Movie-making in Dallas has its rewards—if you have the stomach for it.
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DESPITE ITS HIGH-toned image, Dallas has a bad side… a really bad side. Dallas is the bad-capital of Texas and has been since at least the early sixties. The king of bad films was the diligently prolific Texas expatriate Larry Buchanan, who directed Free, White, and 21; Zontar: The Thing from Venus; and Creature of Destruction, among many others, both in Texas and in California. His sound man-turned-director, S. F. “Brownie” Brownrigg (also a Dallasite who filmed in Dallas) has been called the inventor of the “Don’t Look” genre of splatter films. Brownrigg’s blood-splashed Don’t Look in the Basement grossed (and we do mean grossed) $20 million from the early seventies up to the present—mostly in drive-in—and spawned a slew of imitations.
Now comes Bret McCormick, who appears to be building his own empire on the patter set by the giants of the schlock film industry. But McCormick believes he is developing beyond the genre-film proclivities of his Dallas predecessors, even though he has written the Brownrigg-approved sequel to Don’t Look in the Basement (as yet un-filmed). McCormick wants more and plans to get it by generating so many films that his work just can’t be ignored.
It’s not that the 34-year-old McCormick has an incurable case of abysmal taste. He is tall, dark, and handsome, and his office in Las Colinas is tastefully appointed. As McCormick says, “I’m a filmmaker, and all I want to do is make films.” But since money is in short supply, McCormick ends up doing low-budget films. And he’s proud of it too. “When I come in on budget,” he says, “it’s like winning a football game.” The Fort Worth native can film a movie for about as much as what some producers charge for a thirty-second ad to run on local TV.
“I was always fascinated by the sideshows at carnivals,” says McCormick. It comes as no surprise that some of his work tends toward the bizarre. “My first film owed a lot to The Rocky Horror Picture and the works of John Waters—but without the sex.”
In 1986, McCormick sold that first movie, Tabloid, a cult film available on video, which inspired Andy Warhol to refer to McCormick cryptically as the “Norman Rockwell of today.” McCormick says, “I think Warhol meant that I was documenting how outrageous life has become.” Tabloid, a good-natured spoof of the grocery-store magazines that sensationalize the grotesque and the extraterrestrial, is a handbook of tabloid staples. There’s the baby born with a beard (“That was a friend’s baby—we had to glue the beard on with Karo syrup,” confesses McCormick), a vacuum cleaner that destroys a cruel housewife, a midnight barbecue for the dead, and space aliens that kidnap an aerobics instructor.
The Abomination followed in 1987. “I liked the plot line a lot,” says McCormick. His distaste for televangelists comes through vividly too. A hypochondriacal backwoods woman is taken in by a TV preacher who convinces her that she has a malignancy. Eventually she coughs up a ravenous, cannibalistic tumor, a gnarly, throbbing latex wad kept in motion by a stagehand with impressive lung capacity. “We didn’t have enough money to do it right,” says McCormick. But the filmmaker recalls that the movie had some nice moments. “After the old woman throws the tumor in the garbage can, it crawls out in the middle of the night and pulsates its way up the stairs to her son’s room, inches over and across the bed and onto the boy’s face. The tumor drops into his mouth, he swallows it, and it takes over his mind.”
McCormick explains that horror is in great demand in Japan and the United States but heavily censored elsewhere overseas, where he sells most of his work. As a result, McCormick has rechanneled his talent in a more profitable direction. Action films are bankable, and nothing is verboten in them. “Everyone understands good guys versus bad guys,” he says. “All they are looking at are the explosions, the guns, and the running around.” McCormick’s action films are also available in the U.S. at most Blockbuster, K mart, and Target stores, and though the explosions and detonations in his movies seem sophomoric compared with those of high-budget movies like Terminator, rentals and sales are steady. “People will watch anything,” McCormick says with a laugh.
And action films don’t take nearly as long to make. Last winter Action International Pictures hired McCormick to produce a Mafia shoot-‘em-up in a pastoral setting. Armed for Action came into being in a scant three months—and that included the phone call from his agent clinching the deal, writing the script, selecting the cast, shooting the movie, editing, getting it into production, and completing the project. (AIP should not be confused with American International Pictures, Buchanan’s backer, although there is a clear parallel in the two companies’ emphasis on B-movie, multiple-film, low-budget contracts with individual producers.) Of course, if you’re looking for brilliant acting and cataclysmic pyrotechnics, you’ll be disappointed. But Armed for Action does have a few touches, thanks to gifted but undiscovered local actors and star Joe Estevez, Martin Sheen’s younger brother, whom McCormick terms an “up-and-comer.” Low-budget films also have the reputation as the last resort of the down-and-out actor: Macon County War, made for AIP in 1990, starred former television favorite Dan Haggarty (of Grizzly Adams fame), who grumpily shuffled his way through the three days required to shoot his part.
McCormick has already moved away from campy gore films into movies with mass appeal. “We are the McDonald’s of the film industry,” says McCormick, who turns out movies as steadily as the hamburger chain flips meat patties. In the last year he has produced four feature-length films; at least two more are in the works.
Until now, McCormick’s films have been available only on video, but he is currently developing a pilot for a series to be released for TV and theater distribution about a shipwrecked space alien. Then he is off to Utah to film a children’s movie that he hopes will establish his reputation as a serious artist. McCormick admits, “I’m interested in being prolific.” So while the young filmmaker strives for quantity now, he expects quality to develop later. And he expects that to happen without having to move away from Texas. To McCormick, Dallas represents freedom from what he calls the “Hollywood shuffle.” Says McCormick: “I would never be able to do what I’m doing in Hollywood. My goal is to succeed here in Dallas.”