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A Monster A Day - 1980s' B-Movie Hero:
Matt Mitler
interviewed by Paul Higson

Fourteen years have passed since this interview was conducted and typically it was one of the better interviews, capturing the exploitation filmmaking experience in a way that was more synonymous with the mad up and downs of making cheapies in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, big effects movies at the time grabbing the attention with the technical effects taking the covers of the glossies and leading articles within. There seems to be something right about reading about a low budget film decade retrospectively, essentially two decades on. Matt Mitler's tenure as one of the faces of the era seemed longer to a young horror hound fan interviewer back in the time though it was a short stint on reflection, the film work coming to a virtual standstill immediately after our talk.

Matt Mitler
Mitler was a handsome devil in the Bruce Campbell mode and should have made it bigger, has since continued primarily in theatre on a hugely creative scale. Born in 1955, Mitler's skills included clowning, tumbling, mime, sculpting and impersonation, among many other theatre skills garnered at various schools in America and Europe. That included acting, movement and voice at the Polish Theatre Laboratory under Jerzy Grotowski, the National Theatre School of Poland under Tadeusz Lomnicki and the Odin Teatrat of Denmark. In America he studied fine arts, film and humanistic psychology at American University and technique at the Michael Chekhov Studio meanwhile hitting the stage at every opportunity for improvisational, stand-up comic, one man shows, pantomime and Shakespeare.

Television spots and cinema came, the feature films promising the highest profile though, through ACTV's Cartoon Cavalcade many young Americans may recall him as host, Cousin Matty. It was the little horror movies that needed a good looking, square jawed hero that offered an international notoriety to the actor though. Buddy Cooper's The Mutilator was his first released feature and a lead role at that. Subsequently, he would work with Tim Kincaid (Maximum Thrust/ The Occultist and Breeders) and Brett Piper more than once, for Jeffrey Delman in Deadtime Stories (released on video in the UK by EIV as Freaky Fairy Tales) and Frank Henenlotter for Basket Case 2. The Brett Piper films Battle For The Lost Planet and Mutant Men Want Pretty Women gave Mitler a recurring character in Harry Trent, a hardboiled narrator and action hero, up against the director's heavy population of animated monsters in what were the last gasp in stop-motion effects.

All of his horror/SF films were seen in the UK before 1993 by one legitimate route or another, most with video releases, and the Brett Piper films on cable channel HVC. His disappearance coincided with that of many in the independent exploitation film scene... the movies got just a bit too big, the kids required to star got too young... and Mitler was happier on the stage. Much of his work is co-ordinated and played out in New York area theatres. He is currently one of the driving forces behind Theatre Dzieci (Polish for children), a theatre of therapeutic interaction "derived from Native American and Eastern spiritual disciplines" to quote the site. His enthusiasm for the horror genre in 1990 however was undisputable.

Now then, where have my questions vanished?

On the top of the television set?

Cheers. Right, your first credited film is The Mutilator, which has yet to reach UK shores, and I have yet to see it. Given the gory nature of the Mark Shostrum effects it might never show. Who's the director, again?

Okay, it's Buddy Cooper and as they say in Poland 'It's your happy' that you haven't seen The Mutilator, originally titled 'Fall Break', hence the title song. Mutilator has the one quality that is inexcusable in a horror film... it's boring. Whatever would be cut to give it an R rating would be about all that's worth seeing. It does look good and boasts one laughingly bad performance... Moray Lamply as death number two. Yes, this is my 'credited' first feature, although I did a film in Boulder, Colorado in 1976 called Freaked Out. I have no idea what happened to it or any of the people involved. It was directed by a guy named Ronald Duck... no kidding... and I played a half dozen roles and designed futuristic set-pieces and costumes all in a haze of drugs and other illegal weirdness.

What are the origins of the film and how did you come to be involved with this production?

I believe The Mutilator was hatched while Buddy was taking a summer screenwriting course at American University and the genre was then believed to guarantee a modicum of financial success... or at least break even. His teacher at American University was co-director and then was asked to leave. Here's a juicy titbit that ties into your question. My audition for The Mutilator was in New York and put on tape. I had to do two scenes, one where my leg is whacked with a battle-axe and one pleading to have sex with my girlfriend... of course, we don't - we live in this film. So, I had to read opposite Ben Moore who played 'Pam' for the audition. At least they didn't make me kiss him. Also, this was the only time in my career where I was excited about getting a part. Now I'm jaded.

The theme of the murders, not really a modus operandi, but connected it was by the use of lethal sailing apparatus, pikes, and engine rotor blades... etc. Getting a bit desperate, aren't they?

Oh, killing apparatuses. I wrote a parody called 'Good Friday the 13th Part 2' where the fat kid gets a crucifix shoved down his throat, the jock is beamed with an incense burner on a chain, and the priest... Father Damien... finds sulphuric acid in the holy water. Other than that I always thought that a paper shredder would be particularly gruesome. Perhaps with an Ollie North type super glued to official documents.

Tell me about Mark Shostrum, the special make-up effects artist on the film.

All effects' guys are sort of strange mole-like people. Mark was, is, wonderful, sweet and unassuming. So here's some dirt. The effects on The Mutilator set the film back two weeks. Repeated attempts at casting Frances Raines' nude torso failed to yield the proper mould. Various people put various obscene objects in Ben Moore's gaping mouth on his dummy head... not to be confused with his real head. Various body parts appeared in people's closets with the request of "Oh, could you get me my coat please... it's in the closet" followed by a proper scream. Best backfired effect... a plaster torso of Morey Lamply, hollowed out, filled with guts and blood, and compressed air under a rubber stomach skin. Outdoors... a crowd of 100 anxious onlookers... camera behind a plastic sheet... an outboard motor ready to rip. Hours go by. Finally, ready, pump in the air... and the torso spouts a leak between its legs and shits out its guts. The crowd disperses, confused. The director looks pained.

You and Frances Raines appeared together in both The Mutilator and Breeders. Is it true that you and she had an affair?

No comment... We worked together briefly in Breeders - more on that later, and in Grindhouse, a serial play I produced in the East Village, and she starred. I played John Saxon as a Vietnam vet with a cannibal virus and she played a B-movie queen who steps off the screen into real life on 42nd Street as the last sleazy movie palace is torn down. She is a really great person and I have nothing but positive things to say about her.

Breeders came next, a terrible little monster movie. Tim Kincaid's films seem to make it to the UK.

Yes, Breeders is at least my worst film and smallest part... thank god. How do you like the way they dubbed in my screaming? An astonishing example of inept sound editing! Check out Tim Kincaid's other bad films, Bad Girls Dormitory with Ms Raines, Robot Holocaust, Necropolis...

Oh, I have!

All are excruciatingly bad. I did one a few years after Breeders called Maximum Thrust and now coming out on video as The Occultist... I play the bad guy, Colonel Esteve, and have a wonderful death scene if you get a hold of it.

Is it right that prior to the sci-fi and horror movies Tim was making gay porn films? (Apparently so and after many years trying not to return he returned to making them in the millennium.)

Although I'm not sure of Tim's sexual preferences, he is married to his producer and has a son by her. And for as stupid as his movies are, they are really fun to work on. On The Occultist he pretty much let me do whatever I wanted.

Are you willing to divulge any of the problems and details of pay on those movies? It's something we are not commonly privy to on low budget films and these are two separate examples.

Hassles? Pay cheques? OK. The Mutilator paid me 10 percent up front plus a per diem, plus my own hotel room on the beach, plus three meals a day. I never saw a cent of my 10 percent, but I've never had so much fun on a film since... I've done 13... and I've never been treated as well. So, I'm not complaining. Buddy distributed the film himself. I'm sure that there never was enough profit, or maybe I just don't want to think about it. Breeders and The Occultist shot usually no longer than 14-hour days and paid a flat 100 bucks a day to everyone and... as I said... it was fun even if it wasn't. The films I did for Brett Piper, writer and director of Mutant Wars and Battle For The Lost Planet paid well but they were ridiculously long hours and gruelling conditions and we never took breaks to eat. The first film I just got a bad cold. The second film, Mutant Wars, I worked for a week in an abandoned factory full of flying specks of asbestos and managed to tear my right lateral meniscus... it's in the knee... doing my own stunts... which I do... under bad conditions. This is how actors learn these lessons. Lesson number one, no one is going to take care of you but you. Three years later I still have a bum knee. Basket Case 2 was union... hooray... and I only harmed my lower back... and head, throwing myself around as Belial kills me. But the worst experience... bar none... was making Dead Time Stories. I'll talk more about that later... but as for money, it's the one film I've made for which I never even saw a cent. Nada. Niente. They owe me and I'll never get it. Fuck them! There's a lot of people to blame but suffice it to say, some people made money. Now, as for conditions... my final day I was in make-up for 24 hours! And when I was wrapped I found out that 'Grandma' had used all of my special make-up remover for adhesive on her own grease-painted face! That's a pint bottle of the stuff. Took me three hours to get it with dishwashing detergent. It was dangerous, it was painful and it pisses me off how much they screwed me over. There's more but it will sour my light-hearted mood. Basically, re low budget, the least a production can do is pay you something, feed you and make sure that you get enough sleep so that you don't look like a zombie. That is, of course, unless you're supposed to look like a zombie.

Tell me about Mutant Wars.

Mutant Wars, it's a sequel to a film called Battle For The Lost Planet... maybe they'll change the name (they did... to Mutant Men Want Pretty Women). Art Schwiezer at Cinevest here in NYC handles them. They're (the films) in Europe, not your part (they later screened on HVC cable television in the UK) and Japan and will probably come out on video here. In Battle For The Lost Planet... and these are pretty amusing films... so contact Art or better get the director who will have the rough-cut with about 20 extra minutes of me improvising alone in a cardboard spaceship... I play Harry Trent. It's the near future. I steal some gizmo, escape into space, get stuck in space, aliens attack Earth, I land and fight creatures, mutants, aliens, a biker gang, and meet a beautiful girl, Denise Coward. Turned out that the gizmo I stole can kill the aliens, etc. In Mutant Wars I'm Harry Trent again, a little older, a little more jaded... this script was written for me personally. And some waif enlists me to rescue her sisters who are held captive by Cameron Mitchell... who was very cool to work with. I fight mutants who work for Cameron, creatures, another gang´┐Ż this time, nihilistic punks... and meet a beautiful girl, Deborah Quail. I drive a souped up, wrecked up T-Bird with the top ripped off and a gun turret attached. That was fun! Oh, by the way, in Battle For The Lost Planet I have my one and only nude scene on celluloid. I'm getting it on with Denise Coward and a tentacled creature attacks us. I try to fight it off with a torch. 'How was it being nude, Matt?' It was cold.

Back to Freaky Fairy Tales (aka: Dead Time Stories). It was directed by Jeffrey Delman, who if I recall rightly was an assistant director on major movies like The Verdict for Stanley Lumet... so what was he like to work with?

Jeffrey Delman was a great director during rehearsals. We improvised a lot and re-wrote dialogue. But on the set he just didn't have the strength to hold it all together and a lot of people walked all over him. I did an industrial for Jeffrey last year and he was much more in control. It was for high school kids [and] about heart disease. I played a heart and the ghost of heart future. Scary, huh?

Freaky Fairy Tales/ Dead Time Stories is an anthology horror film with three segments. How long did your segment take to shoot?

'Riding Hood' took about two and a half weeks all totalled. Oh, one good thing came out of it. I sent a tape of my segment to Brett Piper and he cast me entirely off of that for Battle For The Lost Planet.

You've worked with many young actresses up and coming scream queens. Leanne Baker, Frances Raines, Nicole Picard, Denise Coward...

Unfortunately, I don't even remember some of these ladies. Frances, of course, I've already spoken about. She's a real trouper, game for anything. I'd like to see her in a nourish thriller, a 1940s' period piece. Nicole Picard was supposed to hit me on the head with a de-thorned cactus in 'Riding Hood' and hit me with the pot instead. You can see it in the film. It hurts. Leanne Baker is pretty savvy and I think her work is improving. God! Is it possible to improve working for Tim Kincaid? I have, unfortunately, worked with a lot of people, who couldn't even hit their mark. One of the perils of low budget! Nicolette Goulet in Whispers Of White, which I've just wrapped, is the most talented and giving of any woman I've ever worked with on anything.

How did you become drafted aboard Basket Case 2?

The Basket Case people came after me to audition. I'd met Frank Henenlotter before and he knew I wanted to work with him. They had me in mind for 'Arty'; I auditioned once, on tape, and did some of my stand-up comedy act and a few impersonations. There wasn't even a script. Then they called me, said I had it. I met with Frank again, he gave me the script, told me to read it and let them know if I wanted it and I read it and loved it. Frank writes great scripts. So no, I didn't have to fight.

A bigger movie by far, how does it compare?

Basket Case 2 is my first union film. I got not only good money but I work less hours and am fed better. Plus, I get insurance that not only covers me but my wife as well. Sounds pretty okay, huh? Well, I am also very excited to have a film out that even if people don't see, they'll know about it. So that when someone asks what I've been in, they won't go, 'Huh,' when I answer. It's also nice to work with a bigger budget. It means that the film will look better and sound better than anything I've done before. Hopefully, it will be better too. So, yes, its important, but I don't go after it. Things move along at the pace they should. I just keep trying to learn more and improve my own work. Just look at how I am in The Mutilator and you'll see that I've come at least 'some' distance.

What did you enjoy most about making this film?

Hmmm! There were two things I really liked. First, hanging out in the town where we shot the house where the freaks lived. People were very nice and the mansion was really intense.

Seen it used in other films. That twin staircase is unmistakable... too filmic.

Second was seeing the freaks, en masse, creeping towards me in the attic. It was hysterical. I said, "Man, this is some scene." And Frank... he's a real character and a blast to be around.

What's next, Matt?

Okay, so I just finished Whispers Of White. I play a supporting role, Nicky Faklis, I run a diner with my brother who gets mixed up with a drug syndicate. I don't die or turn into a monster. I emote and stuff. It's a subtle portrayal and is by far my best work... Written and directed by Ron Gorton Sr. Other than that, I wish I had more auditions. I'm up for a part on a new night-time Dark Shadows for NBC. It's my genre, so... we'll see what happens. I'm also trying to find a producer for a film I wrote. It's a dark comic, suspense thriller called 'Panik'... any leads? Also, did you know that I used to work in Europe and even England? Yep, I performed at The Oval House and Surley Folk Club in London and did work at a mental hospital in Blackburn, Lancashire. And improv with natives, Justin Case, Peter Weir, the Wee Wees... Jim and Steve... and Johnny Melville. What do you think of that?

Freaked Out (1976); The Mutilator (shooting title: Fall Break, 1985); Breeders (1986); The Occultist (shooting title: Maximum Thrust, 1986); Dead Time Stories (UK title: Freaky Fairy Tales, 1986); Battle for the Lost Planet (1987); Mutant Men Want Pretty Women (shooting title: Mutant Wars, 1988); Bums (1989); Basket Case 2 (1990); The Thin Line (1990?); Dick and Jane Drop Acid And Die (1991, also director); Blowback (1991); Thrill Kill Video Club (1991, producer only); Cracking Up (1994, also director, writer and editor); 'Pokemon' (1998, several voices in the English language version); Indian Cowboy (2004).

Battle for the Lost Planet

Mutant Men Want Pretty Women

The Mutilator


Freaky Fairy-Tales

Basket Case 2

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