IN 1975, BURGEONING HORROR MAVEN DONALD G. Jackson leveraged his house, car, furniture, job and familial obligations to follow his heart -- in this case, a breathtakingly inept horror crudité called The Demon Lover, about a campus-area Satanist and his guileless hippie minions who conjure a giant kachina doll in floor-length mink with buffalo horns and bad Alien teeth. Jackson's co-director and star, Jerry Younkins, a fellow assembly-line worker at a Michigan speedometer-cable factory, went him one better by ponying up his $8,000 of the production budget by -- it is strongly intimated in the 1980 "making of" documentary Demon Lover Diary, screening at this year's Los Angeles Film Festival -- sacrificing a finger for the insurance settlement. (He appears throughout in a single Dr. Strangelovestyle black-leather glove, and went on to author Combat and Survival Knives: A User's Guide.) Don and Jerry (pace Simpson and Bruckheimer) were so enamored of 1974's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre that they initially consulted director Tobe Hooper for info on film stock, hired Chain Saw cinematographer Daniel Pearl until their money ran out, solicited original Leatherface Gunnar Hansen for a two-day top-billed cameo, and eventually played the Lyric Theater on 42nd Street in New York City, whose marquee can be glimpsed sporting the Chain Saw title in a famous shot from Taxi Driver.
Into this volatile mix, Jackson lured MIT graduate students Jeff Kreines and his girlfriend Joel DeMott, students of famed documentarian Richard Leacock, and their hapless soundman pal Mark Rance (today a premier producer of DVD extras for such films as Boogie Nights and Magnolia). Kreines, whose short film had been a standout at the 1975 Ann Arbor Film Festival and, more important, who owned his own 16mm Auricon camera package, agreed to take the job only if DeMott was allowed to make a cinema vérité chronicle of the 14-day shoot. Thus was Demon Lover Diary born, and things went downhill from there.
THE ANIMOSITY BETWEEN THE TWO camps is palpable from the outset. On camera, Don is the epitome of a small, nervous man overwhelmed by his imminent destiny. (At one point, almost to himself, he proclaims, "The director really shouldn't be carrying anything. I'm carrying the weight of the whole film.") Jerry, a hippie redneck with a waist-length mane and biker mustache which resembles that of Bert Lahr's Cowardly Lion, and who is entrusted with coaching the actors, is given to fatuous pronouncements like "At the precise point Susan gets her throat ripped out, I want to feel coldness." As it's becoming clear -- to us and to DeMott -- that neither of these guys has the first idea how to go about making a film, they tell a reporter from the Jackson [Michigan] Citizen-Patriot, "We think we've done our homework, and we think we've paid our dues," then cancel a critical morning shoot to do another interview with the Detroit Free Press.
Obliged by budgetary constraints to put up at Don's mother's house, the crew, forbidden to discuss the film's subject matter, is instructed to say only, "It's a police story." Deranged from lack of sleep, DeMott and her soundman collapse in frequent giggling fits, or sing "The Demon Lover sucks" to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell." Meanwhile, real-life horror abounds on the edges of the frame, as with the underage starlets who appear ready to do just about anything on camera, or the P.A. who lives (and sleeps) with his foster sister, who has a boyfriend, who has a pregnant wife. And then there's Motor City Madman Ted Nugent, a neighbor in suburban Detroit, who makes available to the production his vast arsenal of weapons, including multiple handguns and at least one crossbow. The final shot is of the filmmakers running for their car, with the crew ostensibly shooting guns at them.
The Demon Lover was released in 1976, but, alas, the final product (soon to be known in various video incarnations as Demon Master, Demon Tower, Master of Evil, Devil Master and Coven) was somewhat less than the consummate blend of horror and knowing irony Don and Jerry had intended. In the 20 years since, Don has gone on to an estimable, if perhaps not enviable, career in low-budget horror -- much of it under the hallowed aegis of Roger Corman -- in films like the enigmatically titled Lingerie Kickboxer, the five (count 'em) installments in the Rollerblade Warriors franchise, and his magnum opus, Hell Comes to Frogtown. Meanwhile, Kreines and DeMott co-directed the documentary Seventeen (1982), which was to have been part of a six-film PBS series set in Muncie, Indiana, and did, in fact, become a brief cause célèbre when corporate underwriter Xerox demanded extensive changes due to honest, and occasionally graphic, representations of high school students drinking, smoking pot, swearing, and engaging in casual racism, high-speed auto collisions and interracial sex. (Rather than comply, producer Peter Davis, of Hearts and Minds fame, withdrew the film from consideration.) For whatever reason, Demon Lover Diary has never, until now, been made widely available on video or DVD. (It's scheduled for release this fall.)
On his Web site, Jackson claims his intention all along was to produce a horror-film parody. More to the point, he charges Demon Lover Diary with the worst sort of unconscionable, manipulative, neo-Flahertian revisionism. "How much of it is real and what is fake will be a subject for debate as long as the film is shown," he states. Rather than submit to an interview, DeMott agreed to respond to a list of questions, which resulted in a positively sulfuric fax. ("I wonder if you even saw my movie . . . What's the point of continuing this conversation? Oblivious to the host of complex beings that dance in and out of the Diary, you seem determined to displace my subject, the dancers, for some hideous 'project' subject.") What seemed to set her off the most was any reference to Jackson and his opinion of her movie: "Let me remind you that Donald G. Jackson is a prisoner/survivor in the land of his dreams. As am I, in mine." Of course, to be fair, that was two years ago, but, frankly, I'm scared to call her back.
It is just possible that these filmmakers are locked into a lifelong angry symbiosis, and that somewhere in their existential and cosmic struggle -- like Christopher Lambert and Clancy Brown in Highlander -- lies the key to the riddle of truth, memory, ambition, immortality and the impulse to art.
In any case, it will be nice to see Demon Lover Diary on DVD. But why, exactly, has it taken them this long to release it? The Web site is www.zendance.com. Ask at your own peril.
Demon Lover Diary screens at the Los Angeles Film Festival on Saturday, June 22, at 7 p.m. For information about the festival, see Good Times and the special section in this week's L.A. Weekly Calendar.
DEMON LOVER DIARY | Produced and directed by JOEL DeMOTT | Released by DeMott/Kreines Films | At the Los Angeles Film Festival
Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes