Slashing Through The Stone Age: A Chat With The Director of The B.C. Butcher, Kansas Bowling

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Kansas Bowling and Natasha Halevi Talk The B.C. Butcher with Lily

Lily and I made the Troma panel at this year’s Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con a priority as Lloyd Kaufman and his family of wildly creative misfits never disappoint an audience. There were a multitude of entertaining Troma stories from years past, but it was young director, Kansas Bowling’s experience working with Kaufman that caught our interest to the degree that we had to hunt her down at the Troma booth. We were dying to ask her about her debut feature, a prehistoric feminist slasher film shot on 16mm, B.C. Butcher, which she directed at the age of seventeen. B.C. Butcher received post-production funding from Kaufman and is being distributed by Troma, and it was the catalyst for the creation of the Troma Institute for Gifted Youth, which inducted Kansas as its first member. We caught up with Kansas and one of the film’s stars, Natasha Halevi for a short interview.

Generoso: I have loved Troma movies for most of my life because I was lucky enough to have seen The Toxic Avenger when it was released at the old TLA theater in Philly where I grew up. You grew up loving Troma as well, so being part of Troma Entertainment now must be a dream come true for you! How did you and Lloyd come to work together on B.C. Butcher?

Kansas: I made the film without any real plan for it; I always just wanted to make it and then see what would happen, but I had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to reach out to Troma because I have been a huge fan of what they do. So, once I finished shooting, I found Lloyd Kaufman’s email and wrote him and explained that I was this seventeen year old girl who had just shot this film on 16mm and that the film was the first prehistoric slasher film and also that Kato Kaelin was in it. Lloyd responded and wrote that it sounded interesting and wanted to meet with me. Not too long after that, we met up and had lunch when he was in town for San Diego Comic Con, and I told him that I ran out of money, so he then offered to give me money for post-production. And when he saw B.C. Butcher completed, he then said that he wanted to distribute it through Troma.

Lily: We know from the synopsis that B.C. Butcher is a prehistoric slasher film. That description by itself is pretty Troma-worthy. Can you tell us more about the inspiration for the film?

Natasha: This is indeed the first cavewoman slasher movie. I really want to stress the female aspect of the film as Kansas went out of her way to bring in so many female roles, and I think that there is an overall feminist tone to the film in that the women in it are quite intelligent, although a bit dangerous when dealing with one another, whereas the men have a long way to go in terms of development. Most of the men just grunt, and the women speak, but I will say that most of the men are hysterical in the film. Kansas created this amazing jungle world in her backyard that was full of scantily-clad cavewomen while running one of the most professional sets that I’ve ever been on, making the whole experience great. Kato, for example, had a blast improvising as he was wowed by all of the women in the film.  

Generoso:  Kansas, during the panel that was held earlier today you mentioned Caveman, the 1981 Ringo Starr film, as an example of previous prehistoric films that you watched when you were younger, but we got the sense that the film wasn’t one that you really enjoyed? Was it due to the way the film objectified women, or was it due to all of the scatalogical humor?

Kansas: I will say that I do love Barbara Bach; she is an awesome actress, but no, that film didn’t inspire me to make B.C. Butcher. I was always inspired by Roger Corman and what he has said to young filmmakers, and that is to just make a movie with what you already have. I had the location as my dad lives in Topanga Canyon, which is surrounded by forest land that creates a jungle-like world, so everything sprang from that. Also, I must say that The Ramones were a huge influence to me because when they started out, all of the music on the radio was like Pink Floyd with twenty minute experimental guitar solos, so what The Ramones wanted to do was strip down the music back to rock and roll, and I’m sure you know their song, “Sheena Is A Punk Rocker,” so I thought about a cavewoman rock and roll thing. So, why not make a simple horror movie crossed with a prehistoric Annette Funicello movie?

Lily:  I know that Troma is distributing B.C. Butcher, so where does it go from here?

Kansas:  Troma has it on their streaming service right now and on Amazon and iTunes as well.  We did have a huge red carpet premiere at the Egyptian Theater, which was very exciting. It has been screening all over the world, recently at a film festival in Spain, and even today it is screening in Washington, D.C. This is awesome.

To see The B.C. Butcher:
http://www.troma.com/films/bcbutcher/

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Thanks to Kansas Bowling and Natasha Halevi for taking the time to speak with us and to Lloyd Kaufman of Troma for setting this up and for being Lloyd Kaufman.

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Unraveling The “True” Horror Of 1976’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”

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The Real “Phantom” Was Not This Crafty

“Based on a True Story” has always been an excellent marketing tool for films going back decades. From Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and Tobe Hooper’s “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” which both took their ideas from the actions of real life Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal, Ed Gein, whose life had little to do with the aforementioned films to Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” which brutally stretched the truth to make a gender hero out of petty thief Brandon Teena, Hollywood has always taken liberties with “true” stories to suit its own political and sensationalist gains. Most recently there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the Clint Eastwood biopic “American Sniper,” based on the memoirs of Chris Kyle, the Navy Seal who was certified as the deadliest sniper in US Military History. It is clear that liberties had been taken with the history and even the memoirs written by Kyle himself for the film version, which drew the ire of many critics, who claimed that the film was just an attempt at propaganda by Eastwood. The one thing we have learned from all of this is that the evoking of the term, “too soon,” may be the best strategy that Hollywood may have to adhere to when attempting the “Based on a True Story” film. Then again, if your machine can spin the negative press that results from dramatic license, it has almost always meant more to a studio in ticket sales, which is sadly why the tagline exists in the first place.

Such was the case in 1976 when American International Pictures decided to premiere director/producer Charles B. Pierce’s drive-in film, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” in Texarkana, Arkansas, the very town where some thirty years earlier, a masked man began slaughtering people in what would be known as “phantom attacks” of mostly young lovers in the dead of night. Family and friends of the victims were all still very much alive in 1976, and so a very powerful magnifying glass was held up to construction of characters and scenarios of director Pierce’s film. A film that is widely considered, along with Bob Clarke’s “Black Christmas,” as one of the earliest examples of the film genre we now know as the slasher film.

The film begins with a teenage couple, Sammy Fuller and Linda Mae Jenkins, who, while parked on lover’s lane, are assaulted by the “phantom.” The phantom appears faceless in a way that would become too familiar to horror film fans for years to come: think Jason Voorhees’ hockey mask from “Friday The Thirteenth,” or Mike Myers’ “Halloween” clay face, or any other version of the phantom that we would see with knife in hand in late 1970s but with the added “bonus” of occasionally seeing the victim from the killer’s eyes, which would become one of the defining characteristics of the slasher film genre. This facet was nothing entirely new to cinema as that approach had been taken by legendary British director Michael Powell’s in his 1960 film “Peeping Tom,” except that director Powell’s little death trip through the eyes of his killer cost him his film career as its brutality was too hard to handle for audiences of his era. Despite Powell’s demise, this approach to horror would be the standard for the next decade, like it or not.

Adding to the horror of the film, Charles Pierce uses aspects of the real life attacks for “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” and thus these scenes are still genuinely horrific but were severely augmented for the film as well. Murder victim Linda Mae Jenkins for example, is found having been “bitten and chewed on,” but that was not the case in the original killing it was based on and was an odd and unsubstantiated choice for Pierce to use that additional act to further his villain’s sadistic qualities. Where Pierce takes even more substantial liberties is in the death of the character, Peggy Loomis, who is murdered when “the phantom” ties a knife to the retractor of her trombone and kills her in a similar fashion as Mark Lewis, Powell’s “Peeping Tom” killer who uses a knife mounted to a camera as his weapon of choice. In the film, Peggy is assaulted with her boyfriend Roy while amorously parking, while the actual pair of Betty Jo Booker and Paul Martin were just friends and were shot to death. Multiple lawsuits were eventually brought against the film’s producers on a variety of issues relating to the unflattering depiction of some of real life victims. Even a lawsuit was started by the city of Texarkana against the ad campaign for the film which had as its tagline, “In 1946 this man killed five people…today he still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.” Allthough director Pierce worked to remove the “still lurks” part of the tagline, it was still very present in the posters for the film.

For a “drive-in” film that was made for a mere $400,000, the cinematography and quality of performances of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is a cut above most of the entries that would be classified as drive-in worthy. The addition of veteran actor Ben Johnson, who appears just a few years after his Oscar awarded performance as “Sam The Lion” in Peter Bogdonovich’s “The Last Picture Show” adds much to the overall believability of the film. Though the over narration comes across as a tad ridiculous, and the humor injected in the narrative takes away from the overall tension, it is still a remarkably well-made horror film that still packs more than a few scenes of genuine terror.

Original 1976 Trailer For The Town That Dreaded Sundown

All this makes one wonder then, why was there a necessity to alter the real tragedy that had befallen Texarkana to create a more unbelievable horror story when the actual story was terrifying on its own? To create an almost documentary-style narrative, Pierce even went as far as including the dates of the actual murders on screen, but, alas, some dates were incorrect, further magnifying the oddly inconsistent commitment to the reality of the “phantom attacks.” It seems that Pierce’s desire to use the stylistic elements from Powell’s “Peeping Tom” and Bob Clarke’s “Black Christmas” outweighed the actual facts of this crime spree that occurred in 1946, leading to the strange deviations from the true story and ultimately doing a disservice to the people of that region who were still tied to the reality of those attacks. Though flawed both aesthetically and factually, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” continues to stand as a key film that shaped the horror genre of the 1970s. Bizarrely, despite the initial negative reactions from the city the film makes its setting, it is screened every year at Halloween for free by the Parks and Recreation Department of Texarkana in the very park where some of the actual murders occurred.

I guess the “phantom” makes for a good boogie man these days, but I wonder if the good folks of Texarkana know that the real “phantom” existed and brought true terror to the town they call home.