October 31, 2012

JOHNNY GRUESOME: MONSTER BEHIND THE MASK


  Almost thirty years ago a young man named Gregory Lamberson discovered a box hidden away at the Coliseum Twin Theater in New York. In the box was a four colour movie poster depicting a tough hood pinning down his prey with a switchblade as some lusty buxom blonde looks on. The image sunk it's claws into Greg and refused to let go. Returning to his home town of Fredonia, the director of the cult classic film, SLIME CITY, spent a cold winter's period writing the script to a monster that would not die and its name was Johnny Gruesome.

  Before Greg could convince a producer to take a chance on the script, the market for horror films dried up and forced Greg's script into a top drawer where it would fester over the next twenty-three years until its transition to novel form. As a stroke of pure fate, Greg united with Canadian, Giasone (G) Italiano, at an unofficial social gathering hosted by G's wife, Marcy, author of Pain Machine. Sharing a passion for horror movies and old school rock, Greg and G discussed the possibility of working out a musical score for a future film. Greg approached G about writing a song to promote his upcoming Johnny Gruesome novel based on a script he had written. G decided to give it a shot and sent Greg a rough demo of a song called 'Gruesome'. Greg had finally found his voice for Johnny.

  With the advent of a lyrical voice for his zombie, Greg started toying with the idea of a cheapie music video to promote his rebellious dead head. Much like his novel character, the idea mutated until he decided to search for a scream queen as the female lead in the video. Being a sucker for quality didn't help much as every aspect of the video grew along with it's ten page script.

  Greg began looking at his music video as more of a film with the decision to cast Erin Brown, known for the dozens of B-rated slasher films she did under her past moniker, 'Misty Mundae'. Greg rode the fence on taking this next step which would double the budget of the project until his wife, Tamar, earned her Producer's credit by convincing Greg he had to do it and ultimately signed the cheque.

  The next stop was digging up bodies and resurrecting Johnny and so, one by one, the players assembled and they were a mixed and fearsome lot to be sure. Matthias Saunders, who Greg met while location scouting for a film at Mansfield Reformatory, arrived on scene to become the primary Director of Photography. Matthias brought with him a feature level of quality wrought from eighteen years experience working on such noted projects as THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, MEN IN BLACK, an exorbitant amount of commercials and independent films as well as a respectable list of music video jobs working with such Hip Hop icons as Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. For the Gruesome effects, Greg opted for the talents of effects wizard David Gray who comes from a background of stage performance and low budget successes. Dave is to blame for the cringe inducing gore sequences and is the first person to turn an actor into Johnny Gruesome by transferring the image in Greg's brain to the creation of the head cast and all the way to the end design. David explains, “I took a real good look at the illustrations (Greg) had and with every illustration he had he sent me a CD with all the different artist;s renderings on them.”

  Answering a local ad, Dan Loughery, an untrained actor, embodied the reckless spirit of his role as Gary, the murderous friend of John Grissom. “I'm kind of an over the top character as it is, y' know?” Dan informs me over the phone. “I was always into the Misfits and stuff like that growing up. If I didn't call this guy (referring to the ad) I'm an idiot.” Dan would also prove to be monumental in using his connections to hook Greg up with the House of Horrors Haunted House attraction – the perfect set for the undertaking at hand.

  Jennifer Bihl came onto the scene from a background of theater, comedy and a couple of small parts in low budget horror films. Greg took one look at the head shot she sent him and knew she was the Sharron he'd been waiting for. In fact, we can hold her inadvertently responsible for Greg's decision to create an additional scene and thus pushing the music film to a nine minute saga.

  As for the immortal character of Johnny Gruesome, Greg found his man behind the management desk of his local copy center, unsuspecting of where their arguments of horror, politics and Star Wars would take them. What's a copy-jocky doing in a horror music film, you ask? So did I. Ryan O’Connell, it turns out, moonlights in a band of his own and says in his gravelly voice over the phone, “I think I had a better understanding than a lot of people for the way Greg wanted to portray Johnny Gruesome. I am a lot younger than Greg and the music I like – it wasn't much of a stretch for me to act like a hard rock punk kid, but then also, in the band, I'm the nutso. I'm the psycho”.

  Jason Mager was brought on to edit and sew it all together. Not a fan of mediocrity, Jason earned his assistant director’s credit by sacrificing his family life to spend as much time as possible on set in the name of quality. “As the editor,” Jason says, “if you are not part of the organic process of making the film, you may not fully understand that take three may have been the best from a prospective of emotion and everything else because visually or technically, another take's better. But knowing the actual acts, you'll see that this take's more expressive of how the set was, how the actors were interacting with the script of the director.”

Screaming G
  With the birth of the Gruesome theme song G found his dark notes loosened and well wed to Greg's boundless imagination. “For me,” G says, “it was a chance to show a side to my song writing I haven't really shown in the past. I have always been a horror music fan with Alice Copper and the Misfits coming to mind. I was very excited about writing music with a darker edge both in music and lyrical content. We made a CD with the horror and rock fan in mind. So far, the early response and reviews suggest we have succeeded in making an entertaining and accessible product.”

  Marcy, who co-wrote the lyrics and gave voice to an ultra creepy spoken word track on the album adds, “I've always loved listening to music with some real balls. However, being classically trained in piano didn't exactly serve as an outlet when I was younger. This CD has been just as much about the journey as the final product. We hope that comes through and adds to the enjoyment in the end.”

  As far as the melting pot qualities of his Gruesome team goes, Greg prefers you come to it without quite knowing what you came for. “The good thing about this,” he says, “is that people don't really know what to expect. If it was a feature film called Johnny Gruesome from a guy who made a film called Slime City I think they'd know what it was. But it's not a feature film. It's a novel that hasn't been published yet (Author's note: Now published as a limited edition from Bad Moon Books and as a trade paperback through Medallion Press). It's a CD that just came out full of rock songs and when you talk about something that's sort of a music video, sort of a film, people might be intrigued, but they just don't know how far we're going to take it in any one direction, you know?”

  So how far did they take it? It was time to find out.

  Arriving at the screening room in buffalo, Marcy, G and I pulled into the deserted lot and welcomed the grey overcast sky. Our mind and soul would warrant a little cleansing before this night was through. Ducking inside, our preparation for the night began.

  The stage set, Matt Patterson of Matty Masks walked in with the head of Johnny Gruesome cradled in his arms. I stood in awe of this perfect replication he had constructed as part of the Gruesome promo line as Matt placed the mask next to the tombstone amp by the stage. From what I'm told, driving to the premiere with Johnny's head sitting up in a baby seat in the back seat of his car solicited a few shocked glances on the way over.

  The lights dimmed and Greg took to the podium to introduce his project, describing the big idea behind his most ambitious project to date. “This mini movie,” Greg explains, “is designed to promote the novel, the CD, and the mask, but it's also the film I never got to make as a feature. Ryan and Dave breathed life into Johnny”.

  Then, we were treated to a documentary by Bob Lingle, the second DP on the Gruesome film. Bob created the documentary for his college media class, earning him an A from his teacher and a solid applause from the audience.

  Next up was G who rocked the house with four solid tunes from the Gruesome soundtrack, telling stories in between to humor the crowd and drop our guards.


Me and Johnny
  What came next was something between a waking terror and a gluttonous joy ride through an 80's styled horror fun land soaked with blood and chilled to satisfaction. What I watched was history in the making on how a monster character could be marketed to the world.

  Jason said it best from across the unused bar that I had converted as my makeshift office for the evening. “I think they'll be pleasantly surprised at just how Gruesome Johnny is and it's something that's special and unique. It pays respect to the past, but also paves the way for the future.”

  The film project was shot over a period of four grueling days. When asked to discuss the element of time, David Gray offers, “you never have enough time. We've heard of people beefing about, aw jeeze, we only have about four months of pre-production on this. We're like, four months? We wouldn't know what to do with all that time! I mean, we were creating stuff on the fly, ya' know?”

  Despite the quality this film adheres to, it was passion over gold that drove it's players to such acts as hanging out in a frigged haunted house all day just to shoot maybe five seconds worth of screen time as Marcy did in her creepy debut as Mary's ghost.

  When I spoke with Ryan, the man behind the Gruesome role, we discussed his first day of shooting in which he showed up on set and filmed in the same funeral suit he had worn to an real service earlier that day. “I got myself into Johnny that day and forgot about Ryan and did my thing,” he says. “When I got home, that's when I just relaxed and thought about everything that's happened.”

  Greg couldn't have chosen a band of players to better fit their respective roles. David Gray told me about days spent napping in a van down by the set to ensure a job would get done on time. “Yea, sleep you can't afford,” he tells me. “You're just running off fumes. And as far as stopping to breathe and rest, well, they'll throw dirt on me if I slow down.”

  With Jennifer Bihl, as I touched on earlier, Greg created a scene that was never in the original script or novel. The additional scene depicts why it's good practice to be nice to punks before they become vengeance seeking head bangers from hell. Talking about her role, Jennifer me, “I was so excited. It was like, your going to get your finger bitten off, and I was like, yes!” On set it was another matter. “It was really cold the day I was there and they had a little space heater in the bathroom. So I was huddled in there between scenes because I had the little cheer leading outfit on so in between I would go put sweatpants and a sweatshirt on. It was a lot of staying warm and screaming.”

  In Dan's corner, playing the part of the crack head lady stealer, he was appointed the tragic task of having to make out with Erin Brown. Naturally I asked him what it was like to make out with a scream queen starlet - professionally speaking, of course. “I just treated it like, whatever. I wasn't star struck or anything like that. (Greg) said 'Aaction!' and we went at it. He was kinda surprised because what I do is grab her face just like I was making out with a girl I had picked up at the bar or something. She was a little surprised too. I know I went at it with a boost of confidence. I don't know if it was the fifteen cups of Tim Horton's I had that morning or what.”

Greg Lamberson with Johnny Gruesome
  Like everyone else on the production stage Dan refused to settle for mediocrity. For a close up of the cocaine snorting segment that was to involve Dan sucking up dry baby formula into his mouth, he instead chose to to snort the stuff up his nose. His reasoning? “If it can't kill a baby, it can't kill me.”Now that's Hollywood, baby!

  And as familiar with Hollywood as Matthias was, he was still learning himself when it came to horror.. For Matthias, horror provided a world without borders and Johnny Gruesome offered an absolute extension of that.

  Referencing a previous film, Matthias remembers, “My shots were actually the most gruesome stuff because I didn't have influences like (George Romero and Tom Savini). “I didn't know you were suppose to - for a special effects shot when you're disemboweling somebody, it was supposed to be a quick flash. So I'm hanging on. I'm tracking the knife ripping through the skin and they're like, dude, you're not suppose to do that and I'm like, why not?”

  Back in the punk rock days of the 80's a young Michael Jackson had stopped Matthias in his tracks and blew his mind with the Vincent Price narrated music video, Thriller. Matthias feels that if the Gruesome music film can do the same for today's audience then bring it on.

Johnny Gruesome
 CD cover
  Long after the end credits rolled against the darkness of the Screening Room and my Canadian bacon was successfully smuggled back over the border to write this piece, I felt well fed and ready for more. When it comes to delivering the horrifically fun goods, this music film - in all its display of pure rebel attitude - is what our collective senses were built for. So slide your seat forward, crank you speakers high and do not fasten your seat belt. There's no need for restraints where you're going so get ready for a helluva night.





And now, as a special bonus, Heeeeeeere's Johnny:


Stay tuned for when I return with an exclusive interview with Johnny Gruesome him self - provided I live to tell about it!