STUDENT BODIES - By Calum Waddell
88 Films brings back its (sure to be) award-winning blog with an exclusive Q and A featuring Richard W. Haines... creator of our Slasher Classic SPLATTER UNIVERSITY...
By Calum Waddell
When Richard W. Haines embarked on Splatter University, back in 1981, he was hoping to helm a low budget blood-fest that might ride the wave of the then-popular slasher trend. In return, he anticipated that his debut would lead to bigger and better things. Perversely, then, it is Splatter University – and his follow-up feature Class of Nuke ‘Em High (a film that he is no big fan of) which remain the director’s most popular work.
Why Splatter University?
Well, despite being a patchwork amalgamation of campy theatrics and serial killer psychosis, the end result happens to be a colourful bout of carnage with a solid pace, unpretentious intent and a likeable leading lady in Forbes Riley. Moreover, there are plenty of plasma-spurting set pieces as well as a maniacal sense of continuity and a delirious finale. Sure, it’s no Halloween (it’s not even Halloween II!) but Splatter University is difficult to dislike. Indeed, despite its reputation as a bit of a stinker, the sleazy shocker that you hold in your hands is easy to have fun with – and its re-release, and reappraisal, on BluRay should be welcome news to any slice and dice scholar. Long unavailable, Haines offered us this essential chat recently that will hopefully serve as a reminder that, have you not already, you surely owe it to yourself to pick up this largely unheralded slasher classic - only available from 88 Films!!
Warning: The Following Interview Contains Spoilers!
So, just to start, can you talk us through your beginnings in the industry? What was it that caused you to get involved in cinema?
I was always involved in a production of some sort – ever since I was a kid, really. My parents bought me a Super 8 camera and I began making amateur shorts. In one little movie I rounded up my friends and we did a mock version of the climax of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly shoot out. I even created simulated squibs and had everyone dress up in makeshift Western outfits [laughs]. I remember that after the shootout, someone threw a plate of spaghetti at the winner for the final gag. Later I purchased a Super 8 sound camera and made sound shorts. After graduating from high school I went to NYU to study film from 1975-1979. It was there that I learned how to work in 16mm - from shooting to editing to negative matching and mixing and making a print. This was certainly valuable experience since my first feature, Splatter University, was shot in 16mm and blown up to 35mm. After graduation I saw a post on the NYU bulletin board looking for production assistants on an indie horror movie called Mother's Day. I met with the director, Charles Kaufman, and he hired me as a PA and then as an editing assistant to Daniel Loewenthal. I later ended up doing the sound editing too because no one else knew how to and I had done it on my student films…
Were you a fan of horror movies in general at that time?
Yeah, I was always a fan of horror films but really only of a specific kind, namely the more character driven stuff like Psycho, Night of the Living Dead, Carrie and Jaws. In these movies I could identify with the people who were put in danger. I was never a fan of splatter movies – at leas the type where unknown people are just lined up and killed. Since I knew how the special effects were created, splatter films usually bored me…
Which is a strange thing to hear, but we can return to that. How did you go from working on Mother’s Day to getting a job on Madman, another slasher flick from that period?
After doing the sound editing on Mother's Day, Dan Loewenthal hired me to do the same thing on Madman. Basically, I was brought in after the film was completed to create sound effects. I had nothing to do with the production other than that. It was called Madman Marz when I worked on it and they later changed the title. That is about as far as my stories from that one go.
Nevertheless, despite admitting that you don’t like splatter movies, here you were working on two of them. And, of course, you were about to embark on the title-it-says-it-all… Splatter University…
The story behind that is as follows: while I was at NYU, one of my roommates was another film student, John Michaels. We had discussed co-producing an indie horror movie whilst we were still studying so we were developing Splatter University before I worked on other people’s movies. So doing stuff on Madman or Mother’s Day was not really influential on how Splatter University turned out.
Did you have the chance to meet Lloyd Kaufman and Michael Herz, of Troma back then? Of course, they would initially distribute Splatter University…
No, I didn’t meet Lloyd or Michael until after I finished editing Madman. They hired Dan to edit a movie called Waitress! So Dan brought me along to do sound editing again. After that movie, they hired me to edit some of their subsequent movies.
How did you fund Splatter University?
My parents put up a portion of the budget, which was only $25,000. After principal photography, John and I worked on other pictures and used our salaries for post-production editing, sound editing, negative matching, mixing and an answer print. Speaking for myself, I used my editing salary from Stuck on You, The First Turn On and The Toxic Avenger to complete Splatter University.
Can you talk about the film’s various name changes?
The screenplay was called Thou Shalt Not Kill. Although that title did fit the story, we thought Splatter was a far more suitable exploitation title. Later we added University - which worked even better!
Why did you decide to kill your leading lady at the end?
It was for one very simple reason: I just thought it would be an unexpected twist to murder the lead character. After all, they usually survive their ordeal in these movies [laughs].
Aside from Madman and Mother’s Day did you watch any of the other slasher films that were coming along back then?
Yeah, I was seeing all of the slasher movies at the time – mainly because I wanted to try and make our one a little bit different. However, I didn’t like slasher movies – mainly because, as I previously mentioned, these are splatter films. So I tried to incorporate some character development for the lead role, although it was probably negated by the campy aspects of the film. To be honest, the only reason I made a slasher film is because it was the only kind I could afford and they were all profitable at the time.
Splatter University went through a troubled production period insofar as it took quite some time to be finished and released. Can you talk about this?
Sure – well we finished principal photography in 1981. While I was sound editing Waitress! – and doing the same job on another film called Stuck on You - I was putting together Splatter University at home on weekends and at nights. All my time was spent editing back then [laughs]. Anyway, the final cut of the movie only ran for about 65 minutes which was too short for a feature. However, I will say that this cut of the movie played like a semi-legitimate mystery film. The killer really was a deranged priest and the performances by Forbes and the rest of my cast were really good. The electronic score, which was conducted by Chris Burke, worked pretty well within this context too. Nevertheless, we knew we needed to expand the running time so we went back into production and rounded up some friends to shoot some very campy, over the top footage of students partying, smoking dope and acting like idiots. We also added another death which was a head slit. Ralph Cordero, who was our special effects assistant during principal photography, returned for these scenes. Unfortunately, the running time still was not long enough so I shot a framing device to alter the story and make the killer an escaped mental patient. We also secured a Rockabilly band called The Pedestrians to supply songs for some of the new sequences. When I added all of these scenes together it brought the running time up to 79 minutes which enabled us to release it as a feature film.
These additional scenes also make Splatter University a bit of a farce – indeed, it becomes quite over the top…
Yeah, the new scenes completely changed the tone of the film. I hate them but the slasher cycle was running dry and if I didn’t get the film out there soon, I might not have gotten it released at all. So, although I prefer my original 65 minute cut of the film over the theatrical release version, we needed to have something we could put out. The new scenes were shot in 1982 and then I had to re-edit the movie, re-mix it and make a new answer print which brought us up to 1983. The film was released in 1984, pretty much the end of the slasher genre. The rather mixed up narrative combined realistic scenes from the first cut, and way over the top campy scenes from the second cut, and I guess that’s what gave us the ‘so bad it's good’ cult following. It’s now a six pack movie which means it's far more entertaining after a few beers [laughs].
As mentioned, Troma were behind the initial release of the film. How did Splatter University do when it finally hit cinemas in 1984?
The film did well theatrically and then on home video. The reviews were bad at the time, as anticipated, but it has been re-evaluated in the interim and I have gotten some good notices over the last few years. This has included in such underground fan journals as Ultra-Violent magazine. I guess they were able to get past the campy aspects and examine the basic storyline which, I think, has some interesting twists and themes…
What impact, if any, do you think Splatter University had on Troma?
I actually think that the reason that Troma decided to switch from sexploitation to horror – starting with The Toxic Avenger - was because Splatter University and Mother’s Day had been so profitable…
And you, of course, worked as an editor on The Toxic Avenger before co-directing Class of Nuke ‘Em High with Lloyd Kaufman…
Well Class of Nuke ‘Em High was a bad experience for me - but I also learned from it. I had written a screenplay titled Atomic High and I was going to co-produce the film in 16mm with John Michaels. Troma offered to finance and distribute it in 35mm but John and I would have to do it as ‘work for hire’. John wisely declined the offer and made his own 16mm film with a similar theme – it was called I Was a Teenage Zombie and it actually did quite well. However, I agreed to direct Class of Nuke ‘Em High on the agreed terms – although that meant I lost creative control.
Can you speak about how this effected the final production?
Troma decided to alter my concept so it could be set-up as a sequel to The Toxic Avenger. Then they re-wrote my script. In my version, this gang starts as an honor society and then they gradually mutate into the group, The Cretins, which cause havoc throughout the school. In the Troma version, they were already a gang wearing ridiculous outfits. In my version the mutant fetus monster screams "Mommy" before allowing the couple to escape the school which then explodes. It gave the story a Freudian twist – and this was removed to make it a monster on the loose story. Fortunately, the experience inspired me to form my own production/distribution company afterwards called New Wave Film Distribution. For my third film and every later production, I retained complete creative control. So, as an example, my next film - Alien Space Avenger - has superior performances, production value, special effects and cinematography when compared to my first two movies. I see Splatter University and Class of Nuke ‘Em High as 'warm ups' for these later, and better, films.
I’m interested in the fact the late adult movie star Jamie Gillis made an appearance in Alien Space Avenger. How did that transpire?
While I was at Troma editing their sexploitation features, they also had some older X-rated movies they had produced in the seventies. They hired me to re-cut them from hardcore to softcore for cable. Jamie Gillis appeared in some and I noticed he was one of the few performers in the adult industry who could actually act…
Yeah, I agree...
So, when I was casting Alien Space Avenger I thought it would be a funny gimmick to have a famous porn star get, literally, screwed to death by a creature. So we shot that sequence and put it in the film. Getting him involved was really quite straightforward – the film’s co-producer, Ray Sundlin, contacted Jamie and he liked the idea. That was why he agreed to do his little cameo.
Although you insist that Splatter University and Class of Nuke ‘Em High are not your proudest moments, they are the two films that you are best known for…
I would rather be known for what I call ‘my art imitates life’ trilogy which are Alien Space Avenger, Unsavory Characters and What Really Frightens You. Each story chronicles the experience of a writer who interacts with his fictional characters which I thought was an interesting theme. However, each movie uses a different style of cinematography and performance. Alien Space Avenger looks like a live action comic book with its garish primary colors in Technicolor, simulating a strip. Unsavory Characters echoes the look of a forties film noir and has very believable performances. What Really Frightens You is my homage to the Hammer films of the sixties. Visually, this film also uses distorted colors for its hallucination scenes - similar to what Roger Corman did in his classic Poe series. I think that this trio of movies would make for an interesting triple bill anywhere…
You became quite public in voicing your support for filming with Technicolor – leading to your book Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing (McFarland Publishing, 2003). Can you speak a little more about this?
I had met with some great Chinese lab technicians during the shoot of Alien Space Avenger and they gave us pointers on how to dramatically use colour. After I finished editing I traveled to Beijing to make ten dye transfer prints of the movie. No one had used the process since The Godfather Part II in 1974. I was always a fan of Technicolor and aside from its unique color dyes, the print don’t fade. I later donated dye transfer prints of Alien Space Avenger to Eastman House, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and to Martin Scorsese’s archive. And I still have two in my own archive.
Your last film was What Really Frightens You back in 2009. Are you working on a new film?
No, I am no longer producing independent features. The indie movement has collapsed on the East Coast – particularly if you want to shoot on film. Most of the labs, equipment rental houses, mixing studios and negative matchers folded with the switch to digital. Today I write pulp fiction books with movie themes. So far my three thriller novels are Production Value, Reel Danger and The Anastasia Killer. But you never know… perhaps some enterprising producer will be interesting in adapting them into feature films in the future!
- 88 Films