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Budgetary Constraints: The Films of Micro-Budget Auteur Ron Ford

Micro-budget filmmaker Ron Ford.

In a career that has spanned over thirty years, and looks to go even a few more decades, Ron Ford should be known in genre-movie circles far and wide. He isn’t, though. Despite being a pioneer of shot-on-video filmmaking in the mid-1990s as a writer and director, as well as an acting career that began in the 1980s and flourishes to this day, Ron Ford has never really gotten the credit he is due in terms of his contributions to the horror and science fiction industry. Despite personal trials that would fell lesser filmmakers, and professional circumstances that have derailed project after project in the sordid history of the motion picture, Ron Ford persisted in bringing his unique vision and his unending fandom to small screens the world over. Even though that vision was routinely hampered by budgets, time and available technology, Ron Ford manages to still be one of the last standard-bearers of classic genre sensibilities and in a world of grit, grime and grue, even classic monsters on a budget are a welcome relief with his latest film, Monster History 101 debuting in October of 2020. Ford’s adherence to the principles of horror films that worked for Whale, Browning, Fisher and many more are all on display in his work, dating back to even his earliest science fiction efforts. It is that dedication to classic sensibilities that has defined Ford’s work and, possibly, resulted in his dismissal by larger production companies and financiers. It is a choice, though. “I just like to tell a good story!” exclaims Ford. “Too many movies fall over themselves to get exploitable elements in your face at every turn. Call me old fashioned, but I like a clean narrative. Story first. Always” (Wain, 2015). For fans of shot-on-video horror and science fiction, though, those principles are what makes Ford different from everyone else and worthy of a careful examination.

“I was one of those kids in the sixties who lived and breathed the monster and science-fiction movies we saw on TV. My brother and I used to plan our weeks every Friday when the new TV Guide came out, we’d circle all the movies we had to be home in time to see. We started making our own monster movies on Super 8 film when we were teens. He grew out of it, but my development was halted right there. I was born to make movies, any crappy way I can.”

Although Ford has directed over 30 films, beginning with Alien Force in 1996, his real start behind the camera came in the form of screenwriting. Ford recalled, “My first real break came in the early nineties when I was working in transportation for movie companies. I drove trucks on a low budget action movie, Red Surf, starring a nobody at the time named George Clooney. I wrote scripts all the time and gave them to producers I met on the job. Often, I would find them later, left behind when the company moved on. But this time was different. The producer, Greg Sims, read and loved my script, and soon after hired me to write The Fear. And everything else stemmed from that.” The Fear presented a starting point for Ford and the story, looking at confronting one’s fears as an inanimate figure comes to life on a journey of mayhem (a recurring Ford theme), resonated with audiences in 1995. Directed by Vincent Robert, the writer of Red Surf (1990), in his sole helming credit, the film featured Wes Craven in a small role and spawned a sequel, The Fear 2: Resurrection in 1999 (not penned by Ford). The concept and story of the original have staying power, though. Revisiting The Fear recently, critic Dave Wain of Delirium, stated “twenty years on from its original release though, it does stand out as a remarkably engaging film with a very tightly written script” (2015).

Ford followed that with Alien Force, his directorial debut, the following year and never looked back… much. Released on VHS in 1996, Alien Force is a classic science fiction tale. A meteor transporting one billion souls of some very nasty alien beings land on Earth and must be found before the alien spores take everyone over. Martial Artist Tyrone Wade, playing Trace, is sent to Earth by the ruler of his planet (Batman’s Burt Ward) and comes face to face with an evil, body-jumping alien hellbent on breaking those souls out. The film features a great many fight scenes and, as a first feature, mistakes aplenty. Still, and this is a recurring motif with Ford, the storytelling sensibility and classic hero’s journey makes the film palatable. The direction isn’t as tight as Ford would get in future releases and a large part of that could be having to work with non-professional performers. Ward is an exception, as is frequent Ford players Roxanne Coyne and Tim Sullivan. The aesthetic is hampered by that lack of real budget with Ford making do using whatever Southern California locales and talent he could find as well as attempting early computer-generated effects. Regardless, the story is ambitious, if a bit derivative (Ford would greatly improve his dialogue game in the coming years) and is a solid first feature outing.

Ford would revisit the alien motif in a series of anthology releases or collaborative features with other shot-on-video pioneers like Kevin Lindenmuth, Tim Ritter, Alexandre Michaud and Gabriel Campisi. From a production standpoint, like-themed short films combined into an anthology, sometimes with a wraparound story, is a tried and true genre staple, especially in the era of VHS where shelf space screamed to be filled. Peter Cushing and Joan Collins lurking in the shadows of the original Tales from the Crypt (1972) feature and the box-office success of Stephen King and George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) cemented the story framework and industrious independent video-makers saw the format as a way to create and not have to fill the runtime of a feature on one’s own. Ford, and collaborators, did this a few times using the alien motif in Alien Agenda: Under the Skin (1997), Alien Agenda: Endangered Species (1998) and Time Enough: The Alien Conspiracy (2002). What Ford, and others, did with these short works was to hone a skill set in filmmaking, writing and directing that the pressures of a full feature just didn’t leave room for. The group of filmmakers would also apply this same framework to horror films with titles like Creaturealm: From the Dead (1998), Werewolf Tales (2003), the Deadly Tales series and, most recently, Natasha Nightly’s Boudoir of Blood (2020) from S.O.V. Horror. Ford would collect some of these short films in the single director collection from S.O.V. Horror entitled Monster History 101 (2020), his most recent release.

Feature films, and classic monsters, were still a priority for Ford post the directorial debut and he followed that first full-length film with The Mark of Dracula in 1997. Again, hampered by budget and relegated to a thrift store aesthetic, Ford did what we could with what he had and leaned into the archetypal character traits from Stoker’s novel, carrying on the story of Lucy Westenra (Roxanne Coyne) surviving Harker’s staking and existing through the decades to modern (late 1990s) California. This is Ford, so an interesting twist awaits. Lucy still has the stake that stopped Dracula and looks to have him cloned from the DNA putting a nice, futuristic spin on the tale. The movie was released on VHS, of course, and was a moderate success. More importantly, Ford was still finding himself as a writer and director. The story, an improvement over Alien Force, may have been too ambitious for the means at hand. In 1998, critics praised the idea more than the execution. “With nurturing, this screenplay could have turned into a solid little thriller. Perhaps the author should have developed this first as a novel. Or, letting another pair of hands work on it would have shaped it a little better” (Burgess, 1998). Still, the childhood fascination with monsters is the headline for The Mark of Dracula and the story, despite the physical limitations, stays true to that. Ford says as much himself. “I was one of those kids in the sixties who lived and breathed the monster and science-fiction movies we saw on TV. My brother and I used to plan our weeks every Friday when the new TV Guide came out, we’d circle all the movies we had to be home in time to see. We started making our own monster movies on Super 8 film when we were teens. He grew out of it, but my development was halted right there. I was born to make movies, any crappy way I can. It was the desire to make movies that led me to the theater, which has also become so important to me.” Despite not being perfect, The Mark of Dracula simply is and its commercial success allowed the director to carry on, but, for a brief period, largely eschewing the fandom that brought him some early successes.

Ford’s latest offering.

Following his foray into Stoker territory, Ford shifted genres with Riddled with Bullets (1998), V-World Matrix (1999) and A Passion to Kill (1999). Critically and artistically, Ford’s features that followed The Mark of Dracula deviated from the director’s underlying passions. In turn, these films could only be considered responses to the successful box office performance of the work of Quentin Tarantino, the Wachowskis and James Cameron. Similar genre sensibilities and plot devices to Reservoir Dogs (1991), The Matrix (1999) and Terminator (1984), with liberal doses of micro-budget standard skin and wooden performances permeated each of the movies. These were Vista Street releases, and it is painfully obvious that Ford was not invested in the projects as an auteur. In a 2000 interview with the genre news site Arrow in the Head, Ford discussed A Passion to Kill. He stated, “I directed a nearly pornographic rip-off of Terminator for Korean investors called Turborator that was so vile and so dumb that I used a pseudonym for my director’s credit. I did not write the incomprehensible script, and I did this job solely for the money and hated every second of making it. It is available in the USA from Vista Street in two radically different edits called Red Light Stalker and A Passion to Kill. Neither one of them makes a lick of sense” (The Arrow, 2000). Possibly taking a page from Ed Wood’s approach to pseudonyms (Dick Trent, Ann Gora, etc.) and directed the film under the name Mac Cobb.

The end of the 1990s and the beginning of the new Millennium proved to be, in a monstrous sense, the bolt of lightning needed to resurrect Ford’s love of genre and his return to those beloved creatures and themes. Still working with Vista Street, Ford directed the eleventh installment of the Witchcraft series with Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood (2000). The previous ten entries had not really offered much to the genre outside of copious amounts of nudity and poor effects, but, like before, Ford leaned into the sparseness of resources. This entry saw the warlock, Will Spanner, confront a coven of witches, just like always, but Ford set the story in the world of the theatre, a place he was more than comfortable with, and used that as a backdrop for some effective storytelling. Intentionally toning down the sexuality and giving the normally vapid witches some context lets Sisters in Blood be a stand-out entry (especially in light of the final few films, namely fourteen, fifteen and sixteen). The return to some classic horror tropes in the work-for-hire Witchcraft XI paved the way for Ford’s most personal work to date, Hollywood Mortuary (2000).

Hollywood Mortuary tells the tale of Pierce Jackson Dawn (Randal Malone), a monster make-up artist in Hollywood in the 1940s. By 1941, Dawn is washed up and needs a comeback, so he turns to the dark arts. After securing work at a mortuary, he raises the two horror actors he had found dead or murdered, Janos Blasko (Ford) and Pratt Borokov (Tim Sullivan) from the dead in an attempt to restart that career. As fate would have it, Blasko and Borokov are mindless zombies on a murdering spree. The characters are, of course, allegories for Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff and the overall story is a statement on the decline of classic horror in both perception and execution. As a storytelling device, the story is framed as a mockumentary on the real Hollywood story of Pierce Jackson Dawn with interviews from industry professionals. Ford used silent-film star Anita Page, Ed Wood Regular Conrad Brooks, filmmaker David DeCoteau and Academy Award-winner Margaret O’Brien, among others. Hollywood Mortuary is one-part eulogy and one-part love letter to the monster films of Ford’s youth. In 2000, Ford’s assessment of Hollywood was one of pride, stating it was, “the most realized and personal of all my movies. I came out closest to what I set out to make. It makes me laugh every time I see it. I love the movie” (The Arrow, 2000). Twenty years later, though, the appraisal has changed a bit. Ford recently finished a novelization of the story for Source Point Press that has a projected release date in 2021 and took a chance to revaluate the movie. “I’d love to re-make my first success, Hollywood Mortuary, and do it as a true mockumentary, with great period production values. I recently novelized that film, and I would also incorporate some of the ideas from the novel that weren’t in the film. Also, no offense anyone, but the performances are wildly over the top, including my own. That director had not yet learned restraint, so his cast had none. I’d love to see it cast with great improvisational actors.” Only five years removed from Alien Force, Ford’s 2000 iteration of Hollywood Mortuary is, as he indicated, the most personal of his films. Thematically, it is a rebound from the work-for-hire pictures and a launchpad toward the rest of the Millennium and the creature features that would dominate Ford’s output. It is as if he took the failures of Pierce Jackson Dawn, and the old Hollywood machine the character represented, personally and vowed to right that wrong… budgeted or not.

That Hollywood Mortuary turning point really began to form Ford’s maturation as an auteur, regardless of the cost of his films. Ford himself says that he “aspires” to being an auteur, but the work in the remainder of 2000 and through Ford’s move from Los Angeles to Spokane in 2003 really exemplifies that growth. In 1954, Francois Truffaut developed and published the auteur theory in the French Cahiers du Cinema magazine. The theory posits that the director is the author of the film, imprinting the film with a distinct personal vision (Goodykoontz and Jacobs, 2019). Although the theory has been debated ever since 1954, film fans, even low budget film fans, can see that there is something to it. In Ford’s case, that distinct personal vision is one that channels the awe and wonder of youthful monster watching and presents it to newer audiences. The final California films, Deadly Scavengers (2001), The Crawling Brain (2002) and The Craven Cove Murders (2002) really put a nice cap on that phase of Ford’s career. Scavengers tells the tale of a giant, mutant cockroach really channeling the Atomic Age monster of the 1950s as science has gone awry and that theme is repeated in Brain. The Craven Cove Murders, also known as Dead Season, is Ford’s finest moment here, though. Part Agatha Christie and part House of Long Shadows (1983), Ron Ford’s writing and direction had matured allowing the film to really find itself. Although it was probably marketed at the time as a generic serial killer film, The Craven Cove Murders is anything but. Craven Cove, the town, has a serial killer problem, but the owner of a local bed and breakfast (frequent Ford collaborator Randal Malone) is determined to solve the crimes, pinning it on a former guest. All of this is darkly comedic, and Ford pulls the most he can from the cast. M.J. Simpson reviewed the film as Dead Season in 2005 and commented, “The blurb on this screener VHS offered little clue as to what was inside. I was familiar with Ron Ford’s name but not his work and, bearing in mind the evident limited budget and indie nature of the film, I was expecting a generic serial killer picture. What I found instead was a movie which was well-scripted, well-directed and enormous fun, with two smashing central performances and a wicked streak of black humour” (2005). Arguably ascending as a director, Ford’s life took a left turn that necessitated a move to Spokane, Washington. Not known for its robust independent film community, the move could have easily derailed him. Ford was forced to do the same thing he had done in Los Angeles: trust in the monsters that had never let him down before. Nearly immediately after moving, Ford began production on Snake Man (2004).

“Fortunately, some of my LA financiers stuck with me through the move, because we got right into production just three months after I got here,” Ford told Buried.com in 2003. The story itself is classic Ford. “A man becomes a reptile creature due to an accident. He shuns society and hides in the deep forest. One day he rescues a woman who is wounded and dying. He gives her some of his DNA to save her life. She lives, but the reptile DNA starts to change her. Their relationship is the center of the story. It’s a love story” (Gravedigger, 2003). The feature length film was made in conjunction with local filmmakers Andy Kumpon and Wayne Spitzer with effects by Mitch Tiner, including a very non-low-budget-looking Snake Man apparatus. The production was technically an international one as Robert O. Smith (DJ, Dr. Zingrrr horror host and recording artist of “Walter Wart and The Freaky Frog” fame) had scenes shot in Vancouver. The promising start in Spokane saw the momentum falter in post-production. At the time, shooting video in 24p was relatively new and the post-production computer sent for the edit simply could not handle the size of the files and the film was never released, officially. Ford finished the post-production on his own, though, and recently posted the entire feature on YouTube.

Undaunted by the issues with Snake Man, Ford wrote and directed Tiki (2006). The story of a small Tiki doll wreaking havoc as an avatar of revenge after a young woman is humiliated and put in a coma really harkens back to Ford’s start with The Fear in 1995. A doll come to life on a path of vengeance is familiar territory for the director and the backdrop of a college theatre allowed Ford to utilize the comfort zone of the stage to really dig in on themes that resonate in his work: abandonment, loneliness and being ostracized for some kind of perceived difference.

From Tiki through Monster History 101’s debut in 2020, Ford has worked, as a director, exclusively in short films. As a retrospective of his journey, Monster History 101 is a nice starting point to exploring Ron Ford’s work. It includes the shorts “A Thorn in Paradise,” the animated “Plat-Eye,” “Man Without a Saddle,” “Dr. Jekyll in Love,” the animated “Ron Ford’s Nightmare Circa 1966,” “The Big Throbbing Thing” and “Game Camera.” It is interesting to see this progression in a collected form and “Man Without a Saddle,” the werewolf western, is of particular interest. Ford picked that, along with Hollywood Mortuary, to remake if he could. It, “was the second screen adaptation I did of Kipling’s “Mark of the Beast.” I love the film a lot, it juggles some pretty lofty themes as well, but is hindered by lack of budget – although it’s pretty impressive for what it is. I also did a stage version of it at a local theater, and, again, I’d like to take some of the ideas developed in that version and incorporate them into the film.” As has been Ford’s pattern, though, even with the extended time spent working in short films there is a plan to return to features. Ford has embarked on a feature length version of Game Camera and is working with Michael Steinberg of Found Footage Films for an upcoming, undated, release.

For Ford, though, the process remains the same. Fun and engaging story ideas are met with microscopic or non-existent budgets. Undaunted, Ford persists. He tells these stories through the creatures and the monsters and on the stages, largely without a budget… but that budget doesn’t really matter. Every time you can see a seam in the rubber suit, or a fishing line dangling an angry Hawaiian fetish doll, there is a scene where a character’s loneliness is so pervasive that the audience aches for them. That, there, is the real takeaway from a Ron Ford production where he is fully emotionally invested. The kid that loved monsters, that always got the side eye from normal people… the kid that dared, really, to be more than what their families and communities thought possible. That kid was not only Ron Ford, but everyone of his characters. They dared and, in so doing, were alone to forge ahead. Pierce Jackson Dawn, abandoned by Hollywood, the Snake Man hounded for his differences or even Amy Connelly, the young woman maligned in Tiki and humiliated by pretty people… each of them, and the rest, are just looking for their place in the world and, at our core, aren’t we all?

Ford’s “The Road” in Natasha Nightly’s Boudoir of Blood and Monster History 101 are both available exclusively on DVD from S.O.V. Horror at www.sovhorror.com. The novelization of Hollywood Mortuary is due in late 2021 from genre publisher Source Point Press and a release date for Game Camera will be announced soon.

Arrow. (2000). Interview Ron Ford. Arrow in the Head. https://www.joblo.com/horror-movies/news/interview-ron-ford

Burgess, H. P. (1998). The Mark of Dracula. Bad Movie Report. http://www.stomptokyo.com/badmoviereport/reviews/M/markdracula.html

Goodykoontz, B. Meetze, J., Pritts, N. and Jacobs, C. (2019). Film: From Watching to Seeing, 3rd Edition. Bridgepoint Education.

Gravedigger, The. (2003). Ron Ford. Buried.com. http://www.buried.com/interviews/horror.php?id=110

Simpson, M.J. (2005). Dead Season. Cult films and the people who make them. http://mjsimpson-films.blogspot.com/2013/03/dead-season.html

Wain, D. (2015). A reflection on The Fear. Full Moon Presents Delirium. http://www.deliriummagazine.com/2015/06/a-reflection-on-the-fear/

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About David C. Hayes

David C. Hayes is an author, performer and filmmaker. His films, like A Man Called Nereus, Bloody Bloody Bible Camp, Dark Places, The Frankenstein Syndrome, Vampeggedon, Machined, Reborn, Back Woods (and approximately 60 more) can be seen worldwide. He is the author of several novels, collections and graphic novels including The Midnight Creature Feature Picture Show, Cherub, Cannibal Fat Camp, Pegged, American Guignol, Scorn and Muddled Mind: The Complete Works of Ed Wood, Jr. His graphic novel Rottentail debuted in theaters in 2019 as a feature film and the mini-series The Rot has debuted to critical acclaim. As a playwright, David's full-length and one-act plays have been produced from coast to coast with a run Off-Broadway for the comedy Swamp Ho and sell-out performances in Phoenix for Dial P for Peanuts. His stand-up comedy and professional wrestling pasts are well hidden, though.

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