Run from the Devil, dir. by Teddy Torrez (1982)
Daddy wasn’t born in Hollywood. As a young man, he pumped gas at a Sunoco in Georgia. One winter night, a car too fancy to be local pulled in. A window rolled down and a hand materialized, waving.
“Scrape the ice on the window too,” the voice inside told him, and Daddy was struck because he’d never heard that accent outside Chico & the Man.
Daddy set the nozzle so it filled automatically and put air in the tires. The car door opened, and a short man in a feather hat got out.
“Turn to the side, your face against the sign.” A director directing.
20-year-old Daddy complied, the narcissist within thinking the man was hitting on him. Teddy Torrez didn’t want Daddy physically, he just wanted him for celluloid. He told Daddy, there in the cold, their breath escaping like phantoms, how cheap it was to film movies in Georgia.
“You are chiseled in the chin area, but have a distinct gargoyle nose.” This eccentric character knocked on the window, telling his driver to take Daddy’s number.
“I’ll call you,” he said.
The director was a Chilean Herschell Gordon Lewis. Teddy Torrez rode the wave of Satanic occult horror of the 1970s. His low-budget films are decorated by splatters of deep red blood and supple Sharon Tate-types prone to attacking with ornate daggers. Film fan Mama knew and filled Daddy in on the gory specifics.
The next day, as promised, Daddy got the call. His bell-pepper nose was perfect for the film.
“We don’t have money for prosthetics, just a weirdo makeup guy and a 300-pounder on wardrobe.” The straight-forward director explained: “You look like Rudy Valentino in the right light, but with a nose like a pure creature. You Americans call them ‘honkers?’ The demon monster should be sexy, yet scary. Your face with makeup is that.”
The job was 50 dollars a day for the 40-day shoot. The number had Daddy seeing stars.
He said, “My wife is about to pop, Mr. Torrez. I’ll be a dad soon and could use the money. I’m your man.”
This was the first time, Daddy wrote in his memoir, that he felt preferential treatment in life. He cleared off-time with the gas station’s owner, intending to come back once the film in the can. Mama went into labor halfway through the shoot. They had just put finishing touches on Daddy’s makeup for a scene, lighting was ready, and he got the call. At first, Daddy passed out. Once revived by crew on set, he rushed to the hospital still in makeup.
While nurses manning the stations seemed unfazed, general hospital patrons were aghast by the red demon whose horns spiraled out like augers. Daddy, upon entering, was asked to take off the hooves and clear his face of makeup.
“And that fake nose, too,” a nurse advised.
Daddy was too ashamed to say the nose was his.
After my birth, Daddy called Teddy to say how scared everyone was of the demon. Mr. Torrez came to the hospital himself to congratulate us and had to listen while Daddy’s mama told the director how she was the one, not Daddy, who’d been brave enough to cut my cord. Grandma always told that Mr. Torrez, despite a resume rife with realistic gore, appeared queasy at her descriptions of my birth.
The shoot resumed the next day. Torrez shot a scene at Daddy’s gas station, the last one in the film, where Daddy as the demon pursues the pregnant heroine.
The cash register lady gets eaten, and just before our heroine is doomed to meet the same fate, Daddy says his only line in the film.
“I have wanted to taste you since I got here. I know you will be sweeter than the rest.”
It was enough to get Daddy a SAG card. He was a fully-fledged actor.
Blood Pyramid, dir. by Teddy Torrez (1983)
A year after Run from the Devil debuted overseas, Daddy got another call from Teddy Torrez. He wanted to film a sequel in Colombia. The original hadn’t screened in America, but it enjoyed cult profitability worldwide on VHS. Margaret Thatcher even put it on her list of Video Nasties, 72 films that were banned in the UK for having extreme gore, violence, and/or sexual themes. Being enemy to Thatcher had been profitable for Torrez.
“I got a chain of theaters say they’ll run it if I make anything over eighty minutes,” he told Daddy. There were cameras from a kung-fu movie production already there. Their intent was to make a cannibal picture that would provoke more ire and nausea than the last film.
Mama, with me on her hip, said she didn’t want him on the second film. Grandma wasn’t convinced either. “What do you gain leaving your woman alone with a one-year-old? I didn’t raise you that way.”
“Money and security.” Daddy grinned like the demon he’d play again. He showed them a contract. SAG meant he was a real actor, by God. Even in Colombia. In 1982 rural Georgia, $10,000 was a million.
Grandma’s eyes glowed at the amount. They agreed to let him film the sequel with the Chilean master of gore.
Mama had one condition. “You have to let me go with you, John. I deserve a better honeymoon than Pigeon Forge and the Motel 8.”
Grandma stood behind Mama nodding. “I’ll watch the baby.”
“It won’t be a honeymoon.” Daddy groaned. “The town we’re filming in is a stone’s throw from pestilence. Our lives would be in constant danger.”
Mama got Daddy to give her Torrez’s contact number, then proceeded to make the man guarantee her a spot on the plane and a bed in Colombia.
Once there, she came up short on the bed. She demanded to see Torrez immediately, who had a twin bed in his trailer. The director was on the phone, so Mama waited outside. She watched a man mix fake blood inside a large vat. He told her the mixture was three parts water, one part corn syrup, and one part food coloring. “We add everything from oatmeal to butcher’s trimmings to make entrails of any consistency,” he beamed proudly.
Mama barged in once the call was over. “You are one man, and I understand you’re the man, Ahab of the ship, but my husband and I need more than a cot. I’m not better than anybody, but that’s unacceptable.”
The director nodded. “You’ll have a bed by tonight. I’ll send a man into town.”
Mama still wasn’t satisfied. “My husband says you’re crazy as a Betsy bug.”
“I’ve done right by your family thus far, haven’t I?
Mama conceded that he had. She noticed pictures on his desk. Motioning to one, she inquired, “Family?”
The director pulled up a fold-out chair, allowing Mama to sit.
“They’re the pictures that came in the frames,” he said, smiling impishly.
Mama smiled at his joke. “What was the call about when I came in. You were upset.”
Torrez rubbed his temples, sighing. “They want the film, planned as a sequel, to stand alone all of a sudden—a rewrite and retitle.”
Mama, without missing a beat: “Well, the title could be shorter. Maybe you can get away with that in Europe or wherever, but no one in America wants to see Island of Aztec Cannibal Zombies. The title doesn’t even make sense.”
Torrez sat up. “How? The theater owner said the same.”
“Cannibals are people who eat other people,” Mama explained. “Zombies aren’t humans, so it isn’t cannibalism if they eat one.”
“So what do you think I should call it, Mrs. Country Nail Technician.”
Mama smiled, pulling out a pad with half the pages covered in writing. “I thought of this very thing on the way over. No one in America knows about Aztecs. We care about pyramids, though. Blood Pyramid is more to the point.I’d be more likely to pay admission to that.”
He said “hmm” no less than three times. “Not bad. I’ll think about it.”
Mama began thumbing through the notepad, and Torrez watched, fascinated. She said if he had to change the plot to make it a stand-alone film, she had ideas.
“You don’t have to change the makeup. Just rewrite an origin story. In Jaws, it was about the shark, but you barely saw the shark until the end. Spielberg wasn’t the only reason that movie was great. Verna Fields, the editor, took the shark out of the beginning and middle, which emphasized the film’s music and the town’s story. Be coy with showing your demon, Mr. Torrez.”
The director shifted in his seat. “Go on.”
“Right now, your movies are cult favorites for burn-outs in college. Tighten it up, and you have greatness. Woman in Shadows is still your best movie.”
Torrez cleared his throat violently, as if to not do so would’ve made him choke.
“There are different kinds of greatness. I deal in bloody soap operas, not highbrow films. That’s my preference”
Mama stood up. “Mr. Torrez, you have to make changes anyway. Maybe an outsider is the only one who can say what should be changed.”
Mr. Torrez set his pencil down. “You have an ear for language. Look at the script, cross out as much as you want—let’s see what you come up with.”
That night, Mama rewrote the 90-page script so you only see the Demon at the end. In a single revision, she made the screenplay about the villagers, exploited by a researcher from Cambridge. Since Daddy was the only man who spoke Queen’s English, it had to be him.
What was initially going to be a dubbed part in demon makeup became character work and a dual role. Daddy’s accent in the film is passable.
The theater owners agreed to Mama’s revision. Torrez could’ve easily relegated her to “script supervisor” or “script girl” like in the Golden Age of Hollywood. But he was good enough to share equal screenwriting credit with her. Mama and Daddy had helped Torrez to evolve, after all.
The Half-Eaten Man, dir. by John Wyatt (1986)
But Hollywood didn’t care about that. They called Mama and Daddy because of one metric. Their names were all over a film that was made for 100k and grossed 4 million. This was big.
Mr. Torrez helmed the most successful foreign genre film since Mad Max. A studio in Hollywood—not some under-the-table “overseas investor”—offered real money for a script. Mama’s rewrite had gotten the film its American theatrical run, but they offered the screenwriting deal to both of them, with Daddy also directing.
“I should direct,” Mama said. “I wrote the revision.”
Daddy was apologetic. “I don’t know, honey. Ask Golan and Globus—they’re the ones giving us money. A woman has never directed for them.”
Mama and Daddy’s script was standard slasher fare, culminating with dead teenagers and a “monster-in-the-house” survival trope. Following this formula guaranteed success in the mid-80s. In their film, the monster is a cannibal. Roger Ebert’s scathing review perhaps sums it up best:
“A barf bag is necessary when viewing this nasty piece of work. Take the film’s last scene, where the cannibal eats a woman’s heart out, literally, as blood from the still-beating organ sprays in every direction. This provoked actual laughter in the audience, who cheered during the human pain and suffering. I went to bed disturbed. This is the cinematic equivalent of a “geek show” from days gone by, where a degenerate would bite the head off a live chicken outside the circus tent, and we called it entertainment.”
Daddy cried when he read this aggresive response to his film by such a rightfully-esteemed man. He thought it meant doom. Mama knew different.
“This isn’t bad,” she told Daddy. “It makes us look cool to the film-going youth. Didn’t you love what your parents hated?”
By the time Half-Eaten Man had recouped its budget, Daddy was less worried. When the budget tripled, Grandma had Ebert’s review framed in the kitchen. And that kitchen wasn’t in her humble Georgia one-story; it overlooked a half acre in Encino, California. Daddy allowed Grandma to live in the LA house, provoking Mama’s ire.
“How did all this happen for a bunch of dumb hicks?” he’d marvel by the window with a glass of sherry.
Mama, sipping her own glass, typed away beside him. “Speak for yourself, babe. I’m not dumb.”
Little Miss Succubus, dir. by John Wyatt (1995)
Mama divorced Daddy, and she moved to the UK where she met a documentary filmmaker whose films are mostly about people’s struggles in the fourth world. I stayed with Daddy, while Mama lost her Southern accent overseas.
It was also during this era that people started telling me I was fat. Someone at school put a sign next to my locker that said “house for sale” implying I was the house to be sold because of my size.
I asked Daddy his thoughts. He said that I was completely normal, but that I was indeed fat by Hollywood standards. He thought he was helping, I think.
Mr. Torrez was staying with us in those days. They were trying to get an anthology film off the ground. The plan was for Daddy to film one segment, forty-five minutes long, and Torrez would do the other. Daddy was letting Mr. Torrez decide everything, despite surpassing his mentor to be the bigger name. He was acutely aware of protecting the older man’s feelings. Torrez’s last films hadn’t gotten distribution in the US, much less theatrical attention.
“No one,” the old man complained, “in these strip mall video rental ratholes wants anything to do with foreign or even dubbed horror movies. I’ll never make another penny in this idiot market.”
Daddy chewed on some toast that Grandma had made, as I listened to Torrez beg him to call this one or that one—could they get Tobe Hooper or Lucio Fulci to do a third film, maybe try to get Mama to –
“Teddy,” Daddy began firmly, nearly hissing. “You have her number just like me.”
That morning, Daddy and Grandma started arguing over something or another. Mr. Torrez was eating turkey bacon. He asked me why I only had carrot sticks for breakfast. I told him my problem, going to school with girls who were already upgraded by cosmetic procedures. I asked, “Mr. Torrez, am I Hollywood fat?”
The director shoveled in a final piece of bacon. “All the stars you look up to—kid, you just wait. By the time you’re thirty or forty, they’ll have tell-alls recounting all the therapy they need just to sleep at night.”
To make things worse, Daddy’s new movie felt inspired by my weight struggles. It was called Little Miss Succubus, and he was going back to Georgia to film. It was about a group of college freshmen competing in a beauty pageant that was really a cover for a demon cult. One by one, the young women are sacrificed until the final girl becomes the devil’s wife. One of the girls had an eating disorder, was pudgy, and lacked positive traits. Her talent in the pageant was a poorly acted monologue.
When Little Miss Succubus was released it was the third highest-grossing horror of the year. The cast, a bunch of nobodies, were paid peanuts.
Mr. Torrez waited for me outside the premiere. He had recognized my influence on the story, maybe even noticing weight loss that’d happened since I read the script. To Daddy I was clearly the fat, untalented girl in the movie. Mama wouldn’t watch Daddy’s movies by then, and Grandma was too busy becoming the next Jackie Stallone to notice anything wrong with me.
Mr. Torrez put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “He’ll get less selfish when the hype cools down. He’ll stop being an ass and make it up to you.”
Even though Mr. Torrez said offensive things at times, sometimes you just need the truth delivered straight.
Devil’s Harem, dir. by John Wyatt (2005)
Daddy’s 7th feature film had just premiered, to lukewarm reviews at mainstream film festivals. Not just genre-specific stuff like Fantasporto in Portugal or Sitges in Spain. In this way he’d surpassed his mentor.
Festival reviewers called it boring, which was a first for John Wyatt. The film was released to little box office, another first that was hard for Daddy’s ego. He’d never lost money before. As he’d seen from Mr. Torrez, losing money once can be the first step in the rapid fall into obscurity and “lifetime achievement award” purgatory.
My parents were both speaking at a commemorative film screening of Uncle Teddy’s work. He had died that year, and this would the first time they were in a room together since the divorce.
Daddy had chosen Blood Pyramid as his favorite because, as he said, “it was Ted’s most uninhibited. He was fresh off the Video Nasty debacle and felt he would be rewarded for…insanity.” This last word cued laughter from the audience. Though he had more words in his speech, he cut it short. He is smart enough to never outwear his welcome with public speaking.
Daddy sat in the front row next to me when he was off the stage. Mama was in the second row on the other end.
The film was fifteen minutes from ending when Daddy excused himself to the restroom and didn’t come back. In my mind, he was scared to see Mama’s speech. She was introducing the next film after an intermission.
Mama’s favorite was Teddy Torrez’s first film, 1968’s black-and-white chiller Woman in Shadows. Of it, Mama said:
“The man was a workhorse who could make eight films in seven years. At first, I was always telling him to slow down, make the films more thoughtful. He said ‘Throw out ten seeds and one will grow, I guarantee you.’ He set up a very helpful, realistic ratio of success to failure. I am grateful to my Teddy for this, and much more.”
“I believe,” she continues, “Woman in Shadows is the closest he got to universal. No gore. No nudity. Just ingenuity. I hope you enjoy.”
She bows, and I hear that her applause is louder than Daddy’s. Mama and her husband make important films about territories and peoples that Daddy and Mr. Torrez had only splattered fake blood on. Their documentaries win awards, but they’re downers. I’d much rather watch one of Daddy’s.
I’d never seen Woman in Shadows, which begins with a woman who wakes up in a train car. She gets out to explore her surroundings. She is pursued throughout by robed figures who seem to come up from the ground, have slashed, disfigured faces, and are accompanied by goat and snake familiars. By the end of the film, she is cornered near a plantation-style house in a field.
In Torrez’s memoir, he says he learned to never cast an ugly lead after his debut. I say who cares if she’s not Tuesday Weld, the woman could act her ass off. It was all in her face, like Renee Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her eyes are big as pocket watches, and expressive. With little supporting cast and dialogue, she carries the film.
It ended, and a bevy of people surrounded Mama. I waited for them to fawn and leave, before approaching. She wore a Carolina Herrera suit, off the rack because Mama still had the narrow frame that I never would. She had a yellow rose in her hair.
“How’s John?” was the first thing she asked me.
We hugged and our earrings became entangled, tugging uncomfortably. “Being here was good for him,” I said.
“How are you, Jamie? Do you need anything?” I tell her no, but then she tries to give me money anyway.
“I don’t need money. Please, there are people here, and you are recognizable.”
She went further, putting her hands on my stomach, feeling I guess for ribs like I was back at Hollywood High, binging on hot fries and purging while everyone slept. Grandma noticed when she saw what it did to my teeth. Then she told Daddy. This had been the year after Little Miss Succubus.
“You’re worse than Grandma,” I said, hissing quietly, as the festival organizers approached. They made their introductions to me, praised Mama, heroic inspiration to women, blah blah blah. I’ve heard people sucking my parents’ teats all my life. It all sounds the same. When the organizers finished toasting Mama, they leave.
I tell her about Grandma’s worsening condition—dementia—that she almost burned the house down microwaving forks. She’d had her license revoked after hitting David Spade’s mailbox with her Bentley. A resulting blood test showed she wasn’t taking her medication.
“Paranoia,” I told Mama, “is the root of it. She thinks we’re damned to hell because Daddy makes his money this way. Off demons, blood, gore—that stuff.”
“She should be in a home,” Mama surmised. “John is co-dependent. It’s him being a Mama’s boy.”
Mama pulled a box out of her bag with finality. “This came in a swag bag at an event in Stockholm. It’s expensive—give this to your Dad as a gift for his new movie.”
I would have refused, not wanting to be middle man, but the look from Mama stopped me. She wanted some form of contact with him.
In the theater we heard blood-curdling screams from another film, which had started to play. We hugged. She had to be off to another major city, to talk about how political cowardice and cow farts are ruining the world.
A car waits for me. On the way back to the rental house Daddy booked for us, I text him that I’m on my way.
Daddy was outside the house smoking a cigar.
“The ending with the robed cabal and the goat in your nunsploitation film, Coven Convent” I said. “You stole that ending from Woman in Shadows.”
“If I can’t steal from Teddy Torrez,” he said, putting his arm around my shoulder, “tell me who can?”