A One Minute Review

A small town is invaded by swarms of ravenous vampire bats. Horror author William Burke looks at author Martin Cruz Smith’s (Gorky Park) underrated animals attack novel Night Wing.

Martin Cruz Smith was the author of several Nick Carter, Killmaster novels before hitting the bestseller list with Gorky Park. Stephen King, author of It, Carrie and The Shining called Night Wing, “One of the best horror novels in the last twenty years.” Native American mysticism and modern science collide in the best tradition of horror literature as a southwestern town is beset by cattle mutilations and human deaths. While reminiscent of Peter Benchley’s book Jaws which became the classic Stephen Spielberg film. Night Wing is an exciting example of 1970’s pulp horror fiction, far better than the glut of animal attack, nature run amok books of the era.

Night Wing was adapted into a film starting David Warner, star of Sam Pekinpah’s Cross of Iron. Warner is known to science fiction fans as the Cardassian interrogator in Star Trek: the Next Generation and a Klingon in Star Trek 6. The film adaptation of Night Wing was a box office flop, but has gained a following as a cult movie.

Similar book recommendations include James Herbert’s, The Rats, Lair and Domain. Jaws by Peter Benchley. Guy N. Smith’s Night of the Crabs and Croc by David James.


Horror author William Burke will be reviewing selections from his eccentric book collection and sharing them with viewers.

Check out his review of Christopher Moore’s hilarious Bloodsucking Fiends here:

And John Waters’ memoir Shock Value here:

You can purchase his latest novel Dominant Species on Amazon here: and follow him at:



A One Minute Review

Klaus Kinski was a brilliant actor, renowned for his violent fits of rage and psychotic behavior. His best work was with director Werner Herzog in such films as Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and the remake of Nosferatu. He also appeared in Sergio Leone’s, For a Few Dollars More, and the spaghetti western classics, The Great Silence, and A Bullet for the General. Kinski professed to loathing most of his films, including the string of Giallo thrillers like Slaughter Hotel and Death Smiles on a Murderer. He worked with directors, Jess Franco, Sergio Corbucci, Antonio Margheriti, Sergio Garrone, and Joe D’Amato.

Horror author William Burke will be reviewing selections from his eccentric book collection and sharing them with viewers.

Check out his review of Christopher Moore’s hilarious novel, Bloodsucking Fiends here:

And John Waters’ memoir Shock Value here: You can purchase his latest novel DOMINANT SPECIES on Amazon here:

And follow him at:




Welcome back to the final chapter of Beware Children at Play. And, being our final chapter, we’ll cut straight to the film’s finale—the notorious, ‘kill all the children scene.’

On paper the idea of a dozen children being shot, stabbed and bludgeoned by their own parents sounds truly reprehensible. But due to budgetary restraints, and inexperienced child actors the scene manages to be both campy and revolting at the same time. Plus, there’s a weird, carnivalesque synth beat playing under the kids’ hammy death throes, making it hard to take seriously. I have to take some credit, or blame, for two of the finale’s more outré moments.

For whatever misguided reason Mic was allowing me to offer some creative input. Like every true grindhouse movie buff, I’d seen William Lustig’s Maniac, and remembered its gruesome decapitation by shotgun blast. I encouraged Mic to try and duplicate that scene. Luckily one of the kids in our cast was an aspiring special effects makeup artist, who let Mark do a life casting of him to create a fake head. We also gave the character a baseball cap to help sell the phony noggin. The hollow head was stuffed with meat and blood bags, then attached to the dummy. When the cameras rolled, we fired two shotguns into it simultaneously.

The effect only sort of worked. The problem stemmed from the shotguns being loaded with birdshot, as opposed to buckshot, so there wasn’t enough force to remove the head. I still give it a B+ for effort.

My second contribution has actually become an online meme. It’s when the little boy has a pistol stuffed in his mouth and gets his brains blown out. We couldn’t use squibs around children, so an air pressure thing-a-ma-bob was mounted to the wall behind the lucky tyke’s head. When the actor pulled the trigger the air ram sprayed blood and brains all over the wall.

Mic actually let me direct that scene… though I couldn’t put it on my directing reel without being arrested. It stands out from the rest of the murders, though not in a good way. While there’s a goofy tone to the other killings, the pistol in the mouth bit is just plain grim. That scene is why I’m still not invited into nice homes.

Speaking of guns… If you’re wondering how a movie with no budget managed to get so many stage weapons on set… well, we didn’t. The townspeople just brought along their favorite guns from home. It’s worth noting that all the weapons people brought were traditional hunting rifles and shotguns. If you made the same request today, they’d arrive with an airborne regiment’s worth of assault rifles. Times have changed, but not for the better.

We ensured that none of the guns were loaded, and that any ammunition people brought was secured in their vehicles. I believe Mark Dolson purchased the appropriate blanks, and all shots of weapons firing were done without any children present. One gentleman who actually brought live rounds onto the set was immediately sent home.

Here’s a funny story about the mass murder of children… wow, that didn’t sound good! In addition to directing Mic Cribben also played farmer Braun, the religious zealot leading the townspeople. Mic and Ellen somehow convinced a local construction company to park a crane at the children’s camp, allowing for really high angle shots. Mic’s character was in those scenes, but he also had to be on top of the crane, operating the camera. We solved this conundrum by graying my luxuriously long hair with goop, sticking me in overalls and shooting me from behind. Mic shouted his dialogue from atop the crane, while I performed the kind of ridiculous silent movie hand gestures that I assumed real actors made. When it comes to acting even the back of my head is talentless.

It was about ninety degrees that day, so the gunk in my hair hardened to spiky cement by noon. That really cramped my style as I’d planned on flirting with all the New Jersey single moms on set, because we’ve all heard stories about New Jersey single moms. Fortunately, the gray cement in my hair saved me from venturing down that chauvinistic path. And, just in case you were hoping for a little romance in this story I wound up living with one of the film’s leading ladies for about three years.

Despite all the gunfire, special effects and oppressive heat the shoot went off injury free, so you get a happy ending too boot.

After the production wrapped everyone sort of fell out of touch. Now, decades later, I’m delighted to discover that Mic and Ellen are still married, and living in Florida. I wish them all the best.

So, is Beware Children at Play a good movie? No, not in the traditional sense. But it’s a great example of just how outrageous indie films can be, and what can be accomplished when you ignore roadblocks like money and good taste, while throwing your heart and soul into something. Sure, the film’s production values are threadbare. Yes, the novice camera crew couldn’t measure focus properly. Undoubtedly some of the acting plays like a middle school production of Children of the Corn. But Mic and Ellen pulled it off together. It’s an entertaining film, and I doubt anyone out there could have done better with the scant resources at hand.

Working on Beware Children at Play led to paid gigs on New York indie films. I continued my career in Los Angeles and, later, Toronto. Looking back on my experiences with Mic and Ellen I’m reminded of the final episode of The Office, when Andy said, “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.” With a few more hours of sleep, and a tiny bit of money, Beware could have been at the top of my good old days list. But, hey, you can’t have everything. Thinking back on it still makes me smile.

I’m also grateful for having spent my twenties in New York, back when it was vibrant, dangerous and still cheap enough for a knucklehead like me to afford rent. Sure, the subway smelled like a boiled diaper but that was part of the city’s charm.

I recently watched the Blu Ray of Beware with a friend who, after the finale, asked me, “Do you think you could make a movie like that today?” The answer is no, and even if you could, you really shouldn’t. I didn’t say making Beware was a responsible thing to do back in the day, but now it’s just too dangerous. Here’s my long winded, non-professional reasoning.

Back In the 20th century, even the most withdrawn person’s primary interaction was with co-workers, teachers or family. So, if they expressed some dark, violent fantasies there were flesh and blood people around them to say, “Buddy, you need help, and you need it bad.” They’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’d goad them into acting on their impulses.

Now, thanks to social media disturbed individuals can blow off reality, retreating into some dangerous online community, where a cavalcade of enablers will cheer on their dark thoughts about shooting children, non-Christians, or people of color. That online encouragement can become loud enough to drown out any rational voices around them. Then, they just wait till they turn eighteen, take grandma’s birthday check over to the gun store and go buck wild. Creating a volatile fantasy like Beware in the age of social media could add fuel to some disturbed, easily led person’s fire, with too many hateful online voices eager to mould that fantasy into a reality.  Was that pretentious enough? Good.

And if you need more horror and adventure in your life check out my latest novel, DOMINANT SPECIES, published by Severed Press.


NOTE: This article can also be viewed on 

Welcome back to the penultimate chapter of the Beware Children at Play saga, where we finally dive into the nuts and bolts of a zero-budget production.

Beware Children at Play’s child actors were cast via newspaper ads and through some local modeling agencies. Some of the kids were surprisingly good, and I hope they look back on their movie experience fondly, as opposed to sharing it in therapy sessions. It was fun to watch them interact. Crushes developed, little hearts were broken, and scary stories swapped. On one of our night shoots the lights attracted a bunch of bats. Of course, being kids, they all convinced themselves that the bats would swoop down, attack, and give them all rabies. It made the evening very challenging.

The adult actors were hit and miss, though that wasn’t always the performers’ fault. One of the roles was an elderly psychic brought in to help find the missing children. When no geriatric actress could be found, twenty-something Stephanie Jaworski stepped in. Sadly, nobody adjusted the dialogue to match her age, so her performance has a weird, early John Water’s movie vibe. Rich Hamilton was a solid actor who gave a sincere performance, despite playing one of the slowest witted peace officers in cinema history.

Herb Klinger nearly steals the show in his brief, backstory intensive appearance as a bible salesman. Rick Bitzelberger also slings shovelfuls of exposition as Dr. Fish. Rick went on to write the erotic vampire film, Embrace the Darkness (1999) for Mystique Films, where I was a staff producer. Small world.

The film’s meager budget directly impacted the actresses in an unflattering way. On most low budget shoots, the cast provides their own wardrobe, giving them control over their appearance. Every New York actor had their lawyer suit, working man’s outfit and nightclub ensemble on standby, so they’d be ready for anything. But Beware’s gory special effects mandated doubles or triples on their wardrobe, meaning it all had to be bought.

Producer Ellen Wedner was saddled with dressing the cast for about twenty dollars. Lauren Cloud’s reporter character, Dale Hawthorne, appears to be wearing a belted St. Patrick’s Day tablecloth, while Robin Lilly’s Cleo was dressed from Dollarama’s signature ‘Rural Despair’ collection. Stephanie Jaworski was decked out in a weird spangled moo-moo thing, adding an extra dash of bizarro to her already eccentric performance. Ellen worked hard, doing the work of ten people, but the results could still be kind of hilarious. Ironically, Ellen was a snappy dresser, so draping the ladies in such dowdy ensembles must have driven her bananas.

Ellen also created the wardrobe for the cannibal children. It was an artful blend of kid’s clothes bought from discount stores on Canal Street, combined with rags, bits of fur, dishcloths, and anything else she could stitch on. The clothes were then splashed with coffee or tea, giving them a dirty, tattered look. We shot over the course of a year, so by the end of production most of the dirt was real. But the clothes lasted, and nobody got pink eye or E. coli, so… mission accomplished!

Like many low budget horror films Beware was packed with gory murders requiring special effects makeup. The film gods must have been smiling down on us when Mark Dolson and Mark Kwiatek came aboard. This dynamic duo had previously created the gore effects for the shot on tape opus, Video Violence. They performed miracles on Beware on a meager budget of about five hundred dollars. During the week Mark Dolson ran a New Jersey magic shop and he incorporated a lot of sleight of hand tricks into the film’s notorious climax. He was also licensed to use bullet squibs, which came in handy. I don’t think we used any on the kids though—we were crazy… not stupid.

They also created the partially eaten body of farmer Braun’s wife, which our intrepid reporter finds crucified in a field. As originally written, the scene had crows pecking at her face. But birds are expensive, so we cleverly substituted rats. I purchased two ill-tempered rodents at a downtown pet shop and brought them to set. Unfortunately, the rats’ feet couldn’t grip onto the fake body, so they kept falling off. In desperation I tried keeping them in place with monofilament tied to their legs. Rats don’t like that! One of them clamped onto my finger so hard I couldn’t shake it loose. Eventually it let go, taking a big hunk of skin with it. I was bleeding like a stuck pig, so some of the blood you see on the fake body is mine. Truth be told, I got what I deserved. We finished that scene and I used a combo of ice and super glue to close up the wound. How butch is that? At wrap we discovered that both rats had chewed through their cardboard prison and scampered off into the woods. I hope that they, and their ten thousand offspring lived long and happy lives in New Jersey.

Other effects, like the bible salesman being sliced in half still hold up pretty well. Whatever they lacked technically they made up for in sheer outrageousness.

The psychic’s death scene didn’t require many special effects, but still wound up needing some low budget movie finagling. In that scene, a young couple making out in their car hears the psychic’s screams and comes running. For some reason we needed to reshoot pieces of the amorous couple, but the actress proved unavailable. To conceal her absence, we only see the girl’s bare legs waving in the air, indicating that the couple got really busy, really fast. I think those were actually Ellen’s legs jiggling around. What a trouper!

The cannibal children’s camp was the most ambitious set. It was cobbled together over several weekends from loads of old pallets, broken tents and whatever scrap lumber could be nailed together. There are also some nifty bits of art direction, including TV sets with smile faces painted on, a crucified stuffed rabbit and even an old Styrofoam angel my mom was throwing away. We managed to build a serviceable set for no money and I got a great suntan in the process, because sunblock hadn’t been invented back in 1985.

The camp’s centerpiece was the skeletal, crucified remains of the cult leader’s father. This prop ignited some local chaos when a group of hikers stumbled across our encampment. They called the police, claiming they’d stumbled onto a Manson family style cult. After a few hours of satanic panic, the property owners managed to calm down the local sheriffs. The cops didn’t hold a grudge and (I think) actually loaned us a police car, or at least the beacon lights off one.

One of the shacks doubled as a smoke house full of suspended body parts. Looking at the film now I’m surprised at just how gruesome that scene is. That’s also the site of a rape scene that still seems unnecessary, but I guess tossing in some nudity was part of the package. Originally, the victim was supposed to be Lori Tirgarth’s character, but due to the protracted shooting schedule, she’d moved to Los Angeles before it was shot. Robin Lilly’s character, Cleo, was substituted. That character swap meant her onscreen children are actually watching the rape occur. It’s just creepy and wrong in a hundred ways.

And if you’re looking for some high-octane monster action check out my latest novel DOMINANT SPECIES, published by Severed Press.



Below is an advance copy of Diane Donovan’s excellent review of Dominant Species. It will appear in the February edition of the Midwest Book Review. 

In Dominant Species, love and death run too closely to high technology and danger for the likes of genetically modified mercenary Dave Brank and his lover Emily Lennox. Having survived a terrible confrontation, they can’t begin to relax and heal before the next challenge—North Korea’s confiscation of genetically engineered dinosaurs from a secret lab. Their intelligence is growing by leaps and bounds, threatening mankind with a singularity that is far from the usual computer-driven AI scenario.

Horror, sci-fi, and high-tech components marry well in the story that features not just the tense, high-octane action of a thriller, but the ethical and moral dilemmas humans face as the creators of something they no longer can predict or control.

William Burke’s inclusion of action and quandaries based on this consideration of the role of the creator in destroying intelligent creatures makes Dominant Species a standout. The story captures not just the levels of human concerns and individual pursuits of special interests, but the perspectives of the creatures themselves as they experience a sea change, moving from primitive response to calculated reasoning: “Vulcan let out a hiss, barring them from attacking. Staring down at the cluster of humans his primitive instincts gave way to more evolved, abstract thought patterns. He formed a plan.”

The contrast between human and animal perspectives allows for an intriguing mix of elements between the typical thriller format of international struggles and the sci-fi challenge of a genetic engineering experiment that proves more successful and deadly than its creators ever could have imagined.

Burke weaves a cat-and-mouse game of survival into political and thriller components to keep readers engaged on many different levels. The contrast between horror, light injections of humor, and overlay of social and political inspection results in a story that operates nicely as a dance between sci-fi possibilities and human follies.

The result is a multifaceted, thoroughly absorbing action read that moves through a futuristic dilemma with the precision of a thriller, the special interests of a work of international intrigue, and the ethical quandaries of a creation that evolves beyond any predictable progression.

Libraries seeking works that operate as both horror and sci-fi reads will relish the strength and action-packed progress of Dominant Species and its ability to capture and hold attention through satisfyingly unpredictable scenarios and developments. These also will spark bioethical debates in book club circles.



Welcome back to part two of my history of DON’T films. We’re kicking things off with everyone’s favorite decade, the 1980’s: Ten years defined by Chernobyl, Huey Lewis, rampant cocaine abuse and, most importantly, movies with DON’T in their title.

1980 proved to be a banner year, offering horror fans not one, but two DON’T films. The best known is the New Jersey lensed Don’t Go In the House, featuring a Norman Bates style Mama’s boy who kidnaps women and incinerates them with a flamethrower. I mean… damn, that’s rough! In his favor the director Joe Masefield only showed one protracted torture scene, but for critics and UK censors that was enough. Lead actor Dan Grimaldi gave his all in what was practically a one man show. Grimaldi went on to achieve a degree of fame playing both Parisi twins on The Sopranos. House boasts an interesting score from eclectic composer Richard Einhorn, who also scored Shock Waves (1977) and 1981’s The Prowler. Edward L. Montoro’s Film Ventures International (Grizzly, Day of the Animals) distributed the film with the tagline, ‘You have been warned,’ and it became a profitable grindhouse staple. Unfortunately, Montoro embezzled all the profits from his movies and vanished with the cash in 1984. He’s believed to have lived out his days in Mexico under an assumed name. House also landed on the UK’s Video Nasties list, because chaining up terrified women and cremating them alive with a flamethrower will do that.

1980’s second DON’T film, Don’t Answer the Phone, also earned a spot on the UK’s Video Nasties list. This one’s the tale of a psychopathic Vietnam vet, porn photographer, necrophile who likes calling into a psychologist’s radio show. It contains a lot of misogyny and sexual violence, making it a mean, ugly and uncomfortable film to watch, but distributor Crown International still managed to book it into grindhouses and drive ins for years.

You may be wondering why you DON’T see our friends at Hallmark Releasing popping up. Well, in 1980 Hallmark reinvented itself as Georgetown Productions. They reteamed with Last House on the Left producer Sean Cunningham with an eye on the holiday horror trend started by Halloween. The boys from Beantown struck gold by financing a little opus titled Friday the 13th. Paramount studios snapped up the rights, handing everyone involved a huge profit. Georgetown Productions’ head honcho Steve Minasian went on to produce Pieces (1982), Slaughter High (1986) along with one more DON’T film, which we’ll get to later.

1981 proved to be another double header for DON’T films. The best, or worst, depending on your mood is Don’t Go In the Woods, or Don’t Go in the Woods… Alone. This mountain set slasher film was shot on an insanely low budget. Watching it you’d assume director James Bryan was a filmmaking novice, but he’d previously helmed a slew of 1970’s hardcore adult films including the spot-on Beach Party parody Beach Blanket Bango and the surprisingly ambitious and technically solid High School Fantasies.

Don’t Go in the Woods is a film that dares to be dumb, embracing every cliché in the slasher playbook. That’s what makes it such a hilarious funfest, packed with bad gore effects, community theatre acting, post synched sound, a grating synth score and a truly bizarre closing credit song. I loved it.

The same year’s Don’t Look In the Attic is an Italian film originally entitled La Villa delle Anime Maledette—The Damned, which is quite a mouthful. It’s a hybrid ghost story, slasher film that stayed on the bottom of double and triple bills… where it belonged!

1982 only gave us one DON’T film—the made for television Don’t Go To Sleep. This is a surprisingly grim ghost story with a solid cast led by Dennis Weaver (Duel), Valerie Harper (Rhoda) and the always entertaining Ruth Gordon. It’s a far better and creepier than you’d expect from an 80’s MOW.

The final title from the golden age of DON’T films takes us full circle. 1984’s British holiday slasher entry Don’t Open Till Christmas was produced by Hallmark Releasing’s founder Steve Minasian! This film reverses Silent Night Deadly Night’s killer Santa trope by having a Christmas hating maniac slaughtering St Nicks across London. Why some of those jolly fat men are found in porn studios and peep shows is beyond me. The film suffers from a flawed premise. There’s a certain transgressive thrill in watching Santa go homicidal in films like Tales From the Crypt—maybe it’s a ghoulish extension of the old ‘naughty or nice,’ trope. But, seeing Jolly Old St. Nick castrated in a filthy men’s room, hacked to death at a peep show and burned to death in a chestnut roaster just feels wrong. On the plus side we get a brief appearance from beautiful Caroline Munroe (Starcrash, 1978), but there’s just not enough of her to wash the taste of all those dead Kris Kringles away. Don’t Open Till Christmas is a mean-spirited film that just isn’t fun, scary or sexy.

Don’t Open Till Christmas was distributed by the notorious 21st Century Film Corporation, who also distributed 1983’s The Deadly Spawn. I heard some real horror stories about them from Spawn’s John Dods and Ted Bohus. The floundering company was eventually bought by Cannon Films’ Menahem Golan, who’s Lambada fiasco, The Forbidden Dance put it out of its misery.

Don’t Open Till Christmas marked the end of the DON’T era. A smattering of DON’T films followed in its wake, like the 1998 TV movie Don’t Look Down, or the terrible Master P. directed Don’t Be Scared (2006), and 2008’s unimaginatively titled Don’t Look in the Cellar… come on guys, seriously? Vincent D’Onoferio (an actor I love) reused the title Don’t Go in the Woods for his 2010 horror musical. That film is a hot mess, with some memorable moments. It’s the kind of movie 80% of viewers hate but 20% absolutely love with no middle ground.

And no DON’T list would be complete without 2016’s Don’t Breathe, and its lesser, but still pretty darned entertaining 2021 sequel Don’t Breathe 2. Breathe is the kind of no holds barred, unrelenting horror film that does DON’T proud.

And for our final entry there’s 2015’s sequel Don’t Look in the Basement 2, directed by S.A. Brownrigg’s son, Anthony Brownrigg. This follow up is entertaining, with an interesting premise cleverly connecting it to the original. The Brownrigg clan started the whole DON’T parade, and they ended it on a high note. A big thumbs up to Anthony for doing the old man proud.

The concept of Putting DON’T at the front of a film’s title never really died—it just slowly lost steam due to the lack of things left not to do. Doors, windows, doorbells, attics, phones, basements and woods had all been used. I think that only leaves Don’t Open the Closet, and Don’t Look Under the Bed. If you want to use those, knock yourself out… they beat the hell out of Don’t Ring the Doorbell.

In closing let me say that the best DON’T film is one that was never actually made. Edgar Wright’s fake trailer Don’t is spot on, and absolutely brilliant. If you haven’t seen it… DON’T MISS IT.

Huge thanks to Adrian J. Smith at for his well-researched article on Hallmark Releasing.

And DON’T forget to check out my latest novel DOMINANT SPECIES, published by Severed Press.




DON’T is a powerful word. It’s one of the first commands we’re taught as kids, keeping us from sticking our tiny fingers into electrical sockets, or playing with knives. The word’s power is drilled into us from early childhood, which is probably why it’s the first word in so many hit song titles from the 1950’s and 60’s. But it wasn’t until the early 70’s that horror movies started harnessing the innate power of DON’T. Drive-ins and grindhouses were flooded with DON’T movies. Ironically, many of them never intended to use DON’T in their titles—it just kind of happened. And here’s why…

The roots of DON’T movies traces back to Boston based film distributor Hallmark Releasing Corporation. But DON’T confuse them with those purveyors of greeting cards and saccharine Christmas movies. Hallmark was a down and dirty exploitation film distributor headed by Steve Minasian—a name that’s going to pop up a lot in this article. Hallmark’s founders owned over a hundred drive in’s and hardtop theaters across the USA, meaning they could guarantee producers a hundred first and second run dates for any film they distributed. It also meant they could pocket both the distributor and exhibitor fees, minus the percentage they begrudgingly paid to the film’s producers. But Hallmark wasn’t just a collective of theater owners—these guys were marketing geniuses!

Hallmark first struck gold with the German acquisition Mark of the Devil, utilizing a brilliant advertising gimmick—offering patrons vomit bags. This had already been done by HG Lewis for Blood Feast, but Hallmark added to the ballyhoo by rating the film V, for violence. Mark made a small fortune, a percentage of which had to be paid to the film’s producers. Someone in Hallmark’s boardroom must have looked down at the company check book and said, “Why don’t we start making our own pictures? Then we don’t have to pay these damn producers a percentage!” Then he threw his pen across the room and spitefully overcharged Mark’s producers a thousand bucks for printing barf bags… because that’s what film distributors do! But his idea had merit.

At that time many independent films were financed by distributors who owned theaters. Traditionally a film distributor has a 50% revenue split with the exhibitor, after which that distributor must pay roughly 30% to the film’s producers, diluting their profits even further. But outright ownership of a low budget, exploitable film would allow them to pocket 100% of the ticket fees from their own theaters, plus popcorn! For a company like Hallmark that owned a hundred venues that meant big money!

In 1971 Hallmark boldly invested $90,000 with Sean Cunningham to produce The Sex Crime of the Century. This low budget film would have sunk unnoticed had it not been for Hallmark’s savvy marketing. Their first flash of brilliance was dumping the godawful original title for the more ambiguous­, Last House on the Left. Then they added the brilliant catch phrases ‘Can a movie go too far?’ and ‘To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie.’ Last House earned a fortune, with Hallmark pocketing virtually every dime. American International Pictures picked up the rights for non-Hallmark owned theaters, but the boys from Beantown got a healthy cut of that too.

They followed up Last House’s success by buying the rights to S.F. Brownrigg’s 1973 low budget film, The Forgotten. This tale of the insane taking over an asylum had a great concept and Hallmark saw its potential. One of the advantages of owning theaters was their ability to test out titles in select houses, gauging how they played. When The Forgotten didn’t take off the title was changed to Beyond Help, then The Snake Pit and briefly Death Ward 13. None of them proved to be an audience draw. That’s when someone said the magic words, “How about, Don’t Look In the Basement?” The new title, combined with a repeat of the already vetted, ‘To avoid fainting yada yada yada,’ worked like a charm. Basement did boffo business in their theaters, with AIP once again taking the non-Hallmark owned turf.

Don’t Look in the Basement proved to be such a snappy title that ABC television slapped the name Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on a 1973 movie of the week. Dark is the surprisingly effective tale of a house infested by little goblin like monsters. The film made a strong impression on a young Guillermo del Toro, inspiring him to produce a remake in 2011.

QUICK NOTE: I’m not including Nicolas Roeg’s 1973 film Don’t Look Now on this list. It’s a brilliant, utterly original movie that’s title wasn’t influenced by marketing or profit. In the same spirit, I’m not including 2021’s social satire Don’t Look Up

In 1974 S.F. Brownrigg directed a follow up to Don’t Look in the Basement, entitled Don’t Hang Up. It’s the tale of a woman haunted by phone calls from a maniac. Brownrigg attempted to distribute the film independently, but it wound up collecting dust until 1979, when Capital films released it as Don’t Open the Door. But, without Hallmark’s clever ad campaign it drifted into obscurity.

Our friends at Hallmark were still hard at work, distributing films like Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood, under the title Twitch of the Death Nerve, along with Tombs of the Blind Dead, and Slaughter Hotel. But Hallmark’s in-house marketing wizard must have gotten a better job, because the promotional gimmicks suddenly lost their zing. But they still hadn’t forgotten their favorite word… DON’T

In 1975 Hallmark picked up domestic rights to the Spanish/Italian zombie film Let Sleeping Corpses Lie, also known as The Living Dead At the Manchester Morgue. They discarded both titles, opting for Don’t Open the Window. Without their advertising wizard to guide them Hallmark fell back on, ‘To avoid fainting keep repeating, it’s only a movie.’ Window did okay, but the fire was dying down. Ironically Don’t Open the Window is, hands down, the best of the DON’T films, even if it was never meant to have that title.

DON’T titles took a three-year hiatus after Window, but that wasn’t because they’d fallen out of favor. Back in the 1970’s, movies took upwards of a year to complete their first nationwide run, followed by another year as the bottom half of a double bill. But theater owners didn’t want their first run film to be confused with the old, second run movie, so DON’T films were put on hold. Plus, from 1975 through 1978 drive-ins and grindhouses were inundated with Jaws knock-offs, and belated Exorcist clones, so indie distributors were busy chasing that trend.

In 1978 director Karen Arthur filmed The Mafu Cage, starring Carol Kane as a childlike, but violent young woman who kills her pet monkeys, along with a few relatives. Mafu is a solid psychological horror film that did well in Europe. Despite critical acclaim Mafu couldn’t find American distribution until Jerry Gross’s Cinemation Industries picked up the rights. Gross was a legendary figure in exploitation, having released grindhouse hits like I Drink Your Blood (1971) and The Cheerleaders (1973) along with culturally significant films like Fritz the Cat (1972) and 1971’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badassssss Song. Gross was known as the wizard who could weave celluloid straw into gold. He changed Mafu Cage’s title to Don’t Ring the Doorbell and put it on the grindhouse/drive in circuit. It bombed, and its failure helped end Gross’ successful career. To be honest Don’t Ring the Doorbell is a terrible title for a horror film, but it’s a great title for a raunchy sex comedy, with the tagline, ‘Just come right in… we’re waiting!’ Doorbell’s bombing at the box office made distributors wary of DON’T titles.

But not everybody got the memo, so in 1979 we got Don’t Go Near the Park, directed by nineteen-year-old Lawrence D. Foldes. It’s an extremely low budget film chock full of incest, disembowelment, cannibalism, rape and, above all, confusion. None of the characters behave like rational human beings, and leaping between five different time periods in the first half hour doesn’t help a bit. Using the attempted rape of a sixteen year old girl as an excuse to show nudity is just plain sleazy. Actress Linnea Quigley recalled, “It was crazy, the movie is terrible,” and she’s been in some pretty lowball stuff! Park limped around the drive-in circuit for years, usually paired with other DON’T films, eventually turning a small profit. But, why wasn’t it just called Don’t Go IN the Park?

That wraps up part one. Next time we’ll face off with flame thrower wielding sickos, Santa slaughtering psychopaths and thieving film distributors. We’ll also explore the connection between DON’T films and Friday the 13th.

And on a final note, DON’T forget to pick up my novel DOMINANT SPECIES—a monster packed action adventure published by Severed Press!


A few days back Donald Trump declared he’d be making a major announcement on December 15th. Many speculated on what this could be. Was he running for Speaker of the House, or perhaps nominating election denying, ring light abusing Kari Lake as his running mate? Nope. Instead, he pitched the release of his new Trump Trading Cards, selling for the princely sum of $95 each.

These cards are a blatant, cheaply executed cash grab. The artwork is a blend of stock backgrounds and the kind of shoddy photo shop work that you’d expect to find on self-published Kindle erotica covers.

But these collectable gems don’t come shrink wrapped with some dried-out bubble gum. These are NFT’s, meaning Non-fungible tokens. For the uninitiated NFT’s are an offshoot of crypto currency—the rainforest destroying, block chain produced pseudo money that will eventually crash harder than the 17th century Dutch tulip market. A digital NFT is nothing more than an image, identical to the one anyone else can see online, except yours is deemed the original… even though it’s digital and therefore has no original. In short, it’s an online collectable that you store in your digital wallet in hopes of showing them to someone dumb enough to be impressed. Here are some NFT success stories:

The card’s artwork may also be a series of lawsuits waiting to happen. Most of it is plucked from 3D rigged models sold online for game developers, with crudely photoshopped Trump heads plopped onto them. These models run from about $40-$200 a piece. That’s pretty cheap, but if Trump’s history of ignoring intellectual property rights is any indication the files he used were probably pirated.

I’m curious why the Trump Fighter Pilot card has the safety straps cinched to castration level? Ouch!

What makes this truly pathetic is that suitable Trump artwork already existed, and could have easily been licensed from an artist clearly enamoured with Trump. Jon McNaughton made a name for himself painting patriotic images of Trump, one of which is (or was) hanging somewhere in the White House. While I’m not a fan of McNaughton’s uber jingoistic paintings I respect his ability and passion for his subject. If Trump was going to release collectable art cards McNaughton had earned the right to have his work plastered on them. Unfortunately, that would have involved giving the artist a revenue percentage of some kind and Trump would never split the take with some beatnik painter. The slapdash digital stuff he used was likely a “work for hire,” buyout, with an NDA attached for good measure.

Oddly enough these aren’t Trump’s first kick at the trading card can. Conventional trading cards had been sold for his TV series The Apprentice. Topps issued trading cards for the film Home Alone 2, but sadly Donald’s cameo wasn’t included. There were also cards issued by the Liberty Tobacco Company in 2016 featuring Trump’s image—meaning he took big tobacco cash during his campaign. Classy.

Trump made his first trading card appearance as part of 1989’s Rotten to the Core series, featuring New York’s most notably loathsome residents. Trump was #36, with at least one other future MAGA star circling nearby.

If the concept of a former Chief Executive, and current presidential candidate trying to fleece his faithful followers with overpriced images doesn’t bother you… well how about the whole cosplay thing? This just isn’t something sane people do. But the saddest thing of all is that Trump’s card series sold out in one day, proving that even the most obvious rip off has a willing customer waiting in the wings.

If you’re looking for a Christmas Gift that isn’t a cheap, quickly produced cash grab check out my latest novel DOMINANT SPECIES, published by Severed Press. It’s available on Amazon.


When I think back on the thirty plus movies and television shows I’ve worked on, one always stands out—a little gem entitled BEWARE CHILDREN AT PLAY. If the title doesn’t ring a bell, it’s that infamous movie where a dozen children are brutally slaughtered on camera. When Troma Films screened Beware’s trailer at the Cannes Film Festival it allegedly inspired outrage and mass walkouts. Personally, I’d chalk some of that up to Lloyd Kaufman’s ballyhoo, but it still sounds credible.

One quick note: Beware is often referred to as a Troma film, but technically it isn’t. It was picked up for distribution by the House of Kaufman several years after production. Troma released the film as a VHS and a barebones DVD with a low-end transfer. Just thought I’d clear that up.

Thankfully those cinephiles at Vinegar Syndrome have remastered Beware Children at Play for a Blu Ray release, adding copious special features to the package.

Some call Beware Children at Play, one of the worst films ever made, which I think is a stretch—I mean try sitting through Red Zone Cuba! It’s a bizarre and entertaining viewing experience that makes you ask, “What the F*** were they thinking?” And that’s what makes it so much fun. Looking back at Beware’s production offers a nice time capsule into making a no budget movie during the pre-digital, pre-CGI age; back when films were shot on film, movie blood was sticky and the boundaries of good taste were only there to be trampled over.

My involvement stemmed from a lifelong love for low budget horror movies. As a kid I devoured magazines like Famous Monsters. During my time in the military, I discovered Fangoria, a magazine chock full of tales of New York indie horror films like Basket Case. Clearly, that the place to be. Upon leaving the military I moved into a fifth-floor walk-up in Manhattan’s rough and tumble Alphabet City. I gravitated to Times Square grindhouses, watching classics like Zombie and Maniac on the big screen. Sitting in a theater full of day-release mental patients, drug dealers and knife wielding crack heads adds an extra dimension to titles like Make Them Die Slowly. In 1984, New York was truly a land of wonders… as long as you didn’t get stabbed on the F-Train.

Fast forward two years. I’d just finished broadcast engineering school, and wrangled a video production gig at the United Nations. A chance meeting with effects artist John Dods (The Deadly Spawn) Ied to my spending weekends in Rye, New York, puppeteering on Spookies (originally Twisted Souls). That film’s director urged me to see Mic Cribben and Ellen Wedner—a husband and wife duo making a horror film titled Goblins (which later became Beware Children at Play). Mic owned his own 35mm Arriflex BL1 package, along with a Nagra recorder and a Steenbeck editing table—the building blocks of making a film. What they didn’t have was money, but they weren’t letting that stop them.

After shrewdly negotiating my salary up to zero, I was hired as Production Manager, despite having little clue what that entailed. In real life, the production manager is responsible for keeping the film on budget, which was easy on Beware, as there wasn’t a budget to begin with. Some of my work involved finding other crew members to work for free. In return for their labors, they would get free rentals on Mic’s equipment, so it wasn’t like I was recruiting for Scientology.

You might be picturing Mic and Ellen as sleazy people out to produce a cheap shock film. Well, during my tenure in New York, I met grindhouse stalwarts like Joel Reed (Bloodsucking Freaks) who really lived up to their seedy reputations. Mic and Ellen were quite the opposite. She was a charming, whip smart woman who did well in real estate. Mic was an instantly likeable guy with hilarious, if politically incorrect, film set stories. He’d also been an actor, appearing in films like 1981’s slasher movie Nightmare. He was also the unit manager and sound mixer on that low budget opus.

Reading the script was a real eye opener. I’d been expecting a slasher film, which were still the go-to cheap movie genre. But this film had dozens of child actors along with tons of extras playing redneck townsfolk. Even more jaw dropping was the movie’s finale where all of the children are slaughtered in a Mÿ Lai style massacre. It read like a checklist of everything not to attempt on a micro budget. It was also the first, and last time I heard the term ‘cleavages,’ used. It’s mentioned twice. Dr Fish actually says, “cleavages, front and back.” What does that even mean?

An investor had bestowed Mic and Ellen with a cash budget of around $25,000, which wasn’t much, even by 1980’s standards. In truth it amounted to less than an equal amount of cash today, because we were shooting on 35mm film. In those pre digital days the bulk of an indie film’s budget went to film stock and processing. To shoot their movies, impoverished filmmakers resorted to what you might call used film, more commonly known as short ends.

Short ends were what remained in a film magazine after a day’s shooting on bigger movies. These ‘beaks and claws’ were re-canned by the camera department. There might be as little as 100 feet of film rattling around in a can. A thousand-foot roll of 35mm film only runs about ten minutes, so you’re not looking at much camera time on that short end. Plus, the short ends were never tested to see if the previous camera department had re-canned it properly. This was dumpster diving meets Russian Roulette.

FUN FACT: Years later I started a side hustle by buying thousands of feet of sealed rebought film and storing it in my refrigerator next to the beer and eggs. On weekends I’d get panicked calls from music video producers who’d run out of film. I charged a hefty markup for rescuing their production, but I threw in free delivery.

Using such short rolls created lots of downtime while magazines were reloaded with another meager ration of film. That can be a drag when you’re dealing with child actors with a limited attention span. I recall one night when the rolls were so short that we couldn’t finish a one-minute scene without rolling out.

To minimize downtime Mic would borrow magazines from NY production company Ross Gaffney Inc. Picking up those magazines gave me an excuse to meet the company’s owner, Robert Gaffney, director of 1965’s Frankenstein vs the Space Monster. I think he was flattered, if slightly bewildered at having some young film geek fawning over him. Wow, I really walked among giants!

A mix of film brands only added to the fun, as each had a distinctly different look. The finished film is a melange of Kodak’s classic Hollywood look, Fuji’s punchy Tokyo-pop color and AGFA’s somber German sturm und drang. I don’t think Mic used different brands in the same scene, but during night scenes you can see the film grain and color shifting between connecting scenes.

The film was processed by Studio Film Labs, who were eager to make deals—probably because the porn industries transition from shooting on film to video was crippling their bottom line. Mic and Ellen saved additional money by having the footage reduction printed from 35mm to 16mm. George Romero used the same money saving tactic on Dawn of the Dead.

The production was shot entirely on weekends in the wilds of New Jersey. Hauling twenty or so non-driving Manhattanites to the location was always a challenge. Some production assistants were hired because they owned cars that we used to transport the actors. Crew members usually just sat on equipment cases in the back of the cargo van. Seat belt and open container laws were routinely ignored on the trips back to NYC. Mic’s van probably reeked of Old Milwaukee beer and ditch weed until the day it died. Good times… good times.

And if you’re looking for a thrilling read, that’s a 100% child murder free, check out my new novel DOMINANT SPECIES, published by those masters of monster mayhem at Severed Press.


I’m very pleased to announce that my latest novel Dominant Species, published by Severed Press is now available on Amazon. It’s a great feeling when you finally get to hold a copy in your hand! Check it out and huge thanks to all the folks who read Primeval Waters and Scorpius Rex.

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