Kelly Greene’s Attack of the Bat Monsters, a comedy that paints a loving pastiche of 50s sci-fi and the low-budget shenanigans that went on behind the scenes, has been a long time coming. Despite receiving nothing but positive reactions from critics and audiences alike, it failed to land the deal that Greene hoped for, and was hampered by its standard definition format. Now a new restoration and an upcoming debut at Glasgow FrightFest mean that the film may finally reach the audience it deserves.
We caught up with director Kelly Greene to talk rubber suits, 1950s design and the perils of shooting whilst being besieged by bees.
Tom: Firstly, can you tell us how the film was conceived?
Kelly: As a graduate student in film school at the University of Texas, I wrote my thesis on that wonderful series of Universal science-fiction films in the 1950s. Movies like It Came From Outer Space, Tarantula and The Creature From the Black Lagoon. As a backdrop for my thesis, I did a ton of research into the exploitation science-fiction films that flooded the market starting in the mid-fifties. I found their stories of trying to make these films on shoestring budgets compelling and, in their own way, kind of noble. And some of those people went on to be giants in the field – Francis Ford Coppola, Jack Nicholson, Robert Towne, just to name a few. It seemed like a movie loosely based on what happened with Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors, for instance, could make for a really engaging low-budget film.
Tom: What should audiences expect from Attack of the Bat Monsters?
Kelly: Don’t expect Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. It’s not an all-out spoof. Despite the esoteric references, Attack of the Bat Monsters tackles universal themes that virtually all audiences can identify with – frustrated ambitions. perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds, loyalty and friendship – and it does so with a generous sense of humor. And if you have a working knowledge of 1950s exploitation films, there are numerous inside jokes and references to have fun with.
Tom: Can you define what it is about the 1950s wave of sci-fi B-movies that you find so captivating?
Kelly: The earnestness of the performances when delivering impossible dialogue for one. And personally I love Mid-century Modern design in all its forms – fashion, architecture, interior decoration, et. al. and ’50s sci-fi showcases that. Just check out Lee Van Cleef’s home in It Conquered the World, or Paul Birch’s canyon hideaway in The Day the World Ended. And the poster art is just magnificent. The work of Al Kallis and Reynold Brown for 1950s sci-fi films exudes the greatness of that period’s commercial illustration. Also, I love the polemics. Exploitation films could be politically progressive protests against nuclear testing, or hysterical defences of religious and cultural traditions. Also, to echo Alan Jones’ sentiment about the great giallo titles, ’50s sci-fi has its share! The War of the Colossal Beast, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, I Was a Teenage Werewolf – of course, Attack of the Crab Monsters – and so many more.
Tom: With a wealth of allusions to classic B-movies, it’s clear that a great deal of research went into the film. How did you make sure that Attack of the Bat Monsters was an authentic depiction of this era of filmmaking?
Kelly: We looked at some of the films and noticed a lot of looseness in the framing, especially with headroom. So one thing the cameraman, Tom Hennig, did whenever, we framed for the black-and-white film, was pull out and tilt up far more than he ever has in his professional career! And I really tried to get the actors to say their lines as sincerely as they could while being perhaps too precise with diction. And of course the tropes – “There are some things man was not meant to know,” “I have this strange feeling that I’m being watched.” etc. As a child I loved those lines because I knew when I heard them that I was watching a monster movie.
Tom: I imagine that you faced a lot of the same challenges as the low budget film-makers you were inspired by. Were there any particular challenges that you weren’t expecting?
Kelly: Yes, we were essentially kicked out of the quarry we were shooting in before we were able to film the destruction of the monster. The owner had got behind on a job. So we were unable to satisfy Francis’ First Law of Monster Movies – “When the monster’s dead, the movie’s over.” He let us back in eventually, about a month later, so we got the shot, but it was stressful for a time. And the set was constantly besieged by bees, which scared a lot of the actors and crew and interfered with our audio. You can hear them buzzing in several scenes. Naturally, lame jokes were made about bee movies.
Tom: Your protagonist, Francis Gordon, seems like an analogue of legendary director Roger Corman, how closely do you think he resembles a young Corman?
Kelly: I see Francis as an amalgam of Corman, Bert Gordon and a lesser known director from that period named Jerry Warren. Francis leads by the Commander style – it’s his way or the highway. I think that Corman may have been a little more affiliative, a little more receptive to team input from people like Chuck Griffith and Robert Towne. Bert Gordon and Jerry Warren were reported to be more impatient and prone to screaming a bit – if you believe actors who worked with them, like Robert Clarke and Gloria Talbot. Of course, physically, Fred Ballard, who played Francis, looked quite a bit like a young Corman, which Joe Dante noted to me after a screening that he attended in Los Angeles.
Tom: Do you think that the independent filmmaking scene of today embodies the same spirit of the 1950s B-movie maestro’s, or is there something about that era that is irretrievably lost?
Kelly: I try not to be too nostalgic or reactionary, but I I think you could definitely argue that, at least in the U.S., there was a unique synthesis of culture and cinema singular to the 1950s. The collapse of the studio system, the Red Scare, nuclear testing, the hysteria around UFO sightings after Roswell, the perceived rise in juvenile delinquency, post-war disillusionment, Sputnik… They all helped give those exploitation films a genuine look and style just as pronounced as Italian Neo-realism, German Expressionism, the French New Wave, film noir – and just as important in their influence on world cinema. Look at the filmmakers with a professed love of the films of this period – Spielberg, Tim Burton, Guillermo Del Toro, Joe Dante, John Landis, Peter Jackson – these movies definitely stoked their imaginations and fed their ambitions. not to mention the talent that got their start in the genre, like Steve McQueen, Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Towne. I also think, and this is a good thing, that today’s horror and fantasy filmmakers don’t see the genre in the same limiting way that the ’50s guys and gals did, who had that phrase, “You make them on the way up and on the way down.”
Tom: Attack of the Bat Monsters has gone on quite the journey between its original creation and its upcoming debut at Glasgow FrightFest. Can you tell us why it’s been such a long time coming?
Kelly: The film has always played well with audiences and critics. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I take full responsibility for turning down initial offers from Arrow, Concorde-New Horizon and Troma, thinking that they would be there to revisit. I didn’t understand, as a first-time filmmaker, that I was on a one-way street. This time around, Mark Rance of Watchmaker Films is handling acquisitions, so we are better positioned there. And here’s the critical factor: the film had previously existed only in a standard definition format. Now we have Mark’s beautiful restoration; theatrical and HD DCPs that show off the full latitude of the Super 16MM format it was shot on. The future looks bright for BAT MONSTERS!
Tom: I understand that Attack of the Bat Monsters was originally conceived as the first instalment of a trilogy. Is this still on the cards and what shape would the trilogy take?
Kelly: I had envisioned a sequel that took place in Mexico in 1965 which utilized some of the wacky exploits of lucha libre, such as ageing wrestlers not wanting to disappoint their fans, never taking their masks off in public, fighting monsters in crossover mashups, etc. Somehow, the black-and-white Attack of the Bat Monsters gets screened in a small Mexican town, similar in a way that the great Spanish film Spirit of the Beehive uses the projection of The Bride of Frankenstein. Bat Monsters becomes a sensation and gets incorporated into their local Day of the Dead celebration. Naturally, Francis and his team roll into town to exploit the situation. The final instalment in the trilogy takes place in Austin in 1974, where Chuck is a film professor, and plays off Austin’s role in the filming of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Tom: Lastly, do you have any upcoming projects that you’d like to tell us about?
Kelly: Now that my wife and I are empty-nesters, we’re ready to tackle another film; perhaps a micro-budget movie we can fund ourselves. I’ve got a script called American Monsters that started off that way, though my imagination got a little carried away and now it’s a bonafide low-budget project. I’m also working on a comedy and hoping to sell it as a Christmas movie. I’ve become a sucker for those things, especially after I saw that Fred Olen Ray has directed some of them! Also, I’m working with another filmmaker, Jeff Stohland, on a script that’s a bit of a genre-bender that we hope to shoot with Tom Hennig, the DP of Bat Monsters.
I’m eternally grateful to Alan, Greg, Ian and Paul for inviting Attack of the Bat Monsters to Glasgow! It took a bit of nerve for them to include a non-horror film in the FrightFest line-up, and I really think the audience will appreciate laughing instead of screaming for a couple of hours.