Saturday, January 11, 2014

Genesis Of Donald Farmer's Cannibal Hookers by Tim Ritter

Cannibal Hookers DVD Cover

By Tim Ritter

The summer of 1986 saw the release of my biggest direct-to-video feature film to date, TRUTH OR DARE?- A CRITICAL MADNESS.  The movie received an onslaught of publicity in both the national and local [South Florida] scene, where I grew up.  At the time, I was just eighteen years old and the press seemed fascinated that a “kid” of seventeen had made a $200,000.00-plus splatter movie that was shot in his Florida hometown that was now being distributed around the globe by the time he had turned eighteen. It was an angle they played up everywhere, from CNN to THE PALM BEACH POST.  I recall one article in particular running in THE PALM BEACH POST titled TEEN PUTS SCREAMS ON VIDEO SCREEN, and a lot of local folks wanting to collaborate or get into the business of moviemaking contacted me. Moving forward in the movie business was (and still IS) all about “networking” and back then, before the Internet, this is the way it was done! Newspapers and phone calls, almost like tracking someone down private investigation style…

One of the individuals that contacted me due to the TRUTH OR DARE publicity bonanza was filmmaker DONALD FARMER, who was living in Stuart, Florida at the time, just thirty minutes away from me. We hit it off right away, both being diehard horror and splatter fans, talking about everything from Romero to Fulci to Argento to H.G. Lewis.  Donald contacted me with the amazing news that we both shared a lead actress in our current video movies. Both TRUTH OR DARE? and Donald’s freshly released DEMON QUEEN featured hot Miami-based young starlet MARY FANARO, who would go on to co-star with Don Johnson in MIAMI VICE and appear in big Hollywood productions like Oliver Stone’s ANY GIVEN SUNDAY.  Mary had done excellent work in both our first “nationally released” direct-to-video movies, and if you go back and look at her performances in those flicks, I think you’ll see why. She was attractive, willing to do whatever it took to play the part, and had good acting chops! She also had a dynamite presence on camera.

Demon Queen Shoot

Donald and I became fast friends (and still are some nearly three decades later!), hanging out on the weekends, exchanging movies we made and VHS movies we loved, and I loved the work he was doing , especially after seeing DEMON QUEEN! I was very inspired by the fact that he shot it entirely on ¾” video, which was so much cheaper than the 16mm lensed movies I was making and trying to get off the ground. (This is when I was writing and developing KILLING SPREE, pounding the pavement for investors and trying so hard to get hundreds of thousands of dollars in financing to shoot it on FILM. I recall giving Donald a copy of TWISTED ILLUSIONS, the anthology movie Joel Wynkoop and I made for peanuts (and shot on VHS and ¾” video) and Donald calling it “a masterpiece!” Definitely the kind of inspiration one needs from a colleague to keep going!

I have the fondest memories hanging out with Donald during that summer of 1986. Again, there’s nothing like meeting a horror fan that has tastes similar to your own---in the pre-Net days, it was difficult to find folks with similar tastes! We hung out all summer long, watching movies in the theater like DEMONS, KILLER PARTY, APRIL FOOL’S DAY, and THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2.  I’ll never forget the weekend I tagged along with Donald at a film festival in Miami, where we movie hopped all weekend, taking in screenings of stuff like HAIL MARY and Japanese movies with graphic castration sequences! This was quite the education for me, seeing all these flicks in theaters, with the graphic imagery blown up so large on the silver screen. And wow, cruising the video stores in the Fort Lauderdale strip, and downtown Miami…talk about a sleazy, mom and pop store culture back then, kind of like the equivalent to NYC’s 42nd street GRINDHOUSE era, only with VHS. Let’s just say that most of the stores highlighted ADULT FARE (think “video screening booths”) first and foremost to get customers in the door, and the gory exploitation flicks were just added icing on the cake when you got inside…

Donald and I also discussed collaborating on a project that summer, and it nearly happened, but didn’t when something he was working on suddenly got the green light from his collaborators with video equipment.  A little project called CANNIBAL HOOKERS. The original CANNIBAL HOOKERS plot was about a doctor who brought a female corpse to life, which turned her into a cannibal as a side effect. Donald used a variation on this plot years later in RED LIPS (where the story was about a doctor who created a female vampire as a side effect of medical experiments).

Red Lips VHS
A lot of people that know Donald Farmer’s history and movies don’t realize that the Hollywood, California version of CANNIBAL HOOKERS that was eventually released (and that they hold close to their SOV hearts) was NOT the first incarnation of the movie. Actually, it was down in Florida, with me there participating in the summer of 1986, where CANNIBAL HOOKERS began! Donald recalls the inspiration to make CANNIBAL HOOKERS: “I was living in South Florida, which was crawling with hookers back in those days - they were all over the streets at night. So I thought it would be a great movie idea to make them into cannibals.”

Donald Farmer on the set of Cannibal Hookers

Suddenly Donald and I were making a movie together---finding ourselves “on the set” (or at least, well, in someone’s living room!) with naked girls chowing  down on unsuspecting victims! Throats were ripped open, blood was flying, and cannibalistic carnage came down like thunder, shaking up the streets of Fort Lauderdale!  I recall actress Hillary Lipton being very cool and enthusiastic about the project and doing whatever she was asked. Like Jess Franco and other directors on a low budget, Donald took a major role in the project as the mad scientist. My role in the production was pretty much P.A.,  a little bit of everything---I helped carry equipment, move lights, wrangle the cast to work, find props, and do whatever else was necessary. It was an exciting time, seeing something come together like this so fast and being shot directly onto video tape!

There were the usual no-budget problems, though, especially on the weekend of August 9, 1986, when we filmed again. Cast members that Donald was counting on didn’t show up and locations we thought were secured didn’t pan out.  Donald was unstoppable as a producer/director, though, quickly thinking up something new to tape while we had the equipment at our disposal. When two more actresses later failed to show up at an office building shoot, there were two perky, enthusiastic gals who were working late in an office that Donald somehow recruited to play the parts! I’ll never forget Donald getting these two newbies to cat fight in a hallway, tearing gleefully at each other’s designer clothes, miniskirts rising up unabashedly amidst the action, as we all watched take after take with shock and awe! The gals really got into it! It ended with one of them grabbing a gun (which they were fighting over) and shooting the other one. I recall the “gun shot” effect being quite loud and realistic in that hallway, with a lot of smoke that followed the BANG!

Cannibal Hookers shoot

When an actor who was supposed to play a character named “Cutter” failed to show up at the office building, yours truly was indoctrinated into the world of exploitation movie acting! Somehow “Cutter” apprehended the two fighting office girls in a conference room and tied them to chairs, where I threatened them David A. Hess style with intimidation and some sort of knife, if I recall things correctly.  It was fun to do and a great education for me as a wannabe director, to actually be in front of the camera and directed by a pro like Donald! Now my performance was probably pretty awful, all things considered, but hey, it was fun and I was enthusiastic! Donald loved my performance, though, and vowed to write my part bigger since I was someone who would regularly show up to the set.

There were quite a few more scenes filmed, as I recall---including a couple having sex in a bedroom that were attacked and killed by the Cannibal Girl, and another girl playing a hooker being assailed by the lead, and perhaps a few other things I’m forgetting. The Weekend Warrior shooting frame of mind was just kicking into overdrive when suddenly Donald pulled the plug on the project!

“The Florida shoot of Cannibal Hookers got derailed when we lost our female lead, Hillary Lipton,” Donald elaborates today. “And about this time my job contract in Florida ended, plus I had the interest of a studio in Los Angeles to help with the shoot if it was done there. So with all these factors combined, it seemed to make sense to relocate the shoot to Los Angeles rather than recast in Florida. Besides, I wanted to move to Los Angeles anyway. When I got there the studio interest quickly evaporated but I soon found other partners to help make the movie happen.”

Cannibal Hookers shoot

There’s a pretty wild and interesting story behind WHY Donald lost lead actress Hillary Lipton. “The reason Hillary Lipton dropped out of the Florida shoot of Cannibal Hookers,” Donald recalls, “was due to her finding a dead body outside of our filming location! And this was actually a location that Hillary herself had secured for us! Hillary worked as an assistant at a movie and TV casting company which had an office in a bank building in the Plantation, Florida area - same place H.G. Lewis was living at that time. She was able to get the best jobs through this casting office such as MIAMI VICE and THE BODYGUARD with Kevin Costner. So Hillary said we could film scenes at this office building which she had the keys to. We did film there one day without incident. Then on our second day of filming there, Hillary arrived first in the morning before anyone else, including me. Before she unlocked the building, she noticed a woman slumped in the front seat of a car parked right up to the bank building. Hillary went to take a closer look and then saw bloody stab wounds all over the woman! It turned out that the woman had been murdered by her boyfriend at a nearby apartment, and then he drove the car with her body in it and left it at the bank. But the police were quickly able to trace things back to his still-bloody apartment and arrested him. As for Hillary, she was so freaked out that she dropped out of the movie - but not before I had taken lots of topless publicity shots of her that appeared on the cover of the French version of CANNIBAL HOOKERS, as well as in the current issue of DRACULINA. And after a year or so, Hillary decided to try movies again - I hooked her up with some filmmakers up north who put her in a film called THE SHUDDERING. Unfortunately, it never received a video release of any kind and is pretty impossible to find these days.”

So there you have it, folks…how CANNIBAL HOOKERS started shooting in Florida and fizzled out so suddenly. This was a major disappointment for me, because not only was I enjoying myself on the set, I was hoping to improve my acting and evolve in my role as “Cutter.” Ah, well, some things just aren’t meant to happen, I suppose.  By September 27, 1986, Donald announced he was heading to L.A. to live and hopefully re-start CANNIBAL HOOKERS out there. Before leaving, though, Donald did give me a bunch of raw footage and cast releases from the Florida CANNIBAL HOOKERS shoot, and even though none of it was officially released for what it was intended for, diehard enthusiasts and fans might be interested to know that brief snippets of that shoot actually ended up in a couple of projects that I worked on, including CREEP (1998 VHS Expanded Director’s Cut-in the fast montage scenes near the end) and in a VHS compilation rarity now long out-of-print called SLAUGHTERED STARLETS, I believe… I have looked high and low for the CANNIBAL HOOKERS Florida raw footage so we could take a look at it today for at least nostalgia, but have (sadly) yet to find it. It’s hard to believe that we shot that stuff nearly thirty years ago! And totally amazing that both Donald and I lost track of that “classic” SOV footage all these years later. It would be quite the find if we could ever unearth it!

Slaughtered Starlets VHS

The derailed Florida shoot of CANNIBAL HOOKERS failed to deter Donald from making the movie, of course. Once Donald arrived in California, he picked up practically right where he left off: “When I moved to Los Angeles in fall of 1986,” Donald recalls, “I started the process of re-launching CANNIBAL HOOKERS with a new cast and a completely different script. I wanted to give the main characters more of a point of view, so I made the two female leads social climbing college girls desperate to join an elite sorority - and the hazing they face in their initiation. I had been in a college fraternity so I knew about this world, the intersection of fraternities and sororities, and the social ladder for girls, where being a fraternity "little sister" had less prestige than being a full sorority sister. So I thought it would be fun to have the two female leads be so desperate for sorority membership, they'll do virtually ANYTHING to join. In the case of CANNIBAL HOOKERS, their initiation stunt is to dress up like hookers and parade for "Johns" in a seedy neighborhood. . .leading to them tangling with the REAL hookers who just happen to be cannibals.”

Cannibal Hookers shoot

“To cast the L.A. production of CANNIBAL HOOKERS,” Donald explains, “I went to an agency on Hollywood Boulevard, which was also currently casting a remake of THE TOOLBOX MURDERS. So everyone who came in the office was considered both for the big budget remake of TOOLBOX MURDERS and for my ultra cheap shot-on-video movie! As it turned out, this TOOLBOX remake never progressed beyond the casting state (it would be many years later before Tobe Hooper picked up the pieces and actually got this remake made), but my very cheap movie was not only made, but was distributed all across America, Canada, France and Korea and who knows where else! And I was able to keep a strong up and coming cast. . .many of whom went on to bigger things. One of our male leads went straight from CANNIBAL HOOKERS into NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5 and our make-up guy, Brian Sipe, now works for directors like J.J. Abrams, Ridley Scott and David Fincher!!”

So there was go, folks, the entire early genesis of the cult classic, SOV movie, Donald Farmer’s CANNIBAL HOOKERS! It was a real pleasure working with Donald Farmer waaaaay back when we were both just getting started in the business in 1986, and we have since collaborated many more times on a variety of movies. I can’t thank Donald enough for all the assistance he has given me and my projects over the years, including casting Courtney Lercara as Leeza in KILLING SPREE (1987) and taking on the part of Simon Cutter in the DIRTY COP (1999) franchise. Most recently, Donald and I both contributed shorts to the anthology movie Hi-8 (2013), along with other SOV Pioneers Brad Sykes, Marcus Koch, Todd Sheets, Ron Bonk, Chris Seaver, and Tony Masiello, which should be hitting DVD late in 2014! Keep an eye out for it!

Hi-8 poster