In 2000 I finished my fourth film “Bike Ride,” an animated documentary about my former student James Peterson’s fifty-mile bike trip to visit his girlfriend and his ride home again after she dumps him. This project also served as a first collaboration with my friend Dave King, the improvising, percussion dynamo of Golden Valley, Minnesota who would soon be destined for renown with his groups Happy Apple and The Bad Plus. Dave’s playing had always provoked vivid, visual associations while I listened, so I recorded him performing a prepared improvisation in response to the story, analyzed the audio tracks of both the percussion and the story frame by frame and drew the film in response to that structure. The creative interplay between James’ self-deprecating story, Dave’s musical response and my animation worked like a sympathetic jazz performance and “Bike Ride” became the first of my movies to reach a larger international audience at the major film festivals.
In 2001, a programmer at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles scheduled “Bike Ride” as the short before a feature and invited me to introduce the film. The cinema offered me a small honorarium that helped pay for a flight from Minneapolis and I arranged to stay with a friend who was working then at Cartoon Network.
The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard is home to the American Cinematheque. Built in 1922, shortly after the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the theater remains an exemplar of the exotica-themed movie palaces of the silent film era, restored to former glory in the late 1990’s. As a member of The Congregation, I would have been at The Egyptian watching movies even if “Bike Ride” had not been playing there. The night before my screening, in fact, I had seen a collection of short aquatic documentaries from the 1950’s and 1960’s directed by Jean Painlevé. The printed program for the evening noted that “The Love Life of the Octopus” had been scored by early electronic composer Pierre Henry and that Painlevé had eaten the star of his movie when shooting was finished, a perverse privilege that not even Alfred Hitchcock had enjoyed.
When the Q and A after the show was done, I emerged onto Hollywood Boulevard filled with energy; here I was in Los Angeles, surrounded by theaters, and I wanted to see another movie. A few blocks away from The Egyptian I spotted the marquee for The Vogue. I’d recently read a book about S. Charles Lee, the preeminent architect of the original motion picture palaces in California, and I recognized The Vogue as one of his buildings. (One can glimpse The Vogue facade in the background of Paul Mazursky’s “Alex in Wonderland." (3:00)
The theater was currently playing a double feature by director Stuart Gordon, who’s best known for his comic horror film “Re-Animator.” I arrived at fifteen minutes to ten and “Castle Freak” was scheduled to start at ten. “That’s fortuitous,” I thought and entered the lobby to buy a ticket. At the counter, the man who sold me the ticket absently handed me a sheet of paper as well, a questionnaire. I scanned the first question:
Did you experience anything out of the ordinary during the movie tonight?
Assuming it was a customer satisfaction survey, I folded it into my pocket and walked through a velvet curtain into the rundown, but still majestic, nine-hundred seat relic of a bygone era in which movies had now been projected for sixty-five years. The theater was completely empty. Surprised, I returned to the ticket counter, glancing at the clock: ten minutes to ten.
“Are you still going to show the film if I’m the only one here?”
The man looked up from a magazine, “Sure.”
“You really don’t have to go to the trouble, I don’t mind,” I insisted.
“We only need one person for it to work.”
I nodded, thinking, “Well, that’s true” and I admired their commitment to the filmgoer.
Because I was the only patron of the theater, I took the opportunity to wander through the building. At five minutes to ten I settled into a seat directly in the middle of the enormous auditorium and prepared for my private screening with a regal contentment. As soon as I sat down, a different man than had sold me the ticket walked toward me, waving a device in the air that resembled a prop from a 1950’s science fiction film. He didn’t pay attention to me.
“What are you doing?” I finally asked.
“Just taking some pre-show readings with the Magnetometer to have a reference for your reactions.”
“What does that mean?”
“Don’t you know why you’re here?” he looked directly at me for the first time.
“No, I just wandered in from the street. I’m from out . . .” I had started to explain that I was from Minneapolis, but suddenly thought better of it.
“Oh,” he smiled, “You don’t know about what we’re doing then. That’s even better!”
“What are you doing?” I asked now with a faint suggestion of concern.
“We’re researchers of paranormal phenomena. We’ve rented The Vogue because of its history. An orphanage burned on this location before the theater was built and dozens of children were killed. In addition, three projectionists and nine customers, that we have record of, died of various natural causes during the screenings over the years. The building has a lot ofactivity.” He waved his hand in the air. “We show horror films because they tend to produce the intense emotional response that will attract the spirit activity to the subject.” He nodded his head at me significantly and smiled.
As if on this cue, the lights dimmed and I descended into the cavernous darkness, an emotional magnet for the ghosts of burned children and former projectionists who had been damned to eternally work the booth. The man sat at the end of the same row that I occupied with his Magnetometer aimed at me. I positioned myself obliquely to the screen so that I could watch the film and also keep an eye on the ‘researcher’ to my right, while occasionally scanning the aisles for phantasmal orphans.
The primary emotion that “Castle Freak” elicited from me, unfortunately, was boredom; the movie was merely cheap exploitation fare lacking the deviant inspiration of “Re-Animator.” Half way through the show I sensed movement to my left and noticed that a woman I’d not seen before was also present with a device directed at me. She smiled and nodded. I used the phrase ‘spook house contrivance’ earlier to describe the “The Blair Witch Project” and those were the exact words that passed through my mind at this moment. “They can’t be serious,” I thought, “This must be an elaborate performance in support of the horror movies they show. But why would they go to all the trouble for an audience of one paying customer?”
The movie ended. I entered the lobby. The two men and the woman descended upon me excitedly.
“Did you experience anything unusual?”
“Nothing other than you people freaking me out. Are you on the level about the ghosts?”
The man with the Magnetometer, who’d explained the history of the building to me, adopted an offended air and answered, “We are serious researchers and you are our guinea pig.”
My skepticism abated and I answered their questions as meaningfully as I could, hoping to give them useful responses.
“Yes, now that you mention it, I did feel a little tingling on the surface of my skin, on the back of my right hand . . .. “
The next morning my friend, Alex, drove me to a location that he thought I’d appreciate while I described my adventure at The Vogue. Though a generation younger than me, Alex is also a devoted member of The Congregation with a studious affection for B-movie horror oddities such as Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 “The Black Cat.” When we arrived at our destination in the Los Feliz neighborhood, there were a dozen other young men standing with magazines in their hands in a small yard outside of a sprawling 1970’s-era house. This was the Ackermansion Alex announced, the home and informal museum of Forrest J. Ackerman, an immense collection of science fiction and horror film memorabilia and a shrine to Ackerman’s own marginal B-film celebrity. Those who gathered on Saturday mornings at the appointed time would be given a tour of his house/museum and could get Ackerman’s autograph on a copy of “Famous Monsters of Filmland,” a magazine he had edited from the late 1950’s until the early 1980’s. I suddenly recalled buying a copy of “Famous Monsters” in the Amery drugstore as a kid whenever Godzilla was featured on the cover.
Forrest J. Ackerman and a mute assistant appeared and welcomed us. I wondered aloud to Alex if the assistant was his son, a paid caretaker, or maybe just an actor hired to enhance the “Sunset Boulevard” atmosphere of glamorous decline. We meandered through racks of books and alien masks, ray guns and spaceship models, recognizable from well-known films. Notable objects that I remember are: a moldy King Kong puppet from the original film, a Martian ship from the 1953 “War of the Worlds” and the cape Bela Lugosi wore in “Plan 9 from Outer Space.” The tour ended in a round, shag-carpeted living room with stained glass windows where Forrest J. Ackerman demonstrated his fluency in Esperanto. He then re-enacted his appearances in B-grade genre films, sometimes feeding a line to a member of the audience to play opposite him. I did recognize the name of the film “Queen of Blood,” which I’d seen on “Horror, Incorporated” as a kid and which also featured a young Dennis Hopper.
When the performance was over, Mr. Ackerman signed everything that his fans had brought, and the mute manservant led us out of the house. As we returned to the stark, southern California sunlight outside, squinting up at the blue sky, I felt disoriented by the experiences of the last twenty-four hours. I had departed from the concrete solidity of the Midwest into the heart of the illusion-making machinery and if I pulled aside a curtain that I thought might reveal an exit, I would find just another curtain. Pauline Kael, in a review of Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” referred to Los Angeles as “the pop amusement park of the shifty and uprooted,” and that description now seemed apt.
Alex and I stopped for coffee and talked about what we’d just witnessed in the Ackermansion. As film buffs, we were impressed by the collection, but we couldn’t shake a slight sadness for this old man who was working so hard to maintain his connection to celebrity. When we left the coffee shop I glanced across the street and was startled to see Forrest J. Ackerman sitting in the passenger seat of a late 1960’s Ford Mustang at a gas station. His assistant was whistling something that sounded like Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” while he filled the tank. In the foreground, a man wearing a dirty spider man costume passed by pulling a red ‘radio flyer’ wagon.