FILM / They came from beyond the pale: Matinee's shamelessly vulgar hero is a Z-grade horror movie producer of the Sixties. But which one? Kevin Jackson goes in search of the horrible truth

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The Independent Culture
WHO IS Lawrence Woolsey? He's a shamelessly vulgar producer of Z-grade horror flicks, played by John Goodman in Joe Dante's new film Matinee, which is set at the time of the Cuban missile crisis.

Like The Player, Matinee is crammed with industry in-jokes, references and character slurs - gags, that is, which tend to be a lot funnier to the professionals than to audiences. Moreover, such jokes have a particularly tricky status here, since Dante's better moments all depend on our recognising their horrible accuracy, and knowing that none of them is overstated.

But when directors can no longer rely on young viewers being able to catch nods to Citizen Kane or Vertigo, what hope is there of audiences having a connoisseur's inwardness with products so cheap and tacky that they are remembered by almost no one except Jonathan Ross? Just about every attention-grabbing gimmick, every cheesy special effect shown in Matinee has its authentic precedent; and though the film may trade in nostalgia for the Kennedy years, it is also an affectionate tribute - well, a tribute of some sort - to specific films and pranks of a lost generation of madcap entrepreneurs and publicists. So who, again, is Lawrence Woolsey - the real Lawrence Woolsey?

Strictly speaking, Woolsey is not based on any one producer but rather - like a creature that has had its molecules scrambled by a mad scientist's transporter - is an unholy composite of several.

Let's examine the evidence. Exhibit A: The film-within-a-film in Matinee is called Mant ('Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror]') and appears to be something like a cross between The Fly (1958) and Them] (1954). The former was produced by Kurt Neumann, who also directed, the latter by David Weisbart. Key suspects, then? Probably not; both films were high-budget productions from major studios, and Mant is a bargain-basement job.

As the critic and horror novelist Kim Newman notes, 'Mant actually looks a lot more like the work of Bert I Gordon, who made Beginning of the End (1957), which is about giant grasshoppers destroying Chicago, and The Amazing Colossal Man (also 1957, and a swift cash-in on the success of The Incredible Shrinking Man), about a guy who wanders into a plutonium bomb explosion, grows into a giant and then starts to tear down Las Vegas. The special effects in Beginning of the End are particularly cheap - they mainly consist of close-up shots of grasshoppers wandering over photographs of Chicago.' Mr Gordon is evidently one of the originals for Woolsey, but there are still plenty of other faces in the line-up.

Exhibit B: One of Matinee's quieter jokes features the director John Sayles in a walk-on role as a regular guy who stands in front of a cinema protesting about the outrage against public decency that is being committed, and then turns out to be in Woolsey's pay. In real life, this was a come-on much favoured by one David F Friedman, who produced some of the notorious gore films by Herschell Gordon Lewis (career highlights: The Blood Feast, 1963; Two Thousand Maniacs, 1964), but also went in for self-styled 'educational' films about, so to speak, gynaecology and obstetrics.

Exhibit C: Woolsey has the idea of dressing up employees in monster suits and having them rampage through the auditorium at climactic moments of the film. This was the trademark ploy of Jonathan Ross's idol Ray Dennis Steckler, creator of The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies (1964, also released as Teenage Psycho Meets Bloody Mary and filmed 'in Bloody Vision' by, of all people, the incredibly reputable cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond). Publicity material has it that Steckler, in his alter ego of 'Cash Flagg', would join the actors who would 'crash out of the screen to invade the audience and abduct girls from their seats]'.

Bert I Gordon, David F Friedman, Ray Dennis Steckler - all three showmen, we can safely conclude, have contributed details to the character of Lawrence Woolsey. But if there is any single original for Goodman's role, it has to be the master showman, king of the gimmicks and all-round schlockmeister's schlockmeister, William Castle (also known as William Schloss, 1914-1977). Castle's was a varied career: he directed everything from Charge of the Lancers (1954) to Klondike Kate (1943), he was an associate producer on Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai (1948), he produced Rosemary's Baby (1968), he even acted in Shampoo (1975).

Castle is best known, however, as the producer / director of some Poverty Row horror films, one of which, Macabre (1958), has been nominated by Stephen King as one of the top 20 scary films of all time. More precisely, the reference books still include him because of the string of daft tricks he used to boost them.

It was Castle who decided to plug Macabre - which plagiarised Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diaboliques (1955) - by taking out a policy with Lloyd's insuring cinemagoers for dollars 1,000 in case they died of fright (hard to imagine Lloyd's agreeing to that nowadays), and then parking hearses outside cinemas.

Fired by the success of the Macabre gimmickry, Castle launched himself into a spiral of ever more ridiculous, and lucrative, ploys. The House on Haunted Hill (1959) boasted not only Vincent Price but a technique known as 'Emergo', which was nothing more than a 12-foot plastic skeleton that would leap out of a box mounted by the screen and zoom above the audience's heads on wires.

Next, for The Tingler (1959), came 'Percepto', an electric buzzer fixed underneath the seat and activated by the projectionist at key moments; the same gadget is used by Woolsey for Mant. 'Percepto' helped reinforce the film's other stunt, which was a public announcement that The Tingler - a sort of killer lobster - was loose in the theatre and could only be killed by mass screaming. Eat your heart out, Robert Bresson.

Castle's ingenuity ran to such triumphs as 'Illusion-O' (a novel form of 3-D), the 'Fright Break', the 'Punishment Poll' and 'Coward's Corner' (for anyone rash enough to take up the offer of a refund if too frightened to stay until the final reel) - all of them lovingly detailed in Crackpot, a book of essays by the underground director John Waters, who himself came up with scratch 'n' sniff 'Odorama' cards for his film Polyester. Waters goes so far as to claim that Castle is a genius.

Dante seems to share this view, or something like it, and the reasons are not far to seek. He began his film-making career by working for that other grand master of exploitation, Roger Corman, who also lends a final trait or two to Lawrence Woolsey. Critical estimate of Corman's own prolific output has swung between neglect and respect, but no one can reasonably deny that his proteges add up to a formidable troupe: Francis Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Towne, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Peter Bogdanovich . . . All of them launched their careers on material every bit as disreputable as Mant.

While Matinee is not much more than a broad joke, it's a joke that pays some serious dues to the trashy, late-Fifties and early-Sixties roots from which some of Hollywood's biggest names have sprung. Without Dementia 13, perhaps no Apocalypse Now; without Boxcar Bertha, no Raging Bull; without The Last Woman on Earth, no Chinatown. Or, to strain the horticultural metaphor: Lawrence Woolsey and his ilk may have dealt in utter rubbish, but rubbish makes good compost, and you need compost to grow a healthy garden.

(Photographs omitted)