Saturday Night Grindhouse wasn’t born as a result of immaculate conception, nor was it delivered on the wings of a satanic stork, nor did it grow out of the dirt on a farm in east Tennessee, nor was it defenestrated into a barrel of toxic waste. Rather, it was created in a studio by a writer, designer and videographer — a mad scientist creator, if you will. I would almost be willing to say “intelligent” design was involved if the creator I spoke of wasn’t myself.
I was born and raised in Kingsport, Tennessee — a place not exactly known for producing art that challenges the status quo or engages the mind in any way. Kingsport is known as the home of Eastman Chemical Company and what is now Domtar Paper Company. It’s often joked that your nose will let you know when you’ve reached Kingsport proper, and it’s true. I spent my younger years seeing Kingsport as the quiet town you’re supposed to live in. Neighboring cities Bristol and Johnson City were for “big city” folks or places you’d visit as a treat because they had better restaurants and malls.
To say I hated Kingsport wouldn’t be fair. It’s not an awful place to live but reside there for any amount of time and you’ll see that there’s not a lot of innovation going on and the little bit that it gets is either smothered out quickly or is done in a lame attempt to keep up with Johnson City (or Chattanooga for some weird reason). At this point in the story, this has very little to do with anything except to drive home the point that in pre-internet times, it was pretty difficult to be exposed to anything unique.
Not that at such a young age — I’m talking five years old or less — I was looking for art that would truly move me. I was too wrapped up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and professional wrestling to really care about anything else.
To my credit, though, my parents had introduced me to rock-and-roll and heavy metal at a very young age. I spent the first few years of my life thinking AC/DC were the only band in the world. It was their job to make music, no matter where I heard it. My dad and I used to ride around in his truck playing their 1980 album Back in Black on repeat every day and I would be comfortable saying that album acted as my introduction to horror.
The first track on Side A, Hell’s Bells, begins with the tolling of a bell. You can’t see it, but it sounds downright ominous. This giant, old and rusty bell … you can almost see the echoes as they bounce around the dark night sky. I don’t know who’s ringing it but I already know I don’t want to meet them. As the intro riff begins, the sound is fierce. The reverb is high, the tempo is slow, the tone is foreboding. It’s absolute torture. After a few seconds, the drums kick in to add a steady march to the song’s build-up. Something’s coming … and when the song finally kicks in, the vocals speak of a violent thunderstorm rolling in with the threat of death soon arriving. At the time, I didn’t know who Satan was but I knew I didn’t want him to “get” me as the song describes. I didn’t know where Hell was but I knew I didn’t want to go.
In addition to AC/DC I had MTV that would regularly play the video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, a video that introduced me to the undead, graveyards and the voice of the great Vincent Price. I loved the music in that video and I always enjoyed watching the dances, but I couldn’t handle the introduction to the short film where Michael turns into the werewolf. I’d usually leave the room until that part was over. Same for the final shot depicting Michael turning his head to show his evil yellow eyes paired with Price’s maniacal laughter. This was pure terror and I hated it. Such a raw and powerful emotion to feel.
In 1989 the Friday the 13th video game was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System. At five years old, I don’t think I had seen the films yet, but I was somehow very familiar with Jason Voorhees and his modus operandi. My parents allowed me to rent the video game several times over the next year or so from this video store we frequented in Weber City, Virginia. Now, 30+ years later, I sit here writing this unable to remember a lot about the game other than Jason being purple and impossible to beat. I also never quite figured out exactly how you were supposed to play the game, other than slowly kill off the campers that you played as. Regardless of how good the game was or how good I was at it, I credit this game with teaching me that bad guys are tough, but horror can have a playful side if you know how to look at it that way. Funny, yet scary at the same time. What a concept.
Back at the video store, I remember seeing a cardboard standup advertising Clive Barker’s recently released fantasy slasher film Nightbreed. Lead character Aaron Boone (played by Craig Sheffer, also of A River Runs Through It and Hellraiser: Inferno fame) stands front-and-center among nine other characters. Sheffer’s eyes were glowing and that absolutely terrified me despite seeing he was the only halfway-normal-looking character in this group of misfits, humanoid though they may have been. The stand-up was near the checkout counter and I would avoid it as much as possible.
Nightbreed would stick with me for a very long time. It would be years later before I would watch it with my mom and dad and it messed me up. Big time. They’d frequently rent movies of all genres but especially liked the occasional horror movie. I remember watching 1984’s Silent Night, Deadly Night (Charles Sellier) and 1990’s Graveyard Shift (directed by Ralph Singleton and based on the Stephen King short of the same name) and having no issues. But Nightbreed was different. As a child, I couldn’t remember the storyline or even the character’s names but the faces of the characters – namely Peloquin (Oliver Barker), Devil Lude (Vincent Keene) and Kinski (Nicholas Vince). Their faces haunted me every time I closed my eyes and I was unable to sleep for weeks. I drove my parents crazy waking them up after bedtime asking to sleep with them or to have my dad walk me around the house at night, peeking inside the dark closet upstairs and the far end of our back yard.
Prior to the Nightbreed screening, I experienced something that would forever change my approach and appreciation of the horror genre. My mom’s friend would often babysit me while she worked and the friend had a son named Brian that was quite a bit older than me. I thought he was cool because he was an older kid that liked me, he knew a lot about wrestling, loved to play video games and he would introduce me to Black Sabbath. He acted as my teacher as I learned about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the form of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest. I loved hanging out with Brian but I had one rule: do not close the bedroom door. Brian had a poster of a creature so vile and fantastic that no one should ever have to look at it. It was a demon wearing silver platform boots, wielding a bass guitar that looked like an executioner’s ax, blood covering his chest, dripping from his black-and-white painted lips.
That’s Gene Simmons for those not playing along. And I was scared to death of him. Brian assured me that he wasn’t scary, but the door remained open nonetheless. Shortly after this, I would stumble across my uncle’s KISS ALIVE! record and saw that hideous face along with three others on the cover. I was intrigued by it — something so evil and sinister to my eyes. What did it sound like? Was I really ready for that? To be honest, it would take some time before I had the courage to drop the needle on that record. When I did, however … I didn’t hear Satan … I heard the roar of the crowd followed by the introductory riff of Deuce. This wasn’t scary at all – this was rock-and-roll! Brian was right! Gene Simmons wasn’t something to be afraid of after all!
I would spend the rest of my elementary school days doodling like I always did in school (even through college) but I had a theme from that point on: all my characters wore KISS-style face paint. It was weird, it was edgy, it was scary and it was just cool. I was little then and it probably sounds made up or too on-the-nose to say now, but this was the first time I thought it would be cool to create scary stuff when I grew up.
And Then I Grew Up
My interest in the art of horror had been fed throughout my middle school and high school career mostly through heavy metal music. By 2000 I had become a fan of Marilyn Manson, King Diamond, Slipknot and several other “gateway” metal acts. I had also been exposed to punk rock and the Misfits, which gave me yet another dimension to appreciate in the world of horror-meets-art. I went through a lot of dark times that I thought were unique to me but I’d later find out were pretty standard for most teenage boys. Heartbreak, a hatred of the church and organized religion as a whole, the attraction to rebellion were all a part of it. And while I was getting in deeper with punk, metal and horror, my outlets for expression grew much darker and more aggressive over time.
I realized in high school that I enjoyed writing and earned good grades and several compliments from my instructors on my writing. I never took it seriously but continued on, each story having a hint of macabre with a healthy dose of humor. It wouldn’t be until I started writing for college classes that I found my voice. My college courses were a bit more open when it came to interpretation of writing and my instructors were always up for a good conversation that may be spurred by an edgy piece of fiction or an essay with questionable statements, two things I was known for despite my dad’s disapproval. It also helped that several of my professors had sick senses of humor.
My taste for aggressive, heavy forms of art continued maturing in my college years to include various forms of black metal, death metal, crust punk, noise and exploitation films. I was fascinated by the noise-laden punk rock of Sonic Youth and the on-stage antics of both Hanatarash and GG Allin. I would watch news footage of church burnings in Norway while listening to Burzum, Mayhem and Darkthrone. I studied while listening to Cannibal Corpse, Cattle Decapitation and Exhumed. My DVD collection would grow to include classics like Cannibal Holocaust (1980, directed by Ruggero Deodato), I Spit on Your Grave (1978, directed by Meir Zarchi) and one of my all-time favorite movies — the Wizard of Gore (1970, directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis).
In addition to adding these classics to my collection, I was also introduced to a local noise/punk/metal label called Chaotic Underworld. I frequented my local record shop — Dad’s CDs (this is important later in this story) — where an entire rack was dedicated to the label’s artists. I snatched up impetuous noise from Mannequin Hollowcaust, lo-fi-sampling noise by Killbot, disastrous doom-flavored sludge metal from Aorta Journal and Pilgrimm, pixelated folk by the Sugary Sweet Machines, death/grind lunacy by Aghast and a journey into a country-fried, demonic, hell-fired noise samplefest aptly labeled Sounds of the Rotten South.
I was a sophomore in college when I took Creative Writing, a class taught by an older lady that loved Appalachian poetry. She was a decent teacher, for the most part, but the few of us that had already established our own voices were discouraged a lot. We felt the teacher wouldn’t like anything we submitted unless it was about working on the farm or breaking beans and I still think that was true. Either way, it was in her class that I produced a few pieces of poetry that got published in various literary magazines (including Freedom and The O’ Way to Mom’s Day both published in the 2005 Phi Theta Kappa Honor’s Society 2005 Literary Anthology). It was also there that I wrote out what was then my longest piece of fiction to date: a short called Makes You Do Crazy Things.
Makes You Do … was a fictional tale inspired by the Reel Big Fish song Skatanic about a man who’s genuinely in love with a young lady but doesn’t have the guts to speak to her. A little off in the head, he spends his days stalking her and her boyfriend, then updating his journal about his experience. As the story progresses, he gets a little more gutsy and strange, eventually murdering the boyfriend. Not a gore-fest or a slasher by any means*, but definitely a horror story. Makes You Do … would eventually be published in Nota Bene Literary Magazine, earning me second place for fiction at an honors society banquet in Memphis. The story was special to me and apparently other people thought it was cool as well.
*Well, it was almost extremely graphic. After sharing my rough draft, the story’s original ending that leaves the reader hanging after reading about how the anti-hero was getting out of his car to murder the boyfriend with a knife, a few classmates expressed a desire to see the brutal act. My second draft included graphic details of the murder, which included the removal of intestines and a love letter written to his dream girl carved into her beau’s chest. This ending did not go over well with my audience, so I went back to the original ending, prodding the once-naysayers to admit they were wrong in wanting to see the violence!
I held on to Makes You Do … for the next couple of years and would take it out again during my senior year. I took a videography/editing class and our final was to be a short film. No one else on my team had anything to contribute so I mentioned I had this story I thought could be turned into a script pretty easily. It was decided that was the direction we were going to take, so I sat down with a printed copy of my story and began turning it into a script. I had never written a script before but was confident I had a good story. A few days later, I had a finished draft. There was no casting involved — my team and I would play the few parts — and my script required only minimal alterations after a day of location scouting around the Tri-Cities.
Shooting wrapped in just a couple of days and we jumped right into editing. Two days later, we had a short film, now simply titled I Love You. On the day of presentation, I wore my favorite shirt at the time for inspiration and confidence: a black Murder – Mayhem – Madness shirt depicting the mugshots of Otis B. Driftwood, Baby Firefly and Captain Spaulding of Rob Zombie’s second feature film The Devil’s Rejects.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: Yes, I love Rob Zombie. I’ve loved Rob Zombie since I was a little boy when I learned that his band (White Zombie) were so mean and evil that the churches in Johnson City protested their concert at Freedom Hall and ultimately shut them down. I love White Zombie, I love Rob’s solo work, I love his illustrations and House of 1000 Corpses is still my favorite movie. Popular horror and heavy metal blogs hate on him but dammit, I think he’s great, and I’ll always think he’s great.
Now that that’s out there…
After I Love You screened for our class, there was polite applause and then I think most people didn’t really care anymore. My team, on the other hand, had a short film to be proud of. We put a lot of hard work into it and it was a good product. On the inside, I was extremely excited to know that I had just shown a movie that not only had I starred in, but had also directed, edited and written based off a short story that came out of my ass a few years before. It truly blew me away to see a piece of art evolve the way that story had.
The Digital Media program I was earning my degree in didn’t offer a full video program yet, but it was during my time there that I realized my love of filmmaking. Actually, it was seeing something I’d written turn into a motion picture that made me realize it. The possibilities are endless with such an art form. And while my degree had a concentration in interactive web design, my actual focus was on filmmaking and photography. I had dreams of working for LionsGate, a big budget studio with independent filmmaker’s balls.
During this time, there’d been a revival on our local government access channel – Channel 16, MyTownTV. Though it was government access, there were lots of entertaining shows that popped up starring local talent. It was cool to see locally produced content being broadcast in Kingsport. The most famous inclusion was Robby Spencer’s Adventures, a very low-budget show that followed bluegrass musician and “good ol’ boy” Robby Spencer as he did simple activities like going fishing, giving a cat a bath and making homemade biscuits. There was something special about Robby that forced your attention on him even if it was an episode you’d seen 10 times already. His attitude, sense of humor and thick Appalachian accent made his otherwise banal activity seem like the most entertaining thing you’d ever watched. It was brilliant.
And it was local. Being local was good news for me. I knew if I was going to get a job in production, I was going to have to leave the area and I wasn’t sure I was ready to do that yet. But I now knew there was a place locally that could hire me if I made myself look good enough. I suddenly had a mission: become an intern at MyTownTV, home of Robby Spencer.
Two months before I graduated college, I landed that gig. The internship was unpaid and I spent most of my time organizing a sea of cables and broken electronics that were laying around the studio. Our office was in the upstairs portion of what was formerly a bank on Kingsport’s main drag, Stone Drive. At the time, my boss’ office was in the back with a window and was accessed after passing through our reception area and bullpen — a section of the workplace that was set up to look more like a movie set as opposed to a functional workplace. Across the hall was our edit bay and a green screen studio.
As the holidays approached, I spent my time ripping public domain DVDs of the Andy Griffith Show so we could air them while we were out of office during Christmas. MyTownTV was a small operation but I got on well with the owner who let me tag along to a scheduled shoot at the local fire department where I shot fire chief Barry giving a tour of the building and of one of the fire trucks. One of his other employees would edit the footage and shortly after Christmas, it aired. Something I shot had made it to television.
Landing the internship before graduation earned me a bump on my letter grade in my Portfolio Development class but even that wasn’t the coolest part. When I graduated college in December, 2007, the next day I left my job as a server at the local O’Charley’s. I would take some time off before the new year and when MyTownTV resumed operations in 2008, my internship turned into a full-time gig. I wasn’t getting paid a lot, but a job in my field literally right out of college? It doesn’t get much better than that. Now if I could just get a show of my own on the air…