Larry Blamire is an artist, author, actor, director, and independent filmmaker, best known for The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, a meticulous send-up of grade B Science Fiction films from the 1950’s.
96 Your films are populated with stock characters: the evil scientist, the model housewife, the upper-class twit, the naive alien. So the question arises, how much of the films are improvised on the basis of these template personae, and how much is scripted?
LB There’s no improvisation. In fact, my cast in every movie jokes about that, how strict I am about keeping to exactly what’s in the script. There have been a few times where lines of improv have been added, but that’s very rare. Since the films strive to emulate a specific time and place, there isn’t really a lot of room for improv.
96 I see, it’s all very studied, calculated, and planned.
LB In my first film, I actually story-boarded. I started as an artist, so story-boarding was natural for me. From the beginning I wanted to prepare as much as possible. The cast really liked that because they knew what was coming up next, and roughly how it was going to look.
96 So, you are a perfectionist! Is this part of what draws you more to directing than to acting?
LB I’m drawn more to writing than to directing, and more to directing than to acting. I ended up being the scientist in Lost Skeleton because I was new in LA, I didn’t have anyone in mind for Dr. Paul Armstrong, so I decided to play him. Partly because I figured, that’s one less person I’ll have to direct. A bit foolish, in retrospect, jumping in like that. But I do enjoy acting, though not as much as writing and directing.
96 I notice that when you cast yourself, it’s as the straight man or the foil. Dr. Armstrong in Lost Skeleton is a somewhat square and unemphatic character, and Ray Vestinhouse in Stormy Night, with his horn rims and his striped sweater, evocative of Harold Lloyd in a college comedy, is amusingly clueless—you cast yourself as the character around whom things happen.
LB When I cast myself as Armstrong in Lost Skeleton of Cadavra I established myself as that character. I wasn’t thinking that I’d ever, in a million years, do a sequel. It just wasn’t in the cards. But when it occurred to me these characters were going to a different place in The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, I was trapped.
Before that, I did Trail of the Screaming Forehead where I was smart enough to give myself a supporting villain role as the small-time gangster, Nick Vassidine. I remember my feeling of relief when I could come to the set and know I didn’t have to get into costume and put on makeup, I was just behind the camera—it was a relief that Nick was not in a lot of the movie.
As Ray in Dark and Stormy Night, I could be behind the camera a lot. That was deliberate.
96 So your very central role in The Skeleton Returns was a case of having greatness thrust upon you.
You have a core repertory cast: Brian Howe, Fay Masterson, Andrew Parks, Jennifer Blaire, Dan Conroy. These are extremely distinguished and experienced character actors with truly impressive credits on IMDB. How were you able to assemble such a crew?
LB I came from the east coast to the west coast, so it was all people I knew from doing theater on the east coast, or people whom Brian Howe introduced me to on the west coast. Brian is an old friend of mine, we did a lot of theater together. He introduced me to Fay Masterson who ended up being Betty in Lost Skeleton, and to Andrew Parks, who was already well established in LA, who became Crowbar. Susan McConnell and Jennifer Blaire, who became Animala, I knew from Boston, and Dan Conroy, who played Ranger Brad, was another friend of Brian’s. It was very nice the way it came together, all friends or friends of friends. Of course now it’s a very tight-knit group. It became a great ensemble which I am very fortunate to have.
96 Can you tell me more about your early theater work? It’s proved difficult to find information about you prior to your film career,
LB When I was studying illustration at the Art Institute of Boston, a roommate of mine, an actor, was auditioning, and I was curious. I thought, I’d like to try that, so I auditioned and I got cast. It was just one of those things; really out of left field. As I started acting in theater I began to think about writing, which led me to think about directing.
I ended up writing a play called In the Nations, a very dark western which we performed outdoors at The Open Door Theater, and that led to my own adaptation of Robin Hood. I played the lead in that, it was directed by someone else. It ended up being published by Samuel French [the world’s leading publisher and licensor of plays and musicals], and I think today it’s still the most performed version of Robin Hood in the world. It’s done especially in schools. They love to do Robin Hood.
I did some more offbeat stuff; a dark comedy called Jump Camp, which was pretty outrageous, did well, and got really good reviews. I did a science fiction thriller called Interface, and several other plays. Finally I just started writing screenplays, trying to get into that. Movies were calling. I wanted to get into that arena because I’ve always been inspired by movies, even more than by theater.
96 Was much of your theater writing on the experimental end of the spectrum?
LB Jump Camp was the most “out there.” It’s published and is available. It’s absurdist. Even in spoofing grade B science fiction films I look for absurdity and pump up that element. Jump Camp was a big leap into the unknown. Some people in the theater company didn’t even want to do it, it was just that strange.
96 I have some difficulty figuring out at what point I’m over-analyzing your films. There is of course some straight-on parody, such as one finds in Mel Brooks or the Zucker brothers. But your work also has a self-aware Post-Modern quality (by which I mean Modernism without the angst.) Having really good actors playing really bad actors builds in an ironic play-within-a-play dimension. So I’m trying to figure out your creative genealogy: Is your descent more from Alfred Jarry or the Marx brothers?
LB Maybe the Three Stooges. I loved them as a kid. They affected me as a kid more than the Marx brothers, I found them more anarchic. But to your question: When I was writing Lost Skeleton of Cadavra I wasn’t thinking about anything like that. Basically I was thinking, With this new digital video we could make a movie! I was in LA, the company I was with had gone out of business, and I needed to do something. Desperation is the mother of invention—is that even the phrase? I started writing it, and drew upon an entire childhood misspent watching good and bad science fiction movies of the fifties. I love that period, the black and white.
As I was writing it, it evolved into what was, at heart, a comedy of manners. The dinner scene in Lost Skeleton, where everybody’s trying to copy everybody else, and the absurdity of that—it could be a drawing room comedy. I tried to take the elements of a low budget SF film and raise them to an absurd degree. I wanted it to look somewhat convincing—I think we did a fairly decent job of that, though I don’t know that we fooled anyone. And I wanted people to laugh, so I thought about what makes me laugh. I wanted it to be absurd and fun and the kind of comedy that’s not—cynical. Cynical is fine, there’s a place for that, but I think it’s nice to have a non-cynical option in comedy. I think that’s a through-line with these movies.
96 If I had to make your literary family tree, it seems as though your most eminent ancestors might be found in be the sparkling, weightless worlds of Sheridan and Wilde.
LB Yes, and my favorite trope in that world is “comedy of errors,” by which I mean the comedy of misunderstanding. I did a series of short plays called Sketch-O-Rama, and they were all absurdist, exaggerated situations like that, based on misunderstandings. There’s one called “Dost Pity Me with Pet?” about two women who meet in a supermarket while buying olives. It’s five or six pages long. One of them thinks the other’s doing Shakespeare, but she’s not, she’s just asking about the olives, “Does pitted mean with pit?” The other actress goes, “Dost Pity Me with Pet? Where is that from? Oh, that’s Shakespeare!” It gets more confused as it goes along—and I just love that.
96 Crossed wires, miscommunications, escalating misunderstanding—I hadn’t thought of that, but now I see that is, indeed, defining for you!
I particularly commend you on the music. My generation got our first exposure to twentieth-century classical music through the versions that ended up on movie soundtracks thanks to the likes of Ronald Stein (who did the music for Attack of the Crab Monsters) and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (a largely uncredited and widely employed film score ghostwriter whose students included Henry Mancini and John Williams). Cadavra used vintage scores from Valentino Productions, Lost Skeleton Returns Again and Dark and Stormy owed their music to John Morgan and William Stromberg, contemporary composers famous for their performance of classic film scores.
In choosing this seemingly kitsch vein of music, you introduced a level of complexity and sophistication which brings both aesthetic depth and period authenticity to the films. Since you are clearly no tonal neophyte, I wonder what kind of music you listen to for pleasure?
LB When I walk, and that’s something I enjoy doing, I’ll have some classical going, and maybe some movie soundtracks. I love scores.
In regard to my own films, think that there is no element more convincing for evoking another era than the music. In Lost Skeleton we were so lucky to tap into Valentino Productions. They gave me a certain rate for feature film rather than by the needle-drop. They sent me all these CD’s and I was like a kid in a candy store, picking things out, Oh, this is just exactly what I want!
When we got to Lost Skeleton Returns Again, I auditioned the music ahead of time. I was working on the script and listening to this Morgan and Stromberg music, which was done in a Bernard Herman Mode [Herman, born to a Russian Jewish family in New York City, wrote the scores for several Hitchcock and Ray Harryhausen fantasy animation films. He also created the music for Rod Serling’s TV show The Twilight Zone.] — and I said “That’s it, that’s it!” We were able to license their music, and that was really fortunate.
Sometimes I to listen to classical music or movie soundtracks when I’m writing, to create a certain mood. At other times, if what I’m writing is dialogue-heavy, or it’s a short story, and there’s a certain music to the words, I just want quiet.
The film scores we’re discussing are really well written, independent of what they accompanied. You can hear a number of the pieces from the Valentino library in The Blob with Steve McQueen [this music was composed by Burt Bacharach and Mack David]— for me, this music never gets old.
When we did The Trail of the Screaming Forehead I decided not to use Valentino but to go with De Wolfe, a different library, to give it its own sound, and that, too, was excellent orchestral music. Some of this music is unidentifiable, recorded in Europe, maybe to avoid union fees? Sometimes known American composers used other names, so it can be hard to trace authorship.
96 Have you ever considered doing stage versions of the movies, or even a musical, like, Cadavra!
LB Yes. A couple of years ago I jumped into Lost Skeleton, the Musical. I wrote the script, but after a certain point we reached a ceiling. Then other things came up. Now just because it got tabled doesn’t mean we aren’t going to do it. I think it would be a natural, a lot of fun. I haven’t considered the other films for that kind of treatment. With Dark and Stormy Night, people ask me for a stage version. But I always find my plate has several other plates balanced on it, so it’s hard to get everything done.
96 Do you have your eye on any other genre for a loving parody?
LB If I did, it would have to be a period piece. I’d love to tackle a low-budget western. I had one film sketched out, called Voyage to the Planet of Space, one of these Angry Red Planet, Journey to the Seventh Planet type films, where a varied, interesting crew take off for a distant planet that has all kinds of creatures and strangeness. We even spoke to the Chiodo Brothers [an American trio of sibling special effects artists, specializing in clay modeling, creature creation, stop-motion, and animatronics. They claymated the Large Marge scene in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure] about using traditional effects. I love practical effects—animatronics, stop-motion, puppets, man in suit. Any of those are, for me, preferable to CGI. CGI can look wonderful, but I prefer old-school. We had a meeting about it, but it’s hard getting money for things, so it hasn’t happened yet.
96 Another remarkable thing about your films is the prominence of brilliant female characters. Susan McConnell as the alien Lattis in the Skeleton films, and then as the madwoman Thessaly in Stormy Night shows an amazing comic range. Alison Martin was wondrous as the medium Mrs. Cupcupboard in Stormy and as Queen Chinfa in Skeleton Returns. The women in your films are strong and central, but none of them made so powerful impression on me as Jennifer Blaire in the eerily hilarious Beeba episode of Tales from the Pub and as Animala/Pammy in the Skeleton films. Can you tell me something of how Animala and Beeba evolved?
LB I’m glad you said Beeba. I didn’t think you were going to mention Tales from the Pub. Beeba is, of course, a favorite, and so strange. Beeba is Jennifer Blaire messing around. Basically I just wrote a script around that Jennifer Blaire persona, that she developed just goofing around. As for Animala—when I wrote Lost Skeleton, I asked Jen, “Do you want to play Betty, the wife?” I just assumed she would go for that. And she said, “No, no—Animala!” Then I realized, duh-uh! That’s her. First of all, she’s amazing with animals, they’re drawn to her, but besides that, it’s just such a Jen persona.
But then she’s Billy Tuesday in Dark and Stormy Night, and the character contrast with Animala is like night and day. This is one of the joys of working with a talented ensemble. You don’t do what Hollywood does: cubbyhole everyone. You’ve got all the variety and range of what these folks can do. Look at Brian Howe as Burling Famish, Jr. in Dark and Stormy Night, and then look at him as Roger Fleming in Cadavra. Again, night and day.
Though DVD’s of all four of Blamire’s films can be acquired secondhand had from Ebay or Amazon, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again, Dark and Stormy Night, and Trail of the Screaming Forehead have been re-released in Blu-Ray format by Hydraulic Entertainment with additional features that make these worth acquiring, even if you already have the DVDs. Trail of the Screaming Forehead includes the featurette Tale of the Moist Apostrophe, a dubbed and otherwise transmogrified back-and-white, apparently educational, film.