist, adding to a theme. When the action gets going, horror novelists seem to be everywhere, not just through the actual presence of Skipp & Spector but through the names of Tough’s security guards. They start out with Campbell, Barker and King and keep on coming: Blackburn, Farris, Benson, Grant... I may have blinked and missed others but those are all horror authors too, presumably John, John, E. F. and Charlie respectively. It got to the point where I was actually surprised to not hear a Herbert. As far as I’m aware, scriptwriter John J. McLaughlin did not write horror novels before finding his way to film, so I have no idea how this particular trend found its way into the script. It could have been Nutman’s doing or just a matter of synchronicity, with Skipp & Spector showing up and the three conjuring the names up between them. I’m guessing at Nutman, given that John Blackburn and E. F. Benson aren’t that well known in the States.
I’ve deferred discussion of the actors until now, partly because it’s obvious that most of them aren’t actors but we can’t really tell. I’d have said that John Scott was the best actor in the film, but Bunky was his one and only credit; maybe he really was just doing a Fred the Hammer impression. Francisca even gets an acting credit here for playing Bunky’s Bar Bimbo, which means she gets to sit next to him in one scene and look cool while speaking one line. What makes things interesting is that the real actors don’t play the characters we expect or in the ways we expect. Daniel Chapman, for instance, was an actor but he’s hardly who most people would choose to play Wade Holt. Garrett’s original choice was Chris Isaak, right before he’d be snapped up by Jonathan Demme and David Lynch, and Chapman plays it the same way Isaak would have done, even though his look is rather different. He looks more like the action hero, a sort of elongated Michael Biehn, but he plays the part like an easy-going slacker, more than a reluctant hero.

This would remain Chapman’s only lead role, though he racked up some minor parts in pictures like Mississippi Burning and Young Nurses in Love, one of six movies he made for director Chuck Vincent. He’s best known today for his last film, Philadelphia, ironically directed by Jonathan Demme, as he was one of the 53 actors in the picture who were either HIV positive or actually dying of AIDS at the time. Chapman got a fantastic scene early in Philadelphia, ‘gaunt to concentration-camp proportion’, in the words of the New York Times, but joking with a waitress who’s offering him artificial sweetener. I wonder how many people saw him there and went back to here to see what he would have been like as a leading man and I wonder what they’d have thought of Wade Holt. Chapman doesn’t do a bad job at all, but the character is so unusual that it takes us a while to get used to him. I have a feeling he’ll stay with me, a tall and handsome action hero who’s memorable not for action but for being so endearingly happy in the post-apocalypse.
Loren Blackwell, on the other hand, won’t stay with me as Hawk. It was his debut on film and he does look the part but he doesn’t find its soul. Or, to be more accurate, given that he’s playing a ruthless amoral crime lord, its lack of soul. He underwhelms, unlike non-actor Philip Nutman, who was cast by accident. Having quit his job at the BBC to write full time, he was staying in New York with make-up effects guru Tom Lauten, the weapons expert on Death Collector, when he walked in on a production meeting. ‘With my hair slicked back, my Don Johnson stubble, my sunglasses’, he recalled to Mike Malloy for an article in Cult Movies, he was hired on the spot for a ‘one day, one scene, one cameo’ appearance that kept on getting bigger. That’s a good thing because Nutman, as much as he’s clearly not an actor, is able to put over the cruel asshole vibe that Blackwell couldn’t. I guess it’s ironic that the most effective performances, Chapman excepted, are from non-actors: Scott, Nutman and the delightful Karen Rizzo as Star.

I haven’t told Brian and Francisca yet that I’m reviewing this for their anniversary, so I haven’t yet been able to pick their brains about where this film came from. Garrett was clearly the driving force behind the movie and the core ideas behind it were his. ‘I wanted to do a rock and roll, singing cowboy, futuristic movie,’ he told Malloy. His elevator pitch to John McLaughlin was: ‘Take Alan Rudolph’s Trouble in Mind and match it with a Gene Autry movie... but futuristic.’ He also cited additional influences: Thunder Road, with Robert Mitchum as a Korean war veteran turned moonshiner, and spaghetti westerns. The thing is that, while all those influences make sense, I’m unsure they really prepare you for what you’ll see in Death Collector. Partly, that’s because what seems like everyone in the cast and crew brought their own slightly different textures to add to its already unique feel, Francisca’s new wave influences obvious among them. I’d love to hear what she and Brian remember from the shoot.
Death Collector is hardly a great movie. The acting is mostly terrible and the plot, which is full of conveniences, falls apart with the slightest thought. After all, it’s a tale of the insurance market in a world whose financial systems have collapsed. The film’s tagline suggests that, ‘In the not too distant future there is no justice... just insurance.’ Maybe it’s all a protection racket by Hawk, who has people pay up or die, but if they’re paying with useless currency, how does that help him? How does he pay security guards with the names of horror authors? How do people keep drinking at Star’s bar? How does she stay in liquor and electricity? It sure ain’t Bartertown, folks! But, if someone invented a new economic system, why didn’t they tell us about it, us and the guards who closed up the prisons and let all the crooks loose? I have no answers for any of these questions, but I did enjoy a unique film that stands notably apart from its peers, while taking the opportunity to congratulate Brian and Francisca Pulido on thirty years together.


Death Collector: The Greatest Low-Budget Sci-Fi Film Nobody Has Seen/Heard About/Discovered/Celebrated by Mike Malloy (in Cult Movies #40)
‘Philadelphia’: Oscar Gives Way to Elegy (in New York Times of 1 Jan 1995)


Michael said...

I enjoyed yor review. I was the editor on DEATH COLLECTOR. We tried to do best we could with very little. It was a fun experience.

Anonymous said...

Those names of horror writers were added at last minute while shooting. That was all Nutman's doing. During the shoot, we realized we had a flimsy 3rd Act. I suggested to the director that we make video copies of all the hallway scenes(w/guards) in Hawk's building. We then created a new scene of Nutman seated before a wall of TV monitors watching all that hallway footage, giving order's over the radio to the guards. Also many of the guard scenes off the monitor were filmed during post-production and I am most of those helmeted guards. I got shot and fell down alot.

Michael said...

You are so right about John Scott as Bunky. I liked his persona so much that I wanted him to star in a action movie. After DEATH COLLECTOR director Tom Garrett made a deal with some New Haven businessmen to do two films back-to-back. The first one was A GIRL'S GUIDE TO SEX(a well made but rather lame college comedy) and my fim BLOOD star John Scott. In the end, only A GIRL'S GUIDE was made. Such is life. An interesting note on the casting of Bunky. A pre-famous Paul Giamatti came in a read for that part. That would have been interesting if he had been cast. The Bunky part remained uncast well into the shooting of the film. I believe Garrett was in a bar, saw Scott there and offered him the part on the spot. He was not an actor. But he did have that Fred Williamson vibe and he was perfect for the role.

Michael Lang said...

Loren Blackwell who played Hawk in DEATH COLLECTOR starred in my low-budget horror film SOULEATER (2017).

Anonymous said...

I remember going to an office at the brick n wood on Hamilton st for an open casting call. I showed up on my Harley dressed like Tom petty and they said I was in. Lol the next day we had to go to the 5th floor of an open air parking garage that was turned into the entrance of a bar. It was a whole lot of sitting around between takes. I wonder if I ever made it on to the movie or did I end up on the cutting room floor. Either way it was a cool experience. The 80’s were bad ass😎