Our “Makers” issue of Paste Monthly was primarily conceived to highlight true artisans—those creative souls who have toiled away in their industries to become respected names or hidden heroes. It’s a collection of stories about skilled craftsmen and passionate artists who deserve recognition for their work.
...and that’s all well and good, but isn’t there something to be said for those makers who perhaps didn’t have quite the same access to resources? Or quite the same natural talent? What these prolific B-movie directors do share, though, is an indomitable strength of will, and the self-confidence to carry on even when their work receives nothing but jeers. Is that not just as impressive a quality? After all, if people praise your work, motivation to continue working, struggling and eking out an existence in the film industry isn’t as hard to come by. But to continue on in the face of anonymity or abject failure? That takes true passion.
That, or the desire to make a quick buck. But regardless, here are five prolific B-movie directors, most of them still active today, who have earned their “Maker” titles for better or worse.
Every other director on this list is still cranking out films today, but Donald G. Jackson unfortunately passed away in 2003 at the age of 60. Working right up until his death, he left behind a film legacy of incredibly confusing, tangled cinema that few could hope to truly comprehend, much less appreciate. With the single-minded determination of a filmmaking Henry Darger, Jackson completely committed himself to cranking out B-movies between the years of 1985-2002.
Of course, things began a bit earlier, as Jackson struggled to produce his first-ever film for years in the ‘70s while working in a Michigan auto factory. According to the last interview he ever gave, to French indie film magazine Trash Times, that first movie, a horror parody called Demon Lover, was at least partially financed by the insurance payout of a partner who lost a finger in an accident in the factory—so that’s certainly an auspicious beginning, yes?
Moving to Hollywood, Jackson became a cinematographer for hire, and even worked on a few well-regarded B horror films such as Galaxy of Terror. On that movie, he befriended James Cameron, who called him up years later to handle a few reshoots on a little film called The Terminator. Yes, that’s right—Donald G. Jackson had the honor of being able to say he was the man who shot Arnold’s nude scenes in the beginning of The Terminator.
Two years later, Jackson parlayed his meager connections and a pro wrestling fandom into his most well-known feature, 1988’s Hell Comes to Frogtown, which starred WWF’s “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as a post-apocalyptic wanderer fighting frogmen, as the completely accurate title would suggest. This was Jackson’s zenith as a filmmaker—not particularly high, but a film that at least had national theatrical distribution and looks like a movie, or at least enough like one for me to devote a Dreck & Drink column to it.
In many ways it set the tone for how he would be spending the next 25 years of his life as a director—shooting hilarious, pulpy action movies and post-apocalypse films that from about 1990 onward tend to have the look and feel of a high school video project. In this, he was truly passionate and prolific, producing 25 features between 1990-2002. That includes five feature films in 1995 alone, with titles such as Little Lost Sea Serpent, Big Sister 2000 and the evergreen concept that is Rollergator, with the following premise: “A young teenage girl tries to help a small, purple-colored, jive-talking alligator escape from the clutches of a greedy carnival owner.” Fun fact: Rollergator’s 1.4 rating on IMDB would place it at #1 in the IMDB bottom 100, if only it had enough votes to qualify.
This 25-year period in Jackson’s career coincides with his collaborations alongside rogue filmmaker/martial artist/astral samurai/slash necessitator Scott Shaw, beginning with their batshit 1991 film The Roller Blade Seven. The works created through these collaborations are dreamlike and somehow incorporeal—they seem more like someone’s garbled recollection of a film, years after the fact, than a film itself. Shaw’s philosophy, which was adopted by Jackson, is something called “Zen filmmaking,” which amounts to aimless shooting without the aid of a written script or story. Shaw describes it as process that allows “a spiritually pure source of immediate inspiration to be the only guide in the filmmaking process,” but where it guided the films of Donald G. Jackson usually involved re-used rollerblading stock footage and profoundly weird, improvised plot and dialog. The process put the onus of creation directly onto the actors in many cases … and when you’re working with Joe Estevez on most of your films, you KNOW that’s a great decision. Not that Jackson cared—one gets the sense, watching his films, that he made them entirely for his own satisfaction, because that’s what he loved to do.
An average film from Donald G. Jackson…
...involves rollerblading ninjas in some respect, with a smattering of mutants, costumes re-used from half a dozen previous movies, zero pre-written script, D-grade visual quality, several porn star actresses, and the majestically flowing locks of Scott Shaw.
The first time I saw something from Len Kabasinski, I was tempted to make a Tommy Wiseau comparison, not in the sense that the director was totally incompetent but because it felt like the movie’s reason for existence was that the guy behind it always wanted to be “in movies,” and this was the only way. It felt like a choice made after the realization of “If I don’t make this film myself, I’ll never get to be in film.” The difference here, though, is that unlike Wiseau, the seemingly good-natured Kabasinski has no real misconceptions about the relative quality of his films. They’re passion projects, but they’re not necessarily vanity projects just meant to glorify his own contribution. They’re Kabasinski having fun, critics (and occasionally viewers) be damned.
Unsurprisingly, then, Len’s movies tend to look a bit like something shot by your ambitious neighbor in the backyard—or at least the earlier entries such as Fist of the Vampire and Curse of the Wolf often did. Unlike most filmmakers on this list, Kabasinski has actually shown great strides in improving his films from a visual standpoint, and the lighting and composition of upcoming efforts such as Blood Mercury and Angel of Reckoning looks significantly more professional … even if he’s directing his wife in the lead role. But still, the transformation is fascinating—Kabasinski has gone from a tier filled with nearly unwatchable action movie dreck to a higher level of passable indie production.
The thing to understand about Kabasinski is that he’s deeply involved in martial arts, which means there’s more than a little Scott Shaw in him … the two even look somewhat similar. More than any of the other filmmakers here he feels like film fan first and foremost, a guy who loved ‘80s ninja movies from Cannon and thought “Hey, I do martial arts, why don’t I make one of these?” That passion wasn’t sated by 2005’s Swamp Zombies!!!, however, and in the last decade he’s averaged one film every year on a gradually rising level of quality. One wonders if, 10 years from now, Kabasinski might be making a profit in the VOD cheapo action movie market by churning out dependably entertaining flicks.
Regardless, those films he currently makes obviously reflect the martial arts background and unsurprisingly are structured around a standard combination of T&A and fight sequences, the choreography of which seem to be the director’s prominent passion as a filmmaker. The results vary wildly within the course of the same shaky-cam scene—Kabasinski hires physically talented people to perform martial arts and acrobatic moves, but struggles to actually connect those sequences together in an organic way that doesn’t seem stilted or low-rent in its construction. At their best, the fight sequences make B movie fans nod in genial approval. At their worst, they’re like instructional videos from a mail order stage fighting course—except, you know, with vampires and ninjas.
Still, the one thing you can’t deny is the passion, and none of his films feel like they’ve ever been made with hopes or expectation of generating a big pay-out. Len Kabasinski’s work seems tailor-made for the era of VOD, so I hope his budgets eventually grow big enough to scrape together some decent equipment and produce a magnum opus. If he does, I’ll be watching.
A typical film from Len Kabasinski…
...involves amazing theme music, low-definition video shaky-cam, 10 or more martial arts sequences involving flying kicks and kip-ups, monsters, a surprising amount of cheesily executed gore, plenty of boobs and Len himself in the supporting role of ass-kicker.
“A big chase, and a big chest—add those two to the film and you’re going to be a big winner.”
Does that quote not tell you everything you should be expecting from Jim Wynorski? Essentially the Russ Meyer of the 2000s straight-to-video era, Wynorski is that classic B movie archetype: The sleazeball professional, in the same vein as other directors such as Andy Sidaris. He’s the kind of hard-working, surprisingly talented filmmaker who would probably become offended if you suggested he was a porn director, because for all of their constant T&A or nudity, his movies do actually have narratives—yes, even ones like The Breastford Wives or Para-Knockers Activity.
It is, however, a little sad that Wynorski ended up on that particular track, because he’s probably the most talented overall filmmaker on this list. His 1986 teen horror flick Chopping Mall in particular is a classic of the genre and stands right alongside the likes of Return of the Living Dead in horror movies that perfectly encapsulate the zeitgeist of that era, as a gaggle of teens (and legendary character actor Dick Miller) are hunted throughout a high-tech mall by the malfunctioning security “killbots.” Would that Wynorski could have continued producing such shlocky (but entertaining) horror flicks, but by the mid-’90s his productions had become increasingly buttressed by nudity first, with everything else second. Still, Wynorski remained a simultaneously respected and dismissed figure in the industry, thanks to his ability to produce copious amounts of product—something that continues right on through 2016 as he works on his 100th film, the incredibly titled Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre. He even had a documentary made about his work during the process of shooting 2005’s The Witches of Breastwick over the course of only three days.
That documentary, titled Popatopolis after one of Wynorski’s numerous pseudonyms, reveals the director as a somewhat tyrannical man at times, unsurprisingly on the misogynist side but ultimately more of a general grump who simply expects everyone on a film to be just as committed and driven as himself. He may not believe in his film’s story, but he believes in his responsibility to deliver on expectations when it comes to time constraints and budgets, and he’ll accept no less from anyone else. Because love him or hate him, Jim Wynorski gets shit done.
Today, I highly recommend following the still quite active Wynorski on Facebook, where he loves to post glamor shots of his past stars a dozen or more times a day.
An average film from Jim Wynorski…
...Involves either a squad of busty cops running around a rented condo over the course of a weekend, or giant, SyFy channel-appropriate monsters created with bargain bin CGI that would have been shameful in a Playstation 1 cutscene. Upside: It will be guaranteed to have an incredible title, such as Busty Coeds vs. Lusty Cheerleaders, which I did not make up.
David DeCoteau is the product of what one could consider the ultimate B movie boot camp, starting as an 18-year-old PA for Roger Corman and directing his first feature six years later for the legendary Charles Band. This is like the film equivalent of being mentored by Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla before going off to start your own research team, except instead of inventions, you churn out roughly 80 terrible movies over the course of 30 years.
Like Donald G. Jackson, DeCoteau’s only wide-release work came from early in his career and typically straddled the lines of “horror/sci-fi/sleazeball sex comedy,” with 1988’s Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama as a preeminent example. Also like Jackson, his work veers exclusively into the direct-to-video and eventually VOD realms from the ‘90s onward, but unlike Jackson and Kabasinski, his films don’t primarily come across as passion projects. DeCoteau, rather, is the consummate schlockmeister. His personal experience may inform some of his pictures, but it’s painfully clear that he’s a director willing to do just about anything to find a successful niche and turn a profit.
That probably makes him sound like a fine continuation of the Corman-style B movie tradition, but even at his most inexperienced, Roger Corman never made a film as cheap-looking as the average DeCoteau feature. It’s no wonder that he so often has used pseudonyms over the years, from “Ellen Cabot” and “Julian Breen” to “Victoria Sloan” and “Richard Chasen.”
If the ‘80s gave DeCoteau his widest releases, though, the 2000s onward have given him his most unique niche. You see, DeCoteau is gay, publicly so, and after years of simply trying to match what everyone else in the B movie business was doing, he hit on a concept more unique: cheap, terrible movies for a female/gay male audience. Beginning with 2001’s The Brotherhood, this has become David DeCoteau’s signature genre, a concept he’s rehashed time and time again. In 2011 alone he made an astounding 11 feature films, and most of them are vaguely softcore homoerotic horror films. For years at a time, he also filmed in the same (now demolished) mansion in every single movie, lending his films a bizarre level of visual continuity, as young, chiseled men in boxer shorts wander the same hallways ad nauseum or shower for longer than you thought would be cinematically possible before being stabbed and covered in red corn syrup.
To this end, DeCoteau is a true B movie auteur of the VOD era rather than the “home video” era, with his movies largely being consumed via streaming services and VOD rentals at a couple of bucks a pop. In 2011 he hit on the admittedly savvy idea of creating a series just for this purpose, all of which are preceded with the numbers “1313.” These films, from 1313: Wicked Stepbrother to 1313: Haunted Frat, are specifically engineered to appear at the beginning of a streaming service menu thanks to their titles beginning with a number, or as DeCoteau puts it: “You want to be early in the director, but you also want it to be a simple, high-concept title. With 1313: Nighmare Mansion, you kinda know what you’re getting.” Which is to say, you’re getting homoerotic but oddly chaste z-grade horror.
Of course, no mention of DeCoteau would be complete without acknowledging the project that’s brought him the most attention in the last few years, the truly mind-numbing family film A Talking Cat!?!, which naturally was filmed in the same mansion as every one of the 1313 movies. Shot in three days and featuring the literally phoned-in voice of a seemingly hung-over Eric Roberts reading lines in a hopelessly resigned mumble, it’s every bit as magical an experience as you’re imagining. But considering most of the scenes don’t revolve around male underwear, it actually represents a nice change of pace for the director.
An average film from David DeCoteau…
...involves a small group of gullible young male fashion models wandering an antiseptic mansion in their boxers, a token washed-up ‘70s or ‘80s scream queen, very little actual nudity, and a plot so thin it can hardly be said to exist at all. That, or it’s a family movie about talking animals starring the tranquilized voice of Eric Roberts.
For years, Neil Breen has been looming as the true heir apparent to Tommy Wiseau as an incredibly fascinating bad movie weirdo, but it remains to be seen if enough people will ever actually see Breen’s movies for him to break through into the more exposed pop culture strata that Tommy Wiseau and The Room now occupy. But if any bad moviemaker working today deserves a very thorough examination of his work (and the chemical makeup of his brain), it’s Neil Breen.
Breen is, by a very large margin, the most perplexing and unique filmmaker on this list. Ostensibly a practicing architect and former real estate agent in Las Vegas, he’s also the creative force behind several extremely low-budget films. His output is far lower than most of these other guys—only four features since beginning in 2005—but exponentially weirder. When watching a Neil Breen film and realizing that this man apparently spends his days as an architect, you can’t help but wonder about what kinds of buildings he’s crafting and whether they all come equipped with non-Euclidian geometry and portals to interdimensional planes that only Neil can see. Like Wiseau, he exudes a quality that immediately makes viewers suspect he’s some kind of alien in human clothing, a Mork & Mindy stowaway who’s grown bold after several decades on Earth and now wants to be famous as a filmmaker.
Breen naturally stars in all of his own ultra low-budget features, typically casting himself as a highly desired, virile and technologically savvy secret agent or messiah figure—sometimes all at once, as in 2009’s I Am Here …. Now, with its superfluous, four-period ellipses. His acting is completely and utterly wooden, and yet grandiose in its self-importance. You’d be tempted to simply call them all vanity pieces of the highest order, ‘ala The Room, but all of Breen’s films are also peppered with political and philosophical messages, mostly of an anti-governmental or corporate nature—once again ironic, if he spends his days working for some architecture firm. The other actors, he simply hires from cheap, local casting calls, which typically results in a mix of young, confused-looking women willing to get nude and extras who appear to be drifters picked up from the bus station with promises of shelter and food. The women get it worst, as, like Wiseau, Breen enjoys getting nude on screen with his decades younger female co-stars, who all appear palpably uncomfortable.
I mentioned above, however, that the main factor holding back public appreciation of Breen’s work is that his films simply aren’t easy to find. The director personally books rare showings of his newer work with the showmanship of a savvy P.T. Barnum, drawing back the curtain personally to welcome people into his strange world. Even in the murkier waters of popular torrenting sites, his work isn’t nearly as common or easily attained as most other cult films—it’s as if there’s some force that has actively resisted Breen’s full-fledged exposure to the community of film geeks who would otherwise be spreading his gospel. But trust me when I say that a $25 DVD mailed directly to you from Neil Breen himself is a pretty good bad movie investment.
This mystique, in turn, has naturally given rise to some suspicions that the entirety of Breen’s art is simply an act—a calculated gambit intended to produce the next great “cult film” that will somehow load the director’s coffers with cash. I personally don’t think this is plausible, as I don’t believe a successful, middle-aged man would spend 10 years organizing every aspect of his low-budget vanity films just on the hope that he somehow blooms into a cult icon down the road. I fully believe that Neil Breen is a sincere, powerfully strange individual and artist, although I also admit that his Andy Kaufmanesque strain of anti-comedy is so perfectly executed that if he revealed the entire thing was a hoax 20 years from now, part of me would leap up and scream “Goddamnit, I KNEW IT.” If there’s one factor that eventually does make him famous, it will be the desire to understand that mystery.
An average film from Neil Breen…
...involves the oft-nude director playing an ultra-competent ladies man fighting for some sort of cause, while also featuring head-spinningly bad editing, exploited young actresses, a near-total lack of proper audio recording, totally transparent criticism of “the corporations” and lines of dialog repeated so many times that you start to wonder if you’re watching some kind of avant garde experiment in audience provocation.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he either loves or is fascinated by every one of these films. You can follow him on Twitter. You can also watch these movies with him, if you’re willing to bring beer.