Starting as an editor for Troma during their most creatively prolific period, Richard W. Haines debuted as a writer & director with the slasher film SPLATTER UNIVERSITY. He then developed their future classic, the original CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH. Afterwards he became a fully independent New York City based auteur whose filmography incorporated an array of cinephile influences, from the pulp Technicolor sci-fi adventure SPACE AVENGER (aka ALIEN SPACE AVENGER) to the postmodern horror of WHAT REALLY FRIGHTENS YOU. He is also a published author of multiple novels and film history books. Mr. Haines was kind enough to chat with me about his life in the movies:
How did your career begin?
I attended NYU’s film school from 1975-1979 and studied with Haig Manoogian (Scorsese’s early mentor) and film historians, William K. Everson and Leonard Maltin. I made 16mm student films in both black and white and Kodachrome. I even did the sound editing, mixed them and made prints. After graduating, I got a job as the assistant editor on the low budget exploitation film, Mother’s Day, and ended up as the sound editor on the movie since I was the only one who knew how to do it. It offered me the opportunity to work in 35mm. The film was directed by Charles Kaufman. He sent me to his brother, Lloyd Kaufman, who ran Troma, Inc which was an exploitation production and distribution company. They started in porns but then moved into R rated sexploitation and eventually horror exploitation. I cut trailers for them and some of their features. Since I gained experience in marketing movies there, I always edited the trailers for my later feature films.
What inspired you to be a filmmaker and what were some of your favorite films growing up?
My parents bought me a Super 8 camera when I was a kid and I began making amateur movies in the format. Later, I got a Super 8 sound camera and made them with an audio track. I was always a film buff and I read a lot of books about cinema. I also collected fanzines like Castle of Frankenstein and Famous Monsters of Filmland. Back in the sixties and seventies, I watched old movies in syndication including The Million Dollar Movie on WOR and Abbott and Costello films on WPIX. I went to the cinema nearly every week in the fall and winter. They had large screen theaters with curtains back then to give me an enjoyable moviegoing experience. The Beach Cinema I in Peekskill had 70mm projectors and I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fiddler on the Roof in the large format there. In the summers I went to the drive ins and saw epics like The Sand Pebbles and double bills of A Shot in the Dark and the The Pink Panther. I even saw a marathon of the Planet of the Apes series in a dusk to dawn presentation. In addition, I collected Super 8 sound digests, shorts and features and projected them in my room. So I was always a movie fanatic and was determined to make feature films when I grew up.
My filmmaking career spans the years 1981-2010. The switch to digital put most of the indies out of business as the labs, negative matchers, mixing studios and distributors went out of business. It’s not viable to make a movie on film now so I became a novelist. I launched the ’24 frames per second series’ of movie themed thrillers which are available on Amazon. They include Production Value, Reel Danger, The Anastasia Killer and What Really Frightens You Too. I continue to market my seven feature films that were produced over the last thirty years on the side.
What inspired the religious satire in your first film, Splatter University – its setting at a Christian university full of hypocritical priests?
I’m not religious and I tend to subscribe to William K. Everson’s joke that film is my religion. I made the killer a priest in Splatter University for the twist ending to be different. However, the first distributor of the film which was Troma said that may cause problems booking the film in some areas. So I shot a prologue and epilogue depicted him as an escaped mental patient posing as a priest. In hindsight, I should’ve left that out and released it with my original concept.
Is it true you had problems with Troma during the making of Class of Nuke ‘Em High?
Although I wrote, edited and co-directed Class of Nuke Em High I did not have creative control over the film. It has since been re-edited into another version. I no longer credit it as “A Richard W. Haines Film” and leave it off my resume. In hindsight, I wish I had made it independently. In my next feature Space Avenger I retained complete creative control and it’s a much better movie with good production value, photography, music score and is even in dye transfer Technicolor with the prints made in China. I did some research and discovered they had sold the British Technicolor equipment to the Beijing Film Lab so I contacted them and arranged to travel there and make real dye transfer prints. This is why being an indie filmmaker is so critical since I knew no studio would be interested in that type of innovation. So, my experience as a ‘work for hire’ inspired me to form my own production/distribution company, New Wave Film Distribution, Inc. which is still in operation although I’m not producing any more features, just marketing my library.
How did you come to cast Michael McCleery (Addley in Mother’s Day) nearly ten years later in Space Avenger?
Ray Sundlin co-produced “Space Avenger” with me. He was also one of the producers on Mother’s Day which is where I met him. He suggested McCleery for the role of one of the alien terrorists since he was one of his friends. I auditioned him and agreed he’d be good for that role.
You cast Robert Prichard back-to-back in both Class of Nuke ‘Em High and Space Avenger and then again in Head Games. Was that a good working relationship?
Prichard remained loyal to me during my difficulties in the first two movies and was easy to direct so I used him in the third movie too. I’ve used a number of actors in more than one feature. It’s very difficult to find performers willing and able to work under the difficult conditions of low budget productions with long hours, limited pay and resources. Those that can I used over and over again if they’re available.
What inspired the offbeat story of Space Avenger – alien bodysnatchers from the 30s on the loose in modern day New York, crossing paths with a comic book artist?
I’m a comic book artist and that was one of my earlier goals as a kid before I decided to become a filmmaker. I was able to utilize my illustrations in the Children’s Book, Animal Kingdumb years later. I grew up reading the Marvel comic books so I thought it would be an interesting premise to have an artist interacting with his fictional characters. “Life imitates art” was a theme that I used for the other two pictures in my trilogy involving writers. The others are Unsavory Characters and What Really Frightens You.
Being a Technicolor film, Space Avenger would look great on Blu-Ray, any plans for one?
It would look great on Blu-ray but for complex reasons I cannot release it right now. Some day in the future it will be released in whatever format is available like 4K.
How did you come to direct your 3D film, Run For Cover (1995)?
In the early eighties, I attended a 3D festival at the 8th Street Playhouse in New York City. I saw classics like House of Wax, Kiss Me Kate and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Prior to that I saw Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (aka Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein in its original release and numerous re-issues.) I became a huge fan of the 3D process…on film. A friend of mine, Jeff Joseph, (co-author of the new book on film collecting, A Thousand Cuts, was associated with Chris Condon. Condon ran the StereoVision company which offered the single lens above/under 3D process with a convergence knob to adjust the stereo pairs. I met with Condon and we made a deal to shoot Run for Cover in the format. There were no 35mm 3D productions being made in 1995 so I thought it would be a good opportunity to re-introduce the process to cinemas. Of course it was difficult since we had to install the 3D lenses and silver screens in some of the theaters but I enjoyed the challenge. I even went to Tel Aviv and Moscow to set them up for my movie.
The film was designed as a 3D process from the beginning. I always story board my productions in advance of principal photography so I knew what I wanted it to look like. On this film, we had to do a lot of tests to get the hang of the lenses which are complex. You need a lot of light on set to creative a sharp depth of field so both foreground and background will be sharp focus which is different than standard photography where the backgrounds are out of focus for close ups. I really like 3D movies shot on film which gives a roundness to the characters. Post-production digital 3D imagery tends to look more like a 3D comic book with an artificial cut out look to the dimensionality and I’m not a fan of this kind of movie.
What inspired the story for Head Games (1996) about psychotic criminals having their memories wiped?
In all of my scripts and novels, I start with the ‘high concept’, namely, an usual premise to work with. I then create the twist ending and work backwards from it. I had read an article about how brain damage might be the cause of some types of violent crimes and wondered whether some type of implant might alter the chemistry to correct it. What would happen if the implants were faulty and who would be the one to track them down afterwards? I thought it would be interesting if the prison psychologist was the one who would hunt them since he knew their MO before they were originally arrested.
There’s a variety of “classic Hollywood” styles and techniques in your filmography – technicolor, 3D, b&w film noir in Unsavory Characters (2001) – are there any other specific retro choices you’d like to adopt in a future film?
If the indie market hadn’t collapsed after 2010, I would’ve liked to have shot a movie in 70mm like Tarantino did.
What inspired the political satire in Soft Money (2005) – the banker’s inside job to fund a corrupt politician?
I despise politics. I’m pretty much a libertarian and believe in a limited government of enumerated powers. I saw our government getting bigger and more corrupt so I decided to combine the heist drama with a political satire. I utilized the crooked politician character named John Prescott from Run for Cover into a new scenario in Soft Money. He’s running on campaign finance reform but short on soft money so he hires three thieves to intentionally rob the bank of one of his associates to get some illegal cash. I thought the concept was amusing. I later brought back John Prescott for another story in my novel, Reel Danger. This is a prequel to these other stories. Prescott is running for re-election but has something in his past which might destroy his political career. While he was in college he appeared in a porn being covertly shot in his dorm room as a prank. Now he must find the film and destroy it before it destroys him putting anyone who sees the X rated movie in “reel” danger. Turns out I was right on the mark when you look at the recent headlines. I’m very cynical about those who desire power. Most politicians want to rule us, not represent us which I incorporated into my books and movies Run for Cover, Soft Money and Reel Danger which is my second trilogy with the theme of political corruption.
What Really Frightens You (2009) was your return to the horror genre after a long time away from it, how did the film come about?
What Really Frightens You was the third movie in my ‘life imitates art’ trilogy as previously mentioned. I wanted to create a homage to the monster fanzines I read as a kid with the fictional, “Ghastly Horror.” Again, I came up with the premise first. What if these articles turned out to be true. The extra twist ending after the final credits came about when I was listening to the radio. They were discussing how to get rid of the hiccups and of course mentioned a fright or shock. I thought that would be a funny way of ending the picture. I ended up writing a sequel to the film in novel form, What Really Frightens You Too, which was recently published by Pigtown Books.
What projects are you working on currently and where can people find you online?
I continue to market my seven movies. 88 Films released Splatter University and What Really Frightens You on Blu-Ray as a double bill. Hopefully I will secure distribution for the others in the near future. I’m also writing a third horror novel in the series, What Really Frightens You III which should be published for Halloween 2017. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter and people can contact me there.
Many thanks to Mr. Haines for this interview!