Sunday, May 09, 2010

My Chat With SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE Director Bob Bliss

SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE! is one of the best low-budget thrillers I've seen that you haven't heard of. I hadn't heard of it myself before I came across it. It features no recognizable actors, was filmed far from the lights of Hollywood, and didn't even play theatrically in the United States. With this background, you can be forgiven for having never heard of SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE!, but once you've seen it, you won't forget it.

Filmed in the late 1970s as VENGEANCE, writer/director Bob Bliss' film was picked up in 1980 for foreign distribution by Manson International, who vividly branded it SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE! Reminiscent of Wes Craven's brutal 1972 classic THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, it's a surprisingly raw slice of exploitation with a nasty streak and rousing action.

Four gunmen kidnap a middle-aged couple and their teenage daughter around midnight. While Luke (Bob Elliott), the craziest of the gang, is left to guard the two women at their house, leader Mason (Walter Atamaniuk, who continues to work in Hollywood features as Walter Addison; he played Lee Iacocca in 2009's WATCHMEN, for instance) and the other two take the father to his jewelry store and force him to open his safe. The heist goes awry, and the gunmen snatch two college students leaving the Laundromat next door to use as hostages during their getaway.

Jenny (Sally Lockett), the granddaughter of a prominent state Senator, and Mark (Nicholas Jacquez), whom she had just met while doing her laundry, are taken hundreds of miles away to a remote cabin, where they are guarded by Dreyer (Robert Roudebush), while the others leave to send their ransom demand. The youths manage to escape, and the rest of the film is a thrilling and brutal chase through the harsh woods.

Rape, gore, chases, fights, full frontal nudity—all the makings of an exploitation classic are present, and it's a wonder why this film is so obscure. It runs just 92 minutes, and is packed with suspenseful and sick scenes that should have made SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE! something of a classic. Even the musical score is more professional-sounding than similar low-budget regional fare; it's appropriate to the film's tone and spotted well.

Bliss didn't direct any other features, but this one is certainly not the work of an amateur. Scenes of the mother and teenage daughter being abused and murdered in their home pack a dirty punch, and Bliss' edit from the mother's open dead eye to a tray of diamonds, to name one moment, demonstrates real visual style.

Bliss is now a professional cartoonist in Kansas. I contacted him through his website, and he graciously consented to an interview over email. Big thanks to Bob Bliss for indulging my curiosity and providing the images for this article.

Q: Could you tell me a little about your life before you made VENGEANCE?

A: I majored in art at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. My dream was to be an animator, not in Hollywood or New York, but here in Kansas City, my hometown. There was a well-known industrial film company called Calvin Productions that had a complete animation department here in KC. That's where I applied after graduating. But the Vietnam War was raging, I was 1A, and I got drafted.

I joined the Navy, hopefully to stay out of Vietnam. I was fortunate to get to be an illustrator/draftsman in the Navy. I was up at Great Lakes, doing all the art for the entire 9th Naval District. Charts, flags, portraits, retirement cartoons, posters, etc. I also got a parttime job in North Chicago at an ad agency, doing commercial art. I had a bad back and got out after eighteen months, had a girlfriend by then up there, tried to get into animation in Chicago to no avail. Worked at the Waukegan News-Sun newspaper as a staff artist for a short time.

The girl and I broke up, I came back to KC, and tried Calvin again. No openings. Worked as the ad manager for a major drug company for eighteen months, laying out seventeen newspaper ads per week and drawing everything that they sold to put in the ads. They went out of business, so I tried Calvin again and got hired.

That's where I fell in love with live-action film. On weekends, some employees would borrow 16mm cameras from the company and shoot personal short films for fun. Tom Berenger [Editor's note: Berenger went on to act in major films like PLATOON] was an editor there at that time. I remember he acted in some (of the short films). I decided I wanted to make a movie. I quit Calvin after a year and a half. I got tired of drawing things over and over.

I started freelancing in 1972. I bought some equipment and shot some TV commercials, did some animation, a lot of commercial art, and started writing a feature script. I finally put together a budget, raised some money, but not enough for the feature. I told the small investors I'd either give them their money back, or use it to make a short film to promote the feature. They liked me and told me to go ahead. So I made a twenty-minute short film called MAYHEM IN THE MOVIES about how bullet hits work. I showed that film around and found an investor who loved it—and me—and gave me all the money for my feature, VENGEANCE.

Q: Where and when was VENGEANCE filmed? Can you tell me how many days it took and what the budget was?

A: I started everything in the late 1970s. It was all shot in and around Kansas City. I worked on it for a long time. I remember shooting some scenes in winter and then having to shoot them again in summer, so they'd match. You'll see some fall colors in some shots as well! Ha! We shot off and on, all the time. Most actors were students or college-affiliated, so they could work whenever. And they were paid. I finally finished it up in about '79.

Q: Where did the idea come from? Were you influenced by THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT?

A: The idea came solely out of my head. I think I'm very creative. Always made up stories. I've written other scripts and am working on some now. Never even saw LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, except the (2009) remake. I've always gone to lots of movies, usually see every one that comes to town. I have thousands in my own personal library. My folks took us to dinner and a double feature every weekend when I was a kid.

Q: I really like the music, which is uncredited. Is it an original score?

A: It's all canned music from Calvin's library. All my film was developed there, the work prints too. I edited it all at my studio, but Calvin conformed the A and B rolls, did the titles (exactly as I laid them out), and I sat with the sound/music editor all day, every day for about a month, while we mixed and added music.

Q: Could you tell me about the actors? Where did you find them, particularly your young leads Sally Lockett and Nicholas Jacquez?


A: All the actors were from the repertory theater at my college, University of Missouri-Kansas City, only because they were the best. I screen-tested probably fifty or sixty actors, all on Super 8 sound film. Sally was great! She reminded me of Sally Field. Nick wasn't my first choice. The investor, Bud Hastin, wanted him, so I relented. I'm sure glad I did! I think Nick was perfect! Walter Atamanuik, who played the bearded Mason, the ringleader, later moved to Hollywood, changed his name to Walter Addison, and has been in a lot of big films, including playing Lee Iacocca in WATCHMEN recently!

Q: How was VENGEANCE financed? Did the investors make their money back?

A: Bud Hastin, a Kansas City businessman, financed the whole thing up front. He was a very rich man I met through a camera store. We sold the international rights to VENGEANCE. He got back half of his investment the first week, thinking the U.S. rights would get the rest back, plus a profit. But the U.S. rights never completely panned out.

Q: VENGEANCE was released by Manson International. What can you tell me about their operation?

A: Manson bought the international rights. Later, Magnum Entertainment bought the U.S. rights, and put it out on video...40,000 copies. Manson called it SCREAM FOR VENGEANCE. Magnum kept the original title.

Q: How many countries was VENGEANCE released in?

A: It's played literally all over the world. I don't know the exact count, but I do know it played in Canada, Mexico, South America, Japan, the Middle East, England, all over Europe, etc. I have VHS copies from Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Britain. There are all kinds of internet sites that talk about it. Lots of good and interesting reviews. Several that want it out on DVD. Several pirated DVDs have come up on eBay by small producers, but I got them to stop. Hopefully I'll be putting one out in the future.

Q: Did VENGEANCE receive many reviews? Do you recall any or at least what their tone was?

A: Most have been very favorable....as a kind of cultish classic. A 'dirty little favorite'.

Q: How many prints were struck? Do any still exist?

A: I don't know about 35mm prints. I know 40,000 VHS tapes were made by Magnum. I took it to Hollywood and had CFI blow it up to 35mm. Great quality! Francis Ford Coppola sat in on part of the timing sessions with me when I was at CFI. He was just starting his Zoetrope Studios across the street then. I have two 16mm prints and three 1200-foot reels of 35mm, which were rejects by CFI.

Q: What can you tell me about the marketing--the 1-sheet, publicity, personal appearances, etc.?

A: Manson did some printing of paper goods. They took it to the 1980 Milan Film Festival. I appeared on several local and regional TV shows talking about it. I have some copies of a couple. They'll be on the DVD if it works out.

Q: Are you still in touch with anyone from the film? What are they doing today?

A: The father, Leonard Belove, has passed away. The mother, Jane McMahon, I haven't been able to find. All the others I have and they've all agreed to do voiceover commentary on the DVD.

Q: Will VENGEANCE ever reach DVD or Blu-ray?

A: Hopefully. The U.S. copyright is tied up with 20th Century Fox, I believe. I had an investor last winter who wanted to finance a double DVD set with my commentary, the actors' commentary, the screen tests, my TV appearances, everything available. But in our researching of liability issues, we ran aground temporarily. It seems Manson was bought by Orion, who was bought by somebody else, and it seems to be in 20th Century Fox's vaults at the moment, awaiting cable. It's going to take a while to iron out.

Q: Why didn't you direct another feature?

A: I started to. My second script was built into a big Limited Partnership by some of Calvin's old producers and directors, with a bunch of big investors here in KC. They even ran a half-page ad in Variety in 1981, announcing to the world the starting date. But Paramount came to KC to film a Janet Dailey novel [the 1982 drama FOXFIRE LIGHT starring Leslie Nielsen] and most of those ex-Calvin people were hired to work on that film. My film fell by the wayside. I had gotten married in 1980, and was pursuing my art, trying to buy a house, etc., and was happy doing that.

But I'm bringing that script back to life, as it's become much more relevant in today's world, and I've got others as well. I really only plan on promoting my scripts...not 'making' the actual movies. 



Thank you again to Bob Bliss, who is today an award-winning artist and cartoonist in his native Kansas. Please see his website, www.BobBliss.com, to learn more about him.

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Ryan Clark said...

Wow! I've always wondered about this mysterious film. Thanks so much for the interview!